Freebie Mondays: Manufactured Wonder (Story 12 of 22 Stories in 2022)

Freebie Mondays: Manufactured Wonder (Story 12 of 22 Stories in 2022)

Since I write roughly 22 stories every year, I thought it might be fun to do a project for 2022.

In 2022, the 22 shorts I write for my blog will be taken from prompts related to the 31 stories in 31 days project from January of 2022. Each will relate to the multiverse that all of my stories take place in, and I will try to keep the main characters that appear on my blog to the background (unless I get a super cool idea). (Incidentally, I broke that last rule for this prompt because cool idea!)

I’ve written each of these stories on stream. If you want to witness this installment as it was crafted, the VOD is on youtube!

The prompt for this one was: “a piercing sound resonates off the walls.”

This short ties in with my ‘witch of the woods universe.’ (Though it does not star Yfema, sadly!) You can learn more about this universe here!
. . .

She could hear the sound from quite a distance and, as they approached, it solidified into a specific form. It was as if someone tapped silverware against an expensive crystal glass with exactly the right amount of force to make it ring. Almost at first it seemed like the fading summoning of a toast at a fancy party, the uncoordinated act of so many nobles responding to a signal. But it soon became clear that the sound had only one source and any form of repetition was merely an overlap of its rhythm, like ripples in a pond overlapping when pebbles are dropped one after the other into a lake’s depths.

When her guide came to a halt, she cupped one hand around one ear and half-closed her eyes, allowing the sound to fill her thoughts. It was not unpleasant, though she could see how a constant blare might drive a listener slightly mad.

“There it is ma’am,” the villager who had helped her navigate the forest declared as he pointed to the dark outcropping of rock a few feet distant.

Rose could tell by the set of his feet that the man wouldn’t move one step closer to the cave, no matter how she urged or questioned him. He had set a line for himself, and he absolutely refused to cross it.

Probably he hadn’t volunteered for this duty either. Probably he had been told by someone in authority he would handle it or there would be consequences.

Rose did not immediately follow the line he indicated, and this caused her guide to shift his weight nervously from one foot to the other. “No one has any idea how long the cave has been producing this sound?” she asked, still curiously tracing its tone and frequency in the silence between speaking.

The young man shook his head. He was barely more than a boy, really, though Rose could tell from his clothing and the marks on his arms and hands that he was well trained in the ways of the woods. A hunter, no doubt.

“And the sound never issues from other caves or spaces in these woods?”

“No, never,” came the answer, and this time without hesitation. “We roam these lands pretty widely, in part because the sound scares the animals away.”

Rose paused again, her focus on the sound. It could almost be the backdrop of some grander melody. She could just about hear a grand string orchestra playing overtop the resonance. A shame it was so far out of the way so that it would never strike the ear of a grand composer.

But was it a natural phenomenon or an artificial one?

“S’cuse me, Miss Witch,” her guide murmured once more shifting nervously from foot to foot, “but do you reckon you can get rid of it?”

A thin smile graced the witch’s lips. “Perhaps,” she murmured. “First we must make sure that won’t cause more problems than leaving it be.” She made a gentle motion at her side with one hand, then started forward.

A small figure melted from the shadows of a nearby bush, ears pressed flat against the top of his head, tail puffed to twice its normal size. It was a wonder the golden tabby’s fur didn’t stand completely on end as he crept forward in his mistress’s wake, one careful paw at a time.

The sound grew exponentially louder during their approach, quickly revealing why her guide refused to cross his invisible line. By the time she stood at the mouth of the cave, the sound had become deafening, a piercing wail that threatened to claw through her eardrums.

Her cat hissed, then darted backward. He tucked his ears to his chin and lowered toward the ground, his posture half-threatening, half-dejected.

The witch made another gesture with one hand; she couldn’t expect her familiar to approach if the sound caused him pain. And his ears were far more sensitive than hers, given the circumstances.

But she also could not solve the problem from here.

Kneeling, Rose slung the small pack off her back. One of the benefits to being a creature of magic was that she could appear to travel light without having to actually leave anything behind. She had a full span of magical tools tucked within one of her bag’s deep pouches, and it only took a few minutes to locate the one she was after.

A ball of wax. She pulled a generous lump free, then tucked her tools back in their original places. Once her hands were free, she divided the wax lump into two smaller clumps, and carefully pressed one into each of her ears. It took a few minutes of careful pressure to make sure she created a proper seal. But when she was finished, she couldn’t even hear the wind rustle through the trees, let alone whatever sound issued from the depths of the cave.

With a nod of satisfaction, she resumed her forward journey, pausing again so that she could set one pale hand against the mouth of the cave.

Beyond the rocky outcrop that indicated the entrance to whatever cavern housed this strange phenomenon, the air smelled damp and earthy. Just beyond the dirt-packed opening, the cave opened into what might almost be considered a wide, spacious foyer. But a few feet beyond the threshold, the ground dropped into a sharp incline. The sunlight filtering through the forest canopy only managed to illuminate the initial shift, then shadows shrouded the rest of the tunnel.

Testing each foot before committing her weight, Rose ventured forward, ducking to fit beneath the rocks that marked the cave’s entrance. The dirt was curiously free of debris, as if no pine needles or stray leaves ever drifted through the opening on the wind. She could almost imagine someone sweeping the area clean before bedding down in one of the corners. And indeed, dark streaks along one of the walls indicated the remnants of old fires.

So the sound must not have been here forever. Perhaps it was the result of man’s manipulations after all.

<Are you certain you should go down there?> the voice penetrated her thoughts as she slid her toes down the first portion of the incline.

She had grown so used to the absolute silence that filled her ears after applying the beeswax, she jumped when the silent words filled her skull.

<How else am I supposed to ascertain what is happening here?>

<It isn’t dangerous, as far as anyone can tell. Why not leave it be?>

The witch chuckled. <We shall if it proves natural. But leaving unnatural forces to wreak havoc is just as bad as meddling with things one shouldn’t.>

Her familiar didn’t answer with words, but she received a distinct sensation of displeasure. When she lingered on her connection with the golden tabby, she sensed he had retreated back to their guide’s position. He didn’t exactly huddle behind the man’s legs, but he had perched there, as if he were ready to pounce on anything that might skitter free of the cave’s mouth.

Rose eased forward, feeling her way along the path while she kept one hand firmly planted on the cave wall. When the shadows thoroughly shrouded her, she reached into a pocket and pulled forth three small, almost round stones. They were polished from contact with the oils on her skin and might have gleamed had there been any light to strike them.

The witch ran the fingers of her free hand along the smooth surface and murmured words in a language unknown to most. Something sparked deep within the stones, and each began to glow a dim shade of yellow-green. When the light was bright enough to reveal the path beneath her, the witch swept her hand upward and set the magelights dancing about her head and shoulders. Their light was steadier than a torch would have been, so there was no flicker of shadows to play with her vision. But the darkness was strong here and seemed to press against the alien illumination, leaving her only a small circle in which she could perceive.

The tunnel was narrow, and its base was littered with rock shards. Unlike the entrance, which seemed weather worn, this portion of the cave was rough. It almost seemed as though it had been hewn by mortal hands, though she found no traces of axe or pick marks when she directed her lights toward the walls.

She paused to glance behind her, but the entrance to the cave was now little more than a dim blur in the distance. If she blinked, it might vanish.

The wax held strong against the sound but, this was quickly becoming a problem. The witch could not gauge the strength of the sound if she couldn’t hear it. She had no idea how much closer she had gotten, nor how much more powerful the sound might prove if her protections were to fail.

After a moment of consideration, she extended her hand and pressed her fingers hard against the grainy stone that made up the passageway.

It took some time to settle the rapid pounding of her heart. But when she closed her eyes and turned her focus inward, she felt the distant thrum of the crystal ping. The vibrations traveled along her palm like the pins and needle sensation of numbness setting in. And once she found it, it seemed to travel up her arm and reverberate through her chest.

So it was strong here. Far stronger than it had been at the entrance.

Rose drew a deep breath, steeled herself and forged ahead.

Ten steps deeper into the cave and a distant hum began to seep through the wax shoved in her ears. It was only a light buzz, a distant annoyance, but it alerted her to possible danger.

Twenty paces more and her toe smacked into something hard laying across the path before her. She thought at first it was stone fallen from the walls or ceiling. But when she directed her lights toward the substance it gleamed white and eerie beneath the illumination.


She bit her bottom lip. It was entirely possible that some large animals may have wandered down here and become trapped. It was even an old hunting method to lure large prey into a place where they could be more easily ambushed. But her guide said the sound kept animals away, and there were shockingly few large bones among the mass.

In fact, Rose had little trouble stepping over the obstructions.

Humans then. The remains, perhaps, of others who had tried to venture into the cave and find the source of the sound.

Perhaps this was the point at which the sound became overpowering.

It made sense that if the sound was strong enough in this location to fell a thinking creature, no one would be able to cross the threshold enough to drag them free.

It also meant that from here on, she would be beyond rescue herself should something go terribly wrong. If she meant to abandon this task, she must turn back now.

After a further moment of consideration, however, she steeled herself and pressed on.

She didn’t have far to go before the cave once again opened outward into a large cavern. But it felt as though she walked through the dim press of darkness for ages before she reached its terminus.

This was obviously a natural space. Great stalactites hung from the ceiling in such mass, they almost seemed like earthen curtains. Their tips gleamed with moisture and, every now and then, one of those glistening water droplets descended into the glimmering pool below. The water at the base of this cavern was so clear, it reflected the scene above it like a mirror, disturbed only when one of those water drops broke its surface.

The underground lake was surrounded by a series of thick stalagmites, rising from the ground like spear points.

At some point, the occupants of the upper portion of cave must have become aware of this hidden treasure and dug a tunnel into the cavern’s depths. Possibly there were many more caverns like this one that could be reached by branching tunnels an industrious explorer might one day discover. But if there were any offshoot paths, they were too lost in shadows for Rose to discern.

She didn’t need her mage lights anymore. In fact, she set them hovering in the doorway so that she would remember the path from whence she came.

Bright light emanated from the center of this chamber, a yellow swirl that seemed to surge and dim in time with the sound that now bled through the wax in her ears with such strength, she heard it as clearly as she had when she stood outside the cave. If she dared to remove those tiny wax chunks, she suspected her ears would bleed, and her brain would bruise.

She had not come without taking precautions, however, and a thin film of magic permeated her mind, wrinkling and rippling in time with the sound, keeping it from causing her the harm it had caused the others who ventured this way.

A cheat, of sorts. But sometimes these things were necessary.

The light issued from the same place as the sound – a thin pillar of rock near the center of the lake, flattened on the surface so that it resembled an altar.

She could easily see how anyone could regard this place as holy. Between the massive rock formations and the clarity of the pool, it seemed to hold a magic all its own. But the careful preparation of the central space, and the perch of the light and sound source on top of that smooth surface, reinforced her belief that this was not something the tunnel’s diggers stumbled upon.

Someone set this magic here for some reason she could not yet discern.

The sound rang like a gong, echoing off the distant walls and vaulted ceilings of its natural resting place before it rushed up the tunnel and out the entrance. Rose felt each of the strikes like a physical force whooshing by her ears on its way to the forest beyond. She swore it set her long hair dancing about her shoulders as it passed like a cool breath along her cheeks.

Now that she stood near the source of the sound, it struck her as a cross between a tuning fork and a metronome – some magical marking of the time, a guide by which other rituals might be performed. It reminded her of churchyard bells marking the time for the monks and townsfolk, providing structure to the chaos of the wilds.

Though perhaps it had been set here merely to make this place feel more divine.

Powerful magic must have set the light and sound in motion because, when Rose attempted to cross the thin bridge of stone she spotted leading toward the center of the cavern, her body was physically repulsed.

The tone struck and rang outward, pressing her ever back toward the shores of the crystal lake. The water lapped at the stones beneath her feet, unaware of her plight. But even throwing her arms in front of her to form a barrier did not allow her to progress more than halfway toward her goal.

Not so long ago, the witch would have reached for powerful forces to assist her crossing. She could feel them swirling beneath the surface of this lake, bubbling up from the depths of the earth like a mountain spring. That energy would readily answer her call. With a snap of her fingers, she could shatter the thing in the center of the lake and pass anywhere she pleased.

But those were abilities from another life. She had promised she wouldn’t use that kind of magic anymore – not unless there was a major form of emergency.

So she would simply have to do this the difficult way.

Yielding to the force which buffeted her, Rose returned to the shore of the cavern lake and once again unslung her pack. She spent some time hovering over her magical tools before she plucked a thick, u-shaped metal fork from one of the less used pockets. The rest she folded away and returned to her back before she held the small device in front of her.

She waited for a fresh strike of the tone, then bent and tapped the tuning fork against a thick outcropping of stone.

She barely heard the sound it produced over the central tone’s resonance and through the balls of wax still blocking her ear canals. But the glow in the center of the lake shifted from yellow toward orange – a negative reaction.

Pleased, Rose struck the metal fork harder against the outcrop, then held it aloft before her as she advanced.

When she felt that gentle press, she struck the fork again against the nearest stone, though she her hand brushed the water as she did so.

The orange glow in the center of the room turned red, and Rose sensed that the quality of the sound had changed, though she couldn’t examine it through the wax barricade that protected her from this new threat.

While the metal rang with its own tune in front of her, however, the force that pushed her away seemed to yield, folding around her small sound shield so that she could scuttle forward.

She hastily struck her tuning fork again against the pillar that held the stone, worried the next strike of the invisible gong would send her flying.

Curiously enough, when she held the little metal device aloft this time, the light in the center of the room returned to its first illumination, and even edged slightly toward green.

A positive reaction?

She struck the fork again quickly, not wanting to discover what would happen if she ever allowed her counter sound to fade. Then she took advantage of the moment to examine the ping’s source up close.

If not for the glow and the sound issuing from within it, she would have considered it an innocuous quartz crystal. It was carefully cut, to be certain, the work of an expert craftsman or jeweler no doubt. But it seemed to have no special properties on its own. It was not a rare mineral, and its facets weren’t particularly staggering.

It had been imbued with the magic that made it special.

Rose doubted she dared touch the thing, so she cast about for a small rock. She struck her fork against the pillar once more as she found a suitable candidate and lifted it. Reaching for just a small amount of the magic at her fingertips, she sent the small rock hurtling through the small gap towards the quartz.

The force of the magic throw was enough to shatter just about anything short of a diamond.

But the blow never landed. Her projectile bounced harmlessly off the edge of the resonating crystal and slammed into a distant rock wall. The impact shook something loose and, for several tense seconds, Rose crouched while loose rocks rained along the lakeshore and the quartz in front of her glowed angry red.

She almost forgot to renew the sound of her tuning fork when the rock shower ended. But as the room’s central glow turned green again, on a whim, she reached forward and tapped her tuning fork on the crystal set atop the central pillar.

The sound produced by the strike was loud enough to penetrate her wax protections. And so lovely, it brought tears to her eyes.

The crystal’s light turned blue, then purple, then seemed to pulse.

Oddly enough, the tuning fork seemed to pulse with the same bright light, as if the magic had somehow been transferred via the contact.

The sound went on for longer this time, ringing like a bell left to its own devices.

The glow bounced between the fork and the crystal, growing steadily brighter, until it blazed so brightly, Rose had to shield her eyes with one arm.

Then everything went still.

The light extinguished, plunging the witch into darkness.

Silence struck her ears, stronger and more palpable than that which she produced by shoving the wax in her ears. Yet she hesitated to pull the small clumps free while she remained in this place.

Second passed, marked only by the beating of her heart. Then she lowered her arm and lifted her head.

Her eyes couldn’t penetrate the thickness of the darkness in this underground space. But the three stones that represented her own lights still glowed in the distance where she left them.

She called them to her and they raced across the room, revealing the stone bridge and the shuddering lake beneath her.

By the time she picked her way back across the lake, a figure moved through the shadows. Her heart leapt into her throat for but a moment before soft warmth pressed against her legs, and she recognized the familiar caress of her distressed familiar.

Bending, she scooped the tabby into her arms and held him against her chest while he rubbed his cheeks along her chin and purred madly.

<It’s gone,> he told her after a few moments.

Still, she hesitated a few seconds before she reached up and pulled the wax from her ears.

Natural sounds assaulted her hearing – the lap of the lake against its edges, the wind trailing through the trees at the far end of the tunnel, even the scrape of boots on rock as her guide no doubt ventured forward to discover the outcome of her venture.

After a moment of consideration, she returned her familiar to the dry ground beyond the lake, and darted across the stone bridge.

Now that the magic was inert, it was easy to pluck the quartz crystal from its perch and tuck it into a pocket. When she returned home, she would have to examine it in more detail in order to determine how it should be dealt with, stored or disposed of.

But for now, she simply wanted to prevent it from resuming its maddening pattern.

Her guide was emerging into the vast cavern by the time she returned, and she set her lights between them so that he would be able to see.

“So it’s gone then?” he murmured, his voice filled with awe.

The witch smiled. “It won’t trouble you anymore.” She paused a moment while the golden tabby wove between her legs, then added demurely, “Make certain you tell the rest of the villagers who it was that solved this problem for you. My services will always be available, for those willing to trade.”

After all, if she was going to establish herself in this new place, she’d need a reputation.

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