Fortnightly Writing Competition "IN FROM THE COLD" Results

Started by Baron, Tue 01/12/2020 02:37:17

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Seasonally apt or metaphorically rich?  You be the judge when you come...


Huh.  Well, it was more dramatic with the picture, but apparently the forums don't like my server anymore.  Here's the link if you're a visual kind of person:

Anyway, the theme spans everything from Christmas grinches coming around to spies reconciling with HQ to literally finding shelter in a frigid environment.  Basically if there is any physical or emotional coldness that is resolved in some way then the work will suit the theme.

Deadline: Monday December 14th at Hawaiian midnight, although this deadline may well extend like a brooding icicle drooping from an under-insulated eave.....  (roll)

Voting: Aw heck, I can see the collective mood is swinging back towards simplicity.  So we'll just vote 1st, 2nd, & 3rd (yes Mandle, 3rd) with feedback as a much appreciated bonus for the authors.  I will calculate each vote as representing points for tabulation purposes (1st = 5 pts, 2nd = 3 points, 3rd = 2 points).  If there are more than 5 entries you can double up your votes with ties at your discretion (e.g. one first, two seconds, and a third place vote).

Good luck to all participants and stay warm out there!  :)


Quote from: Baron on Tue 01/12/2020 02:37:17
Huh.  Well, it was more dramatic with the picture, but apparently the forums don't like my server anymore.

I think that's more a browser issue than a forum issue. The picture shows up fine on my laptop with firefox but not on my phone with chrome (same for your profile pic).

Quote from: Baron on Tue 01/12/2020 02:37:17
Voting: Aw heck, I can see the collective mood is swinging back towards simplicity.  So we'll just vote 1st, 2nd, & 3rd (yes Mandle, 3rd) with feedback as a much appreciated bonus for the authors.  I will calculate each vote as representing points for tabulation purposes (1st = 5 pts, 2nd = 3 points, 3rd = 2 points).  If there are more than 5 entries you can double up your votes with ties at your discretion (e.g. one first, two seconds, and a third place vote).

Well, my mood does not swing in this direction. But I am not borg, so I can't say mine is the collective mood. (And isn't it usually 1st= 3 pts; 2nd = 2 pts; 3rd= 1 pt? Your decision, of course.)


Quote from: Sinitrena on Tue 01/12/2020 03:25:48
Well, my mood does not swing in this direction. But I am not borg, so I can't say mine is the collective mood. (And isn't it usually 1st= 3 pts; 2nd = 2 pts; 3rd= 1 pt? Your decision, of course.)

I suggest we make it
1st place: 6,97 pts
2st place: 4.42 pts
3th place: 2.29 pts

I am sure we'll all find this most appropriate. :D

Also, I am feeling writey and have been toying around with this theme for a few days now. Might actually start to write something today, so expect a quick and dirty story with little time for revision, considering the looming deadline. Let us say I'm bringing myself in from the cold, and need to warm myself up by writing something.
Wrongthinker and anticitizen one. Utterly untrustworthy. Pending removal to memory hole.



And when WHAM plans to enter, I come up with a long story. Typical.

Oh, well.

Part 1 of 2

The Flame Bearer

The lake was frozen. Snow had collected on its surface. It crunched under her shoes as she tentatively sat one foot in front of the other.

Moonlight illuminated a path â€" imaginary. It led over the lake, towards the forest, the hills, and then, her village. Here and there, a lonely snowflake danced in front of the cloudless sky. The sparse light reflected in its crystalline veins and doused the surrounding world in icy sparks. Some snowflakes floated down on her head, tinting her hood and cloak in a wet, white layer.

Her face was framed by a globe of light, keeping her hood and hair in shadows but adding a glow to her face. It was strained and tired. Lines had formed on her forehead and the lips of her half-open mouth were cracked and dry. Hot air collected in a dense cloud in front of her eyes every time she breathed out and then dissipated and mixed with the thin fog that covered the whole lake.

The candle in her hands was thin. The wax, running down its side was hot on her bare hands and was frozen before it had dripped all the way to the ground, leaving small holes in the immaculate white before her. The candle had burned nearly all the way down. Soon, she would have to take another candle from the bundle at her hip, would have to carefully transfer the flame from one wick to the other, protect it with prayers and hope, and leave its last vessel behind on the frozen ground.

The bundle of candles she had brought from home, dipped over the year in their small temple just to carry the sacred flame back to them after the nights of the demons, had depleted considerately over the last few hours, over the miles and miles she had walked all day and far into the night. Had it not started to snow, had she walked quicker, she would never have chosen the way across the lake. But it was shorter and time was running out. Now, only two candles still hung at her belt.

Her shaking hands protected the tiny flame. They shielded it from the wind and the cold. She tried to hold it steady, one hand around the wax, one held like a nest around the flame, but with every step in the wide white, her hands became colder, with every step more blue crept into her fingertips and the little tremors became larger. They moved from just her hands to her arms, to her chest.

At first, she had worn gloves, but the woollen fingers were too slippery, too imprecise. She had discarded them, had stuffed them into her belt. They had fallen down a while ago. When she noticed it, it was already too late. She was not supposed to turn around. The flame had to come directly back to her people. When the gods sent down the fire and sent out the flame bearers, there was only one way to go: To the people that waited.

When there was hardly enough left of the candle to hold onto, she stopped. For a moment, she looked back over the surface of the lake, where new snow started to conceal her footprints slowly but steadily. Soon, no path would be left, no trace that she was ever there, as it should be. She was just the bearer, just as much a vessel as the candle.

At home, her family, her village, waited for her after the cold nights of the demons, when all fires were extinguished so that the demons could not steel the most important gift of the gods. Fire meant life, fire meant food and warmth, but should the demons get hold of it, it meant death and destruction.

She had seen it once, when she was still a child and her father had taken her to trade the fish they had caught in a neighbouring village. There was a mill not far from the river that had burned to the ground. People said the miller had not quenched his fires for the three nights and endured the cold as he should have because his little girl was sick. In the first night, the demons prowl around his house, in the second they stole the fire, and in the third they put the flames to his walls. On the morning after the third night, the villagers came out of their dwellings to await their own bearer. She had gone to the city and the main temple to collect a new flame for the next year before the first night. But what they saw was not a girl coming back to them, they saw a burned out mill.

Lazuï shuddered just thinking about the ruin and the little flame danced nervously in her hands.

“Shhh,” she soothed to it, as if it were alive, “Hold still. We’re close. Soon you will burn in the hearth.”

There it would burn for the village and for a year. When the people needed fire, they would collect it from the temple’s hearth and ignite their own with it. Fire was the gift from the gods, send down from their realm. No-one had the right or the ability to force fire to the earth without the gods will and only the higher priests in the main temples in the cities learned how to do this.

Slowly, she took the protecting hand away from the flame and pulled the candle even closer to her body. The back to the few gusts of wind that brushed over the lake, she pulled the last two candles from her belt. They were connected by their wick.

She knelt down on the ground. Her skirt in the soft snow, she squeezed the stub between her knees, always afraid that the wind would swirl up some of the snow or that the world was too cold so close to the ground. But she needed both hands free, to get the knife out of its scabbard and then to cut the wick in half.

She hardly felt her hands and the thin wax was more an irritation on her skin than anything else. She put the edge of the knife on the wick and pulled down on the two connected candles. The thread did not budge for a moment, too dull was the knife. Then, with another forceful tug she freed the two candles.

Her arm brushed against the burning candle. The thin and short stump jumped left and right and up and down between her knees. It slid. The tiny flame flickered in a weak yellow light.

Quickly, she caught the falling stump in her hands. Her two last candles flew to the side and the knife slid to the ground.

With one hand steadying the sacred flame, she felt for the other two in the dark. The moon, though still shining and illuminating her path like a sign from the gods, hardly offered enough light to see and her own light was nearly extinguished.

Frantically and carefully at the same time, she turned around on the ground, straining her eyes and putting her cold hands again and again on the cold snow on the frozen surface of the lake.

They had rolled away, she knew they had rolled away. And her search had disturbed the smooth white, leaving no discernable trace.

“No, no, no,” she whispered, afraid that even her breathing and speaking could disturb the little flame. “Please, please.”

She crawled over the ground, dragging her already wet skirt through the ice. She didn’t notice when the wetness crept through the outer layers and through her underskirts or that her knees felt just as cold as her hands after a few moments.

There! Something hard, something different. Her hand closed around something in the dark, deep under a layer of crystalline snow. She pulled. It was stuck. She pulled again. The tiny flame flickered in warning again.

“Please!” Tears started to well in her eyes. If she didn’t bring the flame back, her village would be without fire for a year. It would be without fire for the winter that had just begun.

No, it wasn’t long, it wasn’t thin. A stone maybe, a bit of unevenness in the frozen water of the lake, but not her candle.

Her tears felt hot for a second as they ran down her face, but when they had dropped down into her lap, the streams became cold lines on her skin.

She felt for the candles a last time, then she stood up. There was no point wasting even more time searching. For now, the candle still burned and for now there was hope. It might just be a flicker, but it was there. Maybe the path was shorter than she thought, maybe the stump would hold out for longer.

Her knees were stiff and her skirts were heavy. They caught around her legs and let her stumble forward. Cold toes bumped against … She couldn’t see it.

The candle close to her chest, she bend down. It bit. The thing on the ground bit her. Not like the cold kept biting, but unnoticeable at first, then sharp and hot. Snow melted in a little pool of red that glistered under the moon.

The knife! Not sharp enough to cut the wick, it still had enough of an edge to nick her frozen fingers.

She left the knife behind. There was no reason to keep it and no point in trying to fumble it back into its scabbard.

And no time to loose. Her steps were wider and her breathing harder as she started to walk again, and the tiny flame in her hands now danced nearly on top of her skin. She didn’t know how far she still had to go. The world looked different in the dark, just illuminated by the faint light of the moon and the reflection of the icy crystals from the snow. Her eyes burned from the cold and the tears that she now had forcefully banned from her face. There was no time to cry, no time to despair.

But the wick was so short and the stump so tiny! Even in the cold of the night, she could now feel the little warmth of the candle on her skin, so close was it now to her hands. If only she knew how far she still had to walk. But she saw no houses and didn’t know the world from the middle of the lake. Vaguely, she saw trees in the distance and the dark shadows of the hills, but how far away they were, she could not tell.

The flame flared up for a moment and Lazuï stopped in her tracks. She had paid so much attention to this one flame in the last few hours that she recognized every change and variation. This was no new life filling the fire, this was the storm before the calm.

“No, no, no,” she whispered again. She wanted to run, but running was not an option, she wanted to pray, but her mind could not remember the words.

Searching her body for anything that would burn, she let one hand glide over her dress and her cloak and her hair. Wet. Wet. Wet. Everything was wet and cold through and through. And in the vastness of the frozen lake, there were no twigs and no grasses.

She felt all over her body again, let her shaking hands even glide under her dress to … There! The chemise over her breasts. It was sticky from her sweat, but not as wet as the rest of her garments. If only she could get it out, if only she could cut it up. But she had left the knife behind and she was not supposed to turn around.

What was more important? Bringing the flame to her people so that they may have fire for the year or keeping the tradition and not look back?

Nobody would know. She turned around.

And like a sign from the gods the dull edge glimmered in the moonlight. Cutting her blouse open to get easier to her chemise, she managed to get some of the fabric out.

Slowly, she wrapped the thin cloth around the edge of the knife. The little flame danced nervously in protest as she dripped some of the remaining wax over her makeshift torch and again it flared up for a second. Then, it collapsed back upon itself, into a little round drip of a flame that flickered in a blue that was as cold as the ice and snow.

“Please,” she pleaded, “please work.” A makeshift torch was not one of the consecrated candles, but it was still better than nothing.

Her hands were shaking even more than the cold made them, when she moved them closer to each other. It seemed like the tiny flame shrank away from the big, overbearing torch, withdrawing closer to its wick and the little pool of molten wax at the top of the candle.

“Come on, come on...”

The oppressing torch subdued the little flame closer and closer to its home. Soon, there was only a flicker left, only a little blue shimmer.

“Please,” she pleaded, “please don’t die.”

The tiniest gust of wind could kill the sacred flame. Her body shielded it as far as possible. She wanted to pull it into her protecting arms, wanted to embrace it, but it was so meek and weak now, so close to nothing that she couldn’t really see it any-more.

The wind started to howl in the distance, or were it wolves? For a moment, she wished the flame to flare up again, not to safe it but for it to safe her.

Was this the prayer that was answered? Just then, just as the wind brushed the hood from her hair and the ice creaked under her nervously scuttling feet, just then the woollen shirt caught the last remnants of the warmth and the spark. It ignited with a sizzle and flakes of ash danced with the snowflakes in the moonlight.

As soon as the first spark of life had touched the torch, it was gone again. The wool burned and it burned strong, but also fast. Ash trickled to the ground and a dusty cloud irritated her nostrils. But this was hope, this was a few steps more.

She started to walk again, the torch in one hand, the other protectively around its head. As soon as the flame had returned, she forgot her plea. Her light needed her protection. It offered none to her. It was not supposed to. She was the bearer, the protector, she was the one to hold her village’s safety and future in her hands.

She remembered stories, stories of the flame bearer that didn’t come back, of the village that was without fire for a year, of the people that froze to death in their huts, of the people that vomited from bad food. In whispers people said this was a just punishment by the gods, that a village that chose a flame bearer that could fulfil her duty deserved to starve.

The thought was always there, her duty ever present, that she held a year’s destiny for her village in her hands.

But the howling of the wind and the wolves became louder and the creaking of the ice reached her ears. The cold air bit into her bare breasts. She wanted to hold her dress closed where she had cut it, but her hands had to hold and protect the flame. Her destiny was irrelevant, her comfort of no importance, as long as the flame safely reached the hearth of the temple.

In the last hour or so, she had started to remember the ceremony in the main temple. The temple was warm, that was one reason. She wanted to remember the warmth and the protecting arms of the gods, she wanted to forget her frozen fingers that had turned blue, the legs she couldn’t feel any longer, the bites into her bare skin that burned like fire and were still so cold. But most of all, she wanted to stay awake and remembering every detail of the ceremony helped her.

The temple was filled with young women, all of them here for the first time. The title of the bearer of the flame, of the protector of the gift of the gods, was given for two years, one to serve under the previous bearer, one to teach the next. Like all these young women, Lazuï had spent a year in the small temple of her village, making candles and learning the traditions and stories of her people. Then, a day before the first night of the demons, she had walked through the wilderness to the city with nothing on her but the candles she had made to be ignited by the priests on the gods’ fire. Then, her bundle was large and seemed full of the gods’ love and her heart was filled with pride for the work she had done. Many other girls had smaller bundles. Maybe their villages were closer to the city, or maybe they had not fulfilled their duty as diligently as Lazuï had. But last year’s bearer, Kataja, had made sure that she did everything right, had talked about the honour it was to serve and the strength the gods instilled in her as she walked back to the village with the flame in her hands.

And there, in the temple, Lazuï felt this strength too as she stood proudly with the other women and waited in the darkness for the demons to pass. And her voice carried high into the dome of the temple with the other girls after the third night when the procession of the priests entered the sanctuary. No parishioners were allowed on this day in the temple, only the priests and the servants of the gods.

The priests brought dry wood and piled it up in the round pit in the middle of the ringlike sanctuary. The girls looked upon the men as they circled the sacred hearth underneath the high cupola, through which the gods looked down on them all. Their songs mixed with the voices of the women, as all lifted their hands towards the growing pile as more and more priests joined the procession.

Then, with a gasp in the song, they turned towards the hearth and fell on their knees. There was a moment of tense silence and the girls all closed their eyes in submission, for the ritual was sacred and the knowledge reserved to the priests.

Lazuï peeked out from under her eyebrows as the next song began. The men were taking iron blades and little stones from silver bowls in front of their feet. In rhythm with the song â€" clang, clang, clang â€" they beat the sacred instruments against each other and sparks flew onto the splinters left in the bowls and onto the wood. Then, with a crescendo in the music, they tipped the bowls over on their swinging bases and fire poured out over the hearth.

That was the moment the women opened their eyes again and raised their heads. They joined in in the song, singing of the love of the gods and their protection, about their gifts and their fury. Lazuï’s voice filled the dome like all the other voices of the priests and servants, loud and clear, and pride and honour filled her heart.

Little was left of this now, but she still sang the song and moved her feet in the rhythm of the music. Prancing, her steps were uneven and her thoughts occupied by nothing but the imaginary melody. The flame danced up and down and left and right in her hands that seemed to have forgotten to shake. Again and again, little gusts of wind made the flame flicker, grow to a flame, then cave into a little flamelet.

After a while, it seemed like voices joined her song. Or did she join other voices? She was singing something else, wasn’t she? She couldn’t tell. The voices called to her, the songs travelled to her ears over the distance through the dark. In her mind, voices mixed with other voices, the clear melodies of the priests with the rougher tones of fishermen.

She stumbled ever forward as the dark silhouettes of the fishermen’s huts finally formed in front of the just as dark world beyond. While her thoughts were captivated by the cheerful songs of the waiting villagers, her eyes just focused on the torch in her frozen fingers. She didn’t feel her legs or her arms, and her fingers only because from time to time ash trickled down on her red, blue and black skin.

She nearly walked against the door of the temple. Quickly, she drew her hand back, so that the flame did not run into the wooden planks and be squished between her naked chest and the door. The flame left a sooty trail and a tongue of fire in the air.

With the flame still angrily shaking, Lazuï opened the door to the darkness of the unsanctified temple. It was filled with people and voices, but the young woman saw neither.

She only felt the wind, swirled by the warmer air in the room and the cold entering the sanctuary. With a flicker, the flame protested. It reared up and it fell down and then, darkness fell on her face.


Part 2 of 2

For a blink, Lazuï stood there frozen in shock. She looked at the flame that wasn’t there and at the darkness beyond, where the voices of her family and friends slowly faded, as one after the other noticed the biting cold that slowly drifted into the hut. They didn’t see her. Without the sacred flame, she was nothing but a shadow in more shadows. Her body blocked the moonlight that the door had blocked before.

Slowly, she moved her arm back, her eyes still on the makeshift torch, and closed the door. Confused questions filled the room behind her but she just walked away â€" directionless. Words of accusation rang suddenly in her ear, even though nobody had said them yet.

Her first few steps lead her south, towards her own hut. Her mind was empty. She just wanted to reach the warmth of her home, warm her fingers on a fire, rub her skin with dry blankets, fall asleep. Why was she out in the cold again? Only following one track for so long, one path in the snow and one thought in her mind, all thoughts were lost for a moment there.

Somewhere behind her, someone opened the door of the temple.

“Lazuï?” someone called into the dark.

She turned around, her heart jumping in fear. The fire, the flame! The thought rush back into her mind as suddenly as it had disappeared.

She started to run, back towards the lake, back towards the city. She was the bearer of the flame. No one else could bring it. No one else could bring back the sacred flame and the sudden call had reminded her of her duty, of the torch that did not burn, of the hearth that did not warm.

Did the gods punish her? The question whipped into her thoughts as her numb legs stumbled in the waves of snow. She slipped on the ice underneath, falling face first into a snowdrift. Instinctively, she still protected the vessel of the flame, rolling to the side so that the torch did not land in the snow.

Had the gods decided to take their gift away? Had they extinguished her hope and their protection? Because she turned around for a few steps? Because she went back just this tiny bit?

It didn’t matter. The reason didn’t matter. The flame was gone.

Numb fingers pounded number legs. Tears welled again in her eyes. She wanted to scream and she bit down on the words, on the rough nothingness that a scream could only be in her despair. Gone, the flame was gone, the gift was lost, the way back too far, too cold, too…

She swayed back and forth as nausea started to built in her stomach and a cold, harsh wind closed her lungs. With every breath, forced through a wall of ice, she lost another thought, another shred of hope. She knelt in the snow, too weak to get back up, too unworthy to even think about going back. She had failed.

And in her head, the songs from the temple still echoed, mocking her, telling her that she was nothing but a vessel, nothing compared to the flame, just nothing. And the words that should have made her proud, should have made her strong, seemed to rob her of every bit of strength left in her body.

For a moment, she just wanted to wait, fall over in the snow and wait, wait for dawn and for death, wait for the end that would come no matter what she did, for the winters were too cold to survive without fire and she was too exhausted to help.

But the voices kept singing and the memories kept assaulting her as a constant reminder of her failure.

But then, this was not what she heard, this was not what she felt.

She remembered the priests in the temple, the feeling of sudden warmth as the gift ignited the hearth and the strength a little flame could carry. Her swaying stopped, not in confusion, not in fear, not in exhaustion, but in knowledge. She had seen how the priests made fire, she had seen how the gift was created. There was no way she could make it back to the city and even if she did, she didn’t know if they would give her a second flame, and even if they did, how was she supposed to carry it back without candles?

But she was not supposed to make fire. She was not worthy. She was not consecrated, was not a priests, just a flame bearer, a servant of her village and the gods.

But she remembered the cold of the three nights of the demons, huddled together with her family, when no fire burned in the hearth and no word was whispered, no song was sang. She remembered shivering, crawling into her mothers arms, sleeping in her fathers lap. The nights of the demons were at the beginning of winter, when the first snow fell, not later when the world was white. Could she leave her village to a winter without fire, without warmth, without hope?

What was more important? Fire for her people or the will of the gods?

She stood up. She turned around.

Maybe they would punish them for her failure. Maybe they would just punish her.

There were splinters and straw in the barn close to the temple and in her hands was still the makeshift torch, a piece of woollen shirt wrapped around the edge of a dull knife.

But weren’t all bearers punished? Or was it a sacrifice? Kataja had lost nearly all her fingers, her mother had no toes. Every woman in her village who had ever borne the flame had left a part of her behind, a sacrifice for the safety of the village, a sacrifice for the flame.

She shuffled some of the straw together and picked up a small stone from a corner.

If she did nothing, they would all freeze to death. They would not ignore the commands of the gods, they would not chose to ignore their will. But they had not walked through the snow, they had not borne the flame, had not felt its warmth dissipate. But she, Lazuï, had. It was her choice, it was her will.

She beat the knife’s edge against the stone. Again and again. First slowly, like she had seen the priests do it this morning, as they received the gift of the gods with the holy skill instilled just in them and reserved to these men by holy right. She followed the rhythm of the song, singing the words in her head so that she would not be heard in the temple.

The villagers had stopped their short search in the snow for her. Maybe they thought they imagined her coming back, maybe they shied away from the cold, maybe they feared still prowling demons, not protected by any holy flames as they were.

The words were not hers, were not meant for a bearer, the movements of her hands, unsteady and necrotic from coldness, were not supposed to be those of a woman. The rhythm felt unnatural to her, the few sparks she produced felt weak and lost.

Again and again she beat the edge against the stone, forgetting the rhythm that was not meant for her. In her mind, the song changed to prayers, then pleas, then despair. But she would not give up, she could not give up. She needed fire, her people needed fire. What did it matter where it came from? Was she supposed to let them freeze without protection in the winter? Was she supposed to die in the cold wilderness, alone, forgotten, on her way back to the city in the dead of night?

Supposed to, maybe. But her decision was different.

The edge clanged against the stone, so loud in the silence of the night. Far away, though they were close, she heard the singing of the villagers again, who were huddled together in the temple, waiting for the next years blessings.

And she would bring it. If she had to work all night, if she had to freeze, had to lose all fingers, had to lose her life, at least she would try.

There, was it an answer of the gods to an awkward, false prayer? Was it a demon sending his help? What did it matter? There, a spark flew from the stone.

It flew through the air, glowing for a moment in the complete darkness. Then, it died, died on her wet skirt that was frozen stiff.

There, another one, flying high into the air.

There, the third, it sank to the ground. For a moment, the straw sizzled, then it was gone.

Lazuï did not give up. She hit the knife against the stone until her hands felt sore, even through the cold, even as she only saw them as blue and black skin in the few shreds of light the sparks brought.

There, again. It landed in the straw. It flickered. The straw charred. But she could see it. There was enough light, the spark did not die right away. She put knife and stone aside. She assembled more straw around the little bit of heat. Slowly, the tiny spark licked towards the rest of the straw, slowly it bit into its fodder.

It crackled and sizzled in front of her knees and black smoke rose from the tiniest flame.

Her heart skipped a beat with relief. She did it! She had made fire, had completed the ritual all on her own. What did it matter that she was not consecrated when her fire could safe a life? Could the gods really object to that?

She wound the charred and sooty rag around the edge of the knife again and held it against the flame. So used was she by now to her shaking hands that it didn’t even feel difficult holding them still any more.

Her legs budged under her weight as she tried to stand up, but she didn’t need to stand to bring the flame home, she just needed to move. Crawling towards the entrance of the barn, she made her way towards the temple, leaving behind a little spot of ash on the ground. The fire she had started there had stayed in the confines she had set and only lived on the torch that had the last remnants of the holy wax on it.

Maybe that was enough to give the flame the blessing of the gods. In the end, she didn’t care. She crawled out into the snow, only guided by the voices coming from the temple, singing of the god’s protection and will.

On the side of the temple, she pressed her hands against the only wall made of stone in the whole village and hoisted herself up on the cracks between the stones.

The new flame seemed stronger than the other, full of life, not half dead from a track through ice and snow. Maybe she imagined it. Maybe she didn’t even think it. In her head, there was nothing but the vibrations of the song as she slowly opened the door, the flame protected under her black hand and close to her chest.

Light, tiny but still strong in the absolute darkness of the temple, shone onto the faces of friends and family. Her face was only filled with exhaustion, but when a corridor opened for her in the group, leading to the hearth, she followed it with a smile on her broken lips.

The warmth she felt at first did not come from the flame in her hands or the fire she set to the hearth, not from the bodies of people standing shoulder to shoulder in the small room, but from their voices, from their relief and their praise. They praised the gods, but it felt like they praised her, they thanked the gods and she thought they thanked her, even though they didn’t know it themselves.

She could have said something, but why? What was more important, fire for her people or the truth? The words that left her lips were nothing but the prayer she was expected to recite and nothing but thanks to the gods. It was an easy lie and necessary.

But as she knelt down in front of the hearth and the fire slowly ate through the wood, as the sparks crackled and the soot dyed the confining stones black, as smoke climbed into the chimney and warmth finally filled the hut, she noticed a knowing smile from Kataja, who wipe away a wet strand of hair from Lazuï’s forehead with the only remaining finger on her left hand.

It was forgotten as she closed her eyes while her mother limped towards her and embraced her with a warmth no fire could ever give. Left was just the sacrifice all bearers had to make. At the warmth of the hearth she fell asleep in the arms of her people, knowing that the knife was readied and the edge was heated and that she would wake in the morning with less fingers or less toes, but with the knowledge that her village would survive another year.


Into the Frying Pan

It was maddening to hear one’s own breath, the hiss of one’s own blood rushing in the veins, the slightest creak caused by the cramping of a muscle, or the tap of some tiny fragment of matter on the exterior of the visor.

“CATIE.” Vadim barely recognized his own voice. His tongue felt dry and stiff, and the sound, as it echoed inside his helmet, sounded muffled and distant.

A sequence of three short beeps indicated activation of the Combat Activity Tactical Information Evaluation subsystem.

“Time and status?” -Vadin requested for the nineteenth time. He’d lost count before reaching ten, but CATIE knew. The piece of software spoke with a soft, feminine voice designed to soothe its listener. Its speech patterns lacked the terseness and compression used to communicate efficiently during combat, as the program recognized Vadim’s sorry situation and altered its behaviour to calm him. If he didn’t know of that feature, it might have worked.

“User. The fleet time code is: 2271 - 347 - 2409. Time since last external signal: 334 hours. General status: nominal. Power status: nominal. Oxygen supply: nominal. Hydration: caution. Fluid supply has been reduced to 31 %. Please seek alternate fluid sources at earliest convenience.”

Vadim’s lips twitched, as a brief smile crossed his face in response to CATIE’s endless optimism. She’d advised him to seek more fluid for several of the last status checks, but that was unlikely to happen. Vadim raised his hand, a crackling sound carrying through the fibers of his suit, so that he could both hear and feel how fragments of translucent ice broke off his vacuum-suit, and tapped the side of his visor, causing its outer layers to spring up, clearing his vision. The pale-blue glare of a distant star filtering through the dense field of debris blinded him for a moment, but he squinted his eyes and adapted. The fragments of ice drifted through his field of vision, glimmering and reflecting the light. More ice, frozen gases and fluids from the detonation, clung to his helmet, gloves, boots and combat carapace.

As he watched the vast expanse of space before him, Vadim couldn’t help but let himself become mesmerized for a moment. The battle that had brought him here felt so insignificant now that it was over, terminated by what was almost certainly a purposeful and suicidal detonation of the rebel corvette’s reactor bank. All the politics and orders and hierarchy had vanished in a single blast of pure white light that tore asunder the task force gunships sent to recapture the stolen vessel, and sent the boarding craft spinning wildly as their structure was torn apart by the seemingly endless shower of shrapnel and debris. For the first few days there had been voices. Survivors trying to locate one another even as the immense force that had sent them careening off into the endless void pushed them further and further apart. Some had fallen silent suddenly, likely due to a collision, while others had said their goodbyes through the crackle and hiss of signals struggling to reach a recipient as power faded and distance became impossible to overcome.

Vadim had been left behind, in a sense. He’d been strapped to one of the larger chunks of boarding craft, which had by now vanished off into the distance as well, albeit at a slower speed than most. He’d detached, dodged, reoriented and spent all of the fuel his suit had just to remain closer to the point of origin, in the hopes that rescue would be here soon. Others had tried to do the same, and yet Vadim was alone now, with just CATIE for company.

“Sensors?” -the man asked, as he idly watched the frozen corpse of a naval crewman slowly spin and turn, almost as if dancing some delicate ballet in slow motion.

“No fleet signals detected. No non-fleet signals detected. No energy readings detected.” -CATIE stated. In his mind Vadim thought she’d apologised at the end there. He couldn’t move, couldn’t really turn, due to the lack of propulsion. If he wanted to expedite his death by thirst and starvation, he could vent some of his precious oxygen supply to generate thrust, but why? A chill ran down his spine. Although the suit was well insulated against the bitter cold just waiting to claim him, the solitude and steadily mounting desperation generated their own, unique brand of chill. The kind that touched the very soul, hardened it, made it brittle.

Vadim closed his eyes and focused on breathing. He wondered if CATIE would remark, somehow, were he to cry. Instead the man forced himself to chuckle and laugh at the idea of being scolded for wasting precious fluid on tears.

“User. Is there an issue I can assist with?” -CATIE offered in the softest, most cautious tone the software could muster. Vadim cleared his throat in an attempt to stop the dry, harsh laughter.

“No, CATIE.” -he finally managed. “Thanks- I, er- Just let me know if anything changes.”

“As you wish, user.”



Vadim awoke with a start, his fingers twitching in the bulky gloves as his eyes shot open to see nothing but the black created by the protective visor.

“CATIE?” -he responded instinctively.

“Energy reading detected. Unknown vessel within vicinity and signal range. No non-encrypted communications detected. No fleet signals detected.”

Vadim’s mind wheeled at the knowledge. He didn’t know how long he’d slept as hours and days slipped by in silence, but now... He tapped his visor again, and squinted as always. Nothing seemed to have changed.

“Where?” -he demanded, unable to keep the impatience from his voice. CATIE responded by drawing a white square over his visor, to his right, a dozen degrees below his eyeline, along with a range idicator. 14 kilometers. As he watched, it turned to 13, confirming his hopes that it was indeed approaching.

“Rebel signals?” -Vadim wondered out loud. CATIE responded with a simple: “Negative. No known encrypted signal bands active.”

This puzzled Vadim. If the fleet hadn’t sent anyone to look for survivors, that in itself held some troubling implications. If the rebels hadn’t done so either, then that left very few options as to who the new arrivals might be. Barring first contact with an alien civilization, Vadim’s best guess was salvagers. Maybe some private enterprise had kept an eye out on things, bided its time and had finally decided that nobody else was coming to claim the wreckage.

11 kilometers.

Vadim watched intently, despite the vast distance meaning he couldn’t actually see the new arrival for some time. His helm was equipped for shipboard combat, and lacked the optics to zoom in on targets as far away as this. Besides, in the swirling mess of debris, his vision would be hampered anyway.

9 kilometers. 8. 7. 6. 5. 4. 3. 2.

“User. The unknown vessel is slowing down.”

Vadim watched as the reinforced flat-nosed freighter pushed its way into the debris field. The thick plating up front had been stripped of paint, but the rest of the body was a neutral beige tone, adorned with a company logo and ID code Vadim didn’t recognise. Part of him wanted to signal the vessel in the hopes that they might pick him up. But if they held any allegiance with the rebels, he might as well have lit a flare and painted a bullseye on himself. And yet he couldn’t see any weapons.

“User. The unknown vessel has come to a relative halt.”

“I see.” -Vadim replied. For a solid twenty minutes he just stared, waiting and wondering, gauging his options. Ahead, the ship blinked with life as a single bright spotlight activated, and began to hurriedly sweep the closest objects, flitting from corpse to corpse, from torn hull fragment to a crushed escape pod to a burnt out cockpit. Vadim couldn’t help but mutter to himself: “What are you looking for, then?”

Whatever the vessel was looking for, it didn’t seem to find its target. The light went out a moment later, and nothing else seemed to happen. “CATIE... Calculate a trajectory. I want to get closer to that.”

“User. Be advised, propulsion is unavailable.”

“I know. Vent oxygen supply.”

“User. Venting oxygen to generate thrust is wasteful. Are you sure?”

“Yes. CATIE, do it.”

A sequence of three beeps chirped inside Vadim’s helmet. His visor flickered with numbers, vectors, lines, coordinates. A final beep confirmed the calculation.

“User. Caution. Maneuver will deplete oxygen supply by 42%.”

Vadim nodded in his suit. His fingers curled up into fists.

“Execute maneuver, CATIE.”


Vadim barely heard the hiss of escaping pressurised gas. He barely felt the motion at first, but soon he could sense the change in the way the small fragments around him had begun to move toward him rather than in random patterns all around. In the void it was difficult to gauge one’s own motion, but eventually that beige ship began to become obviously larger.

“Why isn’t he moving?” -Vadim wondered to himself. Scavengers weren’t known to waste time by hovering around, and this one wasn’t doing anything as far as he could see. No crew had exited, no scanners seemed to be active. Aside from the light before: nothing. All it would take now, to ruin everything, would be for that ship to fire its thrusters and move off. Vadim whispered a silent prayer that his luck would hold.

As he approached, he began to see more details on the ship. Above the blocky section of hull that clearly housed any cargo, Vadim could see the viewing ports that would allow the crew to look out into space, but there was no light glowing beyond them. It was as if the vessel was dead. A ghost-ship?

“I hope you got room for one more dead man.” -Vadim whispered as he corrected his trajectory to direct himself to one of the two airlocks he could see.


The manual overrides were unsecured, and the lever responded to Vadim’s hand with a blink of a light and the movement of the doors. Still, even as the contents of the airlock were vented out into space, nothing indicated to Vadim that the ship or its crew had responded to him in any way.

“User. Be advised, I am picking up vitals of thirty-plus individuals.”

That sounded like an unusually large crew for a freighter, or a scavenger. Was it a refugee ship? Smugglers? Then why had it stopped here. Vadim waited for the airlock to close, and for the pressure to start building up to a point where he could hear the hiss of the airlock around himself. Lights in the ceiling blinked to life, one by one, flickering and buzzing, then stabilising as if they hadn’t been used in a long time. There was a dead woman in the airlock, her arms twisted around a metal bar that served as a handhold. Her head was turned so that she was looking over her shoulder, toward the interior of the ship.

“Atmospherics?” -Vadim queried.

“Breathable.” -CATIE replied.

Vadim moved his hand. It was warmer here, so the layers of frozen gases that had adhered to his suit began to slouch off and float off in the absence of gravity. He tapped his visor in a different spot, and it began to slide up into his helmet. The air had a stale stench to it, and it reeked of coolants, oil and rust. But it was air, and not recycled by his suit. Another tap and Vadim finally dared open the communications channel, safe in the knowledge that at least the ship wouldn’t be able to dash off without him if its crew were startled.

“Unidentified vessel, you are in a combat zone. State your business.” -Vadim called out, the tiny receivers on the collar of his bulky suit picking up his voice and transmitting it in the open to anyone who might hear.

No reply.

“CATIE, is the transmitter working? No signals, still?”

“Confirmed.” -came the reply. She was back to her normal self.

Vadim twisted himself to try and move, and managed to maneuver himself to the wall so that he could grab hold of one of the handholds beside the dead woman. On a closer look she looked like she’d been dead for a long time.

“-llo? You hear me? Hello-o?” The voice came out of nowhere, tinny and distorted, but clearly human. Vadim peered past the dead woman to see a communications panel in the wall. The light on it was green.

“Identify.” -Vadim demanded, though his throat felt dry and the word fell off his lips clumsily.

“Holy sh- you a soldier? You, uh- you got a gun, right? I saw you in the exterior cameras when you came in, but I don’t got a visual on you now.”

Vadim held up his hand as if to silence the source of the voice, though he quickly realised the gesture was meaningless in this situation.

“Identify.” -Vadim repeated, not wanting to play his hand too early. Who knew what sort of a mess he’d landed in. His own weapon had been lost in the detonation, but he could see a sidearm on the belt of the dead woman. A few seconds and the grim memento was in his gloved hand. The pistol felt tiny, like a toy.

“Look, name’s Rowley, and I need your help, whoever you are. I’ve got no comms, no telemetry, no navigation at any distance beyond the system. Jesus-” There was a loud bang in the background. “Look, I can’t talk much, but I need you up on the top level. We’ll figure this out. Stay alive, okay.”

The transmission cut off. The green light blinked and died. Vadim had only found more questions in lieu of answers. With an annoyed motion he brushed off more of the ice breaking off from his suit, then checked the pistol he’d found. No bullets in the magazine. Somewhere ahead, beyond the inner door of the airlock, a voice screamed. It wasn’t a pained scream, or fear, but an animal screech barely recognizable as human.

Vadim pulled the lever that finished the cycle on the airlock, and the inner door began to slide open. The cramped corridor beyond split into two ways, barely lit by rows of yellow-tinted lights set into the ceiling. A few inches above the floor Vadim could see another corpse, this one a man. His eyes were wild, even in death, and in his open mouth Vadim could see rows of teeth filed into sharp points, the lips cut and withdrawn. What had once been a set of orange and yellow overalls had been soiled and torn, revealing gaunt musculature underneath. A long blade fashioned out of some piece of railing and crudely sharpened on one side was still clutched in the bony hand.

“User. Alert. Several vital signs approaching. Agitated.”

“I know.” -Vadim replied grimly as he pushed himself toward the corpse, so he could secure the bladed weapon from its hand. “Fucking degens.” He’d heard of the condition. Space madness. Void dementia. Degeneration.

“In from the cold...” -Vadim remarked grimly, wondering if CATIE would appreciate the sentiment. Beyond a corner in the narrow corridor, the movement of humanoid figures clawing at the walls to propel themselves forward cast flickering shadows.

“...and into the frying pan.”

Not entirely happy with this one. It's hastily written and feel incomplete. I got caught reading a new book, but decided that I wanted to contribute at least SOMETHING to try and get back into the habit of writing again. I'll spend more time and effort on the next one, promise!
Wrongthinker and anticitizen one. Utterly untrustworthy. Pending removal to memory hole.



Sorry, I kinda let the deadline slip past.  I've been distracted trying to flood our backyard skating rink since it's been -15 C up here, but I'll now take a moment to ...come in from the cold and start the voting process.  :)

Our contestants in order of non-WHAMishness are:

Sinitrena with her short story The Flame Bearer
WHAM with his story Into the Frying Pan

Voting will be in order of preference (1st, 2nd, 3rd).  Yeah, I'll allow 3rd place votes, just to keep things interesting.  Any ties will be broken at my discretion.  Any feedback you'd care to leave for our participants would be greatly appreciated!

Voting deadline is Monday December 21, 2020.

Good luck to all our blanket-wrapped writers slaving away in their unheated garrets!  ;)


Well, with just one opponent and just one category to vote in, the only point I have to give goes to WHAM.

This is actually a pretty good story, but like you say yourself, it feels incomplete. I have the same critizism for you I usually give Baron: Why, oh why, did you have to end the story when it's just beginning? In general, this is a good place to stop - a chapter in a longer story, and maybe even a short story. There's a distinct break point here, a clear cut - one element is finished, another begins. The problem here is that you so heavily tease this new element: We are left wondering what ship this is, who these people are, if the voice from the bridge is trustworthy, ect. It's just so many questions. On the other hand, the element of Vadim waiting for rescue is obviously over. I highly recommend continuing this story at some point in the future.
While I enjoyed all the hints at a larger world in the background of this story (rebels, technology); they are just scene-dressing, in the larger scale of things irrelevant to the story. It doesn't matter that there is a war for Vladim's predicament from the point of view of the reader (in story, this is a different matter, of course).
We do get a pretty good sense of the emptiness, the calm of space, though a stronger focus on this and less focus on CATIE and its functions, would have been preferable, in my opinion.
"Ballette" is a spelling mistake spell-check should catch. Did you forget to run the text through?
All in all, a very enjoyable story that ended far too early.


As always, reading Sinitrena's work is a delight, and my only vote has to go their way!

A grim tale of sacrifice and faith and the lack thereof, and how that lack can sometimes carry the day. Aside from a few tiny typos here and there I feel my only gripe is the very start, referring to "her" before we've established who "she" is. I feel like it would be more proper to at least establish the character's gender and type more clearly in the first time they are referred to, like a simple sentence of "A girl, no more than X years old, took a step that plunged her feet deep into the snow." After that one sentence, "her" would have felt absolutely appropriate again.

As for my own tale, I try to keep my stories relatively short, no more than 4 or 5 pages at most (and even this story was too long!), so as not to discourage potential readers who are trying to consume several short stories in a limited time due to the nature of this contest. I like to do worldbuilding, vague hints at something greater beyond the current scope of a tale, and thus I often end up writing what amount to starters to a greater tale, a first chapter or prologue that might fuel the imagination of the reader into conjuring up a far grander tale than the scope of this fortnightly contest permits. Then again, it might just feel frustrating to the reader... I shall strive to write a shorter, more complete tale, when I next participate.

Oh, and I have no idea how that one big typo stayed in. I write these in Google Docs and it should do spell checking. Or maybe I just missed the warning...
Wrongthinker and anticitizen one. Utterly untrustworthy. Pending removal to memory hole.


Good stories from both authors! While nearly evenly matched in quality if not word count, I would like to vote for Sinitrena and her festive santa hat, but in this time of the coof, I have to cast my vote for WHAM and his sensible, mask-wearing sensibilities.


Hey, you need to take a closer look: My avatar is weraing a mask (incorrectly, in front of her mouth - but she's looking into her hand-mirror just getting ready to go out, so that's accaptable)!  (laugh) (laugh) (laugh)


It was implied that Lazuï was not wearing a mask, but never definitively stated one way or another.   :)

So let us take our ease now by the fireside and chat a bit of things gone by.

@ Sinitrena:  I am ever a fan of your world-building, but I think you succeeded here better than usual.  The cultural fixation with starving demons of fire at the beginning of winter is thoroughly explored, while needless details (in terms of the scope of your short story) are omitted.  The spectre of a distant village propped up by the sacrifices of scores of disfigured women makes me think of the Vikings of Greenland: surely these people have extended their supply lines just a bit too far, and will one day certainly face catastrophe (if they can not adapt from the old ways).  Your language is descriptive as always  (the sparse light dousing the surrounding world in icy sparks springs to mind), although there are a few grammatical lapses (Were it wolves? should actually be Was it wolves?, as "it" is in fact the subject of the sentence; and one would never have "sat" one foot in front of another in order to walk).  My biggest beef would be some continuity errors that struck me perhaps more egregiously than most as I do live in the winter-bound blizzard world that we affectionately call Canada.  For one, no one would cut across the lake in early winter because the ice probably hasn't had time to freeze thick enough to safely support human weight.  I get that it was a desperation move as the accumulating snow was slowing her progress, but then why the line at the beginning of a lonely snowflake dancing in front of a cloudless sky - is it snowing or isn't it?  Nothing would roll in snow - it's like a damper.  Yeah, you might lose stuff down in it, but it wouldn't roll anywhere.  Her skirts dragging in the snow would not be wet but frozen solid: that's what happened to my pant legs when we went orienteering in March one year.  And frostbite is red at first, then white, and finally black, and your digits are already too cold to feel much of anything if it gets to that point.  I still don't have any feeling in the tips of my toes....  ;-D

@ WHAM:  What if we called Vadim "Gary" (or "the Gary") and called -CATIE "Hue"?  I had some serious "Final Space" flashbacks reading your work.  As always you really dragged me into the story with your sparse descriptions (freezing gasses to the outside of the suit was a great detail) and teasing snippets of slightly more information about what is actually going on.  I liked the idea of a "combat carapace" (Ninja Turtle!) and the haunting idea of one's comrades slowly drifting out of range to their own demise.  But there's also some questionable physics at work:  you described how Vadim was able to stabilise his location relative to the debris field, but not how his comrades were unable to, nor indeed how the debris field itself managed to stay together (would it not have been blown in every direction as well?).  And why was the ship able to come almost precisely to Vadim's location - it seemed to have been overtaken by degens for some time: is no maintenance, refuelling, or re-provisioning ever necessary?  And why couldn't he see the ship at 10 km?  I can see much smaller satellites at 100-200 km, and CATIE was telling him exactly where to look..... I suppose like most sci-fi it is an exciting story as long as you don't think too much about it.   ;)

So the people have spoken.  Well, at least one person spoke (the other two having obviously cancelled each other out).  Well, maybe it was a cow speaking, actually.  And by speaking I mean mooing....  It's not much to base a whole democracy on, if you think about it too much.....  But anyway, the voter has determined that the winner of this competition is WHAM!.  Congratulations WHAM.  I critique because I love.  :-*  A very close runner up was Sinitrena, but she fell slightly behind due to running through snow....  :-D  I'd hand out trophies but as Ponch would attest I'm a bit of a grinch when it comes to giving.  :-X

Congratulations to all entrants and I look forward to another exciting competition in the near future!


Quote from: Sinitrena on Tue 22/12/2020 02:15:25
Hey, you need to take a closer look: My avatar is weraing a mask (incorrectly, in front of her mouth - but she's looking into her hand-mirror just getting ready to go out, so that's accaptable)!  (laugh) (laugh) (laugh)
You're probably one of those people who wear their mask pulled down under their nose so it's easier to breathe. You're not fooling me, Sinitrena! From now on, I plan to stay at least six posts away from you for the sake of my own health!



Quote from: Ponch on Wed 23/12/2020 04:22:43
From now on, I plan to stay at least six posts away from you for the sake of my own health!


You failed!!!
Muahahahahahaha :P

Congratulations, WHAM.


Woo! Thank you, folks! I'll try and get a new thread up tonight, as I get home from work, so we can delve into our next fortnight.

Oh, as for all the question you had about the story, Baron, there is a single, simple answer to all of them:
I suck at space science  :~(

I think the next theme will have some loose connection to my story, and to the ongoing season of festivity. Stay tuned!
Wrongthinker and anticitizen one. Utterly untrustworthy. Pending removal to memory hole.


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