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Author Topic: [Dec 2018] - Unwanted Gifts - Submission Thread  (Read 4326 times)

Offline xiagan

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[Dec 2018] - Unwanted Gifts - Submission Thread
« on: November 30, 2018, 12:27:27 PM »
Unwanted Gifts

German stamp depicting newborn Cinderella receiving her curse.

This month you'll be busy getting your loved ones presents they appreciate and in turn you hope to be surprised by an unexpected but fitting gift, you hope to get something you need or want or something that shows appreciation.

We want neither of that.

Our focus this month is on the other kind of gifts. Those that aren't wanted or appreciated, that aren't as nice as one thinks. Snow White's apple for example. Our fairy tales are full of those darker gifts and we find them in mythology and fantasy too. Have fun with my ring, Frodo.

There are lots of possibilities concerning the POV, the type of gift, the intention of the giver... Have fun!


1. This must be prose or poetry.
2. The story has to be about an unwanted gift.
3. Prose must be 500-1500 words long.
4. Poetry must be 100-750 words long.
5. One story per person or writing team (not per account).
6. You will be disqualified if you exceed the limits, full stop. That's why they're called limits.
7. Your entry can't be published somewhere else before.
8. This is a writing contest, not a "I have written something like this ten years ago" contest. So if you happen to have a story that fits one of the themes, I'd like it to have a mayor overhaul/edit. Work for it. ;)
9. Please add your story's word count and, if you have, your twitter handle.
10. Please put your story in [ spoiler ] tags to make the thread easier to handle. :) You can find them above the smileys under the B.
Bonus rule: We consider voting in a contest you're taking part in a given. Others take time and effort to read the stories - you should do the same. A small community like ours lives from reciprocity and this contest needs stories as much as votes. 

If you want so submit your story anonymously you can do so by sending it in a personal message to @xiagan.

Entry will close December 31st, 2018/January 1st, 2019 and voting will begin somewhere around the same time too.

All members are eligible to join. If you are not a member you can join here. Sign up is free and all are welcome! :)

The winner will have their piece displayed on the main Fantasy Faction website sometime in the next months.
Submitting a story counts as published. The author retains all rights to their work.

Remember that this thread is only for entries. Discussion or questions can be posted here.
"Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis." (Laplace)

Offline JMack

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Re: [Dec 2018] - Unwanted Gifts - Submission Thread
« Reply #1 on: December 04, 2018, 05:16:27 PM »
First in, this month.
About 1,300 words.

Negative Effects

Spoiler for Hiden:

“So, which birthday do you celebrate? When Lucy set this up, she didn’t tell me.”

“The second. I do not recall the date of my first birth. Years passed; the calendar men use changed. But I went back to the old country in the 1850s, and found my tomb once again, with the date of my death inscribed upon it. Cincisprezece Aprilie, Tteisprezece Optzeci i Trei

“Come again?”

“Fifteen April, 1383.”

“Oh. Would you tilt your head a little to the left? I have to get the lights just right for an exposure that’s tack sharp.”

“Like this?”


“Does it bother you, my dear, to know how old I am, that I have cheated death?”



“It’s more the idea that you could tear me limb from limb that puts a damper on the whole birthday gift vibe. Or hypnotize me and suck out every drop of blood.”

“Or make you one of us.”

“Mm. Like I said, sort of messes with the mood.”

“But I am not your first. Surely you have grown used to our kind.”

“Relax, please. You have a tendency to get misty at the edges. It's not like I can rely on auto-focus. Well, there's ‘used to you’ and there's ‘used to you’. Though it has gotten easier since my first customer, who kept going on about the delightful scent of my blood, and I just wanted to know if she wanted package A or package B, and did she like glossy or matte. … There.”


“We’re ready. Now you really need to stay very still, no moving, no talking, no turning into a bat.”




“How does it work?”

“I said no talking.”








“I would like to understand this… process. This birthday present. It takes a very long time.”

“You dying to go someplace?”


“Sorry. Stupid joke.”

“Do not concern yourself.”

“You really want to know? All the gory details?”

“‘Know then thyself; presume not God to scan, the proper study of Mankind is Man.’ Alexander Pope. A poet of exquisite taste.”

“Your point is…?”

“I must understand myself. ‘This thing above all else, to thine own self be true.’ I must see myself as I truly am.”

“Your funeral.”


“Nothing. OK, I’ll give you the Wikipedia version. Wikipedia. It’s a thing. Never mind. Let’s start with the basics. Your… species has a sort of light-controlling field that clings to your bodies, your clothes, and anything you touch. No light gets in, no light gets out, all other light slides around you and an observer would only see what’s behind you. Of course, sunlight disrupts this field, but let’s not go there. So, no light out, no light in, light moves around you, and we get no reflection and no photographs. In fact, you can’t actually be seen at all. Not your true self.”

“Ridiculous. Mortals see me. I strike terror into their hearts.”

“Exactly. But that’s the hypnosis at work. Think of your hypnotism as a second field, a mental one. It extends about a hundred meters around you and causes weaker minds inside the field to see you only as you want to be seen. I believe this is also a matter of light manipulation, but I'm still trying to confirm it.”

“You know a great deal about us.”

“I’m a photographer. I know a great deal about light.”

“Please. Proceed.”

“To make a photograph, we direct light through a lens onto a light-sensitive surface. The film. Or, these days, onto a semi-conductor sensor, CCD, CMOS, NMOS, like that. But, of course, your field doesn’t let that happen. No light in, no light out, light moves around you.”

“Avoids me.”

“I guess. But this where it gets exciting. We couldn’t have done this even ten years ago, but the latest iPhones have so much computing power! We just have to hijack it for what we want, not what the design nerds in Cupertino want. The secret is to photograph the light that isn’t there, or, this is a better explanation, the light that isn’t where it’s supposed to be. I developed an App that interfaces with my Nikon through a Bluetooth connection, and —”


“I guess I get carried away.”

“And are most charming when you do, my dear.”



“That’s it then. You can relax. The system only needs a few minutes. We’ll get a first print and a negative. I like to let my subjects spend a few minutes alone with the portrait. You haven’t seen yourself as you really are for many years. It can be an adjustment.”

“This has been a most fascinating occasion, Miss Graves.”

“But whatever you do, don’t look at the negative.”


“No. I’ve found it can be extremely upsetting. There are some truths no one is prepared for.”

“I see. I shall… consider your advice.”


“Right. I’ll slip the negative in this folder, and set the folder on the table. Here, sir, is your photograph. I’ll leave you two to get acquainted.”

“Thank you. Please let Lucy know I will join her later for the evening hunt. After such a thoughtful present, she deserves to be first at our feeding.”

“I’ll let myself out.”


“Did he bite?”

“Fang, line, and sinker, the condescending bastard.”


“Wait for it, Lucy.”

“I’ve waited almost two hundred years.”




“Oh. Oh.”

“Lucy?! You alright?”

“I just need a moment. That sound! Like a lonely creature released at last from unendurable misery.”

“Sit down.”

“I — I didn’t think I would be so... sad. And happy. Relieved. The idea that I’m free of him at last...”

“It’ll be an adjustment, I’m sure.”

“Was it the negative?”

“Most likely. I've had it go both ways. Some can’t face their true image and just... fade away. But I imagine he could. So that leaves the negative. The moment it’s touched, it’s inside his field and all the light that wasn't there gets released in one great sunny burst with no field to protect him. Even someone as old and cunning as him wouldn’t be able to handle so much. And of course, he had to look didn’t he, when I said he shouldn’t. Just like a man.”

“I’ll be alright.”

“So? Who’s next?”

“You’re as bloodthirsty as he was.”

“Call it making up for lost time. I owe it to my great-great-grandfather. Agatha V.H. Graves, remember?”

“In that event, I think that a certain immortal bitch named Hepsiba Kurning needs a lovely Boxing Day present. A portrait by our leading photographer of the damned, from her dear friend Lucy. But don’t forget. You promised to photograph me, too. After.”

“I’d be honored. It’ll be my gift. I’ll just collect my things from the other room.”


What an amusing day. It was inconvenient that the Van Helsing woman opened the curtains as she left, but someone would draw them before long. He would have liked to look at the portrait once more before she took it away. The years had not treated his true visage kindly, but the nose was the same, and the eyes. Especially the eyes.

Foolish mortals and their parlor tricks. He had examined his own dark nature for a very long time. There was little else to do when you never really slept. He was, indeed, the proper study of himself, and oh how he had studied. He had quintessential control of his ‘fields’, as she had called them. It was child’s play to trigger the effect of the negative at a distance, and then befuddle the girl’s mind when she returned to gloat. He had stood unseen, so close to her, so very close.

She was a fine example of her sex. Brilliant, in her own way.

He would have to find her a fitting gift. Something equally brilliant. Something quite unwelcome.

« Last Edit: December 07, 2018, 01:39:50 AM by JMack »
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Offline Cell18

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Re: [Dec 2018] - Unwanted Gifts - Submission Thread
« Reply #2 on: December 11, 2018, 08:56:45 AM »
First time attempting anything like this

Word Count: 1469

Title: A special box for a special gift

Spoiler for Hiden:
Marcus looked down, a satisfied smile upon his face.  There was no doubting that this was the perfect box to give the perfect gift he had chosen for Dan.  For Dan and Katie actually, as this was really a gift for both of them.  The box he had chosen was about 30cm long and 10cm in depth, gold in colour and finished with a red bow, complete with a tag.  This was the kind of box that was designed to hold a unique gift.

The store was full with people rushing around, clueless as to what they were going to get their loved ones.  One woman who couldn’t have been younger than fifty had her arms full with a menagerie of gifts.  So mismatched were they that Marcus had no doubt she had just been running around the aisles picking up anything and everything that caught her eye. A piece of jewellery here, a sweater there and a soft toy with a heart on it.  He revered in the thought that not everyone was as organised as him and not everyone had his foresight. 

On his way to the cashier, he noticed another man about his age staring without interest at a display of necklaces.  He noticed Marcus pass him by, “Excuse me” he called after him.  Marcus turned to face him, “Don’t mean to pry, but…may I ask, what gift have you got for your wife this year?”

“My wife?” replied Marcus

“Or girlfriend, husband, partner…hell even if what is in that box is for anyone other than yourself I’d be interested in knowing what it is.” Marcus’ eyes made their way towards his gift box.  Clearly he had made a good choice in its selection.

“Ah, this isn’t a gift, it is just the box to put it in” He tried to make his face seem welcoming, but it was hard when someone put him on the spot like this.  He always hated it in school when the teacher did it, and he definitely didn’t like it when a stranger started conversation with him.

“All the same, I’d like to know the gift” the man encouraged him, “I have been shopping for too long today and not bought one thing.  Ideas are what I need, just some help” His eyes pleaded with Marcus.  He decided to give him a brief answer, one that wouldn’t give him any clue of his special gift.

“Well” he started, “It’s a personal gift and I am not sure how much help it would be to you.  I have chosen something that they used to have until recently and knew they were fond of.  I am just giving that back to them. Maybe you can do the same? Choose a childhood memory or something.” With that Marcus gave a half-hearted sympathy smile and left the man there.  He made his way to the self-checkout.  He paid for his items, packed them and walked out the store.  Whoever had invented those things deserved some sort of medal.  Payment without petit chat, a heaven indeed.

Forty-five minutes later Marcus parked his 2 door hatchback in front of his house.  He checked the mail box for letters, then finding nothing made his way to the front door gift box in hand. As he turned the key he noticed a reflection in the glass of his door, a silhouetted man looking more daunting from the lack of features the glass could not reflect.

“Marcus! Thank heavens I caught you, I have been trying to find you all morning.” Jaxon, son of the Millers athlete’s build greeted him.  It wasn’t often he saw him in the neighbourhood and he assumed that he must be on Christmas vacation or lost another job.

“Jaxon, what a nice change to see you.  Still throwing the pig around the field?”

“Um. Not exactly, not played since I broke my leg last fall!”

“My memory.  All over the place” Marcus laughed as he said this, a behaviour he had learnt could cover the faintest of interest in any topic.  Jaxon did not join him, his face remained serious.

“Anyway. I want to talk to you about putting up this poster” he held out a paper with a picture of girl printed on it, Marcus read the word ‘missing’. 

“16-year-old has gone missing.  Not been seen now in two days and I’ve been asked to give these to people” Marcus took the paper and looked in to the eyes of the girl on the front.  Smiling and happy, a girl in better times.

“At Christmas too? Well that is just the worse of all the luck.  I shall put this up on my window as soon as I am unpacked.” He pushed the door open as Jaxon was saying his thanks and leaving down the path. 

The house was kept neat by Marcus, with everything having a place.  The walls were painted in warm colours which complemented the furniture, and drew attention to the carefully chosen pieces.  In each room there was a coffee table that had a copy of home decoration magazines resting a top.  Even these had their places carefully managed.  The house reflected the man in many ways, organised, thoughtful and practical.

Marcus could hear the dampened sound of the television coming from the back room.  It sounded like some sort of soap opera, no doubt a light hearted one given the time of day.  It would be unwise to air anything with any depth of story or controversial matters when old people with weakening hearts would be the main viewership.  Marcus hated soap operas, but he absolutely detested the vanilla type shown in the daytime.

“Please don’t tell me you have spent your day watching that awful box?” Marcus waited for a reply but as ever, none came when he was scorning her.  She has learnt not to, and this was a blessing to him.

“No answer came a quick reply” Marcus made his way to the back of the house and as it did every time, the view of the woods behind his house took his breath away. “I simply cannot fathom why you would sit there and watch this box when you have the wonder of the natural world behind you.  While you were watching these….doctors?  whatever they are, you have missed a bird feeding her young, a fox prowling for food.”  He opened the curtains wider to accentuate his point.

“Anyway, look here at this box” He held the gift box up high so she could see, he thought he detected a mumble of acceptance, a mumble of awe. “yes, I know wonderful isn’t it?” Marcus turned the box around in his hand, allowing his audience to marvel at the sight.

“Here is the thing, I now need to put in a gift.  A gift that I have been thinking of for a long time” He started to feel about his pocket and found the poster Jaxon had handed to him.  He pulled it out and for a moment, a dumbfounded expression passed along his face.  Marcus’ eyes darted up, a glint appeared in them and a smile childish in its spontaneity yet laced with malice appeared on his face.  He looked at the poster.

“This is just the best.  This makes me believe in fate.  Now I know what it means to have the planets align.  You see Jaxon, you probably know him, he gave me this poster” He held it out to the girl in front of him.  She was tied to the wooden dining chair, a gag in her mouth and sweat plastered on her brow.  Her eyes were frightened, she made a noise which could have been screaming, could have been a moan. Marcus didn’t know or care to care.

“Yes I know, lovely picture of you your parents have chosen for this.  Probably from a holiday this summer? Dan and Katie take you to their holiday home by the coast?”  He waited for a noise to confirm his ideas and he got one confirming her terror.

“Rachel Martin.  Missing” he read the poster “So simple in its message.”  He took the knife that had been laying on the table, far out of reach of Rachel and moved towards her, the noises she made became louder, desperate.
“No need to make noise, no one can hear.  You see, the reason why this is perfect is that they are going to get a gift from me are Dan and Katie…sorry mum and dad.  They want you back see.  Well we both know that cannot happen, but they can have a piece of you back.  It is the season and all.  A gift is a gift no matter if it is wanted or not. “ he wiped the knife on his trouser leg, “Ready?”
« Last Edit: December 11, 2018, 12:11:23 PM by Cell18 »

Offline Slaykomimi

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Re: [Dec 2018] - Unwanted Gifts - Submission Thread
« Reply #3 on: December 28, 2018, 04:15:04 PM »
Last will
word count: 1470 words

Spoiler for Hiden:
“Dear Serina,

I am sorry for what I did to you. I abused your trust and faith in me. What I am now I do not know any longer, but I know the reason why. After all these years I finally realized that all that happened is fully my fault. My past found me and took away all that is dear to me, piece by piece. But I wont watch it any longer. The time arrived to face my sins and pay the price for my actions, or in most cases, for not taking the right actions.

My words wont be muffled by any sweet talk and I will confess my deeds against you directly. I am the one who intoxicated you to made sure you wont wake up for the next 3 days. As you can probably see, the surroundings must look quite crumbled, if maybe not even destroyed completely. I still wonder how our home looks like when you finally read this. I just could not stand the thought of losing the last person in this world who has any meaning to me. I finally know how it feels, it´s a mix of grief and being scared. But also a cowardice, I can´t believe I can finally relate to Ye´tulpha.

For now I will give you a last guide as for I am sure this place can´t be called anyones home anymore. Did I ever tell you the tale of the Dragon on the Island of Mohn, many centuries ago? It is a beautiful island off the south-eastern shores of this Lands. There were many of my friends and comrades and I used to live there a year or two. Not a very large mass of land but it had a decent amount of inhabitants. That was until a Dragon came from across the ocean and chose to reside in a cave on the largest Mountain. The first weeks went on without major incidents, but after some time lifestock and even people disappeared. We all knew what was going on.

People from all villages all over the Island gathered and discussed what we should do. In the hall of Yestmon the wise and important from all arround Mohn gathered, which weren´t many, to find a solution to this nasty problem. Among us we decided to split in two groups, one group for helping the others and the group who was going to fight the problem. I was very anxious because I never fought a dragon, not even a young one which is already hard eough, but a full grown one who is probably even older than the ancients who were to colonize this Island. The crowd soon disappeared after they heard what we are looking for and left over were only a hand full of brave people to fight the Dragon.

We were lead by Ye´tulpha, you surely heard me often mentioning her name. A wonderful half elf woman who is said that she was under the first settlers who came to Mohn. She had a small house  through the forests north of Yestmon on the foot of the mountain. Living in the nature and experiencing it´s gifts every day anew. Among us were only 6 persons suitable to fight but we worked on the strategy. The plan was to slay the dragon at night, the warriors would sneak inside and try to kill him while asleep and the rest would stay outside to heal the wounded and harold the message down to the villagers. But more important was their part for plan B, to blow up the whole cave if we get killed by the dragon. The night of the fight went closer and all preparations were done and all was checked for the 4th time already to make sure we forgot absolutely notihng. We marched swiftly as we were a group of only 10 people.

Now to keep this letter short I will come to the important part. We marched all the way up to the cave and could sense a horrible smell. We had a last talk about the plan as a group to make sure that everyone is fully aware of what will happen and what to do in which case. I was trembling with fear on the inside but I took a deep breath and tried to gather my courage as we entered the cave. The others of my group, probably even the whole Island, were very anxious too, but everyone kept a cool head. We soon found a gigantic sleeping dragon and went on with our plan. Our swordmen managed to climb up the dragons neck, but he slipped with the knife and woke the dragon up. With a mighty roar the chamber filled with fire and the dragon started to unleash its fury among us. Everyone ran and tried to hide behind the stalagmites and stones in the cave. But the fire kept spreading and growing.

While we hid the dragon tried to shake off the brave man clinging on his neck. The man managed to stab the dragons neck and cut it open, little we knew about dragons because the moment it fell, the cave started to tremble and we needed to run out as fast as possible. The others managed to get out but I got encircled in dragonfire together with Ye´tulpha. After some encouraging words and a smile that burned forever inside my heart, she sacrificed herself to get me through the flames and out of the cave. The last things I remember after that is that I stared the whole night at the buried cave after it collapsed, broken and empty inside not knowing what to do. I only knew her for some months but it was the most precious time in my life because she became very precious to me. Now she was gone, sacrificing herself to save me.

Life went back to normal, everyone was cheerful and we celebrated our victory on the whole island, together with a moment of silence during the festivities to remember the ones who had fallen to the events. Everyone except me, I kept mourning in silence and just wanted to be alone. From what I´ve heard after my departing from the island, they built a statue of Ye´tulpha in the center of Yestmon, decorated with a marble plate that states the names of all victims of the dragon.

After about a week one of the elders came to me, he said there was a letter left in her house. A letter… well… just like this. Telling me she knew something like this might happen, and she gave me all that she possessed, from all people who knew her I was the only person who caught her curiousity and she could relate to. It included her beautyful house which is still packed with her and my notes and books, the land surrounding it and of course her beautiful pipe made of marble and local woods that I wrapped in a scarf and placed next to you in the chamber I locked you in, which you probably found already.

Since this is the only thing left I have, I will give the exact same things to you. I know you will love the island of Mohn and I hope you will find peace and happiness there, show this letter to the villagers and they will surely be nice to you. Together with the last lines that she gave me on my way, regretting, that I am also passing on these shackles that I carried for centuries instead of destroying them. I was a fool because it took me so long to realize what is going on and I blocked out all thoughts and emotions that would´ve helped me and prevented all that happened. Please try to break free and grow stronger than your old foolish master. ‘My tragic circle still found no end, after all it goes round and round and round. History has a strange habbit of repeating itself, but I hope that you will be the one to break free, to end this circle, and let this rotten fruit sprout to another peaceful tree of happiness.‘

I will always love you,

Rorodalno Isortix”

Even though she didn´t eat for 3 days, Serina went into a sort of trance, enchaining her mentally for another 2 days motionless on the small stool she sat on while reading the letter. After all this time she finally stood up and began to start leaving the last remains of her previous home towards the Island of Mohn. When she came out of the room she found that not much was left of her masters house and that there was only a deep hole left in the ground where her home village used to be.

Truly, if there is evil in this world, it lies within the heart of mankind.

-Edward d. Morrison

Offline Jake Baelish

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Re: [Dec 2018] - Unwanted Gifts - Submission Thread
« Reply #4 on: December 29, 2018, 02:45:38 AM »
Matthias and the Ring

1500 words

Spoiler for Hiden:
The ring sat on the dresser, drawing her eyes like an anchor pulling her into the abyss. Which, to all intents and purposes, it was.

Princess Stefanie hadn’t even met the man who was supposed to have sent it her; some foreign prince of a place she’d never been to. And the absolute gall of the man to have it delivered by that snickering old mage; that old fool had seen the resentment in her eyes before she’d even spoken a word of it to her father. Months gone now; the ceremony would be next week and their father’s kingdoms would be bound by marriage. At least they had something to look forward to.

Not that she had any intention of going through with it.

The princess turned from the glaring rock on the dresser down to the tangle of sheets piled by her chamber window. It seemed rather quaint, all ruffled up there like something out of a fairy story. She’d never dreamed she’d be descending the tower of her palace home-cum-prison one day in hopes of escaping her own magical wedding.

She’d not have managed it alone of course. Matthias had been an angel.

Dear, sweet, Matthias.

Poor darling had only been sent by her father – the king – to prepare her for the duties of a royal bride; and, ideally, improve her mood for it! He’d done some of that, naturally. Her dancing, Matthias assured her, would have been the envy of the seven kingdoms. He’d even had a band play bombastic music as they pranced about the palace hall in privacy. She’d never have thought to stay on her feet so long, nor move as quickly, as the strings struck harder and faster in the Sherival style. Matthias however, kept her steady. How he and father had tried. Even the man’s smiled delighted her, with its precious dimples, immaculate teeth, and the way the skin creased at the corners of those honest blue eyes – well, perhaps father hadn’t hoped for her to be that pleased.

And at the end of their sessions, on returning to her room, to that rock, she’d remember what it was all for and return to abject depression. Not even Matthias; not even the thought of Matthias could help her in these moments.

A creaking broke her from her absent dwelling; someone had entered.

“So – this is it?”

It was Matthias. He’d come. As promised.

He stood over her, golden hair perfect as ever, scents of rosemary and spices pervading her senses. Tonight he wore Stefanie’s favourite outfit, typically befitting his current place of employment: a vibrant blue tunic lined with gold, belted at the waist with fine leather. Her teacher’s eyes fixed on the ring which normally she’d have worn for guests or public appearances.

“It is,” said the princess. “You’ve no idea the weight this has brought to bear.”

“Really? That little thing?”

“It’s awful, isn’t it?”

He frowned and scooped the jewel encrusted thing into his palm. “Hmm. A splendid little piece, actually. And worth a not inconsiderable amount, I’d wager. More than your father is paying me, that’s for sure.” His grin gleamed, but Stefanie swore she heard offence.

She stood and snatched the ring away. “I apologise. I must appear terribly ungrateful to you. Just a spoilt palace princess who doesn’t know about real problems.”

Matthias shook his head. “Well, I could appreciate the thought of one who sent me such a gift. This is true. But how can I not see the hurt in you having to marry this man you do not know? The constraints of palace life are as foreign to me as many things in this city, speaking truly.”

“I thank you. Though I fear you pay me too much grace.” Her eyes drew back to the sheets, bringing a quickening step to her heartbeat. “Very well,” she sighed. “I’m ready.”

Matthias, with not a tone out of place said, “You’re sure?”

“As we agreed. I know this is dangerous for you. If my father found out… You needn’t put yourself out for me anymore, is all I mean.”

Matthias nodded and moved to the window. He glanced from side-to-side expectantly and said, “all right, the guards are gone. We have to be quick, Your Highness – we likely have a little under ten minutes.”

Stefanie sniggered.

“What?” Confusion marked the man’s expression.

Your Highness? Now you choose to return to formalities?”

He shrugged. “Well, perhaps it’ll be the last time I get to show such respect. Now,” he lifted the hefty heap of knotted sheets. “Let’s hope this works.”

He hurled the makeshift rope over the window’s ledge. The princess listened to it flap against the stone wall. “It worked!” he said.

“Calm down; that was the easy part. Pray it holds.”

That smile again. “Pray not, Princess. I’ll secure it up here. Thank the gods you dressed for the occasion; I’d have hated scold you if I’d seen you in one of your dancing dresses. Oh! Not funny? I tease. Before you leave, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but – have you any idea where you will go?”

The princess paused for thought. “I have friends in the city. What? This surprises you? From the noble houses. I’m sure one of them will give me somewhere to stay while I consider a way out of this mess.”

Matthias sighed. “So long as they aren’t concerned with consequences. It is as you wish, however. Come on, I’ll help you climb over.”

On preparing herself for the short downward journey, Stefanie missed her accomplice swiping the ring from her dresser into the safety of his pocket.

Clambering down, feeling the strain on her arm muscles and the material scrunched up within her palms, feeling the itchy sensation of cool air and stone on her not long warmed and comforted skin, the princess was hit by more than the meagerest doubts. Too late for that, she told herself.

Her descent finished a few inches from the ground and she dropped on feet and ankles – strengthened now from weeks of training – with more relief than pain. She yanked the sheets to let her man up top know that she was done.

“Wait!” Matthias called to her. “I’m coming down.”

“What?” This wasn’t part of the plan. This was his getaway as much as hers. He could go home. The princess stood startled like a cat before a charging horse not knowing which way to run while the suddenly ballsy dance master danced his way down the side of the tower she’d called home.

He hit the floor sweatier and more flustered than he’d ever been after any of their boisterous tangles in the hall. His hair flopped over his brow in a way that would be funny if not for being so damned endearing. Gods the man dissolved her hardened heart still, at his most disheveled.

“Stupid,” she gasped. “Stupid man!” Her laughter came even as her palm slapped his chest. He didn’t try to stop her.

“We have to be quiet,” she tried to say through muffled snorts. Her hysterics must’ve appeared ridiculous, she thought. Yet on calming herself, as quickly as possible, she realised the shaky, sweaty body hadn’t moved beneath her hands.

They met each other’s gaze in a moment of uncertain understanding.

Matthias leaned in first – then retracted just as soon, to a frown from the princess. “I’m… I’m sorry,” he stuttered. “You’re a princess. I…”

That princess shut him up with her lips. Pulling back, she said, “To the depths will all that,” then smothered him again. Those lips that had teased her unknowingly all this time were now hers to play with as she wished. Before anyone could spot them, Matthias, vigilant as ever, pulled them into a dark alcove set within the walls.

“To think,” she said, “I was to be married to that prince I never knew. I didn’t even know his name!”

Matthias’s face grew solemn, and he drew away a little. “Well you know, Your Highness, it’s funny you should say that. Because Prince Matthias of Sherival certainly knows you. In fact, of late, he’s gotten to know you very well!”

The young man’s playful glare considered her sincerely.

And the princess’s eyes widened.

From a pouch of his leather belt emerged the ring, the rock, that had so long plagued the recent thoughts of Princess Stefanie.

“You?” she whispered.

Matthias nodded. “I apologise if it seems absurd. You father informed me of your sadness at my proposal – my own father’s idea, by the way. Together, we hatched a plan to see if you couldn’t eventually be persuaded to come around. Did it work?”

Princess Stefanie fumbled for some retort. The heat in her cheeks had vanquished the cold and stilled the trembling of her nerves. But, on witnessing the wishful pleading of those eyes, opted instead to let her lips answer the question for him.

And the kings and their kingdoms were very pleased indeed.

Online Alex Hormann

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Re: [Dec 2018] - Unwanted Gifts - Submission Thread
« Reply #5 on: December 31, 2018, 08:22:59 PM »

1162 words

Spoiler for Hiden:

Holy Day 3722

It’s happened. I can’t believe it’s actually happened. Dad got me a bwca for Holy Day! He says it was no trouble, but the shops have been empty for weeks. Mam gave him that look that I know means he spent too much, but she didn’t say anything, so I guess it’s fine.
But the bwca. Oh the bwca the bwca the bwca.
He’s so cute! Shorter than my knee, with a pug face and covered in red hair. Didi said it looked like Uncle Foss, and we all laughed. The bwca can’t speak, of course, but he laughed too. Then he toddled around saying his name over and over. He waddles like Didi when he’s filled his britches.
Once we’d packed everything away, Dad gave me a stern talking to. About how owning a bwca is a luxury, and that if I didn’t take care of it, he’d take it back to where he got it. Then he hugged me and we all went to have roast supper.

Afterfest 3722

I had to get up really early to feed my bwca. A saucer of milk, which he lapped up like a kitten, and half a slice of brown bread with the crust cut off. He gummed it and smiled at me, and then I sent him off to work. First I made him clean away the pines from the Holy Day trees, and then he swept my room. I thought about having him cook breakfast for the four of us, but that’s Mam’s job and I didn’t want to take it away from her. Once we’d had breakfast (a piece of bacon and the other half of the bread for me) we went outside and I played fetch with the bwca. Every time I threw the stick he brought it right back. He looked so sweet and confused when I threw it away again.
When we came in for lunch, Dad told me to shut the bwca out in the barn while we ate, or it would try and clean the plates while we were eating. That sounded funny to me, but I did as I was told. The bwca gave me sad eyes as I closed the door on him, but I didn’t apologise. He had to learn that he was just the bwca, not one of us.
After lunch, I helped clean away the table (at Mam’s insistence) and then let the bwca out to play tag with Didi and me. I don’t think Didi likes the bwca much. It must be like looking in a hairy mirror.I heard him scream once, and he said the bwca was pulling faces. But Didi’s always telling stories, so I ignored him.

Gap Day 3722
Fed the bwca in the morning, milk and crustless bread, and together we patched the hole in the fence by the Penson’s house. I’d like to see their goat get into our turnip garden now! When we’d finished, we played around in the garden, kicking the ball Dad had given Didi for Holy Day. Did was still asleep in his coat, so I don’t think he minded. Mut and Jerra Penson looked at us from behind their fence and I knew they were jealous of my bwca.
I helped tidy away after lunch again, and we went back out to play the ball was flat, like it had been stuck with a thorn. Didi cried, and Dad told us to be careful, but I knew it was the Penson’s. Mam said she’d keep an eye out, but that was just grown-up talk for leaving it alone.

Feast of Tavian 3722
Milk and bread. Again. Then we went out for Chapel.
Chapel was boring, as usual. Prior Unith droned on and on and on about diligence and the Lady’s work, then we all had to say what we were grateful for. Almost everybody said family or community which made Unith smile and nod. So when  stood up and said ‘I’m thankful for bwca’ Dad looked embarrassed and Mam cuffed me round the head. On the way home she said I wasn’t allowed to play with bwca for two days, and I heard her talking at Dad later. Angry talking.

Year’s Eve 3722
The bwca is missing!
I snuck out to the barn to give it food since I hadn’t done the past two days, but when I opened the door there was nothing inside. Not the bwca, not the chickens, not even the eggs. Someone must have taken them all. I called Mam and Dad out (Mam brought Didi or he’d burn himself alone with the stove) and together we had a look around. There were no footprints, no hand-prints, just a little hole going through the east wall. Even Didi would have had trouble getting through there. It was the Pensosn, I thought. And I told Mam and Dad that too. They must have been so jealous of my bwca they stole it for themselves.
Mam and Dad left us alone to argue for a bit then, and I saw Dad storing off to the Penson’s house to sort them out. Mam came back, looking as worried as I’d ever seen. She mad eus go back to the house and help her with dinner.
Dad didn’t come back until late in the evening. He looked stressed, and said the Pensons didn’t know anything and that he’d spoken to the whole village. Nobody had seen our bwca. Not even Beady Habis, who everyone agreed saw far more than was good for him. Dad made us all go to bed, even Mam, and told us to lock all the doors and windows on our way.
I guess he’s worried about the thief coming back.

First Day 3723
I’m scared.
All night I could hear scuffling in the walls by my bed, and I don’t think it was just rats.There was some ink spilled on this diary too, like someone had thrown an inkwell at it.It smells like a dog all through the house too.
I told Dad all about this, and he said he’d fallen asleep on the porch last night and that I shouldn’t tell anyone about what I’d heard. We didn’t want to scare Didi.
He said if it’s not over by the end of the week, he’ll go to town and get some help from the Watch.

Helo Mari Merri
I thout this was a gud hous but I was rong. I was happi to wurk for you and your familee but you ruined that
You are meen to me You thro away things you want and you do it agen and agen I didnt understand.
Whiy did you not fead me I thout I was bad but now I see you are the bad wun Merri
Im not leafing until you see you are wrong becaos this is mi job
You ar my familee and I am yor Bwca

Blog: https://atboundarysedge.com

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Offline Carter

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Re: [Dec 2018] - Unwanted Gifts - Submission Thread
« Reply #6 on: January 01, 2019, 12:11:25 AM »
Here's mine for the month, coming in at 1253 words. 

Spoiler for Hiden:
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

It rests beneath his porch as he stumbles home.  The whisky makes the world spin but as he focuses on the parcel enshrouded in brown paper, everything settles.  After an evening reliving past glories, a whirlwind of reminiscences, he finds a place where he can stand still. 

The evening's light drizzle has forged a hole in the wrapping.  A gilt-edged frame glints in the glow of his shuttered lantern.  The sight of it brings a smile to his lips.  Finally, on such an appropriate night, it has arrived. 

His hands shake as he unlocks the front door and bends down to pick it up.  It is heavier than he expects, heavier even than the kit bags he lugged around on missions.  Still, he can hardly have expected something ordinary from the famous and reclusive Artentus, can he?  And certainly not after all the expense and near-humiliating pleading. 

The urge to see it is almost painful.  The second he is inside, before he stirs the fire back into life, before he lights the lamps, he tears the paper away.  The sudden noise rends the air like a gunshot.  He shines the lantern on sections at a time, illuminating flickering fragments piece by piece.  His whole career, his whole life, has been building towards this moment.  After all his accomplishments, this masterpiece is his legacy to the world; a portrait for the ages by the world's finest artist. 

In the darting light, images emerge.  A vast collage of pictures create one magnificent whole.  He has anticipated one single picture to represent everything he has achieved.  This far surpasses his hopes. 

He stands back from it, opening the shutters to spray light across the canvas.  Smears of paint and miniature images collate into a rubble-strewn vista.  A lone cavalryman sits astride a calm horse amidst the chaos of a battlefield. 

His first commission.

He remembers the battle.  He can almost smell the gunpowder and the sand, hear the shouts of friend and foe alike.  It was not his horse.  Lieutenant Marshall had fallen, his let shot to pieces by a remarkably patient Qareshi.  Someone had had to take control. 

The world moves again.  He sways against it.  He needs another drink to steady himself, to gird himself against the nostalgia.  The icebox yields chilled vodka and a splash of sharp orange juice.  A sip, a shiver and he is ready. 

He moves the lantern in close, peering at tiny segments.  His hand shakes, adding to the illusion of movement.  Smears of black suggest bullets, dots and speckles hint at enemies and rocks.   

He earned his nickname that day.  The Artist. Crimson brushstrokes on sandy backgrounds were to become his speciality.  As his lantern wobbles, his first opus emerges, trickling from behind rocks and walls.  Corpses of his enemies lie strewn across the vista painting a tale of victory and blood. 

A gulp of vodka slips down.  Citrus and alcohol sears a path down his throat like the graze of a bullet.

A horse flows over the desert, warriors rallying around him, looking to him for direction and he gave it.  He was the pivot on which the world turned.  This one battle was where his legend began.  All stems from this one moment.

He takes another swing, his smile growing.

He thinks that the portrait will track his life's progress.  That it will chart his rise from the Qarashi desert to the streets of Narjin.  The campaign against the Ravennish and his exploits on the Ashtar plains.  Depict his every victory on behalf of the Empire. 

Instead it remains fixed on the one battle.  His heart hammers as he takes swallow after swallow of burning fire.  He has had enough of this desert.  He craves another, any other. 

He sweeps the lantern across the canvas, searching for some sign of something else.  The microscopic stills whir past as fast as memory.  Implacable, they move on.  His mouth goes dry.  His hand shakes, sending his empty glass tumbling to the carpet.  Instead of landing gently, instead of being cushioned by the fabric, it shatters the silence.  Slivers of glass spray outwards, like shrapnel from a mortar. 

His lantern rests on an echo.  A spattering of paint spews sand, earth and rubble into the air.  A distant fortification destroyed by his artillery at his instruction.  Tides of war turn on such moments.  On that day, the Qareshi paused, uncertain for the first time.  It turned an attritional fight into a rout.

Pain clenches a fist around his heart.  He does not want to see any more, to remember any more.  But he cannot look away.  Almost on its own accord, his hand moves on. 

Inch by slow inch, memories are splayed on the canvas.  Bodies scattered like chaff.  The exhilaration of being sat atop his horse and bearing witness to such a triumph.  The dust scratching down his throat with every breath.  The slow realisation as they picked through the wreckage and scoured what remained of the settlement for any final pockets of resistance. 

He sent the other soldiers away to follow a sequence of pointless orders.  Anything to put some distance between them and what he expected to discover. 

When he reached it, he was alone on canvas as he had been in life.  There were no barricades.  No war rooms.  No weapon stores.  Just a cluster of houses.  Market stalls.  A school blown to smithereens. 

Pieces of body lay scattered around.  Now, staring at the graphic representation, it stirs his stomach and his gorge rises.  He wants to vomit out his guilt.  To purge his fear that somehow someone has discovered the truth hidden only inside his brain.   

At the time, however, he exulted in it.  This was his doing.  He controlled the battlefield.  He dictated who died.  Only he could possibly understand what it took to ensure the prosperity of hit homeland.  Empathy was only for the weak-willed.   

His hand itches to reach for the gun at his hip, his palm brushing against the cold butt.  His mind screams at him to track down Artentus and put a bullet through his skull.  Yet he delves only deeper. 

In his stride through the portrait, he can almost feel the rising anticipation.  His whole body tingles with what is to come.  Then, he existed on the edge.  He had taken on a mighty enemy and emerged victorious.  Heightened perhaps by fear, his awareness stretched beyond him, seeming to encompass the whole world.  Not a breath of wind escaped his attention.  Not a shifting grain of sand. 

Nor the faint scrabble of a hand against the wreckage. 

Finally, he is shown standing over the prone figure; a teenager attempting to drag himself out from under the debris.  Even now, especially now, he can remember a hand searching for purchase, every flailing movement increasing desperate.  He can see the boy's other hand reaching towards his waist. 

“No.  You cannot know this.  No one knows this.”

His hand finally finds his gun.  He draws.  Anger drums through his veins.  This is impossible.  This cannot be allowed. 

The boy's eyes stare out at him from the canvas.  The pain he remembers is gone.  It its place is a hard, cold rage.  His vision blurs and the figures appears to move, his arm ever reaching for an invisible, imagined weapon. 


There is a dash of grey.  A minute detail within the final image.  A gun rising, rising. 

A single shot rings out. 

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Re: [Dec 2018] - Unwanted Gifts - Submission Thread
« Reply #7 on: January 02, 2019, 08:06:31 AM »
Title: The Marquis of Greenwood and The Advisor General
1498 Words

Spoiler for Hiden:
The fields of Greenwood still lay fallow when the Advisor General arrived. He shook his head. War with the tribes continued to bind the kingdom’s sons and daughters.

A throng of hollow eyed guards parted for his carriage as it trotted up to the Marquis’s residence. Except for its size and commanding hilltop position, the manor resembled all the other homes of the march, just stone and wood. The Advisor General much preferred such simple folk. They were practical. Practicality won wars.

The ashen faced servant who greeted him at the door, if a choking cough and a stare could be called a greeting, inquired as to his business.

“I am an Advisor General from the Capital, the Marquis will be expecting me.”

Without a word, the servant bid him in and escorted him into the Marquis's dining room where a welcome fire blazed in the hearth.

“I apologize sir, we do not have tea at the moment, would sir accept a soup instead?”

“Certainly, anything to warm the body.”

The servant placed a teacup and saucer before him. The Advisor General peered in. Soup in a teacup. A travesty.

The Marquis staggered out, pale as his servant if not more so. Were it not for the weariness of his eyes, he’d have appeared a regular drunkard.

“I’m glad to see you,” the Advisor General said.

“Same,” the Marquis managed, unenthusiasticly. “Things have not improved in the march.”

“I’m afraid I’ve been inadequately informed about your situation, Marquis. Pray tell me.”

“My apologies, Advisor General,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “Though I received my station through merits on the battlefield, I am just a farmer by trade, and my knowledge of war does not rise above that of a conscript captain.”

“Your report was satisfactory in that regard, Marquis. Militarily, there is little wrong in your handling of the battles, but I am interested in the human factor. Tell me about the tribes, their history. The historical records of frontier areas are sparse.”

“They benefited greatly from our King’s benevolence, yet now demand half the march. There is no history to speak of, before us they didn’t even have letters.” His servant brought him soup, this time in a proper bowl. He glanced over at the Advisor General. “I was not aware I had tea left.”

“You don’t. How many tribes are there?”

“Three. Sumri, Haksan, and On, animals in name and manner. It seems their hatred for each other is eclipsed only by their hatred of us.” He sighed, sinking into chair. “Ingrates, all of them.”

“They have been pacified for a long while. Why do you suppose they decided to rebel?”

“We made it too easy for them perhaps.” He stared into his bowl. “With nothing else to do they decided to shed blood.”

“This is insufficient, Marquis, it is clear what you think, but I wish to know of them, what drives them. A diplomatic approach.” The Advisor General took a swig of the soup. Bitter, terribly bitter. Bitter enough to wake the dead.

“I’ve tried that to no end, Advisor General, many times,” the Marquis said. “I will attempt to parlay with them again on the morrow, if you are interested in attending, though I predict you will come to see the uselessness of it. I try to reason with them and they cast insults in return. Perchance, do you believe assassination is in order?”

“Given their stubbornness, others would merely take their place, only much more hostile. We shall see, but I believe a light touch to tip the scales is in order. Now if you please, I’d prefer my soup in a bowl.”

The next day, the Marquis and Advisor General sat across from the three tribal chieftains. They had elected to meet at the center of a stone outcropping where they were shielded from the piercing winds. Standing a respectful distance away, each side was afforded a dozen glowering guards.

“Come to return our land to us, Marquis?” the chief seated at the center said.

“You know I won’t surrender our Kingdom’s land,” the Marquis snapped. “I merely hope that you see reason and end your rebellion.”

The tribal chieftains turned to the Advisor General. “You’ve brought another royal lackey with you this time. Your replacement?” The left one said.

“Fair warning, boy,” the final added. “If you’re as fresh as your fancy clothes, you’ll need another within the month.”

“Have no fear, I am just an observer.” The Advisor General offered his most disarming smile.

“An observer?” the leftmost chief snorted. “Then you shall observe the defeat of your Marquis over here!” He narrowed his eyes “Let your king know the tribes of Greenwood will never accept the yoke of an invader.”

“Before our king took stewardship over this land, there was great poverty, famine, and suffering of all manner abounded,” the Marquis said. “Under his benevolent rule, we had become both the richer; food became bountiful and hovels became homes. How can you then despise us when we have done such good for the people?”

“You and your king came and stole our land from us!” the centermost chief declared. This land belongs to the tribes. If we do not own our own land, if we cannot decide our own fate, your boons mean nothing. It is better for us to starve in our own fields and homes than to live in an invader’s houses, and sweat for a harvest sent out to a foreign land each year.”

“And I presume,” the Advisor General said, “if we left this land, you as the leader of these tribes would   cease your war?”

The venomous, envious eyes of his momentary allies fell upon him in an instant.

The chief shrank in his seat, his words now measured. “We will not be ruled by foreign invaders, but just the same I cannot accept that mantle from you.”

“Yes, that is for another time,” the leftmost muttered. “The matter now is of returning our land.”

The Marquis began his efforts anew. “We have crushed you in battle after battle, it is already clear what the outcome will be. Continue to fight, and you only waste more lives.”

Their meeting soon concluded, having had no progress, as expected. They parted with swords drawn and promises of further battles.

The Marquis marched in a huff, going in circles to compensate for the Advisor General’s maddeningly slow pace. “They are unreasonable folk, Advisor General. What am I to do? We will certainly be victorious over these backward loons in the end, but at the loss of many sons of our Kingdom.”

The Advisor General smiled. “It is not a difficult thing, Marquis.”

For the first time, his eyes brightened. “You have a solution?”

“Cede the land. Let our settlers take only what they can carry on their backs, nothing more.”

The Marquis’s mouth hung open, voice catching in his throat. “I cannot do such a thing! How can I so easily forfeit the land our king has entrusted in my hands, the land so many have shed blood to secure?”

The Advisor General continued on at a steady pace. “When they are done, cast lots, split between the three tribes. Send a messenger bearing gifts, silk or gold perhaps, to the lucky winner, with a message that you wish for amity between the new ruler of the lands and yourself.”

The Marquis grasped his arm, facing him squarely. “You want me to surrender our land and shower a usurper with wealth? They would hang me for that!”

“They would hang me for that. Have trust in your betters, Marquis.” The Advisor General pulled free of the Marquis, who appeared crestfallen at the mention of rank. He knew his place. “Expect a convoy of grain before winter, though take care to ensure there are no idle hands. See what spring brings and thank our king.”

The next day, the Marquis of Greenwood withdrew from the contested lands outright. Haksan refused his gifts. The tribes of Greenwood were elated at their erstwhile foe’s departure, and the generous loot left behind, but even as they rushed to seize their plunder, old enmities arose. One adversary gone, two enemies made, for the land was claimed by the tribes of Greenwood, but which tribe was its rightful heir?  Within a month, suspicions eyes fell upon Haksan, who so clearly had the kingdom’s favor and stood the best chance of achieving domination. Never to let one rival eclipse another, Sumri and On joined in alliance against it. Haksan was on the verge of defeat, when On heard rumors of Sumri betrayal, and united with their former adversaries again. Day by day their numbers dwindled, until the frosts came. Winter slew what blade could not. Gifts remembered, Haksan sought refuge under the Marquis. By the luck of lots, their remaining few were preserved. Spring thaws unearthed the bones of Sumri and On, and found Greenwood fully restored to the kingdom, its tribes vanquished.
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Offline xiagan

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Re: [Dec 2018] - Unwanted Gifts - Submission Thread
« Reply #8 on: January 15, 2019, 06:38:12 PM »
Here is @ShadowKnight's story. Due to the holidays he wasn't able to submit it on time so it's not eligible for voting. Have fun reading it anyway. :) 

Into the Light

1,500 words

Spoiler for Hiden:
Into the Light

An eerie glow radiated from Etha’s palm, illuminating Eckhart’s face.

Eckhart had never seen anything of the like. He had heard the tales, of course. Anyone with a trace of common sense would have run, awoken the others, or gone to the housemaster. But he couldn’t. No, he
wouldn’t. He just sat there, on the floor of their dormitory, staring at Etha’s cautious green eyes.

A faint rustle broke the silence. Etha started and her light dimmed. It enveloped the two of them and their corner of the room, but the rest of the dormitory had now returned to its original darkness. The others were still sound asleep.

Eckhart leaned towards Etha. “You can trust me,” he whispered.

Gently, Etha laid her hand on his. Her skin was soft and warm. A powerful wave spread through Eckhart’s body, as if Etha’s light could reach the deepest recesses of his being. Thoughts of everything else fled far away; it was just the two of them in that moment — and it felt right.

The door squeaked open. Etha quenched her light but Eckhart knew it was too late. He turned just in time to witness Mr. Wickham’s traits deform in horror at the sight of them.

The next day Etha was taken someplace else; no one would tell Eckhart where.

Eckhart knew he would never see her again.

Trace reread the last sentence. He deleted it, pondered, his hands hovering above his keyboard, then rewrote it with the exact same words. He went through the whole story one more time, tweaking and re-tweaking until he realized his adjustments were doing more harm than good.

He still wasn’t happy with it when he was done.

Trace shivered. Why was it always freezing in here? He pushed himself away from his desk and headed to the kitchen to brew some tea. His flat really only consisted of one dimly-lit room, which was barely larger than a standard-size bedchamber. A single set of windows lined the wall, fully shuttered except for a small strip that was covered in a crust of snow.

Waiting for the water to boil, Trace went to grab a sweatshirt. He struggled to find one in the ambient obscurity. He touched the radiator on his way back — lukewarm at best. He really had to get that thing fixed.

The ceiling creaked under the steps of the tenants above. A faint echo of conversation and laughter — probably a party. Trace hoped they wouldn’t be too noisy, though he’d still prefer that to being woken up by the nighttime dalliances of his next-door neighbor.

Tea in hand, Trace returned to the glimmer of his computer screen. His desk, which also served as a dining table, was so full of clutter that he didn’t have where to place his cup. Trace closed the month’s issue of Magical Reflections, threw some empty pizza boxes in the trash, slung his Sophomore year application form on his bed — the deadline was still weeks away — and arranged the dozens of sheets teeming with story ideas in a perfect pile. He also found an invitation to a student Christmas party, which shortly ended up in the garbage, and two unopened packages that he remembered having received a couple of days before.

The first was from his parents. It contained a Christmas card and a leather bound photo album. Santa and co. smiled at him from the card’s cover. The interior read:

Dear Trace,

We are heartbroken that you won’t be coming home for the holidays. But we understand, exams are important.
Know that we miss you and hope to see you soon. Call us sometime.

Merry Christmas and happy New Year!

Mom & Dad

P.S. We hope you like our gift. It was your father’s idea. He’s really sorry he yelled at you the other day.

The album was packed with photos of a young Trace surrounded by family and friends. Leafing through it, Trace fought off a strong emotion that he couldn’t qualify. He discarded the album and moved on to the second package. That one was unsigned. In it he found some kind of notebook. The cover depicted a drawing of a unicorn standing on a rainbow against a pink star-studded sky. A handwritten message greeted him on the inside.

To our dear Tracy,

May this notebook give birth to many a tale of unlikely heroes, damsels in distress and make-believe worlds. Children everywhere will thank you for helping them sleep at night.

With love,
Your dear friends.

P.S. Be wary of the trolls in the dungeon, they might kidnap your imaginary girlfriend.

Trace felt his chest tighten. How had they found out? He had been careful with his story notes in class, but some had obviously wound up in the wrong hands. Resisting the urge to tear the notebook apart, Trace switched on his desk lamp, grabbed his fountain pen, and began writing.

As he arrived Eckhart was welcomed by Mr. Wickham. The housemaster’s hair had turned gray and his body scrawny since Eckhart had fled the school, but there was no doubt it was him.

Eckhart announced he had come for a tour of the establishment as he was considering it for his son. He followed Mr. Wickham around for a while, waiting patiently. Until they reached the dormitories.

Unlike the man, the place hadn’t changed much since Eckhart’s time. It was deserted, the pupils still being in class. Eckhart approached his old bed. He laid a trembling hand on the sheets, trying to hide the palpitation in his chest. He glanced at the near corner of the room, then turned to face Mr. Wickham.

Before he knew it Eckhart was at the old man’s throat.

Mr. Wickham was too weak to offer proper resistance. Eckhart grabbed the man’s head in both hands and fired a blazing burst from his palms. The last thing Mr. Wickham would experience in his miserable existence was the light.

On his way out from the dormitory, Eckhart found himself face to face with a young girl. In her terrified eyes, he saw that he had become a monster.

A heavy drop landed on the page, distorting the ink on the last word. Trace only then realized he was crying. He wiped the tears away with his sleeve and vigorously scratched the word, then the entire paragraph. He kept scratching even as his pen failed and his arm hurt, and only stopped once he had ripped the page away. He hurled the notebook across the room. It crashed against the entrance door and fell to the ground with a thud.

Trace took a deep breath, then another. He closed his eyes as his body untightened. He had deserved it, the humiliation, for being arrogant enough to think that he could write. Tears still trickled down his cheeks.

Muffled cheers filtered from the street, followed by a succession of distant whistles and bangs. Trace flinched when his desk began to vibrate. He checked his phone: Home calling. He silenced it.

Now that his chest no longer felt like it was about to implode, Trace retrieved his pen, flipped the torn-out page, and started exploring alternative outcomes to his story.

A knock interrupted his musing a while later. Trace frowned; his only visitors were food delivery people or house-to-house salesmen. He got up and sneaked to the entrance door. Peeping through the keyhole, Trace made out a young woman wearing a lime cone hat. He recalled seeing her in the staircase a few times. She’d probably got the wrong flat. If Trace was careful not to make any noise, she’d think that no one was there and leave.

Tiptoeing away from the door, Trace slipped on the unicorn notebook. He clutched the dresser at the last moment, avoiding the fall. However, the thump of his hand on the wood had been too loud to go unnoticed.

Reluctantly, Trace unlocked the door. He squinted at the light coming from the stairwell landing.

“Hi, I’m Thea from the seventh floor,” the young woman said warmly. If she was surprised by Trace’s tousled hair, his casual clothing, or his general resemblance to a hermit emerging from his dark cave, she had the kindness not to show it. “Me and some friends are having a little party at my place.” she continued. “Some other friends were caught in a sandstorm and won’t be coming. So now we have extra food. We’re going from floor to floor to see if someone wants to join us.”

“I... er...” Trace cleared his throat, desperately searching for a valid pretext to decline the invitation. His brain just couldn’t provide one. Or maybe it didn’t want to. “Why not,” he heard himself say. “Just... give me a minute to get ready.”

“Great!” Thea said. “Seventh floor, first door on the right.”
Thea sauntered to the staircase, then stopped and turned around. “Oh, and happy New Year!” she added with a bright smile.
"Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis." (Laplace)