Happy Saturday! We hope you’re staying warm and comfortable…unlike the characters in this week’s stories.
We’re delighted to offer three stories from our writers.
This week’s prompt is visual:
Our first story is from R.A. Gates, featuring characters you can read more about in her book, The Tenth Life of Mr. Whiskers.
“This doesn’t look like the Sahara Desert,” Kody said as he pulled his parka tighter around his body. Snowflakes drifted by his face, sticking to his eyelashes. He had to yank his cane out of the snow to keep moving forward.
His best friend, Laney, groaned. “It is the Sahara.” The two of them were falling behind the line of their teachers leading the way up a snowy mountain. Her legs were too short or the snow too deep to keep up.
“Man,” Kody said, his words turning into fog with every breath. “I knew climate change was bad, but this is ridiculous.”
“Well…” Laney hesitated to tell him the truth, but he was going to find out eventually and she didn’t like keeping things from him. “It’s not exactly climate change at work here.”
Kody stopped in his tracks and glanced over to his friend. “What did you do?”
“Why do you assume this has anything to do with me?” She put as much affront to the words as she could, but it was useless. It was almost as if his werewolf senses could detect when she lied to him.
Laney sighed while she grabbed him by his elbow and pulled him forward so they wouldn’t get further behind the group. “Do you remember that book of survival spells I found at the bookstore last week? The one about staying alive in the woods if you got lost or surviving a zombie apocalypse?”
Kody laughed. “We already did that.” His laugh faded as a haunted gaze washed over his face. “Sometimes at night I can still hear the chittering of undead roadkill chasing me through the forest.” He shivered, and not from the cold.
Laney squeezed his elbow. “We promised never to talk about that night, remember?” She drew in a deep breath before continuing. “Anyway, I wanted to try out a couple of the spells so I apparated as far away from home as I could, to the driest place I could think of to try the water spell.”
“Okay…so why is it snowing and not raining?” he asked. Snow covered every inch of sand for as far as the eye could see.
“I didn’t realize that a couple pages were stuck together, and I accidentally combined the water spell with a freezing spell.” Laney bit her bottom lip as she peeked over to see Kody’s reaction.
He shrugged. “I guess that could happen to anybody. An innocent mistake. Is that why half the faculty is here? To undo your freezing spell?”
“Kinda,” Laney said as she rubbed her gloved hands together. “It worked really well, didn’t it?”
“A little too well. Does it really take so many teachers to thaw out the desert?” Kody asked.
One of the teachers in the line in front of them called out. “It is just over this ridge, Ms. Pech?”
Heat rushed to Laney’s cheeks at Kody’s confused face. “Uh, yeah,” she shouted back. “On the other side of that hill.” It was embarrassing enough to admit combining two spells together, but Kody was never going to let her live down what sat beyond the crest.
“There’s more?” Kody asked with way too much humor in his tone. “What else can you do to a desert?”
“You’ll see,” Laney said. She wanted to be done with this mess already, and not just because she couldn’t feel her feet anymore. Her reputation as the worst witch in town would be solidified.
Laney groaned as soon as the frozen, 1,000 foot man came into view. All the teachers kept gawking at the poor creature and then glaring at her. “I didn’t do this on purpose,” she said. In the few months Kody had known Laney, she said that phrase so much that he had threatened to put it on her tomb stone.
Kody’s mouth fell open at the sight that came into view once they reached the peak. “I didn’t even know there were Giants in this part of the world.”
“There aren’t,” Laney said as she cringed. “I accidentally hit him with an enlargement charm.”
“Why would you do that to a poor old man?” Kody asked, his eyes wide as he stared at the frozen statue. “Did you think it would help his arthritis?”
“He wasn’t old when I first met him,” she said, trying in vain to defend herself.
“You aged him too?” Kody burst into laughter.
The teachers threw him glares as the circled around the frozen man, trying to figure out which spells to use to unthaw, shrink, and de-age the man with as little damage as possible. “Is there anything else we should know, Ms. Pech?” the charms teacher asked.
Laney closed her eyes against the blood rushing to her face as she forced herself to totally come clean of everything she did. “Just one more thing,” she admitted. “Her name is Margaret.”
I’d known I was one of the foremost experts in ancient history and classical art, but there was no denying the honor of being the very first that the expedition had reached out to. Who wouldn’t want to determine the origin and purpose of the giant ice sculpture, so recently revealed in the Arctic. I knew I shouldn’t put my own personal considerations ahead of the health of the planet, but I couldn’t help being pleased there was at least one positive aspect to the melting ice caused by climate change.
We were trekking into a part of the far North that had never before been explored. The anomaly was not on a normal aviation route; It had begun appearing as a small, unusual blip on the most recent satellite images. When those images were finally reviewed in detail, an international expedition had been put together, comprised of archeologists, anthropologists, biogeochemists, glaciologists, a hydrochemist, and me, the expert in ancient history and classical art. The only one without an -ist after my name.
At first the others acted as if a specialty title made them a more important part of the expedition. But not everyone was cut out to be in that part of the world. They’d set us down twenty miles from the sculpture so as not to risk damaging any potential surrounding structures. Johnson, one of the archeologists, was the one who’d insisted on that precaution, but he was the one that complained nearly without stop about the cold.
I’d known intellectually that the temperature would be below freezing, but the reality was unnerving. Greely, the only one with medical training, reminded us every time we stopped to stay warm and dry since frostbite was an ever-present adversary. Such repetitions were unnecessary; Tillson’s mustache and oversized eyebrows were reminder enough. They kept freezing into icicles several inches long, making it harder for him to see and breathe.
Even worse than the cold was the incredible isolation. We started out close together in the morning, but over time we became strung out across the ice. Even when we were closer together it was hard to maintain the pace, and no one felt much like talking. And when the icy air began gusting in the afternoons, the others were barely visible and there was no way to hear anything but the shriek of the wind.
At those times, it was as if you were alone, lost in a world of white and grey and blue. I’d never thought much about color except as a part of each artist’s expression. How the varying hues and values worked together to create the whole. But now I realized just how much I loved color. The cool tones in this monochromatic world were cold and bleak, affecting me both physically and physiologically. A sense of desolation began to sink down into my bones as I was reminded that I was just a tiny spec of life in this broad deadly expanse.
I’d never be able to look at white and grey and blue the same again.
Art history had suited me well. I’d always considered myself an introvert; someone who liked to work alone. But I’d known I could call someone or go down the hall and confer with others at any time. Here, I was truly alone. During an extended gust of icy wind that blurred my view of the others and stole my breath, I was unnerved by the realization that if I suddenly fell into a fissure, it would take hours for anyone else to notice I was no longer there.
It took us longer to struggle over those twenty miles than I would have believed possible. Unfortunately for us, the surface wasn’t nearly as flat as it looked. It was criss-crossed by crevasses, deep fissures, and unbearably treacherous pressure ridges; caused, Goodman, our glaciologist, informed me, by “a stress regime within the plane of the ice, where ice floes have collided, driven by currents and winds.” A six-foot pressure ridge didn’t sound like a nearly insurmountable obstacle under normal circumstances. But when you’re bundled up like the kid in A Christmas Story, wearing thick boots and carrying heavy life critical gear, being faced with a jumble of ice and snow filled with dangerous cracks and shifting ice was frightening. I wasn’t sure we would all be able to clear it.
Apparently, Tommy Welton wasn’t sure either.
I don’t know if it was the howling wind, the long, lonely expanse of ice surrounding us, the dangers inherent in every step we took, or the freezing temperatures. Perhaps some combination of all of these. But inexorably, something had been driving Tommy crazy. And that’s the moment he broke.
Who knew someone could lose their sense of self-preservation like that? By the time we caught him, he’d been running around on the ice, splashing through puddles of freezing water, with one shoe off. It was decided Johnson would stay with him until the helicopter got there while the rest of us continued on.
That night, we received word that the treatments were mostly successful, and Tommy might actually be able to keep his toes. We were finally able to laugh about how ridiculous he’d looked, now that we knew he’d be alright. Greely ordered all of us to let her know if any of us started feeling unable to cope with the environment so there wouldn’t be a repeat.
The next morning was the worst. We could see the sculpture long before we reached it. The howling wind had begun to resemble tormented screams pouring forth from a human throat. And I caught myself wondering if that giant sculpture was somehow sentient and crying out. It was unnerving, setting up camp below that towering shape. The amount of detail was incredible. The tormented face. The muscular leg where it squatted low against the blue Arctic sky. The icicles, so much like Tillson’s, hanging from the sculpted beard and eyebrows and hair.
Who had created this? When? It was far too detailed to be as ancient as the ice would suggest. At most, it looked like something from the Greek Classical period.
Why had it been created, and why here?
I wasn’t the only one amazed by the exquisite details. Many were exclaiming at how lifelike it appeared. Greely insisted that it looked like a giant frozen in time. Whoever had created it deserved to be known as the Michelangelo of the Arctic.
Goodman was the first to approach the base of the figure to sample the ice. From where I stood, I could see the ice was full of occlusions, giving it a pale brown tint inside the white-blue ice. Goodman worked quickly and competently, then gave a startled cry and fell back, cheeks pale, eyes wide beneath the goggles that covered most of his face.
“What’s wrong?” Greely stepped toward him, concerned that he’d been injured or felt sick.
“It’s not ice!” There was obviously something wrong with Goodman. I’d never heard his voice shake like that.
“What are you talking about?” Greely snapped. “What else could it be? Rock?”
“I’m not going to say it.” Goodman glared at her, then flicked his gaze over the rest of us. “You’ll all think I’m as crazy as Tommy. But that’s not rock. And it’s not ice.”
Greely growled low in her throat. “Never mind.” She turned to Morris and said, “Go and take a sample, will you?”
Goodman put out his arm and stopped Morris when she would have walked around him. “No. No one here can touch it.”
“Don’t be ridicu—”
“Don’t you get it?” Goodman shouted. “ What we need is an expert on palaeoimaging and a forensic pathologist. And maybe a forensic anthropologist.”
There was a moment of deep silence as the others digested this. I felt like I was the only one who didn’t understand all of that, but I’d seen Bones. I knew what a forensic anthropologist did. I was the one that said, “You’re talking about the study of remains. Human remains.”
Goodman nodded slowly and glanced back at the giant icy figure. His voice finally stopped shaking as he answered, “Remains, yes. But maybe not exactly human…”
Our third author, Cheryl Mahoney, offers the beginning of a story, revisiting characters seen on this blog a few weeks ago.
It was a completely mad idea, of course. To go knocking on Old Man Winter’s door. That’s what it was called anyway, taking a trek through the Franklin Pass, which was not so much a pass as a slightly less steep section of the Endless Mountains—and believe me, that name was completely accurate.
But we needed a job, and jobs are hard to come by when you’ve been barred from every tavern in the nearest five towns. And when at least ten very wealthy, very powerful people have posted rewards for you, dead or alive.
Not for me, of course, no one with any power cared very much about finding me—although there were a number of women who…never mind. It was my traveling companion who was wanted.
So we were at least willing to listen, when the hunched-over man in the black cloak approached us in the market, with the rasping words, “I hear you do odd jobs.”
Amaranthae Grezana, more often called Gree, gave him the once-over with a glance that unquestionably noted every weapon he could possibly be concealing. “The odder, the better.”
“Then my lord would like to speak to you,” the cloaked man continued, voice so classically raspy it had to be a fake. Probably the hunch too. “Please, follow me.”
“Into some dark alley where your buddies can hit us over the head and rob us?” I said, because come on, I’m not that dumb.
Raspy Voice glared at me. “If you are as good as they say, you would defeat such a trap.”
“Just because you can kill a dragon doesn’t mean you go step on one’s tail for fun,” I countered. Also, I liked the tunic I was wearing, and I didn’t want to get blood all over it. Traveling with Gree had so far been very rough on my clothes and not as beneficial for my pockets as I had hoped—but I was still holding out for the big prize that had to be on the way.
And I didn’t mean Gree herself. That one was very obviously not on the way.
Gree shot me a glare too, and told Raspy Voice, “Lead on. But you’re not going to like it if this is all a trap.”
“You wound me, Lady,” Raspy Voice said, hands pressed to his chest, then shuffled off through the market.
And so we swiftly found ourselves sitting down with Lord Badington-Stokes-Melbington, in a private room at a tavern we weren’t supposed to be in, drinking some very fine ale.
“It’s a treasure hunt the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the time of legends,” Lord Badington-Stokes-Melbington enthused over the table. Fellow had rings on too many fingers and real gold in the embroidery of his tunic, so I don’t see what he needed to go treasure hunting for.
“So you’re hiring people to go knock on Old Man Winter’s door,” I said, “but what’s in it for you?”
He stared at me somewhat blankly. He had been ignoring me since we came in, though at least Raspy Voice had served me a drink too. “I’m sorry, who exactly are you?”
“This is my sidekick,” Gree interjected, with a smirk.
I laughed as though I hadn’t a care in the world. “That’s a little joke we have. The name’s Lance Shadow, and I’m her partner.”
“My delusional sidekick,” Gree said, then leaned forward and fixed Lord Badington-Stokes-Melbington with a stare that would shatter diamonds. “Now explain just what you’re getting out of this.”
“Fame and glory, of course,” his lordship said airily. “I put up the money for the expedition, I provide the treasure maps that have so fortunately come into my possession, and the tales of the Badington-Stokes-Melbington Expedition will go down in history.”
There were so many questions to that, I was hard-pressed to pick one. “So, these maps just fell into your possession? What’s that all about?”
Lord Bothersome-Smug-Mannerless flicked me a glance, then looked at Gree, who shrugged and said, “Valid question.”
Lord Bloody-Stupid-Muttonhead took a sip of his ale and deigned to explain, “I have always been fascinated by stories of ancient treasure. My people are always on the lookout for credible sources, such as the map to be used in this expedition.”
Oh good, he’s a known easy mark. I downed my ale and gestured to Raspy Voice to get me another one. “And it doesn’t seem like a problem that no one ever comes out of Franklin Pass once they go in? Franklin died in there.”
“Someone came out,” Lord Brainless-Scurvy-Mite said with supreme confidence. “Someone made the map. And furthermore, I know the challenges—that’s why I’m hiring the best.”
“We’re in,” Gree said, and drank down the last of her ale.
“He hasn’t even told us the payment,” I protested. “Which we can’t spend anyway if we’re dead.”
“Oh come on,” she said with a grin. “It’s an adventure.”
I groaned. “I need more ale.”