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Author Topic: The best story of 2014 - vote now!  (Read 19538 times)

Offline xiagan

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The best story of 2014 - vote now!
« on: February 01, 2015, 06:08:24 PM »
For the first time we are choosing a best of the best story from our writing contests!

Here you can find the 14 winning stories from the monthly contests in 2014 (because we had a tie in January and December).

Everybody has three votes and I'm going to run the poll for 60 days - so you have plenty of time to read all the stories and to decide which one (or two or three) you liked best.

Be sure to tell everybody that here are fourteen top stories (each one already won a contest!) that can be read for free - we just ask you to vote. :)

I couldn't put all the stories in one post because there is a limit of 20k characters per post. You can find all the stories in the seven following posts.
« Last Edit: February 01, 2015, 06:25:00 PM by xiagan »
"Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis." (Laplace)

Offline xiagan

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Re: The best story of 2014 - vote now!
« Reply #1 on: February 01, 2015, 06:13:02 PM »
Here are the stories:

Jan 2014 [Betrayal]: Jing Ke - A Tale from the Stone Road (by G_R_Matthews)
Spoiler for Hiden:
“Your tea, Shifu.” Haung handed the small, delicate porcelain cup to the old man sat across from him. They both tapped the table twice with the fingers of their right hand and then sipped the hot, green and fragrant liquid.

“Haung, Jing Ke is... complicated,” Shifu began. “He is not one man alone. There are a multitude of him. It is how he operates. He finds likely candidates, teaches and trains them to play his role and use his name. His fame and legend spreads with each atrocity. Some only days apart, but thousands of miles distant from the other. You killed one of those men. The real Jing Ke would have killed you in short order.”

“Shifu,” Haung halted as the old man raised his hand.

“Haung, I was tasked with tracking down and killing Jing Ke many years ago. I killed four of his men and never came close to finding him,” Shifu explained.

“Yes, Shifu.” Haung looked into the other’s eyes, “I am sure I can handle an assassin.”

“Haung,” Shifu shook his head, “Jing Ke is not an assassin. He is a warrior, and a master. He may take work as an assassin but that is not how he was trained. I should know. I trained him. Believe me when I tell you, you could not stand against him. Not yet.”

Haung took a deep breath, his fingers gripping the thin porcelain tightly enough to cause the glaze to crackle. “You trained Jing Ke?”

“To be a fighter. I trained him to be a Taiji, not an assassin. He was, is, one of the best students I ever had.” Shifu looked away from Haung and took another sip of his tea. “He is my son, my adopted son. Let me tell you how I found him...”

* * *

The young officer did not wait for the horse to stop before leaping from the saddle. He sailed through the air, tucking into a somersault and landing on his feet, balanced. The long, straight sword appeared in his hands and he struck, twice. The bandits fell to the ground, blood spraying from their necks and swords tumbling from lifeless fingers.

Bandits in mismatched armour spilled out of the ramshackle houses that lined the muddy road, the village’s only thoroughfare. The weak cries of their victims followed them through the doorways.

“Get him,” screamed the largest and they all drew steel; swords, axes and rust-spotted daggers.

The young officer flicked the long braid of his hair around his neck and with a sharp cry he jumped forward into the midst of the on-rushing bandits. His sword flowed like a river over their guards and parries, washing away lives in a flood of bright red.

The young man smiled, proud, as the last slipped off his sword with a soft sigh.


* * *

“... I killed them all. Twelve in all. Back then, when I was young, that was my job. If a problem arose and it needed a quick resolution, I was it...”

* * *

His fingers felt the neck of every villager in every home. He closed the eyes of the dead and eased the passing of those too injured to save. The sharp knife he kept in the intricately inlaid sheath the best mercy he had. And, when possible, he bound wounds, or cut and cauterised if needed. The smell of burning flesh was sweet but repellent.

The village was finished. There were simply not enough people left alive to farm the land. The few survivors were staggering away from the ruins as the rain began to fall and the young man emerged from the last house, a small wailing boy in his arms.


* * *

“...they didn't want him. His mother was dead, as were his three brothers. I never found the father. For all I know he was amongst those stumbling away. To them he was another mouth to feed, a drain on their non-existent resources. I burnt the village to the ground.”

“Shifu, how could you burn the bodies?” Haung asked, “Won’t they rise as ghosts?”

“To haunt a patch of land? No, Haung, I am sure even the dead will never want to return there.” Shifu looked down at the table, tracing the inlay with one finger, “I brought him home with me and raised him as my own.”

* * *

“You have to stand up to the other boys.”

“They’re all bigger than me, Dad.” The little boy’s sad, soft eyes looked into his father’s and the older man was tempted to gather him into his arms, to make it all right.

“Jing Ke, size does not matter. Heart and courage are enough for this.”

“They’ll hit me. They’ll hurt me,” a sob followed the words.

“Yes, they will, Jing Ke. But, by standing up to them, by fighting back, you will teach them that you are strong. That you are brave and not an easy target.”

“I can’t, Dad. I’m scared.”


* * *

“They picked on him because of his size, always small for his age, and because he was my son. They tried to get to me through him. It was not an easy childhood but he was bright boy. Timid and tearful but he cared for others. I loved him. So, I taught him.”

* * *

“Here,” he handed the boy a wet cloth, “wipe the blood off your face. The same boys again?”

“Yes, Dad.” His son’s voice was on the cusp of breaking and deepening.

“How many this time?”

“Four of them,” the boy pulled the cloth away from his face and examined the smear of blood upon it. “I gave them something to think about.”

“They’ll be back again, Jing Ke.” He put a comforting arm on his growing son’s shoulder, “Perhaps I should speak to their parent’s.”

“I can handle it, Dad. You’ll only make things worse.”


* * *

Shifu finished the last of the tea and placed it on the table. Haung followed suit and then looked up into the old man’s eyes, recognising the faraway look in them.

“He was a good son, a good student. He got stronger and faster...”

* * *

The loud, repeated thumping on the door reverberated throughout the house. It echoed from the walls and bounced down the corridors.

He sighed as he stood and, putting aside the scroll he had been reading, moved to answer the summons.

“How can I help?” He asked of the two red-faced and sweating men outside.

“Is your thug of a son at home? I want him punished. I want him beaten. Look at what he has done to my son.” The first man, dressed in the robes of a middle ranking administrator, shouted. He dragged his son forward, pointing at the teenager’s puffy and grazed face dominated by the large purple bruise around the left eye.

“And look at what he did to mine,” the second father, in the robes of a trader, waved at his son who limped forward, dragging his right leg and cradling his left arm.

“Are you sure that my son is to blame?”

“Both of the boys said so,” the Administrator raised an accusing finger at the home-owner whose gaze never left the loud man’s face. The finger drooped.

“In that case you had better come in to discuss the matter. I am sure we can resolve this,” the home-owner stepped back to allow them to enter. “Please, take a seat and I will find my son.”

He walked past the variety of swords that hung, displayed, on the wall towards the door at the rear. The two fathers and their battered sons stood in silence.

The owner returned with Jing Ke in tow. The boy’s face showed its own evidence of violence. The other boys saw him and took a protective step behind their fathers.

“My son, Jing Ke,” the owner indicated his boy with sweeping, open palm. “I have been given a brief account of the attack and it is a shameful business.” The two aggrieved father’s nodded, the Administrator going so far as to raise the accusing finger again before thinking better of it. “We, Jing Ke and I, wonder where the other five boys are?”


* * *

Haung saw a small smile form on Shifu’s lips that died a slow death.

“He was my son, my best pupil, and he became an assassin. He betrayed all my teachings and I had to stop him. I failed and now the task is yours, Haung.”

<END>

Jan 2014 [Betrayal]: Stab and Twist (by ACSmyth)
Spoiler for Hiden:
By dawn, the children were already carrying water from the well for washing. We used it cold. Not even a betrothal warrants wasting precious fuel to heat water. In the desert, we are used to discomfort.

I made sure to wake Pietrig myself. Aithne and Kael’s wedding celebrations had gone on late, but Pietrig had come home later still, and filthy with it. He’d been with Sylas; I could tell. Our father and Sylas’s had gone to great lengths to keep them apart, but the soot from the kiln—their meeting-place of old—gave them away.
I pumped Pietrig for information, though he was barely awake.

“Did he say anything? Is he willing?”

Pietrig spluttered as I poured cold water over his head. He scrubbed his fingers through his dark curls, rubbing behind his ears and down his neck. Funny. I used to help wash him when he was little, and here he was, wearing the gem in his ear, a grown man. Sooty water ran in rivulets over his shoulders.

“They’ve told him.”

“Is that all? Does it please him?”

Pietrig shook the water from his hair. “What do you think?”

I didn’t have to think; I knew. I’d talked to Sylas before he left. All he wanted was to be a changer and escape the village, his father, the linandra pits—everything that makes our people the lowest of the low, and him lowest of all.

“I think he’d want to stay at the Aerie.”
 
But his father would never allow that. After only three children, one dead these several months, Craie needed grandchildren to raise his status. Although most suspected Sylas would sooner lie with a man, Craie would still force him into marriage for his own ends.

“I know why this betrothal is happening, Fienne. To free me from the dig team. Father’s giving me a future by taking away Sylas’s. It stinks.”

Pietrig wasn’t meant to be a linandra digger; he was meant to follow father as village elder. But if Sylas took his place in the pits, Pietrig could come home, and Sylas marrying me would drag his family off the bottom rung of our village’s ladder.

As a marriage proposal, it did indeed stink.

#

The morning was cool; the clean dress fresh against my skin. Sylas was freshly scrubbed, all hints of soot washed away. The linandra bead that marked his adulthood glinted in the early sun, but the bead on the thong about my neck was a sham. It proclaimed me a woman, but I was seventeen, nearly eighteen, and I had never bled.

My stomach fluttered. It’s expected for the girl to be nervous, but Sylas looked just as tense, and I wondered what had passed between him and his parents. When I tried to catch his eye, to give him a reassuring smile, he looked past me, to where the rest of my family stood. To Pietrig.

Can there be anything more soul-destroying than knowing your betrothed loves your brother better?

I’d guessed years ago. Pietrig would flirt with the village girls—sneak a kiss when he could. But Sylas only had eyes for Pietrig. Would Sylas even want to take me to his bed when we were married? Had that too been part of my father’s plan? To blame him when I failed to conceive?

When my father suggested the betrothal it seemed ideal. I loved Sylas like another brother already. He’s a good man, kind and gentle. But I didn’t think they’d trick him; I thought he knew. I’d sooner he had been happy about the match, but could I lay my hand on my heart and say I wouldn’t marry him even if he was unwilling, knowing this might be my only chance? The Lady knows my shame, I reasoned, and still she has brought this man to be my betrothed.

As we stood, waiting to be joined, my betrothed-to-be tried to catch my brother’s eye. When at last he succeeded, he tensed and looked uncomfortably away. Shifting, he stared across the circle to where his own family were gathered. He and his mother were so very close. What were they conveying to each other with those lingering looks?

My father took my hand to lead me towards Sylas. Sylas’s father took his elbow and tried to do the same, but Sylas shook his father off. He muttered something. I couldn’t hear what he said, but I could guess the intent from his truculent posture. A chill ran through me, and my heart beat so hard, I thought my father could hear it. My father leaned close, his breath tickling my ear when he spoke.

“Take his hand, child. Many men are nervous when it comes to it. He will do it for you.”

I held out my hand, and Sylas looked at me, his eyes full of pain. He didn’t want to hurt me, I could tell, but he would do it all the same. I wanted to run. To hide. To pretend this wasn’t happening. But the whole village was watching. I had to see it through.

He looked like an animal in a trap.

“I’m sorry.” He barely whispered the words, but I read them from his lips.

His father yanked his arm. “Take it. Take her hand, damn you.”

The look he gave me broke my heart. “I can’t. Fienne, I can’t. I’m sorry.”

It’s only nerves, I told myself. It has happened before, one partner hesitating, realising the importance of the vows. But I could hear villagers shuffling behind me. This was not just nerves. They could tell something was wrong.

“Please, Elder Skarai. Don’t do this to her. Take her back to your wife. Say we made a mistake. Say she refused me. Say she loves another. Please don’t do this.”

I tried to speak, could feel my lips trembling as I did so. “But I would not refuse you. You are the gentlest man in the village. I would have you as my husband before any of them. When my father asked me, I agreed right away.”

He raised his head and looked over my shoulder, far into the distance. I didn’t need to turn to know he was staring at the mountain on which the Aerie lay. Thinking of his dreams of changing; his future, left in tatters because of me.

“I cannot marry you, Fienne. I will not.” Then to my horror, he raised his voice so all the village could hear. “I will not take her, do you hear me? I will go back to the Aerie. I cannot marry. Not Fienne. Not anyone. I mean to be a changer.”

“You’ll do as we say, young Sylas!” My father tugged at my hand, and Craie did the same to Sylas. Was there ever a less auspicious start to a marriage than a man and woman’s hands being joined by force? I wanted to scream at them to stop, but I controlled myself.

“No,” I said, and the words caught in my throat. “If he does not want me, I would not have you force him.”

“He will do as he is told, girl, as will you.” My father would never normally speak angrily to me. “Who do you want in the desert: Sylas or your brother? Your brother, who will lead after me?”

Pietrig was right, I thought bitterly. All this was to release Pietrig from the digging—from the life in the vents that rotted men’s lungs and ate the skin from their faces. Had he been part of their schemes?

Sylas raised his voice. “They try to trick my father. The girl is barren. She has had no flows. She should never have had the bead. I will not marry her.”

No one moved. No one spoke. I stared at him, speechless. He might have come to this betrothal unwillingly, but to shame me before everyone…

My eyes threatened to overflow, but I would not cry in front of him. I would not let him see how deeply he had wounded me.

“Who— Who told you? They said it was a secret—that no one beyond family knew of it. How could you do this to me, Sylas? In front of everyone. Omena’s wings, but I thought you cared for me a little.”
No one beyond family.

I had washed the soot from Pietrig’s body myself.

Pietrig had slept with Sylas last night, of that I was now certain. And at the kiln, in the throes of lovemaking or in the quiet after, he had told Sylas my secret. The one thing he had sworn no one outside family would know. He had told him I was barren, and now the entire village knew.

I ran home sobbing. Sylas was not my betrothed, nor ever would be now, but he had been my friend. Pietrig was my own blood.

A friend’s betrayal stabs deep, but a brother’s betrayal twists the knife.
« Last Edit: February 01, 2015, 06:17:29 PM by xiagan »
"Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis." (Laplace)

Offline xiagan

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Re: The best story of 2014 - vote now!
« Reply #2 on: February 01, 2015, 06:14:27 PM »
Feb 2014 [Fanfic]: The road to Arrow (by TOMunro)
Spoiler for Hiden:
This short story is based on the Broken Empire trilogy by Mark Lawrence.  It is just after the last scene in book 2 King Of Thorns when Jorg is en route to claim his new territories.  As such it does contain some spoilers but only in so much as letting us know that Jorg won, but not the exact detail of how.

I have tried to be true to the original by writing in first person from Jorg's perspective.  But that does mean this is also a rather dark story - you have been warned.
-------------

Sunshine! A balmy autumn evening.  My whole life extremes of weather had pursued me, the baking desert heat, the cloying mist of the marshes, the torrential downpour of that night, lit by flashes of lightning.  I was so entranced by the prospect that we pitched our camp early and I sat relaxing in the Sun’s embrace, letting it soothe the scars the thorns had left.  It was going to be a pleasant evening.  I should have known. Those who the Gods wish to destroy they first make comfortable.

“Jorg, we’ve got company,” Sir Makin said softly.

I opened one eye and glanced along the road to Arrow.  There were twenty or so, walking the dusty road.  No match at all for my half dozen hardened warriors.  Others might call them criminals but then the epithets of war are chosen by the winners and I was definitely one of the winners.  There was no glint of steel on blade or breastplate, no menace at all in the approaching band.  A sudden shimmer of auburn hair had me sitting up and reaching for the view ring of the builders.

Katherine? Had she survived the inferno outside the Haunt?  In an instant a clearer picture swam into view, the ancient artefact bringing out every detail in the forms and faces of these newcomers.  The girl was not Katherine.  It was just a distant resemblance exaggerated by my own imagination.  Why did I still yearn to see my aunt? Tormentor of my dreams, the one I wished would understand me better than I understood myself.

But no, this girl was not Katherine.  The hair a duller shade, clad in a simple gown a cloak drawn tight around her neck.  Beside her walked an older man with a close cropped steel grey beard that matched the military cut of his hair.  Behind them came a motley collection of civilians.  Peasant farmers jostled alongside shopkeepers.   Near the front strode a merchant clad in rich silks who had brought a couple of body guards with him, an amateur and a pensioner, no threat there.

“I do believe this is a deputation, Sir Makin.”

“Perhaps they have heard of your coming, your Majesty.”  Father Gomst was always most particular about the formalities of title.  His trust in ordered hierarchy led him to the certainty of God’s existence at the pinnacle of everything. I saw merely a storm of ambition where a momentary shift in the wind might for an instant lift one man higher than the rest.  The Prince of Arrrow had taught me that; it was a lesson he should have learned himself.

I stood to welcome my new subjects, if such they were.  The group fanned out in a circle around greybeard and the girl.  Even the pompous merchant gave way to the old man’s leadership.

“Welcome, King Jorg,” the old man bowed low.  “I am Malachy and this is my daughter Esme.”

He clearly expected me to make some response so I said nothing. I’m cussed like that.  His companions shifted uneasily in the silence.  I caught the smell of fear in the air; It is a scent I know well. 

“We have journeyed long to find you and, for these last miles we have been joined by these villagers of Holham.”

Witnesses. The old fool had brought some witnesses.  Maybe not such a fool as all that.  There’s not many fathers would bring their daughters before me and rely on my chivalry alone for their protection.  Ask Prince Egan what price my sense of chivalry.

“Why have you come before King Jorg?”  Gomst couldn’t let the man flounder in the face of my sullen silence.  A flicker of annoyance creased my brow.  It is always interesting to see what a man will say when he finds he is talking to himself.

Malachy swung round to Gomst with a smile of relief. “Father Gomst,” he began.  “I come from Arrow to welcome our new King with a special gift.”

I looked at Gomst.  His dusty garb from a long day’s ride made him indistinguishable from the rest of us.   Malachy clearly had a keen eye for a priest.

“What gift?” Makin chipped in, ever the materialist.

Like a circus showman the man swung his arm to present his daughter with a low bow.  The girl dipped in a curtsey, her eyes on the ground.  “In Arrow, certain rights accrue to the King.  Esme is your entitlement willingly given.”

“I’m a married man,” I said.  It was a reflex response that bought me time to think.  Mine was a real marriage not a sham.  My young bride, Miana and I had an understanding built of mutual respect, but it was not as yet a complete union.  She guessed I might stray betimes, but expected only to never know.  So public a donation would be hard to keep quiet.

“I’ll have her if you don’t want her,” Rike broke in. 

The girl glanced across at little Rikey.  There was a cool confidence in her gaze, a challenge. 

We called him little Rikey because he was so big.  Tutor Lundist had once told me a tale of olden times long before the Day of a Thousand Suns.  A tale where a big man called John had fought a small man called Robin and lost.  The two had become firm friends and they had called him Little John for a joke.  Rike wouldn’t have done that.  Rike would have broken Robin’s head in at the first opportunity.   Rike would break my head given half a chance.  There weren’t many people had turned their back on Rike more than once; few got a second opportunity to repeat the mistake.   

He’d had a wife briefly, but she had broken he’d said.  Rike’s relationships were usually short lived, just like his partners.  But this girl had no fear of my most fearsome brother, the brother who I always led from behind. Interesting.

“Come in here, girl.”  There was no need to show I’d heard her name.

She shared a look with her father. An unspoken conversation of question and answer passed between them and then with head held high she strode towards my tent.  I held the canvas flap open for her, a small shred of courtesy to season my reputation.  It was nearly my undoing.

The knife was in her hand before the flap had fallen shut.  She must have concealed the blade within her sleeve.  A short weapon but the kind that can make a deeper hole than its length, if punched hard enough, and there was strength in this girl’s arm.  I was expecting it, but just not so fast. A girl who would stare down Rike was no placid offering on the altar of droits de seigneur.

I twisted to one side and caught her wrist.   My other hand found her throat gripping hard, bruisingly hard to try to calm the whirl of the assassin’s arms.  “Who sent you?” I growled as we wrestled just within the tent entrance.  I broke her wrist across my knee and the knife fell free.  “Malachy isn’t your father is he?”

She spluttered defiance in my face and then jabbed a knee towards my groin. I raised and twisted my right leg for protection but overbalanced and together we fell through the tent opening onto the ground. Me on top, my hand still on her throat, panting my interrogation.  There was no answer from the girl.  Her eyes were open, staring, her lips blue and on the wind was the faint smell of almonds.  Some builder’s pill to secure an escape from my questions.

I looked up at the astonished crowd.  Even Rike seemed surprised at the shortness of our liaison.

Malachy stood apart from the rest.  He gave a howl and charged me, though his eyes had the cold stare of a determined killer, not the fury of an outraged father.

I rose to meet him in a fluid motion.  He was drawing something from within his jacket, but my knife was already in my hand.  His momentum and my arm drove the blade up through his belly into his chest.  “Who sent you?” I hissed in his dying ears.

I waggled the blade for emphasis.  I find that nothing quite loosen’s a man’s tongue like tickling his ribs from the inside.  A stench of ordure filled the air as my knifework loosened other extremities.

“You are the enemy of God,” Malachy exhaled, speckling my face with a mist of blood droplets.  And then with a sigh he slipped from my knife to fall atop his faux daughter.

I looked at the stunned spectators from the village of Holham, mouths wide in horror at the treatment of a supplicant young girl and her father. Even Sir Makin looked a little shell shocked at the atrocity.  I could have explained, but then I’d worked hard for my reputation.  I’d keep it even when it wasn’t deserved.

Mar 2014 [Grimdark]: The Heir to Foulstania (by pornokitsch)
Spoiler for Hiden:
“…and that’s what I call darkness!” Lord Marovin pulled the kitten out of his pants with a flourish and threw the mewling bundle across the hall. It slid damply across the cold stone floors of Castle Foulstainia and smacked to a squishy halt against the wall.

The other claimants to the throne were unimpressed. Off the back of Duke Gorgle’s self-immolation and Lady Balfrand’s trick with the circus pony, Lord Marovin’s kitten abuse seemed, well, lightweight. The throne of Foulstainia would never be his.

It was, of course, all the fault of the never-quite-deceased-enough King of Foulstainia. Every ten years the vile old bastard would have another bout of cancer, leprosy or some other wasting disease. With his death imminent, and his own genitalia long since rotted to a syrupy ruin, he needed to adopt an heir. However, his ego – the one part of his disgusting, plague-ridden body that wasn’t withered to goo – demanded that the next ruler of Foulstainia be even worse than he was. This was, he determined, the only way that history would remember him kindly.

So, like clockwork, the games had begun again. Every scumbug, wretch and son or daughter of a bitch crawled out of the woodwork and lurched, pillaged, stole and raped their way to Castle Foulstainia, where they’d do their damndest to prove that they were the worst person in the land.

This year’s crop was particularly foul. Duke Gorgle and Lady Balfrand had clearly displayed the lack of sanity, taste and morality that would ensure that Foulstainia was well and truly ruined. The competition between the two was particularly fierce – and combined with the King’s new bout of deadly anal syphilis, it was clear to all and sundry that the future of the kingdom was in the room.

The King raised the three remaining fingers of his right hand and the room went quiet. “Bring forth Duke Gorgle and Lady Balfrand,” he called shrilly, his voice forever altered after that time he’d (unsuccessfully) tried to force himself onto the land's last unicorn.

The crowd of courtiers parted, and the Duke and the Lady stepped forward from opposite ends of the room. The crowd went silent as they approached the King.

“Clearly,” the King squeaked, “you are the two most repulsive people I have ever encountered. But... are you repulsive enough to ensure my legacy?”

The Duke took another step forward, his armour, polished to an unholy sheen with the tears of nuns, gleamed in the candlelight. “My liege”, he boomed, “I pledge to you that there is none more awful in all the realm.”

The Lady’s dress stepped forward as well.  Her dress, woven from the scrotal fur of endangered tigers, whispered softly as she moved. “My liege,” she declaimed, “I pledge nothing, as my word is infamously without value.”

The crowd murmured appreciatively.

The Duke would not be bested so easily.

“Does that include the promise that you had made to the orphans to… give them food?”

The crowd gasped. Charity would be an immediate disqualification.

The Lady smirked – she had been expecting this. “Oh no, dear Duke, I fed all the orphans… their own parents. How else would they become orphans, after all?”

“Because I killed their parents!”

“They wanted to die because I’d made their lives so miserable.”

“They were so miserable because I’d raised their taxes.”

“I stole all the money before you raised the taxes, so it didn’t matter.”

“I raped the land before you stole the money. And I mean literally raped the land, I dug a hole an….”

“SILENCE,” shrieked the King.  “Your bickering isn’t grim or dark, it is just puerile. I’m looking for true evil here, not the sadistic wet-dreams of an pathetic adolescent.”

The Duke and Lady both looked abashed.

“Anyone can rape, torture, murder and maim,” the King continued.  “But it is meaningless if you’re doing it for pure shock value. I want something properly, heart-rendingly abhorrent, dammit.”

There was a pause.

“I could rape myself?,” the Duke offered tentatively.

“You’re missing the point!” The King hacked damply, mucous splashing against the Duke’s obsidian armour. “You’re doing these things so often they’ve lost all meaning.  Back in my youth, you could tell who was a villain just by watching them kick a dog. Nowadays, you all feel you’ve got to eat the damn thing raw to make your point.”

Across the room, Prince Youdocio turned red in the face. Plus, he already missed Rover.

“Real evil can’t exist without the good,” the King continued to lecture. “It isn’t about where you land, but how far you fall. And all of you were never any good to start with. Filth from the cradle.”

The Duke and the Lady both looked crestfallen.

“What we need,” the King mused, “is someone pure and good…” The two candidates looked extremely puzzled.

“In fact, why don’t you two,” the King gestured again, “go visit those orphans and find the kindest, purest, gentlest soul of the lot. Some adorable little boy that really radiates preciousness...”

The candidates looked no less confused.

“…then adopt him.”

The Duke and Lady looked at the King, then one another. Beneath the curled horns of his helm, the Duke blushed. The Lady turned red as well, nicely matching her Care Bear handbag.

The King nodded. “Yes. This’ll do nicely. You two can have the chance I never had - the chance not to ruin a kingdom, but to really fuck up a kid’s life.”

The crowd burst into spontaneous applause as the Duke and Lady strolled out, hand in hand. As they passed through the door, the Lady stooped to picked up the limping kitten. “Look, dear, we can give our child this adorable little kitty!”

“…and then serve it to him for his birthday dinner,” the Duke rejoined. The two laughed merrily as they walked out into the light.
« Last Edit: February 01, 2015, 06:16:45 PM by xiagan »
"Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis." (Laplace)

Offline xiagan

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Re: The best story of 2014 - vote now!
« Reply #3 on: February 01, 2015, 06:15:28 PM »
Apr 2014 [Jake/Lynn]: The Artisan's Mask (by ladygreen)
Spoiler for Hiden:
I lay the wet strip across Sir Jobel’s face, smoothing it over his straight features.  It was no use – the plaster rose, molding to some unseen truth.  My heart sank.  Behind me, Master coughed.

“Does it look like me?” Sir Jobel asked, straining to sit.
 
Master worked his jaw.  “No,” he said, and hurried from the room.

Jobel’s eyes followed the swish of his cape.  “But will it be as wondrous as they say?”

“Yes,” I said sadly, resuming my task.   
 
When Sir Jobel left, he promised to collect his purchase upon his return from Orlan.  They were all in Orlan these days – all the fighting men.  The war had been raging for as long as I had been alive; because of it, the city was beggar poor.  But despite the constant gnawing hunger and empty coin purses, a fierce love of the arts flourished in Kora, keeping us alive and hopeful. 

In the evenings, both the high and low born donned glittering, colorful masks fashioned in their likenesses.  These were wild creations of the imagination, with only subtle hints of the wearer’s features.  Most artisans made the masks as beautiful as they could.  If a man walked in to a costume shop with an unusually large nose, we would shave the plaster down.  Pointy chin?  No problem - gone. 

But my masks were different.  They told the truth, and I along with them. 

Master came in to the workroom as I was cleaning up.  He lifted the finished mask from its hiding spot beneath the table.  It looked nothing like its owner.  “Lynn, what is this?”

“It’s the truth,” I whispered.  “Well, what am I supposed to do?” I spat when he gave me a withering look.  “It’s his soul – I can’t help it if it’s ugly!”

Master sat down on the bench next to me.  “If I had my way, you’d be out of here.”

“Tell me how you really feel, please,” I said wryly.

Master smiled and shook his head.  “But they do seem to have a strange fascination with you.  And these.”  He turned the mask so that its lines gleamed in the firelight.  “You still make them beautiful, despite the horror…impossible to look away.”  After a moment he put the mask down.  “I just wish that we were not compelled along with you.”  He sighed and got up, pausing at the door.  “Just try to keep away from the others.  We’ve several new patrons…we don’t want to tell them about their inner warts if we can help it.”

When he left, I wiped away angry tears.  It wasn’t my fault that I saw these things inside of people.

I made a girl cry once or maybe twice.

I choked and looked up.  The room was empty. 

A slap or two is all you need to make ‘em play nice.

Sir Jobel’s mask.  It lay flat on the table, grotesque bulges coated in golden swirls, intricate patterns and bright beads.
 
Slap, slap, it laughed, pearlescent teeth shining.  Oh, the things I’ve done would make your lovely insides curl.  Come closer and let me tell you how much blood you let from a crying girl.

Horrified, I slammed my hand down, cracking the mask in half.  A sick moaning came from the pieces, so I gathered and tossed them into the fire, shivering as they crackled and burned.  The mask had done something none of the others ever had.  It had not just shown the truth of the man, it had spoken it. 

The sound of trumpets flooded the shop, making me jump.  Red banners fluttered, visible through the windows, the unmistakable laida blossoms of King Marondy waving in the dusky light. 

“Hoooy!” a man called.  “The king wishes to commission a mask from the artisan Lynn of the upper district, in our beautiful city of Kooooraaaaa….”

----------------------------

King Marondy lay in my chair, dark eyes crinkling, perfect teeth flashing.  I held the plaster strip aloft, and tried to keep my hands from trembling.

“Go on,” he encouraged.   

Please…don’t let him be bad inside too.

To my dismay, strip after strip buckled.  A misshapen beast soon stared up with disconcerting human eyes.  I pulled the dry cast from the king and quickly hid it under the worktable.

“I only share when I’m through,” I protested when he demanded to see it.  He looked amazed, so I added a polite, “If you please, your majesty.”

“Fine, you will cast my son.  Come here Jakendra.”

The prince was no more than four, with a cascade of midnight black curls.  To my relief, the strips remained smooth and quiet as I lay them on his rosy cheeks.

“Beautiful,” I murmured, and brushed back his hair.  His eyes danced beneath the plaster.

“You look like my mother,” he whispered.  “She’s dead.  Do you know how she died?”

Surprised, I swallowed.  “Yes, young prince, but it is not for telling.”  I looked back at the king, who was distracting himself with one of the artist girls.

“Father says the gods took her, but that’s what you tell babies.  I’m not a baby, I’m a man.”  He puffed out his little chest.  “Will you tell me?”

I balked and pressed my lips together. 

“Tell me,” he demanded.

I tried to stop the swell, but the words tumbled out.  “Your father sent her to the chopping block.”  I clapped a hand over my mouth.  Would he say something to the king?  Panic flooded my mind and I looked at the boy wildly.

To my surprise, he reached out and touched my cheek.

“Don’t cry,” he whispered.  “I won’t tell.”

--------------------------------

The next morning, I sat worrying for hours.  I held one mask so beautiful it made me want to cry and another so grotesque it made me want to hide.

“What.  Is.  This?”  King Marondy demanded, clutching the mask when I showed it to him.

“The truth,” I said, fear ripping away at me.

He stared at the gold and cream painted bulges.  The few men he had brought shifted and coughed.

“Sire…,” said one, “it is…fascinating.  And we know she does not make things as they truly are, but always with some…imagination.”

“No,” I protested, wishing I hadn’t.  “It is the truth of your soul.”

The king darkened.  “And you?  What does your soul look like?  I want you to make a mask of yourself.  You say you tell the truth of people’s souls - well I want to see yours.”

A small crowd had gathered in the workroom.  I felt myself grow hot.

“Well?” the king boomed.

“I – I can’t,” I said, surprised at my own words.  “I am nothing but truth.  A mask will look as I do now.  Like this.” I raised a hand to my cheek.

Anger rippled across King Marondy’s face and his men leaned forward.  Feeling faint, I struggled to keep my breath even.

“Please,” I began, but he flicked his wrist and two men lunged forward.  “No!  Please, look at your son’s!” I held up the other mask.  Cruel fingers bit into my waist and I cried out as they dragged me from the shop. 

“Father, stop!” called the prince.  He was seated on a chestnut pony, his round face aghast.

A sudden howling ripped through the air.  The king’s mask, still clutched in its owner’s hand, was shrieking.

I have it all, it screamed. 

Horrified, the king stared at it. 
 
Sacks of grain fill my hall!

People stopped to stare.  A murmur ran through them.

You go hungry, the mask cawed.  And I eat.  As it should be – I will always have my meat!   The mask began to make disgusting slurping noises.

“It’s not true!” the king protested wildly.  “I am just as hungry!  I suffer with you!”

The crowd thickened, murmurs turning in to angry muttering.

Starve out the poor so the army has more!

“Make it stop,” the king commanded, turning to me.  The crowd began to shout and someone threw a handful of garbage.  “It lies!” he screamed.  “Can’t you see?”

And the flesh of the poor?  Serve it up, serve it up!  You know not on what you sup.

As if they had gone up in flame, the crowd screamed and pushed toward the king, enveloping him.  He reached out and grasped his son’s boot, but the boy recoiled, kicking out. 

“The prince!” someone shouted.  A guard took the little boy’s reigns and pulled his pony away.  The king gave his son an imploring look. 

“No, take me home!” the prince squealed.  “Now!”  Two guards wheeled their horses, and shielding the prince, galloped away.

For a moment it looked as if the king had disappeared into the rioting crowd, but then a limp form was hoisted and carried down the road.  There was no missing the glint of gold beneath the bloodstained clothing.

He deserved it, said a small voice.  I looked down, feeling myself blanch.  The prince’s mask smiled, revealing tiny pointed teeth.  Do you know how he killed my mother?

May 2014 [Portal]: Song & Dance (by ladygreen)
Spoiler for Hiden:
Great-gran Abella said we came from the water; that once, my family’s ancestors swam the oceans and rivers.  It was why, even thousands of turns later, the land felt so uncomfortable.  It was a feeling we all had, like wearing someone else’s clothing – tight and wrong in all the most important places.  Father never got used to it, so eventually he went back to the water.  At least, this is what Great-gran told us.  I liked to think that Father had gone somewhere happy, somewhere that fit.  But Mother…well, she was closed to such things.  It’s sad, but I don’t even remember his face.

The water was full of dark secrets.  Great-gran whispered them to me and my sister on the sly, sharing forgotten family lore.  Mother said that Gilana was too old to believe in nonsense and yelled at her for listening.  The scolding wasn’t necessary; I knew Gilana was beginning to lose interest, only pretending to believe.  Thankfully, being the youngest, I was still allowed some freedoms.  After all, I was eleven turns and Great-gran said eleven was the perfect age for believing.   

My favorite stories were about the Ahn.  In some of Great-gran’s tales they were terrifying, with gnashing teeth and bulging eyes and transparent skin - horrible monsters that would snatch me up if I stayed in the water too long.  In others they were beautiful, with sapphire eyes and pearly skin and musical voices.  No one saw them anymore; they always stayed hidden.  Great-gran said they used to show themselves, guiding fishing ships by song. 

I was thinking of this the morning Great-gran took me and Gilana out to the lake to dig for clams.  More than anything, I wanted to hear that music.

“Will they sing today?” I asked, shielding my eyes against the bright rippling water.  The lake was huge; a wide, flat mirror that stretched out for miles before touching a distant craggy horizon. 

Great-gran tied her skirt up high between her legs and waded into the water.  Her skin shone bronze in the sun, only the faintest of creases hinting at her age.  “If we dance well enough.  Come.”  She swept her arms in an arc, twisting her body.  The water shimmered gold and pink around her.

Gilana strode into the water.  I watched her as she approached Great-gran, wondering if she cared anymore about why we were really here.  I had seen the belief dying in her eyes; each day there was a little less.

“Nadya!” Gilana called, cupping her hands so that her voice reached the shore.  “Come on!”

I tied up my skirt and followed my sister, bouncing on my heels to catch up.

“Now we begin,” Great-gran said.  She ran her palms over the surface of the water as if smoothing out wrinkles on a bed sheet, and then raised her arms to the sky, beginning a familiar dance. 

We mimicked her, each sweep of our arms bringing us deeper into the water.  Beckoning.  That’s what Great-gran called it.  Once a pass we came and beckoned with Great-gran and told Mother we were digging for clams.  In truth, ever since Father had left, we had been trying to call him back. 

We danced in silence until the sun finally poked out from behind the pockmarked moon and sent slanting rays of heat to beat upon our heads.  Steam rose from the lake in great billows and I began to sweat. 

Gilana abruptly stopped dancing, letting her arms fall like dead weight.  “Great-gran, can we go back now?” she asked.  “It’s too hot.”

Great-gran didn’t answer, kept dancing.

“We haven’t found Father yet,” I whispered, bringing my arm forward and trying to sweep it as gracefully as Great-gran.  “Keep beckoning.  You’ll ruin it.”

Gilana sighed and rolled her eyes.  She turned so Great-gran couldn’t see her.  “Nadya, Father’s not out here,” she said in a low voice.  “We just do this for her; you know that, right?”  She flicked her eyes back over her shoulder.

I froze, my arms hanging midair.  “Don’t say that.” 

She shrugged.  “I’m going back.  You coming?”

“He’s here.”

“He’s dead.”

I felt a rush of heat.  Dropping my arms, I shoved a wave of water at her. 

Spluttering, Gilana wiped her face.  “It’s true,” she hissed.  “I’m going now Great-gran,” she said in a louder voice and then turned to leave. 

I watched her for a moment and then yelled.  “It’s not!  It’s not true!”  She ignored me, bobbing back to shore.

“It doesn’t matter,” Great-gran said, sliding to my side. 

“You let her go,” I accused, wanting someone to blame for my sister’s change.  It wasn’t so very long ago when Gilana would stay out here for hours, dancing, believing.

Great-gran shook her head.  “It was time for her to go.  She has too much of your mother inside.  But you....”  She poked me.  “You have your father’s blood.  One day he will come.  Perhaps today, perhaps not.  Come, let us dance.”

A fierce longing ignited in my chest.  A fuzzy image of Father came to mind and I heard a distant laugh, rich and throaty and deep.  I began to dance again.  The sun climbed higher and higher and when my muscles began to burn and I thought I could do no more, Great-gran stopped and dropped her arms.

“Look,” she said, pointing at the water.

It was spinning in a slow circle.  I stepped back, but Great-gran’s hand shot out and she gripped my arm with surprising strength.

“No, you must stay.”

The water churned and a dark circle bloomed from the center of the swirl.  I struggled to ground my heels into the silt, leaning against the sudden current, but a hard impact on my back sent me lurching.  I clutched at Great-gran, but she was falling too.  The black center of the whirlpool roared open, sucked us down and sent us tumbling.  I flipped, losing all sense of up or down, the rush of water thundering in my ears.  The swirling, screaming madness finally stopped and I found myself standing, alone and shivering, in the middle of the lake. 

“Great-gran?”

The familiar shoreline of lakeside houses was gone.  The distant mountains were gone.  The bright blue afternoon sky was gone.  There was…nothing; just an endless stretch of still water, reflecting a deep red sky.  It looked as if everything was bleeding.  I blinked and rubbed my eyes, as if that would change it back.  When I looked again, the skies were still red and I was surrounded.  Stone boulders now dotted the water, their pale rounded forms rising like the hunched backs of a hundred men.

A high pitched keening rang out, undulating across the lake.  It was joined by others and soon a chorus of cascading notes filled the air.  The stones righted themselves and stood up. 

They were men.

No.

I blinked.  Human.

No.

Ahn!

They rounded on me as one and I shrank down in the water, letting the water cover half my face.  There was nowhere to go. 

When Great-gran stepped forward, I cried out in relief.  “I’m here!”  I rose up and waved.

She came to me, reaching out her hand.  “Nadya,” she said in a deep, unfamiliar voice.

Startled, I jumped back.  Great-gran reached out a long finger, stopping a few inches short of touching me.

“Ahnist,” said the hundred Ahn as one.

They were tall and pale as parchment.  A thousand sapphire eyes glittered and I dipped back down in the water. 

“I want to go home now,” I whispered.

Great-gran nodded.  “I know.”  Her voice was like a man’s. 

I realized that she had been standing with them, was still standing with them.  I turned round and round, searching for a way out.  They were all staring with those bulging blue eyes, everywhere.  Quick as a fish, Great-gran reached and grasped my arm, clamping down so hard that I cried out.  Her eyes burned a bright blue, as if lit from within.  This was not my Great-gran Abella.  This was something else – something terrible.

The thing that was not Great-gran grinned, revealing a gummy row of pointy fish teeth.  “I will take you home now.” 

I tried to pull away, yanked with all of my strength, but the grip on my arm was like iron.

“Weren't you looking for me, calling me?”  Her face slid off, the flesh dripping like melting ice.  Bulging blue eyes looked out from a new face that was familiar, and yet...

“F-father?” 

“I will take you home now,” he repeated, flashing another gummy grin.

“But where is Great-gran?”  I searched the pale faces.  They began to sing again, the high notes rolling up and up, until my ears hurt.  This is what they sound like; this is their music.  I had finally heard the song of the Ahn.  When Father dragged me beneath the surface, all I could think of was my sister, safe and dry and unbelieving on the shore.
"Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis." (Laplace)

Offline xiagan

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Re: The best story of 2014 - vote now!
« Reply #4 on: February 01, 2015, 06:19:52 PM »
Jun 2014 [Taboo]: Life and Death (by Elfy)
Spoiler for Hiden:
A group of ragged children watched the men toil on the dustbowl that was Old Man Sherman’s field.

A little girl, who by virtue of being the oldest child present, was also the leader, screwed up her courage, and holding tight to her little brother’s hand, dragged him over to a man who stood by supervising the others at their work.

“Mister,” she asked politely.

The man turned around. “Eh?”

“Whatcha doin’?” the girl asked.

The man gave the girl a disarming grin, “Well, little lady. My name is Preacher George an’ me an’ my band,” he waved at a group of four men, sitting on the bed of a truck, “we’re fixin’ to have a mass right here on this very spot tomorrow mornin’.”

“A mass?” the girl echoed. “Like with snakes an’ all?”

“The magic of life, little lady. That’s what Preacher George and his band give to people. Life itself.”

The girl looked up doubtfully.

Preacher George smiled down at her. He reached into the pocket of his threadbare trousers and came out holding a fistful of cheaply printed black and white flyers and a number of plastic wrapped lollipops.

At the sight of the candy the rest of the little tribe of children came running over to the balding man in the grubby white singlet. Each child received a lollipop and a flyer, and left the field clutching their spoils with Preacher George’s exhortations ringing in their ears, “Tell your Mama and Papa, tell everyone. Come to Preacher George’s tent and witness miracles!”

                                                             ****

While George’s abilities as a preacher could be called into doubt, he was definitely an A grade snake oil salesman, and the result of his sales pitch for his tent revival ceremony was that nearly the town’s entire, admittedly small, population found themselves seated on uncomfortable folding chairs, sweating in the musty old tent’s crowded and close interior.

“He don’t even got any snakes,” one teenager muttered to another seated next to him, then yelped as his mother walloped him across the back of the head, hissing, “Hush!”

“My Tammy said you promised her a miracle!” a heavy set man, with weathered features that hinted of long summer days spent toiling outside, shouted from somewhere in the middle of the congregation.

“That I did, good sir!” Preacher George agreed.

“You a healer?” a lady asked in a cracked voice.

Preacher George looked the elderly woman. “What ails you, madam?” he asked. “Is it an ill of the soul or the flesh?”

“I ain’t got nothin’ wrong with me!” the woman asserted indignantly. “Fit as a plough horse.”

“One of the kids said you promised the miracle of life,” a thin voice floated from the back of the tent. “What does that mean?”

Preacher George looked around the tent with a twinkle in his dark eyes, and pointed at his band, who had played at the beginning of the ceremony and in breaks during the man’s sermon, which had been along the line of the travelling hot gospellers who plied their trade up and down the dusty roads that led into and out of the small mid western town.

“My guitarist is a modest man,” he said.

The tall lean man with the thin tattoo covered arms stepped forward and played a few notes on the strings of his guitar.

“There is magic in those fingers and those strings,” Preacher George began. “The magic…nay the miracle of life.”

“What ‘zactly does that mean?” another voice asked.

“He can conquer death itself!” Preacher George thundered dramatically, his fists thrust skyward.

A commotion broke out in the tent. “Aint’ no one can do that!” “Dead is dead!” “Blasphemy!” “Prove it!”

George seized on the final challenge. “Prove it? Did you say prove it, sir? I would be glad to. Does anyone have a body for me to raise?”

An uneasy laughter flickered around the tent and as it died away a small girl stood in the aisle between the seats. In her arms she cradled a small black and white bundle of fur.

Preacher George looked down at the girl, “Yes, child?”

“Mary! Mary!” a couple hissed at her from their seats.

The girl sniffled wetly and it was obvious she had been crying. Tear tracks ran down her face and her eyes were red rimmed and swollen.

“It’s my puppy, sir,” the girl sobbed. “He died. Can you bring him back?”

Eyes turned to the red-faced parents, and someone asked, “Why did you let her bring a dead dog to the service?”

“We didn’t know,” her father tried to explain. “The poor thing passed last night, and Mary hid it. We were plannin’ to bury it after the meeting.”

“Bring him up here, child?” Preacher George invited.

He took the soft bundle of fur from the girl and laid it on a rickety table.

“What is his name, child?” the preacher asked the girl, who had broken into fresh sobs.

“Snoopy,” she managed to get out through her tears.

“A fine name for a dog,” George said.

He placed his hands on the dog’s body, looked directly at the tattooed guitarist and said, “You play Spike. Play for life!”

Impassively the guitarist began to play his instrument, his eyes never left George’s. The preacher’s eyes rolled back in his head and he shook violently. As the guitar notes died on the air, the small dog let out a yap, jumped to its feet and began to gambol around the table. Mary leapt on her pet with a joyful cry of, “Snoopy!” she carried him through the stunned congregation and back to her disbelieving parents, her face being thoroughly licked.

                                                       ****

George was showered with money, crops, food, clothing, anything of value or use. It was not every day that these people saw a dead thing brought back to life. George had a powerful magic at his disposal.

The man was counting his take and the band were packing up, when a young couple approached the preacher.

“Sir. Preacher George?” the young man asked shyly.

“Yes,” George said, those eyes twinkling merrily.

“Do you only do dogs?”

“Excuse me?”

“Is it only dogs you can raise or does the power work on people?”

“Well..I…I….don’t…”

“It’s our little girl,” the wife, a woman in her early twenties, her face aged beyond her years, explained. “She died this week. She was only a baby…and…” she stopped, her body wracked with sobs, holding onto her husband for support.

“I have done a person…once,” George said softly, “but… Well you saw what a puppy took out of me and a person, even a baby…”

“We can pay,” the man said desperately.

“It ain’t just the money,’ George protested. “It’s the notoriety, people start thinkin’ I can raise the dead, they all want me to do it, an’ I can’t say no. That’s a failin’ of mine.”

“We won’t tell no one,” the woman promised, her eyes shining.

“Yeah…well I…”

“Ten thousand,” the man said.

“What?”

“I’ll pay you ten thousand dollars. It’s all we got. My mother left it to us for the farm, but it’s for my little girl.”

“Where is she?”

“Funeral home.”

“I’ll meet you there.”

                                                                  ****

“You said after last time there weren’t going to be any more people!” Spike told his friend. “It’s hard enough with a damn cow!”

“It’s ten thousand dollars, Spike! We’ll be long gone before they figure it out.”

“I wished I’d never found this damn guitar at that crossroads and cut my finger on the string,” the guitarist muttered.

“Pay ol’ Scratch his due,” said George.
                                                             ****

George looked down at the still little body in the tiny coffin. He brushed a golden curl away from the closed eyes, and laid his hands on it. He looked at his guitarist over the lid of the casket. “Look into my eyes, Spike and play what you see.”

                                                           ****

The baby slept peacefully in her mother’s arms. Spike was on his knees being noisily sick into a wastepaper receptacle. George wiped a sheen of sweat from his brow and sucked in a ragged breath. He took a wad of bills from the desperate young farmer.

“Thank you very much, young man.”

“No, thank you,” the farmer said, looking fondly at his wife and child.

                                                                ****

“So you just found it dead in the field?” the vet asked, looking from the dead bull up at the perplexed farmer.

The man nodded. “Yeah. Damndest thing.  Was the healthiest one in the herd, then musta just fell over. We came back from that revivalist meeting and there he was, dead.”

                                                               ****

The paramedic sighed, checked the pulse and the heart, then his watch and filled in the time of death, before pulling the sheet up over the old lady’s eyes.

“And after saying how fit she was at the preacher’s tent,” remarked her neighbor as the body was loaded into the ambulance and taken to the morgue for a coroner’s report.

Jul 2014 [Apprenticeship]: A Dangerous Talent (by LisaElle)
Spoiler for Hiden:
Caralyn's brow creased with worry as she watched her granddaughter. The child was crouching over a pile of pebbles that she'd gathered outside, arranging them to her liking on the floor of the cottage. If it had been any other task, Caralyn might have smiled at the girl's diligence, but her heart clenched with dread when she imagined what might come of this strange errand. Elli giggled, as if the pebbles had shared a joke that only she could understand. The sound brought a small measure of comfort to the old woman. Laughter was as rare as birdsong on the wind-torn hills that circled the waters of Mortannum's Isle. It was best enjoyed in secret behind closed doors. In these dark days, even a child of Elli's age wasn't too young to sense that happiness was a fragile treasure, easily shattered if it fell into the wrong hands.

"Are you watching grandma?" Elli was saying. "You'll miss it if you don't pay attention." Caralyn realized she'd been staring out the window, keeping an eye on the village road for signs of the militia. The patrols arrived with little warning at any time of day. The soldiers hoped to catch dissenters unawares so they could march them to the village square and make an example of them. If Elli showed the potential that Caralyn was afraid of in the next few minutes, it would make their home more vulnerable to a raid and a whole host of other difficulties would be soon to follow. All she could do was hope that the ten-year-old's imagination was more vivid than she'd come to expect. "I'm watching my love," Caralyn said and sat down beside Elli. She rested a gnarled hand on the girl's shoulder. "Show me."

Elli drew a breath and looked at the stones that she'd arranged in concentric circles on the ground. "This is how you've got to do it," she murmured. "So all the light gets caught inside the circles and can't leak out. It goes in here, see?" The girl pointed to the empty space at the heart of the circles, then pressed her finger onto the packed earth of the floor and held it there. Caralyn watched Elli, offering a silent prayer to all the gods that nothing would come of this experiment. "What are you doing?" She whispered to the girl when the silence grew too heavy to bear. Elli didn't answer her. They sat quietly for several seconds more. Caralyn was about to speak again when her voice hitched on a gasp. Elli's hand had started to glow with pale light. Caralyn stared in horror. "Oh Elli," She despaired. "Not you too..." But the child didn't hear her, she was so intent on her task. The channels between the circles were flooding with light as it flowed from the girl's fingertip. The light was anima -- Caralyn was certain of it. She'd seen it before, many years ago, channeled by Elli's mother in a similar way. The pebbles trembled with its influence then jostled together as if commanded by a magnetic force, absorbing the light that Elli had given them. A tiny stone figure stood where the circles had been, turning an eyeless face towards its maker.

Caralyn clasped a hand over her mouth. Elli looked at her, her face shining with pride. Then, seeing her grandmother's fear, she dropped her smile and slanted her brows with worry. "He won't hurt anyone grandma," she said quickly. "He's a good pebblekin. He won't do anything bad unless I tell him to."

Caralyn pursed her lips as she looked at her granddaughter. There was no denying the fact that the girl was an animancer -- the evidence was as clear as a fresh mountain spring, much as she longed to believe it wasn't true. When Elli had told her that she could bring stone to life, Caralyn had hoped it was only childs' play. The curse of animancy was rare and didn't always run in the same family. But as she spoke more often about playing with her creations, Caralyn had grown more worried. She'd asked Elli to show her. Now it was only a matter of time before Queen Saneeth sensed the new animancer and ordered the militia to bring her to the island. They would force the girl into the service of the Black Legion. In a few short years she would be animating bigger and darker creatures than this pebblekin, channelling her essence into them until she had none left inside her to stay alive. Caralyn couldn't bear to think of the end that would await her then.

"Elli love," she said urgently. She gripped her granddaughter's hand and braved a smile. "This is a beautiful but very dangerous talent. The queen will learn about you soon. No budding animancer escapes her notice, especially not this close to her island."

"What will I do?" Elli asked. "Should I stop using it?"

"I don't think you can, love. It's not safe to hold the anima inside you. You must release it, a little every day, or it will do you harm."

"Then I have to keep it secret, don't I?"

Caralyn nodded. Neither of them mentioned Elli's mother as the child felt the full weight of her burden for the first time. Her eyes dropped to her lap and she screwed up the folds of her dress in her fists. "I'm scared grandma."

Caralyn wrapped her arms around her. "Shhh now. I'm here. And besides that, I have an idea. I think you should teach me to be an animancer too."

Elli sensed her grandmother's fear and tightened her hold around the old woman. "But I don't want to be an animancer," she sighed. "I thought you didn't like them grandma. I thought they did bad things."

"Not all of them, my love. You'll be different." Caralyn leaned back to look down at her granddaughter. "We just have to make sure that we stay together, okay? That's what's most important now. The queen will want you to join her legion when she senses your power."

The girl's eyes flew wide open. "No. No I'm not going! I want to stay with you!"

"I know Elli. That's why you have to teach me, so that I can help to protect you." Caralyn looked down at the motionless pebblekin. It stared up at them without a hint of compassion or intelligence. From afar, Caralyn had seen the great mountainkin standing like that in the war camps of the Black Legion. That's what they looked like when they were waiting for a command from their makers. Caralyn had never developed an ability to channel anima or command any variety of stonekin. Maybe if she'd taken the initiative to learn all those years ago, Elli would still have a mother to this day. "If you teach me animancy, and the militia do come to take you, you won't be alone. They will have use for me as well and we can keep each other safe. We'll do this together my love and you can be my teacher for a change. Now how does that sound?"

Elli reflected on this. "I think you'll like learning it grandma," she eventually said. "If it's a secret that's just for us. Watch what I can get him to do!" Ellie looked at the pebblekin then pointed to a vase of rushes and wildflowers that stood on the hearth. "Go get a flower from the vase and give it to grandma." Caralyn watched as the pebblekin turned and pulled itself up onto the hearth. It strutted towards the vase and plucked the lowest hanging blossom, as instructed. The stone figure turned after that to approach Caralyn, its pebble feet clicking like a dog's claws as it marched across the hearth. It offered the flower to Caralyn but the old woman didn't take it. She looked at Elli. "Will he crush it if you ask him to?"

Elli looked unhappy at the suggestion. "Yes... But I don't want to."

"You have to be able to give him orders like that, Elli. So you can protect yourself if the militia come to take you."

"But I don't want to be like that!"

"Elli..."

"No! And I won't teach you either if you try to make me!" The girl jumped to her feet and ran to her bedroom. Caralyn heard her door closing down the hall. She looked back at the pebblekin that was standing on the hearth. "Maybe she won't give you the command to kill," she whispered to it. "But I will learn to. I'll give it a thousand times over if that's what it takes to keep her safe." The pebblekin said nothing and stayed as still as the statue that it was. All it did was stare at her with it's sightless face, the flower held out to her in its tiny hand.
"Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis." (Laplace)

Offline xiagan

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Re: The best story of 2014 - vote now!
« Reply #5 on: February 01, 2015, 06:21:10 PM »
Aug 2014 [Seven Deadly Sins]: Septum Insidias (by AlmightyZeal)
Spoiler for Hiden:
Greed tossed the worn bone dice across the dusty floor.

“Seven,” he said in a voice rough as gravel.

Beside him, the dark and twisted form of Envy scowled, a veil of writhing shadows encasing his beaked face. “I’m sick of this game.”

Envy picked up the die and flicked his withered wrist. The bones skittered along the soot, kicking up delicate clouds in their wake. The smut wisped and danced, until it was lost in the rotten purple of the sky above.

Several feet away there protruded an ancient concrete wall, crumbling to sand under its own weight. Rusted iron fingers stuck out like the awkward legs of a spider, grasping helplessly at the sour air. Behind this totem of collapse and putrefaction, the rest of the siblings sat in a crooked circle. To their right burned a pitiful fire that threatened to peter out at any moment, never quite working up the courage to let itself die. It projected a greasy, orange light upon them, revealing their knotted, warped forms.

The five of them stared lifelessly at the centre of a squat table.

“Four of a kind,” rasped Lust, placing the gritty cards she held onto the centre of the decayed surface. Bits of wood flaked off beneath her thin, skeletal fingers.

Sloth yawned at his sister’s victory, his joints popping as he stretched. He threw his own battered cards down, and lay back. More popping and crunching noises followed.

“Bored already, brother?” Wrath asked, his wicked eyes glimmering with something akin to hatred.

“Just wake me in another hundred hands or so.” And with that he turned his back on them and the futile warmth of the fire.

A snapping, squishing sound echoed over the stinking breath of wind as Gluttony crushed a mangled rat beneath his pudgy hand. He raised it to his mouth and swallowed it whole. It did nothing to sate his hunger. He looked around for the chance at another snack. Of course there was none.

“Finally, I see how you’ve maintained your figure,” Pride rumbled. His voice was harsh and humourless, but it earned a sniff of amusement from Lust and Wrath.

“Oh,” Gluttony wailed dramatically. “So long has it been since one has gorged one’s self merrily on wine and sweets!”

“Say no more on gorging,” Lust replied drily.

Pride stood abruptly, the dust that accumulated on his hide over the years was thrown into chaos, swirling and twirling in vortexes around his arms. He began to pace away, heading nowhere in particular. The ground crunched and cracked beneath his boots.

“Where are you going?” Gluttony asked in a fluttery voice.

“Anywhere but here.” He kept walking.

“It’s all the same out there, brother,” Wrath cautioned, his face a thunderstorm. “We already searched high and low centuries ago.” His voice took on a solemn quality when he said, “This world has changed.”

The black, creaking creature they called Pride was undeterred.

“I know,” he said simply. Several piles of trash and detritus collapsed beneath his weight as he skirted around the larger segments of toppled concrete.

“Well,” Lust said with finality. “That’s good enough for me.” She stood to her full length, and again the motes of dust were excited into spiralling around her emaciated form. Dark, dry hair spilled down to her thimble-thin waist and rested on her jagged hips, splaying at the ends like some hideous waterfall.

Greed and Envy tilted their heads at the sudden burst of movement, a pinprick punctuation in the forsaken wastelands of the world.

“What’s this?” Greed called over. A rockslide would have held more enthusiasm.

“Walk.” Lust turned to follow her brother.

At that Envy settled back down, losing interest. He muttered something about dead lands and deader company. He scratched at his stubby beak and picked up the die once more.

“Roll anything below a seven and we go with them,” Greed told him.

The bone cubes did their dance across the grit and skidded to a halt. When the cloud had diffused and their sight was once more unburdened, they saw the die’s pupils staring up at them. Greed lowered himself once more.

“Nothing out there, anyway.” He snatched up the dice.

Wrath was a sudden blur of motion as he came up and jogged over the sand-clotted plains, his own collection of filth trailed him like a phantom cloak. He walked abreast his siblings in silence for what may have been several hours.

“What made you join us,” Lust asked finally.

“Better company than those we left behind.”

The sky above them darkened to another shade of putrid purple, and they knew that it would retain that hue for a horrifically long time. It mattered little. It would brighten, vaguely, once more eventually.

The three of them wondered aimlessly for another untold period, saying nothing, thinking less.

“I could have done this alone,” Pride eventually said as they were walking across a disintegrating bridge. The crusty paint that sheathed it had worn under the abrasive wind to a depressing brown. The stretch of ocean that had once roared beneath its stretching limb had long since run dry. Now only bones and grit awaited them below.

His brother and sister offered him no reply.

They walked ever onwards, seeing not much of anything save for the tombstones of fallen buildings and the remnants of long dead inhabitants. Here the rust-pocked shell of an automobile, there the melting panes of glass as they slowly puddled over the course of many millennia under gravity’s unrelenting will.

Still, they pressed on, never intending or expecting to find something different, something new. They had grown used to whatever this was that they called their existence. Grown used to the ever present hunger within them to meddle in the lives of those who no longer existed.

Back at their camp, if it could be considered as such, the remaining four sat unmoving. Save for the eternal skittering of dice and the occasional, peculiar ruffle of wind, no one made a sound.

Gluttony sat with eyes fixed on nothing. Sloth balanced on the edge of wakefulness and slumber.

The small fire, still refusing to succumb to the cold hand of death, cast a glow upon them that was far from comforting.

It was an abyssal knowledge that filled all seven of them; they were no longer needed.

The world had changed.

Sep 2014 [Cliché and Tropes]: The Four Orcshiremen (by OnlyOneHighlander)
Spoiler for Hiden:
The city of Cromalot had been celebrating all day. That is, at least, most of the city. In the Ruptured Spleen Tavern the clientele didn’t go in for such frivolities (they didn’t go in for the word ‘clientele’ much either, and anyone using ‘frivolities’ within the confines of the damp, dark taproom was likely to wake up in pain, mugged or dead). Celebrating led to the spillage of drinks and, in the Spleen, spillage of drinks led to the spillage of teeth.

Thus, when four short humanoids, complete with long beards and metal miner’s helmets, stumbled down the stone steps full of unwelcome joviality they were greeted by a roomful of stern eyes: some singular and some in the more traditional pairs. With the same mix of fear and unease as the man who finds he has strolled into the lingerie department, the leader of the group hit the brakes on his companions.  The eyes continued to stare. Cold. Sterile. Surgical. But the four had come too far to turn tail now. So, carefully orbiting a glowering cache of orcs, their leader squeezed into a space at the bar.

‘Four ales pl –’

‘You got any ID on you?’ said the barman (his name is Graham by the way, but that really plays not part in the story so no-one will use it). ‘You and your friends.’

‘ID?’ The new customer patted the non-existent pockets of his chainmail covered trousers in the manner reserved for those about to explain why the requested paperwork was not presently on their person. ‘Ehhh, no. I did. Must’ve been stolen. Thieves Guild, pickpockets. What are they like? And this used to be such a nice city.’

The barman’s features showed all the emotion of a brick.

‘But, I mean, we’re dwarfs,’ the lead dwarf said, tugging on his beard in case the barman wasn’t getting the picture. ‘I’m three hundred and forty this year. Old enough for a quick one, eh?’

 ‘Dwarfs are you?’ the barman said, lifting a glass from the rack and rubbing it with a manky cloth (presumably making sure the dirt was spread evenly around the whole of the inside, lest someone complain). ‘Alright then. Tell me, dwarf, what’s the load baring capacity of a standard four geared Brockle-pulley pit crane?’

The would-be dwarf looked to his companions, doing his best not to appear worried. In a show of overwhelming solidarity they did their best to look somewhere else, the path to the exit becoming the agreed consensus.

‘I’ve got an axe,’ said the probably-not-a-dwarf. He pulled a short, shiny and very decorative axe from a loop on his belt.

Metal thudded on wood.

The barman’s axe was huge, stained, more functional than decorative, and buried a good inch into the top of the bar. ‘So do I. Get out. No minors allowed.’

At this remark a real dwarf (you could tell because his beard wasn’t held on by string and didn’t smell of horse shampoo) slammed his glass onto his table. ‘What!’

‘Minors, Glorin. Not miners.’

‘Oh,’ said Glorin, wiping up the spilled ale with the end of his ginger beard. ‘Sorry.’

The barman turned back to the terrified quartet. He reached over the bar and snatched away the lead not-a-dwarf’s beard. Colour drained from the lad’s face faster than a yard of ale into a thirsty ogre.

‘Shouldn’t go around dressing up as other races neither. It’s offensive. Lucky for you we’re a reasonable bunch here. I’ll give you the count of three. That seems pretty reasonable to me.’

The barman yanked his axe free and propped it against his tattooed shoulder. He started counting.

The four not-even-drunk-anymore sixteen year olds froze, melted, spun, sprinted and scarpered. A cheer followed them up the stairs to street level, but they had no wish for an encore performance.

‘Been like that all day,’ said Graham. He hung the fake beard on a peg behind the bar alongside three pairs of wood-elf ears, two sets of hobbit feet and an oversized gnome’s hat. ‘Whole town’s gone crazy. All ’cause some lad pulls a sword from a stone.’

‘Made him king for that?’ Beowarg the Northman shovelled a fist full of hog scratching into the gap between beard and moustache. ‘That ain’t even the hard bit. What did the guy what push it in there get? That’s what I want to know.’

‘You’re right there,’ called Jorel Elfsplitter. ‘Back when I was still adventuring I was always pulling my sword out of things. Most were a lot harder to beat than a lump of geology too. Once killed a whole clan of dark elves with that sword, and that was only after the end broke off in that duel with the Black Knight of the Shattered Peak of the Shrouded Mountain. No-one ever anointed me.’

‘You had a sword?’ replied Beowarg. ‘You were lucky. I spent fifteen years heroing with just a dagger. A second hand dagger at that. Even then I managed to lay siege to the Red Keep – single handed mind – defeat all fifty of Baron Jugular’s vampire swordsmen, spear the Baron with his own battle standard, and rescue Miss White City before she was sacrificed to the Blood God Coagula.’

‘Dagger eh?’ said Glorin. ‘What I wouldn’t have done for a dagger. When I was still a lad – only one hundred and seventy three mind – I fell into an underground river, got lost in the Midnight Caverns for two weeks, was captured by goblins and then had to fight my way out of the Screaming Dungeons of Goblinia with nothing but a pair of toe nail clippers. And I did it all while under a curse from the Dryad King of Speakleaf that made me think I was a broad leaved oak tree.’

Silence settled momentarily on the bar. Glorin folded his arms across his beard triumphantly.

‘Luxury.’ The growled syllables had come from one of the cache of orcs. He broke away from his group and came to sit with his companions in yarns. His skin was snot green, his neck adorned with a string of finger bones. ‘When Moglith Broken Tusk was only spawnling he crushed the skulls of the Nine-Headed Razor Wolf of Soba – using only Moglith’s bare hands – was swallowed whole by Trygar the Mega-Giant, lived on island of bones in stomach for twelve moon cycles, made pick and shovel from hip bones of own recently devoured clan, and tunnelled free from arm pit sweat glands. All this Moglith do while holding down two jobs: as slave pit overseer and as gladiator training school tutor.’

Moglith took one clawed fist in the other palm and cracked a row of walnut sized knuckles.

‘And this Razor Wolf,’ Jorel said, shifting on his stool to face the orc. ‘That was both hands was it?’

‘Yes,’ said Moglith.

‘Well,’ Jorel drew the scarred stump of his left arm from under his cape, ‘you had it easy then. When I was growing up in the gutters of Olop, an orphan mind – what with my whole family dead from the Boiling Plague – one night after the local guardsmen had beaten me unconscious for stealing mud from the Mayor’s stable, Saw-toothed rats gnawed through my wrist– ’

‘Hold up,’ Beowarg pointed his second hand dagger at Jorel. ‘You were stealing mud?’

‘To eat,’ said Jorel. ‘Think of that. I were so poor I couldn’t even afford my own mud. Try telling people that now and they won’t believe you. Course, mud were better in those days. But I didn’t let it hold me back. No, no. A week later I won the Mayor’s fencing tournament, my only weapon a mid-size halibut, became the city’s champion, fought off an attack on the harbour from the Death Tide Kraken, married the Mayor’s daughter, only for her to be carried off by Dodecadon the Dozen Headed Dragon and could only get her back by defeating each head, in turn mind, at a game of riddles.’

‘Riddles?’ said Glorin. ‘Anyone can beat a dragon at riddles. When I was challenged to a staring contest by the Gorgon Queen of the Calcified Catacombs, having just got over a bout of aggressive conjunctivitis –’

Glorin was cut off in his tale by the crashing reappearance of the four terrified youths. Sprawled on top of each other in the ruins of the door they looked even more scared than when they’d left.

‘Help!’ shouted the one on top. ‘The eagles are coming!’

‘So,’ said Glorin, unamused at having been so rudely interrupted.

 ‘The King. The coronation feast. He wanted omelettes! King-sized omelettes! They’re attacking all the guests!’

‘The omelettes?’

‘The eagles!’

Beowarg, Jorel, Glorin and Moglith all shifted their weight from buttock to buttock and back again. Bragging was one thing, suicide was quite another: After all, nobody ever beats the eagles.
"Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis." (Laplace)

Offline xiagan

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Re: The best story of 2014 - vote now!
« Reply #6 on: February 01, 2015, 06:22:23 PM »
Oct 2014 [Abandoned Places]: The Rookery (by Giddler)
Spoiler for Hiden:
Inspiration for this story:


“As the new century began, social unease was at an historic peak. The atrocities committed against wealthy families during the Riots had left the affluent of London feeling vulnerable and angry. The daytime curfew put in place to restrict the poor from prosperous areas did much to ease the mood, but was merely a temporary solution.

Lord Leyton came to me one day in 1912 with a fantastic proposal: foot-tunnels underneath London!

At once, my mind was afire with possibilities. I would build, I naively believed, a network of tunnels rivaling the London Underground. I wanly dreamed of securing my name amongst the great builders of London like Wren and Fowler.

Leyton quickly dashed my hopes. I was to build a warren for poor folk; a rat’s-maze that common workers would use to get around Mayfair without offending the sight of rich Londoners.”

- Interview with Walter Lewes, patient at Rampton Secure Hospital.

---------------

Shona stared, her drink paused halfway to her mouth. The bar she’d chosen to meet Dean in was already packed full of office types braying loudly across each other, which had caused her to miss his previous words. Or, so she hoped.

“Sorry, say that again?”

“I’ve found a hidden town underneath London,” he repeated.

Shona began to suspect she had wasted her evening. “Whereabouts under London?”

Dean swallowed nervously. “Mayfair.”

Shona took a breath and released it. “Well, that’s obviously complete crap. Goodbye, Dean.”

She stood and stuffed her notebook and audio recorder back into her bag. Dean’s eyes bulged with alarm, and he scuttled after her out of the bar.

“I’m serious! I can show you, right now!” His face twisted like a toddler being denied a treat. Shona scanned the traffic for a taxi.

“Look,” he said, “just give me ten minutes, okay? What can you lose?”

Shona looked at him thoughtfully. If nothing else, she reasoned, she could write a sympathy piece about Dean himself.

“Alright, convince me.”

————————————————

He had led her to the basement of a hotel on Piccadilly, which had turned out to be Dean’s place of work, to a tattered door in between two enormous washing machines.

Dean turned with an ungainly flourish, pulled open the door and ushered her through.

The passage was too dim to see. Dean produced a torch from his pocket and lead them through the blackness. After a time, Shona had lost her bearings.

“Does anyone else come down here?” she asked. He shook his head and shrugged.

“Everyone assumes that the door is some other department’s responsibility. I guess it’s the same everywhere else. People just stop thinking about it after a while.”

They came to a junction into a wider tunnel and Dean turned right. An official sign bolted onto the wall stated:

                        ‘Any violation of the Residential Access Act will result in prosecution
                                         - by order of the Borough of Westminster.’

“What's the Residential Access Act?” asked Shona.

“A law banning poor people from walking the streets in rich districts,” explained Dean, “because of all the violence against the wealthy at the time. That’s why these tunnels were built: to link Mayfair to the poor areas like Whitechapel and the Docks. All the servants and labourers came from those areas, you see? But, because of the paranoia about anarchists, they had to walk though miles of tunnel to get to work. From what I’ve read, the conditions were pretty terrible."

Dean led Shona on through the dark. The air here tasted brackish and foul. He shone his torch around, and Shona’s pulse quickened as she took in the scale of the chamber they had entered. They had found Dean’s hidden town.

Above them, a buttressed ceiling soared away into darkness, further than the torch beam could illuminate. All around them were the ruins of buildings ravaged by time and the subterranean damp. Broken shanties jutted out of mounds of rubbish and mould like driftwood in a swamp. Shona shone the torch beam through a shutter, playing the light over crudely made furniture. A cot lay on it’s side and she recoiled in disgust as a large rat scuttled out of it away from the glare of the torch.

They made their way tentatively along the slimy passageway between houses. Further down the twisted path between the ravaged dwellings, she saw a larger building made of scavenged bricks cannibalised from the surrounding architecture. It had collapsed in on itself, slumping like a dying man. What the purpose of the building was, she could not tell.

The silence was oppressive here. Both she and Dean made as little noise as they could, although neither of them could have said why.

“Public opinion turned sour when people heard about the conditions down here,” Dean whispered. “The tunnels were closed down, and the government publicly blamed all responsibility for the mess on the architect, Walter Lewes.”

A sudden noise at the edge of hearing made Shona turn, the circle of torchlight piercing the gloom between the dead buildings. Dean clearly didn’t notice, as he continued:

“Lewes reacted badly; he had some kind of breakdown and was committed to a mental asylum. Then, one day he escaped and fled down into the tunnels,” Dean continued. “He hid down here sabotaging the work of the demolition crews, even setting traps for the workers. Eventually, they abandoned the demolition and just off sealed the Mayfair tunnel entrances.

 After a time, people began to move into the tunnels from the entrances in the east of London. Prostitutes, opium addicts, wanted criminals, anarchists - all the desperate poor of London; hundreds of them came down here into the dark. They loved Lewes for what he’d done; worshipped him. They stole materials from the docks and built a town down here.”

“Did Lewes ever go back to the surface?” asked Shona.

 Dean opened his mouth but before he could speak, the faint noise came again.

“What was that?” she whispered, piercing the torch through the blackness between slums. The light flickered as the battery started to fail.

“Probably rats,” Dean shrugged. “Anyway, to answer your question: yes, Lewes came back to the surface when the squatters were evicted by the police. After his arrest, he was committed to an asylum where-”

He stopped as the noise came again, nearer this time. A furtive whispering, like the muffled giggling of a child playing a hiding game.

“You heard it that time?” whispered Shona.

There was no reply. She turned to find empty space where he had been standing a moment before. Panic flooded her as the torch finally died and the light slowly faded to black.

—————————————————


‘For all the triumphs of his career, Lord Leyton once confided in me, there was never one which eclipsed the shame at his treatment of poor Walter Lewes. “The man was an artist with a mind of rare genius,” Leyton once described him.

However, Lewes was entirely unequipped to deal with the mauling he received from the press which ensued from Leyton’s condemnation of his work.

When Leyton heard of Lewes’s escape from Rampton, he was in no doubt where he would seek refuge: the gloomy sub-London underworld he had been so briefly ruler of. 

Some time afterwards a message arrived at the house, delivered by hand by a street drab, according to the maid who answered the door. On it was a single phrase:

‘Keep out of the shadows, Leyton, and pray I never find you.’

Lord Leyton and his family left the capital for the Colonies soon after for an ambassadorial post, and never returned to England.

-Personal notes of Andrew Hores, personal assistant to Lord William Leyton.

Nov 2014 [Joker Month]: The Mist in their Veins (by Ancalagon)
Spoiler for Hiden:
Chosen theme was 'Betrayal':

I am still unsure whether I should report the event of October 18th, 1899 in the Bloodworth crypt, for I have not been sure of my sanity since that night. Though I feel I should record the event else I will lose whatever sanity remains, if indeed I still hold some.

The event in the Bloodworth crypt would not have happened were I to have kept to the values important to my faith. Through my greed I had become friends with one Thomas Jones who brought me into a world of treasure hunting. We kept our ears open for talk of all sorts of items which, when sold on the right market would yield great pay.

By what I had thought to be chance, Thomas and I came into contact with a man named John Dallas. He was tall and slick, describing himself to us only as a ‘business man’ in the business of rare jewels. He said he yearned for one jewel in particular which he would pay heavily for our assistance retrieving it. The jewel was located in an underground crypt - the Bloodworth crypt I mentioned in the opening of this document.

I took a distrust to the man immediately, unsettled by his snake-like demeanor. I waited until I was alone with my friend before voicing my concerns and was met with a wave of laughter. Thomas told me he had seen none of the behaviors in John of which I had attributed to him and I was being overly cautious with whom I work with. He proposed that we bring the man along with us on a job prior to accepting his request in an effort to build trust.

So it came to be that on October 11th, one week prior to the events in the Bloodworth crypt, I found myself alongside Thomas Jones and John Dallas arriving to a party at the Davenport estate covertly undertaking out latest job. We had been hired by a man claiming to be the rightful recipient of an immensely valuable painting left to him in the will of his late mother but which had landed in the hands of his sister by manipulation of the executor. The job was to attend a party at his sister’s estate, where the painting would be displayed, and retrieve it for him. We attempted no background checks to confirm his heritage and though I think a part of me did not believe the man, the large reward at the end of it all gave me reason to overlook any doubts.

We took turns at the party to either mingle or scout the estate to gain intel for how best to approach the retrieval of the painting. We decided before hand that attending the party would be no more than reconnaissance, though to my surprise it was announced midway through the party that the painting would be moved to a museum before the conclusion of the night. It then fell upon us to improvise a means of obtaining the painting before this move. We decided to make our move as everyone was called out to the balcony.

It seemed oddly suspicious to me that the painting was left unattended at this time and I urged my friend to consider some last minute recon before we took the painting, but my friend decided it was the perfect opportunity and he was hellbent on seizing it. John and I waited outside the guest room on lookout while my friend went to retrieve the painting. He emerged from the room shortly after, carrying the painting within a bed sheet. It was then that the lady of the house came into the room with two guards by her side. It was John who made the quick decision to head for the wine cellar. After Thomas and I hurried into the cellar behind him, John quickly barricaded the door.

It was in that darkness, illuminated only by the moonlight filtering through the window, that I saw in John another face overlaid with his own. Flesh on his cheeks and forehead had rotted away in places, revealing teeth and skull. He took on a wraith-like appearance, but as I continued to look at him, his face returned to its human state and I resolved in my mind that it was simply a trick of the sparse light. It was then that John found a tunnel leading to the outside. At the time, while on the adrenaline high after escaping with the painting, I didn’t think it suspicious for a tunnel to be so conveniently placed. It is only now, thinking back on the event with what I now know of John Dallas, that I find the events of that night rather too coincidental. While I still had my concerns about John, I admitted it was through his efforts at the estate that we had successfully retrieved the painting and collected a large sum for our troubles. I reluctantly agreed to go with my friend and John into the Bloodworth crypt.

A week later I descended into the dark crypt of the Bloodworth family. I carried with me a lantern and - unbeknown to the others - a hunting knife. As we walked through the crypt I was amazed at the immensity of the place and number of bodies stored inside. It seemed to me to be more like a catacomb than a family crypt and there were far too many bodies. I found it curious also that no names were displayed for the deceased.

At last we came to the deepest part of the crypt, the only part with sarcophagi displaying the names of deceased members of the Bloodworth clan. It was the final two sarcophagi at the end of the crypt which planted the first seedlings of madness in my mind. The names given on the sarcophagi revealed the deceased to be Thomas Jones Bloodworth and John Dallas Bloodworth, having died nearly two hundred years ago. I turned to face my companions and saw in both of them what I had seen in John in the wine cellar of the Davenport estate. Their wraith-like bodies were pale and weary in the dim light of my lantern and even though the muscles in their faces appeared to have rotted away long ago, I am still certain that I saw a grin spread across their faces.

It was while I was standing there frozen in horror at what my friend had become, or always was, that I felt it slide past my ankles. I didn’t see it at this time for my only thought was on running. I ran towards the two wraiths and gripped my knife, slashing at them as I approached. I managed to cut deep into their sides, which seemed to stun them enough for me to get passed them. To my horror they did not bleed, but I did not stay to marvel at such wonder.

I ran through the crypt, stumbling as I went. The once silent burial chamber was now filled with a loud hissing. I do not think I ran for long before I realized I was lost. I crawled into a small fissure in the wall and waited, trying to think of a plan for escape. I remember the wraiths calling for me and I detected a hint of panic. ‘You must die so that we can live,’ I heard them say.

It felt to me an eternity hiding in that fissure and I realized I could not hide there forever. I waited for one of the wraiths to pass by the fissure before lunging out with my knife and decapitating it. The blade cut through with astounding ease. Mist spilled out of the wraiths wounds and it was this mist that I am sure attracted the terrifying thing. The mist seemed to carry light with it and I could see the thing as it approached. It was a large snake of immense proportions dripping with a colourless slime and carrying large bat-like wings on its back. To my surprise it did not attack me, choosing instead to latch onto the wraith’s body and began sucking out vast amounts of mist from it. The wraith thrashed about before finally it was gone, disappeared.

I do not know what then happened to the snake or the other wraith, but from the distant cries in the crypt I can only assume the wraith suffered the same fate as its kin. I do not know how long I remained in that crypt until I finally emerged into daylight.

Upon writing this letter it is now almost a year passed, on October 9th, 1900 and I still hear the hissing of that hideous snake. It grows louder with each day, but that may just be madness slowly taking me. Though I have found since the night in that crypt that I no longer bleed, my wounds only emit a thin, cool mist.
"Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis." (Laplace)

Offline xiagan

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Re: The best story of 2014 - vote now!
« Reply #7 on: February 01, 2015, 06:22:42 PM »
Dec 2014 [Religion]: Wardu's Wager (by Jmacyk)
Spoiler for Hiden:
Glatinu and I sat in the market square, mourning for our life in the capital, trying for some flavor of home by  adding ahtene to the stuff that passed for food here in the north.  It was a daily competition, to see which of us could stand a stronger dose of the fiery stuff; just one of the many contests with which my brother officer and I had always passed the time.  Drinking, racing, wrestling, a little light magicking, and best of all, womanizing – these were the staples of our friendship.  But we ate peppers for now in this dull, religion-soaked city of Kath, with its small, odd people.  Why had we even bothered to conquer them?

Our waiter had stepped up to our table quietly.  “Honored citizens,” he began, with a hesitant smile and an accent on the edge of gibberish.  “You new to city.  I be first to welcome you?" He was perhaps the one hundredth complete stranger to welcome us, but never mind, we knew what was coming.  “May inquire - you have found a church yet?”

Found a church yet.  It was the refrain Glatinu and I had been hearing since our ships had arrived in Kath, relieving the men that had marched over land, surprised the northerners and taken the city.  When we'd taken  rooms away from the barracks, the landlord asked if we’d found a church.  When we'd had our kit delivered from the docks, the gang chief took our money, then asked us if we’d happened to have found a church yet, since he could highly recommend one.  From street sweepers to random passers-by it was the same.  I commented on this to the Governor, expecting him to laugh at the locals, but he looked at me seriously and said, "Make yourself useful, then, Wardmulidan and enlist.  Someone on my staff needs to understand these people.”

I was thinking about this as Glatinu chased off our proselytizing server.  Somehow I’d not been able to bring myself to cross the threshold of any church, temple or anchorage.  The Emperor was my God: who needed another?  But, there it was, the governor’s request-cum-order.

“I tell you what, Glati,” I said, in the moment the thought occurred to me. “I will take a dare.  If the very next girl who walks by our table can be persuaded to invite me, I will sign up today, no matter whether she have three eyes and an extra nostril.”

“Alright, if you insist,” said my friend.  “I dare you.  But I think you will be bored five minutes after the chanting starts.”

“It’s a wager,” said I.  “I stand drinks for the next week if I fail.”

“The next woman we see?” he said with a sly look.

“The very next,” I replied.  As a wicked smile crossed his lips, I turned to see one of the witches of Kath moving across the plaza like a ship in a high wind, wrapped in a sea-green robe from head to toe, on business that surely did not include me.

Thinking I would be a pauper by the end of the week – Glatinu was a ferocious drinker – I rapped the table for luck, spit over my shoulder for protection, and sallied out.

But trying to stop the witch was like trying to hold back the sea.  “Subject,” was all I could address to her before she sailed past without a pause.  I half-ran to get ahead of her to make another attempt.  I stepped into her path, swept a bow, and started, “Honored subject, –“, before a gloved finger reached toward me, and I found myself stumbling in sudden pain.

She had magicked me.  Touched me, and turned me!  Shame prickled, and anger, that an officer of the Empire, me, was being swatted aside without the slightest effort.  I spun back, and without thinking summoned fire to my hands.  It flashed through my mind that the witches had held our armies at bay for more than a month before surrendering.  But wisdom sometimes comes too late; my spell shot at her like a whip.  And disappeared with no effect into the deep green folds of her cloak.  She stopped then, a full one hundred paces distant, and pivoted toward me.   I heard Glati yelling, sensed that Kathians all around were finding better places to be.  I fell beneath a wave of power.

It seemed to last forever, and left me breathless, battered, and blind.  When the weight and roll of it lifted, I was on my knees, gasping.  Glati was at my side, calling for our men.  My head was spinning, but I was conscious enough to wonder how we’d ever bested such women.  Soldiers were running to us from their posts around the plaza, and I had the sense things could get out of hand quickly.  My anger turned to fear of being the agent of a situation I wanted nothing of.  “Hold!” I croaked.  “Stand down, Glatinumishdan!  Stand down, everyone!”  I stood carefully, pulling on his arm for strength.  The witch smoldered where she stood.

“Your pardon, lady,” I called, using my shipboard voice.  “There has been a misunderstanding.”

I do not know what might have happened then, for I sensed her rage even at this distance.  But the moment passed, because another figure appeared at the witch’s side.  She was a twin of my opponent, but in the palest blue.  They stood like competing depths of the sea, and inaudible words passed between them.  My assailant stalked away at last, while this second came toward our group.

She regarded us neutrally, her expression hidden by her veil, except for extraordinary, cool eyes.  I wanted to bandy with her as I did with all women, but I was learning not to presume with these witches.

“You wanted to speak with us, foreigner?” she asked in an arresting voice with just a slight northern burr.  She was as short as all of her countrymen, but carried herself with great dignity.  My wits were returning quickly, but those eyes and that voice unbalanced me anew. 

“My apologies, lady,” I replied.  “I simply wished to ask a question of one who clearly must have great knowledge.”  I thought I sounded quite diplomatic, but Glatinu bit back a laugh.

“My sister is not one for words with the empire’s men.”

“But you?” said I. 

“A realist.”

“I am thankful, lady.”

She looked at me steadily, and I reddened, thinking about the bet with Glati, and how I had thought to play with these people.  Seeing my chagrin, she softened.

“A question, you said?"

“Yes,” I answered.  Our men, with calm restored, moved back to their posts.  “Since we arrived here, I have been the, um, honored recipient of many invitations to join a church." I smiled with a bit of my usual humor, “I think I‘ve been invited to join every church in Kath.  Could we have been invited over fifty times, Glatinu?”

“Maybe twenty,” he corrected.

“Ah,” said the witch, “I see.  Have you found a church yet.”

“Exactly.”

“And you have no idea, foreigner, why people you have conquered, whose armies you have blasted, would want you to join them in worship?  I will tell you.”  I saw a smile in her eyes then.  “You see this city.  It is a great wheel, with eight thoroughfares as spokes meeting in this plaza, and a great church at each joining.”  She paused, as though perhaps this was too complicated for me and I nodded understanding.  “In twenty days, at the turning of the moon, it will be our great Festival.  Each congregation will compete in prayer, in artistry, and in strength.”

“Strength?” I repeated, meeting eyes with Glatinu.  Strength was something we knew.

“We bring forth images of our saints, and each church competes to be first to drag its avatar from the edge of the city to the heart.  It is a glorious day for us, when we remember who we are, and what we are.”

“But,” said I, plainly: “I am the Emperor’s man, a foreigner.”

“Look at yourself, soldier.  You stand a full span taller than any of us.  You bore the fury of my sister’s magick.  We look at you,” and she laughed suddenly like a land breeze after weeks at sea, "and we think ‘This one could pull a rope!’”

Which is how Glatinumishdan and I found ourselves twenty days later stripped to the waist, sweating, swearing, and laughing with our fellow congregants as we dragged the heaviest damned block of carved weirdness I’d ever seen from the edge of the city to the very center.  I’d found a tale for the governor, but I’d found much more.

She walked ahead of us, clad in fairest robes of blue, like foam on a cresting wave, calling us to strength and speed.  I’d found my church, oh yes.  And she could have my heart, my soul, my very being for the asking.

Ailurophilia (by Carter)
Spoiler for Hiden:
“It’s just a cat.”

The whisper tore the reverential silence like a gunshot.  Marius smirked as heads turned, angry, judgmental frowns distorting the faces of all around him.  He did not see his mother move but he felt the effect of her stinging hand across the back of his skull.

“Oww!  What was that for?”

Surprise rather than pain elicited the brief cry, his petulance feigned.  All his actions, all the likely consequences had been carefully considered and he intended to milk his time in the limelight for all it was worth.  His mother glared at him, unwilling to be the next person to break the sanctity of the temple, trying to compel him into silent submission.  However, he harboured no such compunctions and ploughed onwards. 

“It’s the truth.  It’s only a cat.  And not even a dangerous one.”

He gestured at the dais.  Positioned on a pedestal at the front of the temple, the cat slept.  Curled into a tight ball, its whiskers occasionally twitched.  Its sleek calico fur was unruffled and barely moving in time with every slow breath.  The deep, blasphemous rebellion stirred even more within him.  It had not even deigned to be awake for the latest bout of religious adoration, let alone his virtuoso performance. 

“If it were a lion, or a tiger, I could understand.  They’re cool.  But it’s just a housecat.  And you just have to sit here.  For an hour.  Even though it’s asleep.”

He tried to keep his tone disinterested but couldn't help himself.  The first creeping, stirring flashes of humour cut through his words and his lips curled into a genuine smile.  Everyone had turned to look at him now, his mother’s face a mask of outraged horror.  And oh how he basked in its warmth.  How he revelled in their shock and righteous anger.  How he craved every scrap of attention.  After all, it was the reason he had allowed his mother to convince him to come to this ridiculous ceremony in the first place. 

The commotion roused one of the priests from his position at the base of the pedestal.  With sinuous, feline grace, he came to his feet.  The figure-hugging, leopard-print outfit he wore almost made Marius burst into a fit of giggles.  The headdress sporting ears and whiskers had his stomach churning with suppressed laughter.  As the priest crept closer, he watched smug satisfaction replace fury on the faces of the congregation as they anticipated holy punishment meted out to the blasphemer. 

Up close Marius was surprised to see just how old the man was.  Deep wrinkles and dull eyes belied the smoothness of his gait.  Under his gaze Marius straightened, shuffling against the cold, hard seat so he could sit proud and uncaring, meeting the priest’s stare with one of his own. 

“You doubt Our Lady?  Our Goddess?  You do not believe in Her divinity?  Her power?”

He had expected vehement bluster.  From the shock on everyone’s faces they had imagined a verbal lashing.  The mockery in the priest’s tone and the twinkle of amusement in the corner of his eyes came as a complete, sharp shock.  A heartbeat of mental acrobatics was all it took for Marius to adjust. 

“Yes.”

A nod emphasised his decree, the single word intended to slice through any pomposity and act as his own denunciation of all those who chose this temple and this deity out of the plethora available all along the Avenue of a Hundred Gods.  After all, other temples, other priests, offered more entertainment, more evangelical performances that stirred the soul and enraptured their audience.  To say nothing of the other gods themselves who all looked more impressive, more powerful than a silly, little cat.

Instead of embarrassed spluttering, the priest’s lips merely quirked upwards into a smile as a low, disapproving grumble swept through the temple. 

“Why?”

If there had been anyone observing the inside of his head at that moment, they would have marvelled at his brain’s gymnastics, the aerial improbabilities he performed to regain his balance and find his feet.  If there had been an award for such things, he would have beaten all competition in that single instant.

“My neighbours have a cat.  It’s lazy.  It sleeps all the time.  It barely hunts and they have to feed it themselves.  Yours probably can’t even manage that much and it’s supposed to be a god.  Gods do things.  Everyone knows that.  They do miracles.  They have powers.  They help people.  They can look after themselves.  Yours can’t even be bothered to wake up for its followers.  Cats are just animals.”

Marius came to his feet, literally rising to the occasion and addressing his audience with sweeping gestures.  Everyone stared in horrified fascination and he loved every glance, every intake of breath. 

“Come with me.”

The outstretched palm and the calm voice almost undid him.  It confounded all expectations.  After attacking the cat’s divinity, he ought to face severe punishment, ought to have incurred divine wrath.  For the first time he felt a sliver of an inkling of doubt.  Stealthy and cautious, it crept into his consciousness and prepared to pounce.  But he had come too far, had enjoyed himself far too much to turn aside now.  Instead he took the proffered hand.  The priest’s smile broadened. 

“Why him?  I’ve been coming here for years.  I’ve been faithful.  I’ve – ”

The priest’s roving gaze found the speaker and subdued her in an instant.  An annoyed frown marred his face and Marius grinned.  Knowing that others considered him blessed and chosen, somehow singled out for special treatment, made the farce all the more hilarious.  He stood tall and lengthened his stride as the priest led him up the aisle towards the cat. 

If anything, up close the animal looked even less impressive.  The black and ginger patches that had seemed so precise, so defined from a distance almost looked as if they bled into each other and the apparently pristine white was speckled with fine, dark hairs.  Geometric patterning was revealed as a lie as randomness prevailed.  His lips curled in distaste and he opened his mouth to utter fresh obscenity. 

“Touch her.”

The command stopped him before he could begin.  The dare dripped from the priest’s voice, the desire to make him baulk, to return silent and chastised to his seat, evident in each syllable.  Clearly everyone in room willed him to rethink his blasphemy.  Instead he reached out in defiance.

Beneath his fingertips the fur was fine, soft and velveteen.  He rested his palm against it and smiled at the priest, hoping for some sign of shock that he had actually risked touching the priest’s god.  From the faces of the watching throng, they at least had expected some response from the cat, some sign of divine displeasure at his temerity.  Yet nothing happened.  His touch provoked no retribution and yet the priest continued to smile. 

The cat stirred.  Subtle, slow movements under his hand alerted him to the beginnings of wakefulness.  Soft vibrations travelled through his hand as the cat started a deep, buzzing purr; all resonance and little sound.  Subconsciously, his thumb moved, tracing the curve of the cat’s spine and the thrum intensified. 

A languid eyelid cracked open.  A dark, slit pupil stared out at him rimmed in almost fluorescent gold.  Muscles stretched and pressed back against his hand and the purr flooded his senses. 

Yes.  You can serve me and mine.

The voice, feminine and sultry, slipped through his mind; quick, nimble and inescapable.  He tried to jerk his hand away but it remained traitorously in place and continued its caresses.  With every movement, every display of bliss from the cat, he became increasingly transfixed, unable to look away, to focus on anything except the sleek form before him. 

You can call me My Lady.

For a brief moment, resistance flared.  Words and protestations tried to force their way towards clamped lips only to stick in his throat like a hairball.
 
“Yes, my Lady.”

The cat’s eye closed as it settled back into sleep.  Yearning cascaded through him.  He longed to see that eye again, feel her gaze and her beauty turned towards him and her voice in his head.  Enraptured, he could only stare, his hand finally motionless.  The priest took his hand between his own, tears pricking at the corners of his eyes.

“I welcome you into our fellowship.  You have truly been blessed by our Lady.”

Around him the crowd stared, mouths agape, his mother’s among them.
 
“Come.  I shall introduce you to the kittens.”
"Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis." (Laplace)

Offline xiagan

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Re: The best story of 2014 - vote now!
« Reply #8 on: March 01, 2015, 06:34:14 PM »
Reminder to vote for the best story of 2014! So far only 4 people voted. Spread the word! :)
"Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis." (Laplace)

Offline JMack

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Re: The best story of 2014 - vote now!
« Reply #9 on: March 01, 2015, 06:50:59 PM »
I could tell everyone how to vote, if they're worried they don't have the time to read them all  8)
(And it wouldn't be for my story, either :)
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Offline Saraband

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Re: The best story of 2014 - vote now!
« Reply #10 on: March 03, 2015, 08:53:22 AM »
I only now noticed that this poll was up - thanks @ScarletBea for pointing it out to me! :)

This has been an easy vote for me, as there are exactly three stories which I remember well from the past year. In any case, there have always been worthy winners, so whoever gets the most votes will certainly deserve the exposure they will hopefully get.
« Last Edit: March 03, 2015, 08:57:53 AM by M. G. Boronha »
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Re: The best story of 2014 - vote now!
« Reply #11 on: March 21, 2015, 04:17:45 AM »
Yikes, only a couple of weeks left before the poll closes. I'll have to start reading!  :o
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Offline Nora

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Re: The best story of 2014 - vote now!
« Reply #12 on: March 21, 2015, 04:46:00 AM »
Whoa thanks raptori! Only just saw that! Will start reading them all!
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Re: The best story of 2014 - vote now!
« Reply #13 on: March 21, 2015, 04:59:36 AM »
I've got a paper due March 31. Remind me sometime before then so I have a reason to procrastinate.
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The best story of 2014 - vote now!
« Reply #14 on: March 21, 2015, 05:08:43 AM »
Should I leave it open another four weeks? This should have all the time it needs. :)
"Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis." (Laplace)