For today’s Nano Poblano post, I’m using Grayson Queen’s Somethingist list to share an unfinished story. I have a number of unfinished short stories sitting around in my drafts folder, which is extremely frustrating. Often it seems to me as if short stories are the bane of my life – I get excited and follow a story up to a point, then it sits around waiting for years for me to find it again and wonder how I imagined I was going to finish it. The story I’m sharing is one of my favourites, a beginning to a dark fairytale, set in some distant apocalyptic future. It’s just a shame that I haven’t finished (or edited) it yet…
She stood in the graveyard, her black wings outstretched. Clothed in black and grey, she looked much like a weeping angel statue in the blue dusk, protecting and marking a grave, keeping watch against evil spirits. Yet her eyes, the whites of them clear and bright, scanned the environment, glittering with faint amusement. The corner of her mouth quirked upright, threatening a smirk. The crunching of feet approached, and her wings shuddered, as if a faint breeze had rustled against them. She closed them, and turned.
‘What, no grand entrance?’ she said, her wry chuckle disturbing the silence. Her visitor came closer, his light grey wings tucked behind his broad shoulders, his gait slow, unhurried.
‘This is just a courtesy visit, Ariel. Do you have the book?’ He crossed his powerful arms, and for a moment, Ariel wanted to reach out. He didn’t meet her eyes, though they were grave and – almost sad. He finally looked up as her silence filled up the space between them. ‘Well?’ he said, meeting her eyes, a new hardness in them.
She reached into her leather jacket, and pulled out the heavy black bound book. Hesitating, she looked down at it. The cover was etched with looping vines and flowers, its title set in beautiful script, old, ancient language that whispered in her mind. ‘Duma,’ she whispered, a small hiss on the wind. ‘Why do they need this?’ She looked up into his forbidding eyes, once full of laughter, private laughter just for her.
The wrinkles of tension eased around them, just a fraction, before they glanced at the book. His mouth took on a cruel twist, and she knew he would say something that would drag along her gut like a knife. His lips parted, just a fraction, and he took a breath. ‘You –’ Then he clamped his lips and took a step back. Shrugging, almost hidden in the deepening darkness of the graveyard, he said, ‘The order came from the commander. Who am I to disobey orders?’
‘What, like me, you mean?’ she said, under her breath, though he looked her way with a sharp turn of the head. She sighed. ‘This book was difficult to get hold of. The libraries are well guarded, as you know. I can’t keep doing this, Duma. Ask someone else to do your dirty work.’ Though she knew, deep down, that there wasn’t anyone else half as skilled in the art of stealing rare objects as she was. But she was tired, and seeing Duma in his new role, with the growing ice and distance between them, his new cruelty and resentment, chafed against her healing, still bruised heart.
They knew, the bastards, that this hurt like fiery hell, having Duma pick up whatever she had obtained for them. She had other clients, and it wasn’t as if she had any other options – she had to do this to keep afloat. She had chosen not to follow orders, had blatantly disobeyed them, and was thrown out of the regiment. No matter that she was one of the best warriors they had. The bottom line was everything to them. Almost – almost – a fallen angel – one step above, since she had been allowed to keep her wings.
The power of the book crackled against her gloved palm, singing to her blood. A curious object. She couldn’t open it: whatever spell ran through it kept it welded shut. Besides it was dangerous to play with ancient magic. Duma was still silent, waiting for her to hand it over.
‘What if I don’t give it to you?’ she said, watching him in the dark. His teeth flashed.
‘Oh, you will,’ he said. ‘We’ve paid you enough.’
‘Is that a threat?’
‘It’s a promise.’ He held out a hand. ‘I can wait all night.’
She wanted to fill the space between them with fire. Roaring flames that would melt the ice and the cold. But she wouldn’t. So she held out the book. She wouldn’t be the one to go to him. If he wanted it so much, he had to take it. Her pride wasn’t yet gone, and her back was straight. The book whispered through her gloves once again. A shudder shivered up her spine.
Duma cracked, and strode across to take it out of her hand. He took it, and the whisper of his scent, fresh, cold air, leather, and black steel, made her traitorous heart thud dully, remembering what her mind had tried to purge. It was so quick, this small moment of seeing his pale, luminous skin in the moonlight, his full lips and long eyelashes. Bitter anger burned behind her eyes. But Duma walked away, without once glancing back. Ariel watched as the air shimmered, and he vanished.
In the dark, she flew above the city. Skyscrapers, far below her, glittered, and neon lights flashed. She was invisible, the glamour hugging around her like a favourite blanket. A small spark of liquid joy sang through her. Ever since she was young, when her mother had first shown her their Aerie, first taken her out to the wide open space, and told her to stretch her wings and fly, that spark of exhilaration had never been extinguished. Even now, cloaked in the darkness of the human realm, she loved how every beat of her wings, every gliding movement, felt like silk holding her in the air. She felt weightless. When she landed, well, that was when the heaviness of the world landed back on her shoulders.
Wrapped tight in invisibility, she walked through the city, through the bright flashing signs and drunk humans, through dark alleyways where the worst of them did seedy, terrible things, and the quiet, affluent neighbourhoods where sometimes she would hear terrible things too. But she pretended that she was surrounded by ghosts, that these things were not happening, and even if they were, it was none of her business. What was it to her, former legion warrior, a fallen woman with dark wings? Her soul was just as black.
The apartment was in one of those up and coming areas of the city that boasted good food, but dirty streets, rough around the edges. She had been here for a year, and it didn’t yet show signs of becoming too popular, though it was trying to. She could still be anonymous here, despite the nosy human landlady, who she knew would creep along the landing listening at the doors of her tenants. Apart from that, she was left to her own devices. She had taken, by stealth, the landlady’s copy of her door key: she couldn’t risk her coming in and tripping the warding spells.
The apartment was sparse, but comfortable. It has everything she needed – a bed, a desk, a table and chairs, a small and functional kitchen, and a shower room that, most of the time, had hot running water. She had done a little tweaking here and there, increasing the space in the bathroom so she had more room to stretch her wings, and her bed was as large as she could make it. It took up most of the small bedroom, but she didn’t need much – her clothes were few, and she packed light. Much easier if she had to leave in a hurry.
Ariel pulled off her jacket and set down her cache of weapons, all hidden away in clever pockets and a shoulder harness. She’d had to learn the hard way that if she wanted to pass as human, she had to give little hint that she wasn’t one of them – she could glamour her wings but her bow and arrows had to be kept here. Instead, she had a couple of small but lethal crossbows, small enough to be hidden away under her jacket but still able to hit a mark fast, and four wicked, sharp throwing knives.
© Liz Ward, 2016.