Nature Hates You

“You have something furry on your back.” Simon held up his hands in a calming gesture, trying to get his older brother to hold still. The expression on Simon’s face, however, compromised the effort and Ethan proceeded to not hold still.

Rotten branches and leaves crunched under their hiking boots.

“Furry?” Ethan twisted, trying to see what furry thing had hitched a ride and glare at Simon simultaneously. “What is it? Get it off.”

“Umm–” Simon hovered as his brother pivoted, trying to keep his footing in the forest’s thick undergrowth. “Stop flailing. It has a lot of teeth.”

That actually got Ethan to pause. “Teeth?”

“Yes– so don’t piss it off.” Simon bent slowly and picked up a heavy stick, keeping narrow eyes on the thing clinging to Ethan’s back.

“A stick?” Ethan said through a clenched jaw. “I thought you said not to piss it off. Remember the teeth?”

“I can see multiple rows. You told me to get it off. Have a better idea?” Simon hefted the stick pointedly.

“Go get Liam.” Ethan flicked his eyes to his armed brother, unwilling to move his neck and stuck frozen between steps.  “That’s my idea.”

Simon huffed. “I can handle …whatever it is.”

Simon took a step forward, eyeing whatever was on his brother’s back with enough challenge to make Ethan uncomfortable. Ethan snapped a finger up in front of his brother’s nose. At the sudden motion, claws dug into the back of his shirt. Ethan suppressed a shudder, “Simon, for the love of all that is holy, Go. Get. Liam.”

“Geez. Fine. It’s not my fault nature hates you.” Simon backed off a step. He didn’t drop the stick as he trudged off into the dark spaces between the trees to find their friend and a solution to their furry stowaway.

A thief is rarely good company to keep, but people keep me nonetheless. This week I (may) have stolen the first line of this piece from Apprentice, Never Master. Check out the company she keeps at the Legal Theft Project

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The Necromancer’s Door

She glared blearily into the lidless yellowed eyes leaning over her bed. The thing’s face was stretched like fine brown parchment over its skull, giving the creature a perpetually anxious expression. A grunt escaped its desiccated lips.

“Go away,” Resa muttered and turned over under the coverlet.

Her word was law to them. The creature shuffled away a few steps and stopped.

“Out.” Resa growled loudly from beneath the blanket.

The creature took its leave, rustling like paper as it walked. Resa waited to hear her chamber door to fall back into its frame. The heavy fall of metal and stone didn’t sound. Resa groaned and flung the coverlet back,

“Useless carcass,” Resa mumbled, cursing herself for teaching them how to open but not close doors. She swung her feet to the stone floor and stalked over to the door, stumbling over the detritus of robes and tomes littering the chamber. Resa jammed her foot against an overturned urn and swore vehemently.

The state of her bedroom would have been less alarming if Resa could remember how it had gotten that way. Resa pushed the door closed with a resounding clang, she barred it for good measure. Deep beneath the tower, locked and barred below the ground, no sunlight could tempt her.

Better to stay inside, the world, and perhaps her chambers as well, would thank her for it. Her bed beckoned.

She was half way under the coverlet when a small bit of shadow peeled itself from the ceiling a drifted down. “Mistress?” It asked with a voice like sand falling through an hourglass. The shade hovered an inch away from her nose.

“What?” Her short exhale of breath made its shadowy form waver in the air.

“You’re back.” It whispered, its dry voice trembling. For a moment Resa remembered crafting it, her fingers stained with ash and heart’s blood. She’d breathed a bit of her soul into it and the shade had slipped along the walls of the lab like a pleased cat. Now it stared eyeless down at her. “You’re back.” It repeated.

“Yes.” Resa wriggled down into her mattress, pulling the blanket to her nose. She had been gone, lost and tangled up somewhere, to disastrous effect.  Resa closed her eyes.  “And I’m never leaving again.”

UnSTABle Wounds

Getting stabbed hurts very much, and then if you are lucky, surprisingly very little.  The thin knife hadn’t even chipped a rib, but had slipped the hairsbreadths between his vital abdominal organs, quick in, smooth out.  Despite this,  and the doctors telling him so, Lark did not feel lucky.

Instead, Lark emerged from each painkiller induced haze with distinct unease. This anxiety was only sharpened by the indignity of his scratchy hospital gown and the grating noise emanating from the room’s television. Lark suspected the daytime programming was switched on by vindictive nurses while he slept, retribution for his own unquiet displeasure at being in their charge.

It wasn’t enough that strangers had invaded Lark’s home, attempted to kill Lark’s wife, whom he was fairly attached to, and placed him bedridden at the whim of humorless doughy-faced nurse staff. Lark wished any of that had been the strangest thing to happen this week.  No, it was the conversations after those events, which left him wondering how much he really knew about anything.

As they weaned him off the drugs, the hours between his visitors stretched longer and the malaise pressed more acutely with every solitary minute. In these gaping moments, left with nothing but the long abandoned book in his lap and the pallid green wall across from his bed, Lark began to wonder once again how much of what happened he’d built up around himself, fueled by an admittedly impressive amount of self-importance.

In those long nighttime hours, Lark came to the conclusion that either he or the world was dangerously unstable. Neither was good, but one was decidedly better for him.

Lark sniffed at the empty wall and pressed a palm to his bandaged side. Tomorrow he’d speak to Arianna about finding him a hotel. He’d still be alone with his thoughts, but free from daytime television.

Lock Hearts

Since childhood, Tristan could discern when he was dreaming. Despite an absent mind and an undisciplined imagination, he’d always been able to acutely determine reality from its watercolor echoes, even while walking a particularly convincing dreamscape.

For Tristan, the two states were hard to confuse. The waking world was ruled by sense and sensation. An apple that felt, looked, and tasted like an apple, was an apple. But in a dream, only belief mattered. An apple was only an apple if you believed it to be one. If you believed it to be a house, it was for the dream’s purposes, a house. Even if it still tasted like a piece of fruit.

It was with this knowledge that Tristan opened his eyes in bed and knew, despite the oldest trick a mind could play on a gullible dreamer, that he was still dreaming. His room was his room, his bed his bed, but in the weighty silence, Tristan knew someone was about to break in.

The lock clicked in a different way when it was opened with a key.  A solid thunk, metal on metal the way its maker intended.  This click was a scrape and a wrench, a knife’s blade deep in the lock.

Caught in the dream’s tide, Tristan’s pulse quickened, beating hard against his throat. The door opened and cloaked figures poured around him with a buffeting sound like the beating of many wings. Faces shadowed by pulled cowls, their dark-swathed hands fastened to his shoulders, his arms, his back. They dragged him from his bed.

Tristan’s shout died in a sudden vastness. The figures were gone, melted and consumed by the changing scene. Tristan looked up and felt his breath stolen by a temple’s looming walls, its arched ceilings, and spiraling peaks. Around him, where pews or benches should be, rows of altars jutted from the floor. Atop them, people sprawled unmoving and unbreathing.

Some he knew, his twin sister’s waves of chestnut hair fell over the stone top of her final resting place. Her husband, a row down, had finally been struck silent in death. Tristan’s best friend was laid out on another, a curved sword held at her breast in warrior’s repose.

Most were strangers. He wandered through them, noting a cop’s badge around a man’s neck, a travelers pack laid at another’s side, a hunting hound curled as dead as its master atop her feet.

Though Tristan knew he was dreaming, it did nothing to warm the ice in his veins. The people on the altars had little in common with each other, except the very apparent cause of their death. Each had been sliced from throat to bottom rib, their open chests gaping upwards into the vast air of the temple.

He did not have to look to know, because knowing is enough in a dream to make it so, that each was missing their heart. Tristan stumbled away, feeling the edges of the scene blur as he panicked and faltered. He felt the wrench of the knife in his bedroom lock, used like a key, he felt the wrench of a knife deep in his chest, and someone, somewhere trying to open something.

Tristan awoke screaming in a strange bed at the Lion Rock Medical Hospital. Machines blinked at him, the sterile yet sickly smell of plastic filled his nose, and the scratch of starched sheets annoyed his skin. The sensations, unaffected by his residual terror, remained. Tristan fell back against his pillow but did not close his eyes.

Hospitality Rules

Lina ran her hands under the kitchen faucet, rinsing suds off her forearms before she set the cast iron skillet on the center island to dry. A pile of food-caked dishes remained by the sink, but morning was five hours off. Lina would finish them while tomorrow’s first batch of dough rose. She pulled the apron over her head and surveyed the kitchen, triumphant despite aching feet and her sweaty hair plastered to her forehead.

The modest kitchen was well used with chipped counters, grooved cutting boards, and two massive brick ovens blackened by years of operation. But it was clean, ready, and most importantly hers.

Tomorrow, tourists would stream into the Capitol for the holy week. Her small pizza joint, set in the middle of the temple district, would finally get some attention. The hungry pilgrims and devotees were the key to beating the trendy eateries and brewpubs that continually outshone her unassuming little restaurant. She and her little kitchen were ready.

At least they were, until she heard the footsteps in the front. Lina frowned. The last server locked up two hours ago and left thirty minutes after. Lina stepped up to the door only to have it open as she pressed her ear to the wood.

Lina stumbled back as a man stepped into her kitchen. He towered over her, the collar of his dark jacket pulled up around his face. Still, she blinked up at him. “You were here. You were a customer.” Lina had welcomed him in herself. Now alone, his easy smile turned her blood cold.

“Your waitress didn’t check the bathroom.” He said it with that smile. The door shut behind him and Lina wondered if she could get out into the alley fast enough. The man took another step forward, reaching into his jacket. Lina’s back hit the center counter.

“Please, the safe’s upstairs. I’ll open it for you.” Her voice squeaked.

“No need.” The man withdrew a knife from his jacket. No, Lina thought, confusion cutting momentarily through her fear, not a knife. It was a dagger. The blade looked like something from a movie, curved and carved in yellow white. “The way I figure it, this is temple enough, your holiness. Your place. ” He said.

He was insane. Lina saw it now in the man’s over-bright eyes. Some zealot drawn in by the holy week. He waived the bone dagger between them. The counter dug into her back as she leaned away. Lina groped backward, her fingers scrambling against the counter top until she found it.

When he lunged, Lina squeezed her eyes shut and swung the skillet.

A crunch and then a thud. Lina opened her eyes and looked at the long cut stinging across her forearm. The skillet was still in her hand and the bone knife had fallen at her feet, her blood staining the blade.

Lina gazed down at the man’s body and the pool of dark crimson spreading over her kitchen floor. He was dead, his skull caved by the heavy iron of the skillet.

Slowly, she moved to find her phone. It took her a long time to unlock it and dial the three numbers. Her now bloody thumb hovered over the call button.  The week was over before it had begun. The police would come and shut her down. Even temporarily, it would mean the end of her little pizza restaurant. She needed this week.

Lina took a deep breath and put the phone down. This was her restaurant, her kitchen, and as the man had said, her place. 

She looked over at the two ovens. The upcoming week would be busy, but they’d run with only one oven before, they could do it again. Lina tossed the skillet in first, then her clothes. The rest took longer, but Lina was strong and accustomed to hard work.

Heat waved over the kitchen as Lina scrubbed the floor. Those towels and apron followed the fall out of the night, shoved into the back of the oven. Lina watched them burn for a time, but morning was much closer now. She sighed and decided she might as well finish those dishes.