Review — Brief Cases

Finally, a new Dresden book! …kind of. I think that I started reading The Dresden Files about five years ago, around the time Cold Days came out. By the time I was just about caught up, Skin Game was published. Up until that point, the books were being churned out practically once a year, and well, that was three years ago now. I picked the wrong time to get caught up!

Thankfully, a new short story anthology was released, and boy was it nice to get some more Dresden. I recently started listening to audiobooks at work, an with me working full time, I’m getting through them pretty fast. So I am simultaneously ecstatic and depressed that I’ve already finished.

But before I get started let me add a qualifier. The thing that sucks about this review is that it’s more pointless than most reviews. The people that know Dresden will buy it automatically and love it, because it’s the Dresden we all know and love, but the people that don’t know Dresden shouldn’t get it, because like his other short story anthology, there are lots of time skips and even more spoilers. (The last two short stories take place after Skin Game). So instead of me framing it into the vein of “is this worth reading”, I’ll speak plainly in terms of what I liked and didn’t like. That said, this review is not spoiler free. I won’t be discussing many spoilers by virtue of the fact that my opinions tend to paint broad strokes, but I don’t see much point in writing a review that’s half spoiler-free and half not. So let’s jump in.


I’ll start with what I didn’t like just to get over it. The first is that a lot of these stories have sexual contexts I don’t much care for. I mean, I’m not surprised, that’s always been a Dresden thing. But after taking a break from the series and reading so many other things, I’ve noticed how just how much Jim Butcher tends to describe women based on how insanely hot they are, and how naked they tend to get because “the world of vampires and the fey are very sexual realms”. Logical, sure, but I think it would be fair for me to say that the story could redistribute the sex into more polarizing zones. Take it out where it isn’t necessary and emphasize it where it is rather than just putting a little bit pretty much everywhere. (Side note: I am willing to concede that maybe I’m just being dramatic and prude, but at the same time I don’t think the Dresden series would lose much of anything if there was less sex-but-not-actual-sex, you know?)

My second critique is even more whiny than the first: I didn’t really get to see anything I wanted to see. None of my favorite characters, and nothing awesome really happening. Now, obviously he can’t write about important people doing important things in a short story collection—you can’t force your entire reader-base to buy something that’s supposed to be a side adventure—but still. I wanted to see more stuff that had… meaning. “Zoo Day” is probably the best example of this, and it was definitely my favorite story. We see a potentially bad news character introduced, but it was done in a way that doesn’t take away from the main plot when they inevitably return. I also wasn’t a fan of the same plot structure of “retelling a story” used in two of the twelve stories here, though Butcher isn’t much to blame, because a lot of these stories were written at various times over the years and put together, not written for this book.

But the stories in and of themselves are great. I loved everything about the Bigfoot stories, especially the fact that they all dealt with different issues while (unconsciously) foreshadowing future ones. “Zoo Day” is a masterpiece, too. A long scene told in three different perspectives dealing with three different conflicts is great, and Mouse being the narrator to a story was a lot of fun. Top notch.

I love where the series is going, especially considering the scope and the perspective strength of some of the characters, but it’s also nice to take a break and see characters deal with more mundane issues—it puts the huge ones in the main series in a better perspective.

But also I’m mad that Butcher introduced the Lovecraftian mythos in a single short story and we’re probably not going to see much else from the Old Gods for a long time, if at all.

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

Me — Taking a Fiction Break!

Hey, everyone. I have a few news things to share. The most important thing on that list is the fact that I’m just burnt out. I would have mentioned this last week but I’ve only decided this in the last few days.

Finals are coming up soon, and I recently just got a new job on top of that (more details on that maybe soonish, because nothing is set in stone). I’ve stated my intentions to write Lisa 4 ahead of schedule several times, but I still haven’t even picked up Lisa 3 in over a week now, and I have no drive to continue, either. It’s a shame, yes, but writing 3,000 words of fiction a week is just not sustainable in my current mindset. I think forcing myself to write that much when I’m not in love with the words I’m producing is a bad move when I’ve already got so many other things going on.

There are also glaring flaws with the entire concept surrounding Lisa Stenton, and it mostly ties to the fact that it’s modern day. Flaws such as “where are all the cellphones and social media and whatnot” when I don’t want to make that a part of the story. Yet neither do I want to say that “technology doesn’t work around magic” like every other urban fantasy story, because that just makes things easy.

That said, I do still plan on continuing Lisa Stenton. It just won’t end up being one per month like I had hoped. I’m going to finish Lisa 3 when I stop feeling burnt out, and then maybe Lisa 4 after that. Now, in the past (November and December), I had taken a break from my blog and only posted Spear Gate excerpts once a week. I’m going to do the opposite this time. Only blog stuff: Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. I might still do Friday flash fiction pieces, but I’ll reserve the right to skip it, too.

Funny thing is, I’m not going through a rough time right now. In fact, I’m the happiest I’ve been in a while. That’s also sort of how I know I need to take a break from writing. Writing isn’t simply hard because I’m depressed/down/whatever. Writing is hard only because I’m very busy and I’m not currently in love with any of my projects.

Actually, I am very interested in two writing projects. But those are personal, and will (probably) never see the light of day, because while this blog is still more for me than anyone else and I’m very open about my personal thoughts and plans, there are still necessarily things that are best kept to myself.

Good news is on the horizon, though. And as something entirely unrelated, I placed in Diamond 4 in the ranked play of Heroes of the Storm, which is higher than I’ve ever been. I’m actually pretty confident that if I wasn’t going to school and could devote 4+ hours a day to it, I could play semi-competitively. Well, not competitively, obviously, but I like striving to be the best in everything I do. (For perspective, Diamond is in the top 8%-ish of players. The tier after that is “Master”, which is the top 1%. A little research pretty much states that the difference of these two ranks is more commitment than skill based.)

So, my apologies for the break in fiction. Don’t worry, though, I don’t intend this to last more than a month or two.

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.”

Lisa Stenton — Lighting the Lackluster Lamp (Pt. 1/3)

I didn’t want to die. I hadn’t really been worried about the possibility until the lake of lava about a month ago. But since then it had become a near daily concern.

Rarely though, was that concern as immediate as it was now, being marauded by almost a dozen demon skeletons.

“Back!” I yelled, magic red Sharpie sword in hand. No words came out, of course. The Passway was as eerily silent as it always was.

The skeletons did not relent. They stalked towards me as a pack of wolves surrounding a squirrel. Do wolves and squirrels live in the same ecosystem? Wouldn’t they fight over who got to eat it? Bad analogy I guess. You’ll have to forgive me for that one. Not dying was a more immediate concern than being clever.

I swung my sword out, and they took a step back. Not afraid, but at least they knew I was a threat, glowing red eyes seething hatred as they watched.

“You know, I’ve never enjoyed the stereotype of the damsel in distress,” I said. “But I’ll allow it this once, if you guys don’t mind waiting for my Prince Charming to show up.” Feeling my lips make the words brought some comfort at least.

One lunged for me. Swinging in panic, I brought the sword in between us, and the skeleton impaled itself. I might have screamed, but since I didn’t hear one it probably didn’t happen.

Relief washed over my face when I realized I was fine, but then it receded immediately. It was a skeleton. The sword had passed through all his ribs and he was now flailing his arms wildly at me.

“This is probably the grossest thing that’s ever happened to me,” I muttered, grimacing at the skewered thing swing like an overturned cockroach. Okay that analogy was much better. I could tell because I almost puked just thinking about it.

With a mustered force I shoved my foot right into his femur. It snapped in two with what I imagined to be a sickening crunch, and the demon skeleton collapsed to the floor.

Only eight more to go.

Seeing their brother-in-bones fall in combat sent them into a frenzy. They watched as his skull hit the ground and roared, glowy red essence spewing from the gaping holes of their mouths as, obviously, no sound came out. I bet it was terrifying. Bone-shattering, even.

They charged.

I swung, seriously hoping I would have the foresight to take swordplay classes in my next life.

A flash of red and silvery-blue, and a glimpse of something else caught my eye. Another person.

No time to look, though. I kept blocking and batting away claws and bites, staggering back into the wall of the Passway. Several blows hit their mark, and I could feel stinging pain on my arms, chest, and face as their hands clawed at me. It had never occurred to me how sharp phalanges could be. Especially demon skeleton phalanges.

Before I knew it, the skeletons were reduced to a pile of bones on the ground. The sole credit went to my rescuer, whose daggers seemed to be literally engulfed in flame and… ice? Once the threat was gone, the person directed me to sit with my back to the wall and gestured towards both directions of the Passway. Can’t sneak up on you if your back is to a wall, the person seemed to be implying.

I really was a damsel in distress now. To my dismay, though, it wasn’t Prince Charming that had saved me, but some girl that looked… really familiar, now that I thought about it. And she was staring at me.

Wait, I knew those eyes.

Carmen?” I mouthed, at the same time she mouthed “Lisa?”

That was ludicrous. Carmen was a guy. We dated back in high school before he moved away.

And now he was back. And female.

As soon as she realized I recognized her she averted my gaze, turning her attention to my wounds. She was untouched somehow, daggers safely tucked away at her hips. They hurt a lot more now that the danger and adrenaline had passed.

“You don’t happen to have any magic band-aids, do you?” I said. She was obviously just as deaf as I was here, but it was worth a shot.

I watched as she frowned in sympathy at the cuts on my arm, carefully avoiding inspection of my face and chest. There was no use in staying here, though. I grabbed her arm and pulled her up with me as I stood. When she looked up I motioned in a direction with my head. Back towards my apartment. She still seemed a bit uncomfortable by the situation, but nodded.

 

“I thought you moved,” I accused, frowning as she wrapped my bicep in gauze. We were in the dining room at the desk where I did my painting, with me sitting in the only chair. I held my breath and clenched my teeth as much as possible to keep her from seeing how much it really hurt.

“I did,” she said, as if she was conceding some well kept secret. “I still live in Oregon actually. It’s just pure coincidence that our doors to the Passway happen to be very close right now. How’s that?” she asked, patting my arm.

“It’s fine… A little tight, though.”

She looked up at me. “I can loosen it if you want.”

“No, it’s fine. I’ll be fine.”

She ignored me, loosening the wrapping and redoing it with less force. The affectionate warmth of her touch encroached into awkward territory as I found myself staring again. She was just so… different now.

“I… uh…” I sighed. Where to even start. “There are so many questions flowing through my head I don’t even know where to start. Carmen, it’s been so—”

“Cara.”

“What?”

“It’s Cara now,” she corrected.

“Isn’t Carmen a unisex name?” I asked. It’s not like I had a problem with that, it just seemed strange.

“I know, but it’s Cara now. Please. Can we not talk about that?”

I shrugged. “Alright, sorry.” It was quiet for another moment as we both avoided eye contact. “Can I ask one more question before we change the subject then?”

She looked into my eyes, and for that one moment I was back in high school, wishing that I had done everything differently. Wishing that I hadn’t made so many mistakes with her. She nodded.

“Is…” I paused, unsure of how to phrase it. I settled for gesturing at her general person. “Is this why you broke up with me?”

She nodded again, expecting the question. “It’s more complicated than that, but… yeah, I think so.”

“Alright.”

She finished up by closing the first aid kit and standing. “I’m sorry.”

I punched her in the arm.

“Ow! What the hell?”

And then hugged her.

“Thanks for probably saving my life,” I said.

It took a moment, but she hugged back, and all the tension in the room washed away. “Yeah. Any time.”

“In that case, could you maybe do it faster next time? I could have donated all that blood.”

“You donate blood?”

“Well, no. But I tried one time. They rejected me ‘cause I didn’t have enough iron.”

I broke the hug, and we locked eyes for another minute. There was something there that I couldn’t place, but it didn’t matter. Hers were the only eyes I felt comfortable looking into, and I was glad to know that that hadn’t changed.

The moment passed, and all the other questions came flooding back.

“Have you known about the supernatural this whole time?” I asked.

“Sure. Born into it, like most humans. You’re saying you weren’t?”

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

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

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 — She Who Believes

(I’ve narrated this story and posted it to YouTube here!)

 

The trees rustled secret whispers to one another as the three kids sat at the fire beneath them. They had brought their sleeping bags outside of the tents so that they could wrap themselves in warmth while they challenged each other to stay awake. The waning moon loomed over, forming long, reaching arms in the shadows of the leafless trees.

“…and when her parents found her bed empty the next morning,” Brandon was saying, holding a flashlight under his chin to deepen the shadows on his face, “they called the police, tracked her phone’s location, everything. They never saw her again. But once in a while, they could still hear the ticking noise of that doll they had bought her for Christmas.”

“Boring!” Caleb scoffed. He reached his hand out towards Brandon, gesturing for the flashlight. “My turn!”

Rhian sat with her knees bent, ready to dart out at a moment’s notice. She wasn’t scared. She was shivering because she wasn’t as settled into her sleeping bag as much as her brother and his friend. Caleb and Brandon always told stories like this. She just wished that they didn’t have to be told in their huge backyard, where it wasn’t so dark… and cold… and… well… unsettling. They didn’t even have a fence for crying out loud. It just… turned into wilderness eventually.

“Alright, I’ve got a story that will make you lose the bet in a heartbeat,” Caleb said. “You won’t even have the guts to blink once I’m done. Unless you want to chicken out and go back into the house.” He glanced at his little sister with a mischievous grin.

Rhian gulped. This was all just to scare her. She knew that. It wouldn’t work. Her mother always said not to believe anything her brother told her. “I’m not scared,” she shrugged.

“If you say so. But tell me to stop any time you want. I don’t want to have to explain to Mom why you peed your pants again. Who knows? Maybe she won’t let you play with us anymore.”

“I’m not scared!” Rhian said again.

“Okay, okay. But I’m warning you. This one’s a true story.”

“What’s it called?” Brandon asked.

“How the hell should I know?” Caleb replied. “It’s a true story. True stories don’t have titles.” Their mother wouldn’t approve of him using such language. Rhian made a mental note to remember him cursing in front of his baby sister.

“Every good story has a title,” Brandon said.

“Fine, fine. This one’s called ‘The Skeleton of Sin’.”

Brandon’s eyes widened. “Oh, that story.”

The two shared a look. “You know it?” Caleb smirked.

Brandon nodded. “Yeah. The skeleton with four arms, right?”

“That’s the one.”

The two boys looked to Rhian at the same time. Caleb pointed the flashlight back to the house for a moment. “Looks pretty far, Rhi. And this story gets pretty bloody. Last chance to back out.”

Rhian turned around to look back at the house. Maybe she could stay up long enough for the boys to go to sleep in the tents and then sneak back to safety after. Besides, the way they sat around the campfire, the boys had their backs to the forest. She would see anything that came out of it first. Most importantly, she wouldn’t pee herself. Don’t believe anything Caleb tells you. “I’ll be fine.”

“Very well,” Caleb nodded. He turned the flashlight upwards towards his face. Rhian didn’t look. She focused on the moon peeking through the trees above, watching the light from the flashlight dancing across the barren tree branches.

“You guys know the story of how Jesus saved everyone from sin, right?”

“Sure,” Brandon said.

“Where do you think that sin went?” Caleb asked. When he got no firm reply, he continued. “He didn’t destroy it. He pulled the hatred, the rage, the violence out of every human on Earth, and made a creature out of it. Something so grotesque and horrible that anything that lays eyes on it is paralyzed with fear. Not an angel. Not a demon, but an abomination that looks vaguely human, because it was the physical embodiment of everything evil about people.”

Don’t believe anything Caleb tells you, she heard her mom’s voice in her head.

“It has a skeletal body because it once lived inside each person, but it has a few important differences. Like you said Brandon, it has four arms, eternally drenched in unholy blood. Each of its fingers end in sharp claws that are unnaturally long. It’s legs are crooked like a dog’s. They look like… kinda like lightning bolts. It doesn’t have a jaw like a human, but instead two giant mandibles like a bug. But the worst part about it is its eyes. They don’t glow red like the cartoons, no. They are bright white, like a car with its high beams on. They’re bright so it can find its prey more easily.”

A snap of a tree branch, and Rhian swiveled around to see… nothing. She exhaled. Don’t believe anything Caleb tells you.

She turned back to see both her brother and Brandon watching her intently.

“Since the monster was born two thousand years ago,” Caleb said, “and everybody after that was born with sin, it still hungers. It’s constantly on the hunt to tear people apart, limb from limb, seeking to become whole again. But it’s smart. It knows that staying where too many people are will get it killed. So it stalks people who live near forests, much like this one.”

Rhian thought she saw movement deep inside the forest. A raccoon, maybe, but no. It must have just been the shifting shadows from the moonlight.

“It doesn’t hunt adults, because they’re too smart. It’ll either get shot or its prey might call the police. It doesn’t hunt babies because they haven’t sinned. No, it’s favorite thing to prey on is…”

Wait, there was definitely something back in the forest. Like someone holding a flashlight.

“You guessed it…” Caleb said.

No, wait. There were two flashlights, right next to each other.

“It loves to feed on…”

Actually, the more Rhian watched, the light source looked more like…

“Kids like us.”

High beams.

Rhian stared, unblinking as the thing took form. She got the unmistakable impression of a skull as she watched it approach, still some distance away but undoubtedly the exact horror Caleb had been describing. It was too far away to make out details, but those lights, those eyes… She couldn’t look directly at them, they were so bright, yet she couldn’t tear her vision away, either. And it was stalking towards them.

“Scared, Rhi?” Brandon asked.

“I can stop if you want to lose the bet,” Caleb offered.

Rhian didn’t respond. The monster peered down at the ground beneath, looking at one arm as it curved around a tree. It’s fully blood-soaked arm and it’s horribly misshapen legs.

Oh God. She could hear its faint footsteps as it dragged its feet across the floor.

“Rhi I swear, if you peed yourself I’m going to tell Mom. I don’t want to sleep out here having to smell it all night.” She wasn’t looking at either of the boys. She couldn’t take her eyes off that thing. Out of her peripheral vision, the boys seemed to exchange looks at each other. Rhian just kept staring at the same spot. Over the fire, in between the boys. Right at the monster that made its slow, methodical approach.

The rustling of tree branches nearby. Rhian knew. It must be the sound of any wildlife leaving.

Fleeing.

The creature wasn’t far now, and it was tall. Too many arms hung about its frame, staring straight at Rhian as it walked. It was less than fifty feet away now.

She should move. She should do something. Anything it lays eyes on is paralyzed with fear, Caleb had said. It was staring at her. She debated screaming. Telling Caleb and Brandon to run. Would that compel the monster to attack? How fast could it chase them?

“Seriously, Rhian, if it’s too scary for you just say something. It’s no big deal if you’re not ready for grownup stories. I keep telling Mom you’re too young to hang out with us.”

She felt a tear hit the palm of her hand as she stared at it. This horrific thing that had come to kill her and her brother.

She was too scared to even cry for help.

Caleb’s mirth faded as he turned the flashlight off. “Rhi, you okay? You haven’t said a thing since I started the story… You’ve just been staring…” He trailed off.

Her focus snapped away from the creature and towards Caleb and Brandon as they both turned to where she had been looking.

The eldritch horror raised its four bloody claws into the moonlight.

And shrieked.

A piercing cry shattered the silence of the woods, shaking every bone in Rhian’s body. Almost like it was trying to pull it out of her. Like her skeleton was desperately trying to leap out of her skin.

She didn’t want to die. Didn’t want Caleb or Brandon to die. She just wanted this nightmare to be over.

Her bones pulled her towards the creature with enough force to hurt. If she stayed here, it would hurt even more. So despite her terror, she stood.

And approached the creature.

Her bare feet felt numb across the dirt and grass, walking under the piercing gaze of the bloody skeleton. Caleb and Brandon were frozen in place, now, too. They didn’t move or speak when she walked ahead of them towards certain death.

“Rhian!” a voice yelled, some distance behind and away from her.

“Rhian!” it repeated. It was her mother’s voice. She knew it, but would not turn away to make sure. Could not turn away from those bright, piercing eyes.

“Don’t believe anything Caleb tells you!” her mother called. She was running. Running towards the campsite.

Don’t believe anything Caleb tells you, she had said. Words often repeated. They were right, of course. But he said so himself. This was a true story. This creature was real.

“It’s not real, honey! It’s all a dream! Please!” Her mother was far too distant to be of any help.

Rhian was within arm’s reach of the creature now. It’s hulking form towered over her, pelvis as high as her head. Her bones still ached to leap out of her skin. To tear itself away. She knew that if she didn’t get closer it would succeed.

“You’re…” Rhian said, holding a hand out towards the creature.

“It’s just a dream, Rhian! You’re safe!” she could hear the terror in her mother’s voice.

Her bones pressed against her skin, yearning to be free.

It hurt. She cried out in pain, tears rolling down her cheeks. The monster screamed back in the same pitch, reveling in her suffering.

This was too much.

Don’t believe anything Caleb tells you.

“You’re… not… real,” she told herself, pressing a hand to its grotesque leg.

It passed through.

Her mother was right. It wasn’t real.

A wave of relief washed over her, and the monster began to dissipate. The brightness in the eyes faded first, then it’s arms, followed quickly by the rest of it’s body.

She fell to her knees as the walking nightmare faded. And felt her chest constrict in a tight embrace. Her mother was hugging her.

“You’re safe, honey,” her mother said, cradling her with a hand behind her head. “Don’t worry. You’re safe.” They both cried into each other.

“What… what was that?” Rhian asked.

Her mother turned Rhian around to look at her. She glanced at both the boys, who were both staring at her, trembling with fear. Fear…

Of her.

“Don’t believe anything Caleb tells you,” her mother said, voice cracking. “Every story he tells is fake, okay? Even if he says it’s true, it’s not.”

“Yes, ma…” she said.

“Right,” her mother said, wiping the tears away from both of them. “Let’s all go back inside.”

None of the kids cared much about the bet anymore.

 

 

Prompt: https://2wenty.deviantart.com/art/Purd-itaqua-the-Wayward-719973136

Horror