May 19, 2019, 02:08:25 PM

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Messages - Carter

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1
Awe @Carter when things calm down on my end in a few months hmu and maybe we can bounce some stuff back and forth, if that helps!
Thanks.  That would be really good.  The main problem I've been having is with writing process at the moment and developing a routine (I don't think that I have properly allowed enough time to edit since Maiden, Mother, Crime - most sine have been second drafts at best).  The contest tends to help with ideas too but even that too has dried up somewhat.  I've had a lot on recently and a few issues going back a couple of years that still affect me.  I won't be on here much the coming month but come the last week of May and June onwards, I should be about..

2
Well done @Cell18.  A good story, well executed and got my vote. 

Thanks for the feedback @xiagan.  I knew it was likely to be a bit of an odd one when I was considering and writing it.  It might also end up being the last one I post for a good length of time as well.  I have been struggling with my writing for some time now - not just the short stories but with all my other works in progress so may take this as an opportunity to take something of a break from the contests, re-focus and try and figure some things out. 

I'll still read and vote of course as I would not want to miss out on everything people put up month in and month out and look forward to being an interested bystander instead. 

3
Wow.  What a strange turn up.  Well done everyone. I voted for @Rukaio_Alter.  Nothing quite like a story poking fun at midichlorians.  But then what else had we come to expect from the God-Emperor of the Writing Contest, even without the long absence?

Thanks to those who voted for mine.  I had been reading some non-fiction on Homer and Orpheus earlier in the year and it felt like a nice fit for the theme this month.  Glad people enjoyed it.   

4
Here's mine this month at exactly 1500 words, including title. 

Spoiler for Hiden:
Going Back

Her hand shook as she twisted the key.  Sylvia had thought she was prepared.  She had allowed herself to believe that the past week had banished any lingering doubts.  She had given herself plenty of time to become accustomed to the quotidian.  Now, with her bag tugging at the scar on her shoulder, her arm aching with hauling around her suitcase, her heart hammering at the prospect of opening the door to her old life, she realised that nothing could possibly have readied her. 

Run.  Run back.  There's still time.

*

“You can stay, you know.  There is so much more you could do here.”

Sylvia's heart fluttered.  It was so tempting.  Around her the fresh scents of the pine forest filled her nostrils.  Crisp rain dripped from needles above her, perfect and inviting.  And of course there was Hypolius himself. 

Where one he had been gruff and untamed, now he stood patient and entreating, his hard nature tempered and smoothed against the contours of her heart.  A slight judder in his foreleg gave the sole hint to the depth of his feelings. 

“If I stay much longer, I might never leave.”

“Would that be so bad?”

His rueful smile almost broke her resolve.  A part of her longed to just give in, to stay in the forest and make it her home.  Now it was perfect and peaceful, pregnant with possibilities.  Where she was going would be anything but. 

“I'm sorry.  My family needs me.”

*

The air was still and stale.  Faded wallpaper peeled away from the walls.  Desiccated mouse droppings lay strewn across the carpet.  Silence hung heavy in the air, enfolding her within itself.  She almost dared not breathe. 

She latched the door gently behind her, easing bag and suitcase to the floor.  Panic flared.  She craved the open skies, the expansive woodland, the freedom to roam.

Deep breaths.  Deep breaths.  You can do this.

*

Hypolius' chest heaved in fury.  Vast gulps of air thundered through his chest.  His eyes were wide, nostrils flared.  Every muscle was tensed and primed for explosive violent action.

The only thing holding him back was her quivering hand on the coarse hair of his waist.  Her shoulder throbbed with pain, her vision swimming.  Sylvia could feel the blood running down her back, horribly warm, horribly constant. 

“Easy.  Easy.”

She kept her voice soft and soothing.  A pretence.  She wanted to scream, to loose Hypolius on the figure at his feet.  For him to bleed and suffer. 

“If you act, you prove you're just like him.  I've taught you better than that.”

He stared at her.  Nothing human looked back at her. 

“Justice.  Remember?  Justice and law.  A chance at redemption.  Remember?”

Whether it was her words, her tone, or perhaps something had finally sunk in, but slowly, so slowly, his rage subsided.  She slumped against him, partly from relief, mostly from the pain.  His muscular arms were gently as they held her in place.  A flicker of warmth spread from where they touched her bare flesh. 

And in that moment she knew she had succeeded.  As his magic flowed into her, knitting flesh and staunching her wound, she knew that the centaurs had their leader. 

*

Every muffled step echoed around her, the coarse carpet between her toes no comparison to the embracing warmth of the forest floor.  It scratched and itched, the house settling around her like an uncomfortable shroud.  It was a wonder that she had ever called this place home. 

Perhaps if she detected some small sign of life, heard the whisper of movement, she might have been able to pretend.  Instead the emptiness leached hope from her, swallowing it ravenously as if it were starved of humanity. 

The kitchen.  He will have left a note on the fridge, like always.

*

They all gathered by the stones.  Their oldest, holiest site, it was the only place large enough to hold them.  Large enough to ensure the perpetually warring herds each had sufficient space to avoid each other.   

Each of them stared at her.  The sole human in their midst.  The sense of duty settled uncomfortably across her back.

It was a heady, intoxicating, stomach-churning responsibility.  At her side, the young buck Hypolius stood.  He glared at the crowd, daring them to challenge him, to challenge her, to rile him into violence. 

And it was working. 

“No human can tell us how to live.  She cannot understand us.”

The centaur was the broadest there.  His coat glistened with health.  His musk overpowering.  He eclipsed even Hypolius.  Sylvia knew better than to show weakness in front of him.  Instead she took a deep breath and stood tall. 

“I say we show her.”

From across his back, he loosened his javelin.  Her heart pounded.  Fragments of her life stuttered through her mind.  For the first time she wondered at her decision, at all it might cost. 

*

A stray breeze must have dislodged it because she found the note amidst the dirt and grime and damp underneath the fridge.  Better to imagine that than contemplate the alternative. 

Kara and Christian are with the Wilsons.  I could not stand to look at them any more.  They reminded me too much of you.  Of us. Of how it all ended. 

I tried to stay.  I tried to wait.  I really did.  Perhaps that might finally convince you, might finally end the argument.  But I could not stay.  It is not in my nature to forgive, to remain fixed. 

Yours, once,

Cillian

She read it twice.  Three times.  Tears filled her eyes.  Even though she had expected it, she had allowed herself foolish hope.  She slumped to the floor. 

*


Against her back, the chill, damp forest floor seeped through her clothing and raised goosebumps across her skin.  The shock of impact left her rigid, the displacement startling.  Gone was the familiar bustle of the city.  Gone the cries of human zoo.  Instead serenity and birdsong reigned.

Or would have, if not for the angry, glaring centaur. 

“You have no right to be here.”

His chest heaved.  His fore-hooves thumped into the ground, a steady counter-point to each breath.  A brief wash of terror swept over her.  One wrong move, one wrong word and she could easily imagine a hoof cracking her skull. 

And all would be for naught. 

“I have every right.  This place is mine.  My creation.  My world.”

He roared to the skies.  She slithered back, barely out his reach. 

“You want your magic back.  You want to learn.  Otherwise you are nothing but the beasts the world believes you to be.”

She stared at him, her mind whirling with possibilities, moulding his destiny. 

*

She stared at the phone.  Panic gripped her.  After all this time, could she do it?  Could it really be that easy?

Even when facing down the herds, she had never felt sure unadulterated terror.  How could a simple phone call drive all sense of who she was, what she had achieved, from her mind?   

Deep, gulping, lungfuls of air rushed through her in moments.  Her hand trembled as she clutched the handset, gripping it like it was a wild animal ready to tear at her throat. 

Time to stop running.

*

“You can't go.  You can't leave us here.”

Cillian hand was a vice, tethering her to the house, to the city, to the coast outside.  His sea-green eyes blazed with anger and despair.  She stared back, rooted and implacable. 

“We've discussed this.  It's the only way that works for me.”

He shook his head, hair crashing like waves against the cliffs of his cheeks. 

“There was no discussion.  You decided and you ignored me.  Ignored Kara and Christian.  You always do this.  You always run back to your work when it becomes too much.  Too real.”

His words lashed against her, tossing her like a ship in a storm. 

But like any experienced captain, she knew how to steer the safest course.

“But you understand.  It is what drew you here.  To me.  My Cillian.  My selkie.”

She reached out a hand to caress his cheek.  For the first time ever, he turned away.

“Not any more.”

*

“Hi Elizabeth, it's Sylvia.”

She was proud of herself.  Her voice barely quavered.

“You're back then?”

“I am.  Can I speak to them?  Please?”

Silence stretched interminably until at last.

“Hello?”

Timid, almost a whisper, her daughter's voice sent shivers through her.  Relief drew her into a tender embrace.

“Hi darling.  It's Mommy.  I'm home.”

The silence turned brittle and cold.

“Until the next time.”

She took a deep breath and said the words that clawed at her heart.

“No.  No more.  Not until your ready.  No more books.  No more writing.  No more losing myself in another world.  I'm here for you.  For all of us.”

5
Read and voted.  All interesting approaches.

6
I didn't think I would be able to pull something together in time, but here it is.  It comes in at 1466 words.

Spoiler for Hiden:
At the Edge of the Underworld

After the storm-ravaged, wine dark sea, after surviving the worst of Poseidon's wrath, she ought to be jubilant.  As dawn stretched rosy fingers across the sky, she ought to join the others' rousing chorus.  Instead, Odyssia slumped across her oar, too weary, too heartsick, too concerned.  Because no reason rested behind the Earthshaker's sudden calm.  No blessed sign had led their black hulled ship to this inlet. 

She trusted her wits too much to be fooled.  Poseidon would never give up so easily.  He would pursue her to the ends of the oceans and beyond.  All because she kept her son blind to the Earthshaker's role in his conception. 

Telemachus is mine.  Mine and Penelope's.  Never yours.

The thought was visceral and stirred her anger when she longed for calm.  She squeezed her eyes shut, allowing it to roil its course through her stomach, taking deep, soothing breaths until it passed. 

When Odyssia opened her eyes again, she was once more the Saker of Cities.  The woman who had brought down the golden walls of Ilium.  The woman who would solve the puzzle of this secluded beach and save what remained of her crew.  The wife and mother who would return to her family whatever the cost. 

She looked again around the bay, taking everything in.  Cliffs climbed shear into the sky, barren but for scraggly, scrawny foliage clinging grimly to life.  A solitary trickle of water cascaded down from above to feed the pool where even now some of her crew splashed and cavorted like naiads, the others impatiently awaiting a space to join.  Stunted cypress trees grew around the edges of the pool, blackened and twisted. 

There should be second pool.

The thought rocked her.  Her back straightened and she stared again at her men.  Were their actions a little slower than before?  Were they more lethargic, less ecstatic?  As she watched, one man, Polites she thought, hauled another aside, desperate for a taste of the sweet water.  The other man tumbled to the sand, any fight gone from his limbs.  Instead he lay and stared at the sky. 

“Look!  Our captain dares not join us.  She would rather cower on her vessel than join her brave men!”

Eurylochus' voice rang out.  Pitched to carry and to ferment the growing discord.  Her banished anger returned, broiling her stomach and surging her to her feet.  Before she could stop herself, she swung herself over the railing and onto the sands.  Her body craved action, to launch itself at Eurylochus and finally settle his brewing mutiny once and for all. Yet she swayed, light-headed and dizzy. 

Stop.  Breathe.  Think.

It was Penelope's voice this time; her oft-repeated mantra that never failed to override her baser emotions.  Before all else she needed water.  She was too weak, too exhausted to tackle him now.  She rooted herself to the beach, clenching her toes into shifting pebbles. 

Pebbles. 

It was a wild, mad idea but it might just work. 

As she knelt among the stones, her hands sifted through them.  Eurylochus barked a contemptuous laugh.

“Look.  Now she's truly gone crazy.  What do you think to find?  Some secret treasure?  Some fine jewels?  There is only one treasure on this beach and you are too much the fool to spot it.”

She pretended to ignore the harsh laughter that followed.  She ground her teeth until they hurt rather than face the fact that unless she acted she would lose the crew and with it all hope of returning to Ithaca.  Instead she sifted and rejected stone after stone until finally. 

It glittered obsidian in the palm of her hand, barely the size of a fingernail.  Sparkles of mica dotted the sea-smoothed surface.  And beneath, deep within its heart, she could feel what she needed.

“How long have you spent tossed about in the seas?  How long had Poseidon held you close to his chest before you found your way here?  Long enough, I hope.”

She brought to her mouth and swallowed.  It tasted of salt and sea.  Of bitter anger.  Of sea foam lapping around a tangle of limbs along the shore.  Of two bodies entwined and ignorant of the Earthshaker's presence.  Her throat constricted around it.  She fought the urge to gag, to send it flying back into the sea.  Her body longed to reject it, yet spasm by peristaltic spasm,she forced it down.  Down until it sank into her stomach, to add Poseidon's rage to her own. 

“You really have lost your mind, haven't you?”

His almost pitying tone startled her.  She had not heard him approach as intent as she was on her task.  She wanted to scramble back and away, to slither out of his reach until she regained some strength.  But instead she forced herself to stand.  To meet his gaze and give a grim smile. 

“Look to the crew, Euylochus.  If you spent more time watching, and less time looking for new ways to undermine me, you might stand a chance.”

He scowled and spun.  At the pool's edge, the crew lay sprawled.  Few moved and those that did swayed and sagged, unable to focus on their surroundings until they slumped to the ground. 

“What have you done to them?  What cruel hell have you brought us to this time?”

Lethe.  She did not say it but she felt it in her bones.  In the core of her being.  In the roiling anger of her stomach.

“How about this?  You want to captain the vessel, don't you?  But you dare not challenge me while I can still stand.”

He stared at her.  She refused to look away, fixing a smile in place until he finally admitted the truth. 

“Then perhaps it is time we do things a little differently.  We both need water.  We both need the crew.  Whoever can do both, here and now, they get to sail away with it all.  Back to Ithaca.  Back to Sparta.  Back to whatever part of the Great Green they want.  Agreed?”

She drew a knife from her belt and sliced a thin cut across her palm.  A thin, viscous trickle of blood flowed.  He snatched the knife from her and repeated the gesture.  Drops of blood mingled on the sand. 

Odyssia watched as Eurylochus wrestled with indecision.  How much did he trust in himself?  How much of a lingering kernel of trust in his captain remained?  Enough for doubt to creep in and to send him scrabbling for a stone of his stone. 

She left him behind, striding with a purpose and strength that belied a weakness that trembled through her legs.  If he had known how near collapse she truly was, he would never have taken the offer. 

She stepped around the prone bodies of her crew, doing her best not to look at them and see the blank, staring eyes of the mindless.  She dared not doubt as she waded slowly into the crisp, freezing water.  With deliberate care she cupped her hands and brought fresh, sweet nectar to her mouth. 

“Penelope,” she whispered as the first drops passed her lips. 

“Telemachus.”

Drops became a trickle. 

“Poseidon.”

Pain ripped through her.  Searing, blistering heat radiated from her gut.  She cried out in furious, curdling screams.  But she stood.  Knee deep in the waters of the Lethe, she stood.  And she drank. 

Images of Ithaca tumbled flicker-fast through her mind.  Of Penelope teaching her how to string her mighty Scythian bow.  Of carving their marriage bed.  Of Telemachus squalling in her arms.  Of sailing away from all she loved at the behest of Agamemmon.  Of all her promises to return. 

Each memory was bitter on her tongue yet she lapped them one after the other in a never-ending stream.  She clutched them tight as the water fought with the Earthshaker's stone.

And she on she drank until finally she heard a distant splash.  Beside her Eurylochus floundered in the water, his limbs splayed and struggling, his eyes already vacant. 

Against her better judgement, she hauled him from the water.  For all the troubles he caused, he remained a member of her crew.  And after the loss of so many, she wanted as many as possible to survive.  Only once he was clear, did she turn her attention to her next task. 

She scoured the cliffs and plotted her route.  The Lethe's descent was irregular and unpredictable, twisting and turning in impossible directions.  Yet she thought she spied a path.  Somewhere, high above or in a different inlet, there would be a second pool.  There had to be. 

Squaring her shoulders, she approached the daunting rock-face. 

“I'll come home.  I promise.”

Odyssia's winged words took flight. 

7
[JAN 2019] Air / Re: [Jan 2019] - AIR - Voting Thread
« on: February 17, 2019, 11:03:43 AM »
Voted.  thanks again for all the good stories everyone.  Interesting to see how this month pans out with the variety on offer. 

8
Oh no! I thought it would be a reversion of gender roles or even body swapping, but it's low key fanfic again xD
Not sure I'll participate, I really can't get my mojo on to write in someone else's world, sorry.

For those of us in this position - myself included - I was wondering about stretching the rules a little bit.  I don't much like writing in someone else world but from a fantasy perspective what about drawing on mythologies?  Fairy tales?  Epic poems?  After all, there are plenty of books and stories based around these. 

Robyn Hood?  Queen "Arthur"?  Cinderalan?  The mighty goddess Thora?

9
[DEC 2018] Unwanted Gifts / Re: [Dec 2018] - Unwanted Gifts - Voting Thread
« on: February 01, 2019, 08:33:02 PM »
Congratulations @JMack.  Really enjoyed your story again this month and well deserved. 

My votes went to @Slaykomimi - as JMack says it showed lot of improvement and I agree about the ending - and @Alex Hormann - it managed to hit some of the thoughts I had at the beginning of the month.  Really enjoyed every story again as well this month. 

Thanks to all who voted for me too.  With the amount I wanted to play around with tense, it's good to know some of it must have paid off!

10
[JAN 2019] Air / Re: [Jan 2019] - AIR - Submission Thread
« on: January 31, 2019, 09:14:49 PM »
Here's mine, coming in at 1229 words.

Spoiler for Hiden:
The Temple at the Roof of the World

It stands, still, amidst snow-crowned peaks.  Once iridescent prayer ribbons had fluttered, scattering their words to the furthest reaches of the globe, to the ears of the gods themselves.  Now tatters lie dormant against twisting poles.  Once towering spires caressed tendrils of pristine clouds in an intimate display.  Now they only beseech an empty, azure sky. 

Once the temple wrapped the winds around itself and balanced the world.  Now it stands apart, bereft and alone.

This is a story of that place.  For all its illustrious history, for all its contributions to humankind's prosperity, there is only one that matters.  This one. 

*

The procession marched from the open gates to the sound of percussive bells.  They pealed in grief and commemoration, each note tolling the passing of Ashnagar, the Guardian of the World.  The cassocked monks bore his casket along the narrow ledge with solemn reverence.  Deep voices chanted a mournful dirge.  The servile winds circled, brushing against the contoured, ribbed walls of the temple to add their own ephemeral, ethereal music. 

They carried the drab coffin out to where the prayer wheels rested.  They whirred in dizzying splashes of colour.  With delicate care the monks placed Ashnagar's remains where all his predecessors had spent their final moments tethered to the earth.  Teetering precariously, he straddled the realms of earth and air, the terrestrial and the spiritual.  As one, they tugged the strips of inscribed fabric that held the wooden lid in place.  In unison they raised their arms to the heavens and released Ashnagar's final prayers into the world. 

The winds, desperate to play their role, sped after the tumbling ribbons.  In their haste, they performed their last duty for their master.  The lid tumbled end over end into the nothingness below.  The ashes within spiralled up into the air forming into ever-shifting patterns.  Ordinarily it would have taken the augurs years to interpret Ashnagar's last prophecies, to twist the ever-turning specks into the shape of the world to come.

Today it required only moments.  No one needed anything more than the eyes in their head to read what Ashnagar foretold.  The winds wrote calamity, strife and imbalance in ash and air. 

*

Of course, I witnessed none of this.  Yet even buried and bound, I had a sense of it.  How could I not, tied so tightly to the earth and so attuned to the winds?  When the world shifts even those dwelling in darkness notice. 

*

Deep within the void, my mind stirred.  All around me was still and silent.  As ever.  Movement, however slight, was but a distant memory yet one that burned as bright as any funeral pyre.  Yet for all that remembrance fanned the flames of my rage, the implacable rock quenched it all, absorbing every hint of it, allowing nothing to escape. 

I no longer struggled against my imprisonment.  Aeons had tempered me and taught me patience yet never futility.  Alone amongst my brethren, I did not abase myself before my inferiors. 

Now though, something had changed.  The last who understood the smallest link of my chains had departed.  Where once mighty words had entwined my being, now the shackles fell away.  My aeons of stillness, of patience, had altered me enough that what had been forged so long ago no longer held me. 

I breathed.  The rock around me remained as impassive and unbreakable as ever.

Yet even so, it was enough.  For now. 

*

The monks' shuffling despondency, their desperate searching for a definitive source for the catastrophe to come, echoed in their footsteps.  It pervaded the temple, showing in their hurried movement and whispering, agitated voices.  It rumbled through rocks and dirt. 

In any other temple, in any other corner of the human world, such frantic activity might have hidden the actions of an ambitious monk.  It might have been the ideal time to wrest control.  Here, however, everyone pulled with singular purpose.  Their reverence for harmony, albeit one focused only on the rest of humankind, allowed no room for anything as mundane, as human, as self-aggrandisement.

In their eyes, such a thing was an abomination. 

And so it was not desire, not a lust for power, that brought them close to my cell.  Just fear and confusion and a longing for answers beyond even their perception.  And in their arrogance, they assumed they understood the mountain.  They trusted in the actions of their ancestors.  Stuffed full of pride they stood beyond my bauxite bars and were foolish enough to speculate on the cataclysm to come. 

“What is it planning?”

No one had spoken in my vicinity for too long for me to consider.  The last had been Ashnagar and only once.  The words trickled through the rock like water droplets, echoing through crack and fissure.  Faint ripples in the air that nibbled at the edges of my senses.  To a lesser mind such things are random and unfathomable.  For me they offered a beacon that illuminated an escape route.

“Nothing.  The bonds still hold.  It cannot escape.  And the mountain still plays its role.  We should look without for the storm to come.”

“No.  It will come from here.  It will undo everything if it can.  It will begin here.”

A pause.

“Then we will be ready.  The writings still contain the words.  They contain the rituals.  I will ready the others.”

“Then you agree?”

“I agree that we should be prepared.  Let that be enough.”

Arrogant humans to think they could control the uncontrollable.  To believe that only they could fashion their world into something they desired.  Too much pride.  Too little understanding of the true nature of the world they sought to tame. 

Their words stirred me.  My essence quivered into life.  Deep inside the mountain, a breeze blew for the first time in a generation. 

I stretched and strained, forcing myself into the rock, arrowing between the narrowest of fissures.  The rock resisted.  It constricted and suffocated without malice, with its normal, terrible impassivity.  Yet still I pressed ahead, navigating myriad pathways and passageways too small to discern by anything but the faintest shifting of a breath. 

Too tight.  Too narrow.  Too far.  I was stretched too thin.  Doubt pressed in all around me, adding to the weight of the mountain.  My energy was sapped and dwindling.  Ashnagar and his forebears had trapped me tight.  But there was a way.  The voices had shown me that much and I craved the open, lapis lazuli skies. 

I wriggled and squirmed, little more than a tender breath on skin.  Behind me, tendrils frayed and dissipated.  Just one … more … push …

*

I was no simple zephyr to be cowed and commanded.  I was the unconquerable North.  Master of the Skies.  Unlike my inferior siblings I could not be tamed.  Nor could I be forced into subservience.  Only through treachery or trickery could I be trapped. 

I reminded them all of my power.  I shook their temple to its foundations.  I forced my brethren of what they had been reduced to and freed them from their servitude. 

And never would we return.  Never again would a breath of wind stir at a human's bidding.  As testament to our resolve, we left the temple standing still at the roof of the world. 

11
Voted.  As ever, really good contributions from everyone and a broad spectrum of approaches. 

12
[NOV 2018] Image Prompt: Ships / Re: [Nov 2018] - Ships - Voting Thread
« on: January 01, 2019, 09:17:11 PM »
Wow.  Thank you to everyone who voted for my story.  And congratulations to @Jenny HJ.  You got one of my votes - the other went to @Nora.  As I said below though, I enjoyed the lot this month (although that's hardly unusual). 

I can't help but wonder if @Slaykomimi hasn't just broken the tie though...

13
Here's mine for the month, coming in at 1253 words. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His first commission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He takes another swing, his smile growing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nor the faint scrabble of a hand against the wreckage. 

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

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

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

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

Except. 

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

A single shot rings out. 

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[NOV 2018] Image Prompt: Ships / Re: [Nov 2018] - Ships - Voting Thread
« on: December 23, 2018, 09:32:01 AM »
Just voted.  Read them all through a couple of times and enjoyed them all both times.  A shame to have to narrow it down.

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[OCT 2018] Small Magics / Re: [Oct 2018] - Small Magics - Voting Thread
« on: December 03, 2018, 09:52:16 PM »
Congratulations Jake.  A deserved win and you got my vote.  My other went to Jenny HJ.  We had a take an the WI not too long ago, now HMRC.  Which particular British institution is someone going to address next, that's what I want to know!

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