One of the goals of SPFBO is to give a chance to self-published authors to get more exposure. This year I’m taking part in the competition with my own team. You can keep updated on our progress and all of our content on my SPFBO 5 page!
Tales from the Asylum is a new feature I came up with for SPFBO. I wanted to create a unique opportunity for the authors to show off their story telling skills by taking their characters and putting them in an asylum room to see how they would deal with the situation. A lot can happen in a closed space…
Darian Smith writes mainly speculative fiction (fantasy) and lives in Auckland, New Zealand with his wife, Adrienne (who also writes), and their black cat, Athena (who doesn’t). He’s a finalist for this year’s SPFBO competition and his writing work has won him two Koru Awards, the SpecFicNZ/Steam Press manuscript competition, and a Sir Julius Vogel Award. By day, he works with people who have neuromuscular conditions and he is also a qualified counsellor/family therapist. For those who are very swift with the pause button, he can be seen on television shows such as Legend of the Seeker and Spartacus.
The hard coldness of the floor that wore away at sleep and brought Brannon back to the world. In the war, he’d gotten used to sleeping in strange places. On the ground, in caves, in trees, or in barns. Between battles you got what rest you could, where you could. This was different though. The air here was still and warm but the surface beneath him was stone and cut the heat from his body later by layer, a cold knife slicing until his consciousness returned.
He sat up and looked around.
Blank grey walls enclosed him, splattered in places with stains that looked like blood and urine. There was no furniture. A moth-eaten blanket lay in a pile next to a wooden door, braced with iron bands. A small, barred window in the door let in light. Beneath that, a wide slot covered by a metal flap looked to be suited for a food tray.
Brannon climbed to his feet and poked his fingers at the slot, then tried the door handle. Both proved locked. He took a deep breath, trying to settle the dull ache in the base of his skull. He felt groggy. Had someone slipped him something? What had he been doing that he could have been drugged? His memory drew a blank. He didn’t know how he’d been brought here. Or why.
“Hello? Who’s out there?” He peered through the tiny barred window at an empty hallway with several similar doors. Definitely some sort of prison or…asylum? Why did he think of that word? Had he come here knowingly? There were markings scratched into the wood of the door like a tally. Tracking the days? There was no sign of sunlight. How would one know if it was day or night?
“Nobody will hear you.”
Brannon spun around. The voice came from inside the cell but the cell was empty. “Where are you?”
“Nobody heard them.”
He squinted at the shadows. “Heard who? The other patients here? The people who’ve been going missing?” His memories were starting to return now. He’d come to Valda because of the rumours of missing people. But he’d come with his team. Where were they now?
“No, not them.”
“The people you drowned.” A figure appeared in the light. A Nilarian soldier in full armour, draped in river weeds. His skin was pale and wrinkled. Foam flecked the corners of his mouth and his nostrils. Water ran down his body like a river.
“What the-?” Brannon stumbled backward until his body thumped against the door. He shook his head, closed his eyes, then opened them to look again. The figure was gone.
Brannon took a deep breath. “Blood and Tears. Now I’m imagining things.” It had to be an after effect of whatever they’d drugged him with. If only Taran were here, he could tell him what it was. The priest would probably stick a finger in Brannon’s ear, sniff the wax, and proclaim it some obscure hallucinogen.
“You killed them.” The voice was back. “You didn’t imagine that.”
Brannon took a deep breath and released it slowly. In his mind, a wall of water rushed down the River Tilal and engulfed the Nilarian army as they crossed. The roar of the water was so loud. Louder than anything he’d heard before but it was still not enough to cover their screams as they drowned. Death in battle was supposed to be an honourable testing of skills against an enemy but he’d long since learned to disregard that fantasy. When it came to protecting your country and your people, you did what you had to do. Death was death, horrible and brutal. For some it was by the sword, for others, the river.
“No,” he said. “I didn’t imagine that. I won the war with it. I saved my king and my country.”
“And that makes it okay to murder us, Bloodhawk?” The drowned man was back. This time with others. They crowded behind him in a ghostly mob of drenched corpses.
Brannon swallowed. “Not okay, no. Necessary…” He looked away. “I’m sorry. It was necessary. And that’s not who I am anymore.”
“It’s who you’ll always be. Bloodhawk.” The voices of the drowned soldiers rose in a chanting chorus. “Bloodhawk. Murderer. Bloodhawk.”
Brannon clenched his fists and felt his fingernails dig into his palms. This was real. It wasn’t one of his nightmares. Wasn’t a torment his mind had remembered or invented for him. It was happening. The guilt he’d felt, the debt he owed the gods for the lives he’d taken, now was the time for payment.
“I’ve saved a lot of lives since then,” he pointed out. “I’ve done what I could.” Becoming a physician and now the Master of Investigations. They were all attempts to balance the scales. He just needed more time.
The chanting fell silent.
A small, high voice spoke in the darkness. “Did you save mine?” The drowned soldiers were gone and in their place was a boy. His hair was dark and his eyes wide. Blood dripped from the slash across his throat.
Brannon’s chest constricted. This was another familiar nightmare but, again, it was real. His fingers scraped at the wood of the door behind him, hard, unforgiving, and sharp with splinters. The other deaths he regretted as a group. This boy was special. This boy…no amount of illness cured or murders prevented could balance the scales for a child. Brannon didn’t think he could ever make up for this single death.
“I’m sorry.” His voice cracked like a teenager. Like this boy’s had done as he’d attacked Brannon in an attempt to avenge his father. “I’m so sorry. I tried. Believe me, I didn’t want to kill you.”
The boy’s eyes grew darker. His hair was a tangle of short curls and blew in an unfelt wind. “But you did, Bloodhawk. You killed my father and you killed me. And you don’t even know my name.”
“You wouldn’t stop.” Brannon squeezed his eyes shut against the memory but there had never been any way to banish it from his mind. “Ahpra forgive me, I didn’t know what to do.”
“I was grieving for my father,” said the boy. “And you took your sword and you killed me in cold blood.”
Brannon frowned. “That…that’s not how it happened. Not exactly.”
“You’re to blame!” The boy spoke louder. “No matter what the excuse, it was your sword that cut me down!”
“My sword?” Brannon opened his eyes and stared. “I took that sword from your father. I didn’t think of it as mine for a long time. Why would you think of it as mine?”
The boy stared at him. A fresh gush of blood flowed from the wound at his throat.
“Where’s your hat?” Brannon straightened up.
“What?” The boy blinked at him.
“Your hat. You’re a Nilarian. They always wear hats. Why aren’t you wearing a hat?”
“I wasn’t wearing one when you killed me. Murderer!”
Brannon shook his head. “But you were.” He’d stopped thinking of the boy as a Nilarian sometime after the war. His guilt and grief overwhelmed him whenever he thought of the moment and the boy had become just a boy, a little detail like the hat lost in the wash of waking self-recrimination and nightmares. But when he dredged up the true memory of what had happened… “You wore a hat.” Brannon stepped forward.
The boy stepped back. “Don’t hurt me again!” Water dripped from his hair, now suddenly soaked through like the drowned man from before.
“You’re not real!” Brannon lunged forward and grasped the boy by the shoulder.
“Okay, you’re real, but you’re not who you say you are. You’re not this child and you’re not the drowned soldiers. Who are you? What are you?” Brannon shook the boy. “Reveal yourself!”
The boy opened his mouth wider than humanly possible and hissed. His teeth were sharply pointed and his forked tongue tasted the air. His hair grew to shoulder length and took on a greenish hue. Scales blossomed over his skin. His body shifted bonelessly beneath Brannon’s touch.
Brannon let him go and stepped back, eyes wide. “What are you?” he repeated quietly. “Why are you here?”
The creature hissed again, taller now, and thinner, almost skeletal. “What did you expect, creating a place like this? A city of grief and death on an actual river of tears? How could we not come to feed? Your guilt and your pain are a feast to my kind! So much self-loathing and anger and it just needs a little nudge to bring it to the surface.” Its impossibly wide mouth smiled. “You should care for your ex-soldiers better, you know. So many of them hurt the way you do and they are delicious.”
“No more.” Brannon put steel in his voice. “I won’t let you.”
“How will you stop me?”
Brannon drew himself up to his full height. “I am the Bloodhawk,” he said. “You’ve seen my memories of how many humans I’ve killed. Just what do you think I do to monsters?”
“You threaten me?”
“You can’t feed off me anymore,” Brannon pointed out. “Not now I know what’s going on. Your manipulations won’t work. And there’s no way I’m letting you take anyone else.”
“I could kill you. Your friends’ grief would be so tasty.”
“My friends would destroy you. I figured you out easily and so will they. They’re much more powerful than me.”
The creature blinked, those huge dark eyes covered briefly, then it hissed again. “You and your friends have no jurisdiction here.”
“Neither do you,” Brannon growled. “You don’t belong in my world or my country. Get out. Or I will have my friends bring every bit of magic they possess and burn you out!”
The creature screamed. Brannon clapped his hands to his ears as the shriek pierced his mind. “Fine! Begone! Begone!” The door behind him opened and a burst of wind blew him off his feet and out into the hallway.
Except it wasn’t the hallway.
Sunlight dazzled his eyes as Brannon looked up from the ground. Taran and Ula stood over him, concern creasing their brows. The priest was in his hooded tunic and Ula her usual leather smock, showing the swirling rune tattoos across her purple skin.
“You have come back,” said Ula. “Good.”
Brannon pushed himself up. The ground was hard and dry. In front of him was a large stone building with an open doorway. “What happened? Where are we? Did you put your finger in my ear?”
“What? No!” said Taran, frowning. “Why would I do that?” He reached down to help Brannon to his feet. “We’re at the abandoned asylum. The one that used to care for mind-broken soldiers. You…um…you went through the door and disappeared.”
Ula brought her hands together then pulled them apart, spreading her fingers wide. “Poof,” she said.
“We didn’t know what to do.” Taran looked around as if an answer ought to have presented itself.
Ula shrugged. “Earth spirits say the door is wrong to be here. Unnatural. So we send for the wizard but he has not come yet. What did you see in the other place?”
Brannon stared. The door led to an open foyer, nothing at all like the hallway of cells he’d been held in. “I’m not sure. But I don’t think we’ll see it again. I hope not, anyway.”
The creature had been feeding on guilt and fear and grief. Those feelings were everywhere in the aftermath of the war. Even now. But this place…this place most of all. The physician in him was horrified at what had been done to men and women who had struggled after the war. Mind-broken. It could so easily have been him. If he’d not found another calling and trained to heal people as a kind of atonement, perhaps he would never have found his own way out of that dark place he’d been back then. Would he have been put here? Surely, there were better ways to heal than being in a place like this.
He ran a finger over the scar running from his earlobe across his cheek. The one given to him by a long-dead Nilarian boy. Some wounds were more than a physician knew how to deal with. Some wounds never fully healed. But they had to try.
“We can do better,” he said, turning his back on the asylum door. “Brick it up and let’s go home.”
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