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.


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.”


“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.

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.

The Passing: Abdiel Falling (Chapter 14)

      Gradually the queasiness in my stomach from Abdiel’s casting began to subside.

      “Is that all of it?” I was hoping…

      No. You must absorb what is already within you. When that is finished, there will be more.

      “Very well. When will it be finished?”

      We’ve only just begun, Tina. Your grandmother was older than most, and wielded great powers for a long time.

      “Will I need all of it?”

      That was her will.

      “And what of my will?”

      I keep the promise, but we must give you all the magic. If we withhold any of it from you, we fade from existence, and the weakened magic dies, taking you with it.

      The way my body felt now, it didn’t sound like a bad deal at all.



      I didn’t see the Canceller for a few days.

      During that time Abdiel walked me through the histories of the visions I’d seen; they were rich with intrigue, betrayal, love, and war.

      The magic itself was strong, the bloodshed relentless, and passion won over reason.

      Fear won over loyalty.

      The double-cross was as common as rook ravens, and whole courts were executed to make examples of the price to challenge the crown. 

      Infighting and power-plays blemished outward shows of filial affection between siblings, and phony allegiance among nobles.

      And when the magic was absorbed, Abdiel was true to his word. 

      On the days I needed to be free of the visions, to have time to think, he let me.

      I’d walk the market, or the woods down by the river, trusting him to alert me if Tyrel was present.
      For those times, I was cautiously grateful, knowing the Canceller was now as much a part of my life as Abdiel, and he made my quest for the Traitor’s Guild twofold.

      He became the more immediate threat, and to get to them I’d have to stop him first.

      But what Abdiel didn’t tell me proved to be vital in my fight against Tyrel: the more magic he gave me, the weaker he became. And just as he told me if they withheld its passing they would fade, if I didn’t use it I would die.

      Such was the lore of my kind.

      But how could I use it if Tyrel could cancel it?

       The Cancellers.

       It seemed such an innocuous, silly name for such terrifying power. 

       I couldn’t bring myself to call it a gift.

      Gran had once told me love and fear ruled the world; for one king to have such fear that he would take on the burden to unleash one magic to rid the world of another, I would have removed love from the equation.

     When I next saw Tyrel in the marketplace, when he looked at me I felt Abdiel cower.

     He kept his distance, but something was glittering in the whites of his eyes even in the daylight, and Abdiel seemed to shift inside me, like a baby turning on its side. I felt it in my chest and belly, and the pain was dull, but real.

    “Abdiel, tonight you must tell me the lore of the Cancellers.”

    We do not spend time in their presence, Tina. They have the power to destroy us.

    “There has to be a way. Something created them, so there must be a way to end them. Search it out, and tell me tonight.”

      It will hurt.

    “It will hurt more if you leave me vulnerable. I’m willing to fight him for our lives, but I must know how.”

     It will be done.


Circle of Blood: (3) Trial and Error

      The castle was bedecked in scarlet and black, the colors of mourning.

     The nobles’ sibilant whispers and the dignified sobbing of the queen’s ladies were bubbles in an aural swamp, rising to sink into the marbled stones of the high-ceilinged hall.

    Nakira, the Healers’ leader, stood before the king, her pristine alabaster robe giving her the aspect of a pale spirit gliding through blood.

  “I’m sorry, but I could not save her, my king.”

 Ohlin’s tears came unbidden, uncontrolled, and in front of his court, unwelcome; his jaw tightened and his shoulders tensed.

I was the only one who saw him clench his fist, though I honestly didn’t think he would use it. The blow sent Nakira sprawling from the dais, the crack of fist on bone was a sudden piercing as she tumbled down into an ungainly heap within the robe, now stained with flecks of blood.

Amid the screams, gasps, and exclamations, she was helped to her feet, her cheek swollen, a trickle of blood in the corner of her mouth.

He then passed his sentence in the most soft, reasonable voice, given the circumstance, as if he was discussing plans for a pleasant outing.

“Take them out of here,” he told the guard, who gave him a curious look.

“She’s alone, your majesty.”

“No, fool. I meant take them all out of here, out of the kingdom. Drive them into the wildlands. Kill any who resist, by whatever means you need to use. Don’t pursue them further; leave them to their fate.”

The cries and screams receded to the deeper voices of the council’s earnest cautions for temperance and mercy, all falling on deaf ears and a stone heart covered in ice; in his grief he was resolute, and would not be swayed.

Nakira looked to the captain of the guard, reading his lips as he held up an index finger: ‘One day.’
They escorted her outside, gave her a horse, and sent her away at a gallop.


He spoke to me in private.

“They’re not to reach the wildlands. The men of your Order will execute them on the way.”

“King Ohlin, it would be more prudent to let them go.”

His gaze on me was deathly calm, his next words holding a concealed dagger poised to cut the thread of my existence if we betrayed him.

“See it done.”


Sharrika was crying, and Tafari simmered below boiling.

We’d be at the palace soon.

Sharikka let go of my arm, struggling to get herself under control

“Do you remember?” I asked.

“Just…just flashes.” She stopped walking, hugged herself tighter. “Dogs, horses, fire and screams. We threw spells back at them, spells that did things, put things, inside their armor. Nakira wouldn’t retreat. She called in the Blood Covens.”

The Blood Covens lived on the fringes of the wastelands, separated even from each other, but they all practiced blood magic to one degree or another, all of it lethal.

“That’s why they use the circles of blood? To protect their territory?”

“Yes, and the hanging of the knights they defeated, in full armor, in the places they were victorious. As I said, strictly to show their power.”

“Then why the binding spell in the clouds?”

“To keep the king’s men from pursuing. It was supposed to lose strength, but…” She looked up just as a long flash slithered among the storm clouds, turning their undersides to lilac, but smelling of sulfur.

“But why would they make the spell bind other witches?”

“They confronted Nakira, said she was weak, said it would be best if they claimed the lands we would have settled in the countryside. They wanted us to join them, but tired as she was, of the whole thing, really, she refused.”

“They killed her?”

“I don’t know. Don’t see a reason why they wouldn’t.” She had to get herself composed again.

Tafari had walked some distance away; that had to stop if she was going to fight.

“Is she going to be alright?”

Sharikka hesitated before she answered. “I don’t know.”

“If she’s going to fight—”

She gave me a sharp look of frustration. “She’s not ready to fight!”

That was a stronger reaction than I was expecting. I gave her a moment, then took her by the forearms to step in and make sure I had her attention.

“She’s my daughter too, and we must make her ready. If you’re going to fight the Blood Covens, you’re going to need all the help you can get. Frankly, I’d let them have the place; it’s full of bloated corpses and blighted lands, and it reeks of carrion and waste.

“It will take years to clean up, so why do you even want it? If they rule, there’ll be no sanctuary for you here.”

She sighed, taking her arms from my hands, a gentle sweep of her own arm indicating all the land within view.

“Without a ruler, this place could be a haven for those of us who don’t practice blood rituals. We’re a vital link in the chain, even if weak. One thing remains true through all our lore: balance is essential to order. If the Blood Covens want to rule, they’ll use us as ambassadors and healers to fool the leaders of the lands they occupy.”

“You’ll become a servant.”

“Yes, but just for the moment. In time we’ll rebuild, restore our numbers, and bite the serpent’s head when we get the chance.”

I sighed at her naivete. “Sharrika, you’re talking about infiltrating, attacking, and killing the leaders of the Blood Covens. They went rogue centuries ago; they’ll see you coming long before you’re prepared, and take hours killing you, and everyone allied with you, for sport.”

My stomach sank as I saw her start to smile in the middle of what I was saying. “That’s where you come in.”

We started back toward the palace; she didn’t take my arm again.

“Finish your story,” she said.


Circle of Blood

I stood looking at the carnage, blinking from the sudden, searing flashes of lightning streaking across roiling black clouds.

There was no thunder, which gave the scene an eldritch air.

Swarms of rats moved en masse over the mounds of corpses, taking such treasures as they could find.

The torrential rain cut the edge off the stench, but didn’t stop it.

An armored knight, his bare hands pierced with spikes, hung in the center of the palace door, a circle of blood painted around him. I didn’t know how long he was there, but the crows had taken his eyes.

It’s already started. I’m too late.

A short, hooded figure approached from under a pile of smoldering wood, stealthy, heading for the doomed knight. As he was hung with his weapons, they were going to loot him.

With his hands spiked, there was nothing he could do to stop them.  I think more than anything else it was the cowardice of the pending deed that rankled and made me call out.

“Leave him alone!”

The figure jumped; they hadn’t seen me through the downpour.

They scampered back into their hiding place. The urchins knew this backwater warren better than me. I lived here once, but never called it home.

The man turned his head in my direction, and I worked through the mounds of bodies to take him down.

“I’ll get you out of here.”


I stopped, taken aback by his refusal.

“No. They’ll know it was you, and they’ll find you. I’ve nothing to go back to. Better I die here. Leave! Leave while you still can, while there’s still a chance you can—”

The serrated blade of a knife buried itself in his chest with such force that his body jerked, making a muffled thump against the door, and he went still.

A different hooded urchin stood there, smiling at its handiwork.

That could’ve been me.

I sighed, still looking at the knight, but speaking to the urchin. “What do you want?”

They answered me, retrieving the knife. “I remember you. You should leave, priest. There’ve been changes since you were exiled, and your Order is no longer welcome here.”

“Where do I know you from?”

They removed the hood: a girl with smooth brown skin, large, dark brown doe -shaped eyes that held an intelligence beyond her years, her form on the cusp of womanhood, but hidden beneath the soaked black cloak she wore.

“I’m your daughter; you took my mother, Sharrika, against her will.”


She came toward me. “I see you remember her name.”

“She was supposed to kill me.”

“Yes, and you did something to make her stop. She fell in love with you instead. What did you do, father?” She spat the word out like snake venom. “Rape her with a spell?”

I had no answer she would find acceptable.

“What became of Sharrika? What is your name?”

She spat on my robe, and I reacted, backhanding her across the face.

She sprawled over some bodies, sending the rats scurrying, then pushed off the pile, running back to me with the knife in her hand.

I didn’t want to hurt her, but I didn’t know what she was going to do; I tried casting, and felt a jolt to my own body that almost made me lose my footing.

She has powers. The bloody knife was at my throat, tilting my chin up.

Her breathing was raspy and harsh. “If you ever hit me again—!”


The rain had intensified, but the figure that approached was only in a long red dress, clinging to the very curves my hands explored in better times.

Tafari took the knife from my throat. “This isn’t over, priest.”

Sharrika walked up to her, took the knife, and apologized, her eyes downcast. “Please forgive my daughter, sir. She isn’t married, and so has not yet been–“

“That’s none of his concern, mother!”

I was surprised at Sharrika’s candor; it wasn’t her way.


She gave me a blank stare, tilted her head. “Do I know you? Have we met before?”

Emotions warred within me, but I nodded. “We have. I’ll tell you later. Let’s get out of the rain.”

A crow had landed on the knight’s soaked corpse, looking for fresh pickings. The rats persisted in their foraging among the mounds of rotting flesh.

She nodded and beckoned me to follow.

The rain fell harder, but she and Tafari took their time; it was a moment before I realized the rain was falling around them, not on them.


I don’t know whether Tafari heard me, but she turned to give me a mirthless smile.

I ignored the threat, put my head down to keep the rain out of my eyes, and walked back into the eye of the malevolent hurricane that would shake my life to its core. It would have been easier if I’d turned and walked back through the broken gates, as Tafari commanded, never to return.

When all was said and done, I was glad I didn’t, but I wished I had.



World Without End (1): What’s in the Heart

Chapter 1: What’s in the Heart
We finally did it. The last war tipped the balance, and the chemicals that saturated and stuck in what was left of the atmosphere wreaked havoc on the weather. The pissing contests of the powerful had finally screwed us all, and the world as we knew it came to an abrupt and lethal end when the seasons, finally tipped out of balance, lasted for random intervals that were now impossible to forecast.
People had been swept away by cresting water, cooked by blistering sunlight, and hot winds took the leaves before their change. Curled and blackened, they crumbled before they hit the ground. There was shelter, but no safety. Cities were built underground, but there was no food. Towns had been built in the hills, but there were mudslides and floods. Now that it was snowing, if there was anything left of the world below, it was covered. The snow fell for weeks at a stretch, and people had long ago indulged their last panicked impulses to scavenge what remained of ‘normal’ life, even as they lost everything.
On the way up, we saw others who’d tried to brave the mountains: some bloated, some skeletal, some too weak to climb further. They were pickings for the eagles and carrion birds, if any of those were left. The temperature was beyond brutal, and even our rugged equipment was beginning to let in the cold. Movement at the level we needed became difficult.
The mountains were the last refuge, and on the way there, Kylie and I spoke to no one, helped no one.
We’d been in these ranges, hiked and explored them. There’d be shelter if we could beat the storms. But in this new world we found out the storms could no longer be anticipated; they formed quickly, anywhere, like lightning strikes.
I was separated from Kylie in one of those mountain storms that came suddenly; if she fell, she never screamed, or at least, from the wind howling, I never heard her. I dared not turn, since the whiteout all but blinded us anyway. I grieved, but kept moving, since there was no sense of time here, and darkness could be as sudden as the storms. The cowardliness of not trying to save her hit me hard, though it was short lived; for all I knew, she’d made a choice of her own.
Not knowing how long I’d been searching, my hands and legs were beginning to fatigue. The ledge I walked wasn’t too narrow, but the wind still made it unsafe, so I used up the day moving carefully. I needed to find a cave that could hold me. I was at the point of despair when my fingers gripped around a corner. I didn’t want to move in front of it unless it was a cave, so I risked reaching my left arm around, and it disappeared up to my elbow. Gripping what was there, and inching forward, I found it.
Taking a couple of breaths, I reined in my excited hope this was a possibility. Even if it was just a recess, it was still a wind shear, and I could shelter there for a while, if not for the night.
Focusing all my energy on controlling my body, I made my way around; it was indeed a cave, one I had to get on hands and knees to negotiate, which was fortunate, if it didn’t narrow to where I had to crawl.
I said a mental prayer of thanks to whoever could hear me above the wind, and went inside.
It didn’t narrow, and I would’ve wept tears of gratitude if they weren’t frozen behind my eyes.
It was dank, and there was some guano, but not an abundance; my guess was that the sudden weather fluctuations killed off the bats. I had room to stand, but I could explore later. Exhausted and thirsty, I went back to the entrance and quickly grabbed handfuls of snow, bringing it back into the relative warmth and eating it until it melted; it was still cold, but it wasn’t frozen.
My throat ached, but what little water my organs got made them expand like sponges. I needed more, but sleep had me by the ankles, and won the tug of war.

The entrance to the cave was dark. No wind, no snow, just still, cold air for which I had no way to make fire.
Hoping nothing nocturnal still lived here, and recalling that there were no pools of water I might fall into, I stood up to stretch my body.
As my senses woke, a ravenous hunger gripped me, and the thirst returned worse than before.
There was nothing to be done for it. I needed to move.
I walked in ever widening circles, taking small steps with outstretched hands.
My right foot struck something. It moved, as if something lodged was now loosened.
Checking my eagerness that it might be food or water, or (gods grant me) both, I knelt, feeling around until I touched it, running my fingers slowly over it so I wouldn’t get cut. It had cold, metal handles.
Take it out. You’re just delaying the inevitable. Death would be a mercy now. I didn’t really believe the voice in my head, but that didn’t make it wrong. My hands were numb but moveable; I’d shoved them into my sleeves to keep from getting frostbite, and slept with my arms folded.
Hoping it wasn’t sealing something beneath it, I pulled. It came out easily enough, and it was small enough to fit in one hand. It felt like a small chest of some kind. There was a small lock on the front.
In a mix of dread excitement, I reached back into the hole to see if there was a key, and was rewarded with another tiny flash of cold on my fingertips. Rolling through a list of possibilities from ways to make fire to weapons, hunger and thirst were forgotten.
Through blind trial and error, I finally opened it. Lying on
white velvet tucked down the sides, a red gem began to glow with a dull light. It wasn’t enough to light the cave. It was barely enough to see, but definitely there.
Figures I’d become a rich man at the end of time. This could be priceless, but with no one to sell it to, it’s also worthless.
I set the chest down, and picked up the gem, admiring it for a few moments.
When I went to put it back, my hands were no longer cold, and the light seemed brighter.
I chalked it up to loneliness, fear, and exhaustion, though in truth I felt none of those things now.
Walking back to the entrance of the cave, I didn’t have to get back on my hands and knees to crawl out. The rock was high enough to just bend over a bit. Too grateful to question it, my mind told me the cave entrance was the same; I only imagined crawling inside.
Now at the mouth of the cave, I couldn’t get over the beauty the night sky; the stars were pristine, and though the air was still cool it felt clean and good. I wasn’t shivering. Glancing toward the box where I’d replaced the jewel on its velvet, I thought I could see the light glowing through the wood, though the wood wasn’t burning.
“Just tired. You’re hallucinating, or dreaming.”
Or dead.

Can’t Stay, Can’t Leave


I captured an outdoor table at our favorite local coffee shop as my girlfriend went inside to get the coffee. It was a pleasant midmorning, and casual strollers who got up before noon were enjoying the coolness of the morning.
Jill was inside getting the coffee.
There was a distant booming noise, as if thunder were rolling across the ground.
The air went white, and the temperature searing; my table flipped over and into me as a massive gout of firs shot down the avenue. Tumbling out of control down the street, seemingly no more heavier than a piece of paper litter, a blast of wind picked me up and threw me further, and the white of the sky grew brighter until it suddenly went black.
Death is a mercy.
I don’t know why I’m still alive; that shouldn’t be.
There are places where the rubble still smolders.
The radiation is patiently nibbling at my flesh, pulling bits of scraps like a jackal sneaking up on the panther’s kill.
I want to die. I need to die.
I’ve seen myself, and Jill wouldn’t have me now, if she was still alive.
Jill…Still, I feel her arm around my waist, see her hair shining in the sun, and the smile in her eyes as she laughs at another one of my dumb jokes. It’s either sincere, or she’s a good actress, but I love that she makes the effort if she is acting.
I’m going to miss her laughter.  I start to cry.
I’m all alone here. 
Just for the hell of it, I reach out to touch her…

The shards went everywhere, hit everything.
People died from the places they went, and no matter how I try, I can’t look away from the carnage.
Eddie’s gone, but so is the chair where he was sitting.
The rest of the people are piles of bloody ashes in the street, up and down the block.
Arcs of hot light are streaking the air, so I stay low, looking for survivors, for first responders, for anything, but nothing is moving.
No one is coming.
I know I’m in shock, but I don’t scream, I just focus on trying to find Eddie, knowing it’s stupid to try, but there’s nothing else to do now.
There’s certainly nowhere to go.
I don’t even know what the hell went wrong, but it went wrong fast.


I don’t know why I’m still alive; that shouldn’t be.
The air shimmered in front of me, in the shape of a hand.
Jill, you’re hallucinating; don’t be stupid.
But just for the hell of it, since no one’s watching, I reach my hand up, and invisible fingers grasp mine.
Hands touch without meeting, and I don’t know what he sees wherever he is, but we stay like that because I can’t go to him, and he can’t come to me.
I’m going to miss his stupid jokes. I start to cry.
In the distance, I hear the first of many sirens start to wail.

A Choice of Poisons

They came in vast numbers to slaughter what remained of us.
For too long we harried them on every front, and every time they stepped on our necks, we seemed to grow new heads: here, a smashing of their flank as we split to take the vanguard and the rear; there, an explosion that killed them by the hundreds.
We were as children splashing away at the tide.
It all served to stir them to a frothing, raving mass of bloodthirsty vengeance seekers; they were as relentless in their desire to kill us as we were to survive.
In time, they resorted to other means: a dark magic where venom and blood combined to make them practically invincible.
The problem was they had the venom, and we had the blood. They plundered it from us and stored it for themselves, until their magicians could sustain its combined power and keep it from fading. They worked at it day and night.
From my high vantage inside the fortress, I could see the serpent army, the Ormarr, as we called them, spread out across the fields below, their bodies glowing with a faint, eldritch light.
The sword at my side brought no comfort, but there was another way.
“Stand aside,” I told the gatekeeper.
“Are you daft, boy? You want us to open the gates and throw flowers in their path?”
I looked at General Sarris, his craggy face mapped with scars and an old black eye patch over his left socket, a testimony to his many fierce and bloody campaigns.
“No, General. That was not my request. I said, ‘Stand aside.’
Seeing my calm demeanor, he considered me. In the silence between us I could hear the faint clank of weapons as men shifted, the crackling sizzle of nearby torches, and the dull murmurs of the dull creatures below us, bobbing and rocking like lanterns on a ship.
“I’m all that stands between these men and death,” I said. “The longer you wait, the stronger they grow.”
“Ator, have you forgotten your first night here?”
“I remember all too well, Sarris.”
The camp fires were dying, and little by little the sounds of snores and released gas joined the night creatures’ cacophony, drowning out the small, crackling flames.
    A seasoned soldier eyed me openly, not challenging, merely assessing.
   “Do I pass your examination, sir?”
   He chortled, and came toward me, hands out. “Not looking to fight, boy, just want to give you some advice.”
   I nodded, but kept him in view.
   “When you’re out here, boy, waiting for demons to fight, no one in the rich towns cares that you don’t sleep at all, as long as they sleep through the night.
   “They don’t care that you can’t comfort your daughter after a nightmare, as long as they don’t have to face the living ones they created.
   “They don’t care if you have to die, as long as they get to live. You remember that, boy, and you’ll be all right out here.”
“You shouldn’t fight them alone,” Sarris said.
“I’m the only one who can take the venom.”
“You’re immune to the venom, true; not to being torn apart.
“I’ll be all right.”
“Well that much is true, boy, because you’re not going out there.”
I sighed, looked back out at the animated field of unnatural blasphemy, and again entreated them.
“Stand aside.”