May 3: Pentapus [1787 words]

Written By: Ty Barbary - May• 04•12

A sharp pain lanced through my right ear as I dipped my bare feet into the frigid surf. The sea licked my soles, an immense hound happy to see me, so cold that it disoriented my nerves and kept my ear tingling until my toes went numb and the referred pain subsided.

The wind was warm, the sun hidden behind thick grey clouds, and the sand was the perfect temperature for napping. I was envious of my brother who lounged behind me, sprawled just feet from the foaming waves, basking with his head resting on his interlinked fingers. “Go on,” he urged lazily. “It’s not so bad.”

I shot him a glare, then tightened my grip on my thin fishing spear. The obsidian tip glittered in the ambient light, droplets of the sea already decorating its hand-knapped surface. I made it myself; it was part of my family’s rite of passage. The first step, really.

The second step was in front of me, tumultuous blue as far as the eye could see, fading away into the sky at the horizon. My brother kicked coarse sand at me; it stuck to my damp ankles. “Get going!” He grinned sardonically at me.

The water did not get any warmer as I walked forward; it splashed my calves, then my thighs, and I let out a strangled noise past gritted teeth when a particularly high wave soaked my loins. I heard my brother laughing over the eternal roar of the sea and I bit back an annoyed growl. Jerk.

Once my hips were below the waves and my stomach and breasts had gotten thoroughly splashed, the cold water was less shocking. I kept wading, feeling the waves begin to tug on my thick braid, as though the sea itself urged me back to shore. Not today, it called, pulling at my hair. Not today, I am wild today, you should not play with me today.

When I was younger, I told my mother that the sea talked to me. She got very quiet, and her eyes got very wide, and we never mentioned it again. But I think my brother could hear it too; when I gave one final glance back, the waves now coming regular and steady, his grin was gone and his brow was lowered, his eyes scanning the surface of the water.

A high wave was coming. I let my toes leave the rock-riddled sand and ducked below the water, resisting the incessant pull on my braid. The undertow was so soft here that I barely felt it, but I could easily navigate underwater by the feel of the tide suckling on my hair.

My skin numbed, and my eyes adjusted to the gloom and sting of the sea, and my fishing spear was weightless and unencumbering. I swam out, more fish than woman in how I moved. I imagined aquamarine scales gleaming along my legs and stomach, knitting my limbs together into a long tail, flattening my strong arms into sharp-tipped fins. Oh, to be at home in this wild water!

But human I was, and human I stayed, and I breached to breathe as often as my lungs demanded. Calm settled over me, as it always did when I was in the water. Sweet air and cold current and the entire world of water and air moving around me, always moving, restless and heart-beating and in-outing. I fell into the rhythm of the sea, and all thoughts abandoned me like rats would a sinking ship.

I always thought the rats just wanted to swim more than ride a wooden husk.

I lost track of time, as usual, until I recognized that my muscles were tired, that my inner visions of my fish scales and my fork-finned tail were fading against the reality of slowing legs and chilling flesh. The sun was still nestled behind its blanket of grey sky, and I took note of the wind’s direction – inward, to the shore, to home – before diving deep.

The slope of the land was so gentle here that, even as far out as I had gone, it was not too deep to reach bottom in a single breath. I forced my eyes open against the gritty current, extending my empty hand to touch the chunky rocks and the heavy sand of the shallow sea floor. Without direct sunlight, it was much darker than I would’ve liked; if I were fishing, I would not be fishing the floor today.

But I was not here to obtain dinner; I was here for a pentapus.

Pentapi were harmless creatures of shallow water and soft currents; they were amphibious, even the saltwater-loving kind, and retrieving one alive was the second step of my rite of passage. Their bodies were small and squishy, roughly the size of my brother’s fist, and their five tentacles were thick, short, and besuckered. They lived primarily on larger fish, feeding on anything that drifted close enough to slurp down their tiny gullets.

Unfortunately, the larger fish they most loved to use as hosts tended to be the same ones that liked to chew the legs off diving fisherfolk like myself.

I dived five times to the floor before I found a few resting sharpfish, their streamlined bodies longer than my arm, shining silver in the murky water. They all had pentapi suckered onto their flanks, slowing their spear-quick swimming but keeping them clean from more harmful parasites and smaller flesh-eating minnows that could get under their bright scales.

Three sharpfish were enough to be dangerous to a lone swimmer, but not unmanageable. I swam towards them slowly, conserving the air in my body and the energy in my waning muscles. One of them, the smallest, darted off when I got too close. The other two took circling paths around me, one behind the other, silver arrows in the shadows of the sea.

I kept swimming gamely forward, not even turning my head to watch them move. After a moment, I cast a discreet glance over my shoulder; yes, they were trailing me. A little closer to my bare feet than I would’ve liked, but they hadn’t shot forward to bite yet. I lessened my kicking, and the lead sharpfish zipped forward to seize the opportunity that I presented.

I contorted in the water like a seizure knotted me, tucking my feet into my torso and presenting my thin fishing spear to the thin spearing fish whose toothy jaws gaped to bleed me. I was practiced at this, and the kill was smooth, almost effortless on my part; I had aimed the spear well enough that the sharpfish spitted itself upon its length. Its tail lashed for a moment as blood began to billow darkly from its open mouth.

The two pentapi clinging to its long body realized its distress and detached themselves quickly; I ducked closer and presented my bare forearm to the closest one. It avoided me deftly, squirting away and out of reach. They were small and silly creatures, but they could swim better than a large and silly human; I turned to the other, which was rising instead of moving horizontally with the current.

I gave a strong kick, half-pretending and half-praying that my legs could be my tail and propel me far enough, fast enough, leaving my spear and my kill behind. The other big sharpfish had already fled, no fool to stick around when its fellow had been skewered.

The second pentapus was slower than the first, fighting the water’s push-pull lullaby, and I pulled even with it by some combination of luck and leg strength. I tucked my curled body around it and offered it both my forearms, and to my surprise and relief, it suckered onto my left arm. Its touch burned painlessly against skin half-numb with cold, and I nearly let out the last of my air in startled response to the queer sensation.

I looked down for the dead sharpfish and my spear and spotted them within swimmable distance. I couldn’t leave the spear, even though retrieving it would risk spooking the pentapus with the sharpfish’s blood. I slipped through the water, trying to calm my thumping heart, and took up the end of the spear with my right hand. I twisted and began heading for the surface, keeping the sharpfish downstream of the calm, suckling pentapus.

I breached and breathed, spitting back at the seaspray. It would be a challenge to swim back to shore with the dead sharpfish weighing at me and my pentapused arm slow with caution, but throwing away a big fish like that was entirely too wasteful. Besides, this was a test, and if I came back with the pentapus and the spear and the sharpfish, so much the better.

I let the waves take me back, leading me by my braid, which floated on the water’s surface in front of me. The pentapus didn’t have any panics, despite being lifted into clear air several times when I had to fight my way forward along higher waves. I did not look forward to having to bear my weight on solid ground when I reached it; my legs ached, my torso knitted with weariness. I never knew how far out I swam when I went to that spot that sharpfish loved, but I knew most of my peers could not go out and come back without exhausting themselves before they reached the shore.

My brother gave me a few hearty claps as I struggled through the surf, my shoulders slumping, the sharpfish a dragging weight at my right. The pentapus pulsed against my arm, trying to feed on my bare skin, and did not drop from my body to return to the surf. I reached dry sand and dropped the sharpfish, but did not fall to my knees, however much I wanted to.

“Very nice,” my brother said approvingly, giving me another wily grin as he stepped forward to take up the fish. “Good trophy.”

I gave him a wan smile, and he patted my shoulder as he bent to peer at the purplish pentapus. “Rare color,” he remarked, giving the top of its domed body a touch with one fingertip. “Looks healthy, too.” He straightened and looked down at me, hefting the sharpfish in his arms. “Ready for the hike back?”

I could’ve said no; I could’ve asked for a rest; I could’ve told him how my legs were shaking to the bone and how my flesh felt like stone. Instead, I bared my teeth in a forced grin. “Yep,” I said.

My brother gave me a knowing wink and led the way back to the forest and our village.

May 2: Stars [1889 words]

Written By: Ty Barbary - May• 02•12

I crouched behind her, waiting.

The muscles in my haunches were bunched, burning with tension, but I barely allowed myself to breathe as I watched her silhouette, stark against the starry sky. She stood for a moment at the top of the hill, less than three leaps away, her hands limp and useless at her sides.

I could kill her now. Before she moved, before she even knew. Sink my teeth into her spinal column, right at the base of her skull. It would be a quick death. Almost painless.

I didn’t move.

I heard her sigh into the soft breeze, heard the rustle of her jacket as she lifted her arms outwards, her body creating a perfect human T. I held my breath, then exhaled when her shoulders drooped, her arms lowered. She gave a shiver against the cool air and tucked her jacket’s hood over her face, hiding her thick hair. A wayward curl wrapped around the side of the hood rebelliously.

She lifted her arms again, feet shoulder-width apart, a stable stance. My heart hammered against my chest as I squinted, trying to see less and more clearly all at once. Seconds passed. A minute. Two. Five. Neither of us moved.

At last, two stars in the sky brightened. Slowly at first, inexorably, then gaining in speed of lumination like an incoming freight train. I steeled myself against the urge to flee, to dodge, to move.

She dropped one arm and turned the other over, and just like that, caught the glowing orbs of light in her palms. They hovered, casting a surreal light over her fingers and up her wrinkled sleeves, stars plucked right out of the sky and brought down to this hill outside a sleepy little town.

The tension in my legs was unbearable; I would fire my body at her, spring-loaded and clawed, involuntarily if need be. A geas was a geas, after all, and no one had ever really broken one before.

“I know you’re there,” she said then, and those words iced the blood in my veins. My entire being came to a stuttering halt, and for a moment, the urge to go leap kill be done with it eased, drowned out by my surprise.

She sounded like a young girl, a teenager, the middle child of a mostly-happy family. Somehow, I expected her to sound… older, wiser. More suitable to hold the power that floated inches above and below her hands. But she was just a child.

What will you do about my presence? I asked her, my jaw working soundlessly, the words impressing themselves into the forefront of her thinking mind. It took effort to communicate this way, but she would not understand my tongue, and my teeth would not let me form the sounds of her language.

She didn’t turn around to face me – she never moved her hands, her firmly-planted feet – but her head swiveled a little inside the hood, her hair rustling against the noisy fabric. I imagined her peering sidelong towards me, trying to find a shadow hiding in all the other shadows. I was invisible to human eyes, and she knew it – or, if she didn’t already, she would soon learn.

“Nothing,” she answered quietly. Her voice was thin, a little shiver in it from the chill. I wondered if the lights she held was cold against her skin. “You’re here to kill me, right?”

I am, I confirmed. No point in lying. She probably already knew. My kind don’t show up for casual conversation.

She made a noise like nodding; her hood bobbed a little. The stars never wavered in her hands. “Even if I convince you not to, or if I try to kill you, more and more will come until I’m dead. There’s no point in that.”

I wondered if those stars could destroy me, if their clear light would pierce right through my shadow-woven flesh. You’re willing to die, just like that? I had to ask; I had to know. If she lied, surely I would hear it in her voice.

A little, nervous laugh escaped her lips. “Oh, I don’t want to die. But I don’t see a way out without having to kill a lot of things like you, and maybe put my family at risk. I knew that being able to juggle stars would be fatal.”

Yet you still do it, every night. I eyed her, searching for weakness, for manipulation, for deceit.

I only found sorrow.

“I do,” she said softly, sadly. “It’s like… knowing that you’ll go blind if you keep reading, but reading is what makes life worth living, so you’d rather have a really good life that’s sort of short… instead of a really boring life that’s a lot longer.”

I thought about that. What a strange choice to make – what a terrible one to have to make. But then, isn’t that what my kind did? In order to keep living, we kept taking jobs, kept accepting employment – servitude – slavery. Because living without those anchors meant we would cease to exist that much sooner. Even if we hated the work, we still took it. And the geas that accompanied each task made sure we always succeeded. My flesh was on fire with the battle between geas and my will – strike, stay, strike, stay. Strike! Stay. I quivered like the long grass in the breeze.

“You’ll… you’ll make it quick, though, right?” Here her voice shook more than I did; here she lost any hope of sounding composed. But her hands were steady, the stars bright against them.

What is it like, holding the light? I asked. Professionally, it was a perfected tactic: ask the victim something that matters, something that sounds like you want the answer to, something they don’t think you’ll kill them in the middle of thinking about. Personally, I really did want to know. Which negated some of the other benefits of asking, but I didn’t care. My body would take over when my self-control snapped, and the girl would die, and I would go home to my employer with her blood red on my mouth.

She sighed, a long sigh, resigned. “I can’t describe it,” she murmured. “I never could, all the times I wanted to, all the times I tried. Everything else in the world is so much less than this that… I can’t even make a good metaphor. This is the stuff metaphors are made from. It’s completely impossible. Holding stars! What could be more amazing?”

I was starting to shake more than the wind from the tension in me, the internal battle, a war I had waged before every kill the past nine times. But I heard her out. What can you do with your stars? I asked, intending to use this one for the end. She would give me a list of the tricks she had learned, and in the middle of it, she would fall in a crumpled heap when I snapped her spine. I could not last much more against the geas.

“Just hold them,” she said to my surprise, and it wasn’t a list at all, and I was not prepared to making the final leap against her skin and her light – so I stayed. “I can’t do magic or anything. I just hold them for as long as I can, then I give them back to the sky, and I go to bed.”

Her words sank into my mind like cold iron. She was helpless and, more importantly, harmless. There was no need to destroy a creature that could never bring the power of the light to bear against another. If she had gone so long – nearly a year – being able to call down the stars and had never used them? She was no threat.

I felt the geas slacken, a mere metaphysical inch. The geas was created with very precise wording, and that wording included the implication that the person I was bound to kill was a danger. But she wasn’t. Then you lied, earlier, I slowly realized. You could not defend yourself even if you tried. I felt the faintest hint of betrayal at the thought and clung to it, using it as fuel, a reminder of my goal. In a hundred jobs, I had never failed.

Another nervous laugh. “I can move them, if I try,” she said skittishly, “and I thought I might throw them at you, when you came, before you struck. But I don’t know what would happen, and it could be really bad – I mean, they’re stars! what happens if they hit the earth? – so I decided not to. It’s just too much to risk, and I know, I know, even if you went away, others would come and would never stop coming.”

Not only was she not a threat, an unlearned youth, but she was afraid of doing harm to others, so she didn’t even dare exercise her curiosity and test her limits. This was absurd. This was the kind of child my employers had hoped to find and raise for their own, not the kind I should be eliminating.

Not that they would ever take a human as an apprentice…

My muscles ached from the effort to stay still, to only move so much as the wind swayed the grasses. I thought of the witch whose apprentice I had killed, years ago to mortals, not so long ago to me. I remembered how she wept, how she curled her gnarled hands into fists and cursed me bitterly. I remembered the regret I felt upon taking one of the few magical humans away from the mortal world – as I was about to do again.

I remembered exactly where the witch lived, and I knew she hadn’t died yet – witches last forever.

I looked at the girl in her hooded jacket, stars balanced steadily to each side. Prove you can move them, I said, and even to me, my voice was strained. Turn around and put them both in front of you.

I watched as she did, my thighs twitching sporadically, my heart drumming a fierce protest. Threat or no threat, the geas was still stronger than I was, and I was running out of time. But the girl turned, and she moved the stars, as steadily as the world itself turns, until one hovered in front of her throat and the other in front of her stomach, neatly stacked between the sandwich of her hands. I could see her face now, starlit, scared.

If I could press my thought-spoken words against her mind, so I could an image… or a map.

So I did.

The geas is powerful, but it is not intelligent, and all it understands is the drive to kill. I stopped resisting the urge to leap, and so my body rocketed forward, a darkness thrust from the velvet night. My claws hit the ground only twice – two strides, only two – before I flung myself into the starlight she held.

For a moment, I burned white, but a cool breeze swept through me, scattering my constituent shadows until I was nothing more than the space between molecules. The space between stars.

Inspired by this.

May 1: Chosen [1528 words]

Written By: Ty Barbary - May• 01•12

The first time I saw a priesting, I was ten, and it was my older sister to be chosen.

The priests bustled into our home, and when my mother did not reprimand their rudeness, I knew she must have known to expect them. Her lips were sewn tight and thin to her dark face as she watched the young men usher my sister up from her seat, press a roll of fabric into her confused hands, and drape a flowing robe about her shoulders.

The robe was white, a blank canvas, a piece of purity from the gods. My sister froze for just a moment, stunned, but when the men soundlessly tugged on her to follow them, she moved her bare feet over the sand-dusted floor, and she left us in the night.

Two days later, her priesting was held; a rush, such a rush, when most candidates were given weeks to prepare. Some gods are demanding and impatient, the children of the priests say– the priests themselves would never utter such a remark. But it’s true; some who are chosen have no time to say goodbye to their lives. We, the people who remain unchosen, can guess and bet which god will step up to claim a person by how that person is taken and prepared.

I watched, clutching my mother’s hand, my head and face wrapped in fine linen to shield me from the midday sun. That, too, was a clue – the time of day of the priesting. Some gods would not come at night; others would only come then. For my sister, it was noon in the peak of the dry season, and everyone sweated, and the sand burned us from beneath our thin sandals.

My sister stood alone before an empty granite throne, half again the size that any human being would require, clothed in her whites, only the tips of her fingers and her long-lashed eyes visible beyond the folds. We had her back, her little family, her mother and her little brother, holding tight to each other; I pretended my mother needed me as much as I needed her in that moment, but I knew her legs were as strong as the sycamore and her eyes as bright as stars, and she would stand alone behind her daughter in the face of God if she had to.

A pair of priests stood, several arms away, on my sister’s left; another pair stood to her right. With them, we formed a neat semi-circle, all facing the empty throne. I remember staring hard at the priests’ robes, trying to muddle through the color patterns and symbols emblazoned on the cloth, my youthful mind straining to remember which gods went to which colors. I wanted a clue to the god who would claim my sister. I wanted to know.

I didn’t have time to figure it out, if I could have at all. The very air around us seemed to straighten, like a spine extending, and then there came a bolt of sunlight from above, glowing so fiercely golden that I thought my sister would catch fire. She arched her back, head thrown backward, her headwrap partially unraveling; it waved eagerly in the sudden wind that spun sand around her.

The light was too much for me, and to this day, I regret raising my arm to shield my face. When I next saw my sister, her flawless ebony skin had turned molten gold like the sun, and her eyes were the staring eyes of a falcon.

“Daughter of Heru-hekenu!” the priests shouted in ragged unison, blinking away sunspots from their eyes.

“I accept,” my sister said in the loudest whisper I have ever heard. And there, in the space between my terrified breaths, her white robes left her body along with her humanity, and she lifted herself aloft on shining wings.

Seven years later, I was informed that I, too, was chosen. I could not help but look to my mother, who would lose both of her children to the priesthood and be left alone; her eyes were strained, but she nodded. The priests did not lead me from our home; in fact, it would be nearly six more weeks before my priesting would occur. I spent the intervening time learning priestly duties, studying the religious arts, and taking long meditation baths. I had no idea which god wanted me, but I narrowly avoided cursing them aloud in front of the priests.

I did not want to leave my mother. I did not want to join my sister in the ranks of the robed, those transformed by their gods into something other than– more than– human. I did not want to give up my budding craftsmanship, my work in wood and clay, my growing love for a young woman who was the daughter of the man teaching me my craft. I wanted nothing to do with the white robes that shrouded me like glowing shadows.

I thought of running away, but that would solve nothing; I couldn’t run back to my life any more than I could escape a god. I stayed, and I meditated in the cool waters, and I learned stories of our gods that I had never before imagined. As a student of their lore, I began to feel a strange kinship for the gods, almost a familial fondness, as though all of their living were somehow understandable by a young man like me. I never trusted that feeling.

My priesting was held just after sunset, in front of the same vacant throne that every priesting faces. The breeze was cool, the sand still warm, and I lifted my face to the emerging stars as two pairs of priests took their places on either side of me.

This time, I knew what their robes meant. One of them was my sister, in her warm yellow robes and black letters that spelled out one of her god’s many epithets. Across from her was another of Heru-hekenu’s priests, but I knew I was not to be claimed by the falcon-god myself; he only took priests in strong daylight.

The other two priests belonged to the lady Nut, goddess of the stars and the dead, whose great body stretched over us as the night sky. I wondered if I would be hers and suppressed a shudder at the thought of tending to so many funerary rites and fresh corpses.

My mother stood behind me, alone in the face of God, and I could feel her strength radiating across the space between us and soaking into my spine. Whether I willed my path or not, I would make her proud with my carriage, and I held my head high as I waited. The wind sang softly to me, cooling my skin, ruffling my headwrap.

I cannot describe what happened next with any eloquence or accuracy: The space before me opened up like a rift between wind and sky and sand, and I stared into a blackness the likes of which I have never known. The darkness yawned before me, a gulf reaching for my toes, consuming sand grain by grain until it could pull me in.

I saw a single point of light in the eclipse, and then a twin, and they became eyes as a great cat made of shadow stepped out of the abyss and, no sooner than it had a recognizable shape, it dissolved to wrap me in wind and dusk.

The arms of my god were warm and dark, and my heart felt like it would bleed like ripe fruit under the pressure of her embrace. I felt more than heard the priests around me cry out, identifying me as the son of this god that had come from primordial darkness to encircle me, but I did not hear her name.

All of me was dissolving, dross draining from the pith of my very being; I was liquid metal to be reforged, steaming and weak-kneed. “I accept,” I breathed, unable to hear my voice for the wind in my ears and the pounding of my terrified, ecstatic heart.

I saw her eyes again, glowing green and slit-pupiled, as she bent to sweep my headwrap aside and kiss my forehead.

Very good, she whispered to me with a smile, and under her lantern-bright gaze, all my human trappings fell away and left me with only my marrow and the lightlessness under my skin.

When I next felt the sand, it was crunching beneath my padded paws, and I could feel my god’s presence all around me, saturating my glossy fur. I tasted life on the desert wind and saw through the twilight as though it were midday, and when I heard my mother crying, I knew in my heart that she shed joyful tears.

Golden light erupted from my left, and my sister left her sunlight-robes behind as she became her god’s theophany, the falcon. Our eyes met, sun-bound raptor to night-born cat, and we knew each other then.

Together, her winds as strong in the wind as my paws were on the dunes, we raced each other toward the temple.

[Full credit to my sister for sharing her dream, which became the seed of inspiration for this story!]

Welcome to May!

Written By: Ty Barbary - May• 01•12

Herein I will attempt to write a story every single day. I am very bad at anything resembling consistency, and fairly bad at anything resembling a short story (I do snapshot-scenes, or novels, or freeform pseudo-poetry), so this will be one helluva challenge.

I figured it’s good to have a blog here, where I can pour all my attempts, good and bad. The best ones will be curated over in my fiction stash later.

My Personal Rules for May

– The day does not end at midnight; it ends at dawn. (Sole exception: the last day of the month.) If I don’t finish a story until 2 am, it still counts!

– Must have a beginning, middle, and end. I will figure out exactly what that means as I go along.

– Write every day. (Migraine days are probably exceptions, but I’mma try anyways.)

– Goal word range is 700-5000 words.

– At least one story a week should be a longer one, in the 3-5k range.

I think that’s about it. Now to think of the First Story™! :D

PS~ Something worth reading: Story Structure to Die For (free!)