Contest Winners

Winner of the Mermaid-Themed Short Story Contest

“Of Sea and Soul”

By Jonathan Schaefer

When I was young my mother and I lived in a city huddled between the mountains and the sea.  Everything about the city was focused on the sea, with all the major roads running parallel to the shoreline and lined with buildings built from clean white stone pulled up from the sea-bed.  Most of the year you’d find the city decorated with cloth banners in a multitude of blue hues.  The official name of the city doesn’t really matter as everyone just referred to it as “The City of Sea and Soul.”  As for why people called it that, I don’t think anyone really knew for certain but my mother would tell me that it came from an old legend.

Long ago when the city was smaller and the people fewer, the citizens lived simple lives of quiet peace.  They were on friendly terms with all of their neighbours and especially with the ocean beside which they lived and its inhabitants, the merfolk.  It’s hard to believe, I know, but my mother insisted that it was true.  The legend says that beneath the waves and foam there was a thriving civilization of beings very much like ourselves but for their lower half which ended not with feet but with fins.  For years the city and the sea got along well, so well in fact, that the merfolk’s great king made a pact with the leader of the city.  For so long as they lived, the souls of their peoples would be bound together in peace.  A rather vague proclamation, but one that bore the weight of the king’s honor.

Sadly, nothing lasts forever.  Relations eventually broke down and the two peoples were separated.  Still, the king had given his word and so despite the fractured bonds he never rescinded his promise.  They say that to this day the souls of those who die before their time will find their way to the sea, and there live out the remainder of their days among the merfolk.

This was the kind of story my mother told me and she told them often.  I used to think it was merely to keep my spirits up as we lost my father when I was very young and I carried that grief for many years.  She never wanted to see me cry and did her best to make our home a happy one.  She was a source of pure light to me, even on my darkest days.

I remember one day in particular when she took me down to the beach -like we did so many times- with a picnic lunch and simple blanket, so that we could sit and eat and listen to the waves.  On that day she took me to a part of the beach we’d never been to, an isolated rocky grotto with a floor of clean white sand.

We set up the blanket and unpacked our lunch but said very little, it was enough to enjoy the quiet lapping of the waves and distant calls of the gulls.  As we sat and enjoyed the day she told another story, of how the merfolk of old still lived and if you were lucky you could see them yourself.  She kicked off her shoes and waded out into the crystal clear water, beckoning me to join her.  I followed her and together we looked out over the water to the distance horizon.  It was here, she said, in this grotto that you have the best chance to see them. I went there many times after that and I swear that more than once I saw a human-like shape swimming through the clear blue waters.

For many years my mother and I lived together in our village by the sea but, like the bonds of old between men and mer, nothing lasts forever.  One day, on our way to the market, a delivery truck came roaring down the hill without its driver and quite out of control.  I remember the screech of the truck’s wheels, the sounds of people screaming, and the look on my mother’s face as the vehicle barreled towards us.  I remember holding onto her arm as she tried to push me aside.  I remember her crying.  I remember the sight of her lying on the cobblestones.

They say that the souls of those who die before their time will find their way to the sea.  It’s been quite some time since that day, and my mother and I aren’t together anymore, but I hope that she’s happy wherever she is.  Not a day goes by that I don’t miss her.  I often wish that I knew what she was up to, or that I could look into her eyes again.  It would be enough to see her smiling face one last time but it’s awfully hard to see anything in that village, while looking up from underneath the waves.

Winner of the Dragon-Themed Short Story Contest

How to Get Rich and Not Die

by Samantha M. Esposito

 

Everyone told me majoring in dracology was useless. Since the only job I could get after graduation was shoveling dragon droppings at the Fable Peaks Reptarium, I was beginning to wonder if they had a point. 

The Lead Dragon Keeper position was open for a reason, but HR was more hopeful in hiring me because of my degree. I, too, figured it would be a manageable task. I was very wrong. 

The main attraction, Angus, hated me. He would apparently rather sleep in his own dung than let any living creature into his space. 

            “Fine! Don’t be clean and majestic! People like the unicorns better anyway!” I yelled, narrowly dodging his molten breath. 

I wanted to cry. The truth was too painful, and I was the one who’d said it. The Fable Peaks Equestrian Zoo on the other side of the city was way more popular. Maybe because it didn’t remind people of Jurassic Park

“Zeus! What are you doing?” My manager, Holly, had come to check up on me.

What was I doing sitting defeatedly next to the enclosure door? “I’m trying to not die within my first week. I thought that was apparent?”

She half smiled sympathetically. “Tomorrow begins your second week, so I’ll let you reach your goal. But I also expect you to try harder, Mr. Dracologist. Angus needs to be freshened up. We’re losing visitors.”

Dirty, fire-breathing lizards weren’t the problem. It was the stupid unicorns. They were pretty and compliant, and at least their zookeeper could put corks on their most dangerous feature.

Miraculously, I survived my second week, as well. Angus wasn’t any better, but visitors were so scarce that it didn’t matter that the only clean dragons were the unimpressive ones.

            Near closing time, I went around to each enclosure for feeding time, made sure each habitat was secured, and mentally prepared for my job to go down the drain with the zoo. A voice interrupted my thoughts.

            “Hey, chum. I see you’re a little gloomy.”

            I looked around for a coworker or perhaps a stray guest, but it was just me and Sobek, the zoo’s imported Egyptian basilisk. The fading sunlight cast menacing shadows on his gaunt, crocodilian features.

            “Listen, I know what they pay you for this. Let me out, and I can lead you to unfathomable riches.”

            I wasn’t so much shocked that a dragon spoke as I was disappointed in myself for being lonely enough to respond.

            “Sobek, nothing could possess me to let you out.”

            He straightened up and looked me in the eye. “Then don’t. Shovel my crap for the rest of your pathetic life.”

            That cut deep. “Alright, fine. I’ll hear you out.”

            Sobek grinned devilishly. “I know where Angus keeps his hoard.”

            My eyes widened. “Oh, heck no! Angus has tried to kill me on numerous occasions. I want nothing to do with him.”

            Sobek crossed his arms. “Do you want to be rich or not?”

            “If Angus’ treasure guaranteed I wouldn’t be mocked for my degree—”

            Sobek cocked his head. If he’d had eyebrows, he would have raised one.

            I sighed. “Money is power. Right. Where’s the stash?”

            “Let me out first,” he demanded.

            “That would for sure get me fired!”

            “Letting me out of the zoo would get you fired. All I want is out, temporarily, to lead you to your bright future.”

I waited until everyone had gone before grabbing a tranquilizer gun and taser baton. Only then did I let Sobek out. 

Even with four prehensile limbs and a sleek set of wings, he moved like a snake, slithering through the dark. He halted outside Angus’ enclosure. 

My jaw dropped. “Did you not hear me the first time? Angus bad! I will not go in there.”

            Sobek locked eyes with me and unlocked the door.

            I clapped a hand to my security clip. “My keys—”

            Ignoring me, Sobek crept noiselessly into Angus’ habitat.

            If for no other reason than keeping an eye on Sobek, I followed him inside.

            Angus was asleep, his whole body rising and falling rhythmically with each sonorous breath. He was a truly awesome beast to behold when not going berserk.

            Sobek crept right up to him, rapped on his scales in a few locations, settled on one, and gently wiggled it free.

            “What are you doing?”

            Sobek held the glittering piece of armor up to the moonlight, scattering beams of red upon the ground. “Solid ruby.” He placed it in my palm.

            “This is his hoard!?” I turned the gem over and over in my hands.

            “Yes.” He plucked out another loose one like it was a game of Jenga. 

            Angus groaned and rolled over.

            “That’s enough, Sobek!” I whispered. “Just one of these will fetch millions. Why do you need so many?”

            He rolled a third scale through his claws. “If I’m going to hand over the secret of wealth to you and still be stuck in this prison, you owe me the high life!” The truth came out, and a little too loudly… 

Angus lifted his enormous body off the ground, towering over me and Sobek. “YOU!” 

Surprisingly, he wasn’t addressing me. 

Sobek cowered. 

The scales on Angus’ throat glowed with fire.

“Out now!” I wouldn’t have made it to the door if it hadn’t been for Sobek’s aid and agility. 

Angus put a good dent in the door, but I managed to get it closed.

You got the last guy killed, didn’t you?” I accused.

Sobek postured. “Yes, yes I did. That pompous jerk and I had a deal, and he decided to spend all the money on himself. With that information, you have some decisions to make.”

Sobek was an honest reptile. Go figure. “You have decisions, too. It’s going to take these rubies and some elbow grease if this zoo and your ‘high life’ are going to last. You with me?”

Sobek considered the implications. “Very well.”

Maybe what this zoo really needed was a dracologist, after all.

FIRST RUNNER UP

“Dragon Sight”

By Jonathan Schaefer

Aileen was cold.  Her cloak barely kept the driving rain from forcing its way to her skin and did almost nothing to keep the wind from stealing the warmth from her bones.  She sat alone on a flat of stone upon a cliffside that bore no walls nor any other blessings of geography that might have shielded her from the blustering storm.  Her legs began to feel numb once again and she shifted her position, rattling the thick chain that bound her in place as she did so.  As she moved, the rusted metal scraped sharply against her skin.  The sudden pain made her gasp and clutch her leg, but she did her best not to cry.

Cursed they had called her, a sign of punishment from the Divines.  From birth her eyes had been weak and they worsened every year.  The Elders said children born imperfect could mean only ill.  She tried to be brave, like her father asked, but every year the darkness grew until at sixteen there was nothing else.  Then the whispers started, and people began to keep their distance.  When it became clear that the year’s harvest would be poor yet again the elders made up their minds, marched the village to her family’s door, and dragged her from their arms to the cliff called the DragonRoost.

“Let the dragons, those vile creatures of the mist and sky, take this cursed child from our presence and may the Divines return their favor to us.”  The Chief Elder spat. The mob left her behind with only their quieting footsteps as a goodbye.

There she waited, sorrowful and cold, until a sound she did not recognize cut through the storm; a billowing not unlike a blanket beaten on a drying line.  The sound grew from faint and distant to practically deafening and Aileen clapped her hands over her ears as great blasts of air buffeted her and nearly tore her cloak from her shoulders.  She screamed as the billowing stopped suddenly and the earth shook violently, throwing her to the ground.

“Who are you to be out alone amidst the storm?” boomed a voice larger and deeper than any she’d ever heard.  “Get back to yer village afore the dark and the rain claim ye.”

“I-I can’t return.” she dared to answer.  “I am left here that the curse upon our home be removed.”  Aileen laid a hand on her chain and only then began to cry.  “Though I cannot see, surely you must be a dragon of the mist and sky?”

“You canna’ see what stands before ye, child?” asked the dragon.

“I-It is the nature of my curse.” she answered.

“And for this they would bind a young girl to a rock and leave her to the storm?” the dragon growled.

Aileen nodded helplessly.  “Now please, be quick about your task, Dragon.  That I may die quickly.”

“Die?” said the dragon, “What reason do ye have to die?”

Confused, Aileen lifted her head from her knees, “D-Do you not intend to eat me?”

Aileen’s ears rang as the dragon roared in sudden anger.  “Eat you?  Eat you!?  Why should I sully my fangs on the flesh of men?  And I’ll not be called a murderer of the innocent, not by a bony welp such as you!”

Aileen screamed and fell to the earth, covering her head with her hands.  “I-I’m sorry!  T-that’s what the elders told us, that is what happens to the evil and accursed!

“You would believe the same witless idiots who would condemn a child for a malady she neither caused nor could control?  Tell me, Which of them have ridden the highest currents of the sky or hunted on the wild coast?  Have they traveled the length and breadth of the land?  Have they even walked beyond their own miniscule holdings?  You are too quick to ascribe wisdom to ones who have seen and done so very little!”

Aileen could hear its rapid breathing, could feel the heat of the rage that radiated from it.  “I-I’m sorry.” she cried again.  She sensed the creature draw closer, heard and felt its breath blow past her.  She didn’t dare move.

“I smell no curse and no evil about ye, child.  There is no devilry on ye beyond the cruelty of yer own kin.”

No curse?  She thought.

A moment passed in silence before she felt the chain pull at her leg.  There was a sharp cracking sound and then surprisingly, her leg moved freely.  She tried to stand but the dragon quickly grasped her in its massive claw.  She screamed.

“Be silent child,” said the dragon.  “I will take ye home.  And let any fool who would still curse ye come to challenge me.”

Aileen’s stomach sank as the dragon rose quickly into the air.  The wind grew deafening as its great wings propelled them at a speed she had never before experienced.  She held on as best she could until at last it began to descend.  When the great claw opened, she stood once again on solid ground.

“I have returned yer wayward lass!” boomed the dragon.

Aileen heard nothing for some time until at last the shaky voice of the chief elder responded.  “Begone beast, and take the cursed child with you!  We’ll not have her doom upon us!”

The dragon roared in anger, its cry thundering across the village.  “There is no curse upon this child, save for the curse of kinship with the likes of you!  Have men fallen so far that they discard those who should be cared for?  If you fools will not carry out yer duty willingly then I will ensure it.  Listen well!” the dragon roared to all who could hear.  “If any of you harm this one or cause harm to come to her, then know that no prayer nor cry will save ye.”  With a roar more deafening than the first, the dragon leapt from the ground and soared once more into the sky.

Silence.  Unsure of exactly where she stood, Aileen did not dare move until she felt the tender arms of her parents once more around her.  They wept and apologized for not fighting more for her.  Soon others of the village came, begging forgiveness and claiming repentance.

Aileen never did regain her sight but would often say that she gained a truer vision that day.  That there is evil enough in the world without hating and fearing the different and the not understood, and that men and monsters are more clearly seen by actions than by appearance.