In a time of crisis, Valentine and Emilia’s love blooms

Swift as Shadow

Part II

BY SHANEL WILSON

Emilia looked out a window overlooking the Newlondon Harbor. She had eaten the food Valentine gave her and took a short rest. She couldn’t really sleep with the events of the last day flashing through her mind. When Emilia made the choice to stay with Valentine, she imagined a beautiful world by her side, free from worry and full of adventure.

Such a world would never have been hers if she had become a Bride as planned. Once in Whitehall, she would have been registered and taken into surgery to enhance her already ultraviolet-sensitive eyes for a job either repairing defense systems as a Vestra or monitoring the beasts around the Globe as an Artemis. Neither of those tasks had ever seemed appealing to Emilia, but her eyes destined her to be prized for their usefulness instead of Emilia’s own talents and desires.

Photo by Håkon Grimstad.

She longed to get to know her beautiful Shadow, the name she had given Valentine before she learned her real name, and to explore this new world lying in front of her. Now she was stuck in a room with a window, not unlike the one she had left behind in Westminster. Emilia knew she was in unfamiliar territory, so she tried to accept her place and wait for Valentine. But waiting was getting hard.

I can help. I should be doing something! Emilia thought to herself.

But all the things she thought of would jeopardize them all by exposing her eyes to anyone in Newlondon. Instead, Emilia decided to study Valentine’s room. It was sparse and tidy. Emilia’s own room in her father’s house was filled with all types of glass blown into the most intricate and beautiful shapes. It was an explosion of color. In Valentine’s room, the only color came from a few small paintings tacked above the small desk. Each was a beautiful landscape; a lush green forest with accents of golden sunlight filtering through the branches, craggy mountain peaks swirled in grey mist, the teals and blues of an outlook over the sea. The last one was vibrant oranges and browns of sand dunes. Valentine had clearly explored each piece of the Globe, from the top of the Elizabeth River and down to the sea.

Emilia understood then just how little she knew about the Globe, and Valentine for that matter. Emilia studied the painting of the sea cliff further. She should have felt terrified to come all this way, leaving her father and ignoring her fate, to be with a stranger. Instead, a calm washed over her. She smiled at the thought of this new adventure with this new, beautiful person by her side. Emilia looked back out the window. She caught a swish of a cloak as the front door creaked open.

“Emilia?” Bianca called.

“Yes! I am here. Did you find your Antonio?” Emilia said, as she descended the stairs.

Bianca embraced Emilia and led her to the sitting room through the carved wood archway on their left. Dark wood paneled the walls, and a few paintings like the ones in Valentine’s room hung from them. Heavily carved chairs with striped cushions sat around a tea table with a beautiful inlay of sea creatures swimming in the wood’s surface.

Photo by Wonderlane.

“I did. By the grace of Elizabeth Hathaway. It is as Valentine feared. He was made a member of the Guild upon returning from slaying the kraken and was made the representative to go to Whitehall to meet with the Polity.”

“Why would they let the newest member be their representative?”

“That is a very good question, Emilia. I am positive the Guild means to use him to their extreme advantage, but there is something I am not seeing yet. The Guild is somewhat of a necessary evil here in Newlondon. Us Newlondoners are born a bit restless, with the sea in our veins. Some choose more dubious ways of life than others, but that is the charm of Newlondon. Our destinies are our own. The Guild maintains the thinnest semblance of order in exchange for carte blanche in their racketeering and shady dealings. That’s why people like my father have tried to tip those balances to protect those unable to wield such power. Those like my sweet Antonio.”

“If the Polity is to be feared, as we’ve been taught, and the Guild protects themselves first, as you said, perhaps they feel Antonio is expendable?” Emilia suggested.

Before Bianca could answer, Valentine appeared in the room.

“Valentine!” Emilia crossed the room to greet her.

“Taking your Shadow business seriously, I see. You don’t have to sneak into your own home,” Bianca said playfully.

“You never know who is watching, sweet sister,” Valentine replied.

“You sound just like Father,” Bianca said. “Come, tell us what you know.”

“We retrieved the dead pirate from Antonio’s skiv and left Antonio a warning. It’s up to Antonio for now,” Valentine shared, as they took their seats.

Bianca let out the breath she had been holding.

“We will protect him, my sister. All have been alerted along the river. And those in Newlondon have brought more news,” Valentine said, taking Bianca’s hand in hers. “Solanio has also left the harbor on his way to Whitehall. The word on the wind is that he is to represent Newlondon to the Polity.”

“That scoundrel! I knew there was something I could not see.”

“And more still, Solanio is how Antonio ended up on the Tempest. Antonio had panicked about the pirate and went to Solanio for help. The only help he offered was certain death.”

“A death that did not occur. Perhaps he will correct this error on his way to Whitehall?” Emilia interrupted.

Bianca’s hands involuntarily tightened around Valentine’s.

Bianca’s hands involuntarily tightened around Valentine’s. Photo by Zoe.

“Solanio cannot risk another failure. If he has persuaded the Guild to trust him as their actual representative to Whitehall, he certainly has been able to twist the Guild’s questionable motives to enhance his own. Antonio is the only thing in his way to a rightful spot in the Guild and to your heart,” Valentine said, looking deep into her sister’s eyes.

“Me? He knows I find him wretched.”

“Yes, but men like Solanio only want the things they cannot have. So, we must be vigilant and ready for what lies ahead. I am leaving to organize a crew of Shadow Walkers that will go to Whitehall. That way we will be prepared for any ills Solanio or the Guild, for that matter, have planned.”

“You aren’t leaving without me! I cannot rest while that vile bottom-dweller lurks toward my beloved!” Bianca proclaimed.

“But I need you here with Emilia, staying safe. I promise I will stay in constant touch,” Valentine said, touching her eel medallion.

“Dear Valentine, my Shadow, please. I can help. I cannot be confined to another set of walls when I just left my old ones behind,” Emilia said, breaking in.

Bianca stood, reaching her hand out to Emilia. Emilia stood and took it.

“We are coming with you. We will obey all your orders except those that say we cannot help,” Bianca said. Emilia nodded in agreement.

“Father will have my head if I let anything happen to you and with being newly installed . . .”

“Installed? Oh, Valentine, I am so proud! You are ready for this.” Bianca wrapped Valentine in a hug before continuing. “As far as Father goes, nothing will happen to us. We spent our girlhoods together where we both learned the skills and secrets of Shadows, yet I always knew my life and love would be bound in Newlondon. I slowly stayed behind but never forgot all I have learned at your side. Now that my love is lost in the sea of this turbulent world, I cannot sit idly by. Besides, when have you let Father decide what you did? And in the short time I’ve had with Emilia, I can tell she is wise and cunning. She has put her full faith in you. Would you not return that to her?”

Valentine looked into the two faces before her. She still had so much to prove, to the Shadow Walkers, to her father, and to herself. She couldn’t let any of them down, let alone Bianca and Emilia. Their lives had been diverging, but Valentine and Bianca were as close as two sisters could be. Halves of the same whole.

Valentine wanted to protect her sister from the dangers she had seen around the Globe, yet she could not imagine trying to take this mission on without Bianca. Valentine’s heart swelled seeing Emilia standing so boldly next to her sister. Valentine knew she was inextricably connected to Emilia, with their connection deepening every moment they spent together. Through their journey so far, Emilia had proven she could hold her own, so Valentine could not stand in her way.

“I will have to scrounge up one of Father’s broken medallions to reconfigure for Emilia. We will need to gather supplies and be ready at the drop of an anchor.”

“I knew you’d come around!” Bianca danced around the room.

Valentine brushed the hair from Emilia’s face.

“Are you sure you are ready for this?” Valentine asked.

“Of course not, but I already told you. I can help and I will follow where you go,” Emilia said with a wry smile.


In the shadows and mist, a small skiv bobbed at the secret dock at Limnoreia estuary. Bianca gave Emilia a sisterly hug and stepped aside for Valentine. Valentine hung the newly fashioned eel medallion around Emila’s neck. The amethyst crystal eye of the eel matched Emilia’s eyes perfectly. 

“It’s not too late to change your mind, Emilia,” Valentine said.

Photo by Suhyeon Choi.

“I am ready, my Shadow. This will give us the best chance to save Antonio. I can do this.” Emilia pressed her forehead to Valentine’s.

“She’s right, sister. You and I cannot go where she will be allowed to,” Bianca said, adjusting the strap on the shoulder bag she wore.

Valentine closed her eyes tight. She knew they were both right. Their admiration was blossoming into the sweet first buds of love over the past few days as they gathered information and made plans to help save Antonio. Valentine didn’t feel ready to let Emilia go. She felt a squeeze from the hands holding her own.

“It’s time,” Emilia said gently. She placed a delicate kiss on Valentine’s lips and stepped aboard the skiv with the Shadow Walker that would escort her to the gates of Whitehall to report as a Bride.

Valentine subconsciously touched the medallion around her neck as she watched the skiv unlock and pull back from the dock.  She saw Emilia touch her own before she slipped it back into her dress. Bianca came and stood next to her sister.

“Is this what I am like when Antonio is around? No wonder you call me insufferable.” Bianca giggled, lightening the mood.

“Ha! You’ve always been insufferable, even before Antonio, dear sister!” Valentine prodded back.

“I must have learned it from you!”

“No, we learned it from Father!”

The sisters laughed and shared a long hug.

“Come, sister. There is much to do,” Bianca said as she turned toward Newlondon.

“Swift as shadow,” Valentine said, and she slipped into the darkness of the wilderness.


If you enjoyed Shanel’s story, please make sure and share some kind comments below. If you would like to see how this story began, read Shanel’s “Shadow of the Dunes,” which kicked off the Westminster stories in the Globe Folio series.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

P.S. Now you can enjoy the Globe Folio from the beginning:

Act 1: Night of the Rocket

Act 2: Nights of Revelation

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Valentine always wanted to be a Shadow Walker

Swift as Shadow

Part I

BY SHANEL WILSON

Spray from the river studded the hood wrapped tightly around Emilia. Valentine’s face was set firmly forward as she pushed the throttle as hard as she could, steering to make their wake as minimal as possible. The rocket could not mean anything good as far as Valentine was concerned and they must get to Newlondon immediately. Emilia patiently followed Valentine’s lead. She had learned from her trip across the desert with her that Valentine worked best in silence.


“Put this on.”

Valentine released Emilia from their embrace and gave her a dark blue cloak like her own.

Emilia obeyed as she watched Valentine sweep into action. Valentine prepared the hover and unlocked the maglock holding it to the dock. She paused for a moment, then went to the controls. Emilia curiously peered toward the spot Valentine had paused. She caught a faint glimpse of a pulsing blue light under the water. She inched toward the edge of the hover to get a better look.

“Hold on!” Valentine commanded.

Emilia fell back into the bench behind her. The hover raced down the river.

“I’ll get us to safety,” Valentine said, turning to Emilia. Her expression was clouded.

Even when the creature had attacked them when they crossed from Westminster to the river, Valentine had remained calm and cool. A chill rose in Emilia that wasn’t from the wind rushing past them as they traveled farther and farther from her home. Emilia stood and placed her hand on Valentine’s. Valentine looked meaningfully into Emilia’s violet eyes and turned back to the river ahead.

Emilia gazed with wonder at the towering trees that lined the left bank of the river as they flew past Finsbury. She had never seen anything like them in her dusty desert home in Westminster. The water then became more turbulent, and the fog spiraled around them. Valentine’s shoulders seemed to relax as she steered into a pocket of fog and the world around them disappeared.

“Home,” she said.

Emilia gazed with wonder at the towering trees that lined the left bank of the river as they flew past Finsbury. Photo by Anna Goncharova.

They soon heard the cawing of sea birds through the fog. Tall masts pierced through the grayness and Valentine slowed the hover to a slow crawl.

“Welcome to Newlondon,” Valentine said, motioning to the shadows of ships and lines of docks cutting through the mist. “The grand tour will have to wait, unfortunately.”

They quietly cruised through the bay and into the docks. Valentine turned into her private dock when a loud groan of an engine behind them grabbed their attention. A dark-black ship laden with a huge creature strewn on its deck crossed into the bay.

“A kraken? That’s impossible!” Valentine exclaimed, while Emilia gawked at the size of the monstrous beast.

Shouts from the docks grew and echoed across the water.

“The Tempest returns!”

“Kraken is slain!”

“Antonio slayed the beast!”

Valentine’s face lost all its color.

“Antonio? It can’t be. The fool. I’ve told Bianca as much so many times.” Valentine wove her fingers through her curls. Emilia reached out and took Valentine’s hands.

“Tell me what you need me to do. I can help. Who is Bianca?”

“She is my sister,” Valentine responded.

Valentine reached into her cloak and pulled a chain with a medallion on the end of it. The medallion was ornamented with a swirl of long, slender body with a fin running the length of its back and a crystal eye.

“It’s an eel,” Valentine answered the question in Emilia’s eyes. “We have to see my father, but I need Bianca too.”

She squeezed the medallion, and the crystal eye pulsed a deep blue.

“That light, I saw it in the water at the dock!” Emilia leaned closer to examine the medallion.

“It’s an alert of sorts. I will explain more soon, but we must get to my father, and quick. Keep your hood covering you and follow close. We will use the distraction at the docks to slip away unseen.”

“I’ll follow where you lead.”

Hearing Emilia say those words transported Valentine back to the Westminster dock and how her heart had stood still when Emilia asked to come with Valentine instead of going to Whitehall as planned. No one she encountered in all her travels so far came close to creating these unfamiliar feelings Valentine was having. Emilia had shown strength and poise through their journey so far, through all the twists and turns that seemed to be coming faster as the day dawned. Valentine embraced Emilia and gently kissed her cheek.

Photo by Meritt Thomas.

She led Emilia around a long loop through the docks away from the crowd growing to get a glimpse of the kraken. They silently raced through the visitor docks when Valentine stopped short. She motioned to Emilia to stay on the dock as she jumped into a skiv covered in nets and tarps. Valentine swiftly searched the skiv and peered under a corner of the tarp. She winced at what she saw. She secured the tarp and returned to Emilia’s side.

“This is Antonio’s skiv. It shouldn’t be here, and what’s on it shouldn’t, either,” Valentine whispered to Emilia. “Come, quickly.”

They raced towards town staying in the shadows.


Photo by Jake Oates.

Bianca paced her bedroom, clutching the medallion at the end of her necklace, its crystal eye pulsing a deep blue. She stopped occasionally to peek out the window, then continued pacing. When she heard the wooden creak of the front door, she sprinted down the narrow staircase to the entry.

“Sister!” Bianca cried out.

Valentine swooped in with Emilia close behind and shut the door as quickly as they had entered. She wrapped her arms around Bianca in a tight embrace.

“Where’s Father? I sent a ping up the river after I saw the rocket,” Valentine asked.

“He’s meeting the others at Selkie’s Kist. He’s not going to be happy to learn you are the one that sent the ping. He hasn’t installed you yet.”

“What was I supposed to do? Ignore the giant rocket in the sky and not warn the Shadow Walkers? My installation is a formality at this point.”

“You know that’s not how Father feels. And who is this, dear sister?” Bianca peered into the dark hood Emilia was still wearing.

Emilia shifted quietly at Valentine’s side. Valentine looked at Emilia apologetically.

“This is Emilia,” Valentine said, as Emilia lowered her hood gently.

“The Bride you were escorting?”

Bianca couldn’t hide her shock. She had never met a Westminster Bride in person before and half wondered if it was just a myth that their eyes were really violet. She should have known better than to assume that myths aren’t real when she knew the truth of the Shadow Walkers. When Bianca looked back to her sister, she saw something else. The warmth growing in Valentine’s cool-blue eyes as she looked upon Emilia was the same warmth she saw in Antonio’s.

“I chose a different path,” Emilia said, speaking for the first time since the docks. “I am pleased to meet you.”

“The pleasure is all mine. I am sure this tale between you two is worth sharing, but there are more pressing matters at the moment.”

“Yes, more than you know. We must all get to Selkie’s Kist immediately.” Valentine motioned to the door.

“Neither of us are Shadow Walkers! Father warned what would happen if we attended a meeting without an invitation. Sending a ping is one thing, but why should we risk our lives over some rocket?” Bianca’s face flushed with anger. 

Selkie’s Kist. Photo by Kristine Weilert.

“It’s Antonio. I think he is in more trouble than he is even aware. Come, I’ll explain on the way.”


Mist swirled in coils, making the air thick and humid. Silhouettes of trees and marsh grasses loomed as they got closer to Selkie’s Kist. The way to the inlet led further inland than Emilia had expected. Valentine explained that some of the natural inlets had been deepened to provide cover for meetings such as these. In hushed whispers, Valentine told Bianca of the ruckus at the harbor and what she had found on Antonio’s skiv.

They fell silent as the forms of people took shape through the mist. Valentine motioned that she would emerge first.

“Swift as shadow,” she said, signaling to the others gathered.

“Short as any dream,” a deep voice responded.

In a clearing surrounded by reeds and marshy trees, the group before Valentine was composed of about ten people with a tall, slender man standing opposite her. His face was stern and weathered from many years along the river and the sea. Some in the group eyed the newcomers with distrust, while others remained hidden beneath their cloak hoods. Emilia was reminded of the first time she saw Valentine, concealed beneath her midnight-blue cloak as they left Westminster. Valentine waved for Bianca and Emilia to join her at the edge of the circle.

“What is the meaning of this, Leonato?” said the shorter, stouter person to the right of the man in the center.

“Please, I know I have not been fully installed, but this is urgent,” Valentine said slowly.

“We don’t have time for your trifles, child,” said Leonato.

“Father, I am not a child! And I am the one that sent the ping from the Westminster dock when the rocket etched the sky.” Valentine responded with a step forward into the circle, her shoulders back.

“Your arrogance will lead to trouble, Valentine. Do you think you were the only person with their eyes skyward when the rockets passed by? We already have scouts gathering information about the landing and what the Polity are after. And you have already been warned not to interfere with our work until you are fully installed. Perhaps the responsibility is too great for you.”

Valentine shook her curls as if to shake off her father’s rebuke, but she stood strong. Emilia took Valentine’s hand. Whispers wove through the circle.

“Father, please, there is more. Please let Valentine speak.” Bianca lowered her hood revealing herself to the group.

“Both my daughters defy me? And who is this stranger you brought to our secret meeting?”

Before Valentine could respond, Emilia stepped forward and lowered her hood.

“I am Emilia, Eglamour’s daughter of Westminster. I am sorry for my intrusion here. My father hired Valentine to guide me to Whitehall for I was to be a Bride. Valentine saved my life from a beast in the savagelands. I now follow where she goes.”

More whispers rippled through those gathered.

“It’s Antonio, Father. We must help him!” Bianca interrupted as tears started streaming down her face.

“I understand he has slain a great kraken. I am sure the Guild will no longer ignore him after today. We will monitor the situation,” Lenato responded, his face troubled.

“There’s more,” Valentine interjected. “When I arrived with Emilia, I discovered a dead pirate concealed on his skiv.”

“My Antonio would never kill anyone. He is being framed, or he was only protecting his cargo,” said Bianca.

Another person from the circle spoke up.

“Aye, he may be a simple trader, but his ideals are high.”

“Yes, I know this to be true as well,” said Leonato. “If the Guild becomes aware of this, they will use it to their own devious ends. We will take care of it. Bianca, go now to Antonio. The Guild will have spoken to him by now. Find out what you can.”

“Yes, Father. Thank you.” Bianca gave a glance to Valentine and Emilia as she quickly disappeared into the mist.

Leonato turned to Valentine. He saw an echo of himself in her crystalline blue eyes. One from many years ago when he joined the Shadow Walkers to protect the peace of the Globe. Now he stood, as their leader, facing the most challenging times the Globe had seen these many years. Leonato could no longer deny that this was the path his daughter had chosen and was destined for.

“How I tried to keep you from this life, but you girls always found ways to follow my footsteps. I perhaps should have seen this coming.”

“I am ready, Father. This is the life I have chosen.”

Leonato’s eyes fell to Emilia. She blushed and gazed at Valentine, waiting patiently.

“With the landing of the Polity rocket, that peace is threatened in every corner of our beloved home. Now a daughter of Westminster is here and the word from Oberon is that another has left Belmont. We will need all of our most skilled Shadow Walkers at the ready to preserve the Globe’s peace. My fellow seafarers, I ask you to allow the installation of Valentine as a full member of the Shadow Walkers. All in favor say, aye.”

The stout person to his right scoffed, but slowly each of the members of the circle responded.

“Aye.” “Aye.” “Aye.”

“Valentine, by taking the Oath of the Shadow Walkers, you must honor all of our codes and aims. Do you accept?” Leonato asked.

“Aye. I accept.” She nodded gratefully to her father and to the others. “Thank you. Thank all of you. I will not fail.”

“You will be in charge of this mission to clear Antonio’s name. Bring Emilia to our home, and I will send instructions shortly.”

“Thank you,” Valentine said meaningfully to her father. She turned to the rest of the group and bowed deeply. “Swift as shadow.”


If you enjoyed Shanel’s story, please make sure and share some kind comments below. If you would like to see how this story began, read Shanel’s “Shadow of the Dunes,” which kicked off the Westminster stories in the Globe Folio series.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

P.S. Now you can enjoy the Globe Folio from the beginning:

Act 1: Night of the Rocket

Act 2: Nights of Revelation

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

This is the winner of the Matthew Cross Writing Contest–December

A red fox walks through a forest at night
Illustration by Joe Cross. Copyright 2021.

The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is

Alan R. Paine

I started the story below. See how Alan starts after the red line and provides us with a clever and happy ending.

Mountains of Clouds

BY ALAN R. PAINE AND MATTHEW CROSS

Wearing my bright red coat, I scout the trail ahead of the Faustus clan.

They’ve spent six months in a hidden orbit elsewhere in the system, waiting on a clear-weather window for a landing on Y-12, the only designation for our secret planet. Three days ago, we got word of the landing site and I raced over the mountain ranges to meet them. Those were happy days, running in the sunlight over tricky terrain, the harsh wind rustling my fur. On days like this, I don’t miss being human at all.

Photo by Benjamin Voros.

They were late, of course, but it was a solid landing. The weather on Y-12 is querulous. Anything other than a crash is considered a success. Decades ago, the City itself crash landed here before burrowing itself deep into its hidden valley. The damage set back the Deliverable by at least six months. Secrecy has its price.

Even two days after the landing, the weather continues to hold. A rare, cheery, yellow sun begins to rise over the nearest peaks. I turn to return to the camp to wake Dr. Faustus, Dr. Faustus, and their three children. They brought five hovers with built-in skis and each hover tows a hover-lifted trailer. Landings are so rare that every new recruit to the City must not only must bring their own gear but also whatever crucial supplies are most needed in the City. Every micron of space in the hovers is carefully scrutinized by committee before a landing.

But Dr. Faustus is the real prize. She and her wife, a respected experimental physicist in her own right, have defected from the Republic. Rumor in the City goes that after the carefully planned defection, their ship came directly to Y-12, only diverting course now and then to shake any possible pursuing Republic spacecraft. A calculated risk. And an indication of how urgently the Deliverable is needed in the war with the Republic.

As I turn, a cold wind blows down from the highest peaks. It ruffles the fur on my back and my hackles rise. The cold does not create this reaction. My thick fur is made to handle the worst of Y-12’s winter storms. No, it’s a scent carried on the wind that my fox body reacts to. An oily, metallic smell.

Nothing on Y-12 smells like that. Nothing outside the City anyways, and the City is still two days’ travel away. The City is the only human habitation on the planet. A planet hidden inside a nebula treacherous to cross. A nebula guarded by a fleet of Polity stealth ships. So there is no way a human, or any human smell, made its way to the wilds of Y-12 by accident.

A rare, cheery, yellow sun begins to rise over the nearest peaks. Photo by Luke Richards.

I have to assume a Republic Special Forces team has somehow followed the Drs. Faustus to Y-12 and landed during the same clear-weather window. The RSF always work in teams of three. If I’m lucky, at least one of them has been injured or killed in the landing. As no enemy ships were detected by the City or our secret guardians in space, it’s likely the RSF attempted to brave the upper atmosphere in individual landing suits instead of a ship. It’s just the sort of foolhardy mission the RSF are famed for.

But if even one team member survived the landing, the Republic had pulled off an impressive feat. So far, their only mistake had been their failure to account for me and the smells they gave off. But that’s not surprising. No one off planet even knows about Dr. Amdo Basnet’s arctic fox project.

The good news is that they haven’t found us yet. If the RSF knew where we were, we’d all be dead already. Another frison sweeps through my hackles. The Faustuses were safely sleeping in camp when I left, but that was a couple hours ago. I have to get back!

Careful, I warn myself. Play it smart.

I scamper into the underbrush and shake myself from head to tail. As I shake, the bright red and white hairs shift, turning into mottled greens and browns to match my surroundings in the lowland evergreen forest.

I carefully and quietly tread a circuitous route under the cover of the trees back to the camp. I wake only Dr. Faustus. I don’t have time for a lot of questions. Speaking through the amulet around my neck, I tell her the RSF have followed her to Y-12. To her credit, she only nods tightly, but I see tears in the corners of her eyes glimmer in the early morning light.

She and her wife each have a basic blaster for the trek through the wilderness, but they stand no chance against even a single RSF. I tell her that her only hope of surviving–and saving her family–is to hide. I’m the scout. It’s my job to dispatch the RSF team or reach the City and send help. Under the dark-green shadows of the trees, I see dark despair shade her eyes. Good, at least she knows what we face. Perhaps she’ll follow my directions to the letter.

Abandoning their gear, the Faustus family follows me into the forest carrying only an inflatable snow shelter and cold tack for two days. Encased beneath a mound of shaded snow, they’ll need to wait until help returns. My amulet has no beacon or tracker to make me untraceable. The shelter has an emergency beacon, but that will alert the RSF. Everything depends on me.

I head towards the mountain range again. If I can make it unseen to the top peaks, I can approach the first RSF, the one I smelled, from a direction that gives no clue of the direction of the City or the Faustus family. I bound from rock to rock and criss-cross cold mountain streams several times, making my back trail impossible to follow, even for a wolf or an arctic fox. The sun disappears as I make my climb through the cloud cover. My human mind, the overlaid copy of the mind once belonging to Dr. Amdo Basnet, begins to formulate a plan. 

I bound from rock to rock and crisscross cold mountain streams. Photo by Steve Carter.

Military strategy is difficult. Like all foxes in the project, my mind is a scan of Dr. Basnet’s brain overlaid onto that of a native arctic fox pup. There’s not a lot of extra room in a fox’s gray matter, so I only have Amdo’s core memories and personality, just enough to make me entirely loyal to the Polity and the Deliverable, and knowledge of human speech. I have survival training, a basic skill for all guides, but no tactical training. Scouts rely on orders, personal experience in the wilds and instinct. Planning does not come naturally.

Like Amdo, I retreat into logic. I have no weapons. I assess the tools I do have. I have the collar and amulet, which allows me to speak. I have my color-shifting fur. I have speed and guile. And I have superior knowledge of the terrain.

Perhaps I can distract them until the normal weather of Y-12 reasserts itself. I hit the first patch of snow on the mountainside. Without thinking, I shake myself and my coat shifts to white. Not long after, I catch a break. I wander across the footprints of the first RSF!

Republic Special Forces are like wolves. In the first few moments of contact, the important thing is to move quickly, draw attention, and count on their predatory nature to drive them to follow. But unlike wolves, the RSF can attack unseen from a long distance. And though they travel as a pack, they spread wide to encircle their foe. They won’t risk propellant weapons because the sound would give away their position. So the greatest danger is a long-distance laser pulse. Silent. Deadly.

I follow his trail along the ridgeline and spy him easily. He has set up a sniper post behind a spill of rocks. He wears the charging pack for his laser rifle on his back, ready to move as soon as he fires a shot. When firing at full range, it takes several mins to recharge. 

I slowly climb over the ridgeline to approach him from the back. Down the far side of the range is a river of clouds that give the Mountains of Clouds their name. The clouds are hiding the steep drop off on this side of the mountain. That gives me an idea.

A layer of clouds floats between mountain peaks on the left and the right.
Down the far side of the range is a river of clouds that give the Mountains of Clouds their name. Photo by Samuel Ferrara.

“Hey,” I call. What do I say next? I did not think this through. Before I can think of anything else to say, the RSF leaps silently and cleanly over the ridge. He lands and spots me immediately. He has the rifle in one hand and a long, black knife in the other.

The look on his face says he did not expect to see a fox. In a flash, he scans the expanse of spotless white snow, and seeing no other enemy, raises his rifle. I allow my deepest fox instincts to take control. In the flick of an eyelash, I bound down the mountainside.

In front of me, I see a puff of steam from vaporized snow and hear the peculiar whooshing sound that frozen water makes when a long tunnel of it instantly boils to gas and emerges from a pinpoint hole. He took his first shot. That leaves the knife and maybe a sidearm blaster. Blasters are notoriously clumsy shots, but up close one can vaporize my entire body.

I disappear into the cloud bank. He follows but stops when he’s completely surrounded by mist. He speaks softly, probably on a comm to his teammates. If he waits until reinforcements arrive, I’ll lose my advantage. 

I give him a little incentive. With a swish of my tail, it turns red. I wave it like a red flag and run right along the nearly invisible clifftop. The RSF leaps. And falls.

Falling through the fog, he spins and fires a blaster from his hip. The green blast expands rapidly into a cone, wiping away the swirls of fog in its path. But the shot is wild and I merely flinch. The RSF does not scream and I do not hear the impact. It’s kloms down, so that’s no surprise. The wind rises and the whirling vapor closes the hole left by the blaster.

One down. Two to go.

Knowing the RSF team has my coordinates, I bound back to the mountaintop and head down the valley side of the mountain range to the most dangerous area I know. It’s well known for crevasses and avalanches. When I can, I stick to cloud cover, which neutralizes their long-range weapons. I reach the hazardous area undetected.

 When I meet the next RSF, we are both shocked. I’m headed down the mountain on the crusty snow as he heads up. We lock eyes and I freeze. An odd smile crosses his face and he scans the pristine, white mountainside for other threats. He does not raise his weapon. That’s when I realize they still have not learned the secret of Dr. Basnet’s foxes. He thinks I’m part of the natural wildlife. And, I am, sort of.

The wind shifts and the river of clouds below moves more swiftly. I scamper up the layers of crusty snow and cracked ice. To my fur-covered paws, the footing feels secure, but I know the innocent-looking layer of snow hides unknown dangers with every step. I have no particular plan in mind except to outlast the RSF on this treacherous terrain. I’m betting my life that I know this terrain better than a trained RSF. Betting my natural instincts against his lifetime of rigorous training. But I’m also betting on something else more basic: Gravity.

I’m not light as a bird, but I don’t weigh much. This muscle-bound RSF is loaded down with a backpack full of gear and laser batteries. As long as I can keep him on this precarious shelf of ice–and avoid getting shot–I think I can last longer. But in the wilderness, there’s always an element of chance thrown in to keep things interesting.

The cloud river below ripples and parts, revealing the dark, evergreen trees in the valley. I’m losing my cover from the third RSF hiding in the valley. I need to speed things up.

“Follow me,” I call softly. A visor hides his eyes, but I can see his relaxed stance tighten. He realizes I’m more than I first appear.

The RSF snaps his rifle to his shoulder and I scamper further upwards. I sneak a look back, but he has lowered the rifle. Either the wisps of fog between us or my zig-zag pattern must make the shot look risky. He whips a blaster from his hip and fires a shot. The blast melts a large section of snow between us, but I’m out of blaster range by that time. Chunks of ice and melted snow begin to slide down the mountain towards the RSF. From the corner of my eye, I also see trickles of powdered snow dusting down from above me. The force of that blast unsettled the entire mountainside.

I turn and head neither up nor down the mountain but sideways, towards more secure footing. The RSF does the same. The wedge of ice, slush and water rushing down on him widens. It’s hardly an avalanche, but it places him in more immediate peril than me. I can focus on getting to safer ground, but I keep him in my peripheral vision as I scamper across now-looser footing.

The RSF is heading along a path parallel to my own. A river of ice melt swirls around his knees. He leaps and comes down hard. No! No, he disappears completely beneath the white torrent. And then the mountainside is still again.

There’s only one reason for the tall RSF to have disappeared like that. A crevasse. Sometimes you can defy Mother Nature, but you can’t beat gravity.

Two down. One to go.


But is there still one out there?

A sharp shower of rain comes over and I curl up in the lee of a rock to wait it out. I am hungry. It’s a pity the RSFs fell where I couldn’t reach them. The part of me that is Dr. Amdo Basnet feels repulsed by the idea, but foxes are ready to eat almost anything. And neither of the enemy that I have met so far would have hesitated to eat me if they had gotten the upper hand.

Waking from a doze, I cling to the remnant of a dream I was having. It nearly slips away but I hang onto it. My sub-conscious has suggested something. If I could do that, I think, then I would be the most cunning of cunning foxes.

The air smells fresh and clean. Then, as the breeze shifts towards the north, a new odor reaches my nose. It’s human again, if you can call an RSF human, but his time there is a note of stress. Perhaps he is injured or fearful of how his comrades were defeated. Whatever his condition, he will be hyperalert and dangerous.

When I catch up with him, he is limping, painfully but steadily, in the direction of the Faustus hideout. He sits down to rest and bites into a field ration bar but never stops looking around, ready to fire at anything. I approach through the undergrowth and position myself in a small gully close to where he is sitting.

“Help, help!” I call out in a plaintive female voice. “I’m trapped!”

The RSF doesn’t respond.

“Please help me! I shall be ever so grateful.”

Logic should tell the RSF that the chances of there being a damsel in distress right next to where he has chosen to rest are exceedingly remote, but the RSFs are not bred for intelligence.

“I’m not sure I can hold out much longer,” I cry.

I hear him groaning as he gets to his feet and hobbles over to where I lie partially concealed. The lower part of my body is colored to look like the face of a young woman with my tail a head of blond hair. My head, camouflaged in the grass, watches his every move. He seems convinced by my less than perfect artwork. Sometimes people only see what they want to see.

“If you reach down with something,” I say, “I might be able to pull myself up.”
He grunts and passes me the barrel of his rifle.

“I can’t grip on that,” I say. “Could you pass down the other end? You’d make me so happy.”

My heart is pounding as he turns the rifle and offers me the stock. I almost pity his gullibility as I flip off the safety catch and press the trigger. In a short time, I shall be back at the Faustus camp, well fed and giving them the good news that the coast is clear.


I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction that Alan R. Paine and I wrote together. He’s a great collaboration writer!

If you enjoyed Alan’s prize-winning ending, please make sure and share some kind comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Don’t miss the conclusion of “The Burning Flame”

In Part I of “The Burning Flame,” Brutus escaped the mountain of Belmont to find his son, Lorenzo. On the mountainside, Brutus finds a body scorched by plasma blasts. It looks just like Lorenzo and, knowing nothing of mirrorbeasts or the outside world, Brutus assumes it is the slain body of his son. He returns with the body to the guarded entrance of Belmont, trying to understand and trying to remain faithful to . . .

The Burning Flame

Part II

BY FRASIER ARMITAGE

Brutus neared the force field that shielded Belmont’s Gate.

His child’s corpse weighed heavily in his arms, and he struggled to reach for the device Julius had slipped him. He replaced his breathing mask over his mouth and pressed the device. The force field’s amber glow flickered before extinguishing like a dying ember, and the huge gate opened automatically, its grinding gears churning in a metallic scrape.

The Gatekeeper towered before Brutus, gripping his axe with hands of iron.

Brutus emerged from the mountain’s mist with Lorenzo in his arms.

“What do you seek?” the Gatekeeper asked.

“I come to return my child to the flame.” Brutus’s voice could barely be heard.

“None may pass.”

Brutus shook his head. It was that kind of talk which had killed his boy. His brows knitted together, contorting his face into a rage. “Tell me, if I were not permitted entry, why did the amber haze disappear? Why did the gate open for me?” Brutus asked.

The Gatekeeper pondered for a moment. “The gate has never opened for anyone.”

“None may pass,” the Gatekeeper said. Photo by Daniel Burka.

“Which is why you must let me pass.”

The Gatekeeper shook his head. “I must speak to the Council of Belmont first.”

“Speak with Councilman Julius,” Brutus said. “The Hoodsman will permit me entry. Tell him . . . ,” Brutus choked on his words. “Tell him . . . I have my son.”

The Gatekeeper spoke into his robe. Brutus fought back the bloodflame surging through his veins, urging him to wrench the limbs from the Gatekeeper and shoulder his way past. None would prevent him from returning Lorenzo to the fire below the mountain.

“Let him pass,” a voice called from behind the Gatekeeper. Antony stood panting, bent with his hands on his knees. “The Council wishes to see you, Brutus. Quickly.”

The Gatekeeper lowered his axe and stepped back. Brutus hurried with Antony through the levels and the smoke, down to the pillars. Antony didn’t speak a word to Brutus. He knew better than to stir the coals of a flame that was already too wild.

Up through the lift, the gears whirred. Doors opened. Brutus carried his son into the circle of robes.

“You disobeyed our order, Brutus.” The Council’s spokesman flashed his fingers in a ritualistic gesture.

“Then you should have left me on the mountain,” Brutus said. “Why did you allow me to return?”

“We are not without pity for you, brother. Besides, it is our creed that all who flout our ways be judged within this circle.”

“You would dare judge me?” Brutus yelled. “You who worship at an altar of sin!”

The Hoodsman glanced around his fellows. The shadow beneath his hood revealed no features, concealing his open jaw and the disbelief across his face.

“You worship flame, but your fire has done this to my boy.” Brutus held his hands towards them, forcing them to consider his son’s charred remains. “Look at his flesh. Look at it! See it scorched, as though he had fallen into the molten river. Your fire promised me that I would see my boy, and look! It has devoured him and spat him back out. And you dare to tell me that I have sinned, when you would have left him like this! Left him to rot beneath the fury of that torch beyond Belmont which sears the sky!

The shadow beneath his hood revealed no features, concealing his open jaw and the disbelief across his face. Illustration by Joe Cross.

“Had you stayed inside the mountain,” the Councilman replied, “you would never have
known his suffering. It is your own impudence which has brought this grief upon you.
Sentence shall be pronounced.”

“There can only be one sentence,” Brutus interrupted. He laid Lorenzo’s body on the ground and removed his breathing mask. “The sentence of death.” Brutus pounced towards the Councilman and slammed the mask into his hood. Blood spurted from where his face should have been. Brutus’s hands clasped at his throat. Years of mining trained Brutus’s grip, and the Hoodsman’s neck snapped beneath the pressure. He collapsed to the ground.

Around Brutus, robes flew. Hoodsmen attacked the fellows at their side, gowns flapping like wings as ornate blades sliced neon red through the chamber, and blood spilled into the circle. After the carnage, a stillness settled, and Julius emerged, peeling back his hood.

“Brother,” Julius said, “you truly are a fire. Too long has it taken to rid Belmont of its traditions. Your name shall be remembered for all time, alongside Portia the Great, our Guardian and Founder. Behold, Brutus the Wise, our Fire and Liberator.”

The remaining Hoodsmen stepped over the bodies of their fallen comrades, crowding around Brutus.

“My son.” Brutus reached through the litany of robes and crumpled Lorenzo’s body to his chest. “I ask to send him down the river, so that he may rest.”

“Brutus, my brother, you need not ask our permission.” Julius tore the robes from the body of their former leader. He wrapped the garment around Brutus’s shoulders and bequeathed him a ceremonial knife. “I hereby appoint Brutus to the Council of Belmont. Let the word go out among the people. There shall be a ceremony at Thinveil, where we shall send our fallen kinsmen to journey along the river of fire. The whole city will attend. Lorenzo will be given a noble procession, my brother.”

The Councilmen performed their solemn gesture in unison.

“Now, go,” Julius said. “Go to your family.”

Brutus staggered to the lift and back through the habitats. He coughed and sputtered as the smoke infected his lungs, but he cared not.

The airlock washed him clean of smoke as fresh air pulsed against his skin. He drank it in, soothing his throat where smog still festered. Beyond the threshold, Ophelia stood, her hands covering her mouth.

She shrieked as Brutus entered the hab.

“What is this?” she cried. “Sylvia, Rodrigo, leave us!” The children ran from the room, too afraid to question their mother.

“My love, I am sorry. But we have only a short time to prepare him for his journey downriver. I could not stand to embalm him anywhere but our home.”

“Who is that?” Ophelia demanded.

“Do you not recognize your own child? I’m so sorry, my darling wife. I thought I could return him to us, but I was mistaken.”

Ophelia’s eyes widened. “No. You get that creature out of my hab!”

“Creature? How dare you speak of Lorenzo that way!”

Ophelia quivered, her pale body thrashing as she reached for a kitchen blade. “You get that thing away from me, or I shall kill it!”

Brutus laid the body in the airlock and stepped between Ophelia and his son. She lunged at the corpse, but Brutus caught her hand and snatched the knife away from her.

“Get it out!” she shrieked. “It is not my son! My son lives. He lives, Brutus!” Her crimson eyes bled tears.

Brutus nodded. “I gave you hope, and you are not ready to let go of it.”

“Can you not see? You have brought a stranger into our home. My son lives. Where is my son, husband?”

She shook in his hands, and he released her. Ophelia paced through the hab, her limbs shivering, and she muttered her son’s name over and over.

A chime signalled from their door.

“Come,” Brutus said.

Julius entered, stepping over Lorenzo. “Brutus, I came to assist you with the embalming.”

“You are most kind, brother. But I shall wrap him myself.”

“Get it out of here!” Ophelia screamed.

Brutus rushed to Ophelia and leaned to her ear. “Leave us.” He signalled to the door, and Ophelia fled from the room.

“Does she know your son will sail the river with a hero’s honor?” Julius asked.

Brutus shook his head. “Ophelia does not believe that is our son. Look at her. She’s riddled with a maddening hope that he still lives.”

Julius raised an eyebrow. “And what of you, Brutus? Has hope abandoned you?”

Brutus flung the robes from his shoulders to the floor, covering Lorenzo’s body with it. He returned the kitchen blade to its place, and grasped the decorative knife of a Councilman, fixing it to his waist upon the cord which sheathed it. “May I ask you, Julius, why you are really here?”

He grasped the decorative knife of a Councilman, fixing it to his waist upon the cord which sheathed it. Photo by Yaroslav Korshikov.

Julius nodded, and removed his hood. “You are shrewd indeed, my friend. I came to find out what you intend to say at Lorenzo’s mourning. You shall have the whole of Belmont before you. What will you tell them?”

Brutus shrugged. “What would you have me say?”

“That there is yet hope, Brutus. That Lorenzo dreamed of a day when fire might pass beyond these walls, and Belmont might take its place among its brothers, in a world beyond this tomb.”

“You seek peace with the world, Julius?”

The Hoodsman nodded. “It is written: ‘We must sow peace.’”

“Is it not also written that ‘There is no peace without sacrifice’?”

Julius took Brutus by the arm. “You speak truth, brother. I am sorry that the sacrifice which will bring us peace is yours to bear.”

Brutus pointed to Lorenzo. “You really think there can be peace in a world which can do that to a child?”

“You must see the future, Brutus. You must dream of what Belmont will become. Can you not see the fire of Belmont purifying the world of its fear? Of its hatred? The flame feeds all, and when it does, we shall bask as one in its heat and light. Speak of this. It is what Lorenzo would have wished.”

Julius turned to leave.

Peace. His son lay dead and Julius preached of peace. More lies.

Heat blazed through Brutus’s mind, devouring it. He snatched at the ceremonial blade. Its neon laser hissed. “No!” he screamed as he buried it in Julius’s back.

Julius cried out, but Brutus stifled it with his hand.

“I am a flame, Julius,” Brutus whispered. “I shall burn through this mountain and consume the world. And when the world is turned to ash, only then will there be peace.”

Julius’s eyes bulged. “Brutus!”

A twist of the blade snuffed the life from the Hoodsman, and he slumped to the ground beside Lorenzo.


Thinveil struck, and the city gathered in the lowest depths of the mountain. Behind breathing masks, the whole of Belmont crowded in the antechamber. At the far end of the cavern, a ledge fell away to the river of magma which flowed beneath the crust of the Globe. Beside the ledge, a group of Hoodsmen stood, blessing the embalmed bodies at their feet.

A ledge fell away to the river of magma which flowed beneath the crust of the Globe. Photo by Pawel Czerwinski.

Brutus approached from among the Hoodsmen and peeled back his hood. A horn blasted.

He raised his arms and the people fell silent.

“Hear me, brothers and sisters,” he began. “There is fire and family, and that is all. This is the creed which we have lived by. But my family has been taken from me. Not even my wife has the strength to witness the Great Passing today, choosing exile in her hab rather than bestowing her blessing upon our child. And so I grieve with you, my brothers and sisters, for the loss of my son.”

The people stamped their feet, and a thunder boomed around the cavern.

“Is it a coincidence,” Brutus continued, “that on the day Lorenzo was taken from us, a scourge robbed us of our most beloved Councilmen? If the flame has sent us an omen, it is better to heed it. But what meaning could there be in the death of one so young?”

“I have searched the runes and the oldest writings for an answer, and I see the fire’s wisdom in the words of my friend, and our beloved Hoodsman, who is no longer with us. Julius was the finest of men, with the noblest of hearts, and dreams greater than the smoke we breathe.”

“He once told me that if a fire cannot spread, it dies. There is truth in this. My son believed these words. As do I. Do you not agree with Julius’s wisdom?”

Again, the people stamped and slammed their chests.

Brutus nodded. “Julius saw a future beyond the mountain. And who among us has not yearned for what lays beyond these walls? The priests tell us that segregation is purity. But segregation has trapped us, and stopped us from spreading. Consider the mountain. The ore which we refine must first be mixed with stone and impurity. Only after it is mixed can it be refined. This sustains it. And so, too, must we think beyond this chamber if we are to sustain our ways, lest the fire die.”

Brutus coughed on the smoke in his lungs and turned his filter to its maximum output, tasting fresh air to calm his chest.

“Portia the Great,” he said, “the Guardian, and our city’s founder, established a policy of separation so that we might not leave this mountain and crave the delights beyond. We could never abandon the mountain, for every flame needs to be stoked, and that is why we must not lose sight of our ways. Yet, it was never Portia’s intention to prevent us from growing. Like a flame, we must spread, or the dream of Belmont will be over.”

The crowd gasped. A murmur rocked the chamber.

“Think of the children. My own, Sylvia and Roderigo, play games. They laugh. They live. As do your own children. But they will all end up as Lorenzo if we do not act now. Julius appointed me as Brutus the Wise. Heed my warning. If we remain trapped, more will die. We will suffocate in our pride. My son’s death has brought an end to the old ways. If we fail to take the lesson of his passing, then we too shall end up dead, with no-one left to sail us on the river of fire.”

The people roared with one voice. They beat their breasts and stamped so hard the stone beneath them splintered in cracks.

“I make a pledge to you, faithful Belmontians,” Brutus yelled, “that this day shall be the spark which sets the world ablaze. I shall not rest until our fire has burnt through the mountain. Our fire will judge those beyond this city. Any who take our ways to heart will be purified by the flame. And any who do not will choke on its smoke. We must consume the world. Now is our time. Who is with me?”

The crowd erupted in a cheer that shook the walls. A chorus of arms raised, saluting Brutus.

He waved, and it calmed the people. The remaining Hoodsmen behind him stirred.

“There shall be nothing hidden from the people,” Brutus cried. “Any of our leaders who refuse to lower their hoods to the people’s wishes will find their heads floating upon the lake of fire. What say you, Councilmen?”

The Hoodsmen glanced at one another, before they lowered their hoods and bowed before Brutus. The crowd’s frenzy grew, heat from their flailing arms matching the lava below.

The crowd’s frenzy grew, heat from their flailing arms matching the lava below. Photo by Hasan Almasi.

“It is settled,” Brutus said. “Our fallen family will feed the fire, and our kilns will rage all the better for it. But let us not fashion our ore into farmer’s tools or hover-barges. Let us forge weapons for ourselves, the likes of which no army can resist. And let us take the purity of our crusade to any who would question our ways.”

From among the crowd, verses of chantrock broke out. The same chant he had heard once before. “We are the mountain, and you are the flame,” they sang. “Rise and burn. Rise and burn.”

He lowered his son, along with the other bodies, over the crevice. Magma licked their limbs away, until they were no more.

“I am the flame,” Brutus sang, responding to their chant. “I am the flame, and the fire rises.”


If you enjoyed Frasier’s story, please make sure and share some kind comments below. If you would like to see how this story began, read Frasier’s “Pillars of Smoke,” which kicked off the entire Globe Folio series, and then Frasier’s “The Voice of Beasts.”

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

P.S. Now you can enjoy the Globe Folio from the beginning:

Act 1: Night of the Rocket

Act 2: Nights of Revelation

Now you’re all caught up. But don’t worry, we have more stories from the Globe on their way soon!

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Brutus must learn how to keep faith in the Burning Flame

In “Pillars of Smoke,” Lorenzo escaped Belmont and an arranged marriage. But he left behind his parents, Brutus and Ophelia, and the twins. Three days have passed since the “Night of the Rocket,” but none in Belmont are allowed to know of the life outside. In the city beneath the mountain, the Belmontians try to preserve their way of life and stay faithful to . . .

The Burning Flame

Part I

BY FRASIER ARMITAGE

Three Veils passed, but Lorenzo hadn’t returned. 

“Where can he be?” Ophelia asked. 

Brutus sat with his hand on his chin. 

“Brutus! Didn’t you hear me? Our son is missing these three Veils, yet you say nothing?” 

“Where are Sylvia and Roderigo?” he said, absently. 

“They are readying themselves for the service.” 

He nodded. “That’s good.” 

“What of Lorenzo? What did you say to him?” 

Brutus scowled. “You think this my fault? That our son would flee and not return because of me?” 

“You were the last to see him! To speak with him! What else am I to think?” 

“I have done nothing but care for this family and honor the flame. What more can I do?” Photo by Chirag Nayak.

Brutus stood, rising with the fire that burned inside him. “Our son is missing, and now you lay the blame with me! I have done nothing but care for this family and honor the flame. What more can I do?” 

“Please do not scold me. I worry for my boy. Is that so wrong a thing?” Ophelia shrivelled, tears cascading down her cheeks. 

Brutus unclenched his fists and wrapped his arms around his wife. “Come now, let the twins not see us like this. I’ve sent word to the Council. There are eyes in the smoke. If he is in the city, we shall hear at the service.” 

“And if he is not in Belmont?” 

Brutus released Ophelia and retired to his chair, his hand returning to his chin. “Worry not, my love. If he cannot be found in Belmont, it will fall on me to decide what must be done. Let’s not fret over what we do not know.” 

Ophelia wiped her red eyes and puffed her chest, forcing an empty smile to her lips. “Sylvia! Roderigo!” she called, and the twins ran through the hab. 

Sylvia reached around her father’s leg and gave it a squeeze. He didn’t stir. He just sat there, staring into the distance. 

“Come,” Ophelia said. “Let us go and pay our respect to the flame.” 

The family departed through the airlock into the smoke-laden street. They grasped each other’s hands and peered through their breathing masks at the shadows of the other families of Belmont, all mingling outside the Pillars of Belmont. The whole city crowded around the sacred monument, and a single light blinked from a balcony cut into the foremost pillar. 

“Children of smoke,” a voice boomed through the city, bouncing off the stone which encased them in the mountain’s core. “We gather to cleanse ourselves. Fire purifies all it touches. Let us pass through the fire as one.” 

“Amen,” the crowd responded. 

“They grasped each other’s hands and peered through their breathing masks at the shadows of the other families of Belmont, all mingling outside the Pillars of Belmont.” Photo by Jacob Boavista.

A horn blasted three times. 

“Confess, and let your sins burn away.” The voice of the minister resounded among the people. Whispers echoed from each of them as, through closed eyes, they made their confessions. 

“Forgive me,” Brutus whispered so quiet that none might hear. “I should’ve listened better to Lorenzo. I should’ve heard him, instead of dismissing him the same way I would any fool who questions the wisdom of fire. I am as blind as a man who stumbles in smoke. And now my son is missing. Let him come back to me. Guide me to him. Let me see him just once again.” 

The horn blasted three times more. 

“Your words have been heard,” the priest’s voice thundered. “Now let the fire answer.” 

A scorching mist billowed from the pillars, blown across the river of purified ore that flowed from between the two titans. The mist spread through those gathered, dispersing its heat among them. 

“You have been heard. Now let the smoke wash you clean, children. May this Thickveil be a Holy Veil. And may you have peace.” 

The horn blasted a final time, and Thickveil struck. 

“Amen,” the people parroted before they turned back to their habs.

“Let me see him just once again.” Photo by Om Prakash Sethia.

Brutus turned, and Ophelia squeezed his hand. 

“Brutus!” a voice called from the crowd. “Brutus!” 

Brutus stopped and waited for the shadow that rushed towards him. Antony emerged from the mist. 

“Brutus, the Council will meet with you,” Antony said. “Come. They gather as we speak.” 

Brutus looked to the pillars, and offered a silent prayer of thanks, before he twisted to his wife. “Take the children, Ophelia. I shall return shortly.” 

She vanished into the mist with Sylvia and Roderigo. 

Antony led him through the milling crowd towards the foremost pillar. A stone door scraped open, and they moved inside the pillars. A crunch brought the stone behind them, sealing Brutus in. 

The hiss of air sucked the smoke out of the chamber, and Antony unhooked his breathing mask. Brutus followed, and the floor shook. 

Gears whined. A rumble caused Brutus to stagger as the lift drew him up the colossal shaft, through the pillar, to its peak. The lift emptied him into a dimly lit room, where men and women gathered in a circle, their bodies covered in hooded robes, and blood-red eyes glowed from the shadow where their faces should’ve been. 

“Come.” One of them beckoned Brutus into the circle. It was the same voice which had led the people in the cleansing ritual. “Speak.”

Brutus stepped into the midst of the Council of Belmont. “Is there news of my son?” he asked. 

“He is not in the city, my child. If he lives, he has abandoned us.” 

Brutus’s shoulders slumped. His fingers rubbed his forehead. “He may still be covered in mist. You know the mountains conceal all. It may not be too late for him.” 

“You know the law of exposure. Not even the minister at the gate has the freedom to reveal his face to an outsider.” 

Brutus shook his head. “If I could just get onto the mountain, I’m sure I could bring him back without anyone seeing.” 

“It is forbidden.” 

Brutus’s lips quivered. “But . . . he’s my son.” 

“He is a child of smoke. We all suffer this loss. But you know the writings of the Guardian. The Gospel of Portia clearly states that none may leave the mountain. You wouldn’t question the founder, would you?” 

“No.” Brutus clenched his fists. “I’m a loyal Belmontian. I follow the path of fire.” 

“A pure soul of Belmont. May the flame always warm and feed you. Amen.” They moved their hands up, rising to mimic a flicker of flame; the time-honored symbol of worship. 

The Council dispersed and Brutus turned back to the shaft. A hoodsman joined him as the lift descended. He peeled back his robe. “Brutus, I am truly sorry for your loss.” 

“Thank you, Councilman.” 

“Please, call me Julius.” 

Brutus bowed to him, but Julius grasped his arm and lifted him upright. 

“My friend,” Julius said, “not all among the Council approve of its piety. Or its decisions. In fact, there are some of us who are even—” Julius looked around him, although he knew they were alone as the chamber whirred lower and lower still. 

“Even what?” Brutus asked. 

“Can you be trusted with a secret, Brutus?” 

He nodded. 

“There are some among us,” Julius whispered, “who believe that Belmont should not be cut off from what lies beyond the mountain. That if a fire cannot spread, it will fade and die.” 

Brutus’s eyes bulged, and he grasped his chest. 

“Does this shock you?” Julius said. “When the Guardian wrote her manifesto in which she recommended to limit contact with the others beyond the mountain, it was only so that those who mined inside this rock may not become discontent. Complete seclusion was never her aim. She sought contentment for the people. How much contentment do you see among this new generation of Belmontians? Was your son content here, Brutus?” 

Brutus shook his head, stifling the lump in his throat. “He wished for a life beyond this place.” 

“And he was wise to do so.” Julius rested his hand on Brutus’s shoulder. “The priests preach that segregation is purity, but what is worth more: a lump of pure iron, or the mountain in which it forms? Blind devotion to smoke and fire will only lead to ash. I know you are loyal to the flame, and this talk is new to you. But I sense a purpose for you which Portia herself would smile upon. One in which you may prove yourself a true Belmontian.” 

The war within Brutus erupted across his face. The hoodsman spoke heresy. Yet, instead of rejecting it, Brutus listened. And more than that, he saw a spark of sense in it. Was this the heat that had tickled Lorenzo’s ears and led him to abandon his home? Lies. Lies. All these words, lies. And yet, they spoke to Brutus as the lift lowered through the pillar, and he couldn’t turn his ear away.

“What would you have me do?” Brutus asked. 

Julius smiled. “For many Veils, our group of adherents have sought to start a fire of our own in Belmont. But we’ve yet to find the spark to ignite it. Your son could be that spark, Brutus. I saw you clench your fists when you were denied the chance to search for him. What if I could give you that chance?” 

Brutus’s eyes danced aflame. “You mean it? You can get me past the Gatekeeper?” 

“Bring Lorenzo back to Belmont, and we’ll burn through this mountain.” 

Brutus nodded, but his chest sunk. “Julius, none will be hurt when this fire of yours is lit, will they?” 

“Brother, we seek harmony with those beyond. Peace brings no harm with it. You know this.” 

Brutus pictured Lorenzo’s face. He’d petitioned the flame to see his son one time more, and he had been heard. He grasped Julius by the shoulder. “I will be your spark, Julius.” 

“Meet me at the gate at Halfmist.” Julius returned his hood to cover his face. “For Belmont.” 

“For Belmont,” Brutus repeated. 

The lift hit the ground, and they disappeared into the plumes of smoke shrouding the city. 

Brutus’s breathing mask hissed as it worked to stave the smog of Thickveil from his lungs. He strode a path along the river, its molten heat radiating with a comfort that settled his beating heart. All the omens favored this decision. He glimpsed shadows through the mist, knowing the smoke held unseen eyes. Always had he believed the smoke concealed them, yet now he knew that all things were exposed to it. That even the shadows were consumed by its all-seeing haze. 

He scanned his hand against the access panel of his hab. Beyond the airlock, Ophelia waited for him. 

“What news?” she asked. 

“I must leave at Halfmist,” he answered. 

“Leave? Where?” 

The less she knew, the better. He trusted his life to Julius, but the lives of his family were another matter. “I cannot say. But know that there is hope, my love.” 

Tears welled in her eyes. Her hands quivered. “You speak the truth?” she said. 

“It is all I know how to speak.” 

“Oh, Brutus. Do you have to leave? I’m not sure I can cope without you.” 

“All will be well, my dear Ophelia. Light a fire for me, and hope it doesn’t fade.” 

“Hope. Is that all you can give me?” 

Brutus folded his arms around her. “What else is there to give?” he said.  

“Hope is a dangerous thing to possess, husband. Hope alone would drive a person mad.” 

He pulled Ophelia to his chest and cradled her. He wished to tell her that he would bring their son home again. That all would be well. But silence settled in the hab, a silence he couldn’t bring himself to break.

“A father will always find his kin.” Photo by Ante Hamersmit.

Sylvia squealed from the playroom, and Ophelia pulled herself from his hold. 

“It’s okay,” Brutus said. “I’ll check on them.” 

Ophelia nodded, her shaking fingers covering her lips. Brutus entered the playroom and roared as loud as a kiln. The children scattered through the room, fleeing his stomping feet as he bellowed, giant as the mountain. 

“Where are those children? I’ll lick them up in my flaming arms!” 

The children ran, but he caught Sylvia and swept her into his grasp. He nuzzled his head on her stomach and blew kisses over her. She laughed, kicking her legs. Roderigo tapped his father’s knees. Brutus slipped Sylvia under one arm and scooped Roderigo in his other, peppering him with the same affection. 

“Father’s a fire!” Sylvia said. 

“Nice and warm,” Roderigo answered. 

“I burn for you, my children.” Brutus remembered the same game he used to play with Lorenzo. “There’s no hiding from your father, no matter how hard you try. A father will always find his kin.” 

“Is that true, Father?” Sylvia asked. 

Brutus pictured Lorenzo, lost in mist. “If I said it, it’s true.” 

They played the game again and again. Ophelia sat in the doorway and watched them play. Then the horn blew across the city, chiming an hour until Halfmist. 

Brutus kissed his wife’s cheek and left his family playing together. He grabbed his mask, his pickaxe and his jacket, and without another word, vanished into smoke. 

Through the city, Brutus ascended one level at a time. He climbed beyond the colonnades and above the pillars, where the once colossal drill had first chiselled out their mountain home. Smoke rose in a cloud, growing ever thicker as he reached the top of the shaft.

“Smoke rose in a cloud, growing ever thicker as he reached the top of the shaft.” Photo by Adam Bixby.

Julius waited for him in shadow. “Brother,” Julius said. “You are ready?” 

“More than you know.” 

A smile crept through the glass plate of Julius’s breathing mask as he shepherded Brutus along the passage towards the gate. “Have you ever met a Gatekeeper, Brutus?” 

“Not that I can recall.” 

“They are the most loyal of all Belmontians. They serve in isolation, shielding the mountain from outsiders. And yet, they must touch the outside and allow it to pass in safety within this rock once every six Veils. For how else are we to be fed with food and air? You see, Belmont is not so alone as you might think.” 

Brutus remembered Lorenzo speak of food and air, which Belmont traded with the other cities of the Globe. He had not wished to listen then. But he listened now. 

“We had a Gatekeeper join us once,” Julius continued. “Many Veils ago. But the Council discovered the plan to drop the gate, and he was banished forever. The gate opens once every sixth Halfmist to allow goods safely in and out. But we would’ve smashed the barrier that blocks us from leaving, the same wall which keeps that Gatekeeper from ever returning. So I ask you, are you ready, Brutus? You know what is at stake?” 

Brutus imagined the smiling faces of his dear wife and children. He must return those smiles to their eyes. Until Lorenzo was found, their eyes would never gleam again. What choice did he have? Even if he, too, might become banished from Belmont, he had to try. “I understand the risk.” 

“Good.” Julius clapped him on the back. “Here.” From beneath his robe, the hoodsman pushed a small device into Brutus’s palm. “This will draw the gate once, and once alone. It is how you must return, with Lorenzo in your arms. Do not use it until you are finished in your search. One use is all that it can produce.” 

“A gift from your Gatekeeper friend?” Brutus asked. 

“A relic from a former time. Which is what we will all become, unless you can bring your son home.” 

Ahead, the smoke thinned, and a group of Belmontians with ore-scorched masks huddled, waiting. Julius guided Brutus into the core of them. 

“We are the mountain, and you are the flame,” they chanted. “Rise and burn. Rise and burn.” They stomped their feet as they pushed through the thinning barrier of mist, repeating their chant. As their footsteps quickened, their voices raised, until they were running in the clear air, screaming the anthem at the top of their lungs. 

Through the thrashing limbs of those around him, Brutus glimpsed the giant air vents sucking up the smoke, and the tunnel which led to an amber force field, shielding a huge drawbridge and open gate. Beyond the gate, a cavalcade of hovercraft lined up with supplies for the Belmontians. 

The Gatekeeper stood at the far end of the drawbridge, between the open gate and the misty mountain beyond. Photo by Sergey Nikolaev.

Halfmist struck, and the force field collapsed as the horn shuddered the walls, rippling up from the kiln below. The Gatekeeper stood at the far end of the drawbridge, between the open gate and the misty mountain beyond. 

“Hold!” the Gatekeeper roared, as he ignited the laser of his axe and scythe. 

The masked men swarming around Brutus lit their picks. They broke formation, charging at the Gatekeeper. Shards of electrum flashed where the laser of scythe met pick, and the men wrestled the Gatekeeper from his post. 

Momentum carried Brutus ahead. Julius was nowhere to be found as Brutus left through the open gate, stumbling onto a new kind of rock. The men behind him dispersed, and a force field shot up the side of the mountain, masking it in an amber haze. 

Brutus gathered his footing. The mountain beneath him splintered into pieces. It seemed so unsteady, so fragile. Not like the solid stone carved inside the city. The safety of his refuge crumbled with the pebbles which scattered at his feet. 

“Lorenzo!” he called out. His voice carried through the mist. “Lorenzo, my son!” 

Brutus unhooked his breathing mask, and gulped the air. It dizzied him in an intoxicating rush. Never had he tasted air so light and yet so dense. It enveloped him, more so than the fog. 

He staggered down the mountainside, the only sound his echoing cry and the scuff of his footsteps over uncertain clumps of disintegrating rock. 

“Lorenzo!” 

He wandered for hours, calling out. As he neared the foot of the mountain, golden rays of sun broke through the mist, and he threw his hand up to shade his red eyes from the light. Never had he seen so bright a flame as the ball of fire in the sky. Everything blurred, so intense was the glow of morning. The stone reflected the light back to him, forcing his eyes shut. He stumbled blind until the ground leveled off, weeping tears in the heat. His skin burned. Sweat poured from his tattered clothes. 

“Lorenzo!” 

His foot struck a lump. It wasn’t rock. A soft, spongy form stretched out below him. He knelt to feel it and recognised its touch as flesh. 

Brutus ran his fingers across the body that lay before him. He dared to open his eyes, and there he saw the scorched remains of his son. 

“No!” he wept. “Lorenzo. My son. My boy.” 

He cradled the limp body to his chest. Tears drenched his child. Brutus cried out, his voice louder than the horn blast at Thinveil. 

“I asked that I see my boy once more. But not like this. You deceived me!” 

He slammed his fist against his chest, beating it as he screamed at the fire which had brought him here. 

“Why would you do this to me? Were the omens not good? Did you not answer my plea? Fire is supposed to be pure. But you are not a pure flame! You lie. Lies. Lies. All these lies. No more! You are to blame for this! I curse you, and I curse this ground, and I curse the world. Oh, Lorenzo, my boy. Can you ever forgive me?” 

Brutus picked up the body and turned back up the mountain. Into the mist, he disappeared, to return his son the way he’d come. All the while, he kept repeating the chant of Julius’s men. “We are the mountain and you are the fire. Rise and burn. Rise and burn.”


If you enjoyed Frasier’s story, please make sure and share some kind comments below. If you would like to see how this story began, read Frasier’s “Pillars of Smoke,” which kicked off the entire Globe Folio series, and then Frasier’s “The Voice of Beasts.”

On Friday, we bring you Part 2 of “The Burning Flame.” Brutus returns to the guarded entrance of Belmont with what he assumes is the body of his son. He is called before the very Council he defied. And he must reconcile the loss of his son with his faith in the Burning Flame.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

P.S. Now you can enjoy the Globe Folio from the beginning:

Act 1: Night of the Rocket

Act 2: Nights of Revelation

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross