AN EXCERPT FROM THE
SPECULATIVE FICTION CENTRE
(see speculativefictioncentre.com for more details.)
Cullen piloted himself down the garden path in his wheelchair, a red throw covering his useless legs. In a shadowed corner, screened by a pair of sentry pines, he confronted the door. Etched above it was Ellysia. Tension bled from his body.
He feared that one day he’d come and find only the name, like everyone else. Poor cripple's touched in the head. Just ain't right, that one. He knew they all thought it. Teach me to describe color to the blind. Well, I've only myself to blame.
When he'd first found this miracle, he should have shut up. He didn’t know then that the door would come to him alone. Anyone else seeking it discovered only brick and ivy. Sure, the word was still there, a chiseled mystery. No one knew who’d left it or when. Cullen’s grandfather said that he remembered the writing from his own time as a boy, back before the gardens were shunned as a haunted place.
Cullen wheeled his chair up to the wooden door with its black iron hinges and handle. Leaning forward, he grasped the handle and pushed. The door swung inward with a gentle creak, revealing a maw of darkness. He hated the dark. It made him feel more helpless than usual, trapped within his traitorous body.
But freedom lay in the darkness, along side hope and joy. He steeled himself and went rolling in. Shooting from one world to another should have been more dramatic. There should have been Star War effects, gravity fluctuations, maybe a gnome or two to wave at him in passing. He emerged from a long tunnel into eventide, and experienced only the weirdness of returning sensation in his legs.
Every time this moment repeated, he felt his heart tremble, thickening with complex emotions. He thrust himself to his feet, abandoning the chair. It would serve as a marker for finding the door once more--these hills were thick with look-alike caves. He often wondered why he needed to go back at all.
He doubted anyone in his family would notice his absence, except for Grandfather. Most of his family kept busy, jetting around the world, chasing their dreams-—leaving him in the grip of cruel reality.
Grandfather was the only one who believed his stories of Ellysia, encouraging Cullen to follow his heart. Strange, he thought, to love a place so bleak and ugly.
The grasses were sere, the trees blighted and drooping. An unbroken overcast brought the sky nearly to hand. He knew the land was brutal to the people who lived here, who didn’t have a door to a better world. He could have told them about the door, but was wary of revealing himself as an alien.
Only Mallow knew where he came from. He trusted her with all his secrets. Cullen expected her to show up soon. Whenever he crossed over, it was never long before he tripped over her somewhere or another. Thinking of her brought a smile to his lips. He’d never known anyone like her. Fearless yet gentle, with a heart-shaped face and luminescent blue eyes capable of driving away all reason.
One day, maybe he’d find the courage to confess his love. The main thing that held him back was the thought of seeing regret and pity in her eyes. Though she’d do it kindly, he didn’t want her to break his heart. If he made things awkward, she’d only start avoiding him. This way, at least he got to hang out with her.
A cold wind lashed him. Don’t know where my head’s been. I should’ve brought a coat. He snatched up the blanket from his chair and settled it over his shoulders. Being careful with his steps on the broken ground, he headed down slope to the King’s Road, not that there was a king anymore. Cullen wondered if the man were anything more than a dusty legend. A regent ruled these lands while the people waited for the Gate to open, ending the monarch’s self-inflicted exile.
Cullen had never seen the Gate. He supposed it was a place, like his garden corner, where worlds overlapped. One day he’d have to go check it out. For now, he stepped out onto a stone ribbon. All other roads were made of dirt, except for those cobbled in the royal city.
To the left, lay Mallow’s village, just around a bend. To the right were skeletal orchards and struggling fields that begged for infrequent rain. He delayed, seeing cloaked figures approaching from the village. As they drew closer, one traveler broke away from the others, hurrying toward him. His heart back-flipped. Wearing a charcoal cloak over a pale blue dress, Mallow ran toward him, her hair spreading like raven wings in her wake. She enveloped him in a friendly hug. Her sheathed utility knife dug into his side. “Cullen!” She squealed. “I was afraid I wouldn’t see you before leaving.” She released him and he could breath again.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“It’s the Festival of the Calling. Maidens chosen from all of the villages travel to the King's Gate, each of us hoping we can draw him back.”
“There’s no armed escort? Isn’t that rather dangerous? There are bandits in this area.”
“No one is so desperate or vile as to harm a Seeker on this day, not when one of us may be the key to healing the world. But we do have a chaperone.”
The rest of the party caught up. Cullen found a sea of pretty faces turned on him. Curious eyes took in his outlandish clothes. He didn’t blame them. No one on this world had ever invented blue jeans or sneakers. And what they made of his endangered-animals tee shirt from the Nature Store, he couldn’t begin to guess.
The wall of maidens parted as a mature woman pushed through. She wore a heavy woolen cloak the color of garnets. The color closely matched her coiffure. She studied him with mild annoyance.
He bowed politely. “Lady Rivina, a pleasure.”
“I wish I could say as much. We have an hour's travel ahead of us, so if you’re done begging for coins, or whatever it is you’re doing…”
He bowed again. “My apologies. I seem to be heading the same way as you are. If you would be so kind, I’d like to—-“
“Oh, for the love of little blue mushrooms! If you must, you must. Just don’t slow us down. I’ve never known you to be much on walking.”
“People change. Thank you.” He bowed again. Fawning cost him nothing and kept him on the lady’s good side. This was important since she ruled the province, answering only to the regent.
Lady Rivina turned on the rest of her charges, hustling them on in a loose formation, waving her walking stick energetically. Cullen smiled, having a mental picture of a farmer’s wife herding geese. He followed the group, locking step with Mallow. She hung on his arm, making everything right with the world. The natives might consider this land accursed, but to him it was heaven.
With the sky enmeshed in eternal twilight, measuring time was difficult. Progress was marked in pain. He tired, but endured. He thought he hid his fatigue well, but after a while, Mallow whispered. “Lean on me if you need to. I’ll be your strength.”
“I don’t want to…burden you. Maybe I should…stop here…let you go on-—“
“Don’t you dare… I need you with me when the trial comes.”
“At the King’s Gate. Two by two, we’ll try to pass the gateposts, entering the fire.”
“Fire? That sounds dangerous.”
“It’s not fire, really,” she said.
“That’s a relief.”
“More like lightning.”
“Shhhh. Not so loud. It’ll be all right. No one’s ever been seriously hurt before. There’s a protective spell that guards all maidens near the pylons. The closer you get to them--”
“Pylons? What happened to the gateposts you were talking about?”
“Same thing. The King’s Gate isn’t really a gate, not like you’d think. It’s a place in front of a cave mouth where twin towers stand. But you can see for yourself. Look up ahead.”
Cullen gazed along the rising road. Staring over the heads of the maidens, he saw a crowd encamped to either side of the road, which dead-ended at a cliff face. The actual endpoint was obscured with jags of azure fire, arcing between two pillars of crystal that must have been two stories high. Cullen’s mind boggled. He stopped walking until Mallow tugged him into motion again.
Star War effects at last. My God, these girls are going into that?
“Don’t worry,” Mallow said. “I told you, there’s a protective spell. You’ll see. Our soul-stars will keep us from getting seriously hurt.”
“I’ve never heard you speak of these soul-stars before?”
“They’re only seen at festival, and you missed the last one, and the one before that, and the--”
“So, what are they? You going to tell me?”
She smiled suddenly. Cullen wanted to tell her how beautiful she was, but stopped himself, concentrating on his aching feet instead.
“Oh, I’ll let you find out on your own. I wouldn’t want to spoil things.”
He sighed heavily. Neither would I.
“Don’t worry,” she told him. “We’re almost there. You’ll get to sit down soon.”
“Great. Hey, it looks like they started without you.” His gaze centered on a tall regal woman giving a speech. Without a sound system, she spaced her phrases out so they could be repeated, passed back to those too far away to hear. “Who’s that woman in black fur?” Cullen asked. The speech ended. “Is that a crown she’s wearing?”
Mallow lowered her voice. "Don’t speak of her. That’s the regent. She’s not a nice person.”
He’d never known Mallow to speak ill of anyone. This pronouncement, coming from her, amounted to a scathing condemnation.
A pool of maidens waited before the pylons. He guessed there were about twenty girls. A raised platform off to the side accommodated the nobles. Lady Ravina headed that way.
“Go on,” Mallow said. “See if she’ll let you join her. You’ll want a good view of what’s coming. Besides, I’ll be able to see you better up there once my turn comes to go forward. That’s important to me.”
“Are you sure you have to do this?”
“I have to try. We all do. The harvests have dwindled year after year. Our people are starving. The king is the land. The land is the king. He must be brought back.” She shoved Cullen away. “Go on. I’ll be alright.”
“Okay. Good luck.”
He reached the bottom of the stairs and called up them. “Lady Ravina?”
She turned to stare down, her face set in a vague scowl. “Well, what is it?”
“May I join you? Please?”
Before she could answer. The regent appeared. Her voice possessed a razor edge. “Who is this strangely clad urchin? Why are you wasting your time on him?”
Lady Ravina frowned, finding distaste at being questioned so sharply. “He’s a personal friend of mine, and he’ll be joining me for the festivities—-such as they are.”
The regent turned her nose, as if avoiding some unpleasant odor. “Do as you wish. It is time I took my place with the Seekers below.”
Lady Ravina’s smile was part grimace. “Best of fortune to you.” Her voice lacked sincerity, but it wasn’t Cullen’s business. The regent descended without a second glance his way. Cullen climbed the stairs in her wake. Lady Ravina led him to open seats where he had a clear view.
Two by two, the maidens stepped forward. Each had a rope tied around their wastes as they faced the jags and the cave beyond. “Why ropes?” he asked.
“Never been to a festival before?” Lady Ravina asked. “The ropes allow us to retrieve the Seekers who fall senseless in the fire.”
That didn’t sound good. He was getting really scared for Mallow now. He focused on the two maidens about to go first. He needed to understand what was coming. The maidens walked fearlessly toward the lightning screen as drums thumped. Weird crystal lights appeared before the girls, hovering at heart level. The manifestations were pink and orange. As the girls advanced, the lights stayed ahead, just inside arm’s reach. Those have to be the soul-stars, Cullen decided.
Approaching the jags, the soul-stars flared wildly. The orange one shattered, then the pink. Both girls crumpled just behind. They looked dead. The crowd hauled them back by the ropes. After a few minutes, the girls began to stir. Relief flooded Cullen.
Somehow, he made himself watch as pair after pair waded to the brink of destruction, only to fall and be reclaimed. Once, a maiden in a white cloak actually broke a lightning jag. Before bursting, her soul-star shunted the energy aside. Cullen realized the point of all this; the king lay in the cave, his privacy protected by the pylons, and only a Seeker with a very strong spirit had a chance to reach him. Apparently, men had no chance at all in this game. He wondered why that was.
Lady Ravina interrupted his train of thought. “That was a good try. The regent will have to exert herself to keep her position.”
“What do you mean?” Cullen asked.
“Have you spent your life under a rock, young man? Everyone knows that whoever sets the farthest mark, rules as regent until the next festival. It has been this way since the queen died and the king abandoned the throne forty years ago.”
Cullen decided to shut up, tired of parading his ignorance. Besides, they were down to the last two, Mallow and the regent. The crowd seemed subdued, desperately clinging to hope as it dwindled.
He saw Mallow staring at him. She smiled, then set her face back to the fire. Lady Ravina patted his hand awkwardly. “She’ll be alright, lad. You’ll see.”
I hope you’re right.
The regent’s soul-star appeared; it’s fanning beams rapier-thin and violet. Mallow’s soul-star shone silvery-blue. Both Seekers marched into the jags. There was a sudden stillness as the crowd held it’s collective breath.
C’mon Mallow, you can do this.
Both women passed the first of the jags, soul-stars clearing the way. The regent glared at Mallow as she pulled ahead.
“Good girl,” Lady Ravina said. “Keep going.”
Cullen suddenly wondered if she could; deeper in the firestorm, the jags were larger, stronger. It was becoming difficult to make Mallow out. Horror went through him as he saw the regent turn her darkening soul-star on Mallow. A blast of black fury caught Mallow, slamming her off her feet. The crowd pulled her rope. It came back with a burnt end, leaving Mallow stranded.
Cullen leaped to his feet, turning. Lady Ravina tried to catch him. “There’s nothing you can do.”
He ignored her, leaving his blanket in her fist as he bolted for the stairs. No one else tied to stop him from bounding down the steps. On the ground, he crashed through the crowd, bowling people out of his way. Breaking into the open, his eyes fell on the black soul-star. It no longer shunted jags aside. Now, it pulled them in, drinking thirstily. The regent screamed as the darkness snatched her up, sucking her in.
The dark star rose, swelling hundreds of times it’s size to engulf both pylons. They turned obsidian, cracking, falling in a rain of shards.
The bloated star began to discharge erratically. Under it,
Mallow sprawled, her soul-star protecting her. From the way it dimmed, however, that protection wasn’t going to last much longer. No one tried to reach her--no one dared--but Cullen. He ran into the discharges. Black jags gouged the rock and earth. Thunder and wind blasted him with pieces of flying shale. A sliver cut his cheek.
For a moment, time slowed. He heard his own heart beat. There came a sensation of expansion, as if he were a giant hovering over the land, feet sinking deep into bedrock. The foulness of the darkness burned his skin like acid. The sickness of the land screamed along his nerves. The world was dying and he was the world.
The weirdness passed as a concussive wave lifted him like a pebble and sent him crashing down again. He gathered a nice collection of bruises and painfully picked himself up. Mallow was close, calling to him. “Go back, Cullen. Please.”
Hell no! He scrambled up to her, sheltering beneath her soul-star. Mallow’s dress was torn. She gripped one of her legs, staunching a flow of blood. The wound looked bad. He doubted she could walk. “I’m going to get you out of here,” he promised.
She clutched his shirt. “It’s useless. This is the time
of darkness warned of by the ancients. All is lost.” Her soul-star began to fracture under the onslaught. “If only…” her gaze went to the cave. Black bolts danced across the small distance remaining. There was no pattern, no way to avoid them.
Cullen scooped Mallow up and plunged into the gauntlet. Fear and courage lent him speed and strength. They fell into the cave, sprawling to a stop. Mallow cried out in pain as her leg was jarred. “Sorry,” Cullen gasped. “Wait here. I’m going to find this king of yours and kick his ass into gear. This world needs saving.”
The cave didn’t go very deep. It only took a few moments to discover that no one was home. The legend was wrong. Despair threatened to crush Cullen’s spirit. He called out. “There’s no one here but us, Mallow.” No answer. “Mallow?”
He lurched back to the cave entrance. She was gone, leaving her cloak behind. He stared outside and saw her limping toward the dark star. Her soul-star seemed to have gotten its second wind. She held it aloft, driving its silver-blue light upward like an attenuating sword. His blood ran cold as the dark star concentrated its wrath on Mallow.
He went after her, but couldn’t get close. His gut twisted with the knowledge that there was no way he could save her, let alone anyone else. He cursed his weakness, sinking to his knees. The light of Mallow’s soul-star beat with a ragged desperation that suggested impending failure. He could see the cracks in it deepening. How the protective spell had held this long, he didn’t know.
He closed his eyes and prayed for the power to save Mallow and her dreams. And it came. A hideous strength roared through his abused flesh. A new soul-star appeared. It scintillated in his face, a frosty gold matrix of whirling crystal flakes. He drove himself to his feet. The star advanced with him into the black lightning.
Dark fire lashed him, but his soul-star shrugged off the attack. His soul-star rose over him as he reached Mallow and wrapped his arms around her. She sagged against him as their soul-stars merged. Sheltering wings, the blended lights burned pale green. “That was a stupid thing to do,” he told her. “I almost lost you.”
Her face turned up to his. Their gazes locked at an intimate distance. Her lips parted. “Sorry. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time.” He kissed her and a shaft of blinding force claimed them both, spearing up into the dark star, cleaving it, blasting it into nothing. A sound beyond thunder reigned supreme. Lost in the kiss, Cullen barely noticed.
Mallow gave no response at first, but then her hold tightened, her soft lips returned his passion, and fear left him forever. The kiss finally broke as clouds parted. Thick beams of sunlight emerged to fan a blue sky. Visibly, the grass deepened hue to a healthy green. Nearby trees began to bud. And somewhere in the distance, birds sang, remembering their lost art. The time of darkness was over.
The merged soul-stars faded, their purpose accomplished. Cullen and Mallow walked hand in hand toward the villagers who emerged from cover and knelt in homage.
“They’re honoring their new regent,” Cullen said.
“No,” she said. “They’re honoring you. The king has returned. You are the king.”
“I don’t think I’m ready for this.”
“I can’t imagine you being unready for anything…my love.”
He suddenly remembered her leg. He pulled back to stare at it. “Are you all right? We should get a healer--”
“The wound is gone. I am weak, but rest is all I require. What about you?”
He chose an old stump for a throne. If I could just sit here…a few minutes… he noticed the crowd was still kneeling. He waved them away, calling out. “I’m sure you people have things to do. Don’t let me stop you.” Taking his suggestion for a command, they left quickly, with the exception of Lady Ravina who beamed happily from the sidelines.
“Why did the regent’s soul-star go dark like that?” Cullen asked. “And what’s with all this?” He gestured toward the revived woodland.
Mallow sank to the ground, leaning against his legs, slipping her hands into his. “The gate distills the heart,” she explained. “Since the regent loved only power, her soul-star could only be destructive. Indulging it unleashed a terrible force upon us, but you loved me enough to find strength and hope where there was none,” she sighed in contentment. “That’s what always changes the world.” She sat up, stiffening. Her gaze grew troubled.
“What’s wrong,” he asked.
Her voice trembled. “I have tried to be brave, but it has been hard to see you leave time and again, returning to your own world. I wish you could stay with me…forever.”
“Then I will. My wheelchair will just have to get by without me.” He caressed her face, delighting in the privilege. “You are my world now. I’m not going anywhere. Not anymore. Why are you crying?”
“What’s wrong? Can’t a girl be happy?”
“Sure,” he said. “Whatever it takes.”