The Tales of Quirkheart & Gotthold: The Longest Night ~~ Duskwood Chapter Five

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After speaking with Clerk Daltry, Quirkheart and Gotthold face the challenge of recovering the documents needed to solve the mystery of Stalvan Mistmantle. It’s a long shot, but the only one they have. 

~~~~

“Now,” Gotthold said, scanning the immediate area as they left the town hall, “we just need to get out of town before Ebonlocke gets nosy.”

“It’s my job to be nosy,” a familiar voice said.

To Gotthold’s credit, he barely flinched when she spoke, though his eyes did go a bit wide for a moment.

“Friend Gotthold, now would be a perfect opportunity to inquire about the perceived flavor of the Commander’s pants,” Quirkheart stage-whispered. “As stated before, none of my research into human clothing indicates what flavor designation they would have and whether that flavor would be sour.”

There was a surprised spluttering from the Commander as she stepped out from the shadows. She’d been in the corner where the stairs met the town hall entrance, instead of at the bottom of the stairs where she normally stood.

Gotthold turned a shade of crimson darker than even the scales of the dragons from the red dragonflight, and tilted his head back beseechingly at the sky.

Why me? he asked mournfully.

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that,” Commander Ebonlocke said firmly.

Gotthold looked down at her from his perch at the top of the stairs, and grimaced when he was confronted with her scowl. Her name was an apt description of her hair, dark, with the long locks parted down the middle. And just like most of the sunshine-deprived of the area, her skin was ghostly.

“Now, what business did you have in the town hall, outsider?” she asked, one hand steady on her weapon, while her other hand was in a fist and planted on her hip. Her shuttered lantern was on the ground nearby, flame snuffed out.

“Just chatting with your clerk about local history. Fascinating stuff, really,” he said, trying to be as vaguely truthful as possible.

Her scowl deepened, and her lips pursed.

“Once again, based on my study of human facial expressions, I would say she does not believe you, friend Gotthold,” Quirkheart said, her head tilting to look up at him.

“Yes, friend Gotthold, it would indeed appear that she doesn’t believe you,” Ebonlocke mocked.

The only reason Gotthold remained friendly (ish), was that her tone was aimed more at him than Quirkheart.

“You caught me. You were nowhere to be found, and we were looking for another job.”

It was still a sort-of truth, but the way Ebonlocke’s jaw tightened said she wasn’t buying what he was selling. Then her eyes landed on something beyond Quirkheart and Gotthold.

“Detlev!” she shouted.

When Gotthold followed her line of sight, it landed on the man they’d had the chat with in the tavern. The one with the ogre’s face.

“Yeah?” he answered, stopping so suddenly his buddies ran into his back.

“It’s, ‘yes, ma’am,’ to you, Detlev,” she corrected him. It sounded more rote than anything else, as though this were expected as opposed to something she truly cared about. “These two are looking for something to do. I received a report about some worgen menacing travelers near the Rotting Orchard, and Calor has been knocking down my door to get someone out there to do something about it. Take our fine adventurers from Stormwind out there, and see if they can make themselves useful,” she finished, then grabbed her lantern and walked away.

“What? No! I–” Detlev tried to say, and held out a hand as though to stop her.

Ebonlocke didn’t even break her stride, and disappeared into the gloom behind the nearest house.

When Gotthold looked back at the man, his hands were in fists at his side, and he was glaring daggers at the pair.

“Well–” Gotthold started.

“Not a word from either of you,” Detlev said, stabbing a finger at each of them. “Get your mounts and meet me at the south road out of town.” With that, he left his two very drunk friends leaning on one another as he headed for the stables.

“Well, this is a fine kettle she’s gotten us into,” Gotthold grumbled. “The only good thing about this mess is we needed to go there, anyway. She could have just given us directions.”

Quirkheart looked at the ground, then back at Gotthold. “We are not in a kettle, friend Gotthold. We are standing on the stairs of the town hall.”

“It means we’ve been put into a dilemma, Quirk,” he explained as they made their way down the stairs, then past the drunk, still immobilized pair.

“Ah, yes, friend Gotthold. That would appear to be correct. We will need to accomplish both tasks set before us. How do you propose we search for the documents without arousing suspicion?”

“We’ll need a distraction,” Gotthold said as they made their way to the stables. Then, a really awful, wickedly perfect idea came to mind as the wooden structure came into sight. “What’s that thing you’ve been researching recently?”

The blue glow of Quirkheart’s eyes brightened. “You mean the capability of sentient creatures to augment power through emotion, and what role it plays in–”

“Yes,” Gotthold interrupted her before she could continue, “that’ll do. I want you to enlighten our companion on that research and anything else you can think of.”

Any kind of non-stop chatter would likely do, but when Quirkheart started throwing big words into the mix, the effect would be too great to overcome.

“Of course! However, what will we do to distract him?” she asked, her head tilting quizzically, then there was a whirring sound. “Oh, I perceive your intention, friend Gotthold. It is rare for a layperson to fully grasp such concepts, and it will be a sufficient distraction while you search for the documents.”

“Exactly, my friend. A perfect plan, and the perfect person to execute it,” he said, then bent down to pat her shoulder.

He could have sworn he’d seen her blush, but in the perpetual darkness it was difficult to tell.

The Tales of Quirkheart & Gotthold: The Longest Night ~~ Duskwood Chapter Four

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Upon investigating talk of a man disturbing the townsfolk, our pair meet Tobias Mistmantle, who is searching for his missing brother. Thinking they can kill two gulls with one shot–helping the man find his brother, and seeing him off for the townsfolk once they do–Gotthold agrees to help. Now they just need to figure out what happened to his brother without being kicked out of the town themselves.

~~~~

“Where do you think we start our search?” Gotthold asked, as the town came back into view.

“It is my understanding that records are kept in libraries or clerk offices, friend Gotthold,” Quirk said. Despite her much shorter stature, the mechanical nature of her legs let her keep up with Gotthold’s longer stride with ease.

Gotthold responded with a rumbling hmm, as he rubbed  a thumb along his jaw in thought. “I don’ think this place has a library or clerk’s office–it’s not big enough.”

“Then the closest approximation would be the town hall.”

He snapped his fingers and grinned. “Good thinkin’, Quirk. Now we just gotta make sure that Ebonlocke don’t catch wind of what we’re doin’.”

“Why would that matter, friend Gotthold? We are attempting to help a citizen, perhaps even two.”

He grunted and shook his head. “Look, these people got the feel o’ Drustvar about them, and that makes them mighty superstitious. If their anchors are twisted in a knot over this Stalvan guy, chances are they won’t wanna talk about him, for fear of bringing something bad down on their heads.”

“That behavior is illogical, and unhelpful,” Quirk observed.

“That’s just people for you.”

“What does this have to do with Commander Althea Ebonlocke?”

“Well, I don’t fancy she’ll want us pokin’ our noses in this business. It makes people mighty angry, scared, or both. When it comes to her, my money’s gonna be on angry if she finds out about this.”

“It has been my observation that sentient beings, who exhibit such emotions in the face of their illogical behavior, are likely to be both angry and scared, rather than one or the other,” she said, her softly glowing eyes illuminating the darkness in front of her.

“Aye, you’re not wrong. Anger like this stems from fear, but I still don’t want to cross the commander,” Gotthold said. ‘Or say anythin’ like that to her face,‘ he thought with a grimace. People aren’t made commanders in forlorn places like this without knowing their way around a fight, and the commander’s blade looked sharper than her tongue.

As they made their way back into town, Gotthold kept his one good eye on the lookout for the commander, but she didn’t appear to be in the square right at that moment. When they made it past the fountain and into the entrance of the town hall with neither hide nor hair of Ebonlocke showing up, Gotthold breathed a sigh of relief.

“Perhaps this human with the unkempt mustache and tube brush eyebrows can tell us what we need to know, friend Gotthold,” Quirk offered.

“I beg your pardon?” Tube Brush asked.

Quirk’s description was, as usual, incredibly accurate. It was why he never asked her what she saw when she looked at him. He wasn’t a vain man by any stretch, but her observations could be brutal at times, even for him.

“And our pardon you have,” Gotthold said, ignoring the man’s affronted expression. “We’ve come here on business, and were wondering if you might know where we could get our hands on some local records.”

The man sniffed, and lifted his nose in the air to look down it. “I am Clerk Daltry, and any information you might seek would come through me.”

Gotthold suppressed a groan and the desire to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Of course you are! You’re clearly a man of prominence, which was why thought it best to speak with you about the matter,” he said, trying to recover the ground they’d lost with Quirk’s comment.

Clerk Daltry’s watery blue eyes narrowed. “Is that so? You wouldn’t say it’s because I’m the first person you came across once you entered the town hall?”

“Ah…” Gotthold fumbled. He wasn’t a smooth talker, but even for him this was awkward.

“Clerk Daltry,” Quirk said, thankfully addressing the man by his name this time, “we come here seeking information on one Stalvan Mistmantle. Any help or documents you are able to provide will be conducive to our search.”

Fear flashed through Daltry’s eyes. He took a small, involuntary step backward, and brought the ledger he was holding up to his chest, as though to hide behind the blue, leather-bound book.

“You want to know about Stalvan?” he asked, his voice strained.

“Aye. His brother asked us to help track him down, and we decided to help, if for no other reason than to get an answer and get him out of everyone’s hair.” That wasn’t the real reason, of course, or at least not the main one. If they were going to spend a substantial amount of time here, getting in good with the locals was never a bad thing. What he said didn’t have to be completely true, just not a complete lie.

Daltry lowered the ledger and glanced between the two of them. “You’re not the first, you know–outsiders looking to help, that is.” Then he sighed, and looked around his small space, occupied by more barrels and pots than books. “Even if I wanted to help, you’re out of luck. Worgen broke into the town hall the other night, tore the place to shreds, and stole most of my archives!” There was outrage there, tempered by sadness. This was a man who liked what he did, and in his eyes monsters had taken that away.

“Oh!” Quirk said, her exclamation as close to excitement as she got. “We recently returned from helping disperse the worgen of Brightwood, and I discovered these documents while we were there. I thought they might be important,” she said, digging in her pack.

Gotthold had to suppress another groan. “Quirk, you think everything you find while we’re out is important. If you weren’t a mechagnome, you wouldn’t be able to haul that pack around without tipping over.”

“Was I not correct in my assumption, friend Gotthold?”

Despite how innocent the question sounded, there was an undertow of gloat there ready to drag him under, so he just glowered at his companion.

“By the Light! You were able to return from confronting those monsters? I must admit I’m shocked,” he said, gingerly taking the papers from Quirkheart. They were a little worse for wear, but the sheen in Daltry’s eyes proved that didn’t matter to the clerk. “Thank you for returning this to the archives.”

“Your thanks are not necessary. Will these tell us what we need to know about Stalvan?” she asked.

Daltry hesitated, then leafed through the pages. “Not completely.” He looked back up, then between them. “If the two of you are that serious about this, I’ll help you.”

“Sounds good. What else do you need?” Gotthold asked.

“The beasts gather in another place–the Rotting Orchard.”

“Sounds delightful,” Gotthold said sourly.

“Indeed. The other documents I need might be there, if they haven’t eaten them, or what have you,” Daltry said distastefully. “Find those, and I just might be able to give you the information you need.”

Gotthold nodded. “We’ve got a plan, then. We’ll be back with your documents, Daltry. Let’s go, Quirk.”

“I wouldn’t lay any wagers on the success of this,” Daltry said.

Gotthold just laughed, and clapped him on the shoulder, making the clerk stagger. “You Duskwood folks keep sayin’ that, and we’re gonna keep provin’ you wrong.”

With that, the two of them left the town hall.

~~~~

The Tales of Quirkheart & Gotthold: The Longest Night ~~ Duskwood Chapter Three

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After completing the tasks set by the townspeople, Quirkheart and Gotthold retire to the local tavern for a well-deserved rest. However, Gotthold’s unease lurks in the back of his mind. The more time the pair linger in this town full of whispers, secrets, and dark glances, the more Gotthold is determined to get to the bottom of what’s haunting Darkshire.

~~~~

“These wolf kebabs aren’t half bad,” Gotthold said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Though, I don’t think I care for Duskwood spider any more than I do Drustvar spider.”

The Scarlet Raven Tavern wasn’t terribly lively, but given the state of the area, Gotthold hadn’t expected it to mirror the bustling establishments of Stormwind. Still, the food was hot, the moonshine had a decent kick, and the roaring fire drove away the air’s perpetual chill.

“They are not as satisfying as Mecha-Bytes, but they are sufficient for keeping one’s energy levels within acceptable parameters,” Quirkheart said in pseudo-agreement.

When the food was brought to them, she’d pulled a canister from her pack and sprinkled something that looked suspiciously like rust flakes onto the meat. Gotthold had seen what passed for ‘food’ on the floating isle of junk, and it wasn’t anything fit for consumption by anyone but the mechagnomes and their ilk. Instead of commenting on Quirk’s opinion about the food, he raised his empty bottle toward the barkeep, asking for another. The barkeep nodded, and Gotthold turned his attention back to his food.

“–stirring up trouble again. I wish he’d just leave,” grumbled a patron behind Gotthold.

He slowed his chewing and stilled his movements. His mother had taught him eavesdropping was impolite, but his nan said that’s only the case if you’re caught.

“Have you said anything?”

“No! Of course not.”

“You’d think he’d get the message by now. Hasn’t that family caused enough pain?”

At that point, the tavernkeep walked up to their table, and put a new bottle of moonshine on the table.

“Everything turn out okay?” Tavernkeep Smitts asked, removing the empty bottle. The man was stiff as clothing covered in seawater and left to dry in the sun, and his expression was pinched.

“Aye,” Gotthold said, a pleased smile cracking his craggy features. “Best wolf I’ve had in ages, and the moonshine is almost as good as the brews back home.”

The tavernkeep’s shoulders relaxed, and a wan smile graced his face. “Well, it’s hard to compete with someone’s homeland, but I’ll pass the compliments along.”

“Thank’ee,” Gotthold said, picking up the new bottle and giving the man a nod.

Once he’d walked away, Gotthold stood up.

“Is it time to leave, friend Gotthold?” Quirkheart asked, looking up from her meticulously clean plate.

“Not quite yet, Quirk — I need to check on something,” he said, and headed over to a table with three men hunched over their plates.

They looked up at Gotthold’s approach, their eyes narrowing and mouths flattening to thin lines.

“Hello, gents. Fancy a chat?” he asked, waving the moonshine bottle at them, and laying on his thickest Kul Tiran charm.

The biggest one of the lot, who was furthest away, with a face ugly enough to scare an ogre, said; “No.” His tone was deader than his dark eyes, and almost as menacing as the hams the man had for hands.

“Now hold on a minute, Detlev,” the fidgety man closest to Gotthold said. His bloodshot eyes were darting between the bottle of moonshine and the man–Detlev. “There’s no harm in chatting.” The man already reeked of liquor, and his words held a slurred edge.

Gotthold would need to tread carefully here. It didn’t take much to incite restless and dissatisfied townsfolk toward reckless action, and he didn’t want to start any fires he couldn’t put out.

Keep ’em in hand, Got, or you’ll be drownin’ in fists and blood. The words of his old mentor echoed through his mind, from one of their many tavern trips in his younger days.

“Of course there’s no harm!” Gotthold said, clapping the man on the shoulder.

The fidgety man wheezed in response, his eyes widening just a hair at slight show of strength.

“I just couldn’t help but overhear your conversation, and thought my companion and I could be of some help,” Gotthold said, and put the bottle firmly down on the table.

The fidgety man, and the other who’d been quiet during the whole ordeal, both looked to Detlev. If looks could kill, Gotthold would be as skewered as those wolf kebabs, but Detlev must have seen something in his companion’s expressions, because he waved a hand for Gotthold to sit.

“Thank’ee. Now, who’s this person who’s causing problems?”

~~

The cabin in front of them was a shabby, one-room affair on the outskirts of town, not far from the gryphon roosts. As the two approached the front door, there was movement inside–a steady thunk of boots, moving back and forth in the small space.

When Quirkheart knocked on the door, the steps stopped, and there was a long moment before a man opened it. He was handsome enough, with blond locks and blue eyes, but his face was lined with worry, aging him beyond his years.

“Yes? What do you want?”

“Name’s Gotthold, and this here’s Quirkheart,” he said, jerking a thumb toward Quirk, who waved. “And we heard you was causin’ a spot of bother for the townsfolk.”

The man’s expression immediately turned to fury, setting off a spark of life in his eyes that wasn’t there before.

“I have done no such thing! They refuse to tell me anything about my brother, and I’m just trying to find out what happened to him,” he shouted at Gotthold. By the end, his chest was heaving, and he’d taken a step toward Gotthold without realizing it.

Gotthold kept his expression calm, and he could tell the moment the man realized he was nearly close enough to bump…well, not chests. Gotthold was getting a bit round in the middle these days, but the principle was the same. The man’s eyes widened, and he took a step back, covering his face with his hands.

“I’m at my wits end here,” he said, shoulder shaking. “I received this letter from my brother, and when I showed up, the townsfolk told me he was dead, but refuse to say anything else on the matter.”

Gotthold’s heart twisted. He wasn’t sure there’d be a town left standing if he’d been treated the same in regards to his sister.

“The people of this town would very much like you to vacate the premises,” Quirkheart stated, when Gotthold said nothing. “How can we bring this situation to a peaceful conclusion?”

The man looked up from his hands, face wet with tears, and sighed. “I will not leave until they tell me my brother’s fate, and they refuse to do so. Perhaps the two of you could be mediators and look into this? I’ll be more than happy to get out of everyone’s hair once I know the truth.”

Quirkheart and Gotthold shared a look, then both of them nodded.

“Aye, we can do that. What are your names, by the way? They refused to tell us.”

The man scowled once again, but said; “I’m Tobias Mistmantle, and my brother is Stalvan. They act as though speaking my name or my brother’s is some kind of curse.” At that, he cleared his throat and straightened his shoulders. “Thank you, by the way. It’s been a while since anyone has spoken to me with any kindness.”

“Bein’ kind costs you nothing in the long run. There’s always room for mean later,” Gotthold said with a grin.

The man managed to crack a small smile in return. “Too true.”

“Should we depart, friend Gotthold?” Quirkheart asked, heading toward the door before he could respond.

Instead of answering, Gotthold waved to the man and followed Quirk outside. Once they were out of earshot from the cabin, Gotthold shook his head.

“He spoke of a curse, and I can’t say I disagree. This whole town’s got a bodement hanging over it, mark my works,” Gotthold said, then spat on the ground and made an X across his heart.

“Do you have data to support your hypothesis, friend Gotthold?” Quirkheart asked.

“Of course not, Quirk,” he said, rolling his eyes. “It’s just a gut feeling.”

“Then there is nothing to substantiate this ‘bodement’ you speak of. It is likely just the lack of sunlight I mentioned earlier effecting your brain chemistry. We should focus on gathering all information related to one Stalvan Mistmantle, so that we may assist the townspeople and the outraged crying man in the most efficient manner possible,” she said.

Gotthold just sighed and said; “As you say, Quirk.”

~~~~

The Tales of Quirkheart & Gotthold: The Longest Night ~~ Duskwood Chapter Two

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Having arrived in Darkshire, Quirkheart and Gotthold were quickly put to work by the townspeople and local militia known as the Night Watch. However, Gotthold is unsettled by more than just the endless night, as whispers of heresy and evil ring in his mind as they head out to complete their tasks.

~~~~

“There seem to be a substantial number, friend Gotthold. However, they are spaced out in such a way, combined with the low visibility, that we may efficiently cull their pack,” Quirkheart observed.

They hadn’t gone far from the town before encountering the Nightbane worgen. In fact, all they’d had to do was crest the hill to the west before finding them. Gotthold had gone into a prone position, and waited for Quirkheart–who didn’t really need to crouch–to use her mechanized-enhanced sight to scan the area.

“It still don’t sit well, this killing worgen,” Gotthold grumbled.

“Do you wish to enter into a discourse with them, friend Gotthold?” she asked, facing him.

Her mechanized goggles glowed a cold blue, and the soft whirring of her arms and legs was barely discernible over the wind rustling the leaves overhead. Her armor and tabard were cut to keep from interfering with the gears that powered her every action, and she was always moving in some form or fashion. Despite her analytical nature, though, it was the slight head tilt along with the question that proved, deep down, mechagnomes still harbored echoes of their gnomanity.

He turned from Quirkheart to scowl at the worgen down the hill. He wasn’t big on moral quandaries, in engaging in them, or thinking about them. Yet, here they were.

“Maybe, but we should be–”

There was a soft whoomph of sound, followed on its heels by a much louder thud, as Quirkheart leapt right into the camp of the two worgen below them.

Gotthold’s eyes widened. The worgens yelped and snarled in shock at the sudden intrusion, and they scrambled backwards to get away from the tiny creature who stood before them. One of them barely missed singing themselves on the campfire, dancing away from the flames just in time.

“Greetings, worgen of the Nightbane pack, I am–”

Two things happened at once: one of the worgens rushed forward, claws raised in the air to slash downward at Quirkheart, and Gotthold, who had charged down the hill not long after Quirkheart, intercepted the blow with his axe.

The worgen yowled in pain and staggered back, clutching the remains of its bloody paw. After that, things turned from bad to worse for the surprised campers. By the end of the encounter, there were two dead worgen, and Gotthold was swearing between strained breaths.

“I hate running,” he groaned, sitting down heavily on a log not far from the camp. The handles of his two, two-handed axes weren’t far from his reach, and he kept one wary eye open as he drank from his water skin, just in case more showed up.

“You have not been following the exercise regime I created for you, friend Gotthold,” Quirkheart observed, standing at an angle from him, her back to the hill they descended. She scanned the night around them, not looking at him as she spoke, and certainly not out of breath with nary a hair out of place. While her words were nothing more than observation, Gotthold could almost detect a slight air of accusation in them.

“I’m too old to spend my days runnin’ around in circles that go nowhere, for no better reason than the pleasure of bein’ prepared to follow your fool-lead into battle. Why’d you do that?” he asked, his annoyance getting the better of him.

“You said you wished to enter a discourse with them–”

“I said ‘maybe’,” he interrupted her, “and if you’d have let me finish, I would have suggested a more cautious approach than leaping into their midst and scaring the fur from their hides.”

Quirkheart turned her attention to the corpses of the worgen. “Their fur is intact, friend Gotthold.”

Gotthold put his elbows on his knees, and his face in his hands, while muttering; “Tides give me strength.” Then he sighed, and stood from the log. “Either way, I think we can safely say these worgen are not from the same stock as King Greymane’s people.”

“Yes. They do not appear to have been cured of their mindless state,” she agreed. “Does this mean we will do what the man with impressive sideburns has asked of us?”

Gotthold scanned the darkness around them, his thoughts still not settled about the men who spoke of heresy and claimed righteous justification for their actions.

“Yeah, but I want you to keep a weather eye on, and a keen ear out for anything shady,” he said, and picked up his axes.

“Based on data collected before our arrival, the weather patterns in the area remain unchanged–”

“Nevermind, Quirk. Let’s just watch each other’s backs, eh?”

“From my limited understanding of human colloquialism, you want us to make sure that nothing unfortunate happens to each other, correct?”

Gotthold couldn’t resist a small smile. “Aye, Quirk–that’s what I meant.”

“Then we will do so, friend Gotthold.”

“That’s the spirit. Now, let’s get this over with. Those wolf kebabs won’t make themselves.”

“Of course not, friend Gotthold. Food requires at least some level of–”

Gotthold turned from the camp and headed deeper into the grove, with Quirkheart and her chatter trailing not far behind him.

 

The Tales of Quirkheart & Gotthold: The Longest Night ~~ Duskwood Chapter One

The woods are gloomy, dark, and dead, and our intrepid adventurers, Quirkheart and Gotthold, have finally arrived in Darkshire. Soon, they’ll find that not all is as it appears in this cursed land, and if they wish to see daylight again, they’ll need to keep their wits and weapons about them.

 

~~~~

“I don’t know, Quirk–somethin’s a bit dodgy ’bout these Duskwood folks,” Gotthold observed.

He’d stationed himself not far from the fountain in Darkshire’s town square, watching passerby. Everyone went about their business with a wire-tight wariness in their posture, and their eyes moved with a constant sense of vigilance bordering on paranoia. When their gaze landed on Gotthold–who was clearly not from around these parts–the skin around their eyes tightened, and more grim frowns than grimaced smiles greeted him.

“The term ‘dodgy’ is not quantifiable, friend Gotthold. Though evidence has proven that a lack of sufficient sunlight can negatively impact the moods of sentient beings. Perhaps these fine citizens merely need more sun,” she informed him.

Gotthold did his best not to bury his scarred face into his calloused palm. “Quanti-whatever, or not, this place gives me the same willies Drustvar does. What did that Commander want us to do? I want to get the job done and be gone before this gloom sinks into my bones.”

Quirkheart had moved about the shabby town, seeing what was to be done. They’d been sent to Duskwood from Stormwind, though the call board had been rather thin on the details. When they’d arrived, they found a land and people shrouded in eerie darkness, roads patrolled by people bearing torches and swords, and dilapidated buildings surrounded by dead countryside. It was a wonder anyone lived here, and subsequently it wasn’t a wonder that ‘thriving’ wasn’t in their vocabulary.

“Gloom has no capability to–”

“Quirk,” Gotthold said, stopping her before she could get much further.

“Yes, friend Gotthold?”

“What did the Commander want?”

“The Commander has tasked us with culling the Dire Wolf population surrounding the town. The death of at least twelve wolves has been requested. However, given my research of human facial expressions and speech patterns, I would calculate that Commander Ebonlocke has determined our success rate will be below a preferable percentage.”

Gotthold grunted. “She don’t know us then, do she? Wolves should be easy enough. Anythin’ else?”

“The man with black sideburns that are at least thirty-seven percent thicker than the average human male has expressed his concern over the efficacy of a group known as The Night Watch.”

“You mean the group led by Commander Sourpants? Why?”

“I cannot confirm whether or not Commander Ebonlocke’s pants can be designated as tasting sour. None of my research into human clothing–”

“Quirk,” Gotthold said. “Why does the man with impressive sideburns have concerns about the Night Watch?”

“Rationale unclear. He spoke of the expulsion of evil and heresy to keep the citizens safe, and that if we wished to assist him and one called Master Carevin, we must prove ourselves worthy.”

“Sounds like the hogwash some of the crazy tidesages spout off about,” Gotthold spat. There’d been a rare few tidesages Gotthold had gotten along with over his long life, and when people with power like that started talking heresy, people tended to start swinging in gallows.

Before Quirkheart could ask about why tidesages would be talking about the water pigs were washed with, he stood up straight from where he’d been leaning on the corner of the smithy, and said; “What do we have to do to prove ourselves worthy?”

“Kill Nightbane worgen, with the death of at least seven being sufficient.”

Gotthold frowned. “He say why these worgen deserve to be killed?”

Wolves was one thing, but worgen were allies of the alliance. Gotthold wasn’t sure he wanted to start off his journey of the Eastern Kingdoms in the Stormwind Stockades, all because some crazy, backwoods fanatic asked him to kill King Greymane’s subjects.

“He stated they were ‘monsters’. It is my understanding that some of the worgen never regained their sanity. Perhaps these worgen are some of those?” Quirkheart suggested.

“Mayhaps,” Gotthold said, still wary. “We’ll take a look-see for ourselves and decide what to do when we come across them. Is that all?”

“The cook at the inn has also offered us food, and the recipes of local delicacies, in exchange for a harvest of wolf and spider meat.”

Gotthold’s ears perked up at the mention of food. You didn’t get to be his size without harboring an appreciation for good cooking, and though spider wasn’t his first choice, the wolf recipe sounded promising.

“We’ll already be killin’ the wolves, and we’ll keep an eye out for the spiders. You ready to head out?” he asked.

“Yes, friend Gotthold–I am ready.”

“Then let’s be off.”

~~~~

Twitter #vss365 (Very Short Stories) ~~ October

October 1st
Prompt: Night

Deep within’ the darkest night
You’re prayin’ for that mornin’ light
Pounding hearts and gasping breath
Looking back will be your death

‘Run,’ the hungry voices bade
Sharpened claws like burning blades
Blood so hot; the moon is black
You’ve made such a lovely snack

October 2nd
Prompt: Murder

The woman was accused of murder,
and they hung her from a tree.
She cursed them as she choked;
her body swaying in the breeze.

Little did the townsfolk know,
she committed not the crime.
Now neither her nor my husband,
will hurt this heart of mine.

October 3rd
Prompt: Blood

“The price is blood! You have me–don’t do this!” she cried, pulling on her chains.

“Oh, child,” the witch cooed. “Who said it was your blood?” The slice was quick and deep. Her lover could do nothing more than widen his eyes before he died. “Enjoy your immortality.”

October 4th
Prompt: Organs

“What’ll be yer pleasure?”

Her grin was a hair too wide, but he was too drunk on her beauty and tequila to notice.

“I won’t spoil the surprise,” she said, stroking a finger down his face. It trailed lower, over his abdomen and the tasty organs inside. “Or my dinner.”

October 5th
Prompt: Away

Crosses for the vampires
With demons it’s a prayer
Wolfsbane for a lycanthrope
Avoid all caves; they’re lairs
Listen not to sirens’ songs
Cold iron for the fae
Listen now, and these will
Keep these creatures well away

October 6th
Prompt: Demon & Delusions (Poem)

Hiding behind her smile
Was the demon lurking inside
My heart fell for her kindness
And my soul fell for her lies

Though I know I’m damned
And my delusions are shattered
I’ll love her even while I burn
‘Cause she’s the only one that’s mattered

October 7th
Prompt: Music

Thunder of paws
Panting breath
Howls shatter the night

The thrill of the hunt
The fear of the prey
Teeth bared for the struggle and fight

Down they fall
Pain and screams
On toward death they spiral

Eternal dance
Bloody and joyous
Moving to music most primal

October 8th
Prompt: Perfume

At first, he smelled her perfume everywhere: the store, the park–even her grave. It faded with time, until it never happened.

He woke with a start, her scent heavy on the air.

“Did you miss me?” she asked with a hoarse voice, and then kissed away his screams.

October 9th
Prompt: Bones

She rolled the bones, which were yellowed by age and firelight, and they clattered in the circle.

“What do they say?” the other woman asked.

“Depends on your view.”

“What?”

“Good for me. Bad for you.”

Her gods demanded blood, and she was happy to oblige.

October 10th
Prompt: Lovers

“Please,” he begged, as his cracked lips bled.

“What? Not having fun?” she asked, and then licked away the blood on his mouth.

He shuddered, and the chains holding him rattled, but he didn’t pull away.

“Remember, lover: you’re the one who summoned the succubus.”

October 11th
Prompt: Skin

He took her skin and kid it well
The Maiden of the Sea
Her mournful calls to kith and kin
Did not deter his glee

The selkie soon became his wife
And gave him many sons
But when she found her skin again
Back home she did run

October 12th
Prompt: Monster

“I’m not sure if we should leave you here, or take you with us.”

“Or kill her,” Jeffrey rumbled.

Mr. Hoffman’s eyes cut over to his bodyguard. “You don’t repay someone saving your life by killing them, Jeffrey. I’d like to think I’m not that much of a monster.”

October 13th
Prompt: Pearl

“Did you hear about Susan?”

“Everyone has. Her poor mama must be clutchin’ her pearls!”

“She’s always been a bit of a wild child, but a vampire?” The woman shuddered.

The other woman nodded, but resisted the urge to touch her inner thigh and the bite scars there.

October 14th
Prompt: Worse

When the Darkest King is called
Man’s empire will surely fall
Chaos yearns for pain and death
Calling for your final breath

Then will come the King of Light
To purge away the Darkest night
But Light’s reign may just be a curse
Be careful, or things may get worse

October 15th
Prompt: Alone

And what can I say
When at the end of the day
The cracks in my mind
Have grown so wide
I’ve fallen right through?

I’m left there alone
My broken thoughts sown
With the darkness inside
I’m barely alive
And I’m screaming for you

October 16th 
Prompt: Chunk

“It was a small chunk,” she protested.

“Small? A mouthful is ‘small’?”

“Well, next time don’t leave your snacks out for all and sundry.” The woman gestured to the pale man lying on the carpet, a tourniquet on his leg.

“Fine. I’ll label them next time.”

October 17th 
Prompt: Darkness

His face was hidden by a giant deer skull mask, with antlers like tall branches, and darkness for eyes.

“You can’t take my sister!” Thomas yelled.

“I can. She has eaten our food, and drank of our spring. She is ours.”

“No!” But he was too late–they’d vanished.

October 18th
Prompt: Ghost

“Are you a ghost, or am I crazy?” he whispered.

One side of her mouth quirked up in a smile, and humor danced in her eyes. “Maybe both. Maybe neither.” She shrugged, and held out her hand. “Does it matter?”

“No, it doesn’t.” He sobbed and reached for her.

October 19th
Prompt: Devour

There are tales of succubi
Whispered hushed and low
And for a single coin of gold
I’ll tell you what you want to know

Call to her in middle night
Then bow before her power
And if you ask her nice enough
Perhaps your soul she will devour

October 20th
Prompt: Dirt

“God made dirt, and dirt don’t hurt,” he drawled, and patted the coffin lid in a comforting manner.

The screams and pleas were barely audible over the man’s humming as he lowered the coffin into the ground; each thud of dirt on the lid a proverbial coffin nail.

October 21st
Prompt: Oblivion

“Art drank himself into oblivion again,” Ethan said.

Ken chuckled. “Where’d they find him this time?”

“Professing his love to the horse statue in town square.”

“Yikes. How’d Laura take it?”

“Well, I hope her sister hides her knives before Art gets out of jail.”

October 22nd
Prompt: Soul

*Traitor!* the ghosts wailed.

“Traitor, but not a murderer,” I whispered. “I won’t kill them.”

*Someone must pay,* they growled as one.

Justice hadn’t been enough.

“I know.” At this, they washed over me like a tsunami, ripping my soul to shreds.

“I’m sorry…”

October 23rd
Prompt: Invincible

“You’re not invincible, you know,” she said, as the needle poked through the solid flesh near his ragged wound.

“I know,” he grumbled. “But why be immortal if you can’t push your limits?”

“Being gutted in a bar fight is not a ‘limit’.”

“Says you.”

October 24th
Prompt: Cellar

“Why would a ghost be in our cellar? Seems a stupid place to haunt.”

“Some kid got murdered down here, or something.”

Neither boy went down the stairs, but Jack was patient. He had plenty of time to ‘make’ new friends, and smiled wide as the boys closed the door.

October 25th
Prompt: Alive

“If we find her alive, Zan can work the diplomacy angle all he wants,” Kailen said, checking his gear one last time.

“If she isn’t?” Nic asked.

Kailen’s eyes remained on his sword as he sharpened its edges. “Then they won’t be, either, for much longer.”

October 26th
Prompt: Horror

Alec watched in horror as the men in black armor cut down everyone around them. He grabbed the arm of the Commander, and shouted; “Stop! You said no one would be hurt!”

The man looked down with a half smile. “They’re not hurt if they’re dead.”

October 27th
Prompt: Shriek

The shriek of the ghost was relentless, as it had been every night from 3 to 4 a.m. since they’d moved in.

“I can’t take much more,” Jake mumbled into his coffee.

“You’re the one who wanted cheap rent,” Gail accused, her voice like acid on his frayed nerves.

October 28th
Prompt: Grave

“You are in grave danger.”

Quint raised an eyebrow. “So? What else is new?”

The angel in white robes blinked in shock. “You are not taking this seriously.”

“I move questionable magic items, so danger is the status quo. Unless you have a real warning, buzz off.”

October 29th
Prompt: Eternal

Some will claim their love’s eternal;
More plentiful than the stars in the sk
y.

But take some advice from this immortal:
Eternal love is life’s cruelest lie.

October 30th
Prompt: Warm

The cicadas sang, and humidity hung heavy in the Florida night. She shivered, and pulled the blanket tighter around her.

“Will I ever be warm again?”

“Not even while you turn to ash beneath the sun,” he replied. He’d told her, but no one ever listened.

October 31st
Prompt: Raven

Raven , raven, black as night
Mocking laughter
Keen eyes bright

What omen ill brings you to me?
Your knowledge vast
From Prophecy

Have you, then, foreseen my death?
Are here to guide
My soul to rest?

“Begone,” I say! I beg of thee.
“I won’t go!”
I flee

I flee

Flash Fiction ~~ Lost

The woman across from him was as old and weathered as her shack near the sea, and her cold eyes were the same stormy green as the chill waters washing along the shore. Her mouth was set in a perpetual frown, but her words were warmer than her countenance.

“Ye’ll drive yerself mad if ye do this,” she said, her voice gruff from disuse, but her tone soft. Knowing.

“If there’s a chance, then I have to find her. I won’t lose her this way,” he insisted. He didn’t raise his voice, but the resolve there was firm. He leaned on the table, and his tan, work-roughened hands supported his solid weight.

“She were lost long before she sought the sea,” the woman replied, softening further, but never turning away from the desperate grief shining in his honey brown eyes.

He wasn’t the first, nor would he be the last to seek her here, and she made a point to never turn away from the pain of those who sought her out. She could do no less, but no more, either.  

Just like the others, he ignored her words and asked; “How did you make it back without going insane?” He looked to the large conch shell sitting high on a shelf.

Her eyes followed his. Even in the low light offered by the overcast day, it gleamed, and the dark red lines on the shell were like runnels of blood spiraling against the pearl white.

 Her very bones ached with the question, and as she turned back to meet this stranger’s eyes, she wondered if it was time. There was a strength in him that had little to do with his stature, and more to do with the fire she saw in him. His soul burning bright through his eyes. Such a soul just might have the strength needed.

He barely heard her over the wind off the sea when she whispered; “I made a deal.”

“A deal?” he asked, his voice losing its frenzied edge as it gave way to confusion.

She didn’t answer him as she stood from the table and hobbled over to the shelf. Her hands shook as she extended her arms to their limit to take the shell down. When her fingers had barely brushed it the wind picked up, whistling through gaps in the wood and howling around the shack.

“What deal?” he asked again, a heaviness settling into his gut like an anchor hitting the seabed.

Her back was to him, hunched, but not from age. More like she was folded tight around the shell. Then, even though her words this time were not loud, they found their way to his ears all the same.

“An exchange. Do ye still wish to find her?” she asked.

The weight in his stomach grew heavier, but he swallowed, trying to wet his dry mouth before he answered; “Yes. With everything I am.”

She turned to him then, her mouth set in a soft, mournful smile. Her eyes were full of sorrow, and like the little shells on the beach that held tiny pools of the sea, the tide was more than they could hold, and tears spilled down her cheeks. When the first drop hit the wood of the floor, the wind shrieked its warning, but it fell on deaf ears. He was lost in the endless depths of her eyes.

“Good. Because that is what it will take,” she said. Then, faster than he’d imagined she could move, she smashed the shell on the floor.

It was later, when he woke, hungry, cold, and alone in the shack, that he finally understood. His eyes were grainy as he opened them, and the coarseness of the dried saltwater along his skin was rubbing it raw. Seaweed green eyes looked across the floor of the shack, but the shattered conch was gone. As was the old woman. His humorless exhale of a laugh ended in a shudder. He curled in on himself, cradling his own shell protectively with his shivering form.

The conch was an all-over pale pink color, like the roses his wife would lovingly tend in their garden, while the underside of the flat portion was the gleaming porcelain of her skin.

“I’ll never leave you again,” he whispered, the words raspy from his dry throat.

The shell pulsed with warmth in his hands, and he held on even tighter to it as the sea of grief washing along the shores of his mind drew back. Even if only for these few moments.

For right now, though, those moments were enough.

Short Story ~~ Come Away

0 for 4 on the contests, but such is life.

This was for a contest with the prompt: New Beginnings

Word Limit: 2500

 

~~~~

 

Come Away

 

If you’d asked Thomas right then what had woken him, he wouldn’t be able to put his finger on exactly what it had been. All he knew was the air was still. Like that moment of anticipation in a movie theatre, between the previews ending and the movie beginning, when everything’s dark and everyone’s holding their breath. Except this was endless, like someone had hit the pause button on the world at just the right moment.

Thomas held still, too; something wasn’t right. Heart hammering, he opened his eyes to a slit, revealing nothing more than the ceiling of his room. After a long, tense moment, he slowly moved his head to look around. Moonlight streamed in through the window, illuminating familiar sights, like his desk and dresser, while throwing others into sinister shadows.

He closed his eyes, and breathed in slow and deep. He was ten now, and being afraid of the dark wasn’t okay anymore. Plus, his mom had warned him he’d never be allowed to watch a scary movie ever again if he had nightmares. She’d let him stay up late and watch one with her after Paige went to bed, since it was Halloween and a Friday night. He couldn’t remember getting to the end of the movie, so his mom must have put him to bed.

When nothing pounced on him from the dark, he sat up, and then he heard a stifled laugh from down the hall. He rolled his eyes and sighed.

That must have been what woke me up. Paige is playing in her room, he thought, and shook his head. Annoyance flashed through him like lightning, for his little sister and at himself. Paige, for being up, and himself for being scared over a six year-old.

Thomas threw his covers back, and quietly padded to his door. When he grabbed the knob, he gripped it tight, and slowly turned it to minimize the noise. He opened the door just enough to slide through the gap, to avoid the squeak that happened a few more inches beyond that.

He didn’t want to wake his mom. She’d worked all day, then took them trick-or-treating, and ended the night watching the movie with him after he’d begged for it. He didn’t need to wake her just to tell Paige to go back to sleep.

His socks made no noise on the hardwood floor as he moved two doors down from his room. He frowned as he approached, though, because her door was already ajar, so he pushed it all the way open.

Paige’s room looked like someone threw up one of their aunt’s bridesmaids’ dresses all over the room. Everything was pink and lacy, and Thomas usually had to repress a shudder at the sight. Tonight, though, something was missing: Paige.

A giggle floated on the air, but this time from downstairs.

Maybe she needed some water, he reasoned. He glanced behind him at his mother’s door, but pursed his lips and turned towards the stairs instead. When he made it to the bottom, he headed left toward the kitchen, but she wasn’t there. It was when he went to the end of the counter, toward the dining room, that he saw the open sliding glass door.

His heart stopped. Their mom had been worried about Paige opening the back door and getting lost in the woods behind the house. Mom called Paige her, ‘Mischievous Rugrat,’ to which Paige would usually laugh, her green eyes sparkling. Their mom had put in one of those locks that bolted at the top of the door, specifically so Paige couldn’t reach it, even with a chair.

Yet, the door was open.

More giggles floated in through the open door, and then through the sheer curtain in dining room he saw her: curly brown hair bounced as she skipped, her bunny slippers kicking up sticks in her wake, and her white and pale pink onesie pajamas glowing in the moonlight.

There were no thoughts going through his mind when he rushed out the back door, only stopping long enough to shove his feet into his slide sandals. Then he took off across the back yard, the dead leaves and sticks barely crunching beneath his feet as he ran as fast as he could. His breath was coming in heavy pants, and his arms pumped as he broke through the tree line where he saw Paige last. She couldn’t have been far, but with each moment he didn’t see her, his panic rose in him like a bath filling, until he thought he might drown in it.

He stopped to take a look around, wild-eyed, as his blood pounded in his ears like an urgent drum.

“Paige!” he called, the woods silent.

“Thomas?” Paige said, surprised.

Her voice came from Thomas’ left, not too far away, and he started in that direction. He didn’t run, since he didn’t want to pass her by accident, but he wasn’t being a slow poke, either. After a few minutes, he was close enough to hear her having a conversation, but not what was being said. It stopped him dead in his tracks. He clenched his fists and grit his teeth.

She’s not alone. This was turning into a much bigger mess than just putting his little sister back to bed. He was torn between running back to the house, or to keep going to try and get Paige.

“Come on, Thomas! Come meet my friends!” Paige said, her words bright and excited.

Thomas’ stomach clenched. Friends. As in more than one. He didn’t have much choice, though; they knew he was here.

He crept forward, pushing low-hanging branches and brush out of the way, until he entered a clearing. It wasn’t large, but it was almost the size of their backyard. It was the stones that caught his attention, though.

Some were short, coming up to his knees, while others were eye-level with him. They were all gray and smooth, and shaped like eggs with the bottoms in the ground. Each of the tops had a hole, and it went from one side to the other. The smaller ones he could probably barely fit a pinky finger through, while the larger ones were big enough for his fist. The stones formed a perfect circle around the clearing, with six or so feet of clearance between them and the tree line. In the center of the circle was Paige.

“Thomas!” she said, and jumped up, waving at him. “Did you come for the tea party, too?”

“Tea party?” he asked, gaping at her as he moved closer. Then he saw the low, round table, covered with a white lace tablecloth, and the fanciest tea set he’d ever seen outside of one of Paige’s princess books. The small plates at each setting had equally little cakes. Page’s wide grin was dusted with powdered sugar, and the cake at her place setting had a neat little bite taken out of it.

“Paige,” he said, disbelieving, “please tell me you didn’t eat anything a stranger gave you.”

She just laughed. “They aren’t strangers, silly; they’re my friends! We’ve been talking for days and days. So, do you want some cake?” she asked, and started to turn toward the table.

He wanted nothing more than to jump the circle, grab her hand, and run with her back to the house. But there was something about that ring that set his teeth on edge, and made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Each time he tried to step forward, his brain screamed; “No!

“No, I do not want any cake!” he said, scowling and clenching his fists. “I want you to get over here so we can go home!” By the time he finished the sentence he was almost shouting.

Paige’s eyes had gone wide, and her lower lip trembled. “You’re being mean, Thomas,” she accused, and a small sob escaped her.

“Oh, don’t mind the boy, little one. He just doesn’t understand.”

Thomas’ body jerked in surprise. The voice was coming from right next to Paige, but there was no one there. Also, it sounded strange. High-pitched and buzzing, like a bee was trying to speak after breathing in helium.

“Who’s there?” Thomas demanded, voice trembling.

Paige’s eyes went wide, and were shiny with unshed tears. “It’s like you said, Novus. He can’t see you!”

“No, little one, he can’t,” Novus said, as though mournful about the fact. To Thomas, though, there was something disingenuous about the way they said it. Like when a bully has to apologize to a kid they beat up.

“Paige, please. Let’s go home,” Thomas begged, deciding to ignore the voice. Whoever they were, they didn’t sound very big, and he’d rather take his chances than talk to them anymore.

“We can’t leave yet. Novus promised I’d get to meet Herne!” she said, and stamped her foot.

“I don’t care, Paige! We need to get back before mom wakes up and worries about us!” Thomas said, shouting again.

“She will not wake until all has finished here. Worry not.” There was a pause. “In fact, you should not have woken either, naughty boy. Perhaps there is some belief in you, yet.” Then a tinkling laugh, like broken glass falling on metal, caused Thomas to shiver. “Or there will be after tonight.”

“He comes!” a chorus of voices called, similar to Novus.

Thomas jumped at that, but before he could call for Paige to run, something came out of the tree line across the clearing from him. Thomas’ jaw dropped.

The man—if that’s even what he was—was huge, and not just because he was riding the biggest deer ever seen. Most of his face was hidden by a deer skull mask, with antlers that were more like towering branches. Though it wasn’t quite right, because the eyes of the skull were set in a more human way, and there were no eyes, only darkness. The nose portion covered down to his chin, so he couldn’t see a mouth, but his cheeks were left bare. His skin was a dusky purple, his upper body muscular, and he wore nothing but a forest green cloak, with pants and boots to match. He also had a longbow sitting across his back, and Thomas swallowed at the sight of the weapon.

The deer snorted and stamped its hooves when it reached the stone circle, chewing the bit of its bridle.

“Has she partaken of the food and drink?” the man asked, his voice rumbling across the clearing like thunder.

“She has, Lord Herne!” the voices chorused out again.

Thomas’ eyes jerked away from the man to his sister, who was still, her head tilted back to look up at the man.

“Then it is time. Bring her,” he said, and held out a hand.

“Wait! You can’t just take my sister!” Thomas yelled, breaking out of his stunned trance.

Everyone went still at his words, and then the man turned his gaze to Thomas.

“I can, child. She has eaten our food, and drank the water from our spring. She is ours.”

Thomas’ head was spinning. None of it made any sense. He opened his mouth to yell at the man again, but something fluttered in his face. He jerked back to get away, but before he could, something cool brushed across his forehead.

It was as though a curtain was pulled back, revealing everything. A small form hovered in front of his face, its wings beating so fast he couldn’t see them properly. Bits of leaves covered their body, almost like scales, and thorns and flowers were tangled in their hair. The eyes were a liquid silver, like a faceless coin in water, and its mouth was pulled back in a cruel grin, revealing sharp teeth that would do a shark proud.

“A gift,” the buzzing voice said, but the pronouncement came across as more of a curse. “From Novus.”

Novus floated away, back toward Paige, and he realized there were at least twenty of these things, all floating around her. She turned, just enough to meet his gaze, and smiled wide, as though all her dreams had come true. Then she turned, and started walking toward the man.

“Paige! No!” he yelled, and grabbed the stone closest to him to launch himself over it. Before he could complete the movement, Novus was in his face again, throwing some kind of powder at him.

“Shh,” Novus said, holding a finger to its lips. “Sleep and peace, Thomas,” it continued, the words sing-song.

Thomas’ eyes drooped, and his legs grew weak beneath him. He tightened his grip on the stone, struggling to remain upright and awake, but it was no use. The last thing he saw before falling asleep was his sister taking hold of the man’s hand.

 

<***>

 

Giggling woke Thomas with a start, and his eyes flew open. Everything from the night before crashed through his mind, and he scrambled to get out of bed, nearly falling as his sheets tangled around his feet. When he jerked open his door, indistinct voices were coming from downstairs. Thomas dashed from his room and down the stairs, slipping dangerously in his socks over the smooth floor.

When he burst into the kitchen, his mom was at the stove making breakfast, and Paige was sitting at the table. He gaped at her, as she happily munched on pancakes.

“Good morning, sleepyhead. Your pancakes are on the table,” his mom said, gracing him with her smile, before turning back to the stove.

He couldn’t move, though. There’s no way that was a dream! But there she was. He scowled, and cautiously made his way over to the table. Paige didn’t pay him any mind, and hummed a happy tune as she ate.

Thomas sat down, but didn’t eat. He just kept staring at Paige.

“Are you okay?” his mom asked, from right next to his shoulder.

Thomas nearly jumped out of his skin, and yelped.

His mother frowned, and then raised an eyebrow. “I think we’ll hold off on anymore scary movies until you’re older,” his mom said, and made her way to sit down and eat.

His cheeks burned, and he dropped his eyes to stare at his pancakes.

“Can I have more milk?” Paige piped up, holding out her cup before their mom could sit.

“Oh, of course, honey,” she said, and grabbed the cup.

Once their mom walked away, Paige’s giggle caught his attention and he looked at her.

Instead of green, liquid silver eyes stared back at him, and a cruel grin full of sharp teeth made him let out a small gasp. Then it put a finger to its lips in a sign for quiet, and when Thomas blinked, the face was Paige’s again.

“We’re going to have so much fun, Thomas,” Novus said, and giggled.

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.