Out in the Open

The ruins of the hillside cemetery were open to the night sky, cold winds, and the occasional foray of scavengers and predators returning to see what the elements turned up when game was scarce.

Asleep under a willow tree by the stream that was slowly drying up, I was game these days, but the predators were far different from anything I’d seen before I came here.

The gravestones of the dead were haphazardly angled and eroded like bad teeth; time wore the names off, and neglect claimed whatever there’d been to maintain.

When the last sexton died no one wanted to replace him, so his widow tried to fill the job, but as time went on she said the spirits were edging closer to her all the time, and the keening cries of the dead never stopped, not even during the day.

She got thinner and sicker, and her behavior became more bizarre. Eventually, it was believed she just abandoned the property, and no one bothered to take over.

*******************

On an autumn night, under a waxing crescent moon, two spirits discovered me:  the first, a woman wearing a dark blue gown, flared out from the waist, but shot through with holes and tears, dirt, and insects. Her form is lissome, and dancing with her would have been a pleasure.

The second stood behind her, dressed all in black, the rotted suit and lace as corrupted as what’s left of his flesh. He has disturbing, deep set eyes of jade green, and black hair past his shoulders, missing in patches, but glorious in its prime.

In the weak moonlight, there’s some semblance of what their faces would have looked like superimposed over their skulls, but the illusion flickers and blinks, unable to stabilize. It’s hard to look at.

I woke up as she knelt and moved the willow branches aside. The faint scent of decay wafted into my shelter, and I sat up with a cry. Seeing her semi-skull in the weak light of a crescent moon, I froze.

“Are you lost, child?” I could see the lips flickering over the skeletal mouth as it opened and closed. Her voice had a timbre to it, as if it came from somewhere else and in front of me at the same time.

“Is he alone?” her companion asked. I hunched myself in further, as if that protected me.

She reached out a desiccated hand to placate me, but spoke to her companion: “Hush, Bertram! You’ll frighten him.”

Bertram gave a deep chuckle, and walked away. “Very well, sister. Coddle him, for now.”

She turned her attention back to me. “It’s alright, child. We won’t harm you. Come out into the open.”

I shook my head, still too scared to speak, though the flesh on her face was beginning to become more opaque, and more of the skull was covered; the stages of decay were reversing themselves the higher the moon rose.

“Are you sure?”

I swallowed, realizing I had to say something so they wouldn’t think I was naive enough to believe them. “You don’t need me for anything. You’re dead, both of you. Why didn’t you just keep going? You can’t help me find–”

I stopped myself, mentally slapping myself for saying anything that gave them an advantage, even though they scared me out of my wits.

“Ah, so you are lost. Alone, too, it seems. You don’t have to be…”  She moved closer, and I could retreat no further.

Behind me, there was a splash, and I jumped. She looked past the willow branches in back of me, more flesh covering her face, her expression annoyed.

“Don’t be frightened. Bertram’s gone swimming.” She looked at me again, her eyes beginning to fill in with color and whites. “Tell me your name, child.”

I didn’t want to, but she was too close to me now, and the smell of decay turned to lilac.  The only ways out were to jump into the river with dead Bertram, or push past her, which I didn’t think she’d allow.

“Laurence.” I finally said.

“A noble name, for a noble boy, to sleep in this place. I’m Grace.”

It wasn’t nice to meet her, so I only nodded and repeated her name.

She sensed my reluctance to offer any gestures of friendship, and took a look around my makeshift shelter, smiling as the last of her chin filled in, and her periwinkle eyes seemed to smile.

“Willows aren’t very protective, Laurence.” She actually gave a little laugh. “But you’ve probably figured that out by now.”

“What are you going to do with me?”

She looked surprised at the question. “We’re going to look after you, child. Bertram and I used to care for this place, before…”

“Y-y-you were the caretakers of this…?”

“Yes, Laurence, we were. I can still hear them screaming, even now. Can’t you?”

I whimpered. Bertram came back into view, his body stark white against the black branches dappled by the dim light.

“Bertram! Your clothes!” She looked straight ahead, not even at me.

He gave another low chuckle. “Get him out of there, Grace. He can’t stay.”

The bundle of clothes disappeared, and his alabaster legs walked away again.

“Bertram…?”

“I said ‘no’, Grace. It’s no.”

She turned back to me. “Laurence, please… come out into the open.”

“Why is it important to you?”

“If you don’t, I’ll have to kill you here. No one can stay here who isn’t dead. That’s the rule.”

“Who’s rule?”

Her eyes rolled in her brother’s direction. “Come, before he gets angry at both of us.”

Like game, I’d been flushed, but not by wolves; these were preternatural hunters, with powers beyond anything a wolf could do. It was clear now that my night was over, and sleep would not be permitted.

I took Grace by the hand, now fully fleshed, but still freezing cold. I pulled back a little, but her gaze said she understood. I took her hand again, and we helped each other up, and stood before the jade-eyed Bertram, imperious in his black suit, brooking no nonsense, making no exceptions, granting no quarter.

“Where do I go, then?” I asked Grace.

Bertram came forward, his hair gleaming, his skin waxen, and fixed me with a jade and phosphorous stare. “You don’t go anywhere, Laurence. You stay with us.”

“But Grace said–”

His hand shot out, also freezing cold, and seized me by the throat as he lifted me.

I struggled, bore down on his wrist with all my feeble might, watched as Grace turned her back to the slaughter, and began to cry. I tried to kick him, but he held me at length.

“Grace said,” he squeezed harder, “that no one can stay here who…isn’t… dead.”

As my vision dimmed, and I began to stop struggling, and my feet slowed their kicking, his hand grew warm.

And I heard the spirits’ screams…

 

 

FIRST

There was only now. I guess that’s all there ever really is, right?

I repeat the question out loud, but the thick mist is a poor listener, and an even poorer companion. It’s cold and aloof, this mist, but it’s all over me like puppies, all through me like sadness, and all around me like Death.

Grim, ubiquitous, unsmiling Death has seen to it I’m the only one who didn’t die.

“To what purpose?” Talking to the mist again. The question sounds like ‘why?’, but it”s not the same thing. A purpose implies a task t be done completed, something left incomplete that needs to be finished so that the next task is revealed, or reveals that another question lies in wait.

Coming out my thoughts, I realize I’m walking through the mist. It undulates like a nest of ethereal serpents, seemingly harmless in their airiness, their danger not obvious.

I realize also that I’m lost.

I couldn’t go back if I wanted to, and I wouldn’t know what to go back to claim.

Everyone I knew was gone.

*****************

Colors flaring, though my eyes are closed.

Drops, dabs, splashes, and swirls come together in impressionist patterns. They’re the colors of fire and smoke, steel and blood, horses and men. They fill my vision, occupy my thoughts until something bigger than all of them blots them out.

I grow inexplicably impatient, and want to say the names of my parents out loud, but if I do and they don’t answer, that will only confirm what I already fear, and indeed, know.

The ground is hard and damp, but I sit anyway, leaning my back against the bark, even as the ridges of it gently scrape against my shoulders through my shirt.

This hoary patch of grass feels wet and cool beneath my palm, and I splay my fingers, make them intertwine between blades both brown and green, and give the tuft a hard tug.

The roots tear, but don’t  break.

Clinging to earth, to life… Life is a midden. There is nothing profitable, beautiful, or redeeming about it.

A profound sadness washes over me as a breeze pushes the mist toward me, and the essence of a shape begins to emerge, drifting like a boat on a calm lake in a slow current.

I hear the words, ‘Precious Human,’ in a sibilant whisper, as if it were my name.

I push back against the tree, my skin riddling with goose bumps as the hairs on my arms and neck stand on end. If the tree could have absorbed my body, I would have used it for shelter against looking at the final form of what coalesced to be something dreadful and terrifying.

“Precious Human.” It was finally in front of me, its bony face expressionless beneath the dark hood, a ghostly, ivory contrast to the gray gloom.

I looked at it, and all my strength fled.

The sum of all my days unfurled like a black tapestry, woven through sorcery and decorated with blood, gore, and dirt.

In a moment, my face was in my hands, tears leaking through my fingers to run down the back of them: I was to die alone in a cold mist, harvested into hell by one of the Reaper’s lackeys.

Knowing full well what it wanted, I gained some semblance of control, wiping water, mucus, and road dirt onto my tattered sleeves.

“What do you want?”

I want to tell you something.

A long silence followed as the figure’s cloak drifted and billowed behind it like a gathering storm cloud in a nightmare.

I managed to stand up, but still leaned against the tree for support.

I began to shiver, and hugged myself for warmth that never came. “What is it you want to tell me?”

You are not the last, Precious Human, but the First.

Everything in me told me not to ask. “The first of what?”

It smiled before it answered, and its eyes flared with a scarlet light. “The first of what’s to come.”

The shivering grew worse, and I braced my palms against the tree as my legs threatened to buckle. “And what might that be?”

The eyes flared brighter. “Damnation.”

I turned to run, but tendrils of mist shot out and seized me, and held me fast by the waist, wrists and ankles.

The figure drifted closer. Hold still, Precious Human; it will be over sooner if you’re still.

I didn’t. I couldn’t.

The scythe descended; I felt it cut and dig, but the slice was not clean. Blood spouted as I writhed and gurgled, growing cold, twisting in the manacles of mist, crying out to silent gods in abandoned temples, and screaming my agony to a barren sky.

*************

There is only now…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lore-Binding

1:

Carabelle watched closely, her big brown eyes catching the amber highlights of the hearth fire, as her father put the sword he finished yesterday over yet another flame, an eldritch flame of a magic that could turn out to be good or evil. But where the hearth fire danced with fiery scarves the shades of autumn leaves, this Lorefire, circled in stone, had the shades of a deep winter night when the full moon turned a snowy forest to hues of silvery blue.

She was conflicted. Mother had made him promise never to share the ritual of Lore-binding with her.

***************

“Too much could go wrong. They’ll turn her. They’ll take her, and she won’t be able to stop them. Then what would you do?

Promise me, Pim. Promise!”

He opened his mouth, but hesitated, tried again as she clutched his sleeve, her nails scoring his skin as her body arched slightly. She gasped twice, looking, her eyes hopeful, then widened in panic as she saw that he wouldn’t. She tried to hold on for one more breath but couldn’t. The promise remained unspoken, but Carabelle, standing just outside the door, heard her mother’s plea.

Pim, after a moment or two passed, suddenly turned into a blubbering heap; all Carabelle could do was go inside the small, cold room, hold him in her small arms, and cry with him.

When Carabelle looked up, her mother’s eyes were still open, still staring, still waiting…

**************

“The secret to Lore-binding, Carabelle, is a strong funnel. The spirits are contained behind all sorts of things that separate our worlds, and a Binder needs to be careful. They crave to interact with humans, reclaim that which they left behind, and some even dream of conquest.

“In the space between realms, if they escape the funnel there’s no telling what they’ll do.

“Some even dream of conquest.”

“Mom told you to promise never to show me this.”

“I know, and I wanted to, but I couldn’t because the times are too perilous. But you’re of an age now, and we had no son that I could pass this down to as a legacy.” He stopped for a second, the sword balanced across his hands, his eyes locked onto hers.

“Carabelle, are you afraid? If so, leave now, and we’ll never attempt it again. I’ll never speak of it again with you, and I’ll find an apprentice.”

Carabelle was tempted, every cautionary instinct shouting, but she finally shook her head. “I’m not afraid, Father.”

Pim nodded. “Good. Bring the funnel.”

It took both hands, slow steps, and great caution, but Carabelle guided the funnel safely into position, encircling the fire, snug against the perimeter stones. Pim nodded approvingly, and she felt a warm glow of satisfaction, tinged with guilt as it was.

“Now turn the hourglass. I have to close my eyes, sweetheart. Keep watch, and call me out of the trance immediately if something goes wrong. Don’t be afraid to wake me. Do you understand?”

Carabelle swallowed as she turned the hourglass, then looked at her father and nodded. “I understand.”

Pim nodded once. “Good girl.”

He sat on the floor, cross legged, and she did likewise next to him, watching in total fascination and not a little dread.

The blue flame popped and sizzled against the funnel glass, and he took a handful of it and encased the hourglass in it so it shared the boundaries, so it couldn’t be knocked over or broken by a sprite.

The flame around the hourglass intensified, grew brighter as if someone was lighting a blue-flamed torch from the inside.

Pim barely registered Carabelle drawing close to his side in fascinated fear, trembling, but she dared not look away.

The first of the spirits came through, blurred and amorphous. It was the color of old parchment, its misty hands casting about like a blind man lost in a strange place. Hovering between the funnel and blade, its empty eye sockets found her, and it smiled, but not in a pleasant way. Finally, it moved into the blade and was lost to sight.

Other spirits followed, their fogged features better defined though they all had no flesh.

There was a disturbance, somewhere out of sight; the blue light in the hourglass flared, and a rush of spirits followed, feeding themselves to the flame to avoid what was coming.

“Father…?”

Pim opened his eyes, saw the flame around the hourglass pulsing, and grew alarmed. “That’s not supposed to happen.”

Inside the funnel, the spirits were gone.

The face of Carabelle’s mother was floating inside now, spectral and fierce, and all the more terrible for the silent recrimination in her eyes.

Pim scrambled back as the glass began to crack.

The lives that will be forfeit now, husband, are on your head. Their blood is on your hands, charged to your immortal soul.

The glass shattered.

Carabelle screamed, drew herself up into a fetal position on the floor, and covered her face with her arms. She felt shards like pins in her sides and on her legs, and a couple of pieces into her bare forearms; there’d be cuts, but nothing life threatening.

A larger piece of the coated glass jetted across the floor and caught Pim in the throat, and his mouth worked fishlike as he tried to draw breath, his neck bathed in a red cascade of blood. Panicked, he only sliced his hands in a pointless attempt to remove it.

Incredulous at the suddenness of the mishap, kneeling as he weakened, he looked at the blue flame. His wife’s face dissolved, and roiling cloud of blue-white spirits poured themselves into the blade which was now turning blue, the runes appearing, but not the ones the Wizard commissioned.

That’s not supposed to happen…

His eyes searched for his daughter, and the sight left to him froze him with dread and profound regret at not speaking the promise.

A single blood red spirit with a jet aura glided over to Carabelle, still cowering and shivering on the ground; it turned and gave a feral smile to Pim as he died, and the last thing he saw was the spirit descending into her.

That’s…not…

The Servants

Watch the servants scurry; though they move quickly, they are a stealthy and observant lot.

Hold your tongue, or you may need to cut theirs out.

Set up well-paid spies among them, especially in the kitchen.

Keep them from windows, and out of proximity to the archer openings along the walls and stairs.

Limit their food.

Search their rooms frequently; their privacy is a myth, and nonexistent in your home.

Let them rest, that their service upon their return is better, and faster; beating them defeats the purpose, unless you enjoy it.

Pay them enough to provide for their families, but never enough to purchase their freedom.

Let brides be with their husbands on the night of their wedding; do not claim rights to her virginity, for a cuckold is a disloyal soldier, and a lifelong enemy. Remember that power is transitory, and fleet of foot.

Turn the females of the realm to your purpose. They will persuade the men through the art of love, or the arts of poison and assassination.

Keep the ratio of mercy to ruthlessness balanced toward ruthlessness, and they will be all the more grateful for the mercy. It may be possible to quell rebellions thus.

In the matter of public executions, read the crimes before the crowd, and use an experienced headsman. Keep them youthful, but train them to cut clean. The suffering of an improperly beheaded subject is unforgettable, and may induce fear, but it will be tainted with anger.

Show up at their superstitious festivals, and as they celebrate, scan for potential enemies. Those who attend alone or stand in the shadows should be rounded up quickly as possible, and questioned extensively, with violence if need be.

This is the way to keep peace within your walls, and the realm, with those who rely on your generosity for their survival, and indeed, their existence.

The Sandbox at the End of the Line

Autumn was changing to winter, and the station superintendent wanted to make sure the sandboxes were stocked in case of snow, so he sent me to check them.

There’d be six stations on the local line, which meant after I checked each one, I had to wait for the next train. Clipboard under my arm, and pen in my pocket, I set forth to see it done. It was after midnight, and with the trains at every forty-five minutes, I’d be done around 4 a.m.

**************

This drafty, empty tunnel holds a presence of eyes that can’t be seen watching my every move. There are more than one of them here, so what feeble light there is offers no comfort.

I’m on display, but am I also the offering?

There are whispers just beneath hearing, a vibration with a sibilant hum.

If they touch me, I’ll scream.

If they speak to me, I’ll go mad.

It doesn’t matter if I hurry.

Mercifully, they hold their silence, their muted malevolence no less felt; there are a few times in my life I’ve been truly frightened, and this is one of those times.

The box at the end of the station has a broken lock and rotten edges. It sits square and squat in the center of my sight like a crusty, slimy toad.

If I hesitate, I won’t open it.

I open it; it reeks of urine and rotten wood, but it’s full.

And is there anything, anyone, there beneath the sand?

I close the lid, and bear once more the watchful gaze of the unseen, their presence still felt, their whispering still vibrating.

There’s wind in the tunnel as the train approaches, the clatter of wheels on rails is an echo growing louder, and as the train’s dim headlights shine in the darkness the spirits use the surging, fetid air to flee.

I board the train, standing, and as it pulls out of the station, I see the lid begin to open…

 

 

True to Form

These cold and desolate nights have given me pause as I look into the last fire I’ll ever see. Behind the wall of flame, my lichen covered stone of black marble gleams with my name etched in fake, flaking gold, waiting below for my starved, broken body to shatter.

This is the fate that awaits me for my crimes.

***************

They tell me she was just a child lost and alone in the woods, her parents beset by wolves, but  I saw her true form; when she emerged in front of me after catching my scent, her scarlet irises pulsed with eldritch light, and her pupils flashed gold, suddenly, like a match struck in utter darkness.

It was then I felt the jolting pull of the void kiss my soul in greeting.

So I gave chase.

They told me later that she never ran, that I slaughtered her where she stood, hacking through her upraised arms, cleaving her skull, splitting her screaming mouth in a spout of gory blood and bone.

I swear by heaven, I heard her growl deep in her throat, and promise to savor the taste of my flesh.

**************

This last, most wretched dawn brings no warmth, and no hope.

The weak sun reclining among drifting, gray clouds is a filmy eye that gives poor witness to my insignificant demise.

The trod and murmur of the blood thirsty self-righteous grows louder, and my resigned soul stretches a sad smile across my lips; they will not find me weeping for me, but them.

A young priest drones pleas in a dead language to the celestial. His unseasoned voice is almost a light-hearted counterpoint and harmony to the bells that ring the news of my passing, a killer’s life fully extinguished with the last fading, echoing knell.

I lower my eyes from the unrelieved, unrelenting sky of slate, and see her specter still as stone among the crowd. As she smiles at me, the wound in her face opens, seeps, and her eyes turn scarlet and gold, never leaving my own.

The deep pit waits like a vulture’s nestling, and as I fall, I hear her laughter.

 

 

 

 

 

My Stolen Heart

She told me she loved me.

I believed her.

The love we made that night was torrid and heady, and when it was over I fell into a deep sleep, where she was spooned in my arms, wriggling teasingly to get me going again, knowing I couldn’t because I was spent.

  “You’re cruel,” I said, my smile buried somewhere among her hair, neck, and shoulder.

   She laughed, soft and low; something sounded wrong with it, but sleep pulled me under before I knew it mattered.

   

*******************

   A sharp fingernail raked my cheek, and I could feel the skin tear and split around it.

   I was dazed and groggy, and my cheek was on fire and warm with blood. When I sat up I could hear it patter on the sheet.

   “What–?”

   She straddled me, kissed me, then pushed me gently away like a dog that wanted too much attention.

   “What is it with you?” I asked. “Why’d you scratch me so–?”

    “Relax, baby.” She cupped my face, the pad of her thumb making circles, smearing the blood from the slice in my cheek over my lips.

    I tried to get up, but couldn’t.

   Blood spurted from my mouth, splattering her hair, neck and face.

   She’d distracted me with the scratch on my cheek, and I didn’t pay attention.

  She worked the blade into my chest with a butcher’s dexterity.

   I felt skin and muscle tear, veins sever, and tendons pop.

Opening my mouth to scream, more blood filled it and my tongue had no purchase to form words.

  With a playful smile pried the cut she made wider. Reaching her hand inside, she clutched my heart with strong fingers, her nails digging and slicing like five miniature scimitars as I felt blood cascading down my torso. She took some time, but she worked my heart loose.

    “Do you see what I did to you, baby?”

    She held it up in her hands; it was red and dull like a ruby plucked from a dusty mine.

    Her smile was beatific.

    “I’ve stolen your heart.”     

    She giggled again, the wrong sound beneath the lilt of it more prominent now.  

    As my vision failed, the smell of corrupt flowers and coppery blood grew redolent, and I felt her arms embrace me, pulling my bloody, cooling corpse against her.

    “I love you,” she whispered.

    She told me she loved me.

    I believed her.