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What You Do Best (A Fantasy Short-Story)

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[Back-story: This was written 5 years ago as an entry for a writing competition. If I learned something, it was that I do not write very well when the subject is determined by someone else. I think it started out decently enough, but it didn’t really go anywhere I felt good enough about, as it was dictated by the mandates of the competition. But, I put it here in case someone else might find some possible merit in it.]

“Should we touch it?” asked the first one.

“I wouldn’t!” answered the second one.

“What do you think it is?” asked the first one.

“How should I know?” replied the second one sarcastically. “You’re the bookworm, you tell me!”

“That doesn’t mean I know everything,” the first one shot back hotly.

“Oh, yeah?” smirked the second one. “Then why do you always act like you do?”

“What the hell is wrong with you two?” interjected the third as he pushed his way between the two others kneeling in his way. The two others started suddenly, surprised by his stealthy approach.

“Stop doing that!” they both shouted.

“Not likely,” said the third. “It’s what I do best,” he added as he stared intently at the object of his friends’ conversation. “Were you planning on taking this thing, or just sitting here and jabbering all day?” he asked.

All three were now staring at the dark object before them, nestled safely in its small wooden chest. The third one of the group, smallest of the three, reached forward as if to touch the thing. His friends cried out in surprise.

“What is wrong with you two?” cried the third in frustration.

“We don’t know what it is!” fired back the first one. “What if it’s cursed or something?” he added, looking sidelong at the dark object, as if he expected it suddenly to do something sinister.

“What does it matter?” cried the third. “It’s valuable, or else he wouldn’t have put up such a struggle to keep it, now would he?” The other two couldn’t come up with an argument against that. They were all sporting the remnants of the struggle. And poor Hedrick! There wasn’t much left of him after it was all said and done. Whatever this thing was, it had been worth fighting over and that meant money to the three survivors.

The third one suddenly shot out his hand, grabbed the thing and lifted it out of the chest before the others even knew what was up. They gasped, shrinking back from their friend as if they expected him to strike them suddenly, but nothing happened. Their friend was kneeling there between them, hefting the object in his left hand, examining it closely with the professional eye of the trained thief, for thief he was.

“It’s heavier than it looks!” he said admiringly as he drew it closer to his face. His two friends leaned in expectantly to get a better view. Whatever it was, it was dark, darker than dark, in fact. No light glinted or reflected off its perfectly polished surface. It was larger than their little friend’s hand, slightly oval, suggestive of an egg but not quite an egg.

“Maybe it’s an egg of some kind!” opined the second one. “Maybe a dragon’s egg! That’d fetch a fortune!” he whispered, eyes wide.

“Don’t be an idiot!” shot back the first one. The third one sighed at the bickering of the others.

“Would you two shut up?” growled the third irritably. “It’s not an egg.” He went back to studying it. “And it’s not a jewel, either,” he added quickly, before either of the two idiots could say a word. “It looks like glass but I’ve never seen any glass anywhere that even comes close to this thing,” he said admiringly. He suddenly returned the dark object to its silk-encased nest in the little wooden chest and snapped the lid shut. He scooped up the little chest and clutched it under his left arm, like a mother hen protecting her chick. He quickly stood up, looking down at his still-kneeling friends. “Can we get out of here now?” he asked.

They made good time in leaving. Hedrick they buried under a quick mound of rocks and stones there in the cavern. Not that there was much left of their poor friend to bury. His broken shield they placed atop the stones. It wouldn’t fetch a brass button in its current condition, in any case.

“Well, any idea what it is?” It wasn’t the first time the question had been asked since they had left the caverns. For two days now that seemed to be the only thing either one of the two had been asking the little thief. Once again, he was sitting by the campfire, studying the perfectly smooth, perfectly dark, glass-like object held in his hands. He was becoming accustomed to its strangeness now; it was looking and feeling like an old friend, as if it had been part of his life since the day he was born. He was ignoring his friends and it was annoying them greatly.

“What are we going to do with it?” asked the first one. “We’ll be there soon enough; shouldn’t we have some plan for selling this thing or something?” He was looking at his little friend, who was ignoring him still.

“Yeah,” interjected the second one. “We haven’t talked about what we’re going to do with it. Sell it? Or what?” The third one ignored him, as well. The two looked at each other, then back to the third. “Well?” they cried in unison.

“How am I ever going to figure this thing out with you two badgering me like this?” he cried irritably. He carefully replaced the dark object in its case, arose and walked to his bedroll. Placing the small chest back in his pack, he lay down, drew his blanket over his small body and tried to sleep, his back to his friends.

Talk to me.

The third one mumbled in his sleep. No one heard him.

Please talk to me.

This time, he rolled over on his back, eyes tightly shut in sleep.

Why won’t you talk to me?

This time, he shot upright, eyes open, struggling to focus in the darkness. “Who’s that?” he mumbled, half-asleep. No one answered. The other two were still asleep, tightly rolled up in their blankets on the other side of the dying fire. Only the night sounds of the forest answered him. He listened for a while longer but the voice was gone. “Stupid dreams,” he muttered as he lay back down and struggled to find sleep.

Stupid dream or not, it wouldn’t leave him alone. The next night, the same voice, calling out to him and awakening him. And again, the next night. Between the stupid dream and his stupid companions, he wasn’t getting much sleep and he was getting more than a bit irritated about the whole thing.

Help me.

“Who are you?” He had no idea where he was.

Please, help me.

He was alone and it was dark, very dark. He could see nothing, not even a glimmer of light but for some unknown reason, that didn’t bother him. “Where are you?” he whispered.

I’m close.

He stopped, listening. Something grabbed him, shook him violently. He cried out in shock and surprise.

“What’s wrong? Wake up!” They were on either side of him, each with a hand on one of his shoulders, shaking him awake. He pushed himself up and away from his two friends, looking wildly about. It was nearly dawn; the first hints of the new day were slipping into view over the surrounding treetops.

“You were shouting in your sleep,” the first one said. They looked worried.

“It was just a stupid dream,” he said, gathering up his gear and ignoring the others. They looked at him for a bit, finally shrugging their shoulders and returning to their own morning chores before they broke camp for the day to resume their march.

Another night, yet another dream.

You came back.

It was still dark and he still could not see anything but he knew that he was not alone. Odd, he thought almost absently, but I’m not afraid. He wasn’t. Should he be? Maybe I should be, he thought and then he stopped worrying about it.

I’m glad you are here.

The voice was warm, almost pleasant, like an old friend. He smiled, relaxing. Who are you?

I’ve been here so long, so alone.

So sad, he thought. You’re not alone now, he thought.

Don’t leave me alone!

I won’t, he thought. The voice needn’t have worried. He had no desire to leave.

They won’t let you stay, you know. Your friends. They’ll make you leave. Please don’t let them.

However, they did. Again, they woke him. Harder, this time. It was getting harder each time to bring him back from the world of sleep and they were becoming worried and he was growing more annoyed with their actions.

“Why can’t you two leave me alone?” he growled one night, after a particularly annoying argument with the two of them. They looked at him surprised.

“What’s going on?” asked the first one, poking the fire with a stick. “Ever since we left those caves behind, you’ve been sullen and surly and a pain to be around!” Frustrated, he tossed the stick he was holding into the hottest part of the fire. Sparks flew up into the night sky.

“Yeah,” chimed in the second one. “This is getting to be too much. We should be there tomorrow, next day at the latest, and you still won’t tell us what’s going on with that thing,” he said, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the little thief’s bedroll. The little chest with its dark object was quickly becoming a source of contention between the three. Gone was the initial excitement of discovery. It had now been replaced with resentment and a trace of anger.

He looked darkly at his two companions sitting across the fire from him. What were they plotting? They were after his treasure, he was sure of it. It would just be a matter of time before they took it from him. What could he do?

Another night, another dream.

You have to stop them; you can’t let them take me away!

But what can I do? I am just one and they are two, he thought.

Do what you do best.

Yes, what I do best, he thought. What I do best.

The next day he awoke refreshed and rested, such as he had never been before. He was in a merry mood, whistling gaily as he packed his gear carefully, making sure his treasure was safely stowed in the bottom of his pack. He made sure to spread plenty of dirt over the remains of their smoldering campfire. He even went so far as to tuck the wool blankets tightly around the lifeless bodies of his two companions, as if to ward off the cold that had already taken over their bodies. They would sleep now for all eternity, he had made certain of that.

He couldn’t wait for night to fall that day. He wanted to return to that dark and comfortable place, the place with the warm and inviting voice, the one that made him feel so welcome and wanted. He sat for many hours that night, holding the dark glass orb in his lap, occasionally caressing it with one of his hands. It was so smooth, so dark…

He was falling. Instinctively, he knew he couldn’t be falling, that he was still sitting there beside his lonely campfire but he couldn’t convince his mind. His arms and legs shot out, as if to grab hold of something to break his fall and then it was over. There was no impact, no sensation of movement of any kind, but he knew that the fall was over. He looked about, bewildered, but darkness engulfed him. He was confused. This was so unlike the other nights. What was happening?

As he tried to look around, he slowly became aware that the darkness was lifting, if only by degrees. A faint glow was growing far above him. First, only a fuzzy dot in the heavens above him and then growing slowly larger. A disk of vague shape, reddish-yellow grew high above him, flickering. It reminded him of a fire. Just then, a dark shape moved between it and his eyes, silhouetted by the mysterious fire-like light. The light from his campfire, he realized with shock.

Thank you, little friend.

The voice was back inside his head but he was confused. It sounded less warm, less inviting. For the first time since hearing that voice, he felt alone, terribly alone, and afraid. A soft laugh filled his mind.

I couldn’t have done it without you, you know.

Done what?

Why, escaped!

More laughter, this time cruel and mocking. There was no friendship, no warmth in this voice.

Dark glass, created from the remains of a fallen star, forged by dragon’s breath, the only substance that could bind me and trap me! It has been ages since I was tricked into entering my little prison. I had given up all hope of ever escaping, especially while the dragon stood guard over me. Imagine my surprise when your little band managed to overthrow my captor!

Shock filled the little thief’s mind. Captor? Guard? A prison? What had they done?

That laugh again.

Yes, why do you think he fought so hard? To protect a treasure? Hardly! It was to prevent me from escaping! I am the Lord of Despair, trapped ages ago in the dark glass, waiting only for an innocent fool such as yourself to make the proper sacrifice, at the proper time, to take my place.

His friends! Asleep forever in death. Now he understood the “sacrifice”. He wept.

Despair! How good it feels to hear that once more! I shall soon hear it from every corner of the world. I shall move across the heavens and despair shall flow from me like a blanket!

The dark shadow moved suddenly, the reddish-yellow light spun away, out of sight, plunging the little thief into total darkness again. He cried in despair and in fear, but no one heard him.

The man stood up from where he had been crouching by the campfire, a small wooden chest tucked under his arm. He stroked the neatly trimmed black beard on his dark face. The campfire flickered red in his dark eyes. A grin split his face as he looked down at the little chest secured under his arm. He patted it fondly with his free hand.

“Yes, my little friend, despair for all eternity! Be witness to what you have wrought, for you and I shall be companions for all time.” With that, he strode into the night, despair flowing behind him like a billowing cloud.

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