Stories

Bird Bench

A stale stack of sliced white bread sat between my grandfather and I on a bench still moist from the early morning dew. I picked up a slice, pinched off a piece and threw it toward the birds that congregated on the grass around us. I continued to feed them as we chatted about family drama, the latest news and sport games. When the last bit of the bread was gone, we said our goodbyes knowing we’d see each other the following Sunday. It was something we enjoyed doing every week for the last 10 years, ever since he died.

THE END

Stories

C’est La Vie

I leaned back in my chair, with my dusty boots propped up on the empty desk and held up the yellowing envelope that had arrived by messenger. It had the mayor’s office stamp, and my name scrawled across the front. I had been expecting the letter, just not quite so soon. The world outside my office doors had been getting more dangerous, and unfortunately, I was getting older. The circulating whispers around Jessup Flats were about how long I could do the job, partly from what I imagine was seeing nearby towns with younger and younger sheriffs. But to me, it was less about my age and more about the fact La Vie was still causing havoc in these parts after an entire year, despite my best attempts to the contrary to stop him.

I already knew what the letter would say without having to open it, but I hoped I was wrong. With the flick of my belt knife, I slit the envelope open and shook out the folded letter. After scanning the contents, I balled them up and threw them into a corner beyond the two jail cells we had.

They wanted me to retire, turn in my badge after some 20 years of service so some younger blood could come in and take out La Vie for good. It stung, like a briar in the backside. The same people I spilled sweat and blood for were ready to turn me out to pasture. Jessup Flats wasn’t big as towns went, with a population shy of 300, but it did have some wealthy folks living there. Most of them lived outside the city limits, but their wealth resided in the only bank in town, the same one La Vie kept targeting, and it made them mighty nervous each time he struck.

La Vie had a reputation for being tenacious and getting what he wanted. My deputies and I had foiled his only direct attempt on the bank, a rare accomplishment if the stories are right, but that hadn’t stopped him from sticking up any stagecoach bound for the bank or leaving it. In the mayor’s estimation, along with the wealthy townsfolk, they felt it was only a matter of time before he tried for the bank again. They were probably right. La Vie had been the only stain on my record, and it stuck in my craw. I suppose he felt the same way about me for that same reason.

I slid open the desk drawer to my right, pulled out the half empty bottle of whiskey and the shot glass I kept there. The label had since faded on the bottle but the burn that amber liquid produced never had. With the prospect of retirement, it was a burn I needed. I’d nearly lost my life more times than I could count doing this job, but I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else, especially with La Vie still on the loose. Could I turn in my badge and live with myself without catching him first? I didn’t know, but retirement was coming, whether I liked it or not.

I pulled out the cork with my teeth and poured myself a shot. No sooner had that amber heat hit the back of my throat, my thin skeleton of a deputy threw open the front door all excited like holding his flat-topped Stetson hat to his head. Dust covered every portion of him, like everything in these parts.

“Boss! It’s La Vie. He just robbed the bank and is high tailing it out of town.”

Irritated, I slammed my fist down on the desk. “Damnation.” In the past, I would have run out that door and chased after La Vie myself, but the letter from the mayor’s office made me take pause. I didn’t have to do this job anymore. They already thought I couldn’t stop him so why try? I could tell the deputy to go after him, remain here and be safe, retire like they wanted me to do.

“Boss?” There was a frantic urgency to the deputy’s voice.

My eyes shifted to the crumpled-up letter in the corner, and I frowned. They were getting in my head, and I didn’t like it. What they wanted me to do didn’t matter. I still had my badge, and so long as I had it, I had a duty to uphold. And by damn, I was going to do it.

“Get my horse! And round up the others, we got ourselves an outlaw to catch.”

The deputy bobbed his head and tore out of sight. If I was going to be forced to retire, so be it. But by god, I was going to see that La Vie saw justice first or die trying. Who the hell wants to retire and die of old age anyway? I grabbed my hat off the wall next to the door, the same one where La Vie’s wanted poster hung, strapped on my gun belt and stepped out into the empty street ready to face whatever my fate was going to be.

#

The trail of dust up ahead said we were catching up to La Vie. I could taste the anticipation like I could the thick dust in the air. The leather reins scrunched beneath white knuckles as I dug my hooks into my horse, trying to spur it to go faster. The boys were several horse lengths behind me, greenhorns the lot of them. Outside of town, there wasn’t much to see. Except for a few cacti and dried up bushes, there was only flat sandy ground as far as the eye could see. The heat waves coming off that ground made everything in the distance look like it was moving. Without warning, the road in front of me exploded and rained down dirt in all directions.

My horse reared in the chaos, and I had a devil of a time regaining control of the beast. By the time I had, more explosions had gone off. “Hell-fire, he’s got dynamite! Keep your eyes open!”

Between the debris and dust, the pits he made in the road were hard to spot. One by one those pits swallowed up my boys. My deputy and I were the only ones still riding. La Vie must have run out of dynamite because soon after the explosions stopped, bullets zitted by.

I heard a yelp behind me and knew what had happened before I looked back. My deputy laid sprawled on the ground, his horse down next to him. Part of me wanted to stop and check on him to see if it was fatal or not but if I did, I knew I’d lose my chance to get La Vie and that was something I couldn’t let happen. I decided to use that trail of dust he kicked up to my advantage instead of his.

Using it to hide my approach, I pulled my horse alongside the wagon and saw La Vie sitting in the driver’s seat wearing a black duster, hands whipping the reins. He occasionally kept looking back trying to spot me but hadn’t yet. When he wasn’t looking back, I climbed up onto my saddle and levered myself into the back of the wagon. It contained a now empty wooden crate that had held the dynamite and a slew of smaller chests about the length of my boot, presumably the small fortune he had stolen from the bank. As my horse pulled away from the wagon, I brandished my gun and thumbed the hammer back. “Pull it over, La Vie! I’m bringing you in!”

La Vie looked back at me; sweat rolled down his pitted face. “Lawman! How in Sam Hill did you-”

But before he finished his statement, he jerked the reins, and the wagon swerved causing my footing to go out from beneath me. I had to grab hold of the edge to keep from going over. The wagon veered again, this time the opposite way, but I held on. La Vie growled and pulled his six-shooter, firing a few stray shots in my direction.

I ducked away from his line of sight long enough to get closer to him before he squeezed off another shot. He got off two more shots before I finally reached him and pressed my gun into his back. “Drop it.”

La Vie complied, and the gun fell from his hand, down to the moving ground below. “Now pull it over, La Vie.” He stiffened as I pulled back the hammer. “Don’t make me tell you again.”

La Vie pulled back on the reins until the wagon came to a full stop.

“Now stand up slowly, hands to the sky.”

The outlaw cracked his neck by tilting it side to side and did as instructed. Once standing he turned around to face me. La Vie spat a wad of tobacco juice and shook his head. “You don’t think you can actually win this, do you, lawman?”

I motioned with my gun for him to jump down from the wagon. “It’s not about winning. It’s about keeping this town safe. We can’t keep doing this, you and me. It’s gone on far too long already.”

His brown eyes went to my gun and my face as if judging what I’d do. “In that regard, I agree. It has gone on far too long for my taste. You just keep getting in my way, lawman and one day it’s going to get you killed.”

“Maybe so but while I still have this badge, I’m going to always be between you and my town. Step down, La Vie. Now.” I motioned again with my gun once more.

La Vie scowled and spat again before finally jumping down to the ground below. As soon as he hit the ground, he went for his right boot. I didn’t know if he had a gun or a knife there, but I knew I couldn’t let him draw whatever it was. Shooting a man in the back wasn’t my style, and there wasn’t time to holster my weapon. I did the only thing I could do and jumped out of the wagon, tackling him to the ground. The small derringer pistol he had pulled from his boot skittered away as we both crashed into the sunbaked clay and sand below. He grunted from the impact but belted me with his fist before I could land one myself, causing my vision to swim. La Vie had one hell of a punch.

We rolled in the sandy dirt, struggling against each other. He tried to pull the gun from my hand, but I wouldn’t let him have it. We rolled again, this time with him ending up on top. With one hand trying the wrestle the gun away from me, he slammed his other fist into my shoulder, an attempt to force me to drop it. Pain shot up my arm, and my grip on the firearm faltered. He made a scramble for the gun as it fell, and I used that chance to roll him away from it.

We exchanged a few more blows during our struggle, all the while vying for my dropped gun or his derringer that wasn’t far away. Though it hurt like hell, when I saw my chance, I cracked my forehead against his and grabbed my gun. La Vie lunged for it, but it was too late. I struck him across the temple with the butt of the gun, and he dropped to the ground beside me. A thin spiderweb of blood trickled down from where I’d struck him. I waited for a few heartbeats to be sure he was out and let out a long breath. “Damn, that was harder than it had to be.”

I got to my feet, collected his derringer, and brushed myself off. As I didn’t have any handcuffs on me, I used a little bit of the rope from the back of the wagon to tie up La Vie. I dragged him over to it by his boots, hefted him over my now sore shoulder and plopped him down into the back. After all this time, I had finally caught the man I’d been after. It felt better than I imagined it would. I’d almost go as far as to say I was downright happy.

I climbed up in the front seat of the wagon and turned it around. I wasn’t too concerned about my horse, who had gone meandering off in the distance. He’d find his way back, and if not, I’d have someone come to look for him.

On the way back to town, I found my deputy in good spirits, though he sported a tied bandana around his arm where La Vie had shot him. His horse laid motionless nearby, and one of its legs was at an unnatural angle. It looked as if he had to put it down, the poor thing. “You alright, Emmett?”

“Yeah, boss. I’ll have the doc look at it when we get back to town. What about you?”

I thumbed over my shoulder, and he peaked inside the wagon. “Woo-doggy. We finally got him. About dang time.”

I understood how he felt. “My horse is up the road a bit. You think you can go collect him?”

My deputy tapped the front of his hat, giving a salute of sorts with his forefinger. “Oh, I sent the rest of the boys on back to town to get looked at. I think they only have bumps and bruises, but the doc will say for sure.”

“That’ll do. Make sure the doc looks at you too and then come to see me when you get done.”

My deputy gave me another forefinger salute. “Yes, sir.”

In no time at all, I had pulled the wagon to a stop in front of the bank. All the townsfolk on the streets had stopped to gawk, pointing fingers in my direction and talking to one another. I jumped down off the wagon and opened the back. All the chests were still there, but La Vie wasn’t. “Damnation.” I slammed my fists down on the wagon and shook my head. That devil had escaped again. I had been so close this time too. I wasn’t sure what the town would think of me, money in hand but without the outlaw who took it. I guess it didn’t matter. I would see him behind bars if it was the last thing I ever did, retirement be damned.

THE END

NOTE: This story first appeared in Frontier Tales in June 2019.

Stories

Playing the Field

The sun was going down when I heard the porch bell ring from the field. I collected my tools and hurried home to find my mother waiting there on the porch, her arm interlocked with her next potential suitor. There would be no time to clean up and make myself presentable before making acquaintances. I bounded up the steps and held out my dirt-covered hand still slick with sweat. The man in his finery sneered down at me, and I knew at once I’d have to bury him in the field like all the rest.

THE END

Stories

The Collector

The sight of the ancient statue coming to life continued to haunt Kerick’s waking thoughts, making what should have been an easy recovery that much harder and more serious if he failed.

Under cover of a moonless night, Kerick scaled the walls that separated the keep from the bustling trading town that surrounded it. Torch lit outlines of patrolling sentries bobbed along its circumference. After waiting for the next patrol to pass, he dropped inside and slipped into the main building undetected.

Despite some close calls, Kerick avoided being discovered as he wound his way through a labyrinth of doors, hallways, and darkened stairs. The poorly drawn map he used to navigate by, obtained through a strange network of personal contacts, ended up being more fiction than fact. Even with its inaccuracies, it allowed him to find his way up to the upper floor and to the door of the Collector’s private office.

Approaching footsteps forced Kerick to retreat further down the unlit hallway where he pressed himself into the doorframe of a locked room. It wouldn’t obscure him completely, but he hoped the ambient darkness would do the rest. The stairwell he’d climbed only moments before filled with a flickering light. Had someone seen or heard him?

A gray-haired woman in servant garb came into view carrying a small oil lamp in the palm of her hand. She pulled the maroon shawl tighter about herself and peered into the darkened hallway while holding the lamp up as if she were trying to make something out. Kerick’s breath caught wondering if it was him that she saw.

The old woman frowned and then stepped to the Collector’s door. She gave it a gentle knock and when no response came from the other side, pushed open the door and peeked inside.

The old woman clicked her tongue. “Went to bed again without locking up.”

She placed the oil lamp on the ground beside her, pulled the door shut and locked it using a key that dangled from the small chains on her belt. Kerick grunted at the click of the lock, a sound that said the job just got harder. At his grunt, the old woman snatched up the lamp with shaking hands and held it out in his direction. Thankfully, the lamplight didn’t reach him. She stood there and squinted for a long moment before finally lowering the lamp and heading toward the stairs. The old woman muttered to herself as she went, occasionally looking behind her.

When the light of her lamp finally disappeared, Kerick let out a long-held breath and walked over to the door she had just locked. From his belt pouch, he pulled a pick set and proceeded to work on the door until it made a satisfying click. Kerick returned them to his pouch, gave the door a little push and stepped into the dark room before him. He closed the door behind him and eased across the rug covered office where he stubbed his toe against the corner of a statue he hadn’t seen until it was too late.

Kerick bit down on the yelp and stood there a moment until the pain subsided, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness. The office wasn’t as pitch black as he first thought. Shards of white moonlight filtered in via two sets of embrasures that lined both sides of the room. The slits were barely the width of a handspan. They were wide enough to see outside but thin enough so that no one could step through them. The moonlight wasn’t enough to illuminate the office, but it did provide definition to the shadows that lurked inside.

Kerick contemplated using the light orb his friend had given him for the job, but it was far too bright for his comfort. Any light seen coming from the office would be a signal to the guards down below that someone was inside, someone who shouldn’t be. He’d have to use what little moonlight there was to see by. After a moment, his eyes focused on the large outline of the desk “Would you be the kind to keep it there?”

Behind the desk, Kerick slid out the pillow topped stool and cautiously took a seat. He ran his fingers along the edges of the desk, then around the drawers themselves, checking for possible trip wires. Given the stories he’d heard about the Collector, he wouldn’t have put it past him. Then again, the man had left his office unlocked.

An afterthought popped into Kerick’s head that sent tingles down the back of his neck. Had there been a tripwire on the stool? Thinking back on it, he hadn’t felt any resistance when he pulled it out, but that didn’t mean there hadn’t been one. He cursed silently to himself and shook his head. He’d made a mistake, but it was too late to worry about it now. It would just be yet another reason to make this job quick. His thoughts snapped back to the present when his fingers paused on a thin metal wire. “Ah. There you are.”

Kerick took a moment to disable it and then checked to see if there were more but found none. With a nervous smile, he slid open the drawer and felt around for the stone or the fist-sized chest that he’d seen it in earlier, but there were only tied up scrolls and loose sheets of parchment inside. He eased the drawer closed again but pondered if he should have looked through the contents, given that it had a tripwire. Kerick dismissed the thought as unprofessional, as that wasn’t the kind of thief he was raised to be. He was here for the stone and nothing more.

His inspection of the other drawers revealed them to be empty or filled with knick-knacks of no consequence. “Well, I suppose that would have been too easy. Where else would you hide it?”

Kerick eyed the outlines in the darkness while he drummed his fingers on the desk. “It would have to be close by but not obvious.”

He got to his feet and approached the bookcases behind the desk. Books were an uncommon sight, as they were expensive to make, and most people didn’t know how to read anyway. The fact the Collector had three bookcases filled with thick volumes said something about how much wealth he had amassed over the years, most likely due to thievery rather than some honest business endeavor.

Kerick didn’t have enough light to make out the titles on the spines, but it didn’t stop him from taking a moment to ogle them. After checking for boobytraps, he shifted the books around looking for hidden panels behind them. No such luck. His search of the other two bookcases ended the same way. Kerick’s earlier smile slumped into a frown. “It has to be here. Has to be.”

His eyes went to the gold and red tapestries that hung heavy on either side of the bookcases. He went over and lifted each one, expecting there to be a hidden space but only found a solid wall. Annoyance flared on his cheeks. Kerick went as far as to check behind the paintings that dotted the room with the same disappointing result. The amount of time he’d already wasted within the office made him uneasy. The longer he remained there, the more likely it was that he’d be discovered.

Having not found what he was looking for, Kerick began to second guess himself about the whole job. Was the stone really there in the office? He wiped a hand down his face and collected himself. Two circuits around the room revealed nothing but a menagerie of statues and artifacts, likely impressive looking in the daytime. With no success in finding the stone, he returned to the desk convinced that he must have missed something. His double check of the desk only rewarded him with the same finds as before. The annoyance of it all made his foot tap against the carpet. After a couple of hollow sounding thumps, he paused and looked down. A grin split his face as he jumped to his feet, moved the stool, and peeled back the carpet. Inset in the floor was a rectangular trap door with a wooden handle that laid flush with the door itself. Kerick paused only long enough to look for anything that might trip an alarm and then pulled up on the handle. Purplish red light flooded the office, all emanating from the seams of a fist-sized wooden chest. Next to the chest that shined before him, were folded up maps and cinched up fist-sized bags of what looked like coins or jewels.

The knowledge that he’d spent too long in the office mixed with the fear of someone seeing the light. He needed to hurry. Kerick reached down for the chest but stopped when his eyes caught sight of an almost invisible flicker floating above it. He blinked his eyes to dispel what he thought was his imagination playing tricks on him, but the flickers remained, albeit faintly. His best friend had warned him of possible magical traps and true to her warning, it appeared that he’d found one. Her insistence was the only reason he’d agreed to take the silver coin that she had made for him. She had promised that if he encountered one, the coin could disable it, but he wasn’t so sure.

Kerick removed the coin that hung from his neck on a leather cord, closed his eyes and pressed it into the flickering barrier. No bells rang out. Nothing exploded. The only indication that something had happened was the sound of a small pop. Kerick opened one eye and then the other. He let go of the breath he’d been holding and relaxed. “Well, that wasn’t so bad.”

 Kerick regretted saying it as soon as the words left his mouth. He returned the coin to his neck and reached for what he’d come for. The small chest had no lock and opened without a sound. He caught a glimpse of the polished red rock before he had to look away. Its shape was a flat, misshapen oval, like a river stone. The stone’s purplish-red light made him see spots as if he’d been looking at the sun too long. It seemed to be vibrating in the chest, though it could have been a trick of the light. Alarmed by the brilliance of the light, Kerick snatched the stone out of the chest and slipped it into a black cinch pouch. The pouch wasn’t enough to suppress all the light. He had to bury the enclosed stone inside his larger belt pouch before the room became dark again, more so now that his eyes had to readjust.

Kerick cursed to himself as he waited for his night vision to return and the white spots to fade. When he could see well enough, he hurried to return the room to what it looked like before. No sooner had the corner of the carpet flopped back to the floor, he heard the unmistakable clatter of armed guards coming up the stairs.

They had seen the light. More curses flew from his lips as his mind went into a million directions. Escape wouldn’t be possible as the only way out was the same door the guards would soon be at. Given the stories he’d heard about the Collector’s anger, getting caught with the stone in his possession would spell certain death. He needed a different outcome.

The guards’ approach forced Kerick to make a quick decision. He would have to hide the stone if there was any hope of getting out of the situation alive but where posed a problem.

Kerick took in the room as much as the darkness allowed. Wherever he hid the stone, it would have to be accessible for later but not easily discoverable. His mind churned just as fast as his heart raced. A recollection of the keep’s exterior came to mind, specifically around the embrasures. Kerick darted to the nearest one and shoved his hand through it, feeling for one of the wooden roof beams that perforated the structure every so many feet. His fingertips brushed the bottom edge of a beam, but even on his tiptoes, he could reach above it. The clatter of guards was getting louder. They’d be there at any moment.

Kerick dashed to the desk, retrieved the stool, and tried the embrasure again. That gave him the reach he needed. He yanked his belt pouch off and slapped it on top of the outside beam. There was no guarantee if it would remain there, especially with the strong desert winds that sometimes invaded the walls of the town, but he didn’t have a better option. Kerick dropped down and returned the stool to the desk just as the door burst open.

#

The throbbing coming from the back of Kerick’s head meant he was still alive, though for how long was still in question. Sunlight stung his eyes when he finally pried them open. He was on his back, laying on something cool but quite uncomfortable. Above him, he could see a mudbrick ceiling with hairline cracks and spider webs. Turning his head proved to be a mistake because as soon as he did so, the throbbing hammered his skull. Even laying down, he felt dizzy.

That head turn rewarded him with the sight of metal bars, mudbrick walls, and a stone floor, the same he apparently laid on. Kerick’s thoughts were sluggish as he tried to piece together how he’d gotten in the cell. The last thing he remembered was the guards rushing him. Had they hit him over the head?

With effort and another fresh wave of pain, Kerick managed to sit up and prop himself against the wall. He remained there long enough for the stabbing pain to ease and then hoisted himself to his feet. Had it not been for the cell bars that he continued to clutch, his attempt at being vertical would have failed. He rested his head against the blissfully cold bars and waited for the pain to ease again. After a few minutes, he pulled himself away from the bars and remained precariously upright.

The cell around him was barren, save for the dirty clay pot in the corner. The stench of it threatened to make him wretch, even being on the opposite side of the cell. The source of the sunlight came from a single barred window on the back wall. Kerick’s thoughts coalesced, and he realized for the first time that daylight meant that he’d missed the rendezvous with his best friend. She’d probably be worried sick.

The sound of heavy footsteps echoed down the poorly lit hall beyond his cell. “Where is he? Where’s that bastard?” The questions bellowed down the hall, angry and bitter.

“He’s down here, sir.”

The Collector’s slicked back hair was out of place when he stomped his way into sight. He wore a maroon tunic and a matching wraparound skirt. It was the same color as the old woman’s shawl and the flags he’d seen flying over the keep. It held significance of some sort, though what Kerick didn’t know. The gold chain he used as an ornamental belt clanked as he came forward. The larger of the two guards that flanked him hooked a thumb in Kerick’s direction. “This is the guy.” Their leather armor had been dyed a similar color, but the shade didn’t quite match. The guard that had pointed him out wore a single silver hoop earring in his right ear, and it made Kerick wonder why he wore such a thing as a guard, as it could be ripped out in a struggle.

The Collector’s cheeks reddened as he stalked closer. Kerick took a step back out of instinct as the man stopped in front of his cell. His fists were balled at his sides and his eyes danced with rage. “Where is it? What did you do with it?”

When Kerick didn’t answer him, the man tried to reach through the bars and grab at his throat. Kerick stepped back again, letting the man’s hand strain midair for a moment. “Damn you! Where’s my stone?”

 Kerick remained silent. The Collector, incensed, smacked the other guard on the arm and pointed at the cell door. “Get in there and loosen his tongue.”

The guard, a string bean of a man, gave Kerick a barely noticeable frown and then fumbled for his keys. In seconds, the door swung open, and both guards entered the cell. They surrounded Kerick and forced him against the wall. He tried to block the string bean’s fist, but the bigger one with the silver hoop landed a hit before Kerick could kick at him. They pummeled his stomach and sides, engulfing him in waves of pain. “Enough!” The Collector barked, as Kerick dropped to the floor wheezing and coughing. “Where is my stone? I know you took it.”

He looked up at the Collector and lied. “What are you talking about? I don’t have anything. Search me.”

The Collector nodded his head, and the guards began to kick and punch him all over again. All Kerick could do was just lay there and take the blows, gritting his teeth at the pain. After a couple of minutes of further abuse, the Collector called them off. “Where is it? Tell me.”

Kerick curled in on himself. The throbbing in his head lessened but the pain elsewhere bloomed. “I told you. I don’t have anything.”

The Collector squeezed the bars as if choking them but never entered the open cell. With another nod, the guards resumed their assault. Kerick tried not to cry out but couldn’t help it. The punches and kicks only seemed to get stronger the longer they went on. “I don’t have any stone!”

A guttural growl came from the Collector, but he raised a hand to stop the red-faced guards. “And why should I believe anything a thief says?”

Kerick groaned. “Did you find anything on me?” He waited for the Collector to answer him, but the man only stood there angry. “I must be the worst thief ever. Not only did I not steal anything, but I got caught doing it.”

The Collector’s eyes narrowed. “You’re playing an extremely dangerous game, thief. I’m not one to be trifled with. Tell me what you did with the stone.”

Kerick sighed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He winced, expecting another series of attacks but none came.

The Collector just stared at him, sizing him up. “Being stubborn, I see.” The man shrugged and motioned for the guards to come out. “Perhaps a nice long stay will loosen your tongue.” He turned to the guards. “See that the thief gets no food or water. If he falls asleep, wake him up. There’s no need to be gentle about it either.” The Collector then turned to peer down at Kerick once more. “If you decide you happen to remember where the stone is, just let one of the guards know. Until then, enjoy your stay, thief.”

The cell door slammed shut as the Collector stalked back down the hallway. The two guards scrambled after him a moment later. Kerick remained curled up in the floor, letting the pain slowly dissipate. Despite the beating, he was strangely pleased with himself. His plan to stay alive had worked, at least for the moment.

After a while, Kerick pulled himself to his feet. Everything hurt. He tried the cell door on the off chance it hadn’t locked but it held firmly in place. He sighed and leaned back against the cell door, eyeing the barred window on the back wall. “I wonder.” Kerick peeled himself from the door and stumbled over to the back window, his body protesting every step. The guards had done a real number on him. He tested the bars in the window to see how firm they were inset into the mudbrick. None moved. He tried again, this time putting all his weight on the bars as he shook them. No effect. He let go and rested his head against the wall with a sigh. The stench of the clay pot wafted up and made him gag almost instantly. “Well, this is a problem.”

“Kerick? Is that you?” A familiar voice said from the barred window above him.

His head shot up, and he winced at the pain that followed. “Jocelyn?” With her not being in mage robes, he almost didn’t recognize her. She wore a simple patchwork top of faded blues and greens with a brown ankle-length ruffled skirt. Her braided nut-brown ponytail hung over her shoulder and down into the bars, as if it were rope Kerick could use to escape.

“I was worried sick! I can’t believe you got yourself thrown in jail.” Her eyes flared as she said it, her way of putting emphasis on the statement.

“I know. Sorry.”

Her tone softened. “Are you okay?”

Kerick grimaced. “I’ve been better, but you’re a welcomed sight for sore eyes.”

A dimpled smile replaced her gruffness. “So are you.” Her face turned serious again. “Now, let’s get you out of there before you get yourself into more trouble.”

Jocelyn inspected the bars and tapped her finger to her chin in thought. “This window is a little smaller than I would have liked, but there’s nothing to be done about that now.”

“I already tried the bars. They don’t move.”

Jocelyn shook her head. “Oh, ye of little faith.” From around her neck, she produced a dark vial that had been dangling out of sight beneath her top on a silver chain.

With a quick twist, she opened the vial and then drizzled its viscous dark green contents over the bars. At first, nothing happened, but then a few wisps of white smoke floated up from the bars, followed by a crackling sound.

Kerick watched with curiosity as small cracks began to spider the bars. Sounds of approaching footsteps tore his eyes away from the bars. “We might have company coming. So, whatever you’re doing, you might want to hurry.”

“Don’t rush me.” She said with a smile but then stood up. “Now stand back.”

Kerick complied just as his friend kicked the bars with her sandaled feet. The bars broke into pieces and clattered to the ground, some shattering on impact as if they were made of glass. Before shock could set in, a whistle blew down the hallway and the sound of guards right after. “I think they heard that!”

“You think?” Jocelyn used a rag she had pulled from somewhere on her person and wiped down the area where the bars had been. “What are you waiting for? Come on!”

Kerick eyed the guards coming into view and then climbed up into the window. From behind him, he heard the guards yelling. He got halfway through the window when he heard the jangling of keys. Panic surged up through him when he couldn’t go any further through the window. Had they caught him? He kicked out with his feet, but reason returned to him in a series of racing heartbeats. There wasn’t anyone holding him yet. He was merely stuck. “I need a little help here!”

Jocelyn surveyed the empty alley and then offered her hands. Warning bells started tolling as she gave him a hearty pull. Guards would likely swarm the area at any moment. Despite the firm pull, Kerick remained stuck. She pulled again, and the only change was the cry that Kerick let out. “You should be able to fit through here.” A frown formed on her face and continued to deepen the longer she looked at him. “It’s all those sweets you’ve been eating! I told you to lay off them. But did you listen to me? No!”

Kerick sighed. “Do you think now is the best time to be lecturing me on my eating habits?”

Jocelyn let go of him and put her hands on her hips. “Now is the perfect time. Your gut is going to get you killed.”

The sounds of running guards were all around them, but none had entered the alley yet. Jocelyn planted her foot against the windowsill just as Kerick’s cell door banged open, grabbed him by the wrists and pulled with everything she had. Both she and Kerick cried out in unison. The windowsill and what remained of the bars scrapped his torso as she pulled him through. Jocelyn landed on her backside with a bounce and Kerick went face first into the sandy alley. Whistles blew around them, forcing them both to their feet.

“Thanks,” Kerick said, lifting his tunic to inspect his throbbing midsection. To his horror, it was ringed with red gashes and scrapes that stung at the lightest of touches. He gingerly let his tunic down as Jocelyn brushed herself off.

Through the cell window, the same guard with the silver hoop roared up at Kerick. “Come back here you bastard!” The man’s face burned with rage. Foam and spittle flew from his mouth as he yelled. “You won’t escape me! You hear? We’ll find you, and when we do, you’ll pay for this. Mark my words!”

Kerick looked the man in the eyes. “Thanks for the hospitality.” He might have said more, but Jocelyn threw something through the window that caused the cell to fill with smoke and pulled him away.

#

Jocelyn and Kerick were chased through the network of alleys and streets. After countless loopbacks and weaving through the crowded street bazaar, they found an alley with aging crates, crates that Kerick began to stack. “Time to go up.” Jocelyn hesitated but climbed at Kerick’s further urging. The crates creaked and splintered as she climbed. As soon as she was on the roof, he followed behind her. Once up top, he lifted the top crate onto the roof so that no one could follow them up. Safe on the roof, they both laid down on their backs to catch their breath. Neither said anything until the sounds of the whistles and yelling guards were out of earshot.

Jocelyn turned her head toward Kerick and blew out a breath. “Well, that was close.”

“You’re telling me.”

Jocelyn sat up, looked around at the barren mudbrick roof and out onto the surrounding town. “We probably should head for the gates even though they’ll likely have someone watching for us.”

Kerick nodded. “They probably have more than just someone. But I agree, getting out of here is paramount. Before we do though, I need to get that stone.”

Jocelyn gave him a look he didn’t quite recognize. It was something between curiosity and concern. “You got caught the last time you tried, or don’t you remember? The mission is compromised, Kerick.”

The sight of the golem coming to life replayed in Kerick’s head. If he abandoned the stone just to keep his skin intact, there would be nothing to stop the Collector should he recover the stone. “I saw it, Jocelyn. The golem. They brought it to life, just for a second. I don’t know if they were just testing it or what, but it came to life.”

Concern showed on her face. “The golem is here?”

He nodded. “Inside the keep.” Jocelyn blew out a long breath but said nothing. “That’s why I need to try, compromised or not. Otherwise, all those stories we were told might actually happen.”

Her head dropped. “You’re right. This is probably the only chance we’re going to get at this.” Kerick saw her frown and sympathized. He didn’t like it any more than she did.

He tried to give a comforting smile. “I’ve got the stone hidden right up there.” Kerick pointed to the top of the keep. “It shouldn’t be that hard to retrieve. All I need to do is scale the building, grab the stone, and get back here. Then we can get the heck out of this place.”

“You make it sound simple.” Her frown was still firm.

Kerick smiled. “Isn’t it?” His portrayed confidence didn’t match how he really felt. Any number of things could go wrong, but he didn’t want to think about that.

Jocelyn tapped her chin in thought. “While you’re doing that, I’ll go scout out our exits and see about doing a little shopping. I have a feeling we might have to fight our way out, and we can’t do that with what we have, not to mention survive out in the desert.”

It made sense to Kerick, as there was no telling what they’d face in making a run for it. He eyed his friend. “Be careful, okay?” He worried that Jocelyn might get caught, but he also knew she was capable. She’d found him and broken him out of prison after all.

“You too. Let’s meet back here when we’re done.”

The two friends embraced each other and went their separate ways hoping for the best.

#

The daytime made sneaking back into the keep grounds difficult. Kerick felt exposed no matter which way he went, and it unnerved him. He might have been able to wait until dark, but he didn’t want to risk the chance of the Collector finding the stone before he could recover it. The sooner he got the stone, the better. His first couple of tries failed because someone happened to be on the other side. He dared not wait up top of the keep’s walls because he could be easily seen from other guard positions. Three attempts later and with tiring arms, he dropped inside and darted across the open courtyard when the guards weren’t looking.

With no time to waste, he shook out his limbs and took to scaling the main building. It too turned out to be more difficult than he was expecting. The stones in the mudbrick exterior provided him some rudimentary foot and handholds. Their narrowness made his fingers ache. Had it not been for the wooden beams that protruded from every floor, his finger strength might have failed him. The beams were a welcomed respite that allowed him to pause and shake out his hands. The grueling climb tested Kerick, but after what seemed like forever, he made it to the top.

To his relief, even with the desert winds, his pouch remained exactly where he’d left it. “Bless you.” Kerick tied the pouch back onto his belt, all the while hearing his heart in his ears. There was no time to rejoice or relax. He still had to make it down and smuggle it out of the town. The climb down taxed his nerves more than the climb up had. The narrow footholds meant he couldn’t see his next step down and it caused his footing to slip several times.

The view of the town was breathtaking, but he didn’t take time to admire it. He only focused on getting down and hoping his friend made it back safely. Fear of being spotted caused his hands to shake, that and the continued strain on his fingertips. That fear made him move faster than he should have. Near the bottom, he missed his footholds completely and fell hard to the ground below. Painful tingles ran along Kerick’s body as if his limbs had gone to sleep.

He forced down the fear that someone had heard his fall and scurried off toward the wall, thankful nothing had been broken. His heart thumped in his ears as he crested the wall and jumped down onto the other side. He disappeared into the crowd as fast as he could, fleeing would-be pursuers that had yet to materialize except in his imagination.

Back at the rendezvous point, Kerick climbed up onto the roof and froze. The Collector stood before him; arms crossed. Next to him, the burly guard with the silver hoop earring held Jocelyn with a knife pressed to her throat.

The Collector sneered at Kerick. “There you are. I was beginning to wonder if you were going to make it back. Do you have my stone?” When Kerick shifted his footing, the guard applied pressure to Jocelyn’s neck. She whimpered as a trickle of red ran down the knife blade. “Now don’t do anything stupid, thief, or your friend dies.”

“Let her go.”

The Collector unfurled his arms. “I’d love to.” He then pointed at Kerick. “But you have something of mine, something I want back.”

Without making any sudden moves, Kerick reached into his belt pouch and pulled out the smaller one with the stone. Its purplish-red light gleamed in the Collector’s eyes as a crooked smiled formed on his face. “You have it. Excellent. Give it to me, and I’ll let her go.”

Kerick sized the Collector up and thought back to some of the things he’d heard said about him, foremost that he wasn’t a man to be trusted. “Alive and unharmed?”

The Collector chuckled. “Attention to detail. I like that. Fine. She’ll be released alive and unharmed in exchange for the stone. Do we have a deal?”

“Can you guarantee safe passage out of the town for the both of us?”

A look of surprise flashed on the Collector’s face. He stared at Kerick for a long moment, his expression unreadable. “I don’t normally let thieves get away with stealing from me.”

Kerick jiggled the pouch. “Maybe not but I’m sure you can make an exception.”

The man chuckled and shook his head. “Oddly, I find myself liking you. Fine. Hand over the stone, and we’ll have a deal.”

Despite the verbal agreement, Kerick knew the Collector would likely double-cross him, but he didn’t a choice. Jocelyn mouthed to him not to do it, but he couldn’t obey. Sacrificing Jocelyn’s life to keep others safe wasn’t something he could live with. “As a sign of good faith, let her walk to the center.”

The Collector nodded to his guard, who then released her. With a hand covering the cut at her neck, Jocelyn hurried to the center of the roof. “Now the stone.” Kerick weighed the bag in his hand and tossed it over to the Collector. After a quick check of the contents, the Collector showed his crooked smile again. “A pleasure doing business with you, thief. You’re free to leave. But if I ever catch you in my town again, I’ll have your head on my office wall. Are we clear?”

“Crystal.”

Jocelyn hurried over to join Kerick as the guard, and the Collector climbed down the crates. “Why did you do that?”

Kerick hung his head, shamed faced. “I had to. I couldn’t let you die.”

She placed her unbloodied hand on his cheek and then touched her forehead to his. “I know.” Jocelyn lifted his chin, so she could look him in the eyes. “But it can’t end like this. We have to stop him.”

“And how do we do that?” Kerick asked, his voice sounding downtrodden.

Jocelyn stepped away and went to an oddly shaped burlap sack that Kerick hadn’t seen before that moment. “I went shopping, remember? Unfortunately, they saw me and followed me back here. I’m sorry. This is all my fault.”

Kerick frowned at his friend. “It’s not your fault, and you know it.”

Jocelyn rummaged inside the sack for a second and then pulled out two L-shaped wooden throwing sticks, each with carvings down either side. “These are yours.”

Kerick’s frown deepened. “Those are for hunting birds.”

She tossed them over to him. “Don’t complain. It’s better than nothing.” That’s when she pulled out two knives that didn’t match in shape or color and then placed them on the ground beside her.

“So, you get knives, and I get sticks?”

“My shopping trip. My knives. Get over it.” She looped the bag across her shoulders and then picked up the knives. “If we hurry, we can catch them before they get back to the keep and get the stone back.” Using one of the knives, she cut a strip of cloth off her dress and used it to bandage her neck. She then looped the back across her shoulders and collected the other knife. “Let’s get going.”

#

The two friends darted through the alleys and streets, avoiding the main thoroughfare as much as possible. The Collector might have guaranteed their safety, but the town guards wouldn’t know that, meaning they were still fugitives. Kerick guided Jocelyn on the most direct path back to the keep until they spotted the Collector with his guard just behind him. There weren’t many more streets between them and the keep so they’d only get one or two chances to pull this off. After a quick huddle, they split up.

Jocelyn crossed the main street, within sight of their targets, and went on to the adjacent alley. Kerick, on the other hand, circled around to the next and pressed himself against the building. A moment later Jocelyn appeared on the other side. Once the Collector and his guard came into view, the two friends rushed them. Jocelyn slammed into the guard, but he didn’t go down as she had imagined. He instead stumbled off balance but quickly regained his footing.

“Sir, we’re under attack!” The guard unsheathed his side sword and pointed it at Jocelyn. The Collector spun around just in time to duck the throwing stick Kerick had launched at his head. Before Kerick could make another throw, the Collector took off running toward the keep.

“After him!” Jocelyn yelled. “I’ll take care of this one. I owe him anyway.”

The guard was twice Jocelyn’s size. Kerick felt certain the guard could flatten Jocelyn if he tried, even with her magic. It caused him to hesitate, but Jocelyn yelled at him again. “Go!” Against his better judgment, Kerick tore after the Collector in a dead run. Halfway to catching up to the Collector, Kerick realized he hadn’t collected the other throwing stick before going after him. He’d only get one chance. Up ahead, the walls of the keep came into view, and the Collector was dead set on reaching it by the way he was running. Kerick couldn’t allow him to get there.

He gave everything he had to speed up and then catapulted the throwing stick at his target. It whirled through the air, and everything seemed to slow, all but his heartbeats. The stick spun and then connected with the Collector’s head. The man crumpled to the ground face first. Kerick slid to a stop next to him and snatched up the pouch that had tumbled to the ground. A cursory inspection of the Collector said he was still alive but would have a nice bump on the back of his head for the next few days. Kerick stood up as two guards positioned at the keep’s entrance came running. “That would be my cue.”

Kerick collected the throwing stick and tore off in the opposite direction. When he found Jocelyn, she was sitting on top of the unconscious guard breathing heavy. She was flexing her hand and shaking it out. A laugh of surprise bubbled up as he came to a stop. “You okay?”

“Of course.” She stood up and collected her knives, all of which were scattered around them. “Did you get the stone?”

Kerick jiggled the black pouch in front of her. “Sure did. But we need to hurry. More guards should be headed our way at any moment.” He returned it to his belt pouch and collected the other throwing stick he had left behind.

“I know just where to go. Come on.”

#

Jocelyn led Kerick down a series of streets that he knew was the opposite direction of the main gate. His earlier scouting had determined those gates were the only way in and out of the town. “I take it we’re not leaving just yet?”

Her only reply was a finger to her mouth. He could tell by the way she was moving that she had a plan but what, he had no idea. The towering southern wall of the town came into view as a putrid stench mixed with smoke filled the air. Before Kerick could comment on it, Jocelyn pulled him into a building where the smell intensified. The grime covered room was lined with overgrown piles of trash, and the floor was slippery with slimy gunk he couldn’t identify. At the center of the room was a giant firepit with a barrel of pitch beside it. A shovel stood erect in the nearest pile. His hand went to his nose, but he could still smell the place. Jocelyn pulled him into the far corner of the room where the piles of trash hid them from the view of its entrance. “We can hide in here while we change.”

“Change?”

Jocelyn nodded. “They know what we look like. We need to blend in a little better. Then we can see about getting out of here.”

His friend had a good point. “What did you have in mind?” Jocelyn smiled and proceeded to dress him in a brown patchwork merchant robe that looked to be well worn around the edges. When she pulled out a handful of wet clay, Kerick took a step back.

“No. No. None of that.” She said as she pulled him back toward her. With an all too happy laugh, she squished the clumps into his hair and massaged it in, turning his dark brown hair into a pale mud color. Jocelyn seemed pleased with herself as she turned Kerick’s head left and right to inspect it. “That’ll work.”

The clay made it feel like he had a wet blanket on his head. Between that and the trash around him, Kerick felt dirty, a feeling he didn’t like. “Do I get to do that to you too?” His words were followed by a yawn. The lack of sleep was catching up to him.

“Not in a million years.” Jocelyn slipped on a similar type of robe, pulled her hair up into a bun and donned an earth-toned face wrap. “How do I look?”

“Like trouble.”

Jocelyn smacked him on the arm but smiled. “Let’s try those gates, shall we?”

#

They avoided the rooftops since the Collector would be looking for them there, but the streets weren’t much better. Kerick felt their makeshift disguises wouldn’t be enough to hide their identities, but to his surprise, he was proven wrong. Jocelyn had taken him into the bazaar, past guards who were on the lookout for them. To blend in better, they took it slow and interacted with all the merchants that approached them. Though it took longer than they were comfortable with, they navigated the crowds and strolled up to the building nearest the gate.

Jocelyn bobbed her head in the direction of the gates. Six armed guards were positioned there, only seeming to care about what and who was trying to leave. “Think they’re looking for us?”

“I’d say that’s a safe bet. At least there’s only six.”

Jocelyn shot Kerick a sideways glance. “Are you crazy?”

“What? They’re skinny. I’ve seen you take on that many before.”

“Not dressed like this. Besides, did you forget we only have knives and sticks?” She smacked him on the arm.

They continued to watch as a horse-drawn wagon pulled up to the gate to leave. One of the guards said something to the driver while two more circled around it. They inspected the bottom of the wagon, presumably looking for someone hiding beneath. They then pulled back a sun-bleached tarp that had been covering small wine barrels and sacks of what was likely grains. One even climbed in the back to move things around, just to make sure there weren’t castaways hidden around or beneath anything.

When they finally let the wagon leave, another group behind them stepped up to the gate with both hooded cloaks and face wraps to stave off the desert sands outside. The guards made them remove their hoods and face wraps before letting them leave.

Kerick grunted his displeasure. “They’re a little too thorough.”

“So, I noticed. I don’t think we’re going to be able to sneak through there, even with a distraction or our disguises.”

He let out a sigh knowing his friend’s assessment was right. “Well, that leaves the wall then.”

Feeling they might be noticed for standing there too long, they took their conversation another street over. “You do know that’s guarded too, right?”

“Do you always have to be so negative?” Kerick cracked a grin at his friend.

“Negative? Pfft.” Jocelyn gave him a hard poke in the ribs and then guided him down another side street until they ended up next to the eastern wall. “We’re about to walk by the staircase that leads up to the upper wall. As far as I know, this is the only way up there.”

Kerick did his best to take in the two men with spears that guarded the narrow staircase as they casually passed. At the next street, they turned the corner and pressed themselves against the building. They wore the same off shade maroon leather amour all the other guards wore, but there wasn’t much else remarkable about them. Even their cropped hair seemed to be the same shade of dark brown.

“Thoughts?”

Kerick rubbed his chin. “Two is better than six any day. Any ideas about how many might be up top?”

His friend shook her head. “There’s a least a few up there that I’ve been able to spot from the ground, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t more.”

Kerick grunted. “That’s not ideal, but it’s still better than the front gates.”

Jocelyn nodded her agreement. “You ready for this?” She didn’t wait for his answer and started back toward the staircase.

To Kerick’s surprise, Jocelyn walked right up to the first guard and asked for directions. While he tried to help her, the other guard stood mute staring straight ahead. Not knowing what else to do, Kerick brandished a throwing stick and hurled it at the nearest guard.

The man who’d been giving Jocelyn directions crumpled to the ground, and the other fumbled his spear in surprise. Before the startled guard could recover, Kerick’s second stick connected with his face with a crack. The man stumbled back against the wall and slid down.

“Nice throwing,” Jocelyn said while retrieving the sticks.

Kerick gave the area a once over to make sure no one had seen the attack and took the sticks back from his friend. “Thanks.” His friend left him to drag the bodies up into the stairs while she went ahead to scope out the wall-walk. They had expected there to be an increased presence up top, given the number out in the town, but there was only a handful of guards pacing the wall-walk just as Jocelyn had seen earlier.

The two of them hid in the stairwell and waited for the closest guard to pass by. When he did, Jocelyn popped up behind him and knocked him out with the hilt of her knife. The guard’s side sword clattered to the wall-walk making them freeze. To their relief, the remaining two guards continued their patrols in the distance as if nothing had happened. The winds had swallowed the sound of the sword fall.

Still nervous, they dragged the fallen guard down into the staircase with the others. They didn’t know how long the guards would be out, but they knew they needed to move faster. Jocelyn and Kerick hurried over to the nearest section of the parapet, staying down low. She pulled a coiled rope out of the burlap bag and knotted a loop large enough to go around the merlon that jutted up in front of them. Kerick kept an eye on the patrolling guards that still hadn’t noticed them as she fastened it to the sandstone.

When she was done, Jocelyn gave her knot a solid tug and then stepped up onto the flat crenel between the two merlons in front of her. “Time to go.” Not waiting for his reply, she slipped over the edge and down the wall. Kerick gave the guards another glance and then followed quickly behind. With the stone safely in their custody, they fled into the endless sand dunes that surrounded the town and raced to return it to its true owner, far away from the Collector’s grasp.

THE END

Stories

Devil Tree

Conrad Mercer, dressed in his starched white collared shirt and wool vest, picked up the ax that had been propped up against the stacked woodpile on the porch. His eyes were fixed on the Geechee woman who stood only a carriage length away from his plantation home. She wore a plain wrapper dress with a faded calico flower print and a yellow turban upon her head. Mercer pointed in the direction of the drive behind her, lined with white oaks dripping with Spanish moss. “Be gone with you!”

When the dark-skinned woman didn’t go, Mercer wiped the sweat from his graying temples and stepped off the front porch with every bit of malice in his step. The woman, probably twenty years his senior, lifted her arms in defense and screamed as he approached her with his ax clutched in both hands, as if ready to swing at her. As she retreated, her brown eyes were bright with fear. “Joo a devil, Mister Mercer. Joo has no heart in joo.”

“Get out of here, woman. I told you and your kind to keep off my land. Now git!”

“Please, Mister Mercer.” She cried out, “Don’t be hurting me!”

The plantation owner came to a stop and sighed his weariness, letting the ax head lower to the ground.  “I told you, woman. I’m not selling you any of my lands. Especially not to your kind.”

“Joo got to understand. Dis here be a special place to ma kin. We wants it back. Can pay double, if joo want.”

Mercer looked back at the newly built plantation house and then to the lush grounds and fields just beyond. His attention returned to the Geechee woman and in a softer tone said, “This place is special to me too.” His voice hardened. “I don’t care if you’ll pay more than double what it’s worth. I ain’t selling. Not one inch of it. You hear?”

The dark-skinned woman’s features tightened, and her lips thinned. She pulled out a pale deerskin bag and began to sprinkle herbs on the ground in front of her, muttering words that Mercer couldn’t quite make out.

“I won’t warn you again, woman. Git!” The man raised his ax in the air, pointing it at her to underscore his point.

“Joo rotten at de root, Mister Mercer. Not’n but hardwood at de heart. Joo will be on the de outside what joo are in de inside. Joo will see!”

Mercer advanced on her, acting as if to take a swing. “Git!”

The Geechee woman cried out and retreated, leaving Mercer to his beloved plantation.

The next morning Conrad Mercer awoke to a particularly chilly house. On cold mornings such as these, the help would have kept the old house warm by tending a fire but none of the rooms, especially his own, had a fire going in the brick hearths. “Tanna!”

He reached over to the little bell he kept on the nightstand and rang it. “Tanna!” There was no reply to his summons, and his housekeeper never came. Mercer huffed his displeasure and threw back the covers of his four-post bed. “Tanna!” He called again, hoping she’d answer, but he heard nothing in response. “Where the devil is that woman?”

Perturbed, Mercer pushed himself out of bed and donned a pair of trousers and the same white shirt from the day before. He slid his suspenders over his shoulders and slipped on his shoes, getting madder by the moment.

Out in the hallway, he called for his housekeeper again to no avail. Mercer descended the curved staircase, letting his hand slide down the banister as he went. He marched himself straight past the empty kitchen and to her adjacent room. Mercer grabbed the doorknob and thrust the door wide open. “Tanna! Get yourself out-” He stopped his yell when he saw that her bed was empty. The man spun on his heels, not caring to close the door back, and marched out onto the front porch.

He stomped his way around the wrap-around porch, but she was nowhere to be found, nor was she out on the grounds that he saw. “Where on earth is that woman?” His temper and search had provided some measure of heat, but the outside air quickly sucked it from his bones. “Damn that woman.” He rubbed his arms. “Fine. I’ll make my own fire.” He returned to the woodpile to fetch some firewood, but there was none, only discarded bark and wood splinters where firewood once sat. He hadn’t noticed the missing firewood on his previous circuit of the porch.

“Maybe she went to cut more wood.” The thought appeased his senses for a moment, but then he remembered seeing the ax next to the front door, in the same place he left it after his encounter with the Geechee woman. “Tanna!” He called out again and listened for her reply or approach. There was still nothing.

He returned inside and took in the cold and silent house in confusion. Where could she be? His nose and cheeks began to sting. It was then that he made up his mind. He’d go and cut his own firewood. Mercer grabbed his coat, hat, and gloves and picked up the ax as he stepped out the front door. With quickness in his step, he marched out to the area behind the sheds. It was an open grass space that butted up against the tree line that ringed most of his usable land. There were several trees still laying where they had been recently felled for firewood, cut up into log length rings. He had wrangled a previously quartered chunk of the wood onto the cutting stump and began splitting wood when he heard the crack of twigs behind him. “Tanna, where the devil have you been?” But when he turned around, it wasn’t Tanna. The Geechee woman stood there with her deerskin bag.

“She be gone, Mister Mercer.”

“What did you do to her? So help me- ”

“Joo did it, Mister Mercer. Joo and jour cold heart. She be one of us, and by refusing us, joo refuse her.” The man’s face flushed with anger as she continued to speak. “Keep jour house and fields, if joo must, but sell us back some. Just a little. Please, Mister. Mercer. Have a heart.”

Conrad Mercer would hear no more of her. He took his ax and swung. The Geechee woman screamed and threw the contents of her deerskin bag upon him as she jumped back. “Outside within, inside without. Joo a root of evil. Jour seeds of ill now take root!”

Mercer felt a sudden sharp pain shoot up both his legs before he could take a step toward her. The anger on his face transformed into panic as he threw down his ax and grasped at his legs. He couldn’t move from where he stood. He watched in horror as his legs transformed into a trunk of a tree. “Stop this! What are you doing to me, woman?”

“Joo did dis, Mister Mercer! Joo and jour cruelty! Dis is what joo are. A devil tree!”

The pain of transformation continued up his body. “Don’t do this. Please!”

“It be already done. Joo had your chance, Mister Mercer. Joo ignored my people’s plea, and den tried to kill me! Dis be jour reward.”

In a final scream, Conrad Mercer was gone, and only an oak tree remained where he once stood. She patted his bark. “Don’t worry Mister Mercer; we’ll take good care of de plantation.”

THE END

Stories

Savannah Dreams

Nina hurried down the stairs in her plain lilac t-shirt and blue jean overhauls, her thick white socks muffling her decent. “I’m coming. I’m coming.” She said to the phone that continued to ring on the foyer table as if it could hear her. Her friends were talking about heading down to River Street that night but had yet to finalize things. Nina snatched up the phone with eagerness. “Hello?”

The voice that answered back didn’t belong to one of her friends. “May I speak to Janice Williams, please?”

Her disappointment changed to curiosity. “Who can I ask is calling?” Nina twisted the phone cord around her fingers out of habit.

“This is Karen Brewer. I’m a nurse at Candler Hospital.”

“Just a moment.” She covered the bottom of the handset with the palm of her hand and yelled up to her mom. “Mom! It’s for you. It’s some lady from the hospital.”

A moment or two later, her mom walked into the foyer wearing a blue pantsuit and pumps. Her dark blonde hair was up in a bun. At her approach, Nina handed her the phone and retreated to the nearby stairs.

“Hello?”

Nina started up the stairs, but a funny feeling made her take a seat on one of the steps midway up. She watched her mom through the banister railings with a strange interest. After a short conversation, her mom hung up the phone and then drummed her fingernails on the foyer table while in thought. Nina found it strange and came back downstairs to join her mother.

“What was that about, mom?”

Her mother’s drumming stopped. “Your grandmother is in the hospital.”

Nina stood there stunned. “Oh, my God. Is she okay? What happened?”

Her mother responded with clinical detachment, “She collapsed. She’s over at Candler in a coma.”

Nina sank onto the nearest step, her heart with her. “Are you planning to go see her?”

Janice gave her daughter a slanted look. “No. Why should I?”

Her mother and her grandmother Nigella had a falling out several years back due to Janice’s growing desire for money and her self-serving habits. Out of spite, Janice had forbidden Nina from seeing her grandmother, but that never stopped her from doing so in secret. She loved her grandmother and wouldn’t let her mother’s issues get in the way of their relationship.

“She’s your mom, and she’s in the hospital for god’s sake. Can’t you just get past this hang-up of yours? Show that you’re human for a change.”

The slanted look turned into a glare. “That’s enough, young lady. We’re not going, and that’s the end of it.”

Nina’s eyes watered, and her jaw clenched. She couldn’t believe her mom was this heartless, despite her mom’s actions in the past. Nina knew she could leave later that night under the pretense of going out with friends and see her grandmother instead, but didn’t hospitals have visiting hours? She didn’t want to miss her chance to see her. In a split-second decision, Nina made her choice. She was going to see her grandmother, no matter if her mom liked it or not. Nina ran up the stairs to her room, slipped on her shoes, and grabbed both her key and purse. Her keys jangled on the way down the stairs.

As if somehow knowing what she wanted to do, Janice stood in front of the door with her arms crossed. “Just where do you think you’re going, young lady?” Her mother questioned.

Nina slid to stop in the foyer. “You know where, mom.”

Her mother scoffed, “No, you’re not!”

Nina clenched her jaw for a brief moment before blurting out, “What is wrong with you? Is your heart completely stone? We should be there for her!”

Her mom didn’t say anything, only kept glaring her. Nina made to move toward the door, but her mom held out her hands to prevent her. “You’re not going to see her, and that’s final.”

“Oh, yes I am, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Nina pushed past her mom and turned the knob on the front door.

“If you walk out that door, I’m not paying for college. You hear?”

Nina turned to her mother and looked at her like she had grown three heads. “Really? Do you even know what you sound like? You’re threatening not to pay for your own daughter’s college because she wants to see your sick mother in the hospital? God, mom. Seriously, what is wrong with you?”

Nina turned to leave again. “I mean it. If you walk out that door, I’m not paying.”

Nina lowered her head knowing that her mom was telling the truth, but it didn’t matter. She couldn’t let her grandma be up there all alone. She’d figure out how to pay for college later. “Whatever, mom. Keep your money since that’s all you seem to care about. I’m going to see grandma.”

Her mother said something in reply, but it was drowned out by the slamming of the front door. Nina hurried to her car as her eyes well up. She desperately wished her mom would put the past behind her but clearly, she didn’t care to.

#

At the hospital, Nina hurried to the reception desk where an older black lady wearing red-framed cat-eye eyeglasses, sitting behind the counter, greeted Nina. “How can I help you, deary?”

The desk phone rang, but the lady ignored it as Nina spoke. “My grandmother was admitted today; do you know where she’s at?” Nina’s words were thick with worry.

“What’s her name, sweety?”

“Nigella. Nigella Bromley.”

The receptionist turned to the computer to look up the name. Nina watched her closely waiting for an answer. Her eyes darted back and forth between her and the black and white reception nameplate on the desk. “She’s upstairs, deary. Just go up those elevators to the third floor. Room 3-16.” She looked down at her thin silver watch that dangled on her wrist. “Just so you know, visiting hours end at 8:30 pm.” Nina thanked her and headed to the elevators. Her worry increased with every floor the elevator went up. By the time the elevator opened on the third floor, Nina was sick to her stomach. She stepped out into a waiting area with chairs, magazine covered tables, and windows that looked out onto the parking lot. She found the double doors that led to the patient rooms and stepped through, looking side to side trying to figure out where to go.

Down the hallway, she saw the nursing station, standing IV machines, and empty wheelchairs. Nina picked a direction and slowly walked along the corridor, making sure to read each room number. She paused when she saw her grandmother’s last name and first initial scribbled in green pen on a patient nameplate. Nina ran her fingers over the name and peeked her head inside, unsure she wanted to see her grandmother like this.

She’d always known her grandmother Nigella to be a strong woman both in spirit and health. She couldn’t even recall a time where her grandmother had been sick, so upon seeing her grandmother hooked up to an IV and other machines, she stopped halfway into the room. Nigella looked frail and tiny under the beige hospital blanket. There was an IV taped into her arm, and the nasal cannula hung loosely around her face. Her wispy gray hair almost looked greasy as it clung to her face and pillow.

Nina felt ill looking at her like this but swallowed it for the sake of her grandmother. She needed to be here for her since no one else would be. The thought that her mother should be there crossed her mind, but she quickly dismissed it with no small amount of disappointment.

Nina gathered her fortitude and dropped her purse in the nearby recliner that sat next to the window. She pulled the other chair in the room, a dark blue uncomfortable thing with armrests, up to her grandmother’s side. “Grandma? It’s me, Nina.” She took her grandmother Nigella’s hand in hers. Some part of Nina hoped she’d respond, but Nigella never did. The sounds of monitors and the IV machine were deafening. Seeing her this way made her eyes water and before long tears streamed down her face for what felt like an eternity.

Nina stayed at her grandmother’s side, talking to her until the attending nurse reminded her that visiting hours were over. “I’ll be back tomorrow and every day until you get better. I promise.” She kissed her grandmother on the forehead and left the hospital for home.

Nina went straight to her room when she got home to plopped down on her bed. In no time at all, Nina has passed out clutching her worn stuffed koala bear. That night Nina dreamed of her grandmother.

#

Over the next week, Nina continued to visit her grandmother, and each night she would come home to dream of her. Each night the dreams felt more vivid than the last. Sometimes the dreams felt as if they were set in the 1950s and other times, they felt like a movie replaying memories she had of her grandmother.

Unfortunately, the condition of her grandmother Nigella also became more and more apparent. As much as Nina didn’t want to admit it, her grandmother didn’t appear to have much time left. Nina continued to visit her grandmother for as long as she could each day with growing worry that it might be the last time. She even tried to get her mom to visit Nigella a handful of times, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. Her mom barely had spoken two words to her since she had left to see her grandmother that first night. It made her wonder if her mother loved anything at all, including her.

The next time she dreamt of her grandmother, she pictured herself and her grandmother sitting on a bench in Forsyth Park. It was one of the places they’d frequent to spend time together in secret and feed the birds.

In the dream, her grandmother leaned over and hugged her. “Nina darling. I love you so much, and I hope you know that.” She took Nina’s hand. “I want to thank you for being here for me. I know it wasn’t easy. Look after your mother, will you?”

Nina was confused. This wasn’t like the other dreams where she felt like she was just watching something. This was different. “Grandma?”

“I’m sorry, my darling, but I have to leave now. I wish we could have had longer together.” Grandmother Nigella took the golden heart necklace that dangled from her neck and placed it in Nina’s hand. “You deserve all the happiness in the world. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I only hope this helps.” Grandmother Nigella stood up from the bench and kissed Nina on the head, just as Nina had done every night to her in the hospital. She cupped Nina’s face in her hands. “I love you. Never forget that.” The grandmother smiled. “Goodbye, my Nina darling.”

The park faded away as she watched her grandmother Nigella walk away. The next morning Nina woke with wet cheeks. Worried, she went to visit her grandmother at the hospital only to find that the room was empty. Her grandmother had passed away during the night, and her mother hadn’t told her. She recalled that last dream and sobbed until she couldn’t cry anymore.

#

The funeral came and left in a blur. Nina remained heartbroken but her mother, on the other hand, didn’t seem phased by any of it. At least her mother had the decency to wear black to the funeral. The day after, Nina and her mother visited the legal offices of Turner and Kelly, where her grandmother’s will would be read.

Nina and her mother stepped out of the elevator and immediately found themselves in a waiting room, similar to a doctor’s office. Her mother approached the receptionists’ window while Nina took in the dull furniture, the fake plants and massed produced art on the walls. The tables intermixed with the seating contained stacks magazines like Sports Illustrated and Cosmopolitan.

By the time her mother had joined her, and she had started paging through the November issue of Cosmopolitan, a man in a pressed black suit approached them and shook their hands. His mustache matched his salt and pepper hair. “My name is Philip Sullivan. I’m,” he corrected himself quickly, “-was your mother’s lawyer. I’m deeply sorry for your loss.”

He offered them both a tissue, but only Nina took one. At his beckoning, the two ladies followed him into a private room and sat down at the large meeting table. “I’ll be right back. I need to get your mother’s folder.” Mr. Sullivan disappeared into the hallway, and Nina’s mother turned to her.

“Don’t think you’ll get any college money out of this. You chose her over college money. Now you’ll have to live with that.

Money was the last thing on Nina’s mind. “Not everyone is so focused on money, mom.”

Her mother glared at her. “You say that now. Just you wait. You’ll change your mind after having to pay for college on your own.”

“On my own? First semester starts soon. I don’t have the money for that.” Nina had hoped her mother wasn’t as vindictive as she sounded, but apparently, she was.

“Not my problem.”

Nina bit her tongue and swore to herself that she’d never be like her mom. She wasn’t going to let money be the focus in her life, especially not at her grandmother’s will reading.

Janice put on a fake smile when Mr. Sullivan returned with a folder in his hand. Nina looked around the stark off-white meeting room as Mr. Sullivan opened the sealed envelope and pulled out a sheet of notarized paper along with a golden heart necklace. He placed the necklace down on the table, and Nina’s eyes immediately focused on it. It was like the one from the dream.

Mr. Sullivan cleared his throat, as if to begin, but didn’t. Janice and Nina waited for him to speak, but instead, he looked the paper over, and then pivoted over to another sealed envelope. He pulled out its paperwork and reviewed it. They watched as he scratched his head and went on to compare both papers, all the while looking as if he was trying to figure something out.

“Well?” Janice asked, getting impatient.

Mr. Sullivan shrugged and cleared his throat before reading Nigella’s last wishes. Following the reading, Janice turned to her daughter and slapped her across the face before storming out of the room in a huff. Both Nina and Mr. Sullivan sat in the meeting room in shock.

Nigella had left her fortune and property to Nina and nothing to her daughter Janice, save for a handwritten letter. Nina’s mother refused even to read the letter. After collecting his wits, Mr. Sullivan slid the necklace over to Nina. She opened the locket to see a picture of her grandmother and her. Tears streamed down her face as she closed it and held it to her chest.

Mr. Sullivan sat confused, still shaking his head. “I could have sworn she bequeathed everything to your mother. How strange. I don’t remember her changing it.”

Nina looked up at him and rubbed her thumb over the heart locket. “Really?” She took a tissue from the box in front of her and wiped her eyes. He nodded and closed the folder in front of him.

In the elevator, Nina thought back to her dream and her grandmother’s words, “You deserve all the happiness in the world. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I only hope this helps.”

Was this what she meant? Thanks to her grandmother, she’d be able to go to college. She wouldn’t have to worry about having a roof over her head either. Tears streamed down her face again as she clutched the golden heart. “Thank you, grandma. I promise I won’t let you down. I only wish you could be here to see it.” But even as she said it, part of her already knew her grandmother would be watching from heaven.

THE END

Stories

A Chatting Chance

The phone was ringing when I got home. After the day I had at work, I was really hoping it was my girlfriend, Bethany. I threw my keys down on the computer table and answered the phone. “I’m sorry Andrew. We’re not working out. It’s over.” Click. My heart sank, and I fell back into my desk chair. She was the one I wanted to spend my life with, or I thought she was. As I was discovering, fate had other plans.

After staring at the phone for what seemed like an eternity, I shook the mouse on my desk to wake up the computer. Some people blow off steam by playing games; other people exercise but me, I like to chat online with friends. I opened my IRC client and logged on, hoping my friends would be online already. My day was only getting better and better. They weren’t online. I was a creature of habit, so I didn’t normally venture outside my normal chatroom haunts, but since no one was on, I went ahead and ran a LIST command to see what other chatrooms were on the server.

I had barely managed to put Bethany out of my mind when I saw the #Romance chatroom. It sent my mind spinning, and I immediately scrolled back up to avoid looking at anything related to romance or love. That’s when #lostsouls caught my eye. Most of the other rooms had a topic message displayed, but this one didn’t. It only had black and red ASCII art where one should have been. But more importantly, I felt like a lost soul myself. I think it was that more than anything else that drew me in. I entered the room and I was greeted by the only ChanOP, or Channel Operator, that was there. I was fully expecting to see a hello followed by the traditional “A/S/L,” but instead she simply greeted me by my name, my real name. “Hello, Andrew.”

Her greeting threw me. I’ve never used my real name on chat. Did she know me? I didn’t recognize the Sat|n_Angel nickname the ChanOP was using. For giggles, I ran a WHOIS command to see if a name came back that I might know. Not all that surprisingly it returned the same nickname. It was worth a shot. I was pretty sure I didn’t have my real name listed in my profile, so I quickly checked my chat client settings, but my name was nowhere to be found. How in the hell did she know my name? I did the only thing I could do. I typed hello back.

“Welcome to #lostsouls. Pull up a keyboard and make yourself at home.”

I smiled and replied back “Thanks Sat|n_Angel.” Nestled in my computer chair, I watched the other conversations trying to figure out more about the room I was in. A window on my chat client started flashing orange. It was Sat|n_Angel. She had sent me a private message.

“You’re awfully quiet Andrew.”

“A little. Just trying to get a feel for it.”

“Mmm. I have something you can feel.”

My jaw dropped, but part of me was excited by what she had said. “LOL.” I typed back trying to brush it off like I knew she was just joking. That was not what I was expecting from a ChanOP, much less from someone I’d never met before.

“What? I’m serious.”

My hands laid flat on the keyboard motionless. I didn’t replay back, not because I didn’t want to but because I didn’t know how to respond. A few minutes ago, my girlfriend dumped me, and now some stranger was flirting with me. How do you respond to something like that? The main chat window blinked, next to the private, one indicating that someone was talking in the main room. I started to type something, but every time I did, I backspaced it out of existence. After about twenty attempts she spoke instead. “Cat got your tongue? I hope not because I’d like to catch it.”

The heat from my face radiated from my skin. I knew the air condition was on in the room, but I felt like someone had cranked up the thermostat to 400 degrees. Like a mirage, a daydream glazed over my mind as I pictured her doing just what she had said in my head. It felt wrong to be thinking of someone other than Bethany but at the same time, was it so bad? I could feel my pants becoming more constricted the more excited I got. After shifting my pants around where I didn’t feel like I was going to hurt myself, I tried to change the subject.

“So how did you know my name?” While I waited for her answer, the daydream kept creeping back into my mind. What was I doing? I didn’t even know her, or did I?

“That’s my secret, Andrew.”

Someone had to be playing a trick on me. “Who put you up to this?”

“Put me up to what?” Her response read so thick with innocence that I envisioned her batting her eyelashes behind her screen like a southern bell. She knew damn well what I was talking about.

“Hitting on me.”

There was no hesitation in her response. “I can assure you no one put me up to that or anything else. Why would you even think such a thing? You’re a sweetheart, and I wanted to get to know you more intimately. What’s wrong with that?”

I drummed my fingers against the keyboard trying to figure out how to respond. “Listen. I appreciate the attention, but my girlfriend just broke up with me. I’m not really ready to do this kind of thing.”

“I’m sorry, Andrew. I know that has to hurt. But her loss is my gain.”

“Your gain?”

“Let me help you forget her. I can, you know?”

My face felt like it was hotter than the sun. Part of me wanted to play along, but I couldn’t get past the thought of it being a trick. “Do we know each other?”

“No, but I’d like to.” It didn’t make sense, but the more I talked to her the less it needed to. “You know, you probably should say something in the main room. Right now, you’re just lurking. There are rules against that, in case you didn’t know.”

I looked over at the blinking tab, and I knew she was right. I hadn’t said a word in the main room since she first greeted me, and it really was about time I said something. I didn’t want to look like I was a lurker. Switching back to the main room was more difficult than I expected it to be. There was this overwhelming compulsion to keep talking to her, for some strange reason. Maybe it was the sense of mystery surrounding her? I didn’t know, but it was hard to ignore what I was feeling. It took a couple of minutes to go back through the chat log to figure out what the people in the room had been talking about.

A few people had come and gone, but it was mainly Chaotixx and Lone^r talking about their last run in Karazhan. I’ve never played World of Warcraft myself so talking on the subject was going to be hard. I made an educated gamble and asked how WoW compared to EverQuest2. Jackpot. They started explaining the difference between the two and why ultimately, they felt WoW was so much better. Every so often I’d interject, but overall, they were on a roll all their own. The private window flashed again, after being silent for a while. “Glad someone knows what the hell they’re talking about.”

I laughed out loud at Sat|n_Angel’s comment. She was obviously reading the conversations in the room. “Well, I wouldn’t say that. I know enough to be dangerous.”

“Mmm. Sounds delicious.”

I grinned from ear to ear while shaking my head. To my surprise, her attention was making me feel better. Part of me felt guilty, but I didn’t need to feel that way. Bethany had dumped me and here was a woman who actually wanted to be with me, even if it was only in the virtual sense. I decided just to let things happen as they may. To hell with Bethany. With an excited grin on my face, I pushed the phone off my desk and into the floor. It couldn’t taunt me from there. I returned to the main room and told them I was heading out. They actually asked if I would be coming back again. The way things were going, I felt pretty confident when I told them yes. Once I left the room, I went back to the private window. “I’m still here.” It felt like I was back in early high school sneaking around to talk on the phone, trying not to let my parents hear.

“Mmm. All to myself.”

I ran my tongue across my dry lips and typed back. “Yep.”

That started a conversation that left me aching. She made me promise not to touch myself until she said I could. When I agreed to it, I didn’t think it would go that far, but I was quick to regret making that agreement. Sat|n_Angel described in great detail all that she wanted to do to me. The computer screen faded into daydreams as I read further down the screen. Before long, my pants became more than uncomfortable. To relieve the building pressure, I stripped from the waist down and returned to my desk chair. I knew it had been a while since I had typed anything, but I didn’t realize how long until she asked, “You still there?”

“Yeah.” I typed back, trying to clear the fog out of my head.

“God, I’m so wet. Mmm. I taste so good.”

The thought of her tasting herself sent me reeling, and I wanted to taste her too. I was sitting there throbbing, doing everything I could do to keep my promise, but I was about to break it if she kept on going.

“Do you want my juices running down your mouth?”

“Yes.” I huskily said while typing it back to her. “I’d give anything to taste you.”

“Mmm. I’m so sweet. Mmm.”

I ached for her. After a moment or two, I typed back. “I wish you were really here, not just on the screen.”

“Then come and get me, Andrew.” I spun around, startled by a sultry voice coming from my bedroom. I entered my bedroom and laying there on my bed was a woman in a flowing white silk negligee. Her red hair was fanned out across my pillow. Her lips were dark red, the same as her fingernails. I stood there, fully erect, with my mouth agape at the sight of her. She slid her hand between her legs and let out a soft moan before bringing it back to her mouth. I watched as she sucked her juices from her fingers. My heart pounded like a sledgehammer in my chest. “Mmm. You just going to stand there?”

“Who are-” I stopped mid-sentence knowing it was her. “Sat|n_Angel?”

She didn’t have to say anything; the fire in her hazel eyes said it all. It didn’t make sense. Who was this woman? How could she be here? Questions raced through my mind, but in that instant, the answers didn’t matter anymore. She was there. I wanted her. I needed her. All reason went out the window as I ran across the room and dove in between her legs. Before I could touch my lips to her folds, she stopped me by putting her finger against my mouth. “Would you really give anything to have me on your lips or were you just saying that?”

Her aroma invaded my nostrils leaving me intoxicated. For a taste of what was only inches away, I’d give her anything she damn well wanted. My heart was racing, and my mind was only focused on one thing. “You have no idea.”

“Mmm. Would you become mine? Not just tonight. Forever. Your body, your heart, and your soul?”

She wanted me. All of me. And Bethany didn’t. How could I refuse? “Yes.”

“Then take me, Andrew. I’m yours tonight, and you’ll be mine.”

She arched her back and moaned as I went down on her. She was everything I daydreamed she’d be. It felt so right and so familiar, like we had been together before. Everything went dizzy as I lifted my head from her wet mound to catch my breath. My head was already spinning, but seconds later it felt more intense like I was actually floating. Then I saw something I couldn’t understand. I could see her on top of me, fucking me wildly, yet I saw it from above instead of beneath her. I could see the whole room below me. She let out a moan mixed with a scream of satisfaction. Sat|n_Angel lifted herself off my body and looked up toward me. “Just where do you think you’re going, lover? You’re mine now. You’re part of me. Come to me.”

She held up a gold necklace that had been hidden beneath the silk negligee with an amber stone in the middle. I felt myself coming toward her, unable to stop myself. The necklace began to glow an eerie gold. The closer I came, the stronger the pull felt and the brighter the necklace glowed. The last thing I remember was the sound of a husky moan, the smell of her scent and sudden darkness.

THE END

NOTE: This story first appeared on Literotica.com in March 2013.

Stories

Healing the Past

“Are you going to tell my father?”

Kieran Novell remained silent as he wiped the remaining blood from the boy’s leg. He suppressed a grin when the boy crossed his fingers. “No, not this time. Now if you do it again, maybe.”

“I won’t. I promise!” With that, the boy jumped down from the examination table and dashed out of the healer’s tent. Kieran watched through the tent flap to make sure he wasn’t returning to the forest, especially after hurting himself on the vines earlier. As he lowered the tent flap, a half-sized prisoner transport wagon caught his eye. The palomino that pulled it bore black barding matching the black leather armor worn by the driver. Seated beside the driver was a dark robed figure with a staff propped up against its shoulder. In the small cage sat a woman with chestnut hair. She was chained and there was bruising across her face.

When the wagon came to a full stop, the robed figure stepped down and ordered the driver to remain there. The moment Kieran’s eyes met with the driver’s, he dropped the flap. He returned to the table, wiped it off and discarded the crimson stained towel into the wicker basket at his feet. Kieran couldn’t seem to rid his mind of the image of the woman. He returned to the flap and peeked through.

The driver had climbed down and was shoving a spear into the cage. “Quiet down!” The spear pierced the woman in the arm, and she screamed through her gag. The sleeve of her lavender dress blossomed red from where she was stabbed. “I said quiet down!”

Kieran closed the flap and looked down. Her clothing didn’t scream out commoner, much less prisoner. He peeked through the flap once more and then turned away. “No, I can’t get involved.” Saying that didn’t stop him from peeking out again. “No.” He clenched his fist and turned away. A familiar apparition materialized in front of him with its arms crossed.

“Kieran, you’re going to walk away from that?” Kieran didn’t recoil at the sight of his deceased best friend.

“I can’t get involved, Ferris.”

“And just why is that?”

Kieran motioned to the tent flap. “Look out there. He’s transporting a prisoner. What am I supposed to do? Go up to him, tell him he shouldn’t be hurting her and then offer to heal her?”

Ferris pursed his lips. “Look at her and tell me she doesn’t need help.”

The image of her being stabbed tugged at him. “I know she’s hurt.”

“And you feel that’s okay?”

Kieran ran his hand through his coarse brown hair. “No! Of course, that’s not okay.”

“Then why are you saying you can’t get involved?” Kieran took another look. A closer review revealed she had more than one wound on her arm. “Does she look like a normal prisoner to you?”

Her dress material did seem nicer than most and her long hair held a fancy crown braid with a mini ponytail in the back. “No. But that doesn’t mean she’s not a criminal.”

Ferris let out an exhausted huff. “And what if I told you she’s not a criminal, Kieran?”

“You’d be lying.” Kieran felt the weight of Ferris’s glare. “She’s in a cage. Locked up. Why else would she be in there if she weren’t a criminal?”

“Now that’s the question to be asking.”

Kieran crossed his arms. “How do you know she’s not a criminal?”

Ferris gave him an incredulous look. “First you insult my honor accusing me of lying. Now you insult my intelligence. You won’t forgive yourself for what happened so you go on this healer kick for all to see but now when someone really needs help, you can’t? Seriously? Way to go Kieran. You make total sense.” Ferris clapped his hands as Kieran’s face fell. “She needs help Kieran. You can’t hide from the outside world anymore, not this time. Do your damn job, healer!”

With that, Ferris dissolved into thin air leaving Kieran to his thoughts. No matter how much he hated to admit it, his friend was right. If she were being held unjustly and was being treated that way, he couldn’t stand idly by. Kieran grabbed his staff and looked toward the flap. “Damn you Ferris.” In the back of his mind he could see Ferris smiling smugly at him. He shook his head and went outside to approach the wagon. “Excuse me sir! I noticed your lovely prisoner here needs some medical attention. If you’d allow me, I’d like to help.”

“Go away.” The driver didn’t make a move toward Kieran.

At that closer distance, Kieran could see the pain in her hazel eyes. “But sir, I’m only asking for a few minutes of your time.” Kieran stepped closer toward her until the driver grabbed him by the arm.

“Maybe you didn’t hear me. I said go away.”

Kieran didn’t try to break free from the man’s grip. “Point made.” He looked over to her and watched her struggle against her chains. He wanted to ask her if she was okay but between the driver and her gag, he wouldn’t be given the chance. “But if you change your mind-”

The driver cut him off. “What part of go away don’t you understand?” The man angled his spear toward Kieran to make sure he got the point.

Kieran wrenched his arm away and went back inside his tent. Ferris waited inside. “That was it?”

“No, that’s not it.” Kieran replied sarcastically. He went over to his messenger bag and pulled out a bottle of white powder. “I came for this.” Kieran looked down at his bag, already thinking of how the encounter would most likely end up. “Actually, I might need the whole bag.” Kieran slipped the leather bag over his shoulder and looked to Ferris. “I hope you’re happy.” Kieran uncorked the bottle and poured some powder in his hand before returning the bottle to the bag. With powder in one hand and the staff in the other, he was as prepared as he could be.

“Sir!” Kieran had managed to get close to him before speaking. “Last chance to take me up on my offer to help.” Kieran threw the powder and the driver turned headfirst into the fine cloud of white. He coughed and covered his mouth and nose, trying not to breathe it in. The driver attempted to fan it away but within seconds he fell to the ground unconscious. Kieran let out a sigh of relief. “I’ll take that as a yes.” Kieran reached down, took the key off the driver’s belt, and went around to the back of the wagon to unlock the cage. “Well, that was easier than I thought.”

The lady mumbled something and tried to signal him. Kieran inserted the key and felt something sharp stick him in the back. “I wouldn’t do that.” Kieran froze. “Remove the key, very carefully.”

He felt another sharp poke in the back. “I guess I spoke too soon.”

“Shut up!” The voice behind him commanded. Kieran glanced out the corner of his eye and saw that it wasn’t the driver. He remained sprawled out on the ground. Kieran removed the key from the cage as he was ordered. “Throw it on the ground beside you, now.” Kieran complied all the while keeping his eyes on the woman in the cage. “Turn around.”

Kieran obeyed but grabbed his staff that had been propped up against the wagon’s cage and with a quick down thrust, knocked the man’s sword away. Unlike the driver he was taller and wore clothing made of a mishmash of skins and furs. The bronze medallion around his neck indicated he was a bounty hunter. The man growled at Kieran’s staff work and thrust his blade back toward Kieran. He again deflected the bounty hunter’s attack and took a swipe at the man’s face.  

The bounty hunter tried to step back but didn’t clear Kieran’s reach in time. Stunned by the blow, he stumbled backwards as Kieran brought it around again and knocked the bounty hunter’s sword to the ground. Kieran’s demand was firm. “Walk away.” But the bounty hunter wasn’t intimidated. He pulled out a long dagger that had been held in his belt.

“Let’s see you try that again.”

Kieran shook his head. “I definitely spoke too soon.”

The bounty hunter lunged at Kieran with the dagger. Kieran blocked his attack and took another swing at the man but missed. The driver was quick. The bounty hunter repeated his lung, but this time stopped short and grabbed Kieran’s staff mid swing. He gave an arrogant chuckle and slashed Kieran’s arm. Kieran let out a painful grunt and pulled his staff free from the bounty hunter. In retaliation, he used the staff to knock the man’s legs out from beneath him. The dagger went flying on impact. Wincing from the pain in his arm, Kieran brought the end of the staff up to the driver’s neck. The man gave a throaty growl in Kieran’s direction. “It doesn’t matter if you free her or not. We’ll find you both and if we can’t, Lord Mage Castan will. You’ll pay for this I promise.”

The name wasn’t familiar to Kieran, but the word mage left him feeling uneasy. “I guess we’ll see about that.”

The bounty hunter let out an amused chuckle. “Most certainly.”

“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

“Sorry? You’re going to be sorry when-” Kieran swiped the staff across his temple knocking him clean out.

“That’s going to hurt something fierce when you wake up. I don’t envy you that.”

The pain in his arm flared again. His blood was seeping through his sleeve but to him there were more pressing matters. Kieran turned his attention toward the woman. “Aren’t we just a matching pair?” He motioned to her arm wound. “Now then, let’s get you out of there shall we?” Kieran picked up the key, unlocked the cage and removed the gag from her mouth.

The woman exercised her jaw a moment before speaking. “Thank you, stranger.”

He nodded to her as he removed the chains and shackles that bound her in the cage. Kieran offered his hand to her. “My lady?” After a moment of hesitation, she took his hand and was helped off the wagon. “They’ll probably wake up soon. Can you walk?”

The woman nodded her head. “Yes, I think so.”

Kieran grabbed his staff. “I’m Kieran, by the way.”

“La-” She paused. “Amira.”

“Pleasure to meet you Amira. Come on, let’s get you somewhere safe.”

“Thank you.” She looked into his brown eyes and smiled.

#

The two of them headed deeper into town in hopes to elude her captors. The town of Greenbriar wasn’t a large one but it was busy thanks to the local iron mines just on the outskirts of town. Working in the mines was a dangerous profession and that same danger is what brought Kieran to Greenbriar, that and its remote geography. It was there he could practice his healing without the past catching up to him. Miners and townspeople moved about the markets while the smells of fresh baked bread and meat pies wafted overhead. At first whiff, Amira placed her hand over her stomach to suppress its growling.

Kieran navigated his way through the crowd periodically looking back to make sure Amira was right behind him. On one of his checks, she was gone. “Amira?” He called out. His eyes darted around to each of the vendors hoping she’d stopped at one of them, but she hadn’t. His thoughts went to the worst. Kieran called her name once more and proceeded to back track until he found her. She was laying on the ground with people hovering over her. Kieran rushed over to her and pushed people out of the way. “Amira. Amira.” He tapped her lightly on the cheek until she came round.

“Hmm? What happened?”

“I was about to ask you the same thing. Are you okay?”

“Yes. I think so. Just a little hungry.”

Kieran helped her up and dispersed the remaining onlookers. “When was the last time you ate something?”

“Two days, maybe?” Her expression was like a child telling their parents bad news.

“Two days?” Kieran let out an aggravated huff. He looked around the crowd to made sure the men weren’t anywhere nearby. “Okay. We probably need to get some food in you before we go too much further.”

Amira half smiled. “That might be a good thing.”

Kieran looked around for something they could take with them and spotted one of the market vendors selling fresh cava bread. He then guided her to the table where an older woman was arranging loaves of different varieties. “Do you like cava bread?”

“I don’t know what that is but I’m willing to try anything about now.”

He had never heard of anyone who didn’t know what cava bread was. Kieran stumbled a bit. “Well. It’s. Okay.” He looked toward the woman behind the table. “Could I get a loaf of the cava?” Kieran reached into his belt pouch for a coin and handed it to the woman. She exchanged the money for a cranberry colored loaf and bid them both good days.

Amira closed her eyes and inhaled deeply taking in the sweet and savory smells around her. Kieran ripped off a piece of the sweet bread and handed it to Amira. “Give this a try. I’ve got some water in my waterskin if you need some.”

“Thank you, Kieran.” She sank her teeth into the soft bread and closed her eyes again. “Mmm.” She took another large bite of the bread. “This is so good.” She raised her hand to cover her mouth as she chewed and spoke at the same time.

Kieran smiled at her reaction. “Glad you like it. It’s one of my favorites.” He slipped the remaining loaf into his bag. “Let’s get going. You can finish that on the way.”

She took another bite and followed his lead heading away from the markets. On one of his checks, Kieran saw the two men making their way through the crowds and they were heading straight for them. A second later they locked eyes and the driver shouted. “Stop!”

Kieran took Amira by the hand. “Come on. We have to hurry!”

“What do you think you’re do-” She looked back and saw the men catching up to them. “Oh.” The two of them took to running as Amira tried to finish her bread. It was easier said than done.

Kieran was pulling Amira through a maze of wooden buildings and tents to evade them. But the two men weren’t thrown off track. They shoved everyone and everything out of their way to stay on their heels. After Kieran had double backed a couple of times, she made him stop. “Where are we going? Besides in circles!”

“To the forest. There’s a hidden spot that I know of where we’ll be safe.”

“Then why aren’t we going to the forest?” He didn’t like going in circles himself, but the men weren’t giving him any other options. “How far is it from here?” Amira asked, holding her side.

“Not far. You okay?”

“Mhmm.” She was still breathing hard from the running. “No more circles. We go to the forest or we don’t.”

Kieran shook his head. “Come on.”

The two of them took off again, this time straight for the forest. From behind a corner, the driver jumped out in front of them. His spear was aimed to strike. “No, you don’t!”

“Yes, we do.” After hearing Kieran’s reply, the driver thrust his spear forward and missed. “I liked you better asleep!”

“That’s tough. You have something that doesn’t belong to you.”

Kieran brought one end of his staff down on the spear and shoved the other end right into the man’s face. The force of the blow made the man drop his spear. Kieran swung his staff around and bashed him on the back of the head, causing the man to collapse with a thud. Amira watched as Kieran dove to his knees to check that the man was still alive.

“Come on Kieran!”

Satisfied that he hadn’t done serious damage or worse, he and Amira ran straight for the forest. The first one hundred feet of forest were sparse with trees. It was mostly dotted with stumps due to the ongoing cutting for firewood and building materials. Once past that point, the forest grew dense with trees, bushes, and the large thorn vines that Greenbriar had gotten its name from. Between those and his secret spot, he hoped that would be enough to keep the two men at bay.

Kieran guided Amira through the maze of vines and trees until they reached a large waterfall that fed into a roaring river below. “We’re here.”

#

“It’s beautiful but won’t they find us here?” It’s true that the river wasn’t a secret, especially to locals, but Kieran knew something most didn’t. There was a cave behind the waterfall.

Kieran smiled. “Follow me. I hope you don’t mind getting wet.”

“Getting wet?”

Kieran led her to the river’s rocky edge. An outcropping of rock prevented easy access to the waterfall from either side. To get to it, they’d have to cross the river. Kieran pointed toward the opposite bank, which was more a lip of rock than an actual bank. “We’ve got to get over there.”

Amira looked at the fast-moving river and then back at Kieran. He winked, took a few a good steps backwards and with a running jump, he leapt over to the rock protruding from the middle of the river. “You want me to do that?” She scoffed.

“You could always swim across. I wouldn’t recommend it though.” He said, pointing at the rushing water.

Amira put her hands on her hips. “Right.”

Kieran shook his head and took another running jump to reach the other side. He turned in her direction and tried to encourage her. “Come on. It’s easy.”

The bounty hunter’s voice boomed from the woods behind them, even over the roar of the river. “I know you’re out here! I will find you!”

Amira looked back at the woods and let out a huff. “Seems I have little choice.” She took a few steps back and ran for it. She leapt and just barely made it. Relief appeared on her face while her heart raced.

“That’s it. Just one more like that one.”

She closed her eyes trying to get her nerve up to jump again. Amira readied herself and took another leap. “I’m not going to make it!” She yelled, waving her arms about. Kieran rushed over mid-jump and caught her as she came down. Only her shoes and the bottom edges of her dress went into the water. He pulled her up onto the bank. Amira looked into his eyes and thanked him.

He smiled back. “You did good. You just about had it.” His smile disappeared when Kieran saw she was limping.

“It’s not far now but you’re definitely going to get wet this time.” He reached his hand out toward her. “Do you trust me?”

“No.” There was a playful tease about her voice.

Kieran grinned, took her hand and pulled her into the waterfall behind him. “No!” She yelled. A second later she was inside the cave alongside Kieran. Goosebumps covered her skin as she shook off the excess water and wrung out her hair. Kieran stood there a moment watching her, trying to gauge her reaction. “You okay?”

Amira’s look said it all. Kieran’s arm twinged again reminding him of the cut from earlier. Kieran took a seat on the cave floor and put his damp bag beside him. He took out the bread and ripped another chunk from the loaf for Amira. “Bread?”

“What about that bounty hunter? Surely we can’t stay here.”

To be on the safe side, Kieran motioned for her to take a seat away from the cave’s entrance. “We’re safe here. You can’t see inside from the outside and the waterfall’s sound prevents our voices from being heard. Relax. Sit. Eat.” He offered her the bread again.

She rubbed her arms, still covered in goosebumps from the water. Kieran saw the wince as she did so. “Here, let me look at your wounds.” Her wounds came first in his mind. She sat down and folded her legs around her. It was very lady like for a prisoner, he noted. He handed her the bread, and she began to eat it slowly. Amira had multiple lacerations and bruises from what Kieran could see. “I can tend to your wounds, if you’ll permit me.”

Kieran pulled the water skin from his bag and placed it next to her. Amira agreed to let him try and Kieran scooted closer to her. He reached for the thin silver chain around his neck and pulled out a small quartz colored crystal from beneath his shirt. He clutched it in one hand and held out his other over her leg. Amira’s eyes widened at the sight of the crystal. “You’re a mage? That explains the staff.”

He retracted his hand. “Not a mage. And what’s wrong with carrying a staff?”

“You have a crystal but you’re not a mage?”

“I’m a healer. Nothing more.”

He felt her studying him. “Healers don’t have crystals. They use herbs and medicines.”

Kieran pointed to his bag. “Those are in there.”

Amira crossed her arms and leaned back against the cave wall. “You’re hiding something.”

“It’s your imagination. May I?”

She looked him over. “I don’t think so.”

Kieran threw his hands in exasperation. “What? You just gave me permission a moment ago. You’re hurt.”

“And you’re lying.” Her eyes narrowed and her lips pursed. “If I can’t trust you to be honest, then there’s no way I’m going to let you get near me.”

“What!” Kieran shook his head in disbelief. “Fine. Have it your way.” Kieran rolled up his wet sleeve and examined the laceration on his arm. Normally, that kind of cut would have required stitches for it to heal properly. He grabbed his crystal again and placed his hand over the wound. Amira watched as he closed his eyes and mouthed something to himself. The crystal began to glow.

“I knew it! You’re a mage!”

His eyes opened and he spoke in an aggravated tone. “Healer.” Kieran closed his eyes once more and finished up. When he removed his hand, the wound was gone.

“Mage.”

“Healer!”

“Mage! And don’t argue with a member of the roy-” She stopped cold.

A smirk crept across his face. “Now who’s hiding something?” Amira scoffed and tightened her crossed arms. “While we’re at it, why are those men chasing you? Why were you being held prisoner?” Amira just glared at him.

“Just what are you accusing me of? And wipe that smirk off your face. It’s rude.”

“Oh. Well pardon me, my lady.” The thickness of his sarcasm was palatable. At seeing the pain, she was in and watching her cradle her hurt arm, Kieran exhaled and collected himself. “Please. Let me help you.”

“No.” It was as if her verdict was final.

Kieran put his face into his hands and slid them down across it in frustration. “Would you please stop being so stubborn. Let me heal you and then you can be your charming self again once I’m done. But you do need help, whether you want to admit it or not. Let me. Please.”

Amira relaxed her arms. “Why do you deny being a mage?” Kieran huffed at her question. “If you tell me and I’ll let you heal me.”

Kieran clenched his hands. He waved his finger at her like he wanted to lecture her but didn’t. Kieran retracted his hand and sat there staring at her. This wasn’t what he wanted to do, not in the least. “Okay. Fine. On one condition.”

“I’m listening.”

“That after I heal you, you tell me the truth too.” Her face lost all expression. “It’s only fair.”

Worry washed over her face as she sighed. “Very well.” Kieran moved closer to her to heal her. “Wait. You have to tell me first, remember?”

Kieran nodded and sat back wishing he didn’t have to do this. Part of him wished Ferris would show himself and explain it all but that’s not how Ferris worked. No, he probably was listening in and getting a kick out of seeing Kieran squirm. Kieran held his crystal up.

“This.” He rubbed it with his fingers. “I went to the Academy in Celadon. I studied magic there. And yes, I was supposed to be a mage.”

“But?” Amira stopped leaning on the cave wall and angled herself forward.

Kieran looked down. “Nearing graduation, during the Kempii magic festival, my class was supposed to be putting on demonstrations. My best friend Ferris and I had decided to put on a combat defense demonstration. It didn’t go according to plan.”

“Well, what happened?”

Kieran couldn’t bring himself to look up. “When I cast my attack spell his crystal didn’t activate. The blast hit him straight on and killed him instantly.”

Amira moved over to Kieran and tried to comfort him by taking his hand. He looked up at her with watery eyes. “I miss him.” Kieran gave a halfhearted smile. “Well, until he won’t hush up.” She tilted her head in confusion. “You probably won’t believe this, but he haunts me occasionally. He’s the one that told me to help you.”

“Haunts you?” She recoiled back for a moment. “Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure. It’s that or I’ve gone mad.” 

Her face distorted for a moment and then returned to normal. “I’m sorry.”

“Me too.” Kieran breathed out slowly trying to suppress the tears wanting to bubble up.  “Technically, I graduated even though I chose not to walk the stage. My professors tried to place me into a job afterwards, but I refused that too. After Ferris’s death, I didn’t want anything to do with magic.”

“I see.” Amira looked down.

“As it turned out I couldn’t wash my hands completely of magic. I, umm, ran across this family when I was heading south. They had been attacked by some highwaymen. Both the mother and father had been stabbed. Their 8-year-old somehow managed to escape without being harmed. When I came across them the boy was crying, and his parents were close to death. He kept begging me to help them.”

“So, you used your magic?”

Kieran nodded. “What else could I do? My herbs and potions couldn’t save them. I. I couldn’t let them die, especially not in front of their son. Since then I’ve incorporated magic into my healing. But only to heal. Nothing else. I’m no mage.”

Amira gave a partial smile. “Healer it is.”

Kieran cleared his throat and tried to regain his composure. “May I?”

“Yes, of course.” She held out her arm for him.

Amira watched him as he used a combination of his magic, potions, and herbs to heal and treat her wounds. “So, what about you?” Kieran wasn’t good at small talk when it came to taking care of his patients.

Amira’s discomfort was apparent by her fidgeting. “You probably won’t believe me.”

He continued his work. “Try me.”

“How old do you think I am?”

Kieran stopped what he was doing and looked her in the eyes. “How is that not a trick question?”

Amira smiled. “Just answer it.”

“Early twenties, maybe?”

“Try two hundred and fifty.”

Kieran leaned backwards. “Come again?” He tilted his head to the side and looked at her like she was crazy. “How is that possible? You’re pulling my leg.”

“Told you. I knew you wouldn’t believe me.”

“I guess we both have stories hard to believe, don’t we?”

He checked her over and all that was left was the bruising around her face. Amira started to speak but Kieran stopped her. “This is going to tingle okay?” When she acknowledged him, he asked for her to continue and began to apply an herbal mixture to her cheeks. “So, they’re chasing you because you’re,” he paused. “Old?”

Amira chuckled at his disbelief. “No, not exactly. I guess I should tell you who I am first. I’m-”

The dark robed man parted the waters of the waterfall like it was a curtain and glided inside. “Lady Amira Elizabeth Raines.” The man said finishing her sentence for her. The robed figure carried his own staff with an intricate wolf carving down its length. Kieran moved to get to his own staff but with a quick motion of the man’s hand Kieran was thrown against the wall. “Tisk. Tisk. Don’t do anything you’ll regret.”

The driver and bounty hunter emerged from behind him. “That’s him. That’s the one.” The driver pointed out. Kieran could see there was a nice bruise forming where he had hit him before.

“Watch him.” The robed man ordered. The bounty hunter went over to Kieran and backhanded him across the face. The man bent down and whispered into his ear. “I told you Lord Mage Castan would find you.” He then proceeded to kick Kieran in the stomach with everything he had. Kieran coughed and crumbled to the floor in a ball.

“No!” Amira cried. “Leave him be!”

The robed man smirked at Amira. “Such compassion for your would-be rescuer. You should be more concerned about yourself!” He motioned for the driver to take her. He grappled her by the arm and led her toward the Lord Mage. “You actually thought you would escape me? Come along Lady Raines, my master will be most eager to see you again.”

She struggled against her captors but the more she struggled the tighter their grip became. Kieran sat up, still clutching his stomach. “You won’t get away with this.”

“Like you could stop me.” The Lord Mage shook his head and ordered the bounty hunter to do with Kieran as he pleased.

“My pleasure, my lord.”

The Lord Mage and his driver removed Amira from the cave and closed the curtain of water behind them. The bounty hunter laughed and cracked his knuckles. “Time to pay like I promised.” Kieran got to his feet. “Oh good. There’s some fight still left in you. It’ll be that much more satisfying to knock it out of you.”

“Good luck with that.” Kieran tackled him against the cave wall as hard has he could go. He tried to punch him in the stomach, but the bounty hunter’s layers of fur and skin took the brunt of it.

“You’ll have to do better than that!” The man head butted Kieran making him stumble backwards. He then grabbed Kieran by the shoulders and kneed him in the stomach several times. Kieran fell to the floor coughing. “Aww. Does that hurt?” Kieran didn’t answer him. “What about now?” The man followed his question up with a full-on kick to the stomach. It was enough to lift him up and then flatten him to the floor. Kieran groaned as he tried to get back up. The man circled around him. “I bet that does hurt.” He then stomped Kieran square in the back, knocking him face first into the rocky cave floor. The bounty hunter chuckled. “Isn’t payback fun?”

Kieran felt the warmth of blood coming from the corners of his mouth. “I really wish you’d just shut up.”

“What was that?” The man boomed. He stepped toward Kieran to kick him again but as he brought his leg up Kieran grabbed it and rolled it underneath him. The man became unbalanced and fell to the floor. The bounty hunter scrambled to get back up, but Kieran wasn’t going to let him. He rolled on top of the man and brought his elbow straight into the man’s jaw. Once. Twice. Three times. The man slumped back against the cave wall seeing stars. Kieran took the opportunity to get to his staff. Every muscle in his body was on fire. The bounty hunter regained his senses and grabbed Kieran’s leg, but it was too late. Kieran had managed to get a hold of his staff. He whipped it around knocking the man back. The bounty hunter got to his feet before Kieran could get too close and blocked Kieran’s way out.

“Move.” Kieran commanded as he put his bag over his shoulder.

“Never.” The bounty hunter bared both knuckles ready to fight.

“You really are an idiot, you know that?”

The bounty hunter dashed for Kieran with his arms swinging. Kieran stopped him in his tracks. With two blows to the stomach the man stumbled. Kieran brought the staff back with everything he could muster and slammed it into the man’s chest. The bounty hunter was sent backwards through the waterfall and hit the river with a splash. Kieran emerged from the waterfall to see him floating on his back unconscious. The sight coaxed a sigh of relief from him. “One down. Two more to go.”

#

They had a head start but they had to get her back to the prisoner transport before they could get too far with her. Clutching his midsection that still burned, Kieran took to running toward town. “Hold on Amira.” The vines and brush he had done so well to avoid getting to the waterfall were now picking and tearing at his clothes and skin. He didn’t care. His priority was only Amira. “Ferris! I need a little help!” Kieran didn’t wait for this friend to appear. “Help me find her!” Kieran was out of breath by the time he reached town.

“They’re leaving town.”

“Damn it!” Kieran pushed his way through the crowded streets and made his way to the entrance of town. They were indeed gone. “Which way Ferris?”

“When did I become your blood hound?” Ferris wasn’t anywhere to be seen. He knew better.

“When you told me to help her! Now which way?”

“Toward Celadon.”

“Thank you!”

Kieran took a second to catch his breath and then went to running down the road after them. One moment Kieran could see them in the distance and then the next, he was on the ground with dirt falling on him like rain. Beside him was a crater the size of a wagon wheel. Kieran tried to shake off the cobwebs when two balls of light came streaking his way. “Plasma bolts!” Kieran rolled to the side just in time to see the area where he was laying explode into a cloud of dirt. Kieran cursed as the wagon went out of sight again.

“Now what are you going to do?” Ferris’s tone was more sarcastic than concerned. Kieran didn’t care for his tone, but his friend did have a point. He took to the woods that surrounded the road hoping that would provide some cover. If he could get close enough, maybe he could take the mage down and get to Amira.

Kieran’s plan was short lived. He had managed to get closer than he had before, close enough to dash into the road and jump into the wagon but the Lord Mage saw him first. Another plasma bolt came flying toward Kieran. It missed him but not the tree beside him. He was showered with splinters and could feel a stinging sensation coming from his arm and shoulder. More bolts came shooting his way. “You’re doing really well there, Kieran.”

He growled at his friend. “If you weren’t dead already, I swear-”

Another bolt smashed into the tree in front of him sending him flying backwards. Kieran struck the ground with his fists in frustration. “That mage is really getting on my nerves.”

“Well don’t just sit there!”

He groaned and got back on his feet. Kieran looked around for his staff only to see it broken into several pieces. “Oh, come on. That was my favorite staff.” Kieran’s face went red as he turned around toward the direction that the wagon was heading. “You bastard!” He took off running after them.

“You refuse to use magic and now you have no staff. What are you going to do Kieran? You’re a little outmatched.”

He didn’t answer his friend because there wasn’t an answer he could give. Kieran’s thoughts raced as he tried to catch up to the wagon. “I need that wagon to stop Ferris.” His friend didn’t say anything. “I need your help again, please.”

“I’m dead. How can I stop the wagon?”

Kieran could hear the wagon up ahead. “Spook the horses. Animals are sensitive to spirits.” He was breathing hard again.

“How?”

“I don’t know! Just do it, okay?”

“Fine! You know it would be so much easier if you’d just get over yourself and use your magic again!” Ferris sounded angry but now wasn’t the time to soothe his friend’s feelings. Kieran kept running. In the distance he heard the horses neigh and nicker. When he got there the driver was trying to calm the horse down. With the Lord Mage standing next to the wagon and the driver occupied trying to calm the horse down, it was the perfect opportunity for an ambush.

Kieran removed his bag and tossed it to the ground. He took a deep breath and went straight for the Lord Mage. As Kieran leapt, the Lord Mage turned and launched a plasma bolt toward him. It missed and smashed into the tree behind him. The tree cracked and popped as Kieran came down upon the Lord Mage, forcing him to the ground. Kieran reared back and punched him twice in the face before he could react.

Around the Lord Mage’s neck was two crystals. One looked much like his own and the other had an ornate silver wrapping that he had never seen before. “Two crystals?” Behind them, the tree snapped and came crashing down onto the wagon. The cage where Amira was being held, burst open from the impact. Both men scrambled to their feet. “Amira!”

“Kieran, I’m alright!” Amira yelled jumping down from the pinned wagon. Everything was covered in a menagerie of leaves and limbs. “Where are you? I can’t see you.” The Lord Mage and Kieran both dove for the staff. “Kieran?”

“Run, Amira! Run!”

The Lord Mage yelled to his driver. “Don’t let her get away!” Both Kieran and the Lord Mage managed to get a solid grip, each on the opposite ends of the staff. The Lord Mage flashed a wicked smile. “You’re mine.” He reached for one of the crystals and the staff they held flashed white. The wolf carvings on the staff began to move and then to Kieran’s surprise, leapt from the staff and formed two large dire wolves next to them. “Get him!”

The wolves snarled and lunged toward Kieran as he let go of the staff and scrambled to his feet to get away from them. He dashed into the woods and snatched up his bag. “Where’s that sleeping powder?” Kieran was trying to rummage through his bag and run as fast as his legs could carry him. It wasn’t the easiest feat to accomplish. “Screw it!” He gave up his search and let the bag fall to his side. His mind was too filled with fear and adrenaline to think straight. Amira was coming into sight. “Amira! You need to run faster! We’ve got problems!” The wolves howled behind them. “Big problems with sharp teeth!”

Amira went to look back. Kieran waved his arms back and forth. “No, no! Don’t look back! Just keep running!” It was already too late. Kieran saw the look in her eyes as she whipped her head back around toward where she was running. The driver jumped out of an outcropping of rock just ahead of them. His spear was drawn, and he was ready for them. Amira was almost on him when she saw him.

“I’ve got you now!” The driver yelled. She tried to change course, but he grabbed her before she could get away.

“Amira!” Kieran felt the force of a dire wolf pushing him to the ground, face first.  The dire wolves had locked their jaws on to his clothing and started thrashing back and forth. He felt their teeth as they shredded his skin along with it. Kieran tried to move but couldn’t. The dire wolves had him pinned.

“Enough!” The Lord Mage came up to them and the dire wolves let go, whimpering at his approach. Kieran turned over to see the Lord Mage’s smug but annoyed face. “It would seem I’ve underestimated your ability to cause trouble. A problem I can quickly rectify.” His attention moved to Amira. “I’m quickly becoming tired of you running my dear. When will you learn you can’t escape me?” He looked to his driver. “Bring her.”

Amira stomped on one of the man’s boot and pushed him to the side, forcing him off balance. She used that opportunity to grab the spear and backed away from the man, pointing the spear at him. The Lord Mage rolled his eyes. “Idiot.” He reached for a crystal and held his hand out. Kieran could see a plasma bolt forming.

“No!” Kieran sat up but before he could prevent it from happening, the Lord Mage threw the plasma bolt and hit Amira straight in the stomach. Amira rocketed into the air and landed against the rock outcropping. “You bastard!” Kieran stood and charged the Lord Mage with all his weight, knocking him backwards. He then dashed to her side, with the wolves growling as he passed. Several bolts came whizzing past his head hitting the granite rock ahead of him. He dropped to his knees beside her.

“You’re concerned about her.” The Lord Mage walked over to them. “Don’t you worry your head. It wasn’t meant to kill her. She’ll be fine. You on the other hand, I won’t make the same promise.” Another plasma bolt formed in his hands. The Lord Mage blasted the spear beside Kieran and began to form another bolt. “Just in case you were tempted to try something, again.” The driver and wolves came to stand near the Lord Mage, blocking any way of escape. “I hope this was all worth dying for.”

Kieran looked down at Amira. “I’m sorry.”

Ferris appeared beside them. “Sorry? That sounds like you’re giving up! I know you’re not giving up. Not after all this.”

Kieran looked up at his friend. “What else can I do?”

The Lord Mage raised his eyebrow at him talking to thin air. “The poor fool is losing it.”

“Magic, Kieran. It’s part of who you are. Your death won’t fix anything. Use it. Protect her.”

“I. I can’t.”

The Lord Mage held up his hand with a plasma bolt swirling at its center.

“Please. Do it for me. Do it for her.”

At the flick of the Lord Mage’s wrist, Kieran threw himself over Amira to shield her from the coming plasma bolt. The impact sent debris flying everywhere but Kieran and Amira remained. The Lord Mage cranked his head back in surprise, “What? How?”

“Yes!” Ferris yelled waving his arms in the air. Kieran sat up revealing his hand clutching his own crystal, a crystal the Lord Mage had not seen before.

“No! This can’t be.” The Lord Mage created another bolt and fired it directly at him. The bolt burst a few feet from Kieran’s position. The outside edge of a shield was visible as the plasma bolt dissipated.

“I won’t let you hurt her.” The Lord Mage bared his teeth and his face flushed. He walked closer to Kieran throwing one plasma bolt after another. Kieran winced every time it hit but he held his ground. “Try if you must but I’m going to protect her.”

The Lord Mage growled. “You don’t think you’re going to actually be able to leave here alive with her, do you?”

Kieran looked down at Amira and up at Ferris. “Yes. In fact, I do.” A smile came across Ferris’s face. Kieran stood up, making sure to stand in front of Amira, and wiped the blood from the corners of his mouth. The driver took a few steps backwards, seeing a side of Kieran he hadn’t before. Kieran closed his eyes. “I do this to protect, not to harm.”

Kieran held out his empty hand and began to form a plasma bolt of his own. He opened his eyes and looked toward the driver. “Run.” Without hesitation, he took off running toward the road. The Lord Mage motioned for the wolves, who in moments surrounded Kieran and Amira. “Don’t make me do this.”

The Lord Mage’s reply came in the form of a plasma bolt.

Kieran’s shield held. “Why can’t you leave her be?”

“Time to die.” The Lord Mage formed another plasma bolt but this time much larger than any he had before. Kieran was a whitewash of emotions and nerves, but he didn’t let that stop him. The large plasma bolt rocketed toward Kieran as he manipulated his shield to deflect it. The bolt ricocheted off the shield toward the wolf on his left and Kieran fired a bolt of his own at the other wolf. On impact, both wolves dissolved into a pile of dark gray sand. Kieran formed another bolt. “Leave now. Please.”

“Do not give me orders, boy.” The Lord Mage hurled a stream of plasma at Kieran. His eyes widened as he countered with one of his own. The two streams collided into a mass of sparks and crackling plasma. Each one of them pushed their streams toward the other forcing them both to slide backwards across the leaf covered surface of the ground.

“You can do it Kieran!” Ferris cheered him on. Amira began to come to and turned over to see the battle that was unfolding before her.

“I told you. You can’t have her!”

Kieran gave it his all and the Lord Mage’s stream broke. His stream slammed into the Lord Mage and sent him flying, throwing him into a tree. Kieran stopped his stream and his eyes welled up with tears.

“Good job, Kieran.” Ferris patted him on the back. “I knew you had it in you.”

Kieran looked down knowing what he had just done. The Lord Mage was slumped over, his chest was charcoaled and smoldering. Amira rushed up to him and hugged him. “Oh, Kieran. Thank you! You did it.” Kieran wrapped his arms around her comforting her as she buried her head into his chest. After a moment, they broke apart and approached the Lord Mage. Kieran knelt to see if the Lord Mage was still alive. No pulse. No breath. Kieran hung his head in shame. He had killed another person with magic.

Amira rubbed Kieran’s shoulder. “It’s okay.” He watched as she reached out and snatched the ornate crystal from around the Lord Mage’s neck. “This is mine.”

Kieran looked up at her. “Yours? You’re a mage?”

Amira smiled. “I knew what your crystal meant, didn’t I?”

Kieran stood up and gave a bemused huff. “I should have known.”

Amira took him by the hand and returned to the road. The driver was nowhere in sight. Amira freed the horse and mounted up, taking the reins into her hands. “Thank you, Kieran.”

“So now what? Where will you go Amira?”

“Back to my lands. Away from this place. I still have a lot of questions to get answers for.”

Kieran looked down and smiled back up at her. “I know that feeling. That reminds me, you never explained who you are or why they were after you.”

She winked at him. “I know.”

Amira tapped the horse’s sides with her shoes and the horse started down the road. Kieran watched her for a moment before looking back at the smashed-up wagon and sighing.

“Come with me!” She shouted out toward him. He turned back around to see her riding up to him. “Come with me Kieran.”

Her request sent his mind spinning and a smile formed across his lips but went away as fast as it came. “What about the town? I couldn’t. They need a healer.” She reined in the horse, as it kept wanting to move.

“Do you really think that you could simply go back to being a healer in this town after what just happened? There’s going to be lots of questions buzzing around and you know that bounty hunter will be back, most likely gunning for you too. It’s not safe for you here. Not anymore.”

Kieran looked back toward the direction of town and lowered his head. He knew she was right. After a moment of going back and forth on it, Kieran nodded. “So where are we headed?” Ferris stood there, at the road’s edge, and smiled at his friend.

“You’ll see soon enough. Come on.” She held out her hand and helped him up on the horse. Kieran shook his head at his companion and the two of them rode off into the distance, both in search of their future and answers to their past.

THE END

Stories

Infected

Derek stared into the monitors as the memory of his little sister’s head being cracked open like a melon flashed into his mind. It clawed at his soul knowing the last thing she would ever see was that ghoulish creature scooping grey matter out of her skull like a water-deprived man drinking water from a river. There on the monitors was that same brain thirsty creature that had taken his sister from him. It wasn’t alone. The screen was filled with them shuffling, almost reaching out, toward where he sat watching.

Derek ran his callous covered hands through his blonde military cut hair with a huff. “They just keep coming.”

Mark peaked over his shoulder at the black and white monitors. “Well, they can’t get us in this old silo, no matter how much they might try.” He patted Derek on the shoulder trying to reassure him. The two men looked like they were cut from the same marine cloth, both wearing iron creased fatigues and polished combat boots.

Mark disappeared for a moment and came back with two army green ammo boxes with yellow lettering on the outside. He plopped them down on the decade’s old console next to Derek. “Let’s get your mind off those things. We need an inventory of these boxes and those in the other compartment.”

Derek looked up at Mark. “Logistics?” His lips contorted just from the thought.

“Unless you have something else to do?” Clearly, he didn’t. Derek hadn’t moved from the monitors for hours, and it wasn’t healthy to be focusing on those ghastly things.

“Well, what are you going to do?”

“Help?”

Derek took another lingering look at the monitors, grabbed the ammo boxes and nodded. “Ok.” The two ex-gunnery sergeants headed into the adjacent compartment of the old Launch Control Center and began to do inventory.

Carl and Ellen, the actual owners of the old ATLAS-F silo, entered the LCC just as the gunnies were leaving for the other compartment. Carl was a bit overstuffed in the midsection and wore enough bright orange and camo to look like he was about to go hunting at any moment. He sported a Grizzly Adams style beard and had a Texan twang to boot. Ellen, on the other hand, was a petite woman in both size and stature. Clothing wise, she was less attention-grabbing than her husband with khakis and a simple brown tank top. The brunette kept her hair braided to make life simpler.

Ellen settled into the red chair behind the console and took to checking out the camera monitors. She turned her attention from the camera monitors long enough to nudge her husband in the side. “Hey Honey, look at this here.” Her southern accent was as thick as molasses. Carl had picked up one of his gun magazines, not paying all that much attention to her. “Honey.” She nudged him again.

“What?” There was a hint of annoyance in response. He looked up from the magazine to see her pointing at the monitors.

In the monitors, a group of people were heading quickly toward the silo grounds. It was hard to be sure, but by the way, they were running they didn’t appear to be zombies. Carl slapped down his magazine and spun around to Mark. “I think we’ve got some company.”

“Company?” Mark came in and marched over to the screen to take a look still thinking it was the zombies he and Derek saw earlier.

Mark pulled his M9 from his side and popped the magazine out to check his rounds. “Let’s go take care of them.”

“Now wait just a minute,” Carl said grabbing Mark’s sleeve. “They aren’t zombies.”

“How do you know? They sure looked like zombies to me earlier.”

“Well, look at ‘em.” Carl pointed at the monitors. The 8-inch screens didn’t show the same creatures he and Derek had seen in them before, but that didn’t convince him they weren’t.

“They could be infected.”

“We need to help them.” Carl might have been a whack job, but he did have a heart.

“No. It’s too risky!” Mark didn’t like being told what to do despite all those years in the military.

Heather, a brunette of average height and build, came walking in with a cooler under her arm and a loaf of white bread. “I’ve got-.” She paused looking around at everyone. The mood in the room was thick. “Did I miss something?” No one said anything. Mark and Carl were in a staring contest with each other. “I guess so.”

“I’m going up there and letting them in,” Carl said.

“No, you’re not.”

Carl wasn’t going to argue. “My silo. My rules.” Carl started to leave, but Mark grabbed his arm.

“No.”

Carl shrugged off his grip and left the room. Mark cussed and followed right behind him. Ellen looked over to Heather and shook her head. “We’d better go after them before they shoot each other.” Ellen went into the adjacent compartment where Derek was sitting and grabbed her shotgun with Heather following right behind her.

“What’s going on?” Derek asked.

“Company’s coming,” Ellen responded while handing Heather a pistol.

Derek looked down at the ammo boxes. “Screw this.” He pulled out his sidearm and followed the ladies to the temperature-controlled stairwell that led to the surface.

All the way up the stairs, Carl and Mark argued about opening the Entryway door. Once they started up the last bit of stairs, they could hear people banging on the Entryway door and screaming to let them inside.

At reaching the door, Carl put his hand on the door’s heavy-duty deadbolt lock. “Don’t do it,” Mark said lifting his gun toward Carl.

“Really? You’re going to shoot me?” The pounding on the door was loud. Their screams and yells were getting more intense. “You want to tell them they have to die? We can save them!” Mark didn’t lower his gun. “Fine shoot me then.” Carl turned the lock and opened the door.

“Damn it!” Mark yelled. His finger twitched on the trigger, part of him wanting to pull the trigger and part of him understood why Carl wanted to open it. He didn’t serve the US government anymore, and he didn’t protect its citizens, but those old commitments never quite died. He lowered his gun. “If anyone is infected, they need to be quarantined or killed.”

There wasn’t time to argue. “Fine.” The daylight flooded the stairway along with the people from the outside. Mark didn’t want to holster his gun, but there were so many of them who were flooding in. All of them were crying and thanking them for letting them in. Derek and Heather were directing them inside and how to get to the unfinished medical ward. Ellen was trying her best to comfort them. One of the few last ones were in a roaring panic.

“They’re coming! They’re coming!”

Mark didn’t need to ask who. “We have to close the door!” Carl was still helping people inside. “Carl! Now!”

Mark was getting antsy. He wanted the door closed, and then he wanted everyone inspected for bites or infection. If they were infected, it might already be too late. He tried not to think about it. Carl was about to close the door when he saw a little girl running toward the door in the distance. She was squalling for her mommy. From below Heather, a woman spun around. “Emily? Emily!”

Heather cussed knowing what she needed to do. “I’ll get her for you. Just keep going.” Heather darted up the stairs. Mark grabbed her arm.

“Where are you going?” He looked up to Carl. “Close it!”

“I can’t! There’s a little girl out here!” Carl yelled back.

“I’m going to get the girl; cover me.” Heather broke free and raced past Carl to get to the girl. Carl could see the zombies coming.

“Hurry! Hurry! They’re coming!” Carl yelled.

Heather scooped up the little girl and fired a few shots at a nearby zombie that was quickly making its way to them. From the doorway, Mark began firing rounds trying to keep the zombies at bay. There were several taken out uncomfortably near the door, and their numbers were growing. Heather winced as she hopped over one to get to the Entryway. She felt a tug on the back of her leg but managed to get clear of it. Carl slammed the door and bolted it behind Heather. The little girl’s mother rushed to her little girl and held her tightly in her arms. The zombies on the outside began banging on the door. There was no way they could get in past that point, but it didn’t make them any more comfortable hearing them beat on the door.

Mark was cautious. He trained his gun on the ragtag group of people as they were funneled down the stairs and towards the medical ward. Ellen was already administering first aid when Mark got down there. Carl was trying to help his wife, but he wasn’t even close to being a nurse. But luckily for Carl, the people appeared to be more psychologically hurt than physically. Mark, Derek, and Heather were visually inspecting everyone as best they could.

As far as they could tell, no one appeared to be infected. Feeling there was no immediate threat, Mark and Derek returned to the LCC to see what was going on outside. The security cameras confirmed their hunch that the zombies hadn’t left. They were just banging on the Entryway door hoping they’d eventually make their way in. Human strength, even if bolstered by the infection, wouldn’t get them through those doors but they weren’t going to stop. They panned the cameras around to see what else was going on outside. There were more zombies on the way and by the looks of it their numbers were growing.

Back in the medical ward, Heather’s leg was burning, but she didn’t say anything. She merely ignored it and kept helping Ellen with the others. They weren’t sure what to do with them all. Having all those people would certainly impact the number of supplies they had. That would be something they’d have to figure out in time. Right now, they needed a place to stay. The silo itself was still mostly unfinished, but there were a few levels they could use as housing in the meantime. “Carl honey, can you take those we’ve checked down to the next level and set them up with blankets and some food?”

“Of course.” He said, happy to be free from what he was doing. “You two going to be okay in here?”

They both nodded to him. “Yeah, we’ve got this. Go.”

Carl looked at the mass of people who were still somewhat panicked but relieved to be inside. “Okay folks, follow me. Those who’ve not been treated, stay here. I’ll be back for you in a little bit.”

The group of weary people followed behind him as he led them down to the next level where they’d be staying. The level itself was still fairly empty, save the cardboard boxes the lined one corner of the room. The walls had a fresh coat of white paint to cover up the old seafoam green that they were before, and the room was newly carpeted in brown indoor-outdoor carpet tiles. The adhesives and paint still clung to the air like a new car smell. Carl walked over to a grouping of the boxes and opened them up. He pulled out several blankets and MREs, meals ready to eat, and began handing them out to everyone.

“I know this isn’t much, but this is where you can stay.” He could tell they appeared grateful, even if they only showed it in glimmers. “Just find a spot to call home, and I’ll be right back.” Carl left to go back upstairs to the medical ward while the others found their spots. Everyone that was left upstairs had been checked out by Ellen and Heather. He gathered the last lot of them and took them downstairs to be with the others. Once everyone was downstairs and had their supplies, he gave them a quick tour of the level and where the bathroom facilities were.

Back in the medical ward, Ellen and Heather were putting up supplies into cabinets where the doors hadn’t even been installed yet. The sheetrock walls were still unpainted, and on the counter next to where they had the medical supplies laid out, several putty knives and wall compound containers sat undisturbed since their last use. Ellen noticed Heather was rubbing her calf. “You okay?” She asked.

Heather nodded. “Yeah.” As quick as the words left her mouth, Heather fainted. Ellen ran over to her side. “Heather! Wake up, honey. Are you okay?”

Heather was already coming around. “Yeah. What, what happened?”

“You fainted sweetheart.” Ellen helped her get to her feet. It was immediately clear she was dizzy when Heather stood up. “Okay. Maybe it’s best that you sit down for a bit.” Ellen made her sit down on the newly installed exam table.

Heather rubbed her leg again while she was sitting there. “What’s going on with your leg?”

“It’s nothing.”

“Are you sure? Let me see.”

“That’s okay. You don’t have to.”

“I know but let me have a look just to make sure.” Heather was hesitant but did as Ellen requested. She hiked up her pants leg to let Ellen get a better look. There was a scrape across the back of her calf that had broken the skin but not enough to bleed through her pant leg. “Hmm. Just a scrape. We can fix that right up in a jiffy.”

Ellen turned and went back over to the cabinet where she had just returned the medical supplies. She grabbed a bottle of Peroxide, some cotton balls and a bandage from the open cabinet space. Behind her, Heather’s eyes rolled back into her head, and she fell backward onto the table with a thud. Ellen dropped everything and rushed to her friend’s side. “Heather!” Heather wasn’t coming to this time. Ellen grabbed her stethoscope from the counter and began to check her vitals, both at her wrist and her neck. “Sweetie. Come on now. Heather!” Ellen leaned in to get a better look at her eyes as she opened Heather’s eyelids. Suddenly Heather lunged forward off the table and took a bite out of Ellen’s neck. Blood sprayed everywhere as Ellen screamed. She tried to pull away, but Heather’s jaw was locked onto her neck. Ellen fought to get free, but in a few moments, she dropped to the floor, completely limp. Heather just sat there with blood all over her face and clothes looking down at Ellen. There was no expression. Ellen began to convulse on the floor. Just as sudden as it has started, it stopped. Her eyes opened. Ellen was just like Heather. Blank. The two of them got to their feet and began making their way to Carl and the other refugees.

Carl was still making sure everyone was getting settled in when blood covered Ellen and Heather entered the level. The people were trying to relax and eat something. Heather locked the door behind them. Heather turned toward the group of people, the same little girl she had rescued minutes before was first to come into view. Like a lioness to her prey, Heather stalked over to the little girl and her mother. The little girl’s eyes got big at the sight of Heather covered in blood and let out a blood-curdling scream that drew everyone’s attention. But it was too late. Heather and Ellen began their attack without remorse or care. No matter how the frightened people fought back, it was useless. They were dead. No, they would be undead. When the door to the level re-opened, every woman, man, and child, including the little girl and Carl was one of them. The wave of them made their way up the levels toward the LCC. When they got to the LCC, they split off into two groups. One group would continue up the stairs to the Entryway door and re-open it, allowing the other zombies outside to get in. The other group would flood the LCC and take the men.

Ellen, Heather, and Carl entered the LCC. Mark and Derek were talking back and forth while looking at the monitors. “Look at them. They’re just waiting. It’s creepy.” Derek said.

Mark shook his head in agreement. “I take it everyone is taken care of down there?” Mark said hearing them enter. He received no answer. Mark turned around to see them almost upon him. They were covered in blood and obviously not “human” anymore. He pulled his gun from his side. “Derek!” Derek turned to see Mark empty his clip into them. He too brought his gun to bear and began to fire. The slide on Mark’s gun slid back with smoke. He was empty, but they were still coming. Behind them, he saw the control center fill with more of the newly created zombies. He reloaded his gun as quickly as he could. Derek and Mark retreated to the adjacent compartment of the LCC. Behind them was the ammo boxes Derek was inventorying earlier. Derek’s slide went back. Mark covered for him as he reloaded. In the box, he saw several grenades. Mark looked down long enough to see Derek pick up a grenade. “Throw it!” Mark yelled.

Derek pulled the pin from the grenade and threw it as Mark continued to fire. The gunny Sergeants hit the deck as the grenade went off, taking several zombies with it. Ellen and Heather took the brunt of the blast, but to their amazement, it wasn’t enough to completely take them down.

“I need more!” Mark yelled at Derek.

“Just a sec!” Derek got to his feet and tossed him two clips from the box. A zombie lunged at Mark as he loaded his gun and sunk its teeth into his arm. Mark fired his gun point-blank as he yelled. In that instant, in the back of his mind, he knew it was too late for himself. He was now infected. There was a chance he wasn’t but not a good one. He swallowed that dark truth and kept trying to take down as many as he could. Derek was trying to do the same, but he was wearing down. He grabbed a few more grenades and pulled the pins of each one. He hurled them toward the door and did his best to take down the rest of the ones in the room.

Boom. Boom. Boom. The grenades went off. A sheering pain shot up Derek’s leg. He hadn’t noticed that Heather’s torso had moved across the floor and had firmly bit his leg. He fired a few shots into her head, and she dropped. The grenades had cleared the room of zombies, but they were regrouping outside. Mark rushed toward the door, closed and locked it. They meticulously went to each zombie, including what was left of Ellen and Carl and fired shots into their heads to make sure they stayed dead. The zombies on the other side of the door began to bang on the door to get in. Mark and Derek looked at each other, trying to catch their breath. They both saw the wounds they each had.

“I don’t want to become one of them.”

“I don’t either Mark.”

Mark was starting to feel lightheaded. “You have to kill me before I turn.” Derek’s stomach was in knots as he gave his friend a fresh clip.

“Then you have to kill me too.” The two loaded their clips and raised their guns. “It was an honor serving with you, gunny.”

Mark nodded. “You too. On the count of three?”

“1. 2. 3.” The two men squeezed the trigger on their guns firing off a shot into each other’s head. The two men dropped to the floor, not to rise again.

THE END

NOTE: This story first appeared in the Once Bitten ~ Never Die anthology in November 2011.

Stories

First Gator

The warm winds of the September night swirled around the full moon. The bellow of frogs and the chirping of crickets echoed around the swamp as the stars above were reflected in its murky waters. At the end of a small wooden dock, a little boy of no more than ten years sat dangling his bare feet off its edge. The wood planks of the deck were rough and tugged at his dirty overalls when he jostled his feet this way and that.

Tommy Landry loved the swamps. His biggest dream was to be like his daddy, a trapper. Every year he’d see his daddy bring a boatload of gators back home during gator season and every year he wanted to go hunting alongside him. Tommy was fascinated by the gators. He knew how to bait them, what to use and even where to tie the bait. In Tommy’s mind, he was ready for hunting gators, but his daddy told him he was still too young. In an attempt to dissuade his son, his daddy had shown him where he’d been bitten before, but Tommy had poked several with a stick, and to him, they didn’t seem so tough. Of course, they were already dead.

This year he was determined to show his daddy that he was old enough go out on the boat. The night before, Tommy had snuck into his daddy’s supply of rotten chicken and brought it out to the little dock away from the house where he’d already tied a line to a nearby willow tree. Tommy had taken his time to make sure the chicken was securely attached to the line and that the line was good and tied to the tree. He waited all night for a gator to come, but nothing ever came. He returned tonight hoping he’d caught something but faced disappointment instead. That didn’t stop him from waiting on the dock hoping something would bite.

Tommy let out a huff and laid back on the dock to stare up at the stars for a while. Just as he started to daydream of riding on his daddy’s boat, he heard a splash not too far away. Tommy jerked his head toward the splashing and saw that his bait was underwater, and something was trying to keep it there. “Dang!” Tommy jumped to his feet all excited. He ran off the dock and toward the bank where the tree was. As soon as he saw it do a death roll, he knew without a doubt he had a gator on the end of his line. He stomped his feet in excitement and waved his arms. “I got one!” It was then the realization hit him. Now what? Listening to his daddy’s stories, his daddy always had someone to shoot the gator before dragging it into the boat. Tommy didn’t have anyone, and he certainly didn’t have a gun.

He gave the gator that was wrestling on the line a final look and dashed off toward the house as fast as his bare feet could take him. Tommy knew where his dad kept his .22. He tore inside the darkened one-story house, grabbed his daddy’s gun along with some slugs and returned to the dock as fast as he could. He didn’t even try to load the gun while he was running. His mind was focused on whether the gator was still on the line or not. When he got there, he was relieved to see the gator still fighting with the line. Tommy got to the edge of the bank as close as he could and pointed the shotgun. His daddy had let him shoot it before, but this time it wasn’t some old can sitting on a fence. It was a real gator.

Tommy cocked the gun using the lever and pointed it toward the gator. He mouthed the instructions his daddy would tell him before getting ready to fire like where to put the butt of the gun, where to aim and when to fire.  He waited for the gator to surface and then pulled the trigger. The gun pushed Tommy backward, but he didn’t drop it, and he didn’t fall down. The gator was thrashing on the line. He hit it, but he didn’t kill it. Tommy’s hands were shaking. He was excited but scared. “I’m gonna get you dis time.” He cocked the shotgun again and re-aimed. He was too focused to see the front porch lights had turned on in the distance. Tommy didn’t hesitate when he saw his next opportunity. He pulled the trigger. Again, he was pushed back but managed to stand his ground. The gator had stopped moving. He had got him. Tommy stomped his feet and yelled “Yeah! I got you!”

Tommy scrambled up the willow tree and untied the line. The gator was much heavier than he expected, but he pulled the gator onto the bank. It was a good 4 to 5-footer by the looks of it. He tied the line around its neck and pulled it toward the house, with the line over one shoulder and the .22 in the other arm. His daddy was standing on the front porch in a white tank top and tan boxers with a rifle in his hand. His daddy lowered his rifle when he saw Tommy come into view. His son marched up to the front porch with a big grin that went from one ear to the other. Tommy put the butt of the gun down on the ground and pointed at his catch. “I did it deddy. I caught me a gator. I told you I could.”

His daddy didn’t know whether to be proud or mad. He propped his gun against the porch railing, looked down at Tommy and the gator and shook his head. “I’ll be.” He went to his son and hugged him. “You did good dare son.” He wanted to fuss at him for doing something so dangerous, but he didn’t have the heart. Instead, he walked over to his flat-bottomed boat, grabbed a tag from a wooden locker chest and walked back over to Tommy. 

“Dis is how you tag dem son.” Tommy was excited and watched his daddy put the tag on the gator. Afterward, the daddy picked up the gator and put it in his boat’s gator box.

“Deddy, can I go hunt’n wit you tomorra?”

The two of them walked into the house with the daddy carrying both guns. The daddy chuckled and patted Tommy on the back. “I think you goin’ have to talk your ma bout dat.”

THE END

NOTE: This story first appeared in Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal, Volume 36 in September 2011.