Ever at My Shoulders…

When Mother died, I inherited the circled staff, but the familiars were not yet grown so it kept them in line. I wanted to banish them, but she wouldn’t hear of it.

“They will come to guard you in the dark times, my child.” Those were her last words.

But you were a witch. There was never any other kind of time…

Noises, shadows, scents of carrion, cinnamon, lavender, and things in jars that writhed and crawled, slithered and mewled, with fangs inside of jaws that broke things in half and devoured, and rending claws that disemboweled and severed limbs, and things with glowing eyes that gave me nightmares.

All mine, forever, or for as long as I held the circled staff.

At first, the sun lost warmth, and then the rich, warm yellow brightness I once closed my eyes to feel on my childhood face seemed veiled in perpetual clouds.

I neglected the herbs in the garden. I neglected the cottage.

I neglected my innocence, and the better parts of myself.

And with each passing stage, the familiars grew nearer.

Their oily, rancid spirits oozed into my dirt filled pores, and ethereal cords of attachment formed like spider silk. It was pleasurable, but lethal, like a warm blade pressed to a sensitive, tender spot that made you tingle.

I couldn’t stop it, and didn’t know if I would if I was able.

Soon it didn’t matter anymore, but now, it’s become everything.

We’re all grown now, these familiars and I, a family of strangers, eager to explore the world to see what we can offer it, and take what it has to offer us.

But I must ever guard the staff, for these creatures are ever at my shoulders, and if they take it as their prize the world we know will become one we can neither survive nor escape.

So they wait, even as they follow, and watch, even when they sleep.

It seems Mother cursed me after all.

But then again, she was a witch, and that’s what witches do.

When Writing of Monsters…

“Should you be doing that?”

“What?”

“Writing about things you know nothing about?”

“Such as…?”

“What it’s like to be a…a thing. A ‘monster,’ for lack of a better term. Something between living and dead, not fully being either? Feeling…” it tilted its head sideways, like a bird, “Well, not quite complete, but not incomplete.”

“Is there a difference?”

“Not so much a difference as a distinction; it’s small, but it’s there.”

I turned in my chair. “Well, no one really knows how that feels, do they?”

My guest smiled and put its chin in its hand. “I would imagine…it’s like being uncertain of everything all the time.”

I gave it some thought. “I would imagine that’s probably an apt description.”

“Thank you. But you haven’t answered my question. Why do you write such things?”

“The mystery of it, I suppose. Humanity, given life, is fascinated with not living. And if things get painful enough, actually yearn not to live anymore. I imagine living forever as a damned thing, whatever its form, could get tedious.”

“It has its moments.”

I chuckled. “Really? And how would you know?”

Again, the enigmatic smile, but this time followed by silence.

“It’s cold in here,” I said. “Is there a window open somewhere?”

I began to shiver.

“Something’s open,” my guest replied, gradually blurring in my vision,

“But it’s not a window…”

Crimson Confessions

Tainted blood just feels different.

It’s sluggish, cold, bordering on gelid, all but congealed, but it’s not. It’s a slow flowing river without a current. If it were a pool of water, it would be stagnant, ripe for algae and mosquitoes, but somehow, it’s neither.

I was newly made, and when I finally pulled the caul from my eyes, the stars had never been so vivid.

The old gods still cry out…the old demons have not died.

This was the earth before the One came to drive out the Legion.

So be it, then.

We are to dwell here, it seems, feeding off the carrion of sinful souls that crawl like ants in the cities, and we snatch the few butterflies wherever they may be, and break their wings of gossamer to replace them with wings of venous leather, if they choose.

They do not always choose. I myself was left no choice, and I never saw who did it.

I was on my way home, and then I wasn’t. Something seized me, and I felt my body hit the ground when it was done with me. I could hear it breathing, a relieved satisfaction.

Poor thing. It was thirsty.

My body was so cold, and growing harder to move as I crawled out of the shadowed, piss-pooled alley into the shallow light of a flickering streetlamp, before I breathed my shallow last, a vaporous prayer asking forgiveness for an unrepentant heart.

I hope to one day meet the one who did this to me, but what I’ll do then, I don’t know.

This is a vile existence in a vile place.

There are no angels here. Not even fallen ones.

We are a breed apart, with a special place, I think, in damnation.

Perhaps we are the harvesters for hell, putting the torch to the pyres of those we’ve captured, gathering their souls like sheaves into sacks to bring them here.

They go under the obsidian altar, these souls, and turn the blood into wine, and the wine into gall.

Then we feed and feast,  reveling in the red tide that blesses our doomed purgatorial homes until we are made to twist and writhe and scream tirelessly in the flames set aside for us.

I don’t look forward to that day, but for now, I revel in what I am.

Will you come to me, walk with me, and be my friend?

Come Out, Come Out…

Lyle stood in front of his sister Lyla, his left arm around her. She pressed so hard against his back he thought she’d climb inside of him.

They were looking into the closet at deep blue wolf’s eyes staring back at them, possessed of a contemplative intelligence not naturally found.
They were trembling, but it was Lyle’s duty to protect her, and that’s what he was going to do no matter what.

“Why are you scaring us?”

   Scaring you? The deep, disembodied voice made them both jump and flinch at the same time, though it hadn’t shouted.

   Why do I scare you? What have I done?

“Y-y-you won’t sh-sh-show y-yourself…and y-you k-keep scaring L-Lyla!”

     I do, but why are you scared of me?

“Y-you sh-should g-g-go.”

   Go where?

“I-I don’t c-care. J-just go.”

    I just whispered Lyla’s name…

“We don’t want you here! P-please g-go.”

The voice laughed softly, and serrated teeth flashed in a cruel smile.

Lyle turned away, holding on to a thread of resolve.

   I admire your willingness to sacrifice yourself Lyle, but you can’t.

“I’m doing it…”

   I haven’t attacked you. It’s Lyla I want.

“W-we’re twins. We go together.”

   No. It isn’t your turn.

“You can’t take me instead?”

    No.

“Why?”

   I’m losing my patience, child. Stand aside.

The blue eyes brightened and moved closer to the closet’s edge.

The twins took a step back, and Lyla gasped in Lyle’s ear. His arm around her tightened for all that it was behind his back.

“You can’t take my sister away. I won’t let you.”

   Lyle, stand aside.

“No.”

In the mirror Lyle saw Lyla look down and away, and she began shaking her head and pointing as she whimpered Lyle’s name.

Lyle took another step back, as if it made a difference, and glanced where she was pointing.

From under the bed bright green eyes peered up at them. A jagged toothed smile promised a bloody death as a woman’s soft, mellifluous voice spoke to them.

   Ah, there you are, children.

A long bony arm came out from underneath the bed, covered with decayed flesh and leggy things that moved beneath the skin.

  Follow me, Lyle. I can take you….

Lyle moved away as the closet door opened and the monster’s horned head emerged into the dim moonlight.

Lyla’s grip on Lyle was painful; she wasn’t letting go, no matter what happened.

“We’ll die together,” Lyle found himself saying.

To his surprise, Lyla, calmed down.

“No, we won’t,” she said.

The other monster began to slither from under the bed.

   Defiant little bastards, it said.

Lyla stepped from behind her brother.

Lyla! What are you doing?” he gasped.

Lyla bunched herself into a crouch, and snapped up as if her body were jolted, her arms, legs and back stiff as if she was going to fly apart.

Her piercing scream thundered through Lyle’s ears, and he put his hands on them to find them bleeding.

She drew breath without seeming to and screamed again.

Lyle saw slashes appear on the monsters’ flesh.

Their own roars of pain gathered energy, but Lyla screamed again.

Lyle was rolling on the floor, blood in his nostrils; the monsters were desperately trying to scramble back, but the portal had closed.

Black blood flowed underneath the closet and from under the bed.

The monsters roared at the top of their lungs, so loud and terror filled that Lyle felt the hairs on his arm might pop out from fright.

Lyla gave a final scream that shattered the mirror and windows.

The first monster crashed down, slamming the closet door against the wall hard enough to leave an indent. The monster under the bed kept twitching, its dead skin rupturing with scattering vermin until it stopped moving.

Lyle’s head was between his knees, hands still on his ears, blood leaking through his fingers.

Lyla went to him, held him, and kissed his cheeks.

He pulled back, looked at her flowing tears with silent, screaming faces inside them.

The whites of her eyes turned scarlet, the reptilian irises gleamed amber and gold.

“It’s all right, Lyle. They won’t hurt us anymore. Sometimes I forget…”

 

 

Irreconciled

They came with chains and horses, fire and steel. Their horses ran over us, their ululations deafened and frightened and panicked us, and we fled like rabbits before hounds, but where we ran, they galloped.

Where we hid, their arrows descended, and where we made a stand, they cut us down as weeds.

There was nothing to be done for it.

The Protector was not here, and our prayers echoed in the marble halls of his celestial palace, unheard.

What few of us managed to escape could only watch the fires, hear their taunts, witness their butchering of our dead, and cry futile tears of anger as we swallowed our screams and sobs to preserve our own lives.

Save one. She was off in the woods, alone, before a small fire, invoking things we’d accused her of consorting with, mating with, and making sacrifices of our livestock, and the unwanted born out of covenant, conceived in the darkness of disloyal, unholy lust that spread like a plague among us, to give the Other soldiers for his demonic army.

We’d done all we could to burn her, purge her from our midst, cleanse her, and turn her to the Protector, but she only pretended at piety, though she pretended well.

I alone saw her sacrificial fire, saw her arms raised with the writhing form in her hands, saw her sweaty skin shining with the amber glow of tallow candles, dancing as she summoned, eyes closed, lips fervently whispering vile promises of servitude.

I couldn’t turn away.

She fell to her knees, and put her arms into the flames up to her elbows.

The fire flared like a meteor striking the sun, and puffed and roiled over her bowed head, consuming what she had but moments ago placed inside of it.

Her arms came back unscathed.

One by one, the skins of our enemies dropped like sacks of muddy sand, the layers beneath exposed to the damage they inflicted in ways they’d not anticipated.

Their flayed forms issued terrified screams, and the remnants of our forces laid into them with renewed fervor, butchering them before they collapsed, offering no more resistance than spring lambs.

She sensed my eyes, and turned. Her own visage now filled me with revulsion, where before she’d stirred me against my will.

Within my mind, her voice was the raspy whisper of the serpent who’d made an enemy of his creator.

“The heavens are empty now.”

The stars flickered, their power waning, and a sudden downpour of cold rain and ice crystals coated all with a hoary frost that yet steamed from the heated residue of the flames it extinguished.

I looked at her again, and she nodded once, fading from view.

I felt the blade at my own heart, and closed my eyes, and followed her into the void.

 

All the Pretty Pictures…

Steve and Vanessa were leaving the gallery for the night, a fancy dinner planned; then home, then wine, then each other.

    It had been a long week, and the stress of working together to pull off this exhibit had taken its toll on the both of them. It was either dinner and sex, or they’d wind up strangling each other and (likely) be just as satisfied, but as that would result in handcuffs and jail they took the more pleasant of the two options.

   The weather, thankfully, was cooperating, and the evening air was pleasantly mild. The summer was winding down, and the days were getting shorter, but the nights so far carried no herald of a winter chill.

   Their footsteps were loud in the lofty, high-ceilinged corridor as they walked past a picture gallery full of paintings they were unfamiliar with by a new artist.

    Steve didn’t like them. Vanessa didn’t either, but she found them interesting in a repulsed – fascination kind of way, like rubbernecking at a really bad accident scene.

    Faces of Decay, it was titled, and lived up to its name. Paintings of faces with various things wrong, out of place, or missing, but what was consistent were the wild eyes of panic and desperation in each one, as if they just felt something go wrong with them.

    There was almost a pleading look to them, and with the fading light coming through the ceiling, it gave the eyes a brightness not evident in the day.

   Vanessa couldn’t help but shiver, even though Steve was walking in lockstep beside her.

   They both looked pointedly at the floor, avoiding looking at the ghastly portraits, feeling the weight of the shining eyes following them, judging them for not helping, for leaving them behind.

   The anticipation of their date was dulled somewhat by their fright, so they hurried through, each trying to be brave.

   Vanessa stopped short.

   “What is it?” Steve asked.

   “There’s no guard on duty.”

   “So?”

   “So the doors lock automatically…”

   “And we’re stuck in here. Shit!

   They pulled out their phones and walked to the security desk, rummaging through it to see if there was a contact number or card they could use to call the security company and see what happened.

    There were numbers galore, but it was after hours, or between shifts, and no one was answering.

    Evening shadows oozed across the floor as the sun went down.

    “What do we do?” Vanessa said.

    “We have keys to offices, food, and water. We’ll just keep trying the company, or maybe we can just call the cops.”

    “They can’t help us without knowing the lock codes.”

    “True, but they can help contact the company, maybe send an officer to pick up one of the guards or something.”

    Vanessa considered it, but had nothing better to offer. “Okay.”

    Steve walked off and made the call.

    Vanessa picked that moment to try and brave the gallery once more.

    They’re just paintings. It’s just their eyes. Their eyes are painted, and have no power.

    As Steve chatted with the police dispatcher, Vanessa stopped in front of the first painting she saw.

    The woman in it was brunette, hair up, pretty brown eyes, a pert nose, and lips that were twisted as if she’d been tortured; they were scarred and bleeding, so she wasn’t smiling.

   That’s really sick, Vanessa thought. Why disfigure the face…?

   As she looked at the painting, the brown eyes of the painting’s subject seemed to take on a lighter cast, and the woman slowly blinked, eyes unfocused, as if she were just waking up.

   Vanessa took a step back, hands over her mouth, her thoughts racing.

   It’s dark now, this isn’t happening, you’re just scared of being stuck overnight, the painting isn’t real, and nothing-nothing-nothing you’re seeing now is really going on.

   The woman’s eyes fastened on Vanessa, who took a step back, her own eyes widening, somewhere between panic and curiosity.

    You’re tired, Vanessa. Steve will make this all okay, later, when we’re in bed mauling each other.

    The woman’s eyes widened, as if surprised to see someone there.

    That awful, scarred and twisted mouth was trying to smile.

    Vanessa looked for Steve; he was in front of another painting, one where half the man’s face was drooping and cut. He was gazing at Steve imperiously, as if the living man was nothing more than a towel to dry his painted hands.

    The darkness deepened, and Vanessa called Steve’s name, but the only answer she saw was the eyes of the painting move in her direction.

     She wanted to go to run, but she’d have to pass more paintings, and now, the whites of their eyes were glowing the colors of street lights, reflected on the polished tile floor.

    Steve came beside her. “They’re on the way.”

    His presence was a comfort for her. “Good. I’m imagining things now that it’s dark.

    “You’re not imagining anything.”

    She looked at him as he stepped in front of her.

    “Steve?”

     Not-Steve laughed and shook his head, the whites of his eyes shining points of light onto the top of Vanessa’s blouse,

   “He’ll be back tomorrow, Vanessa. In the meantime…” The light traveled over Vanessa’s face as he looked at the woman in the painting.  “Join me, my dear.”

    Vanessa’s vision went dark for a long moment, and when it came back, she was staring at the marble floor, staring out at herself standing next to Steve, her painful smile now framed in perfectly fine lips  as she took his arm, and they passed through the gallery doors.

    She wanted to scream, but her lips were twisted, scarred, and bleeding, and as her eyes widened in panic, two points of light reflected from them onto the polished tile floor

 

Jedrek’s Gift

Jedrek’s robe kept getting snagged as he ran. He kept tripping over stones as the small branches of the trees he ran past pushed up his sleeves and left shallow scratches on his arms. The forest was overrun tonight with preternatural enemies. They were unwisely summoned by his peers who found, but weren’t ready to use, the forbidden texts.

Now blood slicked the walls, and flames burned it black and boiling into them. As they received their branding as a monument to this unholy, bloody night, the piteous screams of dying men pierced the night. Smoke rose like corrupted praise and stale incense to the Sovereign, who seemed deaf to his servants’ cries for deliverance.

The horror of it all flushed him out like the last besieged soldier coming to surrender.

He tripped again, fell, untangled his feet from the ungainly robe, and rededicated his focus, pushing all other thoughts out of his mind. He would have taken the scratchy, patched thing off to run faster, but mountain cold was sudden and unforgiving.

Escape, and survive.  One leads to the other.

His hunting knife was a comfortable weight, but he realized it might serve him better in his hand; he’d just have to be careful not to trip.

Deeper into the woods now, night forest noises surrounded him as he took it out, scanning the trees that yielded nothing of anything they could hide. The creatures of habit that survived here were well versed in camouflage; he was good, for all the wood lore that he knew, but he forgot what to do sometimes, and it had cost the men a few dinners where he’d been the last to eat, the butt of their jokes, and received threats that covered everything from mutilation to cannibalism.

The flames engulfing his monastic home in shades of orange and yellow flared, brilliant against the night sky. The falling stones echoed like unnatural thunder, and then he was beyond the noises and sights of his forced exile.

No one ran with him, caught up to him, or shouted his name. He hoped some of them managed to escape, but he wouldn’t go back to find out.

There were other noises about him now; they were small and subtle, but definitely there, and gradually getting closer.

His next thought seemed to make his heart quiver: You need to see.

A tear escaped his right eye, and he rubbed it angrily away with the heel of his hand.

“I’ll not invoke that spell. I…I can’t.”

Then they will find you first, and tear you limb from limb.

In spite of himself, he whimpered at the thought.

Life, or death, Jedrek. Choose. Did you not flee to live, to not die in the fire and become a puddle of boiled blood? They were the ones who gave you the gift, foolish boy, Use it.

Even as the thought crossed his mind he said the words, felt his muscles and sinews grow warm, felt the heat between his brows increase when he closed his eyes, the incantation spilling in sibilant whispers tumbling desperately from his lips.

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

He opened his eyes.

They were all around him, almost upon him, snarling and slavering.

They had no eyes to speak of, just slits or circles of light: the red from the underworld, the blue for the night spirits, and green for the day ones, and they were all focused on him.

He was shaking, but knew if he bolted he was lost.

They seemed hesitant, however, now that he wasn’t trying to run.

Watching them, he realized that since he stopped them, he had no plan, and the only reason they didn’t attack was because of the knife in his hand. His skill with it, marginal at best, was an unknown quantity, so they kept their distance.

The knife itself was etched with a curse, one that would either seal them inside or cast them out. He didn’t know for sure. The runes would surface when the enemy was close.

As far as Jedrek knew, the curse had never been used, and would’ve likely died with him had it not been for this attack.

And the attack happened because of a person that didn’t know how to keep their feuds secret.

The dead don’t want to die again.

If he stabbed any of them, their souls would be locked away and destroyed.

They were still watching him, wary, but patient: he was human, and right now his senses were overloaded. Soon he would grow tired, cold, hungry, thirsty, and weak.

Strike, Jedrek. You have no choice. The killing can’t come too late.

The moon ascended over the clouds of black smoke. He wondered if the moon drew power from such things. From what he saw of the macabre circle around him, their eyes seemed brighter.

The runes on the knife blade began to smoke and glow with a ember colored light of their own.

The creatures saw it too, and began to close in.

Jedrek’s muscles bunched and tensed, but he was tired now and fighting all of them would be difficult.

Slay the leader, and the rest will fall.

He looked them over, but a leader was indiscernible.

He had nowhere to go; the trees behind him would only slow him down.

From the rear of the semicircle, a single voice spoke a one-word command, and the moving circle became a macabre tableau.

“Stop.”

All motion ceased, as if everything had grown  where it stood, putting down roots.

In the center was a parting, and out stepped a human female of some sixteen summers.  Jedrek didn’t know how he knew, but there was an aura of centuries lived emanating from her. Whatever age she looked like, she’d seen it over several lifetimes ago.

She’s the leader. Kill her. 

He thought he had the element of surprise, and when he tried to move toward her, he found he couldn’t move.

She smiled at him, and came to him, standing close. She smelled of rotted lavender and wet dirt, and he knew then that she’d come out of her grave.

She took his face in her hands, and chilled him with her gaze.

“Hello, Jedrek. I’m Melanthe. Your foolish friends summoned me, thinking to make sport of me.”   She looked back at the skyline where the monastery’s dome was no longer visible, then turned back to Jedrek.

“They were wrong.”

“What h-h-happens now, Melanthe?”

She smiled again, and took her finger away.

Jedrek found he could move, and all the familiars that had surrounded him were disappearing.

“Follow me,” she said, and led him away, deeper into the trees which now seemed to shift and close behind him as tendrils of fog oozed up from the ground.

There was no guiding voice now, only the ancient young witch in front him, hypnotically swaying, leading him like an old horse to the slaughterhouse. Although he knew it, he was more frightened of the fact that he didn’t mind.