Book Review: Schooled in Magic, by Christopher G. Nuttall

Emily is a teenage girl pulled from our world into a world of magic and mystery by a necromancer who intends to sacrifice her to the dark gods. Rescued in the nick of time by an enigmatic sorcerer, she discovers that she possesses magical powers and must go to Whitehall School to learn how to master them. There, she learns the locals believe that she is a “Child of Destiny,” someone whose choices might save or damn their world … a title that earns her both friends and enemies. A stranger in a very strange land, she may never fit into her new world …

…and the necromancer is still hunting her. If Emily can’t stop him, he might bring about the end of days.” — Schooled in Magic, from Goodreads

 

Schooled in Magic is the first book in Christopher G. Nuttall’s series by the same name, and it follows the main character, Emily, as she tries to adjust to the medieval magical world she’s been kidnapped into. She’s being hunted by a necromancer named Shadye, who wants to sacrifice her to the Harrowing, because he believes she is a Child of Destiny and her death would be a powerful offering. It’s a very classic, world domination plot, and the necromancers are the current Big Bad, with the faeries being the background, Ye Olden Days Big Bad. Before Shadye could go through with the murdering, Emily is rescued by a sorcerer named Void. After the rescue, it’s discovered that Emily has powers herself, and is promptly enrolled in the–impenetrable from everything but plot–magical school of Whitehall.

Okay, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way. Yes, it comes across as a story that borrows heavily from Harry Potter. In fact, if I had to give a brief description, I’d say it’s all seven Harry Potter books with their major highlights pulled out and rolled into one. We start with, “Yer a sorceress and the Chosen One, Emily,” and finish with the, “Battle of Hogwarts, er, Whitehall.”

We have the one loyal friend from the beginning (Ron/Imaiqah), and the bossy friend who was befriended through a harrowing experience, (Alassa/Hermione). Though, the intelligence level of the characters is swapped, the parallels are there and incredibly obvious, as are all the other ones: History of Magic, the McGonagall character, a Dumbledore character, a Defense against the Dark Arts type class, Care of Magical Creatures type class, Alchemy (Potions), Charms, and so on. The author also makes no bones about his incredulity of how other fantasy novels of similar ilk portray their worlds. However, he should keep in mind to not bite the hands of those who helped make fantasy more mainstream.

That said, here are my pros and cons, which include **SPOILERS** so reader beware:

Pros:

  • Because the main character was kidnapped at a more mature age, and wasn’t cloistered away for most of her life like Harry, there’s more real-world comparisons between the magical world and her own. She compares the writing of spells to computer coding, which, as someone who writes scripts, resonated with me.
    • In the same vein as above, because she’s put in a medieval world instead of a magical world hidden within our own, there’s more opportunity for her to try and introduce real-world concepts, (bookkeeping practices, Arabic number systems, stirrups, and a few more), into this world. She theorizes that development is stunted through a combination of magic, and a medieval class system, and she’s probably correct. It’s interesting to watch the waves she creates by introducing these things.
  • The magical system was laid out more in-depth. It gave us a more technical look into how the magic system works, and was like putting icing on an otherwise delicious, but barren, cake (Harry Potter world). Such things are explored in Fan Fiction of J.K. Rowling’s works, but the author herself didn’t touch too much on how magic functions. To be fair to Rowling, though, her target audience in the beginning was much younger than Nuttall’s, which means he had more leeway with attention-span for such details than she did.
  • It was interesting, for me, to draw comparisons between Harry Potter, both obvious and not, and see how Nuttall interpreted or changed those references. And there’s no doubt that, despite the low level of scorn displayed by the main character for unbelievable aspects of other fantasy novels at certain points, the book played on the nostalgia of people who enjoyed Harry Potter.
  • I enjoyed that their History of Magic was an actual discussion on the topic, rather than memorizing and spitting out facts. More history classes need to be taught like this, to be honest.
  • The main character is relatable, in that her reactions make sense given her new environment, and likeable enough for a teenager.

Cons:

  • I had a couple of main grievances, one being Emily supposedly introducing the concept of bras to the world. That one had me going, “Oh, come on!” While the modern concept of the bra we know today was introduced in the early 1900s, women have been binding their breasts as far back as ancient Greece, or farther. Is he trying to tell me that a woman never stopped to think, “Gee, it’s really uncomfortable to walk around like this, guess I’ll not try anything to make myself more comfortable.” I’d believe there was an alternate world with magic in it, before I believed any species with breasts went thousands of years and didn’t think to give themselves some support.
  • My other main grievance: the numbers don’t add up. What I mean by this, is we’re told by Void that necromancers outnumber sorcerers. We are also told that a necromancer functions by using murder to gain massive amounts of power. “Drain the mana, then drain the soul.” (Mana is the magic of the world.) It’s this massive amount of power being channeled through their minds that drives them mad, and they end up destroying themselves. However, one of the linchpin moments in the end is Emily being forced by Shadye to sacrifice someone to make her a necromancer, but the person has no mana, so it doesn’t work. Maybe I missed something, but here are my issues with this:
    • If regular humans don’t work, and sorcerers are in short supply, how in the world are these necromancers even a threat? Who are they sacrificing in massive amounts to gain enough power to be a threat to the allied lands?
    • We’re told in a story from one of the teachers that the necromancers were sacrificing people by the thousands, and rulers were sending shipments of people to be sacrificed in an attempt to bargain with the necromancers. As I said, the numbers and plot point don’t add up in the slightest.
    • All they’d have to do to win is put everyone with significant mana behind wards like in Whitehall, and let the necromancers tire themselves trying to get in and access the only sources of power they can use.
    • It could just be the population is half-magicless and half-mana capable, but not enough to utilize it. However, I don’t think that’s ever stated, leaving this plot hole wide open.
  • In the beginning we’re told a General Kip is in charge of Combat Magic, but later, when the character is in said class, no one of that name is there. Instead, we have two Drill Sergeants: Harkin and Miles. It’s another point to a lack of consistency that occasionally crops up.
  • The author seemingly uses a lot of terms interchangeably, like elves/faerie/Fair Folk, sorceress/witch/sorcerer/wizard, and so on. For the latter, I’m assuming it’s sort of a power structure, as Imaiqah states she’s a magician which is less powerful than a sorceress. However, since it isn’t really explained, it created a somewhat jarring, and less than smooth transition when giving the history of things.
  • The overall technical aspect of the writing left something to be desired, and more rigorous editing was needed. There were grammar mistakes, homophone mix-ups (knew instead of new), and a lack of consistency with capitalization of certain things, like goblins/Goblins. While even the best editing can leave a few flaws, and I don’t tend to nitpick to this level, there were enough to be rather noticeable.
  • The secondary characters have, well, character, but most feel as though they fall just short of being three dimensional.

CONCLUSION

I want to give it 3.8 out of 5, but the number system doesn’t work that way, so we’ll round up to 4/5.

The book was enjoyable for what it was: a play on Harry Potter’s popularity, but beginning with a little more maturity and critical thinking, as well as more depth with the magic.

The later books have higher ratings, and from what I’ve read in other reviews Nuttall’s technical writing gets better as it goes on. Given the fact that he has seemingly written 17 books in this series in a span of 5 years, while also writing other series concurrently, my only thought is that his man is either a magical machine, or a beast that never sleeps.

In the end, I’d recommend this book to anyone who won’t be offended by the obvious Harry Potter similarities, won’t get too hung up on the technical writing, and enjoys a reasonably good book about a magical school and saving the world. It’s not groundbreaking by any means, but I do think I’ll be purchasing more books in the series, so there’s that.

Enjoy!

Short Story ~~ Love Thy Neighbor

Written for a contest. 3k word limit

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holt huffed. “You don’t say.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He didn’t disappoint.

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

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

Gresham frowned. “You mean the woods?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holt didn’t say anything in return.

 

<***>

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

<***>

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Story ~~ Nine

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

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

***Warning***

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

~~~~~~

Nine

 

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

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

“Oh, good. You’re awake.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me go!

It’s not time for that yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was then that someone giggled.

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

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

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

Another giggle. “Such flattery.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you people?” He sobbed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You need this, Baby. Don’t fight.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Jury,” the older one said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judge, Jury, and…Executioner.

It’s time.

Don’t fight.

You need this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Story ~~ Between

This was written for a writing contest that had a 7k word limit–I finished this with 6990. Sadly, I did not place, but that doesn’t mean I can’t post it here for all you lovely people to enjoy!

~~~~~~~

 

Happy endings aren’t real. This might seem obvious to some, but it bears a comment because, all too often, people pine away for something that can never happen. Even if you live a full life, what happens? You die. That’s not a happy ending, it’s just an end.

Even worse are people who try to chase that perfect fairytale life peddled in modern re-tellings. I’ve read the original The Little Mermaid, and through the marvels of modern technology I was able to see the movie. The latter is wishful thinking to the extreme. I’d call it crap, but it’s for kids and not adults. The first is closer to the truth, but still off. Of course, stories were funny that way, especially ones no one believed to be true.

“Mornin’ Lykke!” The voice boomed over the docks, like someone beating one of those big drums in an orchestra. A large, walrus-like man waved at me from the end of the last dock for the little town of Haven Cove. His characteristic bright yellow bib overalls were like the light of a lighthouse, guiding fisherman safely in.

“Morning, Jeff,” I said, and waved back. My voice was rough from lack of use, but when you lived alone there wasn’t much conversation going on.

“How’s the bite?” he asked, once my boat was flush with the dock.

I tossed him the bow and stern lines, one after the other, to tie up the Sea Witch, but didn’t disembark.

“Active east past Acker’s Rock.”

Jeff whistled, a high, ear-piercing shriek that tore into my ear drums, and I flinched. He gestured for a couple of the dock workers to hop aboard and unload the catch.

“You don’t say? Mind if I pass it along? Been a slow day for some of the guys.”

“Sure, but I’m not sure how good it’ll be now,” I warned.

Jeff let out a great bellow of a laugh, and his belly shook with chuckle tremors afterward.

“Fished it out, eh?”

“Something like that,” I hedged. I may be in exile from my kin, but I still had my magic, and I could call upon the Sea and Her bounty. Granted, I did so sparingly, and I never took more than I needed. There was no telling Jeff that, though. He’d just look at me like I was crazier than he already thought I was.

“Well, thanks anyway.” He ran a seasoned eye over my trawler. “You know, I never see the Witch in dry dock, and yet she’s always lookin’ dandy, and never needs repairs,” he observed with a glint in his eye.  “I’d really love to get in contact with whoever does the work.”

“I’ve told you before, Jeff, I can’t tell you. Even if I did, he’d never help you, and then he’d abandon me. What would I do then?” I scolded, and put my hands on my hips.

Just like humans, the Sea Folk came in all shapes and sizes, though we had the distinction of varying in species as well. In our human form most of us were all lean muscle and slender, so I didn’t have much to put my hands on. My most striking features were my–you guessed it–ruby red hair, and eyes the blue of the Mediterranean.

“Alright, alright,” Jeff said, holding his hands up in surrender. Then he tucked his thumbs behind the straps of his overalls, and gave me a giant grin, showing off one of his missing molars in the back. “You can’t blame a man for trying.”

I harrumphed, and we both waited for the dock workers to finish their offload. Jeff wrote the receipt out, and handed it to one of the workers. He was young, but not as young as the other one. Though, all humans seemed young to someone who was born around when the Romans invented plumbing. The breeze coming off the ocean ruffled hair as dark as the deepest ocean depths, and what looked to be a natural tan was darkening from time on the docks. His eyes were the dark gray of thunderclouds roiling over the ocean, and watched me in a calculating yet wary manner. Like one predator sizing up another.

“Go and fetch the lady’s funds,” Jeff said with a growl, “and I’ll be countin’ it once it comes back.”

The worker mumbled something and shuffled off, shoulders bunched and hands shoved in the pockets of his olive-green overalls.

“Problems?” I asked, watching him walk away.

I wouldn’t deny that all Sea Folk were attracted to pretty things, though the obsession differed from one to another. Like many of my kin, there was something that sparked my hunger with humans. This human hit that desire in me like a punch to gut that left me breathless and dizzy. I gritted my teeth against the sensation, and willed myself to not stagger.

“Nah, he’s a good lad,” Jeff reassured, incorrectly interpreting my reaction. “Strong back, just doesn’t always mind his manners around temptation. Hired him as part of a probation program. Judge seems to think hard work and the threat of smelling like fish guts forever will keep them from re-offending.”

I couldn’t help a small chuckle. “The judge might be on to something there.”

“Why can’t she turn in her own hand receipt?” asked the other worker, piping up for the first time, as though the question burst from him when he couldn’t hold it back any longer. He had that gangly look about him that teens did. The one where they weren’t yet used to their longer limbs. The orange skullcap was pulled low over his brow, so I couldn’t see his hair, but his eyes were a warm brown, and curious.

“None of yours,” Jeff said, the growl this time not as biting, and gave a light cuff on the back of the youth’s head. “Start taking in the haul to Ned.”

The kid fixed his cap, and grabbed the rope attached to the fish bin. He walked away, sneaking glances at me as he went.

I’d put my chilled hands in the pockets of my blue parka, though I could have worn a bikini and not been bothered by the chill October air. I did it for show–for the humans. Nothing outed you as strange like wearing shorts in near-freezing weather. So, I made sure to pay attention to the temperature, and had on my knee-high rubber boots, angler pants, and a knit cap to help tame the hairs not contained by the braid that fell to my lower back.

Jeff didn’t know my story, just that I wouldn’t leave the boat. He chalked it up to some quirk or another, maybe a phobia, though the word was likely beyond Jeff’s ken. He was a simple man, who was willing to work with my eccentricity as long as I brought in the catch.

Little did he know I couldn’t step foot on land, or in the sea, or risk dying.

The other worker came back, and as Jeff said he would, he counted the bills. Jeff boasted arthritis in both knees, and even squatting to hand me the bills would have been too much, so he gave them back to the man to hand to me. I did my best not to let my hand touch his, since touch would only make everything worse, and nearly snatched the money from him. I left out a small sigh of relief when there was no contact, and I avoided looking him in the eye.

I thanked the men, they tossed me the lines, and I puttered my way back out to the ocean to find somewhere to anchor for the night.

It was a little after midnight, and I was sitting on my bed and downing a shot of liquor from a flask given to me by a Shaman friend of mine, when dripping water pattered over the deck.

I sighed and flopped back. “If you’re here to kill me, do it. I’m already bored,” I said, and ditched the shot glass. The flask was supernaturally warm against my lips, and I took a long haul, trying not to lose my cool and sputter.

“Why ever would I do that?” a soft voice asked. “It’s so much more fun to watch you suffer,” he hissed.

I groaned. “You don’t have permission to be on my boat, you slimy sea snake.”

The Beisht Kione hissed at me. I turned my head to the side, and his long, thin form was silhouetted in the doorway against the light of the full moon. Imagine an eel whose head was black, while the rest of him was a murky brown. He was twelve feet long, and his tail remained in the water, dipping in and out as the boat rocked. There were spiked fins along his spine he could collapse, starting at the base of his skull going all the way to the tip of his tail, as well as on the sides of his face. Those were flared out, and his mouth was open, showing off dozens of razor-sharp teeth.

“I may not be able to touch you while you are on this boat,” he spat the word, his phlegm eating through the wood of my small table, “but one day you will slip.”

“Literally? Because I’m pretty sturdy on my feet. I’ve had lots of practice over the years.”

I couldn’t help but poke fun at him, just as he couldn’t help but want to kill me. We were eternally bound, he and I. Both of us doomed to spend our lives alone. He had a couple motivations for murder: I’d killed his brother and his boss, the actual Sea Witch. She’d also originally bound the brothers Beisht to my aura, and they could track it with their eerie, yellow glowing eyes. I’d named the boat after her, because she was the reason I was stuck like this. If I touched the land, I’d turn to dust. If I touched the water, I’d be ripped apart by the Beisht Kione.

And it was all because I didn’t manage to get one lousy kiss. Falling in love with someone who doesn’t love you back is bad. Falling in love with someone who’s engaged to be married to the love of his life a few days after you fell in love with him, and you didn’t know that but the Sea Witch did? That is the epitome of crap with a side of shit.

“I will taste your flesh, Lykke, and we’ll both be free. Do you not grow tired of being confined to this cage?” he crooned, his voice almost as slippery and smooth as his skin.

“Not today I’m not. Now get out of here. You’re ruining my drink,” I said, and held up the flask. “A toast to us, Beisht, for continued health and happiness.” With that heaping dose of sarcasm, I took another gulp to kill the tightening of my throat.

“One day,” he promised. “I’ll join you for that drink, but only after you’re in my belly.” Then he slid noiselessly back into the black waters.

The ocean rocked the boat, and I remained silent. “Not today,” I whispered, closing the flask and tossing it to the floor. It clattered somewhere, and I’d regret having to find it later, but I couldn’t muster a care.

For the first time in days I rolled over and tried to fall asleep, hoping the liquor would grant me dreamless slumber. My regular dream–or rather nightmare–was usually filled with dreamy blue eyes the color of a cloudless summer sky, soft, coal black hair, and a kind voice overlapped by the cackle of an evil woman I’d killed. Tonight, though, the eyes were gray and wary, and my never-lover’s voice was replaced by a longing I hadn’t experienced in almost two-hundred years.

 

<***>

 

The radio weatherman was going on and on about the incoming storm, but I didn’t need a human with faulty science to tell me what was coming. It was big, and it was bad. I hadn’t been out long since my last visit to town, but I turned back and headed in. I could use my powers to calm the waters around my boat, and the Shaman who helped me keep the Witch seaworthy put in some protections, too, but it was better to dock up. I never knew when a rogue wave would come crashing down and destroy the only thing standing between my continued existence and the Beisht.

Most of the fisherman would be out, hauling as much catch as they could in the calm before the storm. Fishing was always better before a storm, and not so great after. I didn’t have the same problems as most fisherman, though, so I could afford to head into town earlier, and maybe have one of the dock workers grab a few supplies for me.

When I made it to the dock there weren’t too many boats tied up. The ones that were, were boats of some of the older fisherman. Their caution was tempered by years on the water, in a way it hadn’t done for the younger generations yet. They’d likely gathered at the local dive bar, drinking their earnings, and lamenting the stupidity of youth. Some things will never change.

As I pulled up to the last dock, the kid from yesterday was there to greet me. I tossed the bow line up to the kid, who tied it down to the cleat. He was concentrating hard on doing the knot correctly while I tossed the fenders over and headed to the stern line. This time, though, I also tossed up the spring lines, since I’d be here for more than just an offload.

“Got another load?” the boy eagerly asked once his task was complete.

While I ran a practiced eye over the knots, I shook my head. “No, didn’t want to chance getting caught in the storm.” When I was sure the knots were good, I looked up to meet his gaze. He’d deflated a bit at hearing there was nothing here for him to do, but I waved him onto the boat. “Come here. I need to give you my tie-up fee, and maybe you can run some errands for me.”

He jumped at my words, literally, and landed with a loud thud on the deck of the Witch. His boots were loud on the deck following my quieter steps, and I headed into my kitchen area. I grabbed a tin from one of the cabinets, and grabbed some money.

I turned back to him and held up the money. “I’m going to write a list. Whatever’s left after you’ve gotten everything on the list is yours,” I said, and handed him the cash.

He nodded, but it was hesitant. I smiled a little at that. Good, the kid was smart enough to realize that his take would depend on my list. I jotted down what I needed, as well as a couple of splurges. I was a sucker for red liquorice, and the handmade shampoo and conditioner from a woman in town. I’d never met her, but I’d be forever grateful to her husband, one of the seasonal dock workers, for introducing me to it.

When I handed over the list, the kid looked from the list to the money, and his eyes went wide.

“Are you sure?” he asked, his hesitance for a completely different reason.

I smiled. “Yes, I’m sure. Now, go and hand in the tie-up fee to Jeff, and if you can’t run the errands yet, let me know, and get to it when you can. Deal?”

He gave me a hesitant smile, but nodded. “Deal.” Then he was off like a shot, and the quick beat of his feet on the dock faded as he ran to Jeff’s office.

I’d planned on starting a pot roast and sitting down with one of my new books, but something about the coming storm was making me itch below my skin where I couldn’t scratch. Instead, I put the nervous energy to good use and started cleaning everything. Even though I kept a tidy boat, there was always something to clean.

As I worked, the sky grew prematurely dark, and the wind picked up at a steady pace. It didn’t take long for the rain to join in, and by that point the other boats were pulling in to the docks. Once it really started coming down, I headed in to cook dinner. With the weather turning foul as quick as it did, I supposed the kid probably headed home. Hopefully I didn’t put my trust in a thief, but I hadn’t gotten that vibe from him.

The wind was howling, and I’d just pulled out some veggies to cut when the door to my kitchen and bunk area was yanked open. I dropped into a crouch and held the knife in front of me to ward off whatever was coming through my door. Unfortunately, the only thing my paranoia was warding off was a wet, bedraggled teenager, whose eyes were wide and breathing so ragged I thought he’d pass out.

“Wh—”

“You’ve got to help Brandon!”

I slowly stood and put the knife down on the counter. “Who’s Brandon?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

“The guy on the dock with me and Jeff the other day,” he said, his voice going thin and impatient.

My stomach clenched and a sick chill ran down my spine. I walked behind the boy and closed the door, pushed him down into one of the two chairs at the small table, and pulled the wet skull cap from his head. His hair was dark from rainwater, but dry it was probably the same color as his eyes.

“Stop, you—”

“—have to help Brandon, I know. But right now your lips are blue, and your teeth are chattering so hard you might bite your tongue off. Having you go into some kind of hypothermic shock isn’t going to help anyone, so sit down, shut up for a moment, and let me get you warm,” I commanded, pushing him back down when he’d tried to stand up again.

He remained seated that time. I snatched the blanket from my bunk and threw it over his shoulders. I grabbed my electric kettle and set it to heat some water, and grabbed some of my instant hot chocolate. It’s not as good as the real stuff, but it works in a pinch. While it heated, I grabbed a towel and dried his hair as best I could. He was shaking so bad he couldn’t even stop me from doing it. Once that was done, I grabbed one of my skull caps and pulled it down on his head.

By the time he was getting restless the water was boiling, so I made the hot chocolate. I also added some milk to cool it down just enough that he didn’t scald himself when drinking it, but left out the marshmallows. I doubt he’d be amused.

After he took three gulps, and some of the color returned to his lips and cheeks, I sat down in the other chair.

“Now, tell me what’s wrong,” I said.

“Brandon started working the docks a few weeks ago, but he wanted to make more money. Jeff didn’t see any problems with him working more, since it was accomplishing what the judge wanted. He’s been going out with a couple of boats Jeff recommended, and he was really enjoying it. It’s the happiest I’ve seen him since he started here.

“But today he and Jeff got into a big fight because Brandon was asked to go out with a boat, and Jeff knew a storm was coming. Jeff told him if he wanted to die right as he started to live his life the way he should, to go ahead and get on that boat. The boat he got on, the Whistler, is the only one not back yet!”

The words had tumbled from him with quick desperation, and he slowly leaned toward me as he spoke.

“Did you tell Jeff?” I asked.

“Yes, and he told the Coast Guard, but they can’t do anything until the storm passes! I once heard Jeff say you were the best, and that you helped save some people during a storm a few years ago,” he said, the declaration its own request.

I frowned, and cursed inwardly at Jeff putting such a fool idea in the kid’s head. This storm—hurricane, really—was going to make the one a few years ago look like a spring shower. Every so often, nature hungered for death the same way as the Titans of old. This one had that same savageness about it. It wouldn’t be content unless it left utter destruction in its wake.

When I met his gaze, though, the anguish there left me with little choice, and I sighed. What immortal wanted to live forever, anyway?

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Gavin,” he said. Hope shone in his eyes like sunlight reflecting off the water, and I knew I was doomed.

“Alright, Gavin, I want you to head back home—”

“No!” he said, too quick, and put the hot chocolate down with a hard thump on the table.

There was something more there than the desire to help a fellow worker, and it raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

“Look, I can’t take you out with me. I’m sure your parents will be worried.”

“I’m an orphan, no one will care, and I want to help save Brandon,” he said, setting his jaw and glaring at me. “Brandon is the only one who cares, and we don’t have time to waste arguing. I’m going,” he declared.

That would explain the reaction. If this guy is the only person he thinks cares about him…

Still, I just stared at him. “And you think Brandon would want you out in that storm?”

He snorted. “Like he’d be one to point a finger. He went out into the storm,” he pointed out.

“So you want to do the same stupid thing? No. You need to leave,” I said, putting a hand on my hip and pointing to the door.

He gripped the edges of the chair, wrapped his legs around the chair’s legs, and clenched all his muscles. “No, and you can’t make me.”

Actually, I could, you little snot. I wanted to verbalize the thought, but if I bodily removed him from the boat it’d open a can of worms I’d never be able to close again. Fisherwomen were strong, there was no doubt, but they weren’t, lift-a-full-grown-teenage-boy-off-a-boat-and-onto-the-dock strong. It was ten years too soon for me to move on to a new location, which was always an ordeal.

After a couple of heartbeats, I growled at him. “Fine, but you won’t tell anyone I took you out, least of all Jeff. He’d have my hide if he knew,” I said, and opened to door to head up to the wheelhouse. “Get the lines, and be happy I don’t hit the throttle before you can jump back on,” I said.

He jumped up quick to obey, and soon we were on our way. He’d tried to finagle staying in the wheelhouse with me. In response, I’d shot him a look full of pure venom, and he retreated to the kitchen to get out from beneath my withering gaze.

Once we were away from the docks, I headed down and poked my head into the kitchen. The kid was looking a little green around the gills, but my sympathy meter was at zero.

“Did they say where they were headed?” I asked.

“Acker’s Rock, just like you suggested the other day,” he said, and then bolted for the bathroom.

I left him to his business and went back up to set our course. It was rough going, even for me. Between the magic imbued in the boat and my personal magic, it was still far too dangerous for anyone, Sea Folk or human, to be out here. Thankfully, unlike humans, I didn’t need fancy electronics to find another boat. I could just ask the Sea.

Many believed, thanks to a fairytale, that Sea Folk had no souls. It was a silly idea, but humans tended to perpetuate the concept that nothing on Earth was as special as them, hence why nothing else could possibly have a soul. But I did. In fact, there was a small part of said soul that was eternally connected to the ocean, like a calming presence always in the background.

This was what I reached for now, submerging my mind in it, like dipping into a comforting, warm bath.

Where are they? I asked Her.

The answers were never in words, but pictures, sensations, and feelings.

Fear slammed into me like a tsunami, and it was all I could do to remain standing. I gripped the wheel until my fingers were bloodless, and grit my teeth so hard the grinding of them almost drowned out the blood pounding in my ears like drums.

Where? I asked again, pushing the fear away. It retreated, like a wave pulling back to the ocean. An image of Acker’s Rock floated into view, but it was the scattered wreckage in the water surrounding it that sent my heart pounding.

Then, as a wave crested and fell, there was a large piece of wreckage, and a person clinging to it. I couldn’t tell who it was, but I had to hope for the best. I retreated from the connection, and continued on toward the Rock.

Time stretched out in front of me, as though I was running toward a finish line that grew further away instead of closer. With each moment that went by, the weather worsened. By the time I was able to see the wreckage and the Rock, the only thing keeping my boat from being destroyed by the storm was pure magic.

I set the boat to idle, but couldn’t get any closer to the Rock without risking my boat, too. Magic could only do so much. I also didn’t want the boat to crash into any survivors. I caught sight of the person floating on the wreckage, and this time I was close enough to see it was Brandon. My heartrate picked up again.

There was no way he’d be able to hear me shout for him in this mess, so I blew the horn in the hopes he’d hear me. His head whipped around, and I saw his mouth moving as though he was trying to speak. He twisted his body and the wreckage to face the boat. The panic in his body language was almost palpable across the distance, but I swallowed against my own that tried to rise in response to his.

I left the wheelhouse, and was almost blown overboard by the wind, but just managed to keep my feet underneath me. I staggered over to the railing, and grabbed the life preserver. When I tossed it out toward him, the throw came up short, but I had a few tricks up my sleeve. Using the boat as a conduit to the water I couldn’t touch, I put my hand on the metal of the bulwark and closed my eyes.

My magic wasn’t infinite, and I was already approaching my limit by keeping the boat from being destroyed by the storm, but there was nothing for it. I pulled harder on my magic, and moved it through the metal into the water. Sea Folk magic had a tendency to behave like water, and it tries to spread out to fill all available space. This is problematic when using it in the ocean, because, as you can imagine, the ocean is vast. You’d probably pass out or die before accomplishing that. One of the first lessons in using magic was focus, and forming the magic into a shape in your mind to fit what you were trying to accomplish.

I formed the magic into an extension of my arm, and reached toward the life preserver. I grabbed it, and began pushing it as quick as possible toward Brandon. I was panting with the effort of focusing my magic in two directions at once, and my sweat combined with the rain to soak my clothing inside and out.

When the life preserver was within reach, something surged through the water and snatched it from me. The sudden movement jerked me forward, and I almost fell face-first onto the deck. I staggered to my feet, and a familiar form swam ominously through the waves. The Beisht’s head dipped above the water, and he bared his teeth at me. Daring me.

I cursed and clenched my fists.

“What the hell is that?” Gavin shouted next to me.

I jumped and almost fell over again. I was about to yell at him to get back inside, but a thought occurred to me. It wasn’t a pleasant one, but it was the only one I had at the moment. Looked like it was going to be a can of worms situation, whether I liked it, or not.

I ignored the question. “Do you have a knife?” I asked, shouting to be heard over the storm.

His brows furrowed, but he nodded, and pulled his knife from the sheath on his belt. It was a simple fileting knife, and would probably do nothing against the Beisht, but it was better than nothing.

“I need you to do what I say, no matter what you see. Can you do that?” I asked, leveling a deadly serious look his way.

After only a moment, he nodded again.

“Good. When I get close to Brandon, throw the other preserver and haul him in once he has hold of it. Then, even if I’m not back in the boat, you two get out of here. Do you understand me?”

His eyebrows shot up, and his mouth hung open. “We can’t leave you!”

I grabbed the front of his overalls and brought him close to my face. “Do you understand me?”

He frowned and swallowed, but nodded. I let him go, and undressed. His concern turned to shock as his eyes went wide again, and his cheeks flushed red.

“Wh—”

“Give me your knife,” I interrupted.

He limply handed me the knife without another word. I took one last, shaky breath, and dove into the water, trying to stay as close to the boat as possible.

There was nothing quite like changing from one form to another, especially since I hadn’t been in this one in so long. Magic washed over me, and from one moment to the next, my human form was gone. Most humans depicted mermaids as having brightly colored scales, and clam shell bras, but the truth was far more practical.

My particular species was not unlike a Shortfin Mako shark. The scales along the back of my arms, back, and fin were an indigo blue, while my sides and underside all the way up and around my mouth was white. Five gills slits, from below my earlobe to just above where my shoulder met my neck, moved as I pulled in water through my mouth. My teeth were slender and sharp, and my nails matched. I had all the same fins as the shark, with the only difference being the pectoral fins were shorter, and further back. My nose flattened into nothing but slits, and my eyes were large and black. My hair changed color to match my back, and the strands not in the braid floated freely in the water.

Even though my transformation was fast, I still tensed, and expected an attack from the Beisht. After a moment, none came, and my mouth set in a grim line. He wanted to play. However, I didn’t have time to waste. I took off for Brandon, and braced for the attack I knew would come when I got within range of him. Being as fast as I was, it didn’t take me long to get close, and I put my hand out of the water to signal to Gavin when I was about ten feet away.

The same moment the life preserver hit the water, the Beisht came from below and tried to slam into me. I twisted away at the last second, and made a grab for the life preserver. His teeth and slimy skin grazed my side, and I grimaced at the burning that raced along my nerves. The problem with the Beishts didn’t just come from their teeth, but the poison their skin and saliva secreted.

I put on another burst of speed, and managed to get the life preserver to Brandon. I surfaced for just a moment to make sure he grabbed it, and paralyzing fear radiated from him like heat from the sun.

“Grab it!” I yelled, the words slightly garbled from the water in my mouth.

That was when the Beisht attacked again, grabbing right above my caudal fin with its teeth. I screamed as he dragged me under. I twisted, and bent over to try and stab at him with the knife. I managed to get a good strike in near his gills, but instead of letting go he thrashed and tore into my muscles. My next strike went for the eye closest to me, and that time he let go. He darted away into the dark waters, but now that he was bleeding and I wasn’t trying to get a life preserver to Brandon, I could focus on him.

Unfortunately, his next target wasn’t me.

Brandon had managed to grab the life preserver, despite being scared out of his wits, and Gavin looked to be pulling him in as fast as he could. The Beisht was faster. I put on a burst of speed to intercept him, but with my injury I barely made it in time. I hit Brandon’s legs with my body, but he managed to cling on.

Again and again, the Beisht went for him, and I couldn’t keep every hit from Brandon. I could smell his blood in the water. It was on the last attack before Brandon made it to the boat, I miscalculated, and my arm ended up in the Beisht’s jaws. This time, before I could stab him, he wrapped his body around mine like a snake, and began to squeeze.

Dark spots danced in my vision, and my struggles grew weaker with each passing moment as I started to pass out. Then, all of a sudden, he let go of my arm and unwound from my body. I sucked in a deep gulp of water, and pushed back from where he coiled and roiled.

Need some help? A friendly, chipper voice asked, and water surrounded me like a reverse bubble.

I went limp with relief as I was lifted from the water. Once I cleared the railing, the bubble burst, and I flopped down onto my deck. The impact wasn’t gentle, and it sent shocks of pain radiating out from every injury. I couldn’t help a small whine. Water spirits weren’t always kind creatures, and this one had never really liked me, anyway.

“Brandon!” Gavin’s voice was anguished, and it jerked my attention to the two of them a few feet away.

Brandon was lying on the deck, and there was a stillness about him that was less unconscious, and more like death. My heart clenched at the sight, and I dragged myself over to him.

“Please,” Gavin begged, “I don’t know what you are, but you have to help him!”

“She’s not a healer, kid,” said a drawling, overly affable voice from the rail.

The two of us turned to look over, and my heart leapt.

“I can’t, but you can, Devin,” I said.

Devin’s long, black hair was pulled back in a braid that snaked down his back, and rain slicked over his dark skin, soaking his t-shirt and jeans. His dark eyes held a perpetual spark of humor, and not even this situation could diminish that. He was crouched on the railing, remaining there with the help of whatever elemental spirits he was connected with at the moment. They were likely how he made it out here with no boat, too. Devin was the shaman who kept the Witch ship shape.

He huffed out a laugh. “Divination is more my thing, but I’ll see what I can do,” he said, and hopped down to the deck, landing gracefully next to us. Before he went to Brandon’s side, though, he leveled a look my way, the humor retreating momentarily. “You owe me,” he said.

I didn’t even hesitate before nodding. Devin might fall into the chaotic neutral side of things, but he wasn’t evil. I might not like whatever he’d have me do, but I doubted I needed to fear whatever it was.

“Agreed,” I said.

“So be it,” he replied, the humor flooding back into his eyes like a dam breaking.

Devin shooed Gavin out of the way, and sat, cross-legged, next to Brandon. He put one hand over Brandon’s heart, the other over his forehead, and closed his eyes. Devin’s magic rose in the air and shimmered, like heat waves were coming from Brandon’s body. After a moment, his brows furrowed.

“His body I can heal, but his spirit has wandered a little too far. Unless we can coax it back, there’s nothing I can do,” Devin said, though he didn’t move. His magic crawled over my skin as he poured more and more into the healing.

I pursed my lips, and my heart pounded. I looked from Devin to Gavin, whose face was pale and tight with worry.

“How well do you know Brandon?” I asked.

“I-I don’t know. He’s worked at the docks for a few weeks; we started at the same time. He’s been really great to me, and even made sure I got enough to eat when my foster parents only gave me scraps,” he said, the last few words tight and frustrated.

Anger surged through me at the kid’s plight, but now wasn’t the time.

“Saving him will come at a price: he’ll be bound to me, forever. He’ll never be able to leave my side for any great distance, or time. Only my death or his will free him, and trust me when I say, I’m rather difficult to kill,” I said, and bared my teeth. “Do you think he’d agree if he were awake?”

I didn’t think it possible, but Gavin paled further. “I don’t know,” he admitted, again, but then he drew in a deep breath. “But I think he’d rather live by your side than die here,” he finished.

I nodded, and turned back to Gavin. Not all Sea Folk kill the humans they lure to them. Most used their magic to send out what amounted to an invitation, and those that answered were compatible with that particular Sea Folk. When such a human is found a soul-bond is created, tying them together. The arrangements aren’t always romantic. Humans can be useful when the Sea Folk wish to mingle with humans, or spend extended time on the surface. There was no way for me to see if what I experienced the other day with Brandon was mutual, but we’d just have to pray.

I closed my eyes, and sent my mind down into the center of my being. The same place the connection with the Sea existed. I gently grabbed a small piece of what made me, me. There was a sharp tug, like someone had pinched my heart, and I gasped. Gradually, the pain faded, and when I opened my eyes there was a small glowing orb in my hand no bigger than a marble.

“Open his mouth,” I said, my voice no more than a whisper.

Gavin moved closer to Brandon’s head, and pushed on his chin to open his mouth. I dropped the piece of my soul into his mouth, and motioned for Gavin to close his mouth again.

For a few heartbeats, nothing happened, then; “He’s coming back,” Devin said.

Color flushed through Brandon, as though his blood had finally decided to start flowing again, and he stirred with a groan, but remained unconscious.

“Is there something wrong? Shouldn’t he wake up?” Gavin said, panic rising in his voice with each word.

Devin finally opened his eyes, and smiled at Gavin. “Magic isn’t like in the movies, kid. He’ll need a few days to recover, and he’ll be wobbly for a couple weeks, but after that he should be right as rain.”

Gavin and I both sighed in relief. I looked toward the ocean, still raging around us. “Were there any other survivors?” I asked.

Devin shook his head. “No, though I don’t know how long the Beisht will be out of commission. He’s a slippery one.” He paused a moment, eyes sparkling. “Now that you finally managed to bond with a human, maybe that means the curse is broken and you can set foot on land?” Devin looked down at Brandon. “What’s with you and pretty boys you barely know?”

I snorted, and started to shift back to my human form. I winced at the number of bruises and bite marks that littered my body, but Sea Folk were tough and healed fast. I’d recover, though even for me it’d take a few days.

“I’m not going to jump on land just yet until I’ve confirmed the curse is gone,” I said, ignoring his second question. I laid back on the deck, not caring the boy was blushing again, or that we were in the middle of a storm. “Let’s head in.”

World of Warcraft Class Micro-Stories ~~ Warrior

Crald shoved the spade deep into the soil, hitting the root of the stubborn plant for the tenth time.

Whoever said gardening was the path to happiness should be buried alive in their own garden, Crald thought, and growled with bared teeth. After the words crossed his mind, though, he closed his eyes and sighed.

He’d been out here three days, clearing land for a…Well, he wasn’t feeling charitable enough at the moment to call them a friend. It was bad enough the gnome was more stubborn than the large weed in front of him, but that trait was coupled with a perpetual optimism that made Crald’s tusks ache.

That’s the last time I complain to Fixza about being tired of fighting, he grumbled, and stabbed at the root with a little more force.

“Crald! I got the wood, just like you asked!” the squeaky voice rang out over the now bare ground.

Speak of the demon and it shall appear. Crald turned around.

He didn’t know what went into gnomish engineering, or any engineering for that matter, but Fixza was a genius with all the little gizmos. She could craft just about anything from things most would consider junk. Of course, basic things, like raised garden beds, were apparently beyond her.

One of her little robots was pulling the wagon behind it, full of an assortment of wood. Crald wasn’t exactly a master carpenter, but his father, a blacksmith, had taught him how to work with his hands. He glanced over to a pile of assorted metal plates, bolted together in a haphazard manner. Well, I can’t do much worse than that, anyway.

Fixza and Crald had been friends since they were both children, and kept in touch throughout the years via a robot parrot she’d made. She liked to make little recordings for the bird to screech out for all the world to hear. Good thing Crald didn’t give two coppers what the other soldiers thought about him. Though, if anyone were close enough to him when the parrot, Pollary, showed up, they’d catch sight of the green skin on his cheeks darkening from an emerald green to juniper. Crald, on the other hand, simply wrote letters.

Crald held back another sigh. The last letter was what got him into this mess. She’d been talking about starting a garden, since supply lines weren’t reliable at the moment, what with all the war going on. Crald, in turn, had spoken of how his term of enlistment was over, and he was just old enough that no one would look sideways at him not continuing among the ranks of the Horde. So, in typical Fixza fashion, she suggested he stay with her for a while to mull things over.

He got a break from blood, guts, and a glory that tasted more of ash than victory, and she got a garden. Win-win for them both. Crald snorted. That had been the idea, at least.

When he’d arrived at her workshop in the Lower Wilds of Feralas, tucked into the side of a hill just off Wildwind Lake, the place had been in shambles. The metal plates, now in a heap, had been jumbled together, as though all the shelves in a multi-story building had tried to fall into some semblance of garden beds.

“Fixza?” he called. Dread wormed its way through his stomach at the sight. He sent a prayer to whatever being happened to be listening, that she wasn’t at the bottom of this mess.

“Crald!” she called, from the bottom of the mess.

 Crald sighed.

That had been the start of a full two days of dismantling and moving all her ‘hard work’ off to the side, and for Crald to start clearing and leveling the hill above her house. She’d tried to get some of her robots to help, but after the fifth time Crald’s face was hit with a clump of soil and grass, he’d firmly told Fixza the little demon machines had to go. He’d rather deal with the Broken Shore imp infestation again, than have to work with those mechanical monstrosities.

“Good work. Bring them over here,” he said, and motioned to the edge of the cleared ground.

Her eyes, which were the tropical blue of the waters near Booty Bay, widened as she took in all the work he’d done.

“Wow! And you didn’t even need my robots!” she exclaimed, her tiny body seeming to vibrate with suppressed excitement. Even though her robots had likely done most of the heavy lifting, her face and hair were wet with sweat from the humidity. Of course, nothing could keep her hair, which was the pink of a child’s confection and seemingly styled with lightning, from sticking out every which way.

“No, I did not,” Crald agreed. He headed over to her wagon, and shoved the spade deep into the earth to keep it upright. Fixza set the robot to removing the wood from the wagon, and Crald began sorting through it.

“We can either go into one of the nearby outposts, and find a blacksmith willing to make nails for us, or we can just make notches in the boards, and keep them steady with wooden stakes and supports,” Crald said, his mind busy with a making a plan.

Fixza didn’t answer him. That alone should have put his hackles up, but he blamed the heat for his lack of awareness, as well as five days of work not seeing another person or creature around. He’d grown complacent.

“Crald,” Fixza said, her voice strained and squeakier than usual.

That got his attention, and his head snapped up. Fixza’s back was to him, and not far from her was a poison green and shiny black wasp that had no business being outside of Silithus. It was easily four or five times her size, and its stinger matched her height. The low buzzing of its wings finally hit his hearing, and its head twitched side-to-side as it considered the two of them.

Fixza was trembling. One of her greatest fears was made large and put directly in her face. She’d been stung by a whole nest of the much smaller versions when they were kids, and the fear of wasps had been embedded deep in her mind. As a result, one of her first successful inventions had been a bug-swatting robot.

Crald cursed his lax behavior, and the fact that his sword was in the house with the rest of his stuff. He hadn’t thought gardening would be that dangerous. His mistake.

Before Crald could reassure Fixza, the giant bug darted forward, stinger at the ready to impale the tiny gnome. Fixza let loose a shriek that by all rights should have made Crald’s ears bleed, but he didn’t flinch.

He’d already started moving, snatching the shovel up from the dirt, jumping over Fixza’s frozen form, and charging to meet the wasp. He parried the stinger on its body, ducked the ones on its mouth and arms, and swung the shovel upward in a two-handed grip to try and chop its head off. He missed as the wasp darted backward, but one of its arm blades managed to scratch along his forearm. As his blood welled, his vision went red, and he roared at the bug, charging forward again, but this time his swing caught the bug right on a wing joint. Once the flying menace was grounded, it was over. He made quick work of it with the spade, which was dripping with green goo and carapace bits.

He’d have to bury the body nearby if he didn’t want other creatures, or worse, its friends, sniffing around Fixza’s workshop. He blew out a breath at the prospect of more digging, but when he turned to see his still-shaking friend, he found he didn’t mind all that much.

He put the shovel down and knelt in front of her, her eyes still glassy and wide. He put his hands on her shoulders, engulfing them, and gave her a little shake. “Fixza? It’s okay, I killed it,” he said.

She looked up to meet his eyes, and her lower lip trembled. “You were supposed to get away from killing! I ruined it!” she said, and wailed with despair as tears ran down her face.

Crald’s eyebrows went up in surprise, but he pursed his lips before the words, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ left them. She was trying hard to help a friend, and he didn’t want to undermine that. He scratched at the shadow of scraggly black hair on his cheek, and then tugged on the long braid of his beard in thought.

“Bugs don’t count, though,” he said, trying to think quick on how he was going to spin this.

Fixza stopped crying just enough to gasp between sobs; “What—do—you—mean—bugs—don’t—count?”

Crald snorted, and smacked a mosquito that landed on the bare skin of his scalp. “See? Same thing,” he said, and showed her the squashed bug on his palm.

Her lip still trembled, and the look in her eyes told him she wasn’t completely convinced, but her voice was small and hopeful when she said; “Really?”

Crald nodded, internally sighing in relief. “Really.” Then he stood up, brushed some of the carapace bits from his pants, and headed toward the workshop. He’d start burying the body in a moment, but he needed to grab something first. Gardening or not, he wasn’t going to be caught with his proverbial pants down again—his sword would remain within arms reach at all times.

“Where are you going?” Fixza called after him, her voice gaining some of its usual cheer back.

Without turning around, he responded; “Grabbing my bug swatter.”

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

Chapter Thirteen

I’d finished shaking by the time I made it back to my brother’s office. If it was from rage, fear, or both, I wasn’t sure. So, I took a moment to compose myself before I knocked. The muffled voices on the other side of the door went quiet. When it opened, my brother was in the doorway, blocking the rest of the room from my view. He didn’t look too terribly happy with me, if the stony expression and clenched jaw were any indication.

Well, you did make his wife cry, Rational Brain said.

“I, uh, came to apologize,” I said lamely.

He didn’t move, just regarded me with his best, ‘I’m disappointed in you,’ brother face. Ouch. He’d gone for the big guns.

“Joel,” Candy admonished softly, “let her in.”

It was another, long moment before he obliged, his eyes narrowing on me, telling me to behave, or else. Then he opened the door wide enough for me to enter the room. I shuffled in, my head down and my hands in my pockets. Once I’d come inside enough for Joel to close the door, I stopped, keeping as much distance between the couch and me. My brother walked over to join her there.

I took a deep breath, and brought my gaze up to meet Candy’s. Adding another point to the unfair category, she was pretty even when she cried. Her bright eyes were wet, and the tip of her nose was ever so slightly pink, but other than that she was still her usual, pristine self. When I cried, I went full-on ugly mode: blotchy skin, red eyes, snot, stuffy nose. The works.

“I need to apologize to you,” I said. My words were soft, and burning with shame that also reddened my cheeks and the tips of my ears.

Joel muttered something under his breath that sounded like, “You’re damn right you do.” Candy elbowed him in the side, and sent a glare his way. It contained no heat, but the message there was, ‘Shut up.’

When she turned back to me, we exchanged small, commiserating smiles about my brother. I straightened and cleared my throat, now that it wasn’t likely I’d alienated my sister-in-law for all eternity. Which was likely literal for her.

“I won’t try to make excuses about being in shock, and I could have handled that a lot better. I just want you to know my feelings about you and the children haven’t changed.” I paused, thinking of ‘Uncle Dizzy,’ and his threats. Something in my mind hardened, and I did my best not to clench my teeth. “And I’ll do anything I can to make sure you don’t have anything to worry about from me.”

Something must have shown on my face, because Candy tilted her head, and a small line formed between her eyebrows when she frowned. She opened her mouth to say something, but my brother covered her hands with his.

“Dear, I think we’ve both been away from the children far too long. It’s Jason’s birthday, and I don’t want to be stuck up here longer than necessary. Would you mind going down, so he doesn’t think we’ve abandoned him?” Joel said, his face softening as he spoke.

Candy and I knew what it was, though: he was trying to speak with me without her there. She narrowed her eyes, and gave him a long, assessing look. Whatever silent communication went on, it wasn’t long before she pursed her lips then rose from the couch. I thought she was going to the door to leave, but instead she made a beeline for me, and embraced me in a completely unexpected hug.

“Thank you,” she whispered, holding me close.

We will not cry, Rational Brain said, voice thick.

Primal Brain just blubbered.

“Of course; you’re family,” I said, the words hoarse.

She pulled back, and gave me a watery smile before looking back over her shoulder at Joel.

“You owe me,” she said, smug satisfaction coating her words like the most delectable chocolate.

When she turned back to me, she winked, and left the room. Once the door closed with a soft click, I turned to Joel and raised an eyebrow.

He rubbed the back of his neck and refused to look at me. “When we got married, we might have placed a bet on the hypothetical scenario that, if you ever found out, whether or not you’d accept her and us.”

My mouth dropped open. “And you-you bet against me?” I asked, incredulous.

He shrugged, and chuckled sheepishly. “You aren’t the most tolerant person, Stumblebum.”

I snorted. “That’s beside the point. You’re my brother. We’re supposed to have each other’s backs through thick and thin, and we aren’t supposed to bet against each other with other people. It’s against the rules!” I growled, putting my hands on my hips.

He chuckled and shook his head, and then finally looked up at me. “Against the rules, huh? I’ll keep that in mind.” As the laughter died on his lips, his expression sobered.

“What happened downstairs?” he asked, leveling his best lawyer eyes my way, willing me to tell him everything.

My gut cramped, and I sucked in a small breath between my teeth that hissed.

“I met Dezanoth,” I said, forgoing the children’s nickname for him. As much as I wanted to downplay the threat in my own mind as far as my personal safety went, I needed Joel to be a little more cautious.

At the demon’s name, he grimaced. “Dezanoth doesn’t have a very high opinion of humans in general, much less an upstart like me who married one.” He took in my grimace and sighed. “And I supposed you were your usual charming self?”

I chuckled weakly and raised my hands, palm up, and shrugged. “Guilty as charged.”

Joel groaned, and put his face in his hands. “It’s shocking that something hasn’t murdered and eaten you yet.”

I made my way over to the couch and sat on the other end from him. At the couch’s movement, he looked up at me with a pained expression.

“What am I going to do with you?” he asked.

“Help me not get murdered and eaten?” I guessed.

He scoffed. “I don’t take hopeless cases; you know that.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Speaking of cases,” he said, his tone going from brotherly to lawyer, “I heard you cleared Celinwel of Stribs’ murder?”

I blew out a sigh. “Yeah, which means I’m back to square one.” Then a stray thought wandered through my brain. “You don’t think the goblins will let me off the hook, do you? I may not have proved it was Celinwel, but I did prove it wasn’t her. Does that count in some roundabout way as fulfilling the bargain?”

“I doubt it,” he said, and shook his head. “You can try to use that logic on them, but I don’t think Gozuk will let you off the hook until Stribs’ killer is caught.”

I slumped back into the cushions. “And here I was hoping that’d be the end of it, and that I’d get my apartment back.” I sighed.

“Get your apartment back? What do you mean?” he asked, eyes narrowing. “They didn’t in some way cause you to get evicted to hold that over your head, did they?”

“Aw, I’m touched at your concern,” I said, and put a hand to my chest.

He scoffed. “As if. I just didn’t want to deal with you moving in here.”

“Hah! I could just move in with mom and dad,” I said. Our eyes met for a moment, and we both shuddered at the thought. “Okay, so I’d rather live in your kids’ treehouse than move back in with our parents, but, no. They didn’t threaten to evict me, or anything that convoluted. They sent a goblin to stay with me, and keep an eye on me, I guess.” I shrugged.

“Which goblin?” he asked, curious.

“Slies.”

He relaxed visibly at this. “Slies is a decent enough guy. More easy-going and willing to speak on-level with humans than most other goblins. At least it wasn’t Brikt.”

I let out a surprise burst of laughter that devolved into giggles when I tried to picture the wall of muscle trying to fit on my futon. I waved off Joel’s questioning look, and got myself under control.

“At any rate, Dezanoth and Gozuk basically threatened me with the same thing should I fail: you.”

Joel’s eyebrow’s shot up to his hairline. “Me?” Then after a beat, he shook his head. “I guess for most normal people that kind of threat would make sense. Obviously, they don’t know us very well.”

“Yeah, though Dezanoth added a bit of spice to his, threatening the continued well-being of Candy and the children,” I said.

Joel’s humor vanished. His eyes hardened at my words and his mouth formed a thin line. “He did, did he?”

I bit my lip, but gave him a small nod.

Joel’s smile in response was more feral than friendly, and I didn’t want to be Dezanoth the next time the two were in the same room without any witnesses. After a moment or two, where I’m sure visions of murder were dancing in my brother’s head, he spoke again.

“Obviously I haven’t been able to make any calls for you, since I was consoling my distraught wife,” he said, giving me the side eye. He ignored my subsequent grimace and continued; “But I can say that The Owner contacted my law firm about the steps he needed to take to prove someone was stealing from him.”

I perked up at this, sitting up straight. “Oh? Someone’s stealing from him? Does he know who?”

“No,” Joel said.

I sighed, and slumped back down.

“However,” he said, ignoring my theatrics, “he did say he thought it was Stribs, and likely Celinwel, too, since they were thick as, well, thieves.”

I pondered that for a moment. “Well, we’ll be able to find out soon enough, since he’s dead and she quit.” I turned my head to look him in the eyes. “You don’t think The Owner killed him, do you? And why does it sound like you guys say The Owner as though that’s his name? Come to think of it,” I said, not pausing long enough to let him answer, “no one has ever said his name, who he is—” I glanced at the door”—or what he is.”

My brother blinked at the endless stream of words pouring from my mouth.

“No, I don’t believe the owner killed him. He’s too smart to come to the firm for help with a thievery problem, telling us who he thought it was, and then go through the trouble of killing him.”

I tilted my head back and forth. “Yeah, I suppose that’s true. It’d be too obvious for you guys to not suspect him after something like that.”

“As for his name and what he is, well, no one knows. Everyone just calls him ‘The Owner’.”

“What do you mean, no one knows? Didn’t you just say you guys do business with him?”

“Yes…” Joel said slowly, “but with supernatural clients we have a, ‘Don’t ask, don’t wind up with your spleen removed,’ policy. I’ve never been crass enough to ask, after being introduced to him that way,” he said, and leveled a hard look my way.

I chuckled and bit my lip. “Well, we both know you’ve always had the better manners of the two of us.”

Joel sniffed and looked down his nose at me. “Isn’t that the truth?”

I took the opportunity to throw one of the couch pillows at him, which he caught with relative ease, the jerk.

“Anyway, if you want to know more about the missing inventory, you should speak with Elodie. She does the inventory for the store, and she’s a vampire like Odella. Though, as far as I know, they pretty much hate each other, so the fact you work with Odella and that she’s marked you might not get you two off on the correct foot. If you’d like, I can put in a call to The Owner, and have him smooth the way with Elodie. However, if she’s the one who killed Stribs, it might tip her off.”

I frowned and tilted my head. “I know Stribs was a dick, but it doesn’t sound like Elodie would have a reason to kill him, unless he did something to really offend her. And since Stribs didn’t seem to like Odella, I imagine he’d be nice to Elodie just to irritate Odella.”

“You’re not wrong there. As far as I know, Elodie and Stribs were on neutral terms until she discovered inventory was missing. How much do you know about vampires?” he asked, leaning forward and putting his elbows on his knees.

Not expecting to be put on the spot, my mind scrambled for as much information as possible.

“Well, they drink blood, can hypnotize you with their eyes, have to obey their masters when they’re young…Beyond that I’d just be pulling from all the trashy romance novels I’ve read, where the only thing that makes it fantasy is the lead love interest’s desire for blood and sharper than average canines,” I admitted.

Joel’s mouth quirked up in a smile, and he gave a short bark of laughter. “Well, you’re not wrong about those books. Candy likes them, too, but I can’t say I see the appeal.

“However, only two of the things you mentioned are true for all vampires: blood and obeying their master when they’re young. All of the other traits will vary from vampire to vampire. Odella is better at hypnotizing, as you put it, whereas Elodie is better at communicating with snakes, one of the animals associated with vampires.

“There’s one thing that all vampires share, though: their compulsion to count. Now, you can’t just throw a bunch of stuff on the ground and have that distract them while you run away. It really depends on the vampire. From what I understand, Elodie is incredibly good with inventory, and Odella is never wrong when it comes to her cash flow.

“Combine all that with the fact vampires are just as territorial as the Weres, and I would not want to be the person Elodie catches stealing inventory she’s in charge of,” Joel finished, his voice going low and his eyebrows knotting.

“When you put it that way, I can see how she might end up murdering him,” I admitted.

Joel checked his watch and sighed. “We’ve missed most of the birthday. We should get down there before my good-natured wife turns into something far less pleasant,” he said, and then stood.

For most guys it’d be a joke to say their wives turned into she-demons or hell cats when riled, but for Joel, well, it might actually happen. So, I wisely followed him out of the room, an apology ready on my lips.

 

<*****>

 

The remainder of the birthday was a pleasant affair, and I was sent away with more leftovers than Slies and I would likely know what to do with. I’d been piled on by my nieces and nephews before leaving. I could see Dezanoth lurking in the background, the corner of his mouth quirked up in a smug smile, and his head tilted just enough that he could look down his nose at me. I threw a glare his way, and made sure to hug the kiddos extra tight, and for a little longer than usual. I even gave Candy a hug before leaving, though my brother and I just waved, forgoing the familiar affection.

I checked my clock on the dash of the car when I got in. If I made it home in the next half an hour, I could get a few more hours of sleep before work. The thought of hitting my pillow and drifting off to dreamland was more than enough to motivate me along the roads back home. I know Joel told me not to take Thea home, which I assume means he didn’t want me to drive by the tree anymore. I’d avoided it on the way to their house, but it was the fastest way back into town, and it was practically the middle of the day. Didn’t witches need darkness, midnight, and virgins? Since none of those things were available, I doubt the Witch of the Wood would be on a stroll near the road and decide to snatch me up.

Remember what we said about not being that white girl in every horror movie ever? Rational Brain asked, voice scathing.

I hate to agree with stick-in-the-mud, but Joel might be right here, Primal Brain hedged.

“It’ll be fine,” I said out loud, and then took the turn toward town.

Famous last words, Rational Brain muttered.

Don’t say we didn’t warn you, Primal Brain cautioned.

The trees flew by, the evergreens looking particularly lovely in the early afternoon light, but as we drew closer to the tree, my shoulders bunched up more and more. Tension sang through me like a plucked line of a deep-sea fisher’s rod with a fish on. When I came within ten feet of the tree, I held my breath. Level with it, and my hands gripped the steering wheel so hard my fingers went bloodless. But then we were past the cursed thing, with nary a whisper of encouragement to kill myself.

I let out a shaky breath, loosened my grip on the wheel, and slumped a little in my seat—

“See? Nothing to—”

–just in time for the largest stag I’d ever seen in my life to walk casually in front of my vehicle. I let out an unholy screech to rival that of my tires as I slammed on my brakes and swerved to avoid the animal. I veered across the oncoming lane, and that was the last thing I remembered before slamming into a tree.

The calm, unconcerned eyes of the deer, and my steering coming to meet my face when my airbag didn’t deploy.

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

World of Warcraft Micro-Stories: Demon Hunter

People make so many decisions on any given day, to keep track of such things would court insanity. Other times, decisions are so monumental yet irrational, they are by their very nature insane.

Arlithria would go out on a limb and say that choosing the demon you’d eat the heart of qualified as such. Of course, all choices leading up to the heart consumption were merely stepping stones on the path of madness she was now on. Without one stone, one single decision, the path would have crumbled. But with hindsight comes regret, and she would not entertain such weakness. A lack of conviction in this endeavor would surely lead to death.

So, she chose the demon. She drank the blood. She ate the heart.

Darkness took her.

Then came the visions. The whispers. The fire.

World after world. People after people.

Slaughtered. Burning as her blood burned now. Her screams of agony blended in with their cries of anguish, until the cacophony of it would drive her mad. No matter how loud it became, though, she could still hear it. The voice. As though the demon she’d consumed exhaled its hot breath down the back of her mind, eating away at her thoughts just as the fel did the same to her body.

Your struggle is pointless. Your fear fuels us. This power is unending, unyielding, and it will consume you as surely as it has all those who came before, and all those who come after. None can stand against our might.

She slipped further into herself. Retreating. Trying to find some small spot of solace.

Here, another voice whispered.

She paused. This wasn’t the demon.

Here, it said again, the word like a cool breeze running over her, keeping the fire at bay.

Just for that reason alone, she followed, pursuing any kind of reprieve she might find.

There! In the deepest recess of her being, there was a tiny spot so small, she would have missed it if not for the voice. When she touched it, they began to speak, the words resonating in her like the beating of a drum.

Remember, nothing is forever. We Night Elves learned this harsh lesson when Nordrassil was sacrificed, trading our immortality for the defeat of Archimonde. So, in a way, the Burning Legion has shown us its demise is possible. They say they do not yield, but bending is not breaking. Sway with the power, but do not be swayed by it. Have faith, love. Some day they will fall.

The voice faded, and with it the reprieve from the fel.

This time, though, she was ready. She pulled the fel to her, wrapping it around her, around her soul, and accepting the flames as they burned almost everything that was her to ash. She let it take many things, but she moved with the power, directing it the way she would her nightsaber. As they moved, she slowly banked the flames. Containing them. Letting them cradle the two things she would never give up: that one, small spot, and her conviction to see the end of the Burning Legion.

As the last lick of fel settled into her, subsumed with her soul, the demon snarled.

No!

It was too late.

When she opened her eyes, with the demon’s howls echoing in her mind, she smiled triumphantly at the demon hunter standing over her.

“When you can stand, we will complete the ritual,” he said, and walked away to inform the others that she was awake.

Every bit of her ached, as though she’d been through a battle in the waking world and not just within herself. She went to move, but pain shot through her like lightning, and her hands clenched against the pain. One of them closed around something that bit into her skin. A fleeting moment of confusion raced through her mind, and she slowly raised her hand to her face. In it was a small pendant, the azure gem glowing like the deep lake waters near her old home. The home destroyed by the Burning Legion.

Her smile softened and she closed her eyes, brining the pendant to rest on her forehead. When she opened them again, for one of the last times before she would complete the ritual, determination glowed in them as surely as the fel.

“We will gift the Legion with their final deaths, love. Azeroth will not fall.”