NYC Midnight Short Story challenge. Round 1-Group 12 1st Place story.

12_Riding the Odds

Quod, a troll working in the dangerous world of professional dragon riding, takes a deadly chance to be with the human he loves.

 

“Keep moving troll. Too close to human entrance.” The ogre’s voice made the ground vibrate beneath Quod’s feet. He eyed the giant.

“Eegah, there’s no one else here. Drop the act. We still have a deal, don’t we?”

The ogre, four times Quod’s height, leaned close.

“We do not troll. Bargain is with human. No care for your kind. Move along.”

Riding the top bull-dragon on the professional circuit was enough of a life risk; Quod didn’t need to add any more danger to his day by arguing with the dim-witted guard. He turned away from Eegah and entered the paddock under the, ‘Mythics Only’ sign.

Quod walked the stables, looking for the human Wyrm-master that held his fate, and his heart, in her tiny hands. He found Tina near Rivergard’s stall. No rider had completed the full three sequoids on the country’s number one rated dragon and lived to collect the purse, which was determined by complex mathematical formulas that set the fluctuating betting lines. The bright red dragon’s muscles–nurtured on the flesh of the fallen–rippled under his thick scales. As was the custom of the dome, he feasted on the blood of his kills. Trolls were expendable, but a top dragon was better than gold.

“Tina!” Quod called her away from the stall. Rider superstition prevented him from daring to get close. Allowing a dragon to become familiar with your scent was considered bad luck. They would need all the help they could get.

She rushed to him, scanning the area to make sure they were alone, and hugged him tightly. Her small stature allowed the lovers to stand eye level with each other.

“Quod, are you sure about this? You could be killed.”

“I hope so. That’s a key part of the plan. You just have to take care of me afterwards.”

“What if it doesn’t work?”

Quod pursed his thick blue lips. “The Witch of the Wood’s instructions were very precise. As long as we do the math properly, I’ll be okay.” Even as he spoke, he wasn’t sure if he was trying to convince himself or Tina.

They needed to escape this life–both slaves to the game–if winning a fortune betting on his own demise would set them free, he had to try.

Tina reached into the front pocket of her overalls, producing a small black vial and two pocket watches. She handed the vial to him, the voice of the old crone ran in her mind.

Sixty pro through sixty post,

The time to steal life from death,

Fate suspended through love’s boast.

“Quod, remember her directions. You have to drink this at exactly the right time.”

“I’ll figure it out. Be ready for me. I won’t be able to help you.”

His part of the plan would be easy. Simple arithmetic, drink some poison, ride a fire breathing dragon, then die. What could be simpler? Tina had the hard part; place the bet that will give them the money they need to flee and then bring him back to life. No matter the outcome, she’d still be alive.

If their plan was discovered, he’d be executed and fed to the ogres, tainted and unfit for the champions of the dome. She was human, and even though she was looked down upon by her own kind–-ridiculed as a midget, or ‘dwarf’–she was still one of them. At worst, she would be banned from working as a dragon keeper. But she’d be forgiven. People would assume the troll had used an evil spell to lure her into an inter-species, relationship. Why else would a woman, even a malformed one, wish to mix with a sub-human?

“Quod, you ride last tonight. Please be careful.”

“Tina, you know I can’t be. I have to die, remember? Just hold off on the bet. It has to be placed at the last second. The odds have to be long, or it won’t be worth it. I have to make them believe I will survive the ride.”

Quod had explained it all before. The odds-makers use easily measurable factors: the speed of the flight, the height off the blood spattered dirt of the arena floor, the weights of the rider and dragon; they factor in variables of skill and experience of the pair intimately linked in a ballet of life and death, to set the fluctuating betting lines.

“I’ll make sure Rivergard and I play our part.” Said Quod

She handed one of the pocket watches to Quod. “We have to start these together, as the witch said.”

Two as one, set the hands,

Tick for tock must be done.

They embraced again, one long last kiss before Quod walked to his death.

 

The evening’s first rider, Fungl, didn’t live to see the end of the first sequoid, known as The Bucking. One foot slipped from the stirrups, allowing the flying beast full control of the flight. It was a deadly mistake. A simple full-body shiver, like a Minotaur shaking water from its back, toppled the rider. The dragon sliced the falling troll in half with his razor-sharp tail. Less than halfway through the sixty-second run, the rider’s career, and life, were through.

The second, a troll named Truot, died during the Trigon phase.

From Quod’s vantage point, a quarter of the way up the thousand-foot-high dome, he watched the event’s penultimate ride. As Truot’s run progressed, Quod thought about the watching odds-makers, and how their decisions would affect Tina’s timing for the wager on his life.

Thirty seconds in, trumpets signaled the next phase, The Rising. Quod watched as Truot drew back on the dragon’s reins, while pushing forward on the stirrups strapped around its hind ankles. Pulling the animal into itself forced it to flap wildly in order to retain flight. Quod knew the speed of the climb would determine who was in control, the rider or the dragon. Odds changed, money was won and lost. With fifteen seconds left in the match, a final horn marked the time for capture of the Trigon.

Reaching the top of the dome, Truot released the pressure holding the flying serpent in check. The result was the most spectacular moment of the event. It was also the precursor to the most dangerous sequiod, The Plummet. Regrettably, Truot wouldn’t live to see its end.

Freed from the restraints on his body, the dragon arched his back, spread his wings and spewed a geyser of fire. The heat of the flame below his open wings caused the great beast to hover high above the hard earth, near the silver triangle of the Trigon, which was suspended at the pinnacle of the dome. As the mesmerized audience watched, Truot reached up to snatch the dangling icon. And missed.

Quod knew what was happening high above the breathless crowd. He watched helplessly as the dragon felt the sudden shift in the rider’s weight, spun, and dove. Truot was too high on the dragon’s back when The Plummet began. In his match, Quod knew this would be the moment Tina would be waiting for: the final betting line would be set, for or against, the rider’s survival.

Truot’s odds fell as the men setting the betting line dropped the chances of Truot surviving into the negative. In their eyes, his fate was already decided. They were usually right.

During The Plummet, riders normally leaned forward out of the airflow until below the height of the bucking chute. If they waited too long to pull out of the dive, the dragon will flip over onto its back and slam the rider into the earth. Truot never had that chance.

The scaled beast folded his, bat-like wings flat as he turned and easily shook his passenger. As they fell, the dragon flew circles around the arena, disgorging flames at Truot, roasting him alive. The troll hit the ground accompanied by cheers from the bloodthirsty crowd.

When the elven medic held a red flag over Truot’s blackened corpse, a mixture of cheers and groans sprang from the crowd.

 

Quod watched the traditional team of six unicorns parade Rivergard around the arena. Then pegasus-riding humans guided the great dragon into the chute as tufts of smoke and yellow-orange flames licked from his horned snout. Quod studied the giant screens that showed the current odds on his death.

A fanfare sounded One minute until the gate would open, beginning Quod’s first sequoid.He pulled the pocketwatch and vial from his breast pocket.

Sixty pro through sixty post…

Two as one, set the hands.

He drank the foul contents and pushed the small button on the side of the watch. Somewhere down in the betting pit, Tina had also started the countdown to his death.

Quod settled onto Rivergard’s hard scales, secured his stubby feet into the stirrups, and wrapped the reins around his right fist. His left hand would be free, as required by the sport’s rules, in order to grab the Trigon. Quod had to put on a good show to keep the odds low until The Plummet. Timing, and danger were intertwined. The betting line for his death had to be high. He had to put on the show of a lifetime, even if his life was in the balance.

The massive wrought iron gate opened releasing Rivergard from the pen. A ball of fire erupted from the horned demon’s maw as he leapt into flight. Holding tight to the reins, Quod forced the dragon down, circling low around the ring. Allowing the animal the freedom to kick his feet, while steering his head, made for a good show. It also demonstrated that the rider controlled the flight. In the open bleachers, at the lowest level of the arena, the sub-humans screamed their wagers in a dozen indecipherable tongues. Humans watched from their comfortable box seats, enclosed to protect them from the dragon’s flames or wayward disembodied troll parts.

The second sequoid began. Quod maneuvered the beast into position in the center of the ring, pulled back on its head, and pushed forward on the stirrups. The duo rose as great leather wings pushed them upward. Tina watched the boards and saw that his survival odds had increased. Demonstrating control over the flight showed he had a better chance of living to ride another day. Quod’s every move had to convey his power over the dragon in preparation for the final drop.

The start of the third sequiod marked the last 15 seconds of Quod’s life. He had to play this final act perfectly. Sitting upright, he released the reins and reached up with both hands for the Trigon. Rivergard, feeling the pressure of the stirrups slacken, stretched to his full size and let out a blast of flame that made the crowd gasp in fear. With both hands, Quod grabbed the prizeand released it from the clasp holding it in place.

Tina watched, along with the screaming throng, as Quod snatched the flailing reins from mid-air while Rivergard tucked his massive head and dove. All those around her were yelling in unison, chanting Quod’s name. He was more than just another rider, he was a God.

As Rivergard tucked in his wings and fell, the book-makers changed the betting line one last time. Fifty to one. No rider had ever had odds this high placed on his demise. They were virtually certain he would safely land the fire-breathing behemoth.

Tina grabbed the arm of a nearby leprechaun bet-taker and placed her wager. Although he couldn’t believe the amount of human money she was betting, he accepted the cash.

Knowing his final chance at controlling the dragon was near, Quod gently pushed on the right stirrup; the diving beast rolled as Quod blacked out.

Rivergard skimmed the arena floor. Quod dropped free of the dragon’s back and rolled along the ground. The crowd fell silent.

Tina held her breath as the ogre guards waddled out to pick up the fallen troll. The pegasus team corralled Rivergard through the exit chute as the elven medics checked on Quod.

As the red flag rose on the arena floor, Tina burst into tears. She ripped the winning marker from the hand of the confused leprechaun, and rushed back to the stables.

As Wyrm-master, one of her duties was to strip the food for victorious dragons. She would be the one in charge of feeding Quod to Rivergard. She paced near the arena gate, glancing apprehensively at time ticking across the face of the witch’s watch. Eegah carried Quod’s limp body into the stable and dropped it at her feet.

“I think him really dead.” Eegah held out his fat hand.

“That will be all, ogre. I’ll take care of him. And thank you.” Her voice cracked as she spoke.

“No thank. Just pay.”

The sack of coins seemed tiny in his palm. He turned and lumbered back into the arena, leaving Tina with her lifeless love.

Without bothering to ensure they were alone, she pulled the watch from his pocket.

Tick for tock must be done.

The watch was smashed; the hands bent and immobile.

Tina leaned back, remembering the final instructions the Dark Witch had given them.

     Six times fifty, the time from death.

No greater, no lesser,

Else the spell be for naught.

She studied the ancient timepieces the woman in the woods had given them; they were no longer in sync. Tina alone knew the price of their freedom. Her very soul. Quod could never know she gave her eternal life for their mortal time together.

Her working second hand ticked the minutes by. Each tiny mark seemed to take too long to pass. No longer able to determine the exact timing, at the four-minute mark by her watch, she leaned to his lips. Blackened, bloody, lifeless. She caressed his scarred and muddy face. Other humans saw him as a hideous troll, a sub-human mythical animal. To Tina, he was the most handsome man in the world.

With 15 seconds left to the five-minute mark, she closed her eyes and kissed him. The sorceress didn’t say how long the kiss should be, Tina hoped–-prayed to all the Gods of good and evil–that she would hit that magic moment of Six by sixty.

She leaned back, holding tight to his callused hand, and prayed again.

Slowly, his dark green color began to return. His chest rose. Gently at first, but as her tears fell onto his cheeks, the rhythm became stronger.

Quod’s eyelids opened. His beautiful yellow eyes began to glow.

“Quod? Are you…” Her voice choked in her throat as the words caught.

“Tina, my love.” He squeezed her hand. “We’re free.”

-End-

 

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5_The Leprechaun’s Secret. NYC Midnight round 2. Group 5.

My entry for the second round of the NYC Midnight Short Story challenge. I was given these parameters:

Heat 5 – Fantasy / Dancing / A repossessor.

Feel free to comment.

 

Synopsis: Eamon is a down-on-his-luck leprechaun working as a repossessor for the Great and Powerful Oz. At the risk of his own life, he must find a way to help the oppressed citizens of the Enchanted Forest.

 

“You leprechauny bastard, gimme back my shoes.”

With no choice but to comply, or be stomped into a puddle of green mush, Eamon returned the golden slippers to the dwarf.

“Aye lad,” Eamon said as he put them down. “Pay the Wizard his due or I’ll be coming again.”

As he turned to disappear into the cabin’s shadows, away from the flickering orange glow of the fire, he said with a warning, “And tell that pretty lassie you and your half-human brothers perform with, they’re all late too. Pay up or go back to working the mines.”

Eamon returned to the castle to report his failure, even though the Wizard would already know. He was always watching in a crystal ball, magic mirror, or whatever evil thing he had inherited when the Wicked Witch had died.

At first, the citizens of the Enchanted Forest had been over-joyed that she was gone. Eamon himself had sung many a verse, ending with the joyful refrain,

“The witch is dead. Which old Witch? The wicked witch.”

Unfortunately, the Enchanted Forest’s current siege was far worse than anything the late “Wicked” Witch had ever imposed.

***

Eamon had spent most of his pot of gold on rum to celebrate the Enchanted Forest’s freedom. What he didn’t drink away he’d spent betting on bull-dragon riding. He lost a bundle on a troll named Quod, but that’s a story for another day.

Because of the siege, Eamon was reduced to using his talent for stealth, and overall orneriness, in the employ of the Wizard, the great Oz. Eamon had become the Wizard’s most trusted bagman and repossessor, collecting fees and taking back magical objects that the enchanted kingdom’s inhabitants could no longer afford.

The first job was easy, Eamon snatched two pure white stallions from the Cinder girl after they were transformed back into mice. Although they weren’t all bad. There was a joyful ending when the town of Hamelin’s children suddenly returned after he repossessed a silver flute from their piper. But happy results were very uncommon, rarer than a munchkin getting up on a horse without a ladder.

As the years passed, and the jobs became more personal, he felt his soul slipping away. His tasks grew progressively harder and his skin thickened as his empathy for those he collected from grew. He took the last few coins from people and creatures trying to hold onto their dreams and if they couldn’t pay, he’d take the dreams.

Eamon blamed himself for his predicament. If he didn’t drink and gamble away his gold, he wouldn’t be forced into a life of servitude to the Wizard. Eamon didn’t have any friends or anywhere else to go, but at least at the castle, he was warm, dry, and well fed. And to a lonesome leprechaun who spent his days reclaiming the hopes of the desperate, there’s nothing that could beat passing the evening away in the company of an equally lonely sorcerer with an unlimited supply of booze, and the resolve to try to drink it all in one sitting. Eamon was sad, but content.

***

He was comfortable in his misery until the morning he was sent by the Wizard to collect the shoes of a family of dwarves.

Their entire lives the seven brothers had spent their days working in the mines. They were happy to sing their song as hi-ho, off-to-work they’d go. Until the day they rescued a young maiden whose skin was rumored to be white as snow.

She told them that they didn’t have to risk their lives underground; they could dance joyously in the sunshine and make their living as a traveling company.

The brothers were not convinced.

Possessing bodies that, at best, could be described as the short, fat, and heavy-of-foot variety, they were easily discouraged.

The Wizard heard of her plan and offered to help. For the “low monthly payment” of twenty pieces of silver, they could wear slippers, made of rare feather-gold, which would make their movements swift and graceful. The maiden convinced the dwarves to sell their tools as a down payment and accept the offer. She didn’t know that by taking his deal, she doomed them to a harsher life than any they’d had in the earth’s dark recesses.

Satisfied customers weren’t what the Wizard wanted. Desperate junkies for more magic were what kept him in power. All of his deals had side-effects. Whatever the ability acquired, it always cost more than was bargained for.

In the case of the dwarves, as long as they wore the slippers, they would lose weight. They were slowly dancing themselves to death unaware that twice the normal calories were required to fuel the magical ability.

Snow and the Seven, as they were called, were very popular. Unfortunately, their fans were even poorer than they were, so the troupe couldn’t make enough money to keep themselves fed, and pay the Wizard.

Eamon knew about the veiled side-effects. When the piper fell behind on his payments, he’d figured it out. Although the flute was originally to help the piper earn a living catching rats, the longer he played, the larger the beings that followed him became. The children’s disappearances were what gave away the hidden costs. Eventually the piper found a way to begin paying on time, but Eamon devised a way to hide this from the Wizard. Eamon would collect the silver and throw it into a deep well that he knew was dark to the sorcerer’s magic eyes. Eventually, Eamon was ordered to take back the flute. Freeing the children was the one good thing he could do. No one would ever know. No one could ever know. That secret happiness kept him alive, and had kept him hoping that one day he’d get another opportunity to make something right.

With Snow and the Seven, Eamon had found that chance. He overheard the townsfolk’s excited talk of when the Seven were scheduled to visit their small villages. Spurned by the public, his ability to hide in the smallest of shadows, even in the bright open air of a town square, allowed him to eavesdrop on many conversations he secretly wished he would be included in. And although he’d never met the girl, nor seen the brothers perform, he knew they brought hope for freedom from the Wiazard’s tyranny to those who watched them dance.

He didn’t know when or how, but he knew he had to find a way to help keep that joy coming to those dark, impoverished communities. He just needed to be patient.

The dancing brothers were uneducated pick swingers; they were followers, not leaders. He was purposely clumsy on his failed attempt to snatch a pair of the shoes from Happy Dwarf–although the name no longer seemed appropriate, as a grumbling stomach and the inability to silence it rarely left someone in a good mood. Eamon had been hoping to meet the girl. She was the key. He needed her so he could help them.

One evening he challenged the Wizard to a drinking game. They drank heavily, playing a game that came as naturally to the wee-folk of the forest as a wood-nymph leaving a trail of glitter behind as she flies through the trees. The next morning the Wizard would be sleeping off a hangover and wouldn’t be watching over his trusted repossessor’s collections. Eamon left early to try to catch Snow before she left. She didn’t need to wear the shoes to float like an angel, that left her with enough energy to work as a cleaning girl to make extra money.

His gamble paid off, she was just leaving when he arrived at her home in the woods.

“Aye lassie, you know who I be?”

Startled, she eyed Eamon suspiciously.

“Yes. I know of you, although I never wished for us to actually meet. What can I do for you?”

Eamon was taken aback. What can she do for me? Nobody had ever asked him that.

“Aye then, if you know of me, you may think you know why I’m here. Believe me or not lass, I’m here to help. Those dwarf dancers bring a lot o’ joy to the people. I don’t want to see that end because those boys waste away to nothing’”

Now it was Snow’s turn to be surprised by what was said.

“You. Want to help. Us?”

“Aye, lass. There’s something you should know about the shoes, a detail that great Wizard left out of your deal. Nobody can ever know how you found out, or I’ll be deader than that old witch who used to rule these lands.”

“Why? What do you want in return?”

“Nothing, lass. Just keep them dancing. They bring happiness to an otherwise miserable place. Now no more questions or the deal’s off and I just go in and take the shoes. Got it?”

“Please, don’t take the shoes. If they have to go back to work in the mines, they’ll die. They don’t have the strength or the tools anymore. Please don’t take them. Whatever you want, I’ll agree to it.” She dropped her bag of rags and soap. Her eyes welled with tears.

“Calm yourself, lassie. I already said I only want one thing. Nobody can know what I tell you. Ever. If he finds out, I’m done for. He’ll get an unthinking ogre to make his collections. Or he’ll bring those monkeys back. Ain’t nobody got time for that.”

He told her what she needed to do. She kept her word.

***

Seasons came and went. Snow and the Seven became more popular than ever. Because they no longer wore the feather-light shoes, and returned to eating as they had before, they were easily able to pay their due and still have enough left for all their needs.

The Wizard never learned the truth. They paid on time, so he eventually lost interest in them and found other poor souls to torment.

Years after Snow and Eamon had their chat on her doorstep; she received news of the leprechaun’s passing. Her friend, Happy Dwarf, asked her why she wept for the evil repossessor of dreams. She told him of their talk, of how the little man who everyone shunned was really a good man doing a very hard job.

“Happy,“ she said to the dwarf whose name now matched his disposition, “Eamon came to me the day after you caught him taking your shoes.”

“I tried to step on him, but didn’t have the strength to get up,” said Happy.

“That’s right. That was because of the shoes. Once you stopped wearing them, you all got better. We got better.”

“But we still wear them. I have them on right now.” He stood deftly on one foot, holding the other in a perfect arabesque a la seconde stance to show her.

“No, Happy. You don’t. You and your brothers haven’t for years. I made those to look exactly like the Wizard’s shoes. They weren’t magic. They were cursed. I’ll tell you what Eamon said the morning after he let you catch him.” After swearing her friend to secrecy, she told him the leprechaun’s secret.

Eamon had told her about the Wizard’s many drinking games, and of the two things that happen when two lonely drunks drink.

“First, they tell secrets and, second, they forget they tell secrets.”

The human Wizard made the mistake of thinking he could outdrink a leprechaun. Especially a lonely clover looking for redemption.

The Wizard told Eamon the story of Dorothy and her friends. How he was able to grant them their dreams by doing nothing more than showing them their desires were within them all along.

“Take away the magic shoes,” Eamon said, “without anyone knowing you’re taking them and they’ll get better.”

Then he told her the most important thing he’d learned working under the con-man turned Wizard.

“The magic isn’t the magic, it’s the side effect.”