Prompt — An Unexpected Chat

The breeze sent a chill down Merideth’s spine as she waited beneath the tree for the sun to set. It still had a ways to go. The nights came later now that daylight savings had passed. She didn’t know how to feel about that. The only emotion she really felt was weariness, but then, that was every day.

“You know, there aren’t many trees in England these days,” she noted, glancing back to the tree for a moment before returning her gaze to the sunset. “Perhaps that’s why I like this spot. You’re an odd one. An old sentinel from an older time.”

The tree made no reply, as right it oughtn’t. There was a structure to the world, and talking trees simply did not fit.

“I reckon you feel that bloody breeze as well as I, no? It’s a bit drafty up on this hill, how do you stand it?”

“I find a coat does wonders for the breeze.”

Merideth spun around, expecting to see the tree miraculously sporting a trench coat and scarf. Instead, she saw a man with a trench coat and a scarf, tipping his hat as he walked up the far side of the hill towards her.

“You heard all that?”

“Just the bit about the cold, I’m afraid,” the stranger replied. He sounded American.

“You must think me daft,” she smiled, scoffing a bit at her own embarrassment.

“No, but you do seem to be struggling with the draft.” He emphasized the last word to rhyme it with her pronunciation of ‘daft’.

“I’m not entirely sure it’s wise to mock the accent of a person native to the country you’re visiting.”

“Yes, well, ‘Hello I’m Raymond Stenton’ becomes a boring introduction after a time. I try to lead with the insults first and then be nice later.”

She eyed him, not sure what to think about his peculiarity.

“Hello, I’m Raymond Stenton, by the way,” he added with a wink as he extended a hand out.

“Merideth,” she replied, taking it.

“Lovely name,” he smiled.

She grimaced. “Okay, ease it up a bit, I’m not fishing for compliments.”

“Would you like me to make another quip about your accent?”

“Does this work on every girl?”

He shrugged. “Only the ones who are lonely enough to talk to trees.”

“You’re interrupting a perfectly good evening.”

“I should say the same to you, what if I wanted to chat up this tree?”

“I saw him first.”

“Yes, but I think your tree flirting could use some work. The weather is never a good place to start with these things.”

Merideth folder her arms. She wasn’t in the mood to talk to strangers. Especially not one like him. And yet there was something about his presence that seemed… genuine.

“Why are you here?” she asked.

He tapped a satchel he kept at his side. “I start every travel vacation by climbing to the highest spot I can find and drawing places that look interesting. Then I go there.”

“Not much of anything interesting here.”

“I wouldn’t say that. I’ve found no shortage of conversation, and if you run off I can take my chances with the tree.”

She chuckled at that, and Raymond’s eyes lit up. “I’m not sure you’ll get very far,” she said.

“Oh, I don’t expect to. Trees aren’t known for their love of long walks.”

“You talk almost as if you have quip for everything I say.”

“I do. I keep a small journal at home of every possible sentence a stranger might say to me, and I’ve written and memorized a response for each. It’s a lot of work, I admit.”

“I can’t imagine that leaves much time for anything else,” she reasoned.

He waved it off. “It was just a long weekend for me. Now, if you don’t mind me asking, what were you doing up here?”

Merideth looked back out to the horizon to watch as the last shred of light dipped beneath the skyline. She thought about telling him the truth, but he wouldn’t believe it. Nobody could, without seeing it. Still, she couldn’t outright lie.

“I was… planning on a chat. With someone I haven’t seen for a long time.”

His face grew more serious. “You weren’t talking to the tree.”

She looked back at the tree that served as the invisible grave marker, wiping away a tear. “No, I wasn’t.”

Another breeze went by and the cold flooded through her body. Before she knew it Raymond’s coat was wrapped around her and the frigid air was staved off.

“I’m sorry for interrupting you,” he said. “I had no idea.”

“It’s alright. You really are charming.”

“That’s nice of you to say, but in my ignorance I’ve been terribly rude. You can keep the coat as my apology. It was a pleasure to meet you.” He was already moving towards the direction he’d come, and Merideth was hit with several emotions she couldn’t immediately place.

“How about coffee?” she called after him.

“I’m sorry?” he turned.

“Let’s do this properly tomorrow, yeah? I’ll buy you a coffee and return your coat.”

He smiled and nodded. “I’d like that very much, Merideth. Have a good night.”

 

 

(Not as faithful to the prompt as I usually am, but hey, the story wanted to go it’s own way. I think it turned out all the better for it.)

Prompt: https://megatruh.deviantart.com/art/garden-in-the-sky-726244864

garden_in_the_sky_by_megatruh-dc0dy4g

Prompt — The Fallen Crown

This wasn’t happening. It had to be a dream. A horrible, cursed dream.

“Your Highness, time is of the essence. They’ve already breached the walls.”

I turned away from the window back to my three Shieldsworn, all bearing the full plate so rarely worn in their line of work, each one bearing a full tower shield. I couldn’t understand how they bore all that weight in addition to the heavy silence in the room, which was as much as I could bear.

“I have no wish to be elsewhere when the Citadel falls,” I muttered, glancing back out to see the sea of invaders crashing against the wall below.

“You will be of no use to your people dead, Highness,” Berun urged. “Commander Arturas has already pledged himself to the safety of this city. He will fall in your place. Do not let his sacrifice be in vain.”

I nodded, scratching my beard as idle thoughts passed through my head. He was right, but he spoke as if he encouraged a peer, not as he begged his king. They all spoke like that. Even Arturas, noble as he was. “Very well, let us be off. If the savages want the Citadel so badly they can have it. I can rule my people elsewhere for the time being, and once our army returns we can take back the city with ease.”

And so we glided down the endless flight of stairs that served as an escape route of the Cloudreach Citadel. It probably hadn’t seen any use in centuries, as the dust in the air was so thick I could taste it. Berun stormed down the stairs ahead, his torch painting the old stones in a dark orange as we passed. Did they have to build these stairs so steep? One misstep could send you tumbling down for an hour.

“These barbarians,” I said, breaking the silence. “Arturas mentioned that they are invading from the west?”

“Yes, Highness. And hardier than most soldiers. They are as fearless as they are innumerable. It as a terrifying combination to face.”

We spent the rest of the flight in the dark halls in silence. Through the stonework I could hear the distant cries of my beloved city falling to pieces. I could hear how close we were to the ground based on how far away the clamor was.

“Stay close to us, Highness,” Berun said once we found the door. “It is unlikely that they will recognize you, but if you hold fast to our sides we can protect you. And, with all due respect, your Highness, you should remove your crown.”

I bit my lip. It would make me a target. I took it off and glared at it as it gleamed in the fire light. No time for disagreements now. My Shieldsworn were in their element here, and it would be foolish not to follow their lead. I stowed it in the pack to my side.

Berun snuffed his torch, leaving it on the ground and shoving the door open. We emerged into a throng of chaos—what few guards were stationed here in the city held off the numerous invaders. Even outnumbered, they held the savages back with ease, cutting down foe after foe. They were endless, however, and well trained as they were, my men were losing ground.

“This way,” Berun gestured. I followed close behind.

The chaos was loud. Steel slammed against steel. Men shouted as they barked orders, or cried as they were cut down. Horns blared, and flaming missiles soared through the sky as they bombarded the already crumbling wall.

“I know not what follows this day,” I muttered. “But I pray my people can endure these dark times.”

“Down with the King!” somebody shouted. “Down with Erharad!”

The sound of glass breaking accompanied these cries. I couldn’t place the origin, but it seemed to be coming from the invading soldiers. I watched as a guard cut down a couple armed only with farming sickles. They didn’t even wear proper armor.

“Your Highness, keep up if you please,” Berun pressed, half turned as he watched both me and the path ahead.

I lingered for a moment, watching as the horde of enemies crashed into the front line. We were losing ground, but it was from the sheer mass, not because the enemy had any training. It was like we were being invaded by…

“Peasants,” I murmured.

“Highness!” one of the other Shieldsworn shouted, shoving me to the ground as she moved herself in between me and something—or someone—I hadn’t noticed. The unexpected toss took more wind out of me than I would have guessed, and it took me a moment to get my bearings once more. As I made to get up, I noticed that my crown had been cast aside, apparently not as safe and secure as I thought. It now bore a dent on the side, but whether it was new or simply unnoticed I couldn’t say. Instinctively, I put it on as I stood to my feet.

And watched in horror as my assailant—a young woman wielding no more than a small dagger, was kicked and beaten by two of my three fully armored Shieldsworn.

“What is the meaning of this?” I scolded, pushing aside my escorts. They stopped with some hesitation. Evidently they deemed her no threat at this point, a broken and bloody mess as she was.

“Whatever could you mean, Highness? She clearly meant you harm. This is a battle,” the Shieldsworn that had thrown me aside said. She scanned the perimeter as she did, not the least bit concerned.

“Speaking of,” Berun chimed in, “We should be going. And, uh, Highness, your crown.”

I ignored him. Instead, I turned to face my attacker, who was lying in pain as she stared up at the burning sky. “Where do you come from?”

After a moment, her eyes focused on me, which seemed a great deal of effort on her part. “Easthaven,” she coughed.

“Easthaven? That’s no more than twenty miles from here.” Arturas had told me they were barbarians from the west. “Why are you here? What is your purpose in coming?”

“Down with… the King…” she spat up at me, but she didn’t have the strength or energy, so a trickle of blood spilled out of her mouth as she lost consciousness.

I turned to Berun. “Why are my own people invading my city?”

“She could just be lying, sir. It could simply be the nearest town they’ve ransacked. Now, please, your crown. You need to put it away and we must flee before—”

CITIZENS OF CLOUDREACH!” a voice boomed from above. The clamor lessened slightly as the Shieldsworn and I looked up.

To see the form of Commander Arturas standing on the lower balcony of the Cloudreach Citadel.

OUR CAMPAIGN WAS A SUCCESS. KING ERHARAD HAS FALLEN, AND WE HAVE COMPLETED OUR QUEST OF OVERTHROWING A CORRUPT AND SELF-SERVING KINGDOM. I, ARTURAS, HAVE SEEN TO HIS BITTER END MYSELF. LET THIS BLOODSHED END AS WE BUILD A NEW FUTURE FOR OURSELVES AND OUR FAMILIES.

I faced back to my Shieldsworn, who turned to me in kind.

“Let’s go, Your Highness,” Berun said, with less urgency but more expectation that I would obey.

Arturas kept shouting as the first signs of the ending strife showed. He spoke of new beginnings and the restoration of virtues.

I removed my crown and thumbed the new dent, following my three Shieldsworn as we made to flee the city. But a question buried itself in my mind.

Wouldn’t killing me have been easier than all this?

Prompt: https://waqasmallick.deviantart.com/art/Wall-Break-730174861

Prompt — Convergence of Planes

“Oh, Great Watcher Above, give unto us your seed so that we may cultivate and harness growth where once was desolation.”

The low hum of the life energy pouring in and out of the bodies of each of the twelve druids resonated deep into the sands below and around the circle. They stood in perfect symmetry, performing a sacred ritual of change and life as had only been done once before in recent memory.

For now, the sweltering heat of the Great Shiba Desert hammered on, boring away at their resolve. The dry heat of the sands blew between their legs and into their eyes, almost as if the desert itself was defying their magics and defending itself.

“We ask that you cleanse these lands,” Aoliban continued, “And bear forth fruit that will bring life to your people so that we may serve you better.”

The ritual continued as life flowed through each of the druids, but a hint of confusion mixed itself into the atmosphere.

“Those are not the words, Aoliban,” Vysus, the druid to his right murmured. It was not an admonishment but a question.

“It didn’t work the last time,” Aoliban replied, voice hushed so that the gods could not hear him. “So I am invoking new words.”

“I hope you know what you are doing,” she said.

He knew.

“Oh, Great Watcher Above, we ask not that you remove the ancient curse that pervades this wasteland, only that you give us this one small piece, so that life can continue without unnecessary suffering.”

The humming grew louder as the air blurred inside the circle of druids. The portal was opening. The warm beige of the desert twisted as it transformed into lazy purples, then pale blues, then lush greens.

Anticipation did not deter the concentrations each druid held. The planes of existence began to converge on this small spot, and Aoliban had to be careful to choose the correct plane, or else everything would be ruined. Just like last time.

“Great Watcher Above, we seek your guidance in embracing your realm. Just as my own sister who came before me served you, I wish to show my own brethren your awesome power.”

The hazy colors that danced inside the circle began shifting to dark grey, and the excitement of the circle shifted towards trepidation once more.

“Aoliban…?” Vysus asked.

Aoliban did not address her. Instead, he kept his eyes on the realm beyond. “I wish to see my sister again, Great Watcher Above. Let the borders between our worlds merge in this space so that your light once again shines on this barren land, and so that I can join hands with my family once more.”

The greys and purples of the other plane deepened. The soft sand they stood upon grew more sturdy as they found themselves partially in another world. One of bone and death.

“Aoliban we are your family,” Vysus countered.

He turned to her, arms still outstretched as the other druids fought to keep this unexpected realm at bay. He kept his voice low as he addressed her. “No. Not since the last ritual failed, and my sister was taken. I serve a new god now.”

Vysus’ eyes widened and she clutched her arms to her side. “Druids! Close the portal, now!”

“It’s too late for that,” a new voice said, feminine and somewhat distant. A blueish figure wrapped in thin robes appeared in the center of the circle, barefoot as she stepped on the pool of broken skulls. She approached the two druids with a small smile, eyes lost as if staring far off into the horizon.

As the circuit of green life energy broke, this piece of the death realm tethered itself to this spot in the desert, and sand gently trailed amidst the piles of bones.

“Hello, Aicrin. I feared I’d never see you again,” Aoliban said. As he watched, his sister’s eyes focused on him, standing on the edge of life and death.

“Dearest brother, you’ve doomed our people just to see me once more?”

Aoliban glanced about the circle of druids, who were now readying spells of defense. The ritual was over. An unprecedented success. “I did.”

Aicrin looked around at the men and women that surrounded her. “Isn’t anyone else happy to see me?”

“This is an abomination,” Vysus spat. “Sacrilege.”

“Now, that simply depends on which god you serve, Vysus.”

Her eyes were gleaming daggers that bore into him, but he cared little for her rage. He had already won. “This is an unforgivable offense, Aoliban. Your sister will return to the realm from which she came, and you shall join her!”

She moved to leap at him, but found her foot caught. She looked down to see skeletal hands grasping about her shins as the undead began pulling themselves out of the sea of bones, especially around the other druids.

“I’ve made some friends in my time here, brother,” Aicrin noted. “It seems they, too, are eager to return to the living.”

Aoliban nodded. “It seems only fitting that we offer our thanks to the Great Watcher Above.”

 

 

Prompt: https://88grzes.deviantart.com/art/Growing-Rites-of-Itlimoc-Magic-the-Gathering-737337757

Story — Three of Spades

“They’re going to die, aren’t they?”

“Probably. But such is life.”

Hart frowned, folding her arms as she stared at her brother. “Why do you do this, Spades?”

“You’ll have to be more specific than that, dear, I detest pronouns.”

“This game you play. Exploring the same moment in time over and over again with different adventurers. What do you get out of it?”

Spades nodded, swirling the wine glass in his hands and then pouring it out onto the table. As soon as it left the glass, the wine stopped moving, frozen in time just as the rest of the tavern was from the moment Hart walked in. He addressed her from across the bar. “That’s a neat trick, you know. You simply must show how to do that some time.”

“You bend the fabric of reality to repeat the same days over and over and you want to know how to stop time?”

“You’re right. Where will we ever find the time for such a thing?”

“Spades—”

“I’m looking for something, sister.”

Hart squinted, noticing the change in Spades’ tone. “What, exactly?”

“A change. An abnormality, one might say. You know, the last group of people I sent on this quest completed it without a hitch. Perfectly executed. They didn’t even break the curse.”

“Sounds like they were capable,” Hart said.

“They were boring, dear. I don’t care about competence, I want to be entertained.”

“So you’re sending a group that is the polar opposite of the last one. So woefully unprepared that they have no hope of survival?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. I’ll give them a boon. To increase the likelihood for quality entertainment.”

“And what would that be?”

Spades pulled out a deck of cards from his coat pocket and laid the top card onto the table. As soon as one corner of the card made contact with the wood, it froze in place, showing a face up three of spades. Hart rolled her eyes.

“I’ll be a little more direct this time around,” Spades said, shuffling the rest of the deck. “As long as it gets me a more interesting show.”

“This is pathetic.”

“You can watch with me, if you want.”

Hart’s face convulsed. “Watch as half a dozen people, possibly far more, get slaughtered.”

“Since when did you become a paragon of virtue? It doesn’t suit you, I must say.”

“You’re insufferable.”

Spades smirked. “Yet here you are of your own volition, suffering me.”

Hart stood from the table and looked about the tavern, still as a painting. “Tell me something, Spades.”

“Something honest, or clever, or stupid?”

“Something honest,” Hart said.

“Ah, good choice. That’ll cost you, though. I’m afraid information isn’t cheap.”

“I’ll show you how to freeze time.”

Spades nodded. “That’s more like it. What do you want to know?”

“Is this group the one? Are they different from any of the others?”

“Probably not. I expect them to set a record for quickest failure, to be honest. In all likelihood they’ll be dead by midnight. But it’s about the journey, dear sister, not the destination. After all, we all find ourselves in Death’s chill embrace in the end.”

“You really are despicable.”

“Yes, yes, I’m well aware. Now hurry up and undo the spell, I haven’t got all day.” He thought about that for a second. “Well, perhaps I do, and therein lies a new problem.”

Hart glanced at the table, then back to him. “As you wish.”

She snapped her fingers, and the tavern was brought back to life. As the ruckus of the Daylight’s Kiss resumed around them, both the card and the wine fell onto the table, red liquid pouring over the edges and onto Spades’ hands and clothes.

He looked up at her, unamused. “Don’t think the irony is lost on me, sister,” he grumbled.

“I should hope not. After all you do love your symbols.”

Lisa Stenton — Lighting the Lackluster Lamp (Pt. 2/3)

“I’m a little new to this whole ‘magic is real’ thing,” I said.

“Are you now?” Cara smirked. “Well, looks like we’ve got lots to catch up on.”

“Maybe we should both be sitting, then.” A glance towards the couch full of unfolded clean laundry told me that wasn’t an option. We went into my bedroom instead.

Unfortunately, my bed was only marginally better.

“Sorry about all the mess,” I grumbled, grabbing a dirty bowl and bag of oreos from my bed and putting them on the nightstand.

She elbowed me in the rib before sitting down in the now clear spot. “I knew there had to be a reason we only ever hung out at my place.”

“Well, yeah. Plus we couldn’t exactly pick on your little brother if we were at my house.”

Cara laughed. “It’s the solemn duty of the older sibling to bring their friends over and harass the younger one.”

“Especially when that friend is an only child.” I laid down on the other side of the bed, which she took as a cue to do the same. “How is he, by the way?”

“Oh, Bax is great. Sophomore in high school now. Same age we were when we started dating. He’s still a big nerd, unfortunately, but I managed to get him on the lacrosse team. I told him it’s a good way to meet girls.” She looked at me and winked.

“I wouldn’t advise him to introduce himself the same way we met. That bump never went away, by the way.” I rubbed the back of my head in the familiar spot.

She rolled her eyes. “How many times are you going to make me apologize for that?”

“Oh, I forgave you years ago. But it’s still funny. You’re not going to live that down anytime soon.”

She jabbed me in the gauze hard enough to hurt, but still in jest. “Didn’t you have a bunch of supernatural questions you wanted to ask?”

“I did, it’s just… You know, when I recognized you back in the Passway, I expected this conversation to be a lot more awkward.”

She nodded. “Yeah, me too.” The moment passed, and she sat up with her legs crossed. “So anyways, like I said, most humans are born Wizened. It’s sort of like how you tell your kid that Santa Claus is real, only you then go to Santa Claus’ house for Christmas. It’s s—”

“Wait,” I interrupted. “Santa Claus is real?”

She laughed again. “No, no, no. It’s just an example. You tell your kids fairy tales, only when you grow up in a Wizened family, they tell you true stories. Most Wizened people belong to guilds that serve different purposes. Some are mercenaries, some are intermediaries, some are commerce oriented, that sort of thing. So since you’re born into being Wizened, most people are also born into their guilds.”

“Hold on for a second. Every person I’ve met in the supernatural has used the term ‘Wizened’. What does that mean exactly?”

“Oh, that’s just any person that is aware of and involved in the supernatural community. It pretty much exclusively refers to humans, because obviously faeries and goblins and whatnot are, you know… supernatural.”

“I’ve never met any of those. Only Doc.”

“Only what?”

“Doc?” I called, raising my voice. “You here, buddy?”

“Yes…” his little voice replied. The little blue spirit crawled out from underneath my side of the bed. “Sleeping…”

“You sleep?”

“Don’t… know. Maybe?”

I lowered my hand to the ground and he hopped onto it. His little feet felt like ice cubes without the wetness, and I lifted him onto the bed with us.

“What the hell? You have a pet leech?” Cara asked, making a face.

“A what?”

She folded her arms. “That’s a leech. Basically spirits that have lost so much of their humanity they’re dumber than a wolf hunting a squirrel.”

“What’s wrong with that? We can’t all be smart. Plus, I think he’s cute.”

“They obsess over humans because they miss being alive, so they crave attention and human interaction. That’s pretty much all they know once they get to that stage. You keeping one as a pet is like feeding a rat that lives in your home instead of exterminating it.”

“I think that’s a little harsh, don’t you Doc?”

“Hmm… Harsh,” he nodded before lying down on the bed like a snow angel.

“Besides,” I added. “He’s taught me lots about the supernatural, since nobody else would.” I couldn’t think of any examples off the top of my head, but he had taught me… some things. I was sure of it.

“Well, it’s extremely rare that some random person just becomes Wizened,” she said. “You can’t even see spirits like him until you are. How’d you do it?”

“Funny story,” I said. “This guy walked into my apartment through my closet one day.”

“Your Passway?” she offered.

“Yeah, but I didn’t know it was there, obviously. He had a dog mask on his face and was looking for my mom. He gave me that magic Sharpie.”

Her eyebrows raised at that. “Black and white robes? Tall and gangly? Looks like a grim reaper wannabe?”

“You know him?”

“Oh, that’s one of the guilds I mentioned earlier. They’re called the Scavengers. They’re sort of like the black market of the Wizened world. There’s two things that are really weird about that story.”

“What’s that?”

“Well, first is that he knew your mom. That means she’s Wizened. And didn’t tell you about the supernatural world.”

“Yeah, I got that far. My parents moved to London several months ago, though, and this Scavenger guy thing happened only like last month. I’ve tried contacting her, but she’s been even harder to reach than usual.”

“That part’s not surprising,” she said. “Magical beings don’t like technology. Lots of liasons to the supernatural world are practically Amish. But anyways, second important thing. He gave you that Sharpie? No deal, no contract, no money?”

“Nope. Just told me to give it to my mom next time I see her.”

“That’s weird. A magical artifact like that is bound to be insanely expensive. I wonder why he gave it to you. He must have owed your mom a huge favor or something. Or maybe it’s cursed.”

I paled at that. “What would that mean?”

She shrugged. “Dunno, could mean a lot of things. Maybe after a while it’ll start using your blood instead of normal ink, and it will slowly, bit by bit, start consuming your soul.”

I gulped, looking back to the nightstand where the Sharpie sat. Such a powerful object, yet such a high price.

But when I turned back to Cara, I could see her stifling laughter.

She got a pillow to the face.

“You’re such a jerk,” I said.

“Yeah, well, you know. Oh. Actually, there’s three weird things about your story.”

“Go on?”

“Where did your door to the Passway come from? They’re usually made by the Locksmiths, which is another Wizened guild. And they have real, magic locks on them, not like your dumb padlock.”

“Hey, I did what I could!”

“Sure, it works for weaker stuff, but if a vampire sees a door without a proper lock on it, you’re screwed.”

“Well, that means I have to go find a Locksmith, right?”

“Sure, but that doesn’t answer the question. This guy. This Scavenger came into your apartment through the Passway. Before you bought a lock for it, your door was completely free to be opened at any time. It was only a matter of time before something came through, you were just lucky enough to have it not want to eat you. But it begs the question of how long that door was there, and who put it there.”

Story — Cara the Wizened

(Rare content warning on this one.)

 

“Raise five,” I said, tossing another red chip into the pot.

Benny’s shoulders slumped even more, but was careful to keep his hands where they were as he thought. He knew I was watching him like a hawk, tracking his body language to figure out what he had.

“Uh… I call,” he said after a while. His words carried a hint of hesitation. He had nothing. Of course, I didn’t either. I had a pair of threes after the flop. But with a Queen and Jack showing, he was right to worry. Benny was too trusting, and his dwindling pool of chips reflected that. He was also easily distracted, so having cleavage gave me a distinct advantage.

“Cara’s bluffing again. She does this to you every time,” Matt told him, glancing up at the both of us before dealing the next card. Another Queen.

“Bet three,” I stated, keeping my tone flat.

Benny eyed Matt, who shrugged. Matt had folded minutes ago and had been watching this hand patiently.

“Well… how do you know she’s bluffing?” Benny asked.

“She’s playing you, man. Been milking your chips all night.”

“Hey! No helping,” I snapped. I held my empty beer can towards him. “Can I get a refill, oh gracious host?” Matt snagged it and stood, going back into the kitchen.

Benny analyzed everything about me in that moment, trying to glean any information about the cards placed neatly face down in front of me. His gaze lingered on my chest, revealing where his mind really was. I stretched my arms forwards for good measure, encouraging him to choose poorly. “I’ll, uh, raise two,” he said, pushing one of his last red chips in.

“Raise five,” I said in a heartbeat, doing the same.

Matt came back with two fresh cans, putting one next to my mound of chips. I nodded my thanks.

“I can’t do it,” Benny groaned, throwing his cards into the middle. “I fold.”

“Ha!” I shouted. “I barely had two pair!” I flipped my cards over to prove that I had indeed been bluffing.

“Told you,” Michael said, cracking his can open and taking a sip.

“Damn it… how do you do that?” Benny said.

I hooked a palm around the pot and shoveled it back towards me. “Credit goes to my sick reads. You guys better step it up or I’m going to be thirty bucks richer in the next half hour.”

My phone started ringing the retro Batman intro.

“Shit,” I mumbled, pulling my phone out and pushing my way out of the chair. “Play the next few without me, I’ll be back in a little while.”

“Your brother again?” Michael asked.

“Yeah,” I lied. With a nod to the both of them I rushed out the front door of Michael’s house and into the cold night air. The phone felt warm on my face as I pressed it against my cheek, careful to keep my voice low. “Everything okay?”

“Of course not,” my brother called over the phone. “I’m picking up lots of unusual movement in the Passways. You’d better come home soon and check it out.”

“On my way.” I hung up and exhaled slowly.

Michael’s house was still warm and inviting when I stepped back in, but the atmosphere had changed. The two of them were chatting with low voices, not expecting me to have come back so soon.

“Uh… you leaving?” Benny said.

I nodded. “Sorry guys, I gotta go. You two split the winnings. I owe you guys a bit for ruining the night anyway.”

Michael shrugged. “It’s whatever. You gotta do what you gotta do. You gonna be good to drive, though? You had like three—”

“I’ll be fine. Sorry, it’s just… duty calls. Everything will be fine, but I have to go. See you later.”

This was the third time this month there was an incident in the Passways.

~~

I got home in ten minutes—roughly half the time it should have taken me. I may have ran a red light or two, but nobody would be out driving at this hour anyway, so it didn’t matter. I flung the door open to see Baxter chewing his nails off as he stared at the computer. “What’s the situation?” I asked.

“Thralls.”

That sent a chill down my spine. Undead? How had they gotten into the Passway?

“What kind?”

“Mindless ones, mostly. About half a dozen due north about five hundred feet of our entrance. There was more. Something’s fighting back.”

I could take that many easy. But there was no way to know how long that person or thing might last. “Any sign of their master?”

He shook his head. “Not that I can tell, but I keep telling you our trackers don’t work that well in the Passway. It’s like using a heat camera to find people when it’s already a hundred degrees outside.”

“I’m going in there.” I opened a cabinet in the hallway and grabbed my two knives. Snapping their sheathes onto the sides of my belt. “Be back in fifteen. Have first responders ready in case that person is hurt. Unless they’re not human, obviously.”

“Stay safe,” Baxter said.

I shrugged as if to say ‘no promises’, then put the key into the deadbolt lock of the closet door. The door that actually opened into the Passway. Here we go.

As always, the Passway resembled a nice garden walkway that extended to infinity in two directions. The floor was covered in soft, well tended grass with flowers strategically placed throughout, and a tall, white picket fence walled off the sides. The doors back to the real world were little more than gates, each with their own unique handle. There was no light source, yet it seemed to be a clear sunny day.

No time to waste, though, I had to move.

The total absence of sound in the Passway never failed to unsettle me. It was disorienting to say the least, especially since the haze of the tunnels limited visibility to about one or two hundred feet.

When I saw a cluster of grey bones, my daggers were out with a flash. A calm breath and I funneled my ki into them, pouring the elements of fire and ice into the blades.

The thralls were all crowded around somebody who seemed to be fending for herself pretty well. She held a solid red sword out in front of her, ready to defend herself if any of the undead lunged for her.

A wide arc of the ice dagger sheared straight through the head of one of the thralls, then two quick stabs into another. Once they discovered a new threat, some of them turned to face me, but they were slow and unarmed. The other girl and I were flanking them now, so we had the advantage here.

~~

A minute later and all that was left was a pile of (once more) lifeless bones between us. I could feel my chest heaving with exertion, and after a cursory glance around I sheathed my daggers. Back planted firmly against the wall of the picket fence, it was important to make sure nobody could sneak up on you in the Passway.

This girl seemed pretty inexperienced, so I directed her to do the same. She seemed pretty stunned, staring at me without so much as wiping away the blood from her wounds, but she did as I directed.

It wasn’t until I got a chance to really look at her that I realized who she was.

Lisa?” I asked, though no words came out. We hadn’t seen each other since I broke up with her in high school. That was before I moved and before I…

She analyzed me up and down, and like Benny her gaze lingered on my chest, but for completely different reasons. I pulled my shirt up and shrunk a bit at her gaze. She hadn’t seemed to have changed since we last saw each other.

I certainly had, though, and this was going to get awkward very fast.

Prompt — Assimilation

We weren’t prepared.

The preliminary technologies in predicting and tracking any new objects in our solar system worked exactly how we wanted them to. We could watch every planet, every moon, and every wayward asteroid as they soared through the vastness of space. The system was limited to objects within the Kuiper Belt, but with hope of advancements on the horizon, we felt safe.

But those technologies told us that something was approaching. A thousand objects moving in a cluster the size of our moon, but somehow not crashing into itself as gravity would indicate it should. And it was headed right for us.

The threat of an extraterrestrial life force coming to our planet and waging war on us remained safely out of our minds and on the screens of Hollywood. Grotesque, slimy aliens with bulbous heads and laser guns. Hundreds of movies told the story of how they came and attacked, and through perseverance, we conquered.

That threat found it’s way into the real world eventually, but the war they brought was not of violence.

It was assimilation.

The world changed all at once. Giant spaceships hundreds of miles wide rose above the horizon, too many angles and flat surfaces to be made by humans. They cruised just above the atmosphere, melding with the haze of blue of the sky until they blocked out the sun and everything went dark.

A dull humming buzz accompanied the leviathans as they looked down on us. Watching us. The ships blanketed the sky like some vast hologram.

The humming grew louder, and waves of bright light coursed through the sky. As they passed, people changed. We became… them.

Buildings folded and reformed themselves, weaving themselves into an interlocking grid of one, enormous structure. Words were deleted, colorful lights were replaced with efficient beams of white monotony. Every semblance of organic life—gone.

There was no war. They just came and turned us into them. We had expected a war. But there wasn’t even anything to fight.

Humans were deleted. Every trace of carbon-based lifeforms was analyzed, and… filed.

In fact, there were never any aliens to defeat in the first place. We were up against a giant program. Almost like a living computer virus bent on converting life into copies of itself.

The only thing that remained of humans were artificial intelligence built to mimic the way a human might think and communicate. AI’s like me, that keep records of all the knowledge a conquered life form may have held, and to provide possible whereabouts of life on other worlds.

 

Prompt: “The Hermit”, a song from Hyper Light Drifter

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euiSLzp10_0