It Has Always Loved You

She’s there for you when you step from the pines, your feet wet, the soles plastered with needles, and the detritus of the forest clinging to you like flotsam in the sea. She wraps you in a towel, your skin cold and damp, the towel warm from her body heat, the nap rough against your bird’s chest and too-sharp shoulder blades. She tucks you under her arm, a mother bird taking in her fledgling, and you can feel the softness of her stomach at your elbow, her breast at your cheek. It’s one of your first memories, the forest quaking behind you like a birthing goddess, your pulse loud in your temples. She looks down and smiles and her teeth are needles, her eyes pinpricks in the black of the sky.

You shudder and wake, coming from the dream like a bird flinging itself from a cliff. You fall, fall, fall, and then – wake, the room dark, the sheets cool and wet. The desert sits patiently outside your window, the rock and dust as ignorant of the moon as they are of man. You rub your hands together, the remnants of pins and needles dancing their way across your dry skin, and you reach for the glass of water there. The warm water washes your tongue, soothes your throat, and you stare out the window, the forest superimposed for a moment over the orange and yellow. A blink makes your lids rasp across your eyes, a swallow sends your throat bobbing like a fish coming up for air.

Aimee stirs in her sleep, murmurs a word – it’s unintelligible – and shifts. The play of muscles in her shoulder, the lay of her hair, the whisper of fabric over her skin- tiny tremors in your reality, and your heart clenches, a fist of fibers in your chest. You love her. It’s not a question. Still, there is doubt. Does she love you? Of course. She’s in this bed, isn’t she? She’s still in your life. And yet the question eats at you sometimes when you lie in the dark. It happens that way, all the questions you can’t ask in the daylight tear their way around your head like a pack of hungry wolves, devouring reason and rationality.

You reach out for her, your hand hovering over her shoulder. Do you wake her? Do you pull her close in her sleep and cling? No. Your hand drops. Would she understand? You settle for another sip of water and slip back under the sheet, your back to hers. She sighs small and presses into you, her shoulders digging into yours. Contentment wraps you like a blanket for a while. You sleep.

 *

She shakes you awake – no, that’s not right. The room shakes you awake, the neat drywall vibrating on its studs. Aimee is there, and she’s shouting something you can’t hear, her lips a pantomime of concern. It’s so hot, the desert is creeping in, and oh God why did you move to Vegas? You kick off the sheets and roll off the bed, landing on all fours, but the desert refuses to let you be. The heat crawls under your skin, and you’d give anything for the cool shade of the pines and the soothing wet of leaves on your feet. A lizard skitters up the wall – not unheard of in Nevada – and stops, its head hung in a judgmental angle, its eyes burning pits, and you know the desert can see you through it. You stand and shout and wave your arms, and it scurries up and disappears into a bad join in the wall.

Then Aimee is there, and she’s holding you, and though you are so hot, you let her, because her breath on your skin, in contrast to the hot room, is cool, and her tears are a balm for your fever. Then, her words come through, and you relax, sagging back onto the bed.

“…just a dream, just a dream. Shh. Shh.”

You close your eyes and lean your head against hers, and the room is cooling, and you wonder how she could ever love you.

*

“It’s time for a vacation,” she says. Then you’re driving north past miles of hot brown wasteland, and as you go, flat rock changes. It becomes tall rock dotted with scrub and then taller rock covered with snow, and then finally, blessedly, hills covered in trees and you don’t think you’ve ever seen anything so beautiful in your life, and you know here you can make it right, the terrors will stop, and she’ll love you.

It’s several miles in, and a way from home when she asks you. “Did you miss your mother?”

You shrug, your face turned to the window, the trees throwing shade and reflection at you. If you look up, the motion of the car makes the tops look like they’re dancing, and for a moment, you’re lost in the movement, a ballet of living wood. Then she asks it again, and you have to turn to her, because if she thinks you’re ignoring her, she’ll get mean, or what you think of as mean, and you don’t want to fight, not so close to home.

“I think so,” you say.

“Tell me about her.”

An image of a clearing, a thousand trees in every direction, green boughs still wet with morning dew, the smell of pine and loam, the squish-crackle of mulch between your toes. Warmth fills your chest, and you think of the woman-but-not-woman who met you when you stumbled from between the boles, the badgers and chipmunks and robins silent for once.

You struggle for the words and settle on “She was kind.” She was, after all. Only the men who came looking, the men with their knives and guns and loud, loud dogs were not, and then only for a short time.

“Is that it?” she asks.

You shrug again and then amend it. “You’ll see. Easier to meet her.”

You turn to the forest, fleeing past your window, and the soles of your feet ache, your tongue is dry. Not long now.

*

Aimee turns the car up a dirt path, little more than a rut in the road. After a moment, she stops it, and peers at the map on her phone. Magellan lost in the weeds. Her face scrunches up, her features a fist, and you smile. It’s easier now; the closer you are to home, to know you’re loved.

“Is this right?” She turns to you and jabs a finger at the map.

You nod. “Yeah. Just keep going.” And she does. She loves you, and she trusts you, and you smile again. So close now.

The car jounces and rattles, and every little scrape, Aimee cringes and lets a hiss out between clenched teeth. “She better be a damn good cook,” she jokes.

“I’ll have to roll you out of there.”

The car rounds a curve, and the road widens out to a flat drive, packed earth and pine needles, and you’re practically vibrating, and when it crunches to a stop, you leap out, your feet skidding in the loose dirt. Aimee follows, laughing a little at your eagerness, and then the door to the home ahead opens, and a woman, plump but not too much, old but not too much, stands in the opening, her smile wide. Her teeth are people teeth for this day, and her eyes a woman’s eyes, and she smiles at you, and then at Aimee. They hug on the porch, the overhang throwing them into shadow and mother says something into her ear, and they go inside, leaving you with the forest. You walk to a tree, your hand caressing the bark – just for a moment – and breathe in deep the smells of good earth, and not that blasted hellscape, and then you follow them in.

Inside, they sit across from each other – your mother and your lover – tall glasses of bright yellow lemonade sweating on the table between them. They’re chatting in low tones, and your mother pushes a tin of cookies – probably walnut – across the table, and they talk about little of importance while you drift through the house, your fingers finding every dent and rut of your childhood in the walls. In your room, the bed you spent so many summers on, listening to the rain pound the simple roof, smelling the ozone of lightning, is still soft and clean and cool. In the hall, finger paintings you’d done hang in crooked frames. In the closet, the bones of those long gone still sit in neat boxes, away from time and tide.

You make your way back to the kitchen, where your mother is alone.

“Where’s Aimee?”

Your mother chews her cookie, her needled teeth puncturing the dough like the blades of a thresher, and she chews, sips her lemonade. She gestures vaguely and then regards you with those pinpoint eyes.

“She wasn’t right for you, dear. Dragging you off to that damned desert. Dinner is in an hour. Go play.”

You step out the back door and pull off your shoes and your shirt, then place them next to Aimee’s body. The forest is so loud here, so close, and you only want to feel it beneath your feet. You look at Aimee, and you wonder – did she love me? I loved her. If she had loved me, she would still be here. She would have fought to stay.

You look at her a moment longer, her eyes staring at you, at nothing. The desert crowds into memory and you think of Aimee alone in that place had your mother sent her away. This was a kindness. Then the forest calls, and you step into the trees. It welcomes you, the wind through the branches the sigh of a long distant lover made close.

It has always loved you.

Man of the Year

Anaxos Mane (not his real name) stands at the window of his 45th street high-rise, looking out over the city. At times he paces, others he stands stock-still, hands clasped behind his back. Finally, with a sigh, he squints one eye and points. Lightning flashes and the room goes photo negative for a split second before the peal of thunder follows. When that’s done, he turns and climbs into his worn office chair, a sheaf of paper before him. With a flourish of his pen, he writes a single name and returns to the window.

We sat down with Mr. Mane on the eve of what he calls the Culling to find out more about this enigmatic god, and what makes him tick.

 

First of all, thank you for having us. I know you must have a busy schedule.

His voice is smooth, smoky – like a cigarette after sex. There’s a hint of a British accent – maybe London. He clears his throat and fiddles with his pen.

Yes. Well you know, people don’t smite themselves. And with this Culling coming up…

 

Tell us about the Culling.

Oh, that. Well, it’s a thing we do every hundred thousand years. Sometimes these single smitings don’t work – that’s the thing about people, they’re very thick when they want to be – and you have to really get their attention. So, we wipe out about a third of the population.

 

Are there any criteria for who gets smote?

Sure, there’s your regular sin. That gets top priority – the Deadly Seven, as we like to call them. But there’s also the whole ‘being an asshole’ thing – I like to think of it as karmic retribution. Then there’s ‘just kind of a jerk’.

 

Isn’t that kind of arbitrary? Aren’t most people kind of jerks?

Well, of course. And we allow for that – you get three big jerk moments and a handful of small ones. Of course, we make exceptions – leaving time on a microwave probably won’t get you smitten. Eating someone’s food out of the company fridge will definitely move you up the list.

 

So, who did you smite just now?

Oh, that. An Uber driver. Can’t stand those guys.

 

Let’s change the subject for a minute. What’s your favorite food? Your least favorite?

Well, I love Pad Thai. Delicious. Delicious stuff. Least favorite? Let’s just say Hawaii was a continent before they started growing pineapples.

 

Favorite movie?

Easy. Biodome.

 

Really?

Yeah. Did you know Pauly Shore indirectly prevented the apocalypse? You really should thank him. We were going to rip a hole in the sky and let screaming flesh demons roam the streets. Encino Man saved you.

 

Last one of these – what’s your favorite book?

Atlas Shrugged. I’m kidding! I knew Atlas. He was not amused. No, probably Harry Potter. There really aren’t enough heroes in this world. Hold on.

 

Mane goes to the window, leans, and points. Another flash of light, and a faint scream. He returns to his chair with a smirk.

 

What was that?

Hare Krishna.

 

Would you characterize yourself as a sadist?

Scoffs. No. This is just my job, you know. I’ve got a home on Olympus. 45 children. A wolf. I mean, do you go home and ask inane questions all day? I know I don’t just smite my neighbors.

 

The worst thing you’ve ever done?

I once smote a three-year-old.

 

What?

Well, just a little. I was on a flight to Vegas and he kept kicking my seat. I zapped his butt. Made it smoke for a whole day. The downside was they had to land in Omaha. Makes a face. Great steaks. Not much else.

 

Guilty Pleasure?

I love Doctor Who. It’s just so cheesy, but so heartfelt. And to be honest, I can relate to the Daleks. I mean, they don’t have to pretend to be friendly to idiots. Just their feelings on their sleeve. EX-TERM-I-NATE. That has got to be cathartic.

 

The hardest part of your job?

Conjugating ‘smite’. Smote? Smoten? Smoted? Smitten? Shrugs. It’s all very confusing.

 

One last question. Liberal or Conservative?

I’m an old-fashioned monarchist. I’m a little surprised you didn’t see that coming.

 

Before we go, any advice for the readers?

I suppose if I could say one thing, it would be this: HOLD YOUR LOVED ONES TIGHT. THE END IS NEAR. YOU CANNOT RUN. YOU CANNOT HIDE. JUSTICE WILL FIND YOU.

 

Also, really consider investing in home insurance. You’re probably going to need it.

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.

Gnome More

An old piece I picked up and finished, because the adage for every writer is ‘finish your shit’, and I tend to leave too many shorts undone. Enjoy.

 

Gnome More

                Arthur Pym was both surprised and a little dismayed to discover that his lawn gnome granted wishes.  After all, it wasn’t the sort of thing lawn gnomes usually did, was it?  Normally, they’d just stand there, the grass at their feet a little longer than the rest of the lawn, tall hat pointed toward the sky, beard resting across their belly.  Now though, it lay on its side, a bare patch of earth where it had stood exposed.  A single beetle trundled across the patch, and over one of Arthur’s fingers.

He sucked in a breath and clutched at his ankle.  He was sitting where he had fallen, having knocked the gnome over, his ankle throbbing.  He had stepped in a gopher hole and twisted his ankle, and at that moment, was having particularly vicious thoughts about rodents in general.  He sat for a moment, rubbing the bruised area, and when the throbbing abated somewhat, picked up the gnome.  He inspected it, checking for chips or cracks.  It seemed to be fine, so he set it down, his hand lingering on the hat.

His ankle gave another pang of pain, and he thought, I wish there were no more gophers.

There was a pop, like someone had sucked the air out of a plastic bottle, and a mild shock passed through his hand.  He jerked away and popped his fingers in his mouth, sucking the tips absently.  He looked around, hoping his neighbor, Cheryl, hadn’t seen.

After a moment, he turned his attention back to the hole he’d tripped over.  He froze in place, frowning at the lawn.  The hole was gone, and the mound leading to it, too.  The earth was smooth in its place, and littered with dandelions.  He looked around his yard and noticed more of the same, smooth green grass dotted with more dandelions than he’d seen in years.  He turned toward his garden patch, and noticed the row of carrots, which had previously been sparse and anemic, was full and ripe.  His brain struggled with the sudden change, as though someone had snuck in and done set dressing on his yard in the time it took him to blink.

He gathered himself, stood, and wandered back into the house, a bit dazed.   On the way in, he noticed his ankle no longer hurt.  He stepped into the house, letting the screen door bang behind him.  His wife, Renee, looked up from the kitchen table, where she had been reading a magazine with her feet up on a chair she’d pulled out.  Arthur went to the sink, and grabbed a glass from the cupboard.  He listened to the water fill the glass, aware that Renee was looking at his back.

“Hot out there?” She asked.

He took a long swallow of water.  “Yeah.  I think the gopher problem’s solved.”  He turned to look at her, but she was already back on her magazine.

“Mm-hm.  Good.”  She said.  He could tell she wasn’t really all that interested.  He set his glass down on the counter, and turned back to her.  He had opened his mouth to tell her about the thing with the gnome, when a knock at the door interrupted him.  It came again, almost immediately, loud and fast and angry.  He went to the door and peered out the peephole.

His other neighbor, Frank Cubbins, was standing on the porch, his fist raised to knock again.  He was red-faced and scowling.  Arthur opened the door just as Frank had reached forward to knock again, leaving the man standing for a moment with his fist in the air.

“Hello Frank.”  Arthur said, a hint of resignation in his voice.

Frank lowered his fist, but kept the scowl.  “When’s the last time you weeded your lawn?”  He asked, with no preamble.

Arthur shrugged.  “I have the lawn people out at least once a month.”

Frank shook his head.  “Not good enough.  Look!”  He pointed a fist over at his own lawn, which was overgrown with dandelions.

“Okaaay…” Arthur said.

“You’re costing me money, Art.  Get your shit together.  You can pay my next weed bill, or you can see me in court.”  That seemed to be the signal the conversation was over, and Frank turned smartly and marched back to his own house, slamming his front door shut with a bang that echoed in the quiet suburban air.

Arthur closed the door, and leaned against it.  He ran a hand over his face, then walked back to the kitchen.  Renee didn’t look up.

“Who was that?”  She asked.

“Frank.”

“Oh that’s nice.  Did you invite him to our barbecue next week?”

“Er – no.  Forgot.”

She sighed, as though Arthur’s memory was a burden, and said nothing more.  Arthur left the kitchen and walked into the back yard again, letting the screen door slam behind him.  He stood in the shadow of the eaves of his home, and stared out at his lawn.  After a moment, he walked over to the gnome, sat down next to it, and pulled it close to him.

I wish there were no Frank Cubbins, he thought.

The popping sound came again, as soon as he had the thought, and he felt a mild jolt, as though he’d just accidentally touched a live wire.  At the same time, there was a scream that came floating through the open kitchen window.  Arthur dropped the gnome.  It hit the ground with a soft thud and rolled on its side.  He stood, and ran into the house, banging the screen door behind him for a third time that day.

He skidded to a halt on the linoleum, his shoes letting out a squeak of protest.  His wife was standing by the table, the chair she’d been sitting on tipped over backwards.  She was looking at her belly, terrified, and running her hands over it.

“What is it?”  Arthur asked.

She looked up, tears smudging her mascara, her mouth distorted in an ‘O’ of shock.  “My babies!”

She lifted her shirt, and Arthur could see that her pregnancy had ended.  The skin of her stomach was taut and smooth, and her bellybutton was once again inverted.  He stood there staring at her for a moment, then looked around the kitchen.

He didn’t see blood, or amniotic fluid, or any other indicator that said she’d had a miscarriage or a surprise birth in the middle of the kitchen.  He only saw that her belly was flat, and she was distressed, and then he remembered his wish, and a cold rage worked its way into his stomach.

No more baby.  No more Frank, no more baby.  No more.

Renee was still staring at him, as though he might have an answer.

“Well?”  She demanded, letting her shirt drop.  “Are you going to say anything?  Are you just going to stand there?”

He struggled with himself for a moment.  Rage flowed over him, through him like cool, clear water.  It was refreshing to see the world for what it was.  He choked down the shout that had bubbled to the surface, and said through tight lips, “No”.

He turned on his heel, and walked through the back door, and across the lawn.  He picked up the gnome.  Then he made a very specific, very purposeful wish.

I wish my wife, Renee, would go away, and never come back.

                There was a pop, and a jolt, and then quiet.  He was aware of a bird singing in the sycamore tree in the corner of his yard, and the way the leaves rustled together as the wind blew the branches.  After a moment, he heard the slam of his front door.  He put the gnome down, and went back inside.  He got a glass of water, sat down, and began to think.

Wishes.  Are they unlimited?  I’ve already made three.  Maybe it’s only three.  What else do I wish for?  Pfft, that’s easy.  Money.  Cheryl?  Am I being petty?  World peace?  Hm.  What if it’s only three?  One way to find out…

                He stood, went to the back yard one more time, grabbed the gnome, and brought it inside.  He set the figurine on the table, ignoring the bits of dirt from the base that smudged the finish.

Something simple, he thought.

He put a hand on the gnome.

I wish I had a ham sandwich, on rye.

The familiar pop and shock came again, and a sandwich appeared on the table.  Arthur peeled back the top layer of bread.  No mayo, cheese, or lettuce?  He made a face.  He’d have to remember to be more careful with his wording.

He got up and rummaged through the fridge for a moment.  When he was done, he added some mayo and cheese and lettuce to the sandwich, then took it back to the table.  While he ate, he tried to think of what to do next.

You’re thinking too small, too petty, he told himself.  You need to be helpful.  You need to do the most good where it counts.  You need to be a hero.

The idea struck him, and his brain rang like a bell.  Some deep-seated part of him stood up taller, imagined a cape blowing in the wind, maybe reporters gathered around, and the strobe of flashes.  He finished his sandwich, feeling much happier than he had in the past couple of hours.  He picked up the gnome and carried it into the living room, where he sat on the couch, cradling it in the crook of his arm.

He turned on the TV, and flipped through the channels until he got to the news.  A middle-aged anchor in an Italian suit stared out at him, bobbing his head in time to his words, his gray hair absorbing the light.

“…and in other news, thousands of owls and hawks have been dying all over the world.  Experts say they were likely suffering from severe malnutrition due to a lack of readily available prey, most notably, gophers.”

There was a pause as the newsman shuffled his notes.

“In international news, the drought that has plagued Syria over the past few months has steadily grown worse.  An estimated three million families are now without water.  The Turkish government has said it is now seeing the biggest influx of refugees since the civil war.”

The newscaster went on, but Arthur had tuned him out.  A chance to save three million people?  Perfect.  He pulled the gnome close.

I wish there was enough water in Syria for all the families.

                The now-familiar pop sounded in the living room, drowning out the TV for a moment, and Arthur almost dropped the gnome as the shock passed through his arms.  He yawned and set the gnome to the side, then turned off the TV.  He’d done his good deed for the day.  He thought he would sleep well for the night.

He left the gnome in the dark; made sure the house was locked up, and went to bed.  His last thought as he turned out the light on his bedside table was an image of him having coffee with Cheryl while he revealed his secret to her.  He smiled slightly in his sleep.

*

                The next morning, Arthur woke with a grin on his face, and excitement tingling his nerves.  He threw his covers off, and ran down the stairs, stopping in the kitchen for a cup of coffee.  He walked to the living room with a spring in his step, and flopped onto the couch.  He set his coffee down and rubbed the gnome’s hat, grinning as he did so.

“So, shall we see what we’ve done?”  He asked it.

He grabbed the remote, and turned the TV on.  It took a minute to warm up, and as it did, he sipped his coffee.  The quiet in the living room was broken by the newscaster’s voice, sounding grim.

“If you’re just joining us, the nation of Syria is gone.  It was swallowed by the Mediterranean Sea.  Initial reports are still coming in, but the estimate is that of more than 20 million lost.”

An icy pit of fear filled Arthur’s stomach.  His coffee threatened to come back up, and he felt acid fill his throat.

“Okay.  Okay.”  He said to the room.  “Okay.  I can fix this.”

He grabbed the gnome, and closed his eyes.  I wish to undo my last wish.

Nothing happened.  There was no popping sound, no jolt of electricity.  He tried again.

I wish Syria was normal, and all those people were alive.

Still nothing.  He swore furiously under his breath.

I WISH THOSE PEOPLE WERE STILL ALIVE.

                There was a pop, and a surge of electricity.  Arthur let out a sigh of relief, and opened his eyes, and then watched the news.  As usual, they had gone to commercial break.  Sure, all the world’s dying, but here, buy some soap.

I wish the commercials were gone.

He thought it before he had a chance to stop himself, and with a look of horror, pulled his hand away from the gnome.  PopZap.

The commercial ended mid-sentence, and the picture went black.  The newsman was back on, and looking somewhat confused.

“Oh?  Oh, all right.”  He said.  His hand went to his earpiece.  “Oh.  Oh God.”

The picture cut to a coastline, where the shot was shaky, and Arthur could hear the chop of helicopter blades overhead.  Dark shapes were emerging from the surf, in an unbroken line that went on for miles.

“This…this just in.”  Came the newscaster’s voice over the feed.  “Something is coming out of the sea that used to be Syria.  Eyewitnesses on the ground claim it to be the – no.  No way.  I’m not reading this.”  A sigh.  “Fine.  The dead.  They claim the dead are walking out of the sea.”

Below the pictures being beamed back, the stock scroll was nearly all red.  Arthur noticed, and blanched.  He’d done that, as well.  Without ad dollars, companies were failing.  The dollar would be worth about as much as a roll of toilet paper at this rate.  He thought of his pension, and his plans for a little boat.  He thought of his ideas for a future with Cheryl, and cursed under his breath.

“Make it right.”  He said, rubbing the gnome’s head.  “Make it right.”

Nothing happened.  He dropped his head.  In the background, the newscaster was drifting between the two stories – the living dead in the Middle East, and the fall of the dollar.  There was already talk of foreign markets falling as well.  The president was due to make a statement at any minute now – not that Arthur thought much of him.  Weasel of a man, hiding behind his vice-president’s skirts.  Weasel of a man.

Pop.  Zap.

                Cold dread fell into Arthur’s stomach like a bomb dropped down his throat.  He watched the news, horrified, as the feed cut to the White House lawn, where the Secret Service was chasing a man-sized weasel in a blue suit around the perfectly manicured grass.  The weasel was squeaking, and the reporter’s mic kept picking up noises that vaguely sounded like ‘USA USA’.

A knock at the front door interrupted Arthur’s frozen, horrified viewing, and he clutched the gnome close and got up to answer it.  Halfway there, it came again.  He wondered who it could be.  The CIA?  Secret Service?  Pizza guy?  He doubted the last one.  He opened the door to find Cheryl standing there, a worried look on her face. Her hand was still raised as if to knock, her mouth open. She lowered her hand, and a frown creased her forehead.

“Is that – is that a gnome?”

Arthur nodded.

“Why?”

He shrugged. Once you’re holding a garden decoration outside of a garden, it’s hard to explain why. He suddenly wanted her to touch it, though he couldn’t say why. In his head, an elaborate fantasy spooled itself out – Cheryl loving the gnome, and then him. Then he could share his secret. There was another pop, though distant, weaker. As if on cue, one corner of her mouth curled up and she reached a hesitant hand out.

“May I touch it?”

He held it out like a child happy to present his favorite toy. She took it, stroking its cap. Arthur blushed. She looked up, and the other side of her mouth joined the first, a Grinch smile if he’d ever seen one. Her sea-green eyes sparkled as they stared into his own mud-brown.

“Oh, I love it! I may never let it go. May I come in?”

He nodded dumbly, and she passed him, her hips brushing his, her free hand tousling his hair. He stood at the door, looking out. He almost wished someone had seen her going into the house. Sudden pain flared through his head, and he staggered. Arthur craned his neck to see what was happening, and caught a glimpse of Cheryl raising the gnome for another blow.

“Wha-” he managed to get out.

“I just love you both so much – there’s no way I can let you go. I just wish you could be mine forever. You’ll see, Artie. It’ll be good.”

The gnome descended, and blackness followed.

*

                Arthur woke in the garden. It was hard to move. It was hard to blink. Not that he could do either. His eyes were frozen open, his body rigid. On the upside, his head no longer ached. He tried to call for help, but his voice came out a thin squeal, like the world’s tiniest teakettle. The back door to his home opened, and Cheryl stepped out, cradling the gnome. She placed it next to Arthur and patted first it, and then him on the head.

“I don’t know what did it, Artie, but my wish came true. I have you, and this gnome, and we have our own little place. I’ll come out and visit you every day. We’ll be so happy.”

She turned and went back into the house. Black smoke rolled across the sky from the corner of his eye, and from the open door, Arthur could hear the newscaster. “They’re in the city! The dead are in the city!”

He wanted to sigh. He wanted to close his eyes. He couldn’t do either.

 

 

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. 

That Thing in Tulsa

An older piece, but a fun write. Re-reading, I see a lot of the flaws that needed working out that I didn’t then. But then we don’t learn from perfect things.

 

That Thing in Tulsa

            They took the dead man wrapped in sheets to the desert.

 

They huddled in the front seat of the car, the radio blaring something by Creedence, while they did their best not to talk about the man in the trunk.  The windows were down, and dust plumed up behind the Monte Carlo, fogging the daylight.  It didn’t bother them that they were going to bury a body in the middle of the day.  It was the Mojave – no one just wandered by, and if they did, what was one more body for the thirsty sand?

 

Dean watched the landscape roll by, tan dunes under blue sky, telephone poles dotting the roadside and receding as they passed.  It had been the same thing for two hours, and he wondered how long before they got to where they were going.  He turned to Carl, and thought about asking, but the man was focused on the road, his eyes unreadable under the dark glasses he wore.  Instead, he scratched the day-old growth on his face, and reached for the radio, with the pretense of fiddling with the knobs.

 

“You got a problem with Creedence?”  The question came out of Carl in a half-growl, and Dean’s hand paused halfway to the radio.  He let it drop, and shook his head.

 

“Nah.  I was just hoping to adjust the balance a bit.  I swear, every time we hit a bump, the shit in the trunk bangs around.”

 

Karl reached down, and turned a knob, and the sound shifted to the back of the car.  “Better?”  He asked.

 

“Yeah, thanks.”  Dean breathed a sigh of relief.

 

He didn’t feel like upsetting a two-hundred-something pound sociopath today.  He turned back to the window, and returned to watching the desert roll by.  He tried not to think of Tulsa, tried to squelch the thought that if management knew, he’d join the man in the back before his time.

 

*

 

After another half-hour, the car slowed, and Carl eased it off the road, and onto the hardpan that preceded the dunes.  They drove another couple of miles, until the ground began to slope downward at the edge of the desert proper, and the sand underneath began to soften.  When it seemed like Carl was never going to stop, maybe just drive into the desert until they ended up as mummies entombed in a steel coffin, the car ground to halt, and he shut off the engine.

 

The radio snapped off, squelching Aerosmith, and they were left with only the sounds of the wind, and the ticking engine as it tried to cool in the morning heat.  They got out, the sound of car doors slamming echoing across the sand, and walked to the trunk.  They stood over it for a moment, while Carl absently fingered the key ring.

 

“Hold your breath, man.”  He said.  “Boy’s gonna be ripe in there.”

 

Dean hadn’t thought of that.  His stomach wanted to turn at the idea.  Carl found the right key, and slipped it into the lock, then turned it.  It opened with a click, and the trunk popped up, a sliver of dark appearing between the fender and the lid.  He slipped his fingers in the gap, and lifted.

 

A smell, like week-old hot garbage, hit them in the face, and they both staggered back.  Dean turned his head to the side, his stomach heaving.  He didn’t relish the idea of puking on his shoes and having that little reminder around all day.  To his left, he could hear Carl cursing between bouts of gagging.  He bent over, and tried to duck his head as close to his knees as possible.

 

Gradually, the smell dissipated, and he gulped down deep lungfulls of air.  When he felt he could breathe again, he stood, and walked to the trunk.  Carl joined him.  The first thing he noticed was that the smell was still there, though it didn’t seem to have its earlier vice-like grip on his stomach.  The second was that he was glad they had made the decision to put the shovels in last.  They lay on top of a bundle of white sheets, already beginning to turn brown and red in spreading stains.  They each grabbed a shovel and stepped away from the trunk.

 

Dean made to close the trunk, and Carl just shook his head.  “Bad idea.  You’ll just get him baking again.  Leave it open so it airs out.”

 

He turned away, and Dean followed.  They walked a few yards from the car, where the sand grew even softer, and began to rise in the soft swell of the first dunes.  Carl stopped, and stabbed his shovel into the sand.

 

“This’ll work.”  He looked up at the sun, which was still a couple hours away from its zenith.  “Let’s get this done before we end up beef jerky.”

 

They began to dig, a slow process made worse by the constantly shifting sand and the ever-increasing heat in the air.  Dean could feel sweat rolling down every inch of his body, and his hands felt burned from the hot wood of the shovel.  He shot a glance over at Carl.  The man was digging, with no indication that anything was bothering him.  His shoulder-length hair was pulled back in a knot, and a cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth.  From where he stood, Dean wasn’t even sure the man was sweating.

 

They dug for an hour, and after the third time of the sides cascading down in a miniature landslide, Carl spat into the hole, and threw his shovel down.

 

“Break time.”  He said.  “Grab some water.”

 

Dean nodded, and dropped his shovel.  He wandered back to the car, opening the back door, and digging into the cooler in the back seat.  They had packed half a case of water, and he grabbed two bottles, and then closed the lid.  When he was done, he shut the car, and started back, then paused.

 

The smell had nearly disappeared from the air, and he frowned.  That didn’t seem right, fresh air or not.  He wandered back to the open trunk, and peeked inside.  The long bundle with its dark stains was still there, but it seemed smaller, somehow.  He thought about getting the shovel, and poking it for good measure.  Just to be sure.  Carl’s voice, impatient and annoyed, cut those thoughts off.

 

“Hey, numbnuts!  You bringing that water today?”

 

“Yeah, sorry.  Sorry.”  Dean hurried over to the hole they had been digging.  It was roughly six feet long by three wide, and three deep at this point.  Carl was sitting on the edge.  He looked like he was contemplating hiding from the sun by crawling inside, a thought that made Dean’s skin crawl.  He didn’t really want to spend any time in any grave but his own, and not before his time.

 

He eased down onto the ledge, and tossed Carl one of the water bottles.  Carl caught it neatly, and spun the top off, tipping it up to take three big swallows before taking a breath.  Dean sipped at his, not wanting his stomach to cramp up in the heat, and looked around.  He saw sand on sand on sand, rolling in gentle waves away from him, as far as he could see, until the dunes became a taupe line that met with the blue above.  He looked away, and turned back to Carl.

 

“What’d this guy do anyway?”  He asked, gesturing with his water bottle toward the car.

 

Carl shrugged.  “Dunno.  I think he was a magician, or somethin’.  One of those guys that works Vegas when they can’t get Copperfield.”

 

Dean shook his head.  “No, I mean, what’d he do?”

 

Carl spit into the grave again.  “Oh, that.  Got caught with his hand in the cookie jar.”

 

“Cookie jar?”

 

“The boss’ wife.”  He laughed then, a mean, low sound.  He drained his water bottle, and tossed it into the grave, then stood.  “C’mon.  Let’s get this shit done, and get gone.  I got a beer with my name on it back home.”

 

Dean capped his water and tossed it to the side.  He stood, knuckled the small of his back, and picked up his shovel.  He glanced once more at the horizon, where heat had begun to rise from the desert in wavy mirage lines, and then began to dig.

 

*

 

They finished the grave after another hour.  Carl deemed it good enough after the fifth backslide, and besides, he had said, who was going to find him four and a half feet down after the wind started to blow?  They walked back to the car, shovels in hand, and tossed them off to the side, then stood over the trunk, looking in.  Neither man seemed in a rush to grab the bundle.

 

Carl lit a cigarette, and blew the smoke out in a long plume.  Dean watched it float away, torn to shreds on the wind.  After a minute, Carl seemed to shrug.

 

“Fuck it.  Let’s grab this bastard, and get on.”

 

They approached the trunk, and ducked in.  In the dark under the lid, it was cool, and smelled faintly of must.  The smell of the dead man was just a memory in the air.  They lifted the bundle, and it came easily.  Dean thought it felt lighter than he had imagined a dead man should.  The cloth felt damp, and the thing inside moved like a bag of Jell-O.  Dean tightened his grip, and choked down his rising gorge.  They came back up in the desert heat, and carrying the dead man between them, walked to the grave.

 

When they reached the hole in the ground, they dumped the body in unceremoniously, letting the bundle hit the ground with a muffled thump and squelch.  Carl spat his cigarette to the side.

 

“Go get the shovels.”  He gestured back towards the car.

 

Dean hurried off to run the errand, returning with them a moment later, one in each hand.  When he reached the grave, Carl was standing over it, looking down, his back to Dean.  A thought flashed through his head, an image of a shovel splitting the side of the other man’s skull.  He pushed it away.  Offing your partner was no way to make friends with management.

 

Carl turned, and Dean’s stomach sank.  He was holding a pistol in one hand, its black barrel pointed at Dean’s stomach.  The image of the shovel smashing the other man’s head went through his mind again, but he knew it was too late.  He dropped the shovels and backed up a step.

 

“What’s the deal, man?”  He asked.

 

“Cookies and jars, brother.  I think you know.”

 

Somehow, the things he had done in Tulsa had come full circle.  Management was writing his pink slip.  Carl waved the gun towards the grave as he circled away from Dean.

 

“Get in.”

 

Dean moved toward the grave, his stomach doing somersaults while knotting.  It was an unpleasant sensation.  He stepped over the lip, and down, trying not to step on the bundle at the bottom.  When he was in, he stood only head and shoulders over the edge.  He could see Carl, standing a foot or two away, looking down, the pistol trained on him.  He fought to keep control of his bladder.

 

“Lay down.”  Carl said.  He pulled the hammer on the pistol back, and it clicked like an audible period to the threat.

 

“Fuck.”  Dean whispered.  He crouched, and pushed the bundle to the side.  It was lighter than he remembered, drier.  He lay next to it.  His face was wet, and when he reached a hand up to brush it away, he realized he was weeping.

 

Carl appeared over the edge, a shovel in hand.  The pistol was tucked under his waistband.

 

“You’re doing a good thing here, man.  No begging, no whining, just gonna accept it.  Shame you gotta go.”

 

He hefted the shovel, and pushed a pile of sand into the pit.  Dean could feel its weight when it landed on his legs, warm and soft, but unforgiving.  Another pile came down, and his shoes were already almost buried.  He waited, but another shovelful didn’t come.  He lay trembling, when Carl peeked back over the edge.

 

“Look, not a lot of men would handle this like you are.  That’s why I’m gonna give you a choice.  Truth is, boss says ‘Bury him, Carl.  Bury him and let him bake out there.’, but that seems like a rough way for a guy to go.  You ask me, and I’ll put a bullet in you, make it easy.”

 

Dean didn’t reply.  He wasn’t brave, he was frozen.  He didn’t want to die out here with the buzzards and the heat and the sand, not under it, and not with a bullet in his head.  Carl waited for his answer, and when it didn’t come, the man shrugged, and began to push sand down again.  When the first pile came for his face, he held his breath, and let it filter around him.

 

Shovelful by shovelful, he was buried.  Before long, he could feel the oppressive weight and heat from the sand, pressing him down.  Inch by inch of it seemed to loosen him up somehow, as though his brain had decided today was not the day to die.  He began to blow out small breaths as his face was covered, carefully digging a hollow of air where he could still breathe.  After every shovelful, he would shift his arms and legs slightly, just enough to move the sand around him so he wasn’t packed in.

 

Occasionally, he would pause, his muscles aching from the slow process, his lungs fighting for more air than the scant mouthfuls he was able to draw in.  When he did, he imagined he could hear the sand below him moving, as though the man in the sheet was fighting his fate as well, and it sped his heart and sent a shiver up his spine.

 

He figured he had to be under a foot, maybe a foot-and-a-half of sand, when it stopped coming for a second time.  He lay still in his hollow, and waited.  Maybe Carl had stopped for water.  Hopefully, he’d had a heart attack.  He waited another five minutes, or as close as he could figure, and when it still didn’t come, he began to push himself upward, through the sand, trying to get as close to the surface as possible.

 

He closed his eyes, and turned his head, the sounds of millions of grains of sand shifting against his skin, his ear canals, grating and grinding like the dry rasp of dry skin.  He pushed his head to the surface, until his ear broke the sand.  He could still feel the grains in it, but the world was alive with a sudden clarity, and he listened.

 

Overhead, the wind blew past the lip of the grave with a low, hollow sound.  He strained to hear more – and engine idling, heavy breathing from exertion, footsteps on the hardpan that lay nearby.  He waited like that another five minutes, and when no sound came, he began to pull himself fully from the sand, inch by inch.

 

He sat up, the sand pooling at his midsection, and then pulled his legs free.  He brushed himself off as best as he was able, some of the sand clinging to his face and neck where sweat and tears had made a mud of it.  When he was done, he eased himself onto his haunches, and began to rise towards the lip of the grave.  As he did so, his muscles tensed and threatened to cramp, both from the effort of the slow rise, and the struggle to listen for the sounds of a voice or gunfire.

 

He was all too aware as he rose that the top of his head would be exposed before the rest of him as he peeked, but he realized, when you’re in a grave, being buried alive, you tend not to worry about which part of you might be shot off first.  His eyes crested the lip, and he peered around.

 

Aside from the open car, still sitting on the hardpan, he appeared to be alone.  He scanned the area for a shadow, for movement, or color, but nothing appeared.  Satisfied Carl was either preoccupied, or just up and vanished, he grabbed the edge of the grave, and pulled himself out.  When he was done, he lay on the hot sand, and breathed heavily for a minute, and tried not to weep with relief.

 

He rolled on his side, and felt pressure in his ribs.  When he rolled back and sat up, he found he had rolled onto a shovel, left lying alone.  He stood, and wandered over to the car.  The back door was open, the cooler cracked.  He opened it, and grabbed a water bottle out, spinning the cap onto the ground.  He splashed the water over his head and his face, and tried to scrub the mud and sand out.  When he was done, he dropped the bottle and grabbed another, taking deep swallows of the still-cool liquid.

 

When he was done, he closed the door, and got in the driver’s seat.  The keys were still in the ignition.  He tried them once, and the engine turned over, purring to life with a low rumble.  He sat in the seat with the door open, and flipped on the air.  After the day he’d had, he was past caring about wasting it.

 

He wondered where Carl had got off to, and realized he didn’t much care, and didn’t feel like waiting around to find out.  He closed the door, and put the car in gear.  For a moment, he considered gathering up the shovels and the trash, and finishing the grave.  When presented with the possibility of Carl returning, and the fact that the wind would move the sand and bury the evidence in only a few hours, he dropped the idea.

 

The car pulled smoothly off the hardpan and onto the blacktop.  The afternoon sun was in full bloom, and baked heat in waves from every inch of the desert and road.  Inside, the air conditioning had already begun to slip a chill into the car, and content for the moment, Dean flipped on the radio.

 

Blue Oyster Cult began belting out Don’t Fear the Reaper, and he turned it.  A little too on the nose.  He changed the station, and found Otis Redding.  He left it there, and settled back in the seat.  Ahead, the road curved, and he took it a bit faster than he had intended to.  Something in the trunk slid, and thumped against the interior.

 

His heart skipped a beat, and he glanced in the rearview.  Nothing hovered into view.  He returned to the road when a thought hit him.  Nothing in the rearview.  He braked hard, and heard the thing in the trunk slam against the seat backs.  He pulled the car to the side of the road, still miles of desert on each side.  He knew the excuses for missing the closed trunk, but he still berated himself.

 

He fished under the seat for a minute, hoping to find a spare weapon – a gun, a knife – he’d settle for a wiffle bat.  He came up empty, and sat up.  He considered running the car to town and leaving it in an alley, but he knew the thought of the thing in the trunk would dig itself under his skin until he found out what it was.

 

He took a breath, and steeled himself, then stepped out.  Gravel on the shoulder crunched under his shoes as he walked to the trunk.  When he reached it, he stood over the lid, and fingered the keys, listening to them chime, hearing the wind blow sand in grating drifts across the road.  This wasn’t something he wanted to do, but something compulsion required he do.

“Fuck it.”  He muttered, and unlocked the trunk.

 

The lid sprung with a click, and he stepped back, the smell of hot meat rolling from the dark insides.  It wasn’t as bad as the putrid smell he had encountered earlier, but it was enough to make him wait a discrete distance until the odor dissipated.

 

The air cleared, he stepped forward, and lifted the lid the rest of the way.  The interior, previously shaded by the lid, was thrown into full relief by the afternoon sun.  Inside, a shape huddled, big, with scraggly hair.  Dean reached out, and rolled it onto its back.

 

The body turned, and he found himself staring into the remains of Carl’s face.  Dean found himself wondering where the man’s sunglasses were.  He looked at the red, fleshless ruin, and decided he didn’t care.  He shut the trunk, his stomach turning. He got back in the car, and started it up.  He knew he should ditch the body, probably ditch the car.  He also knew getting picked up by state patrol while wandering around would require a lot of explaining.

 

He closed the door.  From the back seat, a voice spoke up.

 

“Hey.”

 

Dean flicked a glance at the rearview.  After the day he’d had, he was officially out of the capacity to be shocked.  A man sat in the relative shadows in the back.  He was wearing a cheap dusty tux, and his skin looked pale, stretched.  Carl’s sunglasses were perched on his nose.

 

“Hey.”  Dean said.

 

“Feel like a road trip, kid?”  The man’s voice was dry, scratchy.

 

Dean shrugged.  After what he’d seen in the trunk, after what had happened in the sand, he knew he should be afraid, but he was past being frightened of the things that came from the desert that day.

 

“Sure.  Where we goin’?”

 

From the back seat, the man lit a cigarette, and blew a plume of smoke out.  He pointed past Dean’s shoulder.

 

“Vegas, baby.”

 

Dean drove.

 

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.