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Fiction Fantastic 2024 Winning Story: “A Murder of Crows” by Keiko Sophie Weible

The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.

You can purchase this story in the 2024 Winners Anthology, Realm of Forgotten Dreams.

“A Murder of Crows” by Keiko Sophie Weible, Spencer Butte Middle School

First Place, Middle School Level, 2024


A Murder of Crows

by Keiko Sophie Weible

Spencer Butte Middle School

Jason Lupus was terrible at being a noble. Well, that’s what everyone said anyway. So what if he burned half the estate library at age three and made the simple mistake of slipping a psychedelic mushroom into a stew at age five?

His parents, Augustus and Atlanta Lupus, were afraid that he would destroy the land that they had made so many shady dealings with so many strange people to acquire. They strove to get their younger son out of the public eye as soon as possible.

One day when Jason was six, a group of renegades stormed into the family estate. Jason, left entirely alone at the time, sensed danger when he discovered that none of the countless priceless objects were being stolen.

Scared, he escaped the house by climbing down the tree next to his window and hiding in a mud puddle. When his family returned, they thought he had been kidnapped, and were ecstatic.

Until Jason came back.

Noticing that they could turn the situation around, his parents crafted the perfect excuse to get rid of him. They told him that people wanted to hurt him, and to keep him safe, he would have to work as a servant until he could protect himself.                    

Ten years later

Evening quickly faded into night as Jason put out the lamps in the library, being very careful about it, when a tendril of smoke wafted into the room. At first, he thought it was a lamp that had stuttered out, but other than the servant’s candles, all lights had already been extinguished. Curious, he went to investigate.

The trail was thin but traceable, and Jason knew the halls well. As he passed the kitchen, he (quite literally) ran into his best friend, Kain Hailer. The two boys ended up in a loose jumble on the floor.

“Sorry, Kain,” he grunted.

“You’re good,” Kain grunted back. “C’mon. It’s late and I’m tired.”

Forgetting about the smoke, Jason got up and walked to the servants’ quarters with his friend as they compared how the day had been. It might have been the only thing that saved him from what happened next. Halfway across the courtyard, the estate exploded.

***

A loud ringing brought Jason back to consciousness. He opened his eyes to see his home and life blown to bits and scattered around him. Fire was everywhere. Kain was nowhere to be seen. Despair settled into Jason’s heart as he stared at the flames.

Realizing there was nothing left for him, he stood up and left the ruins.

After hours of walking, he saw a small inn at the side of the road. For lack of a better plan, he went inside.

The inn was named the Wanderer’s Rest and it certainly was cozy. There was a woman, maybe thirty years old, sitting behind the check-in counter. She looked up and smiled.

“Are you looking for a place to stay?” she asked gently. “You look like you need one.”

Jason just nodded, relieved that she hadn’t asked about anything else. The woman handed over a room key and directed him to an open table off the lobby.

“I should pay you,” he said, voice grating like metal on metal.

“Think nothing of it. Your food will be out shortly,” she said, smiling again.

There weren’t many people staying at the inn that night. A few older men sat at the bar playing a high-stakes game of poker. A group of kids were laughing in the corner. One patron stood out to Jason, a girl around his age with storm-gray eyes and jet-black hair with streaks of gold and silver. Shivering, Jason turned away. Something about her reminded him of Kain, and thinking about Kain . . . well, thinking about Kain made him want to scream until his voice was hoarser than it already was because the world had left him without a friend, family, or anything at all.

A voice startled him out of his thoughts and he realized that his eyes were full of tears.

“Here’s your food,” the innkeeper said. “I hope you enjoy it. Put the dishes in the sink over there when you’re done, OK?”

Nodding, he looked at the food. A bowl of soup, a couple of warm buttered rolls, and a fresh apple. After eating, he put his dishes in the sink and dragged himself up a flight of stairs to his room. Crashing onto the bed, sleep overcame him. With it came strange dreams.

Just a few hours later, a noise woke Jason up. It was the raspy haw-caw of a raven, but the sun had only just started to cast its glow on the world.

“Why is that bird awake?!” he thought groggily.

Just as he was trying to fall back to sleep, another sound came. The creak of a floorboard. He tightened his hands into fists under the sheets. Creak, creak, creak. There had been a creaky board on the landing right in front of his room.

Had he left his key in the lock? Suddenly, there was a loud crash, followed by a yell, and then silence.

Slowly, Jason got up, opened the door a crack, and peeked through, sure that someone was going to jump him. Instead, the girl he had seen in the lobby was outside, calmly dragging the limp forms of four black-clothed men into a loose jumble on the landing, tying them together with a length of slightly frayed rope. She looked much the same as the night before except she now had a pack slung across her shoulders, and her distinctive tri-colored hair was pulled back in a tight bun.

After a moment, she looked up.

“Well, don’t just stand there, we need to go,” she said.

When Jason failed to respond, for he was quite sure he was still dreaming, she simply grabbed his arm and dragged him down the stairs. Despite looking like she could barely lift a potted plant, this girl was quite strong. It took getting dragged down the stairs and almost out the door for him to even consider objecting.

“Who are you?” he finally asked.

“Morrigan,” she said. “No more questions. Not now. In case you didn’t understand, Jason Lupus, you are no longer safe from the cult.”

Now Jason was thoroughly confused. Why was he being attacked? Who exactly was Morrigan? What cult? What disturbed him most was that Morrigan and the people of this cult knew and cared that he was alive.

***

Morrigan led Jason west into All Spirits Forest, a place where anyone with a shred of common sense wouldn’t dare go. Jason remembered stories told to him as a child about the place. How, out of the few people who dared to enter, even fewer survived and those who did came back, delirious and confused, saying that a race of people who turned into crows lived in the heart of the forest. Morrigan marched right in without breaking stride.

As the sun began to set, Morrigan finally slowed and stopped them for the night. From her pack she produced food and blankets. The food was basic: some bread, meat, and cheese, enough for a small meal.

Finally, she looked up and said, “Get some wood for a fire.”

Jason was confused.

“If someone’s after me, isn’t it better not to?”

“Trust me, we’re more vulnerable without it.”

Unnerved, Jason did as he was told. As he gathered wood a little way away from the camp, a beast emerged from some bushes to his left. The massive creature looked like a cat, with a lean muscular body, huge bared teeth, and a barbed tail. It also had glowing amber eyes, intelligent eyes. The eyes of a killer.

“Come to me,” the eyes seemed to say. “You are nothing, you are broken. You have nothing to live for. I can end your suffering.”

Jason froze in place, unable to move. The beast tensed, knowing that its prey was giving up. Just as it was about to spring, Morrigan hurtled out of the trees, yelling and waving a branch over her head.

The beast pounced, but Jason had unfrozen and was able to dive out of the way. The creature turned and fled into the forest.

Morrigan looked down at Jason and said, “That, right there, is why we need a fire.”

***

As the days wore on, the two travelers slowly became friends. Morrigan no longer treated Jason as baggage and slowed down in her frantic dash toward the center of the forest. Morrigan, Jason discovered, had an amazing sense of humor.

On the evening of the fifth day, Jason finally asked the questions that had been burning in the back of his mind. At first, he asked simple questions like, where she was from, if she had any family, stuff like that. Morrigan answered all the questions seriously but vaguely. They talked as the sun began to set, the fading light struggling to break through the canopy. As the first stars began to appear through the trees, Jason asked his final question.

“Where are you taking me?” he asked, lying back on his blanket as his eyelids began to droop.

Morrigan smiled sadly, staring into the coals, the only remnants of the fire that they had made a few hours before. Then she looked up, staring into the distance.

“Somewhere I wish I didn’t need to,” she said, but Jason barely heard. He was already falling asleep.

***

In the middle of the night, two men stalked through the forest, silent and forbidding as death itself. Their names were Corvus and Rawkh. Corvus was stocky in build and looked like the type whose brain was roughly the size of a walnut. Rawkh on the other hand was tall and lean, his build that of a predator. Despite all appearances, both men were wickedly smart and skilled hunters.

The two came to the encampment. Smoldering coals were the only remnants of the fire. They had found their prey.

Corvus grinned down at the two figures. “Look, Rawkh,” he said. “Looks like Morrigan found herself a friend.”

“Too bad he won’t survive,” Rawkh said with a cackle.

“You should take care not to wake your quarry,” Morrigan said. She was the figure on the right. Rolling up onto all fours, she stared unblinkingly at the two men. “And if memory serves, Corvus, your son was this doomed boy’s friend.”

Corvus gritted his teeth and pushed past Morrigan. He grabbed one side of Jason’s blanket.

“Come on, Rawkh, I can’t do this by myself,” he said.

Rawkh walked over and stood across from the other man, with the boy between them. Then, through some arcane magic, the two men began to transform. The changes came rapidly. Arms became wings, clothes became feathers, mouths and noses fused into beaks. Where there had been men mere moments before, there were now giant crows. Each grabbed two corners of the blanket and took off.

As they flew away into the night, the single raspy caw of a raven followed. It sounded almost like an apology.

As the night wore on, Jason was flown over miles of forest. The leaves of oak and maple trees flashed dimly past, mixed with the coarse needles of pine and cedar. Somehow, none of it woke him up.

The moon was reaching the apex of its nightly journey as the two crows banked toward a clearing at the heart of the forest. At first the opening between the trees looked unremarkable, but looking again, things got strange. The shadows were too dark and the leaves in the trees were accented a bit too much. It was like looking at a normal scene through warped glass.

As the two shapeshifters and their human cargo neared the clearing, they, too, began to look warped. Then there was a flash of light, and the three beings were gone to a place that no human could see.

***

Jason woke up in a cell. At first, he was delirious and confused. Where was he, and where was Morrigan?

Then he remembered that she had said that a cult was hunting him. Could it be that they had found him and had captured him? If that was the case, had they hurt her? Did she need help?

Jason panicked until he heard the faraway sound of a door opening. The whitewashed walls only had one set of bars, which acted as a door. It also meant that he was only able to see the visitor when she came in front of them.

Emotions of shock, disbelief, and horror flitted across his face as he stared into the storm gray eyes of the one person he thought he could rely on. There, on the other side of the bars, stood Morrigan.

Questions streamed through Jason’s mind but in the end, he only asked one.

“Why?” he asked, standing up, unable to look away from her.

She returned his gaze.

“Duty called.” Her voice sounded stiff.

“I thought I could trust you.”

“That was a mistake.”

“Everything you said last night was a lie, wasn’t it?”

Morrigan looked away.

“Not everything,” she whispered, her voice full of sadness.

Jason understood then. He had vaguely heard her final answer, but sleep had claimed him too soon.

Slowly, he stepped forward, reached through the bars and took her hand. She looked at him and didn’t let go. The sound of footsteps on wooden stairs neared, and Morrigan pulled away. Two men came and unlocked the cell. They bound Jason’s wrists and put a sack on his head. Jason was led into the unknown.

A short while later, the sack was tugged from Jason’s head and he found himself in a chamber filled with people. In the center of the room was a raised dais. Standing atop it was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her hair was the color of starlight, and her eyes were the purest black. The woman raised her hand and silence fell over the audience.

“Jason Lupus,” she said. “Many years ago, your family cheated sacred land from us and, since that day, we have vowed to eradicate them. You are the last of your line, and, as the leader of this murder of crows, I sentence you to death!”

The crowd surged forward, people changing to huge, monstrous crows.

Jason tried to move but was held in place by Corvus and Rawkh.

Morrigan, who had been standing by the door, took a step forward, crying, “You promised him a fair trial!”

The audience cawed at her, jeering in their avian forms.

“You have become just like your mother, little half-crow,” the leader spat, “There will be no trial!”

The giant crows lifted into the air, swirling into a giant black curtain that ringed the entire chamber. The leader lifted her hand and a pool of energy appeared in it.

“No!” Morrigan screamed, as the leader pulled back her arm, condensing the energy into a crackling blue bolt of lightning, and hurled it at Jason.

As the bolt of energy arced toward Jason, Morrigan leapt forward and began to change, her body shifting into that of a common raven. Morrigan shot toward Jason, racing the lightning, turning back into a human in time to shove Jason out of Corvus and Rawkh’s grasp.

The bolt of lightning hit her in the chest, and she fell. As she hit the floor, all the magic that had been protecting the crows and their stronghold exploded outward in a blinding flash. All traces of the civilization were wiped out in an instant, leaving only two survivors, a boy whose life had been saved by the act of another, and a girl whose life was slipping away because of it.

Jason scrambled up and staggered to where Morrigan lay. When he saw her and saw the damage the magic had caused, he fell to his knees and gathered her up in his arms.

“Morrigan,” he whispered, eyes filling with tears.

Her hand grasped his and, through the tears, he managed to see her fingers intertwined with his own.

“They were cursed,” she murmured, eyes closed. “If they ever killed one of their own, the entire race would fall.”

“Please don’t go.” Jason whispered.

“Sometimes it’s good to leave something behind,” she breathed. “Let me go.”

Sobbing softly, Jason nodded. Morrigan breathed once, twice, and then lay still. Slowly, her body disappeared.

“Goodbye, Morrigan,” Jason said.

Epilogue

Jason sat behind the check-in desk at the Wanderer’s Rest. Three years earlier, shortly after leaving All Spirits Forest, he had come back to the inn and asked for a job. Kaylee, the owner and the woman who had kindly fed and housed him, agreed.

Outside, it was raining, and the inn was empty. It was about four o’clock when someone finally came in. Jason looked up to greet whoever had come in and his jaw dropped. There standing in front of him, her multicolored hair cut short, was Morrigan.

“Hello, Jason,” she said.

One moment, Jason was behind the counter and the next he held Morrigan in a tight embrace.

“How are you here?” he breathed.

“Well, I had a little chat with Death and he let me come back,” she answered. “Although, if you crush me to death, I doubt I’ll be allowed to come back again.”

Jason laughed despite being close to tears. Grabbing a key from the basket on the desk and handing it to her he said, “You better tell me everything that happened, or so help me, I just might.”

Morrigan laughed as he led her into the common room and realized that she had found someone who she could tell the truth to. Her past had no control over her future.