Short Story ~~ Love Thy Neighbor

Written for a contest. 3k word limit

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The steady creak of the rocking chair on the worn floorboards of the porch mixed with the rustle of dead leaves across the yard. The breeze was cool and gentle, calling for no more than a light jacket and jeans. It blew the occasional strands of auburn hair across her face, tickling her until she tucked them behind an ear.

The sun was low on the horizon, and by Faye’s reckoning it was getting on to five. She had a pot of stew on the stove that’d be ready soon, and the scent of it drifted out the window to wind around her like a needy cat.

Despite the idyllic country scenery, perfect fall weather, and her mawmaw’s famous stew cooking on the stove, Faye was downright ornery.

“You’re just riling yourself up. No good will come of this,” Holt said. He came to stand next to her chair, which, like the small house, was built by her granddaddy.

“So says you,” Faye countered, and jutted her chin up, refusing to look at him.

“I just think you’re being stubborn about something that’ll likely amount to nothing,” he reasoned, and shrugged, the fabric of his long-sleeved, plaid shirt rustling.

“I just don’t like it,” she said, the words near to a growl.

Holt huffed. “You don’t say.”

She turned to look at him then, and angry hazel eyes met calm brown ones. The color was the same as the rich earth deep in the woods that were twenty steps from the back of her house. The acres of land had been in her family for over two-hundred years.

“I’ve tried talking to him, Holt, and he was having none of it. What else was I supposed to do?” she asked, her hands gripping the arms of the chair so tight her knuckles were white and the wood groaned.

“Oh, I don’t know. Let it go?” he asked, his sarcasm creeping in as it inevitably did. The corner of his mouth quirked up at her responding scowl, and she turned away from his teasing.

“You know I can’t do that, and you know why.”

Before he said anything else, a truck crested the hill off in the distance. The weather was unusually dry for this time of year, so the vehicle kicked up a cloud of dust from the dirt road in its wake.

Holt sighed. “I don’t need to be here for this,” he said, resigned, heading inside.

It wasn’t long after that the sheriff’s tires crunched over the gravel on her driveway. Faye stood from the rocking chair, and stepped down from the porch as a bear of a man unfolded from the vehicle. Barrel-chested, and with a laugh that boomed from him like a canon, there was hardly a soul that didn’t get along with Sheriff Clyde Gresham.

“Faye Lynn,” he greeted, and nodded at her as she approached.

“Sheriff Gresham,” she replied, and tilted her head back to look up him.

“Now, Tammy told me you called in about your new neighbor. Said something about him spyin’ on you?” Gresham asked, voice rumbling, reading from a notepad he’d pulled from his jacket pocket.

She pursed her lips and crossed her arms. “He’s setting up a bunch of cameras, and I think some are pointed at my house. I don’t appreciate that, Gresham,” she said, voice low.

He nodded. “I understand that, Faye. Have you spoken to him?”

“I surely did. He told me to mind my own business. I didn’t want to go over there in the first place, because people these days are downright crazy, but I didn’t want to bother you if I didn’t have to,” she said, her eyes straying to the neighbor’s house every so often as she spoke.

Gresham leveled a look at her. “Is that all?”

She scowled at him. “What are you implying, Sheriff?” she asked, shifting her weight to one foot and gritting her teeth.

“Come on, Faye Lynn. I haven’t met a single person in a fifty-mile radius that hasn’t been on the wrong end of your bad temper and sharp tongue a time, or two. Were you truly being neighborly, or were you your usual, charming self?” he asked, and raised an eyebrow.

Faye harrumphed. “I was neighborly enough for me, I suppose. But it still don’t give him the right to do all that.”

He sighed and closed his notebook. “I’ll go and talk to him, but I won’t be happy if I have to come back out here because you’re harassing the man.”

Faye’s jaw dropped. “Me? He’s the one setting up cameras pointed at my property!”

“Which I will address, but if I don’t find any problems, I don’t need you taking matters into your own hands,” he said, keeping eye contact.

Their eyes remained locked for a few heartbeats, until she finally dropped hers first.

“Just get him to stop invading my privacy, and there won’t be a need for that, now will there?” she said

Gresham shook his head, but said nothing else. He made his way over to the neighbor’s house, which, despite the amount of land the properties had, wasn’t terribly far away from Faye’s. The other house had once belonged to another branch of her family. Cousins on her father’s side. The houses weren’t so close that you could carry on a conversation, but not so far that you could leave your curtains open without someone being able to see your business.

She waited there, halfway between the sheriff’s truck and her porch, but Gresham’s comments combined with Holt’s wormed their way through her mind. All too soon, in her opinion, the sheriff was making his way back to her. She tensed, and waited for the words of dismissal.

He didn’t disappoint.

“I checked his cameras, Faye, and none are pointed at your house,” Gresham said, trying for reassuring.

Faye’s expression darkened like the clouds of a thunderstorm on the horizon. “And what about the back of the property?” she asked.

Gresham frowned. “You mean the woods?”

She nodded, and he raised an eyebrow. “Unless you’re running around your woods naked, Faye, I can’t see how that would matter.”

“So he does have one pointed there,” she accused.

Gresham studied her for a long moment, and something passed through his eyes. A flicker of thought she couldn’t readily identify, but suspicion sat heavy in the air between them.

“He’s trying to find what killed his brother, and I can’t fault the man for that. We never caught the bear that tore the poor man apart. You have some information about that you haven’t shared with us?” Gresham asked.

Her scowl stayed in place, not letting on to the thrill of fear that shot through her. “What information could I have about a rabid bear? Does it look like I have it for a pet running around here?” she asked, and gestured toward her house.

“Then what does it matter if he has a camera pointed at the woods?” he asked. When she didn’t answer, he continued; “In fact, I was happy for it, and told him to let us know if he catches it on camera. Something like that ain’t good for any of us. ‘Course, with the small arsenal he has in that house, I doubt he’d take the time to let us know before going after it.” They both looked at the house at that proclamation. “Can’t say I’d do any different.”

Holt was right; this wasn’t helpful at all.

“Well, thank you for coming out, Gresham. I appreciate it,” she said, doing her best to make the words sound genuine.

Gresham snorted. “Right. At least try to be sympathetic, Faye. The man lost his brother, and we don’t need you pulling out your crazy and waving it in a grieving man’s face.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Again, thank you, Sheriff.”

He just shook his head one last time, and headed to his truck. She watched him back out of the drive, and head back up the dirt road toward town. As she turned to go back to her porch, though, her new neighbor was making his way toward the wood fence separating the property.

It was inevitable since she’d called the sheriff, but she didn’t want to talk to him again.

“You didn’t have to call the sheriff, you know,” Jeremiah Chastain said when they met at the fence. His thick eyebrows were knotted in a frown, and his jaw was tense, as though trying to hold back less polite words. The setting sun shone against his black hair, and made his forest green eyes glow.

You told me to mind my own business, and cameras pointed at my property are my business,” she insisted, holding her ground, arms still crossed.

He mimicked her posture, crossing muscular arms over a well-defined chest. “They aren’t pointed at your house, just at the tree line.”

“I don’t want any of them pointed at any of my property.”

“The sheriff told me I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I’m just trying to see if that bear is still around. I’ll be heading into the woods soon, but figured I’d put the cameras up first. He was killed in the backyard, and anything that bold might strike again.”

Her eyes widened and her breath hitched. “What do you mean, you’re going into the woods? You need to stay out of there. It’s not safe.”

He raised an eyebrow, and amusement quirked the corner of his mouth in a small smile. “Concerned for me?”

She growled and dropped her arms to her sides, hands clenched into fists. “No. I just don’t want police crawling all over my property again, or dealing with yet another new neighbor when you get eaten, too.”

The mirth fled from him as quickly as it came. “My brother and I were raised in the woods near our home, we’re both accomplished hunters, and we both served in the military. I refuse to believe any rabid bear could catch him off guard. He was too cautious for that. I will get to the bottom of this, and bag that animal,” he said, his voice low and with conviction.

“No good will come of this,” she said, echoing Holt’s words from earlier, and put a note of pleading in them.

He searched her face, though she didn’t know what he was looking for. Whatever it was, he didn’t find it, and stuck his hands in the pockets of his jeans and shrugged.

“Even so, I have to do this,” he said. Then he nodded, and turned on the heel of his boot and headed back to his house.

Faye’s hands clenched as she stomped her way back to her house, boots thudding ominously against the porch. She jerked open the screen door, and went inside to find Holt at the two-seater kitchen table, waiting.

“Well?” he asked, trying for relaxed, but failing miserably.

Now that she was in her house and away from the stubborn man, her shoulders slumped, and that was all Holt needed.

He closed his eyes and the corners of his mouth curved downward as he sighed. “That’s it, then,” he said, and drew in a shuddering breath.

“I can’t make any guarantees, Holt, but I’ll do my best to make sure he doesn’t get hurt,” she said quietly, and set about putting the stew away. She wouldn’t be eating it tonight.

Holt didn’t say anything in return.

 

<***>

 

“Damn that stubborn woman,” Jeremiah muttered, and glared at the microwave. It was bad enough his brother was dead, and he was stuck in the middle of nowhere with a crazy neighbor, but there was no takeout here to boot. He was a terrible cook on a good day, but at least back home he had access to pizza, curry, and egg rolls. There was nothing here but microwave dinners, and being subjected to the delicious smells of his neighbor’s cooking was near to torture.

The microwave beeped, and he sighed in resignation as he grabbed the food and headed for his laptop. He couldn’t wait to finish up here and get back home. Not that there was much there except takeout, but at least that was something. His brother was all he’d had, and some stupid fucking animal had taken that from him.

He put the food down and opened the laptop. The camera feeds came up on the screen, but before he could pick up his food and settle in for the night, something moved on the outer edge of the camera pointed toward the neighbor’s tree line.

“Damn it!” he said, and slammed a fist on the table, rattling his fork. A small, upright form was headed into the woods.

His chair scraped loudly across the floor as he pushed back from the table, and set about grabbing what he needed. He burst through the back door, and headed toward the part of the woods he’d seen the fool woman heading into. He jumped the fence easily enough, and in no time was at the edge of the trees. It didn’t take long to find the path she’d taken. It was worn, but small, and not easily noticeable unless someone was looking for it.

He kept the rifle barrel low, and pointed at the ground, his finger off the trigger. She couldn’t be too far ahead of him, and with his much longer strides he should have caught up to her by now. There was a clearing up ahead, so he slowed his pace, and crouched at the edge. A quick sweep didn’t yield anything, but it was dark and difficult to tell.

Just as he twitched to start forward again, something stirred on the other side. It made no sound, but it moved like shadows given life. Two eyes appeared, yellow, along with a feral snarl of sharp teeth, and then the largest, black wolf Jeremiah had ever seen stepped into the clearing.

Two things flashed through his mind then: there wasn’t currently a confirmed wolf population in Tennessee—he’d researched potential predators when he knew he’d be coming in the woods here—and that he was upwind. In those precious few seconds it took his brain to catch up, the wolf had already crossed the clearing.

Jeremiah fell back and tried to bring his rifle to bear on the animal, but the best he was able to do was hold the weapon horizontal against its neck. Jaws snapped inches from his face, as it growled and thrashed. He tried to push it back and butt-stroke it to get breathing room, but when he pushed and twisted, the wolf pulled back enough that Jeremiah missed. Then it lunged forward again and bit deep into his arm.

Searing pain raced up his limb as though he’d stuck it straight into a fire. He screamed and dropped his weapon, trying to punch the wolf’s nose with his free hand. It connected, and the wolf reared back, shaking its head. The reprieve was only momentary, and it came at him again, jaws open wide to finish him off. Then it was gone in a flash of red, followed by yelps and snarls.

He didn’t have any time to think about it, though, as his eyes rolled back in his head. Darkness and agony ate the edge of his thoughts, and he passed out.

 

<***>

 

Sunlight stabbed through his eyelids, and he groaned. He went to lift his arm to cover his eyes, but something was on it, stopping him. He cracked an eye open and looked to his right. Panic shot through him like a rabbit flushed from the brush, and he jerked away from the naked, sleeping form of his neighbor. The motion caused her to stir, and when she rolled over to face him, dried blood coated her from her chin on down.

“What the—” he started, and tried to scramble further away, but pain lanced through his hand. He collapsed with a gasp, and then brought his shaking hand up to look at it. It was red, swollen, and torn from the wolf’s attack. Memories from last night slammed into him, and his breath left him in a rush.

A small movement caught his attention, and his eyes darted up to see Faye crawling to him. She stopped just beyond his reach.

“I’m so sorry, Jeremiah,” she whispered, eyes mournful. “I tried to keep you out of the woods. My granddaddy has been sick for a long time, and you and your brother paid the price. But he won’t hurt anyone else, I promise.” Her breath hitched at that, and her eyes shone with unshed tears.

Granddaddy? He frowned, brain trying to catch up. It was a wolf that attacked, not a person. Jeremiah opened his mouth to speak, but something over her shoulder made it fall all the way open.

“H-Holt?” he whispered, voice strangled. His brother stood not five feet from him.

“Hey, little brother, good to see you,” Holt said, and a lopsided grin graced his face for a moment before it faded. “Don’t get your hopes up,” he continued, voice as sad as Faye’s eyes.

“Why?” Jeremiah demanded, trying to grasp for something solid in the whirlpool of emotions dragging him under.

“Werewolves can see ghosts,” Faye explained, her voice tight.

“Werewolves?” he repeated, the word weak and disbelieving. He looked from his brother to her, trying to find the joke, but their grim expressions sent his heart racing. “Then…”

Faye drew in a shuddering breath, and locked eyes with him. “Welcome to the Pack.”

His silence was thunderous in the quiet woods. It was a long, tense time before he sighed, his pragmatism winning as his stomach grumbled. “Does this mean I at least get some of that stew?”

It took a moment for her shock to wear off, and her chuckle was weak, but she nodded. “Absolutely. Let’s head home.”

Short Story ~~ Nine

Well, another contest, another loss. C’est la vie.

But, you know what that means: I get to post it here for you all to enjoy!

***Warning***

This story describes torture and implications of sexual violence. If you are sensitive to such material, it’s recommended you refrain from reading this story.

~~~~~~

Nine

 

A groan, half-awake and filled with pain, echoed in the small room. When Carter tried to move his hands to clutch his aching skull, they wouldn’t move. His dove gray eyes shot wide, and his heart immediately began pounding as adrenaline rushed through his system like a spring flood in a small river. Even the low light coming from everywhere and nowhere was too bright, and stabbed through his eyes straight to his brain. With his mouth dry as cotton and hanging open as he pulled in one ragged breath after another, his first thought was that he somehow managed to paralyze himself following his bender the night before. He turned his head to the right, his scalp scraping against something cold and unyielding, and it wasn’t relief that washed through him when he saw the manacle. All the muscles in his body went rigid at once.

His eyes darted to look down the length of his well-muscled and naked chest, but there wasn’t enough give across his shoulders for him to see his legs. He tried to tuck his knees, but the sharp bite of metal at his ankles told him all he needed to know. He was spread-eagle, chained down, and the cool air on his skin pointed to him being totally naked.

“Oh, good. You’re awake.”

His head snapped around at the calm, female voice on his left, but they must have been just out of sight, because he couldn’t see her.

“Who the fuck are you, and where the fuck am I?” he shouted, but his dry throat had the words dissolving into a less than intimidating coughing fit. He tried to swallow what little moisture he had in his mouth to get it to stop, but there was nothing for it. He’d drank way too much last night and was well beyond dehydrated.

Out of nowhere a hand touched his forehead, and he jerked away in response.

“Stay still,” the same voice said, but there was no irritation. In fact, the voice remained level, and there was absolutely no inflection whatsoever.

Two warm, dry hands touched on either side of his face, and this time he didn’t try to get away. He opened his eyes, but despite the dizziness and pounding in his skull, he was able to lock gazes with the owner of the voice. Of course, that was all he could see. A black hood from a hoodie covered everything from above their blond eyebrows up. Everything below their cobalt blue eyes was covered in one of those face masks that bikers or snowboarders wore.

Even weirder than their attire, though, was the fact their eyes matched their voice: cool, calm, and no emotion to be found. That wasn’t to say their eyes were lifeless, like a doll’s. No, there was intelligence and an assessing sort of look. Between the eyes and the manacles, Carter’s heart picked up more speed, and another wave of dizziness caused his stomach to roil. He closed his eyes, and his head involuntarily leaned into one of the hands, as he tried to steady himself.

“Skin cool and dry. Sunken eyes. Dizziness. I’d say you’re severely dehydrated. I have something to help with that,” she said.

Then the warmth was gone from his face, and small, rummaging sounds came from somewhere in the room. Carter tried to lick his cracked lips, but the sharp edges of skin merely scraped along his dry tongue. Maybe they were bringing him water. The small patter of liquid hitting the ground grew closer, and he swallowed in anticipation.

Something wet and rough slapped down over his face, and he went from being dry as a desert to drowning in the blink of an eye. He thrashed as much as the restraints would allow, trying to throw the cloth from his face. Trying to breath. He couldn’t scream out loud, but it echoed in his mind. Nothing helped. There was no escape as she poured an endless stream of water over the cloth. Darkness ate the edge of his thoughts, sending him careening toward blessed unconsciousness. Just as he was about to fall over that edge, the cloth was gone.

This time when he coughed, they were wet, hacking things that burned in his lungs and made his chest ache.

“Better?” the voice asked after his coughing had quieted down.

He squinted his eyes open to see her hovering over him again. He scowled and bared his teeth.

“You crazy fucking bitch!” he screamed, his throat raw and agonizing. He tried to spit at her, but it just dribbled over his lips and onto his chin.

The cloth appeared in his vision again, and his eyes went wide as saucers. He pulled against the manacles, hoping some of the water had wet his skin enough for him to slip free, but no such luck. His skin burned where the metal tore it further, having already scraped most of it away in his struggle from being waterboarded.

Instead of placing it over his face, though, she wiped the spittle from his chin. On instinct, he turned his head to bite at her hand, but his teeth snapped shut on nothing but air.

“You stupid fucking whore! Let me go!” he raged at her when his attack was unsuccessful.

Her eyes appeared over him again, meeting his. Still assessing.

“It’s not time for that yet,” was all she said. Then she was gone again.

His head dropped back down to the smooth stone of the table as he tried to sort through his bewildered thoughts. Nothing made sense. He didn’t know how he got here, who the weird chick was, or why she had him strapped down to an old ass sacrificial altar.

Let me go!

It’s not time for that yet.

Was she going to let him go? Did he just need to tough this out? She came back into his field of vision, staring deep into his eyes again.

“Don’t fight,” she said, and held up a black-handled, double-edged dagger.

Those words, combined with the color of her eyes, and what he assumed was the color of her hair from her eyebrows, sent his heart tripping along. He didn’t know why, but it had nothing to do with the weapon in her hand. That was, until she slowly sliced through the flesh on the inside of his left bicep.

“God damnit! What the fuck do you want?” he screamed, but she didn’t stop.

“I want for nothing here, Carter Moore,” she said, still nothing in her voice as she lifted the knife from the wound. She examined the blood as it dripped along the short length of it, and turned her gaze to him from over the edge. “I am here for the same reason you are here: necessity. You need me, just as much as I need you.”

She knew his name. Giddiness bubbled inside of him and broke out from his throat in a nervous, incredulous laugh.

“I’m stuck with a psycho stalker who thinks we’re soulmates, and she’s going to cut me to little pieces. What kind of fucked up bullshit have I walked into?”

“Soulmates?” she asked, and paused. “Interesting perspective. I suppose, in some way, we are meant to be here together. In this time and place.”

“Oh, God, you’re insane,” he said with a groan, which morphed into a scream when she drew the blade along his skin again. This one was an inch away from the first, and moving toward his elbow.

This continued on, and on. She’d cut, move an inch, and when she ran out of space she moved to the other side of the limb. She avoided any arteries. She also never cut so deep that he bled profusely enough for him to hope he’d bleed to death, and end this nightmare. Not that he wanted to die, of course, but his body was on fire from the shallow-cut nerves, and his mind was a delirious whirlwind of her words.

Each time she moved from one limb to the next, she’d stop, look him in the eyes, and say; “It’s not time for that yet.”

When he struggled, she’d say; “Don’t fight.”

When he’d pause in his screaming and cursing her to the depths of Hell, she’d respond with; “You need this.”

The first statement kept a thread of hope thrumming through him, but with each scream his throat grew rawer, until his voice was too hoarse for them anymore. The times he managed to pass out before she stopped in time to keep it from happening, she’d wake him with a cool cloth to the forehead. After the second waterboarding session, he did his best not to appear dehydrated or thirsty.

By the time she finished both arms, one leg, a foot, and had started on the next, he was shivering uncontrollably. He’d long ago puked up what was left in his stomach from the night before, and what little bile he had. She’d wordlessly cleaned him up.

But it was the other two statements, more than her torture, that left a lingering unease worming its way through his scattered thoughts. They mixed with flashes of blue eyes, and strands of blond hair ghosting between his fingers.

It was at the second cut along the arch of his foot that did it.

“P-please,” he said, teeth chattering, the word barely more than a whisper, and shuddering.

When it fell from his lips, the knife stopped. Even though he couldn’t see her, there was a stillness from where she was. A complete absence of mobility that was more like a void in space, as opposed to a person not moving.

“What did you say?” she asked, her face so close to his foot her breath tickled along his skin.

Tensing all the muscles in his body to stop the shaking for a moment, he forcefully said from between gritted teeth; “Please,” expelling the word in one go. “Stop.”

She stood, her eyes meeting his from down the length of his bloodied body. Unlike the usual, assessing gaze he was accustomed to, this time it held a weight. His chest grew steadily heavier with each passing moment, until his breathing stopped. It was in that moment, when he couldn’t draw another breath, that the final thread of hope withered and burned away in his mind.

Then, from that second to the next, he could breathe again. He sucked in great gulps of air, nearly choking. What little moisture he had went to his eyes as they watered, and he hadn’t thought his chest and lungs could be in any more pain. He’d been wrong.

It was then that someone giggled.

He cracked open one eye to look at the woman, but her eyes were back to their usual, and there was no movement from her face to indicate it’d been her.

“Oh, Sister, you always do such lovely work,” a young voice said behind him, coming from where the woman at his feet initially appeared.

“My work is only possible through you, Sister,” the woman said, inclining her head, and looking beyond him.

Another giggle. “Such flattery.”

“Still, what are you doing here? It’s time for him to move on. He’s been made ready,” she said, and tilted her head.

Then a girl came into view on his left. She was in her late teens, wearing a flowing, green dress accentuating her curves, and could certainly be the sister of the woman. Her curling, blond hair was loose about her shoulders. The only difference was, this girl was full of life. Personality. And at the moment, she was pouting.

“I wanted to send him on his way with you. You know how much I enjoy these ones,” she said, moving closer to the table. Her hips came flush against the stone, right above his arm. She turned her face to him, skin at the corner of her eyes crinkled with mirth and her eyes themselves dancing. She bit her lip.

Something about her raked along his consciousness. It was almost as painful as her nails digging into his arm as she dragged them across the sliced flesh from wrist to upper arm.

“Sister,” the older one admonished as he screamed.

“Who are you people?” He sobbed.

They both went still in the same way the woman had earlier. As though his words were some kind of switch thrown within them.

“Don’t you remember?” the younger one purred. She shifted to face his head, and leaned over.

He gave a small shake of his head, unable to speak, his airway constricted.

She put her mouth to his ear. “Perhaps you want a reminder then,” she teased, and licked his ear lobe. “Come on, Baby, don’t be like that. You know you want it. You need this. Don’t fight,” she whispered.

The phrases rippled through his mind, as though the words were stones and his thoughts a pond.

The girls. The abandoned trestle bridge not far from the old quarry. The shattering of one beer bottle after another on the rocks of the creek’s embankment. Stroking himself to completion as the events with the most recent girl played over and over his mind. Taking her from the parking lot at knife-point, the blade leaving a small, shallow cut through the fabric of her dress and in her skin. Her wide blue eyes. Matted, wet blond hair from his fist holding her beneath the water. Cold, blue lips, forever parted but never again to draw breath.

The new mystery girl moved her face so it was inches from his. Their eyes locked. He fell into her gaze, spiraling, until he wasn’t looking at her face, but his own. He’d recognize that sneer anywhere. Heat filled the other’s eyes, and his own laugh rumbled eerily through the body his mind was trapped in. The other him leaned down, and he struggled to get away, but couldn’t. The other was just too strong.

“You need this, Baby. Don’t fight.”

Carter screamed as every horror he visited upon those girls was paid back in full. From abduction to death. For all nine of them.

Then he was back, gazing up into the younger one’s face. He met her smile with tears and terror.

“Who are you?” he whispered, the words carrying a foreboding that was heavier than lead.

“We’ve been known by many names over the years,” the older one said. “Spirits of vengeance. Maiden, Mother, and Crone…” she trailed off.

“Or Judge,” the younger one whispered, and nuzzled his cheek with hers as he whimpered.

“Jury,” the older one said.

She pulled back the hood, and pulled down the face mask. Every time he blinked, her face changed, cycling from one of Carter’s victims to the next. Not as they were in life, but as they appeared in death.

The older ones were in various stages of rot, all the soft tissue of the face gone because of the carrion feeders. Teeth were exposed with a few missing, caught in an eternal, ghoulish grin, the gums black with decay.

The more recently deceased still held an echo of the ethereal beauty they had in life, but their skin was pale, and they watched him with white, filmy eyes.

“And Executioner,” a new voice rasped, like sawgrass rubbing against itself in the night wind.

Carter shuddered. The new voice penetrated to his core, and his bones ached.

In the wake of that proclamation, a third woman appeared behind Jury. Her spine was bent with age, and the determined thud of her gnarled, wooden staff on the floor echoed as she made her way to the table. Her skin was wrinkled, and her thin-lipped mouth was a severe line across her face. She wore a black cloak, and wisps of white hair lay across her shoulders. There was a black blindfold across her eyes, but Carter knew there was nothing she missed.

“You were taken from the mortal realm by our youngest Sister,” the Crone said.

He looked at the younger one, who grinned and wiggled her fingers at him in a small wave. “I couldn’t wait to meet you, so I took you early! The girls had told us so much about you,” she said, her grin broadening to a manic level.

He grimaced in response, and returned his attention to the Crone.

“We do not generally condone such actions,” the Crone said, admonishing the younger one, “but it was deemed appropriate that you surrender your few remaining months in light of your behavior. A form of expedited karma, if you will.”

She lifted the staff, and when the butt came down thunder rumbled through the chamber. “Your soul has been Judged and found wanting. The Jury has made it ready. It is time, Carter Moore,” she intoned, and leveled the considerable weight of her attention on him. “Choose. Remain here in the care of my Sisters for eternity, for your soul is not fit to reenter the Cycle. Or, surrender yourself to me, and cease your existence forevermore.”

Judge, Jury, and…Executioner.

It’s time.

Don’t fight.

You need this.

There was a fine trembling running through his body, down to what there was of his soul. “Yes,” he whispered to the Crone, “take me.”

This time, she gripped the staff with both hands and lifted it from the ground. “So Mote it Be,” she said, her voice wielding the very essence of Creation and Destruction. Beautiful and terrifying in its power. She brought the staff down, and there was a flash of intense, bright light, followed by a crack. When the light dimmed, the table was broken in half, and Carter Moore was gone.

The younger one pouted. “It’s never fun when they choose to leave.”

“As though we don’t already have plenty to tend to,” the middle one stated, and then sighed.

A warm breeze blew through the room, and her appearance changed, along with that of the younger sister. Between them they were all women, spanning the past, present, and future of the world. When the wind died down, nine women were gathered around the altar, and nine sets of blue eyes were fixed on it.

“The contract is fulfilled,” the younger one said, and this time her smile was bittersweet.

“Balance must be maintained,” the middle one said, her smile as gentle as April rain.

“So Mote it Be,” the Crone said again, but this time the power was tender, and wrapped lovingly around the spirits like a handmade quilt.

The women, no longer rotting and dead, looked up at the three, silent as the tears streaming down their faces. They all nodded, and then were gone, following Carter Moore into oblivion.

The Crone leaned heavily on her staff, and her gaze fell on the cracked altar. “Humanity is rife with darkness, Sister; fear not. There will always be more,” she rasped, and then they, too, were gone.