Waking Nightmares

This is part of an ongoing story that begins with The Initiative

Mina shoved her way through the revolving door and burst out into the street, the wind cool against her blazing cheeks. Damn Delancey St. Clair. Damn him. She hunched her shoulders against the gusts and walked quickly down the street, wanting to put as much distance as possible between herself and Del. It was stupid to meet with him—stupid to put herself this close to Holler, Grim, Alberich & Mors. She had given into a moment of sentimentalism and contacted Delancey when she was a bottle of wine deep and alone in her tiny apartment. Del had no idea she was living in Boston—she was sure of that much. Why would he? She had no doubt he remembered her, but she knew better than to believe he still thought about her. She wished she didn’t still think about him, the arrogant asshole. Mina’s jaw ached and she realized she was grinding her teeth.
She glanced up to see the Boston Public Library looming ahead and walked quickly up the stairs to enter the warmth. The two stone lions at the top of the marble staircase stared impassively at her as she passed them, wandering the marble halls until she came to the Abbey Room, emblazoned with paintings by Edward Abbey depicting the quest and discovery of the Holy Grail. She leaned against the doorway, admiring the vivid works and letting her mind drift.
She had finally begun to feel safe, snug in her creaking, drafty apartment. That was before she saw him—she would recognize that face anywhere. The nightly nightmares kept it fresh, undimmed by time. She heard his name—the name he used in daylight—for the first time as the bartender handed him the bill. She shouldn’t have been in that part of town—but the cobbled streets and gaslights of Beacon Hill drew her in, reminding her of home in that small Russian town, of a simple time before her home meant blood pooling on the wooden floors her mother meticulously mopped and the china from her many times great grandmother’s dowry smashed and smeared with crimson.

The wine bar had seemed cozy, welcoming, and she sat at her corner table letting the flow of conversation around her sweeten her wine. She noticed him after a quarter of an hour, sitting at the end of the bar. His silver hair caught her eye and the expanse of his broad shoulders made her fingers go cold. The slightly crooked nose and pointed chin were unmistakable and the smile that he flashed the bartender almost made her drop her glass. She turned her head to the wall and drank as he got up to leave, scarcely able to breathe until she heard the door shut and saw him walk past the windows as he disappeared into the night. Richard Moretti. The name resonated in her brain. She knew him before only as Sinistrari.
She finished her wine and waited for the tremors in her hands and knees to subside before paying and slipping quietly out of the restaurant and making her way back to her flat. She immediately got out her laptop and searched for Richard Moretti. She had no doubt he would be a man of importance. When she found out the reach of his public influence, however, she was floored. CEO of a large XYZ company, he was known for his generosity and charitable nature. Photo after photo showed him shaking hands with someone and flashing his blazing smile for the camera. She shut the laptop as a wave of nausea rushed over her. It seemed to stretch belief that he could be in the city in which she chose to hide. She did not think he would leave Europe. She cursed herself for not checking—but what would she have used? Perhaps Richard Moretti was one of his many names, just because he originated in Italy did not mean he used his real name. She panicked then and opened her computer again, hammering out an email to Delancey St. Clair—a search for him found his cocky grin smiling up at her from the website of Holler, Grim, Albrecht, & Mors. A name she saw over and over in association with Sinistrari—Moretti. His legal counsel.
Despite that, she clicked on Delancey’s company email and sent him a message from one of her many disposable addresses. It was apparently too much to hope that Del would notice the message within her chosen handle. WilHMurray. Wilhemina Murray. As an alias it was obvious to her eyes, but, apparently not to his. The library suddenly seemed oppressive and she turned away from the intricate Abbey paintings and walked slowly down the stairs and out into the blustery day. She couldn’t believe Del was working for the firm that supported such ilk as Moretti—she had to get used to thinking of him that way. The last thing she needed was to go spill the name Sinistrari to someone. Looking up at the gray sky, all the anger seemed to leech out of her. What right did she have to expect Del’s help? She drug him straight into the middle of her mess ten years ago in Budapest and left him without so much as an explanation. Or a goodbye.

At lunch, she had searched the collected and sophisticated face of the young lawyer in front of her for a sign of the impetuous Delancey—little more than a boy—that she thought she knew. She remembered the last day—the last night. Remembered the chill of the hotel room as she slid out from beneath Delancey’s encircling arm and warm sheets and slipped out of the room. They had gone to the ballet that day—she convinced him and he protested in the Louisiana drawl she found so charming. He hadn’t lost that, at least. He was still charming, of that she was sure. A face like his would win the most stable woman over—and she had been so far from equilibrium. She remembered the faintest taste of his cologne on her lips as she pressed a farewell kiss to his bare shoulder and left when the sun was just peeking over the red roofs of Budapest.
Could she really blame him? She dragged him into a world most people still didn’t know existed outside the annals of fiction. She wouldn’t have believed it herself if she hadn’t seen them herself—jaws unhinging like a snake’s and a double set of sharp teeth descending to tear out the throats of her mother, father, her brother Piotr, her sister Nastia—all snuffed out in gouts of hot crimson.
The certainty she was having a nightmare faded when one of them stepped forward, his teeth receding as his face returning to normal. Normal but for the smears of blood around his face. He bent down towards her, his sharp chin catching the dim light. The strange noises that drew her from her bed had given no warning of this—the floating, nighttime drowsiness only enhanced the nightmare effect. And so, she did not shy away from the man who crouched down in front of her, hands and face dripping with her family’s blood.
He greeted her in Russian. “Hello, little one.”
She stared mutely at him, in dreams, one could not speak.
“What is it Sinistrari?” One of the other men asked, wiping his face with a red handkerchief he pulled from somewhere inside his coat.
“A child, Valac. Only a child.”
“What are you waiting for, then?”
“This one lives.” The man in front of her tilted his silver-haired head to the side and regarded her.
“What?” The one called Valac’s voice dropped to a hiss.
“When she wakes again, this will all be as a dream.” Sinistrari’s voice never broke its deep, gentle cadence.
He leaned towards her and opened his mouth wide again. Mina shut her eyes, certain that there would be a snap of teeth and she would awaken, but there was only a rush of breath across her face—strangely cooler than the warmth of the living room—and smelling of cold earth. She opened her eyes and saw the familiar shapes of her bedroom cast into shadow by her flickering nightlight. It wasn’t until the next morning that she saw the bare, bloodied footprints that streaked her bedroom floor and recognized them as her own. The six year old Mina’s testimony of monsters was discounted with much sympathetic headshaking and murmurs of trauma. Her aunt in St. Petersburg took her in and, once Mina was stirred into the mixture of four cousins, treated her no differently than one of her own.

She walked through the Boston Public Garden—where some of the trees still clung to their colorful autumn crowns—feeling aimless. She didn’t want to return to her apartment. She thought she would meet with Del and have all her problems solved. A completely ridiculous notion–born from some lingering damsel in distress fantasy. If he couldn’t help her, it would be just another disappointment she could pencil into the column reserved for Delancey St. Clair.

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Reflect

Friday Fictioneers: One photo, one story of 100 words.

© Janet Webb

© Janet Webb

There are things you know you’ll miss—for me it was cheeseburgers, that particular satisfaction of drinking a cold beer after a long day out on the lake. Then there are the people; the ones who grow old and fade away, leaving you alone like the last skeletal leaf clinging to a tree when the snow starts falling. That part was harder, watching parents and friends wither into nothing, into food for worms. They didn’t tell me I would miss my reflection, that I would slowly forget my own face. Sometimes, I’m not certain I exist. Then, I get thirsty.

Internship at Wolfram & Hart

One photo + one hundred words = one story for Friday Fictioneers.

If you’re unfamiliar with Wolfram & Hart (or the TV show Angel)…shame on you. For the sake of the story, imagine a law firm that serves the needs of all the creatures that hide in dark corners and under beds and in stories told around campfires and you’re there.

 

Photo by Adam Ikes

Photo by Adam Ikes

         Finn jumped back with a yell, upsetting the box of invoices from 2007.
         “What is it?!” Sara, the other intern, clutched his arm.
         “It’s a ram’s head.” Finn began to breathe normally again.
         “I thought sacrifices were done on level 5?” Sara peered around him.
         “They wouldn’t preserve the head if it was a sacrifice,” Finn said, setting the overturned box upright.
         “Let’s find the box and get out of here,” Sara said.
         Finn quickly agreed–he felt like the severed head was watching–they’d be envying the beast if they didn’t get the box of depositions to the Partners before lunch.

**If you like this check out Betwixt and Between for the beginning, serialized story of my own version of supernatural Attorneys at Law.

Whisky and Reminiscences

If you haven’t read the beginning of this story, go here.

          “How about that drink?” Mina turned to face him. “Call it a day. You’ve enough influence in there for that.” She jerked her head in the direction of the Firm.
          Del knew it was a waste of time to argue with her. He dialed the number for the secretary he shared with two other associates and told her he’d be out of the office in meetings for the rest of the day and to hold all calls unless one of the Partners wanted him. She wished him a happy Friday and he halfheartedly returned it. His weekend had been shot to hell since the first email from Mina.
          “Let’s go.” Del strode across Copley Square, ducking his head against the wind.
          Mina kept up easily and seemed at ease as with her short hair whipping across her face. They walked in silence to the prudential center and for once Del didn’t pause to admire the tall glass and chrome edifice. He shoved through the revolving door and was greeted by the stifling heat. They rode the escalator up and wound their way through kiosks and past boutiques, dodging smartly dressed professionals, the inevitable tourists, and sulky salespeople, passing through another revolving door before they boarded the elevator for the Top of the Hub. The elevator shot them to the 52nd floor and Del felt his ears pop at the change in pressure. They were greeted by the hostess as they exited and she led them to a table. Del couldn’t help scanning the bar for familiar faces–people from the Firm were regulars and he dreaded trying to introduce Mina to some guy he knew from daily run-ins at the espresso machine. Luckily, they were still too early for most of the lunch crowd. Del slid the leather-clad cocktail list to Mina and tried not to fidget as she looked over it with obviously false concentration. He looked out the window at the view for which Top of the Hub was known. Boston spread out around him, frosted with haze. The waitress sidled up to them and Del ordered a Johnnie Walker Black, neat. Mina closed the cocktail list, looked at Del, and said, “I’ll have the same.”

          He wondered if she did it on purpose–repeated things from the past like they were lines in a script. The glossy menus and plush carpets seemed to blur for a moment into the stained wooden counter and smoky, low-ceilinged Kocsma Kedv. The Mina that sat across from him in the vision bore little resemblance to the one he saw now. He wasn’t hungry, but he ordered the spicy lobster soup when the waitress appeared with their drinks. Mina ordered a salad. Del took a bracing sip of his drink and felt it burn along his gums and warm his belly. Mina rolled her glass between her palms, staring at the amber liquid as though it held the future.
          “Well?” Del finally asked, leaning back in his chair and taking a good look at her. Her coat hung on the back of her chair and the black sweater she wore hugged her body. It looked expensive–as had the coat. He readjusted his view of her. Again.
          “This was a mistake,” she said, so quietly he almost didn’t hear. “I knew you worked for Them and I still came.” She swore in Russian and took a gulp of her drink. She coughed and her eyes watered. That wasn’t like her; she could usually handle her alcohol.
          Del addressed the skyline, “What does my job have to do with it?”
          Mina’s dark eyebrows rose into the fringe of bangs across her forehead. “You’re joking.”
          “What’s the problem? You were the one who taught me there were things in the dark. Besides, things are different–more people know and there are records and protocol and–”
          “Things are not different, Del.” She shoved her glass aside and leaned across the table. “Not for me. Just because the monsters are out in the open doesn’t make them any less evil.”
          “I don’t–”
          Mina cut him off, “You know the people you work for represent some of the worst…people in existence? You’ve probably represented some yourself. How could you? After Budapest? After–” She fell silent as the waitress brought their food.
          Mina fumbled for her drink and downed it, wincing as she set the empty glass on the table. Her hands were shaking. He blinked several times. There was no mistaking the look in her eyes. He’d seen it the first time they met. Stark, undiluted fear.
          “What happened in Budapest had nothing to do with the Firm–I would know.” It sounded defensive even to him.
          “Would you?” she asked. “You helped me then, when I had no one and I knew it was just a matter of time before I gave up. Before I stopped running and…” Mina shoved some lettuce around on her plate. She looked up at him, spearing him with her blue eyes. “I didn’t think I’d have to run again.”
          Del’s stomach clenched. There was no way in hell this was starting up again, it was his turn to gulp his Johnnie Walker. “Tell me,” he said finally. “Tell me everything.”
          He knew he was repeating the same words he’d spoken ten years ago in the grime and chaos of Kocsma Kedv–a bar like any other in Hungary–leaning over a foaming mug of Warsteiner Dunkel and trying to comfort a complete stranger. She’d grabbed his arm in the street outside and begged for help. Del could almost smell the Szamosi cigarettes and hoppy aroma of the pub again.

          He was twenty-two, fresh out of LSU, and enjoying his whirlwind tour of Europe on the money his grandfather left him. Hungary wasn’t originally on the itinerary, but when he and his roommate Lucas met two girls in Germany, there was no choice but to accompany them. In Hungary, Chrysta made it clear she only cared about the view inside Lucas’ hotel room and Chrysta’s friend melted away before Del could decide if he was interested or not. He was walking by himself to a bar recommended by some locals when a petite blonde grabbed his jacket and demanded in heavily-accented English that he help her. At first, Del thought it was a scam–he envisioned scenarios in which he was led into a dark alleyway and mugged or woke up the next morning with no kidneys in a bathtub. The look in her eyes finally convinced him and she let him lead her to the bar. He reasoned that a room full of witnesses and a drink would be the best thing for both of them.
          “They’re after me,” she said, lowering her husky voice as they wedged themselves into a table against the wall.
          “Who’s after you?” Del looked around for Lucas–he wouldn’t put it past his roommate to pull an elaborate prank in a foreign country.
          The strange girl wrapped her fingers tightly around her glass and looked at him helplessly. “I can’t say.”
          “Where are you from? Here?” When she shook her head, he repeated, “Where are you from?”
          “Russia.”
          “And your name?”
          Her long lashes flickered once and he could tell she was thinking quickly. “Mina.”
          “Well, Mina, I’m Delancey. But my friends call me Del. If someone is…after you, I can go with you to the police–or your consulate?”
          She shook her head her head, wide-eyed, her lips moving as she muttered in furious Russian. “No, no. Not the politsiya,” she said.
          Del took a deep breath. “Are you running from the police, Mina?”
          Her blue eyes were huge as she met his gaze. “I’m running from everyone.”

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Old Friends

 

© Hannah Sears

© Hannah Sears


continuation of the story begun with the Initiative and the Firm, if you wish to avoid confusion, at least read the Firm before this one.

          Del knew the office emails were swept periodically, but nothing in his message or the spam emails should give anyone pause. No one knew about Budapest–the emails could be a past fling, or a disgruntled acquaintance. He grinned wryly at the thought. When it came to women, there was the good kind of crazy and the bad. He had no problem with the first, but he knew dabbling in the second was a good way to burn. His inbox dinged–a message from his boss. Marcus Colubra wanted to see him at 8:30 a.m. Del checked his Rolex–a gift from the Firm for earning his spot as an Associate Partner–and saw it was 8:20. The walk to Marcus’ office would take him that long. He straightened his tie and nodded to his colleagues as he walked down the long hallways that led him to the massive double doors. People joked about getting company golf carts to navigate the office. Marcus’ doors were supposedly taken from an ancient temple in Ethiopia. Del wouldn’t be surprised; Marcus was a self-proclaimed procurer of rare objects with astronomical price tags and equally complicated pasts. Del opened one of the heavy panels and peeked in.
          “Ah, Delancey. Come in, come in, son.” Marcus’ lips twitched in a small smile.
          Del gritted his teeth and tried to keep his face pleasant, Marcus was the only one who could get away with calling him “son”–and only because he paid Del disgusting amounts of money and held power over his basic existence at the Firm. He stepped forward to shake Marcus’s hand, feeling the papery skin shift over the Executive Partner’s bony fingers. Marcus waved at one of the hulking leather chairs in front of his desk and Del perched on the edge. He knew from past experience that settling back made one sink into the chair, and he wanted Marcus at eye-level.
          “Scotch?” Marcus held up a faceted decanter.
          “Ah, no thanks,” Del said. He was from Louisiana, and it was five o’clock somewhere, but in Boston it was before 10 am and he had to draw the line somewhere.
          “Not a scotch drinker?” Marcus poured a generous amount into a Waterford crystal glass.
          “Not before I have my coffee, sir.”
          “To each his own.” Marcus lifted his glass slightly in a toast before sitting in the throne-like chair behind his desk.. “I haven’t spoken to you since you wrapped up the Parkhurst case. A decisive victory, wasn’t it?”
          “Yes, sir,” Del shifted slightly under the effusive praise. “The prosecution didn’t stand a chance. Mr. Parkhurst was…very appreciative.”
          “I’m certain he was. I hope you understand the great amount of trust we placed in you, allowing you to handle Parkhurst. They are one of our oldest clients.”
          Del swallowed before answering; the switch to the “royal we” was rarely a good sign. “I appreciate your confidence in me and, if I may speak honestly, sir, I enjoyed the opportunity to work with such an important client.”
          “You exceeded our wildest imaginings, Delancey. I don’t mind admitting to you that my expectations were exceptionally high. I’ve been keeping an eye on you, my boy, since we first dredged you out of your Louisiana swamp.”
          Del knew his boss meant no offense, but the joke fell flat and he forced a smile, waiting for the older man to continue.
          “We’d like you to take on more responsibility, if you’re willing,” Marcus said.
“I’d like that very much, sir,” Del said.
          “Glad to hear it. Since you became an Associate Partner, you have been briefed on some of our…special cases.”

          Del nodded his affirmative, everyone higher than the mail-room knew about the special cases–whether they were supposed to or not. Marcus set down his glass and folded his hands on the desk, his dark eyes fastening on Del as he cocked his head to the side. Del sighed inwardly; every attorney had a flair for the dramatic, but not many enjoyed it quite as much as Marcus Colubra. Del could imagine stage directions as Marcus pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes. Get on with it, Old Man he thought.
          “We’d like you to take on a very special case, Delancey. One that will be different from anything you’ve worked before. All other cases will be delegated to your associates–we want you focused. This is one of the Big Ones.”
          Del heard the capital letters and tried to sound awed as he responded that he was honored by their notice, of course he would do whatever they asked.
          “It’s a very unique case–even for us–and it’s imperative that you exercise the utmost discretion. You’ll submit your budget, expenses, progress updates, and billable hours to my office. We’ll discuss your pay once the ink is dried, but I can assure you, Delancey, it will be well worth your time.” Marcus leaned back in his seat.
          “Yes, sir,” Del said. “Thank you sir.”
          “Very well,” Marcus’ teeth flashed white against his dark skin. “Thank you, Delancey.”

          Del nodded, knowing he was dismissed and stood, trying not to hurry out the door. If he had to say “sir” one more time, he was going to need a glass of scotch. Back in his office, the day ticked by more slowly than he would have thought possible. It was Friday and he had nothing on the books, nothing to occupy him except the tingle of unease as the clock inched closer towards 3:00 p.m. and letting his imagination run rampant about his new case. Without a name, Delancey could only guess it was one of the so-called “Big Five”–a mixture of companies, individuals, and families–who received top priority. He gave up trying to guess after a quarter of an hour combing the internet for the few names he knew. For all he knew, there were people even higher than the Big Five. Just thinking of the levels and layers of secrecy that were part of daily life at the Firm made his head ache.His clock was stuck at 11:30 a.m. and he suddenly couldn’t stand his office for another minute.
          Pulling on his coat, he slipped out of his office and down the silent elevator to the ground floor. He nodded at the security guard and pushed through the revolving door. The air that hit his face was damp from the rain the low clouds promised. Del flipped up his collar and shoved his hands in his pockets, striding down the street until he reached Copley Square. Dead leaves whirled in eddies created by the icy wind and he hunched his shoulders, staring up at the Romanesque front of Trinity Church with its stone facade, columns, and archways. The roof of the church was red and he couldn’t help but think of Budapest. It wasn’t Marcus or the new case that made him tense. It was those damn emails. He didn’t want to wait until three. He wanted to see her now so that he could wring her scrawny, little…

          “Hello, Del.”
          Fingers of cold crept down his coat collar and into his bones that had nothing to do with the biting wind. Del turned to face her.
          “Hello, Mina.”
          Mina Volkov, standing in front of him in Boston. He could hardly believe it. Her slight frame was swathed in a stylish black coat with a collar like a stovepipe that reached her chin. Her hair was black this time–he’d see it blonde, red, and even blue–and angled at her jaw, making her high cheekbones stand out. It also emphasized the stubborn jut of her pointed chin. Del grimaced.
          “This isn’t the Top of the Hub,” he said as she stared up at the church.
          “Obviously.” Her accent was barely noticeable compared to the first time they met.
          “Did you think I wouldn’t come?” he asked, resisting the urge to grab her shoulders and shake her.
          “I didn’t know.” She was still looking at the church and he wondered if she, too, was remembering their last night in Budapest.

          She was blonde then and her hair was long. They were just leaving the ballet and it was snowing and she was laughing. laughing at him, at his confused awe as the white flakes came drifting down. It was the first time he’d seen snow falling. If he didn’t know Mina, didn’t know the curve of her cheek, the set of her mouth, he would hardly have recognized her today. He could think of nothing else to say. The obvious questions–Why are you here? What’s this about?–were questions to which he already knew the answer. Budapest.

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The Firm

 

© Hannah Sears

© Hannah Sears


While you don’t need to read anything prior to this, I suggest you check out The Initiative first

          Delancey St. Clair hadn’t arrived at the law offices of Holler, Grim, Alberich & Mors later than 7:50 a.m. in five years. On his first day at Holler, Grim, Alberich, & Mors–known by employees as “the Firm”–he was ten minutes late and thought he was going to lose his job and breakfast during the earsplitting lecture from his superior. Since then, come blazing heat, deluge, or freak blizzard, he was on time. The newest receptionist smiled timidly at him, sliding through the elevator doors before they snapped shut. Del smiled back; she was cuter than the last one. He knew he made them nervous, always arriving before they opened the office. A silly tenet of office protocol, really. Some people never left, showering in the company gym’s locker-room and keeping three extra suits around. At the Firm, the lights were always on and the place was never entirely empty.
          He winked at the new girl as she settled herself behind the tall mahogany and glass desk. The walls across from her were covered in awards: Boston Business of the year, nine years running, the Beacon Award for Diversity and Inclusion, four years running, and countless other plaques and meticulously framed certificates–all polished to a mirror-like sheen. He wondered briefly when the cleaning staff came in; he never remembered seeing anyone. Shrugging it off as another of the Firm’s many mysteries, he continued down the thickly carpeted hallway to his office. In one of the offices across from his, several men in worker’s coveralls were ripping up the carpet. Del shook his head; they went through too much carpet here–especially with the new Executive Partner. He paused to admire his nameplate–Delancy St. Clair, Associate Partner–the black letters were still bold against the brass plate, barely a month old. Of course, it didn’t matter that there were dozens upon dozens of Associate Partners at the Firm, it was just another rung on the ladder.
          Del slid into the buttery-soft leather chair and started up his computer, drumming his fingers on his glass-topped desk. His law degree from Louisiana State University hung on one wall and a bookshelf of various law books lined the other. He had a few decorative items from his travels–some of his more unique cases often took him out of Boston–but no photos. No clutter, he thought, surveying the room. The third wall, behind him, was solid glass and if he glanced over his shoulder, he would see fog draping the buildings in Back Bay. It was his favorite time of year–when fall was flirting with winter and the trees still wore manes of riotous gold and flame.
          He skimmed his emails, consigning some to the trash and answering others. he’d wrapped up a tough case the week before–another “W” added to his record–and was grateful it had been a relatively slow week. He could use a few days to unwind. But the week was almost done and Del felt twitchy. He ran a hand through his dark hair–worn longer than most considered professional and certainly long enough to irritate his mother–and adjusted his silk tie. Eyeing his spam folder, he noticed it was fuller than usual and opened it, scanning through misspelled advertisements for porn sites masquerading as online dating services and phishing scams. As he reached the bottom, he saw three emails; each sent a day apart the week before from the same address. He didn’t recognize it–WilhmMurray17@aol.com–but the subject line sent his heart rocketing into his throat before sending it down to rest in the toes of his handmade Italian leather shoes. All three had a single word in the subject line: Budapest.
          Del’s mouse hovered over the first message, sent at 4:26 a.m. on October 23rd. He swiveled around to face the Boston skyline instead. The fog blurred the tops of the tallest building into the slate-colored sky and for a moment, instead of the towering glass peak of the John Hancock building, he saw the white spires and brick colored domes of Budapest’s Parliament building, and, just beyond it, the flash of the Danube. He swore suddenly, violently, and glanced over his shoulder at the thick door. Keep it together , he told himself. Turning back to the desk he rubbed his hand roughly across his chin before clicking on the first email.

D,

It’s Budapest all over again, but this time, you’re sleeping with the monsters.

M

          He exhaled slowly, it was more concise than he expected–not that it made much sense. He clicked the second.

I know who you work for. Bastard.

          This was was unsigned by even a single letter, but it was unmistakeable. After the first shock of seeing “Budapest” and realizing the sender could only be one person, Del felt calmer. He clicked the final email.

Top of the Hub, 3:00 p.m. November 8th.

          He felt chilled as he double checked the date; November 8th. Damn her , he thought. He clicked the reply button. The blinking cursor reminded him of an animated exclamation mark, silently demanding an answer.

M,
Lovely to hear from you. I can’t remember the last time we spoke–must have been at the ballet in Hungary. I apologize for my delayed response; I hope you haven’t made other plans. I will meet you at the Top of the Hub at 3:00 p.m. today.
Regards,
Delancey St. Clair

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Faded

Last Friday’s “Flash Fiction Challenge” from Chuck Wendig had us randomly choose two items and make sure we include them in our story. If you’re unfamiliar with these, Chuck Wendig puts a prompt up on his blog every Friday and you have a week to write (usually 1,000 words). I ended up with (1) a distant outpost and (2) an ancient tree. I haven’t written fantasy in a while because my professors will refuse to read it, I got out of the habit, and I realized my longer fantasy pieces some of my weakest characters. That said, I’m working on flexing my fantasy fingers again. 

         Khaleb pulled the dust-scarf back over his nose and mouth and recorked his water sack. The sloshing was louder than before, the sack now three quarters filled with air. His guide, Ano, waited patiently, only his dark eyes visible. Khaleb nodded and his silent guide pressed his horse forward, the black beast stepping delicately over the corroded road. There were cracks and fissures in the surface that he would have thought came from mere age and weathering–a natural assumption this deep in the Outlands. On the first day of their journey, Khaleb swore as his own horse staggered for the hundredth time on their first day. He damned the road and everyone who toiled on it, provoked by his guide’s reticence.
         “Age cannot touch the Draha,” Ano said tonelessly, invoking the ancient name for the road. “It was not the years that did this.”
         Khaleb had tried to get more information from Ano, but the man retreated back into unyielding silence and Khaleb was forced to bite his tongue as his horse tripped again. He had made the mistake of staring at the road as they travelled; convinced it was the heat that made the crevices in the rock shimmer and writhe. He had not realized how long he had been hypnotized by the gaps until Ano rapped him on the top of the head with the wooden handle of his riding crop.
         “Nearly there,” Ano said over his shoulder.
         Khaleb rubbed the knot on his head in remembrance and jerked his eyes back up from the road. He didn’t need another bruise from Ano and his overactive imagination. Almost there, he thought, and even his horse’s ears pricked up in interest. The Ghan-mar Outpost was a lost cause. He knew it and his superiors knew it. If it wasn’t for a minor misunderstanding between him and the General’s daughter, Khaleb never would have been in the Outlands seeking answers from the men at Ghan-mar. There had been no answer to messages for weeks. Thieves, rapists, and a murderer or two. Those were the Ghan-mar elite. The rest of the outpost was manned by deserters and debtors serving out their time in service to His Supreme Eminence in the most godsforsaken corner of this godforsaken country. Khaleb thought longingly of the tavern by the oasis, of soft flatbread dripping with honey, of salted olives, of chilled wine, and of the buxom serving girls. He had no desire to traipse across the desert finding out why the scum of the realm was acting, predictably, like scum. He should be back in Caireb with General Logan’s daughter on his arm. Or in his bed. Miss Audra Logan, the virtuous flower from the Homeland, transplanted in the desert by her distinguished father. He grinned to himself. Audra was neither virtuous, nor anything like the fragile Homeland flower her father proclaimed. Neither of these facts kept him from being packed off to the Outlands and Ghan-mar on this godsdamned mission.
         Ano let out a wordless cry and his horse squealed, prancing backwards and nearly knocking Khaleb out of the saddle.
         “What in the name of–” Khaleb broke off as he saw what had startled the guide and his horse.
         A gnarled tree was sprouting out of the center of the road–in a place where grass could not even grow, in the middle of a sunbaked desert. Khaleb stared in awe at the tree, its trunk was wider than he could wrap his arms around and the twisting branches stabbed towards the lidless burning eye above them. The wood was gray and looked brittle but there were great round fruits hanging from the branches. He squinted against the heat haze and realized as his stomach heaved, that there were eyes staring back at him from bloated skulls. Not eyes–empty sockets that gazed blackly at him, still weeping tears of dried blood. Ano was praying breathlessly and if Khaleb hadn’t been so desperate to conserve what little water was in his body, he would have vomited. He swallowed against the bile in his throat and tore his eyes away from the faces, digging his heels into his horse until the beast took a few reluctant steps forward. He could see the hunched sand-colored outpost in the distance, blurred by the heat. There were stakes driven into the ground beside the road every twenty paces. The headless corpses slouched on their poles, grotesque sentries.
         “Who did this?” Khaleb demanded turning towards Ano. He could see the whites of his companion’s eyes in his dark face. “What barbarism is this?”
         “We’ll never escape,” Ano mumbled. “We have come too far, too far now.”
         “Escape? Escape what?” Khaleb whirled around, scanning the horizon.          There was nothing but the desiccated corpses and the unnatural tree.
         “They should not have built it here. We told them, when they first came, ‘build no house of man in the Greylands.’ We told them, ‘it is forbidden.’”
         “The Greylands?” Khaleb knew the phrase from a cursory reading of badly translated folk stories, he had never heard anyone use it in reference to a real place.
         Ano nodded, unable to tear his eyes from the faces in the tree. “It is from the Greylands that they come. The Faded Ones.”
         “The who?” Khaleb felt a modicum of relief. If Ano was babbling about ghost stories and this was all some superstitious nonsense, then he could go back to his superiors, tell them that the crazies in Ghan-mar finally offed each other and spend the rest of the evening playing the perfect gentleman to that minx Audra.
         “The Faded Ones,” Ano’s voice was barely above a whisper. “They come from the cracks that run between realms. They do not like those that do not respect their ways. That travel the Draha. That think they can tame these lands.
         “Ano, those stories are folklore.”
         Ano looked at him blankly, eyes wide.
         Khaleb repeated, “They’re just stories.”
         Ano shook his head. “They are coming.”
         As Ano spoke, a high keening wail rose. It sounded at first like the cry of a hawk but Khaleb knew it was coming from the heads on the tree. Khaleb drove his heels into his horse’s flanks and wrenched the animal’s head around. He didn’t care if Ano followed, didn’t care that he did not know the way back through the desert, that the road could well be covered by sand. He did not know how the heads could be wailing if their bloated tongues made no movement, but he lay on his stallion’s neck and urged the animal on with his spurs and his crop and his voice. The dirge filled his ears and he yelled to drown it out. He could hear Ano screaming and the dull thud of his horse’s hooves as the guide followed. Something splashed against his face and he tasted salt and rust. Ano was not screaming any longer.
         Khaleb closed his eyes as a hot wind rose in front of him, driving sand into his exposed hands and eyes like shards of glass. His horse balked and he opened his eyes, there was nothing. He dug in his heels and the horse reared, sending him to the ground before he could scramble for a better grip. He saw its dark tail fan out as the frightened beast disappeared in a cloud of powdery dust. He couldn’t breathe. Sand coated his tongue and his side where Ano’s blood clung to his robes. He refused to look back, trying to stand; he fell onto his hands and knees, trembling legs refusing to hold his body. He felt dizzy, there was a sharp pain in his side and he could not catch his breath. He stared at his hands on the road, at the silver-black fissures. There was a sound like a wind chime or pieces of glass being shaken in a dustpan.
         He looked to the side and saw a column of sand twirling slowly beside the road. It sparkled in the overpowering sun and he could not help but stare at it as it revolved. It spun faster and faster until it coalesced into a shape. The hooded figure shook once with a little shiver like a cat and sand fell from it like water. Khaleb was rooted to the road. He tried to force himself to crawl but, when he looked at his hands again, he saw that they had disappeared past the wrist, held in the vice of one of the gleaming cracks. The figure knelt beside him and he looked into its face. The face reminded him of the statues on the pagan temples in Caireb, their carven features indistinct, blurred by wind and scoured by sand. It reached out a hand the color of sun-bleached bone and touched his cheek. Its fingers burned like live coals and he tried to pull away. The other hand lifted to his face. It gripped his skull between its hands and pulled.

Time and Tide

Image

Photo © David Stewart

 

She waited impatiently. The sun was almost at the apex. Reaching out, she ran her fingers along the surface of the old tarnished bell.

“The flowers look lovely this year,” he said.

She gasped and turned. He looked like one of the tour guides, but their clothes were costume and his were real. The wind blew and the bell chimed softly. He wound his fingers through hers.

“I’ve missed you, love,” he said.

He returned for twelve hours once a year on this, the anniversary of his death. This wasn’t how they had planned eternity together, but it was enough.

Cerulean Rider

It’s been a while since a “normal” Chuck Wendig Friday Flash Fiction Challenge. In the previous weeks, it was a collaborative story. While a lot of fun, it’s nice to be able to write a piece all the way through. This week it was back to the whim of the dice–2 columns of 20 words. Roll the dice and one word from each column becomes your title. Thanks to Sufjan Stevens and this song, as well as a Lord of the Rings poster, for some much needed inspiration

         Ostan stood atop the tower, feeling the marble ledge bite into his hands. The winds whipped the black clouds into a writhing, lightning-veined morass. They smelled dry with the barest hint of decay. Like cracked bones spewing marrow into the seething air. He shuddered as the fingers of charged air caressed his cheek. It did not matter that he was right. That the masters who called him charlatan and liar even now cowered in the depths of Durra’dûn’s deepest, dankest cellars. He clutched the stone battlement tightly as a bolt of lightning clawed its way through the clouds and gouged the earth. He heard the terrified whinnies of one of the many herds of wild horses that wheeled across the burning, windswept plains around Durra’dûn.
         “Ostan! What madness holds you? Come down from there, boy!”
         Ostan turned and saw that the doorway to the top of the tower was open. He could faintly see a grave-pale face in the gloom. Rilog, his former mentor and Master of the Book. Ostan felt the hair rise on his arms and neck as lightning opened another gaping wound in the earth, barely missing the tower.
         “No madness, Rilog. Or perhaps the same madness that foretold this time would come.” Ostan didn’t know if Rilog could hear him over the howling wind. The wind and the other things now howling in the gathering darkness.
         “The hour is late for pride, boy,” Rilog shouted back. “Come down, Ostan.”
         “The hour is long past for anything but death, Rilog. Go back to your Book, to your cowering greybeards, to your wealth of precious knowledge. Go back to where it is safe.”
         As if waiting for his words, the heavens opened and rain began to fall, soaking Ostan’s clothes within moments and plastering his dark, shoulder-length hair to his face. The rain felt especially cold on his bare cheeks. The beard he had begun to grow in anticipation of his anointing as a Master of Durra’dûn was newly shorn.
         “We did not bring this darkness down, boy,” Rilog’s voice wavered as he clambered up the steps and stood shivering in the doorway, seeking shelter from the whipping rain.
         “You did nothing to stop it, Rilog.” Once Ostan would have suffered the lash or even the hot brand for referring to his mentor without the honorary title of Master. He smiled grimly at the thought.
         “There may still be time. Ostan, please,” Rilog’s tone grew desperate. “They will listen to you now. They must.”
         Ostan turned fully to face Rilog for the first time. The older man was hunched against the wall, his cheeks sagging above his straggling beard. The rain had soaked his thinning white hair to his head and his baldness glinted in the unnatural, charged light. Ostan began to laugh, leaning back against the black marble ledge for support. He could see the whites of Rilog’s eyes show as he cowered back into the doorway. Perhaps I have gone mad, Ostan thought. The world has, why not I?
         “They did not listen when they had the chance and now that the world crumbles you say they will listen? No, Rilog, the time of the Masters is at an end. Perhaps the time for this entire land has reached its final doom. Go back with the other rodents and cower, Rilog. If these are to be my last breaths I do not wish to waste any more upon you.” Ostan did not wait to hear Rilog’s retreating footsteps as he turned back to the landscape before him.
         The Tower of Durra’dûr was the tallest structure in the Plains of Wildemar, the masters said it was the mightiest edifice created by man, dwarfed only by the ancient, jagged peaks of the Mordir mountains. Perhaps they were right. In any case, it gave Ostan an unobstructed view of the desecration of the land as far as his eyes could see. Fires still burned along the plain despite the icy rain and lit the horizon with a false dawn. He looked up again to the roiling clouds. His last night on earth and the stars were forever hidden from his vision. He would have liked a last glimpse of those silver lights. The study of the stars was what lured him into the cadre of the masters. Since the age of seven, he toiled, enduring torment and testing. Eighteen years of rising steadily through the ranks. He would have been one of the youngest in the history of the Order to receive his ring and cowl.
         He had studied the portents in the stars, had seen the minor shifts, the smallest deviations, and knew what they foretold. Doom for men and their Age of Light. But he was still an apprentice and the Masters dismissed his knowledge and his fears. They did not see what was so obvious to his eyes. The day he was to receive his ring and cowl, he demanded again that they heed his words as time was drawing short. They did not listen; they threatened to keep him an apprentice for another year, for five years, for ten. He drew his silver belt knife, the mark of an apprentice’s final year, and shaved the beard from his chin in defiance, casting away the ring and the hood.
         A horrendous crack tore his mind from his memories and he recoiled, half expecting Durra’dûr to split beneath his feet and swallow him in its black marbled maw. Instead, a brilliant light flashed down from the heavens. Cerulean shot through with silver. It blinded him and there was a noise like the wailing of a thousand mourners. He squinted up at the sky. Wheeling above him was his favorite constellation as a boy, a gathering of stars that resembled a man a-horse. The Rider, it was called. The brightest star in the constellation was pulsing blue and sterling.
         Ostan closed his eyes as the light washed over him. It was the last light before all went dark.

1,000 Word Story in V Parts, Part V

Chuck Wendig‘s crazed version of “Telephone” in story form is finally at an end. The concept is that each person writes 200 words of a story and that same story is picked up by another writer and so on and so forth until we reached 1,000 words. I’ve been part of five stories over these past five weeks and it’s been great fun seeing how the stories have developed and morphed from the originals. I concluded a story by Adrienne, j, Smoph, and Joyce. You can read it below. It was previously untitled, but I’m going to call it “The Hunted.”

The Hunted

Part 1 of 5 (Adrienne)

The trio looked at the fence in front of them. It was a simple chain link, but it had to be about ten feet high, and the razor wire on top added another two feet. He was expecting this, but he was not expecting to have two girls on his coat tails. He could take care of himself, now he was pretty sure they would all die.

Except for his heavy breathing and the muffled sobs from the girls, it was silent. The setting sun was hidden by an ominous sky, promising rain at any moment. He knew what happened when the rain came, so he needed to move fast. He surveyed the barrier one more time, but froze as the wind brought an all too familiar smell. He turned to face the direction they were running from. The trees edging the clearing began to sway as the wind picked up. He could hear the soft pattering of rain on the leaves. The air rushed out of his lungs as the storm descended upon them, bringing with it more than just wind and rain. The three had to move now or accept certain death.

They were coming.

Part 2 of 5 (j)

He picked up one of the girls and hung her on the fence as high as he could reach. Then he did the same with the other. Knowing what was coming, he had to take a steadying breath before he started up. A lost moment was better than panic.

At the top, he threw his coat over the razor wire. It would help, a little.

He flipped himself over the fence. He’d taken some damage but it wouldn’t kill him. For a moment, he thought about leaving the girls. The things coming out of the woods would find the girls first, give him a bigger head start.

Shit. When had he gone soft?

He hung himself back over the fence. The wind tore into him but it was that or what was left of his soul.

He stayed as still as possible while the girls climbed over him. They were slow. The sun was probably already down but it was hard to tell with the storm moving in.

Where were they? Shouldn’t the damn things be on top of them already?

Finally, the girls were over the top.

He pulled himself off, ignoring what he left behind. Then he dropped down and pulled the girls off the fence.

Part 3 of 5 (Smoph)

What they had to do was find shelter, and fast. He didn’t fancy being out in inclement weather with these young girls and they were better off hidden from their pursuers. He could see a barn, edges blurred in the falling dark. Shelter and a hayloft to hide in were too appealing to pass up.

He set off at a slow jog, the girls struggling to keep pace, their tired feet dragging in the dirt. He made them go around the barn, through a stand of trees behind, and in through a smaller back entrance with a door that squeaked traitorously.

They waited until it was dark before slowly edging the huge barn doors closed. With a penlight that grew ever weaker, he showed them the way up to the hayloft, tucked them into some canvas and took watch. He would wake one to take his place so he could catch a few hours later. As a precaution, he pulled up the ladder.

An urgent tug on his arm and he was sitting bolt upright, straight from sleep. Wide blue eyes looked to him out of a terrified face. Beyond her, there was the squeal of a door on its hinges. Their hiding place had been discovered.

Part 4 of 5 (Joyce)

“Show yourself.” The rancher’s voice was deep and menacing. “I know you’re in here. I can smell you.”

“Please,” the man said quietly, as he slid the ladder down. “I have children with me. We only seek shelter.”

He sent the girls down the ladder; both were crying. Once he climbed down, he pushed the girls behind him. He hoped he would be killed first. He could not bear to witness the murder of innocents.

“I know who you are,” the rancher said. “You are the ones being hunted. Do you know what would be done to me if it became known I harbored such as you?”

The man knew all too well.

“I know they’re close,” the man began. “But, if we move quickly, we can distance ourselves from you. Or, let the young ones go and I will remain. When they come, they will decorate you as a hero.”

Both girls wrapped their arms around the man’s legs tightly, tears streaming down their faces.

The rancher stepped back out of the doorway, motioning for them all to go. The death of these humans would not be on his conscience.

Part 5 of 5 (me)

The man hoisted the smaller girl onto his back. The extra weight wouldn’t make their flight any easier, but he couldn’t leave them now. He didn’t look back. The wet ground sucked at his feet and he knew his grip hurt the older girl’s arm as he wrenched her along.

Too slow. Much too slow. Even if the rancher distracted them. If he was alone he’d swarm up a tree. If he had to go down, he’d take some of them with him.

He heard them. When prey was close, the Outworlders began to thrum. An eerie sound somewhere between the purr of an engine and the reverberations of bass. Two things he barely remembered.

“Please,” the girl holding his hand begged. “Please.”

He scanned the terrain. A bolt of blue light lit the sky illuminated their path. Their pursuers grew louder. He saw a rocky outcropping to his left.

“There,” he said. “Hide there.”

He thrust the smaller girl at her and watched long enough to see them duck into a crevasse. He lifted his leaden feet and broke into a shambling sprint. A bit farther and the girls wouldn’t hear his screams.

It was enough.