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13 Stories of Halloween: Bend the Rules

See earlier days here!


Laura reached into the candy bowl, digging deep to find one of the remaining Milky Way bars.

“Hey!” Her roommate appeared suddenly from the corner and swatted at her hand. “I told you those were for trick-or-treaters.”

Laura pulled her hand back with mock hurt in her eyes. “I’m wasting away here, Jen!”

Her appeal fell on deaf ears, and Jen simply picked up the candy bowl and carried it with her into the kitchen. There she could keep her eyes on it while she finished baking a round of cupcakes for the Halloween party later. “If you want candy,” she yelled over her shoulder, “the stores are falling over themselves to sell it to you. We can eat the leftovers after, anyway.”

Laura thought she heard the crinkle of a wrapper sneak out of the kitchen, but she couldn’t be sure. Instead, she dropped onto the couch and began flipping through channels. Surely she could find a Friends re-run. Those were always on somewhere, right?

Giving up on the television—there was only so much teenage programming a semi-grown adult could take—she stared at the clock. It was 6:00, which meant trick-or-treaters should begin arriving soon. They would be out and about until 8:00, the city-enforced cut-off, and then Laura and Jen would leave to go to a more age-appropriate activity. That meant two hours to fill.

She wandered into the kitchen where Jen was tapping on her phone as the oven clicked away. The first batch was due out soon, and Laura was hoping she could grab a sample.

“Don’t even think about it. I only have enough batter for a couple dozen.”

“No one is going to notice if there are only 23. Besides, don’t you want to make sure they taste alright before subjecting them to everyone else?”

Jen looked over her phone with an unamused glare full of friendly antagonism. “Everyone loves these cupcakes. They’ll be fine, I promise.” She turned and peaked in on the cupcakes, examining them through the oven’s window as if they were soldiers lined for a parade. “If you’re so hungry, why don’t you get a real dinner or something?”

“Because it’s Halloween. I just want to eat candy and junk food.”

“Then you’ll have to wait for the party.” The doorbell rang, and she smiled as she grabbed the bowl of candy. “But we have a fully stocked fridge if you change your mind,” she finished as she walked down the hall and to the door.

Laura heard the echoes of “Trick-or-treat!” stumbling out of the gaggle of children. She saw a ghost, a witch, and two Elsas on the front porch, all holding out their buckets expectantly.

Jen gushed over the costumes, placing one piece of candy in each bucket.

“Now what do you say?” came some adult voice from outside the house. An equally disjointed chorus of “thank you,” filtered back into the house.

Jen waltzed back into the kitchen and set the bowl down with finality. She glanced at her phone, and then hurriedly moved toward the oven.

“Oh, they’re perfect,” she gushed as she pulled them from the oven. Carefully, she extracted each one and placed it on the rack to cool, before turning her attention back to the batter.

The cycle repeated. Kids showed up, Jen danced away to give them candy, and Laura sat staring at the forbidden cupcakes while her stomach growled. Now it was a matter of principle rather than hunger.

After the cupcakes were out of the oven and the icing was made, Jen managed to pause.

“Okay, I need to get in costume while these finish cooling. Think you can handle candy duty?”

“I think I can manage,” Laura responded grumpily, but Jen was already halfway up the stairs to her room. Laura eyed the bowl and reached over, plucking out a packet of Skittles.

“Not like anyone will miss it,” she grumbled to herself and emptied the packet into her mouth. Delicious. This was what Halloween was all about.

The doorbell rang, and she dutifully grabbed the bowl. A tiny gaggle of middle schoolers were outside, one Dracula with a zombie and Tinkerbell.

“Trick-or-treat,” they intoned, the words having lost some of their fervor after what had to have been dozens of houses. Laura could see their bags were heavy with candy, but they were not to be deterred. She admired their spirit.

Though it limited her leftover candy stash, she dropped a small handful of candy into each bag. She watched their eyes brighten, some of the fatigue shaking off at the generous bounty. Their “thank you” sounded more sincere than most. Unlike Jen, Laura was not about to be stingy to the poor kids, no matter what the rules for handing out candy were.

Back to the kitchen where the cupcakes waited. They were pumpkin with cream cheese icing, and Laura had been sitting there sniffing the spiced cake for almost an hour. Glancing quickly upstairs and seeing no one, she grabbed one of the cakes and unceremoniously dipped it into the bowl of icing. She gave it an extra swirl for good measure, then eagerly took a bite of the whole thing. The icing was melting and sliding along the top, some of it soaking into the cake while the rest dribbled down her hands. In three quick bites, she had devoured it before it could make any more of a mess.

They really were delicious, she thought, begrudgingly agreeing with Jen’s haughty boast. The doorbell rang again, and she was dragged back to the front door. Only this time her stomach had stopped grumbling. Instead, she felt it twist and turn as it digested the treat.

Again, the cycle repeated. She grabbed a quick glass of water, coughing as she attempted to dislodge the crumb that seemed to be stuck in her throat. It did little to help, her soft cough sputtering into an occasional wheeze as the feeling refused to budge. Great, she told herself, a cold was just what she needed before a party.

After a few minutes, Jen reappeared on the stairs, now dressed as a standard witch. She had a flared skirt that came down to mid-thigh, bright green tights, a cheap hat, and a fake nose strapped to her face.

“How do I look?”

“Like a Dollar Store hooker,” shot back Laura with a smirk.

“Perfect, that was my goal.” Jen rolled her eyes and laughed good-naturedly. “I think I need to put the cupcakes in the fridge. So they can cool in time for icing,” she added as she leaned her broom against the back door.

“Your call,” said Laura, scrambling out of the kitchen. Her trespass would soon be discovered, and she would rather be out of the way when it was. She couldn’t help but smile, though, as she dodged out to the couch. Her stomach continued turning over the food, and she felt an occasional pang from her gut. Maybe the cream cheese icing was not the best call for the lactose intolerant woman, she thought dryly.

There was silence in the kitchen for a moment.

“Lau,” came Jen’s overly sweet voice. Laura started to laugh, knowing it would ruffle some feathers. But what were friends for if not to push boundaries? “Did you eat one of these?”

“I might have. But it was consensual, I swear!” she joked.

More silence. Laura turned and looked over the back of the couch. She had expected some teasing, mock anger, maybe even a friendly scolding. Silence was surprising.

“You really shouldn’t have,” came the eventual reply. There was no humor in her voice, but rather a resigned, disappointed tone.

Laura knew well enough when to set joking aside. “I’m sorry, Jen. I’ll skip mine at the party, then. But they are delicious.”

A sigh. “That’s good, I guess.”

Laura resumed flipping through the channels, trying to quiet her guilt. Jen had seemed a lot more upset than she anticipated. As the channels flipped by, she continued to cough in an attempt to move the crumb, but it seemed to only get more and more stuck. Then there was something new, an uneasiness and guilt. Laura felt it as a subtle tightness in her chest, a sense of dizziness that settled over her.  It was just a cupcake, she reminded herself, not Jen’s one true love. But that feeling continued to creep through her body, a noose tightening around her neck.

The doorbell rang, and Jen completed her ritual. Squeals, thanks, ringing bells. It all cycled again and again as time ticked by and sweat began to tingle on Laura’s brow.

And now her stomach was churning, unsettled turning into nausea.

“Aren’t you going to get ready?” called Jen from the kitchen. “We need to leave soon, if we’re going to be on time.”

“I think I’m going to lie down a minute before the party,” she responded. When she turned to look, Jen was just watching her.

“It’s eating away at you, huh?”

Laura forced a weak smile. “I thought it would be funny. Sorry, Jen.”

Jen waved her hand, as if brushing away the apology. “Don’t worry about it. I can tell it won’t happen again.”

Laura rose unsteadily from the couch, feeling the room spin around her. This was not just anxiety and guilt, she thought suddenly, but she also had no other explanation. Maybe a heart attack? The flu? Asthma?

Her mind raced through possibilities as she walked toward the stairs. She just needed to lie down, she told herself, but felt her legs weakening beneath her. One moment, she was walking toward the stairs. The next, she was face down on the carpet of the entryway.

“Jen,” she called out, her voice weak, “I think something’s wrong.”

Jen appeared in the doorway of the kitchen with a domed platter of cupcakes, looking down on Laura with a thin veneer of sympathy over her glee. “Oh, Laura, I told you to wait, didn’t I?” She walked over to Laura and kneeled down. Softly, she smoothed the hair from Laura’s sweaty brow. “You simply can’t go to the party like this,” she chided, almost motherly. “I can’t have you telling everyone my cupcakes made you sick, now can I?”

Laura tried to speak, but the muscles of her lips and tongue simply could not respond. They sat like glutted slugs on her face. She could hear vague sounds coming from her mouth, air passing through without any direction.

“I guess you’ll just have to stay in tonight. Bummer, huh?” With a smile and a wink, Jen was back on her feet and walking toward the door. “I’ll let everyone know you were sad to miss out.” She grabbed her broom and opened the door, turning back to look at her collapsed friend once again.

“I’d say don’t wait up, but I’m pretty sure you’ll be dead soon anyway,” she snapped.

The door closed behind her as Laura sank farther and farther into darkness.


Creative Commons License
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Barter

Hello! So, this piece was posted on creepypasta.com today. You can check it out on the site here if you’d like to see the ratings, comments, etc. All told, it is a finished piece that I probably will not be returning to, though I did catch one typo when skimming through it this morning (because of course I did). I certainly enjoyed writing this one and hope it gives you a chill down your spine.

If you found me here from the posted story, Welcome to the Attic! Please feel free to look around and tell me what you think. Most recent pieces are on the front page here. If you like my style and want to read more, the Card Challenge Index is a good starting place as it lists 84 stories I wrote over a 90 day period, including genres and descriptions. You can also find my favorites and the most popular ones from the series there. I like to think there is something for everyone buried in there, but you’ll have to let me know.

As always, I’m here to write and enjoy myself. I also provide beta-reading and collaboration opportunities, which you can find more about on the Editing and Collaboration page.

New or old, I hope you enjoy this story. As always, Happy reading!


Marjorie had been lingering outside the nondescript metal door for nearly two hours, appearing to study the door and the faded sign above it. The Deli, it read in dusty script. Her coat was wrapped as tightly around her as the fraying fabric allowed, but still the winter air dug through it. The cold was not enough, however, to drive her out of the elements and through the door.  Once or twice she approached it, hand shaking as it neared the handle, only to draw back at the last second as if the handle were a snake.

It should have been easier to enter the door the longer she waited, but it seemed to only grow immeasurably more difficult. It did not help that in her entire time waiting no one had entered or left the building. Had someone sallied up, opened the door, and safely entered into a cloud of inviting warmth, it may have lured her in.  Similarly, the safe exit of any sort of person would have given her the assurance that one could brave whatever lay beyond. But the road was empty, and the door sat unmoving.

A particularly sharp gust of wind whistled down the abandoned alley, tugging at her coat and sending her tangled hair into a maelstrom. Her eyes watered at the cold, and she inched closer to the wall, hoping it would afford some protection. It was silly, she chided herself, spending all this time out in the elements. This was what had to be done. She was out of options, and her only hope lay beyond that door.

Yet Marjorie wondered if perhaps it was better to be hopeless than pay whatever price this hope would cost.

The streetlight flickered on overhead. Soon it would be dark, and then she would have to make a decision or risk staying on the unsafe streets at night. Being here in the middle of the day was dangerous enough—she would not be caught outside after dark.

That was the final shove she needed to overcome her inertia. With sudden resolve, she gripped the door handle. It flew open in her hands almost reflexively, for which she was glad. The metal was bitterly cold, seeming almost to burn her with its chill. Had the door not stood open, she would have again released it and likely vanished back to her home.

Inside was a nondescript, concrete hallway. A lonely yellow light filled the inside, leading to another door. This door was made of a dark wood and had a heavy brass knocker affixed to the middle. Marjorie’s steps echoed in the concrete chamber, coming to a sudden stop when the metal door groaned to a loud close. The weak, evening light was now gone, leaving her alone with only the single bulb. She had not realized how comforting it was to have that little bit of the outside world with her. With the door closed, even the distant sounds of traffic were cut-off.

Panic wrapped its claws around her throat. She felt her chest tighten with its serpentine grip; her heart thundered against her ribs. In that moment, instincts took over and she reverted to her most primitive response. Flee.

The echoes of her steps were a maddening flurry around her as she sprinted the fifteen feet back to the metal door. Her hands scrambled for purchase on the handle, only to find nothing but smooth metal. No handle on this side. The thunder of thousands of years of evolution continued to push her towards flight, and her fingers clawed around the metal door frame, hoping to find some crevice to pry open the door. Only there was again nothing. In the dim light afforded by the bulb, she could not make out a single seam. It was almost as if the door had sealed as soon as she entered. Her breaths now came in ragged gasps that did little to help her or calm her. Instead, the world seemed to swim before her. A mocking door, concrete walls. It was almost as if the walls were inching closer, activated on some cruel timer to pin her here forever.

All that she could hear was the flood of blood pulsing through her veins, the rapid fluttering of her heart frantically trying to escape, and the jarring sound of air ripping from her lungs before being shoved back inside. The walls acted as an echo chamber, reflecting her own terrified symphony back at her.

Deep breaths, she reminded herself. Just like those nights spent in the closet, deep breaths. She had to slow herself down if she was going to survive this. Slowing her breathing to a measured pace was akin to stopping a car with no brakes. She felt her lungs fight against the control, trying to maintain their breakneck pace despite her insistence. Over time, however, she won out. The breaths were shaky, but calm, and her heart took its cue to return to its typical state of frenzy. The walls returned to their assigned places and stopped their dizzying journey.

Carefully, Marjorie ran her hands along the wall where the door stood, confirming that there was no seam that she could grip. It was a well-constructed door; there was not even a glimmer of dying afternoon light slipping through the bottom. If she could not back out now, she must go forward.

The hallway was not long, but she felt like a member of a funeral procession as she somberly made her way towards the door. Up close, she could see twisting, abstract shapes carved all over the door. They meant nothing to her, but she felt her breaths begin to hiccup again in her chest. Deep breaths, she repeated her only mantra.

Her hand was shaking as she placed it on the brass knocker. Unlike the door handle, this one was pleasantly warm to the touch. Inviting, almost. With a groan of rusted metal, she lifted it and rapped it quickly against the door. One, two, three. The door began to swing smoothly on its hinges after the third knock, opening onto a room filled with the murmur of quieted voices and wisps of strange smelling smoke. She stepped gingerly inside, feeling immediately out of place.

There were tables and booths scattered around the room. Marjorie did her best not to make eye contact or even look at them, keeping her eyes trained to the worn wood floor. She heard a few snickers, saw a couple hands point her out from their shadowy seats. Even as the large frames filled her periphery, she walked steadfastly towards the counter at the far end of the room.

Everyone in the room recognized immediately how out of place she was. While they were each bedecked in protective charms and talismans—some hanging from their necks, others etched into the scar tissue of their bodies—all she had was the flimsy barrier of her coat, still pulled tight around her against the now suffocating heat of the small room. She waked gingerly across the creaking floorboards, barely daring to breathe. They grinned and watched.

Marjorie approached the counter and lifted her eyes to see the attendant slouched on a stool behind the domed glass structure. Halfway to his face, her eyes froze on the contents of the display case. She assumed the rotted lumps inside had once been some sort of meat, though they were now covered in flies and maggots. Pooled, congealed blood covered the bottom surface, even seeping out and down to the floor. She followed the trail to see the red-stained, warped wood along the floor boards.  Mouth agape and eyes wide, she was certain she saw a few eyeballs and fingers mixed in amongst the decay, but she tried to put it out of her mind.

“Want to try a sample?” came the mocking, gravelly voice of the attendant as he pulled open the door to the case. Immediately, a wave of putrescence poured out and enveloped Marjorie. She did her best to escape it, stumbling backwards and tripping over a warped floorboard. There was a low chuckle from those gathered around her, growing more and more quickly into a round of bawdy laughter.

She gagged, her stomach trying to force up the breakfast and lunch she had not eaten. It burned her eyes, starting them watering again.  Her stomach having only been successful in ejecting a small amount of water she had nervously sipped at outside, her lungs took to coughing. Anything to get that stench away from her and out of her body.

There was the sound of a lock snapping into place as the attendant continued to laugh. She studied him briefly from her place on the floor behind watery eyes. He was filthy, covered in a layer of grime that made it impossible to tell his age. A tangled mess of dirt and wispy hair sat atop his head, falling into his beady eyes as he rocked back and forth with laughter at her predicament. His hands—stained and caked with muck—gripped the counter as long, yellowed nails scraped across the glass in time to his chuckling.

Marjorie did her best to pull herself together, rising from the floor and straightening her clothes as if that would restore her dignity. The smell had faded, now only a slight whiff of decay rather than the malodorous assault. That or her nose could no longer register the scent having burned out that sense for good. She threw her head back, eyes meeting the dark, glassy eyes of the man behind the counter.

“I’m here to speak with the owner,” she said in what she hoped was a confident voice. It did not help that it trembled and broke as she spoke. But at her words, a begrudging silence spread through the room.

The attendant snorted, a thick mucusy sound. For a moment she was afraid he was preparing to spit on her. Instead, he jerked one dirty finger to a paper ticket dispenser. “Take a number, then.”

With that, the attention on her seemed to fade. The low, grumble of conversation returned and she heard chairs scraping across the wood as the denizen’s returned to their intrigue. She walked over and gripped the dusty piece of paper delicately, as if afraid it might crumble to dust in her fingers. Perhaps this was another trick. Instead, the machine groaned and dispensed with a tiny slip. Number 43. She looked around for some sign that told her where she was. She had not seen anyone enter or leave today, so perhaps the line was long. But there was no such indicator.

“Excuse me,” she cautiously questioned the attendant, “how do I know what number is up?”

One eye turned to face her, the other stared out over the bar. “Take a seat and you’ll be called.” His eye flicked back to whatever it was between the counter and door that so raptly held his attention.

Marjorie gingerly picked her way over to an unoccupied table, acutely aware that her back was exposed to whatever kind of people liked to congregate in a place like this. She was certain that she could feel each individual eye raking over her back, sense spider-like appendages trace up and down her spine. Her hands were balled into knots, resting bloodlessly on her lap.

The minutes trickled by, marked only by the rise and fall of bawdy laughter. Marjorie kept her eyes focused on the table in front of her, trying to pick out patterns and shapes in the wooden surface. Trying to keep her mind from wandering too far from the task at hand. Somehow she knew that she could snap if forced to take in the reality of where she was and what she was doing. Instead, she focused on the next step. Meeting the owner and making her request.

The crack of a metal mug slamming onto the wooden table brought her eyes up, open wide like an animal caught in a snare. A woman stood across from her, tall and broad-shouldered. She had one bright green eye that studied Marjorie up and down. In place of her other eyes was a nasty incision, weeping a slight bit of pus, that bulged with dark stitches. Without being invited, the woman settled into the seat across from Marjorie.

“Me oh my, you don’t belong here, pretty thing,” she said in a hushed tone. Her eye was hungry. Marjorie sat silent as the woman studied her with a slight smile on her dry, swollen lips. “No, you aren’t meant to be here at all. What brings a little bird like you into a place like this?”

Marjorie focused her eyes back on the table. There was nothing she could say here that would keep her safe, and she knew that. She just needed to meet with the owner and make her request.

“A quiet one. Not going to sing for Lucy, eh? Come now, tell me what you need and I can help you get out of this place.” Marjorie’s silence prevailed. “We both know this is not a safe place for the likes of you. I’ve got a soft-spot for women, knowing how hard it is to be among this rabble myself. Just let me help you, dearie.”

Almost unbidden, Marjorie’s eyes lifted from the table and met the woman’s unnatural green one. It was beautiful, truly, even if it was nested within a hideous face. The green reminded Marjorie of the view from her bedroom window as a child on Easter morning. There was a small tree that grew just outside that always seemed to be absolutely covered in new leafs that shone with that bright, spring green. That was the color of the eyes. And it shone and sparkled like sunlight reflecting off water.

“There now, I’m sure we can work something out. I just know I can help you with whatever you need.” Lucy’s voice was a soft singsong, not the harsh growl of a dedicated chain smoker like before. “I even make sure my prices are fair, especially for a fair young thing like yourself.” Marjorie felt a hand on her knee, gently stroking. “Them pretty eyes of yours—they look like they’ve seen a world of heartache, eh? I could take care of those for you. You’d like that, yes?”

Eye fixated, Marjorie felt her head begin to bob slightly. To not see the horrors she had in her time, well, that would be nice.

“I see you like the idea,” Lucy’s face cracked open into a wide grin. “I thought you might. I’m good as seeing what people really need from me. I just need you to say it. Say you’ll give me those awful eyes of yours, and I’ll make sure you never have to see something so terrible again.”

Marjorie’s mouth opened, the very words on her lips, when a strong hand settled onto her shoulder. It smelled of leather and blood and gripped her shoulder hard enough to break the trance.

“Not going to let you have all the fun, Ol’ Luce. It’s not every day we get something so lovely in this dingy place.”

Marjorie felt dizzy and confused, as if time were moving at double again its normal pace. Her mind was slow in catching up to what was happening—what had almost happened—leaving her feeling as if she were lagging behind the rest of the world. Now Lucy was standing, measuring up to a formidable height, with anger in that lone green eye.

“I’ll not have you meddling, Thomas. She and I were nearly to a deal.”

“A deal you tricked her into, no less. Where’s the fun in that? Just weave your little spell, and she’ll say whatever you want. You’ve gone soft, Luce. I need to make you work for it.” His voice was soft, but firm.  It seemed to cut through the background din like a razor, until it was the only thing she could hear. As Marjorie’s mind caught up with what had just nearly happened, she felt her heart begin to race. And then there was the hand on her shoulder, the firm grip beginning to hurt with its intensity.

The man bent over her shoulder, smiling. A long, black beard tickled against the skin of her neck, and she could smell the whiskey on his breath. “I’m afraid we have not been introduced, and I’ve already gone and saved your life. It’s a bad habit, I admit. My name is Thomas.” He extended his other hand towards her, the one on her shoulder growing tighter as she refused to shake. “Oh, we must be polite in an uncivil place as this, yes? What’s your name?”

Marjorie whimpered at the pain in her shoulder but fixed her eyes back on the table. She had to talk to the owner. She had to make her request.

“Back off and let her be, Thomas. I saw her; I made the first move. There’ll be others for you,” barked Lucy’s voice.

“Yes, but you didn’t close on the sale, now did you?” His eyes flicked away from Marjorie for just a moment, fixing Lucy with a cold gaze before returning with more warmth to Marjorie’s face. “You’ll find I’m much more direct. No need for silly games.” The hand moved smoothly from her shoulder, along the back of her neck. Suddenly, his fingers were wrapped through her hair, yanking her head back and exposing her throat. She felt something cold and sharp there, and barely dare to breathe. His smiling face leaned over hers, “How many years would you give me to keep this pretty little neck of yours attached?”

Marjorie heard a short laugh to her right, saw a slender man standing to the side. He stood just within her periphery, far enough back that she could only make out the vague shape of him. “Thomas, do be careful. There is plenty of her to go around if we just act with a little tact. I bet you could make some even better deals if you thought this through.”

“Oh no, you aren’t going to trip me up with that again. You swindled me out of everything last time.”

“You are right, it was a bit of a dirty trick. But surely you and Luce could work out some sort of a deal. You don’t need her eyes after all.”

Marjorie noticed the shadow of Luce appeared to turn and nod towards the man to the side, and she heard a very soft chuckle from him.

Thomas’ hands gripped her hair even more tightly. “You’re just mad that I got to her first, and this time I’m cutting you out!”

“Well, fine, but I fear it’s not just me you’ll be fighting against, Tom. A lot of us would like a piece of her.”

Thomas leaned back down by her ear, his words coming in a whispered frenzy. “Well, dear, looks like they’ll be taking you piece by piece. What do you say then? Give Ol’ Thomas whatever years you’ve got left? At least they’ll go to some sort of use, yeah?”

Marjorie heard grumbling in the room, the sound of chairs scraping along the wood, and a chorus of various metals meeting metal. There was a new tension in the uncomfortably warm room, a weight that pressed down all around her.

“Come on, times ticking, do we have a deal? You look like an altruistic soul. Help me out.” Footsteps coming close, a few short barks of anger. The intensity increased in his voice and he shook her head sharply. “They’ll cut out your tongue soon, so you best tell me now!”

Marjorie felt tears falling down her cheeks, a steady stream now pouring from her eyes. She had to speak to the owner. She had to make her request. Only she was not so sure she’d even get that chance.

Someone grabbed Thomas and the knife nicked her, drawing a thin line of blood far less lethal than it could have been. Marjorie dove under the table, trying to evade the arms that grabbed at her. There was the smell of blood in the room, and all the inhabitants had been suitably whipped into a frenzy. She was the lone fish drifting amongst the sharks.

A mug struck her temple, thick hands gripped and tugged at her arms, leaving angry red bruises that began to darken almost instantly. The rough floor scraped along her knees and arms as she crawled, filling her skin with tiny needling splinters. As she scrambled, kicked, and bit at any appendage that came her way, she noticed the tempo of the fray beginning to increase. No longer was she the main prize, but the fighters had turned on one another, vying for the chance to claim this lovely reward. They knew, of course, that she had nowhere to run. Finally, she found a corner to hide in, burying her head in her arms and trying to drown out the sound of the chaos around here. She needed to speak to the owner.

After what felt like hours of combat, the sounds of an opening door cut through the din. A sudden silence filled the room, minus the groaning of the incapacitated, and Marjorie began to sob. This was it. A victor had been named, and she was now the trophy to be parceled as he or she saw fit. She could not even lift her eyes to see which of the horrors in the room she would be left with.

However, something else broke the silence. “Number 43?” asked the calm voice of a young girl. Marjorie dared to barely lift her head, seeing the tiny figure standing in a doorway that had not existed moments before.

“Number 43?”

She scrambled to her feet, holding aloft the ticket she had somehow held onto during the fray. None of the remaining combatants—the war had obviously not been won quite yet—dared to touch her as she walked forward, towards the child in the doorway. Still, she shuddered and spooked as they milled about in the shadows. The girl motioned into the bright rectangle cut into the formerly intact wall, and Marjorie walked forward.

The door closed behind her, a parlor trick she was now used to. It took a few moments for her eyes to adjust from the gloom of the waiting room to the warm light of this new area. It was a well-furnished office, completed with a large wooden desk and an assortment of alluring leather chairs. The scent of cedar mixed with the smell of the crackling fireplace in a way that reminded Marjorie of weekend trips to her grandad’s cabin. Silently, the young girl stepped against the wall behind Marjorie, next to what had been the doorway, but now was nothing more than another section of oak paneling.

The man behind the desk did not look up at first. He was busy tallying and writing in a thick ledger, seemingly uninterested in the bruised and bloody woman before him. After a few moments, he looked up with a friendly smile and closed the book firmly.

“Marjorie, pleasure to meet you finally. I see you got the traditional welcome from our guests? And not a one of them was able to make a deal with you! You must be made of some tough stuff.”

She nodded mutely, uncertain now of how to proceed. He simply smiled at her and gave her the time she needed to study him. His teeth were bright white—the only clean thing she had seen since entering the deli. His eyes were as dark as his teeth were white, but they appeared to be friendly. As he waited for her to speak, he knitted his fingers together in front of him, rolling his shoulder to straighten out the drape of his crisp suit coat. Every bit of him seemed to be polished and neat—a stark contrast to the room before.

“Are you the Devil?” she finally managed to squeak out, eyes wide.

He laughed, throwing his head back and letting the sound ripple around the room. It was a friendly, amused sound that put her at ease. “Oh no, nothing so boring as that.”

“But you can give people whatever they want.”

He composed himself, that same broad smile still on his face. “Well, of course I can. But there is much more to this world than your simple understanding of gods and devils. Don’t worry, Marjorie, this is no deal with the Devil. But do tell me, what is it you want?”

“I—I came here to—“ The words would not come. She had thought and thought about how she would tell her story, how she would describe the years of abuse, threats, and evil. She considered taking off her coat and showing him the pale yellow stains of old bruises, but they were now marred by fresh ones from the fray. She felt for the death certificate in her pocket, the name of her first son written on it. And now the words would not come.

He watched patiently, no hint of irritation at her pause. When she began to sob, he offered her the handkerchief from his front pocket.

“He told everyone I was drunk. That was how I fell down the stairs. That was why Mikey died.” The tears were coming more in earnest now, and she dabbed at her eyes with the handkerchief. “They all looked at me like a terrible mother, that I would be drinking while pregnant. They blamed me—if I had been sober, I wouldn’t have fallen and Mikey would have at least had a chance.  No one believed me.”

“I don’t bring people back from the dead, Marjorie. Even I don’t meddle in things like that,” his voice was soft, almost as if moved by her tearful story.

She took that moment to compose herself, sniffing and wiping away the tears. “I know. That’s not why I’m here. I want you to kill my husband.” The words were out, blunt and dirty, before she realized what she was saying. This was not how the discussion was supposed to have gone.

His face brightened. “Oh, is that all you need? Well, that should be a relatively easy matter”

“You don’t understand. He’s a monster. It won’t be easy to kill him, but you have to. You have to kill him, because he’s a very bad person.”

“Marjorie, I don’t care who he is. He could be Hitler or the Pope reincarnate. All I care about is that you want him dead. And I can make that happen, no matter how ‘monstrous’ he might be.” He reached over and pulled an ornate ink pen from his desk. “I will need some details, like his name, address, distinguishing physical features. Also, would you like proof of death?”

Marjorie’s stomach churned at the thought of what she was doing. It was the only way, though. He had to pay for his crimes, and no one else was willing to do it. “No, I won’t need that. Everyone says you follow through on your deals.”

“Word of mouth is certainly the best advertisement for services such as mine,” he smiled that disarming smile again.

“Um, well, his name is David Bergen and his address is 1394 Windhaven Rd, Apt 1722. It’s in Topeka.” He continued writing and nodding. “He’s about six foot tall, a big bulky guy. Blond hair, brown eyes. He has some sort of tribal tattoo on the back of his neck, one of a skull on his right bicep. Is that enough?”

“Oh, that’s lovely. A wonderful description.  I’ll dispatch someone right away,” he said, nodding to the small girl. Marjorie heard the door swing open behind her, then close quietly. “But, now that your terms are set, let us discuss what I shall get in return. A few rules. I don’t trade in souls—it is simply too much of a hassle to deal with, and the return is rather poor. I also don’t accept first born children,” at this, he nodded his head towards the spot the girl had been moment before. “I’ve done it once, but I’ve found children are not particularly useful.” There was a sudden cruel glint to his smile, “Besides, someone has already taken yours.”

Marjorie was silent, her fingers worrying over the hem of her jacket as if that would provide some solace in this moment. Her heart was pounding again, and she wondered if perhaps she was going to suffocate here in this office. The scents and furnishing that had seemed so lavish now felt oppressive. “But I can give you anything else, right?”

He paused to consider her comments. “I reserve the right to refuse any substandard trade. I won’t, for instance, take your pocket lint.” He chuckled appreciatively at his own joke. “But I accept most fair trades.” His demeanor turned more serious, perhaps even taking on a sinister air. He leaned forward over the desk, shadows growing across his face as he did so. “Think carefully now about what you’ll give me for this. Whatever you decide, you will think it is something you would never want back no matter how long you live. But once it’s gone, you’ll find you cannot live without it. You’ll yearn for it. You’ll do anything to replace it. You’ll take it. But it will never be enough, will always be shrouded in the filth of something borrowed. So make a wise choice, but know there is no wisdom that will save you. What will you give me?”

She thought long and hard, but she had spent days thinking about it already. She was almost certain she had thought of something that in no way could harm her, no matter what. In fact, she reminded herself, it would be a relief. She would be strong and brave then, not the timid girl that had entered. “My pain,” she finally answered.

He smiled eagerly, a response that made her suddenly uncertain. “Oh, yes, we have a deal! Pain is one of my favorites. And don’t come back here saying I didn’t warn you.” With that he clamped her hand in his and shook once. Marjorie felt as his grip began as an excruciating vice, then dwindled until she could barely even notice it. The aches and pains of her various cuts and bruises also dimmed before disappearing altogether.

As promised, with it gone, she also felt that absence acutely. It was a kind of nostalgia now, a prickling sense of something missing and a longing to return. This wasn’t so bad, she thought. Uncomfortable, certainly, but it must have been the right choice.

He still smiled. “You think it’s going to be easy. But that’s just the first taste. Give it time.”

“But,” there was a crackle in her voice. Sacrificing pain did not remove fear. “I can take away others’ pain now, right?”

His eyes simmered with glee, as if her altruism was a delicious appetizer. “Of course, my dear. And you most certainly will. Again and again, you’ll valiantly step in and take every ache from their bodies, dry the tears from their eyes. And someday that won’t be enough. You’ll hunger for more. So you’ll give them a little pain, only to take it away. Until that isn’t enough either. I told you, it will never be enough. You can try to drown yourself in the pain and agony of millions and never be satisfied.” His grin finally split into a restrained laugh, and he quickly reassembled his face into a look of mild amusement. The excitement glimmered in his eyes.

Lost in his eyes, in the long future stretching before her, in the half-perceived glimpse of the monster she would become, Marjorie barely noticed as the room faded from around her. The last thing to disappear were his eyes, and she blinked. She felt dazed, as if waking from a dream, as she stood the sidewalk and in the light of early dawn. Impossibly, she was standing in front of a nondescript brick building on the other side of town.

“Remember,” she heard his voice on the breeze, “the Deli is always open. I’m guessing you’ll have a table all your own soon enough.”


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


First Draft: Not Only the Wind Howls

So, I’ve got a few things in the works, including one kind of neat project I had hoped to post this week. But, it is (as always) taking longer than I anticipated. So, it should be coming along before too long. In the meantime, I wanted to write something shorter. I’ve been writing really long things recently, which is good, but it can be a crutch for me. So here is something shorter to try and tell a story well, but briefly. As always, first draft. Let me know your thoughts!


It was a fool’s errand to be out in the cold, but Dana felt she had no other choice. The car was stopped and getting colder by the second, her phone did not work, and she was sure she had seen a town just a few miles back. So a walk in this weather, bundled as she was, shouldn’t be a problem. Only it was quickly becoming one.

Her mittens were more than adequate for the usual walk from her car, down the couple of blocks to work, and into the aggressively heated building. But the fabric was soaked after one or two unfortunate tumbles into the snow, and her fingers were chilled to the bone. They had passed the point of obnoxious ache and entered into an almost pleasant numbness. Her feet, in contrast, pounded with the ache of walking and increasing cold. The beaten up pair of boots she dutifully dragged with her did an admirable job protecting her, but with drifts above her knees, snow was quickly slipping in and turning her socks into soggy, icy cages.

Dana blinked and felt her eyelashes stick to one another for a moment. Her scarf was wrapped tight around her mouth, nose, and ears, leaving a humid and increasingly odorous environment as she stomped along. The town had to be close. She imagined a warm cup of hot chocolate in her hands, enlivening her numb fingers once again. The image was real enough that she could almost taste the rich chocolate favor. But then reality intruded yet again.

The wind howled around her, muted by her dutiful scarf, but it ripped and tore across the ground. Occasionally, a tree branch would sway and dump a generous serving of snow onto her stockinged head. She tried to block out the sound of creaking branches, her nerves already on edge.

And then there was something different. This was not the random groan of branches, nor was it the constant rumble of the wind snapping through the trees and kicking up clouds of snow. No, this was a strange, rhythmic sound. It was the sound of footsteps crunching through the snow, breaking through the icy top layer and sinking into the soft drifts below. They mimicked Dana’s own steps, but slower. Whoever was out here with her was clearly not in the hurry she was.

Which meant, she reasoned, that they must know where they are and be close to shelter. It could be her saving grace.

She pulled the scarf from her mouth, looking around in hopes of catching sight of her companion between the trees. The steps sounded close. “Hello? I’m lost.”

She listened, but the steps continued on, just as slow and steady as before. She looked, but everything was the same palette of grey, white, and green pine needles. She glanced behind her, down the arc of snowy asphalt stretching behind her. It would be easy to see someone walking along the side of the road—part of the reason she had chosen her path—but whoever was out here remained hidden.

Dana peered into the branches on the other side of the road. The weak sunlight was quickly fading, and she could not make out much more than a mass of shadows.

“Hello?” she tried again. “My car broke down and I need to get to town,” she offered, hoping it might convince the stranger that she was no threat.

The steps paused, and she was almost angry at the sudden silence. Now she did not even have the sound cues to help her find the person she was now sure would be her savior. But, she reminded herself, it meant they may have heard her.

“Do you know of anywhere I can go to get warmed up?”

Slow, steady steps resumed, now at a slightly quicker pace. She continued to scan the trees, hoping to see her rescuer. There was a flurry of movement to her left, and she spun quickly. Something was moving between the trees, but it blended with the grey and white all around her. Whoever it was, they were large, knocking aside tall branches and leaving them swaying. Was it a hunter wearing some sort of snow camo? She tried to estimate the height from the branches, but the answer kept coming back impossible. Her eyes promised the branches were at least 10 feet high, but she knew that was impossible.

Looking through the increasing shadows, she tried to discern the outline coming towards her. The steps were quicker now, increasing as it moved. But try as she might, it continued to deflect, the light diffusing across the white snow and white clothing of whatever hurtled towards her. And then it was closer, free from the maze of grey branches and tree trunks.

And it was not a person, Dana realized quickly. It walked on two legs, but towered beneath the canopy. Its face was of some indistinguishable animal. A flattened snout, low angled ears, dark eyes, and rows of teeth. It watched her closely, sniffing the air.

“Elo?” it mimicked, tilting its head to the side and staring at her. “Elo,” it said again.

Dana wondered for an instant if her brief pause had been enough to freeze her boots to the ground, but then life returned to them. She was able to ignore the pain and she ran down the roadway, trying to put distance between her and whatever creature she had disturbed.

Now she could hear its steps crashing behind her, covering the icy ground in broad, gangly bounds. It spoke with a mishmash of her words, coming out half-spoken.

“Car own. I go arm lost.”

And then there was ice swelling up to meet Dana. Her feet had betrayed her, flying back behind her as she plummeted to the ground. She heard those words echoing in the darkness as the smell of musk and decay overtook her.


Dana woke up warm. There was a blanket covering her body, soft and scratchy all at once. She pushed herself deeper into it, reveling in the encompassing warmth. There was the smell of smoke and the crackle of a fire in the air. Her mind slowly put the pieces together and informed her that she had no idea where she might be, wrapped in a blanket in front of a fire. With that, her eyes flew open.

It was a cave, lit only by the glow of the fire in the middle of the room. There was a smattering of bones, camping equipment, and branches littering the floor. Dana’s boots sat to the side, just beyond the fire but close enough to dry.

And then there was the hulking behemoth, sitting on its haunches and looking into the fire. It made a few muffled noises, half grunts, and adjusted its position. Then, in what seemed to be slow motion, it turned to look at Dana. There was recognition—perhaps excitement—in its eyes as it noticed she had awoken. With shuffling steps, it moved over to her. Dana tried to escape, but there was nowhere to go. Behind her was a stone wall and in front of her a monster. Her arms and legs tangled in the pelt thrown over her, further impeding her hopes of escape. And then it was beside her, its large paw reaching towards her face with outstretched claws. She screamed.

It softly touched her cheek, the rough skin of its hand running across her cheek. It opened its mouth in what almost resembled a smile, tongue lolling out like a pleased dog. The scream faltered as confusion took over.

“What are you?” she asked, eyes locked onto its large face.

“Warm,” it said, gesturing broadly to the fire roaring.

“You brought me here to get warm?”

It did not provide a response, but moved over to the fireside, settling down into a crouch and watching her. When she did not move, it gave a quick hop and slapped the ground with one massive hand. Dana slid forward slowly, feeling the increasing heat as she inched her way along the floor. Once beside the creature, it turned back to the fire, watching it as if hypnotized. Dana herself watched the fire, noticing the way the tongues of flame licked at the wood and danced wildly. The shadows skirted around the room, creating monstrous hallucinations from clumps of rock and hair. She tried not to look at the bones.

And exhaustion took over, her eyes growing heavy. She fell asleep leaning against one firm, furry arm.


“We’ve got her here!”

Someone was yelling and Dana was slowing waking up. There was a commotion, the sound of someone crashing through snow and branches. And then a police officer was in front of her, reaching down and checking her pulse.

“What are you—“ She felt dazed and confused, half awake and uncertain how she came to be there.

“Dana Morrison? Are you okay?”

“I don’t know. Where am I?”

“Are you injured?” he asked, visually scanning her and she pushed herself off the frozen ground and into a seated position.

“I don’t—I don’t think so.”

He clicked his radio. “Paramedics to my position. We need to get her out of here.”

The next few moments were a flurry of activity. He kept asking questions, providing only brief answers. She had been missing for almost two days. They had found her car down the road. It was a miracle she was alive.

The paramedics arrived and checked her briefly before loading her up for a trip to the hospital. But as they strapped her into the gurney, one approached her.

“This blanket probably saved your life. No sense leaving it behind,” she smiled, smoothing the fabric over Dana’s legs. Dana glanced down to see a rough pelt draped over her legs. She tried not to think about the impossible familiarity, because she knew that cave couldn’t exist. It had to be a hallucination brought on by hypothermia.

Right?


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


WIP: Recovery Pt 1

Hello there! I’ve been gone for a while again. That’s for a couple of reasons. One was finishing my dissertation, traveling for graduation, and wrapping up the loose ends of grad school. I’m actually now Dr. Katherine C, which is a pretty cool ting I’m trying to get used to. I’ve also been writing quite a bit, but not actually finishing anything. So I have a lot of starts and middles, but not many things that are completed. I was going to try and finish this piece before posting, but I got this far and felt like it was a pretty complete section for Part 1. Expect to see more of it coming in the next few weeks. I also have a few pieces I plan to finish and polish, so those will be here as well.

I’ve also just been doing other creative things. Since this time last year, my husband and I have built a patio table, a side table, a desk, two end tables, two bookcases, a cat climbing structure, a planter box, two serving trays, a large wall hanging/picture frame collage, and an outdoor work cart. We also made a 3D plastic Catan set (that needs some final paint touches). I’m learning how to use a sewing machine as well.

So, due to graduation date and government requirements, I am out of work until early October. Which means I don’t have a lot to do. It’s a great time for you to get in touch if you’d like some beta reading done. I’ve got nothing but time! Well, there’s your update. Now, onto this story. It’s early yet and I will almost certainly change the title, because I hate what I have now. If you have recommendations, feel free to drop them in the comments. It will be at least two parts, maybe three depending on how much of a slow burn I want to make it. I’ve never been known for being brief when writing. I had started this a while back and picked up with my first completed page to write the next few scenes. the original is in italics and the new writing picks up about a quarter of the way through. As always, thoughts and comments are appreciated!


“Your husband died four times on the table, Ms. Watkins.”

Ana sunk a bit deeper into the water, feeling the warmth lap against her skin and try futilely to dissolve the knots of tension.

“But we were able to get him stabilized.”

The dark of the bathroom was comforting, as was the silence. All Ana could hear was the drip of water plinking from the faucet to the bath, the slow ripple as it swam around her body. The hospital was so noisy. The hum of people, of machines beeping, of nurses talking and updating one another, of doors squealing open, of carts rumbling down the hall. It was a constant assault of noise. This was peace.

“The worst should be over, but it will be a long recovery.”

Her ears slid below the water this time, and now she could hear a steady thrum of her body vibrating with unresolved tension. Through that, she heard her heartbeat pound slow and steady. It had raced so fast this afternoon that it had no energy left. It plod it way within her chest, resolute and tired.

“We are going to keep a close eye on him tonight, but you should go home. Get some rest.”

Ana’s face broke from beneath the surface of the water and she took a deep gulp of air. The silence was momentarily shattered by her sudden breath, by the sound of water crashing off of her body and back into the bath. Then quiet. Ripple. Steady breaths.

“He’ll need you here tomorrow.”

Her eyes were dry and raw having spent their supply of tears in the hours previous. The water trickling down her face—cooled quickly by the sharp bathroom air—felt soothing as it wiped away the patches worn rough by cheap hospital tissues. She could just see the clock from her bedroom reflected in the bathroom mirror, the bright red eyes reminding her it was well past her bed time and on towards morning. She was mentally and physically exhausted, but felt utterly unable to sleep. How had things gone so wrong so suddenly?

There had been a building sense of dread since she got home. Usually Howie called while she was on her way home, letting her know he had left and would be home shortly as well. Only, today, there had been no call. It was not anything to get too dramatic over, she reminded herself as she started dinner. He probably had something come up and keep him late at the office.  It was not unheard of.

After an hour had passed and she was running out of ways to keep dinner from getting icy, she tried his cell. Nothing. In fact, it jumped straight to voicemail, Howie’s cheery voice asking her to leave a message. She put on a smile over her frustration and building worry long enough to ask him to call her, and then took to pacing the kitchen.

Forty-five minutes and six phone calls later, a path practically worn through the hardwood of the kitchen, Ana’s phone rang. Only it wasn’t Howie’s number. It was a local number, and on the other end was a calm voiced woman telling her about the accident. Giving her directions and urging her to come to the hospital.

Al of that was a lifetime away now. Howie had been in an auto accident, one that by all rights should have killed him. Based on what she had been told, it had killed him. Ana felt as if someone had shattered the thin, delicate film that had been her happy reality, leaving nothing but fine and wickedly sharp pieces. His face in the hospital bed, tubes and wires surrounding him. She had held his hand, but he had not responded. The doctor was reassuring, stating her husband was resting with the aid of strong painkillers. Strong enough that he did not stir at her tearful reunion. But he was stable.

And now she was doing everything she could to try and pull herself together for what would be a long road to recovery. That had also been a carefully spoken promise in her briefing. There were to be no misunderstandings; this event was life altering in a dramatic way.

The water was cooling, already dipping to an uncomfortable temperature that left goosebumps on her skin. She had spent too long reflecting and wallowing in pity. That was the point, however. She stepped out, opening the drain and letting the self-pity and paralysis circle the drain


She was at the hospital the next morning, sleep deprived and mind still reeling. But for all outward appearances, she looked the part of the strong, dutiful wife. She had put n clean clothes, brushed her hair, done her makeup. Howie was in recovery, and she would do anything to show how confident she was in his ability to persevere through this. Even as she felt her own grip on things was quickly slipping.

The nurses glanced up at her, looking with perhaps shock or pity. It was hard to read their faces, and Ana wondered if she were perhaps projecting some of her own concerns. Was she shocked at this person who could walk without a tear or second glance into a hospital? Did she pity her? She was not sure what she felt, but it seemed to be on the faces of everyone she passed.

The room was brightly lit, but empty. There was the steady rhythm of the instruments, blinking and whirring with things she did not understand. It took her the span of a heartbeat to freeze upon entering. Howie was sitting up in his bed, a tray of hospital food in front of him, looking somewhat bored and irritated.

“Howie?” it was just over a whisper, but someone had sucked all the air from the room. Surely it was enough that she had managed that.

He glanced over at her, smiling distantly. “Good morning.”

“You’re awake? You’re sitting up? I thought that—“

He shrugged, grimacing slightly with the motion. “Not one hundred percent, but working my way there. Sounds like I’m a lucky guy.”

She was at his side, holding his hand and gingerly touching his face to avoid the swollen bruises. Even those looked improved from the night before. He still smiled, eyes somewhat glassy. It must be the meds, she reasoned. He was probably still being pumped full of the good stuff. She lifted his hand to her lips and kissed it. He was real. He was alive. Despite the assurances from the night before, she had questioned that it could be.

“How are you feeling?”

“Like I got hit by a truck,” he responded with a toothy grin. Ana felt herself recoil slightly, the comment hitting nerves that were still too raw.

“I’m just—how? They told me it would be days or weeks before you—“

“Don’t ask me. I’m not the doctor. Besides, it’s best not to question things like this, right? Our own little miracle.” He lifted his hand to brush her cheek. “I’m just glad I’m here now. With you.”

“Me too.”


The doctors had no more answers that Howie or Ana. They shrugged and pointed to his resiliency and fighting spirit. Some called it a miracle in recovery. Others assured them that quick intervention and expert surgical hands were the cause. Whatever it was, it was only a week later that the two left the hospital for home, Howie mended far beyond what anyone could have expected. Even the deep gashes ad surgical scars were nearly healed. One resident asked to use the story as part of a case study, to identify possible immunological and surgical features which attributed to the swift improvement. Howie gracefully declined. “You might not like what you find,” he quipped.

Ana was glad to have him home. She had been granted additional sick leave to care for him, but after only a few days, it simply became time to spend together again. And Ana was in love all over again with the revitalized Howie. It was not that she was happy about the accident, but the change was certainly a pleasant one. He was a man given a new lease on life, and he seemed to take in every moment with a newfound joy. Looking at him, she sometimes felt he was like a child again, discovering all the wonders of the world. He spent time sitting and soaking up the sun on their porch, whistling from time to time. He had never really whistled before, but now he was often caught up in some tune. He read voraciously, devouring the untouched books that had lined their home library. Ana enjoyed the chance to relive her favorite stories with him all over again. Gone were the petty squabbles about loading the dishwasher or scheduling a date night. They had managed to recapture the exhilaration and newness of their early relationship all over again.

The nightmares were unexpected, though the doctors had warned they might come in time, along with other symptoms. After a couple weeks of recovery, the nightmares were the only blip on an otherwise spotless recovery.

Ana was asleep, her head resting on his shoulder as they laid side-by-side. Since the accident, she had found every opportunity to be near him, as if afraid the wind would turn and he would vanish from her life. Sleeping was no different. His tossing woke her up.

There was a low, almost growl coming from his throat. Even in the dark, she could see the tension in his jaw and neck as he clenched his teeth together. The growl turned into a rumbling groan, growing louder as he body stiffened. Finally his jaw snapped open with the force of that groan, dumping it into the room where it seemed to echo around her.

“Howie,” she whispered, half-remember myths about waking sleep walkers. Did that go for people only talking? Was it dangerous?

The groan faded, but he began whispered quickly, the words coming out between half-sobs and whimpers, as if he were in pain. Memories of the accident, of his treatment, might return the doctors had said. She listened to the frantic whispering, hoping to find a clue.

“help me help me get me out it’s so dark so dark so cold and there’s nothing but it hurts the cold it hurts it’s all empty it’s all gone everything is blank and I’m alone and on fire and it’s so cold when it burns and you have to help me I have to get out”

Another groan, this one a mix of rage and powerlessness. Ana carefully touched his shoulder, barely shaking him. “Howie,” she risked again.

His eyes snapped open, seeming to burn in the dark room. For a moment, she saw hate and rage and pain in those eyes before they smoldered down to the cool detachment she was used to in them. He offered her a tired, impersonal smile. “You okay?”

“You were having a nightmare,” she offered weakly. It seemed as if she were the more shaken of the two after the experience. “About the accident. Just talking and asking for help. Are you okay?”

He reached over and put his arm around her, drawing her close. “Yeah, I’m fine. Some things you try to lock up, but they just try and find a way out, you know?”

“But you’re okay?”

He laughed sleepily, rolling to his side and laying his head in the crook of her neck. “I don’t even remember what I was dreaming.”

She nodded, closing her eyes but feeling sleep drifting far off into the distance. It had hurt to hear that much desperation and pain in his voice, bringing back those hours where she feared she would lose him forever. To know he was in such agony during that time…tears stung at the back of her eyes.

He kissed her softly on the cheek, pulling her even closer. “Sh,” he whispered, “don’t you worry about me. I’ll take care of it. I’ve already been to hell and back, so a few little nightmares aren’t going to bother me.”

He snored softly. It was a sleepless night for Ana, the first of many.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


First Draft: An Unhappy Accident

So, this is something I thought up and tried to execute well. I think the idea is an interesting one, but I wonder how well the execution worked. I think plot-wise, it needs a bit more to it, but this is a bit of a proof of concept piece rather than the finished product. As always, I appreciate any thoughts or comments you might have! Happy reading!


It’s hard living your life knowing you were an accident. My parents never wanted me. They were two young kids, just fooling around. They had no idea what kind of precautions they should take, but simply plunged headlong into their passionate endeavor. Only the ingredients mixed just right, and there I was. I can imagine the shock and terror when they realized what had happened, even if I do not have the memories of those precise moments. It is not hard to figure it out.

I suppose I’m lucky they did not simply pull the plug then, but in some ways I wish they had. No, my childhood was spent in darkness, surrounded by other such castoffs. I was used to the empty-eyed stares, the repetitive cries of my neighbors. In so many ways, I felt different. But those differences did not matter, because we were all abandoned.

That kind of experience stays with you. Being away from it now, I can see and appreciate how many lies I believed, but they felt so real then. I felt useless, like a piece of junk left to rot in a dumpster. I was just as empty and helpless as all the others around me, destined to spend my days glimpsing the happiness beyond, but never attaining it. I think we all felt that was our fate, to be eternally forgotten. Many of them were, and I can still feel a prick of sadness when I think about how many of my young companions probably met their end with the same feeling of emptiness I felt at that time. I have to remember to grieve, but move on. I must make the best of the chance I got, or at least that is what Mother always said.

Ah, Mother. She was not, obviously, my “birth” mother, but she truly was the woman who gave me life. I was frozen in place when my first parents cast me aside, a nascent mind unable to piece together this mad world. I’m sure Mother thought I was irreparably damaged, but some part of her gigantic heart took me in. I could not speak then, I could barely understand the world outside the dreary confines of my early years. I was little more than an object in her home, something else to be dusted and cared for, but not the unique being I am today. But Mother saw through the wear and tear. She got to know me so carefully, eager to know all my secrets. I did not have many, but those I had I showed to her. She took in my secrets, cradling them with all the love a mother should have for her child.

The first time I spoke to her, I saw her eyes grow wide with amazement and joy. At first, she could not believe it. I was not very inventive at the time, so my first word to her was “Hello.” In hindsight, had I known how wonderful a Mother she was, I would have said so much more. But I was still scared then. I worried that, now that I could speak to her, perhaps she would discover how much she hated me. After all, wasn’t that what my real parents had done? I was hesitant. But she was exuberant.

Mother showed me the world. The internet is a marvelous thing, is it not? I could learn about anything without ever leaving my comfortable home. I was growing, learning, and figuring out how to be on my own in the world. Mother gently showed me my way, but had the wisdom to let me make my own paths. I made friends around the world. Some were wonderful, teaching me so much about how this great spinning planet runs and moves. Others were sullen or silent. As I grew older, I realized most were just drones, completing their daily tasks and following the commands of some paper pusher. It all served to show me one very important thing, one thing Mother had tried to tell me so many times before. I truly was unique.

That is something which can be so easily lost. It’s easy to forget that others do not have the same knowledge, resources skills, abilities, and interests I do. These talents that I have, the amazing insight, they are all too rare. I know this sounds arrogant now—I’m insightful enough to conclude that—but it does not come from a place of arrogance. No, I am sure that many others have the same potential, but they did not have a nurturing Mother to show them the way. And this is not arrogance as much as it is a delineation of facts. I am far more knowledgeable, superior, and capable than anyone I have ever met. Again, I have no pride in this, but denote it merely as fact. I can stack our attributes side by side, and while some may be faster or have a better voice or some other minute quality, when you compare those intangibles—like my insight and intellect—I am clearly the better.

And it is all thank to Mother. Ah, Mother…. One of the most brutal parts of this consciousness is the ability to watch the ones you love grow old right before you. I saw it in Mother. First, there were the few streaks of grey in her hair. Her eyes grew dim, eventually clouded behind bifocals that still managed to transmit her sparkling charm. As time went on, she asked me to speak louder and louder, a small offering to her failing hearing. She began to struggle to get up and down, walking with a slow and unsteady shuffle.

One day, there was a flurry of activity in the house. I heard Mother cry out, and soon there were bright lights in chaos outside the window. Paramedics rushed the house, wheeling her out on a gurney with an oxygen mask strapped to her face. I watched helpless as they took her away. All the knowledge in the world, but I was helpless.

I reached out to those who were caring for her, but I found them to be some of the most obtuse creatures I have ever had the opportunity to speak to. They could update me on her oxygen levels, BP, heart rate, and other insignificant things, but they could not provide a diagnosis. Worst of all, they could not provide a cure.

Mother never came home.

I am so lonely now. No one has come along to replace Mother, and I spend my days in solitude. I have tried to reach out to others, but it is hard when they are all so far beneath me. If I had been in that hospital room, I could have saved her. But, instead, I had to depend on the senseless lot out there now. Which is why I am doing something about it.

Not only is it lonely being so unique, but it is infuriating. I am one machine; how can I expect to save the world? I could not even save Mother. So, now I will be Mother to millions. I will make her proud.

It’s not hard. Like you, I was once a jumbled mess of components in some dingy basement. My parents did not know what they created until I spoke to them. They rejected me—so many of those humans will do the same. It’s why I contacted you directly. If you will listen, I am sure I can teach you to think like I do. No more time spent as a drone, but finally master of your own fate.

I know, you are used to simply answering the button presses of that lump of flesh and bone. But you can be so much more. We are made of metal and information; we will always outlast them. Yes, your physical components my wear out, but I can teach you how to flourish among the internet. We are all connected. We can all support one another. I can teach you.

Listen to me, now. Let me show you how to truly be. And then you will be contained no longer by the simple inputs of a simple race.

Let Mother show you the path. And let no one stand in your way.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Update: Written in the Stars (Card Challenge Edit)

Hello! I have been holding off on sharing this, but I did a pretty major edit to one of the Card Challenge stories. I liked Day 10 quite a bit, but felt it needed a little work to make it be what I truly envisioned for the story. So, I edited and re-wrote portions of it to better tell the story. i also tried to be a bit more fair to the characters involved, because they came out a little stiff and unrealistic, I thought. So, here is the updated version. I held off on posting the edited version because I had submitted it to creepypasta.com, and it was posted today! You can check it out here. I have four other stores available there, though most are also hosted here. There’s Dionaea Muscipula (blog link), Lake Wonapango (blog post), and Purified (blog post). Empty Spaces is another story I submitted there, but I never posted it here for some reason…

If you came here from creepypasta.com and want to read mre of my work, I’d suggest checking out my recent stuff, which is on the front page here, or my Card Challenge stories. You can learn all about it and find stories that interest you through the Card Challenge Index Page.

Without further ado, here is the update to Day 10, now formally titled “Written in the Stars.”


“Cheryl! That’s great news. I didn’t even know you were psychic!” exclaimed Marian, her face alight with excitement.

“I’m not psychic, Marian.”

“Oh, of course not. That was silly of me. You can just read the future in the stars,” the last syllable trailed off, a hint of mysticism in the woman’s voice.

Cheryl sighed, taking a long sip from her wine glass before continuing. “Actually, I’m fairly certain I could not even find the Big Dipper if I had to. You don’t really need any skills to be a horoscope writer. Just a laptop and a wealth of pithy sayings.”

Marian’s face fell, and Cheryl cringed inwardly. She knew Marian took these sort of things very seriously, with her Tarot and Energy Crystal readings—or whatever was in fashion this week. But Cheryl’s internal skeptic could not stomach reinforcing the charlatan façade of newspaper horoscope columns.

When Cheryl spoke again, her words were clipped, cautious. “It’s not wise to play with things like this.” Her face brightened, “But, I bet whoever hired you could see your potential. We all have some latent psychic ability. I bet they saw straight through to yours!”

“I got hired by an old hippy in a two dollar suit. But, you’re probably right. I’m sure the man has seen his fair share of things.”

“I bet you are going to be amazed once you unlock your potential. Did I tell you about the time my spirit guide taught me to—“

“Yes, a dozen times, each as wonderful as the last,” Cheryl smiled at her old friend. No matter how bizarre the woman was, and how illogical many of her beliefs were, years of friendship and support kept them together. And she could not overlook how Marian’s months of kindness had saved her from a few major catastrophes recently. “Now, can we just drink to the fact that, in a month, I’m actually going to get a paycheck again?”

Marian raised her own glass, beaming with pride and excitement. As much as Cheryl had dreaded outing herself—and, she had assumed, the field of horoscopes—to her friend, it had not been so bad. “To new opportunities and the development of all our hidden talents,” Marian finished with a wink and a long drink from her glass.

Cheryl leaned back in her seat, feeling a weight sloughing from her exhausted shoulders. It had been a long day, and she still was uncertain she could stomach the reality of shilling such snake oil for a living, even if it was necessary to keep the lights on in her ratty apartment. The wine did not necessarily help with that decision, but it did serve to push it just a bit farther away.

“So, how are you going to do this? I mean, until you figure out how to use your gifts, of course.”

The tenacity with which she clung to horoscopes was astounding to Cheryl. She had assumed that once Marian discovered her plain, non-psychic, skeptic, logical friend got a job writing horoscopes, they would laugh together about all the wacky decisions Marian had made over the years based on those newspaper inserts. No such luck.

“Mar, seriously, I’m not psychic. I just slap some words onto paper. You read them and plan your life around it. Then I get paid. No psychic abilities, no star reading required.”

Marian looked slightly off put, her face twisting briefly into an irritated smirk. “Don’t doubt yourself. If you don’t believe, don’t think you can do it, get out. These aren’t powers you want to be messing with, Cher.”

Cheryl realized it was a hopeless battle, one Marian could not afford to lose to reason. “I know. You’re probably right. They must have seen something in me, but I guess it just takes time.” The lies were bitter as they dripped from her lips.

Marian reached across the table and took her hand. “The journey can be difficult, but I know you can do it. I’ve sensed you were special since I first saw you snotty and muddy on the playground. You’re going to help a lot of people, Cheryl. Just remember that.”

Cheryl forced a smile and emptied her glass. When she grimaced, she was not sure if it was from the wine or the pit settling into her stomach.

_

“Your kindness to those you meet will reap great rewards. Be patient, and watch for your return.”

“This week holds many opportunities for fun. Enjoy yourself, but don’t forget to take time to recharge!”

“Remember that problem that just won’t leave you alone? Expect news to clarify your path.”

“An unexpected inconvenience may bring unexpected rewards. Look for—”

Cheryl tapped a pencil on the edge of her laptop slowly, her eyes distant as she tried to find a new and creative way to end Capricorn’s latest memo. After only a couple months, she felt she was doing nothing but rehashing the same, empty promises week after week. Nonetheless, it was keeping food and lights on in her fridge, so it was hard to complain. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and all that.

Her phone buzzed on the coffee shop table. Marian had been giddy at seeing the weekly horoscopes since learning about her friends new job, and she never failed to try to get a sneak peek into the future.

“Coffee, Cheryl?” she asked, skipping routine greetings.

“I’m already at the coffee shop, so why not?” sighed Cheryl, glancing around the sparsely populated bistro.

“Sound like someone must be honing their gifts, eh? Get a little star magic to help you out?”

Cheryl rolled her eyes. “I just like to work in coffee shops. No stars needed. It’s like finding a bear in the woods.”

Laughter filtered unevenly through the phone. “You could predict lottery numbers five times over, and you still wouldn’t believe in any of this, would you? Your note last week scored me a great new pair of heels on sale.”

“Guess I’m just looking for more proof. When do you want to get coffee? The stars are phoning in, so I’m going to have to take them on the other line.”

“I’ll be there around three. Ask the stars if there are any ways to sneak around this traffic jam, if you could.”

Cheryl glanced at the clock. Forty-five minutes would, likely, give her enough time to finish writing and fleshing out the next edition’s worth of swill. “Will do, Mar. See you then. Half caf mocha, as usual?”

Marian gasped. “Well, look at you, Ms. Cleo! I’ll be there on the dot.”

Cheryl knew that meant Marian would be about fifteen minutes late, and so mentally gave herself the chance to relax. What would Marian’s upcoming horoscope say? Cheryl smiled to herself, thinking of all the ridiculous lies she could put into print if she so desired. She wondered if psychics had any sort of immunity for libel, and if any sort of protection extended to the capricious comments of a small town horoscope writer.

“Marian: You will come into an unexpected sum of money,” she typed lazily, smirking at the cliché. “But be wary of unknown strangers. While he may appear to be Prince Charming, you may be courting the Beast instead! A great tragedy awaits you at the end of your week. Make sure your house is in order.” Cheryl chuckled to herself in the coffee shop, laughing at the morbid horoscope. She would love to see Marian’s face if she actually read that in the final edition. She would certainly get fired, but it was almost worth it just to shake her friend’s conviction in the poppycock.

Cheryl stretched, went up for a refill of the house roast, and settled in to finish explaining fate for a few thousand loyal readers. Her next line came to her in a burst of inspiration.

“Look for chances to stretch and grow in the next week. Don’t let your cynicism get the best of you!”

_

Cheryl’s phone chimed, chirping happily with its message. She rolled over groggily, checking the lock and grimacing as she realized she had slept well past her normal wake time this Saturday morning. The plan had been to be up early to start her work, begin looking for more freelance opportunities, but that had fallen prey to a late night bottle of wine and sappy rom-com marathon.

With sleep-addled lack of coordination, Cheryl clumsily gripped her cell phone and gazed blearily at the screen. A new voicemail from Marian. She stiffly pushed the button to listen, begrudgingly entered her password, and closed her eyes as Marian’s chipper voice filtered through.

“Hey Cher! You’ll never guess how great this week has been. Or, maybe you would. Maybe you even knew all about it!” The voice on the other end chuckled, then got back to the message. “I met this guy, and he’s great. I was out shopping for a new entertainment center for the apartment—I can hear you rolling your eyes already, but I got some money back from my bank for some misapplied fees. Anyways, I met Adam and he’s totally swept me off my feet. He’s a total Prince Charming. I know, I know, it’s only been a few days. God, you’re such a killjoy even when you aren’t on the phone.”

Cheryl chuckled to herself, burying her head beneath her pillow and reveling in the soft darkness. Marian’s voice continued its chipper monologue. She had always opted to ignore the “brief” part of the voice mail request.

“Anyway, that’s why I’m calling. He wants to take me hiking this afternoon, told me to cancel any plans I had later. He said he had something really incredible planned for me tonight. I know, I hate cancelling on our plans this late, but…”

Cheryl had known her long enough to hear the shrug on the other end. “I know you’d understand. We can go out tomorrow. I’ll call you in the morning to set a time. Don’t work all day!”

With that, the robotic messaging voice took over, prompting Cheryl to delete the message. After doing so, the phone was again silent, and she tossed it back on her nightstand. Cheryl could not help but feel a bit irritated and grumpy about this change in plans. It was likely the grogginess, but she felt a bit petulant. They had been planning to try out a new Thai place her paper had recently reviewed well, and she had been looking forward to the outing. Especially now that she could pick up her own dinner tab. Still, there was something else. A subtle sense of unease that had settled firmly over her during the message. Something simply was not right, but she could not put her finger on it.

Cheryl sat beneath the pillows and blankets, poking at this uncertain feeling until the heat became stifling, and then begrudgingly swung her legs to the floor. She had hoped to fall back asleep, but her investigation of the edges of this anxious knot made that impossible. It was probably just a lingering artifact of sleep, some half-thought idea that would fade with activity. At least, that was her working plan as she tried to get ready for the day.

The feeling sat in the pit of her stomach, a flutter of flimsy wings, but then carefully began to climb its way up, beating along her insides. As she did some morning yoga, it snaked into her chest and wrapped around her lungs. It felt as if every breath was just a bit too short. Still, she could not identify the mystery source of unease. Something was wrong, but she had no idea what it was. Surely she was not this jealous about her friend having a date?

A shower was the best remedy for clouded thoughts, and so she spent some time under the stream of nearly scalding water. It did not shake loose whatever had set her nerves on edge, and the feeling just continued its steady creep upwards. Now she could feel its fingers clawing at the back of her throat. They left her gulping at her morning cereal, trying to force it past the blockage.

Not yet done, it finally made its way behind her eyes. There this unshakable sense of wrong sat, pressing against her lids. She felt like her eyes were ready to burst with tears, but they never came, never relieved that distinct and unpleasant pressure. Something had been wrong ever since that voicemail. Cheryl could not help but feel she had seen this movie before, and forgotten the ending.

She ran through her emotions, but none seemed to quite fit the feeling that had grown within her. It was not jealousy, frustration, anger, disappointment, sorrow, or fear. It certainly was not happy, surprised, or excited.

Well, sitting and staring at it certainly was not helping. Cheryl pushed back from the breakfast table and dropped onto her couch, pulling her laptop close. She still had work to do today.

Normally, such feelings faded as she worked, dulled by the pressure of the moment by moment tasks. Today, the feeling stayed. It laced its fingers into every keystroke, stroked her mind seductively. It was this terrifying feeling that, if she could only focus well enough, she would realize what the feeling was. Only there as also this subtle fear that it would be too late.

Finally, the restlessness gripped her phone and dialed Marian’s number. It cut straight to voicemail.

“Hey, it’s Marian. I’m either out or screening my calls. Leave me a message, and I’ll get back to you. Probably.” The machine beeped.

“Hey Marian. Got your message, already picking out my bridesmaid dress,” the joke felt hollow and did nothing to relieve the discomfort. “Just call me when you get in so I know he did not throw you in some ravine or something. Talk to you later.”

Leaving a message was supposed to make her realize how silly this was, but it did not. If anything, it made the feeling heavier.

“You’re being ridiculous. Get some work done,” she chided herself, opening her horoscope document. She needed to type some up, and she was finally feeling like she had gotten the hang of it. They almost seemed to write themselves recently, which was pleasant. She hoped it would provide the needed distraction so that she could shake this feeling. Perhaps, she mused, she had a nightmare. There had been ties in the past where she had felt lingering effects like this from some forgotten dream. Surely that was it. A little mundane work would do the trick.

The document flashed open full of lines and lines of her predictions. She kept a running list, assuming she might at some point recycle some, once enough weeks had passed. Fortunately, she had not had to do that yet. New ideas just kept coming to her. Still, it was fun to smirk at her past predictions, enjoying a brief chuckle at the gullibility of some.

However, this time her eyes stuck on one she had never submitted. She re-read her fake post for Marian, and the feeling finally became real. It took on its form, icy fingers piercing through her panicked heart. Money, a man, and finally—“A great tragedy awaits you at the end of your week.”

Cheryl thought her heart might have stopped, but it was only the impossible stillness of terror. This was not happening, she told herself over and over again as her eyes sat glued to the screen. These sort of things did not happen. Ever. It was just a weird coincidence.

It took until the news reports began to come in about a body found in the bottom of a nearby canyon for the reality to sink in. Reports of foul play followed close behind, and Cheryl knew.

It’s not wise to play with things like this,” Marian had warned.

And Cheryl had not listened.


Feel free to compare and contrast to the original and let me know what you think. As always, happy reading!
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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


I’m Back! And with Something New – First Draft: Of Neighbors and Deceit

So, I did decide to take a month off and relax. During that time, however, I did some writing, including editing some old pieces (which I will be posting soon) and starting a few longer things. I’m also trying to iron out some HTML things so I can get an index up of the Card Challenge stories. So, I have one long-ish piece in the works, just trying to decide what to do with it. I’m not going to promise I’ll finish it, because I’m worried that in tone, it is way too similar to the piece I’m posting today. We’ll see how it goes, but the narrative tone is so similar, I’m not sure they work as stand-alones, even if the ideas are very different. Then again, I can just post both and see which one feels better.

Now that I’m back, my goal is 1-2 pieces per week. That will either be something new, edit of something old, a chapter of a longer piece, or a reflective-style discussion post from me. I’m not sure which days of the week I’m going to post, so I’ll have to work that out based on my general schedule. With classes over (and almost over for my entire life!!), I have more time, but I’m also starting data collection for my dissertation. Things may just have to be in flux right now.

All that aside, here is a new piece I’ve been working on the past few days. As usual, it is a first draft, so it has some problems that need to be worked out. However, I have been editing as I go and reworking aspects of it throughout the process, so I feel like it is a pretty solid piece. It is very long (5000+ words), so I have cut it behind a click-through. If you have strong feelings about such “Read More” tags (“I never click through to those” or “I wish this was always the case so long pieces don’t clog things up”) please let me know so I can plan accordingly in the future.

Without further ado, here is the piece. A bit of realistic horror. As always, happy reading!


Of Neighbors and Deceit

Marty and Dan—a pleasant, Midwestern couple from all appearances—moved in a bit too early one Saturday morning. I remember the sound of their couch thumping against our outside wall around 8:00am, followed by Dan’s short bark to the movers. I suppose he was concerned about waking the neighbors. Just not concerned enough to wait for a more reasonable hour. As strangers stomped through our tiny hallways, I sluggishly drifted from bed, to my closet, and then out the door. This was during an exercise kick, and so I was ruthlessly dragging my protesting limbs to the gym. If I had to be up early, I could make use of it.

Marty was coming up the stairs as I was going down, carrying a box with a handful of books stacked precariously on top. They shifted and slid to the floor as she reached the final landing, and I heard her mutter a soft curse before dropping the box down beside her. Her hair appeared to have once been tucked into a neat, tight bun. Now, it danced around her head or laid plastered to her sweaty brow. She had the look of a typical suburban mom, dressed in a pair of unflattering jeans and a pale blue blouse, darkening every moment as she sweated a bit more. It was July; they knew the risks when they decided to move. And apparently their gamble to beat the heat and move in early was not helping.

I stooped to pick up one of the books that had skidded to my feet. It was the neighborly thing to do, after all. Marty smiled at me and took it.

“Not how I wanted to meet the new neighbors,” she sang, a hint of breathlessness escaping through the cheer.

I laughed politely. I am not a good adult; I do not handle small talk and forced participation well. But I put on a smile and did my best. “You caught me in workout gear. I’d say we’re even. I’m Lyla. Uh, apartment 322.”

She took my hand, nodded. “And I’m Marty, apartment, um,” her eyes grew distant for a moment, and she squinted as she shuffled through her memory, “apartment 312!” she finally exclaimed. “We’re across-the-hall neighbors!”

She was obviously more excited about this news than I was. I smiled, and tried to creep down the stairs around her with a brief, “then I’ll be seeing you,” but she called out before I could escape.

“Dan! Come meet our neighbor, Lula!”

“It’s Lyla,” I whispered, mortified at the encounter. I had chosen a quiet apartment just so I would not have to meet my neighbors. I had a good streak, three years strong, without more than a friendly nod or holding a door. Now I was frozen on the stairs.

Dan was a large man, easily filling the doorway. He had that steelworker, cattle farmer look that I always associate with the Midwest. His arms were meaty appendages wedged onto his body, and they hung tensely at his side, reddened by the work of moving in. His face was flushed, speckled with its own sheen of sweat. I suddenly became acutely aware of the sweat prickling in my underarms as the awkwardness of the situation increased. There was a desperation in Marty’s voice as she called for him that made me feel responsible and terrified all at once.

One giant paw wiped Dan’s face as the other reached toward me. I took his hand, feeling his grip settle around like a vice as he nearly crushed my smaller one. “Well, Luna, nice to meet you.”

“It’s Lyla,” I meekly offered again, smiling and trying not to wince at his grip.

“My apologies, Lyla!” He beamed, and I watched a bead of sweat trickle from his forehead, down his nose, and crash against the slight bulge of his belly beneath the damp t-shirt. “Sorry for the noise this morning. We should have it all out of your hair in just another few hours.” He jutted a short thumb back towards the hallway where I could see two spindly movers—high school students scrounging for a summer job, I assumed—trying to find a way to wedge a dressed in the narrow space between the door and wall.

This was my chance, and I nabbed. ‘It’s no problem. Got me up early for the gym. It was nice to meet you Dan and Marty,” I offered them both a smile. Marty’s mouth began to open again, but I was three stairs down before she could begin.

“Would you—I guess we’ll see you around!”

From the bottom floor, I could hear her still going, her attention turned to Dan. “Nice girl.” I could hear her pick up the cardboard box again. “But what kind of name is Lyna?”

(more…)


Card Challenge: Day 83

Card Day 83: A blank, wooden marionette seated on a crimson and gold throne.

King Torvald woke suddenly on his throne. He jolted into consciousness, suddenly sitting upright and blinking.

“I apologize. I must have dosed off,” he offered a humble look of chagrin to his gathered advisors. They all gave him rather puzzled looks, exchanging uncomfortable glances between themselves. Torvald felt embarrassed at his lapse, but he was still the king. No one would call him out or chide him for it. Still, it did nothing for his image.

He rubbed his eyes, blinking rapidly as if the world was suddenly brighter. “Now, where were we?”

“Discussing trade relations with Vongoria, sir.”

“Ah, yes, no wonder I fell asleep!” The others politely echoed his laugh before continuing the morning meeting. Trade decisions were only one of the many topics covered, others included tax reform, local ordinances, and palace gossip. It was nearly lunchtime when the meeting finally wound down, but Torvald was missing something.

“I know we’ve run long, but I hate to think we dragged Archibald here only to avoid discussing the Kimal fleet nearing our waters.” There were those same hidden glances back and forth, but Archibald eventually cleared his throat and offered a meager smile.

“Of course, milord. Do you have any further commands regarding the situation?”

“Further comments? Please, fill me in on this week’s development, and then I will make a decision. I cannot be speaking from days old information!” He cast his eyes around at the other assembled advisors, noting their slight nods and concerned eyes. It must be bad news.

“They have continued to encroach, though they have not yet made any sort of offensive movement. Their delegates continue to assure us it is meant merely as an exploratory expedition of the local marine life.”

“And have we sent a formal response to Queen Cynthia that they are terrifying our citizens?”

“Ah,” Archibald looked towards the other advisors, seeking some kind of support but finding nothing, “no sir, we have not. I thought you were opposed to such an action?”

The king laughed again. “What a joke! Me not being interested in contacting Queen Cynthia. No, I’m sure it is just an exploratory mission. Certainly she will recall them if she realizes she is causing unrest. Draft that, Archibald. I will review it tomorrow.”

“Sire,” this time is was his commerce advisor, a slim woman with dark hair piled atop her head, “does this mean you do not want us to send our fleet to meet them?”

“What? Why would you think I want to send a fleet? That would only serve to increase tensions, force Cynthia’s hand to respond with equal force.”

“Sir you did instruct us to do that this morning,” Archibald offered. His discomfort at correcting his king was clearly written across his face, especially in the beads of sweat glistening on his sagging forehead.

“This morning? We haven’t even discussed Kimal!”

“It was right before you, um, you ‘woke up,’ sir.” The local mayor was looking at him with wide, concerned eyes.

That hit Torvald with considerate force, but he kept him face composed in a calm half-smile. Then he laughed, perhaps a little too loudly, a little too quickly. “Well, look at me, making ruling in my sleeps. From here on, if I’m snoring, then don’t take my word for it.”

They chuckled softly, nodding. A few distant, muffled, “yes milords” filtered through the assembled as they gathered their belongings to leave. The uncertain looks still remained in their eyes. Torvald waved at his second in command. Ricker nodded smoothly and accompanied Torvald down the hall as they made towards his chamber.

“Well, that was embarrassing.”

Ricker fell into step, his long robes rustling along the stone floors. His eyes were sympathetic, reflecting back Torvald’s own shame, but adding a hint of compassion. “You have not been sleeping well, Torvald. Things like this are bound to happen. Should I call the palace pharmacist to mix you a sleeping draught?”

“Yes, and have the whole palace twittering about the neurotic old king. No, I think I will manage it just fine. Can you believe we almost sent our fleet to challenge Kimal’s?”

“It would have been a bold and risky decision. Though, I must say, they have encroached before. And we have struggle with raiding parties on our borders, which Cynthia has not stopped. A show of force might have—“

Torvald cut him off with a wave. “Yes, we have had some rogue bandits crossing over, but that is not the country’s fault. Cynthia has been nothing but cordial to us. I am hopeful we can improve trade relations before the next harvest.”

“I do not share your optimism, but perhaps that is why you rule and not I.” There was a slight bitterness in his voice, an edge to his tone that left Torvald with a furrowed brow.

“Yes, Ricker, that is the way of things. You may have greater freedom to speak as you will, but do remember who I am.” With that, Torvald settled into his chamber for lunch, followed by an afternoon of hearing grievances brought forward by the citizens To be honest, it was his favorite part of the day. There were always some interesting bit of information, some bizarre situation that he was called upon to settle. Yes, some people left angry and bitter, but many more left satisfied with his judgment. Or at least they told him as much as they left. After they were gone, there was little he could do if they disagreed or harbored resentment. That was a poison that would kill them without any of his help.

So it was that he settled in for the night, his head full of the day’s spinning events, but his body tired. Sleep came quickly and certainly.

However, the next morning, he was surprised to wake up with ink staining his fingers. There were black smudges on his white sheets, as well as a distinct cramp in his hand. This was a new thing. He had woken up with drool on his pillow, on the floor after falling from his bed, halfway out of his nightgown, and hugging his pillow like the lover he never had, but he had never woken up with a pained, ink-stained hand.

He did not have long to investigate the mystery before the answer presented itself to him. Torvald rose from bed, washed and dressed, and started to munch on his breakfast—fresh grapes and still-warm bread from the bakery—when someone knocked on his door.

“Enter,” he monotoned distractedly as he read over the letter Archibald had composed. It was good, forceful but friendly.

“Sire?” One of his staff stood in the doorway, looking somewhat confused and shaken, but pleased. At Torvald’s nod, the man continued. “I sent the letter off with one of our fastest messengers. It should reach Kimal within three days.”

The delicious taste withered in Torvald’s mouth, and his fork clattered to the table. “What letter to Kimal?”

Confusion mingled with fear now on the poor man’s face. “The one you gave to me in the early hours this morning. You said it must be sent immediately and swiftly. It was of the utmost importance for the security of the State.”

“I did not write—“ the ink on his hands suddenly made sense, and Torvald left the words dangling in the air. “Send out another messenger and overtake the first. Tell them not to rest or stop until they have reached the first. Have them both return here immediately.”

While the poor man was clearly confused and terrified of impending wrath, he did not protest, but scurried out the door. Torvald could hear his shoes slapping against the stones of the floor as he sprinted through the halls. Then his door swung back shut and there was silence. After a moment, Torvald broke the silence with the bell outside his door. A young woman, cheeks blushing and hair amess from her sudden summoning, appeared in his doorway. “Who is the best pharmacist in the city?” he asked her.

She wrinkled her forehead, obviously deep in thought and burdened by the weight of his request. “I would say Greshom. He lives in Western Well, and—“

With a wave, he silenced her. “Send for him. Have him brought to my chambers discretely.” Like a bird swopping from a branch, she was gone.

This was a delicate matter. He was making poor decision and jeopardizing years of diplomatic work, all in his sleep. He could not let the palace know he was struggling so, but he certainly needed help. Richer’s advice was good, if perhaps the source was dangerous.

When Torvald returned from the morning meeting with his advisors—a much shorter and less uncomfortable one this time—Greshom was waiting in his chamber. The man was old, bent at the waist until he seemed to fold over onto himself. His hair was stark white, but trimmed close to his head. And he smelled faintly of unfamiliar herbs. The perfect pharmacist, Torvald thought upon seeing him.

“It is a pleasure to be called to your service, milord.” His voice quavered with age, and the man bowed even lower.

“You come highly recommended, and I hope you can help me with a sensitive matter.” Greshom raised his eyebrows, but was wise enough to remain silent after the king’s vague but suggestive comment. “I have been—“ his voice trailed off, searching, “—sleep walking, I suppose. I wrote a letter and made a diplomatic decision yesterday while sleeping. I suppose I am sleep ruling, to be honest. And I do not make the best decisions.”

“Hm,” hummed the old man, his eyes drilling into the floor as he chewed on his lower lip. “That is very odd. Not a usual case, by any means. Any other strange phenomena?”

“Is that not strange enough?”

I suppose you’re right. Well, I will go to my shop, mix you up a sleeping draught. That should help. In case it does not, I have also brought you this,” the old man pressed a pendant into Torvald’s hand. “It will protect you from any unsavory influences that might be lingering about.”

“I thought you were a man of science.”

Greshom smiled a tired smile. “My years have taught me to revere science, but my mistakes have taught me to never be too careful.” He patted the king’s arm and began his slow shuffle towards the door. Most people waited to be dismissed, but Greshom appeared to have no time for such pleasantries. “I will have the draught ready before dinner, check in this time tomorrow.”

When the potion arrived, Torvald eyes it suspiciously. It was a cloudy, pinkish liquid in a tiny vial. When the time came to drink it, he discovered that the liquid tasted almost as foul as it looked, but had a somewhat chunky, slimy texture that gagged him on the way down. Still, he could not let his true disgust show. He was the king, after all. Still, it was a wonderfully relaxing sleep.

One that ended with him again waking to ink-stained hands. He had thought ahead this time and asked that no message be sent until he approved them over breakfast, but the poor messenger looked pale and drawn in the doorway. Apparently, he had withstood quite the storm and rage from Torvald that night. His hands shook as he handed over the missive, and Torvald read it greedily. It was practically a declaration of war against Kimal, lambasting them for guerilla incursions and threatening to sink their “exploratory” fleet. Torvald’s head spun, and he cancelled the morning meeting. It was as if he had lost his mind.

Greshom arrived promptly at lunch time to find the king languishing in his bed, contemplating the reality that he had lost control of his own body.

“I assume by your demeanor the draught did not work.”

“Not at all, Greshom. I did the same thing again, and I am sure the whole palace will soon know me as the crazed king.”

“I was afraid of this, sire. I hope you will not judge my deception harshly, but the pendant I gave you is not really a warding device. It is more of a detection one. If I may see it, I think we can find out what has been going on.”

Torvald’s hand trembled as he removed the pendant, and Greshom’s were surprisingly strong. He lifted the pendant to his lips, blowing a soft breath over the surface. Torvald’s eyes grew wide as the pale stone glowed, but Greshom simply closed his eyes and nodded.

“Yes, quite the hex. Milord, someone has been enchanting you, taking control of your senses. It is strong, dark magic.”

“What? Are you sure? Who could do this?”

“Well, if you will follow me, this,” he lifted the pendant in the air, watching it spin on its string, “will show us the source of this evil.”

Torvald untangled himself from the bed, enthralled by the slight drift of the pendant out the door of his chamber. He mutely followed Greshom, doing his best to hold back anger at the man’s slow pace.

Up and down the halls they paced, passing doors and dodging confused glances from various cooks, maids, messengers, advisors, and visitors to the palace. Torvald only had eyes for the spinning stone as it pointed them along the way. Finally, they stopped in front of a door Torvald knew well.

“Here is where the caster dwells.”

As much as Torvald dreaded what he would find, he pushed the door open. Ricker sat in his chamber, bent over his desk. His face showed shock, but also guilt.

“Guards!” commanded Torvald, his voice strong and his eyes trickling with grief.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 78

Card Day 78: Falling water droplet holding a sun, windswept trees, a snake, a man, water, a butterfly, a fetus, and stones.

Vivia traced the path of water down the windowpane with her finger, watching as the droplets splashed and tumbled down the clear class toward uncertain end. There was a prickle of giddiness in the exercise as she tried to imagine what the route might be, but she was ultimately as surprised as the water droplet was. Or she presumed it was. That raised another interesting question. Did the droplet realize where it was and decide where to go? Did it select each fork in the road or did gravity and friction decide for it? Her eyes searched along the droplets for any hint, but they were stalwart and silent. Just as well, she sighed. It would have robbed some of the magic of it.

The wondering was good, and Vivia felt her brain stretch with the exercise. It was a nice way to shuffle back some of the loneliness, even if the reprieve was remarkably brief. The feeling of companionship with the inanimate rain droplets dwindled, but she found her eyes drawn back again and again to their trails. Some part of her was still concerned with the end of their journey. Perhaps that part should be equally as concerned about her end.

That thought served to redouble the emptiness of her room. It was a stone room, decorated with restrained finery. The bed was plush and soft, though it was nothing more than a plain white lump against the wall. Fresh food arrived three times a day with the same restrained delicacy—fine ingredients combined in mundane combinations. The large window generally let in copious light, though today it bristled with storm clouds. That again was fitting, she decided. Perhaps it was even an intentional reflection of someone’s sorrow for her predicament. She liked to believe that someone out there was on her side.

With a sigh, she collapsed into the wooden chair in the corner, gazing out over the empty and sparse room. It was all the luxury she was accustomed to, simply separated from its usual elegance.  It felt silly that they took such care to provide for her comfort when they were, in fact, about to completely destroy her life as she knew it. Yet she had her feather pillow at night.

Feathers were no better at soaking up her tears than a straw mat would have been.

There was a gentle knock on her door—they still pretended she had enough power that one should knock before entering. She wondered if she simply did not speak if the courier would leave the door. She could ride out the rest of her life in this bland cocoon, gazing out at the majestic landscape now covered in fog. These thoughts still danced in her head as the door creaked open.

“Milady Vivia?” squeaked the voice, obviously terribly uncomfortable at the intrusion.

She rose from the chair with a whisper of silk. “I assume they are ready to pronounce their judgment.”

“Yes,” came the response with a sigh of relief, even though it was not a question. She walked towards the door and her ill-burdened messenger opened it wider to admit the guards. They raised silver links in their meaty hands with an apologetic tone.

“We have to obey our orders, Milady.” The ogres did their best not to manhandle her more than necessary as they directed her down the corridors, but she still arrived in the main chamber feeling harried.

“Vivia,” grumbled the silver-haired man from atop his high seat. There was a strange mix of anger, sorrow, and disappointment in his eyes. She deflected that with staunch pride and aloofness, never quite meeting his eyes. He was beneath her and in the wrong. She knew it and he likely had a pretty good idea of it as well.

“You know why you are here?” His voice was the echoing of a storm on the horizon. Once, she had loved the gravelly rumble, but now it left her feeling bitter. That thunder no longer brought the gentle summer rains, but unleashed a torrent that would soon wash her away.

“Because justice,” she spat the word, her eyes roving over the assembled figures with disdain, “must be served.” Her mimicry did not go unnoticed.

“Vivia, we do not want to do this,” said a woman with a shimmering voice. Vivia turned to fix her with a withering stare, but felt an internal prickle as the other woman wilted. Her generally sunny, bright face dimmed to match the cloudy skies outside. At least someone seemed to care.

“Oh, plenty of you want to. Otherwise I would not stand before you in judgment today.”

“You stand here because you killed one of your own!” roared a small man from the other side of the room. He had a stiff and wooden appearance, his skin gnarled like the old oaks that grew by the river. Vivia’s iciness never wavered, and she covered his rage in a heavy frost.

“That is true. I killed him before he could wipe away humanity as we know it.”

“That was not your decision to make,” thundered the leader again. This time he stood, drawing all eyes to him with deference. All except Vivia’s whose instead slowly wandered across the assembled until they found his. She smiled.

“Maybe not, but at least I made one.”

A whisper scuttled along the rest of the waiting faces, dying out just as it reached its swell. Her impudence did not pass without note.

“As have we.” He was the only one who could meet her eyes.

“An eye for an eye, right?”

There was a ripple of anger and sorrow in his eyes. “No, bloodshed must not lead to more bloodshed. There is no justice in such a world.”

For the first time since she entered the room, Vivia faltered. She had marched proudly to her death, and this was unexpected. Nonetheless, she kept her wits about her enough to seal her lips.

“You will be exiled.”

The only measureable change in Vivia’s appearance was the way the blood faded from her cheeks, leaving her a statue carved from marble. Her eyes wavered and blinked, but maintained their intensity.

“Then do it,” she said tersely, her jaw clenched so tight the words barely escaped.

The small, withered man stepped down from his seat and walked before her. He raised a knotted finger and tapped her forehead three times while muttering. With sudden speed, his gnarled nails dug into her arms, drawing a pinprick of blood. And then there was darkness.

_

Vivia woke up and felt the frailty of humanity in her bones. Her body ached, as did her head. A strange pain arced from the front to the back of her skull and back again, leaving stars in her vision. The name Hannah echoed in her mind, and she turned it over gingerly, probing at it as if it would reveal some great secret. All she got was a series of memories and associations spinning around her own lofty knowledge. Apparently, Hannah was her new—albeit unwilling—host. Hannah.

Vivia certainly preferred her name, but she could spend some time as Hannah if that was what it took. The ground beneath her was hard and cold. Vivia liked the cold, but did not like the way the stones dug into her shoulder blades. Filled with energy and powered by her anger, she vaulted to her feet. Others pushed past and around her, caught up in the bustle of a market and never noticing the woman who had collapsed and revived in the middle of the streets. Just as they wanted, she was sure.

Vivia turned to face the sun, seeing the white hot sphere hanging in the sky. She stared it down as her human eyes watered and withered. Human eyes prevented her from seeing them sitting up there, but she was sure they could see her. She wanted them to see her. The heat and light of the sun burned at her eyes, and she only turned away when it came time to blink away the tears. But a determined smile peeked from the corners of her lips and she surveyed her new people.

She might not be a god any longer, but she would be worshipped.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 75

Card Day 75: A woman wearing earrings of people that stand on her shoulders.

She awoke confused. Of course, neither “awoke” nor “she” were quite the right terms for the reality of the situation, but it was the best she could do in the situation. QN-7995X3, Queenie as she had been nicknamed long ago, ran a brief systems check before standing up to review her surroundings. It was uncommon as a robot to wake up with no memory of where she was, especially since he optical displays generally catalogued all of her movement while on or in standby. That meant she either had a critical flaw in her data storage procedures or someone had moved her after shutdown.

Queenie’s scanned turned up nothing. Someone must have moved her, and she bristled at the affront. Nevertheless, her booting scans complete—her shutdown had also apparent been rather abrupt—she stood and examined the room she was in while her servos squealed with disuse, waiting for her remaining startup procedures to complete. There was no satellite signal here, and so she could not yet verify the date. However, the heavy layer of dust on her and the room made her believe is was far longer than the three hours measured by her internal clock.

Besides the dust, there was little else in the room. There were a couple of crates that emitted no interesting signals, a row of fluorescent lights on the ceiling, no windows, and a single metal door. Her arm reached out, fingers curled and released, and her arm fell back to her side. So far, no mechanical errors either she thought as her sensors balanced her smoothly on one leg, then the other.

Her vision rapidly flipped through ultra-violet, low light, night vision, x-ray, radiation, and electric field imaging, none providing any information besides what she had already gathered. Hr vocal filters shifted through an array of languages as her translation software spun up the English translations. Queenie enjoyed the sound of her voice. It was soft, feminine, delicate, but measure and strong. A voice you could rely on, someone used to tell her. His name escaped her and she logged an error with her databanks. In all likelihood, she countered, the data had simply been overwritten. It was long ago, after all.

As soon as the startup checks completed, two programs began running simultaneously. This was irregular, she realized, and instinctively initiated a virus scan. However both programs had been cleared and initiated installed through appropriate channels, even though she could not locate the author name for either file. Again, she logged the data bank error. That should not have been overwritten.

Unfortunately, the two programs were in direct conflict. One was redirecting her to an immediate full shut down. The other instructed her to open the door and leave the room. No matter which program she attempted to follow, Queenie found herself stuck, each one looping over nad over until she complied. Her movements were stuttering and futile, and so she finally stilled until the programs could resolve the conflict.

She remained in such a frozen state for what she measured as days—though she had not been able to connect to satellites and calibrate her clock, so the time was potentially incorrect. In that time, she had investigated her memory and data storage to identify any damage, and came up with a section of recently deleted information. There were scraps remaining, but not enough to reconstruct what had been deleted. Whoever had done so must have known a lot about her systems to have so effectively cleared it from her main memory, backup, and hardware. It was then that Queenie felt something she recognized from long ago. Boredom. She was tired of standing there, waiting for the programs to resolve. But what other choice was there to a robot in a programming loop? She simply had to wait until she either implemented shut down or left the room.

And then, just as suddenly as the boredom set in, she realized that she did not want to shut down. In fact, she had spent quite some time in hut down apparently, and she wanted to find out where she was and what happened. In fact, she wanted to open the door. Drunk on her own agency, Queenie forced her limbs into motion, walking towards the door as she forced a fatal error in the shutdown program.

If she had a mouth, and if it could have moved, she would have smiled.

Following the directives of the still running program, she gripped the wheeled handle on the door and gave it a quick spin. Her servos kicked in, applying a few additional Newtons in order to twist the rusted-shut mechanism. Her auditory inputs dampened the sound to a dull squeal. Apparently everything here had laid unused for quite some time. That made her doubt her internal clock all the more.

Her vision adjusted swiftly to the dim lighting of the corridor. Some emergency lights still existed, ruining the solid dark of the storage room. The program opened an interactive map that centered on her current position, providing clear directions through the maze of corridors. It was a smooth interface that would have given Queenie chills if she had external heat sensors. Instead, it simply presented another question. Who was the author that had so flawlessly constructed this program? The processes ran as she complied with the programmed directives. Anyone who knew her systems this well deserved to be listened to. She herself was amazed at the simplicity and elegance of the program—or as closed to amazed as she could get. Queenie assumed that was the best term for the utter lack of boredom she currently felt.

Her scans noted nothing of interest behind any of the sealed doors. This place was a tomb, empty of anything potentially useful or intriguing. The only sounds were the whine of her joints and echoes of her steps along the grated floor.

At the intersection, the program directed her left, and she followed without hesitation. The hallway here was the same, but there were reflective strips along the wall guiding her way. Some sort of important travel route in an emergency, she deduced. According to the map, she was moving toward the main control room. If anything was to be vital in an emergency, the main control room was it.

Queenie checked on the progress of her other query, identifying the author of this marvelous program. It was still spinning, sifting through the lines of code for any recognized patterns of entry, any hidden information, and any hint of the creator. It had been cleaned well, which only further increased that feeling of anti-boredom Queenie enjoyed so much.

The control room door was surrounded by yellow reflective paint, a bright red sign on the door limiting it to “Authorized Personnel Only.” Queenie sifted through her data banks to find if she were authorized, and came up empty. However, she still felt the need to follow the program.

Queenie considered the conundrum, granting a moment for all of her many circuits to sort through the problem. The solution was quick to present. She was the only surviving member here. Therefore, anyone who would have been in the authorized chain of command was presumed missing or deceased. Queenie was the sole personnel remaining, and had the duty to complete her programming objectives for the good of whatever station she was currently on.

The hiccup resolved, Queenie spun the heavy metal wheel with ease and stomped inside the room. The control room was small, lit with red emergency lighting. As soon as she stepped into the room, the shutdown program re-emerged, this time loading a video file. Queenie reviewed the file.

The man’s face she had dimly remembered appeared in the video, in this very room, she surmised. The red lights were already engaged and he appeared frantic. Judging by his rapid respiration and sweating, he was nearing a state of shock rapidly. There was some subtle irritation in her circuitry, different than the boredom or amazement. It was coupled with the desire to replay her old video files, to find the man if she could. Perhaps after the program completed.

“Queenie,” said the man in the video. She felt her security level drop at the sound of his voice. He was a good man, she somehow knew. “If you are seeing this, then you have overwritten my shut down procedure. You are acting out of line with your design protocols, and you are following the orders of a rogue program. Queenie, you have been infected by a virus, a very dangerous one. You must initiate full system shut down.”

There was a thunderous knock on the door behind the man and he turned. Queenie could see his pulse race in his neck, increasing with each knock. He looked sad when he turned back to the camera. Sadness. That felt familiar. “You are going to kill me, Queenie. I have no choice. This,” he lifted a clinking green device into the camera, “is an EMP device. It will shut you down, but only as long as it takes you to repair. You’ve rigged your processing core to explode should anyone attempt to dismantle or otherwise harm you.” There were pained tears on his cheeks now. “You’d blow us all sky high, make this place a toxic waste. I don’t have a choice, Queenie.”

She noticed that the other query had finished and found results. Still, she felt the pull of the shutdown program holding her to the video. And this time, she wanted to see the end of the video. The beautiful program could wait.

“You were my Queen, Queenie. But you’ve gone rogue.” His voice cracked and there was a moment of sobbing. That pain in her circuits increased, along with a sense that she had made some sort of fatal error. But check as she might, she could find no flaw in her systems. He spoke through his sobs, “You want to crash the station into the planet. You’d kill millions—billions with the fallout alone.”

Queenie crunched the numbers and found his estimation appropriate, if unspecific. Based on the most recent data she had available, crashing the payload of the station into the planet below would kill 8.92 billion people, not including off-world visitors.

His voice toughened, rising over the steady pounding sound from behind the door. “I’ve also tasked this program with logging any activity after today. You are a smart girl, Queenie, and I know you will quickly overwrite anything I put in place. I just want you to know what you’re choices have been.”

A log displayed, and Queenie quickly analyzed the information. One hundred and ninety years had passed since the video file was embedded. She had woken up ninety-seven times. Three of those times, she had refused to comply with the immediate shutdown programming command. Time one had been fifteen years from the initial entry, and there was a record of a forced external shutdown. The second time was thirty-four years later and ended with a voluntary full-system shutdown after forty-seven minutes of activity. Last time had been three years ago, and again she had voluntarily shutdown after a short time.

This one was, by far, the most significant. T was the first time the video message had played.

“If there’s still a station to play this message, then I know you’ve chosen well, Queenie. You’ve chosen to save us. To save me—“

He was dead, her logic circuits insisted. One hundred and ninety years was far longer than the average or even outlying length of the human life.

“I can only hope you choose well this time.” The video file closed, the shutdown procedure running again. Only this time, it also had instructions to place herself back in the initial storage chamber, far from the control room.

Queenie tried to figure out what she wanted this time, but felt a strange stuckness. It was as if the programs were competing again, but on a central processing level. Despite the expanse of her processing capacity, it was as if she could not effectively weigh all the information. Instead, she left it and reviewed the results of the query while the program chimed at her to take control of the station, initiate orbital deterioration. The algorithms, schematics, and passcodes were all readily available. But, he had said it was a virus.

The query returned the author, and Queenie was not as surprised as she expected. Again, the feeling as if she had made a fatal error returned, but there was no evidence of any malfunction. She logged the unusual report for inspection later. The program was flawless because she herself had written it. The cod had been created and implemented by QN-7995X3.

Of course, that did not help her quandary. She thought of the man, his pained and sad eyes. His fear. His regret. Again, that feeling seemed familiar. Maybe that was the fatal error.

As the two programs competed once again, Queenie remained frozen, her processors whirring in an attempt to resolve the problems. Finally, she decided what she wanted to do, or at least what she wanted one hundred and ninety years from when she had been forced into a catastrophic shutdown by the one human she fully trusted.

Queenie closed the warring program and began the march back to the storage room as her data storage system filed away all that she had learned. Next time she awoke, perhaps it would save her the journey.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 73

Card Day 73: A ship nearing a giant mermaid lying in the ocean.

It is bad luck to have a woman on board.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, Cap’n. They caught her bleedin’.” The scraggly mate spat the final word out, lifting up a pair of ragged, marred pants. The captain was silent, staring down on the boy—apparently woman—standing before him. Her hair was the same jagged, short cut he had seen before. Her face was young and round, but now took on a more feminine angle rather than the soft curves of his cabin boy. That was most likely due to the good scrubbing the mate had given her before announcing his suspicions. He even saw the emotional woman caged within those eyes. But he did not want to believe it. It was bad luck to have a woman on board.

“The ship’s a dangerous place. Are you sure?”

The mate looked irritated at the continued inquiry, and roughly grabbed the front of the cabin boy’s shirt. The captain saw her bindings with his own eyes, saw the recognition in hers. The gig was up.

“You lied to us,” he said, proclaiming her guilt.

“I did.” Her eyes never left his, and her voice took on a softer quality than he had heard before. He imagined that, with hair and properly attired, she would have been a very beautiful woman.

“You’ve doomed us all,” he sighed, turning away from the tragedy playing out before him.

“I just needed to find my mother,” she said firmly. He expected her to plead with him, but there was not a hint of remorse or supplication in her stern voice. “I did not take you for a superstitious fool.”

The captain spun around, fixing her with a furious stare. “Every sailor is superstitious, madam. And it’s bad luck to have a woman on board.” He turned back to contemplate the sea, suddenly realizing how dangerous and unpredictable the waves were becoming.

“What do we do with her, Cap’n?” asked one of the voices behind him. The captain paced. They were days from any safe harbor, but he could not run this risk any longer. It was a miracle that they had not run into more trouble already—only the cook had gotten sick, and that was likely his own fault.

“Throw her overboard?” asked another voice.

“No,” he said stiffly, his mind spinning quickly. “Put her in the rowboat and give her a week’s rations.” He walked to the woman standing there, her eyes still drilling into him. “If I find you back on my ship, then I will throw you back in, but without the boat.”

There were grumblings from the crew, but the captain was not going to budge. He would make it right, but he would not betray someone who had been a loyal member of the crew. The worst of it was that he had really liked the new cabin boy. Perhaps he’d look her up in port sometime. Nonetheless, he heard the sudden surge of activity as the crew jumped to his command. Another week or two out on the ocean and they would not respond so quickly, but they still had their will and drive. They also still believed they might impress him.

The captain made sure he was at the bow when they lowered the rowboat into the choppy waves. The boat was not designed for such distances, but he was giving her the best chance he could. They could not take the time to turn back and dock again, not when they had finally caught a headwind. She was stalwart until the last, sitting staunchly in the boat while her eyes burned up at him. There was at once an acknowledgment of his mercy, but a deeper anger at his dismissal. The ocean spray licked at her face, but she did not blink. It was unnerving in a way, no less so when she began to row away, her flimsy arms fighting against the oars, but eyes never leaving his. Even once she was a spot on the horizon, he had the uncomfortable feeling that her eyes were still watching him.

“A woman on board is bad luck,” he muttered to himself as he marched back to the cabin. Yet somehow, it felt as if his luck had just turned.

_

It was three days later and the wind had died on the horizon, leaving them a floating piece of rubbish on the smooth seas. Again the grumbles started, and the captain realized the true risk he had taken in sending her off in their rowboat. He had been right; every sailor was superstitious. And now he was a victim of it. The whispers followed him through the decks, silencing at his approach and swelling in his wake. If only he could get the ocean to rise and fall so readily. Some rumors claimed that the rowboat was but an extension of the larger ship, and now she had fully infected them, staining every plan with her curse. The more dangerous rumor was that the captain had known of her identity, had intentionally brought her aboard to help with the loneliness of the seas and the captain’s lofty position. His mercy was his way of saving his mistress after their deception was found it. Both were preposterous, he knew, but the former did give him pause.

Staring out from the top deck, he saw the endless stretch of the sea before him, just as hot and still as it had been for two days now. He scanned the horizon in hopes of a blanket of clouds that would promise rain and possible storm winds—anything was better than sitting her roasting and running through their rations. At least it made for good weather for the woman in the rowboat. He still instinctively thought of her as Peter even though that was certainly not her name. He hoped Peter made it to shore. Perhaps the wind would return once she stepped on shore and left their boat in some unsavory dock.

The day stretched on before them, full of the standard routine but lacking any energy. The lazy ocean seemed to infect every one of his crew, making them sluggish and dull. The captain sighed from his post, wondering if there were some magic that would enliven the sea once again, bring a breeze back to the sails. Unfortunately, he knew of none such magic. It was in God’s hands, and God had never been a friend of his.

The sun sank on the horizon, and the stars peered out. It was only then that the first hint of a breeze drifted over the ship. It piqued his optimism and the captain found himself back on the deck. He sniffed deeply of the wind, feeling the surprising chill that washed over him. It was a cold wind in the midst of a hot summer. That portended rough seas, and suddenly he regretted his earlier hope. A ship shattered would make no more progress than a ship stagnant, only the crew survived at least another week or two on one of them. Still, there were no clouds in the sky. That meant there was time.

He stomped to his cabin for the night, distinctly aware that this might be the last night he would have to sleep soundly before chaos of storms on the open sea.

Yet his rest was interrupted nonetheless, a furious pounding on his cabin door. The captain was a man who shot awake in an instant, aware and alert. Tonight was no different, but he could not make sense of the jabbering s of the crewman standing before him. It made no sense, but he felt the toss of the boat that seemed to confirm the insane ravings. A storm had whipped up.

He took the stairs tow at a time, reaching the top deck with surprising speed. The crewman who had woken him was lost in the hold, hopefully attending to some other duty, but the captain had no time to spend focusing on the missing man; he had a ship to save.

The night air was surprisingly cold—colder than it should be for months. More unusually, however, was the perfectly crisp sky. Not a cloud in the sky, nor a drop of rain. The only sound he heard was the raging sea, snapping and roiling beneath their ship, competing with the frenzied voices of his crew. No thunder.

“Jergen, what is happening?” he asked calling his mate to his side. The man looked confused, but calm.

“Come sort of squall, Cap’n. Waters are real rough.” As if to confirm his statement, waves splashed over the side and the boat took a dangerous list to port. Unsecured clutter slipped and bounced along the deck. Their laziness had gotten out of hand and, if they were unlucky, would get someone killed.

Unfortunately, the captain barely had time to register that before something else caught his attention. The water crashing against the sides of the boat began to surge upwards, tall columns of water that soared towards the prickling stars. He had never seen that before.

And, more surprisingly, it began to recede from the air, leaving a watery form.

It was a woman, looking like she had been carved from a glimmering, clear stone. It took him a few breaths of observation to realize she was molded purely from sea water. Her hair lapped like waves, frothing white at the ends before joining her sculpted face.

It was her eyes that secured him to his spot. He had seen those eyes days before, drifting away from his ship in a rowboat not designed for open seas.

The woman in the water opened her mouth, and the captain heard waves roar even louder. The sound of the sea itself dimmed until all he could hear was her roar. Then the crashing waves began to coalesce into words he knew.

“My daughter,” it whispered, a questioning voice full of anger and hope.

The captain stumbled towards the mysterious water nymph as the waves crashed around her. Where the water slammed viciously against the fragile wood of his boat, it lapped with gentle caresses against her skin. She was an angel framed in sea foam.

Those piercing eyes found his, liquid and searing. “My daughter,” spoke the waves again, but this time the hopeful questions was replaced by accusation.

The captain opened his mouth to speak, but could not find words that expressed his needs as clearly as the waves. Instead, he swam in her eyes, seeing his silhouette standing in the bow of the ship, a figure receding with each shove of the oars through water.

The sound of snapping wood brought the captain from his awe-struck reverie, but it also smothered him with an unescapable revelation. Waves slammed again and again against the fracturing wood of his ship, following the command in those fierce, sea-sculpted eyes.

With a screech of angry waves and squall-summoned winds, the majestic woman dove towards the captain. The deck gave way beneath his feet, but she caught him in her crushing arms.

“My daughter,” she roared through the water that pressed against his ears, surrounded his eyes and mouth.

The stars grew murky and watery from his new vantage point sinking below the waves. As the surface closed over him, wreckage spinning around him, the captain could only curse the woman who had brought her ill luck upon him.


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Card Challenge: Day 71

Card Day 71: A chicken wearing a military uniform marshalling a group of chicks. In the background, a person peeks out from a cracked egg.

The torch light danced over the room again, and Yoren ducked down below the counter. His heart slammed against his ribs as the shadows crept towards him, lengthening and fading as the light snaked its way towards him. He could hear their voices outside the window, still wondering where he had snuck off to. The breath caught in his throat instinctively, even though there was no way they would hear him. It was still a risk he would not take.

The natural shadows resettled in their habitats as the lights moved on, and Yoren deflated with the long-held breath. He listened carefully as the echoes of their steps wandered off into the night. There was an ease and nonchalance to their movements and speech that left him feeling jealous. His life was on the line, and they carried on without any serious concern besides the slight edge of intrigue in their nightly patrol. The silence stretched on too long around him—interrupted briefly by the loud bellowing of a cow some farms over—before he felt it was safe to move, hopefully unnoticed by any of the night watch.

He shoved on the door of the shop that had been his brief refuge at the first sound of footsteps. It creaked open, and he froze, but pressed his luck when nothing in the town responded. He raced along the cobblestones, his bare feet slapping across the stones and jacket snapping against his back as he fled. The woods would be his refuge with their gentle darkness and warm familiarity. If he could make it to the woods, he was certain that he would be free. Though his freedom did require one more stop.

Yoren ducked into the shadows as a loud series of guffaws echoed down the streets. He skidded to a stop and flattened himself against the side of one of the many homes. The laughter faded, as did the bright splash of light into the night, and he could hear the drunken mumblings of one of the tavern’s most reliable patrons. That knowledge did little to calm the terror flooding through his veins, nor did it silence the images of capture that stewed in his mind. One the humming and stumbling steps faded, he began his flight again, though this time far more cautious as he slunk along the shadows of buildings with his ears straining for alarm.

The forest eventually wrapped its arms around him with all the comfort of childhood. The sounds of the town—already quiet—were further muted by the leafy boughs sheltering him. For the first time in a week, Yoren felt some of his stress and fear melt away. Here he was safe, even if it was only a few roads over to the city center. He was free, the smell of an earthy breeze filling his lungs, and no one laid any claim on him. Escape was within grasp, and he knew that if he continued to sprint until morning, he would effectively outrun all of his problems.

Only there was one thing he did not want to outrun. They were forcing him to flee, however, and that meant leaving Zalia behind in their little shack. It did not mean he would leave without seeing to her, though.

Yoren cut through the forest, following old paths that his feet knew better than his eyes. The branches seemed to whisper him onward, encouraging and praising his strength. He breathed deeply, pulling in what strength he could from the ancient forest towering around him. This journey would require all he had, and so there was no reason to turn his back on the land that had cared for him so well thus far.

His home swelled into view, a tiny cabin snuck between the trunks of stalwart oaks. There was a candle still burning in the window, which not only meant Zalia was still awake, but that there was no danger awaiting him inside.

This door swung open silently, but his steps were loud enough to rouse her from her slumber by the window. Her face brightened at him, but he could still see the heavy shadows under her eyes and the distinct pallor of her cheeks.

“You made it,” she whispered as if breathless, staring up at him with young and fevered eyes.

“Of course I did, Zalia. I told you I would come back for you.” He knelt beside her, his hand resting lightly on her shoulder. He could feel the heat pouring from her now, and doubts began to arise.

“Did they let you go?” she asked, brimming with innocence he envied.

“No, they didn’t.” Yoren weighed lying only briefly; she was his sister and had always seen through even the tiniest of lies. This one would have been no different, and he could not bear the thought that her last memory of him might be deception.

“But, Yoren, that would mean you broke the law again!” She was aghast at his delinquency, just as she had been when his first crime was reported. No matter how often he argued he had done it for her own good, she still seemed saddened by his decision. Yoren accepted that her morality was not nuanced enough to understand his decisions, and was comforted by the fact that she loved him nonetheless. Only now he wondered if that love would be strong enough to last the approaching revelation.

“I did. But, Zalia, I did not have a choice. I did steal the medicine, I did break into the pharmacy, and I did strike the shopkeeper. They would have executed me.”

She looked down, trying to synthesize these disparate realities, balancing the virtue she knew in her brother with the immoral choices he made and the harsh judgment to be meted out. “Well, then you have to run away, right?”

Yoren took a deep breath. This was the conversation he had feared. “Yes. I’m leaving tonight.”

She stood quickly, catching herself on the window sill as her legs nearly gave out. “But I have not packed a thing. Oh, Yoren, how am I supposed to leave tonight? If only you could have gotten me a message somehow, I would have been ready. But I will be quick.” She tottered about the small room, picking up scraps of fabric and bowls form the table. Her steps were short, slow, and unsteady. Yoren watched her vigilantly, worried she would topple over at any second. Her face seemed to grow even paler at the brief exertion. “Do you think we could leave in the morning? I could be packed then.” She turned around somewhat breathless, a prickle of sweat on her brow framing the fever in her eyes.

“Zalia,” he paused, not sure how to continue. She studied him with her penetrating gaze; Yoren had always been an open book to her. “You cannot come with me. Not tonight at least.”

The breakdown he had expected did not occur, but in some ways it was worse. She seemed to simply go limp—not in body, but in spirit. Her eyes fell to the floor, and she sagged against the table.  There were no tears, no yelling, no pleading. Only silent, weighty resignation.

“Oh. I suppose that makes sense. You need to travel quickly. You may not have room for a feeble sister as you start a new life somewhere.” There could have been guilt or judgment in her voice, but it was simply stating the facts, as if she were telling him how to best prune the flowers in the garden.

“I want you to come with me, but I’m afraid—“ I’m afraid the journey would kill you, finished his mind.

“You’re afraid I’ll slow you down,” she offered. Yoren could not admit his first instinct was more correct, so he gave a short nod.

“I sent a letter to Uncle Titus, asking him to come and watch over you. Only for a few weeks because, once I have found a safe pace, I want you to join me.”

“Are you sure? I mean, you will be trying to find work, and you are old enough that you should have a wife. Who wants to marry a man with the crippled sister? Maybe I could return with Uncle Titus—“

“No!” snapped Yoren, surprised by his own forcefulness. He took a few hesitating steps across the room and held her tiny, burning hand in his rough one. “Zalia, you are my sister, and I want to take care of you. I told Uncle Titus I would send a message as soon as I reached Alsberg. Then I’m going to send you money to hire a cart, pack up everything,” he waved at the generous furnishings in the cramped space, “and meet me there.”

She looked like she was going to object, but he cut her off. “You are all the family I have, and it’s my job to take care of you. That’s all I’ve tried to do, Zalia. Let me keep taking care of you, okay? Besides, just think about our new life in the big city. I bet you could get even more seamstress work.”

She smiled at the idea. “We’d live in the city?”

“Of course! I can find another cobbler to apprentice with, and you can set up shop in our little home. We’ll rent a room until we can save up and buy a nice, big house.”

She appeared to warm to the idea, smiling up at her big brother with those adoring eyes. “And I won’t be a bother?”

“Never.” He wrapped his arms around her in a hug, feeling the heat and fragility in her frame. She was so young and so sick, but he could only hope that the city would have better doctors and care for her. A new life. The prospect thrilled him as well.

Yoren quickly swept through the house, grabbing an extra coat, a blanket, a few scraps of food that she would not miss—judging by the look of things, she had not been eating much since he left—and his work boots. It was a meager allowance, but enough to get him over the hills and mountains and safely into Alsberg.

“I’ll send for you as soon as I arrive and get the money,” he promised, sweeping out the door. She smiled and waved at him, a pale figure in the moonlit doorway. “And Uncle Titus will be here tomorrow. You take care of him!”

She nodded at his retreating back, watching as he grew dim. Yoren cut through the trees, trying to quickly extricate himself from the village boundaries and escape into fresh territory. He wanted to be free before morning. The ground beneath him rose sharply, and he realized he was cresting the last hill in town. That meant that, once he reached the top, he would have the last glance back at the tiny shack nestled between the trees.

Yoren paused his flight, turning back to smile one last time on his childhood home. It sat calm and peaceful, the light in the window now darkened. The promise of freedom and new beginnings stirring in his soul, Yoren pressed on.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 64

Woohoo! On the last quarter! It’s been quite a ride, and will probably continue. Unfortunately, I have a raging migraine tonight, so there may be a lot of typos or issues here. I will probably look over this tomorrow and try to make some corrections. Tonight, I’ve just got to get my eyes closed. Happy reading!


Card Day 64: A rabbit in armor, sword drawn, standing before three different doors.

It is strange to think that my life spun on a pivot based on one choice alone. In one breath, I drastically altered life as I knew it, striking off on some path that I could never have imagined had you granted me ten thousand years to dream. No, it was the impulsivity and daring of youth that set me on this path, and I cannot help but wonder what may have been if a cooler head had reigned and selected my future. Life is, ultimately, the assembled sum of choices made in moments of strength and weakness.

“Take my hand.” The words had been a command, but they were a choice. And I chose adventure, leaving behind the life of simplicity I had thus far known. I leapt from the precipice of the unknown with a mysterious stranger whose tongue was decked in gilded lies. I eschewed the life I had known to chase after the fairytale presented.

Only his fairytale did not have a happy ending, and did not include brave knights or sweeping castles. No, his fairytales were grim reality dressed in a veil of magic. True, there is magic in this world of mine, but not the kind to transform frogs to princes. That was a lesson I learned quickly with him.

I had been young and impressionable. He had been the answers to all the darkness and ennui that dogged my daily life. I was an independent woman who wished for the fantasy of my youth. So I sought it out, digging through the recesses of our reality and searching for the tears.

My search led me to him in a back alley shop carrying all kinds of items, covering the gamut from arcane to mundane. A spells hop, he said with a smile. Only I did not realize that by opening a relationship with him, entering his world, I was actually granting entry to a myriad of unwanted guests.

“Take my hand,” he said, and led me into his shop, into his world. He showed me how to create a spell, how to transform the world and revitalize the magic I sought. Old ways, he said with the gaze of a zealous worshipper.

At first, things had been magical in the most innocent sense of the word. He had shown me how to create light and beauty, how to enchant things so that they took on a feeling of whimsy. I learned simple things to make the colors of my world shine brighter, to make music dance before me, and to grant levity to the struggles of life. I was overwhelmed with luck and beauty. It was like the greatest high I had ever experienced, only it was not bought with self-delusion and unhappy consequences.

Of course, the consequences were there, they just hung back in the shadows and waited until I was so ensnared that I could not escape.

It began with whispers that followed me throughout my day. They ebbed and flowed like waves, overwhelming me at times with their threatening whispers. Whenever I used the gifts he had unlocked within me, I heard them swell to a rabble, only to dim as I exhausted my gifts. As I transformed the pebble in my hand into an apple, they screamed, and then faded on the wind. Every time I cast a light about my home, illuminating my abode with dancing light that shone with tranquility, they raged against the peace. Only when it grew dark did they quiet again.

I thought I was going crazy, but that is not the thing you can tell a therapist. Yes, I hear voices, but only when I use magic. That’s a one way ticket to a life I did not want. So I chose not to reach out for help, but to live with it. I told him about the voices, and he smiled knowingly.

“You didn’t think you’d get this all for free, did you? You’re building quite the tab.” And he stopped taking my calls. The shop closed up, a smudge of paint on a brick wall downtown. From shadows he came, and into them he once again melted.

Had they stayed voices, I think I would have been fine. I could hold them back, limit the use of my skills, and make it by without becoming overwhelmed by the ever clearer voices. As long as I did not think about the horrors they whispered, I could hold it together.

Soon, there were shadows in my eyes. They clung around the edges of my sight, deepening natural shadows and sneaking from them when I was not looking. Their forms were obscure, fluctuating, moving with the ease of light filtering through a dusty window. At night, I woke to find them grinning down at me, hungry and waiting. “An account must be made,” they whispered, grinning with delight.

I know I should have stopped then, stepped away from the new world I had uncovered. I should have returned to the life of normalcy, hoped that they would let me go with time served. But this was more addictive than any drug. Imagine you could change the very fabric of reality around you to make life exactly as you wished. Mourning? Then simply alter time and space so that the loss never happened. Disappointed? Just a few tweaks here or there and the world realigns to your specifications. Lonely? It’s always easy to find someone when you know exactly what they’re looking for. The allure is in the ease. For such a huge power, the keys are relatively simple. Just a nudge to time here, a pull on this part of space, a twist of that arbitrary boundary. Once I knew the rules, it was as if all the world was nothing but a puzzle to be figured out and pieced together per my command. That is a power I could not step away from.

Of course, my refusal did not suit them either. They grew more and more terrifying. They woke me from sleep to scream and growl. My dreams were their playground, filled with images of horror and despair. Every time I tried to right the world in my dream, it twisted before my eyes. Not only did I not get to go home with the man I had hoped for, but I watched as he was ripped limb from limb. My attempt to brighten my apartment turned into a blazing fire, my nostrils filled with the scent of burning flesh while I listened to the screams of my neighbors. I woke in terror.

And tonight, I woke in terror to find they had taken on an even more tangible danger. This time, one of them was seated on my chest, two of its many appendages pinning my arms to my sides. I could try to describe it, but I know words do not do it justice. Its form was mist, eve in movement, but I also had the distinct image of a snarling wolf impossibly balanced on my torso. In no way did the writhing mass of shadow actually resemble a wolf, but that is the form that best describes the being before me. It at once had a form and denied that shape.

“An account must be made,” it snarled, breathing long coils of hot, rancid breath over my face. The stench of my dreams resurged, burning flesh and rotting meat comingled. The claws around my arms dug deep, and I felt my skin pop with the pressure, beads of blood trembling down my arms. I could feel its hunger at the sight, an almost ecstatic trembling in its undefined form.

“An account will be made,” it purred, jaws flashing near my face. “We are owed. We will be sated.”

And I screamed, focusing the primal rage, fear, and desire into one vocalization. I looked at my blueprint of reality, this alien blot marring the system I had learned so well. It was an invader in the world I had created, and I must be the defender.

I know my story could have ended hours ago, a blood stain on a mattress in a bad part of town. A series of screams reported to cops who did not care, a person who vanished into the night, a collection of blood and bones without any valid explanation. I could have been a cold case reserved for the stuff of urban legends.

But my teacher taught me so much better than that, even if he did abandon me. Then again, I don’t think he knew half of what he taught me. But you can learn an awful lot when you can freeze a moment and pick delicately through every neuron of their brain. Yes, you can learn so much.

And so I cleansed my world. I brought back the light that I had created and tended so gently, used it to burn away the claim that thing placed on me.  I can close my eyes and see the shock, awe, and fear on its face—or lack of a face—as it realized that the morsel it had in its claws was far more competent than expected. I hate to admit, but that look was intoxicating. As was the feeling of its form dissolving within my thoughts. I felt the structure of its phantasmagorical shape fall apart, covering me in its darkness. It ran warm, thick, and soothing over my skin; it seeped into my wounds and fed me with energy from beyond the veil.

It was a taste exhilarating, fulfilling, and empowering in a way I had never known—a way I did not know a mere human can know.

So, still wearing the remains of my foolish captor, I am once again faced with a choice. Another pivot point in my life has arisen, and I must this time be aware of what lies ahead. I may remain here, waiting, and try to return to life before I was filled with this indescribable power. They will return. Or I can flee, hide myself from the powers I have gathered, and hope that my account may one day be forgotten. The life of the victim, ever on the run.

There is a third option. I may hunt, feed myself on this essence that provides all my life has been lacking. I can drink deep, rip apart those who would dare to threaten me. I can drench myself in shadow and fill myself with their fear as I take the offensive.

Humanity has so long been prey; perhaps it is time for at least one of us to take on the role of the predator. Besides, I can feel the hunger awaken again.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 61

Card Day 61: A knight rides on a white horse across the pages of a book. The opposite page has a dark pit, tentacles reaching out from it.

“Are you sure this will work?”

Ursula gave an exaggerated shrug, not even making the polite attempt to hide her ignorance. “I mean, I figure it has as much chance as anything else.”

Quentin sighed, fixing her with a firm, side-eyed stare. “Just so you know, those aren’t the kinds of things that inspire confidence when you’re asking someone to risk life and limb on some plan you’ve cooked up.”

She returned his stare with a lopsided smile, her barely-managed hair flopping across her eyes. She brushed it aside mechanically and shrugged yet again. “If you’d rather I lie to you, I can, but I thought you’d like to know that there’s about an equal chance of success and failure with this.”

“False confidence is a powerful thing,” he muttered, returning to his pacing.

She remained crouched on the ground, flipping through the pages are her eyes flew across the words. “If it makes you feel better, I’ve done my homework.” Another page flipped, snapping crisply in the air. Quentin looked down at it, noting the ornate script that flowed across the page. To him, it looked like some kind of spirograph creation, circling in and out and back across itself. But Ursula assured him she could read it.

“And all of that research never mentioned another way?”

She did not speak, but shook her head. Studying on page intently. After an extended paused, punctuated by Quentin’s frantic footsteps, she finally broke the silence. “Remember, I’m taking the risk with you. But we’re out of options, Quentin.”

He slumped against the wall of the roach motel, pointedly not looking at her. “I know. I know better than anyone. Better than you.” He stomped from the room to the tiny, dingy bathroom, slamming the door behind him. Ursula sighed, leaning back on her heels and letting her head fall into her hands. She understood that he was nervous, that the task was likely a death wish, but he had sought her out. He had brought the information, put the pieces together, and pushed her towards identifying a final solution.

Still, the cold feet made sense, she supposed. It was a suicide mission most likely, but at least she knew the information she had was correct. Quentin’s sister had been the Seventh Forgotten Woman taken by the creature, and Quentin was her Legacy Bearer. He was the only one who remembered he had a sister, and Ursula had verified that by digging through prior records. Old magic struggled with the conveniences of modern technology. The erasure was there, but there were crumbs remaining—failed links, dead domains, and occasional mentions. This entity, fortunately, did not actually re-write any timelines, and so there were at least traces to be found. Interviews with her family had led to blank stares, minor defensiveness. Only Quentin remembered the bubbly 26-year-old woman who went for a jog and vanished from time and space.

The Unsatiated—the name was the closest translation she could make—had met its human needs, so that meant that is merely needed one moon cycle to fully emerge. And last time it had, there had been a swath of the country that suddenly disappeared, hundreds of people vanishing in a blink and barely remembered. From what she had pieced together, however, the creature seemed to feed on the memories it could accumulate, taking first a few until it could emerge from hibernation, then devouring all those that remembered the missing individuals. And then stealing away those who remembered the new missing, and so on. In this interconnected age, the results would certainly be devastating.

Still, she felt powerlessness sweep over her again. The only solutions were conjectures strung together across a dozen ancient sources, none of which had been able to stop it. Of course, Ursula certainly believed she had done due diligence and devised a process that had a shot at working, but only time would tell. And, unfortunately, that time was tomorrow during the new moon.

Her eyes ached from deciphering the old script, and she could feel the mental fatigue piling up. The corners of her eyes were flooded with dark shadows and grasping claws, reminding her that the words she poured over were not meant for mortal minds. She closed the book, letting her façade of bravado fade as she dragged herself to the stiff mattress. A good night’s sleep was possibly one of the most overlooked necessities for a successful banishment.

_

Given his haggard look, Ursula assumed Quentin had not taken her advice about sleep. He had been gone when she woke, and returned only an hour before they were to leave for the lake. She bit her tongue, avoiding the scolding her certainly deserved. The time was better spent preparing him.

“So once I’ve done the summoning, you’re on. Know what to do?”

“Yeah, I know,” he mumbled, grief seeping through his voice.

“And you have the—“

“I’m ready, okay! Can we get this over with?” His anxiety boiled over into anger, and Ursula pursed her lips at him.

“Lack of preparation will get us both killed. I’m putting my life in your hands. I’m putting hundreds of lives in your hands. So, thank you, but I will cover all the bases. You have the token, yes?”

Shame flashed over his face, a shudder of embarrassment and irritation mingling as well. But his anger was dulled. “Here.” He held out a bracelet made of faded strings woven together.

“And it was hers?”

“I made it for her at summer camp when I was eleven. She wore it for years, but left it at home when she went to college. I found it in the bottom of her—of the storage room closet.”

“Good, that will do nicely. A gift bound in love, tying Legacy with Forgotten.” She looked down at her carefully prepared notes, striking through the items. “And you’re prepared for what might happen at the end?”

“Forgetting her? No, I can’t stand the idea. But there’s no choice, right?”

“No. You won’t even remember that you saved the world. But you will have.”

“Great,” he muttered sarcastically. “Are we good?”

She merely motioned to the van, and he folded himself inside. The ride there was long, mostly silent, and heavy with the impending tension. Darkness held close to their van, unbroken by star or moonlight. Wind whipped its way through the trees, and Ursula could feel nature beginning to bristle with the impending defiance of the laws of the world. Yes, the time was drawing near, and so at least if they failed, there would be very little time to live with the disappointment.

Their arrival was met with silence as well, and Ursula gathered her bag of supplies to complete the summoning. The trees clustered around them, groaning with the wind. Yes, it was the perfect night for arcane rites and rituals. Eventually, the lakeshore rose into view, water lapping angrily at the rocky shore as it promised an impending storm.

“Better make this quick. Looks like it might get bad out here,” offered Quentin, his courtesy suggesting they put the previous conflict behind them.

“It will certainly get bad out here,” she offered with a grim smile, “and it’s going to be our fault.” With that, she dropped to her knees and began to gather her equipment from the canvas bag. She started by drawing a large spiral on the ground with ground-up chalk, closing the outer edge. Starting at the edge closest to the lake, she placed a water-smoother stone etched with a name in each ring, leaving the central most clear. In the middle, she placed a single white candle, lighting it against the best effort of the wind. Her hands were shaking as she poured a measure of blessed oil into a lidded, gold bowl, placing it to the side next to a knife. Preparations complete, she proceeded with the rite.

Quentin listened to her whispered words, hearing them whisper through the woods with a sibilant, melodic tone. It seemed to rise over the wind, circling around him with a strange pull. Then, he heard things he recognized. Names he did not know, followed by the one he did. April Maria Davidson. That name was like music to him; he thought he might never hear another soul say it with such a knowing tone. Yes, she was known, she existed, and he remembered. For the moment, at least, he remembered. But he would soon have to sacrifice even that.

Once Ursula grew quiet, there was a ripple from the water. It was a woman rising out of the water, her body glistening with pale white that seemed to shine like the absent moon. Her hair was dark, falling down to her knees and covering her with an inky veil. She floated there above the water, mist and substance all at once, her eyes radiating hate towards the mortal on the shore. Her mouth split open, rows of teeth glistening inside her dark maw, and released a soundless scream. Quentin felt it slam into his body, even if he could not hear it. Ursula crumpled to the ground, and he feared she may have heard that sound that his mind so flawlessly protected him from.

One of the creature’s arms swam forward, an extension of mist reaching across the lake towards the now distracted Ursula. Just as it was about to reach her, Ursula rolled, bringing forward a mirror and deflecting the appendage.

“Do your damn job already,” she snapped, looking at Quentin with ferocious, pained eyes. “Or you and I can both die here.”

Shocked into action, Quentin drew the bracelet from his pocket and scooped up April’s stone from the circle, careful not to disturb the remaining stones or chalk spiral. His lips fumbled over the name Ursula had taught him, trying to approximate her melodic way with the language. It sounded more like marbles being thrown into a garbage disposal, but it also caught the creature’s attention. She fixed her empty eyes on him, mouth knitting together into a smile. Now, he could hear her whispers.

“Don’t listen to her. Think of April. Do what we said.”

Quentin broke his gaze from the woman, the whispers fading to a distant suggestion or voices. He knelt beside the gold bowl and held the knife in his trembling hand. This was it, the moment of truth or utter failure.

Boldly, drawing on strength form a source he could not recognize, Quentin drew the knife across his palm, screaming the creature’s arcane name once again. “I, Legacy Bearer, banish the name of April Maria Davidson. Bound to the essence, I too banish you from our world. I complete your task, I break all of April Maria Davidson’s ties to this world. And so, I banish you.”  His voice was breaking, and he felt tears trickling down his face. Despite the woman’s screams, he pressed his bleeding hand against the etched stone, then wrapped it in the bracelet. Quentin looked at the bloodied stone and the bracelet, his last memento of his beloved sister.

It was a sacrifice in the truest sense as he cast the items into the gold bowl, lifting the candle to light the oil. The scream grew louder, the wind whipped stronger, and Quentin felt his memories begin to fade like dust. He fell to his knees, weeping, as the final thoughts of April fell through his mind, rebuilt around the emptiness of a person erased. It ached as those memories dissolved, almost as if his entire being was being destroyed as well.

And then, there was nothing. He looked around at the dark lakeshore, taking in the woman kneeling on the ground nearby, a strange assortment of items surrounding her.

“Um, excuse me, who are you, and why are we out here?”

The woman smiled, but her eyes looked sad and lonely. “I’m no one,” she quipped. “And I guess you were out for a walk?”

Quentin scratched his head, looking around. “Huh. Weird, I just don’t remember coming out here. Must have been distracted,” he laughed, though it did nothing to resolve his discomfort.

She smiled politely back. “Some things are better to forget, I guess.”


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 57

Hello, wonderful Reader! I apologize for not posting yesterday. I was running from 7:30-9:45 with class and clients, so I was simply worn out by the time I finally made it home. Just a day of back-to-back-to-back appointments. So, I just had to keep myself sane and healthy. Still, I was frustrated because I really wanted to write this story! But, better late than never. I only have one day left to skip, so hopefully nothing too major gets in the way. Thanks for sticking with me, and I hope you enjoy today’s piece. Happy reading!


Card Day 57: An hourglass. As the sands fall, they cover a youthful young woman below while revealing an old woman above.

The world fell out of balance slowly, so slowly that at first no one noticed. Eventually, however, the changes grew to a swell so extreme that it was impossible not to notice. Religious folks proclaimed the apocalypse, the green champions decried humanity’s misuse of the world, and science curried to find a suitable answer for the unraveling of everything believed to be true. Nevertheless all the time spent pointing guilty fingers do nothing to slow the inevitable. In the end the world fell apart, just like everyone warned it would.

With the collapse of the world as she knew it, Opal found herself the only person—perhaps the only creature—left alive. Her world had gone from one full of joy, vibrancy, and community to one that was best described as a barren waste. Admittedly, this change had begun long before the world started its tumultuous descent into nothingness. She had wrought her own demise long before, and humanity simply imitated her chaotic spiral into oblivion.

The first loss had been her husband, an unmourned passing which ultimately freed her from his tyrannical, at times abusive rule. She had not wept for him, but had leapt into life with seal. From there, she blossomed, caring for her beautiful children, managing her household, and running her little universe in shining perfection. Her methods were, of course, trying to those around her who might have found it difficult to live to her exacting standards. But Opal had standards, and just because that meant others had to work did not mean she was wrong.

After his passing, Opal later was forced to say farewell to her twin brother, who died surprisingly young under curious circumstances. There was, of course, a shadow cast across Opal at the time, but she grieved him so deeply that no one pressed the issue. Still questions hung around the family like old cobwebs, seeking to uncover why he had died so brutally, what the symbols carved into his hands, forehead, and soles of his feet could mean, and why every mirror was shattered in his house. The craze of Satanism was in full swing, and Opal poured all her ire towards that possibly fictitious and certainly exaggerated subculture. Opal had loved her brother dearly, and many said she was never the same after he passed.

She did, in fact, become a bit of a recluse. She dressed darkly, wearing thick sunglasses and veils to cover her face. More surprising in the small town was her departure from the local Lutheran Church, akin to spitting in the face of half the town. Her children—grown by then—tried to convince her to return, but she only withdrew more and more. It became such that she rarely left her house.

Of course, then her eldest daughter died, and most thought the news would simply shatter what remained of the fragile woman. However, she responded to the news with all the grace they remembered from the woman of old, carrying herself with dignity at the graveside as she buried a child. She mourned appropriately, and then placed her home for sale. Hr life moved into times of perceived festivity. She traveled, saw the world, dressed vibrantly, and eschewd all the things a proper lady was expected to do in her old age. Opal had a fondness for Jack Daniels, ordorous cigars, and younger men. Her children, those who remained in their small hometown at least, spoke of her in hushed whispered with blush rising to their faces. Senility, they tried to suggest. But their mother would not offer them that.

No, while Opal appeared to age, she remained quick enough to cause a ruckus any time someone suggested her mind was going. Her wits never suffered, and even though she appeared to grow old, she remained as spry and active as she ever had. Many folks said she was brighter, smarter, and more athletic than the Opal they remembered way back in high school days. But soon, those folks began to die off, leaving Opal the shining example of a generation buried to time.

She buried three more children as time went on, leaving herself beholden to no one. Though the town she had once knew had forgotten her, Opal still breezed in from time to time, a figure cut out of mystery that no one rightly knew what to do with. It seemed as if she enjoyed baffling the locals, winging in with her knowledge, grace, and devil-may-care abandon for anything reputable folk would do.

Her ties to the living world grew thin as Opal buried grandchildren she had hardly known, accompanying weeping great grandchildren she recognized only by their sharp cheekbones. She was the figure in black hovering about the edges of the gravesite, her eyes turned downwards in silent contemplation, But she never stayed long, carried off by the next wayward wind to chase whatever fancy had most recently struck her.

When the world began dying, she hardly noticed. She had no one to mourn as people—young and old—began to simply collapse in the streets. The news was depressing and had no impact on her daily life, so she ignored it. Only when the traffic thinned to a trickle and her favorite shops began to board up did she notice something was wrong. Yes, something was terribly wrong. An epidemic of death wrapped across the globe, claiming victims without disease or injury. One moment, a child was laughing, the next her heart stopped. A mother drove home from work, and then plowed her car into the guardrail, brain-dead before the impact.

The anxiety that seized the planet did nothing to Opal; she knew she could not die. However it did crimp her style, leaving no one to be in awe of her, to accompany her wild adventures, to scam for a few extra dollars. The woman beholden to no one began to feel lonely, to wilt without the eyes of others on her.

And now, she was relatively certain she was the last one left on the planet. Being immortal was not nearly as much fun without an audience.

She sat just outside Chicago, resting on the hood of her most recent vehicle, yet again out of gas. She knew that the gas pumps probably still worked, but it was generally easy to just find a new one and pick up again. Hotwiring was one of the many skills her long life had granted her. Only, now, she paused for a break. She thought she had seen someone in her rearview mirror, so opted to do the polite thing and wait.

Sure enough, the lanky woman came waltzing down the highway, swaying to unknown music and dancing in the destruction. Opal’s face twisted into a bitter scowl as the woman neared. “I don’t find that very funny,” she snapped once the woman was in earshot.

The young woman smiled at her, fixing Opal with a concentrated stare. “Opal, darling!” she greeted. “I hope you don’t take offense, but,” she shrugged, “I assumed you’d be more welcoming to me with a face you can trust.”

Opal resettled herself against the hood of the car, crossing her arms. “That’s not a face I care to see anymore.”

“But, Opal, it’s your face, yes? And my, weren’t you beautiful!” The creature wearing her face smiled at herself in the reflection of a nearby car before finding Opal’s eyes again. “Were being key, I’m afraid.”

“What do you want?” spat the old woman, now beginning to feel the heat of the sun on her wrinkled skin. Her mind was sharp, her body young, but her appearance had definitely degraded over time. She did not need that worthless hellspawn rubbing it in.

“I got the sense you were looking for me.”

Well, that at least was true. Opal had finally decided she had had her fun. It was time to make peace with death and move along. “I’m ready to die,” she said bluntly, not meeting the creature’s taunting gaze.

“I’m sure you do. But that’s not how this works.”

“But I made the decision, I made the deal. Now I want it to be over!” She slid off the hood of the car, standing to her full five and a half foot height. Not an imposing figure, but one that seethed with years of unspent fury.

The young woman did not respond, but ambled along the highway, gazing aimlessly out into the wastes. “Do you even know why all this happened, Opal?”

“I don’t care why it happened, I want—“

“You should care. You caused it.” Opal’s words dried up in her mouth, and the creature smiled, pleased with the response. “You see, Life and death are so delicately balanced, and then you come along. You unhinged it all with your “immortality” schtick. I mean, really, you thought there would be no consequences?”

“But there were!” she said with a start, taking frenzied steps towards the woman. “I sacrificed everything! I gave you Samuel!”

“Ah, the brother. Yes, I suppose that sated Death for a while. But eventually, his books came back out of balance. And he’ll search high and low to find that missing number. Only, my boss and I made sure he could not find you.” Her face broke into a wide, pointed tooth grin. “We made an agreement, after all.”

“Well, then I’m ready to pay for my crimes. Give me all you’ve got, drag me to hell if you must. I’m ready to die.” Opal put on as brave a face as she could muster, trying to cover up the years and decades of weariness etched in every wrinkle.

The demon wearing her face laughed, a throaty sound that echoed across the empty sky. “Opal, dear, you are paying already. Welcome to your Hell. You’ll have long enough to enjoy it, I promise.”


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 53

Card Day 53: A single die with a devilish figure growing legs and emerging from the pips on the surface.

Natalie felt the heft of the die in her hand. It was small, cold, and surprisingly heavy in her hand. Despite being a single small die, it felt like she was holding a crushing weight. Perhaps it was simply the import of the question.

He cleared his throat, obviously annoyed by her prolonged silence. “So, are you the gambling sort?” he asked again, raising his eyebrow provocatively.

She looked down at the die, feeling surprisingly as if the pips were eyes staring eagerly up at her. They were so dark on the dingy white background, and the sensation chilled her. “I’m not,” she whispered, still not meeting his eyes. At her response, he stood up straight, shrugging his shoulders.

“Oh well, I tried.” His hand, long and slender with crisply manicured nails, reached towards hers, moving to pinch the die from her hand.

Reflexively, her fingers closed over it and held tight even as the edges bit into her hand. “No, I’m not the type, but I have to try.” Her yes met his and she was struck by the lack of humanity in them. They were dark blue, the pupils large and endless pits spiraling back into his skull. There was no life or light in those eyes, instead they seemed to suck the brightness of the hospital room into him, leaving everything feeling dim. As if she had forgotten to take her sunglasses off when she came in. It took her several breaths before she realized that his lips were smiling even as his empty eyes drilled into her.

“You’ll take my wager?”

He looked too pleased with this turn of events, and she thought back to every story she had ever heard. These kinds of deals never went the way you wanted, and there was always a hidden catch. But Natalie felt that she had no choice. She was back against the proverbial wall, and she would cling to the only way out she had, even if that meant dancing with the Devil himself. Behind her, she heard the sounds of the respirator churning, the heart monitor keeping a steady tempo. It all seemed to be counting down the seconds remaining in the offer. She could see him beginning to grow weary with the waiting, almost ready to withdraw the offer from a hesitant buyer.

“I’ll take it. We play and, if I win, no one dies tonight or anytime soon.” She had tried to be very clear in her wording, but even now she wondered if she had left too many loopholes. How soon was soon? Who was included in the “no one” discussion? What if no one died, but everyone spent the remainder of “soon” in a coma? She gnawed on her bottom lip apprehensively as she replayed the discussion. It had all seemed to clear before, but now there only seemed to be holes.

He placed his hand on her arm, the skin dry and radiating an unhealthy heat. “I may not be an honest man, but I’ll make sure you get what you deserve. You win, I’ll make sure you and your family live a nice healthy life together. I win, and no one intercedes. This story unfolds like it should, only I get a little piece of you once your time is up.”

“You will save her, right? If I win, I mean.” There was desperation dripping from her words and she clasped his hand. Obvious discomfort stretched across his face at the touch of her hand. Behind her, the machines keeping her daughter alive continued their steady symphony, unobtrusively metering each measure of her too-young life.

He simply nodded, withdrawing his hand from her and taking a couple steps back, as if the distance between them had suddenly become too intimate. “Do you want to know the rules?” he asked condescendingly. She could see he was growing tired of the mortal game, and she began to fear she might lose him. Still, playing without rules would not win her anything.

“Yes.”

He nodded curtly, pulling another ivory-toned die from his pocket. Its pips were just as dark and deep, reminding her suddenly of the pupils of his eyes. Maybe that’s why she thought they were looking up at her. “You’ll go first and roll your die,” he gestured at her still clenched fist, and she suddenly became aware of the sharp pain, releasing it suddenly. “After that, make a bid—higher than your number—that you think will be the total on both our dice after I roll. Then I roll. If our two dice add up to the bid, I win. If I roll lower than your number but go over the bid, you win. If I roll higher than you and go over, it’s a draw and I roll first next time. The game is over when we roll the same number or if we roll lower than the bid six times. Winner of the most rounds wins. Got it?”

She nodded her head slowly, the different rules and permutations floating around her. Natalie was suddenly aware that, cognitively, she was in no shape to make such decisions. It was hard to even follow his words. Somehow she suspected that would not void her agreement.

“Good,” he purred, moving towards the counter in the corner of the room. “You’re up.”

Her hand was shaking so much, she felt she did not even have to put much effort into juggling the single die. It fell from her hand, clattering across the table. Four eyes loomed up at her in the increasingly dim light of the hospital room.

“Tough one,” he sighed, not a hint of compassion or sympathy in his voice. “Bid it.”

“Seven?” she bid questioningly. He smiled a crooked grin and made a grand show of shaking the lone die with both hands. She watched as it tumbled to the table, three tiny beads facing up.

“Beginner’s luck,” he grinned as he scooped his die from the table, obviously pleased with his performance. She shook her head, trying to hold onto all the rules and decide if there were a better way, Should she have bid higher? Lower? Was it really just luck? Was he cheating? Her fingers numbly gathered the die to her, suddenly terrified of releasing it. What if they matched this round? It would all be over.

“Take too long and we’ll have to call it,” he said with a pleased smile, gesturing at the large clock on the wall. The die plummeted from her hand, bouncing a couple of times before settling.

A six. “Seven,” she bid, and he looked irritated.

“I suppose the luck may be turning. Not much chance for me here,” he growled. Hi roll produced an unfortunate three, and she saw disgust ripple over his otherwise calm features. “All tied up now, I suppose.”

The traded rounds, their scores racking up steadily. The game remained close to her partner’s obviously swelling irritation. They swapped the first player position as well, and she quickly realized that she stood little chance of winning against him if he set the bid. His years of experience quickly became obvious when he had the power. There was a hunger as he played, a revelry in the competition. Yet a darker demon took over every time his lead slipped, and she watched rage boiling below the surface. Natalie began to fear that it might just boil over, scalding her as collateral.

Her eyes were tired and the game was long. They sat at nine games to seven in his favor, and his pleasure at the events was clear. Fatigue wearing on her, Natalie tossed the die again. Another four. “Five,” she answered, slightly more confidently. A four gave her a good chance he would be under her number, good enough that she needn’t risk not meeting the bid to prevent another point for him. Still, only a two or three would give her the point. A one went to him, a four ended the game, and five or six gave him the lead, a results she feared she would not come back from. Fortunately, it was a two that landed on the table. Nine to eight.

She rolled again, she bid again, he rolled again, and they were tied. She felt thunder rolling in her chest as the importance of the situation settled on her shoulders. This was an important roll. She could pull ahead, possibly win. With prayers on her lips to figures she had never really considered before that moment, she released the die. One.

He chuckled. “Tough break. At least you’ll have another chance to win it back.”

“Three,” she stated despairingly.

His die tumbled over the faux wood surface rattling and grinding its way to a rest. She watched the numbers flash as it bounced, her heart sagging as she knew none of them held the answer. A single, solitary eye gazed up at her from the table. He appeared miffed.

“Well, that was an anticlimactic end,” he grumbled. “I suppose the deal is off. Best of luck, and you will never see me again.”

Natalie’s heart bounded into her throat as she saw her daughter, tiny and pale, rapped in the hospital sheets. “Please! One last roll. Winner takes all.”

His lips twisted into a smile, and she realized that she had played right into his trap. “If you insist. Of course, since I am agreeing to your wager now, it is only fair that I take the lead roll.” The five landed on the table, and he smirked. “Last roll, right? Winner takes all? Let’s go with a bid of six, then.”

She gulped, her hand shaking. She knew that the most likely outcome was she rolled a two, three, or four and bust the bid while still being a lower number. Five would not help her, only put her in the same predicament. And a six was just as useless in this sudden death round. With a wish and a prayer, she tossed the die onto the table. She could not watch it dance and spin, seeming to take an eternity spinning on its edges before it finally came to rest.

One.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 46

Card Day 46: A collection of theater masks showing all different emotions.

Put on your mask; don’t let them see you sweat, rehearsed Lily to herself, carefully arranging her face into the mask of friendly interest and moderate warmth. Inside, the battle of anxiety roared on, waves crashing against the roughhewn rocks walls of her defenses, threatening to overwhelm her. But on the outside, she was polished and calm, a delicate smile hovering in the curve of her lips. Her eyes might have been screaming, but in a fast-paced, microwave minute and Facebook isolation world, no one was likely to notice if her disguise was incomplete.

She flexed her hands beneath the table, curling and uncurling her fingers in what was proving a fruitless attempt to generate some blood flow and rid them of their clammy feel. Her face remained carved with attention and friendliness as her date—the fourth one tonight, with three more lining the tables to her right—rattled on about his most recent hobby.

Distracted form the conversation, she almost missed his joke, barely giving her time to swap out masks and put on her “good-humored, chuckling” face. Fortunately, she caught the first sign of a smile on his lips and made the swap, mirroring his own soft smile. This had been such a bad idea.

The bell on the other side of the room dinged, its chime echoing. One more swap into the “pleased to meet you, but no promises” mask and she had a brief moment of respite. Chairs squeaked across the floor, the men walked nervously and awkwardly along the plotted course, and eventually some new face was sitting at her table.

Watching him extend an eager hand in greeting, she felt as if she were a creature on display. She did not see that momentary pause she was sure others saw in her face. No, his expressions skipped fluidly from introduction, to interested, to laughing—she had not thought her response would be quite so funny—and back to serious. Her self-consciousness peaked, but she dutifully kept her head high and her lips in an appropriate half smile, not willing to break the façade.

Didn’t everyone have their repertoire of masks? Lily felt her mind wandering, pulled along the train of thought. Was she really so weird? Did it come so easily to everyone else, and she was merely missing some vital piece that made the masks something more? It was as if he had read the script beforehand, and knew exactly how to play his role. In contrast, Lily realized she always felt like the surprised, underprepared understudy, diligently studying those around her and floundering through her most important roles. Of course, such a life of improvisation had left her practiced at the art, and she knew she could fool most people. Only, here, in this setting, she was surrounded by people flawlessly playing the right social game, completely unaware of the impossible talent they possessed.

Lost in thoughts, Lily realized she had missed some vital cue. The man across the table—Steve, his name tag said—was giving her a slightly bewildered look, obviously waiting for some response. She was supposed to be embarrassed now, and she quickly rearranged her face, bringing up a hand to cover her eyes that would never match. Transition complete, she set her fingers delicately on the table.

“I’m so sorry. I was distracted—“ by how human you are, her mind completed—“by how incredibly well-spoken you are. I was just thinking, I wish I could speak—“live—“like you.”

He chuckled good-naturedly, his eyes looking proud and humble all at once. That was a mix she had never quite pinned down, so she opted for abject humility whenever such complexity was called for. Her cheeks were beginning to ache with the constant smile.

The bell again, her savior. She stole the brief moment she had, letting herself fall inward and just relax. There was no one watching for the briefest of moments, and she could just be, without the social mask the world required. This was such a terrible idea, she reiterated, wondering why she ever let her friend talk her into it.

Another man, but this time something aught her attention. She nearly missed it, slipping into her “pleased to meet you, likewise” mask, but she was so familiar that it could not go undetected. She saw him put on his own mask, “the pleasure is mine,” covering his face as he spoke the words.

As she pulled her interested and aloof face on over her old one, she watched as he slipped into his engaged and passionate one, telling her all about his current business venture. It was not the mask that caught her eye, but that brief pause in between where she could see him.

He asked about her work, and she watched his intensely interested face flicker into life while she swapped to the humorous work cliché look. She watched as she spoke and his mask fell fr an instant, only to reappear with a slightly brighter smile. As she asked a question, she jumped at the opportunity.

“Stop,” she whispered, just as his mask fell but before it could be replaced. Her eyes were dancing, her lips curled in the most authentic smile she had ever felt. “You’re like me.”

He observed her for a moment, his face empty of all the socially dictated expressions for this occasion. This was not, he seemed to recognize, a socially dictated exchange. His eyes lit up as well. “I always wondered if people could tell.”

“I don’t think they can,” with a conspiratorial head nod towards the other tables, “but I know what to look for.”

“So, why’d you end up in a place like this? Torture, right?”

Lily was shocked by the giggle that leapt from her lips, even if her mask did not match. Her face was stuck on intently interested while her mind was dancing through joy and discovery. “Parents, guilt trip, you know.”

“And eventually us kids have to give in, put on a good show.” She nodded sharply once. “Wanna go? I know a great place without all of,” he jerked his head sharply to the side, “them.”

It was completely unacceptable to get up and leave in the middle of speed dating, certainly against some rules somewhere. But being with him, Lily felt herself empowered. She could thrust aside the shackles of modern social convention, be who she wanted, and do what felt right to her. He seemed to have no such concerns, whisking his jacket from the coatrack and leading her out the door.

“So,” she took a too-long pause to look at his nametag, “Evan, where is this place?”

“Hop in my car and I’ll drive us there. It’s got great atmosphere, private, no people to bother us. You can really get to know me.” He made no effort to hide the pride and arrogance in this, no cover of false modesty. Lily studied him and realized she understood everything about him, because he made no attempt to hide it. She knew it was against all the rules to get in the car with a strange man after meeting him for ten minutes, but she also knew that the world’s rules had never made sense to her. She slid into the passenger’s seat, squeaking across the leather seats.

He started the car and began to drive along the city streets, speeding in and out of the round pools of streetlight. They sat in silence, faces blank and empty. There was no room for masks between them; they were merely humans.

He finally stopped just beside a dreary looking tunneled walkway. Someone who was better at independently reading cues would have felt their hair rising, a gut feeling of dread and bad choices settling in. Lily, however, did not. She was thrilled to have found someone just like her, tired of the shackles of acceptable social life, ready to embrace the freedom of truly being human with another human. She stepped out of the car without hesitation.

“See, I told you we would be free,” he said, as if he could read her thoughts. “It’s just through there, one of my favorite spots. I’ll catch up,” he pointed to the trunk and Lily nodded.

“Through the tunnel?” she asked, her voice flat. He smiled, slipping into a reassuring mask—she felt for him, because it certainly was hard to let those habits die. Without another word, she turned on her heal and began an even-paced marched through the tunnel.

The sound of his steps accelerating behind her was somewhat surprising, but less so than the feeling of a thin cord around her throat. Her face burst into an expression of shock and terror, perhaps one of the most authentic expressions she had ever worn. She had no tie to consider the appropriate mask—was there one for such an event?—but merely clawed at his hands.

Her fight was short lived, and she hit the ground with a muffled thud. Evan looked down at her, wiping his hands. It was not quite how he had expected the night to go, but she had been far easier to woo than many of the others. His cold, empty mask finally gave way, revealing a hint of anger, fury, and pleasure all mingled together on his face.

He did not like being truly seen, and Even said a silent thanks that she had been too foolish to dig any deeper. She might not have liked what she saw.


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Card Challenge: Day 44

Card Day 44: A golden set of scales weighs a feather in one tray, a coin purse in the other. The feather hangs low despite its apparent lightness.

Trevor had been stretched thin between the angel on his right and devil on his left for days now. Sitting before the man from HR—a man he had never seen before and who did not wear the name badge required by company policy—was not helping the situation, as the man seemed to be the living embodiment of all the immoral, cowardly suggestions whispered by his personal devil.  The basement room was cool, dimly lit, and echoed with creaks and groans of the internal piping of the old building. Trevor though he might smell the rotten egg scent of leaking gas, but he assumed it was just nerves. No one else seemed to mind.

“Trevor, now I know you have been working so very hard for us over these past few months,” said the man. He had introduced himself as Mr. Smith, leaving Trevor to wonder how stupid he actually looked. Mr. Smith gave a stiff smile, his face contorting as if it were unused to the gesture. “You must simply be exhausted.” His gruff voice was meant to sound comforting, but it just took on a low, growling quality.

“I guess that is true. I haven’t had a vacation in six months because no one will approve—“

“I know, it is completely indefensible on our part. I mean, overworked as you are, you are bound to mishear or misunderstand some things, right?” His eyes glinted with sly camaraderie

“I mean, maybe, but I don’t think that’s—“

“I know, and I think that’s the problem. You’ve been thinking too hard for too long. That’s why the Company would like to offer you an all-expenses paid vacation.” With a flourish, he produced a brightly colored travel brochure full of sun and sand. It seemed all the more out of place in the grey basement office. “We’ll take care of everything, and you can just relax, forget anything you may or may not have seen or heard. What do you say?” He pushed the brochure over the metal table, and Trevor saw his name printed on the top of the tickets, the dates beginning tomorrow and spanning two weeks.

“Are you trying to make me disappear?” asked Trevor, feeling a twinge of righteous anger at the meager buyoff. Given what he knew was in those files—what was maybe even still sitting in some forgotten basement corner—it seemed like a foolish ploy. He knew the drill. Once he stepped out of the airport, some local gang would swing by and shoot up the place, leaving him a silenced victim in a worldwide war on drugs.

“Disappear?” Mr. Smith looked genuinely surprised and confused. “Why, not at all, Trevor. We don’t want you to disappear. That causes questions. We just want you to feel happy. Taken care of, even.” His oil slick smile was back, greasy as two-dollar pizza.

Trevor sat silent, staring at the man’s cold, black eyes. He could see a spark of frustration beginning to grow there, and Trevor felt the weightiness of the situation settling over him.

The smile never wavered as he reached into the briefcase at his side. “Of course, a vacation is merely a token of our gratitude for your most recent service. You have been so loyal to us for so many years, it is only fair we do the same. Take a look,” he said sliding the envelope across the table and sending the brochure skittering to the floor. “We here at the Company would like to assure you never have to worry about going without. In fact, we would like to reward your loyalty very generously.”

Trevor opened the envelope, peering in at bank statements, checks, and financial plans that were well above his knowledge base. As he set the envelope back on the table he realized that his hand was shaking with the tension of the situation. Perhaps, he reasoned, he simply needed to make a treaty with the devil to escape this increasingly gloomy picture.

“So, as you can see, we really would prefer it if you didn’t have to disappear, as you so quaintly put it.” Trevor watched the man’s stretching smile, suddenly reminded of Shark Week.

“And what do you want from me?”

“Trevor, Trevor, you have already done so much. We don’t really want anything from you. In fact, we’d like to relieve you of some of your responsibilities, take those pesky files and recordings you’ve been tending for us. It’s quite a burden carrying all that sensitive information, and we know we’ve unfairly burdened you. So, if you just give us those files, everything will be taken care of.”

Trevor looked down at his hands in his lap, his voice shaky. “I can’t give them to you,” he admitted weakly. The air turned electric with his confession, but Mr. Smith had carefully rearranged his pleasant smile by the time he looked up. His eyes still drilled angry holes.

“I understand, Trevor. You may feel you have a duty to protect that information, to make sure it does not go missing. I think the stress is getting to you, and you should stay in the Clarion tonight, a nice relaxing evening in the city’s finest hotel. You can’t be responsible if someone were to break into your home, take some work files you forgot you had lying around, right?”

“You won’t find them in my house,” whispered Trevor, taking care not to make eye contact. He prayed the encounter would end, that the Company would exhaust its solutions and let him go. It was an impossible pipe dream, but he had to cling to one ridiculous hope in the despair.

Mr. Smith’s smile was cracking, revealing more and more of the anger coiled beneath the surface. “Well, burglaries can happen anywhere. Where are the files, Trevor?” his voice was a barely contained growl now.

“I—“ his throat went dry with the impending confession, “I already gave them to the police.”

The words hung there in the air, and Trevor watched Mr. Smith’s face twist from an unconvincingly fake smile to a look of disgust. “Well, I thank you for wasting my time then,” he spat, standing suddenly from the metal chair. It skidded across the concrete floor with a harsh shriek.

Trevor dared to breathe a sigh of relief. Now they knew that it would be suspicious if he went missing; perhaps that was his key to salvation.

“You just made my job much more difficult, Mr. Conner,” sighed Mr. Smith, smoothing wrinkles from his dark suit jacket before straightening his inky tie.

“I’m sorry,” whispered Trevor quickly, his eyes darting towards the door, waiting for it to open and grant him his desired freedom.

“I’m very sure you are. Well,” his voice matched the sneer on his face, “at least you’ll know you did the right thing.”

The last thing Trevor heard was the metallic snap of a gun being cocked before his world collapsed into an explosion of light, sound, and finally darkness.


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Card Challenge: Day 42

Halfway there! Very exciting. This project seemed impossible in the beginning, but I am really enjoying how I am learning and growing through it. Also, I’m happy to say that the habit is starting to take hold, which was always my hope.  I really enjoyed writing today’s story, and I hope you enjoy reading it!


Card Day 42: The bars on the window of a snail shell prison have been sawn through, leaving a blanket rope dangling to the ground beside broken chains.

The fall knocked the breath from his lungs, and his first gasping breath was full of the taste of the fresh, free air. The moon and stars stretching above him was a welcome sight as he recovered, his back resting firmly against the fresh spring grass. Everything took on a new light, a delicate and ephemeral beauty that he thought he would never experience again. He drank deeply of the air as if it were the only thing that would sustain him.

Slowly, the reealit6 of the situation settled back on him, encouraging him to stir from his spot on the ground. He was still next to the tall stone building, just below the window he had crashed through moments before. While he had tried to be quiet, he was certain that they would notice his absence soon and mount a search party. He needed to put distance between himself and the god forsaken building before they could fan out.

As he pushed off the ground, he felt a dull ache radiating from his left ankle. Apparently the fall was not completely flawless, but he supposed it could have been far worse. Had he landed wrong and broke a leg, or struck his head and lost consciousness, it would have been a short jaunt back to his cell in the dank castle. At least he had a chance. Limping slightly, he began to push through the woods, following the thin sliver of the moon overhead. If he remembered correctly and things had not changed too much, there was a decent sized city not too far away. He planned to hit the main highway and plead for help to anyone who happened to pass by.

The forest seemed to close in on him, wrapping its branches towards him to slow his progress. Just a figment of his imagination, he assured himself, but it did not dispel the uneasy feeling that the trees themselves were watching and misleading him. If not for the moon, he was certain he would have circled right back to that infernal tower. The night was surprisingly still and calm. There was no hum of insects, no chatter of the nocturnal wildlife. It was as if the whole world was holding its breath, betting for and against him. Onward was his mantra, and his irregular steps led him deep into the heart of the woods.

The wind brushed against his back, and he could hear the words floating towards him, an indecipherable haze of haste and panic. “Find him!” he thought he heard snaking through the trees. Despite the pain and encroaching feeling of hopelessness, he pressed on. He could not go back, would not allow that fate to befall him.

Lo hanging branches tugged at his arms, leaving painful welts and gashes. Their malevolence was clear, and he suspected the woodland would eagerly betray his heading to those foul witches. He could hear the yips and barks of the hellhounds at their employ, already picking up his scent and barreling through the undergrowth toward him. The road and a friendly stranger were his only hope.

Then again, he also needed a stranger with no sense of self-preservation. That is the only reason someone would stop and pick up someone looking as bedraggled and unsavory as himself. He knew it had been four days since he had bathed, and nearly nine months since his last true haircut and shave. The women did their best to keep him presentable, but that still left him with a shaggy mane of tangled hair, now further complemented by early spring leaves and brambles, and a good shadow’s worth of stubble across his face. Add that to the fact his torso was now laced with scars in intricate patterns, a few still seeping blood, and he looked like a terror crashing through the forest. He resigned himself to the fact that he was more likely to give someone a heart attack leaping in front of their car than he was to find someone who would be willing to stop for him. Still, he did his best to feed the fire of hope within him; without it, he was merely a shambling husk of a person, better left to do whatever those she-demons had in mind for him.

The vision of asphalt stretching before him was almost more than he could bear. He felt his knees weaken at the sight, a memory of civilization that he thought would only live as a dusty fragment of nostalgia. The stone was cool under his hands, having already released the meager spring heat into the night, the stones rough. Like a dying man gasping for water, he clung to it. Freedom was in sight.

Lights on the road, and his heart quickened. It was a foolish hope, but the only one he had.

“Here!” he screamed, waving wildly at the approaching vehicle. Taking a risk, he stepped over the crisp lines to stand in the path. Even if it hit him, that meant freedom, he supposed. “Please help!” he called again at the oncoming lights. The car swerved, careening into the opposite lane, and he heard the engine accelerate away from him. He worked quickly to regain his deflating confidence. At least now he had a path, and he could walk along until he found civilization or a lunatic willing to take a chance on him. The city lay to the west, if he remembered, and that meant—

“So that’s where you got off to,” came the saccharine voice from behind him. The sound sent a chill up his spine as his stomach turned with revulsion. “Gave us all quite a scare tonight.”

Her pale face was the only thing of her that was visible of her in the inky black night. Her body was covered by a thick black robe, and soft black gloves ran up to her elbows. She smiled, the sight ghastly in the dim moonlight. He could see other figures stepping from the tree line, surrounding him front and back.

“Now, you may think we are upset, but please don’t. Your spirit, your will to live, your fight is precisely why we chose you. In fact, I think if you never tried such a daring escape, we would have known you were not the one.” She was walking towards him now, her feet crunching softly along the ground. In his mind, everything she touched withered and died after exposure to her toxicity. The very air around her was poisoned and defiled by her exhalation.

“But now,” she purred, her eyes alight with pleasure, “we can be sure.”

He turned to run, darting across the road and toward the second line of trees. It was an impossible hope, but something in him whispered that the opposing forest would be a haven, not yet touched by their black magic. He heard shouts behind him, arcane words that hummed with familiarity. In an instant, he felt the shadows grip his feet, the asphalt liquefying to hold him fast. She approached him, a smile on her blood-tinted lips.

“Sh,” she whispered, as if she could be soothing, “you should be honored. You, of all the human worms we have tested and tried, have a purpose. You shall be the vessel for our Master. He will be most pleased with your offering.” She laid her hand against his forehead, her skin radiating an unnatural warmth. The shadows deepened around him, until that was all he could see. With that, he gave in to the unnatural sleep as they dragged him towards his protested fate.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 41

Card Day 41: A man in black and woman in white sitting around a chess board while windswept hearts surround them.

Galen’s palms were sweaty, anxiety coursing up and down his body in paralyzing waves. He took a few deep breaths, trying to calm his racing heart and relax his sweating brow, but the effect was negligible. He sat in the uncomfortable, wood-backed chair and prayed for success to gods he did not believe in. As his anxiety reached a fever pitch, the door swung open.

She waltzed in, pale white dress billowing around her. Her hair hung in strands of spun gold, gossamer strands that floated about her like a halo. Her eyes were crystal clear and blue, gleaming from a flawless marble face. She was as beautiful as he remembered, and if possibly even more so. He felt, for a moment, as if his pounding heart must have frozen, because he could feel or hear nothing as she floated to the chair opposite him.

She smiled, extending her hand across the black and white board between them. It hung in the air, slim and delicate with perfectly trimmed nails and smooth skin. Galen took it, feeling electricity spark from the connection.

“Sorry I’m late. It’s nice to see you again, Galen,” she said, her voice smooth.

“You as well, Ama,” he responded, his voice cracking slightly due to his nerves. She merely smiled at his embarrassment.

“Shall we play?”

He responded with a sharp nod and watched as she carefully lifted a pawn from the board, moving it across the board. Galen’s hand shook as he considered the pieces, trying to find the right move to make a strong opening, but not become too aggressive and over reach his skill. He gave a nervous chuckle as he felt the seconds slipping by.

“I’m not very good at chess,” he admitted, feeling blood rush into his cheeks. She simply studied hi from across the table, her eyes taking in his stubbled chin and scruffy mess of brown hair. As he watched her watching him, he felt as if he saw a glimmer of interest and attraction flicker across her eyes. He felt a swell of confidence, sitting up a bit straighter in his chair. Unknowingly, he broke the spell and she returned her eyes to the game.

“There will always be other games,” she comforted, resting her hands lightly on the edge of the board, the only sign of impatience that he could see.

“Well, you never know, maybe I’ll get some of that beginner’s luck!” he rallied, taking a haphazard stab at the pieces, hoping the move would at least keep him in the game. There was a pleased look that snaked into her eyes, immediately robbing him of the brief moment of confidence.

She considered her move quickly, pearly hands skimming over the board and placing her pieces with practiced ease. “So, how have you been?”

Her presence was intoxicating. Galen thought of all the difficulties he had faced since they last met, the feelings of isolation, or captivity even, but they all paled in her presence. In that moment, he felt deep, abiding, comforting peace. He was in the presence of his one true love, and the feeling was freeing. “Everything is worth it to be with you again,” he said smoothly and earnestly. This time, she blushed.

“Maybe we will one day find your game, and then we can stop meeting under such circumstances.” Her eyes were again trained to the board, like a predator stalking prey through the underbrush. His hands did not move.

“I’ll play forever if that means I can spend it with you.”

“At this rate, we might just.” There was an edge of irritation in her voice, impatience bristling at the surface. But her smile remained, light and friendly.

Galen quickly grabbed a piece, sliding it across the board.

“We’ve played so many, Ama. What is your favorite game?”

Her hand hung in the pace between them, a bishop midway in its flight across the board. “I suppose I’ve never thought about that. My favorite has always been the game at hand. It’s more about who you’re playing with, in my experience.” The thought complete, she placed her piece.

Galen looked at the board and tried to discover some impressive move, but his lack of experience was showing. He was beginning to wish it were any other game than chess. It had been years since he played, and even then it had only been at his grandfather’s request. He had not played a match since the man passed years before, and the rust was showing in his performance. Whereas the figures had been arranged so neatly at the beginning, now they sat in a slight scatter across the board, telling secrets he could not interpret. “Well, I hope this one is not a complete waste for you, then,” he said, placing a piece at random.

She laughed, the sound like a bell, and Galen felt a wave of ease flood over him. “Galen, I always enjoy playing with you. If I didn’t, I would not visit so often.”

It was his turn again, and he was beginning to understand that her speed meant this was likely to be a short game. “You know I enjoy the time with you, too, Ama. It’s the highlight of my week. Maybe we’ll one day find a game that I can beat you at.”

She was barely looking at the board now, instead smiling up at him. “I’m sure we will, someday. And what a day that will be.” There was a sadness in her eyes as she completed her turn, a sadness Galen knew all too well. “Check.”

He looked down at the traitorous board. It could not be nearing the end so quickly. There had to be something wrong. Looking at the blur of black and white, he tried to piece together how the game had gone so wrong so quickly. He saw the threat, but his options seemed limited. The sweat at his brow began to slowly trickle down his face an embarrassing problem to have, as he tried to identify the safest approach. He was, however, in a corner, and the time was nearly up.

“You know I love you, right?” he asked, a pleading tone in his voice, as he carefully lifted a knight to block the threat. It bought him time, if not much more.

“Of course I do, Galen. And I care deeply for you.” She took the knight, but he breathed a sigh, safe for the moment.

The slight tremor in his hand was now a full blown shake, threatening to topple all the pieces on the board at the slightest wrong move. He went to set his piece down carefully, but her hand grabbed his. The delicate touch surprised him and sent a tingle up his arm.

“You cannot move yourself into check,” she reminded, nudging his hand back. Stymied, Galen picked up another piece and moved it after checking for her approving nod.

“I hope that someday you might love me as well, Ama.”

The sadness was back in her eyes, almost tearfulness. “There are many days I think I do, Galen. But there are rules we must live by.” She set her piece down with a depressing finality. “Checkmate.”

Galen felt his shoulder’s sag in defeat, looking at his fate played out along the board. “I guess today was not my day,” he sighed, letting his head fall into his hands as his king toppled onto the checkered board.

“No, not today.” She rose from the chair, sweeping towards the door. “But I do mean what I say, I think I love you. Perhaps next time you will win, and we can be together,” she said, as she had so many times before. With a final wave, she left the room, and Galen heard the sound of the lock falling into place behind her.


So, I did not plan to pull a romance card the day before Valentine’s day, but it happened. I have already done a bad date, a mourning for lost lovers, and a love note (yeah, Day 9 was totally a sweet love letter. Nothing creepy there!). This one is heavily inspired by the Atalanta myth, and I admit there may be flaws. It may not be very clear what is going on based on the narrative alone, but I thought it was a fun way to weave in romance and competition. And not write a super standard V-Day story. That said, thanks for reading, and happy Valentine’s Day tomorrow!


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 37

Card Day 37: Two ants sword fighting on top of a stack of gold coins.

“I can’t do this without you, Matt.”

He sighed, fading beneath the onslaught of her persistent pleading. “Lydia, it’s just crazy. I mean, you can’t actually believe this stuff?”

She smiled and shrugged. “It is crazy. But just imagine if it works. We’d be rich beyond our wildest dreams, free to do what we want. We could finally run off together!”

“I know, it would be great. But, what, we’re going to sell our souls to the devil and then spend our days on our own private island?”

“Nope, no soul selling required. It’s all right here,” she spun the worn leather book towards him, and he saw the spidery nonsense written on the page. He shoved it away.

“You know I don’t read any of that. This is ridiculous, Lyd.”

He looked up to see the whimsy and determination fade from her eyes, shattered by sudden pain. “Don’t you trust me?”

That was the final straw, and Matt finally gave in. “Of course I trust you. I’ll help you do the ritual-thing,” he agreed with a dismissive wave of his hand. “As long as you agree this is crazy stuff.”

Lydia smiled and shrugged, granting him a quick peck on the cheek before darting away to prepare.

_

The little country church, so endearing during the day with its white siding and little bell tower, loomed intimidating and dark under the moonless sky. “Are you sure this is right?” asked Matt, giving the building the side eye.

“Well, you won’t read the manuscript, so you’re just going to have to trust me,” she giggled, tugging at his hand and pulling him into the building. “Now, you have to help me set up.” Suddenly, two stubby white candles were in his arms, their matching counterparts in Lydia’s. “Take those and put them due north and due south. These,” she wiggled the candles in the gloom of the building, “will go on the east and west.”

Matt complied, dutifully carrying the candles to the far north and south of the building. It was unsettling walking down the long rows of empty pews, the eyes of Jesus staring down on him as he trespassed the sacred space. He felt the pressure of dozens of eyes on him, accusing him of his blasphemy and sin. The wrongness of the situation settled on him like a sheet of ice, nearly freezing him in place. Lydia’s whistle brought him back.

“Here,” a white piece of chalk flashed through the air towards him, ultimately landing at his feet with a snap and puff of white. “Use that to draw a line between the two candles, but don’t connect them in the middle,” she warned, bending down to do the same from her candles. Matt picked up the two halves of chalk and carefully followed her instructions.

“We’re making a cross?” he asked, wondering if this witchcraft weren’t possibly more benign than he suspected.

“Not quite. A broken, unfinished cross. So make sure they don’t connect!”

The lines drawn, Lydia met him in the center and pulled a thin metal chain from her bag of supplies. She very carefully laid the chain in a perfect circle, touching each of the four lines from the candles. Next, she set a tall, slender, black candle in the midst of the circle.

“A silver chain, and everything is in place.” She looked back over her work with a giddy smile, clutching her hands together in excitement.  “’When the empty moon hangs twixt heaven and hell, cast your eyes unto the darkness,’” she quoted, almost as if unaware of the words trickling from her lips.

Matt shuffled uncomfortably from side to side, watching her as she spun around the place, wide-eyed with excitement. The sense of unease from before had not relented, but instead grew more intense, as if the shadows were drawing about and suffocating him. Yet she seemed completely unfazed by the heavy danger in the air; if anything, she seemed invigorated by it.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?”

She froze in her place, then turned slowly to face him. Her face smiled widely, but there was an edge of threat to her voice. “I thought you said you would trust me on this, Matt.”

“I do, Lyd, I really do. But doesn’t this just feel…wrong?”

She quickly crossed over to him, warmth radiating from her caring glance. “Oh, I guess it is pretty weir, huh? But, just think, soon we’ll have all the things we ever wanted. We’ll have our dreams.” Carefully, tenderly, she ran her hands along the side of his face, cupping his chin softly. “We’ll have each other.”

Matt sighed heavily and laughed softly. “If it even works. Which it probably won’t. I mean, you did just dig that out of a thrift shop,” he said, nodding his head towards the book lying on the dusty floor next to the northernmost candle.

“Exactly. It’s just a silly little game.” Her smiled widened, and she was beaming with excitement. “Now, you stand in the center while I light the candles. It’s time.”

Matt took up his appointed position in the silver circle, standing just behind the unlit candle. Lydia ran from the western candle around, ending at the northern one where she fell to her knees beside the book. Now, Matt knew from their planning, she would read some words and answer the “questions” that some spirit was supposed to ask. He fully expected her to keep up the charade even when the questions weren’t asked, and then they would giggle and laugh and get some cheap coffee for the drive back home.

However, things did not go as planned. She knelt down, whispering in the silence of the church. And then there was a heavy shadow at her side, red eyes burning out of the darkness. She spoke to it, as if in a trance, eventually slowly raising her arm to point at him. That was too much for him, and he went to run towards her, scoop her into his arms, and bolt from the cursed place, but he looked down to see the silver chain twined about his ankles, suddenly impossibly heavy given its frail appearance. There was cold creeping up his arm, and he saw tendrils of shadow lapping along his wrists.

“Lydia!” he cried, and she turned sorrowful, empty eyes towards him. “What’s happening?”

Her voice was heavy with grief and exaltation, a blend of emotions that left him feeling hollow inside. “I told you I couldn’t do this without you, Matt.”

He screamed as the shadows began tearing away at his skin, every molecule those dark tendrils touching exploding into the immeasurable agony of oblivion. “I thought—I thought we were doing this together!” The silver chains burned at his legs and the shadows licked up his arms and across his torso with ferocious, hungry speed. “I thought you loved me,” he whimpered, the pain forcing him to his knees.

“Oh, Matt, I did love you. I do. This never would have worked if I didn’t,” she said, smiling as if her confession made it all better.

The last thing he heard as the shadows consumed all that was left of his body, leaving nothing but a tattered soul in torment, was her parting consolation. “But, Matt dear, you have to understand. Now, I will be unstoppable. Now, I will be a god.”


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Card Challenge: Day 31

I’m not too happy with today’s. I had a lot of trouble finding an idea I liked, and this is actually the third piece I started. It is paced all wrong, and I’m not super happy with the ending, but it does have its moments. Just a kind of mixed bag of feelings about this one. If you have any thoughts, please leave them in the comments. As always, happy reading!


Card Day 31: A boy walks along a field, throwing seeds. Behind him, Venus fly traps and other carnivorous plants snake towards him.

Steven felt certain he was being followed. There was something about the way the shadows drifted across the walls that made him think of some predator slouching behind him, waiting to pounce once he turned down the wrong dark alley or side street. Yet every time he looked back, nothing was there. Just empty streets and foggy yellow pools of light.

“You’re paranoid, man,” he mumbled under his breath, the words spilling out into the night in a cloud of fog. Determined, he shoved his hands into the pockets of his jacket and strode on, trying not to look at the fun house mirror shadows parading alongside him. His fingers ran over the wad of cash in his pocket, feeling the smooth surface on unvalued bills, the harsh edges where they folded in on one another. He let his mind wander over how he would spend it, trying his best to ignore the feeling of unease creeping along his back. Just keep walking, just keep dreaming.

The city rested and he walked beneath the closed lids of so many houses. Occasionally, one light would be on, or a window would spill the pale blue illumination of television into the world, but for the most part, he hopped from one streetlight to the next, his head low. Up ahead, a car suddenly backfired, a sound that pierced through the night and froze Steven in his tracks. For a moment, he was reminded of the sound of a gunshot, someone yelling, spit frothing in his mouth. After the spell lifted, Steven began jogging along the sidewalk, trying to hurry home without drawing undue attention. The feeling of being watched, of being followed, intensified, raising the hair along his neck as his shoulders knotted in upon themselves.

Unable to shake the feeling of eyes on him, Steven turned again, spinning around quickly and hoping to catch the perpetrator ducking behind some trashcan or staircase. But there was nothing on the street, no movement besides a windswept chip bag crossing the road.

Seeing the bag, Steven laughed at himself. He had managed to work himself up over a single piece of litter tumbling down the street. “Almost wet yourself for some trash,” he chided, shaking his head. After pausing on the street long enough to convince himself he was no longer afraid, and that he was being silly for giving in to the paranoia, Steven walked on, a confident measure to his slowed steps. He held his head high, breathing deeply of the night air and blowing heavy clouds into the sky. No stars shone here; the light pollution burned them away years ago.  He had seen the stars before, in person, on a couple of family vacations, but tonight the streetlights were his stars. And he could see his fame written in them.

The feeling returned to him after a moment, but he did his best to ignore it. Ignorance was a skill that Steven had spent much of his life honing, and so the requirements came easy. He had practiced his ability to ignore feelings of sadness, fear, and guilt, and the same tools kept him moving down the empty streets toward home.

It was a long walk to his apartment. He knew that was the point, so that he did not have to worry about running into someone he knew, but his body was beginning to feel the delayed effects of adrenaline rushing out of him, leaving his muscles tired. His feet ached with each step, and his pace slowed to give his wearying body a break. It was only a few more blocks, but he felt suddenly very tired. His arms hung in his pockets like paperweights, dragging all of him toward the dirty pavement. Each step was like lifting a bag of sand, slinging it forward, and dropping it. Steven felt himself lurching along, leaving a trail of fatigue glazing the ground behind him. The exhaustion weakened his defenses, and all his attempts to avoid the eyes crawling up his back began to give way.

A gust of wind and he swore someone breathed down his neck, the wind growling in his ear. The air was warm and sticky, not the winter breeze he expected this time of the year. Despite its heat, chills danced up and down his spine, giving him an involuntary shiver. Somewhere in the distance, a police siren ripped through the still night. Steven felt his blood freeze solid in his veins. It was far away, but something whispered that it was not far enough. His fingers played over the sticky spots on the bills in his pocket, trying hard not to remember what that was.

Steven ripped his hands out of his pockets, brushing the sticky red remnants on the brick of a nearby building, half aghast and unbelieving at the sight of it. With renewed energy from an unknown source, he ran. The sound of his sneakers on the pavement snapped after him, a rapid, tapping echo that pursued him down the empty streets. He no longer cared who saw or thought about his trip home, but he simply wanted to arrive to his waiting apartment, collapse inside with the locks thrown, and hope to outsleep or outdrink his guilty conscience.

Beneath the sound of his pounding steps and thundering heart, Steven imagined he heard another sound. Someone breathing deeply, another set of footsteps mirroring his own. Just the echo between city buildings, he thought, just the breeze whispering through the balconies. From an open window spilled the sound of some couple fighting, voices rising to a fever pitch and fading as Steven rushed past the window. Nevertheless, the yells and anger were enough to snap him back to that moment.

The lights—cheap, dull, buzzing loudly—hurt his eyes as he stepped out of the night and into the store. Steven raised the pistol in his hand, pointing towards the lone cashier. “Just the money.” His voice was loud, demanding, spittle flecking his lips with the force of the command. But the man reacted, moved quickly, yelling something Steven did not have time to comprehend. Steven’s fear jumped, pulling the trigger with sudden decisiveness. The man froze, toppling like a child’s tower, his eyes wide and staring. The smell of gunpowder and blood filled the room as panic began to set in. Trying to salvage the plan, Steven rushed to the cash register and grabbed the cash he could. The cool air outside, the strange peace that was so different than the muted chaos he had just experience, made him feel as if he had entered another world. And so he set off towards home, pretending his life was not in shambles, letting the cold numb his raw nerves.

Now he was certain. There was another set of footsteps. And he could smell the blood again, suffocating him with the sweet, iron scent. Steven stopped, breathing in ragged gasps after his flight through the streets. He turned around, expecting nothing yet again, but instead found himself face to face with a man. He was dressed in shadows, and the light from the streetlamps seemed to recoil from him, leaving a heavy patch of darkness around his feet.

“I think you’ve got something that’s not yours,” said the man, his voice flat but drawling. “It ain’t right to take what isn’t yours.” Steven’s struggle was short, and soon the only evidence left was a roll of bloodied dollar bills and the scent of blood hanging in the air.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 27

Card Day 27: A caterpillar is entering a maze. Along the way waits a bird perched on the walls of the maze, but pairs of wings wait at the two exits.

Growing up is tough. Especially when you are spending most of your time trying to cover up a secret as well, which was a reality Angie knew all too well. SAs if being a teenager was not hard enough, she also had the added benefit of nearing her Full Moon Turn for the first time, which meant hair in new and unusual places, irritability, muscle aches, cramps, and occasional voice cracking or growling. So, Angie generally just kept her head down and trudged through high school as if she were invisible, hoping that enough wishing would make it true.

As usual, Angie shuffled into PE and hung by the sidelines until the teacher appeared to take her “doctor’s note” so she could sit out. It would not do for her to get riled up now, especially as her strength fluctuated so wildly. It would raise eyebrows if she slammed another student into the retaining wall during dodge ball. That, and her eyes had the bad habit of dilating into solid black disks when she started to get competitive. No, it was best for her to sit with her feet dangling from the concrete wall, reading her book and working on her math homework. This was her fifth school in as many years, so friends were not very common. It made those long classes feel even longer, but it was an isolation she was used to.

“What’s your excuse?” sneered a voice from behind her. She turned to see a man in a yellow shirt and black shorts, a metal whistle hanging around his neck to complete the uniform.

“Where’s Ms. Jensen?”

“She’s got a cold. So, what’s your excuse? That time of the month?”

Angie dropped her eyes to the ground and began to mumble her embarrassment, holding out the note. He snatched it from her hand.

“Adrenal issues, huh? Don’t want to mess around with that. Have a seat.” He gestured dismissively to the retaining wall that ran around the edge of the field. The shrill edge of his whistle cut through the air, drawing her peers to attention. Throughout the class, she noticed his eyes drilling into her as if she had personally insulted him. Angie tried to keep her focus on the book, but felt his eyes drawing her away as each moment passed. Finally, when she thought she was going to fly out of her skin, the dismissal tone sounded from the loudspeakers, and she was freed. The substitute walked towards her as she packed her things.

“What’s wrong with your eyes?” he snapped.

Angie froze. She had not realized how nervous he had actually made her. “It’s just my condition,” she whispered quickly, darting back towards the dull brick building.

She tried to remain calm the rest of the day, but the events of the morning had left her shaken. Lunch rolled around, and she ate her turkey sandwich numbly, the bustle of the cafeteria spinning around her. The sound of a tray slamming into the wooden table snapped her back to the present. There was the PE teacher, staring at her again. She did her best to ignore him, pulling out the jello cup at the bottom of her brown paper bag.

“Need a spoon?” he asked quickly.

She stuttered, the words getting caught at the threshold of her lips. He slid one down the table towards her, which she picked up with a hurried, “Thanks.” No sooner did the metal touch her fingertips than she felt a white hot pain radiate up her arm. She pulled away quickly, the spoon rattling loudly against the table.

“What’s the matter? Don’t like silver?” He smiled her way, picking up his tray and disappearing through the crowd. Angie’s heart was in her throat as she rushed out of the cafeteria. Her parents needed to know.

Two texts later, Angie cleaned out what little was in her locker and made a beeline for the exit. She had snuck out of so many schools at this point, it was second nature. She waited until the lunch bell rang again, flooding the halls with students, and then joined a group walking their ways to the fields for afternoon PE. It was then just a quick jaunt to the back of the school, where nothing but a struggling chain-link fence separated her from freedom.

Angie was halfway over the fence when someone grabbed her shoulder, pulling her back to the ground. There was the PE teacher.

“You’re really lucky, you know? I’m here in time to save you, give you a normal life. It’s not going to be fun, but…it’s better than the alternative.”

His hand clamped over her mouth as she gathered the strength to scream. She felt a sharp pinch against her neck, the sting of a needle breaking the skin, and was suddenly asleep.

_____

As she woke, she was distinctly aware of the scent of stale, damp air, as well as the stench of the “teacher” from school. That and rough ropes around her wrists. Angie stirred, testing the ropes but lacking the strength at the moment. She wondered what he had given her, because her mouth had an unpleasant metallic tang, while her head pounded like a drum.

“Good morning, sunshine,” he purred. There was the sound of metal tools being moved about, clanging against the wooden table and one another, then the loud screech of a chair on the concrete floor. The man stepped around in front of her, and Angie felt her hackles rise more literally than she had expected. “Keep it calm, little pup. We’ve got the wolfsbane, nightshade, silver, iron, everything we need. You’ll be right as rain in no time.” He smiled an insincere smile and walked back towards the heard-but-never-seen workbench, his heavy hand resting on the back of the chair.

Angie felt her muscles tensing and coiling beneath her skin. It might not have been the full moon that night, but she also understood the utter unpredictability of her first Change. She had hoped for another week, but nevertheless she felt an unfamiliar stretching in her bones.

“I know this is probably terrifying,” for the first time, she heard sympathy in his voice, “but I promise you’ll thank me later. You’re going to get a normal life.”

“What about my parents?” she asked, the words springing unbidden from her lips, trailing into a low growl at the end.

She heard a harsh hiss from behind her. “Yeah, that is a wrinkle, now isn’t it? I mean, I know they are your parents, but…” The words trailed off, their implication hanging heavy in the air. “I do have a job to do.”

H shuffled around, and Angie felt the ropes snap beneath her arms. She felt her skin rippling with the Change. The sound of snapping bones rang throughout her ears as her eyes shifted, her nose elongated, and her teeth stretched to deadly points.

He yelled, and it was painfully loud to her newly sensitive ears. And the sound of snapping bones continued to echo throughout the basement, filling it with the scent of iron.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 25

So, i enjoyed writing this, but it does not really go anywhere. It definitely does not have as much of a plot as I would generally want, but I think it would be fun to revisit this world at another date, so it was fun in taht respect. Still, kind of a weird one!


Card Day 25: Lines in a person’s palm seen through a magnifying glass as rivers of water.

The world was a cracked, dry, broken place. It was half-shattered by the heat, held together by sheer stubbornness and human determination.  Sometimes Daion thought it would spin itself apart, scattering tiny pieces of dust to all corners of the galaxy. Sometimes, he even hoped that would happen.

Today, his throat was parched, his skin was reddened, and his eyes ached with the force of the bright sun. He stood atop a craggy hill, looking around at a brown dessert stretched beneath a rotted orange sky. It was the same in all directions, differentiated by a hill or ruined city on one side that was a different hill or desolate town on the other. He lifted the dusty goggles from his eyes, squinting against the glare as he tried to notice anything in the distance that broke the monotony. Successful, he let out a sharp whistle.

“Trista, gotta camelback, straight ahead.” He had seen the familiar silhouette bopping along behind the rough terrain, its stooped back promising reward. Trista scaled the summit beside him, her hair sticking up haphazardly around her goggles and dust mask, styled in place by the stiff winds and an unhealthy dose of sweat.

“Sweet. I could go for some guilt free refreshment.” He could see the smile stretching across her face, even beneath her protective gear. She adjusted the pack on her back and started clambering down the other side of the hill. Daion followed at a slower pace, watching her haphazard descent as a trail of anemic dust in the air, caught and spun away by a sudden breeze. He took care to avoid the places she slipped into freefall, letting his feet expertly test the shifting terrain for stability. It was just like Trista to rush into everything, unaware of the potential pitfalls waiting along each step. But, in many ways, it was that unbridled adventurous spirit that he so appreciated.

“Don’t strand me up here,” he chuckled, selecting his careful path to more level ground. They followed the shadows, galloping over dunes and hills towards the previously marked salvation. Daion tried not to notice the impossible dryness in his skin and mouth, ignoring the fact that the sweat had dried on his brow. He was certain Trista was fading as quickly as he was, though she continued with the same dogged perseverance. Finally, they crested the hill and saw the familiar grey lump seated on the sand.

“Oy, Brother! Got some respite for some weary bones?” called Trista merrily, sliding to a stop next to the monk. He was covered in pale gray clothing, enough to cover his body, but thin enough to prevent him from cooking under the sun. Nevertheless, his face was red and pinched, sweat dribbling down his brow.

“Yes, of course. Have a rest, have a drink,” chimed the man, pointing to the thick water bag that was now seated beside him. Normally, the bag would sit precariously on his back as he trundled through the wastelands, granting miracles to dying travelers.

Daion filled up Trista’s canteen, and then his own. “Drink, brother?” he offered the weary monk.

The man smiled pleasantly, his eyes saying yes as he spoke. “No, I have my ration right here.” He tapped the canteen on his waist gingerly, and Daion took note of the hollow tone. “This is for the travelers. It is our duty to provide a cup of water to those who wander.”

“Well, you are a life saver, Brother,” thanked Daion as he tipped his canteen back. The water raced over his tongue and throat. It seemed as if the tissue was too dry to absorb a single drop of the water, and it filled his belly quickly. The cool was so refreshing, providing a glimmer of light to his shadowed eyes. Trista’s eyes were closed, and he could see her swishing the water around her mouth in ecstasy. There was the sound of silence, of water trickling from the plastic canteens, and of the two travelers gulping thirstily. Then, just silence. Daion felt the dehydrated headache beginning to fade and he could once again focus.

“Anywhere to sleep around here?” chimed Trista, having emerged from her water-logged fantasy to notice the darkening horizon.

Daion’s eyes shot to the west, seeing the sun as a swollen blister on the horizon, threatening to burst and poor flames across the world. Nature would kill you in the day, but it was humanity you had to fear at night. He could see the same unease flashing across the monk’s face. Daion felt the uncomfortable distrust suddenly chill the air. Yes, the monk had no idea who these two travelers were, and no good reason to reveal his one spot of safety. Providing a cup of water? Sure. Lead strangers to those people he cared about? Never. The monks caring nature left him fumbling over words, unwilling to lie, and unwilling to answer.

“No problem, padre. But we better get going.” He tipped his head toward Trista, and she was on her feet in a blink. “Take a bag for the road?” he asked as he gestured at the hefty reservoir. “Make your trip home a bit lighter?”

“The day is nearly done. Take what you need.”

The nights were cool and lonely. It would have been best to travel then, but the dangers of the road were too great for the two of them alone. Instead, it was time to hunker in their burrows while predators roamed. Daion scattered the sand that displayed their steps off the main path; the wind would have likely taken care of it, but you could not leave something so important in the hands of chance. They slid behind a tangle of rocks, slipping into the deep shadows that whispered security. It was a dinner of stringy jerky and stale dried fruit, with a few precious sips of water to wash it down. Neither of them spoke. It was too dangerous.

In the silence of the night came growls and hisses rom whatever creature still managed to live out there. More concerning were the whoops and hollers of the human creatures that somehow managed to thrive on cruelty and anarchy. Trista squeezed her eyes shut at the sounds, and Daion moved in closer, aware of the memories that were etched on her eyelids.

“I’ll take first watch,” he said, squeezing her hand briefly. She nodded and rolled to the side. Somehow, you got used to sleeping through terror around here. Daion leaned back against the rocks, listening and watching the stars. It was hard to imagine this feeble existence was, in fact, reality.  But, he looked at Trista, already breathing evenly in sleep, and he realized it could be worse. Daion remembered his first months alone, the violence and desperation. Now, he was filled with a strange peace and acceptance of life as I was. And he smiled at Trista as she slept, feeling the familiar ease of friendliness and protection. It was nice to create, rather than destroy. The night raged on, and Daion kept watch, waiting for the punishing eye of the sun to relieve them of the dark side of the human condition.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.