The Lady at the Top of the Stairs

On a father-daughter day out, they decided to go visit the old castle ruins as their last stop. It was off-season now, and the tourists were gone, but still available to the locals to access for another week before it officially closed.

 Best of all, he thought, it’s free.

Riva took off like a shot.

Hopefully her last burst of energy, and she’ll sleep on the way home. Did I have that much energy at seven?

He was tired now, and looked forward to dinner, a long hot shower, and being with his wife. It had been a good day, and he was hoping for an even better night.

She was already climbing the old castle’s stone stairs, enjoying the crunch of the autumn leaves beneath her pink Barbie sneakers,  by the time her father made the clearing and saw her there.

“Riva, come back, come down. There’s nothing up there, honey. You’ll fall.”

She smiled at him, the one that melted his heart like hot butter. “No I won’t, Daddy. The lady told me to come up. She said she won’t let me fall.”

“What lady?” Then he realized, her imagination had taken hold; this had just become more serious for him. Had the stairs not been as high, worn, and jagged as they were, he might have even laughed, but they were, and he was afraid for his little girl. At the top of the stairs, there was only a precipice, and if she fell, bones would be fractured, if not broken.

The sun was setting, the wind was picking up, and her hair was blowing all about her face like an unraveling bird’s nest.

He made an effort to keep his voice calm, patient, reassuring.

He put his arms out and opened his hands, flexing his fingers in a ‘come here’ gesture. “There’s nothing at the top of the stairs of the stairs, honey, no lady there. It’s good to pretend, but it’s getting late. Riva, you need to come down now.

“Don’t be scared. Daddy’s got you.”

She stared at him a moment, her little face as serious as he’d ever seen it, then she  pointed back up the stairs. “I’m not pretending, Daddy. She’s right there.”

She turned and looked back up, then back at him, fear in her eyes.

“You’re making her mad.”

He sighed. There was nothing to do now but go and get her. Kids, man…

“Riva, I’ve had enough. We’re leaving. Now.” He started walking up.

“Daddy, no.” She went up another two steps.

He took bigger strides, skipping steps now. “Don’t worry, honey. Daddy’s coming to get you.”
“Daddy stop! She’s going to hurt you.” Riva began to cry, and turned to run.

He just caught the bottom of her jacket, pulling her back, but something strong, sudden, and fierce  grabbed his arm, broke it at the elbow. Crying out, he released his grip, stunned and frozen in place as the pain shot through him.

Then it pushed him down the stairs.

Still dazed and hurting, he tumbled down a few steps and fell off the side, onto his back, hitting his head on a stone. It was bleeding, and he couldn’t move his legs. A cold, creeping numbing took hold of him, cradling him in its arms.

I’m going into shock.

At the top of the stairs, he saw the lady whispering into Riva’s ear. His daughter turned and looked back down at him, wiping her eyes, and waved to him.

“Bye, Daddy.”

The last thing he saw was the lady bending down to pick his daughter up, the bright pink of her sneakers fading to gray, then her jeans, then her jacket… the lady stepped off into the air where nothing was, and vanished.

He closed his eyes, waiting for death, hearing her last words over and over in his head, each time getting softer and further away.

Bye, Daddy.

 

Fables Untold

Elena sits under the maple tree,

 a book of spells resting upon her knee.

She speaks incantations, sips on her tea.

One spell is for her, the other for me.

From the Lost Age until Regeneration, the parents treated the Reapers history, and the blood price paid by the sorceress Elena to conquer them, as a fable, and the village children made it into a song and a game.

When the children sang the rhyme, not knowing what they did, the hidden twisted things that heard it surged upward with the promise of their release, gaining more ground each time, until the night they finally split the graves asunder and poured over the land in unholy celebration.

The village children paid the blood price with their lives, and  Reapers walked among us harvesting souls at will.

It fell to one of their own to stop them.

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

We were staring up at the vast, black, silent majesty of the night sky.

Elena took my hand.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I brought you home.”

“Home? This place is your home? Where is this?”

“It’s more of a ‘what’. This place is the source of all the earth’s magic.”

I couldn’t ask the question that sprang to mind, still taking it all in, but she somehow knew what it would be, and gave me a knowing smile.

“Yes, all of it, everywhere. Open yourself up to it; let it take you.”

“What if I lose control of it?”

“I’ll be your filter. Close your eyes, and don’t be afraid. If you’re afraid, it will manifest itself as something horrific.”

“And if I’m brave?”

She gave my hand a gentle, playful squeeze. “I’ll kiss you for your bravery.”

I stood up straight, squared my shoulders. “Then I shall be the bravest of all,” I said in a voice that made her laugh.

“Close your eyes, now, ” she said again, still smiling. She closed hers, her full attention and concentration on the moment at hand.

I closed mine, and after a few heartbeats it felt like I was floating down a river.

There was a blast of cold wind, and something slammed into me and separated us. I heard her calling my name, fearful and high, but…annoying, grating, hurting my ears.

Bring him back! Bring him back, damn you! Give him back to me! 

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

As  her voice faded, I was grateful I couldn’t hear it anymore. The fact that she was gone pleased me, though something else within me wanted to scream her name to let her know where I was.

I needed to take her hand again, and touch her lips with mine.

There was a name for that feeling, but I forget…

I heard children singing, faint and muffled, as if they were far away…

Elena sits under the maple tree…

(to be continued…)

 

Angels of Stone

He’d been reckless, arrogant, and cocky.

He knew that now, but he’d been caught and laid out in a makeshift coffin.

The alabaster face with the unnerving copper eyes staring down at him, contemplating the horror of what was happening, and taking pleasure in it, told him there was no chance of rescue or escape.

The cold, damp air held an atmosphere of dark anticipation, and the weak torchlight made the solemnity of his predicament worse. Beads of cold sweat slid into his eyes, and blinking them away took a frightening amount of effort for something that should have been an involuntary reflex.

Paralyzed, he decided to test his mouth; if he could form words, he would beg the thing for his life.

His plea for mercy, to his growing despair, was a keening mewl like a kitten in distress.

The thing’s smile was cold. “No, captain, there will be no mercy given.”

It sat on a stool placed next to his bier, and wiped a marble colored hand across his brow, then flicked the reeking sweat in his eyes.

Unable to turn his head, he only mewled louder.

“Does that hurt?”

He didn’t want to hear himself mewling again, but it hurt like hell.

Taking a deep breath while he still could, he tried to assess what was happening to him.

She told him, and he realized what he was going through was completely open to her, all his thoughts and emotions exposed  through the power of her spell.

“You’re turning to stone, Captain Arlen. It’s a slow spell, so you can feel what’s happening.”

He made a noise something like a gargling sigh, but he was trying to scream.

“I’m going after the rest of your men, too. Don’t worry, you won’t be alone. You should have stopped the slaughter, my friend. You could have ordered them to stop, but you told them to ‘have fun’ instead.

“Are you having fun now?”

She pointed at something in the room. “You can’t sit up, but the light you can still see  over there is an alcove with ensconced torches and a pedestal inside, so you’ll be illuminated for all to see.”

Standing now to look directly at him, she further explained.

“There used to be a circle of statues in this small pantheon, but I’ve had them all removed. The rest of your men, as I collect them, will occupy other pedestals.”

The hardening and turning of the captain’s skin had taken his throat, and was now creeping over his face. He tried with the strength remaining to close his eyes, and couldn’t.

“You’ll all be my stone angels, remaining on the ground for those of mine you sent into the afterlife. And like them, you’ll live forever.”

She touched the last of the flesh on his face and smiled again. “Just not the way you planned.”

He could no longer see, and the last thing he heard were her footsteps echoing the fading of his last heartbeats, and then he heard nothing at all.

 

 

 

 

 

Cursed Daylight

I hunt by day, but it’s not the priestess’s fault; I asked to be free of the night curse, but not to be free. She observed my mistake, and as those in the dark arts often do, mocked me for it.

Her mother cursed us to hunt by night. It seemed to be the right thing to do at the time, but it only escalated the war between us and the land dwellers.

In her defense, she only wanted to protect us by having us protect ourselves, because we were a staple to the economy.  The land dwellers  hunted us for our skin to make their clothing, and our meat to sustain their families.

No one knows if one of us went to the priestess, or if she came to us, but either way the curse was made.

I would have you understand that we did not start this war. The land dwellers would hunt us at night, lanterns bobbing  and swinging through the willows, and we’d flee before their guns, but the curse turned the tables.

The priestess made it so we could not only stand, but run, and because we looked so very much like our surroundings, especially in the darkness, the land-dwellers were easy prey. We skinned them, as they did us. We ate them, as they did us.

The blood slicked the mossy waters, and the willows wept indeed, alongside the spirits of those who hunted us.

We’d smile, and by day, we’d walk on fours once more.

In time, the land dwellers, having so many who did not return, came in waves and took us in large numbers by daylight, when we were helpless in our true forms. We did what we could to decimate them within the confines of our reptilian bodies, but they gained the advantage of numbers over time.

The priestess did not account for that, but every spell has its imperfections….

But I survived, and sought her descendant, stronger in the dark arts, and entreated her to free me of the night curse. I was going to hide, and run, and seek a quieter place.

There are no quiet places, she told me. But I will help you…

And so, I hunt by day, but it’s not the priestess’s fault.

 

 

Reaching for the Light

A single ray of light shines in the sewer of my life.

The water around me is foul beyond stench, and full of things that nip, suck, and bite, plundering my blood by the droplet.

These chains chafe my wrists, scraping my skin. The rust enters my bloodstream, making my impending death lethal and slow.

They’re heavy as well, and to a starving man, they weigh too much to keep my arms up or moving for a long time.I try to spit, but they’ve given me no water either.

I focus on the light.

“I belong up there. I belong in the light.”

The dark and silent cell mocks my feeble affirmation.

The light, dim as it is, hurts my eyes. Squinting doesn’t help much, but I see a small opening. It is just big enough for my fingers to get through.

You can touch freedom. It is just within your grasp.

I want to, more than anything, but the rational aspect of me tells me it’s a trap.

If you put your fingers out, someone will stomp them, or worse, cut them off.

The ray of light brightened, as if to say, I won’t let that happen. Come on, don’t be afraid.

And so, against everything in me screaming in fear, I reach up.

The light finds my fingers, and then they’re outside; I can feel the firm ground.

There’s a breeze, and warmth from the sun. 

I close my eyes, and picture myself sitting outside, sunning like a lizard, watching people interact with their world, free, happy, busy, and loving, the evil of the day content to rest unseen in the background. I find myself grateful for everything, even my solitude, basking in the sights and sounds around me.

Already, my thin, shaky arms grow tired.

A small clink from the chains tries to call me back from the reverie, like a parent whose willful child has wandered too far past an unseen boundary.

And like a willful child, I ignore the call, determined to stay in the light as long as I can.

The darkness can wait.

I leave it no choice, but it is patient. The fetid air shifts, as if the darkness smiles now, indulgent, content to let the consequence of the danger manifest itself to teach the wayward child.

The darkness does not understand the human will.

I don’t know how long I stood there surrounded by filth, but the light faded, and gravity’s laws soon exacted their cost. I was forced to release my infant grip on the surface above me.

Tomorrow, I may see the light again.

The air shifted, wafted over me, as if the darkness was angry now, carrying my scent to the things that nipped, bit, and sucked.

There will be no more tomorrows for you.

I heard them coming, gibbering chitters echoed, and splashes stirred the foul water.

          They seemed larger when they struck me, voracious, fierce, faster than before. 

          My instinct to flee was useless; these chains now anchored me to the spot where the light had shone.

          I was bleeding, and on my knees from the pain and poisons that flooded me.

There were tears in my eyes, and as I laughed the vermin went into my mouth and began to choke me from the inside. 

         The darkness had its way, took its time with me, but as I lost my sight and voice, and my heart was made prey to the vermin that consumed my flesh, the light appeared in the distance. 

        Come on. Don’t be afraid.

 

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.