A lone candle dimly flickers in the hazy darkness of the nursery, casting more shadow than illumination. The comfy space, littered with cushions and bolts of cloth both fine and fair, all struck with crimson and embroidered in gold-cloth, only exists to please its lone inhabitant. Cooing gently and swaddled in crimson, the tiny infant snores in his cradle and the stone walls gently absorb his rhythmic breaths. Even the cradle that bears him is done up in the crimson and gold; in the form of two finely-crafted dragons, reaching over opposing ends to guard the baby’s dreams.
Much of the detail is lost to the haze of the singular candle, or perhaps just the haze of an old dream too old to remember clearly. But the baby lies still and sound, as a baby ought to in the dead of night. The lazy peacefulness comes to an abrupt end when the door shudders, then cracks with a thunderous boom. It comes slamming inward all a raucous, unhinging a tapestry of cherubs and dragons dancing in some silver clouds crumpling in a mess near the doorway.
The baby wakes with a start and cries out his displeasure, wailing and writhing as peaceful slumber is wrenched from him. Only to make matters worse, a blinding light replaces the once-sturdy door and spills into the nursery, blaring and obnoxious. He wails, adorable and ferocious, begging for sleep once again.
Shadows chase forward and the light abates as a woman marches up to the cradle and ducks between the golden dragons to reach for him. Her long black curls, dark as midnight in winter, spill over the cradle and gently brush the baby’s face. He smiles, quiet now as he remembers. She scoops him from his cradle with little effort, and speaks gentle nothings to him as he rises, eyes fixed on the shadowy woman.
He is content to return to sleep if all the noise-making is over, and begins to settle in her arms. She pulls him into the crook in her breast, shielding him with the plate armor on her arms and with her free hand retrieves her lantern from the floor. In the new light her hair seems darker somehow; as though it were freshly dipped in tar and still greasy it is so black. The infant twirls his fingers about the locks, and shifts his other hand to occupy his mouth with a tasty thumb, no longer fighting to keep his eyelids open.
The dark-haired woman’s face is obscured by the shadows about the room, but her dark lips curl in a faint smile between her olive cheeks, as the infant nestles in. Tall and broad for a woman, the light-skinned warrior stands head-to-toe clad in ruby-red armor, accents of gold and steel plate and mud everywhere. Sprouting over her shoulder like a reed on a riverbank, a long Dragonblade hilt of white and gold reaches up for the ceiling, a fresh coat of blood staining its cords. She is not standing for more than a moment before she sets about making safe their escape.
With the baby tucked into the crook of her arm, she wakes him again in her efforts to destroy his cradle. The intricate oak furniture cracks and quakes as she brutally kicks it to a worthless heap. The golden dragons smash to unrecognizable tinder with a few swift hacks, then she tosses over torn tapestries and artworks from the stone walls. Soon the cozy comfort of the room is no more than a heaping mess, decimated before the feet of the now panting dark-haired warrior.
The heap of baby in her arm squirms the whole time she demolishes his nursery; annoyed that she was keeping him from sleep, completely ignorant of the desperation in her deed. She moves with the baby and the lantern back toward the doorway and quickly slips the lantern onto the hall floor. Still in the doorway she turns slowly to regard the room for one last moment, surveying what remains and what she’s destroyed. Her gaze freezes on a shadowed corner nearby as she approaches the table in the middle of the room. The lone candle shudders as the dark-haired woman lifts it from its perch, wax spilling haphazardly on the floor before her heavy boots.
After a moment’s hesitation, she set the candle to its task. The torn artwork ignites instantly and the tapestries follow shortly thereafter, flames licking toward the ceiling and spouting large plumes of black smoke. The warrior and the yawning infant are free of the demolished nursery and walking down the hall while the remains of the cradle crackle and pop in the growing flames.
A flicker in her peripheral, a glimmer of light where only darkness should reside. The warrior drops her lantern and snatches at the air as if to grasp a moth in flight. In her palm, she clutches a burnt shred of parchment, golden embroidery on its edge and obscured crimson ink lost to ash. The lady sniffles as the shred of paper finds a home within her breast plate, perhaps in a moment of weakness a tear would have followed. A few steps down the hall, a turn to the right and the smoking rubble of the nursery is gone forever.
Each footfall seems to echo into eternity as the abandoned hallways twist and turn into oblivion. The stone walls plastered with tapestries of crimson, cerulean and amethyst and every dozen paces a new chandelier fails to light their way. Nearly all the luminaries are inactive, high on their perches in the stonework and only the occasional flickering firelight to mark their progress.
The dark-haired woman is working hard to cover their tracks, deftly navigating the dark corridors and deluminated pathways. Lack for direction is not her concern, it is stealth she lacks sorely, cringing in her soul with every heavily echoing footfall.
Footsteps–not her own–reverberate off the stone from behind.
Trepidation strangles her progress, each corner demanding far more effort and delicacy. More footsteps. She stops her progress and turns to nestle within a corner near a closed doorway. She feels her heart beating faster and cradles the baby up higher in her breast, the soft hairs on his head tickling her sweat-covered neck. The footsteps are louder now, out of synch and from opposite directions. She crouches her body against the door, muscles tense like a spring loaded for release.
She is ready.
One sudden swing and the lantern flies from her grasp down the hallway and around the corner she just retreated from. The clamor of metal and glass splintering against stone attracts one pair of footsteps like a fly to scat. As a soldier clad in blue and silver rushes past her hiding place to investigate the commotion, she pulls a golden dagger from her side and leaps forward.
When she thrusts the weapon forward with deadly intent, it bursts into glowing red light. She’s on the man and he’s down, dead before he hits the stone floor. The blade sings as it pulls free from the metal that failed to protect his spine. Before the red flame around the brilliant dagger reaches its full brilliance, the fire extinguishes in her hand; her moves like a bolt of crimson lightning in the darkness, smiting the blue-clad soldier and cauterizing a hole in the steel where the blade once was.
No time to celebrate her victory as another set of footsteps quickens its pace in the darkness.
Around a corner, then another, and another they trudge on, her heart beating harder even than before. She’s crying now, not sobbing like a frightened girl, but exhaustion and loss are demanding their toll on a weary body. Tears stream without cease and threaten to choke the breath from her lungs as she carries on. Fear and duty drive her, love interceding heroically where exhaustion would corrode her will.
It’s been a long day; so many battles, so much loss and still more fight ahead.
Footsteps falling louder from behind now, approaching too fast to turn away from.
She rolls on the floor and turns herself about, holding the baby’s head from the ground. She uses the momentum to loose her greatsword from her shoulder, and with a flick of her thumb, the black-steel blade bursts to crimson-fiery life. The long broadsword is large enough for an average warrior to wield two-handed, but she swings it in her left-hand with astounding ease. It is a massive example of a Dragonblade with only one sharp edge, engulfed in crimson-red flame and a spine of thick black metal wide as a man’s wrist, flat as an anvil.
She nimbly levels the Dragonblade in time to block a glowing, blue beam of death. A thin long blade of blue, brilliantly flaming-light pierces through the darkness and reaches for the woman’s head, but is met again with red flame. The blue Dragonblade is course and seething against the crimson red of her own, burning furious like a magical river of magma. At the blades fiery confluence, it burns bright white, with licks of purple flames all around the angry marriage, illuminating the dark passageway in flashes.
She slides her blade free and spins it to meet a quick high strike that illuminates her assailant for a moment. He is steel-clad in blue and in his offhand he holds a blue and black targe of wood and metal, his face is hidden behind a steel full-helm but his skin is black as coal. He takes no reprieve in the blinding light; by swinging his round-shield forward he gains space and lunges with his nimbler sword aimed at the woman’s throat.
She flicks her wrist around to deflect the attack and pushes the man’s momentum toward the wall, then sets her feet to lunge forward. The lunge hits its mark and the sharp-edge of her massive red blade crashes squarely on the northern hemisphere of his shield. He grunts under the sheer force of the thrust and the targe shatters, falling from his grasp harmlessly. The assailant cradles his arm in his ribs as the fiery-red blade swings downward like a rainbow, clashing hard into the blue blade he raises in defense.
The infant is awake and upset beyond himself. He tries to writhe against his blanket but to little avail and finds that only wailing is left for him. His pathetic cries drown out the fearful heartbeat echoing in the woman’s ears. She must persist, she must succeed.
The magical swords dance and clash as they both give and gain ground: her ever protective of the bundle in her arm as much as he protects his crippled forearm. She slows before too long, atrophy and surrender becoming realities she can no longer ignore. She turns aside another blow, and another, then rolls away from the third granting her some space. Looking up to spy a regal chandelier dangling innocently above them both, the electronic fixture instantly blazes to unbelievably bright light. The man reaches up to block the light and she believes she has her opening.
The dark-haired woman turns to run down the pathway, retreating to the darkness that suddenly replaces the burst of blinding brilliance. The ruse is of no use, the assailant is wily as he is quick and unencumbered by a baby which cripples her chances of retreat. He cuts off her escape and moves to disarm her. His blue blade swings wildly and viciously chops the red broadsword from the dark-haired woman’s weakening grasp. It clangs thunderously to the floor, dark and dead as iron.
Instinctively she rolls back again, unable to surrender, unwilling to give in. With what strength she can summon, she retrieves the half-broken targe from the floor–fortuitously within reach–to catch the downward swinging blue sword. She catches it with no space to spare and the baby lets out a wailing cry at the twisting and turning. The lady pushes hard with her thighs to free herself and returns to her heels in time to dodge another wild swing. This time she pins the blade to the floor and reaches up with her elbow to knock the man’s tooth out.
He spits up blood at the impact but has the wherewithal to strike low as he receives the high impact. His right boot shoots out and connects awkwardly with her knee, it buckles sideways, cracking loudly under the force. The pain explodes like a stick of dynamite beneath the skin and she falls helplessly, her leg capitulating at the kneecap.
Her fall to the cold stone beneath her seems to take ages, if it only takes a mere moment. The sudden shock of pain accompanied by the shocking angle of her leg as it buckles beneath her, nearly removes her sense of duty entirely. As her body capitulates, powerless to remain upright, her dark eyes meet the baby’s one last time. Tears and boogers plastered across his pitiable face, and enough terror in his wails for the both of them.
The baby stays cradled into the woman’s chin, head steady as they drop. The stone floor beneath rushes up to welcome them, only agony awaiting.
She couldn’t know the broken shield remains were so close to her skull; she just wanted to disappear into the infant’s beautifully magic eyes. Gravity pulls her mercilessly to the floor; she lets out a wordless yelp of pain as her skull cracks awkwardly into a metal band from the broken targe. A heavy muffled thud followed by throbbing; metal on cranium is the last sensation she endures before the world becomes too blurred to feel.
Just before consciousness slips away from her entirely, she feels her failure drop free from her hand. The innocent child slides away, loosed from her dying grasp, still wailing and helpless. As the blackness welcomes her, she is made painfully aware of a second, even more devastating crack echoing off the cold, dark stone.
Leo Charles M. is an unpublished author of Sci-Fi and Fantasy who’s working toward getting his first novel, Chronicles of Mayhem: Genesis, published. A lifetime of gaming, world building for RPG’s and fanboy-level-fanaticism has prepared him for his foray into the literary field. Favorites like Pullman, Herbert, Gaiman, Stackpole, Salvatore, Orwell, Tolkien(‘s) and G.R.R.M. are ever-present influences in his writing. Writing is 90% reading and when not reading or revising he spends his days with his muse and girlfriend Destiny. He hails from Jersey City, NJ, USA and can be found regularly posting his guts out on Medium.com/@LeoCharlesM.
5 Questions with Leo Charles M.
TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?
LM: Flight and Failure is a recurring nightmare for the main character of my fantasy novel: Chronicles of Mayhem: Genesis. The idea was birthed as a prologue to the earlier versions of the novel, but now serves as an anthology tale and companion to the entire series that promises to be 4 books long. This is one of a bevy of short-stories from the world of CoM and serves to add depth to the inhabitants of the fantasy-rich world of Terranor and bring in new readers.
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
LM: Philip Pullman and his His Dark Materials series is my greatest influence. While my influences are vast and scattered to the four corners of the literary map, no other writer’s style has ever made me feel more warm and comfy, like a bowl of tomato soup and a grilled cheese cut into triangles, than Pullman. His incredible world building and intimate knowledge of his characters is all that I could ever hope to be as a writer. (G.R.R.M. is a close second, though)
TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
LM: I write alone in my living room and need to have some familiar stories playing in the background as I go. I like to have the old Star Wars films or Lord of the Rings playing for long revision sessions and Blues music for my writing marathons. Listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Buddy Guy will inspire and motivate me until the day I die.
TD: Favorite word(s)?
LM: Magnificent or Malevolent
TD: Do you have a favorite reading ritual?
LM: My favorite reading ritual is the one that I have with my girlfriend Destiny. We have been reading the Harry Potter books together as a couple, one chapter I read to her–the next she reads to me, while on the couch or sometimes on long car trips. We’re on book 5 now, Order of the Phoenix, and are really starting to think this Voldemort guy is up to no good!