Two Worlds

© Unknown

Bethany knuckled the small of her back, dropping the mop into the pail of murky water. She wiped her brow with the corner of her rough homespun tunic, frowning at the stretch of corridor that still lay ahead of her.

“Every day,” she mumbled as her calloused hand wrapped around the handle of the mop again. With a yelp she tossed it aside, capsizing the bucket and spilling water all across the stone floor. She sucked at the splinter embedded in her palm, glaring at the rivulets running away from her. Her eyes widened. The princess stood at the end of the hallway, holding her pale silk skirts up out of harm’s way.

Heat infused Bethany’s cheeks and she lowered her gaze as the princess tiptoed past her. She glimpsed soaked silken slippers as the scent of lavender wafted by.

Bethany clutched at her skirts. It was suddenly all she could do not to kick the upturned bucket across the corridor. The woman smelled like lavender! And here she was, up to her arms in muck and sweat and tears, and that woman’s slippers had water stains on them. They were probably ruined now! She was going to tiptoe in her ruined slippers right into the arms of a prince who would sweep her off her feet and give her a hundred pairs of new silken slippers, adorned with gold and jewels and heaven knows what else princesses wear on their feet. She would spend her days lounging on a divan, sewing and gossiping and keeping her pretty little hands soft and fit for nothing but playing the harp. Oh, how Bethany envied the princess her life of comfort!

She sighed wistfully. Then, ignoring the pain shooting down her aching back, she retrieved the mop and the now-empty bucket. Muttering about the injustice of it all, Bethany trudged down to the courtyard to refill her pail at the well.

***

Elinoire examined the portrait of her betrothed, a small frown creasing her forehead. He was so… old. Thirty years old, to be precise, twice a lifetime to her. And he was king of Trotus. A fine match, her mother insisted. But it meant she had to leave her country, her home, for a cold, rainy, miserable little island up north. To marry a man she had never met.

She placed the sketch on the seat next to her and pulled her knees up to her chest, heedless of the wrinkles pressing into her silken gown, wiggling her toes in her damp slippers. Her gaze wandered out the window. It was a lovely day outside and the sun shone brightly in the bustling courtyard below. Elinoire’s lips twitched into a smile as she watched two women laughing raucously. One spilled her pail of water and the other dropped her handkerchief down the well. They laughed so hard Elinoire saw tears rolling down their cheeks.

A deep sadness threatened to overwhelm Elinoire as she watched the women’s antics from her perch high above them. What she wouldn’t give for such a carefree afternoon, for a good friend to laugh and cry with, for the weight of her future to be lifted from her shoulders, if only for a little while. Oh, how she envied them their freedom!

She sighed wistfully. Then, she turned her gaze from the window and back towards the portrait. She would do her duty. She would marry this man and secure an ally for her kingdom. She would keep her people safe.

Resolved, Elinoire marched out of her room in search of her mother, her chin held high, leaving a trail of wet footprints behind her.

Penthesilea’s Demise

© Unknown

The clash of weapons reverberates through the air, humid and hot and heavy with the stench of sweat and blood and ash. A moan escapes the lips of the man before me and I pull my sword out of his stomach as his eyes glaze over, his gaze already drawn past the scorched walls of this great city and towards the Elysian fields, forsaking this mortal body with its gaping wound and its insides spilling out.

An arrow flies past my head. I duck instinctively and roll to avoid the stab of an enemy spear. I am back on my feet before the soldier recovers from his thrust. Surprise flickers across his face, perhaps only now noticing the curvature of my body underneath the boiled leather harness, or from the shock of my knife entering the exposed spot in his bronze breastplate and penetrating his armpit. I cannot tell. It doesn’t matter. Blood gurgles from his mouth.

I move on. Death follows in my wake.

Just as I can no longer stand the stench, my mouth foul with the taste of rising bile and my hands spattered red, the wind changes and fresh air tickles across my face. For a moment, the carnage surrounding me diminishes as if it were an evil dream, and memories of home flash across my mind’s eye.

Memories of the verdant steppes stretching out as far as the sun reaches, of riding bareback on powerful steeds, the wind whipping my long hair behind me. I see Themiscyra shining brightly in the moonlight reflecting off the calm waters of the lake beside it. I see hands stretched out in worship towards the goddess, moon mother, mother of all, life-giver. I see warriors training for battle. I see her, nodding with approval as my arrow hits its mark. I see her hand stretched out to me as she helps me to my feet again, my backside and my ego bruised by her prowess.

And then I see her, no longer a vision but flesh and blood, crumpling to the ground.

A scream rips the air apart, silence trailing behind it. My throat burns.

The world is me and her and the man who looms over her body. A tall warrior, gleaming in bronze armour, muscles slick with sweat, a red plume trailing from his helmet. A hero.

A monster.

He bends over her, his murderous hands remove her helmet. Blonde hair spills across her already-pale face. A smile plays across his lips.

White hot rage. A wordless roar.

The man looks up, startled, his eyes locking with mine.

Adrenaline pushes me forward.

He picks up a spear. Muscles ripple with the powerful throw.

The impact sends me sprawling.

I lie on my back, remembering the wind, the open sky, freedom. A beautiful woman’s smile, a young man’s obsession, and a wooden horse. So dies all that I hold dear.

The light fades. With my last breath, I turn my head to look at her. My fingers tremble as I try to reach for her, but my strength has fled.

Darkness overwhelms me.

Game On

© Clayton Haugen

“Shit,” Nancy said.

She stared at the blank wall in front of her as if her gaze could punch a hole through it. Trapped in a room without any other exits apart from the corridor she had just run through, Nancy was out of options. A quick glance at her P228 handgun confirmed the worst: only two rounds left. Footsteps echoed behind her.

Nancy spun around to confront her assailants. Quick headcount: four attackers, all sporting heavier weaponry than her little pistol, blocked her escape. Hell, one of them had a MAC-10 sub-machine gun. Even if the guy couldn’t shoot to save his life, she was in for a bad time ambushed in this little space.

She wondered if the rest of her team were dead. No comms were incoming. Nancy weighed her options. There weren’t any. Surrender or die in a blaze of glory. Well, she wasn’t about to surrender.

Plink-plink-plonk.

Nancy had just enough warning to duck sideways before the flash-bang grenade exploded. She opened her eyes again, shaking her head, trying to discern the enemy through the smoke obscuring her vision, ignoring the ringing in her ears. There! She fired a shot and a silhouette went down hard. Three left.

But as the smoke cleared, she could see four people still moving. Nancy’s heart lurched into her throat and she ducked just in time to avoid a round of bullets aimed at her. Instinct and adrenaline fuelled her aim: two shots rang out and two bodies fell to the ground.

“What the..?” Nancy said aloud. Only one of those shots had been hers. Never mind, not important, she reminded herself. Two guys left, but now she was out of ammo.

She drew her knife. It had come down to this.

Another shot rang out and an attacker crumpled to the ground.

A text message scrolled across her communications tab:

HOTSTUD45: Ur welcome, babe. No need 4 thx 4 saving ur hot a$$.

Nancy’s cheeks flushed. She responded:

G4M3RGRL: Didn’t need help from a n00b like you.

Then the message “YOU WIN. GAME OVER” flashed across her screen and she was transported back to the loading screen.

Nancy plucked her noise-cancelling headphones off and stood up, stretching the ache out of her legs. She scanned the arena: the organised chaos of cables, monitors, and flashing computer boxes, geeks in sweaty hoodies, discarded coffee cups, half-empty boxes of pizza. It was a mess. She loved it. Too bad she drew so much attention whenever she moved. Being the only female around a horde of socially inept guys did have its disadvantages.

She had handed in a token and was watching the barista pour a large cup of coffee when someone behind her said: “You know, most guys won’t appreciate being called a noob when they’d just saved someone’s ass.”

“Let me guess – Hot Stud Forty-Five?” Nancy turned to see if his handle was as advertised. She was pleasantly surprised. He was somewhat taller than her, not as greasy or as odorous as she had expected, with a shock of blond hair falling across his face. Nice eyes, she thought as she looked him over. He grinned confidently at her. Perhaps he needed to be taken down a peg or two.

“Most girls don’t appreciate references to how hot their asses are either.”

“Noted,” he replied smoothly. “But in my defence, not a lot of Gamer Girls are actually, you know, girls.”

“So you make a habit of flirting with female avatars even though chances are there’s a guy on the other end?” Nancy smiled at the barista handing her a steaming cup of coffee. Then she reached for the sugar but paused as Hot Stud held three sachets out at her.

“Two,” she said. His fingers brushed hers as she took the sugar from him. A spark ran up her arm and then all the way down her spine. Surprised, she glanced up at his face again. He was still grinning.

He shrugged. “Was bound to get lucky at some point. How about I get you your next cup of coffee?”

“I tell you what, hotshot, how about we each go back to our seats and get back to the game?”

Finally, the smile faltered. He rubbed a hand through his hair, casting his eyes to the floor. When he looked up again, his expression was serious. “Look,” he said, all traces of the player gone now. “We may have started off on the wrong foot. I think you’re a great gamer. The way you handled that situation, that took guts. I’d like to get to know you better. IRL.”

Nancy considered. He wanted to get to know her in real life? Maybe. He did have really nice eyes. And although she wasn’t about to admit it, he had gotten her out of a sticky situation back then.

“Alright, how about this? We keep teaming up, and if we win the competition, coffee’s on me.”

The grin was ear to ear now. “Game on,” was all he said.

A Worthwhile Prize

© theDURRRIAN / Deviant Art

Alanna grabbed Kael’s shoulder, wrenching him backwards. “Stop!” she hissed, pointing at the spot where he was about to step. The warrior looked down, his face paling visibly as he noticed the slightly raised edge of a round disk on the elaborately carved floor.

“Trigger trap,” he confirmed. “Better keep a close eye on the floor too from now on.” He proceeded carefully, plated greaves clinking softly with each step.

“Do you think we can risk more light?” Alanna asked. Kael nodded. A nimbus of soft light surrounded her left hand, and she drew in a breath as the shadows around them retreated. They were in a great hall that stretched out as far as they could see. Alanna’s eyes widened as she tried to take it all in at once. The walls were covered in fine stucco engravings, the light casting strange intricate shapes that seemed to dance around the two explorers. Semi-precious stones glittered from the lofty ceiling, stars in a forgotten sky now buried deep beneath the ground. Tall pillars guided the way to a raised dais at the very end of their field of vision.

“The god-king’s throne room,” Kael said, breathless with wonder. He looked up at the ceiling. “Just a handful of these gems and we could retire to the Isles of Amara until the end of our days.”

“If the stories are true, then the biggest prize waits for us at the end of this hall.”

Kael grunted. “If the stories were true, we’d be dead by now. Let’s grab what we can and get out of here.”

Alanna leveled a gaze at her companion. They had worked too hard, searched too long, to give up now. No one had set foot in the lost city of Bataar-Ilan for centuries, until now. “You know why we’re here.”

“I hope you know what you’re getting us into, Alanna,” Kael said as he renewed his slow advance. “This book you’re after had better be worth it.”

“The entire city’s population died to protect it, and then the god-king buried this place under a mountain,” she reminded him. “It’s worth it.”

A faint click was all warning they had. Alanna reacted instinctively, surrounding the two of them in a protective shield of energy. The smell of burning wood tickled her nose as a volley of arrows sizzled to ash and fell at their feet.

Kael shot her a sheepish grin. “Didn’t see that one.”

Carefully, oh so slowly, they advanced towards the dais. While Kael’s gaze swept the darkness around them, searching for hidden traps and other unknown threats, Alanna’s thoughts were bent upon the prize. For years everyone had believed it a myth, but she had known it was real. It had to be real, and it had to be here.

“There it is,” she said almost reverently. Relief washed through her, she had been right all along. The legendary Book of the Dead rested upon a golden plinth next to the throne at the top of the dais. The power of immortality lay within her reach.

“Careful,” Kael warned as she ascended, but Alanna scarcely heard him. She reached out for the book.

“It’s… empty.” Alanna flicked through the blank pages, disappointment burning like bile in her throat. “All this way for nothing!”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.”

Startled, Alanna and Kael spun around. A man stepped out of the darkness. He was dressed in a long golden robe, skin as pale as moonlight, black eyes cold as obsidian. He was so thin he seemed almost skeletal.

“It’s been a while since someone has come in search of the book. But, finally, you are here.”

Kael leveled his sword at the man. “Who are you?”

“You know who I am,” the man replied.

Alanna inhaled sharply as realization dawned. “The god-king.”

The man inclined his head slightly, a sardonic smile playing across is lips.

“It’s a trap,” Alanna said as she descended the steps to stand beside Kael. “There is no Book of the Dead.”

“Of course not. Immortality belongs to the gods, not mere mortals such as yourselves.”

“Then why…?”

“Even gods must feed.”

Kael swore loudly. He charged at the god-king, his wordless roar echoing through the cavernous hall. The man side-stepped him deftly and then effortlessly swatted the huge broadsword from his grip. He pushed Kael over as if he were a small child, then drove his foot into the warrior’s chest. Kael grunted.

Fire shot from Alanna’s hands. It hit the god-king in the back and sent him sprawling, giving Kael the chance to regain his feet. Alanna grabbed him by the hand and pulled him behind her.

“We can’t win this,” she hissed as they ran. “He’s a god.”

“What are we going to do?”

Alanna risked a glance behind her. The god-king was on his feet, smoke smoldering from his golden robe. His face was contorted with rage.

“The only thing we can.” A faint rumbling sounded and the ground shook. Pebbles fell from the ceiling.

“You’re bringing the mountain down again,” Kael said, understanding lighting up his eyes.

They dashed through the hall, heedless of traps, dodging arrows flying past. The entranceway collapsed just as they sprinted through it. A great bellow, louder even than the roar of the mountain, sounded behind them.

“Immortality might be overrated,” Kael quipped as he evaded another trap.

“Hurry!” Alanna urged, pointing at the exit. Rubble had covered almost half of their escape. They scrambled over fallen rocks and tumbled out into the blinding sunlight. They stopped a safe distance from the entrance and turned to watch the mountain envelop the ruins of Bataar-Ilan once more.

“Isles of Amara, Alanna,” Kael said as the riches of the lost city was buried again.

“I know, I’m sorry,” she replied. She grinned impishly at him. “Maybe next time.”