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… 

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.

No, They’re Not Asleep

 The things that can scent you in the dark, that track you by the smell of your fearful blood, and the things that feast on the small, red, stringy, buffet that is you, don’t take their rest by day, as you would hope, or once believed.

   No, dear child, their thoughts churn, and their dreams give them power. 

   Their lack of humanity robs them of all innocence, and there is no divine judgment on their soulless bodies.

    They’ve already made plans for tonight, and you will never know when your part of town, or  all of your farms, forests, festivals, and sabbaths will be a day of bloody carnage and a Valhallian feast for the damned.

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

     Sometimes, they fight among themselves with a great slaughter, but the diminished ranks are always replenished.

     It’s neither quick nor pretty, this refilling. 

    Some are quite willing to die, and some are so wretched they will beg to belong, no matter the cost.

    Others will be turned, and still others, turned away, but those are seldom left alive.

    These plans, at times, have brought undue and unwanted attention.

    Those who bring it are willing to risk the consequences, and bigger losses ensue.

    The ruination is glorious in scope, and the air smells of wasted humanity proportional to the scope of the war. 

    They’re stupid, fragile things, these humans, but they’re sense of self cannot be denied. A rebellious, vain, and silly lot, they are not inept at fighting their enemies. They will cry, and mourn and wail, but they will not stop fighting all the way to their own demise.

   But soon, their end must come.

   Be there to witness it.
   Be there to help it along.

   Be there tonight, child. 

   No, they’re not asleep. 

   They never are.

Tell Me Your Story (Chapter 1)

The old librarian was down there alone for hours in dim light stuffed with lazy, floating dust motes that filtered through neglected windows. It settled on everything, sealing the words inside the books beneath another layer of obscurity.

The silence held all the ancient words no longer in use.

Journals, scrolls, and the books bound in leather and skin, written in inks of indigo, black, and blood, sleep side by side waiting for a scholar’s eager hand to pluck them from the gloom as the old librarian walks the aisles as slowly as the drifting dust. The slow rub of his his rags, intended to beat back the dust and grime that claimed the place a long time ago merely smeared it about and spread it across the shelf spans.

But to his fading vision the shelves were newly made and gleaming, and his off-key humming grew more in tune as he went about preparing places for absent visitors.

He did not know what else to do, and had nowhere else to go, and lived too long.

The ways of the folk that once needed him hardened and died, like winter corn left in the field.

He mourned their passing, even as he knew his years of knowledge of the books, of their ways, and even their secrets, had endeared him to their little town.

He mourned them but didn’t miss them, for knowledge had evolved and they had not.

And in the end, when his body could no longer do the work, he went to a hidden room in the back that had a solitary desk with a book on it, bound in faded black leather with elegant, flaking, gold etched letters that read:

Tell Me Your Story.

So he closed his eyes and opened his mind, and as he let the memories in, the words of his story filled page after page…

A Wolf, Remembered

Manacled by my wrists to the ceiling, and rough rope encircling my torso to the cold pole against my chest, I felt the pressure of the wolf’s teeth digging in on the back of my right thigh, the slick, chilled tongue lapping at the blood that trickled from the small punctures it made.

    I shifted a little to keep my legs from buckling, and felt the vibrations from the low, deep snarl of warning in the wolf’s throat, its jaws  like a thumb and forefinger pressed to the side of a nail awaiting the hammer.

     Standing in my own filth, taking shallow breaths didn’t decrease the air’s pungency.

    The lone, bare bulb that hung from a frayed wire looked as forlorn and captive as I felt.

     “Go,” a woman’s voice said behind me; reluctant, the wolf let my thigh go, his eyes pleading with his mistress.

     She shook her head. “Go.”

    The beast snuffed in reproach.

    I will taste him again, Pack-Mother.

    No, pack-brother. Tonight his body is mine.

    As you command.

    Why did I know the words that passed in the look between them?

    The wolf lowered his eyes but lapped at the wounded leg again, taking a final lick before it returned to wherever it left.

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

     “Why the wolf?”

     “Because I could. I like watching you helpless.”

     “Why did you bring me here?”

     “To make you one last offer.”

     “I’d rather die.”

     “I think you’re bluffing. You have a chance to put off the moment, and you’re telling me you’d rather hear your own last breath?”

     “I’m not sure I would hear it, not that it would matter. What matters is, I can’t walk around like you do, pretending to be something I’m not.”

     Her finger laced under my chin, lingered in the blood around my lips.

      “That, my love, is the entire human condition neatly stated.”

     “Your bitterness aside, I don’t want to live like that…thing…that was biting my flesh.”

     “A thing?

     “Yes.”

    She slipped her arms around me from behind, hands on my chest with her fingers spread; It was almost loving even though I was naked, stinking, and scared.

    “What are you doing?” I tried to sound like she wasn’t affecting me, but the basement’s temperature was dropping with the sun that filtered through dirty, web-shaded windows, and her arms were warm around me.

      Something deeper stirred in me, but I misread it.

     “Are you going to…?”

     “No. Never again. Not in this form.”

     Riddles?

      I saw her arms cord and harden as the muscles swelled beneath them.

     “ Our pack-brother drew blood from you. Let your thoughts  go now, and listen to my voice.”
    “Damn-”

     She pinched my lips closed. “I said, listen.

    The soft hairs of her arms began to grow, dark and coarse, scratching my stomach in her embrace as the healing curse took root,

     Listening was all I could do now.

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

    Her wolf voice brought images with it, memories of kills, howling as the rush of wind poured over our running pack, the ripple of wind through fur. Nights howling for the sheer joy, and trailing the scents of large, panicked prey that drove our legs to move faster.  And the bloody, merciless slaughter of inferior intruders on our hunting ground.

     Spring days by the rivers, the rituals of passage, and the sweet, wet taste of fresh kills that steamed in the morning mist.

     The mourning of the old ones, sometimes taken in the hunt, or by the guns of men.

      Summer nights  caught up in  the thrills of the chase by moonlight, and the spiking  scent of fear in the cornered prey. For the swiftest among us, the taking of life and the first spurt of blood into the gullet while avoiding the death throes. They could always strike us down with an accidental kick or head-butt as they toppled.

      Finally, the two of us side by side, thick winter coats withstanding the freezing winds as we surveyed the night forest from the promontory.

      Alpha and mate, then.

      Now, captor and prisoner.

      Lovers no more, but still beasts in nature.

     “Do you remember now?”

    I did, but was too tired to answer; I remembered it all.

    She smiled, unshackled and untied me, gave me water, and held me tighter as the coarse hairs on my body began to mingle with her own.

    We would be lovers again soon.

    And I slept, dreaming of meadows and blood.

Red Redemption

She thought she was done all those years ago, though she’d only been a child.
The huntsman who saved them had taken all the glory for himself, and rightfully so, for she’d been duped by the spell the wolf cast over her eyes.
But now, the son of the slain one had taken revenge on the huntsman in his dotage, and his own daughter had barely made it in front of the hunting pack that scented her, knew her, and tirelessly pursued.
In the small hours when the starlight gleams brightest, flattering the false vanity of moonlight, her knocking on the woman’s door was a hard and tuneless knell that echoed through the dark forest shadows.
Taika, they called the woman now: The Magic Spell.
**************************
With grandmother dead, Taika shunned the world and apprenticed herself to a dying hag seeking a novice, promising herself to never be vulnerable and powerless again.
The hag was a hard taskmistress; Taika earned every scar she received from those long, hooked and jagged nails that made her correct her mistakes.
When the hag died, her pyre would not burn. Taika then gave her withered corpse to the river’s muddy banks, and let the creatures have their way.
The huntsman’s cowardly daughter was content to tend Taika’s house until she returned.
Taika left at first light.
**********************
In the clearing, she faced the Alpha.
The thing stood on two legs now, piercing blue eyes crystalline in the darkness.
“You wear the red witch’s hood?”
“Yes, Alpha.”
“These village fools have summoned you to redeem yourself, and reckon with your past?” As the drool fell from his maw, it hissed at his feet.
The lambent red and yellow eyes of his pack surrounded her.
“Yes, Alpha. Just me and you.” she said.
“They know better than to interfere,” he reassured her. “Is this fight to the death?”
Her twin knives gleamed in the moonlight, silver fangs in human hands.
“To the death.”
Snarling, they locked.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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…”