Night Jackals (Enclave of Paradise short story)

Chapter 1: Chased

  In the razed city he called home, now full of booby trapped debris and mines placed around by the infiltrators from Above, the Enclave was a lot more dangerous now than it had been since the rebellion failed. 

     The place had a name of its own once, but he’d been born into the time of war and had been too young to say it.

     Now, it seemed no one remembered it. 

     They called it the Enclave of Paradise, as sarcastic and bitter a name as they could get without being openly profane, though he saw no reason they shouldn’t be.

      At the moment though, Chase was panting for breath, running from the night jackals who were hunting him in a pack of four. 

     He could hear them spatter and splatter through the chemically laced ‘rainwater’ from Above. 

     The Night Jackals were new. No one had seen them come, and no one noticed them until their numbers were sufficient, 

      Then they went on a few tentative hunts, feeding mostly off animal strays. 

     They picked off people walking alone or drunk. If they happened to be both, it made for an early night when the alcohol hit the jackals’ bloodstream

.

     He had a flashing thought that was supposed to be, of all things, humorous: They’re chasing Chase.

    He dismissed it as not funny, and turned to see the pack of four coming for him. 

    What was even more chilling was the fact that they ran completely silent, with no warning. It happened so fast that it was effective in keeping down the neighborhood population.

    The Night Jackals were killers in their own right, relentless, patient, and silent as Death’s reaper.

     His gun was charged, but he’d lose ground for sure if he stopped to fire it, and he was no good at running and shooting simultaneously.

     Chase’s breathing grew labored.

     The jackals closed, beginning to yip as the excitement of the pending kill gave them adrenaline. 

     You’re not gonna make the gates, Chase. Take cover in the rubble. 

      He muttered a curse. The rubble was where the traps, bandits, other ferals, orphans, street people, and who-all-else-knew what was in there.

      Still, it was now or never. 

      He changed course, and the jackals grew more cautious. They were clever animals, Chase would give them that much, but that’s as far as he wanted to take it. 

      He measured the jump into the pile of metal, stone, and glass.

      Ready? Three steps.

      Set? Two steps.

      Now! 

Chapter 2: Trapped

      There was no cover, but he fell into a hole and gashed his arm on something spiky.

      The thwarted pack of jackals growled in frustration, losing sight of him, but not his scent.

      He realized, only after he bit his lip and wiped the tears of pain from his eyes, that he trapped himself.

        He heard one of them climbing, carefully, picking its way up so as not to cut itself.

        It had the luxury of time. 

        Chase went to pull his gun, but his arm was shaking and he couldn’t land a grip on the handle. 

        He couldn’t see it, but the other three jackals circled the heap to find another way in on the ground. What he did know was that he was losing precious seconds bumbling his firearm.

       He gripped his right wrist in his left fist and breathed deeply despite the flaring pain along his forearm and biceps.

       The jackal now scented the blood that ran from Chase’s wound.

       It growled deep in anticipation of the feast, then slipped, losing its footing.

       Chase heard it yelp, and the others answered.

       After a tense silence, he heard them climbing, picking their way up once more as their paws struck tin. 

       He couldn’t stay there now even though he had the gun. Times were hard and they were hungry; they’d attack him as a pack even though space was tight.  

       Looking around, he saw nothing he could shove to dislodge them again.

       Another low growl came from above, and a drop of blood fell on his gashed arm.

       The alpha was staring at him, its paw dripping. 

       Having nothing to lose now, he screamed and fired.

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

      Singed, the jackal barked, retreated, then growled low again.

      The other three cleared the top, and Chase circled as fast as he could, still screaming, still firing.

      He hit two of them in the face. One fell back down the heap as it died, and the other ran off with its lower jaw destroyed. 

      Two left

      The Alpha peeked over again, and snarled, 

      Chase felt his arm going numb and his fingers tingling; he had no idea how he was still holding the gun, or how long he’d be able to keep it. 

      The Alpha’s face disappeared again, and while Chase watched, the night jackal behind him jumped.

      Chase crashed into the opposite wall, the gun falling out of his hand.

      It became a race for throats, and Chase barely won as the jackal’s neck twisted in desperation beneath his hand. The scent of blood seemed to increase the jackal’s strength, and its eyes went from gold to red as it thrashed to make its escape. 

      Chase managed to turn it on its side, lest the claws scratch his almost useless right arm. 

      Putting his full weight onto the jackal’s ribs, he squeezed its neck to limit movement. 

      It seemed to take a long time for it to die; had his right arm been good, he would’ve broken its neck. As it was, he was so focused on killing it he forgot about the Alpha. 

      Powerful jaws clamped his bicep and the fangs sent a fresh wave of pain through his arm as he cried out.

      His arm jerked back and slammed the jackal’s head into the wall of junk surrounding them, hoping its head would get cut open, but instead it lost its grip and fell stunned to the floor. 

      Chase took the opportunity to stomp the other one’s ribs into its lungs, and it died with a loud yelp.

      Hurriedly, Chase looked for the gun; he’d fire it left handed if need be, but he didn’t see where it had skittered under a pile of rusted tin and busted garbage bags the rats had opened nightly.

      The Alpha was recovering. 

      Chase kicked it twice in the head, dropping it. 

        His right arm now hung useless at his side.

        He had to finish this now. 

        The rats were gathering after scenting fresh blood, some of them already at the dead body Chase made. 

        He grabbed the Alpha by its tail and slammed it into a side wall of horizontal tin panels, cutting it. 

        The noise from the jackal was loud and piercing, hurting Chase’s ears, but he swung it twice more, slicing is back open.

        Past the point of fighting, the jackal whimpered, its eyes turning red as Chase pushed its neck onto a rusted tin panel and scraped its neck back and forth in a sawing motion. 

       More chittering rats came as jackal blood spurted over Chase’s clothes and face. 

       A wave of exhaustion came too, and he found himself fighting to stay conscious.

Chapter 3:  Escaped

        Chase vomited.

        The scent of blood and guts, the increasing boldness and numbers of the rats, and the fact that he almost died were beginning to take their toll.

        Standing near a wall of rubble, he swatted at a rat that jumped on the wound in his arm. Slapping it off hurt it more, but it had to be done before the rat got its teeth and claws into him. 

        He just needed to get out, but couldn’t climb now without making a path through the rats. 

        For now, they were still concentrating on the jackals, but they were sniffing the air at his rising fear, and he had to kick the closest ones away to keep space around him. If they started to climb his body, he was lost. 

        Taking a breath, he carefully scanned for a handhold; he’d have to start with his right arm to see if it could take the stress. The climb wasn’t long or steep, but it would take effort. 

        The light coming through the holes in the ground above Paradise was starting to move west, and Chase knew he couldn’t afford to lose the light. 

          A movement in his peripheral caught his attention. 

          The rats were growing sluggish, even beginning to stand still.

          What’s happening to them?

          Clearing his mind, he went back to his search, and saw a space just above his head between two cast off doors that he could slip his hand through. If they held his weight, he’d use them to search for the next one.

           The rats began chittering. Some had fallen on thier sides, and others on their backs.

           The jackal’s guts….something’s wrong with them.

            He grabbed the end of the door above his head, the gash in his arm sending pain that made him bite his lip and breathe heavily through his nose as consciousness feinted to elude him again.

Once more it passed, and he pulled at the door. It held.

He put his left hand in the gap, and stood on his toes. Moment of truth.

Taking another deep breath, he pushed off, finding a foot hold somewhere below just as a rat jumped onto his leg. In desperation he swung his leg back and slammed his boot back into the foothold, and the rat fell.

Chase pushed up on his arms, and began to climb, giving vent to a growl of effort that sounded a lot like the jackals.

He put his left hand in the gap, and stood on his toes. Moment of truth.

Taking another deep breath, he pushed off, finding a foothold somewhere below just as a rat jumped onto his leg. In desperation he swung his leg back and slammed his boot back into the foothold, and the rat fell.

Tensing as a couple of pieces dislodged and fell along with it, he kept still.

When nothing more crashed down on him, he  began to climb, giving vent to a growl of effort that sounded not unlike the jackals.

Chapter 4: Freed

He lost track of everything but the next handhold and foothold.

Time faded, and the pain in his shaky right arm eventually numbed with adrenaline, but was still bleeding since he couldn’t bind it. It was slow, but it was there.

He was working against both as the last of the light faded and the adrenaline wouldn’t last.

Among the surviving rats, some began to pick the carcasses of their dead, and others tried to find a way up the pile to Chase.

He took a glance up, and liked his chances, but the rats were just as determined.

A beam of bright light lit the precarious catwalks above his head, and he muttered a mild curse of frustration as he lifted up enough to be able to reach the top.

Search party or patrol? Friend or foe?

He heard the sound of boots drawing close.

“He came this way.”

“Why?”

“Who knows? We’ll give it five more minutes. I don’t want to be down here when it’s dark.”

Chase knew the voices. “Over here, guys.” 

The sound of boots came faster.

The yipping of night jackals could be heard in the distance.


Seaspell

Chapter 1:  Lure

   The old woman, the one who’d only seemed frail at first sight, stood on the rocks above the shoulders of a younger woman, partially hidden by the young woman’s billowing dress as the wind put their hair in back of them, silver strands and raven tresses dancing together in the brine scented breeze, like a thin spirit with a large shadow. 

   The sky threatened rain, but neither seemed concerned.

   Both looked out at the calm, gray horizon framing the restless waves of a dark gray ocean as they pulled their robes tighter around them for warmth.

   A rising tide roared into the stones, and hissed in foamy frustration as it receded to gather its strength for another surge.

   “Close your eyes,” the old woman said, “and be sure this is what you want to do.”

   The young woman obeyed as her elder began to softly chant in a quavering singsong.

    The gods of water, shell, and fish,

    And sunken treasure grant your wish

   The singing sirens long ago

   Now meet along the currents flow

   So let the weed wrapped hook we place

   Bring these young lovers here apace

   And let the rusted anchor’s weight

   Bind both their hearts in happy fate

   So the young maiden and the crone

   Do now release this chanted drone

  What we have asked, please let it be,

  Fulfilled for us by spell of sea.

  As the seaspell faded into the wind, the young girl saw the face of the man she loved.

  It was time.

  In one hand she held a kelp-wrapped hook, and in the other, an old anchor speckled with rust.

  Trembling, she knelt and tied one of the ends of the kelp around the anchor, and placed the whole between two gapped stones so it couldn’t be displaced by the water or sliding mud.

   “Good,” said the old woman.

   “Do you know how long it will take, Nan?”

   The old woman gave a knowing smile at the impatient longing of a young woman in love.

   “Not knowing where he is, or if he’s still alive, there’s no way to tell. Unfocused seaspells, given a purpose but not a  location, take longer to work.

   “Trust me, even now, the wind and waves carry your call. 

   “Let the charm do its work, dear. You’ve placed it well, and it will not move until he answers.”

    The next wave sprayed them, the tide coming in a bit faster than they’d realized.

     Nan gave a soft laugh. “Come, child. I’ve managed many crafts, but flying isn’t one of them.”

     It warmed the old woman’s heart to see her granddaughter smile as they linked arms to help each other make their way back up the rocks.

Chapter 2:  Catch

    At first, the journey hadn’t gone well. 

    Both men and supplies had been lost, as they had to defend their royal cargo more than once.

    Now, the wind had stalled for days

    Hunger and thirst had taken more of them, and the sharks visited daily to reap the harvest.

    The ones that remained would see the fins coming at dawn, silent as the sun itself, but a lot swifter in their killing.

     Surprised he’d survived this long, mostly using the memory of their parting kiss and how soft her lips had been, he’d given the memory over when he could no longer afford to be distracted by foolish thoughts of her form wrapped around his, her passion tearing through him as he released his own. 

     But now the sails were full, the currents kind, the night sky suitable for navigating, and the day one deceptively genial. 

    They’d made what repairs they could, and hoped the sea gods wouldn’t sink the ship in amusement at their feeble efforts.

    For now they’d been spared, so the captain told them the next port they made would be the last. Resigned to the end of his sailing career, he’d send the remaining cargo on the vessel of a trusted friend, the king be damned, and take the full brunt of his wrath for the losses.

    As they made their way, her memory came back to him. It was so seemingly random, and so stark in its clarity that he gasped in surprise. For an instant, it had been as if she were standing beside him.

     When the image faded, he rubbed the left side of his chest. It felt as if his heart was tingling, with just a pinprick of pain.

    The captain saw him leaning across the rail, dry heaving.

     “Are you all right, Mattias?”

     “I will be, Captain.” He didn’t remember feeling like he had to dry heave, but there it was.

     “Go lay down. All’s well up here at the moment. I’ll send a mate down if we need you.”

     “Aye, sir.”

     “And Mattias, if you need to help yourself to some leaking rum, I’ll not throw you in the brig for it.” 

     “Aye sir, and thank you.”

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

   The pain in his heart eased, but didn’t go away;  it felt more like light pressure, like a small item held between two fingers.

    He couldn’t help but wonder why her memory came back to him just before that happened.

    She’d told them something of their lineage, but it seemed fanciful to him that such a thing as sea witches actually existed. He’d indulged her, wondering if she was daft, but not enough to call off dallying with her if it proved true.

   It would be nice to wake up to news that they’d made land so that the repairs they did so haphazardly weren’t just to delay the inevitable. 

                                                   ***********

   Chapter 3: Release

   He never remembered when or how he got in one of the remaining lifeboats, or why he’d even leave the ship to do so. His last memory had been of falling asleep as the ship made its way to the nearest port.

   He woke to find himself shirtless, rowing in the growing heat of a climbing sun.

   He tried to stop and get his bearings, see what he’d taken and take stock of what he’d need, but when he went to bring the oars out of the water, it was almost as if they were stuck.

   When he simply tried to stop rowing, he found that he couldn’t. 

   His mind racing, through the force of a rapidly shredding will he forced down the panic.

   He wasn’t in pain, and the curious pressure that had been around his heart had eased even more, but was still present, as if the fingers were taking their time releasing him, caressing him with slow, tender strokes, almost in a beckoning way. It felt pleasant, and oddly warm..

    She’d laughingly told him that if he were gone too long, there was a ritual to call him home.

    He laughed too, not believing for an instant that she had any power at all.

    It was then he knew, without knowing, that he’d been enchanted, and sea witches were real.

Chapter 4: Haul

    Standing on the rocks, alone now, next to the hook and anchor she placed, she saw the lifeboat, but not him. She thought it was the sun at first, but as her eyes adjusted, he was nowhere to be seen.

    Her heart skipped.

    Reeling in her panic, she clambered down the rocks to the beach proper, lifting the hem of her dress as she ran across the sand to pull him in over the shallows.

    Time was of the essence if he was hurt, unconscious, or both.

    The worst case passed through her mind as well, like a storm cloud covering the sun, but she dared not stop to look at it.

    In desperation, she waded out as far as she dared, at first thinking she might be able to swim, but the long dress grew heavy as the water soaked into it and stopped her.

    The boat drew inexorably closer, and the emptiness of it began to become more real to her the closer it came.

    What have I done?

    Nan’s quavering singsong played once more in her mind, and the ocean blurred as tears welled. 

    Have I brought him home, only to lose him?

    She found she was trembling, but not from the cool of the surf.

    The boat was now close enough for her to grab hold and pull.

    Grabbing it just behind the bow, she cried out as she saw him lying there shirtless, sunburned, and shriveled from dehydration.

    Frantic, she splashed her way to the back even as the dress grew heavier, and pushed with all her might as fast as she could go, not caring what the water did.

                                                   **********

    Her hands, sore from pushing the boat, placing it on its side, and pulling Mattias’ body onto the sand, now touched his chest with tender fingers as they searched for a heartbeat.

    Murmured words of encouragement for both of them was the only sound other than the susurrating waves. She hoped he could hear them, and that he’d fight for his life, and in so doing, hers too.

    In a small stream she poured fresh water she’d brought from the well at home over his parched lips, waiting for him to cough, blink, open his eyes…

   Nothing.

   The first gull flew overhead, and called a long, plaintive note that echoed across the beach.

   She panicked then; if enough of them came they’d not leave her in peace until they ran her off so they could have him.

   Forcing herself to calm down, she placed her hands flat on his chest.

   His flesh was cold, but something happened; a beat that seemed more of a light tap than a healthy pulse pushed against her palms.

   He’s alive, barely. She fought the urge to weep. 

   There was more to be done; she needed to be certain.

                                                     ***********

    At the beginning, the surge of power was hesitant since his flesh was cold, the magic driving the search for life in him uncertain of what needed to be done.

    She longed now for the gift of second sight, for something that would proclaim him living beyond her doubts.

    Pressing once, twice, she cried out as with the third push a flash of white light surrounded the both of them and singed the circling gulls to ashes in mid flight.

   When her vision cleared, her arms tingled from the power of what she’d done,  and her swollen fingers had punctured his chest, the nails not quite embedded in his heart.

    She looked up at his face.

    He was… 

The Baby Monitor

Chapter 1: The Husband

    The nursery was done.

John had checked all the new tech to make sure it worked. He’d spared no expense on the bells and whistles, and stated to himself that if a spider farted in its web anywhere near the new baby’s crib, they’d know.

     Taking a step back to admire his work, he turned to his wife Megan and smiled. 

     She smiled back, but it was more like an attempt than an actual smile, and John’s brow furrowed in concern. 

    The baby growing inside her seemed to keep her wan and listless, so her smile was weak. He also noticed that her eyes, usually so bright and full of life, were red and tired from fitful nights of sporadic sleep. 

    He knew she needed to see a doctor outside of their regular appointments, but she kept assuring him whatever was ailing her would pass, so not to upset her further he backed off to let her sort it out. 

     Looking down at her now, he couldn’t do that anymore. 

     Something was wrong, and what should have been a happy occasion was turning into something dark and maudlin. 

     Not meaning to make it about him, but doing it, John decided he couldn’t live with that if something happened to his wife because he was clueless.

     Also not meaning to make decisions for Megan, but doing it, he wouldn’t let her wave him off anymore; she was going to see a doctor whether she wanted to or not, and if she didn’t want to go to an office, there was enough to pay for a house call.

    Now that it was settled in his mind, he held her hand and pointed with his free one, explaining all the bells and whistles, what they did, and why he installed it. 

Chapter 2: The Wife

      He’d done a great job, she could see that. 

      He always did, and probably always would do a great job. 

      He did a great job selling you to marry him, after what you said…

      She smiled as he nattered on, remembering she’d told him she’d never get married. 

      Now here they were, not only married, but in a self-made nursery. 

      How did we get here, Megan? Where did you go?

      No, this hadn’t been in the plans, her plans anyway, but he’d been so excited when she told him that she actually got caught up in it. 

      The weeks flew by at first, and she enjoyed his attention, but at times he became cloying when she just wanted peace. He’d fire questions at her as if he’d never taken sex ed in school sometimes. 

     She knew it came from a place of love, that he wanted to look after her. He liked looking after her. He liked needing to be needed.

     That’s what husbands are for. He said it so much for so long, she began to get caught up in that too, but now, standing beside him, her belly stretched and stretching farther, she was simply no match for the seemingly endless waves of energy he exuded. 

     Seeing the concern in his eyes appear as his smile vanished, she knew then that whatever he saw in her face was not good.  She also knew what he’d say next when he finished his guided tour of shiny new tech she couldn’t care less about, and that she wouldn’t be allowed to say no this time.

Chapter 3: The Baby Monitor

       These human things, they never learn. They make it embarrassingly easy for us to enter their world, and make their lives unbearable before we make them ours. 

     The little ones, the portals, are the most vulnerable, newly cast from our own world. They are the easiest. They have no strength to resist us, but they know something’s wrong, and cry.

     The parents arrive then, concerned and fussing, soothing the portal until it goes back to sleep. 

     Some of us slip from the portals to stay and make sport until they all leave the house.

     Other times, they’ll summon their clerics to summon their gods to be rid of us.

     Some of us take the portals back, but to other places, and the big ones get sad and don’t stay together.

    In the old times they placed their wards and slept by the portal’s side, or had the portal sleep beside them so they could protect it if we sent our familiars. 

   Not so, now. They have given the care of their portals over to these things they call cameras, with machines that make hissing noises to sooth the portal and make it rest. 

    That’s when we strike.

    Even now, this one leeches the female’s soul as well as her body.

    I think it wants to come back and bring her with it. 

    The male will intervene, and have someone try to make her whole again. 

    We shall see, but for now we wait.

    And watch.

Don’t You Want Me Back?

     It stank in this place where I ‘self-medicated’. 

     I called it that because I didn’t want to say I was strung out on something I’d actually forgotten the name of, because I was that addicted. 

     But the alternative of memory was worse, and death would have been a lot more certain.

     As it was, it all seemed unreal.

     When Carla died in the accident, I broke down, lost everything, because she’d been a lifeboat in an ocean of garbage, betrayal, and abuse.

    She was the one light in the darkness, and I walked toward it as she walked toward me, though I’ll never figure out what it was she saw other than a shadow trying to crawl out of the void. 

    I didn’t  know that shadows have no business crawling toward light.

    I’m sorry, Carla. I thought that sentence for untold times, for untold years as the chemical cocktails I indulged in began to dissipate my body.

   I was okay with that, but then I saw Carla one night in the small hours of the morning, standing in the corner of my hovel.

   “There is a way…” she told me. 

   I grasped at the chance. “Tell me how.” 

   She told me, and the following night I went to see.

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

    This place stank too, but more of an effort was made to cover it up.

    It stank of desperation, hope, and ruin, and its appearance was almost a parody of a carnival fortune teller, but the old woman who owned the place took herself seriously, and I should have done that too.

    “Your Carla, she died in an accident,” the old woman told me. “Do you want her back?”

    I swallowed, nodded, and took the offered bottled water. My body’s moisture had been gulped by the chemicals I put into it two hours ago, and decided to go do what Carla told me as reason and the ability to function flickered under the drug’s onslaught.

    “She told me there’s a way…”

    “Yes. Do you know where she is?”

    I did. The family came and put her there, blamed and rejected me, and cut me off from Carla in a way I never had been in life.

    But she loved me and came to me, even if I was the cause of her end.

    I didn’t think I was, but guys like me never blame themselves.

    “Yes.”

    “Do you want her back?”

    “Yes.”

    She looked at me for a long moment, so long that I began to shift in my seat, sipping the water to keep up my end of the silence.

     Finally, she nodded. “Very well. It will not be pleasant, and I make no guarantees.”

     I held up a hand to stop her from going further. “Wait a minute. Will she be as I remembered, or as she is now?”

      It had been a while, and I’d read stories about this kind of thing before…before all this.

      She gave a heavy sigh that puffed up her round, stunted body for a moment and made her look, just for a second, like a beating heart. 

      “I make no guarantees.” 

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

      She said something about blood, and making a sacrifice, and digging Carla up, and some words I was supposed to say. 

     I didn’t do any of it, even after making plans to break in, or climb, or do whatever it took. 

     The place was in a wealthy, snobby neighborhood, so there’d be video, security, twenty four seven protection; I’d stand out like a bloodstain on white marble, sure to be harassed by the cops.

     After that, who knew? They’d be free to do what they want with me, and to me.

     I laughed at myself, imagining my clothes to be in the style of some Victorian grave robber digging up corpses for money, my one and only contribution to science. 

     But as I kept putting it off, something in me changed, and for some reason the chemical need didn’t seem as urgent now.

     Carla came to me again, between injections, as I was letting the last one fully dissipate. 

    Where are you, Warren? She told me you came to see her, and she told you what to do.

    I sat up in bed, despite the pain it caused. I had to see her, but I didn’t want to be prone and vulnerable. “She did.” 

    Carla looked like she always had before the accident, but I could see the cracks in the broken wall behind her now. The last time, I couldn’t. 

    But you didn’t come for me. I thought you loved me.

    “I did. I still do.”

   Then why haven’t you done what she told you? I’m waiting, but every day you don’t, I get weaker.

   Don’t you want me back?

   “I did, but I didn’t want you back…like you are, there in the ground now.”

   What?

    “I asked her if you’d come back to me like you were in life, or now. She told me she couldn’t make any guarantees. In other words, she didn’t know. If she’s all that good, with all the people she’s supposed to have helped, why wouldn’t she know?”

   Carla floated there in front of me, silent, her sunken eyes still somehow managing to convey hurt at my hesitancy, at the fact that I’d even delayed at all to what…rescue her?

   You’re leaving me.

    I got up on my feet. “Carla…” I moved toward her spirit.

    You’re leaving me! 

    Her flash of anger made me jump, and I stopped moving. 

    The silence grew tense, long, awkward. She was waiting for me to confirm it. 

    I merely sighed, which said everything I couldn’t. 

    Then come to me, she said.

    “What?” 

    Come join me, Warren. Put together one last blast of what makes you feel good, and join me here. We’ll be together again, with no one to stop us.

    I considered it. Everything was there, in full view. 

    Everything was there but the need for it. 

    Warren…? She was still there, but a darkness in the center of her manifestation was slowly spreading. 

    I looked back at the busted table, and all I had to do was use the equipment to feel that familiar, toxic warmth once more, feel it for the last time.

    The old woman said it would take a sacrifice, but didn’t say it would be me. 

    Warren, don’t you want me back?

    I don’t know how much longer I stood there in the sick, shadowed darkness of what I’d become, in the small hours of a cold night with a chill wind storming the cracked windows,  driving out the cloying, putrid stink of my wasted life, and taking something else with it.

    I only know that when I turned to look again for Carla, for the ghost of the woman who’d been the light in my earthly darkness, she was gone.

    It was only then I realized our roles had been reversed.

Transitions

 I was bent over her, offering what small comforts I could in her final moments, but yes, I was also curious as well when I looked into her eyes.

  They were yet beautiful, and still full of life, but restless despite my murmuring of vague and pointless reassurances she’d be fine, when she was so clearly not; they couldn’t seem to focus on my face.

   As I was the one responsible for her current state, I wasn’t so sure I’d look at me either.

   She’d lost a lot of blood and was starting to tremble, her right hand squeezing mine in a desperate attempt to anchor herself to the living world as my tears fell on her cheeks to mingle with her own.

   I called her name.

   For a moment, it brought her back from wherever she was, and she stopped trembling.

   “Help me,” she whispered through dry, cracked, bloody lips.

   “I want to help you, but you have to choose. Now.”

   The scent of her leaking blood was intoxicating, and as much as I knew what I would have chosen for her, it had to be her decision, and hers alone.

   She struggled, blinking rapidly, and breathing became harder.

   Her wounds filled and emptied with red life with each heartbeat, and I trembled myself from the sheer effort it took to keep my focus.

   Again, the squeezed hand for something to anchor her and keep her safe from the unknown realm of spirits.

    “I…can’t…”

    I smoothed her hair from her forehead and pulled her close.

    “Do you trust me, then?” 

    “Yesss.”

                                                     **********

    Despite my frantic need, the bite was tender, the herald fangs well placed, compensating for the curve to fit snug into the vein that would give me back my own life, cursed as it was.

    I sobbed with the pleasure and gratitude of the warmth that filled me, pulling the wasted nourishment away from the holes in her body that spilled it on the ground.

    Holding her with both my hands on her back, braced in my arms, she shuddered against me as I worked. Her loud gasp of finality was music in my ear as she slumped against me, and her nails scratched my forearms.

     I felt her life slip, and bit deeper in a final bid to make this work. It was selfish and cruel on my part, but I couldn’t let her go yet. 

     Caught up in the sensations, I closed my own eyes and gave myself over to our moment.

                                                    ***********

     I don’t know how long we stayed in that terrible, tender tableau of damnation, but her skin was cold against my cheek when I felt her lips move to give me a tender kiss and whisper my name.

     My eyes opened, boring into hers, looking for fear, questions, loathing, and horror at what she’d allowed herself to become. 

     There was only a calm acceptance, her eyes as clear and lovely as ever, scanning my face.

     “You came back to me.” 

“I never left, you fool.” She nestled on my shoulder.

I suppose, all things considered, she didn’t.

Spending the Night

He was twice cursed: once to walk the night, and twice, to feel every cosmic shift of the stars, to hear its spirits calling, crying, and keening all around him.

He saw the roiling atoms of life grind and flow to make the very dark that cloaked his hands with frost, and burned his skull with eyes of fire.

Even the spirits paused in their wanderings to let him pass.

The damned saw him in all his splendor, the gems and gold that bedecked and dripped from his limbs, and the exalted blessed fled from the sight of his malformed, wretched nakedness.

And when he wished it, all fled from his presence, leaving him to hear his own feet crunch, splash, shuffle, and run, feeling the pain of never resting, even when the silence of a universe devoid of gods and magic mocked his tears where the trails scraped like small claws and tasted of brine, and he would beg for death’s peace.

Death would reveal himself, shake his silent skull ‘no,’ and disappear. Again.

And step after he weary step, he wandered on.

And wanders still.

BUZZARD

Chapter 1: A Buzzard’s Circle

   Ours was a small town, but shrouded in dark secrets, and steeped in bad, bloody practices. The forest around us was cursed and haunted with the spirits of burned witches, tortured slaves, and small, shallow graves full of the indiscretions of the town’s self-proclaimed holy men. They sometimes paid unholy men to rid them of those indiscretions for good, or to see to it they didn’t stay anywhere close.

     The man who was now responsible for burying them all seemed himself to never age, though he was clearly on the other side of youth. He worked alone, and hard.

    Overall, he seemed fit enough, and did the job well.

    Of course, being quiet and aloof he came under suspicion, though he seemed a naturally quiet man content with his lot in life. His reluctance to offer any sort of consolation to the grieving seemed more out of surliness than a quiet personality.

    His name was foreign and difficult to pronounce for our plain tongues, and though no one knows or remembers who started it, he was nicknamed ‘Buzzard,’ because he seemed content to dwell there among the dead, though a house had been purchased for him in the town proper. 

    He set up a room in the sexton’s workshed and slept there. 

    Being under suspicion for his ways, the town council tested him by sending prostitutes, con men, and the occasional bounty hunter, to see what his character was made of and how prone he was to bribery’s corruption.

    All of them returned quickly, having been rebuffed in a quick and efficient manner.

    With the hunters, some of whom were offered a bounty for his head, not all of them returned; whether they died or got away is anyone’s guess. The ones who did kept their silence, and never came back.

    The women cited the Buzzard’s intense scrutiny that bore through their fakery and chilled them to the bone.

    His secrets were safe, whatever they were. 

    But the council was more determined than smart, and by the time they found out Buzzard’s true nature, it was too late.  

2: The Final First Warning

    At the time of the next town gathering to discuss bringing in and distributing the harvest, Buzzard showed up late and took a seat in the back. He paid no attention to the silence that fell over the Hall. He’d never shown up to a gathering before. 

    He looked at no one, and said nothing, but his eyes were all business.

    He figured out what they were doing, and he came here to let them know he wasn’t pleased.

    When the meeting was over, Buzzard moved to block the door, and those nearest him recoiled when his gaze swept over them. They recoiled a bit further as he spoke.

    “This will be your only warning. Leave me be. I bury your dead, respectfully and thoroughly.

    “Been doing it a long time, and I’ll keep doing it ‘til my own time. Leave it at that, and leave me be.”

    No one said anything, and he stepped aside to let them pass, turning his gaze to the council in the front of the room, who decided to leave by another door rather than pass him. 

   A couple of them challenged his staring, but their nerves failed them. It was as if they realized he might do any number of things to them at any time, because they knew almost nothing about him. 

                                                        ***********

    Leave it at that.

    It was too late. He piqued my youthful curiosity, and I had to get this figured out.

    I convinced two of my friends to come with me to spy on him after midnight.

*art by bzitz*

An Inheritance of Light

All I could think of was how beautiful you looked, even through the downpour.

Your stance so regal, dark-gowned, standing full height in the wind-tossed high grass

Your bearing, not defiant, but trusting that the power so rapidly bearing down upon you, dread and awful in its unpredictability when bequeathed to your forebears, would find no fault or make exceptions.

My heartbeat matched the shimmering rhythm of the thick, slashing rain seeking to smash through the window. I had to shield my eyes against the sizzling brightness of untethered lightning striking in several bolts, but I saw when it hit you.

I saw you fall, believing you dead, burned to a bloody pile of bone and ash to be swept away across the open field, the rushing wind scattering your remains like sand from a child’s fist.

Then I wept for you all through the wet, stormy night thinking your new power found fault in you after all and punished you for the crimes of your soul.

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

At first, the smoldering grass hid you from me.

When you finally emerged, walking toward me, unsteady as newborn fawn, the sight of you was terrible and beautiful, spellbinding and repulsive. I confess that fear and lust waltzed within me at the sight of you, rescued and resurrected, by a hand unseen yet not unfamiliar.

The dark, vengeful fallen one, swatted from Paradise like the very flies he commands, took pity on himself, raising you to be yet another useless minion to strike another feeble blow at his celestial conqueror.

Closer still, our eyes locked. There was sadness in your gaze, even through the iridescence of your glowing irises.

The field that newly took the trauma of your birthing, now tinged with the light of false dawn, gave the wet, charred grasses over to cold death as the morning dew drowned the rest of the small, clingy fires..

You walked back into a world that no longer knew you, and held me tight.

And in my weakness, I suffered the bite that transported me, and took the mark that condemned me to be with you to endure unbearable pain, knowing you were no longer who you were.

I wondered if together, in the inheritance of damnation’s light, we would we learn to love again.

In time?

For eternity?

Does it matter?

Vision Aerie (1: The Caul of War)

Years later, standing there alone in the center of the sizzling, stinking, fire strewn rubble, I was left without a sense of peace or resolution following the enemy’s defeat.

As the sun set in the very shades of the blood we spilled, those who gathered round to gawk at the remains of their invaders likely felt a sense of ‘closure,’ but the only thing that closed for me that day were the gates of any celestial paradise to my immortal, trembling, wailing soul, and I left them to bury their dead, and loot what they desired, reminded once more of the calling that followed me, and the curse that followed the call.

***********

I was in their world, even then, and while not quite understanding what was wrong, I knew that something wasn’t right.

The spirits were all around the onlookers staring into my cradle. A swirling mass of black shapes and shadows, they too turned their gazes on me, peering as they assessed the threat.

I stopped pulling at my face and returned their silent scrutiny, looking past the smiling, cooing, babbling faces that were a hair’s breadth away from having their souls snatched from the land of the living the way a cutpurse steals the gold of the unsuspecting.

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

The onlookers were now cheering, surrounding my body, kissing my cheek soiled by ashes and blood, pounding my back, and offering hands to shake that I ignored.

I was a foreigner here; I had no tribal marks, nor spoke their language, but their grateful smiles convinced me that I’d helped win the long, protracted war against the invading hordes that seemed to continually plague them. As the cheering continued, despite my reluctance, in my own relief I began to return their smiles, and in a rush of pride foolishly, foolishly roared my hollow victory to the equally hollow sky, or so I thought.

But the gods that dwelled in hallowed halls had just begun to make the path crooked as they played with my life.

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

The spirits around my family and their friends all turned their attention to a dark haired, dark eyed woman who took my infant fists in her hand, and leaned over to get my attention.

Everything went still, and with three of her long fingernails and a practiced motion she lifted the caul from my face, letting it dangle for a few seconds while she cleaned my face with the damp, warm cloth in her other hand.

My face was cold, and I suppose blue, because she set the cloth aside and rubbed my cheeks with her soft palms as she turned to reassure my mother I would live.

When she took the caul, it was not a tearing off, but more like an extraction of something inside me, like lovers releasing a long, hard hug.

She put it somewhere on her person, and the spirits began to disappear from my sight, as grim and deathly silent as they’d manifested.

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

As the sense of relief at their liberation swelled, I found myself lifted and carried on shoulders that bobbed and dipped not unlike the ocean. Whether it was from drunkenness or weakness. I couldn’t tell, and it didn’t matter, but I bunched some fabric on shoulders in my fists and held on, not knowing where they were taking me.

Inevitably, the toll of the fight took my consciousness as its prize, and the last thing I remember was a pair of large hands peeling me off the revelers’ shoulders, and lifting my prone body into the air.

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

I woke up in my own bed.

Covered in bruises and scars, I didn’t understand what happened at first, handed back and forth between dreams and reality as I was, and not being able to tell the difference.

What was it about that war that I needed to be a part of it? What was inside of me that it needed in order to end?

How much did I really want to know the answer, to remember what I did, what my birth caul had to do with it, and what was the price of that knowledge?

At the core of me now was an emptiness, cold and black, devoid of anything remotely like desire to repent or apologize for whatever it had been.

Let the blood and madness flow, then.

A Vampire Pleads for Death

But the humans….

I heard the ancestors’ voices in my head, chorus and echo, reprimanding me for my reluctance.

I looked up at them, but not in prayer. If I’d had a heart, it likely would have quailed, or broken, or skipped, or whatever it is hearts do when they’ve had their full of life’s dealings.

“Yes, I know. But I grow weary of dwelling in drafty halls full of shadows, and the stench of entrails and blood, and broken bodies strewn across the soil.

“The misty nights among the tombs hold no beauty for me anymore, not even by moonlight.

“And yes, the humans are foolish; they either don’t understand why they’re punished for evil, or the relish the pain and death, and seek our retribution.

“I am tired of their tears, their screams of suffering, and the pitiable prayers, and the endless stories of why their lives should be spared in the name of love, or the offers of their wealth, even their flesh in the earthly sense, bartered like the counterfeit coin it is, but they still believe it of value to us.

“No, my people. Release me from this darkness, for I am made of dark stone, indifferent to the killing now. It holds nothing more for me, and I have lived too long in it.”

I found that as my request was spoken, I began to feel lighter, even as my vision blurred and began to darken.

They heard me.

“As I have no part in Heaven’s light, let me embrace the final darkness, and see earth and damnation no more.”

Sit here, child, and wait for the sun.

I sat and waited, feeling the red hunger growing silent within me.

And crying final tears of blood, awaited my oblivion.