Child of Nod Teaser

Hey all, my novel, Child of Nod, is due out November 7, so in anticipation, here’s the first chapter. It’s a little bit horror, a little bit fairy tale and myth, and a little bit something else. If you’re interested, you can check out the Goodreads page for the full blurb.

 

Child of Nod

Once upon a time, there was a girl who was dead.

She wasn’t a little girl, but she wasn’t a woman yet, though last summer her breasts and legs had grown and now she was taller than her aunt was. She had red hair that flowed from her scalp, cascaded in ringlets over her slender neck and shoulders, and bounced when she ran. Her eyes were a deep green, her skin a milky white, and overall, people who met her would always tell her aunt what a beautiful young woman she would make someday.

Her name was Alice. A minute ago, she wasn’t even sure of that, wasn’t sure of anything in this new place. It had come to her as she’d looked around, as though a patch of fog had lifted from her mind, and the sun had come blazing through. Then the brilliance was gone, receding back behind a patch of gray, and she was left again with tattered mist that drifted between her thoughts, obscuring answers she felt sure she would need.

The next thing that came to Alice was an awareness of her surroundings. It dawned on her as though someone had thrown a switch—one moment, a dreamlike haze swirled around her, filled with blank shapes, the next, the fog was all in sharp focus. She was sitting in a clearing ringed by trees, black in the low light. Their branches reached to the roof of the earthen tunnel that enclosed them, some even digging into the soil above, and disappeared as if they were fingers sunk in loam. Beneath her, leaves long dead and dry rustled with the movement of her skirt.

She struggled with her disorientation, with trying to remember what she had been doing before. This new place felt off to her, as though she were in two places at the same time, but only belonged to one. Peering at the trees and their branches above, hearing the way they sighed and creaked even without a breeze, wherever this was, she was sure this bleak forest wasn’t where she was meant to be. It certainly wasn’t 54th street or the cottage by the sea. Even as she thought of them, the memories flared and settled in her mind. Life comes at you in bits and pieces, her aunt would have said, and she realized the phrase was another thing she remembered, and wondered how long her mind would continue to feed her like a hamster in a cage.

Alice stood, her legs tingling with pins and needles, and took a deep breath. She smelled the earth around her, and the dry scents of trees and leaves, and faint, but still there, the tang of saltwater. It reminded her of her aunt’s cottage by the ocean, and the soft sand that would squish between her toes when the honey-colored grains were wet. She smoothed her skirt, took another breath, and headed toward what she thought might be the end of the tunnel.

Leaves crunched under Alice’s feet, sending up the smells of dirt and autumn trapped in the layers of dead foliage. At first, she had to stop every few feet and disentangle her skirt or her top from clutching tree limbs, as though they were greedy relatives who wanted to monopolize her time, jealous of her youth. The further she went, the less frequent it became, the grasping branches becoming sparser and losing strength against her determination. Eventually, she was able to walk a straight line as the trees and the flotsam and jetsam underfoot thinned out. Down the path, the gray lightened, and unless merely a mirage, a widening to the tunnel loomed ahead.

Alice stopped for a moment and turned around. The trees and the path behind her lay undisturbed, though she could recall breaking a branch off here, and kicking a pile of leaves to the side there. She looked down and noticed the ground had turned to a trail of hard-packed clay, worn smooth by ages of travel. A rustling in the underbrush to either side of the path made her swing back toward the mouth of the tunnel.

Where there was no one before, a dog now lay in her way, and she took an involuntary step back. She hadn’t thought there would be any animals here—the forest seemed devoid of life: no chatter of chipmunks, no scurrying underfoot, no singing birds. She’d stood in a wooded wasteland. The sight of the dog had startled her, and she froze, trying to calm the pounding in her chest. As she watched, it tilted its head, opened its mouth, and a long tongue lolled out as if to say, “Hello.”

Alice glanced over her shoulder, wondering if she could wind back and find a way around, but the walls of the tunnel were far too close yet, and to her surprise, the path had disappeared. Only the scrub brush and leaves littered the fallow ground among the trunks behind her. She looked at the dog again and remembered a trick her aunt had taught her. Memory flared for a moment, bright as starlight, and her mother’s sister hove into view in her mind’s eye—red hair like her own, round glasses, and a generous bosom. She’d taken Alice in when her mother had died, and spent the next years of her life instructing her niece in everything she could. Like the trick with dogs. Alice bent a bit, held out her hand, and tried not to smell like fear.

“Nice doggy… good doggy…”

She repeated it like a mantra as she approached the animal in half-steps. It tilted its head to the side and watched her approach, its eyes a light blue that reminded her of summer skies. When she was less than a foot away, Alice stopped, her hand still out. The dog looked up at her with those blue eyes and seemed to weigh her. She sincerely hoped it wasn’t thinking she would taste good. After a minute, it stretched its neck out, opened its mouth, and licked her palm, its smooth tongue leaving a wet smear on her hand.

A sigh of relief escaped her, and Alice pulled her hand back. She wiped her palm on her skirt as best she could without letting the dog know she was doing it. There was intelligence in its eyes that made her fear it would take something like this as an insult. As if making a decision, the dog stood, and Alice stiffened again, not sure if it had changed its mind. Ah, he. If he had changed his mind.

He glanced at her once more, then turned and padded down the path. A few feet along, he paused and looked back over his shoulder, as if waiting for her. The look made up her mind, and Alice followed, hoping she was taking the right path. The dog started again, and let out a soft snort on the way as if to say, “About time.”

*

By the time Alice caught up with the dog, the tunnel entrance had widened into a wide sky, the hard clay underfoot softening and mixing with sand. The light here was better as well, though she still could not tell where the illumination was coming from. The smell of saltwater was stronger and accompanied the sounds of waves lapping at a shore.

The dog stopped in the middle of the beach, and Alice came to a halt beside him. A wide expanse of water before them disappeared into the distance. A light breeze blew across the surface, sending ripples and waves against the shore. In the low light, the water appeared black, though still clear as glass, and from where she stood, Alice could see the bottom of the lake for several feet out.

Where the water met sand, a small pier made from weathered planks and lashed together with thick cords of rope jutted out into the waves. At its end, a boat of dark lacquered wood with a high prow, a lantern hanging from the bowsprit, and with what looked to be room for two or three people bobbed, tied to the pier.

Sedately, a shadow detached itself from the stern of the boat and debarked. The newcomer was tall, over six feet, and gaunt, even in the folds of the cloak it wore, and Alice couldn’t see the passenger’s face in the depths of his hood. He walked with the aid of a long pole that thumped on the boards of the pier, marking time to his stride, though his footsteps made no sound at all. When he reached the end of the walkway, where the boards met sand, he stopped, and held out a hand, palm up, as though waiting for something.

The dog looked up at her, then at the man on the end of the pier, and back to her. As if waiting for her decision, he let out a huff of air and lay down in the sand. Alice dithered. The man stood there waiting, hand out, as though he could for hours, and never spoke. She checked her gut once, but no internal warning flares soared up from there. Her Uncle Phil, who had been a cop in Chicago, had told her when she wasn’t sure of something, her gut couldn’t lead her wrong. Something about that memory stuck with her, and for a moment, she saw flashing lights and the faint sound of sirens and the steady patter of rain. She shook herself, and it faded.

She considered the boatman for a little while longer, and waited for a hint of anything, but nothing came—no twist in her stomach, like when she had seen the man with the gun—just a quiet expectation in the air. Her stomach dropped out as the world faded again, and she was standing on the subway platform. The man was there, dark eyes and dark clothes, a small black gun in his hand and a sneer on his face. He was pressing against her, forcing her to the edge of the platform. He said something, something she didn’t hear, and then she was falling, and she screamed—

The dog barked once, a sharp warning that snapped her back to her new reality, and she found herself stock still, tears streaming down her cheeks. She drew breath in short painful gasps and her heart pounded, threatening to rise to her throat. She let her lids fall closed and took a deep breath, and forced the fear away, to a place in her mind where she could lock it up until she was ready. After a minute, she opened her eyes. The man on the pier was still there, hand outstretched, unaffected by her episode.

Another minute passed, and Alice crouched down to pet the dog, who laid his head between his paws, and sighed again as she ran her hand through his fur. Her knees were beginning to throb with a dull ache, and Alice let herself down the rest of the way until she was sitting in the sand next to the dog.

Her left hand went on stroking the dog’s fur, and she enjoyed the softness against her palm and the reassuring warmth beneath her skin. She frowned, lost in thought, while her free hand absently dug and sifted through the sand at her side.

“What do you want?” She asked the figure at the end of the pier.

No answer came, and she went back to worrying at the situation like a mouse at a rope. She tried to think of things she had read, stories she had heard before, mentioning a man and a boat. Unfortunately, most of what she knew still seemed shrouded in a gray fog that persisted in her brain. Although, the harder she thought, the more something glimmered in the back of her mind, and she pushed towards it.

She spared a glance at the man, who still had not moved. Something told her maybe he couldn’t go beyond the pier, and as long as she kept her distance, she was fine. The idea flared in her brain again, burning off a bit of the fog, and she grabbed for it.

…turn to page 163, Mythology, and…

Her mind seized on the fragment, and for a moment she was back in Mrs. Rabe’s class, the fragrances of early autumn and late summer drifting in through open windows.

Mrs. Rabe was a short, rotund woman with graying hair, and a stern, grandmotherly air. She was writing something on the blackboard, a name, in flowing script. Calvin, another redhead, sat behind Alice, whispering to a friend. She turned to see who―

Her right hand closed on something hard and cold. And the memory came to her, a flash of light in a dark room. Of course—the dead need pay the ferryman for passage. She looked down, and saw she had been digging a hole in the sand, her right hand caked with soft mud, grains grinding against each other under her fingernails. Something glittered with a dull shine in the dirt in her hand, and she brushed it off, recognizing the shape of a coin. She wondered where hers was, and realized she wouldn’t have had one. They no longer buried the dead with coin. It troubled her, the idea that she could have been trapped on this side with no possible recourse but to swim or languish. For her, it was fortunate that she had come across one someone had lost, though she felt for the poor soul.

And what of the others? Those that had come here in the intervening years and found themselves wandering this endless beach. A second thought occurred to her—how many did actually come here? Surely, those who passed on didn’t all go to the same place. It would be, for the lack of a better term, awkward. If she was dead, that was. She let out a sigh, exasperated with the cloud in her head, and bent to cleaning the coin.

When the disc was as clean as she could get it without walking to the water’s edge and rinsing it, she confirmed it was gold in color, and crudely stamped with a man’s image on both sides. Roman numerals crawled along the outer edges, and beneath the portrait, lettering she couldn’t decipher. While she was looking at it, Dog let out a low warning growl.

Alice followed the direction of his snout and spotted what Dog had already sensed—a naked man sprinting full-tilt down the beach. An idle part of her, the part that remembered old jingles and quotes from TV shows, wondered where his clothes had gone. Then shrugged. Maybe he’d been here so long, they’d simply fallen to tatters. Maybe he was just a loon.

She was frozen momentarily, torn between waiting for him—he was the first human she had encountered since coming to this place, present company, the ferryman, excluded—and running like hell from what appeared to be a madman on a collision course with her.

He drew closer, and opened his mouth, and the words that spilled out made up her mind for her.

“Kill you, kill you, KILL YOU! MY COIN, MY COIN, MYYYY COOOOIIIIINN!”

Alice clambered to her feet and kicked up sand, heading for the ferryman, where he still waited with his palm out. Dog followed, still growling deep in his chest and throat. She reached the cowled figure and slapped the coin into his hand. His fingers closed around it, and he turned, making his way to the boat.

She followed and looked over her shoulder, noting the psycho was closer now, maybe three, four hundred yards away, and still bellowing obscenities at her. She quickened her pace, and a knot of frustration tied itself in her stomach when she realized the tall man in the cloak seemed unhurried and unconcerned.

The dinghy rocked as Alice, Dog, and the boatman stepped in, and he leaned forward to untie the rope and cast off. When finished, he took his place at the back of the boat, slipped his long pole into the water, and pushed off, sending them on their way.

At the same time, the naked man reached the edge of the pier and stopped short, his face, only moments before twisted in rage, collapsing in on itself and giving way to despair. He dropped to his knees and let out a wordless howl. Then the current caught the boat, and he dropped out of sight in a matter of seconds, the only sounds the rush of water against wood, the soft splash of the ferryman’s pole in the water, and Dog’s panting.

The Bear, the Raven, and the Sun

Nora nudged her drink, watching ripples play out on the surface. It was just a shot of whiskey, yet she couldn’t quite bring herself to down it.  So, she would nudge it every now and then, and watch the ripples and think of the way waves might lap at the shore on a summer day. Even without the whiskey, she could imagine sea salt and foam, coral and shells poking half-out of the sand, their surfaces shiny in the early afternoon sun. She could hear the gulls crying as they wheeled above the waves, and further out, see the bright triangle of a sloop or a small fishing boat. Then the burn in her guts would come back, and the ocean would fade – she’d remember she’d never actually seen the sea – and she’d take another shot of whiskey to take the edge off the pain. 

She grimaced when it went down – she had never been one of those people like in the movies, where they toss back the shot, slam the glass down, and ask for another – she’d never gotten used to the taste. It went down hot, and she coughed a little, and then chased it with the beer beside it. Beer was better. Not much, but it wasn’t like fire, and though the whiskey made the acid in her belly that much hotter for a moment, the two blended together just enough to mellow the pain, and make her loose enough to think of anything that wasn’t the black cancer eating away her insides. She took another sip of beer and tried to think of anything else, like how if she managed to down about five more of those, she might finally be ready to finish the bottle of pills on her counter and deprive the pain of its one source of joy, her misery. 

Her stomach protested with a wash of acid that made her want to vomit up the three shots, near-pint, and handful of peanuts she’d forced down over the night. She clenched her jaw and breathed through her nose, and thought nasty words at the nausea until it passed, her hand on her stomach. Her left hand was clenched in a fist, the thumb tucked inside. She’d read somewhere that it was supposed to put pressure on a nerve that helped control the vomit impulse. She wasn’t sure it was true, but with weeks of not keeping food down for more than twenty minutes, ten sometimes, she was willing to give anything a shot. 

A man sat on the stool next to her, bumping her arm and sending it banging into her stomach. She winced and looked over. He looked back with old, kind eyes. 

“Sorry about that.” 

“No problem.” 

“No, sorry about the cancer. I didn’t have anything to do with that.” 

She had just turned away to contemplate the new shot the bartender had placed in front of her, and her head snapped back. If it had moved any faster, it would have made a sound like Indiana Jones’ whip in an open market. The man was still watching her with those eyes. They were odd, she thought. Especially in a man with dark skin. Gold, with flecks of green. She thought she might be mistaken – that they were just a light brown, or the light was caching them in a way that made them shine, but then he inclined his head just a little, and she saw her first thought was right. He smiled, and his wrinkles formed themselves into smile lines and dimples, a sort of seismic joy across the landscape of his face. 

“Looking at my eyes?” 

“No – yeah. I mean – sorry.” 

“No need to apologize.” He laid a thin hand on hers, his skin dry, but warm, his palm calloused. “Got them from a tiger. Had to trade the moon for them, but I got it back.” He winked. 

“What did he get?” She asked, the question surprised out of her by the oddity of the statement. 

“His stripes. And a hangover.” 

She laughed, a sound that came from her so unexpectedly that she clapped a hand over her mouth. “Sorry, sorry.” 

“You apologize a lot. Don’t. Never be sorry for a laugh that isn’t cruel.” 

She looked at him closer. At the tweed suit. At the hat that lay beside his left hand, a battered fedora like you’d see a jazz singer wear in the 50s. At his slight build and the white stubble that clung to his head. At his eyes. Kind, but somehow laughing. Not at you, though. No, she didn’t think those eyes ever laughed at a person. Her first thought flittered back into her head, a reminder of the sudden surprise she’d felt. 

“How did you know about the cancer?” 

“It stands out. A person carries themselves a certain way. A little stiffer, their shoulders a little hunched. Like a whipped dog – no offense. It’s a mean thing – it takes and takes and leaves little. Sometimes not even your dignity.” Anger flashed in his eyes just once, so brief she thought for a second it might be the reflection of a reflection – the light from a watch catching the neon, but she didn’t think so. Then it passed, and his demeanor changed. He signaled for a drink, and watched the bartender bring it, then turned to Nora. “You like stories?” 

“Depends. Is it long?” 

He shrugged. “Not so long to tell as it was to live.” 

She thought about it. The tub, the razor blade, the bottle of pills – they would wait. None were clamoring to be first, none were more important than the next. They simply were, an inevitability at the end of a long road. She nodded. “Sure, I’ll listen.” 

“A long time ago – that’s how these things always start, anyways – there was the dark, and man, and man was afraid of the dark.” 

She wrinkled her nose. She wasn’t in the mood for a sermon. Sermons hadn’t gotten her anywhere in the past two years, and praying had gotten her less. She held up a hand. 

“Is this a Bible story? Because – no offense, thanks, but no thanks.” 

He shook his head. “Nope. Probably wouldn’t show up in the Bible. Probably wouldn’t show up in the New York Times.” He shrugged. “Doesn’t make it less true.” He paused and looked at her. “Okay?” 

She nodded and picked up her beer, taking a sip. “Okay.” 

“Where was I? Oh – the dark. So many stories start in the dark. That’s because for a long time, man didn’t have light. They huddled together, in their caves and their secret places, away from the beasts, and they held sharpened sticks and fended off the night when it came for them. They weren’t always successful. Men died. Women died. Children died. Or worse.” 

“Worse?” Despite herself, Nora felt herself already being drawn into the story. The man’s voice was mellifluous, and she could imagine shamans and grandparents and parents telling stories like this to their children, some still babes in swaddling clothes, as they huddled around campfires or fireplaces, in places where their parent’s parents had come up and made a life. 

The man nodded. “Sometimes the dark didn’t kill them, but got inside. Some, it made sick.” He reached out and touched her stomach, with one finger. It was nonthreatening, tender – the touch of a physician. It burned for a moment, as if in response to his presence. He pulled away, and her stomach settled. He continued. “Others, it took. It brought them into the fold and changed them, made them crave the flesh of families, made them hunt their own children. Others, it made generals, great leaders of beasts that had never seen the light. They fought for so long, but the thing about fighting for so long in the dark, with no light at the end, is that you get tired. You just want to sleep. Some simply walked into the dark and didn’t look back.  

So it went, generation after generation, until one day, all the people that ever were at that point huddled together in one cave. They were sore and weary, and began to argue. ‘We should fight until the end,’ some said. ‘We should walk out,’ others said, ‘let the dark take us’. ‘We should lie down and sleep until the end,’ said the third group. It was then that a voice, younger than the others, but still strong, spoke up. ‘We should fight with something they’ve never seen before.’ 

‘And what is that?’ 

‘Light.’  

They shook their heads in bewilderment and scratched their pates and wondered if the young man had gone mad. He held up his hands for quiet, and then told them of a dream he’d had, of a glittering thing that shone in a way that couldn’t be stopped by the dark, of the way the things in the night were afraid of it, and the way the beasts feared it. When they asked where it came from, he told them it was a thing of the gods.” 

Nora stopped him. “This is a fairy tale then.” 

He raised a hand. “Hand to gods, it’s true.” 

“Gods? Plural? You’re not one of those new age kooks, are you?” 

He shook his head and chuckled. “I haven’t been accused of being a new anything in a long time. No, back then there were many gods. But they were busy with their own squabbling and couldn’t be bothered with man. That came after.” 

He continued. “So, the young man told them his story. And they laughed at him. Until he went to the mouth of the cave and stared into the dark. Then, they no longer laughed. They begged and pleaded, and wheedled and cried and finally cursed, saying that if he was going to throw away the future of the clan, then he could rot in the dark with the rest of them. 

Their warnings and curses went unheeded though, and he walked out, into the dark.” 

The man stopped and took a sip of his drink. He paused for a moment, looking around the bar. 

“What happened next?” Nora prompted him. 

“He found the light.” 

“How?” 

He heaved a sigh. “Tests, trials, labors. There are always three – did you know that?” 

She shook her head, and he nodded in return. 

“Three is sacred to one deity or another – the Goddess, God, Shiva – it’s all very mathematical and proper, as things are with their sort.” 

“So, what happened?” 

“Well, he walked. For a long time. And it was dull. There was very little on the Earth at that time, due to the darkness. Not many things could live in it, though somehow man did. I suspect resourcefulness was a gift from the gods, because man could find food in the dark – mushrooms and lichen from the caves, water from the grottos, meat from the occasional lizard that wandered through – though, let me tell you, raw lizard tastes awful. They also found wood from trees that grew in the caves where a lizard had carried a seed, though it grew hard and leafless and completely inflammable. A joke of the dark, I think. 

Anyways, he walked for three days, somehow avoiding the eyes of the dark, and on the third day, came to a stream. A bird – ravens were common even then – had landed on a rock in the stream after some beast or other had wounded his wing, and was trapped. While it wasn’t very deep for a man, it was deadly to a bird that wasn’t made for swimming, so the boy decided he would wade in and rescue the raven. When he reached the edge of the stream, the bird spoke. 

“Look out!” It called. “The water is thick with the teeth of the dead!” 

The boy looked down and saw it was true. Beneath the surface of the water, bone-white teeth glinted in the moonlight.” 

Nora interrupted him. “I thought you said there wasn’t any light.” 

“Moonlight is not the same as light. You know that. Could you grow a tree by moonlight? Frighten a predator?” 

She shook her head. “Sorry.” 

He shook his. “Again. No apologies.” He continued. 

“The boy paused at the edge of the water, and looked. He had his spear with him, and thought ‘maybe…,’ so he laid it across the stream, and it reached the rock. The raven hopped across, holding its broken wing out. Just before the end, it dipped its beak into the water and grabbed a tooth, holding it up as it hopped onto the shore. The boy held his hand out and the raven spat it into his hand. It was long and sharp, and he could feel it ready to bite. 

‘Thank you,’ said the raven. Fasten this to your spear, and you will be able to pierce even the sky.’ 

‘Will you be okay?’ The boy asked.  

The raven bobbed his head. ‘I will be fine. Now go.’ 

The boy strapped the tooth to the point of his spear and went on his way, leaving the raven behind. He walked another three days, until he came to a great forest, one older than even the darkness, and began to work his way through.” 

Nora interrupted again. “Wait. I thought you just said trees couldn’t grow in moonlight.” 

“You’re right – they can’t. I did say this place was older than the dark. Such things did – still do – exist.” He cocked an amused eyebrow at her. “May I go on?” 

She nodded. 

“The boy came to the center of the forest, and there he saw a bear, his leg trapped in one of the night’s traps. He went to the bear and knelt beside him, inspecting his leg. 

‘I think I can get it off,’ the boy said. 

The bear shook his head. ‘Do not. It is a strong tar. Even touching it would stick you hopelessly.’ 

The boy thought for a moment, then using his spear, pried the jaws of the trap apart. The mechanism snapped open, and the bear pulled his leg free. The tar clung to the tip of the spear. 

‘Thank you, boy,’ the bear said. ‘With that tar, you can catch the most cunning of prey.’ He wandered into the woods, leaving the boy alone. After a time, the boy continued on.  

He walked for three more days, leaving the forest behind. By now, his stomach was growling, and his step was unsure. He had come so far, and been lucky in that the dark seemed to not see him. Finally, he came to an arch set in a plain countryside. It had no house, nor any frame, but you could not see the other side through it. He stepped though, and screamed in horror. 

The light was more than he’d expected, more than he’d dreamt. It seared his skin, made his eyes burn. He cowered before it, and flung his hands over his eyes. He lay that way for some time, his hands over his eyes. He cursed the gods and their tricks, and cursed the dark and its cruelty. He trembled, part in fear, part in rage. He could not die here! He could not let the gods have their joke! Slowly, he stood, and through squinting eyes, he picked up his spear. He aimed with a trembling hand. Sweat covered his skin, and his grip was unsure. Still, he pulled back, and let fly. The spear flew like an arrow, like a hawk at its prey. It struck the sun, and with a thunk, sliced off a piece that stuck to the tar. The spear fell away and landed to earth, the tip still burning. 

The boy picked up the torch, and marveling at its light weight and heat, began to walk the way he’d come. He had decided if he couldn’t destroy the thing in the sky, he would steal a piece for his people. Let the gods have their joke – he would use it to his advantage. He walked, back through the arch and through the forest, beside the stream, and finally, back to his cave. Where he went, the light spread, driving back the dark things, making greenery bloom around him. He called out to his people. 

‘Come and see what I have brought!’ 

They came, tempted by the light, and though they shielded their eyes, they rejoiced at the new sights, at the fleeing darkness.  

‘What do we do with it?” They asked the boy. 

In answer, he flung the spear into the sky, and there it stuck. And that’s how we got the sun.” 

“What happened to the boy?” Nora was enraptured. 

The man shrugged. “Some say he is still around, bringing light wherever he goes.” 

“Is that why the dark left him alone?” 

The man shrugged and finished his drink. “Maybe. Maybe he was just small enough to pass under its sight. Maybe it saw the strength in him and knew he was unbreakable.” 

She thought about it and downed her shot. The alcohol made her head swim pleasantly. “It’s nice, but it’s just a story. Thank you for it, but I don’t see how it applies to me.” 

A small look of sadness passed the man’s face. “You don’t? It’s simple, Nora. There is always light to drive back the dark.”  

He tapped her stomach once more, and the pain came, but it was distant. The alcohol must be working. He stood and laid a fifty on the counter, then nodded at the barman. 

“For me, and her.” 

She started to protest, and then laid a hand on his arm. “Thank you.” 

He smiled. “Go home, Nora. Sleep. That thing you’re thinking of can wait another day. And the day after that, maybe you can steal the sun.” 

He walked away, and she sat on her stool, rubbing her stomach. After a while, she stood as well, and left. The cab ride home was quiet, as was her apartment. She looked at the bottle of pain pills on her kitchen counter, and mentally counted them. 32 – that should be enough. She thought of the old man, and took a breath, then went to sleep. 

The next day, she woke, and the pain in her stomach was less. And the day after that, and the day after that. And after that, she drove to the beach. It was a three day drive, and at its end, she stood on the shore and raised her hand to the sky. From where she stood, the sun seemed to fit neatly in the palm of her hand. 

Family and All Its Trappings

A piece that I had submitted to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It didn’t quite pass muster – I’m working on getting these right though, so maybe the next, or the next. Until then, there’s this.

 

Family and All Its Trappings

 

Qoth hated the sound the dead men made. He scuffled his feet in the dust and stone of the yard between buildings, the creak of the Wheel drowning out his meager noise. Frustrated, he sighed and looked up, the Wheel filling his vision. It was a massive contraption of solid oak boards, pegs running its circumference. Each of the pegs held a noose, though only one was occupied at the moment, and the boards underneath the nooses were stained deep brown and yellow, remains of the men condemned there. The man currently attached to a noose made thick gagging sounds as the Wheel turned, almost matching the pitch of the bearings that smoothed its motion. His feet kicked, the black hood billowing in and out over his mouth as he struggled to breathe.

Qoth shuddered, the sight still hard to see after so many years. He wondered which sadist cum mystic had first thought of the Wheel, the idea that dying men might, in their last desperate moments between life and death, gasp out visions from the other side. The Wheel turned another click, and the man in the noose sucked in a breath, then keened it out as his trachea was pinched, the sound like a fleshy teakettle. The boards beneath him took on a darker hue, the contents of his bowels spilling into his trousers and soaking through, and red-robed seers and the motley collection of peasants leaned in close.

This was it. This was the moment of prognostication. Or bullshite. The talkers that actually broke through on the Wheel tended to mutter incomprehensible trite, a fact that never bothered the seers as they carefully recorded each word and frenetically pored over every syllable afterwards – at least until the next poor cutter was hung. Qoth wasn’t sure what they intended to learn. The gods were mute, blind, and deaf as far as he was concerned. He knew. He had once been a priest, a man of Atiesh. At least until the pox caught his family in its black grip.

The square drew quiet and Qoth glanced at the Wheel. It had reached its apex and stopped, the man on it hanging at the noon position. A slight breeze stirred, rippling the hood over his head and then, a voice, creaking like branches in the wind, spoke.

Ashen hearts

Lost and black

Do not

Grow old

Family calls

From Winter’s halls

And swollen tongues”

The last came as a strangled whisper, hard to hear, and yet the words reached Qoth’s ears anyway. The fabric of the hood darkened as blood gouted from the cutter’s split throat. Qoth looked away even as the seers pressed in, urging their scribes to write faster. The peasants were already turning away, and Qoth joined them, heading in the general direction of the warden’s office. There, they would have a wagon and the body. There, the dead would be still, and his work could start.

*

Qoth watched a spider crawling in a corner of the room, rolling something wrapped in webbing ahead of itself. The spider rolled the ball up the wall and affixed it with a strap of web. That done, it crawled into the center of its web to wait. Qoth thought that was the envious life – eat, mate, and sleep. He wondered how things would be different if he had never met Irina, if they had never had Iliana. Would he have turned down a different path, been more like that spider, perhaps? Would he even now, be lounging in a sitte den? Would he maybe even be a predator, waiting in the alleys and warrens of the city for his next prey? He didn’t know. Because he was what he was. As he had been, because of Irina. Because of Atiesh.

The warden that approached him was short and thick, a tree stump of a man who wore the typical leather and steel of the wardens, a dagger at each hip, and a small crossbow on his back. He cleared his throat when Qoth didn’t look up right away.

“Body’s ready.”

“Thank you.” Qoth stood to go, heading toward the door in the back that would lead to the small yard and the wagon with the body.

The warden gave him a look, one eye squinted. “What do you do with ’em anyway?”

Qoth shrugged. “All things served Atiesh in their time. Perhaps they will serve his soul in the afterlife as well.”

“Better you than me.”

Despite the fracturing of his faith, Qoth knew that the proper application of a platitude, or the appearance of a man sweeping the steps of his temple kept most from questioning him, especially if he had kept that temple shuttered for some time. Some viewed him as eccentric, others necessary – handlers of the dead were rare in an age of superstition – even if everyone knew his faith had collapsed.

Qoth spread his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “I do what I must.”

The warden grunted, and handed Qoth a sliver of steel. It was meager payment, but it would do. Qoth slipped it into his vest and left the room as the warden busied himself at a small desk with a pile of parchment and a quill. Outside, the sun was still and hot overhead, and the yard here as dusty as it had been in the Wheel’s square. A small row of tarps lay against one side of the building in shadow, the bodies beneath waiting purification from the surgeon inside. Behind them, a wooden cart, handles long enough for a man to step between, stood with another piece of canvas covering it. Qoth approached and situated himself between the wooden poles, grasping one in each hand. With a grunt, he kicked off, and the wagon began to roll behind him. He maneuvered it into the street and down the hill, keeping to one side of the road. As he went, men and women avoided him. Death was commonplace in the city, but no one liked to be reminded of it. Heedless, he continued on.

*

His mind drifted. It was a bit of a trot to his temple, and between the weight of the cart and the sun overhead, he wanted only to occupy his thoughts with anything other than the heat and the labor.

“What do you desire?”

They were curled up in their bed, a great goose down mattress under them – a gift from the parishioners. Irina snuggled in next to him, her nose and lips against his neck, sending thrills through his chest. He shifted a bit, and looked at her, nestled in the crook of his arm.

“You.”

She smiled, and her hand traced the hair on his chest.

“And you, my succubus?”

She lowered her lids and the corners of her mouth curled up, mischief shining in her eyes. “This.” She rolled herself onto him and pushed off his chest until she was straddling him. He watched the muscles in her arms and belly, the inward pucker of her belly button. He grinned back at her and opened his mouth, thinking to quip at her. She leaned in, her hair falling around him like a curtain, and her lips found his. They were soft, and tasted of strawberry and wax. He closed his eyes, and-

“Watch it, you gobshite!”

Qoth blinked away the memory and stopped. A man was pacing away, gesturing, his fingers held up in a vee, muttering curses as he went.

“Forgive me, sir,” he muttered, then sighed, and continued on his way.

*

The body was starting to stink. The heat wasn’t helping things, but it wasn’t like winter, when you could pack the dead with ice and snow and dally for hours before the first signs of bloating appeared. Qoth stopped and walked to the back of the wagon, lifting the sheet that covered the man. He was an odd blue-yellow, the whites of his eyes shot to blood, his tongue protruding at an angle. Livid bruises surrounded his throat, and a rend in the flesh by the man’s voice box was puckered like overripe fruit that had burst. Qoth poked the naked skin of the man, and it took a moment for the dent to recover. Bloating had already set in. He’d have to hurry. He picked up the handles of the cart and began to move faster, trotting a little to set a quick pace. After a while, his mind drifted again, and he forgot the stink.

“I feel like a yak.”

“You look much better than a yak.”

Qoth curled his arm around Irina’s swollen belly and pulled her close, his lips finding her neck. She swatted him away, laughing, and stood.

“That’s how we got in this situation in the first place, you great horny goat.”

He chuckled and watched her as she tooled around the kitchen, chopping vegetables and setting a kettle over the fire.

“Will you do the meat?”

“Will you do the meat?” he asked.

She shot a look over her shoulder, and he joined her at the table, pulling a thick shank of beef from its paper, then a knife from the block. He set to work removing the fat and slicing it into thin strips for the stew. As they worked Irina began to hum. Qoth joined her.

“Miss Manner

So proper

Lift your skirt

But mind the copper

Mister Hammer

So randy

Drop your trousers

Mind your dandy”

They burst into laughter, and laughter became tears as they fed each other’s good humor. Qoth looked at his wife, smiling, her eyes wet, and his heart ached.

The shadow of the Spire fell over Qoth, and he stopped the cart for a moment, glad to be from under the sun’s thumb. He stood that way for a time, wiping sweat from his brow, letting his heart ache. Atiesh would have approved. Through grief, joy. Through joy, service.

He waited until he had his breath back, and tears no longer stung the corners of his eyes, and moved on.

*

He was close. Qoth had entered the warren where his little temple stood. Small homes and hovels stood side by side, often wall to wall, their graying stone and rough wood competing for every inch of space. Once, this had been the heart of the city. But as the city grew, the warren was left behind. As are all things, Qoth thought. He thought again of how Atiesh had abandoned him. How he had run, desperate and mad with fear, from temple to temple, begging anyone – any god – to help him, and how he had been met with silence. His faith and family had died that day. It took him a long time – a year, maybe more – it all blended in the end. Finally, he had taken up care for the dead. Someone had to do it. Someone had to let the families of the lost know their loss was not in vain.

He rounded a corner, and saw the chemist’s shop. Memory flooded in again.

“Please, I need wort for my family!”

“Seven shims.”

“I don’t – look, when your sister was ill, who brought her soup every day? Irina. You were at Iliana’s baptism – this is a community, for gods’ sake!”

The chemist looked at him. “Wort is expensive, preacher. I’ve got a family, too.”

“Then loan it to me – you know I’ll pay when alms come in!”

The chemist shook his head. “I cannot. Please go before I call the wardens.”

Qoth let out a strangled cry and turned, fleeing from the door. He ran the distance home. He’d left them alone too long. He burst into his home, but it was too late. His daughter – Iliana, who had only been two summers, who he had sang lullabies to when the moon was just growing in the sky – lay in her crib, still as a stone. Grief constricted his heart, and he managed to stagger to the bedroom he shared with Irina. He stopped in the doorway, a scream escaping his lips. Only flies moved in the room, her eyes frozen to the ceiling. He’d fallen then, on his knees, and begged for the gift of resurrection. For the ear of a god – any god – to numb him, to take him, too. No answer came. No quarter was given for the grief he felt.

In the end, he had decided if he could no longer do for the gods or the living, he would find solace in the dead. That was where his family was, that was where he should be, or at least he thought. Yet every time he held the knife to his breast, fear stayed his hand. So, he collected the dead. He studied each one. And he made use of them, for the day he would be brave enough to join his family.

Not this day. Maybe not the next. But one day, surely.

*

Qoth rounded another corner, and the temple was before him. It was a small thing, clapboard and brick, with a steepled roof and the symbol of Atiesh – an open hand – on the peak. He aimed the cart for the back of the temple. He’d kept the place because it was perfect for his work. Being a religious institution, it was somewhat secluded from the bustle of buildings shoving each other for room in the warren. It had ample room on either side, and a spacious cemetery in the back. He reached the fence surrounding the cemetary, and dragged the cart in, then shut the gate behind him. That done, he dropped the handles and made his footsore way into the rear of the temple, where his living quarters were.

It was simple inside, a small living area, a kitchen, and a bedroom. Behind the temple stood a small water closet. The church had a little money for luxuries, usually reserved for promising students, and before they had installed him as preacher here, they had enchanted a pipe above the sink. It brought him warm but clean water from the well, saving him some work pumping. He touched it and a stream started, trickling into the basin. Qoth ran his hands under the water, watching it come away muddy as the dust was stripped from his skin. Next, he splashed his face, washing away more of the silt and sweat that seemed to make up so much of the city.

He touched the pipe again and made his way to the living area. He sat on a small chair and looked around, listening to the buzz of flies and the drip of water. A slow throb in his feet signaled a sleepless night, but it would be that anyway. He had work to do. He stood again and took down his knife, a simple sturdy blade, made for this kind of work, and went to the yard. He uncovered the body, the smell strong, but not overpowering. Someone had forgotten to close the dead man’s eyes, and he stared to the heavens. Too bad there’s not much to see there, Qoth thought, and got to work.

*

He dragged the body into the chapel proper. Two hundred eyes stared at him. One hundred mouths hung open, their muscles slack. It was a side effect of the words he’d carved into their chests. Calach – speak. Menoch – see. It had taken him some time to gather the bodies, each a hanged man from the Wheel. This one he pulled to an open spot on the wall, beside Irina. Her eyes saw nothing, and her lips were still, yet he felt as if she’d approve. He hoisted the body and nailed it in place with a steady hammering – spikes through the wrists and ankles. When he was done, he sat back, sweating. The bodies formed an unbroken chain that covered the walls and ceiling of the chapel, a tapestry of flesh he had meticulously gathered.

It had been work, keeping the stink down. He’d had to use a small battalion of charms to keep the decay and stench to a minimum. There was nothing he could do about the flies, though. Qoth stepped back and surveyed his work. Each word carved on the dead connected to other words, but for one – Iliana. Qoth moved to her, and with shaking hands, raised the knife. He could hear her small laughter in his mind. He carved the final word. Yanoch – live.

Fire raced across the words, connecting each to each, until the room glowed with it. As one, the dead groaned, and a voice spoke. It filled Qoth’s ears, and its sweetness made his heart ache.

“My love. Bring them to me.” In a corner, a rat that had been gnawing at the toes of one of the dead men burst, a spray of gore painting the corpse’s ankles.

Qoth fell to his knees and wept.

*

The doors of the temple of Atiesh were unbarred. Qoth stood on the steps, passing out fliers, smiling and chatting with passer-bys as they went about their day. Curious, Tvent – chemist by trade – approached. Qoth pressed a flyer into his hand.

“Opening the temple again, Qoth?”

“Oh, aye, aye. Please come.”

“Found your faith again?”

“Never lost it, my good man. Now scurry along, and tell the others. The temple is taking new parishioners. You’ll want to hear this sermon.”

Tvent looked at the flyer in his hand and back to Qoth. The man’s excitement was palpable, and somewhat infectious. He walked away, and Qoth watched him go. When the flyers had been turned out to the last, he stepped into the temple, closing the door behind him. Candlelight glowed on a hundred bodies, and two hundred eyes watched as he approached Irina and stroked her cheek.

*

They came, one by one and two by two to the chapel. Families and friends, clutching the flyers he’d handed out, chattering of what it all meant. Inside, Qoth had hung tall white sheets he’d painted with scenes of family, portraits of Iliana and Irina. The congregation settled in the pews, and Qoth waited patiently for the last of the stragglers to arrive. Children darted between the rows and people chattered while passing around small cakes the local baker had made. It was a celebration, after all. A new leaf. A new life.

When they were all inside, Qoth closed the doors, and locked them. He carved a word into the chain of words around the jamb, closing the spell that would ensure nothing short of a giant’s axe could open them. He looked around, pleased. It seemed the entire warren had shown up. He took his time getting to the pulpit, stopping to greet Tvent – the man had brought his entire family – and the baker who had denied him bread more than once for fear his dough would be contaminated. Qoth smiled and shook their hands and asked after their businesses and extended family. Then he climbed the steps to the pulpit.

A low humming began in the room, and the congregation sat a little straighter, began to quiet. He took the rope in his hands that was tied to the sheets, and smiled beatifically.

“Welcome, friends. And goodbye.”

He pulled on the rope. The sheets fell. The screaming began. It did not end until the goddess he had made broke them all. When it was over, Qoth sat on the steps of the pulpit, the bodies stinking in their pews. A low humming filled the room, sweet to his ears. It was the lullaby Irina would sing to Iliana as dusk fell.

Here’s the moon

I’ll see you soon

In the land of dreams

Don’t you cry

I’ll be by

To see you in your dreams

So tell me that you love me

Love me so

And don’t you cry

I’ll be by

I’ll see you in your dreams

Qoth closed his eyes and listened, and for a moment, he saw the sun-dappled room and his wife and daughter, side by side in the big chair, their heads pressed together as she sang.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mercenary

This is the pilot for my Fiction Vortex series, Kharn. Thought I’d share it here, and get some eyes on it. We’re currently building a stable of authors, and a story bible is in the works. More to come.

Mercenary

“The gods are dead, Trapper.  Ain’t naught left but devils with the faces of men.”

Bharga stirred the embers of the fire with a long stick, the end charred and chipped to a point.  Sparks swirled up into the night, and Trapper followed their ascent, burning fireflies swirling in the dark.  He watched them mix with the stars, and wondered if it were true.  If the heavens were littered with the corpses of immortals.

Bharga poked him with the stick, the heat of the tip pulling Trapper from his thoughts.

“Check the wards.” Bharga said.

For the fourth or fifth time that night, he checked the wards around the fire.  The last thing they needed was imps in the campsite.  They looked intact.  He’d etched them on stone with the tip of his dagger.  It would take some time for them to erode.  The gods may have been dead, but the gods-damned devils weren’t.

Their mounts, great beasts with the bodies of wolves and bone-covered heads, snorted in the chill air.  Bharga tossed bones to them, pieces of the rabbits they’d snared earlier.  The beasts snatched them up, growling low in their chests while they snapped the bones, the blue fire in their eyes flashing.  Trapper listened to them eat and thought the cost of the barghests was well worth the protection they offered.

“Get some rest.”  Bharga said.

Trapper crawled into his bedroll and set his blade close to hand.  He listened for a moment while Bharga rolled into his own bedding and made himself comfortable.  After a few minutes, the big man was snoring.  Before long, the excited panting of the barghests quieted to a steady drone of breath, and Trapper knew he was the only one still aware in the dark.  He rolled onto his back and slipped his hands behind his head, staring up at the stars.  His gaze fell on the black tear in the sky, a void where no stars shone.  He wondered again about the gods.

***

The job had come to them through a friend of a friend.  Not that Trapper would call Kips a friend.  He was more like blood lichen – sure, he’d latch on to you and keep the annoyances away, but there were times when he couldn’t figure the difference between a bug and the hand that fed him.  Which explained the roadmap of scars on the man’s face.  Trapper knew from experience that Bharga had even put a couple of them there for him.  At the thought, his own itched, and he resisted the urge to scratch until the feeling had passed.

Kips had come to them with a letter, sealed in wax – that alone meant money – and a simpering expression.

“Hey, boys. Got a job.”

Bharga waved a hand.  “Bullshite. You’ve got naught but an itch to take more of my coin.”

“You’re not still sore over the Harenbull job, are you, Bharga?”  Kips wheedled.

Bharga just grunted.  Kips looked at him, then back to Trapper, and thrust the parchment into his hand.

“Big payday.” he said, a little lower.  “Plenty of coin to go around.”

Trapper cracked the seal and opened the letter.  Bits of wax fell to the floor like dead petals.  Trapper shook the remains off the paper and read.  After a moment, he walked it over to Bharga, and held it up.

“Good pay.” he said.

Bharga raised another hand, this time in a buzz off pest gesture.  Trapper knew he couldn’t read, but if the other man thought Trapper was treating him like he was stupid, he’d have bigger problems than just an annoyed Capo.  He took another tack.

“Someone wants us to get Greelo.”

Bharga slammed a hand down on the table.  “Fuck Greelo. Been looking for that little gobshite for months.  Do they know where he is?”

“In the wood.”

Bharga looked up, a suspicious expression on his face.  “Who knows this?  Who’s paying?”

Trapper looked at the letter.  “Viscount Grawl.”

Bharga appeared to chew the information over.  “How much?”

“40 crowns.”

Bharga snorted.  “I’d do it for 5.  We’ll leave tomorrow.”

“Finder’s fee?”  Kips asked in a small voice.

Trapper hushed him and ushered him over the threshold.  “I’ll see what I can do.  Just don’t push him any harder, or he’ll feed you to the hounds.”

Kips nodded and thanked Trapper, who shut the door in his face before it could get embarrassing.  He walked over to Bharga, the parchment still in his hands.  After a moment, he fed it into the hearth.  The paper crackled and blackened, the edges turning in.  Trapper could see the imps playing in the flames, and ran a hand over the stones of the fireplace.  He turned to Bharga.

“We’ll start tonight.”  The big man said.  “I don’t trust the little weasel to try to beat us to the punch.”

***

They found mounts just outside the city circle.  The merchant had set up shop just outside the walls, using an abandoned stables that had been left over from fair tournaments and better days.  Bharga haggled with the man over the cost of the barghests, but in the end had paid three-fourths of the price just to have something reliable to ride.  They would have preferred horses, but the last had been lost a generation ago.

They swept out of the inner walls and through the main causeway, past throngs of dirty refugees and what appeared to be a former cleric.  The cleric was holding a painted sign on a pole that read ALL ARE DEAD ALL IS LOST.  Trapper caught the man’s eyes as they passed, hollow and haunted, and then they were out of the gates and onto the plain.

The plain was sere and stony, the few crops the people had managed to plant into the inhospitable earth straggling up on brown stalks.  Fog gathered in hollows, and here and there a small creature scuttled by, its movements furtive.  To their left, what had once been a mighty river was little more than a muddy stream that fed into the sea.  Ahead, the plain opened up, and was bracketed by strands of woods.

They turned their mounts towards the woods, the barghests loping easily over the stony soil.  As the sun sank, they could hear the occasional howl of some hungry beast, but let it worry their minds little.  Barghests were swift, and fierce fighters when cornered.  The wind picked up, sweeping the howls away, and they hunkered down in their saddles and rode on.

***

They halted at the edge of the wood.  Trapper dismounted and ran a hand over the trunk of the nearest tree.  Overhead, the bare branches clattered together.  Someone had carved wards in the wood of the trunk.  He looked to the next tree, and the next.  It was the same on both sides of the path, deep into the wood.  There was something in the forest, and someone wanted to keep the road safe.

They remounted and entered, the path wide enough for them to ride side by side.  The barghests moved slower here, cautiously, as though they could smell whatever was waiting ahead.  They rode in silence for some time.

Bharga broke the silence.  “Should bring back an ear or somethin’.  The high and mighty aint gonna believe a couple of cutters if we just show and say we did it.”

Trapper just nodded.  Something was moving just at the edge of his sight, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to see it.  He made a motion at Bharga.

“You see that?”

Bharga swiveled his head to the side, just enough to see what Trapper thought he did.  His eyes widened a bit.

“Forest daemon.” he whispered.

Trapper turned his head as well.  He saw it then, something mossy and hulking, with glowing green eyes and great antlers on its head.  It shambled along beside them in complete silence, the smell of rotting vegetation following it.  Their mounts didn’t react at all, a fact that unnerved Trapper.  They either knew what it was, or hadn’t noticed it.  Worse, they knew it, and were related somehow.  Barghests were forest and plain natives, after all.

They halted in the middle of the trail for a moment.  Trapper turned to Bharga.  “Do we turn back?”

Bharga looked up the trail, then down.  Up ahead, they could see a sqaut building between the trees.  It was weathered and worn, with moss and lichen growing in patches on the roof, and crooked windows.  He glanced over at Trapper.

“You think Greelo’s got himself wards up there?”

“Aye, probably.”

“What if he didn’t?”

Trapper thought about that.  A gap in the wards would mean the shambler could get in.  It might just do the work for them, and when it was done and gone, they could clean up after.  He drew his dagger, the small blade reassuring in his hand.

“Let’s get to work.”

They rode to the cabin cautiously.  When no shout of warning came, and no arrow tried to decorate their chests, they dismounted as quietly as possible and set to work cutting the sections of tree out where the wards had been carved.  It was hard work, since the runes had been etched deep, and the whole time they hacked away at the wood, the shambler watched from the perimeter, lurking, its eyes glowing that baleful green.

After an hour, they had a swath of the wards cut out.  They moved back to the barghests and waited.  The shambler approached the trees slowly, as though unsure.  As it drew closer, it seemed to sense the magic protecting that place was diminished, and suddenly charged through the gap.

It slammed into the cabin, shaking the building on its foundation.  From inside came a frightened shriek.  It slammed again, and the cabin trembled again, like a scared child.  There was the sound of breaking glass, and an arrow sailed from one of the windows, lodging in the shambler’s shoulder.  It roared and reared back, then hit the cabin one more time.  The wall collapsed in a cloud of dust.

For a moment, there was silence, then the thin form of Greelo emerged, clutching a longbow.  He sighted the beast, and then Bharga and Trapper.  Fury contorted his features, and he charged at them.

“Shite.” Bharga muttered.  Then, “Mount up,” as he saw that the shambler had given chase to Greelo.

They mounted as fast as they could, and before long, were charging along the forest floor, yards ahead of Greelo and the monster.  They spurred the barghests, and heard Greelo scream curses that changed into an ungodly shriek.  Trapper risked a glance over his shoulder, and saw the shambler had caught up to Greelo.  The little man was now impaled and writhing on one antler, and still the beast came.

Ahead, the trail ended, widening out into the plain again, and they put on a final burst of speed to escape the trees.  Behind them, the shambler roared in frustration as it came to the end of its domain, the sound drowning out Greelo’s whimpers of agony.  They rode a few hundred meters past the entrance to be safe, then stopped and turned.  The shambler watched them for another minute with its balefire eyes, as though memorizing them.  Then it turned, and in a few seconds, had disappeared back into the forest.

“Shite!”  Bharga cursed.  “Fuckin’ Viscount aint gonna believe this.”

Trapper nodded.  He looked up at the sky, which was a deep purple.  Stars were starting to dot the firmament.

“C’mon.”  He said.  “Let’s camp here.  Maybe we can go back in the morning.”

“Fine.”

They made camp.

***

     Memory lifted from him, and Trapper looked over at the fire.  Bharga was still dead asleep, and the embers had burnt down to almost a flicker.  He took  a breath and carefully slipped from his bedroll, slipping his dagger from its sheath.  He inched to the fire, and with a good deal of care, pulled one of the wardstones from its edge.  The flames rekindled for a moment, as if acknowledging what he was doing.

He pricked his finger and let it drop into the fire, and there was another flare.  Bharga snorted and muttered in his sleep, then rolled over, his back to Trapper.  Trapper crept over, and thought of the words on the parchment Kips had handed him.  He acted quick, his blade slipping deep into Bharga’s back.  He wrenched on it and spun it in a circle, cutting a hole in the now dead man.  He reached inside and pulled out Bharga’s heart, holding it for a moment, still fresh.  He was surprised.  He thought it would be blacker.

He dropped the heart in the fire, and the barghests growled, the scent of cooking meat exciting their senses.  It did blacken, then, and when it was fully charred, Trapper pulled it from the fire, the hot flesh searing his hand.  He shoved it back into the hole he had made in Bharga’s back, then sat and waited.

After a time, the big man rolled over and sat up, his eyes blazing orange and red and yellow.  He smiled, and it was fiery.

“Yes.” he said.

Bharga was right.  The gods may have been dead, but there were sure as hell devils left, and they paid well.

Jerry’s Meat Shack

Throg looked at the camera, the glowing red light on top staring at him like a basilisk eye. He grimaced. He hated the camera. He hated the way Jerry exploited him, like he was just a mascot, and not a breathing, thinking, feeling being. He hated the little director, Trent, sitting in his little director chair, with his little black beret and wire-rimmed glasses. Throg thought he could probably snap the little weasel’s neck with a minimum of effort. He thought he could probably have the little weasel’s teeth for a necklace, and his fingers for dinner. Trent smiled at him, and Throg managed his best in return, his stomach churning.

No greenskin should have to put up with this. He squirmed in the outfit they’d put him in, a too-tight vest, a tiny cowboy hat, and a pair of boots with stars embroidered on them. He’d give his left tusk to rip the guts out of the costumer.

“Throg, you okay buddy?”

Throg nodded. Of course he wasn’t, but that didn’t matter. He had a mortgage now. A Prius that hadn’t been paid off. A wife. He had to be Good Throg, Patron of the Bloodfist family, and not Throg the Bloody-Handed. They’d cancel his 401K for that.

“Is this really necessary?” Throg pulled at the vest. It felt like a prison.

“All part of the show, buddy. You only need to wear it for a half-hour, hour tops.”

The set lights were hot. Not like Crag, his home, but combined with the kitchen behind him and the Arizona sun, it had to be about a hundred-twenty degrees on set. A bead of sweat rolled from under the little hat, and he blinked it away. He let out a low growl.

“Are we ready yet?”

“Almost, buddy.”

Krog looked back to the kitchen. Gunter worked back there, his paper hat cocked to one side while he toiled over the deep fryers. Krog liked Gunter. Barely spoke a word of English, and was always happy to fry something. Once, he’d fried a toad for Throg. That was a good day.

“Quiet on the set!” Trent’s voice brought Throg back around. “Ready to roll, buddy?”

Throg nodded. “Yeah.”

“Good, just take it from the cue cards.”

Throg looked at the camera, and the cameraman hunched behind it.

“Are – are we on now?”

“Yeah, go ahead.”

Throg looked over at the cue cards. He started to read.

“Got a hankerin’ for a hunk o’ meat? C’mon down to Jerry’s Meat Shack! We got red meat, white meat, pink meat – brother, we can’t be BEAT!” Throg held up the club they’d given him to illustrate the point. Internally, he groaned. “You can get it deep-fried or baked, pan-seared or sauteed. Now, let me AXE you a question:” he held up a shining battleaxe. For a moment, the weight was good in his hands, a nice counterpoint to the pun.

“Do you like variety? Because this week only, we’ve got the Mega-Super-Deluxe Salad Bar, with five kinds of bacon, and seventeen cheese dipping sauces, all for only nine-ninety-five!”

“Bring the kids, and they can join our Junior Carnivore CLUB!” He held up the club again. Anger began to stir in his belly. He was once the alpha, the Chieftain of the Black Legions, the Bringer of Sorrows. He looked over the cue cards. The last line lingered in his vision for a moment, red against white. Like blood in the snow. He took a breath, and steeled himself.

“It’s ORC-some!”

Rage filled him. He ripped off the vest, and threw the little cowboy hat at Jerry. He hefted the battle-axe, his breath coming in heaving bursts. He raised it, ready to begin the carnage. First, that infernal camera. Then, the others. Red crept in at the edge of his vision.

“CUT!”

Throg blinked, the word bringing reality crashing back in around him. The little red light on the camera went off, and Gunter was at his elbow with a paper bag. He handed it to the orc. Throg lowered his axe and peeked inside. Five toads, golden brown. He grinned a little.

“That’s a wrap, buddy. Good job.” Trent’s voice cut through his moment of peace.

Throg ignored him and popped a toad in his mouth. Succulent, with a hint of swamp mud. There would be no carnage today. Millie would be pleased.

 

Forgetting is so Long

It came down to two things, Lyssa thought. Forgetting or resurrection. She considered long and hard the dichotomy of ideas, sitting in her kitchen with the smooth tan wood and the crisp white curtains. The wind blew them in and out, their sharp fabric moving like canvas sails, and she thought it was the same. In or out, positive or negative, though she thought maybe that wasn’t right either, because the absence of something wasn’t a negative, it was nothing. A blank void, waiting to be filled. A flat plain. In the end, she decided that though she wouldn’t remember, and therefore know no pain, she would rather risk the pain and fill in the hole that already existed.

Lyssa’d saved for it, this day when she finally made a decision, and she went to the tin box on her dresser and opened it. Inside, neat green bills sat alongside crumpled, torn, and faded ones, and scattered among those were silver coins, both shiny and tarnished. She saw that dual nature in everything now – it was plain these days, writ large. She sat on the bed and counted it again. Three-hundred-forty-five dollars and seventy cents. That was roughly the cost of the human soul. Or so the alienists had decided. She bundled the money carefully into her handbag, and then placed the tin back on the dresser beside a bottle of White Shoulders, a small clean square waiting amid the dust where it had sat. Clean and dusty. Opposite. Dual.

She left the house, locking the door, though she had left the windows open, and walked the twenty-two blocks to the alienist. On the way, men and women, adults and children, poor and rich, beautiful and ugly and fat and skinny and all other things that made people people crowded the sidewalks and drove on the roadways and also hung from their balconies shouting at lovers below. Lyssa watched them from the corner of her eye, wondering which were reborn, which were forgotten for others. She wondered if any were.

It began to rain when she reached a street corner, and she pulled the hood of her coat up and let it splatter harmless against the cloth and cool on her hands. From somewhere close, she could smell hot dogs from a vendor’s cart, savory on the air. She wondered if everyone making momentous decisions felt this way, if they knew the world was changing for them and their mind started taking notes, filling in the blank spaces for reference. She wondered what the opposite was. Was it forgetting? Or was it ignorance? A car splashed by, making ripples dance in the puddles in the street, and she decided that for this moment, it didn’t matter.

She crossed the street and saw the building just down the way. It was small, pinched between two other buildings like a piece of meat forgotten between molars. A sign jutted from its front, with a simple logo, two triangles intersecting and pointing in opposite directions – one up, one down.  A few short strides later, and she stood in front of the door with aching legs and trembling fingers, the glass stenciled in lettering that held no nonsense. It read: JONAH LATHE, ALIENIST. She gripped the knob and pushed through the door, and was standing inside.

The room was cozy and cool, and done in soft earth tones. It smelled faintly of sage and lavender, and a pair of comfortable chairs occupied a space behind a short counter. Behind that, a door set in the wall led to parts unknown. A young woman, her hair a blaze of red, her eyes deep brown sat behind the counter with a ledger and a serious expression. She looked up at Lyssa’s entrance and gave her a small smile.

“May I help you?”

“I – I’m here to see the alienist.”

“You have payment?”

Lyssa nodded and fumbled with her handbag for a moment before pulling out the money she had so carefully saved. She lay it on the counter, her hand giving a small tremble, and waited while the woman counted it. When she was done, the receptionist squirreled it away and gestured to the chairs.

“Have a seat. Jonah will be with you shortly.”

Lyssa took the seat nearest the door and sat, her hands in her lap, her gaze straight ahead. For the first time, she noticed the wallpaper border that ran around the room, the sun and moon orbiting one another on the thick paper. She heard a click nearby, and the door beside her opened. A man entered, tall and thin, bordering on gaunt. He wore a gray suit with a red tie. His eyeglasses caught the light, and for a moment she couldn’t see his eyes, only a glare that gave her the impression that he could see through everything. He spared her a small smile – it seemed to be the only other currency in this office – and folded himself into the seat across from her, hanging one lanky leg across the other.

“We haven’t been introduced. I am Jonah.”

“Lyssa.”

He inclined his head. “Pleased to meet you, Lyssa. How can I help you?”

“I want to bring someone back.”

“Oh? Are you sure?”

She nodded.

“You know, Pablo Neruda wrote about what we do. Though, I don’t think then that he knew what we do. He said ‘Love is so short, forgetting is so long’. Are you sure you want a short pain versus a long peace?”

She nodded again and straightened. Her voice was stronger. “Yes. I’ve given it a great deal of thought. There is nothing so bad in my mind as choosing the easy path over the hard when the reward is greater.”

“And the risk.”

She shrugged. “You took my money. I can always find another alienist.”

He chuckled a little and raised a hand. “I’m simply making the argument we’re mandated to.” He gestured to the receptionist, who had swiveled her chair and was taking notes. Discomfort crawled across Lyssa’s skin. She shot a glance at the woman, who didn’t seem to notice, then back to Jonah. “She’s only noting the relevant items. Payment, names. All above board. Now. Who is it you miss?”

Lyssa cleared her throat. “Farrah Palmer.”

“Age?”

“Twenty-eight.”

“Cause of death?”

“Drowning.”

“Date of death?”

“April third.”

“This year?”

Lyssa grimaced. This was the tricky part. Most alienists only took on recent resurrections. Some, further out. All of them agreed you couldn’t go further back than three years.

“Two and three-quarters,” she lied.

Jonah nodded, and the receptionist’s pencil scratched furiously.

“You have something of hers?”

Lyssa nodded again and reached to the chain around her neck. She hadn’t had to think about bringing this with her. It had been as close to her as possible. She unclasped the necklace and pulled the ring free, passing it into Jonah’s hand with only a moment of hesitation. His fingers closed around it, and for a moment her heart clenched like his fist.

“Good,” he said. “That’s everything, then.” He leaned in. “Listen carefully, now. I’m going to go into the room beside us. You will hear things. Do not be afraid. Be patient. In less than an hour, the door will open. Farrah will be with you. Take her home, live your life. You may not return.”

She listened, marking every word, and when he had finished, Lyssa nodded and sat back in her chair. Jonah stood and exited the way he had come in. The office became deathly still, the receptionist with her back to Lyssa again. Time ticked on in measured seconds and minutes, hours something not considered this close to her goal. The air seemed to grow thick, a quality she hadn’t considered possible until now, as though fog were tickling at the corners and sniffing around her ankles.  A sound, a banging like a hammer thrown against wood made her jump, and Lyssa’s head swiveled toward the door. She grimaced and resettled herself.

The next sound was a wail, a long drawn-out sound like that of a cat and a coyote singing in unison. It sent shivers up her spine and gooseflesh crept across her arms like chill spiders. She closed her eyes and took a breath, and tried to think of more opposites, to put what was happening in perspective. Life and death was the only one that came to mind, and she clung to it like a stranded man on a buoy. Another wail, though quieter, echoed across the room. This time, it held the edge of Farrah’s voice, and she stifled the urge to burst through the door, to see what was the matter. Warmth slid down her cheek, and she realized she was crying.

The seconds crept on, time seeming to dilate where she sat. Another cry, this one entirely human issued from the room, and she did half-stand that time before catching herself. She was just sitting again when the door opened with a click, and Lyssa’s heart beat a timpani against her ribs. Farrah stood there, clothed in a simple dress. Her ring was on her finger, and her bare toes pinted in just so slightly. She looked around the room with wide eyes, and then at Lyssa. She heaved a sob, and Lyssa stood, letting her wife fall into her arms. With care, ever so much care, Lyssa led Farrah from the building and down the street.

Once outside, the light seemed brighter. The heaviness had gone out of the air. Time flowed right again, and the susurration of car tires on pavement brought the reality of the world crashing back around them. They walked, Lyssa’s hand around Farrah’s shoulders, her forearm tickled by her wife’s hair. She whispered in Farrah’s ears, simple words of comfort, trying to soothe her nerves. The rain stopped, and at the hot dog cart, Lyssa offered to buy her one. Farrah looked at the meat, her eyes hollow pools, and turned away. They walked on in silence.

At the house, Lyssa helped her up each stair, and then through the door. She helped Farrah onto the couch, where the other woman sat, her legs tucked under her, her face slack. Lyssa went to get her a glass of water, the curtains still blowing in the kitchen. She saw where the rain had dotted the counter, and let herself cry there, her tears making unnoticed marks alongside the rainwater. When she was done, she hitched a breath and brought her wife the glass.

A little life had returned, color peaking in Farrah’s cheeks. She turned toward Lyssa and placed a finger against the younger woman’s cheek, where the tears had left a track.

“Don’t. Cry.”

The words broke a dam in Lyssa and she sank to her knees, the water forgotten. She wept, her head in Farrah’s lap. They sat that way until the sun went down and exhaustion took Lyssa.

*

When she woke, the room was dark and the house was silent. Lyssa stood and padded to the kitchen. No Farrah. The curtains hung limp. She shut the window, the air too cold now to do the house good. She walked up the stairs, to the room they had shared for so many years. Farrah laid there, a bottle of pills beside her open hand. The corpse stared at the ceiling, tear tracks marking her cheeks. The room smelled of White Shoulders. Lyssa wanted to cry, but found she was unable. Numbness spread through her. She opened the dresser and pulled out a pad filled with notations from each year. Method, year, age. She noted this one down as well, then put the pad away and walked over to Farrah.

Lyssa pulled the ring from her wife’s finger and slipped it back onto the necklace. Love is so short, she thought. Forgetting is so long.