Wizards in Space Pilot Episode

Bildenploy’s Gambit

By Eugene L. Morgulis

Archmage Foster Bildenploy stroked his beard as he studied the image of the hulking prison ship on the bridge’s main crystal ball.  It was a Guild-commissioned astral vessel, like his own Ivory Scepter, so there wasn’t any obvious cause for concern. But Foster was too shrewd and too cautious to ignore the uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“Wards up,” he said.

Chief security mage Glindon Shafley nodded and whispered an incantation into his thaumaturgic transceiver. “Level 12 ward in place, Archmage,” he said with his second mouth, as his first finished the spell.

“Ms. Plink,” said Foster, “any abnormal intuitions about that vessel?”

The fairy tapped her ear points with two tiny fingers and furrowed her brow in deep concentration.

“Uncertain, Archmage.  The aura readings on board the Golem are normal. Crew and prisoners are all accounted for, but…” Bix Plink bit her lip and flew to the crystal ball, pressing her hands against its smooth milky surface.

“Strange,” she said under her breath.  “My intuition readings keep shifting randomly.  It’s like I’m getting some kind of stochastic feedback.”

Foster’s eyes went wide.  “Bix!  Get away from there!”

But it was too late.  Bix’s delicate body twisted violently, and her glow shifted from yellow to red to purple. In an instant, she was sucked into the orb, her high-pitched scream fading with her.

“I need a probability stabilization field around the entire ship!” ordered Foster.  “Anything you’ve got against chaos magic.”

Glindon looked at him incredulously. Chaos magic was dangerous and unpredictable, which is precisely why the Guild outlawed it ages ago. But Foster Bildenploy expected his crew to be ready for anything.

“Just do it, Glin!” he shouted.

Glindon swung back to his console and began whispering rapidly out of both mouths. Foster listened closely, offering corrections and variations. They just managed to sever the connection that had ensnared Bix when a dark cackle interrupted their enchantments.

“Not fast enough, Foster,” said a creaky voice. “Not fast enough.”

The mages on the bridge turned to the crystal ball, where the prison ship had been replaced by a horrible face.  Two blue eyes blazed inside a storm cloud of black and white hair, from which a long, thin nose shot accusingly. It was a face Foster had not seen for over two decades.

“Kroven!” spat Foster, pounding his armrest. “But how?”

“How did I escape?” said the old warlock with a bemused pedantic air. “Tell me, Foster, do you know what even a small chaos bubble can do when introduced into the brain of a dim-witted prison guard? Especially one with horns on his head that act like thaumaturgical antennae? No? Well, he becomes highly suggestible and most accommodating to even a prisoner’s demands. Before his mind shatters, that is.” Kroven chuckled. “Wonderful stuff, chaos magic. It comes at a price, of course.”

Kroven raised his left hand to reveal that three of his fingers were missing.  “But don’t worry, Foster, I’ve got something to help me with that.”

The mages gasped when they saw what Kroven held in his other hand.

Even with her glow dimmed and her wings crumpled, the fairy retained the delicate grace that immediately caught Foster’s attention when she first floated onto the Ivory Scepter as part of the Guild’s Fairy Inclusion pilot program. She was stronger than she looked, much stronger. But Kroven’s magic was stronger still.

“Bix!  No!” cried Foster.

“Did I detect a hint of sentiment for this creature?” said Kroven, smacking his lips. “Tisk Tisk, Foster.  I believe the Guild discourages romantic relations between an Archmage and his crew.”  He rolled Bix’s tiny body in his palm.  “I’m not even sure how you two would–”

“Let her go!” screamed Foster.

Kroven mulled the demand for several moments as he jerked Bix back and forth like a ragdoll.  “No,” he said finally, and crunched down on her skull like a carrot.

Glindon screamed out of one mouth and said a prayer with the other.  Aldorra Grunn, the Ivory Scepter’s chief healer, muffled a sob with her hands.  After a moment, the bridge fell silent, but for the faint hum of its illumination orbs and the bubbling of various navigational potions.

On the crystal ball’s display, Kroven grinned wide and waggled the fingers that had reappeared on his left hand, good as new, demonstrating fairy blood’s restorative effect on post-chaos appendage displacement.

Foster forced himself to put Bix and their shattered plans for the future out of his mind. He regarded the newly whole warlock with a steely, calculating gaze.  “What do you want, you monster?”

“Only what I am owed, Foster! I want to be reinstated as Archmage Supreme.  I want my own astral ship–Griffon class or higher.  I want my contributions to the field of interstellar sorcery recognized by the Academy.  I want …”

As Kroven listed various grievances and demands, Foster tucked his hands beneath his blue robes and began scribbling on his palm.  As he did, words appeared in the Ivory Scepter’s barracks: SECURITY TEAM TO TRANSPORTAL ROOM. WANDS ON STUN.

Foster glanced at the display to make sure that Kroven was still droning on.  “And most of all, so-called Archmage Bildenploy, I want you to suffer.  I want to you know the pain of losing your position, your life’s work, your…”

A tiny vibration from his signet ring told Foster that the security team had jumped through the portal. They had orders to make their way through The Golem, unenchanting or, if necessary, subduing her enthralled crew, and then to take down Kroven by any means.

“Foster, are you listening?” Kroven sounded annoyed.

“Yes, yes.  Fourteen centaur concubines.  Was that male or female?”

“Some of each. And here I thought you were distracted thinking about your strike team. You needn’t bother.”

Foster blinked, then hurriedly pulled out his owl feather and tapped it on his earlobe.

“Bildenploy to away team,” he whispered, “What happened? Where are you?”

There was no response, so Foster tapped his ear again and tried channeling Krom. Then Phineas. Then Kevin. None answered.

“What have you done to them?” he growled into the orb.

“Nothing at all,” said Kroven. “I did, however, encase this vessel in an outcome-refracting prism, so that anyone trying to portal onto it would be deposited in a random spot in the galaxy. A rather advanced bit of chaos magic that cost me both feet, but your delicious fairy girlfriend fixed that too.”

“Where are my mages?” screamed Foster.

“Well that’s the beauty of chaos, dear boy.  They could be anywhere. On some barren moon.  Inside a neutron star.  Look, there’s one behind you!”

Foster spun around, but saw nothing.  When he turned back, Kroven was falling out of his chair laughing.

“You looked!  I can’t believe you actually looked.” Tears streamed down Kroven’s hairy face. “Stars and moons, Foster, I don’t know whose wand you polished to get your own ship, but they must be regretting it now.  Not as much as your former crewmages, of course, most of whom are probably suffocating in the vacuum of space.  Does the knowledge that you’ve sent so many Red Robes to their deaths bother you?  Or are you used to it by now?”

Foster swatted over the crystal ball, and Kroven’s devilish face disappeared.  The warlock was only half-wrong. It was not that Foster was used to death, although, in his time as Archmage of the Ivory Scepter, he’d certainly seen his share. Rather, it was that Foster had, long ago, forgiven himself for the lives that would be lost under his command. Greatness had a price, though it was often paid by others. Any Archmage who failed to accept this was a fool.

TWO

Foster, Aldorra, and Glindon solemnly made their way to the situational tabernacle, where they gathered with the other officers to weigh their options at the Stone Alter of Strategy.

Engaging Kroven’s ship had been dismissed immediately. The Golem was practically a warship, and while the Ivory Scepter was no sitting goose, she had been designed for exploration beyond the limits of astral projection, not battle. Besides, as Foster was quick to remind them, there were still Guild personnel on board.  To complicate the situation, Kroven was somehow jamming the Ivory Scepter’s sub-ether communications, thus blocking any distress calls.  They were on their own.

“I know it’s not the most noble option,” ventured Ignatius Dee, the ship’s chief alchemist, “but we could make a run for it.”

“A possible option,” said Foster. “What do the tactical divinations tell us?”

All eyes fell upon Helga Moxley-Pox, as the wizened crone slammed a dusty tome upon the altar. After a scabrous lick of her thumb, she flipped through the pages, grunting when she had found the right charts. The others waited in silence as the witch fumbled in her robes, finally producing a bag from which she pulled several small lizards, slit open their bellies with a jagged fingernail, and spat in the wounds. She then smeared their entrails in two lines across the stone.

“The Golem’s too fast,” she whispered after studying the gore pattern. “She‘d overtake us before we reached the nearest Guild outpost.”

Foster cursed. The other mages sat in silence.

“We need to get Kroven off that ship,” he said finally, rubbing his temples. “And the only way to do that, is to offer him something he wants.”

“But you heard his list of demands,” said Aldorra. “They’re–”

“Insane!” interjected Glindon. Such an outburst would have gotten him reprimanded on any other ship, but Foster let it go. He valued his chief security mage’s loyalty as much his spellcasting.

“I was going to say impossible,” continued Aldorra. “But insane works too.”

Foster drummed his fingers on the alter. “Kroven was just toying with us,” he said after some thought. “What he really wants is me.”

The assembled mages began to chatter, but Foster silenced them with a raise of his hand. He then sighed and proceeded to recount how, years ago, Kroven had been his mentor at the Academy. He told them of Kroven’s secret laboratory beneath the witch-hazel grove where the old warlock tried to bring young Foster into his illicit study of chaos magic. Foster had been intrigued at first (that part he left out), but eventually reported Kroven to the Guild leadership, just as any young mage with half a brain would have. The scandal sent Kroven to prison, and put Foster on the path to the command he’d always dreamed of.

“Now,” said Foster, looking around the stunned faces of his crew, “I imagine Kroven is seeking his revenge. So I’m betting he’ll be eager to face me, mage to mage.”

“Archmage, that’s suicide,” said Aldorra.

Glindon nodded anxiously. “I have to agree,” he said. “Kroven could use his chaos magic to, well I don’t know, anything! Destabilize a whole planet maybe. Turn it inside out or into a ball of lava.”

“Potentially,” said Foster, rising from his seat. “Depending on how much of himself he’s willing to lose. But I don’t think he’ll do that, at least not right away.  He’ll play with me for a while. Maybe he’ll get cocky and give me an opening. In the meantime, you all work on getting through to The Golem and rescuing her crew. But be careful. Understood?”

The mages nodded.

“Merlin preserve you, Archmage,” said Glindon with both mouths.

THREE

Planet KD-78 was as nondescript as any lifeless hunk of rock with no name. It had an atmosphere of sorts, owing to a small ocean on its other hemisphere. But, from where Foster was standing, all he could see was a cracked yellow wasteland.

He was wearing every ring, charm, and amulet his crew could spare. Glindon had spent an hour putting every ward he could think of on him, as Aldorra filled his pockets with healing potions and elixirs. Foster had refused Ignatius’s offer of some serious-looking incendiary crystals, guessing that they could be more liability than asset. Still, he felt a rush of fear when the portal opened, and Kroven stepped onto the dusty ground.

“I’ve waited years for this,” said Kroven.

“Then wait no longer,” said Foster and hurled a massive fireball with all his might. The spell screamed toward Kroven, scorching the earth beneath it. He batted it aside and stabbed two fingers at Foster in riposte.

Nothing happened, but for a tiny pop.

“Brilliant, my boy,” said Kroven. “You remembered my affinity for lightening attacks, so you chose a planet with a negative ion atmosphere. Very clever. But it won’t save you!”

Kroven threw up his hands, and the ground beneath Foster’s feet erupted. He slid down the fresh crag, and landed hard on the ground, rolling away moments before the structure crashed down on top of him. Foster barely had time to drink a resetting elixir and massage his ankle bones back into place before the rock behind which he took cover exploded.

“I taught you better than that!” called Kroven.

Foster snapped his fingers and a blinding light shot out. He heard Kroven groan and rolled out from cover, launching a salvo of energy spikes from his fingertips. They zipped through the air, converging on Kroven, but exploded like fireworks before they could damage him. Foster followed up with a pair of fireballs. Kroven deflected one and dodged the other, but he slipped on the ice Foster had blasted below his feet.

Foster was starting to feel confident and preparing another attack when he felt the ether change. What came to his lips was not a spell, but a prayer.

“Protect me,” he uttered as the wave of chaos swept over him.

Several ward layers flaked off like confetti, and the others were struggling to hold their structure. But hold they did.

When Foster looked up, he saw that the chaos wave had cost Kroven a hand. But it hadn’t slowed him down. Before Foster could counter, Kroven sent a focused beam of noxious randomness at him. Foster knew he couldn’t take another hit head on, so he threw himself to the side. Kroven’s blast only winged him, but it was enough.

Foster screamed in pain. His side bubbled with stochastic disruption, as the living cells shifted wildly from state to state, giving off puffs of chlorine, ammonia, and cinnamon. Foster fumbled through his pockets, discarding vial after vial until he found Aldorra’s anti-entropic salve, which managed to negate the roiling rash, leaving the flesh scarred but intact.

“How long do you think you can hold out, Foster?” shouted Kroven, who was now missing his entire left arm.

“Longer than you by the look of it.”

“You should have joined me. Or at least kept your mouth shut. Now I’ll tear you apart atom by atom.”

Kroven growled as he gathered up entropic forces around him, causing the air to crackle with improbability. Foster lobbed a few magical attacks, but they each fizzled in the swirl of chaos surrounding the warlock. With a deep bellow, Kroven raised his remaining fist to the sky and called down a torrent of disordered reality.

 

Foster had managed to cast a few additional wards, but they only held for a moment. The stronger ones Glindon had set were collapsing quickly as well. Foster yanked an emerald ring from his finger with his teeth and swallowed it with a prodigious gulp. The added burst of power sent his heart racing, and he did his best to shore up the remaining barriers.

All around him, corporeality was boiling. Atoms split and bonded at random, creating a billowing lightshow as windows to other places, times, and dimensions opened for fractions of moments and then disappeared into the boundless chasm of possibility.

Foster’s strength was failing. He drank a fortifying potion and poured another over his head, but Kroven’s power was still too much. The wards were collapsing. The chaos was encroaching. And with a flash of light, it was over.

 

When Foster opened his eyes he saw that he was suspended above a mass of undifferentiated matter. But more importantly, that he was whole. Some of the chaos energy had made it through his shields, but thankfully, it had been absorbed by a very rare and powerful thermodynamic amulet produced from the recesses of Helga Moxley-Pox’s bottomless robe. The concentrated uncertainty had turned the amulet’s jewel into a burnt turnip.

Wearily, Foster floated to a patch of solid-looking ground, careful to avoid hanging bits of plasma. The sky, once green, was now lilac, and the air smelled of copper. He was lucky to be alive.

Kroven had not faired as well. Indeed, he was now no more than a head and torso, hovering uneasily in the air. Even his nose was gone. And yet, when Foster approached him, he saw that Kroven’s eyes were as calm as two glacial lakes.

“It appears you are out of protective trinkets,” said Kroven.

Foster laughed. “It appears you are out of limbs.”

“You continue to underestimate me, Foster. I’ll be whole in a moment. But you’ll still be defenseless.”

Kroven craned his neck and tongued something from a hidden pocket in the flap on his right shoulder. Foster squinted and saw that it was a tiny leg. It disappeared into Kroven’s mouth, which twisted unpleasantly as he swallowed what remained of Bix Plink and started to laugh.

Foster was exhausted. He sat on the ground and removed his boots.

“Giving up already?” called Kroven. “Not going to even attempt a last stand? I don’t blame you. As soon as I…I…” Kroven clammed up when he realized that he wasn’t regenerating.

“Do you know what I hate most about chaos magic,” said Foster, rubbing the empty space where his pinky toe should have been. “It itches like hell.”

Kroven’s eyes darted in panic. “You…you changed it. You transformed the fairy’s leg before I swallowed it. With chaos magic!”

“Sure,” said Foster. “I’ve been using chaos magic for years. Ever since you showed me. I had to be discreet, of course, but it got easier once Bix started providing me with doses of her fairy blood for regeneration. You would have liked her, Kroven. Ambitious. Loyal. Experimental. You weren’t supposed to eat her, you buffoon. Now I’ll have to find another one. Oh well. Plenty more fairies at the Academy since the Guild granted them equal rights.”

“You planned this?” stammered Kroven.

Foster smiled and shrugged. “Do you know how long it takes to rise through the ranks of the Guild? I mean, there’s no one on the leadership council under 250! So I got to thinking, if tattling on you helped me make Archmage, imagine what I’ll get by defeating you single-handed. They might even make me Archmage Supreme!”

“But I found you,” said Kroven, bobbing in bewilderment as he struggled to stay aloft. “I bested your ship.”

“Yes, and it took you long enough. I even had to get that horn-faced dolt a guard position aboard The Golem. His name was Grozzjack, by the way. Most incompetent mage I ever commanded, not that I said so in my recommendation letter. I figured he’d give you an opening, and you took the bait as expected. Of course then I had to make sure I’d have you all to myself, which is why I sabotaged the Ivory Scepter’s communications. Now, no one will doubt that I had no choice but to bravely face you alone.”

Kroven fumed, but said nothing. Foster could sense scraps of magical energies collecting around his diminished frame for a last desperate attack.

“Can I just ask you one thing?” called Foster. “And then I promise I’ll give you a free shot.”

Kroven grimaced. “Ask.”

“Out of all the random possibilities in the universe, what did the Bix’s leg turn into in your mouth? It didn’t look terribly tasty.”

Kroven narrowed his eyes and snorted. “Licorice.”

“Oh,” said Foster, disappointed.

“I hate licorice.”

“Oh!” said Foster happily and launched a magic missile that severed Kroven’s head from his torso.

 THE END

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.

010) CD Review #3: “Forever Angels” & “Citizen Flame”

 

It’s been several weeks since the last Bone Pile post. Thankfully, the awesome dudes at Fiction Vortex have been working like mad to fix a number of website bugs, so we should be ready to rock & roll from here on out.

Joy.

This week’s post is #3 in an ongoing collection of double short story reviews published in the great Cemetery Dance Magazine. If you have no idea who Cemetery Dance is, first: shame on you… go read this then come back here.

Why “double” reviews? I’m showcasing the change within the genre over time by reviewing one Old story (from the 1980s) & one New story (from the 2010s).

If you end up liking what’s below & haven’t yet read the other posts, here they are:

CD Review #1: “Body Perfect” & “A Devil Inside”

CD Review #2: “A Breathe of Fresh Air” & “Down There”

Ok then… on to the goods!


THE OLD: “Forever Angels”

Cemetery Dance, issue #1

Cemetery Dance, issue #1

AUTHOR: Ronald Kelly

APPEARANCE: CD Issue #1 (December 1988), story 4 of 12

PLOT (with spoilers!):

New to the 2nd grade at Glover County, Deanna falls easily for a bully’s prank. While visiting the local graveyard’s special ‘children’ section, she is teased that her house is so close (indeed, it’s visible from where they stand), that the dead babies will come for her. Then the bully’s friends rustle some bushes and call ‘Mama’ & ‘Dada’ in infantile voices.

Cover "art" for "Forever Angels" (not much to enjoy here, but better than nothing I suppose)

Cover “art” for “Forever Angels” (not much to enjoy here, but better than nothing I suppose)

That night, the incident sparks a horrible memory from her grandfather’s funeral two years before: Deanna had wandered into another mourning room where she saw a tiny coffin with an infant boy inside the same age as her little brother, Timothy. Worse still, when turning to leave she heard the dry sound of the plastic rattle in the dead boy’s hand.

Unable to sleep, Deanna hears a baby’s soft cry coming from the woods. She looks outside and sees a dozen, small, hairless heads “bobbing through the tall grass and honeysuckle like dolphins cresting the waves of a stormy sea.” [What a great simile, btw] Yet when she screams and her parents come running, they see nothing.

Days later, she & her family are at a community picnic when a drunken Cherokee chief, Redhawk, tells her the children’s cemetery was placed on top of sacred indian grounds. That night, Deanna has the worst nightmare of her life: Alone in the cemetery under the full moon, Redhawk and the rest of his ancient tribe arrive and perform a chant whereupon the ground rips open and dozens of dead children crawl out and come after her. Quickly surrounded, Deanna climbs a tree to escape and sees Timothy is already in the highest branches, though his face is “deathly ashen.” As he reaches for her, she falls… then wakes, drenched in sweat.

Downing cold water in the kitchen moments later, Deanna hears a noise like a plastic rattle at the back door. She looks, sees nothing, but goes outside and finds an old, dirt-strewn, bootie covered in maggots. She looks to the lawn beyond and again sees the dozens of pale heads, but this time they are retreating from her house. Her mother is there then, and they discuss her nightmare before going upstairs to check on Timothy… who is dead in his crib.

The pediatrician diagnoses it as “crib death”, something Deanna doesn’t understand but learns happens every now and then in Glover County. And despite Deanna’s cries and screams, her parents bury Timothy in the children’s cemetery. She is thenceforth subjected to nightly visits by a single, tiny shadow that makes low cooing sounds from the other side of her window. And though she never once opens her eyes to look, each morning another toy is missing from Timothy’s crib.

MY GRADE: A-

MY REVIEW:

Author blurb on Ronald Kelly provided by Cemetery Dance.

Author blurb on Ronald Kelly provided by Cemetery Dance.

Ok, first of all, this is as creepy as creepy can get. Dead children? Crawling from the grave? And killing other children? Yeeks! But once again, I need to consider the possibility of these events being proposed as real vs. being symbolic- in this case, in Deanna’s imagination.

For this story, it’s actually quite easy to conclude that everything is in Deanna’s head. After all, she’s just 7 years old herself and particularly susceptible to imaginary terrors. Add to that her experience at her grandfather’s funeral, her house’s proximity to the children’s graveyard, the prank played by the class bully, and the drunken rantings of an old Indian chief… well, how can you blame her? We even have direct *evidence* that Deanna is seeing things: her parents are there the night she sees the dead children coming through the tall grasses, but they see nothing.

So, yes, all of it could easily be interpreted as nothing more than the vivid terrors of a girl who doesn’t like her new home and hasn’t gotten over the lingering creepiness of seeing a boy her brother’s age in a coffin- something no 7-year-old should ever have to see.

And yet…

And yet, in the Horror genre, we are often (usually?) asked to take things as real. We are asked to believe in monsters and zombie-like babies rising from their graves. And if you’re looking for evidence for this as well, answer me this: Why have so many kids died from ‘crib death’ in that town? And who is taking those toys from Timothy’s crib each night… the bully?… Deanna’s parents?…maybe even Deanna herself in some kind of fugue state or super-short amnesia? Meh. Unlikely solutions, all of them. No, in this case, we are more likely to feel for Deanna precisely because we believe it’s all really happening and because her suffering isn’t only being chased by dead children… it’s in not being believed. She’s alone, and will be for the forseeable future.

*NOW* how messed up is this story?

And how horrible is that ending?

Yep. I gave it a high mark for a reason. As I’ve said before & will undoubtedly say again, this one resonates. I just love that.

2 Other Quick Thoughts:

  1. ONE CRITICISM: 2nd Graders? Really? I know kids back then (1988) had more freedom than kids of today, but for my money taking an impromptu trip to the local cemetery at that age is still a bit much to swallow.
  2. ONE QUESTION: Why do the new kids in town always seem to get picked on in these stories? An  Answer: Because they are easy targets, both in real life and for authors. 😉

THE NEW: “Citizen Flame”

Cemetery Dance, issue #73

Cemetery Dance, issue #73

AUTHOR: Nik Houser

APPEARANCE: CD Issue #73 (March 2016), story 4 of 5

PLOT (with spoilers!): -WARNING: This story has graphic details. Read at your own risk!-

An unnamed narrator- I’ll call him ‘Citizen Flame’, or ‘CF’ for short- is driving angry and lost. He’s thinking about his wife (divorce papers the day before)… about his daughter, Katie, (left home 2 years back)… about Katie’s ex-boyfriend (just uploaded their sex tape online)… about his business partner (screwed CF and, apparently, was also screwing his wife).

In frustration CF tells his GPS to “Go to Hell.”

Cover art for "Citizen Flame"

Cover art for “Citizen Flame” (So much more detail these days, huh?)

It pauses for a bit, ‘thinking’, then asks if he’d like the scenic or direct route. CF laughs, opts for the direct route, and follows its guidance. Thirty miles later, the green dot of his car is hovering over the red dot of his supposed destination: a little gas station in a town labeled ‘Hell’. A nearby road sign reads: Thanks For Abandoning All Hope.

Parked there is a man in a minivan screaming at his fighting children. The prices of gas are “Unleaded: ARM. Plus: LEG. Premium: THE REST”. CF asks the attendant for the bathroom. He is given a key ring pierced to the ear of a rotting cat.

In the bathroom CF finds Mrs. Minivan giving a “vigorous blowjob” to a biker. The biker points to & offers her bare rear end to CF. He escapes & sees Mr. Minivan now has his hands down his pants while his children scream & throttle each other.

CF tries to steal gas just to get the hell out of town, but urine comes from the nozzle. Back inside, he finds a phone book but the only listings are for names like Destroyer, Azzathoth and Devourer, Cthuugoth.

He walks to town & overhears a pharmacist prescribes shards of broken glass to stave off pleasant dreams. The customer says to tell his slut wife hello. Pharmacist suggests her husband should “[email protected]#k his little leaguers”.

CF runs & finds himself following a crowd to a movie theater clamboring with people angry at the Sold Out sign. The marquee lists the feature to be: “KATIE [email protected]#KS A FRAT BOY… IN 3-D!!!” CF sneaks inside only to learn it isn’t just 3-D, but live. Katie & her ex are on stage & start kissing & undressing in front of the hundreds of people, one of whom happens to be CFs younger self which, in turn, is happily fondling a six-year-old version of Katie.

[NOTE: CF’s honest reaction to this is, “No! I never!” which tells me he did NOT, in fact, engage in incestual pedophilia. Hooray for small favors.]

More art for "Citizen Flame"

More art for “Citizen Flame”

CF charges the stage, interrupting the ‘movie-goers’ show, so they charge at him with knives. He runs back to his car, determined to drive on fumes as far as possible. Mr. Minivan is still there, but his children are finally quiet, their throats slashed with his keys.

CF’s car won’t start. The mob catches up. Is pounding on his windows. CF pleads to go back home to how it was before. Katie’s voice comes through the GPS speaker, telling him that destination is not in her database. CF screams & blubbers through snot & tears that he’s sorry. As the windows crack into so many spiderwebs, he remembers the gun he brought with him to take care of the jerk who defiled his daughter. He takes it, presses it into the soft pallet at the roof of his mouth…

…and Katie’s voice tells him to make a U-turn.

CF blinks. Drops the gun. Tries the engine, which turns over immediately. He shreds rubber, driving through the mob. He follows the GPS directions. They are simple & clear. He never runs out of gas. He eyes the red dot the whole way home, expecting it to vanish or to wake from a nightmare. Neither happens, and he knows both the red dot and the road to it- paved with good intentions, he has no doubt- will always be easy to find with its lanes always open.

MY GRADE: B+

MY REVIEW:

Author Blurb on Nik Nouser provided by Cemetery Dance

Author Blurb on Nik Houser provided by Cemetery Dance

You can’t actually tell it from the above summary, but this one was actually quite funny. There must have been a half-dozen times I literally snorted with joy. Here are my favorite 3 moments to prove my point:  

1- “When I told the GPS on my dashboard to go to Hell, I didn’t expect it to take me seriously.”

2- “The only other cars I’d seen in the last hour were a minivan tailing a motorcycle like it was a few rpms away from f—ing it.”

3- “The guy behind the counter [at the gas station] weighed a little less than my car.”

The humor- and thank God for it- helped me to endure the rest. Because as I’m sure you CAN tell from the above summary, this story is also quite crude, which is never to my particular taste. If you want to know more about why I feel that way and (more importantly) why this is nevertheless part of the Horror genre, you need to look at my original post from this blog: ‘What Horror Is’, as well as it’s counterpart, ‘What Horror Isn’t’.

In the meantime, let’s finish off by acknowledging the elephant in the room…

Despite how distasteful much of this story is, it’s also a classic Uncomfortable-to-Bad-to-Worse-to-WTFDidIJustRead?! type of Horror story. Like it or not, this design works. Every paragraph is worse than the last. Every scene makes you wish you could go back a column & enjoy the relative tame-ness of what you’d once thought was so bad. And the elephant in the room is this: Sometimes, that’s the point of Horror… to put readers on edge. To make them not just uncomfortable but downright squeamish.

Dante's Inferno, as depicted by famed Renaissance artist, Sandro Botticelli. Seriously... zoom in & just LOOK at all those brutal details!

Dante’s Inferno, as depicted by famed Renaissance artist, Sandro Botticelli. Seriously… zoom in & just LOOK at all those brutal details!

After all, if this ‘Citizen Flame’ guy really did manage to find his way to Hell itself through his own angry perceptions & decisions in life, isn’t it SUPPOSED to be a truly horrific experience? And before you (or I, to be perfectly honest) judge too harshly, lets reflect briefly on Dante’s “Inferno” or the thousand other depictions of Hell that have popularized the famous written works of the past. Honestly, this story is perhaps more descriptive, but still pretty mild compared to Dante’s overall vision.

As much as I don’t like the grotesque nature of this version of Horror, I couldn’t turn away either. In fact, I read faster & faster as I got towards the end. Maybe this was to get the darned thing over with as soon as I could, but it was also to find out what happened to this guy. Does he escape?! Does he learn?! Will any of us?

In other words, it’s compelling stuff.

And for that, I give a nod of respect to Mr. Houser.  


FINAL THOUGHT

Wondering where stories #4 for these 2 issues of Cemetery Dance went? Think I’ve gone prematurely old & senile & somehow forgot/ skipped them?

Nope.

They’re being published separately… on Cemetery Dance Online!!!

Yep. I’m actually going to be one of their columnists doing pretty much what I do here, only over there I’ll be concentrating much more heavily on the CD reviews (obviously). This is both because of their natural fan base, and also because every so often a story or two catch me so unawares with HolyCowThatWasAwesome that I need to write a whole heck of a lot more about them.

Over on Cemetery Dance, that’s where I can unleash and get *really* in depth about a pair of stories that *really* rocked my world.

Right now that column is yet untitled & the first publication is slated for sometime in October. But for now I can tell you the first column is written & both the stories I’ve reviewed were friggin’ amazing.

LMK if you are as stoked as I am to get that column moving.  


Agree or disagree with any of this?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

-K. Edwin Fritz

K. Edwin Fritz

K. Edwin Fritz

Official Horror Blogger of the Fiction Vortex

Keith Edwin Fritz entered this world on Halloween. The year, 1974, was the same as when Stephen Edwin King published his first novel. Keith prefers to think neither the date nor their middle names were a coincidence.

Today Keith teaches 7th Grade Language Arts and writes to his heart’s content during his "spare time". The best of these moments are nearly always by moonlight. The worst of them are also by moonlight.

Keith lives with his wife, Corina, in Lawrenceville, NJ.

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Ficton Vortex Animation Short

Ficton Vortex Animation Intro

Meet Jim “Buck” Buckner

Today we here at the Green Porch are honored to have Professor Jim Buckner introducing himself and the work he has been doing to procure and edit the Lost DMB Files. Leading exploratory geologist and adventurer, I’ll let him speak for himself!

Why the Lost DMB Files matter

oil derricks Recently many good meaning folk have asked me why. Why risk my life and my reputation over some dusty old stories? Thanks for asking.

March 13th, 2000 my father led the last previously known expedition into the heart of the Arabian Oil Zone (AOZ). Two weeks later I emerged as the only survivor. I was twelve. Something happened to me in the desert, something I still don’t totally understand. Upon my daughter’s diagnosis with de novo syndrome, a hereditary disorder, I made it my life’s goal to uncover the mysteries of my lost past.

Who or what resides within the AOZ? Is the twitch retrovirus directly linked to the drilling and/or refining of petroleum? Or is it connected with some secondary or tertiary factor? Is de novo syndrome a natural evolution of the twitch, or a genetic manipulation made by human hands? Soon after accepting a teaching and research position at the University of Texicas, my quest took a surprising twist.

I received a copy of The Austin Job on the same day my daughter was kidnapped. But I’ll spare you the details of that story here, one you can read about in my book, De Novo Syndrome. For now, it will suffice to say I discovered a personal usefulness within the Lost DMB Files to help me along my life long quest.
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