The Fateful Shard

Alathea recognized the marks of greatness that shone among the horde of treasures.

Half-covered among a deluge of gold coins, a harp with seven green strings and one red one. The Lyre of Serpent of Many Hands, won from its venomous grasp by Tarin, servant of the Lord. She reached her hand toward it. She ran a finger up one of the green wires, feeling it tingle and strain to sing.

Peeking out from under a clutch of opal eggs, a silver dish polished so well Alathea saw her reflection. But not her reflection; she was young there, wearing a simple tunic. She had scars on her wrists.

Alathea flung her head away. That’s what she was. The old was gone; the new had come.

They descended deeper into the treasured keep. Jaraeden followed her. He allowed her to linger.

Alathea spoke not a word, though her fingers stretched here and there toward this fabled treasure or that hallowed object. She cast not an eye on the gold, and she disdained the jewels. But those objects that carried stories attracted her like none other.

The Clockwork Hydra.

The Crossbow of Yellow Mist.

The Goblet of Endless Laughter.

She saw and catalogued them all in her heart. The cup she hefted. It felt as heavy as sorrow, but the inside glowed with mirth. She ran her fingers along the outside of the goblet, remembering those who had touched it before.

Finally, she whispered, “How do you not stay here all the time?”

Jaraeden shrugged. “The past does not matter if you have no future.”

Alathea sighed as she set the goblet down. “I’ve told you, I do not know my God’s plans for you. But if I can, I will help you and all the people trapped here escape.” She set her hand on his shoulder.

He offered a sad smile and gestured on.

Down into the deep hold of the ark. Down ladders into rooms ever more radiant in past glory. Past so many stories.

Bread that never molded but could never be eaten.

A staff that flowered with almond blossoms.

A throne for a child made of glowing white stone.

At last, Jaraeden indicated a pile of glass shards heaped up in a corner of a room. Alathea crouched before it. The golden light of her magical orb scattered in the pile.

She slipped on leather gloves from her pouch and sifted through, examining each, letting the light run through it, even smelling them.

Jaraeden watched with detached curiosity. He seated himself on a throne made of ancient leather.

“How many people are down here?” Alathea asked as she set aside a piece of pale green glass.

“Hard to say. The Graveyard circles all creation, and most go mad and fling themselves into the abyss before long. I know of at least three hundred who still survive, though.”

“How do you find food?”

“Ship’s stores. We are able to grow some food by starlight. Not much, but enough.”

Alathea shoved aside several shards too large for her purposes. “I saw a lot of calculations.”

“The Graveyard remains because here the water falling from above finally turns to mist and returns to creation. Here there’s a balance point; the water returning buoys up the Graveyard. But if we ever become too heavy for it…” Jaraeden shrugged. “That’s why I direct the burning of ships. If they serve no purpose, why should they weigh the rest of us down?”

Alathea nodded. “Well. We won’t weigh you down much longer. The shard I search for isn’t here. The Glass Princess shall remain incomplete. My home faces war.” She stood. “Our entire reason for coming here, for searching the Griffon out, is pointless. I’ve brought my people here for nothing.”

Thus continues The Graveyard at the Bottom of the World.

The Wonder of the Ark

Alathea reached her hand to the rail. Her fingers hovered over the ancient wood. She breathed deeply of the earthy scent that seemed to emanate from the hull. Her fingers finally settled on the rough grain. She sighed. Looking up, she noted, “None of the other ships are crashing into this one.”

Jaraeden nodded, a contented smile on his face.

“Why not?”

He shrugged. “Respect?”

“This place is what I’m thinking, isn’t it?”

He repeated the shrugged with a slight nod.

“Wow.” She paced the deck, absorbing every sensation. “I want to just lay down and take it all in. This isn’t just history. I’ve been to so many of the places on my travels. I’ve stood where prophets stood. I’ve seen the hills they saw. But this!” She shook her head. She stopped. She looked at Jaraeden. “And you use it for a treasure depot.”

He raised a single finger and gestured with the other hand toward a closed hatch.

Alathea reached toward it and found it unfastened. She slid back the wood planking and peered into the darkness. “My sense of wonder doesn’t extend to things I can’t see, I’m afraid. Well, at least not things the Scriptures don’t tell me about.” She grinned.

Jaraeden gestured to her hands, his fingers popping open.

“Oh. I can’t just bring light on command. At least, I don’t control when it happens.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“Look, I’m not like other paladins. They can ‘order’ their gods around because their gods are fakes. They can be bribed and bought, and the price is always too high. My God? He can’t be bribed. He does what he wants. I can’t pay him to have my way, no matter the price. But he gives what he gives freely. On his time.”

Jaraeden rolled his eyes.

“I thought you knew my God?”

The tall man pursed his lips before answering, “I know that whoever your god is, he answers prayers even here, beyond the edges of creation. No other paladin has done what you did. And now I find your god is, well.” He didn’t finish his statement. “Any god worth the worship would be able to light our way.”

“And he can. He chooses not to.” Alathea shrugged. “He’s bigger than my head. And I like it that way. If I could understand the way he worked, he’d be a pretty lousy god.”

“Other paladins don’t seem to mind.”

“Well. I’m not content for mediocre gods.” Alathea crouched beside the yawning pit. “I can’t smell whatever used to be in here. It’s just oils and metal now, isn’t it?”

Jaraeden shrugged.

“All right. I’m going in. How far down is the drop?”

“About two paces.”

“Easy.” She slipped in and landed in a crouch, peering into the darkness. Her feet landed on sturdy wood planking. Her hands brushed the floor. “They walked here,” she murmured. She stood, extended her hands to either side. One step. Two steps. She counted off until she reached a wall – forty steps. Nothing on the floor here she could detect with her feet. Her fingers brushed no walls until she nearly ran into this one with her nose.

Jaraeden lowered himself down behind her, his feet making soft scuffing sounds on the wood.

“This is the quietest place in the entire graveyard,” Alathea said as she felt the wall before her. More of the same dried out, ancient wood.

She felt more than heard Jaraeden nod.

“You must like it.”

She felt the nod again.

“Most people just get used to the clatter. Not you, though. You’re sick of the noise.”

Again the nod.

“Would it be better if I was quiet?”

He didn’t answer.

Alathea huffed a small giggle. “Well, let’s see here. A door somewhere?” She traced the wall with her fingertips, pacing the darkness. At last she found an opening. “And no torches in here at all?”

“The place is reserved for the paladin whose god does not need torches.”

“Well, my God doesn’t need torches. Or treasure. I’m not him, tough. I’m just me, and I still need light.” Alathea reached out into the black. “And I don’t have the power to light the darkness. That’s his job.” She wrinkled her nose. She looked up.

She closed her eyes and prayed.

An spark swelled to an orb of yellow light.

She looked over her shoulder. “Oh. And my God answers prayer, too. But notice? No payment needed. He gives what he gives.”

“Then your God is a fool to get nothing from you.”

Alathea shrugged. “Either that, or he’s better than every fake out there. Now, you have a glass shard for me to inspect?”

Thus continues The Graveyard at the Bottom of the World.

To Laugh to the Ark

She danced from ship to ship, skipping along swaying decks and soaring across the misty chasm between boats. She raced Jaraeden, laughing as his long strides propelled him ahead of her. “I saw your map! I don’t need to wait for you!” she crowed and pushed harder.

The prow of the boat before her suddenly jerked upward in an unseen eddy. She skipped up steps to the upper deck on the ship she was on, snagging a line from the rigging and swinging across. She flung her arms out as she glided across the aether, closing her eyes to embrace the sensation. She rolled as she touched down on its deck.

Jaraeden offered his hand. His eyebrows raised in silent praise.

She accepted his hand and shook her head. “I’m nothing. And that gives me joy. Also, you’re slow.” She sprinted ahead.

Jaraeden huffed a quiet laugh and raced after.

Three ships back, Matt and Talon gasped for breath.

The men finally caught up to Jaraeden and Alathea long after. Matt put his hands on his knees as he leaned over. “You can’t run off like that,” he panted.

Alathea shrugged. “I appreciate the warning. Look at this!” She flung her hands out beyond the rail.

Looming in the dark a massive ark wallowed.

Matt’s eyes popped. “That’s bigger than a city!”

Alathea nodded.

Talon sputtered. “And it’s full of treasure?”

Alathea nodded, her grin curling around her cheeks.

Matt shook his head. “How old is that thing?”

Jaraeden answered, “Older than anything else down here.”

Alathea reached out  hand in reverence to the hulking shape. “I think I know what it was, once. The ship that saved our world, when it was still a bowl. Before my God broke the walls down so the waters wouldn’t be trapped anymore.”

Jaraeden put a hand on her shoulder and nodded.

Talon rubbed his hands together. “Well, we have a glass shard to find, don’t we?” His eyes darted around the area, tracking the best way to reach the top deck of the ark.

“No.” Alathea’s voice suddenly had weight.

“What? Why not?”

“Because you’re a thief. And that’s why I chose you for this mission. But if Jaraeden and his people already liberated the glass shard, we don’t need you. And I won’t put you in temptation’s way.” Alathea ruffled his hair. “It would only cause you pain to see all that glittering goodness and know you couldn’t pocket it. Or you’d nab a choice morsel and get us all in trouble. Either way, we don’t need those complications.”

Talon gaped, sulked, and paced away.

“Matt, stay with him.”

“Course. I don’t need to be traipsing any farther if you’re sure you’re safe with tallboy here.”

Jaraeden raised a single eyebrow.

Alathea smirked. “I’m sure I’ll be fine. And if he tries anything, I’ll protect the honor God gave me.” She spun. “Shall we?”

The two raced off into the darkness to approach the ark. Matt watched them go.

Talon snuck up next to him. “How long will they be gone?”

“Alathea’ll keep him distracted long enough for us to do our work. You remember where the Griffon was?”

“At least where she said she saw it on the map. I think I’ve got an idea of the best route.”

“Better hope so. She won’t be able to stall forever.” Matt heaved a sigh. “I’m not looking forward to another run, though.”

Talon yelped a laugh. “Come on, old man. We have a job to do!” He darted into the dark clatter of the graveyard.

Another fifteen minutes of writing… another chapter for The Graveyard at the Bottom of the World.

The Long Road

Queen Tyasa rode alone. The black iron gate yawned open. The guards at the gate in their black armor snapped to attention one final tine as her horse stepped forward, his head bowed. Her people crowded the street. Somewhere a baby cried. Men in dark robes spread along the cobblestones, each bearing a single torch against the misty evening.

As her horse passed, those in robes fell behind her. The rest of her people followed.

Down, past The Crow’s Cry. No laughter shook its windows tonight as the queen passed. A single candle lit the highest window.

Down, past Portia’s Library. A cat exited its door as the horse passed. The bent its neck at the queen’s passing. None ever saw the cat again.

Down, past a house built with red bricks. A man with a great mustache wept as his queen passed. He flung a single purple rose onto the road before the horse. That began a blizzard of purple, as her people mourned, as they sought to show their love.

Down, past the temple. As the horse’s hooves struck the carpet of rose petals, the temple’s bells began their long, slow toll. Across the city, on every street, every temple joined the song.

Those in robes followed. The train grew ever longer. Four torches. Six. Eight. Soon twenty-four torches followed the dark horse as it made its way unbidden through the streets of the queen’s city.

A girl, her hair a mass of blonde curls, asked her father who it was. The father hushed her. Enough time for that later. Her mother, though, answered in a low, throaty tone. It rose suddenly and fell into an old, old song.

A dirge. Continue reading

The Graveyard at the Bottom of the World

I have a problem. It takes me half an hour to mentally prepare to write. Given my time constraints, that basically means I don’t write. This… is not good.

So I set out to write for fifteen minutes a day. Sit down. Write. No prep time. The initial attempt was just to force myself to push out content without the long warm-up time. Several little blah stories came out.

And then I wrote “The Cheerful Paladin.” And I liked the characters. So I continued. And I’m still continuing.

“The Graveyard at the Bottom of the World” is the title of this story. I’ll continue writing in fifteen-minute chunks with five minutes for editing. This page serves as the index — you want to go back to the first one? Want to read them all real quick? This page serves as your launchpad.

So….

The Graveyard at the Bottom of the World

The Cheerful Paladin

Beyond the Edge of Creation

The Clatter of the Ship’s Graveyard 

Those who Live in Graveyards 

The Light Shines in the Darkness 

Silencing the Graveyard 

Crossing the Darkness 

Prayers in a Dying Graveyard

The Long Road 

To Laugh to the Ark 

The Wonder of the Ark 

The Fateful Shard 

Prayers in a Dying Graveyard

“I can’t do what you ask,” Alathea answered. “But the God I serve? If he chooses to use me to free you, I will do it.”

Jaraeden’s lips pressed together into a tight grin. Flames flickering from the nearby ship’s pyre lit his features. After a moment, he nodded and gestured behind him to an open door leading to a cabin.

Alathea glanced behind her. “I brought some associates. We should all come.”

The tall man shook his head ever so slightly and gestured to the door again.

Alathea shrugged and turned to Matt and Talon. “All right, guys, play nice.” She flashed her smile. “Talon, hope you’re ready to use your stuff.”

Talon offered his lopsided grin. “Always.”

Alathea turned away into the cabin. Jaraeden followed.

Inside lay a large stateroom. A simple cot leaned against broad windows. Shelves full of books and tattered pages lined the walls. A huge table took up most of the room. Papers filled with mathematical equations and other jottings piled on it here and there. Tiny model ships circled the outer edge of the table. Three glassed-in lanterns hung from hooks in the ceiling.

“What kind of ship did you come on?” Jaraeden asked.

“Hm? Oh. Three masts. Light on the water. We were going for speed.”

“Do you know what class? Or her weight in the water?”

Alathea shook her head.

“Where’s her home port?”

“I don’t know.”

Jaraeden cocked his head and shook it, drawing his eyebrows together. He turned and rummaged through a small crate, retrieving two tiny wooden boats about half a finger long. He raised his eyebrows and glanced from one to the other while showing Alathea.

“More like that one,” she said, pointing to his left.

He nodded, tossed the unchosen ship back in the crate, and set the chosen model carefully in the circle. Jaraeden plucked up a sheet of calculations and a charcoal stick, scribbling away.

Alathea wandered around the table, examining the models. Her eyes wandered onto a sheet of calculations. The numbers were nearly meaningless, but the text on the sheet was not:

“The waters will not hold our fleet of broken ships up much longer. More ships fall, and we slip farther from the light. How much longer can it support our weight? Dear Lord, do not forget us here.”

She scanned another sheet. And another.

Each held a brief prayer to an unnamed god.

The scratching of the charcoal stick had ceased. She looked up to find Jaraeden watching her.

She gulped. “We came looking for a certain ship.”

He nodded and pointed to the other side of the table. Alathea followed the gesture and found a tiny model of a ship with three triangular sails. She gasped. “How far?”

“Father than you can go. But…” He pointed to a ship far nearer. The thing was massive; the model nearly the length of Alathea’s hand. “Everything of worth we’ve stored here. Unless the boat itself if your prize, you’ll find what you’re looking for here. I know you seek no survivors; that boat fell long ago.”

Alathea nodded. “The Griffon sailed off the edge of the world before my grandparents sang at their first washing. But an artifact she carried, it would do much to aid us in the world above.”

Jaraeden raised an eyebrow.

“A single glass shard. It has been missing from the Glass Princess for hundreds of years. I believe that were she whole again, much bloodshed would be averted.”

He nodded. “Very well. You shall have your shard. You may take your men to the barge and find it, but touch nothing else. A little wealth tends to unbalance the tribes and lead to many problems here. And when you return, we shall discuss this God of yours. Because if he can answer prayers even here….” He gestured to the table. “Perhaps you and I have something in common.”

And so we learn a touch more about the quest Alathea set out on… and fifteen minutes more of writing, another chapter done! 

And thus continues The Graveyard at the Bottom of the World.

Crossing the Darkness

She kept yammering away about her God. Every single one of them listened. Every. Single. One.

Except the one who had run ahead, of course.

Matt grunted, wished he could have followed. Fool runners were always too fast for him to keep up. Kids, that’s what happens when you take an arrow to the knee. And the back. And pretty much everywhere.

At least Alathea’s God knew a thing or two about healing. He still had the arthritis on damp days, but it wasn’t so bad most of the time.

Unless he wanted to keep up with a runner.

He and Talon trailed behind the main group as they made their way through the shuddering graveyard of ships. Matt kept a weather eye on the horizon, trying to spot the ship with three triangular sails. Really, it wasn’t exactly a common design, but you’d think there’d be something more down here.

Talon skidded to a stop on yet another heaving deck. This one was a little oar-powered number. How it ever got to the edge of the world must have been some story. White chalk tally marks lined the inside, along with some foreign tongue Matt didn’t recognize.

“She said we weren’t taking anything but what we came for,” Matt rumbled. No one hiding in this boat. He sheathed his blades and readied himself for another jump.

“Sure. She came for one thing. I came for more.” Talon shrugged. “She knows I’m a thief. That’s why she hired me.”

Matt made ready to leap to the next boat and took off with a grunt, catching the side railing in the gut. He heaved himself over and flipped to standing, blades out. No one hiding in these shadows either. Talon leaped right over him and slid to a stop. This one was a bit roomier. Alathea and the entourage were getting farther ahead.

Talon scanned the deck. “Come on, old man. I can’t steal anything, anyway. All these boats of have been stripped bare of anything I could pocket.”

“Of course they were. Pirates above, pirates below. If anyone survived, they’d still need currency for whatever kingdoms they set up down here.”

“I don’t think so. Those archers? Not one had a wallet, a purse, a necklace. Nothing.”

“You were going to pickpocket them while they were worshiping Alathea.”

“Well, yeah.” Talon sprinted, grabbed a line from the rigging, and sailed into the air between ships. As they got closer and closer to that spurt of flame over yonder, it got brighter. “Anyway, you’d think there’d be more survivors down here. No one on our boat got more than a broken bone on the way down. This many boats?”

“Maybe they starved. Hard to grow anything without the sun,” Matt answered as he attempted to match pace.

He landed heavily. No one moving in the open hold. Safe again, for now.

“I don’t think so. I noticed something else about the archers. Something that I’m sure Alathea noticed, too.”

Matt landed on the deck with a loud grunt. “You mean the cuts.”

“Every one of them tried to kill themselves. Most of them not long ago either, I’d wager.”

“When you’re cut off from your gods, there’s not much reason to live.”

Talon shook his head. “I don’t get it, Matt. I don’t live with a god. Doesn’t mean I want to die.”

Matt raised an eyebrow. “Really? If no one down here has any money, how long do you think you’ll make it?”

The younger man frowned in answer.

A few more boats. Matt pressed his hand against his side as he landed heavily. Alathea and her entourage waited. “They say it’s the next boat,” she said. “Someone named Jaraeden. He’s been all over down here. He should be able to help us.”

Matt nodded. “What’s his price?”

One of the archers answered, “He only takes what doesn’t matter.”

“See? That’s where all the money went,” Matt muttered to Talon.

The thief shuddered.

Alathea grinned. The nearby flames lit her face. “Come on. This should be fun.”

They made the final leap onto the deck of the next boat. It was one of the larger ones; at least three decks below and a raised deck above. Matt made sure to land in a defensive stance, blades out. Three men on the deck waited, all lightly armed, none of them reaching for their weapons.

A tall, thin man stood looking over them. He lowered himself down a steep set of stairs to their deck. He approached Alathea with a whisper of movement, offering his hands.

Matt bristled but let the tall man pass.

She took the offered hands with a smile. “Hello. I’m Alathea. Are you Jeraeden?”

The man offered a courtly bow and a stiff smile.

“Are you…. are you crying?” Alathea asked.

The man darted a quick nod.

“Why?”

He licked his lips and spoke, “Because you have come to take us all home.”

Not much plot advancement in these fifteen minutes of writing… but we got to know more about Matt! And Talon! 

Thus continues The Graveyard at the Bottom of the World.