New Arkarum novel for sale!

I have just self-published the second volume in the Arkarum series: Hearts of Flame.  It is available for purchase at Amazon.com.  Also, for a limited time, I have the first volume, The Hammer and the Blade, available for free at smashwords.com.  Thank you all for your interest and support!

Craig Barnes

arkarum@yahoo.com

http://www.amazon.com/Hearts-Flame-ARKARUM-Craig-Barnes-ebook/dp/B00GREITUG/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1384909710&sr=8-2&keywords=arkarum

http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/212917

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in the pool hall

I was in a pool hall recently, then got the itch so i started writing this story.  there is more to come on this one, I promise, but i wanted to get this out there and see what you all think.  any feedback is, as always, more than welcome, regardless of its nature. 

happy reading,

Craig

 

 

The room was hot.  Not stifling, but warm enough to make sweat trickle tickling down between his shoulder blades.  The babble of voices mingled discordantly with the music from the jukebox.  The feel of the cue in his hands and the chalk on his fingers was comfortingly familiar.  Nostalgia floated through the room, joining with the scent of felt and the sound of clacking balls.

                The shot was lined up in his mind.  It wasn’t an easy one, and even the players on ESPN wouldn’t deny that.  But Max had it lined up in his mind’s eye; perfect in its geomety, he could almost see the eight-ball sinking before he even stroked his cue. 

                With a steadfast calm, the room around him; sounds and smells and heat, all; seemed to blur into nothingness.  He was one with the felt; one with the cue and the balls and the pockets.  Slowly, drawing out the moment more for the bliss of it than the need for concentration, he stroked: back slowly, forward with conviction, back again, forward again, linin the shot up for the umpteenth time, knowing that his victory was sure.

                There was a soft puff of blue chalk as his cue struck, the white ball skimming across a field of green.  The clack was loud and ominous as Max watched his perfectly aligned shot go awry; just by the barest degree he had missed his mark, and the black ball, like a curse of death, bounced between the corners of the pocket, and faltered, hovering for moments, it seemed, before refusing once and for all to fall into the abyss that welcomed it.

                Max had a hard time controlling himself; the urge to snap the cue over his thigh was strong, and he could hear his jaw creaking as he ground his teeth together in anger and frustration. 

                The other man leaned against the table, a low, knowing chuckle rumbling out of him.  Without a word or a glance at Max, he nonchalantly poked the cue into the eight, leaving nothing on the table but the spinning white ball.  It seemed to be laughing at Max; mocking him in the midst of his misery and terror. 

                The man stood, admiring his victory for a moment, before turning to Max.  The question was in his eyes, and Max understood.  Their eyes locked for a moment, Max staring dumbfounded and the pale-skinned man’s pale lips curling at the corners, as if he knew what was coming and was looking forward to it.  Then, finally, the man asked, simply, “Well?”

                Max tried to swallow, only to find that his mouth was drier than a desert, and his throat gave him nothiung but scratchy pain.   “I…” he croaked.  “I don’t have it.” 

                The man nodded, as if he’d expected nothing less, that pale, mocking half-smile still curving his lips as his eyes danced to the tune of future enjoyment.  A flicker of those eyes had two men striding toward their table.  Their faces were set, not in pleasure as was the man’s, but in determination; they had been hired for such times as this, and they would do their duty without hesitation or qualm.  The pair didn’t lay hands on Max, but they bracketed him, leaving him to understand that flight was not an option.  One of the toughs stretched his shoulders casually, while the other cracked sunken knuckles.

                Fuckin’ cliché, Max thought.  As if I didn’t realize they could end me without even trying.

                The man at the other end of the table said, “Perhaps we should go outside to…talk.” 

                The hesitation was clear to Max, and he knew what was implied.  With a sigh, Max cast his eyes downward, taking in the damning cue-ball, and nodded glumly, like a child awaiting a spanking.  He could only hope that the worst they would do to him was a sound beating.  He had survived such before.  They certainly weren’t pleasurable, but a black eye would heal, as would broken ribs and bruised testicals. 

                When the mocking man led him into the deepest recesses of the alley, his hopes changed to skittering fear.  Max looked at the walls of the buildings surrounding him, at the brick wall twice as tall as he that closed off the end of the alley.  His screams would go unheard.

***

Emma watched the two big men escort the other out of the bar.  She only half heard what the waitress was saying to her; something about her man at home or some such.  With a sigh, she turned back to Sheryl.  She had seen men escorted from the bar so many times, but she never got used to it, just as she never enjoyed hearing the stories of those men being beaten to within an inch of their lives.  But Emma knew that nothing she could do would stop it.

                Dumbass guy probably bet money he didn’t have.  The fact that the dude might deserve it did nothing to comfort her.

                A call for a drink brought her out of her reverie.  With practiced ease she pulled an iced mug out of the cooler and got the tap flowing into it.  As the Guinness settled, she poured the Jagermeister into a shot-glass, wishing she were home, wishing she could forget about the man being escorted from the bar by a shady-looking guy and his two strongarms. 

                The head on the stout that she handed to her customer was perfect.  The shot-glass alread sat, rim down, on the bar.  This guy isn’t fuckin’ around.  She finally looked at him, really looked at him.  He was plain, to her eyes; just another guy sitting at a bar: nothing special.  His hair was dark brown and thinning, though not so bad you would notice if you didn’t look really hard.  The skin of his face was dark, as if he’d spent plenty of time in the sun.  It was pocked along the cheeks, scarred by acne long forgotten, maybe, but it added to the rough, dangerous look of him.  Emma nearly started back as she came to his eyes.  The green of them was startling; she had never seen such a sharpness in eyes (and she was a purveyor of eyes).  They seemed to look into and through her with zero effort.  Flecked with orange and (she thought) spots of blood-red, they seemed to consume her.  But, even more startling than the strange beauty of his irises, were the whites.  White they were, stark and shining, but shot through with viens of pure black; a blackness darker than moonless nights during the witching hour.

                Emma was frozen, captivated by the intensity of those eyes; held thrall by them as had never happened to her before.  She woke from her paralysis slowly, vaguely realizing that the man was speaking to her.

                With a start and a shake of her head to clear her thoughts, she asked him to repeat himself.

                The grin he gave her would weaken any schoolgirl’s knees.  She was no schoolgirl, but wasn’t immune either.  Her heart skipped before she could quiet it.

                “I said,” he said calmly, still grinning as if he knew what flashed through her mind, or it amused him somehow.  “I said it would be best if you left.  Close the bar, kick these people out, and go home.”

                As soon as she realized her jaw was hanging open, she snapped it shut.  There was annoyance in her voice that she did nothing to hide as she asked, “Why would I do that?”

                The man across the bar from her sighed, though his grin remiand, never slipping or fading in the slightest.  “I fear that something terrible is going to happen here.”  He cast a quick glance over the laughing, swearing, singing crowd milling about around the pool tables.  With a suddeness that brought sadness into those strange, beautiful eyes, his grin was gone, replaced by a haunting mourning that nearly brought tears to Emma’s eyes.   “I would avoid it if I could,” the man said, almost to himself.  Emme leaned over the bar so she could hear him.  “But we are only capable of so much, in the end.”

                His gaze returned to hers, and he didn’t seem at all concerned or surprised that her face was bare inches from his.  “Please, Emma,” he said, “get these people out of here and go home.”

                Her stunned silence was not the answer he wanted, she knew, but it was the only one she could give, so shocked she was.  With an effort, she pulled her eyes from his and looked around the bar, forgetting to ask how he knew her name.  Everything seemed normal; just a typical Saturday night.  With a soft chuckle, she shook her head and said, “Sorry, man.  Not gonna happen.  Maybe you’ve had one too many?”

                The man sighed once more, the sadness in his downturned eyes seeming to wilt the laquered planks of the bar.  “Very well,” he said, so sorrowful and filled with troubled resignation that Emma wanted to wrap her arms around him.   He continued: “Please leave.  It’s always harder once you’ve looked into their eyes.” 

                This last was said softly, and Emma had the feeling that she wasn’t meant to hear it. 

                Suddenly, the man turned his head, sitting up and peering at one wall of the bar.   His voice was grim, a death march in the midst of the revelling and carousing: “It has begun.  Again.”

                As the man stood, the bar was suddenly, deafeningly filled with screams.

 

                Max waited for the next blow.  Both his eyes were swollen nearly shut.  The toughs were vague shadows against the lamplight from the street beyond.  But he could hear.  He wished with all his heart he couldn’t, but the shuffling step backward told him of the impending pain as the man hauled back to strike him.  He hoped, wished with all his might, that it wouldn’t be in the stomach again.  His nose was broken, he was sure, and both his eyes swollen and throbbing, not to mention his lips cracked and several of his teeth loose, but he didn’t think he could handle another blow to his abdomen; the sound of the cartilage in his nose cracking was nothing compared to the sound of his rib snapping like a well-dried wishbone. 

                The pale man with the smirky smile was still there; Max could just make him out through his puffy eyelids.   The smile had deepened since Max’s thrashing had begun; the man was enjoying this thoroughly.

                All these thoughts flashed through Max’s mind in less than a heartbeat.  As he waited for the blow to fall, the smile on the pale man’s face vanished into a look of confusion and, could it be? fear.

                The blow didn’t land.  Max looked at his torturers, only to see, dimly through his swollen, bloody eyes, a jagged gash where the man’s throat had been.  The blood that sparyed from the wound mixed warmly with Max’s own, caused by his broken nose.  The eyes of the man stared lifelessly upward, as if silently pleading the heavens for an answer to his unexpected demise.  The other tough, Max could see, was looking skyward as well, a long knife in his white-knuckled hand.  His eyes dashed back and forth across the sky, seeking the murderer in the firmament, but they saw nothing.  Suddenly, he was dead, his heart torn from his chest with a cracking, squelching sound that would have had Max vomiting if his stomach muscles weren’t so tortured.  The man’s eyes followed the trail of blood on the dark pavement before him, settling on his own unbeating heart, before he fell in a lifeless clump to the ground. 

                Max was so filled with shock and fear that he hadn’t noticed the pale man’s retreat.  He could still see him, vaguely, just entering the lamplight in the street, backing away as if from an awkward moment with a jilted lover.  Then, from the sky a shadow streaked, and the pale man was gone, leaving nothing behind but a shriek of terror and the sounds of tearing flesh.

Hi everybody!  It’s been awhile since I posted anything on here, i know.  Unfortunately, life and reality happened, as it so often does, and got in the way of what really matters: fiction!!  I’m getting ready to publish the second volume of the Arkarum series, so, for those of you who read the first, the wait is over.  For those of you who haven’t, there’s a great opportunity on Amazon.com right now to get it for free.  But the promo will only last for five days, so get it while it’s hot!

I am posting a sample chapter (the first), of the second Arkarum book, The Wrath of Hell.  check it out and give me any feedback you like: whether you like it, hate it, or it makes you wanna go out and murder some demons!

I’m always open to your feedback, and, if you have read The Hammer and the Blade, any reviews you’d like to post on Amazon would be greatly appreciated.  Thank you for your time and (hopefully) your honesty!

Craig Barnes

P.S.  Stay tuned for more sample chapters and some other stuff I’m currently working on.

 

CHAPTER ONE

DUTY

 

 

The demon stood in the tower.  The man was with him.

            He looked out over the slowly recovering city, and to the snow-capped mountains beyond, hazy with distance.  It had been months since his people had crossed those mountains. 

            His people.  Could he still call them that?  Did he have the right, after all he had been through; all he had become?  The man didn’t know.  The demon was sure that he couldn’t. 

            Months had passed, during which the smoldering city had been slowly but implacably rebuilt.  It was difficult labor, but it was necessary.  They had nowhere else to go.  So they had returned here, to the place that had once been home to many of them, and had just recently been a tomb to many they had loved.  But rebuild they did, with the steadfastness and determination of bees rebuilding a hive. 

            The tower in which the demon stood had been charred with blackened, upward-reaching fingers, but had been otherwise unharmed, the stone standing strong.  There were still dark splatters and patches of blood staining the inside of the tower walls, but the man didn’t mind.  The demon snickered at the blood, but Mercius paid it no heed.  Such things were trivial, compared to the devastation that had been wrought here. 

            The grey stone of the tower rose highest among the buildings of the city, with small arched windows looking out in each direction.  It had originally been designed as a watchtower, with a hinged hatch in the ceiling to give access to the roof, where a large bell had once stood.  The wood of the hatch had been torn out, and the bell itself rested a quarter mile outside the city where it had been flung by a flying demon. 

            Now, Mercius had claimed the tower for himself.  He could no longer live among the men and women below.  Something deep within him, maybe the demon in him, had always known that he couldn’t.  He was not them, and they couldn’t understand him.  The hooked points of his wings, rising above each shoulder, were testament to that.  They still called him General, still looked upon him with devotion and something close to reverence, but there was fear and confusion in those looks now.  Had it always been there, a darkness lurking behind the light of awe and love?  The demon knew the answer, but Mercius refused to listen.  Really, it made no difference.  The men who had followed him, respected him, learned from him, they no longer saw him in the same light. 

            In the months that had followed his short time in Hell, Mercius had been blissfully cleansed of some of his demon traits.  The mottled grey of his flesh had fallen away, leaving pale skin with the look of newness to it, like a baby’s.  There was a scar that inexplicably still ran down the right side of his face, from hair-line, through eye socket and lips, ending above the point of his chin.  The horns that dotted his head had been shed, and he now had a few months’ growth of dark hair coming in, spiked with natural red.  His eyes were the same: the striking green and orange that some said commanded others with their very power.

            But the wings were there still.  Nephilia, the angel who had saved him, and had been his cause for entering Hell, was unable to make the wings vanish.  Her power in this realm, she claimed, was not as great as it was in her own.  Mercius was beyond regretting them, and the demon inside him cackled with glee every time Mercius took note of them.  He tried not to, but the slight cringing of the faces of those he passed in the streets was a constant reminder. 

            And so Mercius stood brooding in his tower.  He had been coming here more and more frequently, fleeing from the darkness he saw in those looks.  It didn’t help much; he knew what they thought of him, and the looks in those eyes stayed with him always.  But at least he didn’t have to see them when he was here. 

            The demon cackled in the back of his mind, finding hilarity in the man’s hiding.  Mercius knew that he would have to face it, somehow, some day.  But he didn’t know how, and didn’t care to think of it.  He just let his mind wander over the city, to the distant mountains.  To the blackness beyond.  That is where he had been; where his transformation had taken place.  He would have to return there, to finish what he had begun.  But the thought daunted him, nearly bringing him to his knees with despair.  The demon relished in the memories of that place, howling with joy and longing, but Mercius stilled the voice as best he could, and shivered.  He had been to Hell.  Had ridden its foul winds through obsidian sky.  Had climbed its treacherous peaks.  Mercius had beaten the Steward of Hell, along with his own father.  But he had to return.  They wouldn’t leave him alone, and Maliphar’s malice would be fierce, now that Mercius had escaped.  Nothing of the sort had ever happened.  Mercius was the first of his kind, man sired by demon on a human mother, and he was the first to leave the clutches of Hell once entering.  Maliphar would not allow such aberrations, and Asgoroth, Mercius’ father, would be the one to bring his offspring back.  He would be consumed with a rage that the world had never before seen, intent only on destroying that which he had created, bringing back a cringing and broken soul to be scoured in the fires of Hell.

            Mercius would fight him.  He would kill them all, if he could.  But the demon laughed at him; he was tiny, compared to those who would send their wrath for him.  He was nothing. 

            Mercius growled at the ever-present thing, and when the demon’s laughter continued, mocking, Mercius’ growl became a howl; a shout of defiance and despair.  It echoed off the stone of the tower walls, and cascaded down into the city.  Mercius knew that the people there looked up in horror and awe, but he couldn’t stop, couldn’t force himself to care. 

            The shout died, and with it the demon subsided.  But it wouldn’t die.  Not so easily as that.  Mercius would have to confront it, to kill it, eventually, but not now.  Not yet. 

            A knock came at the newly hung wooden door behind him.  “Come,” he said, without turning.  He knew who it would be, and a smile lit across his sturdy, handsome face. 

            “You are distraught,” Nephilia said behind him, coming slowly into the small room.  Mercius, even with the demon’s hearing, could not hear her footfalls as she came to him.  She seemed to float wherever she went.  She smelled of summer in the hills, peaceful and somehow earthy, like a breeze through pines.  She always did, though she was not of this world.  She was an angel.  Mercius knew that she scoffed at the term, but she also admitted that there was no accurate word for her kind.  Just as she admitted that ‘demon’ was not an accurate term for the creatures of Hell.  She was the light to their dark, and that was all that mattered.

            “How can I not be distraught,” he said, still gazing off to the mountains.  “They all say that we’ve won great victory.  But they are blind.  We’ve merely stirred the hornet’s nest.  It would have been better to leave well enough alone and flee to safety.”

            Nephilia laughed softly, the tinkling of silver bells in a pool of light.  “You know very well that you could never find safety, Mercius.  Just as those people down there know.  You are the one who told them that, remember?”  There was a sadness to her voice that hadn’t been there when Mercius first met her.  She had been cast down by her enemy, and they had damaged her irreparably.  She couldn’t return to her home, and was cursed to walk this blighted planet instead.  She had lost much of her power, but Mercius believed that was not what saddened her.  She had lost the glory of a place that humans would never know, and this world paled in comparison.  Nephilia had never confided this to him, but Mercius knew. 

            “Perhaps that is why I am so concerned.  I have led them down a path that cannot be changed, and which holds only death and misery at the end.  How can I find peace, when I have doomed so many to such a fate?”

            Nephilia placed a hand on his shoulder and turned him to face her.  Her eyes, deep and mixed with gold and green and purple, shone into his.  The demon howled, but Mercius’ smile widened.  He recalled the first time he had met her in the flesh, in the heart of the Rau’halla.  She was what all women wished to be: beautiful with high cheek bones and supple lips, features coming just shy of being too feminine.  She looked more like a woman than any woman could ever hope, and just staring into her face, framed with shining golden hair, gave Mercius strength and heart. 

            “They have made their choices, Mercius.  And they were the right ones.  You know that, in your heart.  You must admit it to yourself, or you will rot away in this tower while the world crumbles beneath you.  Take heart in the fact that they are still here.  They still love you, Mercius, and will follow where you lead.”

            Mercius scoffed.  “They fear me,” he said, bitterness and pain bleeding into his words.  “They cringe when they look upon me, and it breaks my heart to know that they are right to do so.  I am not natural; not the man they once knew.”

            A small smile played on Nephilia’s face, warming him despite the coldness that lurked inside him.  “Were you ever just a man, Mercius?  Is it not right to fear power?  Should one not tremble before greatness?  You cannot be their friend anymore Mercius, but a friend is not what they need.  They need a leader, and that leader is you.  You have made the choice to follow this path, just as they have made theirs to follow you.  Do not reward their loyalty with abandonment. 

            “You say that we have stirred the hornet’s nest?  We most certainly have.  And death and misery will surely come.  But each has a choice.  These men and women choose to face it, and do so willingly and on their feet.  They will not run for safety or cower before what comes for them.  It comes for us all, and they know that, just as well as you.  But your choice, to lead them or to abandon them to their fate, that is what will bind them or scatter them.  You have the power to hold them together or destroy them.  We have kicked the hornet’s nest, and more will come.  The tale of what you and Griffin did to Mor’denaa already spreads, and more come in every day.  Now, it is a trickle.  Tomorrow it will be a river.  Before you know it, it will be a flood.  All people who come to you willingly and with a determination such that only a human can have.  What you have started will not stop.  It is for you to decide how you will handle their loyalty.”

            Mercius broke away from that serene gaze, shamed and terrified.  She knew him better than any other, and seemed to see into his heart.  He knew that he had a choice to make, and knew that he could not turn away from what he had to do.  He had vowed, what seemed like so long ago, to rid the world of demons and all other Hell-spawn.  He intended to see it happen, but wailed inside that it would cause so much death; so much anguish and misery. 

            But he knew what he must do.  He nodded to her, and her smile melted into him, flooding him with a warmth he thought had abandoned him.  A slight breeze blew in through the small windows of the stone tower, bringing the scents of mountains and grass and people working below.  They were no longer his friends, but they were his people.  And he would lead them from victory to despair. 

            Hopefully he could lead them back, as well.             

            Another knock came at the door, this one loud and authoritative.  Mercius broke his gaze from Nephilia’s and said, “Come.”

            Griffin walked into the dimness of the tower room.  He was a tall black man, of a height with Mercius.  His black hair hung in dreadlocks to below his shoulders, and his green eyes held a softness that was deceptive.  He was dressed roughly, in a tanned hide vest and pants and had the hilt of his sword protruding over one shoulder as always.  He was broad of shoulder and chest, with large arms corded with muscle.

            He nodded to Nephilia, and Mercius smiled.  It was hard not to kneel before her, but she hadn’t allowed it.  “Mercius,” he said, turning toward him. There was a brief flicker in his eyes as they went to the points of his wings; a momentary cringing, there and gone.  “We need to talk.  There are things that require your attention.  The troops are restless.”

            Griffin’s tone was firm.  He didn’t shout, but he was close.  Griffin made no show of hiding his displeasure with Mercius’ absence.  He was right, Mercius knew; Mercius had inadvertently heaped all of the responsibility of the city on Griffin’s shoulders.  The Hammer and the Blade, the legion that Mercius and Griffin had forged together, needed their other General. 

            Mercius walked over to Griffin and put his hand on the man’s shoulder, peering into his eyes.  Griffin’s face did not soften.  He returned the gaze, steel wrapped in softness.  “Forgive me, friend,” Mercius said softly.  “I have abandoned you these last weeks.  I hadn’t meant to, but I did, and for that I am sorry.  I shouldn’t have forced you to do the work yourself.”

            Griffin, no doubt expecting a fight with his friend, let his features soften slightly, and let out a long breath. “I know how much you have been through,” he said, “but you are needed below.  They cannot do this without you.  I can’t do this without you.  More people are coming in every day, with no signs of slowing, and we need to find places for them.  The construction is going smoothly enough, but there are doubts surfacing, and it makes them hesitant.  If we are to stay here, they’ll need a leader.  They need you.  Will you not show yourself to them?”

            “I will, Griffin,” Mercius said.  “But I can’t go on as I did before; as if nothing has happened.  Things have changed.”

            “What will you do?” Griffin asked

            “I don’t know.  But I will let you know.  It will involve you, I’m sure.  As I said, things have changed.”

            Griffin looked confused and concerned, but held his tongue.  He turned to leave, and Nephilia followed him, pausing to give Mercius a small smile of reassurance.

            Mercius gazed out of the small window again, this time not looking to the distant, hazy mountains, but down at the city below.  The people worked determinedly. 

            His people.

 

http://www.amazon.com/The-Hammer-Blade-Arkarum-ebook/dp/B0093U1NRW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1366050101&sr=8-1&keywords=arkarum

Grandpa Joe

The old man spoke with the dead.

“This is my curse, son,” he told them all; friends, family, strangers on the street.  “This is my curse.” 

No one believed him.  Grandpa Joe (or just Grandpa, to his relations) would tell his curse to all comers and never tire of it.  He recited it like a poem; he flaunted it like a trophy; he carried it like a red badge of courage.  But none believed.  ‘Grandpa Joe,’ they would think, ‘there he goes again with his tales and his bullshit.’  They wondered if he knew what they thought of his yarns, but none truly cared: his stories and nonsense were harmless, and the listeners’ skepticism was, ultimately, beside the point. 

Trevor recounted in his head how many times he’d heard Grandpa Joe tell of his conversations with the dead.  When he was a boy his father’s father had taken him to an old-timey diner (one of the last of its kind) and kept the waitress standing at their table holding a pitcher of (tap)water, eyes wide and glistening as she listened to the soothing voice pouring from the scarred throat past the nearly toothless mouth.  He had that power, Trevor now recollected; the power to bind, to bring a listener, be it a passer-by or an irate police officer, into his tale as if they were seeing the bullshit first hand.  As if they were the one with the curse.  And Grandpa Joe did it effortlessly, flawlessly, without even thinking; without even trying. 

“I talk to the dead, and this is my curse, son.  This is my curse.” 

Trevor had lost count of how many times he had heard this before he was ten years old, and decided it was utter horseshit shortly thereafter.

His belief persisted to this day.  Trevor was a grown man now, with his own stories to tell (some of which were bullshit, a talent he’d learned well, and at a young age, from his grandfather).  But he had seen enough and heard enough to know that people didn’t converse with the dead, despite what the daytime television shows and the B horror movies claimed.  Trevor looked at the sunken cheeks and eye-sockets, the yellowish skin that didn’t grip the jaw like it used to, the emaciated frame beneath the sterile white cotton blanket, and felt sorry for his Grandpa Joe.  Pity.  Not a feeling he was accustomed to.  Normally it was wasted and goddamn pointless.  But the sad and sorry figure in the dimly lit room before him seemed to beg for the pity of the young; seemed to cry out for lamentation.   

Grandpa Joe was dying.  The cancer in his left lung that he had beaten years before had returned with a vengeance.  It was now in not only his remaining lung, but also his stomach, testicles and skin, which had metastasized into his blood and put a noose around his neck.  Trevor listened to the wheezing breath and thought of the plague that was consuming Grandpa Joe’s body, just as his curse had consumed his life.  A well of pity and sadness nearly overwhelmed him.  It was almost too much to see this strong, good-hearted man reduced to a saggy mess of flesh and feeble bones.  He wished, despite himself, to hear that soothing raspy voice tell one more ridiculous story of speaking to the dead.

The breathing stopped.  Trevor brought his eyes up from the divots in the ancient rug that the hospital bed made, to the sunken face of his grandfather.  A tear squeezed itself from his right eye, though he didn’t notice it.  ‘This is it,’ he thought.  ‘Grandpa Joe is gone.’ 

Instead, however, the old man’s eyes opened.  The lids fluttered like young flower petals in early morning dew; too weak to open with solid conviction, but too stubborn to give in and droop. 

Grandpa Joe rasped out an unintelligible croak and attempted to raise a weak and worthless finger.  Trevor, being the only one in the room at this late hour, jumped to his feet to grab the hospice-supplied water bottle with the ninety-degree straw.  He held it tenderly to his grandfather’s lips and gave it the slightest squeeze, as if he was tenderly caressing a virgin girl.  Grandpa Joe sucked back the liquid like a dying man in a desert (haha, thought Trevor), swallowing hard.  Trevor could just see, behind the milky plastic of the bottle, the old man’s adam’s apple bobbing up and down as his throat worked harder than it had in days. 

Finally, after much apple bobbing and virgin caressing, Grandpa worked his cracked and gummy lips off the hard plastic of the straw, leaving a cobweb of saliva that clung trembling to both his lip and the straw.  Trevor reached a shaky hand up and cleaned the spittle off, feeling both sickened and proud: old people and their infirmities gave him serious stomach problems, but the fact that he could deal with it and clean his grandfather’s spit gave him a sense of immense pride in his own maturity.

“What do you need, Grandpa?” Trevor asked as gently as he could while still raising his voice to overcome the hearing loss.

A moment of wheezy breath and a yellow-eyed stare passed. 

Finally Grandpa Joe replied: “I talk to the dead.  This is my curse, son.  This is my curse.”

The old catechism sent a flood of memories swirling through Trevor’s mind.  Without meaning to, he smiled.  It was a rueful, whimsical smile, and his face felt the lighter for it; his hands less shaky, his bowels less watery.

“I know, Grandpa Joe,” he said, still grinning and yelling and whispering all at once.  “But don’t worry about that, okay?”  Trevor heard the condescension in his own voice and hated himself for it: he wasn’t talking to a two-year old whom he had to coddle.  He was talking to a man who had lived through three wars, fought in two, saved helpless damsels in distress and been hospitalized by buckshot to the leg, been racist when he had to be and realized later when the need was gone, been extremely tight and extremely loose with money, depending on the circumstances, been married to two incredible women whom he both (much to his dismay and tragedy) outlived, climbed trees when he was young, telephone poles when he was less young, played pranks and had pranks played, been in car accidents, motorcycle accidents and tractor fuck-ups, been hired, laid off, fired, let go, and re-hired, never collected unemployment, always collected HAM radio parts, been seen as crazy sane ugly and intense by different people in the same day, been viewed as a whack-job and an eccentric and a craftsman, been loved, hated and scorned and come out with his nose clean and his pride intact, and never missed a beat in his entire life.  He was a man who other men could look up to, Trevor included.  He was not a child.  He was a rock; a bastion of strength and tranquility.  And now Trevor spoke to him as if he were an infant, incapable of taking care of himself.  The fact that he wasn’t capable gave Trevor little comfort. 

The tears threatened to come again, but Trevor forced them back with an act of sheer will.

A liquid cough gurgled from the old man’s lips, seeming to dump his fragile insides out through his mouth.  Trevor reached forward again with the water bottle in his hand, a questioning look on his face.  Grandpa Joe shook his head slightly.  Trevor imagined for the briefest of moments that he could hear the bones in his grandfather’s neck creaking with age and weariness.  Trevor set the unwanted bottle on the bedside table that had been moved into the room and peered at Grandpa Joe; he knew there was more that the old man wanted to say, so he waited expectantly.

After what seemed like an eternity, Grandpa Joe looked into Trevor’s eyes.  The blue eyes of his grandfather were still brilliant, still powerful, though they had faded recently, and looked none the better now that the whites surrounding them were yellow and veiny. 

“They’re not all good, ya know.”  Grandpa Joe’s voice had regained some of its forgotten power and vibrancy.  Trevor looked at him, awaiting more.  More came:  “Most of them are.  Good, that is.  Most of them are just lost and confused and fuckin’ dumb.  They die and don’t know that they’re dead, or don’t know what to do with themselves once they figure out what’s happened to them.  Those ones just drift around and feel sorry for themselves and talk to me every now and again.  They’re harmless, the poor bastards.”

There was a long pause.  Trevor worried that his grandfather had forgotten, as he had in the past, that he was speaking, or what he was speaking of, and had fallen into silence, never to complete his rhetoric.  The old man, however, raised his hand slowly and gestured shakily to the water bottle.  Trevor nearly fell out of his chair trying to get to the bedside table.  He calmed himself and gently held the bottle to Grandpa Joe’s lips.  The old man drank greedily and Trevor made a mental note that he would have to refill the bottle before much longer, especially at this rate. 

After the rehydration was complete, Grandpa Joe continued: “Some of ‘em though, are not good.  They’re bad; they’re evil.  It’s not conversation they want.  It’s pain and torture and death.  I’ve only come across two of them in my life, and I have no idea how I made it out alive.  Some weren’t so fortunate.  Your grandmother was one of them.  He took her like he took all the rest.  And it’s been my curse to live so long, knowing what happened to her and not being able to tell anyone.”  As Trevor reeled from the shock, trying to maintain his composure instead of following his impulse (which was to scream and cry and throw things), Grandpa Joe let out a long, heavy sigh before going on.

“I pray to whatever God will listen that you never have to deal with the likes of him, son.  There’s nothing wholesome about them.  Steer clear of them, if you can, at whatever cost.  And keep your family safe.  In the end, boy, that’s all that matters: family.  I let her die, and I have no doubt in my mind where I’m going when it’s over.  I let her go, and I’ll pay the price.  But you don’t have to.  Don’t let it come to this, son.  Just don’t, whatever it takes.”

Grandpa Joe’s eyes had started leaking tears, Trevor noticed as he ran a palm across his own face to clear the crying and confusion away.  None of this made sense to him, but he could feel the raw, raspy emotion in his grandfather’s voice, and it touched him in a way he hadn’t thought possible; it frightened him, it confused him. 

Grandpa Joe raised his hand and Trevor, recovering from his shock, leaned forward in his wooden chair to grab the nearly empty bottle of water.  Instead, however, his grandfather’s hand streaked towards his own, with a strength and conviction that the old man’s present state belied. 

Trevor forced back a gasp of surprise.  He stared at the withered hand grasping his own.  The flesh was wrinkled and papery, crisscrossed with blue veins and pocked with liver spots.  The knuckles seemed to bulge like broken bones where the skin was stretched seemingly to capacity as the skeletal hand clung to Trevor’s.  Even as Trevor gazed at the surprisingly strong touch, there was a pull, equally strong, upon his hand.  He looked into Grandpa Joe’s eyes and saw that the old man was attempting to sit up.

As Trevor opened his mouth to tell his grandfather to lay back and be still, a conviction came into the faded blue eyes that startled Trevor to his core.  The hand grasped, and the arm pulled, and suddenly those blue eyes were right before him, gazing steadily into his own.  It seemed to Trevor that they had taken on new (or old and lost) luminosity.  The blue orbs were stunningly bright again, and strong; filled with conviction and purpose…and fear.  Trevor shuddered visibly when he looked into his grandfather’s eyes.  There was horror in them; sheer, unadulterated terror.  And sadness, which was to be expected. 

Trevor’s voice was a whisper: “What is it Grandpa?” he asked, realizing belatedly that his grandfather probably couldn’t hear a whisper. 

But the old man smiled, his lips pressed together and his eyes falling in sorrow.  “Forgive me, son,” was all he said.  Something flashed behind Grandpa Joe’s eyes; something bright and dark, filling the blue with ferocity and light.  There one moment and gone the next.

Then the hand that gripped Trevor’s released its astonishingly powerful hold.  The old man fell back into the rough sheets and stiff pillows, landing with a whisper of cotton and a slight creak of metal as the bed protested feebly. 

Trevor rose from his chair, eyes wide with incomprehension and confusion.  He looked into his grandfather’s open eyes, touched his face, smoothed his wispy hair back from his sweaty forehead. 

Grandpa Joe was dead. 

***

To be continued…

Pills

Hi everybody.  It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything, so here’s a little piece for your reading pleasure.  Let me know what you think!!

Pills

Dana could no longer remember the names of the pills she swallowed.  The pink ones were anti-depressants.  The green fought against the nausea caused by the first.  The yellow calmed the writhing in her gut caused by the green.  She couldn’t remember what the red ones did, but she doubled the dose of those as well.

How much longer, she asked herself, before you can stop being such a chicken-shit and take ‘em all?  Dana gazed down at the pile of pills on the nightstand, sitting in a long-since dry pool of booze and cough syrup and other untold, unremembered liquids, like sun-baked stones in a cracked riverbed.  One swift motion, one last act of will to scoop them all up and shovel them down her throat would end it all. 

No more misery or boredom or pain or regret.  No more forged testaments of happiness on the phone with her mother.  No more feigned smiles to her friends.  No more half-heartedly faked orgasms for her dull-eyed boyfriend.  Just one final sleep, and then…nothingness; the bliss of eternal darkness and freedom from this wretched and ridiculous life.

But something stayed her hand.  Dana railed silently at herself, her fingers twitching though she knew she wouldn’t be able to force them to move.  She wondered why not.  Fear could not be the answer, for her heart leapt at the thought of the final goodbye; she had no more room in her for fear.  Love, neither given nor received, could not be the cause of her hesitation, for the love that she had once known had turned to stagnant bitterness that latched itself to her soul like a leech. 

What, then, could possibly be giving her pause?

“It is I, Dana.”  The raspy voice from somewhere behind her seemed to call from endless, black eternity; seemed to whisper just beside her ear.  It sent maggots slithering over her scalp and down her neck.  The pills distilling in her belly threatened to rise back to her throat at the awful sound.

Dana turned, hesitant, knowing fear once again.  The tall figure, wreathed in shadow though it was, stood stark and clear before her.  A maw of shattered glass grinned beneath eyes the color of a crimson, blood-soaked sunset.  The sound of buzzing flies and smell of decay breathed from its rotten face.

It spoke again, seeming disinterested in her revulsion and sudden horror: “I am what gives you pause.  You have been waiting for me, as I have always been waiting for you.”

Desperate gasps of incomprehension fluttered from Dana’s mouth; impotent and pathetic. 

A chuckle tinkled through the razor-glass of the creature’s mouth.  “Do you not know me, child?  Am I not familiar?  I am the darkness that wreathes your soul; the answer to your questions; the cause of your misery.”

Dana shrunk back against the stained and reeking mattress, her pale naked flesh covered from head to toe in goosebumps of panic and terror.  Her thick and stammering fear finally found its voice, hushed though it was: “What do you want from me?”

A look passed across the figure’s face: shock, perhaps; surprise.  “I want you, of course.  I have come to liberate you from your pain.”  Dana shook her head with desperate disgust and bone-searing fear, attempting to shrink farther into the unyielding mattress and the sweating wall behind her. 

“Come with me, child,” the creature chided.  Dana stared on in horror as pink and green and yellow and red pills spilled from its lipless mouth, landing upon the nightstand to join its fellows, building upon the pile until it toppled like mountain of forgotten dreams.

The sight was too much for the girl.  She ran, naked and screaming, from the dimly lit room and the horror that chuckled from the shadows.

***

Dana woke in a frozen state of hysteria.  Dew streaked through the dirt that covered her naked body, creating streams of mud that slid all over her body.  The birds had begun to sing, and their voices echoed through her nightmarish memories.  The creature, the demon, the thing of shadow and glass and blood.  Shivering, she fought against the urge to curl up into a ball and weep like a baby.

Instead, she willed her cramped legs to stretch, her numb fingers to push against the mud beneath her.  She forced herself to rise, and begin walking through the towering and unsympathetic trees, blue eyes startled and aware. 

***

It was less than an hour later that she found herself, clothed and bathed, in the home of a kindly woman with a southern drawl that had seen her, wracked and wretched, stumbling down the highway.  The woman had asked no questions; she had simply helped Dana into the beat-up Tercel with a noisy exhaust leak, then into the shower with cooing, soothing words.  When Dana had stepped from the steaming stall, she found a set of flannel pajamas, complete with socks.  She ignored the hairbrush, instead walking to where the woman waited over a pair of steaming mugs. 

“Can I use your phone,” Dana asked, no emotion in her voice.  Without a word the small woman handed her a cordless phone from the cradle on the wall.  Dana dialed from memory.

When the familiar voice came through from the other end, Dana burst out with, “I love you, mom.  I love you so much.”  Her voice thick with remembered love and fear.   

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SUMMONED

Skeleton branches rattled and scratched at the shaky window pane.  The breeze outside was cold, Jake knew, but carried with it no terror; no beasts lurking in the shadows, no red-eyed monsters hungrily slavering for his flesh.  It was just a cold winter wind that shook the branches of the naked trees.  His Daddy had told him that so many times that he had finally come to understand and believe.  Letting go of the fear of the outside world had been hard, but he now could chuckle (most nights) about how silly he’d been.  Afraid of the stupid wind!  Ha!

Beary was snuggled up next to him.  Some of his friends thought Beary odd: purple, fuzzy, silent.  But Beary had been his companion for as long as Jake could remember, and the familiar feel of scratchy purple fur, the gaze of lifeless glass eyes, and the scents of himself and his bed and Mommy and Daddy were a balm on his soul; a cool washcloth over his forehead.

The squeaky branches and the cold wind did not frighten him.  His fear this night came from inside the house he had known all his short years.  The normally silent walls chanted tonight.  The chants had started some time ago.   They were not in time with the squeal and scratch on the windowpane (which would have seemed somehow natural), but at a twisted disharmony with the outside noise, as if they defied everything that the breeze stood for, that it carried with it. 

Shortly after the chanting voices began emanating from the wall to the left of his bed, the wall to his brother Matt’s room, Jake caught the smell of burning wax and something else he could not define.  It smelled wrong though, like blackness or anger.  He wished silently into Beary’s furry, one-eared head that the smell would go away, and the rhythmic, disharmonic voices with it. 

But the chants grew louder, the smell stronger, the fear more persistent in his gut.  He worried for half a heartbeat that he would suffocate poor Beary; squeeze him to death in his anxious terror.  Then he remembered: its just a teddy bear, and he can’t breathe or smell wax or blackness or feel fear.  I’m the one who can do all those things, Jake thought, and I don’t want to any more.  I want them to go away so I can listen to the wind some more and fall asleep like I always do. 

His desire went unanswered.  The voices grew louder still, threatening to break through the wall with the puppy-dog wallpaper, into his room, onto his bed where they would gobble him up like a hungry beast.

With a suddenness that frightened Jake more than the noises and the smell had, the chants ceased; cut off in midstream as with a knife.  The smell remained, intensified and altered into something even blacker, angrier.  A loud thump rattled the floor and the legos that slept thereon, followed by a roar of some ravenous beast.

This is it, Jake thought, whatever’s in there is gonna come in here and eat me up.  He squeezed Beary as hard as his little arms would allow.

Then came the scream.  Jake hadn’t thought anything in the whole wide world could be more frightening than the roar from Matty’s room, but the scream proved him mistaken.  It curdled his blood, rattling in his head like a bell made of fear. 

Daddy heard! Jake thought.  He could hear the unmistakable sounds of his father’s heavy footfalls rushing up the wooden stairs.  Mommy too!  The second pair of pounding feet, slightly lighter and slightly faster, came up the stairs at the end of the hall, past his room. 

His Daddy’s voice as the door to Matt’s room crashed open:  “Matt what the hell is–“  The question was never fully voiced.  Instead, there was a gurgled cry that grated on Jake’s ears, though he now had his hands pressed tightly over them to ward off the sounds from the wall.

More crashing and banging and screaming.  Jake did not sift through the sounds and the tremors.  He simply whimpered into the top of Beary’s head, covering his ears so hard they hurt.

After an eternity like this, it was over: no more noises or rattling legos; the house was silent.  Even the skeletal branches outside ceased their scratching.  The smell, too, had faded. 

With a will that Jake hadn’t known he possessed, he whipped the covers off his body and slipped his bare feet to the hardwood, grasping Beary tigthly by the arm with one hand.  He padded softly and nimbly over legos and around toy cars and scattered crayons.  The door nearly thwarted him, for as he neared it he became aware of the sound of ragged breathing coming from the other side. 

Just Daddy calming down, he told himself.  Daddy always has to calm down for a little while after he and Matty get mad at each other.  Mommy talks to Matt, and Daddy calms down.  Though the coarse breathing sounded strange to his red and hurting ears, Jake forced himself to grip the brass handle of his door and pull it toward him. 

Beary left the room first, held before Jake in both hands like a talisman.  When Beary was neither eaten or burned alive, Jake followed, taking comfort in the bear’s strength and courage.  The hallway was as it always was after dark: quiet, dimly lit from the living room light filtering up through the white banisters of the stairway, gurgled sounds of television shows mumbling through the floorboards.

Hesitantly, taking courage from Beary’s steadfast fortitude, Jake turned his head, toward Matt’s room.  There, the normality ended.  The door to the bedroom had been shattered off its top hinges and hung by only its bottom, leaning twisted into the room.  Daddy must have been really angry to break the door down, Jake thought, hoping against hope that he was right, trying to convince himself.  The smell of darkness and rage was thick in the hallway, coming from the bedroom with the broken door.  Dim organge light flicked agianst the far wall, and Jake knew something was burning.

He could no longer stand the fear that pulsed through his viens like liquid heat, nor could he stifle the outrageous curiosity that tugged him and Beary closer to the room.  With a great, invigorating breath, Jake rushed to broken door, his soles making hardly a sound against the softness of the hallway rug. 

He attempted to stop in the doorway, but his feet encountered something slippery, and he slid several feet into the room, barely managing to not fall on his bottom.  Brown eyes wide and confused, Jake took in his brother’s room:

The black curtain covering the shattered window fluttered into the room, billowing and snapping.  There was a small fire licking up the walls next to it, ever growing and determined, staining the shadowed ceiling with smoke.   The flame melted the flesh of a hand that had fallen into it, its owner unmoving.  Jake didn’t recognize the blood-smeared face of the owner of the burning hand.  The boy’s eyes slid across the wall of the room.  It too was smeared and splattered with dark, sticky blood, so thick that it rolled and dripped and trickled down the wall in the growing light of the yellow flame.  In the center of the floor: more blood.  This was arranged in a wide circle; it had been drawn on the floor, probably from the overturned metal pail that lay some distance away, the remainder of its contents congealing and flickering on the hardwood. 

On the circumference of the circle of blood were candles.  Black and long, only one remained standing, miraculously still burning amidst the carnage.  The others were tipped and flung about, sending tendrils of smoke up to help with the effort of staining the ceiling with blackness.  In the center of the circle, Jake saw Matty.  He looked asleep.  There was no blood on his face, nor was he engulfed in flames or torn apart, as Jake had feared.  But he was still, oh, so still!  There was no light in his eyes, and his chest did not heave. 

Jake’s gaze followed the spatters and smears of blood out of the circle.  He followed the trail to his feet, now knowing what he had slipped in upon first entering Matt’s room.  His Daddy’s face looked up at him.  His eyes were all white, having rolled up into his head, and his dark hair looked as if half of it had been ripped out; the remainder was greasy with blood and chunks of gore.   His body lay several feet away, ripped and shredded, twisted into a parody of what it once was. 

The black sheets on Matty’s bed were stained and splattered.  At the foot of it, a shadow lurked.  Even as Jake was wondering what it was, who could be sitting amongst all this chaos, the shadow rose, stretching higher and higher, until its top grazed ceiling. 

The shadow turned with painful slowness to face Jake.  Eyes of flame stared out from an ashen face above fangs dripping blood, and a fleshless, skeletal nose.  Gore and blood and yellow mucus ran down its bare body to its massive, quivering organ, dripping finally onto the floor and seeping through its boards.  In one taloned hand a mass of bloody curls was clutched.  Jake could tell that the curls used to be blond.  That the missing skin used to be pale as snow and warm as comfort.  The vacant eye sockets had once held orbs of purest, kindest blue. 

The grey beast dropped the head of Jake’s mother with a thud and a splash.  It started forward, and even before Jake’s fear and understanding could cause his limbs to move, could make his body flee from this slaughterhouse, the talons had him and he was hoisted up toward that slavering mouth.  His last thought was that poor Beary would have to be washed, as his purple friend splashed into the blood.

***

Beary watched on from the floor with lifeless glass eyes surrounded by purple, matted fur.  The boy who had held and squeezed and smelled him for all those years didn’t scream.  He sighed once as Beary hit the floor, more in resigned disappointment than in fear.  Beary watched as the massive creature casually tore limbs from the boy’s body, stuffing them into its gaping maw and slurping them down, hardly seeming to chew.  The blood soaked slowly into his fur and cotton as he watched blindly the being tear Jake’s head from his body with one noisy snap of its jaws.  Lastly, the beast ripped open the boy’s chest and held the body above itself, letting the still heart slink and slither into its mouth and down its throat. 

Beary watched, his purple fur now red and brown and ruined, as the beast surveyed the room one last time before striding purposefully to the shattered window.  As flames licked and hissed at the blood that covered Beary, the creature opened its massive wings and flew into the cold, windy night.   

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Flame of Remembrance

The drink was thick and bitter.  It crawled down Victor’s throat slowly, seeming to take all the skin and tissue with it.  When it hit his belly, however, he sighed in resigned comfort.  His prey had gone to ground, and he had no hope of finding it this night.  So, he indulged.  Just a few sips of the foul liquor to ease the ache in his bones; in his soul.

The air around him was brisk, on the cusp of cold.  Victor sighed again; he knew that the cold that was soon to come would turn to bitter, frozen misery.  I should light a fire, he thought, but he hadn’t the will; the desire.  Cold would make him uncomfortable, even miserable.  Cold would further diminish his drive; his motivation.  Cold might even hurt him: frostbitten toes and fingers aching and eventually rotting off while he walked the tundra.

But he would still survive.  If there was one thing Victor knew, it was that he would not die from something so petty as a cold winter night in the mountains of this forsaken wasteland.  He silently cursed the stars that shone apathetically above him.  He wished that something so mundane, so peacefully boring, as a frozen night would do him in at long last.  He knew better.  The stars gave no response to his blasphemies against them, nor did the crusted snow or the silent trees.  Not even a breath of breeze answered his miserable condemnation of his own cursed existence.

Nor did he expect acknowledgement. He had begun this mission, hadn’t he?  This hunt?  And he knew, with a terrible, self-loathing surety, that he would continue it to the end, frostbitten toes and all.

One more drink, he thought, uncorking the bottle and raising it to his lips.  Then I’ll let sleep take me and start again in the morning.

The bottle halted halfway to his mouth, however.  “How many times must we play out this farce, Victor?”  The voice was silky and as cold as the night from which it emanated.  Victor didn’t move, holding the bottle halfway to his mouth; somewhere between panic and rage.  “How long will you hunt me?” the voice slid like blackened smoke into Victor’s mind, where it coalesced and twisted itself around his thoughts, leaving him feeling at peace, as if a soothing balm had been rubbed over his soul.

Fight it, he thought.  The demon’s weapon is deceit.

The demon continued, ignorant or uncaring of Victor’s struggle against the silky menace of the creature’s voice:

“How long before you give up?  Look at you.  You’re an old man now, Victor.  Far too old to be spending nights in the woods with no one to keep you company but the snow and the stars.  You cannot win, my old friend.  You’ve known it all along.”

With a sudden strength of will, a sudden resolve that must have been buried deep within his heart, Victor pulled the bottle to his lips and drained the contents at a gulp.  The previously vile liquid gushed into his mouth, down his throat, spreading into his limbs and muscles, invigorating every sense he had available to him.  It tasted like some divine nectar, pulsing life and strength into every fiber of his being.

With a roar Victor stood and hurled the empty container in the direction of the voice.  A ghostly swish of fabric and the sound of a glass bottle tumbling against twigs and snow and bare earth were the only reward he received for his outburst.  He scanned the darkness around him, fiery with rage and liquor and unfinished business.

Nothing.  No silky voice, no whisper of fabric, no flashing fangs or slashing talons.  Victor turned to the stars once more.  A scream of defeat and desperation broke forth from his lips, seeming to carry with it all the misery and hate and rage that had carried him on his mission to destroy the beast.  He fell to his knees, the scream dying like his hope.  The dirt beneath him was hard and cold, echoing his soul; his life.  Tears flowed silently down his cheeks, into his frosty beard, where he imagined they would eventually dry up, as had his dreams and his will.

The chuckle that came lazily out of the darkness was filled with scorn and pity.  “Forgive me, Victor.  I do not mean to laugh at you, but you must understand how incredibly entertaining this is for me.  How long ago was it that you vowed to end me?  Forty, fifty years?  I lose track.  But now, here you are, all those decades later, reeking of stale booze, kneeling in the frozen mud, weeping like a child.  For some reason, I always thought my victory over you would be more dramatic.  That I would walk away bloody and barely alive, having fought you to the death and nearly losing.  But this?  No, I never expected this.

Victor muttered into the silence that followed.

“What’s that?” came the silky, oily reply, still with laughter in its voice.

“I said,” Victor spoke up, “you’re not alive.”

“Oh, come now.  No need for such childish remarks.  We are equals, you and I.  Well, maybe not equals, but you’re not far below me, comparatively.  And what about you, old man?  Are you alive?  You’re frozen half to death, two decades past your prime with nothing and no one to show for it, and you’re weeping into your scraggly beard, dirty and miserable.  Is that life?  Some would beg to differ.”

A long pause followed as Victor looked into the darkness before him, where the demon’s voice had been sliding from.  He had no words to dispute its claim: he had been so long without the company of friendly people, without smiling eyes and mouths, without laughter and consolation, without a warm body beside him on a cold night, without the jovial companionship that all men took for granted.  He was a husk; a shell of a man tracking and hunting the parody of one.  Life was a relative term now.

“Come,” the silk parted the darkness, behind him now.  “Let us sit and talk.  It’s been so long since we’ve done that.  I’ll make a fire and you can warm yourself.”

Victor spun on his knees, the joints creaking in protest, at the sound of the creature’s voice.

With a sudden flash, the darkness was banished, his eyes stinging with the sudden brightness of blue and orange licking up into the inky black.  When the ghost images of purple and gold died behind his eyelids, Victor opened them, knowing what he would see.

The fire was warm and glowing with natural light.  Some would expect something wicked and blackened and furious, but it brought to mind memories of his long-distant childhood, camping in the woods with his parents and two brothers, as far from any living soul as they could possibly be.  Nothing unnatural or unwholesome about it; just the flames dancing and swirling around each other in a perfect display of nature’s harmony between order and chaos.

The figure across from him was a shadow.  The orange flames between them obscured the features of the creature.  The voice was clear as moonlight, though: “Sit, old man, and we’ll talk.  If you feel the need, we can establish a truce.  I won’t kill you if you don’t try to kill me.  Sound reasonable?”  No reply came.  “Good,” the silk continued.  “So, tell me of the world of men.  It’s been so long since I spent any time amongst them, what with having you hot on my tail for so long.”

Victor was silent, but he slowly rolled back onto his haunches, then let his legs collapse beneath him, sitting on the cold hard ground.  The warmth from the fire seeped into his skin just as his liquor had seeped into his muscles.  He hated himself for relishing in it; for the sigh of contentment that escaped from his lungs without his permission.  He hated himself that he was glad for the company of the demon.  He had been so long without someone to talk to, or even listen to, that he found the closeness of the creature comforting in a terrifying way.

“Well,” the silky voice of the shadow weaved through the smoke and heat shimmers of the fire, “since you’re being so taciturn, I’ll start.  We used to be good at this, you know?  Anyhow.  The battle rages, as it always has and always will.  I’m very little informed, being of such low status in their eyes, but the gist is the same as it always has been: this side is winning, then that, then the first again, and there’s going to be some cataclysmic, deciding blow from one side or the other sometime in the near future.  It’s all bullshit, if you ask me.  Like I said, I’m not exactly privy to the plans of the higher-ups, but I’ve been stranded here for long enough, listening in, to know that it will probably never change.  You know what I think, old friend?  I think that they enjoy the struggle; enjoy the war.  I mean, why else?  It’s been going on for, what, millennia, eons, since the dawn of time, before?  You’d think that they’d have a clear victor by now if either side really wanted it to end, don’t you?”

Victor stared silently across the gaping void of dancing light that seemed to be getting smaller and smaller with every word the silky voice uttered.  The swirling, smoking flames were a barrier, a blessing, a curse.  His brain rattled in his old skull.  His thoughts bounced like electricity through his tattered mind.  Energy flooded through him; invigorated him.

Victor cleared his throat.  He could sense, almost feel the expectancy of the silent shadow across from him.

“What They do,” Victor croaked, seeming to have to wrench the words up from his writhing bowels, “is none of my concern.  You are a beast, and I’m going to destroy you.  That’s all that matters.”

He felt that the finality of his words should’ve been met with something more than a sinuous chuckle, but that was all he got from across the ever-shrinking void of flames and light.

After a pause pregnant with crackling logs that were not there, the creature spoke:

“You know, Victor, I’m not exactly what you think I am.  You believe me to be some sort of demonic presence clothed in human flesh and hungry for human souls.”  A grunt from across the fire was all the confirmation the silky voice needed.  “Not true, my friend.  I shed that abhorrent desire long since.  I don’t bathe in human blood or feed on the innocent lamb, so to speak.  I have grown far beyond that; far beyond those silly desires.  I’m something else entirely now; something with purpose.

The creature let his words hang on the darkness; flutter in the light of the preternatural flame.  Victor cast his gaze, at once sharp and blue as well as dull and pacific, across the top of the fire.  He hated this thing.  He had hated it for so long now that he disremembered the beginning, when they had talked over fires similar to this one, only without the cold hatred and need for vengeance and reckoning.  Yet, despite the hate he clung to like a last breath, Victor could not but acknowledge the demon’s poise and serenity; i’s eloquence and smooth manner; the sheer simplicity of its words.  He wanted to bathe in the calmness of the voice emanating from the shadows; to sink back into days long past, when he had known and been sure.  But he held on to his hatred as embers hold on to a wet branch, refusing to give in, to give out.

“I don’t believe you,” was all Victor could mutter.  It seemed so inadequate, this declaration, yet it was all he had the will to announce.

“Ah, Victor,” came the silky voice through the smoke and light.  “Ever the stalwart being of virtue and stupid stubbornness.  You do believe me.  You just can’t admit that to yourself.”

Long moments passed in silence.  Long moments in which Victor thought and hated and believed and despised.  How to let go of something that has been harbored so long, so deep within yourself?  He could not let go.  Not now, not after so long.  But the figure was there, across from him, just as it had been so many times before.

Ah! Before!  Before the hatred and the malice.  Before the vengeance and the longing for justice.  Before peace had left him, and hope had abandoned his soul.  Before frozen nights and burning days of desire for retribution.  In his deepest heart, Victor wished that he could embrace that past; he could remember all the times long since vanished into cold smoke; when the two of them sat and talked and talked, into the starless, moonless, sunless hours of the night, when nothing else mattered but their connection, their desire to learn from one another.

But all that was past; all those desires for times long gone were no more potent that the smoke that drifted up to the stars.

Victor cleared his throat and his mind:  “Let’s say I do believe you.  What then?  Are we to be friends?  After what you’ve done?”

The silky voice was without mirth: “Friends?  No, Victor, friends is the wrong word.  I was never your enemy, and you will come to see that, before the end, but friends we will never be and have never been.  I would give up a thousand days in the sun, a million nights beneath the stars of your world if it meant that you and I could be friends, but it was not written thus, and we both know that to be true.”

“I hate you,” Victor muttered, feeling the cold seep once more into his bones, as if the fire between them was but an illusion of his frightened and frozen mind.  “I would not want you as a friend.  I would want you as a carcass, for the worms and birds to feed on, for that is all you are good for.  Even now, across the fire, I can smell your evil, your deceit, your malevolence.  I will kill you before this night is done.”

Victor’s recitation was met with a sigh that fluttered on the heat of the fire between them; a sigh of longing and pity, of resignation and a touch of scorn.

“Do you remember the first question I asked you, Victor?” the voice came; it was still silky as a starless night, trembling with blackness, but there was now a soothing warmth to it, as if it came from half-forgotten memories of blankets and bed-time stories.

The question hung on the air as Victor nursed his hate, bringing it back to a boil.

Finally, Victor’s tongue was able to utter the response, filled with apathetic scorn: “You asked me if I had a match.  You smoked back then, and you needed a light.”

The chuckle sounded almost human.  “No, before that.  I asked you a question in the restaurant, and you answered me.  Do you remember what the question was?”

Victor thought back to that day.  He remembered the greasy-spoon restaurant he was in.  The smell of bacon and charred coffee.  The greyness of the sky outside.  The desperate-looking waitress with a run in her cheap stockings.  The elegant-looking man that walked past his slimy table as if he was on his way to the restroom.  The man pausing, just next to Victor’s shoulder.

The question the man asked him.

The answer Victor had given him.

“I remember,” Victor said across the campfire.

With an eagerness that astounded the old man, the silky voice asked, “What was it, Victor?  What was the question?”

Victor sighed and looked into the darkness, hoping to glean some sort of reasoning from the shadowed shape beyond the flames.  He saw nothing, heard nothing, that would explain this new and obscure line of questioning.

Finally, Victor said, “You asked me if I can forgive myself.”  A pause hung between them like a curtain, the fire dancing joyously, unaware of the tension.  The stars looked down, unabashed.  The trees with their feet in the dirty snow were silent.

Victor remembered his response to the stranger.  He had been young and full of malice and grief and vigorous, youthful dreams.  His lack of respect was his badge of pride.  His bitter sarcasm was a show of power.

He was young, in charge of his destiny, and unafraid.

“Can you forgive yourself?” the stranger had asked, passing as if he was on his way to take a piss.

“Go fuck yourself, asshole,” had come the response through the steam of a fresh cup of coffee.

The silky voice pulled him back from the first day he had met the demon:  “Yes, Victor.  That was the question.”

The creature told him this as if it should invoke some epiphany, but Victor simply stared across the fire, waiting for something more.

“Well,” the silky shadow asked, “can you forgive yourself?”

With a suddenness that took hold of him like a heart attack, Victor was thrust into memories.

His first was a kitten.  He’d found it on the side of the road, alone and helpless with a broken leg.  He’d taken it home and nurtured it back to health.  The watery brown eyes had looked at him with such unconditional love.  The leg was better in a week, and Victor had been happy; proud of himself.  He remembered the fur burning: it crackled and hissed like a demonic snake.  It smoked and smelled terrible, and Victor had smiled.

After that the animals were easier.  They came and they loved him, each and every one, and he smiled when he smelled the burning fur or the blood; the tortured incomprehension in their eyes.

But he needed more.

The girl down the street was not much bigger than a dog.  He helped her and held her and told her stories of gleaming palaces lit by torches made of gold.

The girl had screamed.  It was not something he was used to, but he smiled all the same.

On and on it went, from kitten to girl to older girl to young women to mothers and fathers and priests and carpenters and waiters and truck drivers and aspiring actresses.  They all looked at him with love and kindness.

They all screamed, confused.

Victor snapped back to the fire, the flames licking up to the stars, hungry.  He could feel the expectancy of the shadow across from him.

“Well,” the silk asked, “can you forgive yourself?”

Victor broke into tears for the second time that night, and possibly the third or fourth in his life, and said in a whimper, “No!  I can’t forgive myself!”

The sobs that wracked his old and withered body faded but slowly.  His bones felt weak and tired.  His soul was crushed beneath his burden of guilt.  His hatred writhed within him as it always had.

When finally his sobbing was under control, the shadow sighed mournfully and said, “Very well.  I have failed, and so have you.  Good bye, Victor.”

The shadowy figure was gone.  It didn’t dissipate, as Victor had imagined it would.  It simply was no more.  The fire sputtered its last breath and died, leaving no glowing embers of hope behind.

Tears streaked silently into Victor’s scraggly beard, not wanting or needing to be noticed by the man who shed them.

Sitting, Victor fell into darkness.  He thought of demons and kittens and greasy-spoon diners.  He thought of hunting and darkness and shadows.

With his dying breath, knowing that he couldn’t forgive himself, that he therefore could not be forgiven, he thought of flames.

For he knew that was where he was heading.

Short Stories and Info

My name is Craig Barnes.  I am an aspiring author, and have recently e-published my first novel, Arkarum: The Hammer and the Blade.  I’ve decided to put up some short stories here at wordpress, as well as little tidbits of info about what’s going on with me in the literary world, and some sample chapters of my novels.  I welcome all comments, questions or suggestions, from critiques to writing tips to great books you/I’ve read.  Hit me up!!

Thanks so much for taking the time out of your lives to enjoy some (I hope you’ll agree) good writing and creative storytelling.

You can find my novel, Arkarum: The Hammer and the Blade at:

https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/arkarum

And follow me on facebook and twitter, respectively at:

http://www.facebook.com/craig.barnes.1238292

@CraigBarnes8

Thanks again, and I look forward to hearing from any and all of you!!

Craig Barnes