Category: Free reads

The Forgotten Stormrider

The Forgotten Stormrider

Color photograph of spring blossoms on a tree branch with drops of rain clinging to them.

March 2020 flash fiction (fantasy, found family, nonbinary character). For the Patreon post, click here.

Author’s note: Zbu’s name comes from the word zbucium which means agitation and is used to describe storms. The folklore that inspired this piece is connected to the drought song, Paparuda, a ritualistic calling for rain. A modern version of the song by Via Dacă is here.

*** *** ***

The morning stretches wet and crisp over the garden. Up above, clouds still hang in layers of gray, trailing toward the dark horizon. The storm moves farther with every blink, with every hitching inhale. Zbu tears eir eyes away from it with difficulty, chest heaving in the stillness, ground solid beneath eir feet.

The new sensations are incongruous with what Zbu is used to feeling. The earth chains em, drags em down with pressure on eir shoulders. Only—it’s not pushing from the outside, but from within Zbu’s own body, clawing at eir bones as if it wants to swallow em whole. Somewhere, home surges away. Rushes on without em. The clatter of hooves still echoes in eir ears, although the ethereal horses have long left the land. Already too far away to reach.

The day’s ride had started slow, as it always does, catching speed and collecting more and more riders along the way, until they were all a mass of thunder and lightning. Until they rained their thrill and their joy over the lands.

Now, though, Zbu’s essence has fallen from the sky for the last time.

Something clenches painfully in eir chest.

But Zbu has a mission, a purpose for letting go of the reins—down here, in the garden, a soft song croons amidst the spring blossoms. Zbu pushes aside low-hanging branches, making eir way over slabs of stone toward its source.

Whoever it is startles before Zbu can emerge fully from between the trees, and the sound stops.

“Who’s there?”

“Zbu,” e says.

“What do you want?”

“Your song.”

The human—at least it looks like one—turns around on the bench, blinking wide eyes. E rubs at eir cheeks with eir sleeves, perhaps in greeting, so Zbu rubs at eirs in turn. A gurgle leaves the human’s mouth, but before Zbu can try to make sense of it, e stands. Folds of fabric flow around em with the motion, in a hush akin to heavy rainfall when observed from a distance.

“I wasn’t singing.”

“You made a song,” Zbu insists.

A song that called to em so direly and fiercely that Zbu had to come. Had to see it up close, had to taste and smell and touch.

“That wasn’t— What are you?”

“Zbu,” e repeats, confused. “I am Zbu. What are you?”

“Mirabella,” e says and it sounds like fat raindrops touching water.

“Mirabella. Songmaker.” Zbu places a hand on eir chest. “Zbu. Stormrider.”

At that, Mirabella steps closer, and Zbu thrums with anticipation. Humans always sing to the riders, calling them to their crops, beckoning for the rain.

“A stormrider,” Mirabella says instead of singing, and the thing that hurts in Zbu’s chest flutters. “From the legends?”

Perhaps—and Zbu should’ve considered this before—humans don’t remember. It has been so long since one left the ride. “Yes?” Zbu answers, unsure.

Mirabella waves a hand. “Well, that explains the nakedness and the lightning marks.”

The fabric around Mirabella whispers again as e pulls it away, only to wrap it around Zbu. It’s warm and it smells like the song.

“I’m sorry to disappoint, but you’ve stopped by for nothing. I can’t sing.”

“But— You were.”

Mirabella rubs eir cheek again, with eir fingertips this time. E backs to the bench and Zbu follows, sits when e sits. Mirabella blows a gust of air from eir mouth, too short to become proper wind. Zbu adds to it, until it meanders through the trees, shaking raindrops from the flowers.

“Wow,” Mirabella says, “you really… Okay. Listen. I wasn’t singing. I can’t give you what you want.”

Bitterness pushes up Zbu’s throat, only to settle behind eir eyes.

“Can you go back?”

Zbu turns eir head to where the storm is a mere strip of darker clouds over the hills. “No. I’m already forgotten.”

Nothing follows but silence. Zbu’s hands start to shake where e’s holding them in eir lap. The few blades of grass pushing from between the stone under eir soles are peppered with round, clear spheres of a rain Zbu’s never going to—

Zbu is never—

The song lifts in the air. Beside em, Mirabella’s frame trembles with the shuffling sound, whooshing and quivering, both gentle and harsh, both nourishing patter and howling tempest.

“I’m sorry,” e murmurs in between the notes. “I just… I always lose those I care about and now you’re lost because of me.”

Whatever it is that drives Mirabella’s song gathers in a swirl in Zbu, pressing and pressing.

A raindrop falls from Maribella’s eyes.

Zbu catches it on eir finger.

Tastes it.

There’s hurt there, in Mirabella’s rain. Loss of home and riders, aching like Zbu does. Mirabella sings and Zbu touches the rain on eir face, leaning near enough that it becomes all-encompassing. And when Mirabella pulls em closer, Zbu knows how to repay em for the song.

“If you want, we ride together.”

The sound changes, rhythm stuttering with an infusion of sunshine. “I’d like that,” Mirabella says.

Everything overflows.

Zbu’s eyes make rain, just like Mirabella’s. With Mirabella.

And it’s soothing, unwinding the tension in Zbu until it is replaced by belonging.

***

Zbu’s human is named Mirabella. E—she, Zbu has learned—is kind and gentle and sometimes stubborn. Always spirited. She sings like humans sing, most of the time, in low noises rumbling from her throat. But when Zbu wraps emself around her, she sings for Zbu alone, with delight and joy and happiness, so much of it that Zbu joins in each and every time.

They rain for each other. Together, they ride.

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Red Quartergiant

Red Quartergiant

Image in dark red and black of concentric circles with a brighter spot in the middle.

February 2020 flash fiction (science fiction, space). For the Patreon post, click here.

*** *** ***

We knew from the moment it appeared that something was wrong—fundamentally, intrinsically incorrect about the giant star.

Our expedition ship entered observable distance during what counted as morning in the void of space. The rendering software spat out sensor-captured shot after shot, but nothing could replace our own eyes. Permanently shadowed by the other planets, we could only ever see about a quarter of its body. Around it, matter—red, plasmatic in essence—spiraled inward, seemingly static.

“Debris must be caught in its gravitational field, probably traveling at impossible velocities,” our science officer said. “But from this far away, we perceive it as motionless.”

A lot of us thought she meant to say dead.

We flew as close as we dared, hovering on the boundary of justifiable risk. We studied it, talked to it, trying not to get overwhelmed by exposure to radiation and loneliness and the crackle of feedback static whenever we attempted to contact base. We shared our stories, our science. Our deepest, most hidden thoughts.

It was morning again, a prime number of days-years-minutes after our first sighting, when an anomaly became evident, glinting along its inner edge. Around and around, and then—

Then it blinked.

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Deathless

Deathless

Pencil drawing of buildings forming a cityscape flowing out of a quill.

January 2020 flash fiction (urban fantasy, death). For the Patreon post, click here.

*** *** ***

My name is Amara and I was lost once.

When I was six, I learned the universal truth, just like everyone else. Whatever you’re skilled at is the one thing you cannot have. Like a shoemaker walking with blistered feet on cobblestone, or a seamstress dressed in tattered rags.

Across from Nana’s shop was the house of a muse, her hair streaked with purple and white, lips always quirked into a smile. She came to the Valley of the Forgotten after her eyesight had faltered. Back in the City, where the streets were filled with the creations she’d inspired—where her architect had thrived—she’d been driven to a blindness that the Valley had kept at bay. One day, Nana gifted her a painting of the prettiest building in the City, and I was surprised when she thought the canvas was blank.

That was when I started asking my own questions, curious about the magic of the Valley.

***

When I was twelve, I learned that Nana wasn’t my grandmother, not by blood. She didn’t tell me why she’d been caring for me, or who my parents were, or where I’d come from.

There, in the Valley, we wore ill-fitting clothes made by blacksmiths and lived in houses built by cooks. Everything was always on the verge of falling apart, nothing ever worked quite right, but it was a place of safety from the clutches of fate. The Valley was where the tired ran to. Some remained for the rest of their lives, others only sought refuge for short reprieves. All resisted their calling, their own skill. So did I, after figuring I would’ve been a storyteller, if I’d lived outside, in the other world. But I left it be. Reading tales was enough, and Nana provided as many as I wanted.

***

When I was twenty-four, I found the piece of paper that had condemned me to the Valley. There, in blue ink on yellowing paper, sat the words forbidden and mandatory isolation and punishable by incarceration. So if Nana took me to the City, she’d be held responsible for whatever effect my special talent would create. Upon myself, not upon others. I had been chained against my nature for reasons nobody deemed I should know.

I raged, simmering quietly. My anger had to go somewhere, and it turned to everyone around me. To our muse neighbor, first, who did nothing but ensure greatness in the City I wasn’t allowed to visit. So I wrote about her, mingling my misery with her own. In my tale, though, she’d remained by the architect’s side, growing more and more obsessed with the creations she could not see. In my story, she’d fallen off the highest clocktower, betrayed by her gift as I had been by mine.

Many acclaimed my writings, after I’d secretly sent them outside the valley. Many mourned and roared with me, the spawns of my imagination spreading wide, beyond the City and the borders of our lands.

***

When I was thirty-six, I wrote my final piece.

I hadn’t realized it, not in the beginning, what I was actually good at.

Not storytelling itself, because the tales of adventurous kittens and brave knights befriending dragons had been dismissed, one by one. No, what I had a skill for was death. Dished out in violent bursts or served in increments, whenever my protagonists suffered, the world rejoiced.

When I was thirty-six, I lay on the pavement, staring up at the Valley’s only clocktower, my assumptions confirmed. The world thought of me as an abomination. They feared and shunned. Abandoned.

They came for me, then, men in military uniforms, to escort me to the border. Nana told me, whispery and fragile against my ear, to wait for her. To be patient.

That rage, it boiled over, and I ran.

***

When I was thirty-eight, I found them. Hidden away high on a mountain slope, a small village of lost souls. Nurses of old battlefields, caretakers for the incurable, masters of funeral rites, executioners. Among them, arms spread wide, was Nana.

“Welcome home, child,” she said, face unweathered, smile unchanged.

She explained, then, how my skill had been discovered as a small child. How I’d been marked for isolation. We could’ve fled long ago, but she wanted me to grow outside the village, without the weight of our final resting place upon my shoulders. It wasn’t difficult to understand why she’d done it, why she’d kept it from me. Why I had to discover my fate on my own.

***

When I was forty-four, I wrote my second first-story. It was about a muse who sacrificed herself to inspire the creation of new medicine, but instead of her life, she paid with her gift.

Because, I realized, death is what we make it—an ending, a journey, passage to another existence, the tearing of a soul to shape it into something new.

My name is Amara and I am Deathless.

This is where my life begins.

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The Firevault

The Firevault

Flash story: Fantasy.

Release date: 15 August 2018

This flash fiction piece is part of Paranatellonta‘s 5th anniversary. Twice a month, Paranatellonta publishes one piece of flash fiction (of exactly ten sentences) inspired by a piece of visual artwork.

The Firevault‘s inspiration artwork is provided by Fie, while Guidance by Minerva Cerridwen is the other half of this event (art by Ava).

Out now! Read it here.