12 Miles (excerpt)

The Boatman" published by Charon Coin Press | Dark fantasy art, Grim reaper  art, Dark fantasy

“Enjoy your stay asshole,” she said, and then she kicked him, hard, in the temple. And for a little bit, the lights went out.

                                                *                      *                      *

            Reason suggested that someone should have called the cops, that someone would have seen a man lying upon the sidewalk, curled into the fetal position, and thought that something was wrong.  But of course, reason wasn’t always reasonable, especially in an age where a lot of people figured it was better to mind their own damned business.  Karl might have been an oddity lying there on the sidewalk, or he might have been seen as a disgusting bum, a drunk who’d gotten so passed out on his ass that even walking down the street hadn’t been something he could accomplish without needing a place to rest.  All that might have been possible, but at the moment, as his eyes began to slowly open, it hurt just to see the light of the street lamps at the moment, Karl figured that it didn’t matter.  The only thing he was worried about at that second were the overgrown, throbbing melons that had once been his balls.

            Pain was his only true sensation right now, the swelling in his pants making a rather persuasive argument that it should be the one and only thing on Karl’s mind at that second.  Unfortunately he couldn’t disagree.

            “Hey, hey pal, time to get up.”

            He wanted to tell the anonymous stranger what to do with himself, but the words wouldn’t come, making him wonder if the three muggers had done something to damage his windpipe as well.  Karl was conscious enough at that second that he could feel no pain in his throat and neck, but the agony in his head and his crotch was more than enough to make up for the apparent lack.  Good G-, wait, why couldn’t he form that thought?  How hard had the damned woman kicked him?

            “Hey, get up man.”

            Karl managed a groan this time, though that was about it.

            “Get up man, I’m not gonna drag your ass up on my own.”

            Opening his eyes Karl expected to see a cop, or another citizen of the town intent on doing just a small bit of good. Or maybe someone who just didn’t want to take the second or two to walk around him. 

            Instead he saw a tall black man hunkered down next to him, left knee upon the pavement and the other raised as he balanced on the ball of his right foot.  He was no doubt taller than Karl, and yet he instantly decided that the man couldn’t have weighed more than a buck eighty or just a little over.  He was lithe in the way that a lot of tall people were, all bone, muscle, and skin, hardly any fat.  Of course, that was a crude generalization, but at this moment Karl’s capacity to think straight wasn’t firing on all thrusters.

            “Did you see them?” Karl groaned, feeling as though the question was a bit ridiculous. It was like asking someone if they’d knew what was happening in an undetermined location to people they’d never met.

            “Nope, but I can guess who did it,” the man said, his face betraying nothing more than mild irritation, “The three I can assume did this have been waylaying people for longer than  I care to admit.”

            Karl frowned, the small gesture paining him greatly as he closed his eyes again. The three people?  The muggers had been doing this before?  You would have thought that such a thing would have been on a local newscast once or twice.  But maybe they were quiet about it, taking out people that wouldn’t dare say a word.  Or maybe it was just one more screwy part of the world that seemed to slip in and out of its many cracks.

            “Who are you?” Karl managed to ask.

            The black man issued a long, bored-sounding sigh that immediately made Karl think of his brother, and how the prick had always seemed irritated with him for no reason. 

            “Are you gonna ask a bunch of questions or can we get going finally?”

            What had he just said?  Karl wasn’t quite sure, in fact he was as confused as he could be in his own opinion, but at the moment all that really mattered was the pain he was in.  With another sigh the stranger stood to his feet, where Karl was almost sure he would either just leave or kick him and then leave.  For some reason he didn’t feel like he could expect a great deal from this man.

            “Get your ass up man, we need to be going.”

            “Call me a damned ambulance or something,” Karl groaned from where he lay, still cupping his crotch as he was almost certain he could feel it bleeding. 

            “Is that all?” the man asked, “You’re worrying about your tenders?  Oh for crying out loud. I’d forgotten how big of babies guys can be about their equipment.”

            Without warning the man hunkered down again, and before Karl could protest or even try to move away, the man’s large hand was upon his crotch.  It lasted only a second, but what came next would remain stuck in his memory until the day he died. 

            Karl was about to move, or try to at least scoot away, when the man took his hand away.  He didn’t know what to say or expect, but in the next breath he found himself unable to do anything other than squeak as his mouth opened wide in a horrified O of agony.  It felt like someone had shoved a steel spike into his privates and twisted, the wrenching pain lasting for only a moment but still incapacitating him without fail.

            And in the next instant, it was over.

            His head still ached fiercely, and his neck was a bit stiff from having lain upon the sidewalk at an angle, but as to his crotch, well, it felt normal.  Karl couldn’t think straight as he suddenly sprang to his feet, fully intent on showing the man just what he thought of such treatment.  His palms were abraded slightly as he pushed himself to his feet, but he didn’t care, standing up quickly as he swung one fist at the black man, only to discover that the bastard wasn’t there.

            “If this is how we’re going to start out it’s going to be a long trip.”  The voice of the stranger came from behind him, though Karl could have sworn the man had just been in front of him. How the hell had he moved so fast?  At that moment it almost felt as though he were inside a badly written movie, something where strangers who just showed up helped in the most strange ways and had supernatural abilities that defied any mortal reasoning. It was almost like something his daughters might have read or watched on television.

            “I’d keep those kind of thoughts close to the vest, if you catch my meaning,” the man said as Karl turned around, “Stuff like that can get you twisted faster than you can blink where we’re going.”

            Karl did blink, turning around just as quickly as he stepped away from the stranger.

            “Who the hell are you?” He barely noticed as the man winced.  Instead of answering right away however, the stranger looked around, almost as though he were nervous, which Karl of course did not understand.  Was he running from someone?  Maybe the cops….but no, no that was an essentially racist thought, or at least had the possibility of being one, and Karl didn’t entertain it any further. 

            “Keep that kind of talk down big guy, especially when we cross the river.”

            “What river?” Karl asked, growing more exasperated each second he stood there talking.  A large part of him just wished to keep going, to marvel about how his nether regions no longer ached and what it meant, whether or not he’d met the real life equivalent of John Coffey or not, but his feet wouldn’t move.  He wondered if the character in Stephen King’s stunning novel, The Green Mile, had felt the same way when the big black man had touched him in the certain spot.  Of course, Karl hadn’t been suffering a urinary infection before now, just a painful kick from a very pointed toe. He wondered briefly if either pain would feel the same, and decided quickly that he didn’t want to find out.

            “The river you were heading towards, without knowing it of course.”

            Karl rolled his eyes, “The only river I know of anywhere close to here is the Columbia, and I wasn’t planning on crossing it tonight.”

            The black man gave him a look that suggested he was being quite tiresome, and to be honest Karl didn’t like it, but then, he didn’t like the stranger all that much either right now.  Something about him just didn’t seem natural, and it was more than just the strange healing touch he’d exhibited.  He was grateful in a way, but it wasn’t every day a guy just reached out and grabbed you, unless you batted for that team of course.  No, even gays had to have a sense of propriety, they were human after all, aside from what the cartoons that slammed them might believe.

            “Have you always been this thick? Or is tonight a special night?”

            “What in the hell are you talking about?!”

            “Watch the word man!” the stranger spat, looking around once more as though in fear that something might soon present itself.  Karl was more than a little confused right now, but he didn’t care. He wanted an answer, he wanted to get on his way and leave this crazy black man behind, and he wanted all of that within the next five to ten seconds.  Of course he wasn’t likely to get it, he knew this. Crazy people often took a little longer to get to the point.

            “Just tell me what the-“ the man narrowed his eyes at him, “-heck, is going on here, who you are, and why I shouldn’t just keep walking my happy ass down the road, towards home and company a lot more stable than your own.”  Karl felt his hands clench into fists, and he knew that he would throw down soon if the man didn’t get to talking. The black man looked at Karl’s fists, almost amused it seemed, and then took a deep breath.

            “Fine.  You want to know?  I suppose you’re entitled, it wouldn’t be against the rules to tell you at least something.”

            Karl just frowned, not understanding but at least willing to listen to something approximating an answer.  It was a start at least.

            “My name is Vince, and I’m your guide. As to the river I keep mentioning, as in the one we’ll have to cross to get on to where we’re going, it’s not the Columbia, or the Willamette, or any other river in the vicinity that you might or might not know about.  Those rivers have gone bye-bye my friend.  Well, they’re still there, but the names are going to be different if you’re unlucky enough to be sent that way.”

            Karl kept listening, though he knew that he would regret it.

            “As much as you might think we’re still on Mill Plain, in Vancouver, WA, in the great US of A, and located on the world known as earth, you’re wrong.”

            Karl blinked, “And where are we then?”

            Vince shook his head, rolling his eyes again as he replied, “Welcome to the first step before Hell Karl.  Feel free to throw up before we head out, most people do the first time.”

Part Two: Control

            “Come again?”  Karl felt his eyebrows rise with the question, though he didn’t realize it was happening.  Something the stranger, Vince, had suddenly caused a mass disassociation between his mind and body.  Had he heard right?

            No, surely not.

            “You heard me just fine Karl.  Welcome to Limbo, the last vestige of hope before the final plunge.”

            Karl blinked again, grinning slightly as he cocked his head at Vince, if that was indeed his real name.  “Yeah, right, and I’m the high and mighty prince of evil.  Excuse me.”

            Karl made as though to step around Vince, and the black man didn’t stop him, which was thankful in that second as he kept moving, seeing Mill Plain stretched out in front of him for as far as he could see. The street lamps still burned brightly, the road was still smooth and black, with patches here and there that he could see, and intersection lights turned red, yellow, and green according to the timers they ran on.  There were no cars that he could see, but that wasn’t too strange.

            He got to walking, seeing a cross street coming up not too far away as he tried to gain some distance from Vince, thinking that this had been a rather odd night, or a bad night, or a bad, odd night.  Either way, it was one that he surely wouldn’t remember fondly, despite Vince’s little trick in healing his wounded privates.  His skull still felt like someone had used it as a bongo drum, but that would pass too, he could only hope that he didn’t have a concussion and would find out later on.

            “I wouldn’t walk that way without me if I were you,” Vince said, his footfalls coming closer as Karl sped up just a bit.

            “Yeah, well you’re not me,” Karl bit back, not turning around as he continued forward.  He didn’t want to talk to the man, didn’t want to be in this vicinity any longer, he just wanted to get home.  But Karl could hear Vince following him, and his frustration began to grow.

            “I’m warning you Karl, not threatening you, keep on going towards that road and you’ll be making a mistake.  I need to be with you and you’ll need these.”

            This time Karl did look back, seeing that Vince was almost right behind him, holding out his left hand with two small, shiny discs resting in the gigantic palm that he was presented.  He saw a pair of coins, half dollar coins as a matter of fact.

            Karl didn’t even realize how close he was to the road, though as he heard the sudden revving of an engine he paid closer attention, the seemingly massive headlights of a growling truck bearing down upon him and Vince as he stepped out upon the blacktop.

            “Get back!” Vince yelled, yanking Karl forcefully backward, onto the pavement.  He hit his butt hard as the rumbling truck, an old beat up thing with a lift that was just short of ridiculous, growled its way up to the curb, cutting him off from the street just as it had almost cut him down upon it.  Karl could feel his heartbeat thumping madly away within his chest, his breath coming in short gasps for a moment as he rose slowly, shakily, to his feet, glaring openly at the closed passenger side door of the vehicle.  Finally he found his voice.

            “Hey dickhead!” he said forcefully, stepping up to the vehicle before Vince could reach out to him again, “Watch where you’re going!”  He reflected in that moment that a guy who drove this kind of rig, it was impressive to look on save for its many rust spots, a few dings and dents that marred its otherwise sturdy look, usually was pretty big and mean or wiry and just damned tough.  Karl almost expected to hear the other door slam as the occupant exited the vehicle, fully intent on giving him a pounding for daring to touch his truck.  What happened was a bit different however, and again, something he would not forget.

            “Get back from the truck man, trust me on this one.” Vince’s voice was sincere as the man reached out for him, gaining Karl’s attention as he looked back.  He could see the trepidation upon the black man’s face, even what seemed like a hint of fear within his eyes, but he didn’t understand.  When he looked back he kind of did though.

            The owner of the truck was glaring at him over the side of the passenger door, an image that instantly burned itself into Karl’s mind and had him reeling in the same moment, backing away as he felt the sudden chill from that baleful look.  His eyes widened at the death-like image of the driver, his face almost featureless save for his burning gaze, which was almost completely black he could see.  Karl’s mind, seeking to defend its precious hold on reality, quickly insisted that this was due to the darkness, that the shadows were painting the man’s gaze as something it really wasn’t.  But another part of him, the more rational side, said that yes, he was seeing something that shouldn’t have been possible.

            “Get back man, get back from the truck.”  Vince’s voice had not changed, though the black man had not stepped any closer. As the gaunt figure in the truck continued to glare at Karl, its gaze shifted just barely to Vince, as though in accusation of some sort.  The figure shook its bald head just twice, and then, so quickly that Karl could barely notice, the strange figure was behind the wheel of the truck once again, the engine firing up with an unearthly roar before it sped away without another thought.

            Karl was speechless for several moments, his mouth opening and closing like a landed fish as he stood there, watching the tail lights of the truck recede down the road before they disappeared around a corner.  He came out of his stupor slowly, shaking his head just a bit as he turned to Vince.  This night was getting stranger and stranger, and he’d be damned if he could understand it.  For some reason that thought resonated more than any other.

            Turning to Vince, “What was that?”

            The black man shook his head, as though reluctant to answer for the moment, but Karl would not be ignored or dissuaded. Turning back to the street he made as to cross again, though this time Vince managed to reach for him.

            “Don’t man,” was all he said.

            Karl wasn’t inclined to listen, though as he neared the street again, readying himself to take a single step upon the blacktop, he heard a familiar rumbling noise. Looking to his right, he saw headlights appearing from around the corner, shining brightly against the darkness as though searching for something. Searching for him perhaps?

            “Step back man, I’m serious about this.  The boatman isn’t having it right now.”

            Karl frowned.  “The boatman?  That guy was driving a truck.”

            Vince sighed as he shook his head, “If you try to cross he will run your ass down, and then where will you be?  Matter of fact, where will Tina and Jessie be?”

            Karl’s mind snapped for just a second. What had he just said?  He was on Vince in that second, and the black man didn’t resist as Karl’s hands clenched tightly in his shirt, pulling him close as Karl snarled at him.

            “How do you know my daughters?”

            Again Vince sighed, “I know a lot about you Karl, but right now isn’t the time to go into it.  Like I told you, I’m here for you, to show you the ropes and guide you through, but it won’t happen if you keep acting all brodie like this.”

            Karl didn’t take his hands from Vince’s shirt, though he did frown as Vince seemed not to take offense to the rough treatment, almost as though he was waiting for it to be over, so they could get on their way. What was happening here?

            “If you’re ready to listen Karl, then I suggest we get moving.  If the boatman won’t let us cross as is, then there’s someone we need to go see.  Maybe he can help us.”

            “You’re telling me I can’t cross the street because of that bastard?” he asked, inclining his head towards the area where the truck had appeared. It was empty now, no headlights painted the nightscape in their normally bright colors. 

            “I’m saying that he’ll put you down without giving it a single thought,” Vince said, nodding slightly, “If you keep on the way you are, all that’s going to happen is that you become another fatality in a land where they stack mile high on the hour.  Death is a constant and assured thing here Karl, but to tell the truth it’s kind of pointless since most people who die and end up here just have one place to go, and that’s further down, or right back where they were.”

            “Are you going to make sense eventually?” Karl asked, his hands still wrapped in Vince’s shirt.

            “If you’d dig the wax out of your ears and pay attention you’d find out that I’m making all kinds of sense.  You’re in Hell right now Karl, with a capital “H”, and the sooner you realize that fact, the better.”

            Karl looked around slowly as he took in Vince’s words, frowning still as he saw the familiar sights, the unspoiled streets that, according to what Vince was saying, should have been torn, cracked, covered in hellish flames, featuring cavorting demons and the like.  He saw none of that.

            Looking back to Vince, “So Vancouver is hell, huh?”

            Vince rolled his eyes as though speaking to an irritating youngster, or a thick-headed adult.  “Hell is all around you at all times Karl, some of the movies and stories got it right, but it’s not always the flame-ridden wasteland as it’s been written.  Hell is a personal place, and its ruler is the best at what he does, which as you can imagine is deception and lies.”

            Karl’s eyebrows rose, “You’re talking about the devil.”

            “I do believe he’s catching on,” Vince said, cocking his head to the right as he reached up to grasp Karl’s wrists.  With barely any effort he pried Karl’s hands from his shirt, smoothing it out in the next instant as he continued to stare at Karl.

            “So, we’re in Hell?”

            Vince shook his head, looking both left and right as though seeking the insane truck driver once again.  “We’re only a short distance from it, relatively speaking. But the boatman doesn’t seem to want us to pass.  I guess we’ll have to get something other than his payment to satisfy him.”

            And then it clicked, at least partially.

            “The boatman?” Karl asked, “What’s his name?”

            Vince looked at him oddly, “What does it matter?”

            Karl was tired of this game, but kept his anger in check at the moment.  Too much was happening at this second, his head still hurt like a bitch, but somehow it felt a little better he realized quickly, and he was about to throttle Vince if the man offered up another bit of insanity rather than a straight answer.

            “Just tell me his name.”

            “Charon isn’t a he, but for some reason most people seem comfortable in

assuming that the boatman is a male.”

            “Has to have something to do with the title, I’m sure.” Karl didn’t even bother

trying to hide his sarcasm.  Vince noticed, but he didn’t give a damn.

            “Come on,” was all Vince said as he turned around, heading back in the direction

they’d come from.  Karl watched him walking off for a bit, though he turned his attention

back to the road, wondering if he dared to try it.  He could see no headlights in either

direction, hear no rumbling engine that would denote the arrival of the boatman, Charon,

as Vince had named him.  That name had to be something like a joke, Karl could

remember enough of his lessons from high school about a related subject, but he wasn’t

the type to believe in such things, especially given that this was the twentieth century

they lived in, and not ancient times. Plus, such a legendary figure certainly wouldn’t be

seen driving something as antiquated as an old, beat-up Dodge like he’d seen.

            “Are you coming?” Vince asked, turning around to regard Karl.

            “I already came from that way,” Karl said absently, still eyeing the street,

wondering if he did in fact wish to dare it. He was a pretty fast runner, he could

likely make it across before the truck could run him down.

            “Don’t do it Karl,” Vince said, “The boatman isn’t known for being forgiving.”

            “My home is that way,” Karl said, his voice low and just a bit angry.  He didn’t

understand this feeling though, no matter that it came so easily.

            “Not right now it’s not man,” Vince said, “Where we need to go is back, to find

someone that might be able to help us out.  If he can’t help us, then I’m not sure where

to turn.”

            Karl felt himself turning despite his own wishes, staring at Vince in stupid

wonder as though he couldn’t understand what the man was saying. He heard the words,

knew that Vince was trying to get him to go somewhere, could even understand that the

man was attempting to tell him that they could find help to get across the road, but it still

seemed ridiculous.  It was a road for G-.

            Damn, why couldn’t he think that single thought, or even that word?  Karl

frowned heavily as he looked again to Vince, who was several steps ahead and waiting

impatiently.

            “It’ll get easier to understand soon enough man,” Vince said, “For now just come

on, we need to be moving.  People that stick around here tend to get noticed.”

            Karl felt his feet moving then, but his mind seemed to stay right where it was, as

though it was in severe denial of what he’d already experienced.  Maybe Vince was right,

maybe they should go back.  At the very least he could go back to the bar and be with his

family. The sitter with his girls would be there all night if she had to, she lived only a few

blocks down the road from him after all.  And plus, moving seemed like a good idea.  He

just couldn’t for the life of him think as to why.

Turning Your Back on the BS

politics work together Memes & GIFs - Imgflip

Has anyone given any thought to what might be happening if those running the country, who work for the people that elected them (just in case they forgot), actually focused on a vaccine for the current pandemic rather than tearing at each other to gain more supporters? Just imagine all that effort, money, and influence going into a solution rather than a giant game in which the future of the nation is the prize. Now imagine that people were capable of coming together to keep the nation moving forward rather than living in fear of what might happen.

It’s amazing really, and it’s not quite as unreal as people might think.

Santa’s Revelation

Hipster-santa Royalty Free Vector Image - VectorStock

Most people don’t know why the first Santa Claus really moved to the North Pole, and to be honest, I’m not sure many of them care.  It’s all about gifts, all about so many different things any longer. Really, this holiday has kind of gotten out of control in my opinion.  I’m not a miser, I’m not a Scrooge or anything like that, but when I see the belief that still exists in people, and the disbelief that stains other’s thoughts, I have to wonder sometimes if anyone really gets it any longer.

            I’m not the first Santa to ever take on this position, after all the guys before me were just as fallible, they all had their shortcomings just like I do.  One Santa, as I’ve heard, had a red nose for a different reason than just being jolly, but I won’t go into that.  If a kid reads this and hears someone badmouthing Santa Claus then who knows what could happen?  I’ll just leave it at this, he did his job no matter that he wasn’t the jolliest Santa to ever wear the coat.  Others were flawed in their own ways, but like everyone before them, they got the job done as well.  Me, well, I’m hoping that my term will go at least marginally as well.  So far it’s not looking all that good.

            Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a great position, possibly one of the best in the world!  I get to supervise the making of toys that are both wholesome and educational, I get to take three months off after the season, and even better, my position is rent free!  There’s no costs here at the North Pole, even our electricity is taken from a source that no power company could possibly detect.  I know, I know, magic is a thing best left to fantasy tales and stories for little kids and the hopelessly nerdy, but it’s real.

            I mean take this, how do you think I possibly get all the way around the world in one night?  There’re armies of physicists and scientists who would argue that it can’t be done, that one person couldn’t possibly make it from Rochester, New York, to Los Angeles, California, in less than two days, let alone one night! But magic is something greater than any science fiction tale, it’s what makes all of what I do and what I am possible.  It binds this entire place, and the power that makes Santa Claus, so that the whole shebang can exist.  But like everything else, it’s fallible.

            It sounds ridiculous to say something like magic has a failing, but it’s true.  Even though it can do everything imaginable, it still has limits. For instance, it couldn’t stop people from realizing that the North Pole wasn’t just a frozen wasteland at the top of the world. Curiosity seems like a greater magic at times than anything that exists here, especially since it can come in just as many forms.  To be honest I’ve found myself wondering if that’s a human trait, or just something that every living creature has within them when they’re born.

            You know the elves that are so famed for being Santa’s helpers? They exist, in fact they’ve been on this world for longer than mankind truthfully as I’ve found out.  They came up for the same reason I did eventually, the seclusion.  Up here there’s little to no way that people can survive without a lot of aid and a lot of ingenuity, which, unfortunately some humans have in spades.  The elves came from the world you all know about, they used to call it their home just like you do.  But like happens with all beings when they’re different and in the minority, eventually the blank spaces of the map they could go to and call their own were taken over.  They lived in peace for a long, long time before mankind came around, living up to the legends that our kind has about them. But like with so many things in the world, those who can take over usually do.

            They came up to the North Pole as a last resort, taking their magic with them and finding a new home among the frozen wasteland, making it into their own.  And even more than that, they did it without anyone knowing, till now at least.  I’d actually like to take the blame for that, but they won’t let me.  It’s not my fault they say, sooner or later people were bound to get curious, they were bound to start searching the unseen corners of the map and wonder just what was under all that ice.  And wouldn’t you know it, they found out.

            Humans aren’t content to leave well enough alone. They, or I should say we, since I’m still one of the race after all, like to believe that we can take things on faith, but in reality we have that burning need to know what’s going on in our world.  We have to know how it works, or it doesn’t make sense.  And what doesn’t make sense normally is an oddity.  If it can be measured, we sure as all by golly try, but if it can’t then it’s too often deemed as something we can’t have around us. 

            When we’re kids, a lot of us are taught to believe in Santa Claus, we believe in the magic, we know it can do things that the world won’t let others do.  But then we grow up, and we stop believing because of life experience, because of too many disappointments, times in our lives when we question everything we once believed in so easily.  Sadly some kids have that taken away from them at an early age, no matter how wrong it is.  And what happens then?  A little piece of the overall magic dies, and the legends we were raised with start to die off.

            As long as someone believes, they’re still able to survive. And the elves?  They’re part of this world, no matter that people don’t believe in them.  But me?  If kids stop believing, if the adults give in to their own selfish thoughts, I’m history.  The magic of being Santa Claus is a great thing, it’s like knowing that you can do anything, even if it’s just bringing a smile to a kid’s face because you’ve affirmed that they can find something to believe in.  That alone makes my day.

            But lately, it’s gotten harder.

            Christmas, as you know, was begun without Santa Claus. It’s scandalous to think of this holiday without jolly old Saint Nick, but it’s true.  If you read the bible and cling to Christianity, then you’ll know this holiday has more to do with baby Jesus than it does with me. Hey, I’m humble enough to admit this, I’m not the progenitor of Christmas after all, I’m just the guy who gets to promote it over and over every year.  If you want the truth my title is only measured in centuries, while baby Jesus, his birthday, you know, this holiday and all, has been celebrated for millennia now. 

            The magic of Saint Nicholas, the man who was the origin of Santa Claus, was purely the magic of belief, one of the most intangible sources possible.  He was so loved and revered that in his time spent on this world he managed to become the basis for a tradition that has to this day been kept and upheld. But I sometimes wonder what he’d think if he knew what had become of his name.  The magic of the elves plays a large role in this of course, without their inherent abilities and talents the role of Santa Claus might have remained rooted in belief and faith more than actual magic.  Those little dears, I love every one of them really, are a godsend sometimes.  I mean it, you try and make all those toys and figure out a way to get them delivered!  FedEx and UPS might be prompt and professional, but even they would have a hard time with my job!

            But enough rambling, let me get to the heart of the matter since I’m sure you don’t want to hear me go on and on about the pressures of keeping so many children happy.  The truth is, I’m getting old, and even the magic can’t help that.  It’s a human condition, one that every Santa Claus has had to deal with, and one that, in all honesty, I still find appealing. We aren’t meant to stay here forever, even the elves will expire after a while, though of course their lives are measured in centuries and not decades like us.  I can’t even imagine what it would be like to live for almost a thousand years before fading off to your final resting place.  Brrr, that gives me the chills just thinking about it.  Anyway, once again I’ll cut to the chase, I’m getting up in years, I have no children, though it’s not for lack of my wife and I trying, ho ho and stuff.

            Someone needs to take my place, and to be honest, I can think of no one in this world of the North Pole or back in the real world that humans like to find themselves grounded in that can fit the bill.  That’s why I’m writing this, in hopes that someone will find it and believe.  That’s all it takes you know, the belief that there is a North Pole, and not just an icy, barren wasteland, but a real place where joy and fun are still very much alive.  An elf can’t be Santa Claus as I’ve learned over the years, or my bases would have been covered already.  Their magic allows this place to continue, and it keeps me here until I find a replacement, but I feel like my time is already getting short.  Mrs. Claus, bless and keep her, knows this too, but she’s being brave for both of us, always reminding me to keep my eye on what’s needed to get the holiday underway and this and that.  She’s lovely, in fact she’s my greatest inspiration, and sometimes I’ve wondered if it’s me that’s prevented us from having children.  Ah well though, that’s a lot of spilled milk, and around here that’s nothing to take lightly!

            Back to my proposition, if you want to call it that.  I need someone to be Santa, to take over the reins of my sleigh so to speak, and reader, if you believe, I’d like this to be you. It’s a great job, as long as you don’t mind working about nine months out of the year, can relocate with some ease at least, and don’t mind the fact that you will have to abide by certain rules.  Of course you have to get married, of course you have to possess exceptional organizational skills and be a team player, but a lot of them comes with experience.  So if this reaches the right person, and I hope it does since I’m making so many copies, I tell you that ten cents per copy adds up after awhile, then I really do hope that someone will take me up on the offer.  If not, just think of what might happen to the holiday, and how many kids all over the world will be disappointed.  If that doesn’t jerk a tear from your eye,  then crumple this up and keep moving.  But if you do believe in magic, and want a chance to be something great, then by all means, come step into my workshop.

            Oh, and one last thing, you have to like animals, reindeer in particular.

Dreams of Fire

Image result for fire maiden | Feuer bilder, Bilder, Feuer

Monday, September 9th, 2002

            Everything burned, crisping to ash at the merest touch, blackening and curling under the intense heat that was generated so freely and so easily.  Everywhere there was fire, flames dancing in all hues as she could see little more than heat and destruction.  The world was a scintillating ball of flame, a globe of little more than absolute, delectable, churning death that rose and fell to the whim of only one.  She was that one.

            From the tips of her toes to the flowing strands of flame red hair that haloed her features the young woman could feel the power of the flames as they surged throughout her body, energizing her in such a way that she could adequately describe.  There was pure power here, with the capacity to scour away all iniquities and destroy what did not belong.  She was the fire goddess of so many legends, the absolute queen of the flame that could withstand all and destroy at whim.  There was nothing that could stop her if she did not wish it to be so.  Yet even as the thought crossed her mind she sensed a darkness, a shadow on the edge of her vision that should not have been.  The young woman glared at this shadow, wondering how or why such a thing would dare to challenge her, her, the one woman in all creation who could lay waste to the world if she wished.  Who was this shadow to stand in challenge of her?

            Turning to face the shadow she glared in absolute rage at the dark blot upon her field of vision, feeling as the fire sought to consume her from within, the only saving grace she possessed being the iron control that she exerted over it.  It was hers to command, not anyone else’s.  This power was for her and her alone, no one deserved to bask in the glorious appearance that was the goddess of the flame, the uncontested divinity of fire that she represented.  No one could dare to challenge her, and none would be given such an opportunity.  

            Even as she turned to punish this intruder however something happened that she had not anticipated, something that stopped her cold in her tracks.  She wasn’t allowed to take even a single step towards the unwanted presence as her lungs were suddenly seized in a powerful, wracking spasm.  She could feel as the organs tightened painfully, expelling every last breath as the flames around her person began to wane and gutter away.  The shadow did not move, its muscular form standing amidst the darkness within this scope of her vision, surrounded by desolation she could not recognize nor understand.  The shade was a man, that much could be discerned from its shape, the powerful shoulders and muscular body that sent an unknown thrill through her body that she could not control.

            Fear touched upon the fringes of her heart and mind, alighting with tender, questing fingers that sought to sink deeper into her conscious mind.  She fought against the need to quake before this shadow, reminding herself again and again that she was the fire goddess, she was the power within this domain and none other.  She would not be forced away or intimidated by a shadow.  As she jutted her chin out defiantly she could feel as the flames around her person grew in strength, climbing higher once more as she could easily exult in the power that flowed so easily through her veins.

            For some reason her heart grew heavy in that next moment as she looked upon the shadow again, sinking to the depths as the figure seemed to look at her with little more than malice in its, or his, gaze.  Why would she feel sorry for such a being? 

            Please, please don’t make me do this.  She frowned suddenly as she could hear her own voice, though she hadn’t felt her lips move a single bit.  What had she just said?  The voice was hers, she’d spoken, yet she could not understand why.  There was no response from the shade, but in that moment she could feel a wave of unrelenting power that washed over her, a feeling unlike anything she could ever recall in her life.  It seemed somehow familiar, yet she knew very well that never in her young life had she felt something like this. 

            Please Tyler, don’t do this, I’m begging you.  She didn’t beg!  Even outside of her dreams she didn’t beg!  Who was this stranger she’d turned into?  And who the hell was Tyler?  She didn’t know anyone named Tyler, never had. 

            Please.

            Shaking her head she attempted to get the voice to stop.  It was her voice, there was no denying it, but she would be damned if she would beg anyone to stop anything. 

            Please.

            No, no she wouldn’t beg again, she couldn’t even stand the thought of it, she wouldn’t, no she wouldn’t, this had to stop now.

            Please

            “-wake up and pay attention Ms. Garrison.”  Jayden came awake to the sound of a heavy book, a sociology book she could see, slamming down on the desk just in front of her folded arms.  The sound of hushed giggling and laughter could be heard behind and to the sides of her as Jayden opened her eyes wide, leaning back against the plastic backrest of the combination desk and chair she was in.  The metal legs of the seat screeched just a bit as the force of her quick movement shifted the desk across the tile floor. 

            “Now that I have your attention Ms. Garrison, perhaps you can tell the class the importance of what we’ve been discussing for the past half hour.”  Jayden rubbed her eyes briefly before looking up at her teacher, a thin, gray-haired man named Mr. Hickman.  Widening her eyes to wake herself a bit more she stretched a little before answering, leaning forward as she splayed her fingers outward.

            “Um, something boring?”  Jayden grinned wanly as Mr. Hickman gave her his patented “Oh really?” look, his mouth hanging open slightly as he widened his eyes just enough to make her feel rather foolish.  The look never failed when Mr. Hickman used it, in fact some kids had even been heard to claim that the look was far better than being sent to the principal’s office. 

            “It must have been extremely boring if you couldn’t manage to keep your eyes open young woman.  Tell you what, if you need to feel a little more stimulated, how about you teach the class for awhile?  I’m sure the experience will keep you busy enough to stay awake.”

            “No, I think you do just fine Mr. Hickman.”

            “Is that why you were asleep?”  Jayden almost rolled her eyes as he asked this, thinking that it would be nice if just for one day she could go without getting into a verbal sparring match with Mr. Hickman. The CWP teacher was a nice man, in fact he was the type of teacher who would help out his students no matter when they asked.  He’d been known to stay after school when he was ready to leave when a student had presented a question with their assignment that just couldn’t wait.  In fact he had gone to great lengths for more than a few of his students in the past and was known just as well for his generosity as he was for his acerbic wit.  In Jayden’s opinion the man was an ass, but he was also one of the best teachers Woodland High School could have asked for.

            “I’m sorry Mr. Hickman, it won’t happen again.”

            Mr. Hickman raised a single eyebrow as he went back to the dry erase board, holding in his right hand the black marker he’d been using to jot down notes that the class would copy down onto their notebooks.  “You said that yesterday too Ms. Garrison, perhaps this time you’ll mean it.   Getting back to the lesson now…”  Jayden stuck her tongue out briefly at Mr. Hickman as he turned around.  “See me after class Jayden.”  Her eyes widened as he spoke, causing another round of giggles and hushed laughter as he continued to write.

                                                *                      *                      *

            “Out of all my students this year you’re the only one that seems to find the need to push my patience time and again Jayden. Why is that?”  Jayden slouched in the single chair that sat on the other side of Mr. Hickman’s school-issued metal desk, her gaze focused on the door that led into and out of the classroom.  This wasn’t the first time she’d been called on to stay after class, she and Mr. Hickman had had more than a few conversations such as this.  In fact she’d had this conversation with Mr. Hesh, Mrs. Oakes and Mr. Holland as well.  Each one of the teachers had talked to her before the inevitable call that had gone out to her parents, asking why she felt the need to challenge everyone that sought to teach and help her along. 

            Jayden wasn’t a bad student, in fact she pulled mostly A’s and B’s in all her classes.  It was her attitude that was in question more often than not.  Like the fiery locks that grew from her scalp her temper burned brightly enough to cast her into a steaming cauldron of trouble more often than not.  She was at most times even tempered, but it took so little for her to explode that at times it was only a word or even a gesture that caused her to become the smartass that everyone in the school knew her as.  Many times this quirk was harmless, it was even funny and enjoyable to those around her.  It was when it impeded the class and her own learning that her teachers had found fault with it.

            “I don’t know Mr. Hickman, it’s a part of who I am I guess.”  Mr. Hickman leaned back in his faux leather office chair as he sighed lightly.  There was no doubt that he enjoyed having her in his class, but as Jayden shrugged in response to his question he couldn’t help but feel that he was doing something wrong with this girl.  Russ Hickman had been a teacher for nearly two decades at this point and had yet to find a student in all that time that had challenged him as Jayden did.  He’d had many a redhead in his class, hell at one time he’d had a class that consisted of nearly six individuals that had been sent to juvenile hall a time or two before they’d hit high school.  But with Jayden it was different.  It was almost as if the girl was proud of the fact that she could cause such turmoil.

            Jayden wasn’t a bad kid, in fact she had plenty of friends, enjoyed school so much it was obvious and had respect at most times for everyone and herself.  But something within her young mind seemed to think it was okay to challenge her superiors time and again, as though she needed to constantly test her limits, to see just how far she could go before it was too much.  Russ couldn’t help but think that when the proverbial crap hit the fan that Jayden would somehow feel vindicated, that she had taken the measure of those she challenged.  And then there would be no stopping her.  It was an odd and even disquieting thought to have, but he couldn’t abolish it from his mind. 

            “You know I wouldn’t have a problem at all if you were this way after class.  It’s when you disrupt the rest of the class though that we I have an issue.”

            “You still managed to get the lesson through.  We all copied the notes and got the information.”

            “Getting the information isn’t enough Jayden.  Why do you think you do so good on your tests?”  Russ had taken this tact before, but he was hoping, as he always did, that Jayden would respond in a different manner.

            “Because I study and work my ass off to get the information down.  Isn’t that what school’s about Mr. Hickman?  Aren’t we just supposed to do as we’re told and make sure that we get the work that’s assigned done?”

            Russ sighed as he lowered his head, this was not the answer he’d been hoping for.  “I swear you kids get more cynical with each passing year.  That’s not what I was getting at Jayden.”

            “Then what?”  Jayden sat forward as she fixed Russ with a level stare that he had seen a time or two, it meant she was getting frustrated.  He could have sworn that her hair grew just a bit redder when this happened, as though the term “fire-hair” was more than just a way to classify the reddish cast of her long locks. 

            “I don’t know what you want to say Mr. Hickman.  I work my ass off in each class, I do what I’m told and when I pop off just a little it’s like the world ends and I’m the person who hit the button.”  Russ couldn’t help but smile at this analogy as he leaned forward, placing his hands upon his desk as he shuffled his many papers around a bit.

            “You have a lot of potential Jayden, that’s why your teachers, and myself, are so hard on you.  It’s painful to watch that kind of potential just fade away after school is over, and that’s what a few of us think might happen to you once you leave this place.  Your study habits are well developed and are a boon to your potential, but your attitude is what will eventually drag you down.  I know you don’t want to hear this, but you’re going to have to change that if you expect to survive outside of high school.” 

            Jayden was frowning as she always did when it came time to tell her of how she had to change.  No one liked being told what they had to do, especially when it concerned who they were as a person, but Jayden simply didn’t like to hear such a thing coming from someone who was supposed to give at least somewhat of a damn about her.  Russ did indeed care about Jayden just as he cared about all of his students, but unlike a great many of them this young woman seemed to have an air about her that bespoke something great in her future.  She didn’t come off as just another teenager that would be set through the paces of high school and later on adopt the same attitude about life.  She was meant to do something, to be somebody great, it was something he’d learned to see in his students, especially when it happened so rarely. 

            Every student was special, every student deserved the chance to learn and make something of themselves, but it was only a select few that seemed to have a path set out for them.  It wasn’t a thing that was lightly given and could not be taken for granted without losing it, but Russ felt that Jayden had the grit and determination to follow any path she was placed upon, if only she would curb her attitude. At the age of forty-five he’d already seen enough of the world to know that it didn’t care a bit for those who couldn’t conform it to their whims or vice versa.  He’d worked his ass off to make sure that he could do what he wanted and that his family could have all that they wanted.  His oldest, Jason, was now attending Oregon State University and would graduate in three years, while his youngest, Ali, was currently a sophomore in this very high school.  Jayden and Ali were extremely good friends and as such Russ couldn’t help at times but feel as though his own biases towards Jayden might compromise his role as her teacher.  He’d expressed this very concern to the principal, a kind and very tall man named Alden Pass. 

            Alden had been understanding of Russ’s concerns, but had told him in no uncertain terms that he couldn’t exclude a single student from his class just because he felt a stronger connection to her than he did the others.  Russ had had his son and daughter in his classes, in fact Ali was in Jayden’s class, and yet he had never once expressed a need to have someone else step in.  He loved his kids without restraint and he admired Jayden’s spark at times, but the young woman knew very well how to push the buttons of each teacher that had expressed concerns about her attitude.  In no uncertain terms Alden had told Russ that if he wanted to reach Jayden he would have to treat her as he treated his own children, but talking sincerely and honestly with her.

            “So you’re telling me the problem is me.”  Jayden said in a low voice. Russ knew that the young woman was on the verge of walking out, he could see it in her eyes and in the way she leaned forward.  He didn’t want her to walk out just then, but he wouldn’t stop her if she decided to. 

            “Yes, to be honest.”  Jayden chewed at her lower lip as she did when she was about to get mad, her green eyes flashing just a bit as she began to shake her head.  Russ waited patiently, knowing that no amount of planning or preparing could stem the flow of anger she would unload if she so chose.  He’d weathered the storm of Jayden’s anger before and had come away a bit saddened but still confident that he had reached her somehow. 

            “I can’t believe a teacher would say that to a student.”  Jayden said, not meeting his eyes.

            “You’re one of my best students Jayden, but you’re also without a doubt one of the most stubborn.  You and Ali have been friends since the two of you could toddle, I think of you as more than a student outside these halls, but in here I have to be your teacher first and your friend second.”  Russ took a breath as he then continued, “I care about you a great deal young lady, enough to tell you the truth, as hard as it might be to hear.  You need to curb this little rebellious streak just enough to realize what it means to have self-restraint.  You’re a bright girl Jayden and a promising student, I really don’t want to see you do nothing after school.”   

            “I’m going off to college Mr. Hickman, I wouldn’t call that “nothing”.”  Jayden crossed her arms over her chest as she stared defiantly at her teacher, growing just a bit more impatient as she cast her eyes to the clock.  As the last period of the day this was the time when she would normally be gearing up for volleyball practice, but thanks to her current situation she was instead languishing in a classroom.  She hoped that her coach, Mrs. Nelson, would be at least a bit understanding of why she was late. 

            “I know Jayden, and I’m glad that you have direction.  But do you have purpose yet?”  The question threw her off for just a moment as Jayden attempted to answer that of course she did.  How could a person have direction without having purpose?  Unfortunately she couldn’t think of a good enough answer to fire back at that moment. 

            “I didn’t think so.”  Mr. Hickman smiled warmly at her as he leaned over his desk to look at the clock that had been set above the door.  The contraption was the same standard time piece that seemed to be bought in mass quantities for each school across the country, a broad white face with the numbers one through twelve set around its inner edge.  It was a good enough device for the utilitarian use it received, but at times he’d wondered if perhaps he could request something with a little more pizzazz or at least style.

            “You’re late for volleyball practice Jayden, best get going now.”  Russ’s voice was calm as he turned his gaze back to his student, his smile still pleasant as Jayden quickly retrieved her books and cell phone, putting the small device in her right hip pocket as she rose.  Russ allowed phones in his classroom so long as they were either muted or shut off.  He did not allow calls to be taken in class, such an offense earned a quick trip to the principal’s office and the confiscation of the phone for at least the remainder of the day.  If it were up to Russ he would keep the damned phones and ship them back to the manufacturer with a giant note reading DEFECTIVE.  He wasn’t the greatest fan of cell phones.

            “Mrs. Nelson is going to chew me out for being late.  Can I blame it on you?”  Jayden asked this with a small grin, a gesture that didn’t reach her eyes as Russ couldn’t help but smile.

            “No she won’t.  I already sent a note to her saying you’d be late.  Thankfully Mrs. Nelson reads her email on a regular basis.  She’ll understand.”  Jayden stopped at that moment as she was heading to the door, her jaw hanging open just a bit.

            “Oh, thank you.”  Russ waved as she exited the classroom, sighing to himself after she was gone. 

                                                *                      *                      *

            “Come on ladies hustle, hustle, hustle!  Let’s go, let’s go now move those arms!”  Jayden had forgotten just how much she hated the first month of volleyball practice. She loved the sport so long as she was allowed to bump, spike, set and move around the court as she knew how to do, but running monkey miles, running laps around the track and running stairs was not enjoyable. 

            “Go Jayden!”  Her best friend, Ali Hickman, was one of the best players on the team and her constant supporter.  The volleyball team was a close-knit bunch and did most everything together no matter if they were in season or not, remaining close friends at all times.  It was this factor that allowed Jayden to pull through the physical conditioning that Mrs. Nelson had put each of her teams through. There was a reason that the Woodland volleyball team always managed to make their way to the state championships, and it wasn’t just because they knew how to play the game.  Next to such teams as Ilwaco, Fort Vancouver and Mckinley High they were a close second, but they were able to outmatch most teams in the state of Washington every single year thanks to their superb physical fitness regimens and the dedication they brought to their training. 

            As Jayden moved from the back of the line up to the front she grinned as the leader of the pack, a senior named Lori Nickell, sped up just a bit.  The senior grinned sarcastically as she cast a look back at Jayden, raising her eyebrows as though daring the younger woman to keep up.  Jayden poured on the speed as the rest of the procession adjusted their speed to Lori’s, attempting to overtake the older girl as was the point of the exercise.  The monkey mile was designed not only to condition but to teach teamwork as well, honing the physical and mental attributes of the athletes as it taught them to rely on one another and to adjust to each person’s individual needs. 

            The training method was simple; a line of perhaps six or seven athletes would start at one end of the football field near the goalpost.  It would then be up to the leader of the pack to set the first pace as they jogged to the opposite end of the field, where they would then make their way around the other goal post.  At this point the athlete in the rear of the line would speed up, seeking to take the place at the head of the line where they would then be responsible for regulating the pace.  It was an exceedingly simple training method, yet it often favored those who had run Cross Country or Track and Field since such individuals were known for being able to set nearly any pace.

            “Having troubles Jayden?”  Lori asked, her voice sounding husky as she slowed just a bit.

            Jayden shook her head as she sped up a bit more, “Just didn’t want to make you look bad is all.”  Lori gave her a mock glare as Jayden easily pulled up ahead of her, shaking her head at the younger girl’s cocky attitude.  Being friends made such insults easy to weather, but every now and then Lori had expressed her desire to smack Jayden a good one.  Such a thing would never happen during practice and would probably never happen anywhere else.  The girls excelled at giving one another a hard time, but rarely were there any hard feelings.

            “You’d better step up the pace then sophie!” Lori exclaimed, rushing forward as the others behind her groaned just a bit.  Jayden laughed as she managed to keep away from Lori easily enough, reaching the midway point of the field as they passed by their coach.

            “Enough horsing around ladies!  Set the pace and follow it!”  Jayden couldn’t help but roll her eyes as she and Lori both fell back into their normal pace, breathing a bit heavier thanks to their added exertions. 

                                                *                      *                      *

            Water hardly ever seemed to cool her off, no matter how cold it was.  Standing in the cool, refreshing spray that was pushed so forcefully through the silver nozzle Jayden felt as the liquid stabbed against her body with the pressure that was used to cleanse those who so desperately needed it.  She’d heard rumors that the boys’ shower room was far gentler despite smelling much worse.  The guys always seemed to think that the rumors of the women’s locker room smelling like perfume and other pleasing odors were true.  They also seemed to think that women, unlike men, could walk around one another completely naked or with nothing more than a bra and panties or a towel on.  She grinned as the water continued to pelt her relentlessly, doing almost nothing to cool her body as the natural warmth that radiated from her being kept her from growing chill. 

            Closing her eyes she stood under the spray, feeling as it moved from her chest to face, where it beat upon her brow with just as much force, running quickly down her features and her body as the spray went off to either side.  A shower always felt good after practice, the sweat and grime that collected was often too much for her to bear on the short ride home.  Jayden wasn’t a clean freak, but she didn’t like being dirty for an extended period of time unless there was no other choice. 

            “Hey Jayden don’t take too long, I want to get home so I can help my mom with dinner.”  Lori’s voice reached her through the pounding of the shower as Jayden called out that she’d be done in a minute.  The girls locker room was designed to give privacy within the showers, offering several open-ended stalls that extended off the main locker room area.  To the other side of the expansive room were the offices held by the coaches and gym instructors, well out of view of the showers.  Steam rose quickly in the shower area and had already clouded up much of the room, making it quite warm. 

            Jayden.  Spitting out a small jet of water Jayden turned her head to the end of the stall, shaking her head as she spoke, “I’ll be out in a sec Lori, don’t get your panties in a twist.”  Turning back to the shower she lowered her head so that the stream would catch her atop the head, running down into her long red tresses as she leaned against the wall with both hands. 

            Jayden.  Turning again Jayden was about to call out to Lori once more when she suddenly realized that the voice did not belong to her friend.  Frowning she stepped away from the wall, wiping the excess water from her face as she leaned out just enough to see past the wall of the stall she was in.  Spitting out water she peered first towards the open end of the shower room, where it connected with the locker room beyond.  She could see no one standing in that space, in fact she couldn’t see much of the room beyond thanks to the steam.  Turning in the other direction she could just barely make out the cream-colored tiles of the wall.  There was no one there either.

            Turning back to the shower she reached for the bar of soap that rested in its place within the soap tray, seeking to pick it up so she could clean herself and get moving.  Even as her hand came close to the bar of soap however she frowned at what she saw.  Her hand was only a few inches from the smooth green bar, but as she watched Jayden could see the bar slowly dwindling in size, its once smooth surface rippling as it began to dry despite the moisture that continued to pound down upon her body.  Jayden swallowed hard as the bar finally cracked under the strange heat that had assailed it, splitting almost in two.  Stepping away quickly she blinked several times, hoping that this was nothing more than a trick of her mind, some sort of hypnosis that she had somehow put upon herself.  Her rational mind said that was ridiculous, but she knew what she was seeing and it couldn’t possibly be real.

            Remnant.  The voice came again, much more forceful this time as Jayden could feel it within the back of her mind, a tingle that she couldn’t explain or enjoy.  Closing her eyes Jayden shook her head forcefully, pressing her lips together as she did. 

            You have a destiny, something greater.  That almost sounded like Mr. Hickman’s voice, but he couldn’t be in here.  Not only was it not allowed for a man to be in the girls locker room, but Hickman would never dare.  Jayden had known him for most of her life and knew him well enough to assure herself that Russ would never dare peep on her or any other girl for that matter.  

            “Hello?”  she called, blinking as she tried to see through the steam that somehow still clouded her vision.  Jayden realized at that moment that she could no longer see past the steam clouds that billowed within the opening.  It was as though the shower room had been curtained off by the diaphanous cloud. 

            Remnant of the Elemental, your title and life.  Jayden wiped her face free of the water once more as she reached forward to shut the water off with one hand, twisting the single knob that controlled the water pressure and temperature.  Her eyes widened though as she twisted the knob to the full OFF position and nothing happened.  The jet of water still cut through the air towards her, striking the floor as she backed away, frowning in confusion.  Jayden felt her heart begin to pound just a bit as she felt a whisper of steam caress her back and hamstrings, caressing her naked skin just barely as she whirled around.  It had felt as though someone had touched her, but as she looked from side to side once more she could still see no one.  Her breathing had become a bit heavier as she swallowed hard again, not sure of what was going on but damned sure that she didn’t want to be in the shower room any longer. 

            The tiles of the back wall were barely visible as she looked in that direction, turning towards the other way to begin walking to the locker room area where her towel was hanging on the wall just outside the shower area.  As she turned in that direction she took only a step before she noticed a dark shadow standing in the entrance, directly in the center where she would be effectively blocked from any easy passage. 

            “L-Lori?  Is that you?”  Jayden’s voice was weak as she looked at the dark figure, realizing quickly that the shoulders, the height and the build were nothing like her older friend.  Lori was a tall and muscular girl, but she wasn’t built like man, like this figure.  Something about the way the man stood reminded Jayden oddly of her dream in Mr. Hickman’s class, the powerful way the figure was towering striking in her a sense of dread as well as defiance that warred with one another as she stood there, naked save for the steam that continued to roil throughout the shower area. 

            “Who are you?  You’re not supposed to be down here.  There aren’t, um, there aren’t supposed to be any boys down here.”  The figure didn’t move, but neither did he retreat as the shadows upon his person were just barely enough to conceal his identity.  There was no young man stupid enough to trespass in the girls locker room, the punishment would be severe enough to deter anyone no matter how adventurous or rebellious they were.  So who the hell was this? 

            “If you don’t get out of here now I’m going to call the coach and she’ll call the cops.”  Jayden’s threat sounded as hollow as it felt, its dire implications not even seeming to faze the stranger.  She could see little of the figure, but Jayden could quickly note that he was blonde, easily over six feet tall and looked powerful enough to easily overcome any resistance she could give.  That fact alone pissed her off, which only made her mouth work that much better.

            “Or maybe I’ll just kick your nuts up to your chin if you don’t clear out now.”  The figure still didn’t move as she threatened to savage his manhood.  What kind of freak was this guy?  Jayden was so focused on her rapidly beating heart that she almost didn’t notice the fact that she was growing incredibly warm, that her body had almost dried itself as the heat began to radiate from her.  Not a single drop of water reached her skin as the rest quickly dried away, leaving her standing completely naked within the steam, her skin growing just a bit red as she looked from her own body to the stranger, narrowing her eyes in anger as she set her jaw.

            Daughter of the Light, product of the Dark, you have much to learn.  Jayden wanted to shout at the figure to shut up, but in that moment six more figures joined the one, or rather they stepped from six of the stalls that lay between her and the shadowy figure, their presences seeming to part the mists in front of them as they stood close to one another. 

            The six newcomers were all women and each one of them were fully clothed, or armored in the case of one.  Clad in gleaming plates of armor the short-haired woman had the stance of one who is both proud and sure of herself, her spine ramrod-straight as she stood beside the others.  Three of them were dressed in more casual garb, but the other two were dressed in a midnight-blue robe and a low cut, elegant-looking dress with long, graceful sleeves.  The hairstyles ranged from a ponytail for the three normally dressed women to a bun for the robed one and curled ringlets for the one in the dress.  Jayden noticed all this detail in seconds, but it took her several moments longer to realize one crucial thing.  Despite all the different hairstyles and clothing, the women all looked alike. 

            She tensed even more as she realized that the women were just as dry as she was, their clothing and hair not suffering even a mild dampness that would come from the steam all around them.  Jayden retreated several steps as the women advanced, their identical faces with their strange, glowing white eyes and platinum hair seeming rather speculative, not to mention unfriendly. 

            “Who are you?  Coach Nelson!  Coach Nelson help!”  Jayden shouted as loud as she could, but with the certainty granted to all daydreams and nightmares she was rewarded with nothing, not even the hurried sound of running feet that would announce the welcome aid of her coach.  What in the hell was going on?

            Calm yourself Remnant.  You will not be harmed this day. 

            “Why do you keep calling me that?  Who are you people?” She looked past the six women at the male figure, her jaw dropping further as she noticed his eyes.  They were black pits within his face, liquid pools of something so black that the shadows seemed pale in comparison.  As she watched her breath hitched suddenly as she noted the thin ribbons of what looked like silver threading their way through his eyes, leaking slightly from the corners as he kept absolutely still, not speaking a word.

            You are a Remnant of the old world, a being that was old when your kind was still in its infancy. 

            Jayden narrowed her eyes as she continued to look uneasily at the male figure, not trusting that he wouldn’t suddenly surge forward, intent on doing her harm.  Why wasn’t anyone coming running?  Hadn’t anyone heard her shout out for help?  Jayden tried to tell herself that this was a dream, it was only a daydream, she was still standing under the shower as she waited to feel clean.  Yes, that was it, she was still showering, ridding herself of the accumulated filth of the day.  At any moment she would wake up and realize that Lori was waiting on her, then everything would be okay.

            A loud and very dangerous sounding crack suddenly came from behind her as Jayden whirled around, her eyes going to the wall that was now revealed to her in all its smooth lines and roughly caulked edges.  Her jaw shut with an audible snap as Jayden saw a massive crack running from the floor of the showers to the ceiling, its dark appearance nearly an inch wide as many smaller cracks radiated out from the main stem.  As she continued to watch the wall shuddered as the smaller cracks widened and raced outward, seeking to sunder the wall even further as bits and pieces of tile and dried caulking clattered to the floor, sounding like falling bricks in the confines of the shower room. 

            “What the hell was that?!” she yelled back at the women.  Their strangeness had worn off suddenly as she whirled back to the wall, feeling horribly exposed as she stood naked in the midst of the shower room.  The wall shuddered violently again as something hit it from behind, furthering the cracks as they now spread almost from one side to another.

            It is an enemy most dire and most ancient.  It hunts the Remnants, that it may feed the fires within its dark soul. 

            “What?!”  Nothing was making sense, just as always happened in a dream she reminded herself.  Nothing was supposed to make sense in dreams, they were abstracts just as she’d learned, little more than the subconscious urgings of a living being when under duress of some sort.  Well, she was under a lot of duress now, that was for sure.

            The wall suddenly shattered inward as Jayden crouched down, holding her arms over her head as she was liberally peppered with shards and fragments of the wall.  The beating of her increased as the explosion ripped through the shower room, sending clouds of dust and drywall throughout the room to be soaked almost instantly by the condensation as it became soggy and then even mushy.  Jayden barely felt the bits that clung to her skin as she stood back up, rising slowly as she kept her eyes narrowed in disbelief, shock, fear and even anger.  What she saw revealed behind the wall however took away at least two of those sensations, leaving only anger and fear behind as she felt her lower lip tremble in rapidly mounting horror. 

            Standing nearly nine feet tall was a dark thing that almost had to bend over to be in the shower room, its heavily muscled body filling the corridor between the stalls as it loomed over her.  Jayden looked up, and up, and up as she took in the scaled appearance of the demonic thing that now loomed over her, noting mostly its claws and the heavy tail that swished powerfully behind it before focusing upon its crocodilian face as the thing glowered down at her, its small, beady eyes pinning her with great intent as its jaws parted to reveal the double rows of jagged, pointed teeth that glinted with drool and other fluids she didn’t want to imagine.  The stench from the beast was such that she couldn’t help but gag as the fear overtook her, washing through her body even as the anger railed against it, causing a sudden reaction she had not expected.

            Fire spread throughout her veins as Jayden cried out in sudden shock, her eyes widening as she felt the liquid warmth take over her entire body, suffusing her with such power that she couldn’t help but arch her back, exposing her throat and entire front to the creature.  The dark thing did not reach forward as Jayden suddenly felt as though her entire body exploded, every nerve releasing in a rush of such intense ecstasy that she could not help but cry out loudly and with as much passion as her young body could hold.  Her entire form felt as though it had been dipped in fire, though never had she felt flames such as this, that caressed her form in such a way that it was not unlike the most intense and pleasurable rush she’d ever experienced.  She could feel as every part of her body responded to the unknown stimulus, her every cell crying out for more as the flames cascaded from her form, spreading quickly throughout the entire shower room as the demonic creature was instantly engulfed, its form disappearing almost instantly as a great spill of ash fell to the floor where it had stood.

            Turning to the six women Jayden felt the fury within her body as she glared at them, noting that the flames had not even touched them despite the fact that they had been wreathed on all sides by the liquid, shifting fire.  The tiles of the shower room burned, blackening and cracking under the fiery assault she had unleashed.  This was power, this was unbridled, all-consuming power, and it was all hers.

            You will awake soon Remnant, but not yet.

            She wanted to rebuke the women, but even as she opened her mouth the females began to shimmer and fade away, as though they were no more substantial than the steam that had already boiled away.  This left only the shadowy figure that still remained within the entryway, his form still darkened enough that Jayden could not see everything. 

            “You want some of this boy?”  she challenged, feeling as the flames danced around her body, clothing her in an impenetrable armor of shifting and roiling fire.  The figure did not respond save to raise his left hand, his fingers splayed as he kept his palm towards her.  Jayden frowned as she felt the familiar tingle within her mind, not understanding what was happening until the stranger suddenly closed his fist, bringing it just as quickly down to his side. 

            At the simple gesture the flames within the shower room were extinguished as though they’d never been, not even fading away as they were cruelly snuffed.  Jayden felt the emptiness of their absence in that short moment as she gasped in surprise, glaring in disbelief at the male as he then stepped forward with his right foot, shaking his left hand which she could see was licking flames.  Not a single tongue of fire blackened his hand as Jayden watched, remaining almost completely contained within his fist as he cocked his left hand back as though he were going to throw something.

            Too late Jayden guessed at what was going to happen, watching as the man threw sideways, slinging his left hand as though he were throwing a baseball.  As she watched his hand opened, disgorging the flame she’d seen licking from his hand straight towards her.  Jayden couldn’t move in time as the flame hit her squarely in the chest, rocketing her backward towards the large hole that the wall had become.  Surprisingly she felt the harsh impact of tile against her back as her head rebounded off the hard surface, causing spots to appear in her vision. 

            Jayden hit the floor hard in the next second, her body landing with the loud smack of flesh on tile as she felt the warmth continue to flow throughout her every cell.  She just barely heard the sound of footsteps as the man approached her, the rubber soles of his shoes making hollow sounds upon the tiled floor.  Rolling over took every ounce of energy she possessed, but she managed as she flopped onto her back, gasping for every last breath as she looked up into the man’s  eyes as he stood over her. She still couldn’t see his face entirely, there were somehow still too many shadows, but Jayden could see his eyes just fine.  The ribbons of silver still flowed strangely through his ebon-black gaze, a confusing and somehow familiar sight.

            “You aren’t ready yet, but you will be.”  Jayden found his voice to be pleasing and also familiar, but she was sure she’d never met this man before.  As he turned away she couldn’t help but croak at him to stop, to tell her who he was.  All she could do at that moment was listen as his footsteps became even more distant, fading into memory as Jayden’s eyes closed, the darkness taking over as she fell willingly into its embrace.

                                                *                      *                      *

            “Hey brain-dead!  Are you listening at all?  I want to get going so if you don’t want to be walking towel yourself off and let’s go!”  Lori’s voice caused her eyes to snap open as Jayden jumped slightly as she pressed her hands a little harder against the shower wall.  She couldn’t be sure, but she had been daydreaming about something.  She just couldn’t remember what.

            “Yeah, yeah I’m coming.”

DarkFall

Black Death spread by human fleas and lice, research shows | CBC News

1348 AD

Florence, Italy

            It is the time of the Black Death, rumored to have been spread by the common black rat that infests the holds of so many cargo ships.  Many have already been afflicted, suffering the painful boils and blotches under their skin that herald the final stages of the plague.  None may survive this horrid spectacle, nor will any ever forget the heavy toll it takes upon much of Eastern Europe during its recurring visitations.  It is a horror that afflicts more than several households, taking whom it will and leaving the others to remember the pain and agony that their loved ones must deal with.  Among the afflicted are those who share a destiny greater than any, those who are chosen for something so much greater.  Yet it lies upon the shoulders of only three as to what fate will have in store for them, the final rest, or a greatness they will perhaps never fully understand.  Into this morass of human suffering and filth come the three who will shape the destiny of many, those who will decide who lives and who dies.  They alone will decide who is saved, and who is damned. 

            The stench was nearly overwhelming, and she was standing outside the ruined home that held the one she was looking for.  Taegan wore a large scrap of cloth tied over her nose and mouth to cut out the worst of the smell, but still she felt the bile rising within her throat.  She could only pray that she got lucky and this would be the place where she found the unfortunate soul she’d come here to find.  Of course, she wasn’t going to hold her breath that this would happen.

            She knew hardly anything about the individual, only that something had called her to this place in this time.  Her mentor had told her more than once that as a half-breed she would be far more sensitive to the world’s flowing currents than she’d been before.  Taegan didn’t know if she particularly liked such a sensitivity, though now that she felt it was almost impossible to turn it off.  She wondered how Aliyana did it, but couldn’t find the trigger that might allow her to do the same.  Taegan couldn’t help but wish that her mentor were here now, if only for companionship.

            Such thoughts were not helpful however as she stared up at the sweeping archways and grand marble pillars that stood in front of the home, supporting the decorative roof that spanned for several yards in either direction.  Taegan had never really understood the desire to have such elaborate paintings being affixed to stone and plaster, it seemed rather ludicrous to her really.  Who would want the painted eyes of so many looking down upon them each time they entered their homes?

            As she looked up into the dark, brush-stroked gazes of the benevolent angels and other beings that looked down upon the ground she walked upon Taegan felt a mild chill run down her spine.  The eyes of each painted figure seemed to follow her as she made her way to the ornately crafted front door, perhaps identifying her as an intruder, a defiler of the dead, for surely the stench coming from the partially opened door could mean that only carrion awaited her.  It was far too gruesome to think that anyone living could sit among such filth for longer than a few moments.

            Screwing up her nerve Taegan approached the front of the opulent brick and wood home, feeling the weight of the large weapon that was strapped to her back. The curved sword, a shamshir she’d been told it was, had been a gift from a friend along her travels.  Its size, weight and curving blade might have intimidated or likewise warned away many others from its use, but she had managed to master its unwieldy nature well enough that she was more than a little dangerous whether at a distance or in close.  Thanks to her mentor Taegan knew how to use each part of the sword to maximum effect, utilizing the strength of her body along with the weapon to keep herself safe from harm.  Thus far none had managed to use the size of the weapon against her, nor did she see such a thing happening in the days to come.

            As she approached the door she stopped halfway up the wide, stained steps.  She’d already seen the dark stains marring the stone beneath her feet, though she wasn’t sure how much was blood and how much was something else.  The dried liquids were a panoply of color, ranging from a sickly yellow to the dried, crusted over red that signified a massive loss of blood.  The smell from the disgusting miasma of fluids was potent enough to cause Taegan to crinkle her nose, but it wasn’t what had made her stop. 

            She’d heard something from within, some slight noise behind the partially opened door she now glared at suspiciously.  Her breathing was low and controlled beneath her mask, warming her face as her dark eyes peered from beneath the floppy b rim of her hat.  There was little light here, though there was a soft glow from the doorway, almost inviting in a way.  The night around her was quite dark save for a few lanterns that swung idly on high poles up and down the lane.  Taegan had made her way to this place with as much stoicism as she could, trying to ignore the piles of dead bodies that had been lain out here and there.  It was dire time within the country, a time of such horrors that many might never have thought possible.

            She knew the cause, she even knew what the humans thought it was.  It was odd to think of them as another race, especially considering that she half-belonged to their race as well.  But as her mentor had told her, she was of two worlds, belonging to neither and yet both at the same time.  Taegan had more often than not felt herself something else, something beyond either human or what Aliyana had revealed herself as, another species entirely, all alone in the world.  It was a lonely thought, but it was also strangely comforting at times. 

            The sound came again as she tensed, squinting her eyes as she was sure that she could see a hint of movement through the partially opened door.  Someone was moving.  That realization alone heartened her somewhat, though the confusion of how anyone could remain in such a place with such smells abounding reached deep into the darkest recesses of her mind, claiming that nothing good could come of this.  Taegan couldn’t help but agree, but her instincts had taken her in this direction, the strange feeling that she’d had insisting that this was where she was to find the one she was being drawn to.  Why she was being drawn or just how she could feel this was still largely unknown, but Taegan was doing as her mentor had directed her so long ago, just feeling her way along. 

            Many years ago she would not have done such a thing, preferring to know what she was running towards instead of simply taking action.  Her time with Aliyana had taught her to trust the instincts that thrust her forward however, insisting that she do something instead of pondering whether she should take that next step or not.  As she continued to listen and watch the doorway Taegan still heard it, a soft muttering, almost like a gasp, though she saw no more hint of movement.  Fully confused now she made her way forward again, taking short, tentative steps that carried her slowly and inexorably to the front entrance. 

            She knew of the darkness that had been visited to this part of the world and she knew just who had caused it.  Humans had been allowed to believe that the common black rat, a carrier of so many diseases, had infected them on such a widespread scale.  While Taegan would not, could not in fact, disabuse humans of this notion she also knew better.  Her mentor had told her much of the dark being that had at one time brought such ruination to the world.  She had told Taegan of her former love, the dark lord Sivis, and Taegan had listened with rapt attention. 

            She’d learned of the dark lord escaped every so often, and of how Aliyana was pledged to hunt him down before he grew too powerful.  Taegan had thought this rather redundant, not to mention foolish, but had kept her mouth clamped shut over such words.  Her mentor had done much for her in the past, opening her eyes to a world that Taegan had never known.  She had listened patiently and with mounting fear as Aliyana had told her of the Chosen, the individuals who were meant to combat Sivis at her side, further dampening the chances of the dark lord’s full return to the world.  She’d also listened to Aliyana as the woman had told her simply, something truly horrible was coming.

            It had been many years since she’d spoken to her mentor, though Taegan still remembered her words, thinking that perhaps whatever the woman had spoken of was in the process of happening.  The population of Florence alone had been decimated by the seemingly simple disease that had afflicted so much of its people.  Taegan knew within her heart that Sivis was responsible for this, a feeling that would not desist as she had watched more than one cart filled with human detritus, once healthy, living people, had been carted away to be buried or burned. 

            Taegan had been within Florence for only a few months, but she’d witnessed horrors that she’d never known, not even back in her own home when the plague had hit.  The Black Death, as it had already been dubbed, caused excruciating pain among its victims, creating massive, infected boils and eventually blotches under the skin that signaled the end.  She’d watched more than one afflicted with such plague wither away and die not long after contracting the horrid disease.  It was not pleasant, nor was it any way for anyone to die.

            She knew only what she’d heard of Sivis, though in her heart Taegan had known that this disease could not possibly have been born of anything occurring in nature.  Or rather, it had been nature-born, but infused with something that was somehow not supposed to be here.  It was too confusing to figure upon, but in her heart and mind Taegan knew that the dark lord she’d heard so much was behind this in some way.  The pall of darkness, or the DarkFall as she’d heard one delusional woman mutter before choking on her own blood, could not be natural.

            Finally reaching the doorway Taegan peered inside through the gap between door and jamb, doing her best to keep out of sight as she saw within.  What she saw was little more than she’d expected, a rather posh home bedecked with fine rugs, comfortable-looking chairs and a fireplace that, strangely enough, still had a moderate blaze burning within its depths.  Taegan frowned as she saw this, wondering again who could possibly stand to remain within the stench that still wafted out of the home.  She saw no sign of anything other than perhaps a fine layer of dust upon some of the items that were kept nearest the door, a few lamps, unlit, and busts of folk she did not know or recognize.  She did not push the door open just yet, remaining outside on the stoop as she thought over what to do.  Should she just barge in, sword unsheathed and swinging, or should she open the door gently, hoping against hope that nothing was waiting for her on the other side?

            Aliyana had told her of Sivis’s dark abilities, of how he could bend the flesh and mind of humans to his own whim, making them in effect mindless servants, little better than animated corpses.  If the dark lord had beaten her here, which her instincts were screaming that yes, he had, Taegan knew she would undoubtedly be in for a fight.  She had nothing more to go on concerning the dark lord than her own memories of what Aliyana had told her, but that would have to be enough. 

            Taegan had yet to see any of the wonders or horrors that Aliyana had spoken of, though she was beginning to wonder if she would ever desire to truly encounter any such things.  Tightening her lips she squared her shoulders, deciding that only a coward would come this far and not keep going.  Reaching out with her left hand she kept her right loose, ready to reach back for her weapon at a moment’s notice, or perhaps one of those that still rode upon her hips, the last pieces of her old friend Marcus that she still carried.  Whatever decided to come at her, Taegan felt she was ready.

            Stepping across the threshold she placed her left hand firmly against the door, stepping into the home as she held her breath.  Taegan stayed close to the door, following it inward as she panned her gaze around the massive front room.  There were no less than three hallways that led from the front area, which must have doubled as a sitting room as well as foyer.  It was not an entirely common method of construction, though she’d seen far stranger during her search for the one she felt to be within this place.  The decorations were rather elaborate, the hardwood floor was festooned with rugs of all sizes and colors, offering a veritable rainbow of dark hues and intricate designs that must have fetched a hefty price at whatever market they’d come from.  The ornamentation that bedecked the walls, hung from the ceiling and stood upon end tables all around the room spoke to her of a rather eccentric mind, perhaps someone who was more concerned with the oddities of the world than function or grace. 

            It was a hodgepodge of knickknacks, fine pieces mixed in with what might be considered gaudy or outright ludicrous.  Taegan’s eyes were drawn to more than one piece at a time as she entered the room, though she did her best to focus, not wishing to lose her attention lest she be caught unawares.  As she came fully into the home Taegan left the door hanging wide open, it was without doubt that the residents would mind any longer.  Standing just within the entry however she panned her gaze to the left, her eyes widening as she saw the source of the soft noises she’d heard.

            A  woman stood there, a rather shapely woman wearing a very lovely, if somewhat soiled, evening dress.  The rich folds of fabric hung loose around her curved form, the hem dragging along the floor just barely inches from her bare feet, which looked rather haggard as Taegan took in the woman’s appearance from behind.  She could not see the woman’s face, but her bared shoulders and the small part of her back that Taegan could see indicated that this woman was not in good health, nor should she even be standing.

            Taegan had seen the effect of the terrible boils she’d seen upon those afflicted with the plague, and from what she could see of this woman she knew that the lesions and boils that showed through on the female’s skin should have placed her either on the floor or in one of the many piles of rotting flesh outside.  She could see a sort of blackness that rimed each boil, an oozing, pus-like substance that seemed to exude from the woman’s otherwise healthy-looking skin.  To Taegan it looked as though the woman had been in good health only a short time ago, as though the plague had hit her far quicker and with obviously less debilitating effects than anyone else.

            The woman tottered slightly as another small, hitching gasp came from her, causing her body to shake as the folds of her dress were caught up in the slight motion.  Her hair, black in color and unbound from what must have been a long braid, hung loose around her shoulders, wisps catching in an unseen breeze that Taegan could feel coming from behind her, from the doorway.  She cursed herself mentally just before the woman began to turn, no doubt alerted to the presence of another by the slight breeze.  Taegan readied herself to draw her blade, already calculating just how far she could swing before her blade caught upon one thing or another.  The room was quite large, offering more than enough room for the massive weapon, but she knew that the hanging chandelier that she could see only a foot or two above them could easily check her swing if she was unlucky enough to strike it.  The last thing she needed was to tangle her weapon up on the intricate loops and whorls of metal while in the process of defending herself. 

            As the unknown mistress of the house, Taegan assumed as much, turned fully around the half-breed gaped at what she saw.  The female must have once been beautiful, though Taegan now could imagine that none would have bothered to see such fleeting beauty had they seen what had been left.  A face that was nearly skeletal in appearance glared at Taegan with such hunger that the half-breed was nearly frozen in place, her hand still reaching for her blade as though in slow motion. 

            Her face was stretched tightly over her skull, revealing the hollows of her eyes as the wasted orbs gazed with menace at Taegan from their shadowy pools of sunken flesh.  Teeth that were bared in a grinning rictus of hatred and anger gnashed several times as the woman hunched her shoulders, flexing the diseased skin of her body as several small popping sounds came from beneath the woman’s dress.  Taegan cold only believe that the boils extended to the front of her body as well and was reward in that next moment as the woman’s dress was suddenly riddled with blossoming spots of darkness as it was pressed against the oozing sores. 

            Despite all she’d seen to this point, Taegan’s stomach lurched as she caught the foul scent of the woman’s decaying body from where she stood, still trying to gather the nerve to reach for her weapon.  The woman rolled her shoulders back in the moment, spreading her fingers into crooked claws as she lowered herself slightly, an unearthly shriek coming from her mouth as she suddenly rushed forward, her feet slapping hard against the floor when she passed over a bare section.  That single scream galvanized Taegan as she drew her large, curved blade in a single, practiced movement, shrugging it over her right shoulder as she almost flung the sheath away before shrugging her right shoulder again, returning it to her back. 

            The woman came at her fast, not slowing down despite the dangerously trailing hem of her gown as she extended her claws to tear at Taegan’s face, coming closer with each pulse-pounding second as the half-breed waited.  Her unwanted opponent came within striking range before Taegan moved, her filthy claws swiping hard at Taegan as the half-breed moved aside easily, ducking the wild swings as she responded in kind.  Her blade cleaved hard through the air between them as she raised it up high and then chopped down, cleaving the woman’s chest wide open and continuing down to her abdomen where the tip sliced through dress and flesh easily, disgorging the entrails that lay just beyond the woman’s stomach wall.  The ghoulish thing screeched in what sounded more like amazement than pain, but as the momentum of Taegan’s blow forced her to the right she paused for several moments, shuddering madly as though attempting to stay upright. 

            Taegan almost gagged on the putrid odor that now exuded from the woman, looking at her blade as she tried not to vomit.  The blood and fluid upon her weapon was not red, but instead black mixed with a disgusting shade of yellow, oozing along the edge before she flicked it expertly, dislodging much of the clinging material.  She did not know what to think at that moment, it was as though the woman had been rotted from the inside out, or perhaps had stood there long enough for the disease to have soured every last part of her body.  Did the woman know pain any longer?  Taegan reasoned that she must since she’d not yet risen to attack again.  But then she could not believe that anyone, no matter how tough they might be, could simply shrug off such heavy damage. 

            She’d seen battle more than once, witnessing the horrors of such conflict as limbs had been lost, bodies had been torn apart and even separated piece by piece until little was left to identify that the resulting hunk of meat had even been human.  Taegan knew that some could still fight no matter how grave their injuries were, it was the desire to keep fighting, to die with some semblance of pride, that would keep one going even after incurring such ghastly wounds.  But as she watched the woman begin to rise once more she had to wonder.  What did this woman have left to fight for?

            The question was moot as the woman rose, her face still locked in a mask of absolute hatred as she glared at Taegan, her gasps and snarls of pain turning more into those of hunger.  The half-breed could scarcely believe that the woman, her entrails hanging out like some macabre sort of fashion accessory, could be standing let alone look as though she were ready to surge forward once more.  Taegan’s mind reeled with the possibilities of what Sivis could do, for now she knew that nothing human had created this woman in such a horrid image. 

            She had no more chance to debate with herself as the woman attacked, her hands crooked into claws as she swiped at Taegan with her filthy, ragged fingernails.  The half-breed could see the same black, oozing substance as it flew from the woman’s wildly swinging hands in streamers of dark gore, splattering wetly upon the many curios among the room. Thankfully none hit her, the stench of it was too great to even believe.  The woman continued to swing at her, the ragged nails coming nowhere near to hitting Taegan as she evaded each one, looking for the perfect moment to strike.  She managed to find it in the next moment as the woman slipped, almost tripping over her own entrails as she slid to a stop, balancing herself quickly, but not quick enough.

            Taegan’s blade arced high before descending in a blur, its sharpened edge biting hard into the left side of the woman’s neck as it continued.  The weapon severed the she-beast’s spine just above her shoulder blades and then kept on, separating bone with a harsh crack as she swept the weapon through the woman’s left shoulder blade, demolishing the bone as she then yanked hard, furthering the damage as the blade emerged from the woman’s right side, where it then bit into her arm, taking it off just above the elbow as Taegan finally completed her swing.  The entire motion had seemed to come slowly, though she knew it had been only a heartbeat since she’d swung, her heightened senses allowing her to feel every last bit of the impact and the resulting damage. 

            Black and yellow blood spurted in a geyser-like fountain as the woman fell away with nary a shriek of protest, separated into three separate pieces that landed heavily upon the floor.  The main part of the woman’s body was now missing its head, neck and right shoulder, not to mention a significant part of its right arm.  Each piece lay still as it hit the floor with wet thuds, splattering blood and viscera as Taegan watched. 

            The head still functioned slightly, the eyes fluttering as the jaw worked spastically, the teeth still gnashing as though seeking something to chew upon.  Taegan grimaced in disgust as she stood over the head, the cloth over her nose and mouth doing little to mask the wafting odors that had already arisen from the fallen woman.  She could see past the flesh and bone now, could even see the thumping heart as it beat out its last few frantic beats.  The organ had become a darkened, diseased lump of flesh, shriveled and wasted away within its cavity as she could see.  How it had even functioned was terrible to think of, though as she cast her gaze back down to the woman’s head she narrowed her eyes, feeling not a single measure of pity for the creature.  Whoever this woman had once been, she had been dead long before Taegan had come upon her.

                                                *                      *                      *

            He tensed, hearing the shriek from downstairs followed by the dull thud of metal cleaving open flesh.  Sivis smiled despite the pain that still wracked his body, he was not ready.  For some time now he’d known of another who sought him out, a presence that seemed to burn only slightly less than his former lover.  While he could feel Aliyana like a bright torch within his senses most times this woman that now sought those he’d already found was a far more muted sensation.  She was a filthy half-breed he knew, an amalgam of Shaper and human blood that should not have been possible. 

            Sivis wanted little more than to tear the still-beating heart from the woman’s chest, watching it beat its last as she tried to grasp her own defeat.  But he was still far too weak, having just escaped not long ago from his dreaded prison.  Each time was growing harder, each time Aliyana had shored up her defenses, making it far more difficult for him to escape.  It was confounding that each time he escaped she tracked him down once more, continuing the deadly, never-ending farce that had began so long ago.  Sivis snarled as he looked down at the ruined form beneath him, disgust and triumph mixing upon his withered features as he gently stroked the porcelain-like flesh of the woman who lay upon the bed in front of him. 

            She was the last piece of this particular quest, the only one within many miles that had been possessed of the qualities he’d known would make her useful to Aliyana.  He’d enacted yet another version of the dreaded DarkFall, the same wasting attack that had at one time almost dominated the world, though this time he’d been far too drained to cause it to spread much further than this miserable continent.  He knew the humans would grasp hold of any explanation that they could find to justify their growing numbers of dead, and already many of them had clung to their dreaded superstitions that the plague had been something not of this world. 

            He’d laughed to think that they had so readily accepted that this was the work of their fabled devil, a plague allowed to run rampant by a god they could not understand or even realize was but a fable.  Humans were so gullible, so easily fooled, and so easily misdirected.  And they were so weak, enough to the point that even in his debilitated state Sivis had found little to no trouble decimating those who had dwelled within the household.  He wondered what the filthy half-breed would think if she’d known that the woman she had most likely met within the parlor had been one of those she had come to save.  The smile upon his face grew even more as Sivis fully enjoyed the irony of the situation, finding humor among the festering remains of the creation that now lay sprawled in front of him.

            The Lady had not managed to reach this particular specimen as of yet, though the potential within her slight frame had remained.  No longer would she serve to become an agent of the Light however, not after Sivis had corrupted her so fully.  The black and yellow cast to her veins attested to the taint he had invited into her body, changing the human against her will so thoroughly that upon waking she would know nothing more than the need to destroy, to rend and tear anything or anyone in front of her.  He would have thoroughly enjoyed the thrill of seeing the half-breed as she was torn down, her screams would have echoed within his ears for years to come, but no, he could not.

            There were others, more souls that the Lady could use he sensed.  He knew by now that the Chosen were not limited to just a scant few, but could be adapted from others readily enough if needed.  The Lady needed only to find capable warriors, souls who were willing to accept her gifts, and the Chosen would unfortunately rise again.  Three decades before he had thought her power trapped within the souls he’d so successfully defeated, though the balance had not allowed for this to happen. 

            The power of the Chosen had been stripped from them, flowing back to its source as the Lady had willed it.  She could find others, she would no doubt find others.  Sivis knew this with a certainty that he could not deny but would strive to with every last breath.  He would see the Chosen of any era driven into the ground, stomped to dust and forgotten as surely as an errant breeze is forgotten by those who have felt its fleeting touch.  He would not be denied his freedom again so long as he could help it.

            Sivis looked down as he heard the creature beneath him stir. She was still human in appearance, not forced to bear the blemishes and boils that her sister had suffered, but the black and yellow cast of her veins as they pulsed beneath her skin belied the truth of what she was.  The dark, arcane forces he had plowed into her body had transformed the girl into something so much more, so much deadlier, than she could have ever been.

            “This is one that shall never be yours my love, mine own creation and none others.”  Sivis grinned even wider as the girl rolled over onto her front, the gauzy dress she’d been wearing when he’d come upon her crinkling as she rolled her neck, shrugging her shoulders as she did.  Her filthy nails, oozing the black residue that came with the conversion of a living being into a creature of darkness, stained the covers of her four-post bed as she opened her eyes.  Orbs of absolute ebon hatred looked upon Sivis as he backed away, watching as the creature he’d birthed from his dark arts opened her mouth wide, digging her ragged nails into the covers as she ripped backward suddenly, spitting and hissing at him as she did. 

            The creature threw her arms behind her, nails trailing bits and scraps of fine velvety blankets as she did.  Oh yes, she was perfect, a fitting use for one of those who might have stood against him.  A fitting tool for the demise of one who might have sought to stop his continuing machinations.  Sivis’s smile widened even more as his gleaming white teeth reflected the dim light of the room, his yellow eyes piercing the gloom as he looked upon his thrall. 

            A thick tangle of dark black locks fell across the woman’s bared shoulders and hung in front of her face in lank strands, seeming like wisps of living shadow against her delicate white skin.  She continued to hiss at him for several moments, her rotted teeth bared in a feral grimace as though she were damning him for what he’d done. Sivis just kept smiling, enjoying the mental hold he gripped the creature with.  She would not dare to attack him, nor would she move again until he willed it.  Humans were such amusing playthings, easily corrupted and just as easily held against their pitiful wills.  It was almost too easy.

            He noted as the woman tensed within his unseen grasp, her eyes tracking to the doorway through which the silent, furtive sounds of footsteps could just barely be heard.  Sivis highly doubted that her human senses would have been able to hear the slight noise, but he had made her better.  He had given her heightened senses, toughened flesh, a need to kill and to feed, the strength of a juggernaut and the desire to destroy.  Had he been given more time she would have eventually become the perfect servant, one bent on nothing less than the utter annihilation of whatever target he pointed her at.  She could be destroyed, but he highly doubted that the half-breed coming up the winding stairs at that moment would find it an easy task.  In fact, he doubted that the vile woman could even manage to defeat this creature. 

            Unfortunately he would not be present to witness such an event.  The Lady could be felt not too far from where he was now, her presence a damning beacon within the darkness of his senses.  He would not be caught again, nor would she be allowed to seek out those he could feel even now, further away.  There were others that would serve as the Lady’s willing Chosen, though not if he could find them first.  As he slipped deftly into the shadows Sivis smiled once more at the creature upon the bed, releasing his hold even as the darkness swallowed him. 

                                                *                      *                      *

            Taegan heard a voice from one of the rooms above, deducing quickly that it had come from the only room that showed a dim light glowing from its open doorway.  She’d already made her way to the stairs, ascending halfway before stopping.  The voice was rather raspy, as though the speaker were in great pain, but she could not hear each word.  Something about “none other’s”, or something like that.  Taegan didn’t understand and didn’t try to as she attempted to make her way stealthily up the stairs, keeping her blade in her right hand as she went along.

            Her boots were hard-soled, hardly the footgear needed for such a task, but she had to make do with what she had.  The hard stairs would echo every last footstep if she were to rush forward, though as she took one step at a time she almost winced at every last shuffling sound she made.  If she were wise she would have ditched her heavy coat and other accoutrements that would give her away, but she had not.  There was something up there, or someone, that might need her and the time it took to divest herself of any extraneous gear might have made the situation worse. 

            Of course if her heart was correct in telling her that the rasping voice could only be Sivis, and she was not sure it wasn’t, Taegan realized she might already be too late.  She wouldn’t accept this though, moving steadily upward.  As she came upon the halfway point however she stopped, hearing a series of hissing and spitting sounds that did not sound friendly or conducive to the health of whoever might be within the room.  Was she in fact too late?

            She didn’t get the answer to this question in quite the way she wanted as a form suddenly came bounding from the room, running in a shambling manner just as the woman below in the parlor had.  Taegan was suitably surprised as she saw this new female, enough so that she did not have time to finish her flight up the staircase as the she-beast attacked, her rotted teeth bared as she reached out with cracked and torn fingernails, leaping at the half-breed with a fervor that was nothing less than maniacal.

            Taegan just barely managed to move to the side, striking the wall near the staircase hard as she allowed the she-thing to go flying past, the look of absolute rage upon her face giving way only partially to surprise as she struck the stairs just beyond Taegan hard, rolling face-first upon the staircase as she thumped and thudded her way to the bottom, the wet snap of something breaking reaching Taegan’s ears as she watched in shock.

            That emotion faded rapidly as she descended the stairs, watching as the woman rose, her left arm hanging limply as bone gleamed wetly from the torn flesh of her where her shoulder met her arm.  If she was in pain it didn’t show as she snarled up at Taegan, teeth bared once more as she twisted her entire body, flinging the dislocated arm as a result.  The popping noised that accompanied this action was loud within the parlor, almost startling Taegan to inaction as she saw the woman suddenly flex the limb, which was almost whole once more.  Dark threads of what looked like sinew and fibrous flesh had breached the gap, flowing easily over the bone as Taegan watched.

            She swung in that moment as she reached the bottom of the stairs, her blade hacking into the monster’s chest as the feral woman screeched, perhaps in pain or rage, Taegan could not tell.  Her blade carved hard into flesh as the woman backed away, her chest torn apart enough to show the dull gleam of bone.  As with the woman’s arm however Taegan watched as strands of dark flesh shot from across the ragged edges of the wound, sewing the breach shut even as the woman attacked. 

            Blood flew and flesh quivered along the wound as the woman raked at Taegan’s eyes, each one not coming even close as Taegan backed away, still looking upon the heavy wound she’d inflicted.  It was not possible, but there it was.  Until this day she’d not seen anyone that could walk away from such a damaging blow, but the woman was still on her feet, advancing with each step as the half-breed stared in absolute horror.  Looking upon the corpse of the woman she’d already slain Taegan realized quickly that she might well have to dismember this woman as well, though it was a guess at best. 

            As the woman came forward again Taegan ducked low, avoiding the ragged claws as she sliced down at the woman’s legs, seeking to hobble the she-beast if possible.  The woman might have sensed this however as she spun, allowing Taegan only a glancing blow that was healing even as the half-breed rose, the dark tendrils closing the flesh once more without any apparent effort.  Taegan didn’t know what to do as she rose, holding her blade in front of her defensively as the woman attacked once more, the claws of her left hand finally finding purchase along the right side of Taegan’s face as the half-breed cried out in pain.  The bloody furrows that were dug into her cheek burned with an ache that was not natural, but as she straightened Taegan grimaced at the beast, striking out again with her blade as she caught the woman heavily upon the midsection, folding her over nicely as she pulled back on her blade, carving far deeper into the woman’s body as she placed one boot upon the creature’s side, thrusting her away as she drew her blade towards her. 

            Taegan’s wounds still burned, but she could feel the fires within her body burning brightly as her own regenerative qualities kicked in, seeking to seal the wounds before she bled too much.  She grinned madly at the beast as the woman rose, snarling still as the healing properties of her body sought to piece her back together.

            “Yer not the only one with healin’ bitch.” she snorted, beckoning the woman forward with one hand as she then adopted a defensive stance.  The woman snarled and spit at her, lowering herself before charging, slashing wildly with both hands as her ragged nails sought Taegan’s flesh once more.

            The half-breed was ready this time as she sidestepped, her blade swinging out heavily as she connected with the monster’s left arm, sending it flying free as the creature howled in genuine pain this time, watching as its trailing limb flew far to the left.  Its fury was not completely spent however as it swung a backhanded, raking blow at Taegan with her right, the blood streaming from the woman’s left stump leaving a grisly trail of blood spatter over the floor as Taegan dodged away.  She was not surprised to see several wavering tendrils of dark, fibrous material twisting and churning from the stump of the woman’s arm as she positioned her blade, seeing quickly that the woman was attempting to move towards her arm.  Could she reattach it?  Taegan didn’t care as she swung, seeking to take another piece of the woman as she attacked.

            Her zeal proved to be too much this time however as the woman showed amazing dexterity, ducking low to avoid the head-hunting blow as Taegan was forced to follow her own momentum, stepping to her left in order to keep her weapon in hand.  As she came back around she saw the woman reach her missing limb, which was still twitching, grasping it quickly to hold the torn flesh to the writhing mass of dark, slippery-looking tissue protruding from the stump.  Taegan grimaced in distaste as she watched this, moving forward to prevent the healing from occurring. 

            She could already feel her energy spiking, it was time to finish this while she was still energized enough to take down this monstrosity.  Something deep within told her that this was the woman she’d come for, that this was the soul she’d been meant to protect, but she would not listen.  She could only hope that whoever she’d come for was still alive, that there was still hope.  If not then she’d just wasted a trip, and it had all been for nothing.

            Her next chopping blow came nowhere near hitting the already-moving form, thunking hard into one of the richly colored rugs as she saw the limb beginning to reattach to the monster’s body.  The wounded limb came together with a horrid squelching sound, though Taegan immediately noticed that it did not heal fully, ragged strips of flesh hanging from where the severed limb had been reattached.  She hoped in that moment that this meant the creature was weakening somehow, that she’d done enough damage to overtax its strange healing qualities.  It was a slim hope, but at this moment it was all she had.

            The beast was far from done with her as the woman chopped down at Taegan with both claws, the reattached one clubbing her hard without managing to gouge into her body.  Taegan rolled with the hit, coming back to center as she struck out, again missing the beast horribly as the woman shrieked at her, the hateful black eyes glaring intently as she responded in kind.  Taegan narrowly avoided having her face clawed away as the she-beast came close to striking her twice in rapid succession, closing the short distance between them as Taegan was forced to improvise. 

            She’d been taught long ago that a real warrior was never without means, no matter the situation.  Even the most hopeless case would provide a solution somehow, one just had to find it.  This close in, her weapon would no doubt be seen as useless, but Taegan knew better. As she raised the heavy blade to guard she drew it in closer to her body, stepping towards the beast with one solid stride as she thrust the weapon straight out, keeping it vertical to the ground as she tried to rake it down the woman’s body.  Seeing this however the beast moved aside, off to Taegan’s left, obviously not fooled by such a tactic or proving just too fast to be caught by such a forward attack.  Taegan tried to roll with her, evading the next two attacks the woman threw at her as the trailing hem of her coat defeated the woman’s second clawing strike.

            Her next attack was made in desperation as Taegan reached out with the weapon, pulling it back as she felt it lay upon the woman’s form.  She was not disappointed as the wound closed almost directly behind her strike, but she was growing increasingly frustrated.  Back and forth they went, each one trading blows that did not land as the two women, one undead and one striving to stay alive, sought to gain dominance.  As they danced around one another Taegan could see that the beast was indeed weakening, though not nearly fast enough for her liking.  As she swung her sword again the woman was not nearly fast enough this time as the blow took her hard in the abdomen, carving deeply into her body as the flesh parted and gray, diseased looking intestines began to spill out. 

            Despite this however her body still sought to repair itself, closing haphazardly over the gray loops that had already emerged, leaving a decided gap within the woman’s stomach as the flaps of dress that had surrendered to Taegan’s blade fell down around her legs.  The woman howled as she attacked, claws raking again at Taegan’s face as the half-breed just barely managed to fend her away.  The woman was weakening, she could tell this from the way her swings were beginning to slow, but it was still not happening quickly enough.  Unfortunately for the beast Taegan’s blood was now up, lending her sword arm a bit more strength as she snarled at the she-beast, swinging once again, seeking the creature’s head as she swung hard from left to right.

            This time her blade bit hard into the creature’s neck, sending blood flying in all directions as Taegan narrowed her eyes in anger and against the sudden spurt.  She pulled her blade away once more, carving the wound even deeper as the woman’s head suddenly flopped grotesquely to the left, hanging askew even as she sought to scream in agony once more.  Taegan watched in horror as the woman flailed about, trying to claw her open, trying to move in a straight line, just trying to survive.  As she evaded the woman’s clumsy attacks though the worst suddenly happened, though she had no idea how.

            “S-sheeee ca-ca-mmme!” the woman uttered in a half-moan, half-shriek.  “Sh-sheeee cammmme!”  The dark light within the woman’s eyes faded slightly as Taegan watched, giving way to a haunted look that she could not bear to meet.  Taegan swallowed hard as the woman fixed her with that gaze, the eyes of the creature almost pleading as she shambled forward.

            “L-l-laaddddyyy!” the beast moaned, reaching for Taegan, “La-ladddyyyy!”  Taegan struck out again, not worrying this time as she struck more out of horror than anger, seeking to put the beast down, or at least to get those eyes to where they were not looking at her.  There was an unholy truth in those eyes, a pain that she could not bear to look upon, and a revelation that her heart had already told her was real.  Her blade hit home, finding the gap between the thing’s head and shoulder where she’d already struck, where the dark, questing tendrils were sluggishly attempting to seal the gap in their non-ending quest to heal the creature.  Taegan had no trouble believing that the monster would recover fully if given time, but she did not intend to let that happen.

            It took two devastating chops to sever the woman’s head fully, but as the creature was felled it continued to wail, that high keening sound piercing Taegan’s ears and heart as she felt a sob welling up from deep within her chest.  As the woman’s head tumbled away the body toppled heavily to the floor, not far away from where the first one had landed.  It didn’t matter to her though, Taegan knew in her heart that she’d failed, that the woman she’d just slain had been the one she’d come for.  It had all been for nothing.

                                                *                      *                      *

Three months later…

Vienna, Austria

            Sivis crept upon the unsuspecting male, his hands already twining within the intricate patterns he would require to call forth the darkness that would transform yet another of the Lady’s precious selections to a creature of absolute darkness.  The fool was leaning from his bedroom window, a heavy traveling coat and a ridiculously large hat hiding his features as he stared idly out of doors.  The dark lord knew this would be too easy, though he could not help but feel how strong this one must have been, to resist the dark plague he had wrought throughout the lands.  It was no matter, as he stretched his hands forward Sivis knew that this would be yet another one that would not serve his former love, just as would continue to happen.  He would not be denied.

            In the next moment however he was indeed surprised as the figure went from unsuspecting male to the fierce woman that now stood in front of him, the floppy brim of the hat flipping upward to reveal her dark beauty as she frowned at him over the gleaming blade that was now held poised just in front of his throat.

            “Now, ye didn’t think I’d be forgettin’ the last time, did ye?”  Sivis’s eyes widened noticeably as Taegan struck, his hands reaching up to ward off the blow.  Taegan would not fail this time however as she struck with all her might.  She would not fail again.

Beware What You Wish For

Suck it up - Imgflip

I’d hate to say all liberals suffer from short-term memory loss but perhaps just stating that Whoopi Goldberg is slipping is enough considering that Hilary Clinton DID piss and moan about the election, Democrats DIDN’T ‘suck it up’, and if you’re wanting conservatives to emulate what liberals were all about for the past four years then it’s time to bend over and get ready for the show. Quite honestly any liberal stating that they ‘sucked it up’ is kind of funny since as bad as Donald Trump could be, the liberals were out to prove that they could be even worse, and it wasn’t even close, the liberals won when it came to the level of pettiness that was unveiled in the last four years.

I get it, Biden won, he’s our president. See how that works? When an election occurs and one person wins, you calmly state that that person is in fact our president, OUR president, not just one side or another’s president, but the leader of OUR nation. Sure, Joe and Kamala are kind of a hard pair to get used to and some us probably won’t since we can see a whole lot of bad coming if they get to have their way consistently. But for four years people were worried that Nazis were running the country, and yet the country is still here, it’s still diverse, and the only ones tearing it down have been the folks that can’t see past their own skin color or that of any other person’s.

So no one is worried about a child-sniffing, voter-heckling, sentence stumbling, flip-flopping old man that actually asked a woman that openly roasted him on live TV as our leader? Okay, we’ll see where the next four years takes us, and then we’ll talk. But liberals, if you’re wanting conservatives to ‘suck it up’ like you did, then get ready for four years of hell. Otherwise, if they disregard your advice and just get back to life as it usually is, things will actually quiet down a bit. Gee, go figure that.

The Story (Fairy Tale 2 prologue)

Storybook by Kairisk on DeviantArt

Prologue

            Do you wonder why we dream? Why we imagine such wondrous worlds and figures that make no sense or even have a practical and logical place in the world we deem as reality?  Oh reader, why would you ever question what you see with your eyes and perceive with your other senses? Why? Because it is what we are taught, what we are raised to believe, and what happens when the world of the adult begins to supersede that of the child.   There the wonder begins to fade, to dissipate into the smoke and ether of the unreal as we are all given over to the cruel and capricious grind of life that we are told is all there is, all there will be, and all that remains.

            We are told that reality is the only real part of life, and we believe it.

            He’d believed it too during his short time in the human world, the world of his birth, but not his birthright.  To be honest he’d believed what he’d been told, not what his heart told him was true.  It had been some time since those days, but he still firmly believed in both worlds, that of the humans who knew that their world had a definite end and beginning, and the world of fantasy, of the fairy tale, where the story was everything, including the meaning of existence.  Many of those within this world knew that their very lives depended upon the belief of those who had supposedly created them, but more didn’t even begin to realize the importance of the balance that existed between this world and that.

            He’d come to learn about it, and he had fought to protect it for many a year now.

            “She’s come back with a vengeance this time,” purred a familiar voice to his left. He saw nothing at first as he turned his gaze that way, but had expected nothing.  As the distinctive pair of large, rainbow-hued eyes began to appear however Nolan only nodded his head, looking off into the distance at the dark, foreboding clouds that marked the Wastelands, the territory that was the furthermost border of Underland throughout the entire kingdom.  For years now he and his loyal soldiers had fought hard to preserve Underland from its many detractors, doing whatever it took to keep the kingdoms of fairy tale at peace with one another while still maintaining the order that stood between them.  Long ago, far longer than he had existed in fact, an unwritten law had been accepted stating that the fairy tale realms that existed would be best if they were to remain separate, to keep to their own borders and not allow any mingling of realms.  This had been kept as the norm until this day, and would continue to be so if he had a say in it.

            People of each realm were still allowed to come and go as they would, but Underland, unlike many lands, remained largely unreachable unless one had the means.  The reason for this was simple, the magic that had linked this realm to so many others had been almost lost several times, and as a result had been locked away long ago.  An added conundrum was where it had been locked away, and how one might retrieve it.  Other methods were available of course, but they were far more dangerous and required far more effort. This meant that Underland was, for the most part, on its own when it came to defending its own borders and could rely upon only a minor bit of aid now and then against any invading force, of which there were many.

            “I should have killed her back then,” Nolan said calmly, “It might have spared us what is sure to come.”

            A hissing chuckle came from his advisor and confidante, the fabled Cheshire, “It would have only paved the way for another maddened despot who decided they had a problem with your rule.”

            “They might still have been better than her,” he countered.

            “Or worse.”

            He frowned. The Cheshire always seemed to get the final word, but that was why he was so valued.  He often had his own agenda when doing anything, but had thus far worked for the good of Underland since Nolan had assumed control.  The overlying consensus had been that he was the only one that could possibly hope to keep Underland on an even keel, and so far he had done his best. As the fabled blood of Alice, the young woman who in her own day had changed the fate of these lands, he had come to this world quite by accident, lured here by the White Rabbit, who had only a few years ago passed of old age, leaving his clock and his duties to one of his many sons, Rembrandt.  The young bunny was still in the prime of his youth, and often displayed as much by acting like an insufferable know-it-all while still attempting to liven up any given situation with an ill-timed quip or joke.  He was not his father by any means, but he was learning, and overall he was a fine enough addition to Nolan’s court.

            “Why now though?” Nolan asked, “Why would she bother coming back after so long?”

            “Any good insurrection takes time,” the Cheshire purred, “and Mab has always been known for a good plot twist, something that is sure to take us by surprise.  I can only begin to wonder what it might be this time.”

            “You sound far too excited at the prospect,” Nolan chided.

            “On the contrary my commander,” the Cheshire said, his multi-colored pelt shimmering as he looked up at Nolan, “I am worried indeed that she might come back, as I did not relish her presence the last time. You will recall I am the one who aided in defeating her last time.”

            “I do, and I am still thankful,” he replied, “Though I still believe I should have taken Mab’s head and not her hand.  That at least would have eliminated one threat.”

            “Perhaps,” the Cheshire mused, “Or perhaps there were and still are others willing to take up her mantle. One can never know until the threat is near enough if mercy is the correct response or not.”

            Nolan could only reply with a frown. The damned cat had a point he supposed, but he still wished he would have cut her down.  At the very least it would have put his own mind at ease.

            “Are we certain that it’s Mab this time?” he asked quietly, “You do happen to remember that the last time someone threatened Underland it was no more than a hoax, the workings of a brutish ogre trying to scare us off.”

            “Oh I recall very well,” the Cheshire purred, “But unless the ogre has learned dark magic in that short time since his coming, I highly doubt it.  This is more akin to Mab’s fury, though it does not seem to be moving towards us, which is again, curious.”

            “Maybe she’s just throwing a massive hissy fit,” Nolan offered, which made him grin slightly.

            “And if you believe that I’ve a few magic beans to sell you,” the Cheshire countered, “Be it feasible or not, I recognize the power inherent within the storm, though do not understand why she has not attacked as of yet.  The forces of Underland stand ready, yet given that she can summon the very demons of these hells and those of the mortal world, I do not care for their chances against such hordes.”

            “Is it time to try and enlist other lands again?  That didn’t go so well last time.”

            “Would that it were, I would be away already.” The Cheshire began to flicker in and out of existence as was his wont, his smile and eyes remaining steady.  “But this is something else, and thus calls for something entirely different, something you swore never to call upon.”

            “No,” Nolan said, his flat refusal causing the Cheshire to shrug as he floated silently upon the air just above the balustrade.  “I told you, she’s no longer a part of it.”

            “Oh she is, you simply don’t want her to be,” the large cat said calmly, still smiling as Nolan looked to him.

            “She is not a direct part of this, and doesn’t need to be. I made that vow long enough ago and have kept it since.”

            “Indeed,” the cat said, “But then, does she know that? Does she not pine for the brother she had? Would it be satisfying to watch Underland quake yet again beneath the heels and claws of a horde that was never meant for these lands?  And all it would take is the sto-“

            “Don’t say it, don’t you dare right now,” Nolan said in a hushed voice, “She got to go home, she got to have a life.”

            “And you did not?”

            “I chose this.”

            “But why?” the Cheshire smiled at him, “Because you are one of us? Yes?”

            “Because I am the blood of Alice,” he said, “But now I’m not enough.”

            “Not if my suspicions are correct, and they usually are,” the cat said calmly, “If she has taken one of our neighbors by force then she is in possession of some truly wicked gadgetry, and will likely turn it against us sooner rather than later.”

            “So is any realm safe if she does?”

            “No.”

            It was an honest answer at least, but not one that Nolan had wanted.  He knew the Cheshire spoke the truth, he knew from the stories that he’d read as a boy and the movies he’d watched while still a part of the human world, but he’d never believed such a thing would come to pass.  Somehow, some way, the mad queen Mab had invaded one of the last realms that anyone would wish to see fall under her rule, and she had done so far too easily.  If she unleashed the vast power and energy that the realm was known to possess there would be no chance in hell that Underland, or any other land connected by the fairy tales of mankind, could hope to survive.  While it would not eradicate every story ever written, it would surely eliminate the fairy tale for good in the hands of Mab, and would seek to erase every last story just as she had attempted more than a decade ago.              If Oz had fallen, Underland was surely next, and from there it might be nigh impossible to stop Mab from finally getting her wish, to stamp out the fairy tale.  At this point he could only hope that the one he needed to reach would still remember him

Sinner’s Gate (excerpt)

The Columbia River - Long Beach, Washington

Waterfront Trail

Eureka, CA

            Every part of his body hurt as he’d surmised that the electrical current had trickled along every nerve, every limb, and throughout every extremity. The adrenaline surge he’d felt down below in the hallway had worn off at this point, leaving him almost useless as they’d found a pathway leading up to the surface. Savannah was awake thankfully and despite being sullen and no doubt quite pissed at Jill, she’d gone along with them instead of resisting.

            Skyler had almost collapsed as they’d exited the ascending tunnel into the harsh daylight above, each of them wincing as they sought cover. Shade had been found easily enough as the area into which they’d emerged was surrounded with trees and high bushes that obscured them from easy view of the mall. They had quickly discovered that they’d traveled well over a hundred, perhaps two hundred yards from the mall, though their flight from the black site had seemed to flash by so quickly.

            “What’s wrong with him?” Savannah’s voice had been laced with contempt, or at least that was what it had sounded like, but had softened once Jill had explained to her just what had been done to him.

            Skyler heard all of it but didn’t react as he knelt upon the ground, trying just focus on breathing for the moment as the residual effects of the shock his body had been forced to endure were still causing his limbs to tremble slightly and his vision to blur. He hadn’t felt that kind of current in a long time, in fact the initial shock had almost floored him. One might have believed his bones should have snapped like kindling under the strain and that his skin should have been blackened and scorched all along his spine and shoulder blades. His mind should have been little more than jelly encased in bone after even a few seconds. But here he was, in pain and already able to feel the damage being repaired as his body set to work.

            He could recall the many tests that had been conducted in the past when it came to his accelerated healing, and despite what the surgeons had said, that it wasn’t medically possible, his body had continued to repair the damage inflicted upon him, and had even grown stronger as a result. Of course his masters had seen fit to put this to the test more than once, and broken bones, torn ligaments, and sundered muscles had been result. But always his body repaired itself, growing stronger somehow as the tests had continued.

            This shock however was proving a bit problematic as it seemed to have sunk deeper into his body somehow, disrupting more than just the surface as his thoughts felt scrambled, almost as though someone had opened his skull and twirled a fork around his gray matter like so much pasta. At the moment he was quite aware of his surroundings, the women speaking to each other, and even the feel of the gravel-laden asphalt beneath his knees. But despite this he still felt apart from all of it, removed in a way that was almost akin to what he’d read about as an out of body experience.

            That could be why he didn’t pick up on what was wrong as Jill hit the ground first, followed quickly by Jamie, and then Savannah. Skyler had to wonder what had happened as his sense of reckoning only allowed him to blink stupidly as he turned around, and saw the reason for the collapse of the women.

            “Night-night asshole.”

            It shouldn’t have worked, he should have been able to dodge aside from a simple blow the to head, and he should have been able to take it. But in his current condition he was simply too tired, too exhausted, and had nothing else left. As the stock of the mercenary’s weapon met his temple Skyler fell to the ground with a heavy thud, the lights already going out as he rolled to his back.

                                                            *                      *                      *

            He’d checked in with Burke alright, and despite his current condition, the leader of their merry little band had been in a righteously pissed-off mood. With his ribs messed up he wasn’t in any shape to do what they needed, but he’d been clear with his instructions. Disregard what the Ferrarra’s said, the bounty was theirs, and they would apprehend him as they pleased. Craig might not be happy that his prize would be returned in less than perfect condition, but they were going to take their pound of flesh all the same.

            The Ferrarra women weren’t to be touched as Burke had told him, but the other was fair game as far as he was concerned, and she was damned pretty too, maybe in her early thirties or late twenties. In any case she was likely to provide a good time before they made her just disappear. Skyler though, that punk was going to suffer, and he was going to be made to watch what they did to the woman first.

            “Is he awake yet?”

            “Lemme check,” one of his people, a big and muscular woman named Anne turned to the prisoner, who was currently chained between a pair of ratty old fir trees that were just another big part of the patch of woods they’d decided to take the foursome to. It was just off the trail so it was likely that they didn’t have too much time until someone noticed them, but he was planning to be far away from here before anyone could hear or report a thing.

            A hard slap came from the direction where Skyler was chained to the trees, his arms elevated to provide the maximum amount of discomfort while still keeping him on his knees. They’d almost opted to chain his legs to the trees as well but seeing as how they only had the two lengths of tow chains they’d opted instead to keep someone nearby just to give him a good knock if he needed it. He might be a badass asset for the pre-eminent clan on the west coast, but he was still human.

            “He is now,” Anne chuckled, walking away as she looked at Jameson, a wicked gleam in her eyes. God if she was just a little less muscled and a little prettier he wouldn’t mind bending her over the tailgate and having a go. Hell, she’d probably break it off any guy that wasn’t ready for it, assuming of course she even liked dick. Looking to the asset he smiled as the dark gaze he was met with seemed rather impotent at that point.

            “Hey big guy. I was hoping you’d wake up. I don’t want you miss this. Bring the skank over.”

            A big burly individual they called the Mexican, his real name was Jimmy, had been keeping watch over the woman in question, whose name was Savannah apparently. She hadn’t given her last name, but Jameson didn’t really give a shit. She’d been found with this group, and that was all the reason he needed to think that she was worth something to them. Grabbing at his crotch in a meaningful way he grinned even wider as he saw Savannah’s eyes go to where his hand was now resting, her sudden struggles hardly surprising as she no doubt knew what was coming. Jill and Jamie were still out cold, but if he had his way they’d be joining in the party, and he’d tell Craig that they were accosted before they managed to find them.

            “She means something to you, doesn’t she?” he asked, still gazing hard at Skyler as the other man didn’t reply, his dark, brooding stare speaking volumes. “Bend her ass over the tailgate,” he said as Jimmy brought her closer, “He’s gonna want to see this.”

            “No!” Savannah screamed, “N-!”

            A good clip upside the head from Jimmy silenced her for the moment, dazing Savannah as she almost fell to the ground. Thankfully no one on Burke’s crew was weak enough to drop a body without good reason, and Jimmy hauled her pretty ass up as he almost body-slammed her over the open tailgate of Jameson’s truck. It was time to have some fun.

            As he turned to regard the faintly struggling form beneath him, holding Savannah down with his left hand while he tore at her belt and pants with his right, Jameson heard a strange, almost ripping, shredding sound in the next moment, though he disregarded it at first as he finally managed to tear Savannah’s pants over her shapely backside, feeling himself getting excited as she tried to struggle again but couldn’t summon the energy.

            “Holy sh-!”

            That was about as far as Anne got before she was flung away, shot into his field of as though fired from a cannon, the left side her jaw nearly pulverized. Jameson felt his sudden erection go limp almost immediately, the bared ass beneath him seeming not to matter as he spun about. The hunk of curved metal that came sailing at his head in a wide, flat arc could have killed him, but instead it grazed Jameson’s left temple, stunning him as he collapsed next to Savannah, who was still trying to move away as he glanced at her, almost laughing as her bared cheeks jiggled slightly with her efforts.

            What the hell had just happened?

                                                            *                      *                      *

            Here’s what happened.

            Of course Savannah meant something to Skyler, she was his older cousin after all, and she’d saved his life. How she’d escaped was something of a miracle that he’d be willing to hear when this was all over, but at the moment he’d seen the merc bend her over and threaten to rape her, all conscious thought had disappeared. There was only the animal, the hunter that the Ferrarra’s had created during the past two decades of constant torture that they’d seen as training. Skyler had gone away for a short time, and in his place had knelt the last thing that anyone in the mercenary group might have expected.

            There were only five of them, and two were preoccupied at the moment he decided to strike, while the other three were well within range. All he had to do was stand up. The moment he did however the closest of them, the one they called Jimmy, or Mexican, noticed and attempted to do something about it. He didn’t use the blade launcher he had strapped to his back, which could have put Skyler down in an instant with two or three well-placed and very powerful shots.

            That was his mistake.

            The mistakes the other two made were not reacting quickly enough or calling out to their friends, since in the next moment Skyler’s left foot found the underside of Jimmy’s chin. He felt and heard bone break and teeth give way as they were reduced to deadly shards of enamel that went sailing into Jimmy’s upper palate and possibly down his throat. The other two should have been all over him then, but they’d hesitated, which gave him time to yank on the heavy truck chains binding him to the tree, feeling the small but workable amount of give since the hooks that were buried into the bark weren’t sunk that deep. Obviously they’d thought being close enough to give him a few whacks if he got out of line was enough. Apparently Craig hadn’t made it clear just how dangerous he could be.

            That was okay, they were getting a crash course.

            He flexed his arms again, pulling with every ounce of strength he had as his left foot rose and flashed out, first to the right and then to the left as the ball of his foot connected with a hulking monstrosity of a man, slamming hard into his cheek as he was spun away. The next blow was a heel kick that didn’t have as much force but still rocked the other merc, who might have been a man or a woman, it was hard to tell due to the girth and chest that could have been flab and muscle or breasts and muscle for all he cared. Skyler didn’t think much on it as he flexed again, feeling the hooks rip free of the trees they’d been embedded in. Another tug had them scraping around the trees as they stripped bark and the wood beneath, the chains falling to the ground with a harsh clinking sound.

            Still the man preparing to rape his cousin didn’t turn, but the hard-looking woman next to him did as she sputtered and tried to raise her weapon, only to go flying back as Skyler snapped the chain holding his right arm as though it weighed nothing, sending the heavy metal hook rushing forward as it crashed hard into the side of her face. She was out for at least a few moments if not the entire fight he figured, and as he recalled the chain to hand he began to wind it around his right arm, ending up with the hook dangling a short way from his grasp as a result.

            The other two that he’d struck a moment before were recovering already and reaching for their weapons, heavy artillery that could knock him down and put him out without question. There was no doubt that they would easily explain his demise to Craig as a necessity if such were to happen, but he was still quicker in that moment as he swung the other length of chain around, catching the he/she in the back of the legs before pulling it tight, tripping the merc without fail. The other man was dropped in an instant as Skyler stepped forward, swinging the hook up into the man’s face as a satisfying crunch could be heard. The merc dropped hard to the ground, leaving only Jimmy, who was trying to rise to his feet, and the would be rapist.

            Skyler caught the hook on its downward arc and tried to bury it in Jimmy’s skull, but the merc had enough presence of mind left to lift his arms, blocking the strike. That was okay since Skyler had a backup move, which was to slam his left knee into the man’s face as hard as he could, dropping him again as his nose gave way and blood fountained from the ruined proboscis. By this time the rapist was finally turning around, the front of his pants sticking out like miniature tent pole as Skyler could see that he’d yanked Savannah’s pants down to expose her backside. His cousin was trying to move away but was reacting sluggishly, still dazed from the hit she’d taken.

            He didn’t hesitate, but the merc did, and that cost him.

                                                            *                      *                      *

            “Why didn’t you kill them?”

            “They’re close enough to dead as it is,” Skyler answered, his voice low and his manner somber. He’d been doing this kind of thing for too long to be questioned by anyone, even someone that had been forced to survive on her own for so long.

            The two mercs he’d only stunned had gone down easily enough when he’d clobbered them a few times with the chain that he’d wrapped around his left forearm, bludgeoning them in such a way that blood had come from every facial orifice possible. If they recovered it would be a small miracle, but he didn’t care. He wasn’t going to kill them in cold blood, even if good sense dictated that it was the wise thing to do.

            Jamie and Jill had come to only a short while ago, after Skyler had dragged each of the mercs further into the wooded area, watching closely to make sure that he wasn’t being observed. So far it would seem no one had seen anything wrong with a lone truck being parked just off the gravel road leading from the mall. Maybe though it had more to do with the ruckus in the mall that was still being handled. He could imagine that Craig had been forced to field more than a few questions about the ‘disturbance’ in the mall considering that it was a part of his family’s holdings. The thought of his former master having to perform crowd control was amusing enough to elicit the ghost of a grin from Skyler as he stood to his feet, hiding the gesture from the women.

            “It’s not close enough for me,” Savannah almost snarled, walking over to the man that had so forcefully pulled her pants down. Currently he was fading in and out of consciousness, the blood that had come sheeting down the left side of his face from the near miss that had opened him up blinding him in his left eye. He barely stirred as Savannah kicked his outstretched foot, his eyes blinking heavily as he tried to focus. Skyler knew that look, he’d seen it more than once in his life.

            “Do you think the bindings will hold them?” Jamie asked, wincing as her fingers found the lump just above her right temple where she’d been struck.

            “They’ll hold for long enough,” Skyler replied, “And they’re not going anywhere anyway.”

            “That’s a bold statement,” Jill said, checking the magazine on a dart thrower that she’d liberated from one of the mercs. They would be taking the truck that their tormentors had driven up in, a four-door beast of a machine with an extra-long cab and enough armament in the utility box bolted to the front of the cab to take on a sizable force.

            “Not really,” Jamie said as she glanced at each of the bound men and women. Only a couple of them were even conscious, and even that was a generous description, “They don’t look like they could spit at us if they wanted to, much less make an escape.”

             A horrid, ear-piercing shriek of agony caused both women to jump as they cast their attention to the man that Savannah was now walking away from, brushing off her bloodied hands as she made for the truck. She didn’t speak a single word, nor did she look at any of them as she made for the right side passenger seat, opening the door and settling in before closing it with a reserve that belied the rage that had allowed her to perform the act they now gazed upon.

            If the rest of the mercs wouldn’t be following them anytime soon, the would be rapist wouldn’t be in any shape to follow them at all. The dull, dazed appearance he’d presented only a moment before was now a glass-eyed stare that each one of them had seen before. The reason for this was still buried in his flesh just below his belt line, protruding in an obscene manner from where it had been buried, point first, into his genitals.

            “Jesus,” Jamie said, gulping as she turned away.

            “Was that really necessary?”

            Skyler saw Jill staring hard at him as he turned, “Why’re you asking me? I didn’t do it.”

            “Is she going to be a problem?”

            “Are you going to try to rape her?”

            “That’s not funny!” Jill hissed as he turned his back.

            “Do you hear me laughing? Get in the truck, we need to get the hell out of here, like now.”

            The sound of Jamie climbing in the other side of the truck reached his ears as Skyler made his way to the front passenger seat, checking quickly to make certain that keys were still in the ignition. Seeing the cluster of shiny metal keys swaying ever so slightly from the motion caused by the opening and closing of the doors he noted something odd dangling from the lanyard that was attached to the keychain. Jill was just getting in when he leaned over, hesitating as she saw him leaning over.

            “What is it?”

            He didn’t want to say, but he had a sneaking suspicion that the small plaque reading ‘EMILY’ didn’t correspond to anyone they’d just left behind. The back of the plaque was blank, but Skyler’s heart tightened just a bit all the same. Letting it go he sat up again, shaking his head.

            “Nothing, let’s go.”

            Jill cast her gaze down to the keys, but she didn’t bother to read the small plaque as she turned the key instead, stomping on the clutch off to her left as she forgot that the truck was a manual transmission. Grimacing she stomped on it again, holding it down as she turned the key once more, her right foot on the brake as she did. The truck gave a rattling, throaty growl as a dark cloud of exhaust belched from the tailpipe, moving swiftly towards the bound mercenaries as it began to dissipate.

            None of them spoke a single word as Jamie steered the truck towards the road, seeking make tracks before anyone could come along. In only a few moments they were back within sight of the mall, where they could see a few emergency vehicles still lingering as their lights flashed. People that had congregated nearby were still watching as the mall was being cordoned off by several police officers. Of Craig however they saw no sign.

            “Let’s go,” Skyler said as he glanced once at the scene.

            “Where to?” Jill asked, keeping her eyes on the road. She had no intention of slowing down or stopping unless she had to.

            “Home.”

The Reveal

Have you seen a ghost? There are medical reasons

Vancouver, WA

            This was a new effect. The markings on her shoulders, back, sides, chest, and abdomen warmed as the spirit drew closer, but as she watched, it moved aimlessly about, like a dog searching for the source of a scent. At one point it drew close enough that she could have reached out and allowed the power of the sigil tattooed into her right palm to burn it from this place of existence, or simply ward it off. But she was intrigued by this sudden development, since the ability she’d had since her 10th birthday had never manifested in this manner before. Her ‘bleeding effect’ that took place when feeling the powerful emotions that were in a sense what the living left behind, could reveal ghostly figures, but it had never protected her before.

            As the spirit continued to wander about, its malevolent stare unfocused as it sought her out, Miranda couldn’t help but wonder if her ability could do even more than this.

            Glancing around the room at the inert forms of her protectors, her family, and the foolish ghost hunters that had begged for the chance to witness an actual supernatural appearance, Miranda didn’t figure that it would be wise. She’d relied on the Catholic priest currently lying unconscious against the far wall to be her spiritual guide as well as her protector, as his research into the occult and unconventional methods had been a lifesaver over the years. As the spirit continued to search for her though, Miranda’s eyes widened slightly as she saw the telltale signs of the spirit fading from view once again, which mean that as she glanced down, her own body began to reappear as she was expecting.

            There you are…crooned the hideous, squealing voice of the spirit. Miranda looked up just in time to see the thing gliding towards her, its baleful gaze seeking to undo her as her blood ran cold.

                                                            *                      *                      *

5 years ago…

            “What’s wrong Rand?”

            She wanted to answer her mother, but Miranda didn’t know how to tell her about what she’d seen upon blowing out the candles on her cake, nor did she know what it meant. A few of the other kids had seen the same thing she had and had tried to point it out, but the moment they’d attempted to get others to see it, the apparition had been gone.

            “Mom, am I crazy?”

            Her party had ended a short while ago, and despite the fact that her friends were still around and busily talking about thing that young girls enjoyed in her room, Miranda had been restless. She hadn’t tried to think about what she’d seen too much in the last few hours, especially since people might think she was nuts. But after telling her friends that she was going to the kitchen to get a few snacks, she’d sought out her mother, though she wasn’t hopeful about the results of this choice.

            “Why would you ask that Rand?”

            It was a better answer than she’d been hoping for, since some parents had a horrible habit of wanting to shield their children from hard questions by assuring them that no, of course they didn’t think they were nuts. Her mother at least had enough sense to try to get to the meat of the problem. Miranda’s father might have replied with a witty quip designed to make her feel better, or to indicate that she was nuts, but he knew it and accepted it. That would have been the only other answer that might have made her feel better in that moment, but unfortunately her father had to work tonight, and wasn’t here to offer up any sort of relief.

            “I dunno,” she replied, keeping her gaze on the table between them, “I, ah, I saw, something today. I didn’t know how to tell anyone.”

            “Was it the same something that the other kids were trying to tell their parents about?”

            Miranda’s eyes lit up as she met her mother’s gaze. A nod was all she could summon at that moment.

            “One of the kids apparently told their parents that they’d seen someone hanging from our tree out back. Is that what you’re talking about?”

            Miranda nodded again.

            “I saw it too Rand,” her mother replied quietly, “But I didn’t know how to react, since none of the other adults appeared to see it.”

            “What was it though? If you saw it, and I saw it. What was it?”

            “It was creepy, that’s what it was,” her mom said with a wan smile, blowing out a short breath as she walked from her current spot to a large window overlooking the spacious back yard.

            “But what if it happens again? Whatever it was?”

            “I don’t know Rand,” her mother stated, still looking out the window, “I’m not even sure what happened in the first place. But it’s made me curious about the history of this place, especially since this house has been standing for nearly as long as Vancouver has been a settlement.”

            “When was that?”

            “Vancouver was founded in 1825, but for a while a lot of it was still wide-open country. And for a while people still thought it was part of Portland.”

            “I remember someone saying something about that in school,” Miranda replied, “But mom, did people hang other people around here?”

            Her mother shrugged, shaking her head as she replied, “It was a much different time sweetheart, I’m not sure. But what you saw, what I saw, kind of indicates that they might have.”

            “I kind of think that the library would have anything on it,” Miranda said with a slightly sour tone to her voice. Her mother frowned briefly, smiling afterwards as she replied.

            “You’re a little too young to be so cynical. But then you’re also too young to be that nonchalant about seeing a ghost, or a spirit, or whatever it was.”

            “You’ve seen the movies I watch and the games I play mom. Unless the thing was coming right for us I’m not going to be scared of it.”

            “Who taught you to be so brave? Was it me, or your father?”

            Miranda rolled her eyes, “I think I’ve been desensitized by a world where shock and awe are common practices in entertainment.”

            Miranda almost laughed as her mother eyes widened as she said, “It’s also made you a wiseass obviously.”

            The two of them shared a laugh that felt good quite honestly, but as Miranda went to answer she sucked in a sudden breath as a sudden chill struck her out of nowhere, accompanied by a sudden bout of something that felt akin to rage that came on suddenly and without warning. Her mother gasped aloud as within the middle of their living room, only a few strides away, the apparition of a man could be seen, his face locked in a horrible snarl. He was leaning over something from the position of his body, the fat, almost pear-like shape of his form hovering dangerously over another figure that was revealed in that second as their forms appeared to be dissolving in reverse, coming into focus in a way that made no sense.

            The second form looked to be no bigger than a child, perhaps was a child, and both Miranda and her mother uttered startled, thin cries that faded out quickly as the cold hit Miranda again, this time laced with a hint of terror and, she believed, sorrow. What she didn’t expect at that moment was for the first spirit, specter, ghost, call it whatever a person wanted, halted in his action and, inexplicably, turned his head to stare directly at Miranda.

            Rage had twisted the ghost’s features into something even worse than what his normal, jowly appearance must have looked like, but as she watched a change came over the man as the rage simmered and cooled, and his eyes took on a haunted look. Before she knew it he was backing away, his clenched fist loosening as it dropped to his side.

            No, no, don’t tell her, no don’t tell her…

            They could both see the spirit’s lips moving, but only Miranda could hear him apparently as he backed away, further, and was then through their living room wall, and gone. Her mother didn’t move, but Miranda couldn’t help it, she had to see if the other figure had stuck around. Upon glancing over the couch that stood upon the dividing line between the living room area and the kitchen though she could see nothing. The other apparition was gone, and with it the lingering feeling of sorrow had departed as well.

            “If you’re going crazy Rand, then we both are,” her mother said in a breathless tone. “I saw it, and I don’t want to believe it, but I do.”

            “Great,” Miranda said as she hung her head.

                                                            *                      *                      *

            Four days passed before the effect happened again, but somehow this time was easier to take. It helped that the emotions she’d felt only moments before were happy, joyful even, but she’d done her best to not notice, to keep from drawing attention to herself. That was what she had figured had gone wrong with the sighting at home just days ago, she’d done something that had alerted the spirit to her presence. The couple she’d seen by the waterfront had been pleasant enough, a man and a woman that had obviously been in love when they’d passed, or had at the very least passed into the afterlife together, or had reunited. Whatever the case was, she’d been happy to avoid their notice.

            As she’d been walking towards the bus station to catch the next ride home though, the good feeling that had accumulated from the couple faded quickly as other spirits were apparently busy within the city. She’d felt one of them running by her, a young child as far as she could tell, one who had been scared and alone by the feel of it. Miranda had done her best not to look after the child, even after hearing within her thoughts the plaintive cry the child had continued to utter.

            Mama? Mama I’ll be good! Mama, come back now please!

            She’d felt her heart come close to breaking as she had gone by the spirit, but had almost reacted when the same effect that had taken place at home with her mother had started to occur. The strange rippling effect, almost as though the spirit was emerging from beneath a watery surface, had happened once again as the child had become visible for a brief moment before she’d continued walking, attempting to make the stop she had in mind without encountering any further spirits that might pull at her emotions in such a way. This was only her fourth time experiencing this, but somehow she was able to keep it together just as well as she’d done the first time, but the emotions were horrible, apart from the couple near the water.

            The more negative and desperate emotions had torn at her thus far, creating an effect that felt as though she’d lost something, or someone, and had therefore lost all hope. And that feeling of rage, of utter lunacy that the second time had brought had filled her with such dread that she had felt like running away at first. She hadn’t known how to react to the sight of someone hanging from the tree in their backyard, but it had scared her deep down. Why she hadn’t screamed was hard to say, especially since those around her had reacted the same.

            There was something to these feelings, some quality she couldn’t understand. It was almost as though what she was feeling extended to those around her maybe, or that she created a deadening effect akin to what she’d seen in the last Twilight movie upon watching it with her friends. Was she a mental shield of some sorts? That didn’t sound right, since she could feel every emotion that was being conveyed by these spirits so far, but those around her had, to this point, felt nothing, except maybe a morbid, detached curiosity. It sounded like something from a comic book, or a badly written horror story, but it was happening to her, and she had no ready explanation for it.

            At least getting on the bus hadn’t shown her any spirits, at least not until they’d hit Officer’s Row, the street that housed several of the oldest and most noteworthy homes in Vancouver. She’d heard several ghost stories that had originated on this street, which ran straight into the downtown area and on towards its termination point miles to the east. Miranda did her best to keep her eyes forward, as she didn’t want to tempt fate right now, especially after all she’d heard of this town as she’d grown up. Vancouver wasn’t quite like other cities, where ghost stories were so plentiful, but there were plenty of tales and stories to go around since Officer’s Row had housed quite a few people in its time, and according to history and to rumor, several of them had died here. Some of them had even been said to been executed somewhere in this vicinity, but she’d always been told by her parents that such tales were largely fabricated.

            She wasn’t willing to lift her head to see if the tales were true or false. But as the bus made its way along the avenue Miranda shuddered as a wild jumble of emotions passed through her, making it obvious that not as much had been fabricated as her parents might believe.

            Keeping her head down, Miranda waited for her stop, weathering the scattered emotions as best she could.

                                                            *                      *                      *

            As the years went along the sightings only increased, but somehow, Miranda learned how to control the emotions that came with them, thereby keeping the ghosts from appearing. They could still see her, and she could see them, but unless she lost control of the strange ability she’d developed, others were unaware of them. For a while it seemed like the perfect way to go, to just ignore them and let the spirits go on about their business. But that only worked for so long.

            After a while those that weren’t content to be seen and thereby ignored started doing things that caught the attention of others. Various times would suddenly fly off tables, chairs would be knocked over, unexplained noises would be heard, and other actions were taken, as though to get her to admit that they were there.

            None of them had managed to get too violent though, at least not until an occurrence that had happened only days ago, the same occurrence that was threatening to prove fatal at this point. The markings that she’d received upon her body at the age of thirteen, and received beyond legal means, had been to keep her safe once it had been discovered that there truly malevolent spirits out there that meant her harm. The protective markings belonged to a variety of different cultures and religions, and had been infused with, as she’d been told, the holy power of each deity and divine force that had used them as their symbols.

            Some might have laughed at the idea, but thus far, for two years, they’d kept her safe. Each time an angry or malevolent spirit had been close by, she had felt it as each tattoo had sent a mild charge of energy throughout her body. When getting too close the tattoos were warm to the touch, yet she’d never felt any discomfort. This time though, as the thing that had found her within this space drew near, each tattoo was becoming increasingly warm, radiating from her skin in a manner that could only mean one thing as far she was concerned. This thing was undeniably evil, and despite the disguise it wore, that of a middle-aged man, it was not human.

            As she’d found out, human spirits didn’t trigger her tattoos in this manner unless they were wholly evil, and even those few individuals that were irredeemably evil didn’t elicit this kind of reaction from her tattoos.

            We’ve been watching you, pretty girl, the thing crooned, red eyes glowing as it approached, the human face it wore leering as a wide grin split its face, much wider than any human would be been capable of. Being dead and made of whatever ethereal stuff that spirits were composed of might have explained such a thing, but the baleful light of its eyes was hard to miss.

            The feelings of rage coming off of this thing were affecting her much as many other spirits had done over the years. But this time, she felt different, almost empowered somehow, not frightened as she’d been in the past. If anything, she felt stronger, definitely still afraid, but far angrier than she’d ever felt in her life. It was as though the spirit had lit a very short fuse somewhere deep within her, and without thinking, she spoke briefly before feeling something flare deep within her, bursting free as though a dam had been broken.

            “Then you haven’t been watching close enough asshole,” she snarled, baring her teeth before opening her mouth wide to release a primal roar of such intensity that stumbled back half a step, widening her stance as the sound continued, thrumming powerfully in the air between her and the ghost as the most immediate results could be seen.

            The spirit recoiled in both shock and pain it would seem, eyes scrunching tightly against the sudden outburst as it continued to roll onward, hammering at the insubstantial form as the creature attempted to withstand the strange attack. It failed horribly as within seconds its form began to fray, pieces of it flying into the ether as she watched it being torn apart. The spirit had no chance to even scream as the sound of her roar continued to punish the thing, finally breaking it apart completely as the remains went flying off into the insubstantial realm they’d come from, apparently.

            “Is that going to be a common thing now?” came a voice from behind her.

            Turning around as she let the effect die down, Miranda could see that those around her were starting to come to, but her mother was on her feet, looking none the worse for wear despite a minor cut over her left eye.

            “I hope not,” Miranda replied, “I get the feeling that won’t work all the time.”

            A groan caught their attention as one of the ghost hunters started to stir.

            “Next time we might need to contact someone that really knows how to deal with spirits,” her mother said with a chuckle, “If the reveal is too much for them I’d hate to see what they would have done when the rest of us were down. You’ve got some guts young lady, standing up to that thing.”

            Miranda shrugged, “You live with something long enough, you learn not to back down. Otherwise you’ll be backing down all your life.”

            Her mother beamed at her, “That’s my girl.”

The Factory

Interplanetary Internet: Hypergiant and Arch Mission Partner to Connect the Solar  System » Dallas Innovates

The Factory

            It went on, and on, and on. The dimensional workspace didn’t have an end as far as she could see, and each station posted along the assembly line was responsible for a different aspect. They worked on different worlds each day in a very literal sense, though sometimes the same worlds were brought back through now and again in order to fix or alter something that had gone wrong, or had been seen to be less than efficient. The inhabitants of each world were none the wiser each time they were brought back for further testing and analysis, since the reality they were allowed to see didn’t often allow them to peer beyond the paper-thin veil that separated them from this place.

            They were well-cared for, that was all that mattered, and when the specs were changed, their world would change. It was often something small, but there were moments that were cataclysmic in nature, big changes that created several smaller changes along a period of time that, to the inhabitants of each world, lasted a lifetime, but was far less when it came to the factory clock, which dictated just how long each process was supposed to take. With a gesture she could collapse the entire assembly chain of realities that stretched along the assembly belt, their faint, glowing forms sitting unaware of what was being done to them, as could anyone she worked with. But the rule was pretty simple, you didn’t collapse anything unless there was a major meltdown in progress that needed addressing and was a threat to the entire system.

            She’d heard stories from a few people in the Logistics department about some of the worlds simply breaking down system by system until the world was little more than a sterile ball that could no longer sustain life. It had also been said that some worlds had seen to their own destruction by pushing things to a threshold that they couldn’t take. There had been measures set in place to ensure that such a thing didn’t happen, but they didn’t always work. Somehow, the worlds that were truly bent on self-destruction found a way to make such things happen. Thankfully the containment of such powerful energies was handled by an automated system that was able to absorb the majority of it, but it resulted in the utter destruction of the world in question.

            In such a case this mean that an entirely new world needed to be fabricated, processed, and then fit into the rotation, which could cause setbacks that often caused several nearby worlds to experience various difficulties. In a sense, a world that destroyed itself managed to become an inconvenience to several other worlds in the process, since the expenditure of energy was often enough to cause a sympathetic response in those worlds that were stationed within the vicinity, forcing them to adapt to the sudden wash of energy or begin to collapse as a result. More often than not, she and her fellow technicians were on hand and could stop this process, or at least alleviate it long enough to bring in an engineer that could fix any problems that they weren’t qualified for.

            It was an endless job, and one that she hadn’t fully understood before taking it. When she had responded to an ad in the newspaper she’d thought it would be a piece of cake, another manufacturing position that would pay decent wages, offer great benefits, and allow her to meet other people like herself. She’d been right thankfully, but she hadn’t been given a hint as to what the work would entail until her first day on the factory floor. At first she’d thought it was a fancy hologram device that was being manufactured, something that would be featured as an interactive toy for kids, or perhaps a classroom aid. It hadn’t been until the first world had perished that she’d come to fully understand the gravity of what they were doing here.

            She’d nearly lost everything that day, including her sanity.

            Watching a world die in a movie, or even reading about in a book, felt tragic enough since it was the end of something, a representation of what many people thought was one of the worst possible things that could ever happen. But having to watch it happen in real life, in real time, was absolutely surreal. She had only been on the job for about a month, and she hadn’t yet fully wrapped her head around the idea that she and many others were working on actual worlds, spheres of existence that housed untold billions of sentient beings. Trying to get it through her head that she was one of the many technicians working on different realities that existed for the same world, of which hers was one of them, had left her breathless when she’d been given an in-depth view at one of the model worlds that had come from the assembly line during orientation.

            Plenty of movies and TV shows had hinted at this type of manufacturing when it came to existence, but to see that it was real, that there were untold numbers of worlds that existed, had been as close to overwhelming as she’d ever experienced. She’d even been told that the earth line was only one of many. There were other lines in the factory apparently, and there were plenty of people that worked on these as well, but earth was a priority since within their solar system it was the only planet that anyone could figure had shown any consistent sign of life. She’d heard it said that from time to time the other worlds were seen to develop anomalies, species that could exist but remain undetected, or were taken as little more than attractions for the other worlds to notice if they had the inclination. It was a confusing bit of work really, trying to figure out how each and every world would interact with another, but that wasn’t her job thankfully, she wasn’t an engineer.

            She was a valued technician, and was in line to become a supervisor at one point. But that one time, the one time she could remember that she’d broken down and cried, it had almost been the end of her.

            The worlds weren’t perfect as it had been mentioned to all of them during orientation and during team meetings that were held every so often. Each sphere of existence was designed to run according to what had been programmed, but as she’d learned, that program could be skewed in a number of different ways and very few worlds were ever one hundred percent identical. The only problem was that sometimes the programming, which was expected to take on a life of its own, managed to fail so spectacularly that containing the resultant meltdown wasn’t possible before an engineer could be found. With an abundance of worlds and programs to write, check, and issues to take care of, and a finite number of engineers, there were times when such problems couldn’t be fixed in the nick of time.

            On this particular day the world in question had been floated down the assembly line along with all the others, being monitored by the continual banks of projectors and host of systems that were in charge of maintaining the perception that each world floated within its own blackened void among the stars. The projectors were linked to other rooms within the various levels of the factory, which numbered roughly two dozen in all. Everything from janitorial to research and development and CEO spaces were accounted for, and as of now she’d made the Earth Fab her place within the last several years. She’d had an offer to move on to the Neptune Fab nearly a year back, but she’d decided to stick around and see how many improvements she could help with in this location. Plus, the Earth Fab was where most things tended to happen.

            The world in question had already been flagged by the time it had reached her station, where she had been tasked with resolving a few minor natural disasters and finding a way to end a few unruly disputes that had destroyed much the world’s forest areas across the North American continent, but what had happened before she was able to begin on the first wildfire she’d seen had knocked her back nearly a foot and had forced her to watch the inevitable crumbling of a world. Later on it was decided that the incident was not her fault since according to factory records the world should have been taken off the line long before it ever reached her. But that hadn’t helped her mindset any.

            At that point in time she’d heard about worlds failing, had seen the effect in the training video, and had heard that it was awful. That wasn’t even half as bad as actually being there when it happened. Had she not recovered from her shock as quickly as she had then two other worlds would have suffered just as much, and would have been needlessly lost. But the screaming she’d heard, the tortured rending of a planet tearing itself apart from the inside, and the sight of so many being snuffed out in such a quick and decisive manner, had scarred her in a very profound manner.

            She’d watched as the world had cracked like an egg, the fissures that had opened up widening and then breaking the world apart, causing such an outcry of pain and suffering that had she not seen the effect on the worlds in front and behind the affected planet she might not have acted so quickly. Instead she had slammed the palm of her hand down on the emergency containment button as quickly as she could, dropping the metal plates that were suspended above the line and were there for just such a purpose. Shielded from view, the imploding world had gone silent behind the metal covering, until finally the engineers and the clean-up crew had come to relieve her for a time.

            The higher-ups had done a full psych eval on her and a few others that had been in the vicinity of the incident, and had determined that it was necessary to send them home with pay for a week. When asked whether or not she would know if their world would ever be at risk, she’d been reminded that the factory, this place, was quite literally removed from the world she knew, and that should their world come to risk, the factory and its people could and would be relocated if necessary. It had been a cold and rather unfeeling answer to her ears, especially since it meant that she and her fellow workers weren’t exactly expendable, but the worlds they’d likely come from were. Maybe she was way off base, but the feeling that the factory didn’t care that much about the worlds it dealt with had persisted ever since.

            She’d mentioned this to the in-house psychiatrist that she’d been required to visit at least once a week since the incident, and the individual had told her in no uncertain terms that the average worker had at least a few qualms now and then about the state of the worlds they worked on.

            “No one knows what you’re doing, and it’s better that way,” the psychiatrist had stated, “Normally a good line of communication is key, but in this instance that communication is best kept within the factory, between its people, and nowhere else. The NDA that you signed, that I signed, that everyone signs before working here, isn’t to keep the world safe from the knowledge of what goes on here, it’s to keep us safe from anyone that might want to take us seriously.”

            “But every world is expendable,” she’d replied, “And from what I’ve heard, several people from the fabs have had to relocate at least once.”

            “I have too,” the psychiatrist had said, “When my world went down mid-shift, I had to hole up here for a while with several of our co-workers until it was possible to find us another place where we could slip in unnoticed.”

            “But what about the people you leave behind?”

            The psychiatrist had sat back at that time and nodded her head, the auburn color of her hair catching the light in a way that had illuminated it somehow, which had gained her attention for a few passing seconds.

            “Those that we leave behind are still there, in the other worlds,” she’d replied, “though obviously not as we left them. Sometimes we don’t get to know them again, and other times we’re still connected to them, but in very different ways. There are those within the factory that have been unable to cope with this loss, while others have moved on and found a way to continue onward. It’s a difficult transition to be certain, but in our line of work it’s a conditional hazard that we come to understand, and have to deal with. Are you worried about anyone in this current sphere of existence that we call home?”

            “No,” she’d replied, shaking her head, “I grew up in the foster care system and haven’t formed a lot of long-lasting friendships. Those I have are pretty much conditional. I don’t have any real family and the people I’m friendly with could possibly get by without seeing me every day.”

            “Are you thinking of finding someone? The factory does allow for spousal or significant other protection, but it comes with a very steep price.”

            “That just sounds so cold,” she’d replied.

            “Yes, to most people it does,” the psychiatrist countered, “Which is why there’s been a fair amount of turnover throughout the years. People with families aren’t discouraged from this place, but they’re carefully screened and, if it can be arranged, they’re generally not hired. Some might call it discrimination, but anyone trying to file a lawsuit against the factory has, to date, forgotten just where we’re located, meaning that any such lawsuit never happens since the claims of those trying to make their case can’t be substantiated without a physical location that others can see and verify.”

            “It just feels like we’re detached from our humanity.”

            The psychiatrist had nodded, “It does, I agree. But it’s a necessity for this job. It’s possible to still experience humanity and all it has to offer us, but there’s a reason behind staying apart from it as much as we can.”

            “We’re caretakers,” she’d said, closing her eyes as she had remembered her orientation once again. Each one of those working the factory had been told that they were there to ensure the survival of their species, and to uphold the balance of the solar system they called home. It wasn’t a perfect system, as had been mentioned in the orientation, but it was what they had.

            They were caretakers, protecting and trying to care for a system that had no idea the task they’d accepted by choice. By the end of that particular session she’d felt numb, not better. But these days it was about as good as things could get on average. She had come to value her job, it paid the bills in the world where she and the others reside for now at least, and it paid well. The secret they all kept was still safe, even though some folks had attempted to spill the beans a couple of times. The psychiatrist was correct at least, those that tried to tell the truth about this place were regarded as kooks, especially since the factory wasn’t located anywhere people could find it, no matter that this defied the laws of physics that people had come to value over the years.

            Their job didn’t need to be highlighted, or shared with the world, as the many different versions of the world continuing to exist was their reward, and the only recognition they needed.

            They were caretakers after all, it came with the job.