Category: fiction

(IP) The Horned Menace

               There
were rumors of a creature who terrorized villages, with long, wickedly pointed
horns and eyes that glowed like flaming coals. It was vaguely humanoid in
shape, but for the claws on its hands and feet.

               But the
whispers were eventually proven true: livestock and crops were dying
mysteriously, and more than one villager had disappeared, both in town and
within the wood that kept the village hidden.

               For her
part, Flora thought that it was all stuff and nonsense; she was certain that
there was a logical explanation for all of these events, and that everyone was
just frightened of their own imaginations.

               She was
working in the pub down the street from where she lived, and all everyone would
talk about was ‘the horned menace’. The latest person to have disappeared was
the town crier, and they’d lost their news in the morning as a result.

               There
was no real proof, but science was foreign to her fellow villagers, especially
a girl.

               Don’t
you have more feminine duties to attend to, Flora? Some mending, perhaps, or
needlework? Maybe you’d be better off with your mama, at least until you’re of
marrying age.

               No
matter how many times she said that it was an education she wanted, just like a
man, she was always laughed at. Her cheeks were always burning; no one ever took
her seriously, saying that her parents had spoiled her beyond measure.

               An idea
formed in Flora’s mind: a crazy, half-formed idea that could pan out or mean
her ruin.

               A soft
voice sounded in the back of Flora’s mind. Ruined? In their eyes, you
already are. Where’s the harm in actually giving them something to talk about?

               **          

Her mind made up, Flora counted
down the seconds until the sun set, and she was relieved. Slipping a fat sack
of coins into her apron, she walked out of the building, going over the things
she needed mentally, again and again.

               Rope,
flint, oil, firewood, a cask of watered wine, a crust of bread, a bit of good,
salty cheese. And the heart she would harvest in order to lure the beast into
the wood, where she would kill it. She couldn’t let herself think about the
outcome.

               But it
wasn’t the village’s safety that was on Flora’s mind; no, she was braving the
night for entirely selfish reasons. And anyway, it was difficult to care for
those who’d cared so little for her. She’d been sentenced as odd, strange, an
interloper. She would’ve been blind not to see it.

               She
wanted to see if this beast was real, if the whispers of magic gone awry were
true, or if the shadows that lurked within people’s minds had somehow been
given life.

               She
went back to the hovel that was her home, a ramshackle, decrepit affair.

               Dimly,
Flora found herself wondering if she was going to slay the beast, all to win
the approve of people who had never wanted her.

               But her
choice had been made. She would find the truth, no matter the cost.

               **

(WP) A Colorful Gift

               It
happened, for the first time, the night after his twenty-fourth birthday.

               At
first, Daniel thought that he was still drunk; there were blurred auras of
color hanging around everyone he walked past on the street, in every color he
could possibly imagine, and always in flux.

               It
persisted all day, and it had Daniel wondering if he’d somehow lost his mind.

               It got
so bad that when he went to dinner that night with his friends, he asked them
if he was seeing the colors that floated in clouds around the other patrons.

               “Do you
see them? The colors?” He asked his friend sitting next to him, and she raised
an eyebrow.

“What do you mean, colors? Maybe
you’re just hungover from all the birthday excitement,” She looked at him
intently, as if she was searching for something in his expression.

“I swear, I’ve been seeing them all
day!” Daniel said, taking a sip of the beer she’d bought him.

“If this continues, you need to go
to the doctor. Make sure everything’s copacetic.”

Daniel frowned at her, unsure of
whether to be offended or not.

Was she calling him crazy?

**

Daniel made a doctor’s appointment,
and the doctor declared him healthy and sane, but he didn’t dare mention seeing
the colors. Even now, a sickly, brownish-green aura surrounded the doctor, but
nothing else betrayed his mood.

He was sent away from the doctor’s
office, declared as healthy as a twenty-four-year-old man who didn’t smoke or
drink excessively. He toyed with seeing a psychiatrist, but the last thing he
wanted was to be committed for delusions.

**

A Month Later

Daniel’s nerves were so frayed that
he ditched work for the third time that week, and headed to the bar. His eyes
were bloodshot, his face pale, as if he hadn’t slept in weeks. Normally, he
liked to shave once a week, but he had several weeks’ worth of five o’clock
shadow. His hands shook like he was an old man with rheumatism; the bottle
tipped, and the yeasty scent of the alcohol filled the air. He swore to
himself, and the bartender quickly went to work cleaning up the mess.

Even with all of his notes, all of his
research, he still couldn’t figure out why it had been him who’d been ‘gifted’
with the ability to see people’s emotions.

This wasn’t a gift. This was
nothing less than a curse, a massive cosmic joke that the universe was playing
on him.

He found himself wondering if there
was a way to make it stop; he’d tried alcohol and pills, but that had been
temporary. Not for the first time, he found himself wondering if he should just
bite the bullet, take matters in his own hands, and commit suicide.

He never imagined seeing so many
colors would drive him so mad he was contemplating suicide.

**

(WP) The Lone Monarch

               The
hero set out for the castle at the king’s behest; he was dying and was desperate
to find his only heir a bride.

               And
being a knight meant you didn’t get to say no, so he’d had no choice but to
take his provisions and set out for the journey.

               It had
taken him weeks to reach the castle, even with the kind townspeople who had
offered to give him a ride the rest of the way.

               The
castle’s windows were bright with golden light, as if aglow from the inside,
and not for the first time, the hero felt a flicker of apprehension. There was
no resistance when he walked up to the castle, and found its doors wide open.
He could hear faint music, and bright laughter.

               Whatever
this was, he found himself wondering if he’d just wasted all of his time.

               But his
curiosity got the better of him anyway. After all, he’d come all this way.

               What
was the harm in a little investigating?

               Of all
the things Sir Roland had expected to find, it definitely wasn’t this.

               **

               The
princess he’d been charged to bring to the king was already ruling the castle;
the throne beside her stood empty. She was clothed in a gown in such a dark
shade of purple that it looked black, even in the ample firelight. Beautiful
and proud, she stood up, staring at him.

               “Who
are you? I am ruler of this castle, and I demand to know why you’ve come!”

               “Well,
Princess, my name is Sir Roland, and I’m afraid I’ve been charged with bringing
you to my king. To marry his son, you see.”

               The girl
surprised him by laughing uproariously.

               “Why on
earth would I want to marry someone I don’t even know? Does it look as though I
need a husband to you, Sir Roland?”

               “Well,
no, princess… But I’m afraid I have my orders.”

               “You
can try taking me against my will,” The princess retorted, smirking, “but I don’t
think you’ll have much luck. My creatures and soldiers will be on you at a mere
word from me.”

               This
princess was a fierce, feisty little thing, in a way that threw Roland for a
loop.

               But how
could he take a girl against her will to be married?

               **

(WP) A Mother’s Secrets

               To say
that Rhys’s mother was eccentric was a major understatement.

               She’d
never fit in, a newcomer to the small town she’d chosen, and the people never
let her forget it. But she’d been happy, at least as far as Rhys knew.

               He’d
flown back from college when she’d called him, saying that she’d been
hospitalized, and she didn’t know how much time she had left. The entire flight
home, he’d cried, terrified that he was going to lose the only parent he’d ever
had.

               He’d
had a month and a half left with her, and Rhys’s heart still ached. His mother’s
lawyer had called, saying that it was time to read the will. Now he stood in a
suit that was too tight on him, hands stuffed in his pockets, in a richly
furnished room that smelled of books, tobacco, and leather.

               The
lawyer, Trevor McCall, sat at the desk opposite, and his eyes were sharp. Rhys
had known Trevor from childhood; his salt and pepper hair and thick glasses
were a familiar comfort.

               “You
can sit, if you want to,” He offered.

               Reluctantly,
Rhys sat down, and the room blurred and bowed in front of him; when he touched
his face, his fingers came away wet.

               “Can we
just get this over with?” He asked finally, unable to stem the flow of his
tears.

               Trevor
nodded, looking down at a sheaf of papers that covered his desk.

               “The last
will and testament of Tessa Chambers reads as follows: I bequeath all of my
worldly possessions and all other assets to my only son, Rhys.” It was short,
simple, sweet, just like his mother.

               Trevor put
a small stack boxes in front of Rhys, one of which was wide open.

               On the
top of all of the stuff, something bright red and shaped like a rectangle
caught Rhys’s eye.

               “Oh,
your mother said something else as well: ‘I left Rhys a book, thick and red and
leather-bound. Under no circumstances should he open it.”

               Rhys
stared at Trevor, momentarily distracted from his grief by that strange
request.

               “I don’t
understand.” He said, and for his part, Trevor shrugged. “You and me both,
young man.”

               **

               Rhys
left Trevor’s office, loading the boxes into the backseat of his car, his mind
churning with questions.

               Why had
his mother left him that mysterious volume? What secrets did it hold?

               He
drove home and began the Herculean task of unpacking his mother’s belongings,
but try as he might, he could not get the book out of his mind.

               Sick
with dread and doubt, he sat down in an armchair with the book in hand, Trevor’s
warning still ringing in his ears.

               The book
was thick, and despite its age, the leather still felt smooth in his hands.

               Did he
dare try to uncover his mother’s secrets? She’d been his best friend, and he’d
been certain that he’d known everything about her.

               But
clearly, he’d been wrong.

               **

(WP) Tithes to the Dead

               King
Doran was named The Ghost King for the way he’d turned the tides of the war.

               The
spirits, enraged at their death, had tried to storm the castle and possess all of
the humans inside. But Doran negotiated for peace, with but one law.

               “When a
spirit walks the land of the living, bring not pain nor plague, only gifts.”

               It turned
out, though, that the dead were often rather imaginative with their gifts.

               They
started out simply at first: a loaf of bread, the last fruit of the harvest, a
few spare coins, a bolt of cloth. But then the offerings they gave only grew in
magnitude, given to them by emissaries both alive, dead, and somewhere in
between: precious stones that shone like bright eyes, heaping chests of
treasures, collections of bones adorned with finery, even in death.

               King
Doran’s bride, Queen Jazira, accepted all of the offerings at his side, but she
wondered privately if this was too much, even for peace with the restless and
the dead. After all, they were royal; they had no need of such pageantry. But
she knew how much it had cost her husband, to barter for this tentative peace.

               She
knew that nightmares from the war still haunted him; more than once, she’d
awoken to his screams, full of agony, his face cold and clammy with sweat. The
bodies of his battalion had been taken by the ghosts, vessels for his enemies,
and he could do nothing but watch while his men slaughtered each other.

               Wraiths,
revenants, the undead, all were summoned from the other side of the void, and
blood had flowed freely on both sides of the war. It had felt like the longest
two decades of Jazira’s life; she’d been sent to Doran’s court as a child,
brought up in the ways of her fiancée’s land. They’d married on the eve of her
seventeenth birthday, and the day after their wedding, her king announced that
he would be making an effort to live in peace with the spirits, on the condition
that both armies agreed to a surrender.

               And
that mattered now more than ever; unconsciously, she put a hand on her stomach,
trying not to show her nerves.

               Her
husband smiled at her, squeezing her hand, and she relaxed somewhat. He’d been fighting
for peace even before his father had died and he’d inherited the crown, and at
long last, it was finally happening.

               “It
pleases the crown that we have reached an agreement,” Doran said, his voice
booming in the cavernous throne room. “Is there anything you would ask of us,
other than our most sincere apologies for the bloodshed?”

               His
inquiry was answered by a series of quiet whispers, in a language that Jazira
couldn’t understand.

               “We
wish to continue making our offerings to you, if you’re amenable to it,”
Someone said in the crowd.

               “What
will we give you in return? Let it not be said that King Doran is a greedy
monarch.”

               “You’ve
already given us peace, Your Majesty. How could we possibly ask for more?”

               Relief
doused the rest of Jazira’s worries, and she was glad that her heir would live
in a world where spirits, the undead, and the living coexisted in peace.

               **

(WP) Dark Offerings

               He was
the seventh son of a seventh son, and as such, he’d inherited the dark and
inevitable sentence that came with one of the village’s farmers.

               He and
his family grew food, but it wasn’t just them responsible for it. They’d made a
pact with a dark, unknowable creature who rejoiced in bloodshed, pain, and
death. It had begun with their first ancestor, and as far as Silas knew, no one
had ever tried to break the deal.

               He’d
dug into his ancestors’ records, searching for a way out, and he’d never been
successful at finding one.

               So, as
awful and ugly as his duty was, Silas had no choice but to carry it out.

               He’d
tried with animals, with things that people wouldn’t miss, but the beast’s true
craving was for flesh, the fresher the better.

               His
latest victim was Katerina Van Horne, a young maiden who had planned to marry
the mayor’s son and eventually rule the town by his side. She was truly lovely,
and not for the first time, Silas felt shame heat his face. Her hair was in a
long plait down her back, and the setting sun made it shine like rose gold. She
was blindfolded; Silas thought it too cruel, for the sacrifices to face their
fate head on.

               No,
better that no one knew. He’d been charged with keeping the village’s secrets,
and he would take them to the grave.

               “I’m
sorry,” Silas whispered, more to himself than to Katerina. “I’m so sorry.”

               He left
the field, unable to watch. During those first few years, Silas had hidden
somewhere and watched; his curiosity had gotten the better of him, and he’d
regretted it immediately afterward.

               He hadn’t
been able to get the image out of his mind: a rail-thin man, with red eyes and
pale skin, and the man’s hair was even darker scarlet than Katerina’s. But that
hadn’t been the monster’s true form, and Silas knew it; even now, the façade flickered
like fire.

               The
young woman’s screams began and didn’t seem to end; after what felt like an
eternity, silence fell, as deafening as the death screams were a few minutes
before.

               Another
death, another month gone; Silas felt sickened by his own feeling of relief. It
was over.

               He
found himself wondering if this would be the rest of his existence: collecting
innocent townsfolk to sacrifice to the local monster; he felt dirty.

               But how
could he turn on his family’s legacy, regardless of how dark it was?

               The
monster slunk back into the corn, disappearing among the plants, and Silas let
out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. He’d long ago given up on
unbinding his line from the creature, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he
was close to a breakthrough. There were generations of records, books, and more
unsavory things that Silas didn’t want to have to look into.

               Perhaps
this was his lot in life, taking life in order to give it.

               Maybe it
was too late to fight it.

               **

(WP) Welcome Home

               I’d
left my small town right after high school, dreaming of huge skylines and city
lights, and I’d been more than happy to leave. I’d been stifled my whole life,
dragging around ghosts of my childhood. But moving across the country had been a
big change, and my older brother met me at the airport. I’d spent a decade on
the California coast, and as excited as I was to see my parents and brother,
there was a deep, unnamed sadness that sat heavy in my gut.

               “How
was your flight, little sis?” Gage asked me, taking my suitcase for me.

               “Long,”
I replied, stifling a yawn. “Could we get a coffee on the way home?”

               He
nodded, and his smile faded a little.

               “I uh…
I have some news. And you have to promise me that you’re not going to get mad.”

               I
looked at him, frowning, and we got in the car.

               “Mom,
Dad and I all tried to call you, but no one could get through.”

               Why did
it feel like my brother was breaking bad news to me?

               “I don’t
understand.”

               “Just
listen. Or maybe it’d be better to show you…”

               **

               We pulled
up to our old house, and Gage frowned. I knew the truth, but I didn’t want to
believe it. Mom and Dad no longer lived there; they were crammed in a tiny,
crappy apartment with the dog, all because a mysterious company had come to
town and bought everyone off.

               “What
do they even want the land for?” I asked Gage, and he shrugged, apologetic.

               “They
wouldn’t say, and we weren’t the first to ask. Some mysterious corporation with
more money than God.” He said sadly, and his eyes tightened.

               “I don’t
understand. Mom and Dad aren’t even the only ones who live here.”

               Our
house, the house I’d grown up in, was like something out of an old fairy tale:
a tiny brick house, with a little chimney stack and ivy climbing the walls. We’d
shared so many memories within that building, and just like that, it wasn’t our
home anymore.

               “We
have to do something, Gage. We can’t just let them take our house!”

               “It’s
already done, Frida. The paperwork’s already been signed. And it’s not like
they weren’t paid for it.” His tone was placating, soothing, and I resisted the
urge to yell.

               My
parents and brother may have given up, but I sure wasn’t. I wasn’t sure yet if
I would return to California, but I could at least investigate what was going
on.

               **

               After dinner
and a visit with my parents, I used Gage’s car, a little navy compact, to drive
to the outside of town, where a tall, dark building stood. A sign stuck in the
front lawn displayed a picture of a sun, surrounded by shining, golden rays. Sunshine
Industries: Bringing light and positivity to everyone!

               What
did this mysterious company suddenly want with all of this land?

               I didn’t
know, but I sure as hell was going to find out.

               Sunshine
Industries would have a hell of a fight from me.

               **

(WP) In My Time of Dying

               There
has to be balance in everything.

               When
Mara was human, she’d had but an inkling of how the world truly worked.

               But
then she’d died too soon, murdered for protecting innocent bystanders.

               She’d
been taken to The Pale, the place in-between, and a mysterious woman had asked
her if she wanted to spend her afterlife doing something worthwhile. No one
would know her name, after the fact, but it didn’t matter.

               “I’ve
been watching you, Mara.” The woman had said, her dark eyes unreadable. There
was something stern in her tone, something that made Mara squirm. “And let me
just say that you’re not the first to waste your time on the mortal plane.”

               There
were flashes of things that Mara barely remembered; small sins were always
forgotten.

               But
there was the time that she had stolen from her parents, all to buy alcohol for
a party she was too old to be attending.

               The
time she’d ditched her brother after his basketball practice to go on a date
with her boyfriend, leaving him to walk home.

               But the
first thing she remembered, really remembered, was fighting with her parents
right before she’d left for the gas station. If she’d known she would’ve ended
up cold and dead on the floor, she wouldn’t have gone to the gas station.

               “You
gave your life in order to protect others, the day you died.” The woman’s voice
softened, and Mara blinked at her; everything was all blurry, and when she
touched her face, her fingers came away wet. She couldn’t remember the last
time she’d cried, on the mortal plane and this one.

               “Who
are you? And what do you want with me?” Mara finally asked, wincing when she
heard her voice crack.

               “I have
had many names throughout the years, so many that I can barely remember my true
one.” The woman chuckled, and the sound was sad. “But you can call me Mama.”

               Mara
thought she heard the slightest hint of a syrupy Southern accent in Mama’s
voice, but she merely nodded.

               “The
real reason you’re here, Mara, is because I have been looking for a successor
for a long time. And I think that you would be perfect for the job.”

               Mara
blinked, staring at the other woman.

               “Here
in The Pale, I am charged with maintaining balance, not just in this realm, but
many others as well.” Mama murmured, and though she looked but a few years
older than Mara, her eyes held multitudes, and were so sad that Mara felt like
weeping again.

               “But I’m
afraid I’ve grown old. And tired.” A chair appeared out of thin air, and the
older woman sat down in it.

               “Are you
saying you brought me here to take over for you?” Mara asked, her heart
fluttering; she could feel her pulse everywhere, and sweat began to form in her
palms.

               “In a
matter of speaking. So, what’s it going to be, Mara? Are you going to float
around in an endless haze of boredom and regret? Or do you really want to do
something worthwhile with the time you have left?”

               **

(WP) A Faustian Bargain

               It’s
finally Friday, and after a twelve-hour shift, I’m happy to head home. Maybe I’ll
buy dinner on the way, and my stomach grumbles angrily, as if in agreement with
my thoughts.

               But
when I get into my car, I can’t shake the feeling that someone is watching me,
and that feeling persists, all the way to the highway. I make it to a diner, and
instead of going home, I get out of the car, tempted by the aroma of food in
the air.

               “Now,
where do you think you’re going, son?” A voice sounds behind me, and I turn:
There’s a well-dressed man sitting in my passenger’s seat, his eyes glowing
like bright rubies.

               I growl
under my breath, and the man laughs, amused by my rage. He has dark hair and a
goatee, as well as a smile so bright it’s blinding.

               “Did
you really think that you could renege on our deal? It’s been almost twenty
years.” He continues, eyes narrowed at me. “I’ve given you everything you have,
in exchange for your immortal soul. And I’m not leaving without it.”

               For a
few minutes, I feel like I’m crazy; the deal he’s referring to, I thought it
was just a vivid dream. But Satan is sitting in my car, demanding his due.

               “To be
honest,” I say, looking into those bright red eyes, “I thought that it was a
dream.”

               The
Devil surprises me once more by laughing, so uproariously that tears stream
down his face.

               “You
thought it was a dream? You’re kidding, right? When right after that your life
suddenly became a movie?”

               I stare
at him, not understanding at first, but then the pieces all start to fall, one
by one.

               My
beautiful model girlfriend, Verity, agreeing to marry me on a beach in Hawaii.
The promotion that came shortly afterward, and the birth of our children. The
Devil made this all happen? For real?

               “I came
to you in your dreams because mortals are vulnerable in them,” Satan says,
waving a hand dismissively. “I knew I’d never get your attention until I did
something drastic. Normally I send one of my flunkies to do all the paperwork
for me, but you, kid… You’re special. You’re practically a poster boy for Hell.”

               I stare
at him, nonplussed.

               “I
mean, I’ll have your soul at the end of it, but don’t tell me that your time on
Earth wasn’t fun.”

               He isn’t
wrong; I’ve been gifted so many different things, even if they did come from
the literal incarnation of evil. My family will be taken care of, and I won’t
have to worry about anything else.

               But is
it really worth an endless eternity in The Pit?

               Regardless
of how I feel about it, though, it’s happened. And obviously, I can’t get away
from this deal. The freaking Devil found me on the side of the road.

               “Does
it really count, if you don’t remember?” I ask meekly, and something flickers
under his face, a glimpse of something dark, fanged and ugly.

               “We can
do this the easy way or the hard way, son. Your choice.”

               **

(IP) Off the Grid

               With
all of his tech broken, he’d long ago lost track of how much time had passed,
and had given up trying.

               He sat
on the old robot, a massive, hulking machine that had gone red from rust and
disuse, observing his kingdom.

               When he’d
first arrived on this planet, he’d been dumbstruck by the beauty of it all:
trees so tall that their branches pierced the veil of the sky, their bark
marbled with a dizzying array of colors, mountains that sparked and crackled,
and valleys carpeted with lush blooms. It was sort of like Earth, but not, all
at the same time.

               And
with no way to contact his superiors, he’d distracted himself by exploring. If
he was going to live and die on this planet, he might as well use his free time
to map it. But the loss of his tech—the tech in his own body and in his ship—felt
like he was missing a limb.

               There
was a void inside of his chest that could not be filled, and he’d come to terms
with the fact that he’d never come home, never see his family again. It had
been so long that the pain had dulled to a slight throb. He barely remembered
their faces; he found himself wondering if he’d been forgotten.

               And
maybe, he thought with a twinge of regret, that was for the best. Callum had
never been happy on Earth, but he had come closer than ever before, before the
mission.

               But he
hadn’t really had a choice in the matter: it was either go be an explorer in
space, or stay on-world and face his crimes. If he’d stayed, he would’ve risked
his family, and his lover.

               He’d
left to start a new life on a recently discovered planet, and his loved ones
were spared in the bargain.

               Even
now, though, Callum wondered if he’d signed his own death warrant.

               But he
had all the time in the world to think: He hid from the beasts that roamed the
planet’s forests and mountains, coming out of his dwelling only to hunt for
food and water. It had taken months for him to figure out what was edible or
not; the most notable example had been when he’d eaten a handful of bright red
berries, and had suffered hallucinations afterward. He’d made a sign around the
bushes so he wouldn’t be tempted by the fruit again.

               Trial
and error had helped, but not much. When he was alone, Callum spoke, to the
sky, the flora and fauna, and the animals. He never imagined he’d be so tired
of hearing his own voice, but it helped to temper the pain of his loneliness.

               He’d
been in this place so long he barely remembered Earth: the salty tang of the
ocean, so dark, deep and vast it could sweep you under and imprison you without
you even knowing; the warmth of the sun on his face, the smile on his lover’s
face.

               Before
he’d lost contact with his superiors, he’d been almost done with his stint off-world.

               Callum
had been so close, and here he would die, forgotten.

               But in
a place this beautiful, would that really be so awful?

               **