Tag Archives: short story

One More Round

BlogBattle is back, and so are Grant and Teagan, the fearless duo whose fortunes and foibles in the 1930s comprise most of my entries to the competition. 

There’s plenty of time left in August’s contest, with the theme word of “Moon.” Check the link above and pen your own tale of luna-cy. 

Note: I write these as if they’re disjointed episodes of some ’50s radio show because it’s silly and amuses me to do so. 

—-

After a long hiatus, we proudly return to The Adventures of Grant McSwain, Hunter of the Horrific, Vanquisher of the Vile, and Doer of Daring Deeds! (Accompanied as always by his hapless assistant, Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway)

In this episode, howl with delight as–armed with only one silver bullet–Grant faces down betrayal in… “The Werewolves of Wyoming.”

Mountain Moonset, by Jessie Eastland. From Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license.

Grant leaned against the broken stump of a felled tree, his arm propped on his knee, the dented flask in his hand reflecting the dancing firelight. His eyes glinted like gunmetal as he stared at the corpse on the other side of the fire. His other hand rested on the ground, bloodied but clutching his Magnum revolver. The normally spry man now looked like the mountains surrounding the camp—ancient, weathered, too weary to move.

Brushing back her locks of Irish red with a crimson hand, Teagan dug through the contents of her rucksack. He’s losing blood. So am I. There had to be something they could use…

She tried to ignore the fur-covered limbs and the torn waistcoat stretched across the creature’s frame. Blood soaked through the bleached shirt beneath its vest, the result of a single shot to the heart from Grant’s gun.

Unfortunately, it had taken five attempts to hit the mark. The bullets work. At least we know that. We just need more of them. 

The fire in Teagan’s calf blazed and waned with her heartbeat. A jagged hole in her trousers revealed several puncture wounds in a line. She focused on Grant and pushed her pain aside.

Grant shook the flask and the contents sloshed. “Enough for one more round, if you ladies want some Tennessee warmth.”

Teagan glared across the campfire’s radiance as Grant handed the flask to Da-Re, the meddlesome and far too fetching agent of the Empire of Japan. She brushed a hand through her raven hair and smiled. He handed it to her because she’s the closest, Teagan told herself, trying to quench the jealousy flaring in her chest. Why is she sitting so close? 

The wind picked up again, a mournful wail that tore through the pass. The next gust carried what sounded like answering voices in the dark. Thick clouds rolled low in the sky, as if the moon played peekaboo with the creatures of the night.

Da-Re took a swig and gave a hissing grimace at the alcohol’s burn. “Sorry you had to kill your friend, Mister McSwain.” She handed the flask back to Grant and pointedly avoided acknowledging Teagan’s existence.

Grant shook his head. “Roquefort was always more of a patron, wanting this or that recovered, some mystery answered.” His voice slurred, more from fatigue than the whiskey. “The wire demanding an urgent meeting to ‘renegotiate the contract’ should’ve tipped me off.”

The world lurched and Teagan’s vision spun, but she shook off the sensation and rifled through her supplies. Bandages were easy enough… she could make a number of fabric strips out of Grant’s tattered shirt from their first encounter with the beasts. If I can get my head to clear, at least… but we need something to fight off infection…

More howls reverberated through the mountains, each distinct. The pack sorting out their numbers, searching for their missing member, closing in on where they’d last heard his call.

Each voice stirred the depths of Teagan’s being, some primeval yearning for the open plains, the freedom of the wilderness, the thrill of the hunt. The ache of the wound on her calf throbbed with the resounding echoes.

Eyes closed and body drained of strength, Teagan felt her head loll forward as she fell to her hands and knees.

“They’ll be here soon,” Da-Re muttered, drawing Teagan’s attention. The slender Asian rose to her feet—with Grant’s Magnum in hand—then stooped over the furry corpse. She reached into her vest and drew forth a long metal syringe from between two vials filled with a glimmering metallic solution. Colloidal silver… a possible defense or antidote to lycanthropy?

Teagan looked at Grant, eyes blurry as if underwater. He lay on his side, unconscious but breathing. She could almost hear his heartbeat. “What did you do to him,” she asked, her voice a harsh growl.

Da-Re chuckled. “I waited. Nothing more.” She plunged the syringe into Roquefort’s corpse and pulled the slider. A line of dark red shone through the slot in the metal as the empty glass within filled with blood.

“What are you doing?”

“So many questions, Miss O’Daire.” Da-Re checked the vial, wrapped the syringe in fabric, and slid it back into her vest pocket. “The Emperor wants an army that is ready to withstand all opposition… and you’ve seen these creatures’ ferocity. If we can discover a way to harness that power without the unpleasant side effects…”

“Too dangerous,” Teagan rumbled. Talking felt so difficult. Staying lucid seemed impossible. Why was the moon so bright? “You’ve seen what it does to the victims… surely you won’t do that to your own people.”

Da-Re smirked. “We have plenty of test subjects in the lands we’ve conquered.” She tossed her pack over her shoulder. “Sayonara, Miss O’Daire. I trust I will not see you again.”

Teagan ignored the treacherous woman and crawled toward Grant. His shallow breaths sounded like rushing winds to her over-sensitive ears. He still lived. She could smell the tang of iron in his blood—far more bearable than the stink of those metallic vials Da-Re carried in her vest pouch.

“You should leave him be,” Da-Re said. “More peaceful this way. When the werewolves come, they’ll come for prey.”

Teagan’s muscles tensed, and sudden rage coursed through her. Her back arched, bones popped, and fabric tore as she turned her gaze to Da-Re. The woman looked like a silhouette with the moon—so blazingly bright and full—behind her in the sky.

Bhitseach,” Teagan growled, “they’re already here.”

She lunged across the fire, claws extended for the kill.

 

Tune in next time for Da-Re Versus O’Daire, and the Beast Within!

 

Letting Go (Short Story)

I slip in the back door, and a scented wave of cinnamon and sugar hits me, an intended welcoming warmth that I don’t feel. I head for the stairs, hoping to make it to my room before—

“You’re back!” Mom’s voice sounds strained, her cheerful tone forced. Like always. “How was the mall?”

I shrug. “Boring.”

She pulls a plate of snickerdoodles off the stovetop. “I made some treats for Sunday school, and thought you might like some of the extras. They’re fresh out of the oven.”

“I’m not that hungry, Mom. There’s half a dozen. Dinner’s in an hour.” I feel like she should be the one thinking about that. Still, I’m not about to turn the offer down, not entirely. I snatch one off the plate and let my teeth sink into the soft, sweet cookie.

She watches me with concern, that same disturbed look she’s been giving me every night for the last few years. “Well,” she says, “I thought… maybe Thomas would like some? They’re his favorite.”

I roll my eyes and set the plate on the counter. “I’m not dealing with this again today. I have homework.” Maybe Dad will eat the other ones, or I’ll just snack on them during school tomorrow.

School… yeah right. Sitting at the dining table with a couple workbooks and an iPad is “school” as much as the first aid kit in the bathroom makes it a hospital. Homeschooling is supposed to be close, intimate… but the way my parents run things, it’s about giving me busy work so they can avoid dealing with me. I’m fine with that—I try to avoid them, too.

“Don’t forget,” Mom yells down the hallway as I make my escape, “we have an appointment with Nick tomorrow.”

I whirl and let loose. “Can we stop pretending that calling Doctor Greene by his first name takes away the fact he’s a shrink you’re making me see because you think I’m crazy?”

Mom lets out that defeated sigh of hers, the one that means she will leave me alone. It’s a stalemate, but I’ll take it.

I walk past Thomas’s room—always empty, always immaculate—and slam my door before flopping onto my bed. Tomorrow’s a big day; I know that’s why they made the appointment. Five years ago, Thomas and I took off on our bikes, and only one of us came home.

* * * * *

“Hello! Good to see you,” Nick says, with a too-white smile and “Happy Holidays” disposition. I don’t mind calling him Nick, even though I’ll argue with my parents about it. To them, and to him, it probably seems cool, a way of relating to the kids he sees. Whatever. It’s all part of the show we’re putting on here. Thirty minutes of fun and entertainment, and the clock starts now.

He’s got two folding chairs in front of his desk, and a love seat in the corner where Mom and Dad could sit together, if Dad ever bothered to show up. I take the one on the left and sink into a slouch, arms crossed, hoodie shading my view.

“Mrs. Talbach,” Nick says in his overly chipper tone. He turns to me, glances at the empty seat, and says, “I’m really glad Thomas could be here today.”

I kick the extra chair aside with a huff. “It’s just me, Nick,” I hiss, “just like the last five times. What are we paying you for again?”

As soon as I say it, Mom’s emotional rubber band snaps—I can feel her burning glare on the back of my neck. “Mind your tone and watch your manners. You’re not paying him for anything—”

“Darci,” Nick says, cutting her off. His tone is solid and firm. “Maybe you’d like a mug of cocoa? Someone at the front desk can help you.”

He takes a seat beside his desk, his eyes on her. He watches in silence, removing any doubt about the directive nature of his suggestion.

I try not to smirk, and I keep my back to Mom until the door clicks shut.

“So,” Nick says, elbows on knees, chin resting on his laced fingers. “Still pushing your mother’s buttons?”

“As much as she pushes mine.”

“You realize your parents have been through a lot, too, don’t you? Today, especially. The memory of the accident hits them as hard as it does you.”

Of course I realize that… but they didn’t see what happened.

Nick glances at the empty chair. “You say that Thomas isn’t with you anymore, but I’m afraid you’re telling me what you think I want to hear. It’s easy to put on an act for the doctor every two weeks, and you’re a smart kid, no doubt about it. Smart enough to figure that out.”

I stare at him from beneath my hood. That’s most of what Dad pays for—Nick and me staring at each other in silence. Maybe that’s part of why he stopped coming.

“You can be honest with me,” Nick says. “No sign of Thomas at all?”

“I let him go. That’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Move on?”

“Yes, well, you’re a… complex case, in my experience,” Nick replies. His fingers stroke the thick file on the edge of the desk. “In any event, after a traumatic episode, you’re right, it’s important to keep moving forward in life. However, we all want to be sure the direction you’re moving in is healthy. That it leads somewhere better than where you were when we first met.”

Same old speech. “Who’s to say what’s better, Nick?”

“Great question. I think that’s when you benefit most from the perspectives of others—the people who love you, the people you love. Those, like me, who want what’s best for you.”

Out the window, I can see a dozen kids scrambling all over a school playground across the street. Climbing, swinging, chasing, laughing. I miss those days.

Nick leans over and twists the stick; the venetian blinds snap shut. “Tell me about Fairmont Junior High.”

“Sucked.”

“I imagine so, given some of these comics and stories you wrote.” He slides a couple yellowed sheets of paper out from the folder. On one of them, a pair of stick figures fight their way through a school infested with zombies. On another, there’s a list of names titled ‘People I Hope Die.’

I sigh and stare at Nick’s wall of degrees in glossy frames.

Nick points at the comic. “‘Timmy and Tommy Versus the Zombies,’ a tale of twin boys, taking on the mindless horde of cold adults and mean classmates that you had to deal with every day. That’s kind of funny. Maybe a little bit like life?”

When I don’t respond, Nick presses his point. “You drew this, what, a year after he passed away? Do you think maybe you were expressing some feelings you weren’t able to process otherwise?”

I shrug.

“Of course,” Nick continues, “Fairmont had a zero-tolerance policy for anything perceived as threats, so when your teacher found this list, you had to—”

“No! That’s not why we homeschool, okay?”

Nick sits back at the outburst, but gestures for me to elaborate. I’m surprised that came out, but I’m so sick of them worrying about problems and phantoms I’ve already outgrown.

“How do you think it felt,” I say, “being the only kid in middle school with an imaginary friend? Being the kid who freaked out if anyone sat next to him in the cafeteria… Teachers had to keep one desk empty rather than put up with me losing it in the middle of class…”

Nick nods, pretending he knows what it’s like. “That’s why I’m glad we’ve made progress,” he says gently, and gestures at the empty seat. “Some, at least.”

“Whatever. If we made so much progress, what the hell am I doing here?”

“Like I said, you’re complex. There’s still more going on, and I don’t know if you’re ready or willing to address it.”

I shake my head, and my lips curl in frustration. “I’m fine with how things are now. I’m finally fine. I’ve moved on. That’s all I wanted, all I needed. I just wish everybody else would back off and stop trying to tell me what’s best for me.”

“You say that, but—”

“Isn’t it time to go?” I grab the small digital clock he has on his desk—turned away from the patients, of course, but always visible from his chair—and check the time. Ten more minutes. Dammit.

“It’s a sign of progress that you no longer require the additional space and consideration you once expected from everyone,” Nick drones, flipping through records of previous visits. “That’s an important step, but as I review your history, I wonder if we are moving in a healthy direction. One significant concern when dealing with delusions related to trauma is that…”

I’m done with this. My mind shuts down and my eyes wander over the decorations around the room: the dream-catcher some kid made in art class, the framed newspaper story with Nick’s picture, the carved African trickster guy hunched over his flute whose name I can never remember.

“—unable to distinguish,” he continues, “between the real and the imaginary in other parts of life, affecting relationships, job performance—or, in your case, academics—and basic social integration.”

Nick leans forward and gives me his oh-so-caring face. I wonder how many times he practiced that in med school. “What I’m saying is, I can’t just ignore these other symptoms.”

“They’re not symptoms,” I growl. I’m so tired of him and everyone else not listening to what I’m saying about me. “Stop treating me like I have a problem. I had a problem. It’s gone now.”

“You have to want to get well before—”

I fly out of the seat and kick it down behind me. “I am well!”

I had a twin. We did everything together. He got into an accident and died, and that sucks, and nothing’s gonna fix that. I did what I could and let go.

Now I wish they would.

Before Nick can give me another one of his touchy-feely speeches, I storm out the door into the lobby, past Mom and her cup of Swiss Miss, past the secretary’s stupid bulging eyes, past some other waiting mom and her teenage daughter. I leave them all stunned and slam the outer door on my way to the parking lot, slipping my earbuds in. I just want to be alone with the fresh air and my music.

Moments later, Nick leads Mom out the door and checks what I’m doing before continuing his conversation with her. I pause the music on my phone so I can hear, and keep pacing around Mom’s car, eyes on the ground, the perfect image of a distracted teen.

“—following the right approach, Mrs. Talbach. There’s more pain deep inside that he doesn’t want to deal with just yet, and this is his way of coping—or rather, ignoring and suppressing that hurt. Keep on pressing him about why he let go of Thomas.”

“But he gets so angry,” Mom says, her voice quivering like she’s going to cry again. “And he just shuts down whenever I say his name.”

“This is important. It’s going to be a hard road; I won’t lie to you, it’s probably going to be almost as bad as…” He glances at me and leaves the rest unsaid.

The kids on the playground are still shrieking with delight, dashing to and fro. I remember recess with my brother, when we challenged each other to ever-higher climbs and ever-farther jumps off the swings. Always one-upping each other, never afraid of the risks. That, and pranking the teachers in grade school, who never could tell us apart.

“Talk to Jared,” Nick says, referring to Dad. “Please, encourage him to come next time. He’s burying his pain, too. Maybe helping his son will draw both of them out of their shells.”

Mom nods. “I’ll try.”

Can’t wait to see the train wreck tonight when she brings that up.

* * * * *

“I’m not going back, Darci,” Dad shouts. “I tried that psycho-babble bull. We’re throwin’ money at that guy every month, and for what?”

They always think their fights are some kind of secret, something I don’t notice because it happens after dark, behind closed doors. Even quiet voices carry through the vents; shouts come through loud and clear. The doors and walls aren’t nearly as soundproof as their minds.

“Honey,” Mom pleads, “there has to be some way to make things better.” I hear the crack in her voice as she adds, “I can’t lose him too.”

“Wasn’t it that quack’s idea to let the imaginary friend crap run its course in the first place? Then all of a sudden, we’re supposed to stop playing along. Where did that get us, huh?”

Like I’m some garbage video game they’re playing… Push A to expose pain; tap B to speed recovery; use right trigger to unlock closer relationship.

“Doctor Greene says we need to keep talking to Thomas,” Mom insists, her voice ragged. That tone—she’s barely holding together. It’s the threshold before the bubbling pot boils over.

“Darci, he keeps saying Thomas isn’t there anymore.” For once I have the tiny spark of hope that maybe someone believes me. “He’s not doing any of that imaginary crap like before. Maybe we’re only going to make things worse if we press the issue.”

“I can’t pretend that—I won’t accept that he—God, Jared, every time he acts like this, I feel like I’m grieving all over again.”

Dad says nothing. I get where Mom’s coming from, but she doesn’t know what Thomas went through, either.

“So… what do we do?” Mom sounds broken.

“Hell if I know.”

* * * * *

“Let’s talk about that day.” Nick isn’t even trying to go slow today.

“Fine. There’s not much to say. We rode our bikes up the steep hill on Hoffman Street, up to the train tracks. Nobody rides down that hill—it’s crazy. I told Thomas he didn’t have to do it, I told him he won the bet. I chickened out.”

“Is that right?”

“He said it wouldn’t be fair if he didn’t go through with it.”

Nick sits back, giving me a suspicious eye. “What did you say to that?”

I look around the room, trying to focus on anything else. Mom didn’t bother coming in this time. Dad called about some last-minute meeting at the office, so Mom stayed in the car fighting with him over the phone while I checked myself in for my appointment.

Against my will, the memories flash through my mind: my brother lurching forward and pedaling like mad, building up speed before the descent, my hand reaching out as if I could pluck him off the bike from ten feet away. “I didn’t have time to say anything.”

For an instant, I feel the onset of tears, the old hurt like a hand wrapped around my heart, squeezing into a fist. It was my fault. I goaded him into it. He lost control—I should’ve known that would happen—and went into traffic on Garfield Avenue at the bottom of the hill…

“Thomas,” Nick says, “it’s not healthy. All that guilt, all that blame, that crushing burden? You’ve been carrying it too long.”

My eyes drop to that folder on the desk, the name “Thomas Talbach” written in thick black Sharpie. Of course that fat secretary had me booked under the wrong name, the same one on Nick’s file. As he waits for me to answer, Nick taps his fingers on the folder almost like he’s pointing out the mistake everyone keeps making.

Just like how the hospital put the wrong name on the death certificate.

Just like the gravestone.

I don’t need any help. I don’t have any burden to put down. My only problem is I don’t know how to get everyone else to see that.

“My name,” I mutter, “is Timothy.”

Nick locks eyes with me, his face stern, his tone hard. “You need to let go, Thomas.”

“That’s the thing, Nick. I already did.”

 

Delusions and Adventures – Two Open Submission Opportunities

Writer friends and followers:

While there are a host of magazines and collections that often solicit submissions, two recent options caught my eye.

ApparitionLit runs a quarterly open solicitation for submissions of poetry and short fiction, with some appropriately thrilling or mysterious theme. This quarter is “delusion,” but unfortunately, the session is about to close (Feb 28th).

They’re accepting works with a theme of vision from May 15-31, and submission guidelines can be found here.

Find a quiet place, listen to the voices in your head, and write out all your inner pain… easy!

 

 

 

 

 

Since I’ve been focused on preparing my own submission, I failed as a blogger and provided those links far too late for anyone else to benefit. To make up for this heinous misdeed, here is another opportunity for short story submissions:

Rachel Ritchey is organizing a short story contest for adventure fantasy and sci-fi pieces as part of an anthology to raise money for charity. The inspiration for this piece is a cover picture provided with the submission details at the link above.

This contest just opened up today (Feb 26th) and runs until March 16th.

Now my guilty conscience is (somewhat) appeased, and I can get back to working on my own pieces.

Finding Allies

Readers: This is a scene I wrote for a character in a tabletop roleplaying game, someone out to do good even if their powers are misunderstood and condemned by society at large.


Fleuris ducked down the alleyway between wooden shops and hawker’s stands near the Quay, weaving her way between the meandering peasants ogling things they could never afford. She shot a glance behind her and caught a glimpse of sunlight sparkling off two shields emblazoned with the six-point sun of Aulivar.

Soulforged—champions of Justice and unwavering bastions of virtue. They’d chased her across mountains and rivers, over leagues and tendays. She’d tried to ditch them in the dark corners of every town and city in the ‘Marches, but still they maintained their pursuit.

Even among their zealous order, few sins earned such relentless retribution as necromancy.

If only they could let me explain… if only they could understand.

Her friends would be waiting at the docks… Trenton strumming his lute and singing a sailor chanty, Galla sharpening her longswords, Hakri meditating and memorizing a fresh array of war-spells. But the three companions wouldn’t be enough by themselves to take on the pirate crew… so Fleuris intended to bring help.

It shouldn’t be far now, and the ritual wouldn’t take long—provided the Order lost the trail along the way. Her prize lay at the edge of Mirelenai’s sprawl of ramshackle buildings and flimsy shanties. The dread pirate Bloodhook the Brutal, Captain of the mighty Dire Shark, scourge of the Bay of Raentallas, lay wrapped in tight sheets in a shallow grave outside the town. After the mutiny, Bloodhook’s crew buried him on land to prevent his spirit from returning to the seas he loved and lorded over—one last spiteful jab at the savage master who had beaten them into submission.

Now the Dire Shark sailed the bay once more, tormenting seafaring merchants and plundering their ships’ holds. The Seamistress would pour out a chest full of gems and gold coins on anyone who sent the Dire Shark to the ocean’s floor.

“Seize that girl!” a voice shouted from much too close behind her. Another shouted, “The Ghostskin in purple,” and Fleuris gasped. She zipped down a narrow walkway that stank like an open sewer, trying not to consider the filth staining the hem of her burgundy skirt. The deep violet cloak wrapped around her wispy frame obscured her face from view, and her gloves of thick, black lace helped hide the tell-tale alabaster skin the Order sought.

She hustled through the dim-lit walkway, headed for the sunlight at the far end. A few paces from the street, she stumbled over an unseen obstacle like a tree root, and glanced down, squinting in the darkness. A body of some poverty-stricken peasant lay slumped against a wall, not yet dead a full tenday, judging by the rate of decay.

Fleuris probed the supernatural realm with her heightened senses and latched onto a glowing spark of life hanging in limbo. “I’m sorry,” she whispered to the soul, then again to the body on the ground. She yanked the life force from the ether and shoved it into the corpse, then watched the fruit of her labor.

The body clambered to its feet, loosing a swarm of flies and dropping chunks of flesh. Dead eyes stared at Fleuris, waiting.

She doffed her cloak, threw it over the corpse’s shoulders, and sent it a forceful command. Then she slipped into the crowds on the street, her step calm and sure despite the racing thrash of emotions and the rapid drumbeat in her chest.

After passing a few merchants, Fleuris paused at a tailor’s stand and reached for her coinpurse. “How much for the forest green cloak there,” she asked, “with the silver trim?”

While they exchanged offers and counter-offers, Fleuris caught the glimpse of her violet cloak near the walkway she’d passed through. The animated corpse shambled into the street and lumbered away from her, toward the busy docks at the heart of the town.

Fleuris threw the new garment over her shoulders and clasped the smooth material with a silver brooch under her chin. Then she froze in fear. Two dozen paces away, she spotted the pair of Soulforged from the Order, stomping their way through the crowd toward her.

“Undead!” Someone shouted in the distance, and another voice chimed in. “A walking corpse near the Ragged Sail! To arms!”

Other cries joined the throng, and the two Soulforged halted their approach. Then they dashed toward the commotion, swallowing whole the hook and bait she’d left them.

Fleuris turned her back to them and strode away with as casual a pace as she could muster. This road would curve toward the fields and foothills outside the town. A short walk by the bay in the afternoon breeze would lead to the grove which held Bloodhook’s remains.

Buried on a slope within earshot of the sea, but laid in a grave that faced away from the water… With cruel care, the Dire Shark’s crew had chosen the site of Bloodhook’s final resting place.

Not final, Fleuris corrected herself. He will rise again… I’ll see to that. Though he did nothing to atone for his crimes in life, he shall do much to repay them in death.

After all, Trenton and Galla had asked for allies on their quest. They didn’t specify living allies.

 


Note: This was written and inspired partly by discussions about whether a necromancer in D&D could possibly be considered “good.” My thoughts on the subject are found here, but I’d love to hear yours.

The Kinder Choice

Here’s a short story for Rachael Ritchey’s Blog Battle this week, where the word is restraint and the suggested genre is Historical Fiction, specifically Western. 

This is one of my current favorite characters, the gambler prophet whose dice give him insight into what’s to come. But this is a generation later, when the Gift has moved on to a new face – Annabelle Boudreaux, a troubled woman with a deck of cards that calls her to action. 

I really want to turn one of these into a NaNoWriMo book or similar project, but for now, they’ll pop up in short stories.

—-

The moon casts a bright silver light across the plains, and stars twinkle over the Falstaff Saloon. The street smells like manure and tabacca-spit despite the soft pitter-pat of rain, and cigar smoke rolls out the door like a fog. The music inside fills the breeze with a dancin’ tune, the fiddler better than this corrupt town deserves.

Mercado’s whole gang is inside. The man himself is upstairs—chasin’ sporting girls, countin’ blood money, maybe both.  The century may have turned, but men are pretty much the same as ever.

I feel the ache in my bones—joints that have seen a several dozen years complain at the thought of what’s to come. I put this life behind me twenty years ago, and I’m not keen on seeing it claw back out of the plot where I buried it.  

The young brunette next to me slides the last round into the chamber of her revolver. The Devil’s Sharpy, Annabelle Boudreaux has the Gift just like I once did—with a deck of cards instead of my old pair of dice. ‘Course she uses it pretty much the opposite of me.

“This is a mistake, Annabelle.”

“It was a mistake for him to snatch Aideen off the stage—one of many poor choices Mercado’s made over his lifetime.”

Aideen Brannaghan—Annabelle’s half-sister and partner-in-crime, a timid Irish lass who’s decent with a pistol, but deadlier with a pair of knives than anyone I know, once you spark her temper. We could really use her now… but then we wouldn’t need to be here in the first place.

“I meant us, alone, trying to take him down.”

“It’s what the cards said would come to pass.” She laughs, and the whiskey on her breath nearly gets me drunk. I wonder how she sees straight to shoot, but then I remember how the Gift worked in my day. It’d be hard to miss a target all glowed up like an electric lantern.

“Maybe something’s changed,” I venture, knowing how weak and futile the plea must sound.

Annabelle slides out a deck of gleaming cards and fans a dozen in her hand, every card a one-eyed Jack. The hearts catch my eye as important—something she never bothered to explain. I ain’t sussed out all of how she interprets what the Gift shows her.

“You of all people should know better, Mister ‘God’s Shooter’ himself.”

I spit on the ground. “A stupid nickname from a far-fetched story written by a fool.”

“Quite a few stories, or so I hear… the better part of ‘em true.”

“Not a lot of men you can trust. Pretty girl like you has to know that by now.”

“Men lie, but graves don’t. You ready?” She flashes me that smile of hers, then turns away before I can respond.

“You ain’t.” Like most women I’ve cared about, once she gets an idea in her head, there’s no dissuading her. My words are wasted before they’re out my mouth, but I say ‘em anyhow.

“Just try to keep up.”

With that, Annabelle dives through the swinging double doors of the saloon, and thunder booms from the pair of Colts in her slender fingers. The fiddler’s bow screeches to a halt and he dives behind the bar.

“Show some restraint,” I shout over the din, laying down some covering fire at the boys on the second floor. “You can’t just go in guns blazin’ like the Gift is some kind of magic shield.”

Annabelle shoots me a glare. “But that’s what you did for years.”

“An’ I got the scars to prove it.”

She plugs one of Mercado’s goons with a no-look over-the-shoulder shot. Makes me wonder if the Gift works different for her than it did for me. Then she gives me a raised eyebrow. “Pretty sure no one but Lucien ever landed a shot on you, Zack. You can’t lie to a natural born swindler.”

“I’m not talkin’ about my skin, girl. Some hurts, time don’t heal.”

“That much I already know. That’s why I’m here… to give back some of the hurt Mercado done to me and mine.” She fans the hammer and sweeps the room. Three more toughs drop to the hardwood floorboards. Quiet fills the main room downstairs, and there’s a muffled scream from the second floor.

“Aideen,” Annabelle shouts. She dashes up the steps, and I hobble after her quick as my age permits.

Before Annabelle reaches the double-doors of the master suite, gunfire tears through the polished wood. Annabelle shoulders through the doorway, guns at the ready, disappearing from my view.

Unexpected silence hangs over the saloon as I lurch toward the shattered doors. Once I reach the suite, I find Annabelle holding Aideen close, the younger girl half-dressed, her short splash of red hair tucked underneath Annabelle’s chin.

A wisp of smoke curls up from the pistol in Aideen’s shaking hand, and two bodies lay slumped in the corner with large crimson stains in their pretty white waistcoats. “Had to wait until I could get loose,” Aideen whispers. “But I almost—they were going to—“ She trails off, eyes squeezed shut.

Annabelle’s gaze remains fixed. Her hand doesn’t flinch at all, the barrel of her Colt trained on the bead of sweat runnin’ down the furrow between Mercado’s eyebrows. The man sits against the wall clutching the gunshot wound in his leg.

Annabelle’s finger tenses up on the trigger. Then she smirks. “Aideen, go get your knives.”

Aideen starts collecting her things and hands Annabelle one of the long steel blades.

“Let the law clean this up, girl. You done what you set out to do.”

“Oh no,” Annabelle says with a mirthless laugh. “He’s not buying his way off the gallows again. Getting Mercado was just the start. Now we can have some fun.” She turns a hungry grin his way, and he goes whiter than a playing card. “I’ve been waiting years for this, amigo.”

“Annabelle, don’t become the thing you hate. Trust me.”

“This man,” she says, waving the Colt in Mercado’s quivering face, “is a scourge on this whole Territory, a pus-filled boil of infection on the back of humankind.” Her face is red an’ steaming, her eyes like a locomotive furnace at full bore–and Mercado’s tied to the tracks up ahead-a that train. “The things he’s done deserve an eternity of all God’s wrath, and I think it’s fitting we get started in the here and now.”

“Think about what you’re doing, dammit.” I see the pistol flinch in her hand—gotta hope what I’m sayin’ might sink in. “You been given this foresight for a reason, a purpose, something bigger and greater than seekin’ your own self-interest.”

Annabelle swallows hard, and the barrel of the Colt dips toward the floor. “You’re right, Zack,” she says with a long sigh.

Then she blows Mercado’s brains across the wood-paneled wall.

“Christ have mercy, girl, what did I say? Show some restraint!”

Annabelle dumps the empty cartridges on the floor in the spreading pool of blood and hands the knife back to Aideen.

“I did,” she says, colder than a desert night. “You don’t know what all I had planned.”

My Galway Girl

Ed Sheeran’s new YouTube video caught my eye in the trending videos the other morning:

The video is a fun romp through the nightlife of the town, from clubs to bars with a dance troupe and a tattoo parlor in between. Sheeran’s music always feels rich and full of inviting complexity to me–easy enough that you bop along to the beat like the usual radio pop, but with enough quality and skill baked in that you can really enjoy some subtle touches. Likewise, the catchy chorus is contrasted with his usual quick-witted wordplay and cadence. It’s a good example of everything I like about his albums.

Despite my love of Ed Sheeran’s music, that’s not what really drew me to check out the video.

About a year ago, I started a series of loosely connected short stories for the wonderful Rachael Ritchey’s weekly BlogBattle. I’d tried my hand at some varied pieces based on the prompts, but someone else had done an ongoing story with a couple interesting characters and their madcap antics. I thought that would be an interesting challenge.

Some combination of the League of Explorer content in Hearthstone and my kids’ enjoyment of the Indiana Jones movie series led me down a path toward a bumbling tough guy with the chiseled jaw and gleaming smile who gets all the credit, and his “hapless” assistant, the fiery redhead from Ireland who actually gets the job done and saves his bacon.

He’s the brash and dapper charmer who, heedless of danger, punches his way through a burial chamber full of Nazis to snag the mysterious  artifact and save the damsel in distress. She’s the “weak” sidekick checking meticulous research in her pouch, marking traps with flags, and disabling the Nazis’ death machine–all the while casting sidelong and suspicious glares at the obvious double-agent on his arm.

Enter Grant McSwain, Doer of Daring Deeds, and his hapless assistant, Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway.

For a dash of realism, I did some wiki-browsing and found articles on supposedly authentic Irish phrases. Those searches led to a travel site for “places to visit in Galway, Ireland,” which seemed like the perfect hometown for this world-wandering adventurer. I loved what I read–it’s always fun trying (as much as one can over the Internet) to dive into the characteristics and unique qualities of a particular town or region.

To see it in living color–even if somewhat staged–is that much better. And while the song and video are entirely modern, Sheeran still conveys that ancient “don’t you wish you were here?” allure of the Emerald Isle.

If you haven’t seen the video, it’s fun and worth a view. And if you haven’t read the adventures of Grant McSwain, you can check the BlogBattle category of posts, or you can find them compiled on Wattpad here.

#BlogBattle entry – A Calculating Man

This week’s Blog Battle entry is for the word “bribe” in whatever genre I choose. This is the second half of last week’s story from the underworld featuring Dom the detective and his dearly loved Innova the spirit of creativity.

I’m a little bit late and a lot bit over the word count but here it is:

Statue of a red oni, from Wikipedia (Public Domain)

I crouch and hustle toward the banks of the River Styx, my drab, lifeless fingers wrapped around Innova’s wrist, almost charcoal against her gleaming skin. The waters ahead churn black and gray underneath a rolling mist. We’re almost to the ferry, hiding behind ramshackle houses, slipping through crowds of bodies wandering aimless near the docks like the wreckage of the afterlife.

Innova digs her heels into the dirt and pulls me back. “Dom, this is insane.” She gestures at the small black box strapped around her radiant ankle. “You should just take me back to the bar before the Oni gets suspicious. Calm, rational responses aren’t his style.”

I ain’t rational either, not when it comes to her. She doesn’t understand the lengths I’ll go to, the madness and hope her presence inspires within me. I’ve been Soulless for years, ever since I pulled the trigger on all my pain and suffering. I’d hoped to end it, and got an eternity’s worth instead. And after years on the outskirts of the underworld, this spirit of creativity clinging to my arm is the only thing that matters to me.

“I still have more time with you,” I protest. “He gave me his word. And if you can’t believe the giant ogre-demon Overlord who runs half of Death’s Landing, then who in Hell can you trust? Other than me, of course,” I add with a laugh.

Innova scoffs, but follows toward the ferry. Fact is, I need her to trust me on this one, maybe more than ever. I’ve been working this plan for a while and can’t have it fall apart at the last step.

 The Ferryman stands at the stern of his vessel, watching each tank of bootleg spirits his dockhands unload to their storage facility. “Move faster,” he growls. “I got another shipment to fetch from the other side.”

I can hear a crowd of voices on the other side of the building, the eager buyers who ditched the Oni and his expensive bar to come get a cheaper fix. The Ferryman is building some powerful demand from his customers, judging by the ruckus on the streets nearby. Makes me wonder what he’s getting out of the bargain. The Oni deals in secrets… what does the Ferryman collect?

Questions for another day. We’re a short dash from the mooring, and the dockhands are hauling off the last of the tanks. The Ferryman is already pushing away from the dock. It’s now or never.

 I feel Innova pulling away, resisting, quivering with fear now that we’re in sight of the ferry. “Trust me, babe,” I whisper. Then I dash for the boat, and thankfully she comes along, her fingers digging into my unfeeling skin.

 The dockhands watch in surprise, and the tanks of spirit they’re carrying fall forgotten in the dirt. The Ferryman’s face twists in confusion at the sight of this blazing bright woman and the bedraggled scrub of a Soulless running toward him.

 We hit the edge of the dock and leap, hanging over the black waters of the Styx for a second before crashing onto the planks of the ferry in a tumble.

 A voice roars loud enough to shake my heart inside chest. “What is the meaning of this?!” I look up at the Ferryman, but he’s glaring at someone on the docks. Behind me, Innova groans.

 At the edge of the dock, surrounded by a team of hovering demon-spawn, the Oni stands armored and armed for battle, his fists on the massive plates of obsidian at his hips. His mask is a glowing crimson like lava. His horns are tipped in blood. The long sword he holds in one hand looks like a massive sheet of razor-sharp metal with a handle tossed onto one end for convenience.

 His mask moves slightly, his gaze taking in the whole scene. When he speaks, the dock rumbles beneath his weight. “A fool hoping to steal one of my precious guests? And perhaps worse—a greater fool cutting into my market with cheap imitations of my product?”

 The Oni points, and four winged demons swoop toward the ferry to pull it back to the dock. The Ferryman whistles and a dozen of his burly assistants pour out of the storage facility in seconds, fists clenched, ready for a scrap.

 “Dom,” Innova breathes, “what have you done?”

 The Oni stomps a hoof onto the ferry and for a moment I fear the whole thing will capsize. His entourage of demons engage the dockhands trying to reach their master, and the shoreline turns into a madcap fight scene from some eighties action movie.

 “I’m not trying to escape with Innova,” I say.

 “Of course you are not,” the Oni replies, the empty eyes of his mask fixed on the Ferryman. “You are a thoughtful man, Dominick. A calculating man who knows the cost would be more than he could pay.”

“Just figured you’d be interested in what’s going on here.”

The Oni takes a step toward his rival. His fingers tighten around the haft of his ridiculous sword—a wall of metal bigger than my entire body. “You are correct,” he says, fearless, like a master looming over his cowering dog.

 The Ferryman’s eyes dart along the docks and the shore. His men put up a good fight, but the demons are driving them back, separating the dockhands from their leader. He throws up his hands in desperation before the Oni. “You can’t kill me! I keep the Underworld full of fresh souls, customers you need. If I stop bearing the departed from the world above, the whole circle of death and life breaks down.”

 “You speak truth,” the Oni admits. “I cannot kill you. However…”

 There’s a rush of wind as the Oni unleashes an overhead chop. The Ferryman screams and his left arm hits the deck with a thud.

 “You can still pilot your vessel with one hand.” The Oni leans in close. “I’m quite certain you could do it without legs if need be.” His expressionless mask examines the ship. “The soul-traps on this vessel… you will disassemble them, yes?”

 The Ferryman whimpers and gives a vigorous nod.

 Then the Oni turns to Innova and me, standing at the stern, near the rudder and the wheel. “You had a hand in arranging this meeting, Dominick. Did you seek reward? Are you currying favor, perhaps asking for another day with my lovely spirit by your side?”

 Now we come to it, the moment I’m expecting and dreading and hoping for all at once. I lick my lips, eyeing that insane, bloody thing in the Oni’s massive hand. “How about—how ‘bout you set her free?”

 The Oni stares in silence.

 “Otherwise,” I continue, forcing some resolve into my voice until it booms over the waters, “Otherwise, I flip this on and you all get sucked into the soul traps like a Hoover.” I tip my chin toward my hand, resting on the switch that powers the vessel’s mechanisms.

 I swear, even the dockhands and demons on the shore go silent. Rule number one of the outskirts: you don’t threaten the Oni.

Innova whips her head around at me, her jaw hanging like a fish plucked from the water. Even now she’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen.

 I take my eyes off her and find the Oni inches from my face, his blood-mask staring down at me, a fire smoldering in the black pits of his eye holes. “You dare not risk your beloved.”

 He’s smart, calling my bluff. I don’t have an answer for that.

 “I’d rather die,” Innova declares, “than be trapped on your shelf, brought out to prance before the refuse that frequents your bar, hoping to someday earn the right of basic freedom.”

 I take her hand and give it a squeeze. I wasn’t sure how to get around the obvious fact that I would never put her into harm’s way.

 The Oni grunts in frustration. His fingers flex and splay around the haft of his wall-sword. “You would be trapped too.”

 “I’m Soulless,” I reply. “I’ve got nothing to trap, nothing to lose.”

 Our standoff lasts several minutes, and then the Oni laughs. “Well played. Bribing me with my own soul. Truly a calculating man.” He turns to Innova and etches two glyphs of flame in the air. “Your contract is revoked. You are free to go.”

 Innova gasps, stumbling like a drunk. Her natural radiance gleams even more, like the sun finally peeking through a cloudy sky. “You—what?”

 “You are freed, spirit. No longer bound.” His voice hardens into a primal growl. “Nor do you belong here any longer.”

 

She flashes me a smile of thanks before he banishes her from the Underworld. There’s a flash of light, then—nothing. An empty spot where she stood, a hole in my heart that only she filled.

I look up at the gloomy skies and the thick stalactites high above, imagining that somewhere, beyond the miles of rock and lava, she’s feeling the sun on her face once again. It’s the only thing keeping me standing under the crushing weight of grief and loss.

“I respect what you have done here, Dominick,” the Oni says. “But you are wrong.”

“About what?” I stand at the stern, staring into the darkness above.

“Having nothing to lose,” the Oni says. He marches off the ferry, each step rocking the shuddering vessel.

Download on the Down-Low

Here’s my BlogBattle entry for this week, with the word “pirate” and the genre of crime/thriller, especially mystery.

This was an unexpected return to the setting of a recent piece starring Dom the Deadtective and his love interest, Innova, the Spirit of Innovation, prisoner of the cruel and powerful Oni. I’ll finish this story with next week’s Blog Battle. 

—–

Innova tiptoes through the alleyway, weaving between puddles of vomit and piles of Devil-Knows-What. Her nose turns up at the odor, or at least that’s the impression I get. Not sure spirits breathe at all, let alone smell anything. 
We’re a couple blocks down the road from the banks of the Styx, where the Ferryman drops off all the new arrivals–assuming they don’t find other ways into these parts. I can see the crowd of newcomers stumbling around, dumbfounded, maybe trying to make sense of their last moments, struggling to understand how they ended up here. 

High overhead, angels speed through the plumes of ash and swirling clouds, zipping to and fro on whatever errands Heaven deems important. Other spirits flicker through the sky over the crowd, curious and watchful, but keeping their distance. 

Some goblins are slumped against the wall of the alley, drunken to oblivion, surrounded by the wreckage of a keg and the stench of waste. I’m jealous of Innova, and wishing my nose could block out the stink. But being caught between life and death means just about everything works fine. 

Everything except hope.

“I can’t believe,” Innova says, looking around, “that you traded away your Intel on the Prince of Rage for this.”

Turned out ol’ Belial’s got a secret. Big fan of bootleg entertainment smuggled from the up-world… and I’m talking cartoons with ponies and unicorns, or movies where dolphins save the day. Haven’t seen anything so funny in all my years down here as a massive, black-horned Daemon Lord fighting back tears when the little girl and her dolphin finally reunite at the end of the film. 

The Oni didn’t believe me at first–I had to bring him proof. Hacked in and copied a video feed from the Prince’s lair. When the Oni watched it, he laughed so hard I thought he’d shatter his armor. 

The blackmail potential was worth a fortune. Got me a day with Innova, outside the Oni’s club. The tracker strapped around her ankle rattles a little with each step–a formality, really. Her radiant figure is pretty hard to miss strolling down the black tar streets of Hell. Plenty of petty thugs and beady-eyed hellspawn watching our every move. If I tried to escape with the Spirit of Innovation, one of these devils’ll rat me out to the Oni in a heartbeat. 

The thought barely crossed my mind, like, five or ten times. I know some back ways and hidden paths through the outskirts of the underworld. Could prob’ly give the Oni’s toughs a good chase–maybe even make it to some kind of freedom, such as there is to find down here.

But much as I love Innova’s company, I need her for something else right now. Everything’s brighter when she’s around. Clearer. Focused. Complicated things just start to make sense. It’s her effect on the people around her, boosting creativity, inspiring new ideas, new ways of seeing things. 

“Dom,” Innova says, “seriously. What are we doing here?”

“I’m hoping it’s just a quick stop before we find something better to do. I’ve got a bit of mystery to figure out.”

Turns out someone’s been cutting into the Oni’s unique business–I’m talking the bottled spirits, not the brokering of secrets. The numbers at the bar have been low lately, like people found another source. Only there ain’t another being with the power to capture and collect pure spiritual essence, so an upstart rival doesn’t make sense.

My lead pointed me this way, before he vanished. Then he turned up a husk, drained of whatever remnants of life he’d brought down here from his mortal days. Figure if someone goes to the trouble of killing a dead person to keep a secret, must be a good one.

Too good of one, in fact. I’ve scoured these streets a hundred times on my own, with nothing to show but worn-out soles. Not a scrap of a clue to go on… and today’s not looking any better.

“Let’s go on,” I say, taking Innova’s hand. But she doesn’t move. Head cocked, brow furrowed, she’s fixated on the main thoroughfare. 

“What is it, babe?”

She purses her lips. “Why are so many people moving the wrong direction, toward the ferry?”

I watch the shifting bodies and heads bobbing up and down, letting my eyes go a little unfocused, taking in the big picture. She’s right. Among all the clueless recently departed, there are a handful going against the stream like salmon in the rapids. I’ve been checking out the headstones, so to speak, forgetting that there’s a whole cemetery.

In fact, the only ones that move with any purpose are weaving the wrong way through the shambling masses and their vacant stares. I don’t remember ever feeling that way after I came down here. “Does everyone look sluggish to you?”
Innova nods. 

We head toward the ferry too, sticking to alleys and side streets–for whatever it’s worth since I’m walking beside a glowing vision of beauty. There’s a rusted ladder hanging from a fire escape on the next building–an amusing feature for the pit of hell. “Maybe we should get onto the rooftops,” I suggest. “Lots of eyes down here.”

Innova shrugs and starts climbing. The look in her eyes is still a mixture of love and confusion. “You have the weirdest ideas for dates,” she calls down as I climb up. Then something catches her eye and she disappears from view.

The ferry pulls up to the dock, full of passengers about to disembark into the wrong side of eternity. They all look just as lifeless as the crowd, no pun intended. I find myself mesmerized watching them lumbering off the boat and into their new home. 

“Look at the Ferryman,” Innova whispers. He’s working at the back of the vessel, hooking up fuel hoses or something, charging the ferry’s necrotic cells for another trip, perhaps.

Except when I look at the pulsing lights, it’s clear the energy is pumping the wrong way. Dockhands disconnect metal tanks and carry them off, one under each thick arm. Empty cylinders replace the first pairs, then another set.

Innova peers at the tanks and gasps. “Those are full of spirits… or spiritual essences of some kind. I can sense the emotions, the experiences–the contents of the tanks feel like they’ve been spliced or suctioned off the new arrivals on the ferry.”

Things finally click into place. “They’re burning bootleg copies of souls,” I say, “collecting passions… pirating the human spirit.”

“Is that even possible?”

“Maybe they’re not as high-quality as what the Oni offers, but probably good enough for a cheap fix.” I creep toward the edge of the rooftop. “We need to get on board that ship.”

“Uh, Dom?” Innova kicks up her smooth, long leg and wiggles her foot at me, jostling the tracker. “The Oni will unleash all hell after you if I step on that ferry. What are we supposed to do about this?”

I can’t help but grin. She’s so cute when she’s concerned. And like a flash of her bright smile, a moment of inspired genius flares in my mind. 

Innova grimaces. “Oh, I don’t like that look.”

“Why not?” I poke a playful finger her way. “”It’s your fault, after all. I’ve got an idea, one that solves all our problems at once…”

—–

(to be continued next week)

My Life’s Work – a #BlogBattle short story

Here’s my Blog Battle entry for this week, in the genre of fantasy, with the theme word of “selfie.”
I especially enjoyed writing something placed in my own fantasy setting from my novel Diffraction. 


Update: My Life’s Work tied for the winning story this week. Thank you for the votes! The other winning story is World Views by Carl Bystrom. Check his piece out, along with all the other BlogBattlers participating each week.

– – – 
I hear their voices long before I see them. Footfalls echo in the halls. Laughter and commentary resounds off the palace’s high ceiling and polished marble floors.

“Look at this piece,” the man says. “Astounding… like what a falcon in flight must see from on high over the City’s towers.” He sounds refined, educated, a man of wealth and relative ease. Probably one of the City’s many so-called Ministers–men and women whose title implies service, something of which they are invariably found only on the receiving end.

“So real,” his companion replies, her soft voice hushed in awe. “I
feel almost faint, as if I might fall through and plummet to my
death.” Too chipper for my taste, too airy. I imagine she’s the upper
class equivalent of dancing girls in the Outskirts–there for show,
not insight. Her voice calls to mind a songbird displayed in a cage,
able to delight for short durations, but insufferable if permitted to
make constant noise.

“Still better to you than the portraits?”

“Much,” she says. “I don’t like the faces. The landscapes at least are
magnificent.”

“Reminiscent of Serathil’s work,” the man says. “I know that’s what
they all say of Marwen’s paintings, but I had no idea the similarities
would be so striking.”

“Perhaps Marwen learned some of the same techniques… or more likely stole them.”

Or perhaps I fought for years to master my craft, you coddled child. What do you have that wasn’t given to you for no other reason than the fortune of your birth or the depth of your bosom?

And then I remember the Visitor years ago–his unhinged personality, inhuman predatory eyes, and alluring offer.

Why did I ever agree?

“Do you believe the stories about Serathil? How she captured such
lifelike scenes on canvas?”

The man shrugs. “The Abbey’s Devoted declare it was a gift of the
Divine, some blessing of Aulis that allowed Light to shine through her brush. But the Arcanists claim she used some form of Refocusing
technique, blending the elements into her portraits and landscapes.”

I’ve heard plenty of similar answers. I wish it were something so
simple, so pure.

This month, the Lord Mayor put my life’s work on display–a welcome opportunity for a better perspective. The Academy and Arcanists’ Hall each presented a few well-known examples, and Lord Peledor graciously brought forth several obscure pieces from his private collection. For the benefit of the commonfolk of Aulivar, they all said. But precious few commoners dare walk these halls. All I’ve seen so far are stiff-necked nobles and haughty elites of the upper class.

All of them say what I already know. Her work is so like Serathil, but not quite. Colorful, but less so. Vivid, almost as if the canvas
moves… but not as much as her masterpieces. Forever a step behind.

They don’t know the decades I spent trying to catch up. Days of
fasting, hours of fervent prayer, begging–pleading with the Divine to
grant me a touch of the same favor. I studied with failed Arcanists
and any Elemental willing to explain the secrets of magic. I spent
vast sums to learn what little they deigned to share–all for naught.

And would they even care? Does anyone recognize the effort that goes into an art form? Do they admire the discipline, the growth, the long transition from unskilled pieces no better than blotches of color to amateurish, misshapen portraits, then finally to lifelike scenery and recognizable faces? Perhaps I never reached Serathil’s perfection, but I’m confident no artist worked harder or did more than me with the raw ability granted her by the Divine.

One woman is born with an effortless gift that leads to inevitable
greatness and recognition. Another comes to the art without noticeable skill, but through constant effort and relentless discipline rises and improves to grasp at the master’s heels. Is that journey worth nothing? Must one surpass all others to be praised, or is it enough to improve beyond one’s present limitations?

I already know the answer to this.

Despite all my effort, my skill proved insufficient to garner public
awareness. But with the Visitor’s gift–the brush, its wood stained
and charred black like a log from the hearth.

For a moment, I feel my fists clench, the old fury building and
burning like bile in my chest. Every so often it strikes me that I can
still feel anything at all.

I try to avoid the eyes of the portraits around the room–the ones
that face me, at least. My best work, indeed, but also my worst. I
dare not dwell on it, but every time I behold one of those faces, the
rush of grief and guilt threatens to consume what’s left of my heart.

“Serathil’s methods are inscrutable,” the Visitor hissed so many years ago, his hand extending his dark gift. “Even to the best of your kind. But there are other ways to capture a… life-like, soul-full
quality.”

In the gallery, I watch the man lead his companion across the hall to
my most famous piece–Dawn Kisses the Snowtips. The ivory walls of Aulivar gleam and the City’s towers cast long shadows that seem to move with the viewer. Sunlight flares off white peaks on the horizon, and clouds shift in hue from crimson to amber to gold based on where one stands.

The woman gives a satisfied sigh. “Marked improvement, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yes,” her noble replies. “Consider the light shown here, the way it
sparkles off the windows of the City. Aulivar at the height of the
Alliance, centuries before this land fell from greatness.”

The woman looks around the gallery and shivers. “I like these faces
much less, though.”

“Why is that?”

“The resemblances are far better, yes. But… there’s a sadness when I look at them. They’re all wrong. See that despair in the eyes? Or
perhaps it’s anger. Most unnerving.”

“Not surprising, given the tragic stories behind some of these. That
one,” he says, pointing, “is the youngest daughter of an Aelwyner High Lord, painted when she received the sigil of Strength on Markday. She took ill not long after, and withered away before the year’s end.”

“Poor thing.”

“And this fine elder gentlemen? Grand Sage of the Academy. He
succumbed to dementia in the months that followed. Probably well on his way when this was commissioned.”

He strides toward the one I hate most. “The wedding of House Hallaben and House Veray, nobles who lived in Alathon during the time of the Magistrate. The city fell soon after, and their entire bloodlines spilled on the streets in the overthrow.”

They all stare out from the celebratory scene, not with the joy and
mirth I remember from that day, but eyes full of hatred. Eyes that
look straight at me, knowing, accusing, condemning.

I took pieces of their souls. I dealt them fatal wounds, my
brushstroke more deadly than the rebel swords that eventually finished what my painting began.

The woman shudders and turns my way. “What about this one?”

“Marwen herself,” he says, examining me. “Her final portrait–an
unclaimed commission at that. Typical arrogance, devoting her finest
work to her own image. They found her dead in her studio, with the
paint still wet.”

“Do you think the tears are for what she never achieved, always
sitting in Serathil’s shadow?”

He strokes his chin. “Or perhaps for all she might have done, given
more time to capture the beauty of the subjects who came before her.”

—-

If you didn’t know, I have recently transitioned off my free WordPress site to this one – https://davidmwilliamson.net

If you enjoy the stories and updates I post here, please take the time to subscribe to this new site. Thanks for reading and for your support!

– Dave

The Finest Spirits #BlogBattle entry

Genre: Fantasy

Word prompt: Liquid


Update: The Finest Spirits tied for the win for the week–thanks to those who voted for Dom and Innova.

On the jagged, winding road that slopes down into the Pit of Hell, inside a little dim-lit crevice nestled between the lost souls begging for someone to drag them out and the angelic patrols enforcing the justice of Heaven, there’s this hole-in-the-wall dive that’s worth a pit-stop.

Pit stop, get it? I kill me… which is part of why I’m here. 

Being a shade stuck in Limbo ain’t so bad as it sounds. I got skills from my time in the flesh–after twenty-three years on the beat with a badge, I know how to find what people are looking for, whether it’s a rogue demon giving the angels trouble or a way back for a vengeful victim.

I don’t know the name of the joint. It’s got some kinda Japaneezy scribbles on account of the Oni that runs the place. I try to steer clear of him and his goons. But I keep visiting because they got the best spirits anywhere –above, on the earth, or below, there’s no place like it.

Plus there’s a girl. Of course there is.

The bouncers know me, but I still get a quiver in what used to be my spine when they look at me with those blood red eyes and sharp black horns. They wave me on, but entrance is never free. Just inside the door sits a gangly, rat-faced creature, all done up in a hooded robe and ornate jewelry. He’s the Oni’s info-broker, a dealer in secrets, the only currency that’s any value in this establishment.

I know things, stuff that people would like to think they kept hidden in life. Like I said, decades of detective work. Half my mind is full of tidbits the Oni would accept. The info somehow gives him leverage over people this side of the grave–I don’t know how it works and I don’t need to.

I just need to see her.

The music is thumping inside–sounds like a busy night. After scrawling my offering in the air with flaming glyphs that vanish a second later, Rat-face waves me on and I step through the thick obsidian doors.

The atmosphere is like a swank club back upstairs, with a dance floor and plenty of private seating booths. Some back rooms support larger groups, like the revenants and emo types, the vampires and ghosts that can’t talk about anything other than how much they’re suffering and loathing the crushing burden of their deathless existence. I can’t stand their type. At least when I offed myself, I didn’t make some big, long show of it, and I didn’t spend the rest of eternity talking about it down here.

The real attraction is the bar, of course, and plenty of uglies are clustered around it putting in their orders. The barkeep, Jimmy Two-Claws, spots me beyond the sea of faces and pulls a bright bottle off the shelf. “The usual, Dom?”

“Nothing but.”

They got some kind of tracking system worked out, where Rat-face notifies the bar how much you got on your account based on the value of the secret. Mine should get me twenty minutes.

I find an empty booth and pop the cork. Radiant steam curls out of the bottle, expanding into a humanoid cloud. Then it solidifies in the seat next to me, and Innova appears. Her hair shimmers a rainbow like mother-of-pearl. The embodiment of Inspiration, her skin illuminates the booth with fluorescence like a human lightbulb. She stretches her perfect form and cocks her head like she’s loosening stiff joints in her neck. The sight of her fills me with energy, makes me feel alive again, like I could do anything I want.

That’s how it works. The Oni serves up spirits. You pay a secret, you get to spend some time with whatever you like. Creativity, Adventure, Love, Happiness and the like for the good-hearted. Strife, Jealousy, Avarice, Wrath and such for the rougher crowd. Bottles of every color adorn the shelf behind the bar, every one of them holding spirits trapped by the Oni, earning their freedom night by night depending on how many customers they can bring in.

I wonder how much longer it’ll take my girl to escape this hole.

“You look good, Innova. As always.”

“And what dreams can I inspire within you tonight, Dom?”

“Come on. You know you don’t have to keep up the act with me, babe.”

Innova laughs. “Maybe with you it’s not an act,” she purrs.

“We’ve shared too many last calls for that. I’m here for you, not your spiel.”

She smiles, then slouches in the seat and watches the crowd, the sign that she’s finally being herself instead of what people expect.

One of the staff approaches a couple in a secluded booth with an unopened bottle on the table, the contents a deep crimson, glowing from within. Romance, I’m guessing, or maybe Lust. Probably hoped to rekindle something, but neither one made a move to pop the cork. 

“Doesn’t look good for those two,” I say, and Innova nods. 

This is how we pass the time together–watching the desperate slobs that come in, guessing at what drives the choices they make, wondering what choices led them here in the first place.

“Check out these idiots,” Innova says, pointing to the dark room full of emo kids. A waitress brings them another round of black bottles–spirits of despair.

I listen close and hear a woman’s voice, gritty like a smoker, reading over a soft-tapped rhythm. “Shadows swirl and roll, a collision in my glass-imprisoned soul, this vessel can’t hold the full measure of my sorrow, pour it out tonight, tomorrow there’s more there. One day I’ll be free… what place waits for me? Nowhere.

“Oh god. Are they doing beat poetry?”

“I tried to offer Despra some tips once,” Innova says of the other spirit. “But she and I aren’t on speaking terms since that ill-fated Karaoke contest last month.” She shakes her head and mutters, “Despra should not sing Disney songs, like, ever.”

“Bet that was a wreck.”

Innova shifts and glances at the hell spawn near the bar. He’s glaring at me, his yellow eyes watching like a predator in the wild. 

“Time’s almost up, Dom.” She’s nervous, eying her bottle-prison with displeasure.

“I’ll pay for more, no problem.”

The second the words leave my mouth, Rat-face is at my side, a toothy grin splitting his lips, his rotting breath leaking out with a hiss. Between my need to avoid him as long as possible and my desire to give Innova a reason to keep smiling, I dig up a really good secret from the back of my mind. Juicy details on the intimate indiscretions of certain angelic patrols that aren’t coming down this way for duty.

Once Rat-face is gone, Innova relaxes and puts her hand in mine. “You didn’t have to pay that much,” she says.

“Just helping work off your debt to the Oni.”

Innova brushes her hand through her hair. “Do you realize how much you just put on your account? You couldn’t spend it all tonight.”

I shrug. “I’ll be by tomorrow, then.”

“I know you will.” She hesitates, then leans close. “Or… do you see that violet bottle on the top shelf?”

“The dusty one? Looks like it hasn’t been touched in years.”

She nods. “Generosity isn’t a common companion this side of the pearly gates. Would you do me a favor?”

I already know what she’s getting at. “Sure. I’ll by a shot. Hey Jimmy!”

A moment later, Innova and I work together to pop the cork. A wave of giddiness hits me as it launches across the booth, and we collapse in laughter. 

Then I hear myself talking like an idiot. “Jimmy, you know what? Get everyone another round of whatever they’re having–on me!”

The bar erupts with cheers and applause. Even the hardest toughs give me a nod or raised glass in respect. And I’m sitting here wondering what the heck just happened. 

Several bottles get passed throughout the crowd. Spirits appear at the bar, in booths, on the dance floor, at pool tables… all across the place, their grateful, liberated faces flash me and Innova a smile. 

I jam the cork into the bottle of Generosity before I say anything else stupid. Then I shoot Innova a glare. She gives me a sheepish grin. “Think of how many you just released,” she says. “How much closer they are to freedom. Do you feel the positive energy in the room right now?”

“You knew that would happen.”

Innova shrugs, feigning innocence. “What can I say? It’s my job to inspire others.”

When I finally leave, just before what passes for dawn in this hellhole, I pause to consider if I’m coming back tomorrow. Then I realize, who am I kidding?

I walk up the slope, picturing Innova’s smile and running down the list of secrets bouncing around in my head.