Oasis of Demise

The last of the sunlight glimmered like blood on the crystalline sand as the wind rose and the air grew cold. The shimmering of the last of the day’s heat escaped like the last breath of a dying man.

A white-robed waif stood on the bank of the oasis looking down at the still water reflecting the twilight. Her back was to me, though she knew I was there.

“You’re late.”

“This pack is heavy.”

“You could have trained a beast for transport.”

“This was too important to leave to the whims of beasts who like to wander. I wouldn’t have the strength to stop them, so walking was the surest path.”

“Very well. You’re here now. Give me the pack.”

I was going to tell her to be careful of the weight, she looked so frail, but the look she gave me told me not to bother with any pointless attempts at chivalry.

I gave her the pack, and the waters of the oasis began to ripple as the speed of the wind increased and swept across its surface while the sand began to swirl in small eddies of their own.

“Stand back there, and cover your eyes.”

I obeyed.

She knelt on the wet sand and opened the pack wide, then she put both arms in and took out two handfuls of multicolored jewels in varied shapes and sizes, all seeming to glow from within.

“What are they?” My voice was breathy, like a child’s that couldn’t put words to a strong feeling.

“The talents of humanity.”

“Talents?”

“The collective knowledge of all that’s known in the world up to this moment. In these gems are the talents of art, language, trades, discoveries of knowledge, rituals of superstition, all magic, whether dark or light. But this one,” she held up a bright, shining one streaked through with bands of red that pulsed with a heartbeat rhythm, flaring and dimming, “is the one that holds all the thoughts of men that have perverted the good of them and turned them to evil purpose.”

She set it down, apart from the others.

“And the water here, what will it do?”

“Dissolve them. We must start over.”

“Why?”

She began to toss the gems in the water, and a mist began to form over it as the ripples grew more defined in the twilight.

“Because we do not learn, and seem to get nor farther than we did before. The cosmos grows weary of us; we are eternal infants in its sight. I do not know how many more turns it will give to us.

“Perhaps we don’t deserve one.”

The wind turned the ripples to waves.

“And then?”

“The oasis will dry up, and the winds will blow the gems remains throughout the world again, to make new combinations of nations and people, new knowledge and skills, and once more we will crawl out of the earth to try again, if the cosmos deems it so.”

She picked up the last jewel and looked back at me. “When I throw in this one, we will both die.”

I took a deep breath, not knowing what to say. I wanted to beg her not to, but we both knew it had to be done.

“Are you ready?” she asked.

“Do I have a choice?”

She gave me a sad smile, and shook her head.

Turning away, she tossed it, and its facets caught the moonlight, flaring, refracting, and pulling a shroud of celestial light over impending, indefinite darkness.

I felt my body fall, heard it hit the sand, and felt it creeping over me as the wind blew even harder, and I saw her corpse roll into the water, the small waves taking her out to the center before she sank.

My own eyes closed to sleep until the dawn of another age, and with my last breaths I prayed that whatever watched beyond the stars would grant us mercy once more.

 

 

 

 

The Final Lesson

A draft buffeted the torches, a wind as urgent as the mage’s mission.

“How long will you indulge her in this, my lord?”

“What’s the matter?”

“She has no control, and the things she conjures with her mistakes are losing their patience. So far, they have been, let’s say, understanding, but if they decide to stay because she disturbs their rest, there will be nothing we can do to send them back.”

“Why not? Isn’t that what you do?”
“It is, my lord, but it is not who we are. Were it not for the containment that separates our worlds, it would be far worse than it is now. As it is, those who report such things as haunting and possession mean the containment has its weak spots, and is being assailed at all times.”

The king’s expression darkened. The queen reached and took his hand, and he jumped a bit, startled at the unexpected contact.

“Perhaps it’s time to reconsider,” she said. “You know she’s willful, and if she’s not listening…”

The king’s face softened at her, but not when he looked back at his mage. “Is there no other way?”

“I wish there were, my lord, but sadly, no.”

“And if she tries to conjure in her anger, or when she’s alone?”

“We’ve put safeguards in place for those very circumstances.”

A ponderous silence fell as they all waited for the king’s answer, and the mage found himself growing anxious.

Your life is at stake, just as much as ours. Make no mistake about that, and don’t be a fool. We will let them kill her if you tell us to continue.

“Stop her lessons,” the king said.

The mage couldn’t hide his relief. “Thank you, sire.”

As he turned to go, Princess Lillian came in, pointing her finger at him. “It’s his fault I almost lost control!”

“Lillian,” the queen said, “that isn’t true.”

The mage looked down at the girl, his face a veneer of quiet menace. “Have a care, child.”

“Don’t threaten my daughter,” the king said.

The mage briefly forgot himself. “Don’t threaten her? She threatens all of us with her incompetence.”

“Get out.”the king’s voice was quiet, but the threat behind it was palpable. “I’ll have your entire Order slain.”

The mage bristled.  “I think not, O king. When next you need magic,” he looked at Lillian, “she has neither the skill, the control, or the attitude to properly wield a spell.

“To the point, if she continues making errors in her casting,  something will eventually get through, and there will be consequences none of us will be able to handle, and we will all die.

“It would have happened already, had we not been able to contain the thing she conjured.”

“For that, at the very least, we are most grateful,” the queen said.

The mage nodded his gratitude, but added to his list: “She is impetuous, and can’t be trusted to not attempt a cast if our presence is required elsewhere.”

“What of your own acolytes/” the king asked.

The mage gave him a patient look: “She’s your daughter, sire. They’ll not gainsay her, much less try to stop her.”

He looked once more at his queen, who again shook her head at the persistent question behind his eyes.

He looked at his daughter, and his face and voice were heavy with regret. “Very well, stop the lessons. She’ll pursue other things, and perhaps my wife will prove more of an ally then.”

The royal couple looked at their child, thinking she’d fly into a rage.

Instead, she gave them an eerily detached look, as if they were peasant strangers she never met who’d dared approach her, and left the room in utter silence, almost as if she hadn’t been there at all.

“Set a watch on her, then.” the king ordered.

The mage spoke again: “Such magic as she has, she would know if she was followed and spied upon, but there might be a way to undo it.”

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

The spells were arcane, complex, painful, involving bloodletting, but if he didn’t stop her, there’d be no telling what she’d unleash.

He’d tried to tell them not to start, but her father was wet clay in her hands.

The queen, sensing what the mage sensed was beneath the surface, also tried to convince him, but the final word was his.

And now they were here.

Royalty were a silly lot: give them one heir, and they indulge them to the point where they became insufferable; give them too many, and they became paranoid, killing whoever they believed the strongest threats, be they sons or daughters.

The lot of them are mad.

He made his way down to the cellar-crypts.

Someone stepped from the shadows, a cowl over their heads, and sheathed a dagger into the mage’s heart.

He managed to pull the hood off the man, and didn’t recognize the stone face and cruel eyes staring down at him as the knife twisted, and as his eyes closed, he saw Lillian emerge behind the assassin, watching him collapse on himself like a marionette being cut loose from its strings.

PART 2:

Lillian was supposed to be in bed, but here she was in the cellars, looking at the corpse of the only man who stood in her way.

“The power is mine now!” She gave his lifeless form a few hard kicks, until the assassin politely pretended to clear his throat to bring her back to reality.

She looked up at him. “You did well. Thank you.”

“Spit on your thanks. Where’s the other half of my pay?”

“There’s a leather purse on a pedestal by the door. Pick it up on your way out.”

His laughter was low and hollow before he replied. “And something will be down there that can break me in half, allowing you to keep the money. Do you think I’m stupid, child?”

She smiled. “Yes, because it’s right behind you.”

The assassin was picked up on barbed claws that pierced his torso, slammed him into the high ceiling, and slammed his body hard on the stone floor, then knelt beside it and looked at the girl, a question in its eyes.

She nodded. “Do it.”

The creature tore it open, and the coppery, meaty smell of blood mingled with the scent of waste permeated the air, making Lillian retch and back away as the thing feasted.

 

PART 3: 

It found her.

She almost screamed at the sight; it was gorged, bulbous, bloody, almost leering at her in its sated state, its muzzle steaming with cooling gore, its red eyes glowing in the semi-dark.

As it approached, the torches behind it flared before snuffing out, as if they’d been smothered by an unseen hand.

Lillian, are you sure you have the power to do this? 

She’d watched the whole thing, dazed and frightened, her feelings of triumph turning to a wary certainty descending slowly into a rising panic.

Lillian?  The creature came further, and more torches died.

She swallowed, breathing shallow, and as she backed away her legs seemed to get heavier.

Lillian, will you answer me?

Another step, another torch.

She heard the words in  her mind. ….impetuous…willful…

Lillian! I want to return. Send me back.”

She was backing toward the pedestal by the door; there was nothing on it. He’d been no fool after all.

She began to cry. …impetuous…willful… she found herself against the door.

A gory claw, cold and rancid, brushed her cheek.

   Ah, I see. You can’t. The man you killed, he could.

“Please….”

You shouldn’t summon what you can’t control, princess. He told you that, didn’t he. You’ve trapped me here. Tell me, do you remember what happens if we can’t return?”

“You kill the living.”

Yesss, you remember. And this is a good place to start, here among the the dead. Now would be a good time to begin and… how fortunate, little conjurer, that we begin here…

Lillian heard more claws skittering in the darkness, and stopped.

…with you. 

The last of the torches went out, and Lillian’s screams shattered the night-crypt silence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.