Thanks again for the opportunity to participate in one of these challenges. I really loved it, and I’m considering using the world that I developed for this story as a setting for a longer work if people like it. So, let me know what you think. 🙂
My prompts were:
- Heaven and Hell by Black Sabbath
- Skinny Love by Birdy
- He Stopped Loving Her Today by George Jones
- Surfing with the Alien by Joe Satriani
- Fernando by Abba
George Jones grew up in the same part of Texas as me, so I had to use that song somehow. Skinny Love is a song I’d never heard, and Birdy’s rendition of it blew me away. As I listened to Heaven and Hell, I started thinking about how choices we don’t even realize we make affect our lives. I didn’t know which I would pick, but I couldn’t stop listening to Birdy’s cover. I started thinking about the greek archetype of the Siren. And then I thought about George’s song and wondered what if the “her” in that song was an addiction? And then the two came together: someone addicted to a Siren’s song. And everything else flowed from there.
I often craft a playlist to set the mood of a piece that I’m writing. So I added all three of these to a playlist and then threw in Song of the Caged Bird by Lindsey Stirling because it was just too perfect of a fit.
The rancid smell of burning flesh fills my nostrils even after I wake. Skull splitting screech-screams of the Faer rend my eardrums as they die on the singing steel of our blades. Visions of burning hamlets and bleeding children incinerate what little soul I have left. People no longer call me Faer Catcher the hero. I am now called Betrayer, Undoer, Evil Incarnate. But, I am just another captive in this prison without walls. My scars cannot be seen. The curse I bear remains outside the grasp of their minds. I fumble alongside my bedroll for the skin, unstop it, and pour the whiskey down my throat. If only the whiskey could help me unsee what I have seen, help me undo what I have done, help me unlove what I have loved.
I should have never went to her, but against my wife, my king, my generals, and my own judgment, I did. I went to her again and again in search of a way to regain the years I lost battling the Faer. I never imagined that search would land me in this hell. I drink again and remember how this all began with a similar dream on a similar night, years ago. Back then, I was Faer Catcher the fallen hero, the doer of deeds no man could stomach, but every man owed his life to. They all averted their eyes as I wasted years in the she-devil’s embrace. Like so many nights before it, it had begun with a dream of Pyrithian—it was always a dream of that damned battle.
Somehow, I was standing outside her cell, whiskey bottle in hand. I could not even recall how I had come here, but at least I had the presence of mind to smash the bottle before walking through the wall—it would not do to give her a weapon. They say you can never trust the Faer. She was sleeping in the moonlight, curled along a wide branch of the tree we had planted in the center of the cell beneath the high, barred skylight.
“Faer Catcher, your dreams rise again?” she said.
“No.” She extended her arms over her head, stretching. The Faer weren’t human. I always admonished recruits to never forget that. But when you see them in the moonlight like this, you can’t tell. The curve of her small breasts, the narrow slenderness of her waist, the subtle swell of hips—it was hard to say she wasn’t. Her wings were hidden by shadow, folded against her back. From this distance, I couldn’t see the long canines of her teeth, and the serene glow of her eyes—an otherworldly, lustrous green—was muted by the bright moonlight. She could be human. Deliciously human.
I stepped toward the tree. “Sing.”
“You know I cannot.”
She sighed. My tattered dreams fled before that exhalation of breath like chaff before the wind. “You put me here. You alone can enter. You can release me.”
I walked to the tree, laid my hand on the flesh of her leg. Lightning surged through my body. I spoke in Faer, weaving my intention with the words, implanting the images of my dream in her mind. “Dhovia, I can no more release you than I can forget these memories.”
Her back arched, the veins in her neck stood out as she ground her teeth together, and when she spoke, her lips pulled back to reveal the fangs, her eyes burning with a malevolent glower. “Damn you, Faer Catcher. You want me to help you forget your memories of butchering my people? One day, your deeds will find you. The Diamorandhi will come without us to stop them.”
“Dhovia, I know you love me.”
Her fingers curled into fists as she tried to resist. It was theater—no different than my whiskey, no different than the circuitous paths I took to this cell to ensure I wasn’t followed. I couldn’t admit to it any more than she could. Her voice was a poisoned whisper. “I doubt you know what that word means.”
“Then sing to me of it.”
She bared her teeth and screeched the words. Acrid smoke stung my eyes, screams of the dying wrenched my heart. I knew the futility of this war, of all war, and the hopelessness it left in its wake crept up my body like a thick mud. And I saw myself, scarred but younger, and my astonishment as she laid her hands on my shoulders. The scene shifted, and I was stumbling across my veranda, drunk. Schel, my wife, shouted at me through her tears that I was a disgrace for consorting with the Faer Queen. She slammed the door, pushing our young son inside. I heard what she’d said—the words had haunted me ever since: “He’s not worthy to be your father.”
I grimaced, regaining control of my mind. “This is not the song I want.”
“It is the only one you deserve, Faer Catcher.”
I put my hand behind her neck and pressed her mouth to mine—hard. I could feel her teeth cutting my lips, and with each drop of blood I knew years of my life would dwindle away, but I cared not. What was my existence anyway–meaningless circles between the bottle and this cell. Her breath caught as she tasted the blood on her tongue. Her hands were on my shoulders, her body atop mine, and the years fell away from me as we rolled together at the base of the tree. And afterward, wrapped in one another’s arms, she sang.
The song started with mere sound. Her voice was the icy crispness of a late autumn morn. The notes had the piercing quality of metal on crystal, but with the richness of fresh cream. Music reverberated in the room, and she sang over her echoes, letting them masquerade as a second singer. As she began to speak the Faer words, images exploded in my mind. I could feel each blade of grass fold beneath my bare feet like silk. Sweet morning dew of the still-young world was fresh on my tongue. We walked next to a burbling creek, hand in hand. All around us, a song of creation swirled: the melody of the creek blended with the joyful wind through the trees that commingled with trills of extinct birdsong. A newness, a freshness radiated from the world, and evil was a distant storm that would take a thousand generations to form.
We would soon come to the creek crossing, beyond which was an entirely different place, a land obscured by haze. Some unknown force compelled us to cross, but neither of us wished to part from here. We halted, holding close, sharing a feather’s kiss, relishing sunlight on our skin and reifying the bliss of creation. How could we leave? Too soon, we came to the crossing and took that ill-fated step into the stream. The melody eddied around us with a swirling sorrow. As our feet left the water on the opposite bank, the haze rushed upon us.
The cold stone cell enclosed us. The memory of bliss faded as the echoes of her melody diminished into a silence broken only by our shared sobs. Clouded daylight from high above illuminated our bodies. I was old once more. Her unblemished olive skin shone with a subtle greenish glow to match her eyes. Different though we were, the same salty tears hung on both our cheeks. Of all the times she had woven this particular song, I had never had the courage to ask, but this time, I did. “What is across that stream?”
She shook her head, crying harder, burying her face in my neck. I stroked her black hair, caressed the delicate folded wings along her back. “I love you, Dhovia.” Someone approached the doorway—I could feel it in my mind like staring eyes on my nape. “By the king of the gods. Someone comes.”
She stared at the rock wall where the doorway was. We could both see the dim outline of a boy on the other side. “A page,” she said. “Wearing the royal colors.”
I stood. The aches in my old bones had vanished thanks to her song. “I’ll see what they–“
Her fingers clutched at my breeches as I pulled them on. “I beg you, before you go release me. Don’t let me rot in here.”
Her voice held a note of true worry—rare for Dhovia. “What is it? What have you seen?” They say the Faer sometimes see the future.
Her tears refracted light from her eyes. “Please.”
“I’ll return, fear not.” I bent to kiss her.
She wrapped her arms and wings around her body and turned away.
I shook my head and stepped through the wall. The page jumped backwards, falling on his arse, muttering a curse. Seeing me, he scrambled to his feet and did a passable salute.
“Praetin Faer Catcher, sir. The King requests you.”
“Requests me?” Since Misen stole Schel and Julian from me we had not spoken save in the rare formal epistle. We haunted the castle like light and shadow, never occupying the same place. And that suited me fine.
“In his parlor, I presume?”
“The throne room.”
“The throne room?” What did Misen intend? To parade me before his nobles, courtesans, and priests? That riotous filth would be spreading rumors ere I crossed the threshold, and he had to know that. Had he finally decided to rid himself of me? And then there was Dhovia’s begging—she knew what scheme padded through the shadows of human minds. I turned back to the wall, should I demand that she tell me?
“Praetin, sir. King Misen declared it an urgent matter.”
King of the gods, have mercy. “Let us be off.”
As we walked, the ache returned to my knees—the effects of Dhovia’s songs usually lasted much longer. “What day is it?”
“Second of Edmar.”
I stopped walking and blinked. “You jest.”
“No, Praetin. It is the second.”
It wasn’t the day that astonished me. It was the month. Each song cost me more time. What had just felt like an evening and a morning of ecstasy had been two months. The Faer are not like us. A season to them is hardly a blink. I had to be more careful. I realized I couldn’t recall the route to the throne room, a path I’d walked countless times before Misen had been crowned. I followed the page’s instinctive feet through the populated hallways of the keep. People turned their eyes from mine, some made the sign against evil. When we arrived at the throne room’s antechamber, the lively babble of conversation and song withered. A whisper rippled across the painted lips of the courtesans as I passed. At the far end, feverish priests worked incense around their altar of protection and ceased their chanting to scowl as I opened the ornate oak doors.
Inside, I entered a stark silence. I recognized the rheumy eyes of the men seated about the ancient war table with its raised map. Last time I had seen them so assembled, it was at the festive banquets we held before we understood the price we had paid for our victory over the Faer. We were all so much younger then, and it was less than two decades ago. They say the bite of the Faer bleeds the years from humans; we didn’t understand that then. We do now.
“Praetin on the field,” said the guard at my back. All of the generals creaked to their feet, leaning on chairs and canes to salute. All of them except Misen.
“How good of you to finally join us, Faer Catcher,” King Misen said.
“What is this?”
“We wanted to ask you the same.” The generals shifted uncomfortably, lowering themselves back to their chairs. I could see the tokens spread across the broad map, and it did not look good. “What do you know of the Diamorandhi?”
“The dark Faer-kind. Beyond mischievous, vicious. Much worse than what we had to deal with. The Faer have always claimed that they kept them at bay and warned that they would come without anyone to stand up to them. But—“
“Looks like it is happening,” growled General Renish.
“That’s not possible. There has never been any sign that the Diamorandhi were anything more than illusion. I know the rumors you are talking about—the Faer killings, and sent a garrison out to investigate last week—I mean—“ Damn Dhovia. What day was it again? I couldn’t remember, “a month ago.”
“That was two and a half months ago now, you damned bastard. Six villages have burned. Everyone slaughtered—no—devoured.”
I rubbed my eyes, damning Misen under my breath. “What has this to do with me?”
Misen stood and stabbed his finger at the tokens on the map. “What has it to do with you? You are the Faer Catcher! Unless that one you keep locked up has completely addled your wits, we need you to stop these damn Faer before they advance on the city!”
“And who’s going to do that? Look at us, we are old men.” I just wanted to rest in her songs. “It is not our place to man these garrisons and protect civilians. That is a young man’s job with years to lose, and we should send them out.” The generals averted their eyes from me.
“What do you think we did? Not being able to find you, we sent them into battle,” Misen’s voice was quiet, seething between clenched teeth while he leaned on the knuckles of his fists. “They all died. We don’t even know the first thing about the battle.”
“You are exaggerating. Where is Colonel Trenhak?”
My eyes re-focused on the tokens that had been turned upside down on the table—signifying the forces and their last known positions. Seven battalions. My old mind could not do the math, but I could see how many faces that was, how many chins tilted into the sky as they marched the parade ground. I sunk into a chair, my rheumatic knees shaking. “By the king of the gods…”
“Can your songbird help us? Let’s bring her here, question her.”
Heat rose in my face. “You absolutely cannot bring her out of her cell—it is not safe!”
“Then we will go to her.”
“I will go.”
“You disappear into that cell for weeks at a time, Faer Catcher. Why do you think your wife left you?” One of the generals whistled at Misen’s remark.
I wanted to strangle the life out of him, but I was too old and too tired. I couldn’t get out of my seat. “You would do well to remember that you were not always King, Misen. Who carried you off the field at Pyrithian? If this is your gratitude, let the Diamorandhi overrun your arses.” I pushed to my feet.
“They will kill Schel and Julian too”.
Julian: that name rooted me to the stone. I could still see him as a baby, laughing in my arms. He now called me a disgrace. “How is he?”
“As if you care for any of us,” Misen said. “You would let us all be overrun.”
“How is he, you demon!”
“He is well. But he stands to lose his life just like the rest of us if we cannot stop the Diamorandhi.”
“I will ask her. But the Faer are tricky, not to be trusted. You should remember this.”
“This from the man who spends more weeks in her cell than in his own. I will go with you.”
“You will not you ungrateful—“
Misen’s hand moved to the singing blade he wore at his hip. “You do well to remember that I am still King. I will go with you.”
No whispers followed us as he and I left the throne room, walking side by side. Even the priests ceased their useless chanting. The only sound in the entire keep was our footfalls against the pavestones. I pulled him through the wall; it was clear his grasp of the Faer arts had faded.
“Dhovia, can we speak to you?” Misen said
She looked up from where she sat at the base of her tree, letting the sunlight bathe her wings. “King Misen, have you come to free me?” she addressed him, looking over my shoulder.
“The Diamorandhi have come,” I said, cutting off whatever Misen was about to say. “We need to know how to stop them.”
She smiled. Her beauty made my breath catch. She shifted into Faer-speak—images paraded through my mind as the words sang in my ears. “Of course they have.” Ghoulish beings with yellow eyes, and a terrible beauty like a well-crafted weapon haunted my mind. Unlike the Faer we had hunted, these had the colors of pale, burnished metal. Their unsettling eyes and longer teeth reminded me of the pictures of ghosts in story books.
“What is going on, what is she saying, Kidden?” I could feel the hint of fear in Misen’s voice; he was always fearful of the Faer. It had nearly been his undoing.
I was stunned to hear my name. No one had called me “Kidden” in years. Before I could translate the images and piece together the sounds into our crude language, Dhovia spoke. “They came because you called them.”
“We did no such thing!”
“Child,” Dhovia said. She stood and moved toward us flexing her wings with each deliberate step, like a lioness about to pounce. “While it is true that we extracted our tax upon your people, we did so because it sustained us. We fought the Diamorandhi on your behalf, keeping them in their place far over the Taraonawy mountains. But, now they have come. You disturbed the balance, and you will pay the price.”
“How can we stop them?”
She directed her softly glowing eyes at me. “At least one of you possesses the Faer Arts. Perhaps the blood of my brethren that you drank will help you, Faer Catcher.”
“How do you know—“
“I have listened to your lies for enough seasons. You say you love me. Love me when you watch your people burn. Love me when you watch your stone towers leveled. Love me when your wife and child have nothing to do with you. Love me when you die, mortal.” She spoke the last sentence in Faer, eyes narrowed, fangs bared, stabbing images through my soul. I resisted the images of death, rot, and decay and countered with moments of our shared tenderness. I sang of how I spared her when everyone demanded she be killed.
In a single wing beat, her body pressed me into the wall. Desire erupted from my soul to my skin; I yearned for her the way a lodestone leaps to metal. Her mouth was on mine in a ferocious kiss, her sharp canines cut into my lip with an ecstatic glimmer of pain. I ran my hands over her body, the soft shoulders, the swell of breast, the curve of hip, the bony protrusion of wings. Her love could roll back the years, erase the ache and agony. I leaned in, melting into her violent embrace. She slammed me into the wall, pinning my shoulders with her hands. She was more radiant than ever—her skin glowed like dappled sunlight through a spring forest canopy, her lithe muscles flexed with each breath. It was hard to stand. I needed to lie down, but she held me there.
“Stop this abomination!” Misen waved his hands, fretting. “The gods will punish you for this, Kidden!” Disgust played over his features. “Dhovia, why would they come now, after all these years?”
He cowered when her gaze fell on him. “Because I called them.”
My heart exploded, filling my chest with a thousand shards of glass. “How could you? What of the balance? You know the tales, what they will do to the land—”
“It is you who disrupted the balance. I waited for you to understand, for you to see. With every passing year, you tilt the balance farther. You say you love me, but your kind do not understand love. You only understand taking. You take from me. You take my home. You take my children. You take my tribe. And so now, I take from you. Why do you forget time, Faer Catcher? Why have you forgotten your name? Why do you feel ever older, while I grow ever more vital with each encounter we have? I am going to outlive you, outlast you, and these seasons—“ she gestured to the cell—“ will be less than a moment in my lifetime. I will be released, and you will watch your city and your family burn. The Diamorandhi will have you, and their ways are not so pleasant as mine.” she drew her fingernail across my cheek, and I shivered with the cut it left in its wake.
“You cannot leave us to die. The Diamorandhi will kill you as well!” Misen screamed.
“The Diamorandhi are many things, but wise is not one of them. They will never capture me.” She lunged, grabbing Misen’s dagger. I caught her wrist, but I did not stop the strike. I thought her target was Misen. The singing steel smoked as it plunged into my chest, the magic instantly cauterizing the wound. Dhovia bared her canines as she followed my body to the floor. “If you want to live, open the wall.”
“Misen, get Schel and Julian onto a boat. Run to the other side of the world if you must. But…get…them…out.” He stood there, eyes moving between Dhovia and I, paralyzed in his fear. I whispered the words to open the cell. “Misen you oaf! Get wings on your feet and flee you gods-be-damned coward!”
Dhovia watched him run and placed her hand on my chest, withdrawing the knife. Healing fire swept through my body, wracking my chest in pain. I convulsed into coughing fits. When I could breathe, I stared into her eyes, surprised that I wanted her in spite of the betrayal still burning through me. I hated myself for loving her, for being such a fool. Tears pooled at the edges of my eyes. “King of the gods damn you, Dhovia.”
She sang a song of loss and betrayal that layered upon itself like an ocean tide. I resisted the images it spun, but eventually the waves of illusion drowned me. Schel screamed that I was a drunk and an abomination. Men I had served with—men who owed their lives to me—spat in my face. Flowers wilted in my hand. I kept trying to tell myself the Faer were the ones that knew nothing of love. But, I was the fool. Smothered by the echoes of the song, I curled my knees to my chest and let my tears pool on the stone floor.
Pain called me back. It surged through my feet as though they had been filled with molten metal. I opened my eyes, gasping for breath. A Diamorandhi stood over me. I had never seen one, but there was no denying what he was. His eyes were a glowering shade of merciless, stale gold; the long fangs jutted out of his lips. His hair was dyed in white streaks and braided into thick ropes of alternating white and black. I was tied to a plank, and all my bones ached. Two more Diamorandhi stood to either side of my legs, one healing them and the other cradling a blood splattered stone maul. Meeting my gaze, the maul-wielder raised his weapon and grinned. I shuddered.
“Where is Dhovia?” asked the Diamorandhi with the black and white hair.
“I don’t know. And if I did, I would tell you. You can have her.”
“Convenient denunciation.” He gestured to the maul-wielder. I screamed as he pulverized my bones with glee. I lost consciousness. I awoke to the hot, searing pain of the bones mending.
“We can do this as often as you like, Faer Catcher.”
“I don’t know where she is.”
“That’s not what I asked. I asked if you are ready to capture her again?”
“You did once. Why not again?”
“I’m old. I’m slow. I’ve already lost too many years to you damned devils.”
“We can remedy that.”
I could regain the years?
“As long as you walk our path, you will have the years you lost. But if you fail or betray us, this” he indicated the torturers, “is just the beginning. We will make this feel like lovemaking.” With his words, I could see Julian and Schel in a dungeon somewhere. Was he using my worries against me, or was the vision real? Did it matter?
“I’ll find her.”
“Good.” His face broke into the grin of a starving wolf. I shrunk against the plank. He turned to his healer. “Make him what he once was.”
There was not a shard of mirror glass left unbroken in the smoldering keep, but I needed it not. I could see the surprise and recognition in people’s eyes. It changed to revulsion when they realized that a garrison of Diamorandhi followed me. We passed the rotting corpses, the burning homes, and the wails of the survivors, as we began our hunt.
Dawn breaks along the eastern rim of the sky. The whiskey is empty. I don’t know what I will do when I capture Dhovia. No longer loved and unloved, no longer jailor and jailed, we are equals–both captives in a prison we created and cannot escape.