Contest #232 shortlist ⭐️


Historical Fiction Suspense Drama

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Here's a word: Entoptic. It means that what you are seeing is entirely within your nervous system, your brain. It's not 'out there'.

You've experienced it: Before you go to sleep; when the curtains are drawn and the lights out, and the room is totally dark. Stare into that darkness and watch the brilliant spots and sparkles wandering in the air. 

Only, they aren't in the air.

Now rub your eyes and watch the fireworks; the streaks of blues and bursts of orange. The scintillating world that isn't there.

Now imagine you're in a cave, a really deep cave. So deep that light gave up long ago. So dark, so black, that your body is just a feeling, floating. Unreal.

And imagine that you are standing in this lightless cave 7000 years ago. You know nothing of the world, it's shape or physical laws. 

You've only known how to survive.

Standing there in the inky blackness, your entoptic eyes see bright ghosts and spirits floating and playing all around; phantoms that tease and follow you. Try to touch them and they ignore your hesitant fingers. In the utter silence your ears ring; the whining sounds of those lost spirits...

Walk further into the cave. You can hold your hands out in front of you, but you won't stumble; not in your imagination. 

Keep going, deeper and deeper into the mountain along a well-trodden earth path. The air is dry and dead here. No movement, just weight. And the utter silence of millions of tons of rock. 

Walk long and deep into the cave. Hear the murmuring of your beating heart, your whispering breath.

Stop walking and listen.

Something else; another sound. A sort of gentle song faintly hummed.

Walk on and the darkness gives way to a faint glow; a real glow, in the air, not in your mind.

As you get nearer, so the pale sides of the cave become visible and you enter a small cavern in the rock. A room. The floor is packed earth; the walls dim and rough. 

In the middle of the chamber sits a wide, flat stone: the flamestone. A smooth depression has been carved into its surface: a bowl, filled with a clear, oily liquid. A twisted hemp wick floats in the middle of this small pool of oil and from this wick rises a finger of flame. 

Pure yellow and with the faintest of smoke, the light from the flame reveals patterns and drawings on the cavern walls. Spots and lines and grids and spirals: the spirits that followed you into the blackness. And busy scenes of hunting: reindeer, mammoths, horses in red and black; and little stick figures, archers, spear throwers, running and shouting purposefully.

Low down on one side of the room lies a stone shelf, with clay pots of coloured powders; a horned mask and drum; a leather water bag, some dried meat; a sharp knife made from the tine of an antler; a brutal stone axe with signs and symbols carved into its wooden handle.

Nearby, on another shelf in the rock, is an earthen bowl containing more of the clear, oily liquid. Derived from animal fat, only the Shaman can make this precious fuel pure and potent enough for the golden flame. 

The flame that must always live, must never go out. The flame that ensures the spirit of the tribe thrives in the darkness and brings power and success to the hunters painted on the walls. 

If the flame should die, darkness will prevail.

The central flamestone sits powerfully in the middle of the space. Around it's edge are totemic objects: sea shells, flint arrow heads, small clay figurines and carved amulets placed carefully among coloured stones and bones.

A neat pile of furs lies on the ground next to the flamestone and on this nest sits a young man. His hair and beard long and ragged. His face would have been handsome but for the patterns of scars and painted lines, and one dead eye, which sits beneath his clear brow like a full moon. He sits crosslegged within his thick pelt cloak staring fixedly at the golden flame with his good eye, blue as the morning.

He breathes in gently. He breathes out, and he hums.

The flame gives a tiny thrill at the sound before returning to stillness.

What is this young man humming? 

A sort of song. A chant with sounds that rise and fall, endlessly repeating. 

The young man is the Shaman's apprentice. He doesn't have a name; more a sound: Jarg. A fit young man who would have become a hunter or warrior like his birthmates, save for his eye: a sign from the gods that he could look inwards, thus belonging to the Shaman.

There is no sense of time for Jarg in this chamber deep underground, in this underworld. 

He sits far from the middle world of leaves and animals and even farther from the upper world of feathers and sun. 

Between these worlds the Shaman goes, mediating with the spirits and raising the power of the earth through the flame, through the wall paintings, and into the life and success of the tribe. 

And, one day, Jarg will follow.

But, for now, his job is to keep the flame alive. He will keep chanting until the Shaman returns carrying more of the clear liquid for the flamestone and to replenish the bowl on the shelf. 

The young man has been chanting for many hours. His eyelids sometimes close but, filled with the honour of his task, he shakes his drooping head and returns to his duty.

Occasionally, Jarg stands. The disturbed light from the flame ripples his shadow across the paintings on the rough walls as he stretches and walks around the flamestone - but he never stops humming. 

This time, Jarg goes to the nearby rock shelf to finish the last of the dried meat and drink from the leather flask. Returning to his place among the furs, he settles into his chant and watches with his one blue eye as the flame slips silently back into its living column of gold.

And time passes.

Jarg looks from the flame to the oil in the bowl beneath. 

He's thinking that it'll soon be time to add more from the small supply on the shelf and begins to recall the spells he must use when he will pour. 

Soon. But not quite yet. 

The Shaman should return before too long and he and Jarg will tend the solitary light together, keeping the darkness at bay. 

A sudden shimmer in the flame startles him.

Fully awake, he notices the slight, sideways bend that indicates someone entering the chamber: the Shaman, returning with the special oil.

Jarg sits more upright and hums diligently.

A low, threatening growl runs through his skin, raising hairs on his neck and arms.

From out the darkness, a wolf steps slowly into the soft light, menace rumbling low in its throat, its amber eyes fixed on Jarg.

And waits.

Jarg doesn't move; his body is clay. 

Wolves are enemies of the tribe and the hatred is mutual. A tribe of their own, wolves hunted the same food and took weaklings and children when they could. In turn, hunters killed wolves at every opportunity, bringing home their warm skins for winter pelts, just like the one in which Jarg is wrapped. 

With a great force of will, Jarg keeps humming. He knows he must never stop: this is his task until the Shaman returns. Or death.

The wolf stands motionless, looking around the room, sniffing the air. 

What has brought it here, so deep into the mountain?

From the corner of his good eye Jarg can see the wolf is young, thin and starving, looking for anything. The faint aroma of burning animal fat has drawn it deep into the cave.

The wolf stops sniffing and looks intently around, swinging its head from side to side. Then, ignoring the unmoving man, the hungry animal pads carefully over to the rock shelf just behind Jarg and sniffs the earthen bowl. 

A lapping noise soon becomes the sound of chops being licked. 

Jarg sits with his back to the wolf; he doesn't see it turn its hungry eyes in his direction and remains sitting perfectly still in the nest of furs by the flamestone. His pelt pulled up to his ears, fists clenched and staring intently at the flame. 

Jarg continues to chant even as he senses the animal approaching from behind. He can hear the starved breathing, feel the wolf's suspicious nose stroking his hair, its putrid breath on his face. 

The wolf comes close. It sniffs Jarg's pelt and growls in confusion: the stillness of the figure, the smell of wolf fur, the humming. What is this? 

Leaving Jarg, the wolf pads around to the far side of the flamestone, sniffing the air and salivating. It smells the oil in the bowl, the alluring aroma in the faint smoke. The flame itself worries it. Wolves hate fire. But this fire is small, the flame barely warm, and the wolf is starving.

The wolf edges its snout cautiously towards the depression in the rock and dips its tongue into the oil.

The wolf will take it. 

The flame will die.

No more light, and utter night will follow. 

Suddenly, Jarg leaps up, screaming loudly. 

The wolf jumps back to the far wall where it turns and crouches, drawing back it's lips and snarling through a glistening row teeth. 

It can see what's on offer now.

Jarg slowly and carefully steps backwards to the rocky shelf with the water and totemic objects. He turns to grab the stone axe.

But the wolf is on him, pushing him against the shelf and knocking shells and amulets to the floor. 

Jarg only just avoids the vicious jaws snatching at his throat and, as he falls backwards, he grabs the wolf's fur under its neck with both hands. Man and wolf roll to the ground: the man wrestling his legs around the wolf's body; the wolf barking, snapping oily fangs. 

But the animal is weak. After much twisting and grappling Jarg eventually subdues the wolf and lies heavily on its furious body. He traps it hard up against rock wall, one forearm pushing the wolf's head down and its jaws away from his face.

An impasse, for the moment.

Jarg is panting deeply. A sudden thought and he turns anxiously to the flame.

It's still there, wavering but clear. Of course it is; he can see the struggling wolf beneath him in its yellow light. 

With a smile and between breaths he realises that he's begun humming. 

Somehow, he's kept the flame alive.

Jarg waits. His breathing calms down. So does that of the wolf, though its angry eyes continue to glare. 

There could be no doubt: if Jarg lets it go, the wolf will always try to kill him.

Nothing less. 

And the flame would be gone.

Keeping the weight of his body on the wolf, Jarg reaches up to the rock shelf with his free hand and finds the antler knife. He hums his chant gently, like a mother, and slips the sharp blade into the side of the wolf's neck. 

Hot blood spurts immediately over Jarg's arm, down the wall and onto the floor.

The wolf struggles, and then indignation and anger just fall away and it quietly relaxes.

After a while, when Jarg feels the wolf has stopped twitching, he rolls off the body and gets to his feet. Deep red blood is already drying on his arm. He will never wash it off: this wolf's life; its passing spirit.

Jarg leaves the wolf where it lies and puts the sacred objects and knife back on the shelf. He tidies the edge of the flamestone.

Calmly, he returns to his nest of furs and wraps himself closely in the pelt. 

And continues to hum. 

The pool of oil beneath the wick is small adJarg notices a smear of oil running from the bowl to the edge of the stone.

He looks around. 

The reserve is gone too. 

Perhaps he should have jumped up quicker? But, no. Unarmed and with the desperate wolf behind him, Jarg knew he would have been killed quickly. A bite to his neck and all would have been lost.

Jarg pulls his gaze back to the yellow flame. There is nothing to do but wait, and chant. And hope the Shaman returns very soon for, surely, even as he watches, the flame seems a little smaller, and without the Shaman the flame will die.

Nothing to do but wait. 

Jarg sits as before, guardian of the tiny golden flame in the dark night of the cavern, chanting. 

Chanting hope.

The air and silence in the cavern settle back. 

The figures and patterns on the wall grow a little dimmer.

Jarg snaps alert. 

The small flame has shivered again, bending away as before.

Someone has entered the chamber.

January 10, 2024 13:08

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Story Time
07:02 Jan 24, 2024

I thought you did a masterful job with the intricacies of the story. I found myself getting lost right up to the point where the pivot occurred. Great job.


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Philip Ebuluofor
15:50 Jan 23, 2024

Fine work. Congrats.


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Alexis Araneta
12:57 Jan 20, 2024

The way you put details in this, wow. Amazing job !


Chris Pye
18:07 Jan 20, 2024

Thank you, Stella. I haven't been writing long so your appreciation means a lot! Best wishes for your own writing Chris


Alexis Araneta
03:55 Jan 21, 2024

Well, you're doing a very good job.


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Mary Bendickson
18:31 Jan 19, 2024

Detailed. Great imagery. Congrats on shortlist.


Chris Pye
18:06 Jan 20, 2024

Mary, thank you! I really enjoyed writing the story so it was a blast to have it shortlisted. Cheers Chris


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J. I. MumfoRD
12:01 Jan 18, 2024

Very nice, I like the lead in and the switch mid way. It was so smooth I had to reread to find it. Small typo "the wick is small adJarg notices a smear of oil".


Chris Pye
08:44 Jan 19, 2024

Thanks for the kind comment! Ah, a typo, eh? The devil's in those details etc. Thanks for pointing it out. Chris


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