Monthly Short Story Winner: The City
Every month in the Fantasy-Faction forums we have a themed writing contest. It’s run throughout each month, and voting on the winner takes place across the month thereafter. Anyone can take part – it’s all a bit of fun, but as an added incentive, the winner will have their story posted here, on the main Fantasy-Faction website.
The brief for March 2013 was the following:
The city is an ever important element of fantasy – whether it be real life cities or fantastic creations like Ankh-Morpork, New Crobuzon, or King’s Landing, this is something which writers of fantasy come back to time and time again.
Your challenge this month is to write a story, in whatever fantastic genre you like – but it must include the city as a core element, self-created or real life. (Fan fiction is not allowed.)
1. This can be prose or a poem. Be creative.
2. Must contain some element of the fantastic.
3. The city must be a core element in your piece.
4. Prose must be 500-2000 words long. Poetry must be 100-500 words long.
And the winner is Philip Overby with his story, “Obsidian City”! Congratulations Philip!
You can view all of our past winners’ entries here.
And, without further ado – here is the winning story.
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By Philip Overby
A city of black glass seemed like a good idea. The Maldrath Empire, in all its wisdom, decided to build a gigantic city totally made of obsidian. Called it Grazul-Goram, meaning “where fear dwells.” It served its purpose: by striking fear into the hearts of all the surrounding countries. The jagged towers scraped the skies, both beautiful and sinister, enigmatic forms that loomed over the smaller towns and villages of Maldrath.
Problem was, people had to live there. Unfortunately, my family was stupid enough to volunteer. And now they were all dead. Only I remained. A “cleaner”. Someone had to keep all the black glass shimmering and terrifying. That person was me.
I spent my days cleaning up blood. Little dribbles or sometimes pools. Many sliced their hands opening their windows, unlocking doors, or just walking. The glass broke sometimes. It was glass after all. The citizens of Grazul-Goram were constantly screaming, cursing, or moaning. I hadn’t heard a single laugh in the twenty years I’d lived there.
“We’re going to move, I promise,” a father said to his miserable children.
“One more year. I just know things will get better,” a wife remarked to her scowling husband as he picked shards of glass out of his foot.
I polished all day long. The Imperial soldiers stomped by with their obsidian helmets on. They stayed in a constant state of adjusting them, their teeth forever gritted. I always thanked my stars that I’d avoided that gig. Nothing could be more uncomfortable that wearing an unwieldy volcanic glass helmet on your head.
“Morning, Alec.” Old Man Horace clanked down the street in his obsidian pants, the razor bottoms of his shoes like flimsy ice skates.
I changed my mind. Nothing could be worse than wearing obsidian pants. “You know you don’t have to wear those every day? Only on Glass Day.”
“I know, but I quite like them.” Horace half-smiled, half-winced as he crunched past.
I grinned. “Well, have a good day then.”
Horace saluted and continued on his way. I knew why he wore them. The Maldrath Empire was always watching. Anyone who didn’t show that they loved the ill-conceived abomination of a city would mysteriously disappear. Where they went, I never knew. Nor cared to know. I just polished the buildings like they told me to, and that’s all I needed to do.
I longed for change though. Just one day when I didn’t have to polish. Didn’t have to see my grim face staring back at me. A wavering, shadowy version of myself.
I saw a streak of blood on the Jacobsons’ door-knob as I started my patrol. “Great.”
Pulling out my “door rag”, I walked up the steps and reached out to clean off the blood. The Jacobsons were pretty bad about leaving messes. I spent most of my days cleaning off their grubby fingerprints. When I touched the knob, the door creaked open. More blood trailed inside.
“No, no, no,” I mumbled, spinning around and pretending I didn’t see it. “Nothing there, nothing there.”
I turned back around, the blood shimmering on the door. Dripping. Someone was going to see it. Just clean off the door and leave, Alec. That’s all. Just clean off the door.
I polished the fastest I ever had in my entire life. Spotless. Not a drop of red. But a low groan came from inside the Jacobsons’ house. “Help.”
I didn’t hear that.
“Please, help me.” The voice rose and fell. “Please.”
Turning, I pushed open the fragile glass door and poked my head in. “I’ll call the guards. Be back soon.”
“No, come in.”
I started to pull the door closed again, sweat dripping off my nose.
The high pitch squeal made me jerk back and I tore the door off its hinges. The glass shattered into a thousand pieces as I involuntarily slammed it into the side of the house. I cringed, my eyes shifting around, my muscles tightened. Did anyone see? Did anyone hear?
The city was silent save the tinkling of the broken glass falling off the porch. I ran inside the house to avoid being spotted by anyone. The blood trail looked stranger than normal. It flowed like a river, tiny waves rippling. I found the source. Something lay on the floor, bubbling, pulsing, writhing.
A miniature city made of sticky muscles and twisted bone. It grew out of the glass, pulverizing it into tiny bits of black, sizzling sand.
“What sorcery—” I gasped, back-pedalling out of the room. A gloved hand covered my mouth, muffling my screams.
“Quiet, Alec. Not another sound.”
“Do you know what this is?”
I shook my head.
“A cure. To make this city come to life.” The hand removed itself from my mouth.
I just stared down at the steadily growing buildings that burped up from the floor. Skin formed around one shifting house, veins snaking all over it like creeping vines.
“What is this? What is this truly?”
The owner of the voice revealed himself. Thaddeus Jacobson. Known as Dr. Jacobson’s “crazy uncle.” He’d fought in the War of One Thousand Knives long ago. Suffered a horrible wound to his head from a warhammer.
He leered at me with his dented-in face, drool dribbling from his lips. “As I said, a cure. It all starts here. Just with a little blood. This city will live. No longer will it be a jagged, blasted city of glass. It will thrive, pulse. A city with soul and heart.”
“Yes, the heart is right there.” He pointed down at what appeared to be a park full of bloody trees and bone benches. A tiny, beating heart sat on top of a fountain of twitching muscles.
“How is this any better than the city we have now? This is horrifying.”
“Yes, it is. And what have our enemies been whispering of late?” Thaddeus ran his finger along the bristling hairs of one building that looked like a growing arm. “They say ‘A city of glass doesn’t scare me’ or ‘I hear the people that live in Grazul-Goram do nothing but complain.’ That’s what we are to nations like Urak with its lizard riders and Yamerra with its shamans and headhunters. An empire of weaklings that cry when a little glass cuts us.”
“Is that what they say?” I cringed. “I haven’t been out much.”
“No, you haven’t, Alec. You’ve been polishing. Keeping this city nice and pretty. But for what? So our enemies can laugh at how shiny it is?”
“I hadn’t considered that,” I said.
“I need your help.”
“No, no. I can’t help.” I held up my hands. “Not with whatever this is. How did you even do this?”
“I studied. The War did many things to me. It opened my eyes to many different ways of life and death. I can show you. If you help me.”
“I don’t want—”
“Do you want to be eaten by a lizard, Alec? Or have your head shrunken down to the size of a pea?”
I gulped. “That sounds rather unpleasant.”
“Then help me. Make this city one to fear again. A city made of flesh. A truly terrifying city.”
“How?” I stammered.
“Your polishing rags,” he said, pointing down to my satchel full of rags. “I want you to smear this blood all over the city. Let this grow.” He held a vial of blood up, shaking it. “Just a little dab. All over the city.”
“I don’t know. What if the guards see me?”
“Tell them you’re cleaning. Keep half your rags clean, half with this blood.”
I took the blood vial. I stared at it a long time. “Lizards will eat me if I don’t do this?”
“Eat you alive, Alec.”
I nodded and marched out of the Jacobson house, slipping the vial into my satchel. I wondered if this was a bad idea. But when I saw the scowling, pinched faces of men, women, and children with tiny cuts on their fingers, I decided Thaddeus’s plan was better than this descent into mediocrity. If our enemies could see us, they’d laugh. Then they’d butcher us. Maybe they’d laugh while butchering us.
I took to the streets first, dabbing some blood here and there. No guards even looked up. They were too busy fiddling with their uncomfortable helmets. When the task seemed to be taking too long and the glare off the black glass began to make sweat pour off my head, I knelt down near the sewer.
“I’ll just pour the rest here. That should work just as well.” So I popped open the vial and drained the rest of it into the sewer.
Done with my task, I strolled back towards the Jacobson house, satisfied with my work. Soon the city would be a nightmarish landscape of infinite horrors and no one would dare think of attacking the Maldrath Empire or Grazul-Goram.
“That was good, right?” I said to myself.
Thaddeus grinned from the doorway of the house. His grin faded when he saw me walk up. “What are you doing? Did you change your mind?”
“No, I’m finished.”
“Finished?” A twinge of panic colored Thaddeus’s voice. “How in the hell are you finished already? That should have taken you all day.”
“I just poured it all in the sewer. I figured it would spread a lot faster that way.”
“You did what?” Thaddeus screeched. He came thundering off the porch and grabbed me by the shoulders, shaking me so hard my neck popped.
“What did I do wrong?”
“It’s meant to take root and grow slowly! If it is just poured all over the place, it’s going to be out of our control. We have to get out of here now!”
The ground rumbled.
A giant fist burst out of the street, sending a shower of glass raining down upon the guards. A mangled foot came next, kicking streams of obsidian daggers into the dumb-founded guards. They clutched their eyes or throats and fell, their glass helmets shattering in a spray of blood when they hit the ground. Spiderweb cracks weaved throughout the city as more hands tried to force their way through the buildings and streets.
“Run!” Thaddeus cried. Too late. A gargantuan skull burst through the street and rocketed through the air, propelling Thaddeus with it, muscle weaving across the demonic face even as it launched higher and higher.
I stumbled backward. It was as if the city were being wrecked by giants from the inside. So much black glass hurtling through the air it was like a sideways storm of needles flashing against my skin. I ran and ran until I reached the city gates, dozens of soldiers thrusting their spears at a disembodied torso.
“Run!” I screamed as I ran past them, stumbling out of the gates. The city became nothing but fists and feet obliterating everything, hurtling broken glass in the air. No buildings stood.
I looked on the horizon. The sun beat down on me, bits of obsidian dangling from my quivering hands and arms. My eyesight blurry and bloody.
I wasn’t sure, but amongst all the screaming, I heard something distant, faint. Maybe it was just the ringing in my ears. Maybe it was the sound of all the tinkling glass.
But it sounded like lizards. Hungry lizards.
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Author Profile: Philip Overby is a teacher and article writer for Mythic Scribes. He enjoys reading fantasy stories, studying Japanese, and pro wrestling. His most recent story can be found in the collection Kizuna: Fiction for Japan. His website can be found here and he can be followed on Twitter here. He lives in Yokohama, Japan with his wife and key chain collection.
Congratulations again Philip! If you’d like to enter our monthly writing contest, check out our forum for more information. Happy Writing!