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The Witch’s Reflection

By Joe Mankowski

 

Eva sat on her bedroom floor. There were strands of hair and clumps of pocket lint rubbed into the purple carpet. Odd foot odors spotted different sections, but Eva slept on it all the same.

There was a bed in the corner that was perfectly comfy. A black duvet was bundled up and shoved aside with pillows. Eva typically pulled them onto the floor when she was tired. Her dreams haunted her when she slept in bed.

Char, her roommate’s rotund gray cat, took to occupying the vacant mattress. He never seemed to mind the heavy metal music that was blasting out of Eva’s stereo.

There were posters taped to the walls of her room. All of them were of bands she had seen perform: The Blink, Cold Grip, and Hellfire. They weren’t particularly good. Hellfire was a local band that only performed in abandoned warehouses around Ash Falls, but her friend Attison was their drummer.

“Could you turn that shit down?” called her roommate, Taylor, from the hallway.

Eva rolled her eyes. She didn’t answer, but returned her attention back towards the spellbooks that surrounded her.

The door to her bedroom opened. “Eva, did you hear me?” Taylor asked.

“What?” Eva said, as Char lifted his head for a brief moment.

“Turn your music down. It’s shaking the walls to our apartment. I have a pounding headache.”

“Oh.” Eva reached for the dial on her speaker and adjusted the volume.

“Thanks.” Taylor eyed the floor. “What are you studying?”

“Sanskrit and Latin,” Eva said. “Term paper is due next week.”

“Sounds boring. Want to go get a beer at O’Donnell’s?”

Eva started scribbling words into a spiral notebook. Her hair fell over her face and obscured her view of Taylor. A moment later she was alone again. She reached for the dial on her speaker, and turned the volume up. Loud music helped her concentrate – the louder, the better. Eva wished Taylor would stop trying to be her friend. She just needed someone to split the rent. Char watched her with his blue eyes.

When Eva looked back at the old book in her lap, the pages were blank. The book had disenchanted itself while in the presence of Taylor – a mundai – or more plainly, a non-witch.

Had the spellbook been about blood-magic, Eva would have locked her door. Blood-magic was dangerous, and usually involved a lot of taboo rituals. Taylor would call the cops if she saw Eva skinning an animal and drawing symbols onto the floor with its organs. Breaking a plant-based disenchantment charm however, was an easy remedy.. Eva walked to her windowsill and plucked a few stems of wild grass that had been growing in a terracotta pot. On her desk was a shoebox full of dried flowers. Using the wild grass, she tied some betony and hawthorne together, and placed it in the middle of the book.

“Reveal yourself,” she commanded.

Brown ink rose up onto the pages of the spellbook. Everything was written in sanskrit.

“In English,” Eva added.

The words began to change. Most spellbooks were adaptive, but some had spells that were too old to translate. That was why Eva had Latin and Sanskrit textbooks from a library surrounding her. She wasn’t in school. She never even applied. It was just a simple lie that kept Taylor from prying.

Eva had been a witch her entire life. Every day of her existence had been a lie to someone. The covenant she had been born into had lived in Ash Falls since the town’s beginning; her mother had been a witch, her grandmother had been a witch and so on. The ability to use magic was passed from mother to daughter. This wasn’t only because nature made it so, but because if a boy was born from a witch in their covenant, that child was sacrificed under a harvest moon with the man who helped in the act of procreation. Not all magic communities followed that rule, but for Eva it had been a normal ritual to witness growing up.

Char yawned on Eva’s bed. He stretched his forepaws forward while remaining on his belly. Eva glanced at the clock. It was nearing midnight.

Her book had repopulated itself with texts and diagrams. There were scrawled notes in the margins from other witches who had possessed the spellbook before her. She didn’t use magic through nature often, but the spell she had been preparing for weeks required the room to be purified, no, it needed to be washed free of any malicious spirits. Magic of any kind was like a magnet to ghosts, and if there was a chance to interfere with the spell, they would. Eva knew a spell like this would attract dozens of them.

“Books are written memories, and memories fuel the existence of restless spirits. To open a book is to invite their malice in,” warned Eva’s mother when first teaching her the art of witchcraft.

Eva flipped through the pages until she found the spell she needed. The incantation was easy enough, but the floral totem was tedious. Eva scanned the list; burnt rose stems with thorns intact, dried willow leaves, mint, three fresh dandelions, and a base of betony.

Relief lowered her shoulders. She had all the ingredients. The real spell Eva hoped to complete required a storm at night on the twenty-ninth day of a calendar month.

“Can I borrow your mirror?” Taylor asked while stepping into the room. “I hate the lighting in our bathroom. It makes me look so pasty.”

Eva stood faster than she intended. “You can’t.”

“Can’t?” Taylor looked around. “Where is it anyway?”

“It broke the other day.”

“How?” Taylor was already losing interest. Her attention had gone to the wrinkles in her skirt.

“The wind.”

Taylor sighed. “Stupid wind. Anyway, are you coming?”

“No.”

“Why not?” She looked at Eva’s floor. “You need to take a study break. You haven’t left this room for days. We can throw a few beers back, tease the bartender for a few free shots, and then choke down some pizza from Rodolfo’s.”

“I can’t.”

“You’ll be back just after midnight.”

“Let’s go tomorrow.”

Taylor crossed her arms. “But I’m ready now.”

“Well I’m not, and I have to -” Eva watched as Taylor spotted the mirror hidden under a bath towel.

“Oh my shit, Eva, you liar. Your mirror is right here.” Taylor reached out to grab it.

“STOP!” Eva screamed. “GET OUT! DON’T TOUCH IT! GET OUT NOW!”

Taylor retracted her hand. Her face was flushed with surprise and anger. “It’s just a mirror you schizo-bitch, you know that right?”

“Then buy your own!” Eva shoved her out and slammed the bedroom door.

Weeks of work had nearly been ruined. All of her research, all of her preparation. Taylor had nearly undone all of it by allowing the mirror to reflect the room. For a moment Eva considered apologizing.

“Give me my fucking cat back!”

Eva ruled against apologizing. “Char’s not your cat, he’s a stray you feed leftovers to.”

“Exactly. My Leftovers.”

Eva turned her music up as loud as her speakers would allow and began head-banging to the music and mouthing the lyrics while Taylor pounded on the door.

Her hair became a knotted mess and she was almost too dizzy to stand by the time Taylor gave up. The apartment door slammed shut.

“Sorry, Char,” Eva said. “I know you don’t like domestic disputes over kitten custody.”

Char rolled onto his back and stared at her. Eva smiled for what felt like the first time in days and rubbed his belly. She could feel him purring. His eyes slowly closed. The only time she ever heard him purr this loud was for food.

There was a cheap clock on her desk that displayed the time: Eleven-eleven. Her spell had to happen in the final thirty minutes of the last hour of the day, and preferably when the rain was falling at its hardest.

Eva pushed open her bedroom window. It was barely drizzling. She checked her phone. There was supposedly a one-hundred-percent chance of heavy rain happening at that very moment. Scoffing with frustration, Eva went back to her spellbook. The print had vanished.

The plant charm had been wasted. She hexed Taylor with her thoughts, and went back to her box of dried flowers. She only had three stems of dried betony left, which was needed to create a base for the purifying floral totem. There was no way for her to reveal the pages again.

“Okay, think,” Eva said to herself. “Burnt rose stems with thorns intact, dried willow leaves.” She paused to recall what else had been listed. Her eyes closed. “Three fresh dandelions, and a base of betony.”

Turning to the shoebox on her desk and the potted plants on her windowsill, Eva began weaving and tying the totem together until it was a thick cord of plant. The rain outside started to fall harder. A low rumble of thunder sounded in the distance.

Once the totem was complete, she grabbed a black candle and a lighter.

Char meowed at her.

“All right, come on,” Eva said to him while opening up the bedroom door.

Char slid off her bed and landed with a flop. Eva swore the cat was immortal and had long since used up his nine lives because he was the most uncoordinated cat she’d ever seen. She watched as he waddled out of the room, expecting to be fed.

“I’ll be out soon,” she promised, and locked herself in.

Char protested outside. He tried to paw at her from the space between the door. Eva ignored him and placed the black candle in the center of the room. She lit the wick with her lighter. “Spiritus autem lux,” she said firmly. “Adiuva me.” The candle sparked and began burning blue.

Taking the floral totem, Eva held the end of it over the open flame until it, too, was on fire. “Terra mater, protegat hunc locum.” She extinguished the flames with her breath. The totem smoked white. Eva walked around her room repeating the incantation ‘Removere mala spirituum.’ She wafted smoke into the corners of the room and the lines that joined the walls to the floor and ceiling. Again and again she said the incantation with a firm and steady voice. Evil spirits had the power to take control of spells if they weren’t banished from the room.

Eva rested the smoldering totem on a crystal ashtray near her nightstand. The rain hastened. She double-checked the lock on her bedroom door and turned off her stereo. Concentrating was crucial from this point forward. Eva turned off her bedroom light and tossed all but one of her books onto her bed – her family’s grimoire.

The brown leather cover was weathered and cracked. Its clasp was a simple iron buckle. A gold circle was painted faintly on the front. Eva wasn’t sure how many generations the grimoire had served, only that it contained every spell mastered by her bloodline. If one witch can, then so can all.

Eva rolled up her purple carpet. Chalk dust was smudged against the hardwood flooring beneath.

She placed her mirror and the towel that covered it against the back of her door. Eva propped it up so that it faced into her room. The clock on her desk displayed a-quarter-to-midnight. Thunder announced the storm’s arrival. Eva moved about her room to light twelve scentless white candles.

With a piece of chalk, she drew a circle around the mirror. Then a second circle around the grimoire. Reaching under her bed for another shoebox, Eva removed her athame ceremonial blade, a rat’s rib bone, and a jar of sparrow hearts. She placed them between the mirror and spellbook.

“A morte donum,” Eva said, she then circled the rib and hearts with chalk.

Standing for only a moment, Eva removed the towel from her mirror. For the first time in weeks, the glass could reflect something other than what covered it. It was a cheap full-body mirror with a black plastic frame and warped reflecting plexiglass. She had purchased it from a garage sale for six crumpled dollars.

Eva stepped back and studied her reflection. Her skin had paled over the autumn months. There were dark moons beneath her eyes from the recent lack of sleep. The right side of her head, which was usually shaved, had finally started growing back. The rest of her hair fell in long, dark, curls. The coffee stains and holes in her t-shirt didn’t lend well to the graphic design, but it was too comfy to get rid of. Eva felt sorry for her reflection. She returned to the other side of her book and sat down with her chalk.

“Pretium sanguinis.” She said. Then with her athame, she pricked her thumb. Blood dripped onto the cover of her grimoire. “Reveal yourself,” she commanded, and when she opened the book, words of red ink were scrawled across hundreds of pages. The print was small and slanted, but never quite the same. Each discovery made by her great-and-greater grandmothers were memorialized right before her eyes.

Eva pulled on a ribbon in the book and turned to a page she had previously marked; the spell of Spiorad Gloine.

She locked herself into the spell by drawing a final circle around herself. Lightning cracked through the sky outside. The wind was howling. Eva could hear the rain splattering against her window screen. She looked at the incantation and read, “Et nos unum sumus.” Her reflection stared back.

“Illud te non arbitror.” Eva cut her left palm using the athame, and balled her hand into a fist.

“Et nos unum sumus,” she said again, but with her eyes closed this time.

“Illud te non arbitror.” Opening her hand, Eva placed a handprint of blood beside the jar of hearts. For a third time she repeated the incantation while cutting her right palm and placing her other handprint beside the rat bone.

“Hic, hic, hic,” she commanded her reflection. “Invenient me. Invenient me.”

The thunder answered her.

“Hac, hac, hac!” Eva hollered. “Invenient me. Invenient me.”

There was a flash in her mirror.

“Here, here, here!” the reflection answered. “Find me. Find me.”

The hand prints on the floor vanished as Eva had hoped.

She sat perfectly still for a moment. Nothing happened. Eva feared the spell didn’t work. Her and her reflection were too in sync. She glanced back down at her grimoire. She worried she had missed a step, or skipped an ingredient. Were the sparrow hearts supposed to be out of the jar? Had the rat bone been used in a spell already? The alchemy shop down the street had sold her tampered ingredients before.

Eva looked at her reflection again as it looked back at her. Suddenly, her reflection blinked of its own accord. A faint smile quivered in the corner of its lips – but maybe she too was smiling. Eva forced herself to frown. Her reflection smiled wider. Then she watched as her reflection repeated the same ritual she had just completed. It was like watching a video of herself on a very narrow television.

When the reflection placed its bleeding left hand on its floor in the mirror, a second handprint appeared before Eva. This time the fingers pointed towards her instead of away. Then the right handprint appeared. The reflection chanted the incantation three times and then sat perfectly still. Together they inhaled and exhaled.

“Can you hear me?” Eva asked it.

Her reflection nodded.

“Can you speak?” Eva slowly began to stand.

“Yes,” her reflection answered.

Eva felt herself laugh with relief. It had worked. She had created a perfect copy of herself.

“You are Eva?” her reflection asked.

“You are too,” Eva answered. She motioned for her reflection to join her. “Can you step through the mirror?”

Her reflection tilted its head as if trying to understand the question.

Conceptually it was an odd thought to even Eva, but the handprints had manifested in the real world. Eva also noted that the chalk rings could not be disturbed until after midnight. If they were smudged or broken the spell would shatter instead of seal. “Careful!” she told her reflection as it attempted to step through the frame of the mirror.

First came a foot, then two hands curled around the edges of the mirror. Eva watched as her reflection’s left leg followed. “Careful, be careful,” her reflection mumbled. She too was watching the chalk rings as she bowed through the portal. The reflecting glass rippled like water, distorting Eva’s reflection until it passed through to her side.

“Holy shit!” Eva laughed. “I did it!” She started fumbling with her words. Her fingers laced themselves and twisted about. “How do you feel, are you okay, do you feel… do you feel sick or anything?”

Eva was carefully circling her creation, while her newly arisen twin studied itself from head-to-toe.

“Wow!” the reflection gasped. “It’s all different.”

“What is?”

“Your room. Our room.”

“Different?” Eva asked while staring at the empty room reflected in her mirror.

“The walls in my room are green,” her reflection answered. “I have different furniture.”

Eva began to worry again that something was wrong. She was staring at the room through the mirror and it was identical to her own. There were no green walls. The bed and desk looked identical to her own.

“Are you sure you’re feeling okay?” Eva asked. “Do you feel dizzy?”

“No,” her reflection answered.

“What’s the color of our shirts?”

“Maroon.”

Eva nodded with relief. Her reflection was seeing and naming colors as they were. The spell was perfect. Eva had created a clone of herself – someone to work a full-time job so she wouldn’t have to split the rent with Taylor. She had someone to socialize, someone to get groceries, to get a degree in something mundane like history. And Eva, the genius that she was, could study her grimoire in peace. She could spend all day mastering complex spells that hadn’t been done in hundreds of years. She could become the most powerful witch in Ash Falls. She could become the head of her covenant.

“You have to pass through to see the difference,” said Eva’s reflection.

“See what?”

“You don’t believe me that my room is different.”

Eva guessed her reflection had caught on to her disbelief.

“You see a reflection of you room. I did too, but the other side is different.”

Eva’s curiosity led her out of her own spell ring.

“Careful, be careful,” her reflection cautioned.

Eva stepped into the ring drawn around her bedroom mirror. She braced herself against the plastic frame and plunged her head into the mirror. It felt as if she’d splashed her face with warm sparkling water. When she opened her eyes again, she only saw a copy of her own room. Her head floated out of an identical mirror, propped up against an identical bedroom door. The only difference was that there was no storm outside the copy of her bedroom window. The sky was a veil of black. It lacked dimension and silhouettes.

Something shoved her from behind. Eva lost her balance and fell into the reflection of her room. She twisted around on the floor to see her reflection staring at her with a smug grin. “I told you to be careful.”

“Stop!” Eva yelled, but it was too late. She watched as her reflection slid a foot over the chalk line. There was a bright flash of blue light, and an opaque glaze spread over the mirror.

Eva leapt to her feet and raced towards it. Her hands slammed against the glass, but it had become as thick as stone. The reflection laughed and shook its head. Her voice sounded muffled through the solid barrier. “What did you do wrong?” she mused while reaching for Eva’s grimoire.

While trying to suppress her panic, Eva reached for the desk chair in the reflection’s room. She swung it at the mirror, but it broke without cracking the barrier.

“Sorry, Eva, but you opened up a one-way door. You have to be invited back,” her reflection cooed.

“Why are you doing this?” Eva began to sob.

The reflection ignored her. Eva watched as it walked towards the nightstand, picked up the earth totem and smelled it.

“You forgot mint,” the reflection laughed. Eva watched as she returned to the mirror. The clock on her desk switched to midnight.

“Let me out!” Eva screamed. “Please, let me out!”

It was hopeless. She was screaming at herself in a mirror. A real mirror that no longer worked as a portal. Her spell was broken. The room around her dissolved into an empty abyss. She was stuck there, on the wrong side without a way to escape.

Rodolfo’s Pizzeria

by Joe Mankowski

 

Aaron looked out the front window of Rodolfo’s Pizzeria. He could see the lights to Barry’s Diner across the street turning off. It was late, and in Ash Falls, that meant only the weirdos would be out looking for food.

Aaron turned his attention to a clock decorated by tacky, plastic grape vines. It was nearly eleven. He stared at the minute hand with disdain. Some knock-off Pavarotti album was playing over the speakers. He wished Maurice would turn it off after normal business hours. None of the timberworkers, drug addicts, or gangly teens gave a crap about Rodolfo’s aesthetic.

The pizzeria was a counter-top dive bar with a false liquor license on a good day. It had white floor tiles, stained by blotches of marinara sauce and a glass display case for the ‘fresh’ pies. There were two sets of plastic lawn furniture covered in parmesan cheese and a few stools to the right of the cash register for seating. It was a wonder anyone ever came in. The slices were over-priced and often reheated. Aaron stayed because Maurice paid him under the table and gave him hours that worked around his college schedule – even though Aaron hadn’t taken a class in two semesters.

The store phone rang.

“Yeah?” Aaron said.

“I can see you on the camera, Ron. Quit leaning on the counter,” snapped Maurice through the phone. “Look busy. Start mopping the floors or something.”

“I’m waiting for a Mister Don Calriss to pick up his pizza order,” Aaron said as he checked the order slip and pizza box beside the register. The pizza was already cold.

“Don’s a regular. He can wait.” There was an audible shuffling of papers. “I can’t give you a raise if you don’t earn it.” The line went dead.

The threat of not getting a raise nearly made Aaron laugh. He had worked cashier for three years now, and only received a ten-cent raise after working his first year for the scumbag. Aaron didn’t put the phone back on its station. The machine buzzed monotonously. If Maurice wanted to criticize his work ethic again, he’d have to leave his broom closet of an office.

Aaron stared out the front window of the shop again. He watched a few cars roll by. Barry’s Diner was completely dark. Only the red ‘Closed’ sign was visible. A street lamp flickered. When he looked back at the clock, it was five-past-eleven. Swearing under his breath, Aaron pushed his way through the kitchen door to fill the mop bucket.

Two days worth of dishes were sitting in the kitchen sink. The drain had been clogged since the Friday before last. The plumbing was backed up to the point wherein the piping was secreting black liquid through the faucets. Flour and cheese were smeared on the floor. Two flies buzzed around a ball of dough Maurice had forgotten about.

Beneath the sink was a yellow mop bucket. The smell of it up close was a nauseating concoction of spoiled dairy and ammonia. Beside the bucket was a tub of bleach. Aaron tipped the rest of it in.

“Maurice, we’re out of bleach!” he shouted.

There was a disgruntled sound from the office attached to the kitchen. Aaron could hear his boss struggling to stand under his own weight. “What was that?” Maurice said.

“There’s no more bleach.”

The owner of Rodolfo’s stared at the empty can for a moment. “Buy more.”

“Everything’s closed.”

“Then pick some up tomorrow on your way in. Take some cash out of the drawer, and bring me a receipt.”

Maurice waddled back into his office and slammed the door. Why don’t you do something other than sweat in your swivel chair you lard, thought Aaron. He pushed the mop bucket towards a hoseline and turned the water on. There was a gurgling sound of fluid being backed up. Aaron swore again and reached for the the mop, which was caked in flour.

As he lifted it, a family of worms dropped onto the floor. They were pale, thick, and white with a waxy texture. They flopped and squirmed, but Aaron paid no attention to them. The were all over the kitchen.

Finally, the hoseline began to dribble water.

The bell to the front door chimed.

“Door!” Maurice called from his office.

“I’m going,” Aaron said. He left the water running, assuming if he took long enough the bucket would overflow and do half his job cleaning the floor.

Aaron approached the counter. “Welcome to Rodolfos,” he said.

Hi’yah. Ordered a meat-lovers.”

“You’re Mister Calriss?” Aaron thought the man looked familiar, perhaps he was a Tuesday regular – the one day Aaron didn’t work. Either way, the guest looked sickly, like an addict, but still well fed. Aaron assumed the man had ordered the pie for only himself. He noticed the guest scratching at some hives on his neck. Tapeworm, thought Aaron, or maybe an infection.

“Ay’yuh,” said the guest. He tossed a crumpled twenty-dollar bill onto the counter.

“It’s twenty-six ninety-nine.”

Mister Calriss snorted. “Is Maurice in?”

“No,” Aaron lied. He was told to always lie.

The man squinted for a second and lifted his nose a little as he inhaled a bit too much. Aaron had the awkward sensation the man was trying to smell him. “You jus’ tell ‘im I stopped by. Don’t forget. Don Calriss came in tuh see ‘im.”

“Sure.”

Mister Calriss dropped another crumpled twenty onto the counter. Aaron punched the buttons on his register and gave the guy his change.

“This pizza is stone cold, ya know.”

“The order was for an eight o’clock pick up,” Aaron replied.

He grunted again. “Can ya warm it up for me?”

“The ovens are off. We’re closing.”

Mister Calriss sneered out of the corner of his mouth but said no more and left. A minute or so after, Maurice appeared. He was holding a brown leather bowling bag.

“I tried calling you from my office, but the line was dead.”

Aaron picked up the phone and gave it a shake. “Cord must be loose.”

“How much did you charge Don?”

“Twenty-Six,” Aaron said.

“And he paid it?”

Aaron nodded.

“What an idiot,” Maurice laughed. He grabbed a fistful of napkins and dabbed at his balding head, then the stubble on his chin, and lastly the folds between his neck. He looked like a pig roasting in spandex. The napkins fell to the floor.

Aaron stepped aside while his boss closed out the register. He watched as Maurice removed the till and poured everything into his bowling bag. “What time did you get in today?”

“Six,” Aaron answered.

Maurice reached into his cash bag and pulled out the two crumpled twenty-dollar bills and gave it to him. “For tonight,” he said. “And pick up bleach tomorrow.”

Aaron nodded.

“I’m going home to count this. Lock up at midnight. Finish mopping. Take out the trash, and exit out the back door.”

“What if a customer tries to pay with cash?”

“Tell them we only accept cash until eleven.” Maurice grabbed an empty pizza box and a black marker. “New house rule. Write it down and tape it to the display case. No one argues when there’s a sign.”

Maurice left through the front door a few minutes later with his bowling bag tucked tightly beneath his arm. Aaron watched him go, before walking into Maurice’s office where the knock-off Pavarotti album labeled Italiano Muzico was being played. He flipped the audio-player switch to ‘Off’.

He looked around Maurice’s office. It hadn’t been cleaned since the day Aaron had been hired. There were tin-foil wraps filled with burger grease and white worms. He found stray fries that had been kept warm in the crease of Maurice’s folding chair. A paper stack of overdue bills and health-code violations were so high it seemed as though eviction was an empty threat. And then, of course, there were the posters of swimsuit models taped to the walls.

Aaron felt the heel of his right shoe squish a rogue worm. Its guts popped and confettied the floor like black pus from an aged zit.

Back in the kitchen, Aaron could hear water splashing onto the floor. He covered his mouth and nose with his arm. A pool of brownish water was spreading beneath the sink and metal racks holding sacks of flour. The backed up piping was now affecting the hose. Aaron made his way to the faucet valve and twisted it off, then picked up the nearest phone.

“What?” came Maurice’s voice through his cell phone.

“The hoseline is spitting out brown sludge.”

“I’ve called the City’s water department, they said a plumber would be by this week. I ain’t paying out of pocket for the Ash Falls issues.”

“So mop with sludge water?”

“Better than nothing,” Maurice said. The line clicked and went dead.

Aaron smeared the water around the kitchen floor. Some of the worms that had been inhabiting the mop swelled as they, too, were wiped towards the drain. He did his best to mash them through. Aaron emptied the trash bins around the pizzeria, then propped the back door open with a brick. He stepped out into the alley.

A single lamp tried to illuminate the dark stretch between buildings. Aaron always got the creeps when he had to take out the trash at the end of the night. The dumpster was halfway between the back door of Rodolfo’s and the street. Everything was twisted in shadows.

There were usually weird things happening in the alley. Aaron had seen it all. People shooting up green syringes of who-knows-what, hairy men wrestling to settle a score, women with wild hair drawing symbols in chalk and foaming at the mouth. Only the weirdos of Ash Falls came out at night. Only the weirdos seemed to inhabit the alley behind Rodolfo’s. Except tonight, for some reason.

Aaron looked around. There wasn’t another human in sight.

Something scurried across the ground. A cat or a fat rat, Aaron wasn’t sure. But then, the sound of more scuttling followed. Out of the sewer grates climbed nearly two-dozen rats. They all clawed at each other and the pavement. Aaron pulled out his phone and turned on its flashlight.

The rodents were covered in a blackish oil and ooze. Their eyes were red. Some had hairless patches, while others had visible gashes. This wasn’t the first time Aaron had seen rats in the alleyway. Knowing how they hated light, he waved his phone at them. They scurried off and out towards the street.

A door behind Aaron slammed shut. He turned around to see the back door to Rodolfo’s closed. “Crap,” he said to no one. The door automatically locked from the inside. Aaron hurried towards the dumpster. His cell phone revealed clusters of wax worms along the way. The rats, he assumed, had brought them up through the sewer system.

When Aaron reached the dumpster, he found mounds of trash ignored by the city’s waste disposal department. There were dozens of bags piled high around a rusted metal bin. The infestation of worms continued there. They were fatter around the dumpster, like breakfast sausages. Aaron could see them nursing on the waste.

They had mutated; evolved ever so slightly with little tentacle appendages wiggling around the surface of the garbage bags. They probed and prodded for openings. Aaron tossed his bag to them and left the alleyway.

Thankful for not locking the front door to the pizzeria, Aaron returned to his counter. The grapevine clock read ten-to-midnight. He drummed his fingers on the surface of the empty register and stared out the windows. There were no more cars driving by. No one walking along the sidewalk or peering into the pizzeria. Aaron thought about his couch, his game console, and the case of beer in his fridge. Looking up at the security camera, Aaron noticed that the recording light was off. What Maurice didn’t know, wouldn’t bother him, Aaron reasoned. He had already been paid for his shift anyway.

Aaron reached into his pockets. He couldn’t remember where he had pocketed the money. Feeling through all of them, he wondered if he had set it down in the kitchen while mopping.

Aaron retraced his steps. He checked the office and his jacket that had been hanging on a hook by the door. He poked the pizza dough to see if it had melted over his two twenty-dollar bills. Aaron’s money was lost.

In his frustration, he kicked the mop bucket. It crashed against the back door, which popped open, and rolled out into the alleyway. Had the door been open the whole time? Aaron wasn’t sure. He had seen it closed. He had heard it slam shut. The brick, perhaps, had kept the door from latching completely.

Looking out into the alleyway, Aaron thought about when he had taken his phone out of his pocket. His money could have fallen out at that moment. The rats had been creepy enough to keep his attention from his money tumbling away in the dark.

Aaron turned his phone light on again. He wedged the brick more securely in the door. Scanning the pavement, he moved his phone from side-to-side. He saw the mop bucket overturned. Its bleach-sludge-concoction spilled out towards the large sewer drain. He aimed his light at it.

The gurgling of sewer water traveled through the storm-drains below. The smell of sulfur and stale water hung in the air. There was a slight tremor underground. Aaron ignored it.

Through the metal grate, Aaron saw it. His money was stuck to black gunk on the inner lining below. The mop water had washed it through the grate, but not all the way down. Getting on his hands and knees, Aaron surveyed the best way to get his money. Maurice wouldn’t pay him a second time for losing his day’s wages.

Aaron slid his hand between the bars. He could feel the damp air clinging to his skin. The underside of the grate was caked with the black ooze that had coated the rats and their fur. Aaron had to hold his breath as he lowered himself closer to the ground. His wrist and forearm slid down. It was difficult to see how much further he needed to reach. Aaron contorted his body and placed his phone over the grate. The light shined down directly. Hundreds of worms wriggled in the muck below.

The back door to Rodolfo’s slammed shut. Aaron swore as he twisted his head back. The brick was lying flat against the pavement. Next, Aaron’s phone began to vibrate. It shook the metal grate and teetered off balance.

“No, no, no! Shit!” Aaron screamed. His phone slipped through the gap and fell to the depths of the sewer below. He heard a faint splash. The light zapped out.

Aaron removed his hand. A worm had crawled onto it; one of the nasty, sausage-sized ones. He felt its little tendrils probing along his skin. Aaron brushed it off and crushed it with the heel of his shoe. The popping of its guts was audible, like an exploding ketchup packet.

Without a key, Aaron had no way to get back into the pizzeria. His house key was in his coat pocket. His phone was now destroyed. His money was gone. Aaron was on the verge of giving the mop bucket another swift kick when another worm groped at his ankle.

Aaron went to swat it away when he realized it wasn’t a worm at all, but a tentacle. A thick, arm-length appendage that reached out through the grate. The dim alleyway lamp illuminated its white, waxy coating. He screamed. More were beginning to feel their way out of the sewer. Dozens, then hundreds. Their slimy flesh slurped at the pavement. Aaron reached for the mop bucket and slammed it on the tentacle that had latched itself around his foot.

There was a shriek from beneath the storm drain. In revenge, the other tentacles lashed out towards the bucket. Aaron felt it being pulled from his grip. Then, in fear, he watched as the yellow plastic was crushed. Aaron tried to back away, but his foot stepped in a puddle of mop water and the splash alerted the monster that he was still there.

The cover to the storm drain rumbled. The tendrils lashed out at Aaron again, this time grabbing both of his ankles. They bit into him like leeches, pulsing and sucking on his skin until it was torn open.

There was a loud crash and the sewer grate was tossed free. A long, translucent, slithering creature with black veins pumping beneath the surface of its flesh appeared. There were no eyes or snout, just white flesh covered in mucus and a mouth – a gaping hole at the top of its head that reared itself towards Aaron as its tentacles continued to grope and suck at his ankles.

Aaron couldn’t move. He was paralyzed. A cold wave of numbness washed over him from his ankles upwards. All he could do was stare at the ten-foot worm as it revealed rows of jagged teeth with chunks of undigested flesh caught between.

Aaron couldn’t even scream. His throat was being squeezed by longer tentacles that had found their way through the drain. The creature’s tongue unraveled itself through the center of its mouth; boiled and black. It spat mucus onto him, and then, from the back of its throat it vomited thousands of its own spawn.

Aaron closed his eyes as the new vermin made a feast of his flesh. Then the monster leaned over him and swallowed him whole.

 

END

Walk in the Shadows

by Jeremy C. Schofield

 

My sales were done for the day and I was finally able to relax a little, when I saw her coming down Shoreline Drive. I was in my usual M.O., sticking to the shadows, so she wouldn’t have been able to see me until she was only a few feet away. The strange, refracted light from our damnable ever-present clouds gave her two shadows for a moment, and I wished I had a cell phone or a camera to capture it. She was looking back behind her and across the street when I decided to surprise her.

“Hello, Caroline.”

She spun back around to face me, one hand spread toward me as if to shield herself when she saw me and relaxed.

“Dylan. Still lurking, I see?”

“Yup, that is me. The lurkmeister. How has life been treating you?” I didn’t add “…since you vanished overnight all those years ago.” It didn’t seem diplomatic.

“I am fine. I know this seems awkward, but I really need to go.”

I was no longer looking at her face. The second shadow I had noticed before and dismissed as an optical illusion was crawling along the pavement toward me. It rotated around her body, reaching (consider revising) toward me like an accusing finger. I took a step backward involuntarily.

“What the hell is that?” I asked. I did my best to sound calm, but my voice still warbled like a karaoke singer at the tail end of happy hour. The shadow had finished stretching out towards me, and was now forming a line in front of me, looking like a capital “T” someone had written on the sidewalk in roiling black ink.

She looked somewhere between disgusted and amused. “It is trying to protect me. It responds to malice and anger. I didn’t know you were still that angry. Maybe you had better go.”

Supernatural line drawing notwithstanding, this was too much. “You didn’t know I would be angry? How the hell else was I supposed to feel? One more morning I wake up alone, and that is it? After three years, no more Dylan and Carolina?”

Her eyes grew wide when I used the Spanish pronunciation for her name. “Don’t say…” she began, but it was too late. The line vibrated, pulsing with energy, and suddenly vanished. In its place sat a bundle of eyeballs, fur, and teeth. It looked at me, looked back at her, looked at me again, clearly unsure what it was supposed to be doing.

I could feel the brick of the building behind me pushing into my back through the body of my pack, and thought stupidly for a moment that I was glad I had already taken care of my business–no merchandise left to damage.  I pointed at the apparition in the street.

“Again, what the hell is that?”

She sighed, obviously put out with me. I was familiar with the body language. “Look, let’s step in here for a minute, and I will try to explain,” she said, gesturing toward the alley between the closest two buildings.

I took another look at the two-foot tall ball of furry death in front of me, noticing saliva gleaming on its fangs. “How about you step into the alley, and I will stay out here. I have no intention of getting into an enclosed space with that.” I noticed my hand was shaking while I pointed at her hyper-vigilant thing. I was never very good with stress.

She sighed as if I had asked her about texts on her phone from some guy I didn’t recognize, and walked around me into the alley. I noticed her mobile string mop stayed between her and I the whole time, turning around and backing into the alley to stay close to her, never taking its eyes off of me. Unable to help myself, I followed to the mouth of the alley, looking for answers.

She leaned up against an exhaust-darkened brick wall. “It is an Inugami – a dog spirit.” She said this matter-of-factually, as if she was describing a goldfish. “It is my spiritual protector. It normally stays in my shadow, but can be called out with a summoning phrase.” At last, she has the grace to look embarrassed. “I suppose I will have to change it now.”

“Dylan and…” I stop myself before uttering it again. “That was your summoning phrase? Not, ‘Inugami, I choose you?’”

“They are nothing like that, Dylan.” The exasperation returns to her voice. “There is no little red ball, no quests to fight other Inugami, I certainly don’t want to try to catch them all. As for the phrase – no one else has ever said my name the way you did. It made me feel safe.”

I am simultaneously honored and angry. Watching the narrowing eyes and shifting position of her dog-spirit, I decide to switch subjects quickly. “What is its name?” I ask.

“Jun.” she grimaces. “I was hoping it would make him more obedient.”

I step into the alley and kneel. “Come here, Jun.” I have been around dogs my whole life – until Caroline, in fact. I hold my hand out for him to approach and investigate. Being eaten is the least of my concerns right now as I try to make sense of my ex showing up with a spirit walking dog.

Again, her eyes grow wide with panic. “No, you can’t do…” Her voice trails off as Jun walks over to me, gives my hand a cursory sniff, then places his head below it – dog-speak for “you may pet me now.” I am startled by the almost ice-cold temperature radiating off of his body when I scratch his head for a minute. I look up at Caroline, and notice she is crying. Alarmed, I stop petting the spirit-dog and stand up.

“Caroline, what is wrong?”

Now it is her turn to shake, a trembling finger pointing at Jun. “You aren’t supposed to be able to do that.” Is all she can say.

“Why not?” I ask. “If he is a guardian angel dog, surely he knows I don’t mean you any harm.”

She shakes her head in angry denial. “That’s not how it works. He is only a weapon, a tool. He is never anything but angry. He knows I don’t love him.”

I am puzzled by this, but at least I know the answer. “Any dog will be what you expect it to be, Carol.  If you want a pet, they will be a pet. If you want a guard, they will be a guard.”

She can’t take her eyes off of Jun, as if seeing him for the first time. “But you don’t understand…the horrible things I had to do to create him…” she breaks down completely now. Jun moves back toward her and sticks his not-really-a-nose against her leg. She crumples to the ground and embraces him fiercely, weeping like I have never seen her cry. It is a very odd sort of heartwarming moment–the Lifetime Channel meets a late-night horror movie.

Which is, of course, when the spirits find us.

***

The skies have been growing darker this whole time, and now a frozen wind picks up, blowing straight down the alley. Suddenly the voice of the wind becomes louder- an unearthly shriek, with gibbering and moaning human voices captured inside it. I turn my head, and a disembodied figure rushes by me, headed for Caroline. As I look back at her and Jun, I see two more heading down the alley behind her.

“Dylan!” she cries out, then rushes towards me. For a moment I have the crazy idea that she is running to hide behind me, hoping I will protect her from these things.

This idea goes the way of all illusions as she turns in front of me and uses her body to force me into a corner between a wall and a dumpster, keeping herself between me and the spirits. She places her hands together, whispers something I can’t quite hear, and suddenly there is a blinding blade of light between her hands held across her body like a samurai sword. The three glowing figures turn to follow her, and I briefly notice that it is now somehow darker than night in this alley.

There is a pulse- an explosion of light from behind the spirits, and where there was once two feet of mop fur and fangs, Jun has suddenly become an ice-shrouded avatar of dog-spirit, bigger than an Akita. A pair of wings unfolds from somewhere under that coat of ice and fur, and he bays like a prairie wolf beneath a full moon as he launches himself at the spirits.

Caroline, I notice, is doing nothing to attack the spirits, merely fending them off each time they come near her. The fight is left to Jun- he grabs an incorporeal body between his fangs and flies muzzle first into the alley wall. The spirit falls, limp, and then Caroline’s guardian plants his feet on the body, pinning it against the wall and pulling with his head. There is another bright explosion of energy, and where the spirit was there is now a pile of ashes.

The other figures have not been idle, though. While one keeps Caroline busy, the other is rending its claws down Jun’s flanks, causing gaping wounds to appear. As I watch, the wounds are immediately frozen over by the radiation of the dog’s body, and he turns to grasp his attacker between his teeth. When the second explosion of not-light fills the alley, the last spirit abandons its attack on Caroline and flees, keening, down the alley.

The radiance disappears from between Caroline’s hands, and we are left with only two piles of ash and a panting Jun to show that the fight ever occurred. The ammoniac stench of urine fills the air.

“Thank you,” is all I can manage over the thundering of my heart. I look at Jun. “Will he be OK?”

She nods. “Another ritual to heal him after I return home.” She looks suddenly troubled. “I am going to have to re-think this whole thing.”

I walk over to Jun, now reduced back to his fanged mop form, and wonder where the wings went. I place my hand on his head. His rear end moves back and forth as if he was trying to wag his non-existent tail. “Thank you, Jun. I hope you get better very soon.”

He vanishes from beneath my hand, being sucked back into Caroline’s shadow. I look at her as if I have never seen her before. Maybe I never have.

“Are you going to explain any of this?” I ask plaintively.

She shakes her head. “Not right now. These-” she nods her head towards the ash piles, “were what we were looking for in the first place. Now we need to get home and fort up while Jun recovers.”

A silver flask appears from somewhere, and she begins using it to gather up the glistening remains of the two spirits. I notice she is careful to never touch the gleaming ashes with her hands. “Ash Falls is a battleground, Dylan. The walls between the worlds are especially thin here. Every kind of monster, spirit and demon you’ve ever heard of finds their way here eventually. Even fighting back against them turns you into a kind of a monster, like I am.”

I want to comfort her, to tell her she is not a monster. Remembering what she said about Jun, I can’t get the words to come out. She finishes her spiritual housekeeping, and the flask vanishes again. She turns to look at me.

“Are you still dealing?” she asks, looking over my shoulder at my pack.

I nod, embarrassed that I was judging her behavior just a moment ago.

She smiles and shakes her head. “Then you’re part of the problem. Knock it off and get out of this town.”

I shake my head. “I’ve tried to leave before, Carolina. I just can’t make it stick for some reason.”

She nods, sadly. “Yeah, that is part of the effect. Somehow we all have our anchors set at the corner of 1st Street and Rosedale Drive. I don’t know what causes that either.”

She straightens her back and takes a deep breath. “Look, if you really want to know, I will call you and we can talk about it some time later, somewhere safer. OK? Has your number changed?”

I shake my head, wondering if she means it, or if this is the last time I will see her. “I would like that,” is all I say.

She walks forward and embraces me- not like a lover, but not quite like a friend either. “I will call you soon. Maybe Jun would like to see you again, anyway,” she adds, cryptically. Then she is gone.

“Adios, amor.” I whisper. I pull my spare sweats out of my backpack, then take off my soaking jeans and underwear and stuff them in. I will have to go commando on the way home, but you see worse on our streets every day. I take another look at my pack, then throw the whole thing into the dumpster. I don’t know what I am going to do now, but there is no escaping that the world just got a whole lot bigger than I ever thought it was.

***

Halfway home, I start to wonder if maybe I should get a dog.

Ash Falls: Behind the Scenes

Interview by Savy Hulen.

Early in my tumble into the Vortex I became intrigued by the StoryVerses. StoryVerses are an easy extension of things I already love, TV shows that span seasons and years, movies with quality sequels, worlds that span multiple media such as comic books that become TV shows, movies, and the inspiration for endless fan-fiction in all the corners of the deep web. As a child, some of my favorite books all happened in the same story world with an overlapping cast of characters. I knew the world and could easily dig into the story each time I opened the book. I realize that I’ve had over a year to wrap my brain around the marvel of StoryVerses. I want to introduce you to the same love. And encourage you to read everything in Ash Falls. It’s good stuff. Really good stuff. So good, in fact, that I had to interview their StoryVerse Head, Jeremy Schofield, for all of you wonderful readers and hopeful authors. Go ahead, grab a cup of Joe, a bottle of wine, or your favorite home-brewed beer and spy on our conversation. We don’t mind. Promise.

Savy Hulen: Do you want to tell readers a little about your StoryVerse?

Jeremy Schofield: Ash Falls is probably best described as “urban paranormal.” The setting is what a reader would recognize as a mid-sized contemporary city. However, due to the influence of mystical forces, it has become a magnet of sorts: attracting various denizens of the underworld such as vampires, werewolves, and long-forgotten deities.

SH: One of the things I’ve noticed about Ash Falls is the tendency for people to get stuck there. What is that all about?

JS: The residents of Ash Falls are trapped there due to an enchantment over the city. Currently, none of the characters in our stories know a whole lot about this enchantment – though the authors do, of course! This enchantment is bilateral – it makes those who reside in Ash Falls uncomfortable leaving, and it makes outsiders uncomfortable with staying as they pass through. The workings of the enchantment (known as the Terlarang) will be revealed more fully throughout the stories of Season One.

SH: It’s a good way to make sense of the crazy that is Ash Falls without it spilling into the rest of the world.

JS: Exactly.

SH: Ash Falls is located in Oregon?

JS: Ash Falls is located in Oregon. It is entirely fictional, out of my own head. In the Oregon of Ash Falls, the Umpqua River is not split into Northern and Southern branches, but is one mighty tributary reaching into the center of the state. Ash Falls is located roughly where real-life Roseburg is on a “real” map.

SH: What made you choose that location?

JS: Sigh…the workings of a writer’s mind, I suppose. The very first story I ever wrote about Ash Falls (almost 20 years ago) had a character heading down to the docks on a river. I live in New Mexico – there is not a river dock to be found within a thousand miles of where I live. I have always loved the idea of Oregon (though I have never been there) and decided I would just sort of invent a river valley somewhere along I-5. With that, Ash Falls was born.

SH: Is there anything you want writers who are thinking of submitting a story to the Ash Falls StoryVerse to know?

JS: Character is king. The protagonist must fit within the dark outlook of our StoryVerse.

It is kind of a hopeless environment, really. My main character, Brian Drake, is quite jaded and despondent from a lifetime of living under the Terlarang. Even being in the know about the working of the “Second World” (as denizens of the supernatural call it) gives him no real peace of mind. Quite the opposite, actually.

Our other authors deal with this concept in various ways. Steve Cotterill is actually telling a coming-of-age story of sorts, about a young man of a minority ethnicity who has grown up in this environment. K. Edwin Fritz and Charel Kunz are tackling the problem from the outlook of outsiders being introduced into this foreign world of Ash Falls. But, in all three of their cases, we are beginning with a strong character that the reader really empathizes with first, then tying in the supernatural elements from there.

SH: Is there anything that you would look at in a submission and immediately say “no, thanks.”?

JS: Sparkly vampires. I have loved vampires since reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula at a very young age, and the “softening” of horror elements, especially in YA books, has really made me sad. I want these immortal creatures to be beyond what we would consider normal human outlooks.

Other things…though I love zombie movies, zombies don’t really fit into our world very well. Beyond that, just about any horror or supernatural element you can come up with can probably find a home here.

SH: What has the StoryVerse building process been like for you and your team?

JS: Controlled chaos. I delivered a couple of pages of background story to my authors at the beginning of the process and we took it from there. We now have a ton of shared resources, including a spreadsheet tracking all major characters, a master document talking about plot elements, and even a map of the city so that we can place geographic locations. Much of the credit for development of this material goes to one of my authors, K. Edwin Fritz, who decided my info wasn’t robust enough, and created the spreadsheet all on his own. I am given to understand that it is going to be used as a pilot for other developing story-verses. It has been a tremendously collaborative effort. We now actually talk weekly and coordinate potential crossovers and other opportunities for development of the setting.

SH: If you had the chance to sit down and chat with a writer trying to sell us on their StoryVerse idea, what advice would you give?

JS: So, to those developing a new StoryVerse…

First, understanding that this will no longer be YOUR story would be the most important thing to remember.

The collaborative effort will take your ideas in unexpected directions. Be prepared to not veto ideas because they don’t match your original vision. Be open to expanding your vision to include ideas that come from your authors.

SH: How was that realization for you? Was it something you were expecting?

JS: I was not expecting it at all. Which was silly, in hindsight. We become fiction writers because we want to create, not because we want to follow directions. It was very humbling for me to realize that I was surrounded by writers who were not only at least as talented as I am, but had much better ideas in many cases.

Secondly, make sure that your StoryVerse is not centered on any particular story. If I got hit by a bus tomorrow and “Inheritance” was never finished, Ash Falls could keep right on going on the basis of The Perpetuals and Fallen and Reborn. 90% your StoryVerse must rest outside of any one story.

I think the best training I had for creating a shared universe was the decades I spent playing role-playing games (as a DM.) There was so much world-creation that the players never got to see, but was still important in order to make it all feel real.

SH: Thank you for your time and words of wisdom. Is there anything else you would like to share?

JS: Write as much as you can. When you aren’t writing, read. Look at how other authors create their worlds, and ask yourself “could I do that?” And don’t be afraid of rejection…

After all, Ash Falls came to be after the Fiction Vortex team rejected a short story I wrote set in Ash Falls. They didn’t like the story, but loved the setting. 

 

Thank you Jeremy for your time and wisdom. I certainly learned new things from our conversation and I hope that our readers did as well. For those who are anxiously wondering how they can get their hands on Ash Falls, just click on the button labeled “The StoryVerse” and it will be there waiting for you. Jeremy’s story, Inheritance is the first on the list and I can’t sell it any better than the description he wrote:

When your legacy is a curse.

Ash Falls is the city your mother warned you about. Supernatural creatures run the underworld. Spirits stalk the streets. Dark magic kills more people than firearms. And Brian Drake, P.I., must find out which of the members of the shadowy ruling council had a reclusive millionaire killed in an attempt to seize power – while keeping himself alive, and his own skeletons locked in the closet. What he discovers will change the balance of power in Ash Falls forever.

(I’ve read it. It’s good. Really good. Lovely characters… wrong word. Dark characters. Real characters. People I might actually meet if Ash Falls were a real place. See. His description is much better than mine. Enjoy your reading!)

For those hopeful authors out there, you can submit your story idea to Ash Falls. Just click on the submissions button, read through our guidelines, and submit something.

We want you to #jointhestory.

 

 

Inheritance Pilot Episode

It’s a cold and rainy night as I turn right onto Rosedale Drive, heading downhill both literally and metaphorically.  The rain makes me prematurely tired, just when I need to be at the top of my mental game. Not that there are many other types of night in Ash Falls in September. Blame it on El Nino, the monsoon, global warming,  – and just ignore the meteorologists, because the facts are plain – in September, it rains.

The call came in to bring my sorry ass down to the dock district for a meeting with the town’s heaviest hitters. It would undoubtedly be in some poorly lit warehouse, with me standing like a supplicant in the Star Chamber below the bethroned players who wanted to see me. They were admittedly not good friends to have, but they made even worse enemies. In this town, the authorities and the criminal element are all drinking from a common pool, and the good guys are always playing from behind, working from within a weak and shrinking framework of straight cops, righteous judges and attorneys that stay bought once paid for. The bad guys don’t need the law, and can be a little more direct-to-consumer.

I take another left off the rail yards running parallel to the docks. The scattered streetlights are glowing with muted intensity through the surrounding mist – too thick to be rain, too thin to be fog. I pull my Ford Taurus in behind a gleaming black Hummer parked on the street in front of an otherwise unremarkable warehouse. Two guys are standing guard at the front door brandishing tactical assault weapons –  MP5s, ignoring and being ignored by a marked police unit not 50 yards away. Ash Falls. The Wild West meets Nosferatu. I silde out of the car and cross the street to the warehouse, nodding to one of the gunmen as I enter.

Once inside, I shake myself like a wet dog, then walk further into the open building. Sure enough, 5 chairs up on a platform, klieg lights behind the seats looking down on a center area obviously designed for a witness or supplicant. Do these guys all watch the same movies, or what?

It takes me a moment to notice that the center seat, usually reserved for the mover and shaker in this town is empty. The absence of our city’s most powerful millionaire casts a different kind of  shadow over the meeting.

“Good evening, Brian. I hope our call did not inconvenience you”. This from the smallest and least threatening of the platform figures. Dreyfus, his name is, a Professor of Anthropology or Archeology or Underwater Basket Weaving or something at our local U. Why he runs with this crowd, more to the point why they let him run with them, has always been a question to me. One I have never bothered to ask, of course. The fewer questions I ask, the faster I can leave..

“Hiya, Professor. No, nothing that couldn’t be interrupted. Are we waiting for Annis to arrive?” I ask, nodding toward the central chair.

A muffled snort from the right side of the platform, then a throat being cleared. A big body, leans forward – Rowan Bale, a local dockworker union boss and around-the-bend tree hugger besides. “He won’t be joining us, Mr. Drake. He is…indisposed.” This delivered from beneath black bushy eyebrows, lips framed by a thick black mustache and Van Dyke beard.

“Ha. Indisposed. Just plain disposed is more like it.” This, with a trace of a Colombian accent,  from a slight, lanky bronze-skinned man of indeterminate age. “El Rey” he is called on the street, and his is the empire that provides us with the majority of our drugs, guns and prostitutes here in the City Wet. The guards with the submachine guns outside would be his bodyguards. I raise my eyebrows in surprise at the information being conveyed.

“Are you gentlemen trying to tell me that Annis is no longer with us?” I would have thought it impossible to achieve his demise without a team of Navy SEALs backed up by a flight of archangels.

El Rey nods. “He is gone, and so are eight of his bodyguards. Whoever managed it brought some serious hardware, man.” Nods and affirmative mumbles come from all but one of my four “employers”.

The final member of the group breaks his arrogant silence.“If we could dispense with these trivialities, and commence our business?”. This delivered with an arched gaze framed by professionally manicured eyebrows, touched up at great expense, everyday – no doubt. They couldn’t ever grow that way normally. In fact, they can’t grow at all. Leandro de Castillas, you see, is dead.

Well, undead, anyway. He claims some thousand-year-long heritage from France or Spain or something – a real classic Old World Vampire. Something about him has always struck me as a little off. Probably the fact that he looks at me as a serf or a peasant or worse. What the hell he is doing here, helping “manage” a city with less than a half a million people is beyond me. Surely he has a dark and brooding castle in the Alps or the Pyrenees.

Bale clears his throat. “Yes, well, in truth Annis is no longer among us. We do not understand the circumstances behind his departure. His power was great – his resources beyond imagining. How one of us managed to perform this -”

“One of you?” I ask, incredulous.

Bale nods, unperturbed. “Yes, it had to have been one of the four of us. Certain safeguards were bypassed that only one of the four of us would have been privy to. And this is where you come in, Drake. We need you to determine which of us is at fault here.”

I blink, and take a deep breath. “Jesus Christ.” I mutter. “Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Ball-Peen Hammer.” I hear Dreyfus snicker, but the other 3 remain resolute. Maybe they never played games as kids. Maybe they never were kids. I shake my head as if trying to drive away an insect, trying to re-center myself.

“So, you want me to investigate until I figure out which of you did this, then report back…here?” I can immediately see some logistical problems with this approach.

Dreyfus leans forward. “Precisely. Upon delivery of your report, we will determine how to best…proceed.”

“And you want me to deliver this report back to you all here?”

Apparently misunderstanding my concern, Rey breaks in. “Anything you need for this, you’ve got it. You want guns, guards, cops, whatever – just tell us and we’ll make sure it is yours. Corregir rapidamente, entiendes?” Oh, yeah – I understand, alright.

With a dramatic sigh, Leandro chimes in.“We have also agreed to double your already considerable daily fee.” You would think someone a few centuries old would have learned a little patience by now. “I am personally of the belief that this effort is valueless, but I am apparently alone in that assumption.”

I put my hands up to stop the verbal flow, though the idea of two grand a day is not at all unpleasant. But I still have a couple questions of my own. “Do I get access to your crime scene?” I ask.

Rowan grimaces. “There is not precisely a crime scene, as the police are not precisely involved. A body is required for a homicide investigation. But you certainly may have access to Annis’ former domicile.”

I take a deep breath, then plunge in. “So, I understand the gig, ok?” I stated. “But what I don’t get is what happens when I find your theoretical killer or killers.”

“That would be our problem, yes?” Dreyfus again. What was up with the other 3 letting him jump in like this?

“Yeah, I understand, but let me lay it out for you. I find the smoking gun, turn in your villain. Those of you that are righteous on this lay it down on him, presumably. But what is to prevent his organization from taking it out on me after this report is delivered?”

Dreyfus made another economical gesture, somewhere between a sigh and a shrug. “You already enjoy certain…protections, do you not?” I shrug, not really willing to test that boundary in this company. “But, if it should come down to that, you’ve got the resources of the other three of us to protect you, you see? But if you choose not to undertake the investigation, then you have all of us lined up against you while we look for another investigator. Is that clear enough?”

I nod, caught somewhere between fear and disgust. Nothing like employee incentives.

Far overhead, the full moon shines down on the clouds covering Ash Falls. Its glowing face is reflected back by the lake above the city, while tiny moon-images are refracted back from the river that runs 50 miles to join the Pacific. The night embraces a quarter of a million souls along both banks of the river, a population that locks their doors, bars their windows, but, curiously, never seem to muster the desire to leave. Ships arrive from the ocean, trains haul shipping containers away North, East, and South, tractor-trailers come and go freely along the Interstate. But something – whether a malaise, an illness, or a spiritual anchor, keeps the residents calm, silent and malleable – unwilling to be displaced from their homes in the name of safety or freedom.

They are nothing more than sheep, waiting patiently in their pen – seemingly unaware that, in the absence of shepherds, their flock is instead being watched over by the wolves.

 

Two

My mind is still spinning when I pull back into the parking lot in front of the repurposed warehouse/condos on 33rd. I am so distracted that I don’t even notice the figure huddled in the rain sitting on my doorstep until I almost step on her. She turns to look up at me and I start back – momentarily glad that she must think it was an unexpected presence that surprised me, and not the sheer fact that it is her, arriving here and now. The perfect ending to a perfect day.

We look calmly at one another for a moment, neither moving to kiss, embrace, or otherwise greet one another – all those things that lovers would normally do after a long absence from each other. I finally clear my throat, staring into the intense green eyes rimmed by running mascara that makes her look as if she’s been crying. Maybe the rain. Maybe not.

“How did you find me?” is all I manage for the opening salvo after a 4 year silence.

“I don’t know, maybe I asked around?” she asks coyly. “Or maybe I gave Steve a call to find out?” This sends a shiver down my spine, and I take a step backward, deliberately unclenching my fist.

“No, I don’t think that is it, Jess.”

She somehow misses my reaction to this, and continues trying to banter. “Why not? You think Steve wouldn’t take my call?”

“No, he wouldn’t. Steve is dead, Jess.”

She looks as surprised as I have ever seen her, and then looks down for a moment. “I didn’t know. I’m sorry.” Whether for my loss or for the lie, she doesn’t clarify.

We wait for an awkward moment more, then I finally give up and break the silence. “What do you want, Jess?” It sounds more like a whine than a stern rebuke, but I gave up on presenting myself the way I want to be around Jess a long time ago.

 “To get out of the rain would be nice” she retorts. Always a wise-ass.  As I look her over more closely, I notice that her collarbones are seriously protruding inside the neck of her ratty t-shirt. Apparently she isn’t eating, along with whatever else she is doing. With that, my defenses collapse. I was always a sucker for starving strays.

“Fine.” is the best I can manage without starting an hour long rant on everything that is wrong with her, with me, with us. I turn and unlock the door, then gesture her inside as if it was a Park Avenue apartment, rather that the old warehouse repurchased into a condo that it actually is. She walks in and I follow her, careful to maintain some distance between us. I hang my coat on the rack by the door, not caring about it dripping on the floor right now.

When I turn to face her, she is already deeper into my home, looking at the “ego wall”, mainly pictures of my brother Steve and I in better days. She is in more than a few of them, frequently standing between the two of us and smiling. She always did love being the center of attention.

She turns to face me, one eyebrow raised quizzically. “No new photos here, Brian? Haven’t you done anything worth talking about in the past few years?”

“Nothing I would want photographed, no.” With that, I carefully step around her to the other side of my tiny dining room table, getting a solid object between the two of us. I am not usually susceptible to feminine wiles, but she has always been my kryptonite in that regard. In ragged and dirty clothes, with running makeup and looking like she hasn’t eaten in a week, I can still feel her pulling me towards her center of gravity. She has that strength – I have that weakness.

“So, Jessie, you are out of the rain – what do you want?”

She stops looking at the photos, then smiles wearily when she notices that I am across the table from her. “Maybe I just wanted to see you.”

I shake my head. “No, you didn’t. After 4 years of nothing? Nah – you want something.”

Her smile turns down a little at the edges, and hard lines emerge from her face that weren’t there the last time I saw her. “Fine. I need some help with something. I just need – “

I put a hand up to stop her. “No, Jess. Whatever it is, no. There is nothing left of “us” for you to trade on. You made your choice when you decided to bail out after you and Steve – “

And that is as far as my grand soliloquy gets me. Just as I am preparing to let her have it for the last decade of torment, the door opens – and two men walk through the front door that I have neglected to lock behind us.

I take a step backwards, momentarily taken aback, and I sense, rather than see, Jessie scurrying behind me as I take a look at my latest unwanted visitors. One is big, tattooed, and muscular, maybe borrowed from central casting for the latest show involving motorcycle gangs. He stands behind a darker skinned and better-dressed counterpart. Your typical street duo – muscle and shooter. I make a note of distinguishing features and tattoos, so I can complain to El Rey, if I should ever get a chance.

I ease back towards the table as I gesture at the dripping coat on the rack. “Wallet is in the inside pocket. Take what you want and leave. If you feel like being nice you could drop the driver’s license on your way out. I hate standing in line at the DMV.”

The shooter smiles, displaying a truly hideous grin with fake diamonds inset into his front 4 teeth. “Nah, man, you don’t have to wait in line. We ain’t here for your money. We here for the girl.”

Amateurs, these two. They should’ve never given me a chance to get this close to the table with my hands out of their line of sight. I slide my Glock 27 out of the holster attached to the underside of the table, and have it pointed between the shooter’s eyes before he can blink. It is a small gun, and I always feel a little self-conscious while I hold it, with my pinky waving around in the breeze as if I was holding a teacup. I try to suppress the feeling and pay attention to the business at hand.

“Not sure what you clowns were thinking, but it is time for you to go. Next time, check in with your boss, and have him check in with Rey before you walk through my door again. Freelancing is bad for your health.”

The shooter snorts, clearly not impressed by the gun or the mention of El Rey. “Rey? Please.” He spits on my floor for emphasis. “He ain’t nothing in this town any more. What are you going to do with that little toy gun, anyway?”

“What am I going to do? I am going to put two quarter-sized holes in your head and still have 4 rounds left over for your mouth-breathing friend. The real question is, what are you going to do? Are you leaving, or is this about to get ugly?”

The tension in the room escalates for a moment, but just as I am thinking about exhaling and pulling the trigger, something changes. The shooter nods, then they start backing out the door carefully, keeping me in sight,  not looking at all like a couple of dope fiends who have just had their lives threatened. “You say so, man. We’ll be watching. No way to protect your chica forever.”

With that, they are gone. I walk to the side of the steel security door and kick it closed, not wanting to silhoutte myself in the doorway. I then double lock it and turn to pull my cell phone out of my jacket, cursing myself for being so distracted that I didn’t secure the damn door  in the first place.

I gesture Jess towards a chair, her eyes never leaving  the pistol still in my hand. I take a brief look through the window at the street outside, parting the shades with my pistol. Nothing. With my other hand I dial a number. 3 rings before anyone answers – must be a busy night.

“Yeah?” Boredom drips from his voice, through the phone and runs down my arm. That or rainwater from my jacket.

“Clarence? Drake. Two street boys just walked into the loft and tried to boost a lady friend of mine.”

“Oh, yeah?” He now sounds interested. “You and the lady ok?”

“Yeah, I persuaded ‘em to make better life choices”

He chuckles. “And now you need some clean-up?”

“No, they walked out.”

A snort, whether amusement or disgust I can’t tell. “I keep telling you, you too soft, Drake. No one gets up in my crib and threatens me and my woman, then gets to walk out.”

“I was busy. I don’t multitask well. Besides, that’s what I have you guys for, right?”

“Yeah, I feel you.” He pauses for a moment, and I can hear the vague thump of subwoofers and crowd noise in the background. “So, you need some boys, or you want a squad?”

“Send a squad – I can give ‘em a pretty accurate description. They weren’t anyone I’ve seen around before.”

“Alright, a boy in blue be there in 10 or so. Lock up and stay strapped till they get there. Try not to create any more problems in the meantime”

“Already on it, Clarence. Tell the boss I said hi.”

“Right. Like he wants to hear from you.” And with that, the call is disconnected.

I turn back toward the table, walking under the watchful eyes of my brother’s police academy graduation photo. He was the one that taught me to never be more than 3 steps from a gun, anywhere in my house. Just like in most things, he was right.

I put my pistol down on the table, grab a chair and spin it around to face Jess, and then straddle it, resting my arms along the top of the chair’s back. The last thing I want right now is arms full of weeping ex-wife.

“Ok, Jess – you now have my full attention. What the hell do those guys want?”

 

The downtown bars are full tonight, the dream of chemical amnesia or intimately shared fear being pursued by those who can afford it. In the darker corners of the city, more dangerous forms of forgetfulness are being sold on street corners, to be taken away into cars and alleys then injected, smoked, or swallowed until peace is achieved. But respite is only so long, leaving in its place a desire for more: a new partner, another drink, a different drug. Escape is never purchased, only rented. As long as life exists, the fear will return. Here, even those who seek a permanent solution through ending their own lives might find that, within a day or two, their torment is renewed – only now with a vicious and thirsty edge. 

 

Three

She takes a deep breath as if to steady herself, then looks at the pistol resting near my hand.

“Put that thing away. You know I hate them.”

I shake my head. “It is staying in reach until I think we are safe. My house, my rules. Now, stop preaching, and start talking.”

She looks down at the table, then over my shoulder, refusing to look me in the eyes. If she was a normal person, I would say she was feeling guilty. Since she is Jess, I know she is playing for the cameras, trying to hit me for dramatic effect. Any second now, she is going to…

Right on cue, she shoots to her feet, the chair squeaking across the hardwood floor. “I need to leave. It was a mistake to come here.” She makes no move towards the door, though – watching for my reaction instead.

I shrug. “If you really want to walk out into the waiting arms of those thugs, suit yourself, Jess.” That gets her to look me in the eyes. I went off-script and didn’t beg her to stay.

After a moment of indecision, she sits back down, pulling the chair back up to the table. “I didn’t really mean to put you in danger, Brian. I thought, if I came here…” Her voice trails off, then she gives me a crooked smile. “I don’t know what I thought. I thought you would fix it. Make it better.”

I nod. “Sure you did. I have a reputation for ‘fixing it’. Why don’t you tell me what it is I am fixing this time?”

Another deep breath, and then her shoulders slump. She looks back down at the table, but at least she starts talking.

“You know what I am now, right?” This barely mumbled.

“A junkie. A police informant. A hooker. Which of your jobs are you referring to?”

She winces at my summary, but carries on. “I was referring to my habit. You keep your ears open, right?” I nod, unwilling to say anything that might interrupt her. “Well, then,  you know there is some new product on the street, right?”

In fact, I do know. Info has been making the rounds on both sides of the fence, since no one seems to know what the source of this new product is. “Are you talking about Red Smoke?” I ask. She exhales deeply, apparently relieved that she doesn’t have to explain further. “Yeah, I have heard of it. Is that what you are using these days?”

She actually smiles, looking animated for the first time since she arrived. “It is incredible, Brian. It is smoother than silk. Makes you feel good, you know, not weak.” I do the best I can to control my face, but it is hard, listening to her talk about crack like a connoisseur. “You don’t even have to shoot it, you can just smoke the stuff. Makes you feel like you you can do anything – I even forget to eat when I am high. Best thing is, it lasts for days – you aren’t hitting every few hours.”

My scepticism kicks in finally. “And it only costs as much as 5 or 6 days worth of crack, right?”

She shakes her head. “That’s the thing, Brian – it is cheaper than normal product. I don’t understand it either.”

My patience is starting to wear a little thin. It’s been a long day. “So, again – what do you need from me? And why the heck are street rats chasing you into my condo? Do you owe somebody money?”

She shakes her head. “No, I don’t owe anyone anything, exactly. I just had a bad time recently, and I think I might have…seen something.”

I wait out the dramatic pause, and she eventually continues. “I think I might know where this new stuff is coming from, Brian. Like, where it is being made”

I know enough about the police department in Ash Falls that I don’t bother to ask why she did not take this info to the cops she occasionally reports to. “And what am I supposed to do with that information, exactly?”

“I dunno…it’s just…creepy.”

I sigh again. “So, what’s the big secret, Jess?”

Just as the rotating red and blue lights pull up outside, she takes a deep breath, and takes the plunge.

“Brian – do you believe in vampires?”

I am thunderstruck for a moment, and it is all I can do to not look over her shoulder at Steve’s photo on the wall. Apparently she never found out, just like the rest of the ignorant fools in this God-forsaken town. I take a deep breath, then stand at the sound of a nightstick being banged into my security door.

“Vampires? No, Jess, I don’t. Guess you’ll have to try that line on somebody else.” With that, I turn my back and move to open the door before this cop leaves a permanent mark on it

Something exists here, in the long miles between Portland and Sacramento. A black hole of sorts, it draws to itself all that is evil, all that is empty, all that mankind has reviled and hidden from since the light of consciousness revealed itself to humankind. It calls out to broken dreams, forgotten idols, and the avatars of man’s darkest desires, saying: “Here, you can find what you are looking for. Here, you will be protected and nourished, here your strength may grow again to what it once was during the days of mankind’s darkest imaginings.” For here, in Ash Falls, the worship of fear has taken hold once again, defeating the promise of science and reason, and replacing hope with the huddling of bodies pressed together in the dark, each praying only that another will be taken.

Four

The morning sun rising over the dam is burning a hole straight through my sunglasses and into the center of my hangover. The convenience store coffee is almost as bitter as my mood as I stand around in the parking lot of the windowless block of concrete that used to be the home of Annis Black. Hurry up and wait, just like always.

It was close to 1 AM before the interview with the cop wound up, and I finally got him out of my hair. He got about as complete a physical description of a pair of suspects as he has ever received, and I got plenty of assurances about how crime enforcement was being stepped up in our neighborhood. The fact that I had to call in a favor from a drug lord’s consigliere to get a unit to show up in less than an hour was never mentioned.

I also convinced him to take Jess into “protective custody” overnight, hoping she might get a meal and some medical care out of it. She did not go quietly or happily, but she finally went. After they left, I relocked the door, pulled out a cleaning kit, and serviced the guns I have lying around the house while drinking Jameson. Somewhere around 4 the alcohol finally overcame the fear, and I passed out for a few hours of troubled sleep.

And now, here I am, paying for my sins. I have taken a pretty good look around the half-acre parking lot, and have spotted some shell casings, quite a few bullet-shaped gouges, and what looks to be around half a dozen blood stains around the area. However this went down, Annis and his crew did not go out quietly.

A black Chrysler 300 pulls up at 9:40, only an hour and 10 minutes late, and I step out of the Taurus, the comforting weight of The Judge on my hip. The same idiot city council that will not allow licensed concealed carry in this town are perfectly happy to let me wear this monster “openly” in any place that isn’t a school or a church. I’ve had more than a few comments about what I am compensating for by wearing this thing, but I ignore them. Let the haters start working with my clientele list – then we can make comparisons.

I walk over to shake the hand of Detective Larry Barela – a halfway decent cop in a barrell full of rotten apples. Once upon a time he and my brother shared a squad car, before Steve got promoted to Lieutenant, then promoted further on to glory. Barela is in his own ride, not a city unit, so I am guessing he is on his own time here.

“What’s the word, Larry?” I ask as I shake his hand.

“Not a lot, Brian.” He nods his head toward my revolver. “You see a rabid chipmunk that scared you or something?”

See what I mean?

“So, what’ve we got here?” I ask, to deflect further sarcasm about my sidearm of choice, as well as in hopes of getting out of this hideous sunlight.

He grows serious. “Quite a fireworks show, actually. Looks like 2 groups of pretty well-armed folks had a go of it two nights ago.”

“So, why nothing in the papers?”

He grimaces. “Because there was nothing to report. Plenty of gunshots, some evidence of major trauma – but not a single body or witness. Inside of the church is pretty tore up, but again – nothing inside but some screwed up furnishings and ashes.”

“Church?” I ask. We are in the middle of the only real high-rent district in Ash Falls, surrounded by large landscaped lots surrounding million-dollar homes. An odd place for a house of worship, especially since I was given to understand that this was Aniss Black’s home.

“Oh, yeah, you’ve gotta see this. Dude must’ve been running some whacked-out cult of darkness or something.” He turns, and I follow him to the entrance. He pulls open the metal fire door, and gestures me inside.

Once my eyes adjust, I see exactly what he was talking about. The inside of the building is one large room, shaped like an elongated cross. The layout is completely familiar to anyone who spent some time in a Catholic Church, like I did growing up. From the outside the place is a featureless concrete box, implying the corners must be filled with something

But there, the resemblance ends. There are some very expensive-looking pieces of artwork on the walls, and small “sitting areas” comprised of couches and stuffed chairs scattered throughout the building. No pews. Here and there on the floor I notice small piles of ash, some still intact, some scattered and stepped in. I do not bother to tell the Detective that the bodies he didn’t see are still here in the building.

I turn to face him, and notice him carefully not looking at the piles on the floor. When I clear my throat he turns to face me.

“So, who caught the case?”

He laughs, bitterly. “What case, Drake? I’ve got a dozen unsolved homicides with corpses and witnesses and physical evidence waiting to be worked on back on my desk. Who the hell is going to take the time to look into an empty cult building with a few bullet holes, considering we’ve got no complaintants and no witnesses? Dude that owns this place spends the majority of his time out of the country – we are having a hell of a time tracking him down.”

I nod, understanding. Business as usual at AFPD. “Gotcha. Well, thanks for letting me in. I will lock up on the way out.”

He hesitates at the door – wanting to ask me who I am working for here. Discretion grabs him by the scruff of the neck, and he merely nods. “Yeah. See ya around, Drake.” With that, the door closes behind him.

I am slightly surprised he had no questions or comments about my home invasion last night. He must be on his way in, heading for his desk at the precinct now, not having caught up on the overnights yet. At least I was saved the ribbing over that Charlie-Foxtrot.

Finally unsupervised, I am able to get a sense of the building that I thought was once was the domicile of our richest and most reclusive citizen. There are no interior walls, no bathrooms, no kitchens. While I do not exactly feel as though I am in a church or cult headquarters, I certainly do not feel as though I am in a home either. If Annis lived here, they way he and his staff lived is nothing like what I would consider “life”.

I turn to take a closer look at the closest pile of ashes. The fragments are tiny, granular, almost looking like black sand. I nod. Once upon a time, these were Annis’ guards and servants. “The MIB” is how the rest of the members of the circle referred to the ten of them. All with pale, cadaverous skin, they wore black suits with mirrored sunglasses, were constantly armed to the teeth, and each was able to lift the back end of a Mercedes. I had previously speculated that they were some species of vampire, and now I was looking at proof in piles on the floor.

Looking around the room, I only find seven more piles. This means that 2 guards and Annis himself are still unaccounted for. My employers seemed pretty rock-solid on Annis being deceased, but I would feel a whole lot better if I found some proof of that myself.

Moving to the far end of the room, I can’t help but notice that the floor here has buckled upwards, as if something exploded beneath it. I look around, and, sure enough, an unobtrusive door in the nearest corner opens to a stairway heading down into darkness. I draw my pistol, grab a flashlight off its holster on my belt and head into the depths below.

Something stirs in the spiritual world around the city. An implosion of sorts, it leaves behind nothing where once a center of power stood. Immediately, alliances begin to be made, plans for conquest decided upon, troops marshalled from far and wide. Across the globe, powerful and eldritch creatures feel the opportunity to feed freely if they can rush to fill the void left behind by the departure of a central power. Around the city, dark forces hold themselves in readiness – unwilling to act unwarily, but willing to pounce on any weakness they might perceive when the struggle for power should commence.

 

Nature abhors a vacuum.

Five

Whatever I was expecting to see when I entered the room below the nave, this was not it.

A black stone, previously about 10 feet long and 6 feet wide, is now sitting in two pieces on the floor here, having slid off of whatever used to be holding it up at about waist height. It has been cracked entirely in half, with the middle of the stone split down the center as if hit with a giant’s axe. Whatever force destroyed the stone somehow erupted upward, leaving a blackened hole filled with twisted beams and tiles directly above where it once sat.

I look around with the flashlight a bit and finally locate a light switch. Naturally, flipping the switch does not a damn thing, probably due to the trashed conduit and wiring in the gap in the ceiling. I turn back around into the room, and notice something I had missed when I walked in from the stairwell.

Along the floor are thin trails of rust-red, leading back into the darkness deeper beneath the building. I kneel down, and take a closer look, already knowing what I will find.

Blood trails. Dozens of them, all leading from a point further into the darkness, all terminating at the fractured stone. A closer look at the stone reveals the surface of the stone also smeared and discolored as if gallons of the stuff had been spilled over it. Playing my light along the half that has fallen on this side of the room, I can detect the remains of what must’ve been grooves carved into its surface, forming channels that led…to the foot of the stone?

Moving where the bottom of the stone would have rested, I confirm what I suspected – 3 holes have been bored into the floor, all inside a shallow bowl-like area about 2 feet wide. The receptacle is completely discolored. Who knows how many gallons of blood have passed through this niche in the rock, probably over a period of many years, if not decades.

Standing, I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand, swallowing hard. Caked-on evidence of hundreds of blood sacrifices does not mix well with gas station coffee and the remains of last night’s Irish Whiskey. I move deeper into the room, following the trail of blood along the near interior wall, using my flashlight to confirm that there is a matching group of blood trails on the far side of the room.

As I get closer to the far side of the room, I can see what I have been half expecting, and half hoping not too see – 5 prison cells, all side by side against the far wall. The cell bars throw shadows against the cinderblock wall behind them, but as I get closer I notice that all 5 cell doors are open, the cells empty. Each holds a cot with a blanket, and a bucket in the corner. Each and every cell has blood trails leading out of it, evidence that prisoners were dragged, bleeding, from the cells towards the cracked stone that I now realize is an altar. This was no colony of vampires – they would never have wasted this much blood. What the hell was being done here?

Inside the cells, I notice something else. Scratched into the concrete floor is a collection of prisoner graffiti. Names, phone numbers, pleas for help, final requests. All scratched in shallow white, these dying wishes would not even have been visible to the writers down here in the dark. In the cell closest to the wall I walked down, I find a short nail, tip gleaming with use. It must’ve been passed from cage to cage by desperate people hoping to leave some sign of themselves behind. I wonder how many of AFPD’s missing persons cases would get turned into potential homicides by taking a look at the floor here.

That thought brings me up short. How did the department not find this? No doors were locked, I didn’t do anything special to get down here. The buckled floor upstairs would point out to the most inexperienced investigator that something was down here. Did nobody bother to take a look at all?

As some natural scepticism of our local constabulary’s dedication to duty comes and rests upon my shoulders, something catches my eye on the floor of one of the cells – my name, scratched in white on concrete. I bend over to take a closer look, and immediately wish that I had listened a little closer to Jess last night.

“JESSICA DRAKE DIED HERE. TELL BRIAN DRAKE.” Well, obviously something happened before she died, but after she had enough time in this cage to scratch this out. What the hell was she doing, locked up in a cage down here? When? For how long? And most importantly, why?

As I try to make sense of it, I also notice something my subconscious has been trying to inform me of for a few seconds now. Noises are emanating from behind the door across the room from me, which I assume leads to another stairwell. Someone is coming down the stairs.

I exit the cell and quickly place my back against the door closest to me, across the room from the approaching steps. I aim The Judge at the door, resting my gun hand over the top of my opposite wrist, pointing my flashlight to illuminate the door frame. Whoever this is, I will not be dealing with them in the dark. I guess I have about fifty feet between the opposite door and I, when the sounds stop, and the door swings open.

I was expecting a whoever, and what steps through the door is a whatever. It is hunched over on all fours, rear legs and lizard-like forelimbs ending in hands all touching the floor. Short, furred wings are folded against the back. Worst of all is the head – looking like someone has surgically attached a green and purple squid to this bat-like body. I know from experience that demons tend to inhabit the forms imagined for them by worshipers, and briefly wonder what crazed group of worshippers came up with this as a design worthy of veneration.

A voice suddenly rattles in my head. “I come for the stone. Are you the guardian?”

If there is one thing that can make a hangover worse, it is telepathy.

I shake my head, and speak as clearly as I can through my clenched jaw and sudden nausea. “I am not guarding anything. I do not wish to contest with you. I will depart.” The formality of the words sounds strange to me, but if there is one thing spirits do not respond well to, it is sarcasm.

The glowing red eyes over the twitching tentacles narrow for a moment, and the body tenses. “If you are not a guardian, I may dispose of you. My master would have this place for his own.” With that, the creature unfurls its wings and leaps across the room at me.

The thunderous noise of five PDX .410 shotgun shells being fired in a couple of seconds is bad under normal conditions. In an enclosed space, suffering from a hangover and adrenaline shock, it feels as though someone has split my head open while driving spikes into my ears.  I almost hope that I missed, so this creature can tear my head off and end my self-induced torment.

Like all my hopes, this one is not to be. Halfway across the room, the thing has collapsed, smoke still rising from two holes in its head and three more from underneath its body, where the rounds entered but were not able to exit. The eyes flicker, the tentacles twitch, and there is a sound like a hundred toilets being flushed at once as the body collapses into itself, leaving behind a smoking morass of black, tar-like goo.

The smell is astonishing, and I retreat back to the other end of the room to get as far away from it as I can. As I understand it, destroying a creature like this only wrecks the physical form that was created whenever it was called from the Other Side. When the spirit is released, the physical form immediately decomposes, leaving behind the detritus of centuries-old flesh to decompose all at once. Most are at least that old, as there are too few primitive cultures left creating these things to worship any more.

Contending with them is dangerous business, usually best left to other supernatural creatures. Religious relics will sometimes drive them off, but not reliably. They avoid fire if at all possible. But silver seems to be the only thing that consistently destroys them, like many other “creatures of the night”,  and no one I have met in the last few years can tell me why.

My monthly ammo bill is sky high since the economic collapse forced everyone back into investing in precious metals.

My ears are still ringing as I back into the stairwell I came down originally and stop to reload, then climb back up to the main floor. No other refugees from the world of H.P. Lovecraft seem to be waiting for me, so I head back outside as I pull out my cell phone and re-holster my pistol. This assignment has just taken one hell of a left turn, and I want some back-up before I go much further here.

The phone only rings twice this time, as I step out, squinting against the sunlight, into the parking lot. Clarence’s voice is an aural picture of exasperation.

“Now what, Drake?”

“Clean-up, Clarence – Aisle 5.”

“Where?” He is all business now.

“Annis’ place.”

“OK, hold tight. Have someone there in half an hour. Don’t let anyone else in.” A click, and he is gone.

With that, I dial central booking, hoping that Jess is still in a cell sleeping it off. I need some answers, and apparently she had them all along.

The warfare has started, as foot soldiers begin to engage one another. Strengths are noted, weaknesses are plotted against. Across the city, the human sheep can feel the conflict around them, but do their best to ignore what remains out of their sight, outside of their limited knowledge. They are, at once, both the victims and the prizes here – power over this city grants  nearly a quarter of a million souls to prey upon, a quarter of a million hearts filled with blood, a quarter of a million minds that can be driven to the worship of fear of the unknown.

 

As the evening storm clouds roll in, a fog-like blanket of apathy and terror arrives with it. Here there will be no war for liberation, no voices leading refugees to a promised land. All that will be here is a struggle to decide what powers will survive to prey upon those dwelling in the city alongside the river.

 

The powers may come and go, but the battlefield of Ash Falls remains, forever unchanged.