Category: original content

(WP) The Monster’s Demands

               The
forest had been taken over by a dragon, a winged creature of smoke, heat, and
flame; no one could actually prove the rumor, as no one had actually seen it.
For my part, I thought that this was ridiculous. There was nothing, absolutely
nothing, to indicate that the forest’s new denizen was there.

               But
that had been before the mayor of our village had declared a state of emergency;
just about all the adults had lost their heads at the mere mention of the
beast. The whole of the village was buzzing by the time that we reached the
square.

               The
mayor was a fat, portly little man with a fondness for fine suits and rich
foods, and it showed. Someone had to put a crate behind the lectern for him to
stand on. Even before he addressed the public, he was dabbing at his perspiring
brow with a handkerchief, his face bright red. The talk was such that he had to
slam a gavel just to get everyone’s attention.

               At long
last, silence reigned, and the mayor coughed. “My dear people, I have called
you all here today to discuss the monster that lives in the forest. It must be
appeased with flesh.”

               At this
statement, cries went up: mothers tucked their children behind them, holding
their babies close, as if they feared the creature would burn the village
around us.

               “I don’t
understand!” I called out, and much to my surprise, the crowd hushed; clearly,
they wanted to hear the answer to my exclamation.

               “My own
son went to the heart of the wood and asked the dragon what he wanted. Other
than a place to live, well…” He hesitated, gulping. “It has also demanded two
children. Not one, not three, but two children. In exchange, the village will
be left untouched.”

               Standing
beside his father, the mayor’s boy nodded, confirming his words. It was decided
that all of the village’s children would be put in a sort of lottery; one of
the ladies kindly lent her hat to hold it all.

               My name
was called, and so was the baker’s son’s. We were given one last day with our
families before we had to depart for the forest at dawn. I spent the day with
my parents and siblings, and they helped me choose what I would take with me.
There were only a few things: some books, a packet of paper and a quill, and a
necklace I’d been given at birth. I said my tearful goodbyes to my family in
the morning.

               **

               I found
the baker’s son, Ronan, standing outside of our cottage before the sun had even
come up. I shouldn’t have been so taken by surprise; his trade caused him to
keep all kinds of hours. His face was pale, and his lips were twisted in a thin
line. Despite the cool air, he was sweating.

               “Ready
to go?” He asked, and I nodded, not trusting my voice. We walked in silence,
only birdsong and our steps, keeping time.

               When we
reached the wood, it wasn’t a dragon we found; at least, not exactly. It was a man,
young, but older than us; in his early twenties, I might have guessed. There
was a man there with bright, gleaming ruby eyes, sitting in between the trees.
We almost didn’t see him.

               “Are
you going to eat us like everyone says?” Ronan asked, gulping audibly.

               “Of
course not, boy. I’m going to raise you and teach you all the secrets of my
kind. But you mustn’t ever return to the village. After all, you’re one of my
children now. Welcome home.”

               **

(WP) Murder on Drury Lane

               The
muffin man’s body was discovered by his poor widow, who had awoken the village
with her scream.

               “Somebody,
help! It’s my husband—he’s been murdered! Please, somebody call the
authorities!” Mrs. Baker hollered; her voice thick with tears. One by one, the
neighbors were roused from their sleep; shutters banged open, windows were flung
wide.

               The
police were called. An officer stood outside of their small cottage with his
wife, draping a blanket over her shoulders. “I’m so sorry for your distress, ma’am,
but I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you a few questions.” She nodded, tears
still pouring down her face.

               “Did
you see what happened, ma’am?”

               She
shook her head, and it took her a few moments to speak.

               “I didn’t.
I was upstairs sleeping. Silas hadn’t gone to bed yet. He likes to stay up late
and work on special projects.”

How odd it was to her memory, that
strange, cloying scent of sugar and cinnamon mixed with the metallic tang of
blood. Try as she might, her memory of the night before was foggy. It was like
trying to hold water in her cupped hands. They’d had dinner, and she’d taken a
bath, spent the rest of her evening reading. By the time she’d gone to sleep,
Silas still hadn’t come upstairs.

That in and of itself wasn’t
unusual; Silas liked to deal with his anxiety by creating delicious treats. But
it was more than just a hobby for him. His family’s recipes had been passed
down several generations, and there had been rumors circulating for years that
her husband did more than fill empty stomachs with his confections.

He’d been so cautious of her at
first, certain that she’d sought him out for his recipes, and the power and wealth
that he’d received as a result. She was curious about him and his talent,
certainly, but that had been all. Sneaking into his family’s restaurant had
been the craziest thing she’d ever done.

Other officers left the crime
scene; Mrs. Baker was promptly deposited into a squad car and taken to the
station to finish up her interview.

The crime scene techs were stunned.
The violence of the scene—blood splattered across the walls, viscera everywhere,
the victim’s mangled body limp on the floor—didn’t match the plainness of the
house itself. They’d all speculated as to why the poor guy had gotten knocked
off.

You had to find some kind of humor
in this job, or it would eat you alive.

               But no
one could figure it out, even by listening to the few scraps of information
given by the vic’s wife. The guy was a baker, for God’s sake, not a mafia boss.
But if nothing else, they all had job security because of these things.

               You
could depend on a lot of things, but one of the steadiest ones was human
nature.

               It was
all there, whether you realized it or not.

               **

(IP) To the Stars

               Doctor
Mara Carmichael, biologist, stood between the two buildings that made up her outpost,
eyes lifted to the sky as if she were waiting for something. Something in her
gaze was sharp and watchful, turned toward the sun.

               Solitude
had never bothered her; in fact, that was the reason she’d leaped at this job. She’d
always felt more at home within a lab, among samples and data, variables and hypotheses.
Even when she’d been a child, her goal had been to go to the unexplored territory
of space. Her wonder had been so bigger than her fear, even back then. Her
mother and father had tried to help her as best they could. At first, they
thought that it was heights and thrills that she was after. But what she’d
really wanted was the sky, and everything that filled it.

               So,
when the opportunity to be one of the first graduates in space opened up, Mara knew
she had to do it. She was closer to achieving her dream than ever before. She
hadn’t even told her parents about it. She’d just sent out the application and
waited for the letter. She’d stood by the door every day, waiting for the real
paper letter. The email came in about a month later, but she wanted real,
actual proof in her hands.

               The
night that the letter came, Mara packed up all of her bags; she’d broken the
news of her gamble over dinner. Her parents were surprised, but supportive.

               “I’m so
happy that you’re about to achieve your dreams,” Her mother said, pulling her
in close for a hug. Her father was beaming, his eyes shiny and wet. “Our only daughter,
going up in space all by herself! You’re amazing, kiddo!”

               **

               The
months that followed were training: how to isolate herself in a room, drills on
the numerous ways that things could go wrong in space, how to log her
observations and research. Mara fell back into this familiar, brisk routine.
Learning had always been her favorite thing, trying to cram her brain with so
many different things.

               They
didn’t tell her until after her training was completed that she would be in
space alone, but she’d never been a big people person anyway. Her talents were
best used elsewhere. Science was the creed she lived her life by, and it was too
engrained at this point.

               **

               Mara
didn’t know how long she’d been on this planet; time was impossible to measure,
flung this far out in space. Her watch had stopped long ago, but it hardly
mattered. This planet, dry and dusty and strange, left new wonders for her to
follow. She might die here, but she’d gotten what she wanted. She’d left Earth
and chased her dreams, wherever they led. Some people didn’t get what they
wanted.

               There
were worse ways to confront death, Mara thought, and a strange sort of peace
washed over her. She only hoped that whatever came after, they would find what
was left of her. But perhaps she would be lost to all but the stars and the
vast, sparkling dark.

               **

(IP) Innocence Lost

               She didn’t
know how long they’d been walking for; she’d long ago lost count of the days.
But through it all, her son never once complained. Instead, he kept up a
constant stream of talk. He told her stories, often ones that she’d heard when
she was his age. There were observations, too: whether or not there were clouds
in the sky, what flowers were blooming, and Eve was grateful for it. It was a
distraction, however brief, from her thoughts.

               But it
was good that he didn’t know why they were running. He was but a child, and he
shouldn’t have had to pay for his mother’s choices. There had been so many
things she’d done before becoming a mother; it wasn’t until after she’d got
pregnant that she even considered how her past would affect her child.

               But
once he was born, it was like her entire world shifted. Nothing else mattered
to her more than her only son. They’d always been something like nomads, never
staying in one place for long. But this was one of the longest journeys they’d ever
taken. Every time she thought about

               “Mama,
look at this!” He cried, holding up a tiny bouquet of yellow blooms, grinning
up at her. “These petals are like sunshine and they smell like honey!” At the
last word, the boy’s stomach grumbled, and she laughed, trying to ignore the
guilt that built up in her heart daily.

               She
hadn’t intended to bring him into this world, in a world that shrank every day,
even while he grew. And his father—Evelyn gritted her teeth. Now was not the
time to be thinking about him.

               Still,
even now he haunted her, a shadow that hovered just over her shoulder. But,
despite the fact that she’d gotten away from him, she couldn’t escape the
memories that still lived in her mind. They followed her even in sleep.

               Eve took
the blooms and inhaled their sweet, homey scent, trying not to let the barrage
of memories inside her show on her face. There was a reason that she kept her
past secret from him.

               Every
child deserved to be a child, innocent for as long as it lasted.

               It was
funny; she’d never wanted kids, before Rico had come along. But motherhood had
given her a purpose when she was flailing, a reason to go on even when things got
so dark, she couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.

               She’d
left to save her son, but in reality, he’d saved her life. And she didn’t care
if it meant shouldering the burden until he was old enough to know the truth.

               Some secrets
were meant to be uncovered; still more lurked in the darker, more dangerous
corners of her mind, and she would take them to her grave. In the endless
monotony of walking, her mind churned and spun, refusing to be silenced, no
matter what she did.

               Some
things were simply impossible to outrun. She could only hope that she got Rico
to her mother’s house safely before her demons truly caught up to her.

               **

(WP) Stasis

               The
seasons didn’t change anymore; in fact, they hadn’t had a real season in years.
Now, we were stuck in the strange limbo of winter and spring. The land had been
ravaged, the plants and animals were enchanted into a deep and unnatural sleep.
No one knew what caused it, exactly, but that didn’t stop the rumor mill from
going on and on.

               Some
said that it was a dangerous, contagious plague, caused by supernatural,
otherworldly mischief. Others were convinced that this was only the beginning
of the blight on the land, a precursor of what was to come. Astrologers were brought
in, as well as thaumaturges that claimed for a certain sum that they could set
everything to rights again.

               But it turned
out that the princess was the one who set out on a quest to restore balance,
and she chose me, of all people, to accompany her. Never mind that I was only
her handmaiden because my mother was a cook in the palace, or that I was
crippled with a twisted foot and have to walk with a cane.

               “I’m
going on a journey to try and fix the land,” She told me, her face already
locked in a scowl that let me know she wasn’t going to be talked out of this
mad quest. “And I want you to come with me.”

               I
stared at her, certain that she was pulling an ill-timed joke on me. But she
didn’t laugh, or smile. She was completely serious.

               The
first word out of my mouth was “Why?”

               She
blinked, as if, of all the things she’d expected to say, that was the last
thing. But no matter how I pleaded, she wouldn’t budge. Either I was going with
her, or she wasn’t going at all. It didn’t matter, what the king and queen
said, or their cabinet of advisors. The princess was going with her servant.

               Only
this wasn’t just for companionship, I realized later.

               No, my
purpose in this was sinister, but I didn’t realize that until later.

               **

               We both
rode a horse, with her behind me, holding the reins. We were following a lead,
and I gritted my teeth, feeling my bones rattle with every new hoofbeat. There
had been rumors that the source of the disruptive magic came from tainted river
water, and the princess thought that it was as good a lead as any to start
with.

               We left
our steed tied to a tree and walked on, with me struggling to keep up. Even on
a manmade floor it was nearly impossible for me to stay upright, let alone the
forest’s. Roots and plants lingered under my feet, and I swore as the pain increased.

               The princess
shushed me, holding out a hand to block my way. I looked at her, confused, but
then the scent of magic, sharp, sweet and distinctive, tinted the air.

               “I can
sense something within the heart of the wood. Something old and powerful. Come
with me and see where it’s coming from.”

               What
other choice did I have?

               **

(WP) Remnants of a Star

               Your palm
is open, and lights of every color spring from the star nestled within it. It’s
like a jewel, heavy and substantial feeling, but it’s warm, aglow with life.

               You don’t
know how exactly you’ve acquired this gorgeous, impossible fairy-tale ending,
but it leaves you awash in silent awe. Your people have always said for years
that stars are but vessels for some of the realms’ most powerful magic. But
there’s been no living proof so far for you, until now.

               And
something speaks to you from within the star, something dark, urgent, and old
beyond imagining. Something that longs to be free of its prison, screaming in a
language you can’t understand. Music fills the air around you, breaking the
silence with a melody so sweet you instinctively relax.

               You
have no idea what the star contains, but you can no longer resist its call.

               Your
body suddenly goes on autopilot, going blank but for the need to break the
container. Your hand connects with something hard and unyielding, and the star
breaks at last, with a tiny, twinkling sound so soft that you can barely hear
it.

               **

               When
you wake next, you’re on the ground, the remnants of the star still nestled in
your palm.

               “I
really must thank you for freeing me at last,” A voice says, in multiple
timbres and tones, so that you cannot ascertain whether it is male or female,
young or old. But then you see a person, or at least a humanoid shape. Its face
flickers, and you can see some faint shimmering behind its eyes.

               “How
did a creature such as yourself manage to get a star?” It asks at last, holding
out a hand to help you up. Reluctantly, you take it, and stand.

               You don’t
remember, and you open your mouth to say that, but you’re interrupted.

               “No
matter. All I know is that one good turn deserves another,” It says, grinning
again, so widely that the creature’s eyes, glinting like gems, all but
disappear into the rest of its face. “Surely there must be some wish I could
grant, some way that I could help you.”

               But the
only thing that comes to mind for you are your memories, and you have no idea
how old this thing is, or what power that it holds. Still… Something inside you
stops, stilling as if it’s listening. Waiting. Wanting.

               The only
memory you have within you is the beach you washed up on, and the way the moon
had sparkled up above the ocean, a cold, white eye that stared down at you,
unfeeling.

               And you
don’t know how your luck has turned, but isn’t it worth a try?

               “My
memories. That’s what I want. I need to know who I am.”

               **

(WP) The Scorpion’s Children

               El
Scorpio was a huge name in my neighborhood; he was more a living legend than an
actual person, to me. But his men and women, his children, as he called them,
were different, just like he was.

               “We
might be a gang, but we aren’t thugs. A gang may be what we started out as, but
we’re a family now.” The voice was husky and soft, faintly accented; there was
a musical quality to the man’s words.

               The day
I found him in the kitchen, talking to my parents, I was already in a foul
temper. School had run long and track practice had been especially brutal that
day.

               “Come
in here, son, won’t you? And watch it; I already told you to stop slamming that
damn back door.” My father scowled at me, but it faded when he smiled at the
man that was sitting at our worn kitchen table.

               My
mother placed a cup of hot, steaming coffee in front of our guest, smiling
sweetly.

               I
watched our visitor, unable to help it, curiosity moving to replace the
irritation I felt.

               “This
kind young man has come here to make you an offer,” My mother said, and she
smiled at him, her eyes misting over. I looked between the three of them,
confused. “I don’t understand.”

               The man
smiled at me, taking a cautious sip of coffee.

               “I’ve
heard much about you, young man.” He said. To my untrained eye, he looked like
a bruiser, someone who stood in dark corners waiting for orders from a loaded,
mysterious boss. His tanned olive skin was almost entirely tattooed; there were
even a few on his face. A bird, with its wings spread to take flight, peeked
out from his shirt collar.

               When he
realized where I was looking, he grinned, his cheeks warming as if he was
embarrassed. “I’m El Scorpion, and I wanted to ask your parents if you wanted
to intern at the youth center, once track ends. It would look good on a college
resume, but I won’t force you.” Up this close, he didn’t look so threatening.
Still, I was wary.

               I
didn’t know El Scorpion from anything but rumor. So why was he interested in me
to begin with? My suspicion must have showed on my face, because he laughed.

               “You’re
not the first person I’ve asked, kid, and you definitely won’t be the last. But
I’ve seen you around the neighborhood. You always help your neighbors. Hell,
just a few weeks ago, you helped a kid fix up his broken bike chain, no
questions asked.” I blushed, rubbing the back of my neck.

               I
wasn’t anything special. I was just a kid in a huge town, a running junkie that
fed my addiction through track and cross-country, looking for a fresh start.

               “I’m
nothing special. Honestly. I was just being a good neighbor.”

               He was
shaking his head before I was even finished with the sentence.

               “Think
on it, will you? I can help you achieve your dreams.”

               Leaving
his now cold and half drank coffee, he smiled and thanked my parents for their
time, saying that he would come back soon on the way out.

               What
did the mysterious El Scorpion want with someone like me?

               **          

(WP) A Complicated Sweet Sixteen

               A
villager’s sixteenth birthday was the most important of all, because you came
of age when you turned sixteen. But that wasn’t the coolest part of it all.
When you turned the big one six, you got your very own dragon! I’d been looking
forward to this day for as long as I could remember.

               Our
village was isolated within the snowy mountains; the better to hide our secret.
We were one of the last villages left, still touched by the magic of our
ancestors and the dragons they’d so lovingly raised. I’d been born on the
Winter Solstice, and my mother clucked to herself, gowns in a rainbow of bright
colors spread out over my cot.

               It was
still so early in the morning that dawn hadn’t yet touched her pink and orange
fingers to the sky; only the cold, distant stars gazed down upon us.

               “Happy birthday,
my love,” Mother cooed, and I smiled at her sleepily, rubbing the remnants of
rest out of my eyes. “Are you excited?” I nodded, mutely, not ready to talk
yet. I could smell fire and smoke, and my stomach grumbled, needing food.
Father must have gotten up before myself and Mother, because when we came out, he
was already tending the cooking fire.

               He
smiled at me; I was clothed only in a big t-shirt and some shorts. Mother didn’t
want any of my nicer clothing to get stained. There would be a feast held in my
honor, and after that, I would receive the initiation rite from girlhood to
adulthood. At the conclusion of the celebrations, I would meet my dragon, and
we would bond for the first time.

               If the
legends were true, that bond would grow into a friendship that would withstand
the test of time. Of course, there would be no confirming it until the actual
ceremony.

               My
father placed a stone bowl full of porridge in front of me, garnished with the
last of the berry jam we had in the cellar. I beamed at him in thanks, and he
kissed my cheek, wishing me a happy birthday.

               “Jared,
let her eat. We don’t want to be late, and there will be plenty of time to
catch up after the festivities. After all, it’s not every day that your only
child turns sixteen!” I tucked into my food, pretending not to notice how her
eyes went red and misty.

               **

               After
breakfast, Mother insisted on helping me get dressed. Together, we chose a
bright, neon yellow that warmed my skin and brought out the green in my eyes.
She gave me one last kiss on the forehead, and my parents and I departed to the
summit for the ceremony.

               **

               I still
don’t remember much from the ceremony; it was a blur of shining, teary eyes and
bright, joyous smiles. I ate my food without tasting much; my stomach felt like
it was doing a dance inside of my body.

               The
thing I remember most vividly was the dragon’s scales, a purple so dark that
they looked almost black, even in the lingering dawn. Its eyes were like round,
golden coins, its pupils mere slits.

               “I’m
sorry, dear, but I’m afraid there has been a… complication with your partner.
He’s afraid of heights, you see.”

               I
stared at the Elder, nonplussed. “What do you mean, a complication? And how in
gods’ name can there be a dragon afraid of heights? He’s got wings!”

               **

(WP) Monsters and Morality

               Once
upon a time, there were the monsters, those creatures who lingered in the
shadows, who feasted upon man’s flesh since the beginning of time. Man’s
numbers dwindled as the years wore on, until there were only a few clans left.
But that had been before the tide of the war had changed.

               Several
hundred years passed, and almost in response to the creatures of the night, beings
of the opposite kind: the light, the good, the bygone heroes of myth and
legend. As I was a member of humanity, I wasn’t exactly rooting for either
side. There were casualties all around. But I would be lying if I didn’t say
that I wasn’t secretly pleased. We were more protected now than ever before.

               But
monsters are monsters, no matter what realm they happened to hail from.

               Too bad
we didn’t know that until it was too late.

               **

               Those
who lived in the light craved vengeance for their fallen brethren; years of it,
in fact. The war had long since stopped, but it didn’t matter either way. Years
of bad blood didn’t just get swept away by a verbal truce.

               I’d
been added to a secret military unit, under the king and queen, and we were
waiting for our orders from the general. It was our job to infiltrate, by
whatever means necessary, and arrest anyone who was suspected to be helping the
night creatures. Never mind that it wasn’t nearly as black and white as all
that, but you couldn’t exactly examine your morals too closely if you needed
coin to eat.

               My best
friend in the unit, Marin, was poring over a letter from her latest paramour, a
curvy hostess from the most popular tavern in town. “You can’t afford to get distracted
this close to a mission, can you, M?”

               Marin
rolled her eyes at me, more affectionately than sarcastic. “Hey, not all of us
are so devoted to our job that we don’t have a life outside of it.”

               “Ouch,”
I replied, frowning at her, and she giggled, turning her eyes back to her
letter.

               “Don’t
let the General see that. Or she’ll read it aloud to the whole unit, if not
worse.”

               Marin
grumbled, but she folded the faded page of parchment and slipped it into her
inner jacket pocket.

               Just in
time, too, because the General walked inside the building; automatically, we
all snapped to attention.

               “Look
alive, ladies and gentlemen, we have an actual mission tonight.” Her statement
was met with a chorus of cheers. She waved a hand for quiet, but she was
smiling much too broadly to truly reprimand any of us. Perhaps she’d been
hiding her boredom.

               “General,
don’t keep us in suspense! What do we have to do?” Someone called out from
within the crowd.

               She
stopped, pausing to make the anticipation even worse, a wide grin on her face.
But there was no mistaking the bloodlust in her eyes.

               “The
King and Queen received word that someone found a pack of shapeshifters, just
past their eighteenth year, hiding within the Dark Wood. And they’ve dispatched
us to get rid of them.”

               My
fellow soldiers shifted around me, and I could sense their eagerness. Even
Marin’s gaze was riveted to the General, every nerve on fire.

               For not
the first time, I began to wonder if I’d made a terrible and irreversible
mistake.

               **

(WP) Stupid Cupid

               I wasn’t
supposed to fall in love, period, let alone with a human. It was against the
rules; it created so many complications that the last pair had been all but
erased from history. Cupids, contrary to fine arts’ interpretation, aren’t fat
little babies with rosy cheeks and sashes; they come in every shape and size,
but you don’t get officially called until you’ve turned sixteen.

               And the
only caveat to all of it was to never fall in love with humans. That was rule
number one. And I’d never been so much as tempted before. But this girl was one
of a kind, truly unique. And it was so much more than her beauty that drew me
to her; it was her vivacity, her desire to live fully, in the moment.

               And she
thought I was just some girl that she worked with, a passerby in her life. And
granted, I was supposed to be. I knew the ledger; I’d seen what it said. She
had a partner waiting out there for her, and my very existence hinged on them
becoming a real couple. If I upset that balance for my own selfish desires, who
knew the catastrophe that would be unleashed? It wouldn’t be fair to either of
them.

               I was a
blip; and I could only reveal myself to her truly after the match had
been made.

               Despite
being a Cupid, I was young, by their standards, and often too clouded by the
human veil of emotion. It was something my superiors had despaired over since I’d
started. But my record was almost spotless, so they couldn’t get rid of me,
anyway. Another fun little catch of the job? A human couldn’t renege once they
were accepted; otherwise, they would lose all the memories they’d had of their
time as a Cupid.

               If I
changed my mind and upset the balance, I would lose myself, and my charge in
the bargain, like we’d never existed to one another.

               My
heart longed for her, but I had my orders, and it wasn’t me that she was fated
to fall in love with. We weren’t supposed to meddle; our jobs meant coaxing out
feelings that were already there; otherwise, a couple would not be matched.

               I was
sitting at my desk when she walked up, smiling at me, her dimples on display.
She had a gorgeous smile, I thought, with an unfamiliar shiver of desire.

               “Cara!
I wanted to see if you wanted to go out for a drink with us later!” She said,
sitting on the edge of the desk, paying no mind to my belongings. “Please, say
you’ll come! Mark’s gonna be there and I’m so nervous. I’ll feel better if you’re
there!”

               And I
can’t resist her, ledger be damned. Still, I hedged. “I don’t know… I might
have something going on.”

               Her
sweet face falls, her full lips puckering into a coquettish pout.

               “Please,
Cara? I’ll love you forever if you do!”

               If only
you could, Diane. If only you could.

               **