Falling

Gravity pulled the chains attached to Bruce’s arms relentlessly.  Still Bruce managed to place one foot in front of the other, each shambling step getting him closer to freedom.  In the distance the hounds howled in frustration and excitement.  Bruce smiled and wondered if they had found his pants, and the bees nest he had chucked in them.  He still hurt, but hopefully less than those damn dogs.  Carol would have been proud of him.  She had taught him that trick.

A tree root tripped him and gravity screamed in triumph as Bruce crashed to the ground face first.  He spit out a tooth and laughed a bitter laugh.  “I hate trees,” he said as he pushed himself up onto all fours.  He began to crawl forward slowly.

The sounds of the hounds was getting louder.  “I hate dogs more,” Bruce said as he pushed himself back onto his feet and gathered up the chains again.   The shamble began again, this time with a bit more urgency, but with a lot less coordination.  It wasn’t long before the ground had him in its embrace again.

Bruce looked up and saw the bridge over the gorge that housed the Stained River that signaled the end of Lord Myron’s lands.  He picked up himself once more, the bridge and the freedom it represented giving him strength back to his dead limbs.  “Almost there Carol,” he said to himself over the howls of the closing dogs.  He could now hear the people running with the dogs.  Only a few more yards.  He wouldn’t let them take him back.

As Bruce reached the edge of the bridge, he heard the whoosh of an arrow as it flew past his left shoulder and thudded to a stop into the boards of the bridge.

“That’s far enough Master Bruce,” shouted a man’s voice.  “The next arrow will not miss.”

Bruce turned to see Lord Myron himself with another arrow notched into his bow, but not drawn.  Randolph held the dogs on a leash, one of the hounds not looking too happy due to a bloody nose.  Three other men that Bruce didn’t know rounded out the hunting party.

Bruce took two steps backward, putting the arrow between him and those that wanted him.  “I am my own man.  I will not give you what you desire.”

“You don’t know that,” Lord Myron said.  “I can be very persuasive.  Just give me her whereabouts.  We will remove our hold on you, and you will be released.”  He lowered his bow.  “I can be a reasonable man.”

Bruce took one more step, feeling the low railing of the bridge behind him, forcing him to stop.  He took a couple of deep breathes, relishing the taste of the early winter air.   Looking Lord Myron straight in his eyes he said “Carol would disagree.”

Lord Myron roared.  “Take him!”

Randolph released the hounds as the three other men ran to follow them.  Lord Myron lifted his bow and let fly the arrow with one smooth motion.

The arrow lodged itself in Bruce’s left shoulder, causing Bruce to drop the chain attached to his left wrist onto the bridge deck.  Bruce closed his eyes and let himself fall from the bridge.  The fallen chain went tink, tink, tink as one link after another hit the railing counting off the inches as Bruce fell to the water down below.

The cold water assaulted Bruce, forcing the air from his lungs.  He breathed in the water deeply as the chains helped him rest on the bottom.  If this was the cost of freedom, but Bruce would die free.

Lord Myron rushed to the bridge’s edge as the last of the bubbles representing Bruce’s life floated to the surface.  “Damn that man,” he said.

“Don’t you worry.  We’ll find her Lord Myron,” said one of the three men who hadn’t gotten to Bruce in time.

Lord Myron grabbed an arrow, brought his bow to bear, and shot the speaker in the throat so quickly the man didn’t have time to blink.  “Don’t tell me what to do,” he said.  “Randolph, take care of the refuse.”

Lord Myron walked away and didn’t look back, even when he heard the second splash.  He would find his daughter.  She didn’t get a choice in the matter.

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The Interview is Death

The producer counted out, “Three, two,” and then signaled one then pointed.

Marsha Kingsman turned her professional smile up to eleven.  “Welcome back folks.  This is a unique opportunity that we are broadcasting world wide live.  We are here today with an exclusive interview with someone no one wants to meet, but everyone will at least once in their lifetime.  My guest tonight is Death.”

Death straightened his scythe.  He tried to put on a calm smile, but since he didn’t have a face, it didn’t really come off on camera.

“How are you tonight?” asked Marsha.

Death cleared his throat.  “I have one foot in the afterlife,” he said, “but then again, that’s an occupational hazard.”

Marsha gave her ‘that was cute, but don’t try to upstage me’ laugh.  “I can imagine.  So tell me Death, why now?  Why do you reveal yourself today?”

“If I had two silver pieces for  I heard that line,” Death said. ”I could afford to own River Styx front property.”

Marsha quickly covered her surprise.  “Okay, who knew Death had such a sense of humor,” she said.

“Have you seen how people die these days?  I mean the Darwin Awards are my personal top ten list each year,” Death said.

Marsha leaned forward, trying to make the interview more intimate.  “You’re the one who puts those out each year?  That is amazing. Does that mean you know Wendy Northcut personally?” she said.

Death laughed.  “No, I’m just pulling your leg.  Wendy does some awesome work, and I have posted on her website in the past.  I’m her biggest fan, and I can’t wait to meet her someday.”  Death looked at the camera.  “Don’t worry Wendy, hopefully it won’t be for a good long while.”  Marsha was about to speak, but Death cut her off.  “Back to your question Marsha.  I need the sense of humor because each death is sad, but I need to do my job to help the dearly departed get to where they need to be in the afterlife.  People have just lost their lives, so a bit of humor helps them get their bearings.”

“I can see where that would help,” Marsha said unconvincingly.  “But once again, why are you showing yourself now.  I mean, you, or your kind, have been around since the beginning of humanity.  Why show yourself to the living now?”

Death laid his scythe across his lap.  He then placed his hands together, palms not touching, but bony fingers touching their counterparts.  “Belief makes my job easier.  Right now your kind had been moving more and more into a place where you don’t believe in an afterlife.  That makes my job hard.”

Marsha relaxed.  Now she was getting somewhere.  “How does not believing in an afterlife make your job difficult?” she asked.

Death leaned in close, making it more intimate.  “Let’s say you have just died.  I’m there to help usher you to your spot in the afterlife, but lo and behold, you don’t have a place.  You have no belief system I can use to help you to your final destination.  I then have to interview you, bring you around, show you the different neighborhoods.  It can get frustrating.,” he said.

“So what do you do when no place seems to fit?” Marsha asked.

“Well I could tell you that, but then I would have to kill you,” Death said.

Marsha leaned back and placed her hand on her chest.  “Really?”

Death laughed.  “I’m joking again, Marsha.  Sorry, I couldn’t help it.”

Marsha laughed uneasily.  “That was a good one,” she said.  “You really had me going there.”

“Yeah, well, in reality I would have to kill you, then I could tell you.  I just figured you didn’t want that right now,” Death said.

Marsha began to panic.  “No, no, not at all,” she stammered.

“Good, because I pick no soul before its time,” Death said.

Marsha took a drink from her water and spilled a bit on herself because her hand was shaking.  She was so frazzled she didn’t even notice.  Still, she was a professional, so she continued on script.  “So a question I always was curious about was how do you keep motivated?  I mean, you’re around the dead and dying all the time.  You must get depressed,” she said.

“Well, I keep myself motivated by playing a game,” Death said.

Marsha broke out in a weak smile.  “Like in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey?” she asked.

“’Nope, I think of it more like Pokemon.  I’ve got to catch them all,” Death replied.  The silence following that was punctuated by the falling of the boom microphone as the sound guy ran from the room.  Death bent down and grabbed the microphone.  “I’m sorry everyone if I scare you.  It is just I have gotten so close to you all, that it is a shame that my life’s work is about to end.”

Marsha’s eyes bulged.  “What did you…”

The blast of gamma rays from a nearby supernova hit the earth, incinerating the half that was facing the supernova, and ionizing so much of the atmosphere all life, larger than a mouse, was pretty much gone.

“The overtime is going to kill me,” said Death as he held out his hand to Marsha.  “Get it, overtime, kill me?  See how the humor helps?”

“Oh my God,” said Marsha.

“And the interview worked.  You believe in God.  That limits a bunch of options.  Now come along Marsha.  I need to show you this remarkable place.  You’ll love spending eternity there.“

Assassinated Love (A 200 Word Story)

The cell phone rang for the tenth time in the last five minutes, but again Graham let it go to voicemail.  Lorena had cheated on him, so he really didn’t feel like listening to her.  As he sat there though, he began to feel a bit guilty.  Graham didn’t like to act impulsively.  It was usually bad for business, and Graham was a planner.  He decided to give her a chance and play the latest voicemail.

“Graham, I screwed up, but he didn’t mean anything to me.  Would it kill you to answer your phone?”

Graham put on his ear defenders and sighted in on Lorena through her kitchen window.  She held out her cell phone then put it to her ear.  Graham’s phone began to ring again.  “He meant something to me,” he muttered, “and it won’t kill me.”  Graham breathed out and pulled the trigger.  Lorena’s head exploded sending the cell phone flying.  “But it did kill you,” he said.  He took off his ear defenders and walked calmly out of the abandoned house, dropping a match as he closed the door.

The flames climbed high into the night as Graham drove away, turning his heart to ash.

Returning Home

The wind blew along the flatlands making the tall grasses there dance to its quiet music.  Lazarus smiled; his crow’s feet framed eyes taking it all in.  Lazarus’ salt and pepper hair danced with the grass adding its own interpretation of those seemingly eternal rhythms.   It was good to be back, to feel that part of him that was from this place awakening in the dancing.

The last time Lazarus stood here was the day he had begun his journey into adulthood.  He had been a mere boy then, barely coming into puberty.  It seemed almost cruel to send a child out of his home into the world beyond, to be on his own.  It was especially cruel to do so with nothing but a day’s worth of food and a change of clothes.  The reality of it was that it was necessary, especially for ones who have the Gift.  Back then Lazarus would have called it the Curse, but now he wasn’t sure what to call it.

Lazarus pulled back his hair and bound it in a pony tail.  His shoulder ached with the weight of his possessions in his backpack, but the journey was almost over.  He could see the outskirts of the village ahead.  With a wistful smile he set off.

A group of youths were the first to see Lazarus coming down the road.  They stopped playing their game and let the ball slowly roll to where Lazarus came to a stop.  He smiled sadly at the youths and gave the ball a kick back toward the group.  One of the youths stopped the ball with a stomp of his foot.  The boy’s eyes were a mixture of fear and excitement.

“You might want to head home and tell your parents I am back,” Lazarus said.  “And they should get everyone out to the great circle.  Tonight I complete the ritual.”

The youths looked at each other until the boy who stood on the ball jerked his head down the road toward the village.  The rest of the youths took off at a dead run, but the boy stayed.  “Why come back now?” the youth asked.  “We’ve been doing fine here without you.”

Lazarus smiled a bit more warmly.  “I suppose you have,” he said.  Lazarus looked at the youth for a moment and the silence dragged on until the youth felt uncomfortable enough to remove his foot from the ball.  “What was started needs to be finished.  Then the cycle can begin again,” Lazarus said.

The youth thought about that for a second.  He then nodded at Lazarus and turned to follow his friends, but stopped and looked back at Lazarus.  “What is it like having the Gift?” asked the youth.

Lazarus sighed and walked over to the ball.  He kicked it into the air into the youth’s arms.  “It’s like you have a thousand of those balls in your hands, and you know if you let even one of those fall then you have failed,” Lazarus said.  “I was always terrified of dropping just one of those balls, yet I have come to embrace it, because it is me.”  Lazarus walked up to the youth and put his arm around the youth’s shoulders.  The youth became very rigid.  “Son, what is your name?” Lazarus asked.

“Malat,” replied the youth.

“Malat, how would you like to help me prepare the bonfire?” ask Lazarus.  Malat nodded his head but didn’t move another muscle.  Lazarus removed his arm and began walking.  “Then follow me Malat.  It is time for all of us to find closure.”


 

The fire roared into the sky, it heat almost burning the hair of those sitting closest to the blaze.  Lazarus sat at one end of the fire, eyes closed.  The rest of the village sat at the other side, except for Malat who sat in between.  Malat didn’t understand why no one else sat closer.  After spending the afternoon with the old man, Malat had decided that Lazarus might be crazy, but overall he was a nice guy.

Lazarus had told Malat of the large cities on the coast.  He described the ocean with its ever present surf crashing into the shoreline.  He spoke of men and woman from other places creating a riot of different tongues, colors, and styles of dress.  He told of steam powered machines that didn’t use magic to move, just boiling water.  All of this made Malat’s head spin.  Malat had been quiet the entire time listening to the old man go on and on about the world outside, but he did ask what was the worst thing that had happened.  Lazarus looked at Malat and grew quiet then.

“The worst thing was being a stranger with nothing.  Absolutely nothing, except the Gift,” Lazarus said.  Lazarus had then changed the subject about the best trees to burn to get the fire hot enough.  It was something Lazarus had learned working the boilers for those steam machines he talked about.  Malat now knew more about wood than he ever wanted to know.  Malat waited like the rest of the village for the old man to do something.


 

Lazarus finished his silent prayer and stood up.  He reached in and touched the Gift.  There it was, a cauldron of power waiting to do his bidding.  It had been getting stronger since that day so long ago.  Now Lazarus could barely control it.  He looked at Malat and smiled a truly warm smile.  Maybe the Gift was truly a blessing if there were still future leaders like Malat here in this place.  Still, he needed to finish this soon.  The Gift was screaming.

Lazarus pulled a bit of the power and used it to amplify his voice and make him visible through the fire.  “My people, the time of purging has come,” Lazarus began.  “I have done my part.  Now it is time for your part of the bargain.  I call for the single children to come to the fire.”

Sounds of sobbing began as children were ushered to the front.  Lazarus couldn’t tell if the tears were more from the children or the parents.  Stealing his will he caught a glimpse of Malat approaching the fire.  That surprised Lazarus and made him pause.  The Gift flared up again and Lazarus knew he didn’t have much time yet.  He opened his mind to his own time by the fire all those years back.  There he could hear the ritual words being spoken by Baldon.  He channeled those words as he manipulated the light from the fire.

A horrible battle sprung up from the flames.  People died horribly on both sides.  The villagers could almost hear the clashing of metal on metal, the screaming of the hurt and dying, and the chants of the mages.  “Our people were under attack,” Lazarus intoned.  “Our magic was more powerful, but there were so many of them.  We were fighting a battle that was doomed to end in our annihilation.  We would keep who we were, but lose our lives.”

The flames shifted to a group of people whose faces were echoed in the villagers standing around the fire.  “The elders met and decided on a desperate planThe only way to win was not to fight at all, but to retreat.  But to do that we would lose our connection to the land.  We would lose who we were while keeping our lives.

The flames shifted to a singular woman.  Her eyes glowed with a power and wisdom.  “Lizaria came up with a plan.  We would sacrifice almost all our magic to create a bubble, a place where our land would be with us, and us with our land.  But giving up all our magic up to create the bubble would not work.  The bubble would grow unstable over time and collapse.  So the mages of our people gave a single child the Gift.  Then that child would go out into the world where our magic could still grow.  They would travel the world, growing their Gift until it was large enough to open the bubble and return.  Then they would come back and begin the cycle again.”

Lazarus fell silent, looking at the children close to the circle.  He almost lost it then as the emotions flooded all his senses.  Malat looked at him questioningly.  It looked like the boy might come over any second to check on the Lazarus.  That made Lazarus happy.  Yes, the Gift was a blessing.

The pictures faded from the fire.  “So I have come back to finish the cycle.  I give my Gift back to my people and to my heir.”

With that Lazarus raised his arms into the air.  The fire roared up from the bonfire high into the sky, before arching down on top of Lazarus.  The flames ripped the magic from his body, and most of that light screamed into the heavens.  The dome above lit up the sky like daytime.  Lazarus smiled at the sight.  The last of the Gift screamed out of him and he collapsed onto ash, never seeing who was going to be the next with the Gift.


The sky lit up so bright that it pulled Malat’s attention away from Lazarus.  So it was true!  They did live in a bubble to protect them from the world outside.  Malat almost fell to his knees with that thought.  He was trapped here.  He would never see the world, because there was no way out.  Wait, there was one way.  He looked back at Lazarus to see a ball of light pour out of the old man just before Lazarus turned to ash.

“No!” Malat screamed as he rushed to where Lazarus’ ashes floated down to the ground.  Malat finally let his knees fall to the earth.  Tears for a man he had just met streamed from his eyes.  There was a crying behind him.  Malat blinked away his tears and looked back at the rest of the only children.  A young girl, Visha was her name, barely ten, was glowing in the dying embers of what was left of the bonfire.  Her mother was crying, being pulled away from Visha by some of the elders.  The rest of the villagers began to scatter quietly.

Elder Jenkins gave a backpack to Visha.  “My daughter,” he said.  “You have been chosen for the Gift.  You must leave right now and not look back.  You must cross out of the bubble that you have seen before the recharging is complete.  Without your sacrifice we will perish as a people.  Do you understand?”

Visha looked at Elder Jenkins with dazed and confused eyes.  “I do,” she said.

Elder Jerkins laughed a bitter laugh.  “I doubt you really do,” he said.  “But you will learn, or else we all will perish.  Now come along.  I need to get you to the edge.”

Malat stood up.  “Wait.  I’m going with her,” he said.

Elder Jenkins shook his head.  “You were not chosen for the Gift,” he said.  “You must stay here.”

Malat walked up confidently and took Visha’s hand.  He smiled at her and she smiled back.  “No one deserves to be alone.  Not even if you have the Gift.  I will be her companion.”

“And what makes you think you will be a suitable companion?  You know nothing of the world outside,” said Elder Jenkins

Malat and Visha began to move towards the road leading to the edge of the bubble.  Elder Jenkins had to hurry to follow.  “I know many things that will help,” said Malat.  “For example, I know a ton about different woods.”

The Unexpected Gift

Gertrude held the present in two hands and gently shook it.  The pink ribbon swayed in the handmade breeze, but the blue and white stripped cube made no other concessions to her senses.  She put it back down and stared at it, wishing she had Superman’s version of x-ray vision.

“Come on Gertie, just open it,” said Brantley.  He was like a kid at Christmas, except it wasn’t his present to open.  That made him even cuter than normal, especially when he was dressed up with his purple bowtie that almost made his blue eyes look that same shade of purple.  Normally she would be taking off his glasses and suggesting they eat in tonight, but this darn package just bothered her.

Brantley had found the package with no return address on her doorstep when he stopped by to pick her up for dinner.  Opening it up revealed the present and one of those lame happy birthday novelty tags with her Gertrude’s name and no other information. It wasn’t even close to her birthday, and she really couldn’t think of who would send her a random gift, beside Brantley of course.  This was a true suprise.

Gertrude didn’t like surprises.  That probably had to do with her floating through various group homes and foster families until the age of seventeen. Surprises usually meant packing up and heading out, or even worse, you find out your new “family” wasn’t all it was promised it would be.  Or there would be bonus possible unwanted male attention.  That sent a physical shudder down her spine.

Brantley noticed that.  “Are you okay?” he asked.

Gertrude banished those memories back down deep where the light of conscious thought rarely shown. “I’m fine.  Just a bit of excited about going out on our date tonight,” she said hopefully convincingly.  She looked into his eyes and put on a genuine smile.  Those eyes were so damn cute.  Okay, she meant what she said about being excited now.

“Well we can get going after you open it, Gertie,” Brantley said.  “I really want to see what you got.”

“We can open it later,” Gertrude said.  “Unless you were the one who left it.”  She let her voice trail off, hoping that he would confess.

Brantley shook his head.  “Nope, not this time.  Come on.  You must be curious, at least a little.”

Gertrude couldn’t shake her sense of dread.  “Listen, why don’t we go out and then I’ll open it when you drop me off.  I don’t want to be late for our reservation.”

“Really Gertie?  You want it to wait?  Come on, this is killing me,” Brantley said.

“Killing you?” Gertrude asked.  “It’s not even your present.”

“Gertrude, open the present,” Brantley said.

Gertrude looked into Brantley’s eyes.  They seemed even more purple now, but not at all cute.  Another shiver escaped down her spine.  Brantley noticed this one too and deflected his gaze at his hands.

“I’m sorry Gertie,” Brantley said.  “It’s just as a kid growing up I always wanted someone to leave me a mystery present and inside have it be something cool that I always wanted.  Maybe even something magical.”  His eyes danced at the thought.

“I don’t believe in magic,” Gertrude said.  The sparkle in Brantley’s eyes died.  Gertrude immediately wished he hadn’t said anything.  She decided to smooth things over.  “What kinds of things did you want?” she asked.

“Oh the usual boy stuff.  A new baseball mitt signed by Rodger Clemens,” Brantley said.  He paused for a second and laughed a bit.  “Of course that was before the whole steroids thing.  Then there was a new synthesizer.  I was going to be a rock star.  If I could have had a staff like what Gandalf had, now that would have been cool.  Of course in high school the best would be a cute red headed girl’s phone number.”

Gertrude involuntarily reached up and touched her raven ringlets.  Brantley saw that and immediately continued.  “That was a phase I was going through,” he said.  “Now I appreciate a woman’s smile and who she truly is inside.  That is the essence of magic to me today.”  He reached over the cursed present and stroked her cheek.  “I got lucky and found a wonderful woman who has beauty to go with that smile and that something magical inside.”

A blush bloomed on Gertrude’s cheeks.  What did I do to deserve such a wonderful charming guy?  What did such an amazing man ever see in her?  She leaned forward and kissed him gently on his lips.  There was almost a spark of electricity that passed between them.

“Okay, on that note let’s get going,” he said.  With one fluid motion he was standing and reaching into his pocket.  “We can eat dinner and maybe catch a show.  We can wait till I drop you off.”

Gertrude summoned up her resolve.  “Nope, I’ll open it first, then we can go.”

“Don’t do it,” Brantley said.  “I was being a jerk.”

“Nope, I was making a big thing out of nothing,” Gertrude said.  “I have nothing to be afraid of because I have you here with me.  There’s no need to worry about surprises because I have my big knight in shining armor.”

Gertrude caught an almost guilty look pass across Brantley’s face so she quickly stood and gave him a hug.  “Really.  I love you,” she said.  He stiffened.  Crap, went too far.  Time to do more damage control.  “Let’s see what my mysterious benefactor left for me,” she continued.

Gertrude moved back to the couch and undid the bow.  She smiled and twirled the bow in the air.  Brantley watched her, a small smile bloomed.  Next she pulled back the wrapping paper, trying to preserve it the best she could.  Folding it nicely and setting it next to her she then turned her attention to the present box itself.

“Well?” Brantley asked.  It startled her since he had come up close while she had been folding the wrapping paper.  To cover her surprise she picked up the package and put it in her lap.  She slid her nail along the tape, separating the two box flaps.  She opened up the flaps while holding her breath.  Inside she was what looked like a photo album.

“Well? “ Brantley asked again.

Gertrude took the photo album out of the box and placed the box on top of the wrapping paper.  “Don’t know.” She said as she opened the book.  The first page was a birth certificate for a girl who weighed seven pounds, four ounces on May twenty-fifth, nineteen eighty-two.  The name on the certificate was Cassandra Powel.

“Who is that?” asked Brantley.

“I don’t know,” Gertrude said.  “I wonder if this is for one of my neighbors.”  She closed up the book.

Brantley looked at the book with a look of hunger.  “The tag had your name on it,” he said.  “Maybe it will make sense if you look a bit more.”

Gertrude held the book tight.  “I think this is a really bad idea.  Let’s go to dinner.  I shouldn’t have opened it now.”

“Look, you’re frazzled,” Brantley said.  “I’ll order takeout and we can pick up a movie from Redbox.  This way you can have a chance to detox.”

“I would rather go out,” Gertrude said.  When she heard the words come out of her mouth she knew that that lie would never stand on its own.  “Okay, maybe takeout is good.  I’ll take Szechuan.”

“Okay, I’ll call it in and we can go get it,” Brantley said.

Gertrude shook her head.  “You’re right.  I’m frazzled.  Why don’t you go get it and I’ll just detox here.  This way the evening won’t be a total loss,” she said.

Gertrude could tell that Brantley wanted to say more, but he knew there was nothing more he could say without destroying the rest of the evening.  “Okay, he said, “I’ll be right back.  Don’t do anything crazy without me.”

“I think I was crazy enough already,” Gertrude said.

Brantley put on his cutest smile, leaned in, and kissed Gertrude.  This time the kiss was almost cold, but Gertrude hid her reaction.  That smile had lost a lot of firepower all of a sudden.

“Love you, Gertie” Brantley said.  He then tuned and let himself out the front door, leaving Gertrude holding onto the album, still stuck on the couch.

Gertrude counted to ten before she opened back up the album.  The second page was a series of baby pictures.  They were all solo pictures with no hint of another being present, except for the record of the photos themselves.  Page after page chronicled the child getting older.  Still no other human being was depicted.  Suddenly Gertrude lost her breath.  The girl had grown into her!  She remembered that outfit.  It was her favorite purple dress that she wore every other day to kindergarten.  The pages almost turned on their own.  Picture after picture of her caught in various candid moments on her own.  All the towns, all the different houses, all her and only her on each page.

Gertrude flipped to the first page again and read aloud the name on the birth certificate, “Cassandra Powel.”  It sounded so natural to her.  She looked at the box.  Inside was still a note and a small box that had been hidden by the larger album.  She took out the box and opened it.  There was a silver heart locket on a thin chain.  The locket didn’t want to open, so she set it aside and looked at the paper.  Unfolding it she revealed a hand written letter with an old polaroid picture of a woman who looked so much like Gertrude, but with a lot more wear and tear on her face..

Dear Cassandra,

I really should say dear Gertrude, but that was supposed to be just your middle name, an honor to your grandmother.  I’m sorry I have to give this to you now.  After so many years of only allowing myself to catch a glimpse of you now and then I had planned to stop in and finally introduce myself.  I used to imagine your reaction from finally meeting your mother.  I would fear the revulsion or rejection.  I would get excited about the acceptance and unconditional love.  So many possibilities, so many different ways it would work out in my mind.  I’m now worried though that they have almost caught me.  This is so dangerous Cassandra.  Every time I snuck to see you I knew there was a chance that they would find you.  If they did, everything would have been lost.  As it is I worry they might already have their sights on you.  I wish I was there to help you through the pain you are about to endure, but you must take up the burden on your own.  Put on the locket and all will be revealed.  If I can I will come to you, but if they do finally catch me know that I die with my love for you as my grave shroud.

Love,

Malissa Flandiss.

 

Gertrude looked at the locket and wondered what made it so important.  Just then she heard the front door open.  Gertrude quickly hid the locket and letter away in her pocket.

She stood up as Brantley entered the room carrying the takeout bags.  “No plates?” Brantley asked.

“Sorry, decompressing,” Gertrude said.

“Right.  So you weren’t looking through the album while I was gone,” Brantley said.

“I’ll go get the plates,” Gertrude said as she brushed past Brantley and went to the kitchen.  As she pulled plates from the cupboard she pulled back out the locket and looked at it again.  Did she really want to put it on?  What would happen?

Brantley came into the kitchen and saw the locket.  “Where did you get that Gertie?” he asked.  His eyes never left the silver heart.

Gertrude felt like she was being violated by the way he focused on the locket.  “It was in the box,” she said.

“Can I see it Gertie?” Brantley asked.  His voice seemed off, and his purple eyes almost seemed to glow with a reddish tinge.

Gertrude held the locket closer to her, defensively.  “Brantley, you are scaring me.”

Brantley looked at her, but that other him didn’t really go away.  “I’m sorry.  It’s just that looks really, well I just want to see it,” he said.  For every slow step forward he took, Gertrude took one back until she felt the sink behind her.

“Don’t be silly, Gertie,” Brantley said.  “Just let me see the necklace.”  That voice was so distorted in her ears.  Every hair on her arms was standing and felt like they were screaming like the painting by Munch.

Brantley took another step forward and that snapped Gertrude into action.  She went to put the necklace on as Brantley screamed, “No!”  He moved faster than she thought he could, but he could only grab the locket as the chain settled around her neck and shoulders.

The world exploded into fire.  Her mind heard the voices of thousands of people at once.  The odd thing was she could make out each in turn and while the initial cacophony was deafening and confusing, it suddenly all made sense.  She knew who she was and the family she had come from.  The knowledge of generations settled upon her and took residence.  Family members from recent and far past all welcomed her into the fold.  It was as if all the memories for generations had taken up residence inside her mind.  They told her many things, but especially of the creatures that would come looking for her and the locket.  The creatures with the purple eyes.

Gertrude snapped back to the now and Brantley growled at her.  His hand was smoking where he held the locket, but he didn’t let go.  He looked at her with those purple inhuman eyes filled with hate.

“Give me the locket,” Brantley said.  His teeth grew longer and she swore he grew like two inches and a hundred pounds of muscle.

Gertrude felt fear like she had never felt, even in those dark moments she had recently reburied.  She felt so overwhelmed that she almost just gave up, but when that thought surfaced the family she just had been introduced to screamed a collective NO.  Suddenly her muscles had memories that only a lifetime, or in this case multiple lifetimes could have mastered.  She stepped into Brantley, crashing her heel into his foot while spinning and bringing her foot up and into Brantley’s jaw, snapping his head back.  The momentum tore the locket from his hand and caused him to take a step back to regain his balance.

Gertrude settled into a balanced fighting stance.  Brantley spit out a tooth onto the floor.  “I’ll take that as a no,” he said.  “Too bad.  I was looking forward to having you for dinner tonight.  Take care, Gertie.  I honestly hoped you weren’t going to be the one.”  With that he turned and left.

“My name is Cassandra and I was hoping you would have been the one,” she said to no one as the front door closed.  “What have I gotten myself into?”

A voice in her head said, “This is just the beginning.”

For once Cassandra didn’t worry about what surprises may come.  She had at last found where she belonged.

Justice and Retribution (A Lost Hope Story)

The Man walked out of the mists, Retribution sheathed on his hip.  Lost Hope materialized from a gas lamp lump of light attempting to fight back the evening fog and never really making much progress.  The buildings here almost waved in the slight breeze that carried the smell of cheap liquor and even cheaper despair.

Tobias had been waiting here for the Man, leaning on his staff for strength.  He was always a bit spooked by the eyes of the Man that were just black and white, exactly how the Man saw the world.  Tobias wished he didn’t have to work with the Man, but he had no choice this time.

“Why did you summon me?” asked the Man.  His voice was a whisper, but carried with the force of a thrown sledgehammer.

“We have a killer here,” Tobias said.

The Man snarled.  “You called me for that?  Bah!”  The Man turned and began to walk back into the mists.

Tobias wanted so badly to just let him go.  He could let the Man walk off into myth and legend.  He would then tell the council he had tried.  But then the thoughts of the families and he couldn’t keep his voice silent.  “Six murders, all women and children,” he said.

The Man stopped in his tracks.  Without turning around he said, “And?”

“All of them blinded before having their left hand chopped off,” Tobias spit out.  Just speaking of the atrocities chilled Tobias to the bone.

The Man turned around and walked back silently to stand in front of Tobias.  Tobias stared the Man in his eyes, but refused to say more, wishing he was anywhere but here.

The Man finally blinked his weird eyes and drew Retribution out of its sheath.  The sword glowed with a blood red light.   The mists seemed to retreat from it, and Tobias wished he could join them, but he stood his ground.

“Retribution has been drawn.  It will not return to its sheath until the killer is dead,” stated the Man.  The Man didn’t wait for a response from Tobias and walked into town, looking at everything through the red glow of Retribution.

Tobias turned to watch the Man, but didn’t move to follow.  He helped bring the Man here, but he wasn’t going to stay and see what happened.  He hobbled into the mists using his staff and whistling, making sure anything from Hell that followed the Man knew he was there.  Maybe heaven would have mercy on his soul, but the deal was made with the devil and he didn’t want to be there when the bill came due.

 

The Man walked into town, Retribution sweeping back and forth.  No other people came out to witness the spectacle.  The Man walked the street alone until he came upon something that even his unseeing eyes widened in horror.  Six people were staked to a crude wooden fence, their left hands scattered on the ground in front of them.  Most were dead, but one boy still cried what little life he had inside out, one tear at a time.  That was when the first shot rang out.  The musket ball hit the Man in the shoulder spinning him around to face the next six shots that were fired from the rooftops of the adjacent buildings.  The Man staggered under the impact of the onslaught and Retribution almost slipped from his hand.  Another volley sounded out and the Man fell back onto the ground.  Retribution’s glow intensified as the Man gasped to breathe through lead riddled lungs.

A man wearing a law badge came out of the building across from the macabre fence.  “How does it feel now?” he asked.  The Man’s reply was swallowed by the blood competing with the air leaving his lungs.  Retribution continued to glow more brightly.  The lawman walked close, but made sure to stay just out of the Man’s reach.  “No one is above the law of man, especially not one of the Fallen,” said the lawman.

The Man lifted Retribution and pointed it at the lawman.  The lawman pulled out his six shooter and in rapid succession fired six more bullets into the Man.  Retribution fell back to the ground, but the Man still held onto the sword and kept on breathing.

“Gary, you need to use the boy before he dies,” a voice called out from behind the fence.  The Man turned his head to see a man wearing a priest’s collar cutting the boy away from the fence.  The boy fell face first to the ground with a sickening thud.

The lawman, Gary, moved around the Man and scooped up the boy.  “My God, Brent, don’t make the pour boy suffer more than he has to,” Gary said.

Brent pulled at his collar.  “Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, Gary.  You don’t want to be damned for eternity.”

“And this hasn’t done it already?” Gary asked as he dropped the boy nearly on top of Retribution.  The Man began to writhe in pain, but he still held Retribution, its glow now driving back not only the mists, but the gaslights as well.  The holes in his chest seemed to be closing in the blood red light.

“Sometimes the innocent must be sacrificed to kill a greater evil,” said Brent.  “And ridding creation of a Fallen is a greater honor.  The sacrificed will dance on his grave in paradise.”

The Man looked at Brent and growled in his whisper voice. “You will never see paradise.”

Brent began to weep blood.  He blinked back those tears and shouted, “Satan, get behind me!”  The Man propped himself up on the hand not holding Retribution.

The Man heard a metallic click and looked back just as Gary let loose with another six shots from his second gun.  That put the Man back on the ground, but Retribution was now almost humming power as it became blinding.

Gary leaned over the boy who was breathing his last few breaths.  “God will wipe away your tears.”  With that he reached over and grabbed the hand of the Man that held Retribution.  The lawman picked up the Man’s hand and raised it over the boy.  The Man screamed as the blade plunged down through the boy’s heart, pinning the boy’s corpse to the ground.  The sound of a thunderclap sounded and Retribution broke in half.  The Man stopped his screaming and closed his black and white eyes forever.

“We are saved!” yelled Brent.  “Praise the Lord!”

 

Tobias listened to the thunderclap as it reverberated off the distant hills. He wondered if Lost Hope was now saved, or damned to yet another hell.  No matter what, he wasn’t going to stay around to figure it out.  These were not his sheep anymore.  It was time to find a new shepherd.  He hobbled on, his staff Justice in his hand to help him on his way.

Sariah’s Story chapter 15

Kegan picked at the rest of his meal, but the smells coming from the pot that Sariah was working made him almost lose what he had already eaten.  “The bouquet is going to take days to leave my shop,” he said.  Sariah ignored him, adding more of the very specific green slime they had retrieved from the lake.  “I think I saw my neighbors boarding up their windows when they saw that scent leaving my shop.”

Sariah looked up at him with an exasperated glare.  “You can’t see smells,” she said.

“I can see this one,” he responded, waving around at the light yellowish haze the clung mostly to the ceiling.

Sariah turned back to the pot.  “Okay, you might have a point, but just wave a hand and make it disappear,” she said.

Kegan put his leftovers in the trash.  The food was beginning to taste like the smell.  “Magic can’t do everything,” he said.

Sariah added some more iodine.  “That’s not what you used to tell me,” she said.  “Everything was possible with magic.  We should just stop doing everything else and concentrate on developing our magical gifts.”  She put the iodine bottle down and stretched her back.  “Don’t you have a table at a decent height?”

“I’m half fairy, remember?” Kegan said.

Sariah dipped a piece of copper wire into the solution.  “I thought we weren’t supposed to talk about that,” she said.

Kegan watched as a greenish gas was released.  That gas seemed to do a war with the yellow gas, upping the stinkyness to a whole new level.  Kegan muttered under his breath and pushed with his will, moving the noxious gasses out the open window.

Sariah smiled without looking up from her pot.  “See, that didn’t hurt.  Magic can solve anything, just like you said.”

“You know full well that magic burns,” Kegan said.  “I hate feeling my insides burn.”

“You’re used to it,” Sariah said.  “Besides, that didn’t burn much.”

Just then Asopt’s voice called from outside.  “Man you guys reek.  I’ll come back later.”

“Get your questioning arse in here,” Kegan yelled. “Or I’ll turn you into a toad.”

“A toad?” asked Sariah.

“Well, it was better than something profane.” said Kegan.

“Not really,” she said.  A pinch of dark powder entered the pot and Sariah began to smile.  “There, that’s finished.  Now all I need to do is inject it into him at some point and make it look like something else accidental happened.  His spirit won’t even know what happened.”

“Well you better be thinking really creatively,” Asopt said as he entered the room.  “Your mark has gotten himself walled into his compound.  Seems he fears he is a target for assassination.  He has used royal funds to hire a ton of extra security, including a couple of Kegan’s buddies.”

“Not all magic users are my buddies,” Kegan fired back.  “Besides almost everyone in this city are hacks.  There is nothing to worry about, Sariah.”

“Greggorin and Helfin are hacks?” asked Asopt.

“He paid to have both of them?” asked Kegan.  “Damn.  Sariah you have lots to worry about.”

Asopt continued, “Not only that, but rumor has it he has a necromancer lying in wait, just in case.”

Sariah carefully poured out the powder from the bowl into a small metal box that had seen plenty of use in the past.  She carefully scooped every grain out then slowly closed the box so the shifting air of the closing lid didn’t disrupt the grains inside.  Once the lid was secured she looked back at Asopt.  “There, that’s enough poison to take out half the town guard.  Oh, and you’re lying through your teeth about that necromancer,” she said.

Asopt spread his hands out wide.  “It’s what I heard.  I can not confirm or deny.”

Sariah shook her head.  “Too few of those around in the three kingdoms, much less the free lands.  Unless things have changed that much since I retired there wouldn’t be a necromancer.”

Asopt smiled.  “I agree.  I checked into it a bit, and no one has heard or seen anything, but I thought you should know, just in case.  I wouldn’t want you to be surprised.”  With that Asopt turned on his heel and began to leave the room.

“Where are you going?” asked Sariah.  “Don’t you want a part of this?”

Asopt stopped, but did not turn around.  “You made it abundantly clear that you didn’t need my help other than the information you requested.  I have decided to honor your request.”  With that he continued out of the room.

Kegan spoke up.  “What about those schedules and staff lists?”

“I left them on the table out here,” came Asopt’s voice from the other room, just before they heard him go through the outside door.

“Well are you going to go after him?” asked Kegan.  “He is a part of this crew.”

“I never wanted him in the first place,” said Sariah.  “You were the one who dragged him in.  I say we are better off being without him.”

“I don’t know Sariah.  A lot has changed since you retired,” Kegan said.

“Not that much,” replied Sariah.  “Let’s go plan an accident.”