AZ Pascoe is an Aussie expat, an ex-Australian Army officer, a freelance writer and editor, a fiction and nonfiction writer, a blogger, and an adventurer.
The Trial of the Horned One – Fantasy Flash Fiction
Trixie twitched and glanced out the window for the millionth time. Not yet. In the distance, sun glinted off the innumerable glassy obelisks of the city across the river. Trixie couldn’t help but find the quotidian beauty of it almost mocking, that stark contrast between the world above and what awaited her. She took a deep breath, the way she’d been taught, and pressed the pad of her index finger to the persistent crease between her brows.
‘Ahhhhh.’ The long sigh drifted around her, filling the room, and enveloping her—there was a surge of pressure, like every surrounding air molecule had bonded to its sister and densified, just to soothe her with its embrace. Trixie clung as if she was drowning to the brief measure of peace it brought her, trying to forget the upcoming trial. She counted her breaths, measuring them slow and deep, and squeezed her eyes shut as if not being able to see the stubborn sky would help her forget. It didn’t, of course, but it was better than having them open. Still.
She cracked one eye open, just a tad.
‘Ha!’ She bounced off the bed. So much for calm. Someone knocked briefly at her bedroom door, and then Blyssa strode in without waiting for an invitation. She was clenching and unclenching her left hand as she stood in the weak light, a grin splitting her face.
‘Finally,’ Blyssa said to her younger sister. ‘I thought the bloody thing would never set.’ Trixie couldn’t help her answering smile, so wide her cheeks ached.
‘You and me both.’ She crossed the room in fast, hungry strides to stand before Blyssa and after a moment of hesitation, caught her up in a fierce hug. ‘I know I can’t do this later,’ Trixie whispered to her sister, feeling the prick of tears without knowing why, ‘but…’
Blyssa squeezed her back, hard. ‘I know, Trix. Now,’ she pulled back and swiped at her eyes briskly, all business. ‘Let me look at you.’
Trixie spun. Her long raven hair swirled around her, somehow without catching on the various studs and clips of her worn battle armour.
‘I wore this plate myself,’ Blyssa said, reaching out to touch a butterfly-light finger to the fastening buckle on Trixie’s left shoulder.
‘I know. I remember.’ Their eyes locked; there was a brief flicker of uncertainty between them that hung in the air with the memory. Blyssa’s hand slipped down to Trixie’s bare bicep and she grasped it tightly, as if she could imbue her baby sister with her own strength and knowledge and certainty to ward Trixie through the challenges to come.
‘Are you ready then?’ Blyssa asked, voice gentle. Trixie sucked in another breath and pushed the fear down deep, far far below the ground.
Blyssa stepped back. The sisters stood as bookends at the window, the banished sun’s lingering glow already fading to blue and purple, heralding the coming night. In the growing gloom, strange forms flickered around Blyssa: the swish of a leonine tail, the glint of a fang as long as Trixie’s hand, a pair of wings that filled the span of the room before dissipating. A tremor raced through Trixie. She clenched her teeth.
‘Are you prepared for your trial, Beatrix, daughter of Vanessa?’ Blyssa’s voice was distant, a rasp that skittered over Trixie’s skin like a bad omen, raising the hairs across her body. Trixie swallowed hard.
‘I am ready for my trial by battle,’ she recited steadily, pretending her stomach wasn’t churning painfully. ‘I am ready to duel the Horned One for my right to join the ranks of the Keepers of Mythos, as is my birthright.’ The remnant oranges and pinks of the skyline pulsed anticipation.
‘You are permitted one item to aid you in your trial, as is the custom. Do you accept the Bracer of Dusk, worn by your sister, your mother, and your grandmother before you?’ Trixie nodded.
‘I accept, Priestess.’
The ancient metal hummed in greeting as Blyssa, hands bedecked with ethereal talons that winked in and out of existence, clasped it around Trixie’s forearm. A wave of peace washed over Trixie, the bracer conforming to every contour of her forearm like it’d been made for her. It had been, Trixie knew with an unshakeable certainty, made and waiting for her, for centuries, for the moment she faced the Horned One. The sisters’ eyes met. The air hummed with the promise of what was to come.
‘Let us begin,’ Blyssa said, gesturing to the dark mouth of the stairs awaiting them. ‘Follow.’
Trixie pressed a momentary hand to the quiver in her stomach, then straightened. She tilted her chin in the air and followed the slim, sometimes be-winged, figure of Blyssa over the threshold.
They began their descent.
The dull grey light of their pedestrian suburban living room faded behind them until they moved in darkness, but it seemed to Trixie she could feel the shared orange-pink-magenta-green of the twilight still, lingering within her as she prepared for her challenge. Underfoot, the stone treads were worn in the centre, smoothed away by the passage of countless feet coming to the same trial Trixie was to face. The familiar scent of water on stone wreathed through her nostrils and the air grew cooler, nipping cruelly at Trixie’s exposed skin, burning enough to draw tears despite the late summer evening they’d left behind.
Only sheer luck kept Trixie from running headlong into her sister, and with the close shave, any nerves she’d managed to quash came back in full force. Her palms started to sweat. As Blyssa chanted the beginning of the ritual in a low voice, Trixie tried to quell the rapid beating of her heart. They’d all hear it, she knew, and see that she was unworthy.
Fear is what will bring you undone, she remembered her mother teaching Blyssa one night, many years ago, when Trixie had crept up to the doorway of Blyssa’s room to listen in on her lessons. Keep the fire in your veins to banish your doubts. With the dull grate of stone on stone, the ponderous door swung inward.
Fire, Trixie thought, as she squared her shoulders and summoned all her strength. Fire. They stepped through.
A thousand-thousand candles adorned the cavern interior, each single paltry flame compounding the next, so that the Room of Trial was ablaze, and the crystalline grotto glittered, shifting and shimmering so you could never quite pin it down. The clean, crisp smell of water remained, but there was something beneath it now, something old, metallic. Trixie tried not to think about what it might be. She didn’t know what she’d expected to greet them—a long table of elders, perhaps, or maybe just the Eye of Mythos to watch her and judge her worth—but whatever she’d envisioned, it wasn’t this.
A vast subterranean lake spread out in a glittering onyx carpet, disappearing to spread its tendrils beneath the far walls of the chamber. In its centre lay a square of alternating granite and white marble tiles. A chess board? Trixie thought, glancing at Blyssa to see if she could offer any help, even though Trixie knew she couldn’t, then—no. The tiles were too few; there were no pieces. A series of glistening black stepping stones led across the water to the platform, the first paver flanked on one side by the sinuous curves of a giant hourglass, whose glittering silver grains piled within the bottom globe, awaiting inversion. Across from it stood a rack of ancient weapons.
A battlefield. The Trial Ground.
Trixie sucked in a sharp breath. By her side, Blyssa’s fingers tightened, as though she wanted to break protocol and touch Trixie. To reassure her. It was impossible, but Trixie wished she would anyway.
There was the gentle murmur of cloth across the floor, and Trixie glanced around. Where before there had been only emptiness and the interminable twinkle of flame on stone, the remaining twenty-nine figures of the Keepers now filled the outer edges of the cavern.
‘Kneel,’ Blyssa commanded, and Trixie obeyed.
Deft fingers flew through Trixie’s hair, braiding it tight and close to her skull. Trixie’s kneecaps ached where they pressed against the unforgiving stone, the cold seeping into her bones, but she didn’t move, just breathed deeply Blyssa’s soft, spicy scent. The skin of her scalp and face pulled tight as Blyssa finished the traditional braid which would keep Trixie’s vision clear while she fought, and Trixie suppressed her instinctive wince. She could have sworn she felt Blyssa’s fingers press to the base of her skull in silent benediction. A promise.
And then Blyssa withdrew without a backward glance, to disappear within the half-moon of dark-robed figures arrayed against the cavern walls, and Trixie was alone. The Keepers had moved while Blyssa had braided her hair, Trixie realised, blocking the exit and closing her in. She was the pit of the peach, and the only way out was to fight free. The figures watched her in silence. Waited. Trixie prowled the edge of the water, gaze darting back and forth from the chessboard battlefloor to the Keepers.
The chanting began as a whisper.
It crept forth in the crevices of the cavern, snaking its way into every space, growing bolder with each passing second, the words resounding now off the glittering walls, echoing and re-echoing so the words shattered, refracting into a million unknown sounds, a throaty hum rising to a roar. Amongst it, Trixie could catch only words. Trial. Dusk. Horned One.
Her belly knotted in answer, heartbeat echoing the throb beneath the chant. Time slowed to the pendulous flow of cold honey… yet the next thing Trixie knew, the chanting was complete. As one, twenty-nine Keepers threw their hoods back. Cloaks slithered to the ground as the figures arrayed around her began to blur and shift. Wings spread and claws flexed against stone; teeth gnashed. Trixie bowed her head in acknowledgement as the Keepers roared their welcome.
Now, now, they could begin. The waiting was over.
The final cloaked figure stepped apart from her fellows and moved towards the battlefloor. Trixie couldn’t help but dart a glance at the space she’d left, an open wound in the Keeper’s line. My space, she thought. Something in her quietened and hardened at the thought.
‘You have to be strong. You have to earn it,’ their mother had explained in a low voice to Trixie the day following Blyssa’s trial. Blyssa still hadn’t come out from her den, alternating between bouts of retching and jags of almost-silent sobs. She’d passed, Trixie could tell, because no one seem particularly upset, just determined to impress this teachable moment upon Trixie… Yet knowing that she could be so devastated despite passing left Trixie’s stomach in knots. What did they do to her?
Mother’s hand rested on her shoulder and though Trixie knew if she glanced down she’d see only a dark, neat-nailed hand, talons seemed to dig into her skin.
‘You may have to do something you don’t want to,’ her mother continued, a little grimly, claws curving into Trixie’s flesh. ‘But you’ll do it. You have to.’
‘It’s a sacred duty,’ came Grandma Aggie’s voice from the gloom. She was waiting by the door, her face cloaked in shadows. ‘To be a Keeper of Mythos: to protect the Eye and its powers from the clutches of the greedy and the undeserving. Only the finest warriors can, and should, guard it. No matter the cost.’ Her words had the toll of a terrible truth to them, and for once in her life, Trixie could find no reassurance in her grandmother’s words, just the dark, insidious fear of what awaited Trixie, too, someday.
Trixie’s mother stood, face dark and solemn, the corners of her mouth tight. ‘Never forget, my little daughter… you must want your space.’
And then they’d both disappeared into the den to tend Blyssa, leaving Trixie alone outside, burning with a strange melange of curiosity, impatience, and the first twitches of fear. She’d carried that fear for years now, letting it fester, a canker underneath her sternum that bit at her if she breathed too deeply, waiting, waiting. But the waiting was over now. In her mind, she tore the last remnants of fear from within her chest and pulverised them in her fist. The bracer hummed against her skin. A promise.
To serve. To protect. Something larger than any one of us.
Trixie bowed to the Keepers, then followed the cloaked figure across the stepping stones to the granite-marble square. Two other Keepers followed them, one to the glass timer, the other to the armoury rack, as tradition demanded.
The woman’s back was to her, but as Trixie’s booted foot stepped onto the battlefloor, she turned, pushing her hood back. Where her face might have been if she wore her human guise, was the head of the dragon. Mammoth, razor-sharp horns flared out on either side of her skull; dark smoke curled deep in the pits of wide-flared nostrils. Trixie’s stomach knotted all over again. She slowed her breathing as Blyssa had taught her, ignoring that her heart was a jackhammer against her ribs, the air sticking in hard lump in her chest.
The dragon-woman bowed, and Trixie copied her. Fire, she reminded herself. That is my space. The words might have been silent, but they were grim and sure, resounding within her skull and funnelling electricity through her limbs. A wave of pride and certainty flooded Trixie and, as if in answer, the Bracer of Dawn hummed once more. Yes.
The heavy gong of the ritual bell tolled, echoing over and over until only the faintest of its whispers remained.
‘Who comes to trial this eve?’
‘Beatrix Edwards, daughter of Vanessa, granddaughter of Agatha,’ Trixie answered as the ritual demanded, her declaration sure and steady, body coiled in readiness.
‘The Horned One stands before you,’ the elder continued, her voice rhythmic and unhurried, almost a song in the flame-flickered cavern. ‘To take your place amongst us, you must prove yourself in the oldest dance of all: the ritual battle.’
The response came easily to her lips. ‘The Horned One holds no fear for me; I will defeat her and all others who threaten the order of the Keepers. I will put this duty above all else, even my duty to my own life. This vow I solemnly swear, of my own free will.’
A double toll of the bell.
‘The time has come!’
Trixie walked to one marble corner. She was excruciatingly aware of herself—her body, the heel-toe strike of her foot on the battlefloor, the steady tide of her breath—as she reached her place and pivoted on her heel. They faced one another. The Horned One stood in the corner diagonally opposite Trixie, her body seemingly relaxed, but taut with anticipation. The ancient metallic smell reared its head again and this time Trixie didn’t shy away from it. Blood. Her fist clenched reflexively over the handle of the dagger at her waist and her bracer caught the light as she moved; a fierce, heady joy thundered through her. I’ve been waiting for this moment forever. She drew her dagger.
The dragon-woman grinned as she drew her own ritual blade, smoke billowing forth as if she was laughing. Rage knifed through Trixie. She fought to tamp it back down: anger will serve you nothing. A controlled blaze. They bowed to one another again and Trixie resisted the urge to keep her eyes on her opponent; her own vulnerability as she bent her head and exposed her neck made her skin crawl. She straightened and there was a brief lull, as both considered what best to do next. As if there was any choice. Trixie hesitated, then took a single step from marble to granite.
The Horned One struck.
Like a blue crackle of static electricity in the night, she darted forward, ritual blade flashing. Time slowed to a trickle. Trixie was vaguely aware of the steady plink of sand into the hourglass that bound them to the battlefloor, but it might well have been a trickle of pitch for how the passage of those seconds felt to her. She side-stepped the dagger easily, whirled to face her opponent. The robes had fallen back from the dragon-woman’s arm, and uncertainty flashed through Trixie. The hand gripping the dagger was wrinkled, blue-green veins ropy spiderwebs, nails yellowing with age. Trixie couldn’t help herself. She glanced back at the Keepers searching… for Blyssa, for reassurance, for guidance. Anything.
It was little more than a second, a single grain of sand falling, but it was enough.
Sparks flew as the dragon-woman’s blade skated along Trixie’s breast plate towards the unprotected hollow of her armpit, seeking entry. Trixie staggered back, a spike of fear cleaving through her earlier hesitation, adrenaline surging to take its place. The dragon-woman stumbled, thrown off-balance by her mistimed lunge, and Trixie found her equilibrium again. She rocked on the balls of her feet, testing her body, then lunged in, her blade glinting with a million refracted candle-flames.
It slid past the old woman’s defences, and through the weak axilla joint of her armour: the very spot she’d sought in Trixie. There was a low moan—Trixie couldn’t tell who’d made it, unsure even if it’d been her own voice—then the woman crumpled to the floor, face down.
The visage of the Horned One dissipated without any trace to attest to its existence… But Trixie remained alone on the battlefloor. She cast around for the Keepers, only to find them still arrayed against the wall, watching. Waiting. For what? Vexation nipped at her momentary bubble of triumph—for the woman to die? Trixie had won goddammit—the Horned One was defeated. There was no need to stand back; the Keepers could help now, treat the woman. Save her, if possible; comfort her if not. But no-one moved. Grains of sand continued to fall through the hourglass, marking the passing seconds.
Trixie’s gut twisted. Her trial was over, wasn’t it? What’s left? The old fear—of not being found worthy, of being rejected from this sacred coven—returned in full force and she struggled to push it away, hands trembling as she sheathed her bloody dagger and knelt. The ragged rasp of laboured breathing sounded like the rush and ebb of a furious surf in her ears; Trixie reached for the narrow shoulder, then stopped, hands hovering over the woman. She looked around one last time. In the uniformly blank and stony faces of the Keepers, Trixie finally grasped the truth.
She was alone.
The trial was for her, no one else. Blyssa couldn’t help her now; she’d never truly been able to. What happened next was Trixie’s destiny, Trixie’s burden to bear as she could… and there was a peculiar, terrifying beauty in that too, she realised. I can’t hide if I want this. Her hand descended; gritting her teeth against the low gurgling cry of pain, she tugged the woman onto her back.
Her grandmother stared up at her.
Trixie flinched away, a cry escaping her. Agatha tried to smile, blood trickling from her mouth, stark against her pale skin. A strand of bone-white hair was stuck to the coagulating blood. Trixie couldn’t breathe.
‘No,’ she groaned, pitching forward to press her forehead to her grandmother’s. A raven tress escaped from her braid to mingle with the old woman’s tousled white hair. ‘No, no, noooo.’ The chamber resounded with her pained protests. Beneath her, Grandma Aggie drew in another rattling breath, forcing air into her punctured lung despite her body’s resistance.
‘One last task.’ Even as close as they were, her voice was barely audible. Trixie kept her eyes screwed shut and shook her head. Not this. Anything else. A wrinkled, trembling hand crept across the tiles, locked around Trixie’s wrist and tugged.
‘One last task, little one,’ Agatha said again, struggling to string the words together. ‘You swore.’ Her fingers closed loosely around Trixie’s wrist, painstakingly dragged the girl’s limp hand to the dagger belted around her waist. Pressed against the old woman’s side, the Bracer of Dusk hummed, and a blissful smile crept across Agatha’s face as she felt its reverberations in her tired bones.
‘Please, no.’ Trixie moaned, but she didn’t break away her grandmother’s weak hold on her wrist. It’s a sacred duty, she heard Agatha intone gravely in her mind. Protect the eye, no matter the cost.
‘Bear it well, granddaughter.’
The young and vital must replace the old and tired; the strongest and the best must fulfil their duty.
With a sob, Trixie reared back, like the speed might make it bearable; the dagger flashed, the woman underneath her jerked at the impact. Along the edges of the cavern, the wings of the Keepers rustled as though in approval. A low keening came from Trixie, an agonised moan that went on and on and on.
Without being touched, the trickle of sand in the hourglass slowed, and stopped.