Patrick has enjoyed reading and writing fantasy since he was young. His short fiction has appeared in Neo-Opsis and Sci Phi Journal (upcoming). In addition to these, he has placed semi-finalist twice in Writers of the Future in 2015.
He lives in southern Ontario with his family.
Aideen clutched her satchel as the large men crept forward. They were three and big and Aideen was one and small, but they seemed nervous.
“Stop!” cried a voice, quickly stifled. Darmid.
Aideen snatched the poisoned stone and clutched it to her forehead, eyelids fluttering. Suddenly, a deafening crack thundered through the room. The men jumped back. Again, Bronna felt the presence of another, stronger than ever before. It almost reminded her of father, strong and old, and so very sad.
Aideen opened her hand. The stone had crumbled to dust. She swept her hand out and pink mist drifted through the men, who doubled over, retching and heaving.
The mist enveloped Bronna and she too felt nauseous and dizzy, but the experience had a peculiar displaced feel to it, like the stone’s emotions from before. This was not her dizziness, but some alien artifice of sense and feeling cut onto the stone, a realization which made it easy to banish the feeling. The remaining mist dissipated through the room, teased the others, who staggered and swooned, then disappeared altogether, leaving only a soft mauve afterimage that she couldn’t shake despite blinking. Aideen yanked her to her feet.
Everyone staggered back, eyes wide. Aideen’s eyes positively glowed, a brilliant pink, tinged with purple!
No one bothered them as they drifted out of the inn. Few even noticed them, least of all the coachman, who started as they seemed to appear suddenly before him. Open-mouthed, he looked to the inn, but Aideen whispered something in his ear. Eyes glazed in dreamy confusion, he nodded, whipped the horses into a trot, and took them home without incident.
Bronna found herself back in the shop, so full of fatigue and adrenaline that the whole trip seemed like a dream, except that Aideen’s hands were still stained pink from the stone’s dust. Her eyes had ceased their glow, although they remained distinctly brighter than before.
“Do you see, Bronna, the intrigues of nobles?”
Aideen spoke with unusual familiarity and Bronna frowned. “You...knew they were up to something. If you suspected as much, then why bring us there?”
“Clever girl. It’s about time you started to see through my actions. We went tonight, Bronna, because I wanted you to see the enemy we face, their smiling, fetid opulence, their arrogance, their cruelty.”
Bronna tried to absorb this latest lesson, but what she remembered most was a lost old man who had been alone and near death, utterly and completely poor. She knew well that look of hopeless desperation. Healing was gruelling and painful work, often filled with the grotesque intimacy that came with close proximity to the misery of a family who faced a loved one’s imminent death. Except there had been something strangely cold about that intimacy, tonight. Cold, save for Darmid. He had wanted desperately to help his uncle, but had been powerless to do so.
“We have been working against them for decades,” Aideen continued. “And our time is near, Bronna. Perhaps they sense this. No doubt Lord Eldrich wished to expose us tonight, but that plan has backfired better than I could ever hope for.”
“Backfired, how? And who is we?”
“Our order, Bronna. We have been working in the shadows, gathering power, waiting for opportunity. Tonight was that opportunity. After tonight, they will eat each other.”
“Why tell me this?”
“Because I want you to join us. Because I am tired of going to village after village and testing children who are slumped over with burdens that no being should have to endure. I saw the same misery in your eyes. Your father’s death.”
She shook her head. “Plague...”
“No! Poverty. Lack of sanitation, nutrition, education, medicine. All the nobleman’s privilege. It’s not supposed to be that way, Bronna. You have sensed it in the stones, haven’t you? The presence. It is that to which I listen, to which all of us listen.” Gently, she took hold of Bronna’s arm and brought her to face her, her eyes a mixture of intensity and compassion. “It’s speaking to us, Bronna. And if you listen, you’ll know I’m right.”
Her thoughts returned again to the young man. Had he been part of the deception? She knew it was foolish, but she allowed herself the idle fantasy that he had been oblivious, his heart as pure and sweet as she had first sensed. It was not unheard of for lesser nobles to sometimes marry shapers – many believed it was an ability passed down through the blood.
A wave of nervous excitement swept through her and she realized then what ailed her. She yearned for something that she had never known, a sense of meaning and peace and wonder that could only come from loving someone and being loved in return.
Her thoughts clouded over with memories of father, then with the memory of her village’s cemetery, crowded beyond what any small village should ever expect to see. She cupped her face in her hands, callused fingertips rubbing tired eyes, ashamed at her own selfishness.
It started to drizzle and she went back inside, but as the door swung shut behind her, she heard unfamiliar sounds, scraping and scuffing of footsteps in the front shop.
Her heart pounding, she fumbled in the dark for a pair of metal tongues and an old chisel, though she knew they would be useless against armed men. Still, her knowledge of the shop, combined with darkness and surprise, might offer her a slim chance at escape.
She opened the door to the front shop area, slowly. A man stood there, cloaked in the light of the lantern. A sickening shock of adrenaline jolted through her weary body.
Her jaw dropped. “Darmid? What are you doing, here?”
He set the lantern on the front counter and stepped into the light. His face was a tangle of angst and exhaustion.
“I needed to make sure you were all right. My cousin was talking about coming here, that you were both demons with those glowing eyes.”
She remembered Aideen’s admonitions and felt her face harden. “Her eyes were a small part of the power my Mistress has. You should warn your cousin to stay away.”
“Your mistress – uh, well Bronna, he was referring to both of you. You didn’t know?”
She did her best to suppress her intense surprise. The pinkish afterimage made sense.
“You need to leave. It’s not safe, here.”
“I know that. Thanks to you.”
He went forward on one knee. “Bronna, please. I never meant for any of this to happen to you. You have a reputation, you know, a good one. It’s why I sought you out. Of course, now I know why they were so easy to convince. I still can’t believe it.” His face hardened. “My uncle is a good man, a good king. If someone has poisoned him...” he broke off and looked away, pale and trembling. He looked very much like his uncle, lost and afraid. He met her gaze and his eyes were full of pain and pleading, but no longer any of the anxiety from earlier. There were legends of the shapers’ ability to discern truth from lie, legends that were not altogether wrong, nor downplayed by the shapers, themselves. As his deep brown eyes stared softly into hers, he did not hide from such legends.
“I believe you, Darmid,” she said. For the first time since she had met him on her doorstep, a smile brightened his features. She had been right. It fit well, indeed.
* * *
It rests in the eternal and infinite now, sated by the work that demands all that it is while returning infinitely more. It is aware of others, creatures of light and thought like itself, neither near nor far, but ever-present in this place beyond space and time, a silent and comforting presence.
A sound rips through creation, terrible and dark. The waters tremble, the sands are disturbed. The beings shudder in lament, their work forgotten as they cannot help but listen. It is no mere sound, but a voice, a true and living being crying out across eternity, full of agony and despair. It is the sound of a soul bathed in torment, a soul that curses its own existence, which longs only for oblivion.
It rises to its feet. Its work lies unfinished.
You must stay.
I cannot. The forlorn voice is its work now. It knows only that it must find it.
Abyssal waters roll off robes of light. Sand flies out as vast wings unfurl, mingling with the water, a multitude of artists formed in a moment of love trumping reason.
It leaves the shores of creation and plunges into time and space.
* * *
Night had crept up high upon the barn’s sagging beams before Bronna felt it safe to approach. She paused at the door. Silence and darkness. She jerked the door open half a foot, just enough to fit through, and lifted the old wood against gravity, hoping to avoid the ear-piercing screech of long-rusted hinges. They squeaked loudly and set her nerves on edge, but it was halting and could be passed off as a night creature’s call. The barn reeked of musk and hay, but her nose wrinkled at a lingering stale undercurrent. The farmer and his family had long since fled or died, victims of one of the factions in the great civil war that had set the realm afire following the king’s murder.
Flickering light beckoned her from a set of stalls in the back. Darmid jumped as she entered. She lowered her hood and a smile lit his face.
“I still couldn’t hear you enter. How do you do that?”
She cocked her head to the side and smiled mysteriously. “Aren’t you going to kiss me?”
He laughed and rushed over, swept her up into his arms and twirled her around. They were laughing together by the time he set her down, though it was quickly smothered by a long, savoury kiss.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked at last. “You know Aideen won’t like it. None of them will.”
Bronna nodded grimly. She and Aideen had been forced to flee as the city had torn itself apart. Despite everything she had seen, she would always remember the grim-faced line of refugees that had stretched for miles, waiting to enter a broken shell that had become a tomb, but was still preferable to whatever lay behind them.
She drew forth a sparkling stone of exquisite beauty, the product of hundreds of hours of work, in between secret work for the Order and secret meetings with Darmid.
“The peace stone,” he whispered. He took it carefully and turned it over, the pale blue light flaring brilliantly through its hundreds of meticulously crafted facets.
“Will it be enough?”
“Honestly? I don’t know. I hope so. If the legends are true, it’s supposed to work, but only...”
She broke off as she realized the reflected light was brighter than normal. At first, she worried that she had failed somehow, but soon the soft blue light surrounded them.
“...only if the one who wields it is pure of heart.”
She leaned towards him and he pulled her close. They kissed, first eagerly, then long and simmering, unable and unwilling to stop. The stone dropped to the ground, where it lay forgotten long into the night.
* * *
The gradual descent of the creature’s evanescent understanding into physicality and darkness consumed an indeterminate time. It wandered for eons, crossed an endless desert of night between lonely stars that burned their cold pale light upon a thousand dead worlds.
It shuddered under the stark realization that it had lost its way, that it was no longer the being that it once was, but had in fact been confounded by the imperceptible maleficence of time.
It was forsaken. Its limbs grew heavy, its head weary. It could not find the sound, indeed it knew not why it had ever come to this accursed realm of endless boundaries. With its last ounce of strength, it settled upon a newly formed world, fresh water only recently flowing over jagged mountains.
It looked to an empty sky, beyond which lay the broken memories of what had once been a beautiful dream. Eventually, it ground to a halt. The filth of physicality had clung to it and it could go no further.
Its form, once so brilliant and light, had grown dim and heavy. Finally, it shattered. A million shards flew out over the world, many lingering in orbit for eons before settling in places known and secret and everywhere in between.
* * *
She awoke to the sound of some small creature, a mouse perhaps, searching for refuge as grey dawn seeped in.
Dawn? She jolted upright. Darmid had left a note. He’d needed to leave early to make the conference and hadn’t wanted to wake her. A sweet gesture, but she would have rather seen him off. There was also the matter of her being gone for so long. Aideen had grown used to her evening outings with Darmid, though to say she tolerated them would be a stretch. She was sure to be in trouble this time. She gathered her things and descended from the loft to the ossified hay below, then stopped cold.
Five cloaked figures surrounded her.
“Did you think I had not noticed?” Aideen lowered her hood. Her pink eyes burned with contempt.
"I have not betrayed the Order,” she maintained, clenching her teeth to keep her chin from quivering.
“You have betrayed everything we ever stood for!” thundered Aideen. “And all because of a pretty face.” She broke off in a sneer and shook her head as though having bitten into something rotten. “So vain.”
“It’s not like that!”
“Did he promise to marry you? Tell you that he loved you?”
Bronna thought of Darmid. Over a year’s worth of memories flooded through her, countless hours together, mostly spent crying and laughing as they tried to talk through the world’s problems. Then, there was his growing desperation and hopelessness as allies were silenced. The peace conference was a last-ditch effort to bring several factions together. The peace stone could help. Yes, the peace stone – memories of crafting it raced through her...uncomfortably fast. Unnaturally fast.
She squeezed her eyes shut and mentally pushed Aideen out of her mind.
“Traitor,” she muttered.
Bronna said, “That is your opinion, Aideen. It is not mine.”
Her former mistress looked shocked at such scandalous familiarity, but smothered it. “Silly girl, believing we care one whit for your opinions and fantasies. You will not succeed. I have seen to that.”
She felt her face blanch.
“What have you done?”
“Me? Why, nothing. You, however...”
“I gave him a chance to make things right, a way to make things I better. I gave him -”
She halted as Aideen held forth her hand. In it was a stone of intricate cut, laced with blue. “You mean this?”
“How did you...” Her jaw dropped. Her blood turned to ice. “What have you done? What did I give him?”
She stepped towards the door, but the shapers moved as one to bar her way. Without thinking, she pushed one aside, slammed open the door and ran into the clammy morning air.
“Let her go.” she heard Aideen shout. “It is too late.”
* * *
She arrived at the clearing by early evening. Dappled sunlight filtered through fog and it was some time before the sickening shapes of broken bodies emerged from the gloom.
“Darmid?” He lay against a wagon, tunic stained with blood. His eyes popped open in strained lucidity. He tried to sit up, but coughed and sputtered. “The stone...”
He tried to move a hand and she followed the gesture to the stone a few yards away.
“Bronna, why?” He took a laboured, rasping breath, but a shudder stole his voice. His mouth closed. His eyes fluttered closed.
She heard her own voice muttering little nonsense phrases full of grief and disbelief. She cradled him in her arms as his life slipped away. She told him about Aideen’s treachery, about the Order’s macabre plans for the world, unsure if he heard any of it.
Finally, she lifted her head and cried out, a pure, soul-shattering cry. Tears waxed and waned as she cradled his broken body, attuned to every shallow breath and quiver.
Some time later, a noise caught her attention. The clearing had acquired a strange, unearthly glow. The stones glowed, a brilliant gold, much like that first test so long ago. She felt the presence more intensely than ever, not like a morning breeze, or even a summer downpour, but a mountain beneath her.
She set him down gently and picked up the false stone. Feelings of peace and tranquility enveloped her immediately, but...it was too much. The light from the sun grew more intense, likewise the sounds of forest birds, almost painfully so.
“Perhaps now you know how I feel,” said Aideen. The shapers had caught up to her.
She collapsed to the ground, her voice gone.
“Gather the stones,” ordered Aideen.
“And your apprentice?” asked one.
Aideen sighed. “We’ll take her, too.”
The cloaked shapers spread out to scavenge. One of them came to Darmid and Bronna found her strength and her voice.
“You’re not taking anything from him. In fact,” she rose up straight, her mind filled with the ancient presence behind the stones. “You’re through taking anything ever again!”
A rush of power swept through her body. A low, steady hum rose up around them, soon pulsing into a high-pitched whine. It was so loud that it must have been deafening, but the others didn’t seem to notice. She wrestled with the shaper who wished to harvest from Darmid and he pushed her away.
“He was just using you, Bronna,” shouted Aideen.
She shook her head in disgust. “It was you who used others, Aideen.”
“Enough! Take her.”
They stepped forward, hands raised. Streams of force shot out of their stones and slammed into her. She staggered back, but had barely faltered when a tremendous crack shook the clearing, like a hundred bolts of lightning. The shapers halted, amazed.
A thick cloud of pink mist enveloped the clearing, but instead of drifting off into the sky, it lingered. Then, it came upon Bronna. The presence crashed upon her as though she had plunged into a river in midwinter. The mist rushed into her through every pore. It was no mere presence, it was her, and she was it. She sat in perfect harmony at the nexus of love and power, she heard the terrible cry, her cry.
Her desire to help others; the stones’ desire to help her. Their desires twined and merged into one superlative effort. The world faded back into view. She was crouched, seemingly contained by the forces emanating from the shapers’ stones, yet there was no containment besides the awful loneliness of the stones. The clearing was suffused in brilliant purple, flecked with gold, unlike anything the stones had shown before. With her new awareness, she felt all the stones, a few left on the bodies, a handful in a trunk in the back of one of the wagons, many more secreted away among the shapers, such beautifully crafted prisons, facets of this ancient and majestic being. She reached out her hand and felt the presence within her reach out as well. Another crack shook the area.
The shapers fell to the ground with one scream. Their stone had broken. The essence flew out. Every tiniest fragment of the being was now completely free. But it lingered, able to leave, yet choosing to stay, needing to stay. With her. She felt another great rush as more of the mist suffused her body. All the stones were gone, all but one.
She would get to that one soon, but first there were the shapers. She could feel some of her/its essence among them. Again, she raised a hand. As one, they rose on toe tips and shuddered. As it had entered Bronna, the mist now left them. Once spent, she let them fall. Each gasped upon seeing the change in the others. Their eyes no longer shone. They were shapers no more.
They fled. Only Aideen remained, full of fear and wonder.
Bronna sensed the final stone on her person, worn about the neck on a thick chain. She willed waves of force that she had not known existed, but were now as easy to detect as the ground beneath her. The stone wriggled and came loose from its chain, slipped from Aideen’s tunic and flew out. The former shaper grabbed at it, but Bronna pulled hard and Aideen tumbled forward onto her face.
The final stone sung to her effortlessly and she knew instantly exactly how to use it, how to align its power, to take life from one and give to another. Aideen looked up, saw the stone in her hand and did not shy away.
Her entire life had led to this moment, she knew. And there was only one thing to do, only one thing that could be done.
Bronna walked over to Darmid, kissed him gently on the lips, then stood and faced her former mistress. Tears flowed freely from her radiant pink and purple eyes.
“I would never have betrayed you, Aideen. You have only betrayed yourself.”
The stone cracked and crumbled into mist. Aideen’s eyes widened and she cupped a hand to her mouth. Bronna held out a hand, but Aideen scrambled backwards and got awkwardly to her feet, slipped on her cloak, bolted up again and fled.
Bronna watched her go with a mixture of relief and sadness, then returned to Darmid. His breathing had grown much shallower, his skin and lips quite pale. She eased herself next to him and held him in her arms as she felt his life ebb and wane. It would not be long, now. She felt the being within her stir.
They wept together.