Shackle your greed and curb your desire, lest all be consumed by brimstone and fire.
Sulphurous air filled my cave, stealing through every gap around the stone door. I lived in almost complete darkness while the sun rose and fell unseen. The earth trembled under the heavy tread of an enraged dragon whose shrieks pierced my ears, even underground. I could not eat the food stored with such care when my stomach was sick with fear.
Eventually my craving for light and the need to know drove me out again. I heaved the stone aside with a great effort, weak from lack of sleep and hunger. And stepped out into a silent hell.
Grey ash blanketed the world. Blackened tree stumps and shattered dwellings were all that remained of the once thriving town. All that remained of its inhabitants were piles of bones huddled together, small and large, remnants of people and their pets, people and their hopes for a better future.
“Enough is better than riches,” I whispered, pulling my scarf tighter over my face. Choking on tainted air, I stumbled back to my cave. There I threw myself down and wept. Grief scoured out my heart and left it hollow.
After three days of mourning I bathed in the stream nearby and combed out my hair, then ate my first meal of porridge and fruit. That night, I slept without nightmares. The next day, I dressed in my work clothes and returned to Kasparenya with a shovel.
Day after day, I buried bones. Amongst the remains of Kasparenya I found gold; jewellery, coins, toys, teeth. I took them to the collapsed church where the golden spire was missing yet the altar remained intact. A miracle, of sorts.
Many exhausting days have passed. The stench of brimstone is faint now but I sense the dragon’s eyes watching me still. Its heartbeat pulses through the ground. The pile of gold on the altar grows daily. I hope my store of food is enough, for I have no time to grow more. I hope my strength is enough, for there is no-one to help me.
When I’m done burying bones and collecting gold, I can rest. The visions have promised me that much.
Join my email list for more stories and help with your creative life. Get your free guide to reclaiming creativity here.
The small fishing village of Kasparenya was established generations before I was born. By my time it had grown fat and sprawling, rich in thieves and merchants alike. Like my mother and her mother before her, I led a quiet life in our cave house. The townspeople extracted easy gold from the generous hillsides while mocking our unfashionably modest lifestyle.
For years I lived alone, growing food and herbs by day and feeding my brain with Great Mother’s ancient books by night. Occasionally, people passing my field would taunt me.
“Why don’t you work in the city, earn some coin? Perhaps then you could dress less like an old crone and more like a decent woman.”
I wiped my brow. Digging was hot work on a summer day. “I must tend my garden, and I do not need more coins. Enough is better than riches.”
“Whatever you say, Cassie.” Sarah turned away, but not before tapping her forehead and giggling with her friends.
They always ignored my calls to beware of greed. Old books had nothing to teach the modern world and they stood in the way of progress. Why not have more, if there was more to be had?
Kasparenya’s gilded church spire was a fitting symbol of hard work and enterprise. It showed what a man could do if he worked hard and dug deep. It showed what to aim for when more was never enough.
We should learn from history. But how to learn when history is forgotten and those who remind us are mocked as wrong-headed fools?
News of the gilded spire travelled far and brought even more people to wonder and dream of riches, then buy shovels and buckets. Meanwhile I harvested and stored enough food for a season, oiled my tools, stockpiled candles, and waited.
And one day a shiver started in my bones that grew inexorably. I rolled the stone over the cave entrance and hid.
Above, though I could not see or hear, I knew it was happening just as the visions foretold.
The endless beat of huge, leathery wings.
The stench of sulphur as the ground trembled.
A shriek that split the air when the dragon, drawn by our golden beacon, discovered its plundered hoard.
Fiery vengeance raining down from the sky.
I rocked and chanted as mother and grandmother and all the mothers before had done in their cool, dark sanctuary.
Shackle your greed and curb your desire, lest all be consumed by brimstone and fire.
There are two kinds of people in this world. Some can’t wait to play in the snow, leaving their tracks all over it, building snowmen and making snow angels. The others prefer to watch from a safe distance, rejoicing in its pristine blankness. All is potential, before you make a mark.
Once upon a time, I watched tiny flakes drift from the sky with joy, maybe while sipping a hot chocolate. Sometimes I stood at the door and tried to catch a snowflake then watched it melt on my palm. Snow covers everything, makes it clean and pure.
These days I wrap up warm against the cold and stay indoors. At the first signs of spring I’ll head north again, seeking higher elevations and staying within the snow line. I can’t be here after the thawing snow uncovers all the bodies.
I grew so tired of those comments by everyone from my mother to well meaning strangers at the supermarket, that I decided to go further. I practically lived in that tattoo shop, getting unique designs from the enigmatic artist. We’d agree on a design and he’d get to work. He never spoke, so I put on headphones and drifted away.
When it came to the last bare patch on my arm, he finally said something.
“I will do this one free. Since you are my best customer.”
“Sweet! I think I’d like—”
“No. I choose. I know what is best for you.”
I shrugged and let him decide, after all ink isn’t cheap and I had a lot of it.
He wrapped it without letting me see. “A surprise for you.”
At home I gasped when I saw it. A woman’s face, so perfect and beautiful in miniature, it was incredible. Everyone commented on it, and I didn’t mind.
Life got hard. I made a wrong turn here and there. Had to change, just to get by. One day I thought the face looked different, but it was just a trick of the light. That night I tossed and turned, a voice stuck in my head reminding me of stuff I’d done. So what, we all have to survive, right?
Gradually the face changed, until it scowled in permanent, terrifying disapproval.
I went back to Spilled Ink but it was gone. Every night the face taunted me with my sins, daring me to do better. When I didn’t listen, she woke the other tattoos up. Flowers turned decayed and nasty smelling. The tiger clawed my back and attacked my lucky rabbit, the stars burned my skin, and the skeleton rattled its bones until sleep was a distant memory. I’d had enough.
I stole enough money to visit another shop. The new artist wouldn’t shut up about the quality and artistry of my ink, especially the face that was somehow beautiful again. I had to pay double for what I wanted, but finally it was done.
I thought covering up would be the answer.
She shouted even louder from behind the crosshatched pattern that obliterated her face. “I can’t see! I can’t see!”
Now I hold a knife to my arm, crying. I want it off me.
She says I’m weak, that I’ll never do it, she’ll never let me forget I blinded her.
“Tattoos are permanent,” she reminds me.
So… how deep must I cut to be sure?
Want more fiction, poetry, writing tips or life advice? Follow this blog and never miss a post.
Professor Martin might be one of the cleverest people who ever lived, but even he didn’t know for certain how the process would work. And I guess he expected his body would die. I barely managed to get out and lock the lab door before he attacked me. Well, it’s not really him, I remind myself. The frothing, feral creature rampaging through the lab and wrecking the equipment is what was left after he uploaded his mind to the cloud drive. I can hear screaming, but it’s not that animal. It only grunts.
It’s coming from the computer speakers.
have a comment? drop it below, start a conversation
Inktober is an annual art challenge in which artists make a drawing in response to a daily prompt.
Use prompts when you want to create something but you’re short on ideas. They’re a good way to overcome writer’s block. Once you get started, you’re far more likely to keep going rather than stare at an empty page.
Prompts ignite your creativity by taking the decision of what to write about out of your hands. All you have to do is respond.
I’ve been on a semi-hiatus and this seems like a good way to get back into writing. So I’m going to do this for flash fiction rather than pictures, up to 250 words. I’ll also add audio if possible.
Why don’t you join in for any or all of the prompts? Let’s go!
It seemed so real. Rivers sparkled in the sunlight, meandering between soft green hills. Ali dipped low over a dark blue lake and caught glimpses of fish below the rippled surface. Warm air buoyed her up, towards a solitary eagle wheeling far above, but the wind failed and she fell back to earth.
She woke in bed and realised with a heavy heart that it was morning, already, again. Reluctantly she pulled back her covers and put her feet to the cold boards. Another day in paradise.
Boring days crawled by, nothing to mark one from another. She stared at her face in the mirror, wondering if this was it, all life had to offer. One grey evening Ali cuddled under a blanket on the sofa, watching nature documentaries. The kitchen was dark and cold, and after a long day of work a handful of dry cereal and a cup of tea was just easier. What was the point of cooking for one anyway? She could probably stand to lose a few pounds. She half-listened to David Attenborough talking about birds and habitat and such. His voice was soothing and familiar. She closed her eyes for a moment.
When she opened them again, a vast forest stretched below. From a distance it looked solid, but on closer inspection she could see separate trees in which flocks of scarlet macaws chattered noisily. Once again Ali fell, but as she wished that she could fly further, her descent slowed. She landed gently and put her feet to cool earth.
Around her, jewelled hummingbirds dashed from bloom to bloom and birds called overhead. Luxuriant foliage enclosed her in countless shades of green, and she breathed in faintly spiced air.
Her next thought was that she’d probably be eaten alive by mosquitos, but her arms and legs remained free of bites. She wandered around for a time until she heard buzzing. She looked up at a large beehive, with a few bees circling outside. Ali reached toward it but her arms were so heavy. She felt herself sink to the ground and woke in bed, limbs pleasantly warm and remembered birdsong in her ears.
That lunchtime she chatted to Debs, her desk neighbour for the last nine months. They usually dissected last night’s TV programmes. That was one thing Ali knew something about.
“Sorry, what?” She realised Debs was looking at her expectantly.
“I said, did you see those hummingbirds on TV last night?” Debs shook her head. “You’re a real space cadet today, didn’t you get your beauty sleep or something? Or, perhaps it’s someone who kept you awake…” She trailed off, raising her eyebrows suggestively.
“Maybe Jake the IT guy. He’s been checking you out for ages.”
“Ew, no. He’s creepy.” Ali shuddered for effect. “Actually, I had the most realistic dream, and when it was going to end I wished it wouldn’t, and I kept dreaming. It was amazing.”
“Oh really? You should look up lucid dreaming,” Debs bit into her apple. “It’s when you know it’s a dream and you can control it.”
“Is that really a thing? I thought dreaming was all pictures from your subconscious.” Ali pulled a yogurt out of her lunchbox, and peeled the lid off.
“Ali, you’re not at home now,” Debs hissed. “No wonder Jake has a thing for you when you’re licking the lid in public.”
She hastily dropped the foil, feeling warmth in her cheeks. She was getting sloppy and distracted and it wouldn’t do. “Sorry. So anyway, lucid dreaming is real then.”
“Yeah, I had this boyfriend who was into yoga and all that mystical stuff, but I stopped listening after a while. Too airy-fairy for me. Better get back to work.” Debs gathered her things and left Ali thinking. She ate her yogurt with a spoon and avoided eye contact with anyone.
Ali turned to the internet. She devoured articles on lucid dreaming, yoga nidra, astral projection and yogic flying. With practice, she discovered a knack for slipping from calm wakefulness into a dreamscape of her own choosing. Her nights filled with brilliant images.
The auroras blazed green and red above the poles. She followed a barn owl on its silent nocturnal hunt, and skimmed the seas with dolphins. She walked exotic beaches alongside turquoise seas, and wandered cool pine forests leaving no prints in the snow. It was exhilarating. Real life could not compare with the wondrous worlds of her dreams.
Ali burrowed her feet into warm pale sand and looked out at the distant horizon. In her night world she felt alive. Nothing could hurt her. Daytime was drab by contrast, with Debs nudging her and asking if Jake was the cause of her faraway look. She agreed just to shut Debs up. All she really wanted to spend more time asleep, alone.
Controlling dreams seemed impossible. Until you did it.
A flash of light caught her attention, perhaps a reflection from the sea. It shimmered like heat haze. She walked along the beach to find it. The air in front of her rippled, yet she could see the beach beyond. She circled the ripple and looked back at normal beach. Hesitantly she put out her hand, only to find it vanished into the shimmer. She screamed and woke up in her bed gasping for breath, her mouth dry with fear. Her hand shook, but it was intact. It seemed so real.
That was not meant to happen. She was meant to be in control.
“Just a dream,” she muttered. But she couldn’t explain it.
Ali stopped lucid dreaming after that. The monotonous days dragged on, but it was impossible to resist the pull of her dream world for long. She found herself back on the same beach, standing in front of the hazy air pocket. There was only one way to know. She took a breath, and stepped into the shimmer.
Beyond lay a magical world. Brilliant stars twinkled in a purple sky lit by two moons. The air hummed with strange energy, plants and flowers glowed with unnamed colours. She could feel everything, and it finally made sense.
Then she looked up at the brightest stars and wondered what they looked like up close. She soared into the sky. As the ground receded she heard her name. She was back on the beach, quick as thought. A paramedic was clearly visible through the portal, standing in her bedroom.
“Ali, Ali wake up!” Debs was holding her hand and crying.
She hovered by the ceiling for a while, looking down at her sleeping form. Her body was not dead. But mere existence held no appeal.
In this vibrant universe, she was truly alive. She slipped away unnoticed. The stars were calling her.
(A video uploaded to YouTube shows a woman, her face in shadow, speaking directly to camera. A soundtrack of wave sounds accompanies her words.)
Curfew has been in effect for some time. We didn’t think it could happen here and many people openly flouted the rules. Until James Beck vanished and never came back. He was the first. We were all more careful after that.
The news is always cheerful, telling us things are getting better and our leaders are making great progress with diplomatic approaches. Just carry on with your lives. Be sure to be indoors by ten o’clock. Everything will be just fine.
The dream came occasionally at first. I thought I was just pining for old times, wind in my hair, sand in my shoes, melting ice-cream licked from my fingers. Nostalgia for a rose tinted past in a grey present and uncertain future. It was always summer, warm but not too hot, the sea rippling deep blue under azure sky. There were no clouds.
Upbeat news fills monotonous days, yet my night world sparkles with sunbeams on gentle waves and the drowsy heat of midday. They tell us not to worry. We don’t worry; we lie alone in bed staring at the dark and hope it hides the monsters.
I must go down to the sea again. My sister used to recite that poem over and over until the words lost all meaning. It comes back to me now, the soundtrack for my wide-eyed nights and my eventual dreams of summer. They are long in coming, but now they come most nights.
I asked Daniel to come with me, but he said he was too busy and anyway, we’d risk being out after curfew. It’s just one time, I said. I won’t ask you to go again. He said he’d think about it.
Once I upload this message, I’m going back to the beach. I know what I will find.
The sky will be a hard, pitiless blue. The sea will darken, and pause for a moment before a brilliant flash. And the sky will flower with a thousand suns, and the last cloud will rise.
If anything remains of us, know that some remembered summer.
I thought I was over you. It’s been a while now, and they say time heals.
They don’t say how much time.
I got a new phone. It was a good opportunity for a clear out, you know, out with the old, all that. Anyway. I should just have hit delete all, but I’m always careful, don’t want to discard something important. So I listened to all the messages, clicking through, delete delete.
Your voice caught me by surprise. Your tone was sad, asking me to call back. I didn’t remember ever getting the message. Listening again, it sounded like you really needed to speak to me. Whatever you had wanted, obviously it could never happen. I’d sat in the front pew, blinded by tears. Grief swallowed my voice and I couldn’t sing for you one last time. That broke me even more.
I deleted that message.
Then the messages started, from an unknown number. They were crackly and unclear, but your voice was always there.
I deleted them all. They kept coming, though I changed my phone again. One day I heard you on the landline answerphone, and my heart stopped, for a panicked moment. I threw out the answerphone.
It felt like going mad.
After a while, I started to wonder. Were you really trying to contact me? Nobody has ever proved communication from the dead, and I certainly didn’t believe in any mumbo-jumbo. But. What if it was you, trying to pierce the veil from the other side?
The idea took root in my mind, and I stopped deleting the messages that popped up on my voicemail. I listened to them over and over, your almost-words teasing me.
I ran them through voice analysis software, trying to make out your words. Sometimes I thought it was just you breathing, but with distant singing and static. Waiting for me to reply.
I have so many things to say to you.
I have a brilliant idea about the source so I bought a ham radio and I’m combing the frequencies. I’m certain that if I tune in right, we can talk again. There’s a lot of wavebands to cover, but nothing is more important than this.
I will devote all the time we didn’t have to finding you. No matter how long it takes. I already know what song I will sing.