Book Review ~~ Dave vs. The Monsters: Emergence

 

 

They say the only two things guaranteed in life are death and taxes. Dave Hooper has managed to avoid both, though the IRS and recent events in Dave’s life are doing their best to cash in on his debts. Dave is a father in a self-destructive, downward spiral who is currently fonder of hookers, blow, and booze than of taking care of or seeing his kids—or paying taxes. Though, who can really blame him about the taxes?

He was heading back a day early for his shift on an off-shore oil rig, hungover and hating life in general, when his world crashed down around his ears. Monsters were attacking the rig and eating his guys. What’s a safety manager to do? Piss your pants and kick monster ass, of course.

Art by: Concept Artist and Illustrator Ray Lederer for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Emergence is the first book in John Birmingham’s Dave vs. The Monsters series, and it follows our, (as per the back of the book), ‘unworthy champion of humanity’. Apparently, humans learned nothing from Tolkein’s Dwarves of Moria and they dug too deep, releasing monsters not seen on Earth since humans thought caves and mud huts were high class living.

Overall, the book is an enjoyable read and an interesting take on what would happen if your average Joe Schmoe were thrown into a monster madness situation. I do have a few issues with it, but not enough to keep me from reading more into the series.

First, the pros:

  • As I said above, it feels like a more realistic take on the average person being thrown into one of these situations. Whereas in similar books with comparable concepts, (Monster Hunters International comes to mind), the person has some special skill, are blessed by Fate, or have been training all their lives to fight the adversary, whoever or whatever that may be. It’s a sort of Buffy the Vampire Slayer syndrome for main characters. I’m not saying these special people have it easy because of their powers, only that they do have them right from the get-go, and generally know how to use them.

Dave, on the other hand, is not the first thing that comes to mind when you picture a ‘hero’. I won’t spoil anything about the book here, but let’s just say that Dave’s rise to herodom is both awkward and not a little painful.

  • The military stuff in the book is mostly accurate. I really enjoyed the fact there wasn’t some government agency that crawled out of the woodwork having expected something like this to happen. As Heath, our Navy officer in charge, points out, “All you’ve got is JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command).” And Heath isn’t some super-commando, he just happened to be the closest military presence to the oil rig when all the bad stuff went down, hence he’s put mostly in charge.

It also takes time to mobilize military assets, especially during unknown encounters and in a situation where there is no Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for what’s going down. Because the monsters aren’t following a pattern that a typical terrorist organization would follow, and the fact they have no idea where they’ll show up, it’s impossible to adapt procedures that quickly.

  • I liked the monster descriptions and concepts, as they weren’t based on anything from myth or legend on Earth (for the most part). It felt like it pulled from various fantasy worlds, like the Drow in Forgotten Realms and some Vord from the Codex Alera for their hierarchy and hivemind-type stuff. The different clans and abilities of clans were also interesting.
Found at: http://codexalera.wikia.com/wiki/Vord

Now, the cons:

  • My biggest gripe with the book is the endless exposition that could have been done through interaction with the monsters and other characters. I got more than halfway through the book and there were only two interactions with the bad guys at that point: the initial one, and a very brief one after Dave gets out of the hospital.

It felt more like an alternate history book than a fantasy novel. I wanted to see more interaction with the monsters to get details on how they worked, instead of Dave just constantly doing his thing. (Not going to tell you what it is, you’ll just have to read for yourself). Dave’s thing should have been used as an addendum to the interactions, not the primary source. Which brings me to my next issue…

  • The monster viewpoints in the book added almost nothing to the book overall, and even less to the plot. In fact, you could probably skip the ones that are chapters by themselves and not miss out on much. While it could be interesting, and it gave us a look into their hierarchy and how they function, it got incredibly tedious to have to basically translate their way to a human understanding/concepts.

Everything we learned from their viewpoints could have been done in Dave interactions with the monsters. In fact, the little bits woven in where the monsters interacted with Dave and we were getting information from their point of view were great—in small doses.

  • Compton isn’t filled out very well as a character, and as a result his actions at the end of the book had the plot fall on its face right at the finish line. In fact, some of the characters we meet for only a few pages leave a more lasting impression than Compton.

It might have to do with another character explaining Compton’s motives instead of Dave (especially), Heath, or Ashbury having any real confrontation with him. He just doesn’t come across as anyone willing to throw their weight around enough to do what he does at the end of the book.

  • The main character can be hard to connect to for some people. For people who haven’t gone through any self-destructive behavior in their life, Dave can come off as an emotionally stunted, major scumbag, and incredibly unlikable. He’s very: Work hard. Play hard. Damn the consequences. Even to the detriment of his family. So, there might be a majority-ish of people who can’t understand his motives and actions.

The nitpicks:

  • I have never met a woman who says they have, “good breeding hips,” so J2’s comment made me cringe a bit. Perhaps it’s a regional thing, and I just don’t ‘get it’.
  • Some of the emotional reactions of characters didn’t track for me, and left me scratching my head as to why they reacted the way they did. There were times people got pissed off at Dave for something he said, that left me wondering why they reacted to him like that. I’m putting it in the nitpicks because that could just be a failing on my part, and not the author’s.

The tl;dr:

Concept: Good. Execution: Shaky.

All in all, I give it 3/5 stars.

As I said, the cons won’t stop me from reading the rest of the books, but I’d like to see more plot and character interaction, and less exposition. Where it ended for the first book had the feeling of the middle-point in your average novel with good pacing and plot.

I’d relegate the series to something you could read between waiting for your favorite authors to release their next book, and I don’t think I’d ever buy a hardback if the rest of the series is similar.

Tales of the Graveyard Shift: The Greasy Goblin ~~ Chapter Eleven

Chapter Eleven

 

It turned out that Celinwel called the owner after she was released, and quit. So much for saving her to make my life easier. The night wasn’t that bad, though, since I forgot to account for Thea. She was efficient, quirky, though decidedly chatty about anime. I mean, I wasn’t sure how she was getting internet out in the Middle of Nowhere, Creepy Ass Woods, U.S.A., but it was probably highly illegal and I didn’t want to know.

As a weird speck of normalcy in the weirdest week of my life, I went to my nephew’s birthday party. They were lucky I showed up at all. Between sleepless days, working nights, and trying to solve a goblin murder to keep my brother’s tail out of the fire, I was dragging ass like a pug across a carpet. My only saving grace was that Saturday was my day off, and I’d managed some decent sleep before the party on Sunday. Slies had been conspicuously absent, but I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth and start to question it. I really didn’t want to wade through a pack of screaming children, but I needed to talk with my brother about a fair few things, which may or may not end with me yelling at him.

What kind of brother keeps the existence of the supernatural from his sister, and as a result she ends up beholden to a goblin leader to keep him from whatever terrible fate said goblin could concoct? A lame one, that’s who.

“Holly!” Candy’s voice cut across my nerves like the steel on steel squeal of a car collision.

If there was one word to describe Candy, it was ‘bombshell’. She was curvy, blond, stylish, and her eyes were a deep blue that almost seemed to flash indigo at times. Honestly, she was so perfect it was unreal. If she hadn’t had four kids with my brother, (and how unfair was it that she still looked that good after four kids?), I’d have guessed she was a robot.

She wore what I called ‘rich mom chic’, with a flowing, gauzy navy-blue shirt, black slacks you couldn’t call slacks because it was supposed to be ‘casual’, and silvery high heels. Her perfectly curly hair was swept into an up-do with a few artfully placed loose strands, and her various pieces of jewelry that could feed me for at least six months flashed in the low light of the entryway. The fact was, I was jealous, no two ways about it. She exuded grace like she was born to it, and the best I could manage on a good day was, ‘at least I’m not wearing sweat pants’.

“Hey, Candy,” I choked out without sounding too incredulous. I was getting better with time. It’d only taken me how many years to manage that? Still, point to me.

When I gave her a little wave her eyes widened at the soft cast on my hand.

“What happened to your hand?” she asked, some of the shininess in her voice wearing off. I should punch goblins more often.

“I, uh, lost my temper,” I said lamely.

She raised an eyebrow in expectation of more, but I simply smiled my most guileless smile, letting her know that was all I was going to say on the matter. I couldn’t very well tell her that a goblin healer had wrapped my hand, stating it was all he could do because goblin flesh was far too different from human for him to use his abilities. He said it was just fractured, but that I should still go to the hospital. I respectfully declined. I could barely pay for food let alone a medical bill.

“You wouldn’t happen to know where my dear brother is hiding, would you?” I asked, going for innocence, but probably not managing it very well.

“Oh, he’s—”

“Aunt Holly!” The unholy screech was my only warning before I was attacked by a pack of beasts, also known as my nieces and nephews. In total there were four of them: two boys and two girls, and they were all elementary and pre-school age.

At the moment I was only being accosted by three of them: Brielle, 7, Owen, 5, and Evelyn Rose, 3. Jason, the birthday boy, was turning 9 and likely commanding his birthday guest minions in some game of mischief or another. The child could wage a full-scale war from his tree house against the best military strategists out there, and I’d still bet on my nephew. If I hadn’t seen the birth certificate I would have sworn ‘Devious’ was his middle name.

“Hey, you three! Not causing too much trouble, are you?” I asked and hugged them close. Their behavior and my opinion of their mother’s name notwithstanding, I did love my nieces and nephews.

“Nope, just the right amount,” Brielle said, giving me a smirk to match her cheek.

I laughed, and turned at the insistent tugging of Evelyn Rose. She held her arms out to me in the universal toddler gesture of up, and I melted in the face of her forget-me-not blue eyes. Her hair was the white blond of small children, fine, and softly curling. It sat loose to her shoulders, because if anyone got near her with hair ties she threw unholy fits of rage.

I handed Candy the gift for Jason, and she tried to protest on my behalf since my arm was injured, but I waved her off with my good hand. I picked Evelyn up with one arm and she cuddled close to me, tucking her head beneath my jaw and resting on my shoulder. She took in a deep breath, and then stilled. Her sudden lack of movement made me freeze in response. Toddlers were naturally squirmy things, and any behavior outside the norm with them was cause for concern.

“Aunt Holly?” she said, her childish voice questioning and with an edge of confusion.

“Yes, Evy?” I asked, trying to keep my voice relaxed.

“You smell funny,” she said, and sat up enough for me to meet her eyes.

My breath caught in my throat at the sight: no longer blue, her eyes were the shade of mulberries, and the sensation of falling forward despite not moving threw my brain into full-out panic mode.

We’re falling! Primal Brain choked out, half in fear for us and half with instinctual fear for the potential to hurt Evelyn. Or maybe because of Evelyn.

We are not, but it’s unsettling, Rational Brain noted queasily.

“Evelyn Rose Bell—you will control yourself this instant, or you will be sent to your room!” Candy’s words rang out in the front hall, louder than they should have been but not in the sense of sound, and the reverberations made my bones ache.

Evelyn let loose her famous pout face, and I made to protest on her behalf, but Candy pulled her from my arms.

“Young lady, you know better. Now, go up to Nanny until your father and I are done speaking with Aunt Holly. Brielle, take her up. Owen, head out to play with your brother,” Candy said, issuing commands to each of the children in clipped tones I’d never expected from the perky woman.

As I shook what felt like fog from between my ears, I watched my nieces and nephews move quickly to do as their mother said. Apparently, this is what they meant by whipping out the ‘Mom Voice’.

When they were all gone Candy turned to look at me, and her eyes weren’t flashing indigo this time: they stayed that color. She stepped into my personal space and inhaled deeply right in front of my face, closing her eyes slowly as her lungs filled.

“Oh, Holly,” she said sadly, and opened eyes full of sorrow. “Come on, Joel is in his office. I think we all need to have a chat,” she finished, her voice soft.

When she turned and headed deeper into the house, I stumbled along behind her, my mind clearing more with each step. The newfound panic I’d discovered this week along with the existence of the supernatural was screaming and raking claws along my nerves, making me jumpy. I’d thought I’d already tumbled over my line of tolerance and found an equilibrium with co-workers, but this was family. Whatever was going on here was pushing me toward an edge in my mind, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to climb back over. Even I had my limits.

Candy knocked softly, but didn’t wait for a reply before opening the door.

“Dear, I said I’d be down in time for the cake and presents. I’m alm—”

“Joel,” Candy said, her voice still soft.

I stepped into the room in time to see my brother’s head snap up and his brows furrow with concern at his wife’s tone. Then his eyes turned to me, and his head tilted in question. My brother and I shared the brown sugar colored hair, hazel eyes, and need for glasses, but in everything else we differed. He was tall like everyone else in the family, while I was short, and I took more after our mother in looks and he our father. Typical genetics. My brother was clean cut, no facial hair, and if he hadn’t hated the thought of traveling he might have followed in our father’s military footsteps. He cut a nice figure in his business suits when he was working, but here at home he was dressed in the same artful casual as Candy.

Candy closed the door behind me, and remained standing a little back and to my left.

“Hey, Buttface,” I said, trying to defuse the tension with my affectionately dubbed nickname for my brother, and waved my injured hand at him.

He snorted, and gestured to my hand. “Getting into trouble still, Stumblebum?”

I harrumphed and tried to cross my arms without jostling my hand. “Technically, this trouble found me.” Then I scowled at him. “In fact, I’m holding you partially responsible for this.”

He raised a single eyebrow, leaned forward on his desk with his elbows, and steepled his hands in front of him. “Oh, really? Do tell.”

“Well, it might have something to do with someone named Gozuk,” I spat acidly at him, yearning for a reaction.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Joel jumped to his feet, his eyes flashing with anger as he strode around the desk. When he started toward me I did my best not to take a step back in surprise or fear, I wasn’t sure which, and then his hands were tightly gripping my shoulders.

“He didn’t hurt you, did he?” he asked, his voice hoarse and low with fury and concern.

My eyes burned with the start of tears, but I knew if I started I might not stop, and I didn’t want to be a blubbering mess at my nephew’s birthday party. The fact was, though, that my brother and I might pick on each other to the point where we didn’t speak for months, but no one was allowed to lay a finger or level an unkind word in our directions. Making each other miserable was our prerogative and no one else’s.

“Not directly, no, but he put me in a situation, or a few, to be injured,” I said, my voice going soft like Candy’s. Then I turned my face up to search his eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me about…them?” I asked, hesitating on the last word.

Joel sighed and loosened his grip. He shoulders slumped and he looked anywhere but at me when he spoke. “We’re not allowed to. There are rules and governing bodies in the various supernatural factions that prohibit it. I wasn’t even allowed to say anything when I was questioned about having you as a manager at that fast food place. They thought since I was…tolerable, for a human, that you might be as well. If you had reacted poorly they would have simply wiped your memory and sent you on your way.”

He picked up my injured hand in his and ran a finger over the rough material of the cast. “Now I wish I had just told them you wouldn’t be able to do it.” Guilt was rolling off him in waves, and I sighed, exasperated.

“It’s fine, Joel. You didn’t know Stribs was going to get murdered and that Gozuk was going to drag me into it,” I said, and did something rare and unexpected: I hugged my brother. It was awkward, but we both needed it.

Candy cleared her throat, and when the two of us parted we both looked at her. Her eyes darted between us and then she broke out into a genuine smile.

“You two are more alike than you let on,” she said with a little laugh. It died almost as quickly as our hug, though, and her mouth turned down in a frown. “Joel…” she said, nervously, biting her lip. Her eyes darted to me, and the panic from earlier was back.

Joel sighed again. “Holly—”

“I’m not sure I want to know,” I said, interrupting him. My eyes were wide and panicked.

No, no, no, no, no, Primal Brain said in a sing-song voice, covering their figurative ears.

It would be better to know, Rational Brain said, not unsympathetic.

“It’s not about you wanting to know. It’s about needing to, to keep you as safe as we can. I expected at your job you’d stay in the shallower end, given the, uh, rabble that works there, but you’ve been thrown into the deep end, and we both know you’ve never been a great swimmer,” he said, his voice firm. He scanned my face, but whatever he saw there didn’t reassure him.

“How about you tell us what’s been going on, and then we’ll move on to more personal matters?” Candy suggested.

I didn’t know why, but her words calmed me. I wasn’t sure recounting my week would help me with whatever bomb they were going to drop on me, but it couldn’t hurt. We made our way over to the pair of couches that faced each other in front of a fireplace. His office was large, the walls covered with bookshelves filled to the brim with law books and accolades. Honestly, the whole room was probably as big as my small apartment.

After we settled, I told them about my very busy week. Joel’s eyes narrowed in parts, in particular when I mentioned Knight and Thea. The former I could understand, he was law enforcement and my brother was a lawyer. Not to mention Knight was a grade-A asshole. Thea, however, was a surprise.

“Please don’t drive her home again,” Joel requested, the words holding an edge of pleading to them that set the hairs on the back of my neck to attention.

I gave him a hesitant nod. I wanted to know why, of course, but I had a funny feeling I was going to get more information than I wanted in short order. I didn’t need to overload on it.

When I finished, Joel leaned back against the couch, his eyes narrowed in thought.

“I might be able to give you some directions to go in, or suggest some people that could help, but I’ll need some time to make some calls. Your, uh, association with certain people will make getting you help difficult. But I’ll try to get you something before you leave from the birthday.”

My brows furrowed at his words. “What associations? The people I work with?” I paused. “You called them rabble earlier. That’s rather rude, Joel,” I scolded.

Candy cleared her throat, and Joel deferred to her with a tilt of his head, which was the most shocking thing so far today. There was more to my supposedly airheaded sister-in-law than I thought, and I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt at the realization. I hadn’t treated her like someone who had two brain cells to rub together, and based off current evidence I’d been somewhat uncharitable in doing so.

Still can’t get over her name, Rational Brain noted, with a sniff.

I silently agreed.

“The Owner of the Infamous Chicken isn’t only known for his talent with food; he also tends to collect outcasts. No one that would cause anything overt as a war with a faction, but those who were no longer welcome with their particular group.” At my frown, Candy continued, “Like Odella. She killed her Master, and though she was within her right to do so based on Code Sanguis, or vampiric law, no one willingly associates or invites vampires that kill their Masters to be around them, or join their Clan. It would be like inviting someone who assassinated the President to live with the newest President, or another world leader. They are seen as pariahs. Hence why The Owner took her in.”

I wasn’t sure I was comfortable hearing about Odella’s life, or rather undeath, from anyone but Odella herself, but Candy was simply trying to give me an example. I couldn’t fault her for that.

“So, you’re saying that everyone I work with, in some way, is an outcast?”

“Yes, and you working with them gives you an unofficial outcast status, too. It limits how much I’ll be able to help, given my position,” my brother said, his lips pressed into a thin line.

I sighed. I was never very good at politics—that was always Joel’s deal—but it sounded like I had indeed ended up in some deep garbage just by trying to be gainfully employed. Fate was having a laugh at me, She had to be.

“Okay,” I said, and took a deep breath. “While I don’t understand all of it, I’ll appreciate whatever help you can give me. They were so sure it was Celinwel, but that theory is trash now.”

Joel nodded, and tapped a finger to his chin as he thought. The silence between us stretched to the point of uncomfortable, and I squirmed a bit.

Just bite the bullet and get it over with, Rational Brain prompted.

I took a shaky breath and met both of their gazes with a pointed look. “Tell me.” The words had tumbled from me before I could think anymore on it.

Candy licked her lips and Joel grimaced.

“Do you remember how Candy and I met?” Joel asked tentatively, as though feeling out my mood.

Wow, apparently, we were going way back. I shook my head and pursed my lips. “At some work party, or something, right?”

Joel gave a nervous chuckle. “Yeah, that was the story we told. The truth is that Candy was…kind of…a reward for something I did for some…thing,” he said.

With each long pause between his words my eyebrows climbed higher and higher.

“Are you telling me someone gave you a person as a reward?” I spat, disgust thick on my voice, and I looked at Candy. I was expecting her support in my revulsion, but I was shocked to find a soft smile on her face as she looked at my brother.

“It wasn’t the best of circumstances, at least not in the eyes of humans, but our world doesn’t work the same as yours. Even the beings who ape humans closely, or were humans before, have very alien customs in the eyes of humans. It’s why we tend to avoid them. That, and the fact that humans tend to destroy what they fear,” Candy chided.

It was still a struggle for me to reconcile what I was seeing with their words. If what they said was true, she was basically a slave and she had no choice in the matter.

“So, he didn’t—” I made a waving gesture with my hand between the two of them.

Her eyes softened at my display of concern. “No, he was very gentlemanly. Despite what he was told about me and my disposition, he refused to do anything until we’d courted properly.” Then she laughed, the sound happy and warm. “It was the first time in my very long life anyone had treated me like a person instead of an object. I would do anything for Joel and the children,” she said, and took his hands in hers.

Watching them, I had to let go of my misgivings. It didn’t sit well with me how it had happened, but at the end of the day it was none of my business. And if they were truly happy, who was I to try and kick over their jubilant little sandcastle of love?

I took a deep breath, and let it out slow. “Okay. I can’t say I’m completely okay with this, but obviously my hang-ups are my own thing, and I’ll get over them. Or, I won’t, but I’ll keep it to myself.”

Candy’s eyes filled with tears, and Joel pulled her into a hug, whispering soothing words to her as he rubbed her back.

At my expression, Joel pulled back from Candy as she pulled an honest-to-goodness handkerchief from up her sleeve to dab at her eyes.

“She’s been fretting how you would react. Though I treat her as she should be treated: with respect and care, not everyone believes she deserves that. Your reaction means a lot, Holly. Ever since you took the job, we’ve been discussing how we were going to tell you everything.”

Something relaxed in my chest that I didn’t know had been tense. “You were going to tell me at some point, then?”

Joel and Candy nodded. “We decided on today, after Jason’s birthday, but then everything with the goblins happened and we were going to postpone,” Candy said. “But then…”

“But then Evelyn’s eyes changed and she said I smelled funny,” I prompted her to continue.

She nodded, but my brother laughed at the face I made when I stated what Evelyn said.

“Don’t worry, she says that about me whenever I come home from meetings with anyone except…her kind. Children, of any sort, are not known for their tact,” Joel said wryly.

My heart was in my throat and I tried to swallow around it. “You have to stop beating around the bush. I’ve already been lectured on asking a certain question,” I said, remembering Lia’s words with a blush of embarrassment, “so please, just tell me.”

Joel and Candy’s expressions were pained. “We just don’t want it to change how you act around the children,” Candy said, fear written plain in the way she held herself still, as though with one move she might break.

“Well, I already call them little hellions, what could be wo—” I couldn’t finish the sentence. When I’d said the word ‘hellions’, Candy flinched and lowered her gaze.

I clenched my hands, my breaths were coming out in quick, shallow pants, and chest was tight. It had been years since I’d had an honest to goodness panic attack, and though this week had pushed me pretty close, this had done me in.

“You-you’re demons?” I asked. The final word came out much harsher than I’d intended, but I’d had to push it out, or I wouldn’t have been able to say it at all.

Candy nodded, still not looking at me, and Joel gave me pleading eyes. Begging me to understand.

I stood up suddenly. “I-” I snapped my mouth shut against whatever was about to fall gracelessly from my mouth, and looked at the door. “I need a moment.”

Then I rushed from the room like a coward, and pretended I didn’t hear a soft sob right before I closed the office door behind me.

 

 

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

Writing Prompt ~~ The Truce

Music: Bad things – Jace Everett

 

Depending on a person’s proclivity for nocturnal activities, it was either far too early or far too late for what walked through my kitchen door at 5 am.

I’d been minding my own business, getting ready for the day by drinking tea and reading some news articles on my phone before heading out for some off the clock, weekend training, when I heard the front door open and close. I barely managed to stop myself from rolling my eyes. My roommate/partner was dragging themselves in at an ungodly hour, yet again, after being out all night. It was unnatural, even among superheroes, for someone to get so little sleep and still be so incredibly…perky. My lip curled at the word.

Perhaps it was a byproduct of her power: energy absorption. She could pull energy from anything, ranging from solar rays, to sticking her finger in a light socket, to pulling calories directly from a living being. As a result, she was always on this rather strange, but natural for her, high. In all honestly, I believe it has scrambled her brains a bit, but there was no denying she was a good person, and utterly pure in her intentions and actions. Though she didn’t always make the best decisions.

I sighed and shook my head, turning my attention back down to the article on my phone. I was a few lines in before I realized the steps I heard coming toward the kitchen were too numerous and oddly staggered to just be the footsteps of one person. I sighed yet again, and did my level best to not succumb to the rising annoyance at the fact my partner had brought yet another acquaintance home.

I was vacillating between my two choices of interaction: no eye contact and only making noncommittal noises in response to her questions and exclamations, or the third degree, complete with scowls and sneers. Deciding on the latter, and putting my tea down on the table, I turned my attention to the doorway just in time to catch Felicity Kist—a.k.a Voltra—walk into the kitchen with the biggest, brightest smile.

She was light and goodness wrapped in a short, curvy body, graced with thick, flax-golden hair cascading down her back like a shining waterfall, with jewel-bright blue eyes, and dimples that could make men and women swoon at a hundred paces.

I narrowed my eyes and opened my mouth to admonish her when the second person came in behind her. At this point, my mouth dropped all the way open and my eyes widened to their limit.

Trailing behind her, seemingly willingly and at a level of unconcerned edging on boredom, was Lucas Trex—Nightmare—our archnemesis. He was what you expected from a villain: dark hair, dark eyes, lean and long-limbed, and devilish good looks that could tempt a saint with the smallest curl of his lips.

The only similarity between us was our height, both above average tall, but that was where it ended. I was bulkier, my eyes a washed out grey, hair the color of a good butterscotch pudding, and a square jaw.

“Felicity!” I exclaimed, and jumped to my feet, knocking over my tea and dropping my phone to the floor with a loud clatter. “You will explain yourself this instant!”

If anything, Felicity’s smile grew even wider instead of being tempered by my shock and anger. “I won him in a poker game, Asher!” she exclaimed, and even clapped her hands with joy. “Isn’t that wonderful?”

“You. What?!” My eyes darted to Lucas, who merely shrugged and started looking around the kitchen. “That’s not a thing, Felicity. You don’t win people in poker games. Has he used his powers on you? Are you under his spell?” I asked, panic welling in my chest as I curled my trembling hands into fists.

My stance was wary, ready to grab Felicity to draw on her tremendous energy and manipulate it into a shield to protect us from his attacks. Or to blast him from the face of the earth. There was a lot we could accomplish partnered up that we couldn’t do apart. She could somewhat manipulate the energy she gathered, but she didn’t have my finesse or skill for it. On the other end, I was unable to draw vast amounts of energy from my environment the way she could. Without her, I could maybe gather enough to shoot a few energy darts, with just enough power to sting but not really injure. And without me to help balance and direct her energy she’d be bouncing off the walls, or in the worst-case: explode.

Lucas scoffed. “Not likely. The girl’s brain is such a mess and runs at a ridiculous rate of speed. I’d be lucky not to go insane spending any time in there.” He was probably right about her brain, and his voice was smooth like sin and wrapped in chocolate. “Plus, I don’t do magic or spells—I’m no wizard or mage. I manipulate psionic waves to produce the most terrifying nightmares or most exquisite dreams,” he said, sounding almost offended that I’d called what he did magic.

“Completely beside the point,” I ground out, shaking off the way his words and voice conjured images in my mind with the words ‘exquisite dreams’. “You are our enemy, and you must have tricked her in some way to get in here!” I declared, finally reclaiming my scowl and jabbing my finger in his direction.

He simply raised an eyebrow. “Pointing is rude, you know. Do they not teach you manners at that sorry excuse for an academy you attended? Or the agency you joined?” At my growl he shook his head and sighed. “Pity.”

“You-you—” I sputtered, but gave up on interacting with the infuriating man. “We are taking him in now, Felicity,” I said, hissing her name.

She pouted. She actually pouted at me. “But Lucas said we could have some fun if I won him,” she said, turning her lightbulb bright and innocent smile to the man.

There it was. The curl of his lip that turned my knees to jelly and made my mouth so dry I could swear I’d swallowed sand.

“Yes, I did,” he purred, gently trailing a finger along her jaw. I thought I was going to have heart palpitations, and then he turned a sly glance my way and I knew I was. “Would you care to join us…Asher?”

In a moment of weakness, between sucking in a shocked breath and exhaling, he crippled me not with his namesake—Nightmares and terrors—but with the other, softer side of his power.

Candlelight, silk sheets, and tangled limbs. Soft touches, smooth skin, and throaty moans. The scene played behind my eyes as though I was there, amidst them. Then, as my real vision was peppered with black spots, I realized I’d stopped breathing.

I let out a strangled sound and my knees couldn’t take it anymore. I collapsed into the seat, panting, and holding on to the edge of the seat as though it was the only thing keeping me from disappearing into the dream vision.

“I’ll take that as a tentative, ‘yes’,” he said, and chuckled, the sound deep and wicked.

“Isn’t he lovely?” Felicity sighed in delight, and then turned her attention to me. “Don’t look so worried, Asher. We’re bound by a magical truce woven into the rules of the game. For 24 hours we can’t harm each other, in body, mind, or soul. For the span of a single day we can just enjoy-” She put one hand on his chest, “-each other’s-” Her other hand snaked to the back of his neck, “-company.” She gently pulled him down for a long, deep kiss.

For what seemed like an eternity, the only sounds in the kitchen, (aside from the blood rushing through my body with such force it made me lightheaded), were gentle sighs, the rustling of clothing, and the slow drip of my tea leaking to the floor.

Heat pooled through me like fire roaring through my veins, and I let out a barely audible, “Okay.”

At first, I thought they might not have heard me, but then they broke apart and turned my way. I wasn’t prepared for the both of them to level all their respective and considerable charms my way. I exhaled weakly at the magnificence of them, their lips full from kissing, eyes dark with lust, and bodies pressed together as though they were two halves of a whole.

As though they were of the same mind, they both held out a hand for me at the same time. I gulped, but stood, and walked on shaky legs around the kitchen to take their hands. Lucas licked his lips hungrily and Felicity smiled a small, secretive smile.

“I told you he’d be perfect to balance us out—the grey between light and dark,” she said, not taking her eyes from mine.

“Well, you’re not wrong,” Lucas agreed, or at least his version of it. Then his eyes traveled over the two of us. “I hope no one planned to rest for the next 24 hours,” he said, his voice going low and purring again.

I nearly melted right there. The effect of being so close to the two of them and hearing his words was heady and intoxicating.

Felicity laughed, the sound of it delicate and pleased, while I just stood there, trying to catch my breath and calm my wildly beating heart.

Instead of answering, she let go of our hands and turned around, heading to the stairs that lead up to our bedrooms. Lucas gave me another turn-your-brain-to-mush smile before turning on his heal and following her up the stairs, looking like nothing less than a sleek, dark predator seeking out his prey.

I let out one last shaky exhale and followed them.

Today was going to be a very long day.

Writing Prompt ~~ Of Fire and Rage

The lake was still and shiny as glass, as if he could step on it and walk all the way across. It was one of those days when anything seems possible, and he stood there, breathing deep and imagining taking the first step. Then the cracking of the ice like a whip cutting the air. He shivered, the phantom sensations of frigid water washing over him, swallowing him down. Inhaling water. Sinking. Drowning.

It had been a day where anything seemed possible, just as every day with her had been, and just as quick as Hope had taken root in his soul, She’d ripped it to shreds.

Though the lake whispered sweet nothings to him like the lover he’d just lost, his feet remained firmly on the shore. The snow crunched beneath his black combat boots each time he shifted his weight, and the cold seeped into every last inch of him with icy, grasping fingers. He didn’t shiver. In fact, anyone looking on might believe he was at ease, admiring the lake. The only sign of tension was out of sight: his fists clenched in his jacket pockets.

That, and the blood.

It wasn’t the first time he’d been covered with it, though he wished such things had been left in his past where they belonged. But he’d let his guard down and this was the price. He sighed, and turned his face upward to lock onto to the Heavens above, containing thousands of stars, a full moon, and darkness between them all that didn’t hold a candle to the cold dark that consumed his soul. His crystalline blue eyes were flat and dull.

“For over a thousand years I have served you,” he said, the edge of his voice ragged. “Why?” he asked, the word ripped from the rawness of what remained of his soul.

No answer. There never was. He growled, and ran a hand over his blood-spattered, bone white hair.

“Forgive me,” she whispered. “I’d never want to add to your pain, but I wouldn’t trade this time for anything. I love you.” A weak smile lovingly graced her lips, and she brushed an errant lock of his hair from his forehead. Then her smile faltered, her usually warm, caramel eyes slid to a distant point over his left shoulder, and her arm fell to the floor of the cabin. She was gone.

He clutched her tighter to him, his face buried in her shoulder and hair. Even over the multitude of death scents hanging heavy on the air—blood, bowels, burned flesh, and more—he could still smell her. Vanilla, cinnamon, and apples. She’d joked that it probably had nothing to do with what she actually smelled like, and more his insatiable sweet tooth in regards to baked goods.

He’d run his hands through the thick, wavy, golden brown locks each chance he had, and this would be the last. He didn’t even care that said hair was covered in blood. The already drying, tacky fluid on the strands left trails of it on his face, as though someone had raked their claws across it.

He didn’t move for some time, and though his muscles screamed and cramped he refused to break the moment. To leave her. Eventually, though, he did. The only signs of his grief were the clear tracks of skin cutting through the red.

He hadn’t been able to leave her there, amidst the bodies and scattered bits of demon decorating what was left of the main room like gory confetti. But when he’d broken the shovel on his first thrust trying to penetrate the frozen ground, he fell back on the old ways.

Unlike creatures from other realms or dimensions, demons were bound to the earth and did not disappear on death. It was messy business, killing demons, even more so covering the evidence up. The human idea of what they thought their world was versus what is was, was tenuous and fragile. Humans tended to react rather violently at any disturbance in regards to their concept of their world. He could only be glad that his training in the early years happened when telling someone you were hunting demons got you praise, instead of a ‘go straight to the institution’ ticket.

The cottage burned brightly enough that someone might have wagered that white phosphorus had been thrown into the one-room structure, but that wasn’t the case. Lower-level and construct demons—demons created from the blood and/or flesh of more powerful demon—had highly flammable blood. It was not uncommon for larger demons to scoop up a handful, eviscerate them, set them on fire, and then lob them at opposing forces.

He grimaced as one particularly gruesome battle surfaced in his mind. A village, a hot summer, lots of straw, thatched-roof huts, and a horde of construct demons.

After setting the cottage ablaze, which would surely attract the local authorities no matter how remote their location, he moved back over to her cairn. Though he knew it was an abuse of powers, he could not bring himself to care. They could take his power, for all the good it’d done him, and shove it up their self-righteous asses. He’d used the hot, white light that burned deep within his core to carve out a footstone. The cairn itself overlooked the lake, and he would have done better for her if the fight had not taken so much out of him.

 

Emily Grace Farwell

25 December 2017

“Hope is seeing light in spite of being
surrounded by darkness”

 

“You were my light,” he rasped, his throat protesting the abuse it’d received between the yelling and smoke inhalation.

He looked to the sky once more and scowled. “I might not have been your most well-behaved soldier, but no one deserved this. Were you trying to teach me I didn’t belong here? Well, bang-up job.” He ground the words out from between clenched teeth.

When he turned his eyes back down to the cairn, his glower softened for a moment before snapping back in full force.

“Damn you, Emily! I told you how dangerous it was to be with me, but you never listen. You let optimism and hope guide you, and it set you on the path to your grave.” He shook his head. “I know I’m to blame for this, and you could have had so much—“

“God, you were always pathetic,” a female voice interrupted him, the tone half exasperated and half disgusted.

His frown deepened and his lip curled into sneer. He turned around and took in the figure near the tree line. She was tall, her body hard, lean, and scarred from countless battles. Their uniform had received upgrades over the centuries, evolving with military trends. They currently sported cargo pants, long-sleeved, lightweight tactical combat shirts, combat boots, and armor that consisted of a vest as well as pieces that covered just about anything but their joints. A deviation from the conventional might be their magical shielding that channeled their inner power through the plating, as well as gorgets and inner-thigh plating to discourage werewolves, vampires, and anything else that might want to gain access to a major artery for a snack or quick kill. While a solider in the desert had to worry about IEDs, their brand of combat was more concerned with not having your throat torn open by something with fangs. The material was magically enhanced to be just about anything one could hope for: lightweight, temperature-controlled, flexible, and nigh indestructible. Of course, they never did seem to get away from the red color scheme, which was as dark as a full-bodied red wine like Syrah.

Her platinum white hair was cropped nearly as short as his. Flint grey eyes matched the brittle laugh she let out at his regard, and it sounded as though it was sharp enough to make the air bleed.

The one thing she was not carrying was her sword, which sent a shock through him that trembled down to his very core. No one went anywhere without their weapon. Ever. Even within their stronghold, no one was ever to be unarmed. It was as good as him looking at her naked, which still didn’t even begin to cover how weird it was, since he knew she showered with the damn thing strapped to her back.

“Sabrael,” he greeted, tone cautious. His snarling anger had drained away in the face of her…bareness.

Her eyes narrowed, but a small, vicious smile quirked the corner of her mouth. “I told Them it would get even your temperamental attention, Desh.”

Tadeshiel—Desh—scoffed. “Considering it’s almost like you’re flitting around missing a limb, I’d say so,” he replied scathingly.

“Is that how you’ve felt the last three years?” she asked, tilting her head to the side as she considered him.

Her words jabbed at him like tiny knives in his weakest spots. “That’s not your business,” he hissed, and spat the words at her like venom.

“So that’s a yes,” she said brightly, and ignored his growling in favor of examining her nails. “No one believed you’d last this long, and especially not the human, what with her being as fragile as they are.” She tilted her head to the cairn.

“Also none of your business,” he said, tone low and warning.

It was her turn to scoff. “Not my business? You mean when my partner abandons the Order we’ve been a part of for over a thousand years, and then taking up with a human no less—”

“I—”

But she overrode him, “—after everyone told him, over and over that it was a bad idea, even by those who had been through the exact same situation? But no, it’s none of my business when the High and Mighty Tadeshiel, He Who is Perfect in Every Way, Slayer of Armies, Possessor of the Thickest Skull in the History of—”

“None of those are my proper titles—”

“—the Order, One Who Knows Better than All, up and abandons us—me!—in the middle of the biggest battle, during the biggest war we’ve had in centuries. That doesn’t concern me?” Her voice had reached a fever pitch with her final word. Her eyes bled from their usual grey to molten gold as her power rose with her anger.

In the face of Desh’s numb silence, she continued.

“Do you realize what you put everyone through when you laid your sword down? I can’t even begin to recount the ramifications, since we were in the middle of a battle and one of our Imperial Legates walked away!”

Still, he said nothing.

“I don’t even know why they sent me out here to speak with you,” she said, her disgust almost palpable on the air like slime. “You’re nothing but a co—”

“I watched him die!” Desh shouted, his chest heaving witht he sudden onslaught of emotions Sabrael’s presence had evoked.

Sabrael’s expression was one of bewilderment. “Who…?”

Desh ran a hand through his hair. He’d done that a lot today. “Douma.”

She raised a single brow. “Douma?”

Desh blew out a sigh and nodded.

“The…healer?” she questioned, not quite able to place the name. To be fair, she had her own legions to oversee, so the fact she could even come close to the mark was impressive. Though, she’d always had a knack for memorizing troop names, faces, and abilities so could put them in a weird ranking system in her mind as to their usefulness. Also, it made punishments easier when she could identify all her troops on sight. He couldn’t figure out how she did it.

“Yes,” Desh said, exasperated. “The healer. He was…newer to our ranks. Under 100. Bright kid.”

Sabrael pursed her lips into a thin line at the mention of the healer’s age. “That’s practically a toddler.” After a small pause, though, she sighed. “Desh, we die all the time. I mean, not as often as the demons, mind you,” she said, and a ghost of a smile played over his lips. “It’s all part and parcel of what we do.”

Desh growled again. “I know that. It wasn’t necessarily the fact that he died, it was more how everyone behaved after it.”

A mop of curly black hair, a lopsided, dimpled smile, and eyes that Desh realized now were so close in shade to Emily’s it made his chest ache. The demons had exercised their evil tendencies to the upmost of their ability when they came across the tent of injured warriors. Though immunes were trained in combat, they were caught unawares. None survived.

Desh walked into the small clearing where his immunes used to be, his eyes searching for one face in particular. When he found him, body cut nearly in two as it covered an injured warrior, there was no question in Desh’s mind that Douma had tried to protect the injured with his own life.

‘He was probably waiting for you to show up and save the day,’ a voice had whispered in his mind. A cruel thought from the darkest recess of his mind, and one that had repeated like a mantra since that moment, slowing wearing away at his sanity.

He’d tried to regroup and secure the area, but what he saw on the faces of his soldiers made his gut twist: knotted eyebrows, narrowed eyes, curled lips and wrinkled noses. Disgust. Whether it was at the situation, him, or both, Desh didn’t know. They didn’t want to expend forces to secure a clearing of dead bodies, despite the fact that each of them had been saved by the immunes at one point or another.

It didn’t matter that, logically, the commander in him knew they were correct. All he could think about was the young man who spoke with such passion about being an immune, he’d nearly put Desh’s eye out as he moved his hands with his words. Between the sight of Douma giving his last breath to save his patient, and failing, and what Desh saw on the faces of his soldiers, he was done. Desh looked into each and every face around him for some flicker of guilt or remorse, but when none was forthcoming he drew his sword. Leveling his coldest sneer at the lot of them, he thrust his sword into the blood-soaked earth, turned on his heel, and left everything he’d known for a thousand years.

Now here he was. Douma and Emily were dead, and all he had gained was a seething, thick pool of bitterness and grief weighing on his soul.

She was quiet in the face of his prolonged silence, but tilted her head to let him continue. Feelings and such weren’t really her area of expertise or comfort, but she did care about keeping her mission success rate as close to perfect as possible. She was ruthless and efficient; she applied pressure and words expertly to achieve the desired results and emotions, even if she didn’t completely understand said emotions herself. This contributed to her high success rate, and she’d be damned if Desh was going to try and screw that up—again.

They were opposites in just about every way, but their opposition complemented each other, which is why their legions always worked closely together. Where he was compassionate, she was merciless. Her pragmatism tempered his idealism, and while they were both intelligent, she was shrewder in tactical thinking while Desh was more perceptive with the emotional element. Sabrael was authoritative in her command, while Desh was participative.

And that was where the problem came in.

When he said nothing more, she scowled. “You got too emotionally attached to one of your subordinates, and when everyone else didn’t stop in the middle of a battle and sob along with you, you took it upon yourself to just abandon us?”

He could understand how she might perceive it that way, but… “Douma was young, exceptionally talented, and proud to serve, but none of that mattered to them. Some of Malgareth’s forces managed to break the line close to where the non-combatants were positioned. I had told Tearny, the Prime Immunes, to move camp earlier in the day, but he argued that many of the gravely wounded could not be moved.” His voice went soft at the last part, because that had been his first mistake, borne from his compassion.

Sabrael honed in on it like a bird of prey on a field mouse. “So instead of moving everyone else save the gravely wounded, whose chance of living was less than everyone else around them, you let your subordinate play on your kindness. Instead a handful being slaughtered they wiped out your Immunes, including this Douma,” she finished.

As she spoke, his demeanor shrank in on itself as her words beat him about his head and heart, making him small and frail. There was a howling in the back of his mind, like a storm ready to break upon the shore of his sanity.

“I revise my previous statement: you’re a coward and an idiot.”

He snapped. In his fight with the demons that took Emily’s life, he’d known his physical abilities had deteriorated over the three years he’d been away. Chopping wood was not an equal replacement for near-constant battle training. However, when he flashed across the clearing to attack Sabrael, he realized just how far he’d fallen.

Construct demons were pathetic, and the only advantage they usually had were numbers. That’s what happened with Emily. That and the fact she was human and fragile, and all he had were his personal magics and no sword. Sabrael, on the other hand, was not a construct demon. She’d always been top of just about every class they took, and she relished hand-to-hand combatives.

Sabrael turned, his fist missing her face. She grabbed his arm, continued his momentum with a slight adjustment, and her power flared. Her strength easily tripled with the surge of energy, and the trees surrounding the clearing never stood a chance.

Sabrael flashed to the impact crater past half a mile of splintered evergreens. He was dazed, and the disturbed snow of the trees created a slight haze and drifted slowly to resettle on the land. Though he’d recover quickly, it wasn’t quick enough if he needed to defend himself from her if she decided to go on the offensive. So when her face appeared in his field of vision, he stiffened. A thrill of terror sped through him like rabbits being flushed from their burrow, and his mind scrambled to clamp down on the dread threatening to overwhelm him. She was smiling. Sabrael only smiled when she was going to kill or heavily maim something.

“I—” he spluttered, trying to find the words, willing his body to cooperate.

“I feel better now, don’t you?” she crooned.

His eyes widened.

“Now,” she said, her tone deadly calm and smile sickly sweet, “I read the after battle reports, which were as painful to procure as it would be to drink incaendium piss—” Desh flinched at that glorious imagery, “—because fully half of both our forces were slaughtered. All because you decided to let personal guilt outweigh your duty and responsibility to your people. Not mine, not the Order’s, yours,” she said, the last word hissing and full of contempt.

“Sabr—”

She kicked him in the ribs. It might not have looked like much, but the cracking that reverberated through his body followed on its heels by searing pain and an inability to breathe begged to differ.

“I’m not finished. It’s rude to interrupt,” she said, voice calm again.

When he finally managed to drag in a breath, he coughed, and could not fully breathe in. His chest was tight, and his vision started to darken around the edges. Sabrael rolled her eyes and leaned over. He tried to move away, but she dug her finger painfully into the spot she’d kicked and he writhed in response. As her power moved through his body, it was as though someone had poured molten metal through his veins. His back arched and his fingers curled with the need to claw at something.

He’d forgotten how much healing hurt, especially coming from someone as unsuited to it as Sabrael. Yes, any of them could heal, but with a lack of a healer’s precision and temperament, it was like cutting off a limb to cure a broken bone. It worked…sort of. The only reason Desh could stand it was the fact they were of a similar potential strength. If she tried this with someone further down the respective ladder than them, they could die from the shock.

When she removed her finger, and along with it her power, he sagged back into his crater. His consciousness and body were floating in the wake of so much foreign power running rampant through his body.

“Drink this, or you’ll be useless for the next day,” a voice said, the words floating like dandelion fluff through his mind.

Something cool and hard pressed into his lips, but when he didn’t open his mouth the voice scoffed with disgust and forced it open. The liquid that hit the back of his throat was refreshing and cool like a mountain stream, followed closely on its heels with what felt like lightning dancing over his nerves. Desh gasped, and then coughed when some of the potion went down the wrong way.

When he’d relearned how to breath, he opened a bleary eye. Desh didn’t know how long he lay there, out of his mind, but when he came to Sabrael was sitting on a stump, her chin propped in the palm of her hand. Her eyes were back to their usual grey, her power having receded to just below the surface.

Given what Desh knew of Sabrael, he wasn’t sure if staying silent or speaking would contribute to his continued existence. As she watched him like a bug she was deciding whether or not to crush, Desh took a chance.

“Why are you here, Sabrael?” The words came out roughly, reflecting his weariness like a mirror.

She simply continued to look at him for a moment, not answering. Just as he started to say something else, she spoke.

“We want you back.”

The words froze his insides as though he’d actually plunged into the lake as he had imagined earlier.

“No.” It was a knee-jerk, instant response. The word hadn’t finished forming in his mind before it flew from his lips.

She raised a single eyebrow, the one on the right that was bisected by one of her many scars.

“Wallowing in self-pity for three years isn’t enough?” she asked, scathingly.

Desh scowled. “I just buried someone I loved, and you want me to jump back into the fray?”

Sabrael snorted and shook her head. “As if they’d put you in charge again after what you pulled? No.” She paused and cast a sly glance his way. “Despite the mess you left, I managed to beat back the demon horde, and as a result I earned a shiny new promotion. My record has never been better. We recently won a major battle and they offered me a reward. I chose you.” She shrugged.

Desh’s eyes bulged. “But you said They sent you to talk to me—”

“I lied to make you angry,” she said, cutting him off with a nonchalant wave of her hand as well as her words. She scanned the surrounding area. “And it worked. It broke the tension you were holding like a taut bowstring, and made you stop and listen because I could beat the wings off you right now. Now, do I have your attention?”

He quieted but held his glare. She’d manipulated him, and easily at that. He gave her a grudging nod, his teeth gritted against lashing out with words, and his fists clenched, because using those had proven equally as useless.

“Good,” she said, looking like the cat who ate the canary. “As I said, you were my reward.” She paused again and sniffed, looking down her nose at him. “Though maybe not a good one. This was my one chance to bring you back into the fold with minimal fuss, because they want to keep me happy and winning battles.”

“I still don’t see how this benefits me. I don’t want to go back,” he said, grumpy and dare he think it, even pouting a bit? He didn’t like to lose, and Sabrael had him at a distinct disadvantage.

She huffed out an annoyed breath. “If you’d shut up, I’m not finished,” she snapped.

Desh shut his mouth accordingly, though he still didn’t lose the scowl.

“I knew you’d need an incentive, but I haven’t gotten there yet. First, I want you to hear my terms, and if they are agreeable to you then I’ll tell you why I think you’ll jump at the chance of coming back. Okay?” she asked. She stood up then, hand going to her hips as she gazed down at him in his pathetic state. She knew he just needed a little push.

He didn’t like it, but she was going about this in a very fair way for him, but instead of being relieved, it made him all the more suspicious. Instead of luring him with the incentive, and then forcing him to give into her demands, she was giving him the chance to hear her demands, decide if he could handle them, and then walk away if he couldn’t.

It stank as bad as day-old fish left baking in a high summer heat…

“Fine,” he snapped back.

…but something niggled at the back of his brain, driving him forward.

“Good, now these are my demands…”

She droned on for the better part of fifteen minutes, outlining what would and would not be expected of him. It came down to the fact that Sabrael found herself rather displeased with the combat teachers, stating all the good ones had died, retired, or joined the fight on the battlefields. She was wroth about the whole situation, and the lack of proficient teachers was producing sub-par subordinates. This simply would not do.

She offered him an instructor position, but he’d hold no power—not even allowed the usual authority of a magister. She would assign him someone to dole out punishments and rewards and assist him in any way she deemed necessary. He’d be an old wolf with no fangs, teaching the young pups how to be a proper wolf. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

If she had concerns about his pride getting in the way of having no power while she held it all, then he could definitely say no one had been watching him the last three years. They’d written him off, just as he’d wanted. That being said, it was hard to get upset over hurt pride when you had none anymore.

“Okay,” he said quietly, “those aren’t the worst terms given what I did. They are agreeable, and fair.”

Her eyes went a little wide, and it made him smile. He’d surprised her, and it was an interesting, yet somewhat gratifying, feeling.

“Just like that?” she asked, incredulous.

Desh nodded. “Just like that. Now spill, and tell me why you think I’ll come back, even with such a kind offer,” he said, though he couldn’t keep the mocking tone out of his voice. Nothing in Heaven, Hell, or on Earth would get him to go back…

“Malgareth is back.”

…except maybe that.

Eyes blacker than the void, heartless as a force of nature, curved horns, and a cold smirk danced in his vision, which had gone an alarming shade of crimson. A casual and cruel taunt on the battlefield, suggesting that he should check on his immunes instead of wasting time losing a fight with him.

He closed his eyes, and his body shook with the force of the rage that howled through him like a tornado of fire and fury. Desh was glad he was still laying on the ground. He wasn’t sure he could have kept his feet in the face of that revelation in combination with his recent healing.

When he opened his eyes again, Sabrael’s face was split with a feral, pleased grin at the expression she saw on his face. He took in a deep breath, let it out, and narrowed his gaze on her.

“When can we leave?”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Song Inspiration: Demons by Jacob Lee

Fan Fiction (World of Warcraft): The Greatest Gift, Chapter Two

Chapter Two
Unforgiving Winds and Ornery Beasts

Lyriah’s father explained they’d need to take three different wyverns, mostly because he had too many packs of tools to carry him, the equipment, and Lyriah, and her mother’s wyvern would also need to carry Vermilia. This meant, for the first time ever, she’d be riding a flying beast on her own. Her heart fluttered. She took a deep breath in through her nose and let it out shakily through her mouth.

She’d ridden the golden dragonhawks from the village nearest her home—Fairbreeze Village—to Silvermoon with her mother and father on various business trips, as well as for her training. They’d also taken the trip to Silvermoon to buy a mage portal to Undercity, much to the grumbling of her father. ‘Dalaran portals for 25 gold each—not in this lifetime! It’s cheaper to go to Undercity and take the zeppelin.’ But the trip between her home and Silvermoon was short, and in a place eternally visited by fair weather and gentle breezes. The Northrend landscape was another matter entirely.

The gusty winds whipped her cloak around her and Titian, and tried to take her unsteady feet out from under her. Thankfully, Vermilia padded next to her, and lent her heavy, muscular feline body as a backstop to keep her from flying into the deadly, spiked metal barricades between her and the elevator.

It might be better just to fall down the elevator than be impaled by the spikes, she thought, and gulped.

“Thank you,” she murmured to Vermilia, knowing the cat’s sharp hearing would pick up on her relief more than the words themselves.

Vermilia huffed, and then gave a few, small purrs when Lyriah scratched her thanks underneath the big cat’s ears.

As they walked, they passed various Warsong Battleguards, affiliated with the Warsong Offensive. Their cruel weapons, beaten armor, and gazes colder than the Borean Tundra itself watched the family’s progress. The Warsong Recruitment Officer, stationed right outside the elevator, caught sight of Lyriah’s mother, with her battle-hardened armor and wicked bow, and tried to catch her eye. Lyriah glanced between her mother and the heavily-armored Orc with his purple mutton chops, but her mother kept her eyes dead ahead.

When they were far enough away, her mother explained; “I have given years of my life, and parts of my body and soul I’ll never get back to the continued success of the Horde.” Then she looked down at Lyriah, her stony expression softening as she reached out and took her daughter’s hand. “My time, for now, is for my family.”

Lyriah wasn’t of age to understand all of what her mother said. Of course she’d seen the physical battle scars, but there were some scars you had to earn on your own to see them in others.

They finally reached the Wind Rider Master, a grey-furred Tauren with her hair in four different ponytails held in place by golden bands. She towered over Lyriah’s father by about a foot, and let out a mighty sneeze as the family approached.

“Pleased to meet you, I’m—achoo!—Turida Coldwind,” she said, and tried to inhale through her nose. Her armor was ornate, and druidic in Lyriah’s opinion, what with the large blue gems on her shoulders and feathers coming out from underneath her pauldrons. Of course, as fancy as her armor was, she still wielded a broom and a pail that looked suspiciously as though it contained some unpleasant leftovers from the wyverns.

Setting the pail down, Turida pulled out a handkerchief from underneath her breastplate large enough that it could have been fashioned as a long cloak for Lyriah, and still have been underfoot if she tried to walk. The tauren blew her nose, loudly, then tucked the snot-soaked cloth back underneath her breastplate. Lyriah frowned and scrunched up her nose.

Turida, of course, noticed. “This is the waif you need transported to Sholazar with you?” She snorted, as she looked Lyriah over.

Lyriah, not used to such scrutiny from an adult, blushed, which only made her angry; just like it did when the boys in Fairbreeze Village teased her. Lyriah was willowy, as most of her kind were, and not sturdy like the Tauren. She had her mother’s complexion and bone structure, but her father’s hair color and ears—which her parents reassured her she’d grow into.

“I’m no waif—I’m a hunter!” she said, taking a small step forward.

Turida considered her for a moment before letting out a deep low followed by a laugh. “You and that kitten trembling beneath your cloak might be hunters one day, but for now you’re a waif,” she said. Before Lyriah could argue further, her mother squeezed her hand. “And it’s my job to make sure waifs don’t get blown off the wyverns I’m responsible for, and tumble to their deaths.”

The gravity of her words cut off Lyriah’s comments better than a hand-squeeze could have managed, and worry dropped into her gut like a heavy rock thrown into a pond.

“Now, what I’ll need to do is use an extra strap to keep you on the saddle,” she said, sizing Lyriah up. After a moment of thinking, where her gaze was on Lyriah, but distant, as though she was more present in her thoughts than reality, she nodded. “I know which wyverns will work out the best. Follow me.”

She led them around the elevator, through a doorway into the upper tower of Warsong Hold. For a few blissful seconds the winds died down to something close to bearable, and though it was only a minute difference, the warmer temperature of the room was letting her nose thaw out a bit. Then they walked across the room and right back out through another doorway into the cold. Lyriah groaned, but all the adults studiously ignored her.

Back out in the open, the wind kicked back up and she stumbled, but her mother caught her and helped her regain her balance. When she looked up to thank her mother, her surroundings froze the words on her tongue as readily as if she’d stuck it on an icicle.

There were at least twenty to thirty wyverns out on the deck, all of them varying sizes, colors, and temperaments. Some watched the group with serious eyes, while others reared back, and had to be restrained by a stable hand.

Turida walked them over to another Tauren, a male this time with tawny fur, dark brown hair in his mane with braids behind wicked sharp horns, and a large nose ring. After Turida made their group’s introductions he introduced himself as Tohfo Skyhoof.

“We brought some of the best and hardy wyverns out here to Northrend. Why, my great-grandfather—“

Turida cut him off with smooth practice, as though she’d done it a thousand times. “Another time maybe, Tohfo. This gentleman and his family are trying to get to Sholazar.”

Tohfo looked them over with slow, ponderous consideration. “I’d say Brokenfang for the lady, Kruzok for the gentleman, and Khrohne for the youngster.”

Turida nodded. “Those were my suggestions as well. Alright, ladies with me, and sir, you follow Tohfo.”

Lyriah wondered why they split up, and then she realized the wyverns were spit down the middle of the deck between male and females, much the same way the dragonhawk breeders did in Silvermoon.

“We’ll let you go first on Brokenfang,” Turida said. As Talonia began to protest—she wanted to fly behind her daughter to make sure all went well—Turida held up a hand. “Brokenfang is an alpha female, and won’t tolerate flying behind any other wyvern. We want her concentrate on getting you to your destination, rather than fighting the other wyvern. She’s the biggest one we have, and despite her ornery temperament she’s the best at carrying larger hunter pets in the travel cages,” Turida explained.

At the word ‘cage’ Vermilia grumbled, but acquiesced under Talonia’s firm hand.

“We’ll send your daughter second on Khrohne, our most seasoned and steadfast wyvern. Not much will rattle her, and she’s willing to fly behind another female. Your husband will go on Kruzok, a male, who is used to following behind the females and is very protective of them. It’s best he take up the rear in case any trouble should arise.”

“Are you expecting trouble?” Talonia asked, raising an eyebrow.

Turida shrugged. “You’re not going for a stroll through some fancy gardens here. There are various enemy factions, not even affiliated with the Lich King, not to mention the Alliance, all between you and Sholazar. It’s all dangerous territory.” She paused. “But I’m giving you the wyverns I feel will be your best bet to all make it there safely,” Turida said, confident.

After a moment, Talonia nodded. “By your word, then.”

Then the preparations began. Vermilia and Titian were loaded into their respective cages—which neither of the felines cared for—to be carried beneath the wyvern. It had a chain from each corner connected together beneath a thick, tough leather handle for the wyvern to grip with its hind claws.

Her mother’s wyvern—Brokenfang—was huge and irritable. It was the average tawny color, and covered in large, heavy plates of armor dyed a blood red. As per her name, one of her long, lethal fangs was broken, and had been sanded down and capped off with a red spike to mirror her other fang. When my mother approached, it reared back, and various stable hands moved forward to try and calm it, but Talonia jumped lightly into the air, grabbed the bridle and yanked it down. Blood Elves may look delicate, but when the creature’s jaw snapped close as she brought it all the way down to the cold, stone floor, while also nimbly avoiding the armor-covered horns, there was no denying her mother’s deceptive strength and agility.

Her mother said nothing, just challenged the creature with a look until it huffed in indignation and submission.

“Fine work. You’d make a decent Tamer,” Turida commented, not a little impressed.

Talonia smiled, and simply mounted the beast.

Lyriah’s wyvern was far calmer. Her fur was the paler blue like that of an iceberg they passed over on the zeppelin, while her mane was darker like blue steel. Her armor was violet, and her fangs and horns were duller, and yellowed from age. Turida encouraged Lyriah to give her a nice scratch, much the way she would with Titian, and the wyvern groaned in appreciation. Though Titian was not pleased, if the hissing from the cage were any indication.

Once they’d all mounted up, and Lyriah secured with an extra strap, they cleared the immediate area so the wyverns could lift off without any hindrances.

Lyriah’s heart pounded in her chest, and her stomach was doing backflips. She watched her mother take off, and the wyvern did a few circles to gather speed, and then dove down to snatch the cage containing Vermilia. They dipped, just a hair, then regained altitude as they circled higher again.

Now it was Lyriah’s turn, and as Khrohne beat her large, leathery wings, it jostled Lyriah in her seat. She swallowed a scream, and did her best to calm down as she held the reigns in a death grip. As Khrohne circled upward as Borkenfang had done, her stomach turned from backflips of nerves, to sloshing with nausea.

This was nothing like the smooth, undulating flights of the dragonhawks back home.

Khrohne swooped down and grabbed the yowling cage containing Titian, and they were off, following her mother who was a barely discernable figure in the distance. After a few moments, she chanced turning her upper body in her seat to check for her father. He was there, and waved at her, as the male wyvern carried his equipment in a large container beneath him. His wyvern, Kruzok, was greenish with a purple mane, and armored in blue.

She turned back around, the sensation giving her a moment of vertigo. She closed her eyes, and hunkered down in Khrohne’s mane, missing the view of much of the landscape beneath them. When she finally found enough courage to peek out from the wind-whipped fur, rolling hills of brown grass and a broken path rushed by beneath her, while they passed hot springs on the right. For a few tense moments they passed over a burned and broken caravan swarming with ghostly figures, followed by an Alliance airstrip.

Lyriah hoped that’d be the worst of it, not unhappy she might have missed other dangers to send her heart beating faster than it already was. However, her spirits lifted as she saw a ridge, and an expanse of green foliage beyond it.

That must be Sholazar! Though not happy with the travel accommodations, she couldn’t help the excitement that burbled up within her.

However, when she caught flashes of what looked like beams of fire between her and the ridge, her heart beat faster again, and this time it wasn’t happiness.

As Khrohne neared the intermittent rays, it became clear they were in fact fire. The old wyvern began to gain altitude again, making sure to avoid the danger, but a sudden updraft knocked into Khrohne’s right side, sending them veering off to the left. It would have been fine, as Khrohne was as steady as the tides, but Titian decided that was the perfect time to freak out, and display her considerable temper and fear upon the cage that dared to hold her. She knocked around, hitting the cage walls, yowling as she did so.

Lyriah looked over the side of the wyvern, calling to Titian to calm down, but the fear in the young Blood Elf’s voice did not have the calming effect she might have hoped. Khrohne’s grip on the cage slipped, and as she adjusted to retighten it, her altitude dropped, bringing them dangerously close to what was shooting the beams of fire: kobolds.

One of said kobolds caught sight of her, and gestured excitedly to the others, who joined the lone kobold at his location, which they would fly over momentarily. As Khrohne regained her hold on the cage, and tried to fly higher, the kobolds unleashed streams of fire at them.

Khrohne jerked to the side, doing a roll in midair that had Lyriah’s lunch revisiting the back of her throat, avoiding the fire, but causing her to lose any control the wyvern had of the cage. It slammed into the wyvern’s wing, and she roared out in pain. They were right at the edge of the cliff leading down to the jungle of Sholazar, but the unforgiving winds had one last blow to deliver to them, and slammed them one final time.

The last thing Lyriah saw were large, green leaves rushing toward her, before the plunge caused her to black out.

 

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

Writing Prompt: An Unusual Wednesday

Book: Monster Hunter International, by Larry Correia

“Mr. Huffman’s first name is not relevant,” the man in the black suit said, deadpan. The lyrics, I wear my sunglasses at night, ran through my mind. The dark lenses kept me from seeing what he was thinking, but his body language told the story of  a man who didn’t want to be here, talking to me.

It made me smile. What can I say? I’m weird like that.

“I can’t continue Mr. Huffman’s travel arrangements without his first name. I’m sure you know that,” I said to the bodyguard, though I kept my eyes on the man sitting on the other side of my desk.

He wore a suit that could pay the rent for my small apartment and my business for the next year, easy. Thin, silver-framed glasses graced his equally slender face, and his hands rested calmly on the top knee of his crossed legs. The only indication of nervousness was the tightening of the skin around his emerald eyes, which were vivid enough to make any jeweler jealous.

He wasn’t my usual customer. My clients were looking for cheap, family vacations, and I loved the challenge of finding the best deals within their budgets. Even save them money when possible. This guy gave me a, ‘no budget’ vibe.

“Of course.” It was the first time the man spoke since walking through my door, having let his ogre speak for him until now. His voice was surprisingly deep for someone his size. “It’s John.”

“Is it now?” I asked, skeptical.

I said this guy wasn’t my usual client. But every so often I’d get someone who’d come in, throw some money around, and expect me to do something under the table. People who used money and threats to try and bully me into doing something illegal. They were the reason I had a small revolver under my desk, in a holster mounted to the cheap wood with heavy duty Velcro. I don’t know if having it this way was illegal, though it probably was, but I figured it was the lesser of two illegals. Eh? No? Anyway, aside from my computer, it was the costliest thing I owned. I didn’t like my chances against Secret Agent Man, but what’s life without a few risks?

“It is, actually.”

I shrugged. “What can I help you with, Mr. Huffman?” I doubted either of the names were real, but I wasn’t so rude that I’d dismiss him without hearing him out.

“I need to get out of the country before some very angry people decide to do horrible things to me,” he replied, calmly. As though it was just another Wednesday for him. ‘Have lunch. Meet with travel agent to flee for my life.’ Same old, same old. “I can’t utilize my usual means of travel, as I’m being watched, which has led me to you, Ms. Pagett.”

“I’m sorry, I just don’t think I can help you,” I said, in my most professional, unhelpful voice. You know the one–you’ve heard it in every voice of every customer service rep who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, help you. Though in light of his circumstances, my tone rose an octave, or two. I was used to dealers trying to get me to help smuggle their drug mules. Not millionaires on the run.

I swear the ogre behind him grumbled something about eating my firstborn, or perhaps just putting a bullet through my brain.

“Enough, Jeffrey,” Mr. Hoffman said, and held up a hand to silence the bodyguard. “I understand, Ms. Pagett. We’ll be on our way. Though I’m sure I don’t need to ask you to refrain from speaking of this meeting, hm?” Something cold, and dare I say reptilian, slithered through his eyes.

A chill scuttled down my spine. “Of course,” I said, my voice more confident than the slight tremble in my hands.

“Good,” he replied, and stood, tugging his jacket back into place and smoothing the front of his pants. “Have a nice–”

Before he could finish his sentence, a shadow passed over my window, which had the curtain drawn, and stayed. I opened my mouth to say something, and all hell broke loose. Bullets ripped through the curtain, buzzing like angry bees whose nest had been disturbed, and tore everything in their path apart. I fell to the ground, or more accurately did an unceremonious flop onto the rough, brown berber carpet I hated. I covered my ears, between the staccato fire and impact of the bullets between the unknown assailant and the ogre bodyguard, they were ringing with a high-pitched drone.

“Piss, someone really is trying to kill you!” I shrieked, panic welling up in my chest like a fist. I was curled in on myself, trying to make myself a smaller target. Or would it just be easier for a single bullet to rip through more of me? Now my brain was babbling nonsense, and I wasn’t sure if I was making my chances better, or worse. I was trained to hunt down bargains on flights, not avoid bullet fire.

“Yes,” he replied, cool as a cucumber, though he did have to shout.

Then the gunman outside stopped, and though I hated myself for it, I hoped the bodyguard had gotten him. I’d take the shooting maniac who wasn’t actively shooting at me, over the one who considered me nothing more than collateral damage.

Then there was a soft whumph of air pressure change in the hallway, which always happened when the outside door leading to our drab, dimly-lit hallway, closed. I sucked in a breath, and scooted back to put the desk between myself and the door, not noticing if any of the debris scraped my skin.

The last thing I saw of Mr. Hoffman were his determined, cold green eyes, and the fact that he was perfectly still. I couldn’t see the bodyguards position from where I was, which was fine with me. Though I did send a silent, blasphemous prayer out that the killer on our side was still alive enough to kill the other killer.

I moved to the leg space beneath my desk. The holster of my gun snagged on my bun, pulling it more askew than the mayhem had already, as evidenced by the wispy, coppery brown strands tickling my nose. I went to yank my head to free my hair, when the office door creaked open, just a touch. Then, something hit the floor close to the window, and everything turned bright white, and a concussive force like a punch in the chest sent me back down to the floor. I curled in on myself, face on the ground, eyes clamped shut, and with the holster dragging on my bun after ripping free from the desk.

I don’t know how long it was before I reached up toward the gun. When I cracked open my eyes and saw what was going on in the inch or two of space between my desk and the floor, I froze in mid-movement. I couldn’t hear what was going on, as the voices were still muffled, but Mr. Hoffman and Jeffrey had their backs to my desks, and their hands were tied behind them.

There was one set of feet, between my desk and my door, wearing some kind of black boot. I couldn’t see anything else, and my hearing was coming back in small increments. Someone was speaking, but it was the ‘wah-wah’ of Charlie Brown’s teacher. All I knew is that the shoes did not belong to either of the suit wearing gentlemen currently tied up, and the man would probably kill me once he was done with said two gentlemen.

I did the only thing I could. I reached up, oh, so slowly toward the top of my head, while holding my breath. I wanted to move faster, but I figured the bad guy’s hearing hadn’t been mangled, and if I moved too fast he’s hear me. Getting the gun out of the holster was a little trickier, but I managed without too much noise. Good thing I went for the soft holster, and not the hard one.

Getting a decent shot wasn’t going to be simple. I was average on a good day, without adrenaline and fear pumping through me like racing fuel through a Formula One car. As it was, I had an inch or so of clearance, laying on my side, muscles starting to cramp, and unable to make any quick movements without getting me, or all of us, killed. No pressure.

I lined up the shot as best as I could. This is for my deposit, jerk. Then I shot the gun-toting, turn my life upside-down, asshole in his right foot. Well, I tried to, anyway. It ended up going a little high, and hitting him right above the ankle. It did make him go down, screaming, and clutching his leg, though. Mission accomplished.

In his temporary lapse of gun situational awareness, I scrambled out from under my desk, around it, and aimed the gun back on him. He was in head-to-toe black, including a ski mask, and had just started reaching for his weapon.

“Stop, or I’ll shoot you again. With my aim, you’ll be lucky if I don’t shoot something you’d rather not lose,” I said, and the moved from center mass down to his goods, and back up again.

He stilled, and though his eyes were covered by a pair of sunglasses, not too unlike the bodyguard, I could also tell from his body language that he didn’t like me too much, either. I was making friends today.

“Are you two okay?” I asked, never taking my eyes from the gunman.

“Yes,” Mr. Hoffman said. “Though I think Jeffrey’s pride is wounded more than anything.”

If he was teasing his bodyguard, he was definitely okay. Jeffrey grunted, though not in indignation, but instead from falling on his side to bring his arms in front of him. I watched out of my peripheral as he drew a knife from a shin sheath concealed under his pant’s leg, and the thing was long enough to be a small sword for me. Apparently Jeffrey brings knives and guns to gunfights. Best of both worlds.

He cut through the restraints on Mr. Hoffman’s wrists first, then Mr. Hoffman did the same for him. Sirens sounded in the distance, which either meant my hearing was back to normal, or they were close and my hearing was still shot.

“Time to go, Jeffrey,” Mr. Hoffman said, brushing off his suit again.

Jeffrey leveled the gun on the masked man in one swift move.

“Stop!” I said, and the gun swung on me. I gulped.

“This man just tried to kill us, Ms. Pagett, and would have killed you, too,” Mr. Hoffman said, reasonably.

“Well, yeah, but I can’t just let you shoot him right in front of me. He’s down,” I argued, and the sirens wailing grew louder.

“He’s probably killed before, and will kill again. I’m just doing the world a favor.”

“Do you think maybe that attitude is why someone’s trying to kill you now?” I asked, hotly, losing my patience.

Mr. Hoffman pondered me for a moment. “Perhaps.” Then he waved a Jeffrey. “Disable and disarm. We’ll leave him for the police.” The Mr. Hoffman raised an eyebrow at me, as though to ask, happy? 

I nodded. Then Jeffrey walked over and kicked the man across the head. I cringed. Hopefully I didn’t just make the guy a vegetable for the rest of his life. Jeffrey disarmed him, taking the smaller weapons, but leaving the bigger one he’d used against us.

“I’m not sure if it’s be better for us to leave you here, and trust you’ll lie to the police, or take you with us,” Mr. Hoffman said, voicing his options out loud.

“Or kill her, and be done with it,” Jeffrey rumbled.

Mr. Hoffman’s eyes cut over to his bodyguard. “You don’t repay someone saving your life by turning around and killing them, Jeffrey. I’d like to think I’m more civilized than that.”

I swallowed the cold lump of fear in my throat. “I-I swear I won’t talk.”

After a moment Mr. Hoffman sighed. “I don’t see how you can explain yourself out of this one, and I doubt you’re up for police interrogation. You’re going to have to come with us. If it makes you feel any better, we’ll drop you off on a resort island somewhere, while everything simmers down.”

“I hardly thing that’s necessary,” I stammered.

“Have you considered the fact the ones after me will come after you, to get information?” He gestured to the man on the floor. “This was a light jab. This was nothing. They will rip you, and any family you have, apart,” he assured me.

When I considered my mother, my only family, my heart nearly stopped.

“When do we leave?” I asked, before my brain had finished processing.

An unusual Wednesday, indeed.

Writing Prompt: Satisfied Customer

It wasn’t Grace’s usual kind of place. Her eyes cut judgmental swaths through the smoky interior of the bar, narrowing on the various ‘lowlifes’ scattered about like dry, dead leaves. Like the woman in the corner with scraggly grey hair, whose eyes were as dead as the fish in Grace’s local market. Or one of the men at the end of the bar, hunched over his beer as though a demon was coaxing his soul from him, one sip at a time.

She pursed her lips and gave a disdainful sniff, though regretted it immediately as an amalgamation of sour odors invaded her delicate nose. Her sea green eyes watered, and she coughed to try and remove the pungent flavor at the back of her throat.

“In or out, lady,” a rough voice grumbled not far from the door, the leather-clad biker squinting against the late afternoon sun streaming in behind the newcomer.

She jumped, but moved to comply, her steps small and faltering. As she made her way to the bar, her navy blue sailor pants, and blue and white striped, long-sleeve shirt were as out of place as her expertly styled, cream soda brown hair. Her white scarpin shoes hit the wooden floor with tentative thunks, and when she finally made it to the surprisingly clean bar top, a soft voice greeted her.

“What’ll ya have, doll?” a man asked, emerging from the murky shadows at the far end of the bar.

His hair was a soft black, with piercing, summer sky blue eyes. A perpetual smile quirked the corner of his mouth, and when he finally flashed a friendly smile, it was worthy of an orthodontia commercial.

Clutching her handmade bag in front of her, she slid onto a bar stool, flinching inwardly at what might be on the seat, but thankful she wore dark pants. While the bartender was a sight, her breath caught at what was mounted on the wall behind him: a gold vein antique mirror. It was large, and set in an ornate, gilded frame. Like her, it didn’t belong in such a seedy bar, but it was also like her in that it was broken. A spiderweb of cracks radiated from the center, throwing back a broken image; just like her heart.

“I heard…” she started, not wanting to sound foolish, and unsure of what exactly she was asking.

“Yes?” he prompted her.

“I heard you could help me with a broken heart,” she said, quick and under her breath. It was one of those things you hear about through the grapevine: a friend of a friend knew a second cousin twice removed whose best friend had come here for help. Or something like that. It was a rumor, not taken seriously except by those who believed in superstitions, or were dull of mind. It was probably just a place where druggies discovered trendy new narcotics. She wasn’t the drug-using type, but anything to dull the pain was welcome at this point; alcohol did nothing for her anymore.

His smile sharpened and turned hungry, like a predator spotting prey. “Is that so?”

“Y-yes,” she stuttered, her usual self-assured demeanor splintering.

“There is a price, of course.”

“I have money,” she said, moving to open her handmade purse.

“We don’t deal in money here, doll,” he said. “We exchange something a little more…eternal.”

She swallowed. All her instincts screamed at her to leave–to turn, run, and never look back. But her heart, shattered to more pieces than there were grains of sand, bade her stay. She couldn’t live with the pain any longer.

“Anything.”

The man nodded, still grinning, and put a hand under the bar. In the distance, a faint buzzing sounded for a moment. Not long after, a girl clattered down a narrow staircase, coming from the upstairs above the bar. She was disheveled, and her movements sluggish, as though she were about to melt languidly to the floor. When she lifted her head, her eyes were nothing but pupil peeking between strands of greasy, ginger spice hair.

“Come here, love,” the man crooned, crooking a finger at the girl.

A slow, dreamy smile spread across her face, and she fell into the man’s arms, snuggling against his chest. He let her stay there for a moment, then pulled her away, to arm’s length. His smile never changed as he moved one hand, faster than Grace could see. The next moment, the girl’s eyes had widened, and there was a gaping hole in her chest. Blood poured from the wound, unrestrained, like a dam letting loose. With her heart in his hand, he let the girl drop unceremoniously to the floor, like garbage.

Grace let out a strangled noise, and toppled the stool when she backed away from the bar. She glanced around wildly, but nobody else had moved, or acted like they even noticed what just happened. She’d dropped her purse to hold her hands out in front of her, to ward off the bartender.

“I–I–” she stuttered, not able to form a coherent thought, let alone sentence.

“Don’t worry, doll. This won’t hurt a bit,” he whispered near her ear, appearing there out of nowhere.

She jerked forward, but his arm caught her around the waist. At his touch, her body grew heavy, and she couldn’t move. Her head fell backward to rest on his shoulder, unable to support itself.

“What did you think was used to mend a broken heart, but another heart. Like patching jeans,” he said, matter-of-fact, as though they weren’t speaking of organs.

In her peripheral, the hand with the heart rose toward her chest. She tried to struggle free, scream–anything. It was to no avail, however, and he pressed the girl’s heart into Grace’s chest. Heat, like from a bonfire, flared through her, and scorching places she didn’t even know could feel such pain. Then it was gone, and her lungs filled  as she gasped for air, and life returned to her limbs. She stumbled away from the man, and her shaky hand ran over her sternum, where not even a single drop of blood had fallen. Had that really happened?

“What the hell?” she screeched, and rounded on the man.

“Precisely,” he said from behind her, magically back behind the bar.

She jumped in surprise and turned back again.

“Wha–”

“How do you feel?” he asked, interrupting her.

“What?! What a ridiculous question! I–”

“Not about that,” he said, waving a dismissive hand toward the dead girl. “How does your no longer broken heart feel?”

She stopped, her mouth hanging open, and realized she felt fine. In fact, better than fine. Her depression was gone, replaced by the old fire in her soul, before she’d given it over to that cheating scum. Purpose, drive, and a liveliness filled her to bursting. Despite the gruesome scene, she laughed, full of joy and pride; more like her usual self.

Grace picked up her fallen handbag, and placed her hands on her hips. She looked the bartender straight in the eye, and smiled. “I feel fantastic.”

“Excellent. I always love a satisfied customer.”

“About the price,” she started.

The bartender leaned against the bar. “Yes, the price.” He looked her over, and tapped his long, spider-like finger against his chin. “We’ll say twenty years.”

“Twenty years?”

“Yes, in twenty years I’ll collect my price. Until then, enjoy,” he said, and gave a small bow.

“What’s the price?” she asked, not sure she wanted to know, given the dead girl on the floor.

“Oh, nothing as gruesome as that. In fact,” he said, and held up a finger, “I’m sure it’s something you won’t miss. Have a nice life, doll.”

Grace wasn’t going to get a straight answer out of him, but whatever the price, she was sure her vast wealth would cover it. He’d said something more eternal, so maybe he meant her investments.  Either way, money talks to everyone–eventually.

“You, too,” she said, and spun on her heel.

She walked out the door, and glanced back only once to the dingy sign above the door: The Crossroads. It was barely visible under the dirt and grime of never being washed, and no one on the sidewalk paid any attention to seedy, hole-in-the-wall bar. Grace straightened her shoulders, and with a spring in her step went about her day.

Inside the bar, the bartender shook his head. “Not even a thank you. Typical human.” Then his eyes ranged over the patrons, and each one shuddered under his scrutiny. “Someone clean this up,” he barked, kicking the girl out of his way.

The burly biker scrambled to obey, while the bartender turned to face the mirror Grace had admired. He stroked a finger over the surface, and it rippled, as though he’d run his finger across a still pond. An eerie blue glow emanated from the reflecting glass, and between the cracks faces appeared. Young and old, men and women; the captured souls spanned the ages. They screamed, though no sound could be heard, and the demon gazed longingly into their tortured faces.

“Yes, another satisfied customer, indeed.”