Tim's already announced it, but that won't stop me: got the word that Flytrap has accepted my story "Breathe" for their forthcoming issue. If you're curious, it's a love story of sorts, the kind of love story that "Every Breath You Take" is, as long as you actually know the lyrics and think about their implications.
Hm. That actually doesn't tell you that much about the story, really. You'll just have to buy the issue to find out more.
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We bought a miniature comfy chair for Ian. He seems to like it, mostly to use as stairs to bigger and higher things. The cats also seem fond of it, as they can lie on it and pretend they're enormous.
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Also, today is International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Wretch Day! Huzzah! And so to celebrate, I provide for you here (well, below the cut, as it is also enormous) my first published story: "Demonheart," which appeared in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine #31 in the spring of 1996. And hey, it's got pirates! Whee!
by Jon Hansen
Faren lay on a gray stone slab. Around him stretched only darkness, water dripping the only sound echoing in the distance. The chill of the cold stone seeped through his thin clothing, numbing him. He opened his mouth to scream for help, but felt himself choking on the words, his mouth full of dust and sand. His body lurched with a sudden sharp pain. He heard the sound of cloth tearing and looked down to see a gnarled hand rip its way out of his chest, grasping and pawing. He screamed...
And awoke, the scream dying in his throat when he realized where he was, safe in the hold of the Eye of Heaven. Around him came the snores of the rest of the crew, scattered bundles in the dimness. He lay there for a long moment, calming himself, listening to the rhythms of the sleeping ship. He had had the same dream every night, ever since the sorceress Ylana had come aboard. He thought of her and how she might help him. After a moment he silently slipped from his blankets and left the hold, towards the captain's cabin, where the sorceress was.
Ylana had come aboard at Imphal a week ago, after counting enough foreign gold into the captain's trembling hand to buy the ship outright. She had only said that she was traveling to Golgamoth, two weeks journey on horseback, but only a week away across the Sheim Sea. She said nothing about her business there. Jericho, the first mate, had loudly protested her boarding, saying the crew would never stand for it. The captain kept quiet, counting his coins, and Ylana had merely gazed at the mate for an eternal moment until Jericho at last retreated, grumbling into his beard.
It was a short walk across the ship. The Eye of Heaven was not a particularly large merchant ship, but it was a well-kept one. Faren easily avoided the lazy eye of the night watch, and then he stood before her door. There was no guard; there was no need. No one would dare disturb her.
The sorceress had taken over the captain's cabin after coming aboard, and had not set foot from it since they had set sail. Any complaints the captain may have had were smoothed over with more gold. Her baggage had been light, only a small pack. Faren had been a little disappointed, expecting the sorts of exotic and mysterious things that the village witch back home had used for her spells. She had also carried a long broadsword at her hip. Some of the northern men in the crew muttered at that, but she had taken no notice and no one dared press the point.
Jericho will tan my hide if he catches me, Faren thought. The mate had filled Faren with a tale that set the boy's hair on end of how Ylana had gained her powers by a pact of darkness, and he had told Faren to avoid her at all cost. He had glowered at Faren until the boy mumbled an agreement to keep his distance. Now Faren hesitated in front of the door. Inside he could hear a quiet sound, like music. After a moment he seized his courage and rapped twice.
The sound inside stopped for a moment, and Faren could hear someone moving inside. He reached for the handle, but the door opened silently before he touched it. "Enter," came a quiet voice from inside.
The cabin was completely dark. Two open portholes in the back wall brought the smell of salt and fish into the cabin. The moonlight gave the small room an unearthly glow. Faren had been in the captain's cabin only once before, when he first signed on the crew. Faren had been a little scared, then. Now he trembled as he looked around.
The music was much louder now, the sound of a woman humming a lullaby to herself. For a moment Faren couldn't see anyone. Perhaps she's invisible! He looked about a bit wildly. "Hello?" he said. "Is there anyone here?"
Something to his left shifted and he whirled. A woman, formless in black robes, sat in the corner, her pale face now uncovered and shining like the moonlight. "What do you want?" Her voice was low, flowing through the cabin. For a moment Faren thought she sounded like his mother, sad and quiet.
"My name is Faren," he blurted. "I want to be a sorcerer." She said nothing, her colorless eyes staring right through him. "Will you take me to apprentice?"
She laughed, not unkindly. "Child, go away. You don't know what you're asking." Faren felt his ears burning, but he didn't move. She sat forward, looking at him with new interest. "Why should I? Why do you want to become a sorcerer?"
He paused, for a moment. The need had been so deep inside of him for so long that he had to think before he could say it. "I want to be a hero. My uncle Garon was a soldier in the Steel Legion. He visited us a few times, and told me how they helped defeat the Bone Empire. I told my father one day that I wanted to grow and be just like Garon." Faren flushed a little at the memory of his father's expression.
"My father laughed. He said he was a fisherman, and he wanted me to become a fisherman too. I didn't want to. I wanted to be like Garon. So I ran away to Imphal. I tried to join in the militia there, but they laughed at me too. Said I should come back when I was older. Finally Jericho agreed to take me on. But I don't want to be a merchant." Faren looked down at his feet, a little embarrassed, then looked back at her. Through her robes Faren thought for a moment he could almost make out the mark of the sorcerer twisting in silver fire on her chest. Quickly he looked away.
Ylana didn't seem to notice, however. She shook her head. "The price of power is high. You would not want to pay it."
"So what Jericho said about you is true!" Faren was a little shocked. He had thought the mate was just trying to scare him.
"What did he say?"
Faren looked down at his feet again. "That...you killed your husband, sacrificed him to darkness. That you traded your child's soul for your power. That you cannot die, being cursed by the gods." The boy looked up at her, suddenly afraid. An uncle of his had insulted the village witch once, and had drowned only a week later.
She merely sat, staring back at him, regarding him so frankly that he flushed. "There are many ways to be a hero. Find another one. I do not want another apprentice." She looked away, eyes clouded in memory.
This wasn't how Faren had imagined it would go. "No! You can't!" He took a step forward, insistent.
Again she didn't notice. "Go away, child." She sat back on her stool and began humming again.
Faren was furious. She had dismissed him, just like that! His hopes crumbled and he felt like crying. He turned to leave, tears beginning to well up. He opened the door and then stopped. In a fury he whirled back around and glared at her. "Stay out of my dreams, then! Keep your witchery to yourself!" His voice cracked at the end, high and shaky.
Abruptly the humming stopped. Suddenly she stood before him, her two hands seizing his head in an icy grip, her face only a few inches away, peering deep into his eyes. After a second Faren realized that she wasn't breathing. It was all he could do not to scream. They stood that way for a minute, the sorceress looking for something in his face, the boy too scared to move or speak.
In a sudden motion she released him. He swayed and almost fell. As he stood there speechless, she reached beneath her robes, removed a curious metal symbol from a small pouch and slipped it on a thin chain. "Here, child. Take this," she said, offering it out to him. Her face, a carved ivory mask, shone in the dark.
Faren took it. The metal symbol felt warm, not unpleasantly, and seemed to move under his fingers as he held it in his hand. It curved strangely, like nothing he had ever seen before. "Put it on," said Ylana. Faren looked up at her.
"What will it do?"
"It will give you what you want. It will help make you a hero."
Carefully he pulled the chain over his neck and tucked it under his shirt. Faren could feel it up against his skin, slowly moving across his chest.
"What will it cost me?"
"Only what you have to give." With that she turned away, again quietly humming, and returned to her stool. He began to speak, but she covered her face and he instead left, slipping back across the ship to his waiting blanket.
He crawled back in and lay there for a long time, thinking about what had happened until sleep overcame him, the talisman warm under his shirt.
In the morning they were attacked. Faren had come on deck moments just minutes before. He looked up to see the pirate corsair literally appear out of nowhere, rippling out of the dawn like a fever dream, catching everyone completely off guard. Desperately the captain spun the wheel but it was too late. The shock of the collision threw Faren to his knees, and the pirates swarmed aboard, howling with bloodlust.
Now Faren could feel the deck shuddering beneath his feet, heard the screams of the crew and knew that it was only a matter of time. The confusion and panic on the merchant was the same as it had been the night his uncle's fishing boat struck a reef and sank. They had been close to shore then, and were able to swim to shore. Out here on the open seas there was no safety.
Hearing the rush of feet behind him, he whirled and only barely dodged a cutlass thrust from a wild eyed ruffian. He swung his knife wildly and felt the thud up his arm as he connected, the talisman suddenly blazing at his throat. The pirate howled in pain and collapsed, his dark blood spilling out and staining the smooth wooden decks. For a moment Faren stood there in shock. It had been so easy, so effortless. After a moment he reached down and pulled his blade free. The pirate's eyes gazed up at him, empty now, and he looked away, sickened.
The rest of the ship was no better. Men struggled and died on the decks. As Faren watched, the captain went down with a bolt in the eye. At the prow stood Ylana, a tall wraith in black, her rune of power glowing like a star on her chest. The remains of the crew were rallying around her. They feared and hated her, but she was their only chance to survive.
Beside her stood Jericho, the old mate's cutlass beating back one attacker after another. Ylana's broadsword blazed and flared in the dawn, leaving mangled bodies in its wake. None of the pirates had faced that blade and lived, but still more and more of them swarmed aboard. Faren could see the pirate captain still standing on his own ship, arms crossed, a lopsided grin on his face.
Faren touched the talisman hanging around his neck. For a moment it felt like a hot coal and he jerked his hand away. Up against his chest it merely felt warm. Another body collapsed on the deck near Faren, one of his crewmates, one eye open in surprise, the other a ruin of blood and bone. Faren clenched his teeth and tried to hold back the bile. His uncle Garon had never mentioned how terrifying a battle was. He had never sounded afraid. Faren couldn't understand why not.
Another nearby scream of pain reminded him that he needed to find safety quickly. He headed across the deck towards Ylana. The stench of blood and salt and fear filled the air and the clash of steel deafened him. As Faren passed the mast another pirate charged out of the crowd and leaped on top of him. Frantically Faren stabbed at him, trying to get away. They rolled to the rail, still struggling. Then the pirate gave a gurgle and died. With an effort Faren pushed away the body, but he could feel a stabbing pain in his side. A touch came away red and sticky. Pale, Faren began to try to stand and gasped in shock and pain. The prow and safety were now as distant as the moon. He considered throwing himself over the side and chancing the sharks, but the deck lurched again and he collapsed beside the dead pirate, tears in his eyes, his side aflame.
A sudden silence fell over the doomed vessel. Faren looked around; besides the handful of survivors at the prow, the rest of the Eye's crew were dead or dying. Including myself, Faren thought.
"Surrender or die!" yelled one of the pirates. The merchant crew jeered in response, but Ylana was silent, sword at the ready.
"Ylana, you are the only one I really want, you know." The voice drifted across the deck. Faren craned his head back and saw the pirate captain, smiling lazily at the sorceress like a cat stalking a mouse. The captain took two quick steps and leaped over the rail onto the Eye, feather-light. Faren thought he looked more like a nobleman's foppish son than a pirate, and he wore no weapon that Faren could see, but the rest of the pirates made way for him quickly enough. Another moment told him why: on his tanned and muscular chest burned the same rune as Ylana's, the mark of the demon. There came a mutter from the merchant crew, who edged away from Ylana, shooting her suspicious looks. Faren lay still and played dead.
The pirate captain strolled slowly and easily through the corpses until he stood a few feet beyond where Faren lay dying. He smiled and bowed, the picture of the perfect gentleman. "Ylana. How very pleasant to see you again. And I've been looking for you for some time."
"Darmon. You bastard."
The pirate captain smiled again. "Ah, dear lady. You always did have a way with words." He then inclined his head at Jericho. "Ah, let me be the first to extend you my congratulations on your new promotion, captain, and on behalf of myself and my men, thank you for the kind hospitality of your ship." He laughed, the rest of the pirates joining in.
Jericho looked at Ylana angrily. "You know him?"
The sorceress did not take her eyes off the smirking pirate as she answered in a voice of dark glass. "This is Darmon. We've met before, a long time ago, under equally unpleasant circumstances."
"At your service, sir!" boomed Darmon, and he gave another courtly bow. As he straightened, one of the surviving crew threw a knife at him. Darmon's smile never faded as the knife sank into his chest with a meaty chunk. The crew gasped as he pulled it out and casually tossed it aside, the knife rattling as it clattered on the deck. Darmon chuckled. "Please, my good captain. No need for you to offer us any more gifts! We'll get what we came for soon enough."
"And what would that be?" Faren thought she sounded only a little curious, as if she were inquiring about the weather.
Darmon laughed, a slight edge creeping into it. Casually he pointed at her. "Why, you, dear lady." He laughed again, his voice echoing among the dead. The pirate paused and scratched his head, looking at Ylana. "Why are you protecting these people, Ylana? They hate you, you know. Not as much as I do, of course, but they still hate you." He casually began to pace along the deck, absently stepping over a body here and there. "Oh, certainly, after we have you, my men will throw them overboard, but it's nothing personal. Just business." Jericho's face burned livid with rage, but Ylana simply looked uninterested. Darmon clouded over for a moment, cold and angry. "You and I, that is personal."
"Why are you here, Darmon?" Faren thought Ylana sounded bored.
The well-dressed pirate looked up at the sorceress. "I'm here to kill you, Ylana. I'm here to steal your powers, to rip the demon from your heart and make it serve me. But mostly, I'm here to make you suffer as you've made suffer."
"It won't work, you know. You'll never be able to control it. You don't have the will."
Darmon flushed. "Don't have the will! Why, my dear Ylana, we'll see about that!"
He began to raise up his arms, but one of the pirates stepped forward, head nodding in respect. "Beggin' your pardon, sir, but me'un some of the men were wantin' to take some'o this ship's cargo before it sinks, sir, if you don't mind."
Darmon turned towards the pirate, face red with rage, fist half-raised. "How dare you interrupt-" With an effort he stopped and straightened, mastering himself. "Very well, then. Do as you wish, simply make it quick." The pirate scuttled off, gathering a few of his fellows and heading below.
Jericho snarled in outrage. "You thieving swine! Don't you dare- " Darmon cut him off with a lazy wave of his hand.
"My dear...captain, you are in no position to demand anything. I myself am not interested in whatever paltry cargo you happen to be carrying, but my men are. As I have said, the only thing I want is Ylana's." His eyes gleamed as he smiled at Ylana.
"You can try to take it."
"I intend to. Step forward, my dear, and face me, unless you are afraid."
Ylana did not bother to respond, stepping away from Jericho and the others, her long black cloak flowing in the breeze. Darmon stepped forward to meet her. They stood for a long time, simply staring at each other like two hunting cats. No else moved.
Suddenly the two of them were wrapped in a gauzy light that wavered and danced like the lights in the northern skies. It hurt Faren's eyes to look at it, and he squinted in the sudden glare. Everyone else quickly backed away from the two. A humming noise seemed to be coming from the light, gnawing at Faren's ears. It sounded like voices, whispering to him from very far away. He was afraid to listen to it. The wind died, everything became still, and even the ship seemed to pause in its dying.
Then it began. Ylana gave a shout and raised up her arms, chanting out words that had no meaning to Faren. A dark cloud formed before her and out of it stepped a thing that was a man and not a man. It drooled and snarled at Darmon and shuffled forward, clutching a long heavy axe.
But Darmon began his own chant, and a three headed dragon thing formed, hissing and spitting dark venom. Faren gasped at the smell of the thing. Then the monster shrieked and charged Ylana's creation.
The two shapes clashed and began to struggle. The man-thing swung his axe, severing one of the dragon's heads in a sudden spurt of ichor, and it howled its pain. But the other two heads lashed back, ripping great wounds in the man-thing's side. Black blood flowed down its side and it collapsed in pain. A moment later saw it vanish out of existence like a mirage.
Darmon smiled, and the dragon lurched towards Ylana, trailing dark blood from the severed neck. But a wave of dark twisted rats came boiling up from the deck beneath it and swarmed over the wounded creature, dragging it down to be devoured. For a moment Faren thought it might be over, but then each of the two created more monsters, which fought and howled and died on the decks. Jericho and the crew were still fast behind Ylana, their faces pale under their tans as they watched the duel.
Both the sorcerers were staggering now, barely able to keep on their feet. Faren could see dark sweat staining Darmon's clothes, but the pirate was grinning now. The energies took more and more fantastic shapes, nightmares and monstrosities made real, appearing and disappearing in seconds. It made Faren dizzy, and he looked away for an instant.
At that moment something happened. His eyes averted, Faren didn't see it, but Darmon did. He made a clutching gesture and a great serpent of blue fire encircled Ylana, holding her tight, crushing her shield of light against her. She screamed in rage and pain and struggled, but couldn't free herself. Darmon laughed, a terrible laugh and the pirates began to shuffle forward, shouting for him to finish the struggling Ylana.
The talisman on Faren's chest fluttered then, like a wounded gull. Faren looked up, startled, and could feel Ylana staring at him, eyes no longer distant now, but focused on him in rage and pain and a curious insistence. The pain of his wound disappeared, and Faren knew what to do.
Fumbling with blood-slicked hands he lifted his knife and carefully wrapped the talisman chain around the hilt. None of the pirates paid the slightest bit of attention to him, intent as they were on their master's victory. Faren could feel the knife beginning to pulsate as he lifted it, the talisman glowing now. Then, mustering the last of his strength, he hurled it towards Darmon's back.
As he threw he knew that he hadn't thrown it hard enough. But that didn't seem to matter. Whirling end over end the blade flew, tearing through Darmon's protective shields with a hiss. Startled, the pirate began to turn but before he could take a step the knife sank deep in his back. Darmon screamed, a cry of rage and fear. The pirate staggered forward and collapsed to one knee, concentration shattered. The fire serpent encircling Ylana winked out in an instant. As his vision grayed, Faren could see Ylana stepping towards Darmon, blade raised, a demonic grin on her face. Darmon screamed again, from very far away, it seemed to Faren...
He stood on a gray beach by the ocean, the surf roaring in time with his heart. Out of the shoals rose two dark shadows, one a crooked and snarling nightmare, the other a grinning skeleton covered in a rotting sheet. Ylana appeared before him, pointing at him in command. "Choose!" she said, her voice echoing inside him. Before his eyes the skeleton changed into Darmon, and then him, flesh falling away from his skull. His heart faltered, each beat an explosion of pain, and then grew still. Faren screamed into the silence, his words swallowed up. The demon-thing turned, its terrible dark eyes blazing, scooped him up in a twisted claw, tossing him into its gaping maw....
Faren awoke with a start. His head was buzzing and he ached all over. He looked around, but could only see shadows. "Where am I?" he croaked.
"You're aboard the Eye of Heaven. You'll be fine. You've been unconscious for a few days. Just try and relax. Your body is trying to adjust." A lantern flared, its light revealing Ylana sitting at the foot of the bunk, Jericho standing beside her looking grim.
"What happened?" A sudden spasm shook him. He shivered and clutched at the rough blankets.
Jericho coughed, and then spoke. "With Darmon gone, we were able to rout the pirates. They lost their taste for fighting after she set a few of her monsters on them." Jericho glanced at Ylana and then continued. "The hull had a few cracks from the collision. She patched them and whistled us up a fair wind. We'll be reaching port soon." He coughed again, a bit self-consciously. "Listen, Faren,...there's no easy way to say this. The crew has named me the new captain and-" He stopped again, looking a little embarrassed. Faren looked at him, curious. Ylana sat, motionless. The mate straightened up then and continued on in a voice of iron. "Faren, I've decided to release you from the crew." Faren stared at him, shocked, but Jericho wouldn't meet his eye. "You'll be put ashore at Golgamoth with Ylana. You can travel with her or not, as you please." He looked at Faren then, and gave a nod. "Good luck, boy." With that he turned and silently left the cabin, leaving Faren gaping after him.
Faren turned back to Ylana. "He released me- but why? What's happened?" A wave of nausea swept him. The buzzing in his head grew louder. Suddenly Faren felt another presence in the room. He looked around but saw no one else. "Ylana? What happened?"
She sighed. "Faren, you were dying. The problem with sorcery is that is like most things, destroying is easier than creating. You saved my life. I had to do something."
He stared at her. She stared back, jaw set. "Ylana. What did you do to me?"
Gently she took his hand and laid it on his chest. With a shock he realized he couldn't feel his heartbeat. "What have you done to me," he whispered. He tore open his shirt to see the demonspawn rune twisting on his chest. He stared at it, horrified. The rune crawled across his chest, a silver mass cold as the grave. The buzzing in his head grew clearer, dark whispers from far away. He looked back at Ylana, the full realization of what she had done sinking in. "You made me just like you."
"Yes. With Darmon dead, his demon required a new...vessel. So I decided to place it within you. It saved your life. And it does give certain...advantages." She stared at him, expressionless. "Power. Magic. The ability to lead, to fight, to kill. That is what you wanted, isn't it? To be a sorcerer and a hero?" She laughed bitterly.
"And damned," he whispered. "I should kill you."
Ylana laughed again, short and bitter. "Maybe you will, someday. Darmon thought he might." She gave a half-smile. "He was my last apprentice. I tried to teach him how to control it, but it drove him mad."
Faren could only lie there, stunned. In his head he could hear the demon whispering to him. He tried to ignore it and looked back at the sorceress and saw the sympathy in her eyes. "Will it drive me mad too?" he whispered.
"Perhaps. But not if you're strong enough. But first you need to learn how to keep it from killing you." Above decks the crew could be heard hurrying about in their preparations to dock. She took his hand, her fingers cool and dry and her pale eyes were now sad. "Since you're awake, we'll begin the first lesson. Focus on me."