SHORT STORIES By Melissa H. North

20120902_1823982084584203_1057901753_nTHE HALFLING BOOK ONE TEASER

She heard a thump some distance away and stopped. She didn’t know what lived in the swamp that could make that kind of noise. She had felt the impact through the ground in the soles of her feet.

Nervous, she found cover behind a blasted tree, peering out from the gnarled trunk at the swamp’s edge. As she watched a large figure stepped between the rushes. The size of a horse, red scaled limbs, feathered wings, and a wild mane of golden hair around a lion’s face. What the hell is that? As the creature stepped forward into the much, its scorpion tail slipped out of the shadows of the reeds into the sunlight.

Manticore!

She watched the manticore sniff the air and curl his tongue. A second manticore landed softly on his oversized feet in the small clearing just metres from the where Eliana hid. Another landed and then another as the daybreak light revealed their hideous forms.

With the stealth moves of an A-grade military army, they formed into a line and started forward, slipping and squishing into the muck of the swamp. She backed away, trying to put distance between her and the hunters and not be seen.

“Brotherssss, can you ssssmell that?”

“Mmm. Ssso sssweet. Pulsssing. It’s nearby, Kano. I wantsss it.”

The words ran down her spine like tickling spiders, and she shivered, taking out the zeitgeber.

“Mmmm, the female,” another said.

“Let uss hunt, brothersss.”

She heard them moving on their overlarge feet, each paw sucking in the muck as they headed to where she stood by the forest. The sound of twigs and leaves crushing alerted her to their position. Turning to see their golden eyes glinting in her direction, she sucked in her breath. Shock and disgust etched her face. Long snake-like tongues flickered out of their mouths, and they moved faster.

Heart pounding, she abandoned silence in favour of speed. If they catch me… She groped for the zeitgeber out of her pocket, holding it in her hand, being careful not to meld her fingers completely around it, as she ran as fast she could, dodging tree trunks and underbrush and feeling twigs lash against her legs. She wished Fin was here.

I have to get away. I have to get away.

Below her feet, the feeling of magic tingled against her soles. She spared a glance down and the glassy pavers, the ones she’d seen in the Glade of Forgetfulness, appeared beneath her feet.

What the hell? I thought Fin did that?

“It’sss trying to essscape, brothersss… fasster!” the manticore behind roared, shattering the quiet of the morning.

Oh, please work, please work, she thought, imagining the pavers beneath her feet and breathing heavily as she run. She could almost feel the hot breath of the manticores in pursuit on her neck, and just the thought of their powerful jaws closing around her head made her knees wobble dangerously as she ran.

She felt it—the glass pavers beneath her sped up, the colours of the forest around her blurred.

“Noooo. She takes to the air! Arise, brothersssss.”

She looked back as the pavers lifted into the air. A squadron of manticores rose into the air behind her.

They’re too fast. I need to go faster. Faster!

The Halfling by Melissa H. North

Eliana finds herself propelled into a world she longs to stay away from; a world where nothing is what it seems. In a race against minds, she must master her magic and fight an unimaginable darkness, stretching throughout the realm of Grandelione. The same darkness that cursed her mother and, now, her half-brother is laying dormant in her too.

It grows stronger with each passing day.

Left with two options, she must choose to fight and bring peace back to Grandelione or plunge into a world of darkness and murder.

Can she learn to harness her magic

and bring peace back to Grandelione and her family?

Or will the darkness within consume her?


A Christmas Masquerade

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Kingsley Radcliffe woke on Christmas Eve to the sound of bells chiming from the steeple of the town church. The enormous brass bells clanged together in a rousing tune so loud the whole village of Ivorythain must surely have woken to it. Eyes closed, he paused mid-stretch and the tickle of a grin slowly spread across the corners of his mouth. Realisation lit up his eager face as he savoured the moment. Today, as he explicated to his friends on every possible occasion, was the second most enchanting day of the year.

“Hurrah!” he exclaimed, opening his eyes and bounding out of bed. His long nightgown fell to his ankles as he slid his feet into waiting slippers. Atop his head sat a floppy red nightcap, so impaired by wear that the stitching had, in places, come loose. Kingsley moved to the window, flinging open the velvet curtains to squint at the landscape of pure white. He shaded his eyes against the morning light that struggled through the low-lying clouds, the brightness just enough to blind him. Snow blanketed every nook and cranny of the village. Christmas was indeed here.

Outside, fresh footfalls intermingled with paw prints and wheel tracks weaved a labyrinth across the lawn. One of the trails led to the house and, as if on cue, the harmonious sound of the glockenspiel broke the silence.

Making haste to the foyer, he threw the door open with uncontained energy and smiled widely at Ezra, his lifelong friend, and Ezra’s pet dog, Droolious. Within moments his friend’s arms, enhanced with actuators, extended forward to embrace him. Kingsley obliged and patted his back until Ezra retracted his arms.

“I see you arrived with time to spare, my dear friend. The journey from Bibbingworth has fared you well.”

Droolious’ tail wagged so fast his behind shook violently. If the dog had not had wooden wheel attachments in place of legs, Kingsley was afraid Droolious would have hurt himself. The brindle dog’s long pink tongue lolled from the corner of his mouth. As Kingsley bent to pat the top of his head, Droolious’ dark brown eyes sparkled with pleasure.

“Top of the morning, Ezra, ole chum!” he chuckled. Taking his friend’s metal hand in his, he shook it warmly before moving aside to welcome Ezra into his lavish home.

“Kingsley, are you only now rising?” Exasperation filled Ezra’s face as he looked him over from head to foot.

Kingsley chuckled, adjusting his nightcap from falling further over his eyes. “One must savour every moment of this magical day, my friend. Let’s not hurry through it, lest it should end too soon.”

The gentlemen entered the sitting room, where rows of cream and white candles burned in every window, complementing the chandelier cluster of black wrought-iron cages. Each cage housed a large pillar candle, offering an inviting warm glow. In the corner stood a majestic Christmas tree, its apex reaching toward the ceiling. The tree’s branches — made from a variety of rustic chair legs — hung heavy with colourful decorations. Baubles glittered, adorned with intricate chains and gears, some ending in a woven basket, like airships. Brass rope dangled like loose springs and copper gears of all sizes reflected the ambient light as they twisted on the ends of the branches.

Kingsley smiled inwardly watching Ezra take in the beauty of the room. His friend deserved the best this Christmas, which was exactly what Kingsley would give him. The year past had been an endless season of bothersome sickness and drudgery, taking its toll on his aging friend. Kingsley knew Ezra would never complain, but he often recognised the magnitude of toil reflected in his eyes.

Ezra’s position at the University of Bibbingworth afforded him the opportunity to engage in work advancing biological science. Something close to his heart for he was born with a genetic deformity. German and French scientists acknowledged his awarded-winning work in cell research, and in the culmination of several months, as a token of their gratitude, developed custom built actuators for him. For months Ezra toiled, to become capable of using the device, but his health took a turn for the worst when, one day, Droolious ran into a busy street and was trampled by horse hooves and carriage wheels. After many strenuous hours caring for his beloved pet and building wheels proportionate to the small dog’s body, he succeeded and bought him back to health.

Ezra slid his tall, slim body into his favourite chair and Droolious settled on the floor in front of his feet. Turning his back, Kingsley shuffled the beautifully wrapped boxes around under the tree until he found the gift he sought. He handed it to his friend and announced in a high-spirited voice, “Joyeux Noël!”

Ezra’s chocolate-coloured eyes shone as he reached forward, his arms extending further than usual to receive the gift. The box was of a medium size, but from his awkward position with Droolious at his feet, he voiced a slight grunt, balancing the gift in his mechanical arms before retracting it closer to himself.

Ezra began to unwrap the box, but the merry, squeaking tones of a pochette and violins sounded as three automata servants entered the room, playing Christmas carols. The clatter of dishes from the galley rooms carried a waft of fruit pie towards the friends, lingering momentarily before dispersing. So merry were the tunes that the two gentlemen were soon singing along.

The jolly sounds of Ezra’s deep baritone voice, combined with the high-pitched instruments, warmed Kingsley’s heart, but the arrival of a stumpy, round automaton cut short the performance. All eyes turned to the waiting servant, and the music petered to a stop.

“Sir, I believe this gift is for you. It was left at the entryway just now.”

Kingsley received the box, then the short automaton signalled for the others to leave with him.

“What could it be?” Ezra stated, intrigued. “Could it be you have a secret admirer, my young friend?”

Their eyes met and a loud, nervous chuckle left Kingsley’s lips. “I fear my endeavours to find love have led me to a dead end,” he replied. “Perhaps, one day, my efforts will be rewarded, but today is not that day.”

Briefly his thoughts turned to a young girl he had known many years before. The grace in her stance and elegance of her ways had mesmerised him. They would walk to school together, chatting about their grandiose dreams of the future or laughing about menial things. Kingsley reflected on how simple life was back then and the joy her smile would give him. He attributed it to a young crush and only indulged in quiet memories of her once in a while.

He looked down at the wrapped box in his hands. When he shook the light package carefully, nothing jiggled within and no noise sounded. His eyebrows rose and he wondered what in the world it could be. Ezra interrupted his thoughts, saying, “For goodness’ sake, man, open it!”

The soft scent of frankincense tickled his nose as he ran his fingers along the top of the paper. An exquisite crimson ribbon showcased the gift, the trimming scattered with small golden candy canes. Tucked securely under the bow was a small white card. Kingsley removed it, turning it over to read the words ‘Holly Jolly Christmas!’

He flipped the card over again to inspect the underside. Nothing was written there. Turning it back, he looked once again at the penmanship and realised its elegance was unknown to him.

“No one has claimed responsibility for this gift,” he declared, more to himself than his friend.

“Do please make haste and unwrap the present,” Ezra said, growing more impatient with every passing moment.

Kingsley nodded, untied the ribbon and unwrapped the box before lifting the lid. He peered inside. At first, Kingsley thought the gift to be nothing but an empty box, but he placed his hand inside and felt around the base. Another card lay there, this one more ornate and considerably larger than the first. He glanced sideways at Ezra, a look of befuddlement inducing his friend to encourage him once again. Ezra pointed at the gift, urging “Do please read it.”

Christmas, a time of celebration and joy

The red-suited man may bring children a toy

Snowballs and sledding will make your voice sing

But for someone like you, a heart he will bring

Please do not tarry to hunt down your gift

You must leave your house

Be timely! Be swift!

A clue can be found in the tall monolith

You must step inside to discover your treasure

A prize that is meant to bring flurries of pleasure

A surprise to bring joy, a gift to delight

On this special and magical Christmas Eve night

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