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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Child of Promise

The door was open, and the day was gray and cold, a soft snow sussurating on the forest floor beyond the great black gates of wrought iron. In all the years I spent here, they never faded, never rusted, never corroded.

Sister Lunette looked kindly at me, but didn’t seem to sad to see me go.

“May I not wait until the spring thaw, Sister?”

” Abbess Celia won’t allow it, Neesha. You know that.”

“But the wilderness–“
“Is one you have been well trained to survive. And besides, you have your…powers.”

Ah, now we get to it. They see me as an aberration, maybe even a demon.

I tried to act like it didn’t affect me, but I couldn’t; this was the only place I’d ever known, ever called home, and now it was being pulled out from under me like a prankster’s trick.

I turned to go, and said over my shoulder: “Well, at least thanks for putting me out when it’s daylight.”

“Neesha…” her voice held a warning note, “you know I don’t want to do this.”

I stopped, but as I was turning to say, ‘Well then, don’t,’ the door closed with a soft click.

My smile was sad. She did that for herself, because I might have persuaded her to get herself in trouble with the Abbess. There was no love lost between them, but they were civil enough to each other, definitely so in front of the novices, but we all knew.

It was unfair of me to ask Sister Lunette to put herself on the line for me, though, and I knew it. I just didn’t care. I didn’t want to leave, because in spite of my ‘powers’ I had no clue how to survive in the world.

They’d only told me last night I was being put out.

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

The Abbess came with Sister Lunette and Sister Ceyri, a scribe, to my room.

Under Sister Ceyri’s arm, our Book of the Sacred Oracles. They made a show of opening it, all the while taking covert glances at me. I was different, I knew, but they looked at me now as if something was wrong.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

Sister Lunette’s look told me to let the silence reign, so I did. Abbess Celia saw it, and threw her a daggered look. Sister Lunette didn’t return it, but she didn’t cower under it either. 

“Tell the girl the truth, Abbess.” 

I raised my brows at Sister Lunette’s impertinence, but the Abbess sighed, and looked at me the way a scientist would regard a new species of slime-bug, part fascination, part disgust.

“Neesha, we have come upon a passage in this book that seems to reference you. It is indeed problematic for us all, but more so for you. It concerns the…issue…of your new eyes.

“Sister Ceyri will read the passage.”

Sister Ceyri couldn’t look at me as she cleared her throat, and ran her hands downward to smooth a habit that folded naturally, then pushed the few strands of hair that escaped her headpiece back over her ear, another unnecessary gesture.

But she didn’t bother to read it. she just told me.

“Neesha, this book tells us of you, and that you’ll become an enemy of our Order, and use what you’ve learned here not only for your self-interests, but for our destruction. It speaks of the eyes changing irreparably, irrevocably, to red, as yours have now done.

I guess my new eyes did something, because they all backed up a step.

I put my hands into the pockets of my cloak to hide the shaking, and to check the impulse to lash out.

‘A model novitiate.’ they called me at one time, as I distinguished myself from my peers, and now, they were telling me I was the undoing of centuries, if not eons, of an Order dedicated to helping others.

“That’s what your book says, Abbess Celia. What does your heart say?” I asked.

The question was overbold for one in my position, but I sensed my future was at stake, and there was no time for protocol and formalities now.

There was only decorum, and that hanging by a thread; it was the reason I’d used her title instead of calling her what I wanted to say.

“My heart tells me that you, whose very name means ‘night’, that all said of you in this book shall come to pass, and since we are now forewarned, we are exiling you, Neesha.” 

Sister Ceyri spoke then, as head of the Novices. “Your lessons with us are ended, too. I will send a novice to help you with packing. You leave tomorrow.

I hadn’t realized I sat down as Sister Lunette handed me a cup of water and gave me a sympathetic look. 

I took a sip to keep from sobbing, from screaming, from showing them they’d frightened me as they turned to go.

Sister Lunette stopped in the doorway to tell me how ‘so sorry’ she was.

‘Me too,” I said, wiping away the tears, and seeing the red light that filled my eyes reflected and refracted in the water on my hand. 

I sat back, finished the water, and breathed until my heart slowed, and a dark thought crawled across my mind like a crippled worm: Well then,  if you are so quick to make of me an enemy, Abbess Celia, then I shall prove myself a formidable one, indeed. 

 

 

 

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 bloody spit, my flesh growing even colder, limbs twisting in the manacles of mist, my soul crying out to silent gods in abandoned temples, and screaming my agony to a barren sky.

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

There is only now…