❝The key around uncle’s neck is black with age. He says the door it unlocks is hiding.
“From what?” I ask. He sighs.
I examine the key with curiosity. It’s on a very long chain, the links so thin I have to peer closely at it to even make them out. It must be quite strong, despite its apparent delicacy, to bear the key which is so heavy.
The key itself is a strange thing. The head is rounded, with a hole in the middle for the chain to go through. The blade is long and rounded too, and there are unsettling engravings on it, hardly legible, that shift and waver when I try and study them. And the teeth of the key…the teeth all curve into points, so that they look a little like horns or fangs.
“What do you think the door it belongs to is like?” I ask my uncle.
He hums, gently pulling the key from my hands and tucking it beneath his shirt to hang on its quicksilver chain, out of sight, but not out of mind.
“Well,” he says slowly. “Make a key, and its door will be called into existence. Make it wrong, and you might just summon a black door. Or worse, no door at all. I don’t think this is the case of the latter, but the former…”
❝We form our own sort of twisted community, those of us desperate enough to fish in the River Styx.❞
It’s the gold we want, the coin placed in the mouth or upon the eyes of the dead to pay the ferryman. He takes the gold and takes the dead too, but he does not keep the gold. It glitters at the bottom of the River, untouched and unused. Hades does not need it and does not miss it, lord of all the wealth beneath the earth (including our precious dead) as he is.
We, who for one reason or another cannot earn our gold any other way, who are willing to risk traversing the paths to the underworld, we make our way to the River and hope, with every dip into the water, not to rouse the nymph it is named for, for her fury at our transgression is cold and implacable and all consuming.
Sometimes, the water is truly as calm and quiet as it always appears. Other times, one of us will venture in and be swept away by its invisible, indomitable current, never to be seen again except as a shade. But with every wading into those waters, we gain another treasure, as precious as the coins in its own way—a strengthening invulnerability to harm by mortal weapons and mortal fire.
We, who are largely outcasts, constrained to the fringes of society, value such protection as much as we value the bread and meat, garments and shelter, that the gold we fish for provides us.
❝There is something in her chest cavity, pulsing, glowing through her skin. It moves like a frightened animal. It is definitely not her heart. ❞
Her heart is in her hands, porcelain and perfect and utterly still, just as it should be.
Alyss is quietly pleased. She had no idea if the spell would work for herself; the old queen only ever cast it on other people, to own their hearts and command them as she would, a punishment and a service all at once.
There’d been a chance this spell would’ve killed her, but Alyss was--had been—destined to die anyway, so what did she care about the risk?
But she’s not dead after all. She’s holding her own heart, and she’s breathing and living and thinking, no empty shell like the Queen’s Cards. And now she’s unkillable.
Unless, of course, someone gets a hold of her heart. But they won’t. She’ll bury it, out in the garden of poisonous blood red roses, right in the (hah!) heart of the maze where nobody will go and where no one will find it. She’ll bury it in soil and spells and a chest, and she’ll live forever.
Alyss is the author of her own fate, and nobody else is.
The thing in her chest flutters and shifts where her heart used to be, settling into its space. Alyss wonders if it’s her soul. If, without the burden, the foible, of her heart, she can feel it now. She wonders if it’s at all affected by what she’s done.
She decides she doesn’t care if it is, nor how.
Fictober is a challenge where writers respond to a prompt a day for the whole of October.
This year's prompts are from Deep Water Prompts on tumblr.
This prompt fill is also a glimpse into the backstory of one of my characters in Oracle.
❝My mother’s study was full of porcelain hearts, thousands of them, crafted in stunning anatomical detail.❞
I used to study them all, as a child, in their careful placements on little velvet cushions on the shelves, shining sleekly in the sunlight that poured through the tall windows. They were so beautiful, all unique somehow, and all looking so real. I was entranced by them, by their delicacy as much as by their forbidden nature. I was never allowed to touch any of them.
“Once broken, they can’t be mended,” my mother would say. “No matter how skilled the craftsman, how cleverly sealed or joined or glued the fragments, there would always be a fault in them.”
“Even with magic?” I’d ask.
“Magic can’t fix a broken heart. It can only unmake it, or change it, but then it wouldn’t be the same heart, you understand? And it would always have once been broken.”
❝We live so close to the edge of the universe, half the garden actually sits out of existence. You should try not to fall asleep there, or watch the rest of the house too closely.❞
You would think here at the end of everything it would be silent. So far from all else it is quiet, but quiet enough to hear the universe singing. It sounds like a melodious, wordless lullaby just on the edge of hearing, sometimes so deep it burns in your bones, sometimes so high it feels like it’s lifting you with it, oftentimes hushed like a lover’s heartbeat against your ear, but it’s a song with no ending, or an ending so far from approaching as to be impossible to guess when it will finally fade away.
It’s what makes the garden flourish, I think, though we are so far from any suns. All the blooms are heavy, lush, in deep purples and velvet blues, streaked through with soft magenta, flaming orange, and electromagnetic green, or speckled with white and yellow exactly like the glitter of the eternally distancing stars, few and far between where we are. They sway though there’s no breeze, dancing to the universe’s song.
❝Cautious selkies bring me their pelts to protect, for a fee. I have stabbed more fishermen than I can count, in the dead of night, at the foot of the safe.❞
On those nights, I think of my mother. I think of my father. I think of myself, and what my life would have been like, had my mother had someone like me, to protect her pelt. Had my father been someone like me, protective of her pelt and willing to return it when she asked for it, interested only in keeping it safe, rather than keeping her.
I wonder if she would have loved him for it. I wonder if he would have loved her, truly. I wonder who I would be, if my father hadn’t been a captor and a thief, if my mother hadn’t been a prisoner who escaped and never returned.
Would I still be guarding pelts in a safe I constructed? Would I still be giving selkies the bodies of the fishermen who would be thieves, to bury out at sea? Would I still have blood on my hands but a lack of regret in my heart, only wistful grief?
❝Mama always called me her treasure, but that was a lie. It takes years and several attempts on my life to realize: I’m the map.❞
I just don’t know what to.
So I'm on a quest: to survive, yes, but also to discover myself, the reason I'm being hunted, and what treasure I lead to.
And that's why I'm writing to you.
You knew my Mama, you knew her secrets, and I am sure you can help me. I don’t need your protection or your comfort, you don’t need to worry about being responsible for me in that way. I've learned through all the assassination attempts how to protect myself, and that I’m still alive has more to do with skill than luck, I promise you, and since I've spent all my life without a father, you can rest assured I'm not seeking you out now out of any emotional impulse or need.
But I am walking blind here and I know eventually I’ll be cornered.
That is why I need you: to guide me.
If I'm the map...I think you're the key.
❝The Archers are a mystery, carrying no arrows, and drawing empty bows. They say begging is useless, if one takes aim at you.❞
Some strike you dead, immediately. Some strike you with pestilence, others misery and malaise, still others with mad laughter that will not cease until you are breathless and weeping and wailing with the pain of it.
The worst, though, are the ones that strike you with obsession.
Oh, some call it love, those who are luckier or more foolish, but I know better.
I have seen those afflicted become raving, ravaging beasts, consumed with the desire to consume. They do not calm or cease once they have caught whomever the Archers have deemed their prey. No, they take and they rend, they eat, they break.
And only then is their need satiated, and they come back to themselves horrified, if they come back to themselves at all, covered in blood and viscera, death in their bellies, their teeth, their hands.
They say begging is useless, and that is true.
But flattery is not.
So we name the Archers gods. We worship them as though we feel more for them than fear and loathing. We give them beautiful names, and craft for them beautiful visages, and hallow for them beautiful temples.
And we hope we can satiate their desire to hunt, if we sacrifice one of our own to them every dark of the moon.
❝The thing in the tower is just as tall and thin, unknowable vigilant eyes keeping the war above at bay. The skies are strange colors these days.❞
I don’t like this country.
I don’t like their living buildings, which breathe and shift and watch the people scurry below them and upon them and within them like old, patient gods, disinclined to brush away the minor disturbances we cause them.
I don’t like the now-haunted skies, all murky greens and blues edged with sickly yellows and purples, like a bruise, where before they used to be dark and velvety, swept through with speckled opalescence.
I don’t like the distant war cries that wail like faint alarms, mournful and vengeful all at once, between the battling factions overhead.
But the thing in the tower—that I do not mind so much. It is bound, just as I am, and so I feel a kinship with it, though its chains are much larger and made of star-stuff, while mine are made of iron (also star stuff, but tempered). I appreciate that without the thing, the war would come crashing down upon all our heads, sweeping us away like a great and ruinous wave.
The thing watches—and the battalions know they are being watched, and so they keep their movements limited to the heavens. I like that too; so perhaps it is not that I like the thing in the tower, but that I am grateful to it.
I wonder if it is grateful to me at all, for the company I provide it, though it isn't willing company. The two of us are so very alone, here in this tower.
Now I know what you’re thinking--hello, it’s Vegas, I really should’ve expected this. The problem is, I didn’t drink anything but virgin drinks last night, because I needed a clear head but also to blend in at the club. So I had one of my henchmen (Dex, a whizz at mixing drinks and poisons) replace the bartender for the night so I wouldn’t blow my cover of party woman by obviously imbibing non-alcoholic drinks.
So how did I end up here, in a heart-shaped bed in a room liberally decorated with red and white kitschy romantic decor, with a floor strewn with wilted rose petals, wearing the cursed rings I was trying to track down?
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Featuring prompt fills, excerpts from my wips, posts about my writing process, and more.