Archive for: September, 2012

Conceptions By Matt Shaner

Sep 23 2012 Published by under The WiFiles

The old Victorian house of Doctor Albright sat at the bottom of the hill between fourth and fifth avenues. It was out of place and stubbornly holding onto the land against the push of updated housing and storefronts. The old story went that the Doc inherited the place from his father. They each ran their practices out of the lower floors, with the upper ones as the residence.

We had stories, growing up, and invented reasons to ride our bikes faster past the place. The lights were on into the small hours of the morning. We would catch odd sounds coming from deep inside the building. Every Halloween we set up a stakeout, from across the street, to see what would happen. Our young minds would find something scary, no matter how large or small.

Not that Albright was a scary person himself. At one time he was a fertility doctor and pediatrician of prominence. In the diner on Main Street, a row of black and white pictures adorns the wall. One of these is the doctor, shaking hands with the governor and receiving an award for his work. He looks out from the frame, young and handsome.

As we grew up, the house and the doctor followed. He turned into an angry old man, wealthy from his work, and retired into that massive house.  As time passed around the house, we noticed that he barely left and never took any visitors until one Saturday morning.

I was outside playing catch with my son when a red BMW pulled up and parked. A woman no more then twenty five years old stepped out of the car and made her way to the house. She wore a button up white shirt and skirt with both being too tight. Her red heels matched the car. She looked up the street from behind her black sunglasses at us for a second. The image burned in my mind as I returned to our game of catch.

A few weeks later my wife came home from the grocery store with a story.

“Guess who I ran into?” she asked while we unloaded the bags.

“Who?”

“Albright’s new wife.” I raised my eyebrows.

“He has a wife?”

“She was his student. She took a job out here and an apartment until she found his home. They went out and, a little later, here they are. She’s really young for him.”

“He has to be eighty at least.”

“True.”

“Well, if the machinery still works, then good for him.” She punched my shoulder at that comment and we finished with the bags.

One night, out of a fitful sleep, the sounds pulled me up from bed. I went to the window and pulled back the curtain. From our room we could see down the street and, at the corner, the entire first floor of Albright’s house lit up with quick lightning blasts through the darkness. The memories of our nights sitting outside the house, watching and waiting, flashed back into my mind. I watched for another second and returned to bed, content to write it off as a dream.

The next day, as I left for work, I drove past the place. His wife was sitting on the porch holding a cup of coffee. She waved at my car with a vacant expression. I caught a flash of tear reflected in the morning sunrise.

Work consisted of our financial advisory office, opened by my friends and I, after college.  We decided to return to town to put down roots and families. I sat at my desk and waited until the other two guys arrived.

“He’s at it again,” I said, as Zane put down his briefcase in the corner.

“I know, the market is a mess.”

“Not the market moron, I’m talking about the past. A guy we grew up with.” He laughed.

“Who is this now?”

“Doc Albright.”

“Isn’t he dead?”

“No, he’s more then alive. He’s back to doing his work.”  Tommy, our other coworker, walked in.

“Get this, Bill here says that old Doc Albright is up to his schemes again,” Zane said.

“Isn’t he dead?” Zane turned to look at me with a glance of accomplishment at Tom’s repetition of his question.

“No, he’s not dead. Last night, I…well, I heard something.” They laughed. Zane threw a pen at me.

“Whatever, look, if you don’t believe me, come over and find out.”

After work, we stood on my front lawn in a loose triangle. We shed the ties and rolled up our sleeves.

“What do you propose we do?” Tom asked.

“Look in the windows.” I said.

“Yeah and why don’t we park our bikes outside and ride to the store for bubblegum,” Zane said, “this is so ridiculous.”

“Indulge me for a second.” We started to walk to the house. I couldn’t help but feel my nerves rising. We looked in the windows and saw no sign of the guy. I knew he still kept to the upper levels so, if we did anything, it would need to be quick. I went first, crouching and maneuvering my way to the side of the house. The other two followed. I thought of the scene a police officer would witness, three men in business casual wear looking into house windows. This motivated me to keep it as fast as possible.

Under the shade of a pair of large oak trees, I looked up to a first floor window. The walls of the room were lined in boxes with modern labels. He obviously kept items shipping into his office. I wrote this off as a coincidence until I made out the shape in the corner. It was a chair, padded and steel, with the stirrup legs fully retracted. The cranks on the bottom and side dated the thing at least to the sixties. I was willing to bet he kept his first chair where he made his reputation as a leading fertility doctor. I wondered how many children were created in that very chair.

I moved to the next window and the guys followed. A cage sat next to the window and I hand to stretch higher to see inside. A body, thick with fur turned and a wolf bared its fangs at me. Its eyes latched onto my expression and I heard the growl from outside. Just as I reached away, a face appeared. The doctor looked out at us. We ran back, as fast as possible to my house. The guys jumped into their cars and sped away. I stood inside the front door and looked down to the house. He was on his porch, meeting my gaze.

I shut the curtain and leaned against the wall, wiping the sweat from my brow. The face stuck into my mind. The skin pulled itself back as if in rebellion to his aging form. His hair ran in thin wisps across his head. His eyes were green and alert, taking us in. I hoped he chalked up our invasion as a childish thing and didn’t feel the need to call the police. I imagined explaining that citation to Val when she arrived home from work.

More time passed and, each time we saw Albright’s wife, her name was Natalie, at the store or walking around town, she grew a larger stomach.  People started to talk.

“Can you believe she’s pregnant?”

“It can’t be his.”

“Good for him.”

“What a slut.”

The circles of friends and neighbors rotated these words. As she grew larger, circles of dark bags ran under her eyes. Bruises, though faint, appeared on her wrists and ankles. People talked more and, one night, I even noticed a police car parked outside the place. The officer never put his lights on and left smiling and shaking the hand of the doc. The next time they would return was the night of the summer block party.

We held a block party and cookout at the end of the summer from dusk till whenever. The invitations even had the little question mark in the time field.  It was an occasion for everyone to gather at the middle of the street and spend time together. We held them every year and most of the neighbors attended.

We were gathered near a row of grills and tables, talking and laughing. Zane and Tom even came over to enjoy the occasion. The township dropped off two barrels and we lit fires, creating more heat in the already humid night. A stereo played a mix of old and new summer music. As we talked, a scream came from down the street.

They only stopped those at the edge of the group in their conversation. Faces looked around nervously and, at the second scream, the rest of us picked it out. The noises were coming from the corner. A shotgun blast made everyone jump and the front door to the Victorian slammed open. A small figure bounded out and into the street followed by Albright moving faster then we could imagine. He held the gun and panted breath into the already strong heat. The thing on the ground, shrouded in yellow streetlight, turned its head towards us up the hill.

I’ll attempt to describe what made its way in our direction since I only caught glimpses as it moved from light to light. The arms and legs were long, giving the thing an animal-like gate. My mind went to the wolf but there was no chance. The head ruled that out. The head was one of a fetus, bald and covered in birth blood and material. Its eyes were open enough to pick out the light from our fires. Though the legs were new, they thrust it towards us. People stood still, some frozen in terror while other ran for their houses, screaming.  Albright took position in the street and raised his gun again. Before the thing made our tables he squeezed off another shot, precise and on the mark.  The head of the thing vanished into a red cloud of material. It dropped to the ground. Police sirens sounded in the distance.

A search of the house revealed materials described in the papers over the next few days.  They found all the instruments of a pediatrician.  The chair was used and blood covered. They found a wolf without its reproductive organs in its cage.  They found Natalie, wondering down the highway outside of town. She stumbled in the center of the lanes, wearing the scrubs of a patient, blood coating her legs. After examination, they wrote her up as a sexual assault and moved to put Albright in prison for the rest of his days.

No paper mentioned the body. We watched him walk up the street and take it into his arms. He cradled it, back and forth, singing a soft lullaby.  A tear dripped from his eye and onto the thing, mixing with its horrible form. He took it as his own, into his sanctuary of a house.

The police taped off the house. It fell into disrepair as they moved everything to Evidence at the local police department. Boxes of journals went with the medical devices. Rumors spread that he was involved in genetic manipulation. They said he wanted to go beyond humanity. They said he lured Natalie to his place with the promise of money and affection for her help. They found enough tranquilizers to keep her cooperative for years.

Last I heard, Natalie was in a mental hospital up north. Doc Albright spent his final days in jail, always denying his crime but never denying his new son. He spoke daily of his creation, writing furiously to committees for recognition.  Their reply was simple. Since no body was found, nothing could be confirmed. They said this gave the old man no more reasons to live and he just wasted away.

My son is at the point now where he wants to know what happened. He wants to look and I hear him and his friends planning runs to the house. They talk of breaking in and dare each other to stay the night. I tell them to forget about it. Some things are just so wrong that they leave a mark on a place.

At night, on the ones thick with darkness, I hear noises. I hear screams and howls. I hear banging and finally shotgun blasts. I look out the window and see Albright cradling his baby. He sings it to sleep and I shut the curtain, say it’s a dream and ready myself for the new day.

 

 

Matt Shaner is a writer outside of Philadelphia, PA. He has eighteen short stories online and in print, a novella and a novel published by Eternal Press. He spends nights working in an Emergency Room and days dreaming of writing the next great novel.

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Kit by Catherine Roth

Sep 16 2012 Published by under The WiFiles

The gravel sounded like milked up Rice Krispies under the tires.   The two in the car–a young man and his beautiful female companion–seemed to be the only living souls for a hundred miles.

“It looks like it’s made from Lincoln Logs,” she giggled as he cut the engine. They both leapt out to stretch their legs and breathe in the cooling September air.

“It’s amazing how the moonlight brings out the red in your hair,” he said.

She patted her braid self-consciously and only dared to smile when he looked away.

“Is it always this quiet?” she asked, searching the woods for signs of life.      She shifted her gaze back to him: “Will we get reception out here?”

His laugh was superficially airy. He began to pull their bags from the trunk.

“We’ll be having too much fun to want to call anyone,” he said with a meaningful drop of his left eyelid.   Her eyes reflected just enough mockery to make him lose the bravado. “There is a clearing about a mile west that usually gets service.”

He pulled open the cabin door.   The air inside was heavy with neglect. The woman–Kit–reached for a light switch. The entryway was flooded with a soft orange light for a second before the bulb snapped back into darkness.

“When was the last time someone came here?”

James navigated toward the kitchen using the map of his memory.   He quickly located some matches and a pie-sized candle. He lit all three wicks, giving the wood paneled room the sinister gleam of a campfire.

“We used to come every summer when my mother was alive. There’s a lake not too far away. She was this champion fly fisher.”

“I’m so sorry,” Kit squeezed his bicep in sympathy.   “When did she pass?”

James started rummaging through the cabinets and drawers. He found plates, mugs, butter knives, steak knives, fishing knives and hunting knives, but no light bulbs or flashlights.

“I was in high school,”   he shrugged.

Kit didn’t press him. He didn’t seem ready to share, and Kit needed the evening to go exactly to her plan.

“What’s in the cooler?” She tapped the red and white thing playfully. It had been too heavy for her to carry from the car. “Just because we’re in the middle of nowhere doesn’t mean I expect anything less than a 5 star meal.” She gave him a sly showing of opaline teeth.

“Not just yet,” he snatched her hand, looking into her eyes as he kissed it. Then he was all business: “There’s a hall closet upstairs. Can you check that one for bulbs? I’ll check the basement.”

“No way!” She slipped her hand out of his. “I’ve seen this movie before–” she took two taper candles James had unearthed and lit them “–we are not splitting up. I am making it out of these woods alive.”

He kissed her again as she passed him a candle, then undid the latch on the basement door.   The staircase was barely more than a wooden ladder: narrow steps with no backs.   It creaked, of course, but more troubling was the way it swayed as the young couple descended.   Their candles barely lit their faces and gave little definitions to the shadowy forms below.   A mutted , frantic scraping came from the far corner.

“I was joking about the horror movie thing,” Kit whispered with little breath. “Please tell me that is the hot water tank or something.”

“There’s no way it’s on,” he scratched out his response. “It must be a mouse or something.”

“I think,” her eyes grew wider and the sound rose, “if mice were that loud they would be extinct.”

Kit stayed by the stairs and James ventured further toward the noise.   He only took a few steps before Kit lost track of his shape.   The scrapping quickened and was joined by a few low groans.

“James?” she tried.

“James, what is it?” Still no response. Silence filled the basement, more consuming than the darkness.

Then a low rumble, like the prelude to a thunderclap.

“James, I’m serious…”

Rruuff, ruff!

“Kit, don’t be so dramatic,” James’s laugh broke through the dark. “It’s just a puppy. Poor thing, I don’t know how she got in.” The light of his candle approached. “Lets get you something to eat, hu girl? You must be starved.”

Kit knew he was referring to the canine, not her. She couldn’t see how a drooling, barking, shedding little monster would add to the romance.

James brought the it and some bulbs upstairs.   He surveyed the ground floor, replacing lightbulbs with the puppy at his heels.   Kit remained in the kitchen, drumming her fingers on the table, resisting the urge to peek into the cooler.

One setback isn’t enough to ruin the evening, she thought.

“All lit,” James finally announced.  The flicker of the giant candle on the disappeared into the electric light. Kit blew on the wicks one by one, holding onto the same wish as each flame ceased.

Kit offered to help with the dinner prep, but James refused on conditions of romance.

“You just relax,” he insisted. He chopped, sliced, diced, sauteed and seared with his back to her. She occasionally glimpsed his profile when he offered a taste-test to the puppy. Maybe it was her own mounting urgency, but Kit felt like she and James had shifted off their track and she couldn’t realign them. The mutt’s eyes shone on her new master in pure adoration. It gave terrifyingly human looks of distain when Kit tried to join the conversation

“Did you fish with your mom?” Surely he could emotionally connect with her better than with a dog.

“No,” he shrugged. “My dad taught me to set traps–rabbits and squirrels–but I wasn’t so good at fishing or hunting. I like to get my meat in plastic-wrap.” He tossed a scrap of something from his pan and the canine beggar caught it mid-air.   “What should we call her?”

“Maybe it’s a neighbor’s dog,” Kit suggested hopefully. “We could return it before it gets too dark.”

James filled three plates with his concoction. He set the largest helping on the floor, next to his chair.

“I didn’t want you to get the wrong idea–thinking I was an heir or something–but my family owns pretty much everything around here.” He filled his mouth and smiled at Kit with bulging cheeks.

“So, no neighbors?”

“Nope. Not for a few acres.”

“Well, maybe the dog is from the next town. Or it could have wandered in from the highway. It might have fleas.”

James promptly scratched the mutt behind the ears. “Look at this beautiful coat. Fleas? Not on my Victoria.”

“Who is ‘Victoria’? Some ex?”

“I just like it. Vicky is a good girl… isn’t she? Isn’t she?”

His intelligence seemed to dwindle as the dog got more comfortable. Kit might have found it charming, the way he cared for everything with a heartbeat, if she didn’t have such urgent needs of her own.

She was in the middle of nowhere, trying to get a man to fall in for her and losing to a dog. She chewed her romantic dinner. Everything had worked miraculously well up until the dog. She needed to get rid of it.  She needed James, and time was running out.

“Why don’t you tie the dog outside? It could probably use some fresh air.” She needed him to pick up the hint before she got desperate.

“Look how happy she is,” James scratched and patted the thing some more. “And she is a girl. Why do you keep saying ‘it’?”

“I’m not a dog person.” She scrunched her nose at the thought. “I’m kind of allergic… Achoo.”

“You look great to me,” he patted her shoulder.

His insisted on doing the dishes–more scraps to Vicky–as Kit tried to plot and scheme. This was only her first attempt, but she had made it this far, she wouldn’t lose to a stray mutt.

Kit slipped upstairs, where James had left their bags. A small hall closet held towels and toothpaste. A cliche claw-footed tub occupied the tiny washroom. As long as the cabin had been empty, Kit could still feel the essence of home  in the cabin that brought a lump to her throat.

Kit slipped into the bedroom and into her last-ditch effort: A snug and silky teddy.   She stalked back down the stairs, the cold floor shocking her bare feet.  James was sitting on the couch playing tug of war with Vicky and a knotted sock.

“Hello, handsome.”

James’s head snapped up, as if he forgot there was another person in the cabin.

“Oh, honey, are you tired already? I’m going to stay up just a little longer, if you don’t mind.”

Kit’s confidence had been slowly leaking for the last hour, James’ words drained her entirely. She still had her desperation:

“Babe, why don’t you come up with me?” She slid an arm around his shoulder. “You said you wanted to get to know each other better on this trip.”

James tucked some of her hair behind her ear and made the first eye contact since the dog showed up.

“Its not that I don’t want to,” he drank in the sight of her. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but maybe we should slow down.”

His words hit her like an icy gale.

“We could have something really special, Kit. Why don’t we enjoy the journey?” He was saying words most women would die to hear a man speak. It was killing Kit to hear them.

She swallowed–her throat was suddenly rough. She needed to make him understand, but she knew the truth wasn’t an option.

“I just thought… We came all the way out here, in the middle of nowhere…”

He pressed his lips sympathetically against her temple.

“I’m sorry for being a letdown. A tease. I think you’ll forgive me in the long run.”

“That’s just it,” the backs of her eyes strained to keep the waters contained. “I can’t wait.”

The dog whined. James stroked it’s side and knotted his forehead at the beautiful woman next to him.

“Before I met you, I was different.” She didn’t know where to start, how much to reveal. “You changed everything for me. You made me a person.”

She remembered the first night she spotted him, in the glow of a street lamp. He stared at her, too. He was amazed at a thing so beautiful. A fox. In the middle of the city. How could such a creature survive in the metropolitan chaos?

Kit was paralyzed by him: fear, awe, hope, desire. She knew he was her chance out of her cursed form. She didn’t get very many chances, but there he was, promising her freedom. With a flick of her red and white tail, she vanished. She met him again the next day. As a human.

She told him everything: Her life in Japan… falling in love with the conjuror’s husband… the curse that did worse than kill her.

First he laughed. Then he stared. He didn’t know if she was insane, or he was.

“So if we don’t… get together… Tonight?” He continued as she tearily nodded. “You turn back into a fox.”

She knew telling him the truth might ruin her chances. He was just an ordinary man, it would be extraordinary if he could digest her story. If only  the night had happened the way she planned. He would have never needed to now. She only had a few hours left to convince him.

The mangy beast at his feet barked and whined.

“I’m going for a walk,” he couldn’t look at the beautiful woman crying on his couch. “I think I need some air.”

He took the mutt with him.

She paced the cabin. There were probably things she should indulge in–her last hours as a human for a hundred more years–but the only thing she wanted was him. She had spent a few lifetimes as a sly, conniving creature, but she could not take his love so easily as the egg from the hen house. He had to want to give it.

11pm.

Half past.

Quarter ‘til.

She saw the knob turning from her side of the door. The dog was at his feet, barring it’s teeth. He wouldn’t come any closer.

“I can’t believe you,” he said, “or I wont. I don’t know.” He looked back at the dog.

“Please,” she said, but she knew it was hopeless.

“One of us is crazy. Time to find out which.”

The earth completed one more rotation. Where a woman once stood, a fox cowered.

Victoria, faithful companion of this broken man, chased what James couldn’t deny. The dog ridded the cabin of the pest. James sunk into his couch, dazed.

Victoria didn’t return to the cabin. Not as a dog. The next day she would begin what the fox failed.

 

 

Bio: When Catherine Roth is not writing she is desperately trying to knit two consecutive socks that can be called a pair, or singing a coloratura aria. She is working on several unfinished novels, even more short stories, but no poetry.

 

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The Knight’s redemption by Lane Heymont

Sep 09 2012 Published by under The WiFiles

     Winter. Coldfrost 29th 1102 SF (Since fall of Tunaras)

      An angry fall night had descended upon the hamlet of Anglor, swallowing the cluster of white-washed, thatch-roofed huts.  A chill danced on the breeze howling in Sewenna Ravenot’s ears as he made his rounds through the rough-hewn streets. Still, Sewenna had to remain vigilant and watch for the alleged Beast of Anglor—like all villages across Indova, Anglor lived in fear of a monster that lurked in the shadows of their tedious lives.

“There never is,” grumbled Sewenna, adjusting the padding under his basinet so the cold metal wouldn’t touch his skin.  He stopped and glanced around him, the five poorly “painted” mud-brick homes on Street One seemed calm, quiet.  Sewenna didn’t bother learning any of the street names—what would be the point?  He’d grow bored in Anglor as he had in every backwater village he spent time in as he crisscrossed across Indova in search of Harga-thul.

He heard that laugh in the breeze.  Glancing around, he found nothing but mundane huts—just my imagination he told himself.

“Forget this accursed cold, I’m going to the tavern,” muttered Sewenna.  He walked brusquely through the streets, his chainmail shirt clinking loudly. Slightly larger than the average Anglor home, the Priest and Crook was the only tavern in town.

Through the curvature of the glass, Sewenna peered in and saw the barmaid Deloys glide about the room serving patrons.  He paused, straightening his basinet, securing his sword at his belt and adjusting the surcoat over his mail.  Sewenna wasn’t hideous, but his looks never won him women in Indova City.  He cringed at the sight of himself: early in his fourth decade, and brawny with frizzy, coffee hair.   He kept his oak colored beard thick to hide his cleft chin. Sighing, he entered the tavern.

“Hoy! You catch us that beast yet? Roderick over there says he seen it and it’s a werewolf,” snapped Estout the moment Sewenna shut the door.  He couldn’t help glaring at the blowhard, a barrel-chested man nearly a foot taller than Sewenna.

The town protector felt all eyes on him, waiting for an answer.  Sewenna hesitated, glancing around the room filled with tables and men drinking after a hard day’s work.  “Not yet,” he grumbled, lying by omission as no such beast existed.

Estout scoffed, turning back to his friends and ale, “some knight he must’ve been!”

He made his way to the counter and took a seat at the counter as Deloys flittered his way.  A delicate woman early in her third decade, Deloys’ eyes glittered like gilded wood.  Her silky flaxen hair lay on her back in thick braid.  She excited a fire in Sewenna’s heart he hadn’t felt in two decades—not since that night.

“The same? Bread and pottage,” said Deloys, placing a soft hand on Sewenna’s shoulder, “oh! And because of Estout we have some venison.”  She absently waved a hand at the big man as the tavern erupted with gales of congratulations.  Even Deloys’ disdain for the oaf who fawned over her every night couldn’t hide the natural joy in her voice.  Sewenna loved that…how she possessed such cheer.

Sewenna nodded to Deloys who slipped away to fetch his dinner.  He kept his head lowered, eyes on the counter and listened to the jovial villagers laugh and thump together their wooden mugs.  Then he heard Estout rise from his chair.

“Not again,” Sewenna hissed under his breath.

Floorboards groaned under the big man’s weight as he strode to the counter, “shouldn’t you be out looking for the beast that killed my flock?  Or is that below you, Sir Sewenna of Indova City? Heh!  Sewenna’s a girl’s name!  Your mother must’ve really wanted a girl, huh?”

Sewenna remained calm, but heard the patrons shift in their seats and others whisper of another brawl.  The tale of Sir Sewenna slaying the great “dragon” Thaakal was common knowledge in of Indova.  Certainly no hero would allow such an oaf to guffaw at his honor!  Sewenna chuckled—if his countrymen knew Thaakal had been an oversized adder, he’d be as important as the local tailor.  No, the real monster was the snake’s master, Sewenna’s prey and whose laugh he heard in the wind.

“I told you it’s fall.  Food supplies limited for both man and beast.  Most likely, it was a pack of wolves.  I sent Gildon the messenger to Sarosum—forty miles is the closest city.  He’ll be in back in two days with more hunters.  You can handle yourself until then,” assured Sewenna as he edged his longsword from its sheath, “understand?”

Estout’s eyes narrowed on Sewenna’s weapon.  “I suggest you make your rounds soon and watch over my stable.  Manston’s the only useable drought horse in town, and I know my father the Reeve will appreciate it.  You understand?” Estout growled.

“Aye. Let me finish dinner and I’ll be off for a look,” said Sewenna sourly, his lips dipped into a frown.  Estout stood over him another moment as though deciding whether he was satisfied or not.

Deloys nudged him out of the way as she handed Sewenna a wood plate rich with bread and pottage steaming with tender chunks of meat.  “Go back and sit with your buffoons,” she shoved a slender finger in his face, “you show him some respect!”

With a grunt Estout turned on his heels and stormed back to his table.

“Thank you,” grumbled Sewenna, then bit into the loaf of bread.  Deloys jiggled his basinet like a playful kitten.

“Well, you did slay a dragon—”

Already finishing his bread, and slurping up spoonfuls of pottage, Sewenna mumbled, “there’s no dragons…no monsters.”  But Deloys glided away, not having heard his confession. He ate his meal hurriedly, ignoring whispers of his inability to slay the Beast of Anglor.

Sewenna pushed aside the empty plate, finished the mug of ale that had mysteriously appeared, Deloys’ ritual, and headed for the door.  He hated to rush, wishing he could court Deloys further, but Estout’s glowering urged Sewenna into the cold night.

Rounds took longer than usual tonight—rather Sewenna meandered through the four streets, his mind lost to his future.  Already, he felt the restlessness itching in his skin, but Anglor had held his interest longer than any other village.  Deloys’ cheerfulness kept him here, but he’d need to move on soon.

Since that night he heard Harga-thul’s cackle in the breeze.  Thinking about those events tore at Sewenna’s soul and mocked him.  True, he slayed Thaakal, but only after it slaughtered his retainers including his brother Ulger.  But when he faced Harga-thul, he faltered, only able to graze him with his blade before overwhelmed with fear and fleeing.  Harga-thul the Eldritch Mage had been a man once, but let magic and power contort him into some monster.  He had resembled a skeleton whose skin clung to bones as like a frightened child clings to its mother. His sunken green eyes akin to rancid milk had sent the knight running from his lair…a shame Sewenna carried with him.  He had lied about it,  but that only made his thirst for vengeance and redemption more palpable. If he ever found Harga-thul, Sewenna was certain it’d be his death, but at least he’d die well and redeemed in the Good Spirits’ eyes.

A howl pierced the air, jolting Sewenna from his aimless thoughts. He’d wandered to the village outskirts where Estout’s stable stood by instinct. Nothing seemed unusual as he scanned the wood structure with a sliding door at each end.

Still, he had heard the howl.  Sewenna approached the stable and slid open the door as a blast of wind knocked the basinet off his head.  “Blast it!” he bent down, grabbed it and replaced it snugly.

Sewenna froze when he heard it. A baleful, demented growl came from the trees just beyond Estout’s stable.  He turned to face the creature as it emerged from the foliage—a large, perverted, wolf with an over elongated snout and bovine legs ending in clawed, hand-like hooves.  Its lupine eyes reflected his torch’s light, and Sewenna swore he saw the Foul Spirits in them.

Cautiously, as not to spook the animal, Sewenna slid his sword from its sheath, keeping his torch held high. The beast seemed cautious too as it slowly circled him, watching him with horrible, yellow eyes.  Sewenna hesitated to attack, not wanting to engage an animal he knew little about, particularly such a fiendish one.

Seeing the wolf edge forward Sewenna advanced and stabbed at it. But midway through his strike the wind cackled manically, and seemingly threw him to the ground.  “He’s here,” gasped Sewenna, climbing to his feet.

However, the beast took advantage of his fall and lunged at him, sinking vicious teeth into Sewenna’s forearm.  He screamed, feeling fiery pain tear through mail and padding and puncture flesh.  His torch clattered to the flagstones as the fiend forced Sewenna to the ground, its bone crushing maw latched onto his arm.  Sewenna managed to keep his sword, and struggled to position the blade under the wolf’s belly.  With a quick snap of his arm, he thrust the sword, but it was already off him.

The beast circled Sewenna as though waiting for him to stand and prepare himself. Sewenna gladly obliged, rolling over and pushing himself to his feet. He examined his wound with a glance…deep and shredded, but it would heal.  Returning his gaze to the fiend, he found it poised for another lunge, and he prepared for it with a quarte parry.

The creature cocked its head, watching Sewenna as though confused.  Its yellow eyes flickered in the torch’s dying light.

“Come on, then,” he heaved, motioning it forward. The bovine wolf hesitated.

A cold breeze brought a drawn out whisper that rattled Sewenna’s courage, “not…yet…Nduaerng. Make…him…wait.”

The fiend seemed to understand. It bounded into the woods, leaving Sewenna alone in the torch’s dying light and the claws of encroaching darkness.

He scanned the tree line, then shuddered, thinking about that forlorn whisper. He wiped the blood from his blade on his britches. He glanced into the stable and found Estout’s chickens,  cow, and bay stallion unharmed and slid the door shut.

Sewenna knew he should trail the animal, that slight could leave a few blood spots he could follow.  But going on a hunt in the dark, wounded and without another torch convinced Sewenna to wait until daylight. Besides, he knew the beast existed now, and he had an idea who sent it. But this time he wouldn’t run.

Taking a swig from his flask to dull the pain, Sewenna headed to the Priest and Crook where he’d been staying with Deloys. Gildon will arrive by morning with hunters…then we’ll go hunting. I should inform Estout, thought Sewenna dourly.  A part of him hoped the creature would get the blackguard before morning, but either way he needed to keep the villagers occupied so he could investigate properly.  Sewenna knew the beast and the whisper would reveal themselves soon.

 

#

Excitement and fear descended on Anglor like it had never seen.  Most shops and businesses closed for the day.  Jolis the blacksmith closed for the day, Léal the tanner closed, Herbrand the tailor closed as did the cobbler, farrier, carpenter and mason, who instead gathered at the Priest and Crook. The tavern dotted with shoddy and unfinished tables roared with activity as men, busy organizing into hunting parties, boasted of their hunting skills and that they would catch the beast.

Luckily for Sewenna few wished to join his band, consisting of Gildon the messenger who had yet to arrive with more hunters, and Pepin the mason.  A short burly man with bushy ash-blonde hair, he served Sewenna’s purpose—untrained, passive and scared.  He was less concerned about the wolf-thing and more focused on its master—a fiend he couldn’t speak of lest he burst into tears in front of a tavern of men.

“Quiet!” Sewenna banged his hand on a table, though his gaze focused on Deloys meandering through the room, delivering mugs of ale. Pay attention, he scolded himself and turned back to the impatient throng of villagers.

“We don’t need any fancy words from the likes of you—just let us kill the beast!” Estout shouted followed by jovial agreement from his comrades.

Sewenna grunted, annoyed and worried, seeing expressions of bloodlust among the men.  They’re going to get themselves killed, he thought.  “Move out,” he said grimly, glancing at Deloys as she came to his side. She placed a soft, milky hand to his cheek, caressing him and landed a soul jumping kiss on his rough skin.  He smiled, flushing, even more so when he noticed Estout glowering at him before he and the villages streamed out of the tavern.

Sewenna touched Deloys’ hand, swearing, through his gloves he could feel the warmth of her love, “I’ll be fine, and hopefully be back soon—follow me, Pepin.”

#

Winter had swallowed fall in the days since Sewenna’s encountered the creature. The ground of the Living Woods had frozen, covered in loose foliage that cracked underfoot. Sewenna despised the name—another ridiculous superstition that the trees come alive and eat those who mistreat them.  Still, they loomed over he and Pepin, obstructing the sun from view and casting them in a eerie pseudo-twilight.

“Be careful, we don’t want to disturb the trees or we’ll be the ones hunted,” said Pepin, glancing around the woods nervously.

“We are the hunted,” he grumbled, keeping his hand on his sword’s hilt as he crept from trunk to trunk.  Sewenna doubted his skulking would hide him from the wolf—too many twigs and dead leaves for that, but against his better judgment he had abandoned his mail. “Shhh,” he halted, pretending he heard something.

“You hear the beast?” gasped Pepin.  He trembled in his boots, buckles jingling.

Sewenna smirked, though it soon faded when he caught the flash of something pass a tree ahead.  “If you return to Anglor, I will never speak of it…we lost each other…” he said, peering through the trees.  They seemed to bend, twist and stretch their skeletal arms to hide what Sewenna had seen.

“Really?”  Pepin gasped excitedly.

“Aye, go home,” said the knight, cocking his head to see beyond twisted limbs.  Another dark figure appeared in the distance.  Wood snapped and Sewenna spun around, unsheathing his sword.  Nothing, but Pepin running back towards Anglor.

Shaking his head, Sewenna turned back. The figure was gone.  Hunted indeed, he thought, proceeding deeper into the forest.  Sewenna’s tracking skills couldn’t compare to Ulger’s—he had been stronger, received women’s attention and men’s admiration.

An afternoon breeze drifted through the forests, teasing loose branches and skipping leaves across the cold earth.  Sewenna paused, expecting to hear that cackle—just the moaning wind.

“Now my apprentice,” murmured the trees, or was it the wind, or the leaves!

Behind you!  Sewenna swung around, swiping his blade at the hulking figure at his rear.  Heart pounding, and eyes blurring, Sewenna had reacted too quickly to see who or what was there before it circled around him.  It struck with claws like steel, tore through Sewenna’s padded armor, and ripped strips of gory flesh from his back.

He howled in agony, collapsed forward onto the frozen earth as his padding and surcoat filled with warm blood that steamed into the winter afternoon.

#

     Crack!  The sound of bone snapping sent surges of pain through his body, jolting Sewenna from unconsciousness.  Blinking furiously, he tried to see through blood that had caked over his face and the throbbing pain in his ribs. His arms ached, tied behind his back and around a thick trunk.

“What—”

“Good, you’re awake.  I was afraid you’d be out all day.  I don’t like being in the Living Woods at night—all the trees, you know,” said Estout, looming over Sewenna with his chest puffed out.  Blood dripped from the big man’s gruff, stubbly face.

“You…” groaned Sewenna, realizing it was his blood.  “You’re the beast? I suppose I should’ve known,” he flinched, his back ablaze from the stump’s bark.

“Ha! Not likely.  You think you could ride in here on the coattails of some failed quest and take her from me? Who are you that you’re better then me?” snarled Estout, spittle and blood flying from his mouth.  “That’s right, I’ve heard the rumors. The great dragon Thaakal slew all your men and your brother to die,” he chuckled, his laugh rumbled in his throat like a bestial growl.

Sewenna yanked his arms, trying to break free, lunge on Estout and tear him limb from limb.  When the coarse ropes binding him and his weakened body wouldn’t obey, he sank back.  “Who am I…I am Sir Sewenna Ravenot of the Knights of the Raven and you’re a miscreant hiding in a paltry village, scaring women and children!”

Estout scratched his chin, nefarious thoughts flashing in his eyes.

A crack of thunder rumbled across the unseen sky—it had grown darker since Sewenna woke.  He needed to engage Estout before the moon rose.  Otherwise the big man would become the beast.

“Are you challenging me?” said Estout as though he hadn’t understood Sewenna’s intention.

Sewenna scoffed, “this is why Deloys desires me and not you.  By the Good Spirits I’ve been here for months and you had your whole miserable life to woo her—Yes I challenge you!”

It worked.  Anger boiled in Estout’s face.  He bent down and ripped off Sewenna’s restraints.      It wouldn’t have surprised Sewenna if Estout spit flames.

“All right,” said Estout, tossing the ropes aside and stepping back. He pointed to Sewenna’s sword against a nearby tree, glowering, his gaze glinted like moonlight.

Limping, Sewenna retrieved his sword, turning to face Estout.  He moved into a fighting stance, motioning the big man forward.

Wasting no time, Estout lunged at Sewenna, claws sprouting from his thick fingers.

Sewenna ducked and Estout struck the tree with a loud thump.  When Sewenna spun around, Estout had begun the grotesque change.  Back expanding, bones broke themselves to elongate, forming thicker limbs ending in flesh-ripping claws.

Sewenna stood aghast at the monster Estout had become: a hulking bear with a perverted humanoid shape.  His soldier’s instincts jumped to action, and Sewenna thrust his sword at the creature.  But Estout wasted no time and rushed Sewenna, latching its jaws onto the knight’s basinet and hauling him off the ground.  Teeth bit through steel as the beast tried to snap its jaws shut on Sewenna’s skull.  He unstrapped the helm and slipped out, rolling back onto his knees with his blade upright as if in salute.

Estout charged Sewenna, and fell into his blade.  He howled, writhing in agony as his blood flowed out in waves over Sewenna.  Still, the creature batted at him with its claws, tearing through the knight’s padding.

Sewenna screamed he started to buckle, the were-beast slowly slipping atop him as it went limp.  For a moment, underneath that looming blanket of fur and muscle, Sewenna thought of letting it crush him—to join Ulger and the Good Spirits in the afterlife.

Deloys, he thought, I can’t leave her alone.

Heaving Estout upward as far as he could, Sewenna let go of his sword and fumbled out from underneath the creature.  It hit the ground like thunder, Sewenna’s blade piercing through its back.

“Farewell, Estout. You died well,” breathed Sewenna as he fell back and laid on the ground slick with blood.  Exhausted, he rested for a moment when his name came on the wind—but soon he heard it was the villagers calling his name, not some monster.

Sewenna would be celebrated as a hero, as the one who slayed the beast.  Perhaps it would redeem him for his cowardice. But, he deserved his rest, and as the torchlights and villagers closed in on him, he passed out with Harga-thul cackling in his ears.

#

     Festivities raged for a week in Anglor after Sewenna’s victory, though he spent that time recuperating at the Priest and Crook.  Laying on a couch and sipping tea by the fireplace.

All of Anglor had been astounded at the beast’s identity, but a number of rumors put fearful minds at ease: Estout had been cursed by a witch, possessed by a demon or murdered by a doppelganger who took his place.

Sewenna didn’t pay them any attention. However, that week on the couch he mulled over what had happened.  He couldn’t piece it all together.  Few had been bothered by the creature save Estout—a few cattle here and there, but his whole flock had been torn apart.  Moreover, he had been the one who vehemently demanded Sewenna kill the creature.  Could Estout have been that clever to devise some ploy to kill him and take Deloys for himself?  But he fell victim to a simple defensive maneuver…

“It’s bitter out tonight,” said Deloys, stepping into the tavern with the wind howling behind her as she closed the door.

Sewenna glanced over and nodded, taking another slurp of his Indovan Spiced Tea.

“Are you all right?” she asked, hanging up her cloak and crawling up on the couch next to Sewenna.  She kissed his cheek.

“Aye…just thinking…”

“About?”

Sewenna sighed and sat up, leaving the comfort of his couch and betrothed.

“What are you thinking?” asked Deloys, her eyes following Sewenna as he limped across the tavern to his chest behind the counter. He crouched down and pulled it open, “Estout wasn’t the beast…” Sewenna trailed off, waiting for Deloys’ response.  Shuffling through the chest’s contents, he found his dagger, and slipped it from its sheath.

Deloys remained silent.

“Estout was a were-bear—the beast I first encountered was some deformed bovine-wolf,” said Sewenna, rising from the floor.  Deloys stood at the counter.  He hadn’t even heard her move.

“Really?” she asked.

“Aye,” Sewenna nodded grimly, inspecting Deloys’ beautiful features.  He cursed himself for not putting it together earlier…love had dulled his senses.  “The way you move—silent, almost eerie.”

“Yes?”

“You’re the beast,” said Sewenna coolly.

Deloys smirked, “and who is my master?”

Scowling, Sewenna lifted the dagger, gazing into Deloys’ chocolate eyes.  “Harga-thul the Eldritch Mage.  The one who killed my brother,” Sewenna pointed the dagger at Deloys.

She made no move.  “And?”

“I know how he’s followed me all this time,” he said dejectedly.

“How?”  Deloys shifted her weight from one foot to the other.  Sewenna could see she was prepared to attack or run, he didn’t know which.

“That night when Harga-thul killed Ulger. I grazed him before I ran.  A nick, but enough.  Harga-thul, or that body he occupied, must’ve developed an infection in the wound and died,” said Sewenna, his eyes growing watery with the memory of his brother.  “With no body to inhabit, his dark soul sought me out.  His revenge was entering me.  Living through me, continuing his heinous evil through me—and with Thaakal dead, Harga-thul needed a new familiar.  That’s where you come in,” he motioned the dagger at Deloys.

Deloys smirked, “I’m impressed. We didn’t think you would discover it so soon.  Maybe in a few years when you started to wake soaked in blood.  But this doesn’t change anything.  I have always been the beast and you have always been my master.  You are damned, and your body belongs to the Eldritch Mage now, and forever.”

Sewenna sighed, “no.”

“No?”

“No, I will serve justice, and I will be redeemed,” said Sewenna, driving the dagger into his neck and dragging it across his throat.  Blood gurgled out, and as he drifted away towards his brother and the Good Spirits, Sewenna heard Deloys crying and Harga-thul howling in rage.

 

Bio: I have been writing for two decades and have attended numerous workshops at UMass Amherst by invitation. Pursuing my undergraduate degree in Psychology at Springfield College, I tutored for an African-American Literature course and completed an Independent Study in Creative Writing. I currently attend Harvard University, pursuing a Masters in Liberal Arts in Creative Writing.

 

 

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A Fighting Chance By John Dougherty

Sep 02 2012 Published by under The WiFiles

I was approached by a smartly dressed woman in a pantsuit.  She was young, late twenties.  She had beautiful bone structure, but a thick scar along her jaw line gave her face an asymmetrical look.  The girl waited quietly in the corner while I signed my life away.  It was brief.  I didn’t bother to look the contract over.  My options were limited.  I just needed to go through the process to give myself any hope of survival.

When I was done, I offered my hand to the lawyer behind the desk. He shook it loosely and Pantsuit hurried me into an elevator. “When I left the house this morning, I never expected I would be taking this ride.  I honestly didn’t think I would make it.  You never know what the future holds.”

“I agree, Lieutenant Arden.”

“Tim,” I interjected.

“Tim,” she said.

We stared in silence at the elevator doors until they opened on a sparse room clad in white.  Pantsuit walked ahead of me.  She had a nice body, but she moved with a limp that exaggerated the swivel of her hips.

“Tim, this is a quick procedure, but we will have to administer anesthesia.”

“I understand.   You need to scrape what’s left of my vital organs…I would hate to be awake for that.”

“You may experience some mild discomfort immediately afterward.  It is temporary…it will not affect your performance tonight.”

“That’s good.”  A moment of uncomfortable silence passed between us before I forced the small talk. “So, have you been with the network long?”

“About four years.”

“This must be a nice gig, steady at least.”

She ignored my comment and directed me to a chair.  I took a seat.  Pantsuit turned her head to the side.  I had a closer view of her scar.  It was a hideous belt of flesh that writhed on the side of her face when she spoke. She felt the weight of my gaze and quickly turned away.  She hobbled across the room and disappeared beyond a solitary door.

A moment later, she reemerged.  I was led through a corridor alive with the sound of hospital machinery.  A device that appeared more medieval torture instrument than medical equipment, waited at the end of the hall.

“What the hell is that?” I asked.

“That is where we grow your clone, Mr. Arden.”

Its purpose seemed obvious after that.  It had a recessed area in the shape of a person.  A doctor, with two days of gray stubble on a small chin, greeted me and instructed me to disrobe and lay in the cloning machine.  He inserted an IV with a gentle touch and fitted a mask over my nose and mouth.  The anesthetic had a medicinal taste.  The doctor asked me to count backwards from ten.  I was out before I could comprehend his request.

*

            I awoke from a dreamless sleep to the echo of voices around me.  My vision was slow to focus on a room partitioned by vinyl drapes.  When I rolled out of bed, my legs were weak and uncoordinated.  I grabbed the metal railing to steady myself.  I stretched out my right leg, then my left.  I began to feel more connected to my body.

I was dressed in a surgical robe.  It was short and opened to the rear, typical of a hospital garment.  I stepped through the partition into a sea of empty hospital beds.  A technician took notice and began to head my way.   As she drew closer, I noticed something abnormal about her face.  It was unnaturally taught and her eyes were deep set.  The skin around them was discolored, like a mask of flesh.  Her mouth was a thin line across her face.  She spoke with a kind voice, divorced from her odd appearance.

“It looks like someone is up,” she said.

“I don’t know, was I supposed to wait in bed?” I replied.

“Its okay, Honey.  Is everything alright?”

Her voice was saccharin sweet, and her obsequious manner instantly bothered me.  I assumed she developed this way of speaking to compensate for her obvious deformity.

“Everything is fine,” I said in a broken voice.

“Well, that’s great.  We have a big night ahead of us.”

I searched for a nametag but found only the ubiquitous network insignia emblazed on her white coat.

“How long was I out? How much time do I have before I go on?”

“Oh don’t you worry about that, Hon.  A big strong man like you…you’ll be ready.”

The technician handed me an orange suit and pointed to a small room to change.  I deposited the surgical gown into a recessed chute and dressed quickly.  The fabric was light and elastic.  It was very comfortable and hugged every contour of my body.  It left little to the imagination, but the absence of slack meant less to grab onto in the fray.

Pantsuit was waiting when I reentered the hall.

“Very nice,” she said.

Suited up, it became more real, I had made the cut.  I was a combatant on Fight for Your Life, the networks most popular program.   A chance to replace my diseased organs was moments away.

“How much time do I have?” I asked Pantsuit.

“Not long, I would say about seventy five minutes.”

“Holy Shit!  How long was I in recovery?”

“A while, but don’t worry, you will be ready.”

“I need some time to prepare!” a flash of anger passed through me, “I need time to train, to loosen up.”

“Your military conditioning and survival instinct will assert itself once the match begins.”

“Can I notify my family? I need to speak to them before I go on.”

“Your immediate family has been notified,” Pantsuit spoke in a cool, even tone.  The lyrical aspects of her voice seemed dulled by the nature of our conversation. “Trust me, everyone has been informed of what is about to transpire, the network has taken care of it…you don’t need to worry.  Just focus on the match.  Don’t let your attention be divided by trivial matters.”

We continued down the hallway.  A row of identical doors lined one side.

“We have prepared a room for you,” She said, stopping near one of them.

“Seventy five minutes?” I asked.

“Maybe less,” she replied, “we have another match scheduled before yours…It may be brief if the chairman selects weaponry.  Blade matches don’t usually last long.”

“I go on in the middle, right?”

“Yours will be the second match…Please,” she said, placing her hand on the door handle.

I nodded, and she pushed it ajar.

The room was Spartan.  It had a chair, a vanity and an illuminated mirror.  A chronological progression of “Fight for Your Life” posters hung neatly on the wall.

Pantsuit closed the door quietly behind her as she left the room.  I was alone with my thoughts and a monitor streaming local news.  “Fight for your life” had yet to begin but anchorman, Kant Walters, was signing off with his usual rhetoric, and making way for the prefight coverage.

The network prefaced each bout with a maudlin piece about the contestants and the lives they plan to lead if they persist.  My wish was simple.  I want to live a normal life, free of disease. That is all I ever wanted.

The theme music began.  They plunged immediately into a story about a schoolteacher, Abe Mitchell, suffering from a kidney disorder.  It was filled with slow close-ups of family photographs and pandering images of Abe with his Maltese.  It was a disturbing juxtaposition to the programming to follow.  Soon, this mild mannered schoolteacher would attempt to mutilate his clone for a chance to harvest its kidney.

I stared defiantly at the chair, I couldn’t rest now.  I imagined my clone sitting in a similar room performing the same tasks.  Would we share the same approach, mimicking each other’s movements, like some violent choreography?  If I ignored my initial instinct would I gain advantage?  I didn’t want to fight a man like me.  I knew my capabilities.  A trickle of doubt began to set in.  In the solitude of the greenroom, I shadow boxed to keep my reflexes sharp.

The first match was underway…I couldn’t watch.  It made me nervous.  I was always apprehensive in dangerous situations.  It was human nature, but I was trained to perform in spite of my fears.

The roar of the crowd signaled the end of the battle.  A tight shot of a man’s face covered in blood filled the screen and the words “Mitchell Victorious” scrolled along the bottom.  The camera panned back to show the man’s doppelganger impaled on a serrated metal spike protruding from the wall of the arena, a pole arm still clutched in its right hand.

“Oh God…I hope I didn’t damage that kidney,” he said to himself as Milagro Mendez, the girl at ringside, approached with her microphone.

I turned my back to the screen and ignored the live feed.  Milagro prattled on about the details of the fight.  The victor burst into tears as he expressed his overwhelming gratitude to the network and “Fight for Your Life” for his second chance.  A small knock at the door disrupted my focus.

“Tim?” spoke a muted voice.

“Yeah, come in.”

The door opened and Pantsuit stood in the doorway.

“It’s time,” she said.

I exhaled and gave myself a final review in the mirror.  I followed pantsuit into an elevator a short distance from the greenroom.  I was surprised when we headed upwards.  I assumed the dome would be at a lower level.

“Did they let you know about the draw, is it straight up or do we use melee weapons?”

“It’s a surprise, Tim…It’s always a surprise.”

“I’m a little nervous.”

“Just stay sharp and be aggressive…you have to want it, it’s not just a clever title, you know…You really do have to fight for your life.”

The elevator came to a halt and the doors opened.  We had arrived on set.  A control room, filled with monitors displayed various camera angles of the arena.  A director commanded board operators as grips meandered behind the scenes.  It all seemed routine.  It didn’t have the heavy atmosphere appropriate for an impending death.

A man in headphones beckoned me to follow.  Pantsuit gave me a tap on the shoulder.

“Go with him, Tim, he will take you to the arena…be fierce out there.”

I ignored her words of encouragement and followed the thin man who insisted I call him Zero or Nero, it was hard to hear.  The roar of the crowd grew louder as we approached a dark corridor.

“Alright, this is it…Just wait for the red light to flash and charge out of the tunnel…And try to ham it up, the crowd loves that kind of shit,” he said, never diverting his attention from a monitor above the entrance.

The tunnel was dark but I noticed a round light attached to the roof.  Zero Nero slapped on the back.  I anxiously awaited the light to signal my entrance.

I jumped in place, swinging my arms across my body and taking short staccato breaths.  I looked around and found myself alone.  The light flashed.  I ran down the tunnel to the grated metal floor of the arena.

Within the dome, the crowd above appeared distorted.  It was a unique perspective afforded only to combatants and crew.  A cloche was suspended above a rectangular table that divided the arena.  Beyond the table, my clone stood, mirroring my intensity.  Muffled sounds of music droned overhead as the crowd began to chant in unison.  A horn sounded and the cloche was removed, revealing two large blades.  A brass knuckle incorporated in the hilt made it a formidable weapon.

The clone was the first to move.  I hurried to meet it at the center.  We each grabbed a blade and began to circle the table.

It backed away, goading me to follow.  It positioned itself in an area of strategic advantage.  There were serrated spikes to its left and right.  It could easily redirect the momentum of a charging attack and impale me; I would have done the same.  I retreated to the opposite portion of the arena.  The table recessed into the ground and cleared the space between us.

I walked cautiously into the center of the arena.  Crouched, in a ready position, the clone followed suit.  We danced around one another.  I feinted with a jab and dropped low with a spinning kick to its ankles. The clone leaped over the kick and landed to my left.  I rose to my feet in a guard.

The clone attacked with blinding speed.  I managed to parry its blade as it slashed at my eyes.  I threw a left hook which connected with the side of its face.  I felt the loose flesh slide beneath the contour of its cheekbone.  The clone’s head snapped and it staggered back.

The clone was quick to retaliate with a painful kick to my thigh.  I tried to carve at its torso, but it leaned away, narrowly escaping a deep gash to its gut.  I evaded a lunging counter to my throat.  The celerity of its movements was impressive.  It would be difficult to gain advantage.  I landed a hard kick to the leg.

“Damn you,” it said and expelled a breath of warm air on my cheek.

It delivered a staggering blow to my temple.  A trickle of blood seeped into my right eye.  I stepped backward, reversing the grip on my blade.  I attempted an overhead strike to the valley of flesh between its neck and shoulder.  The clone dodged and buried a knee deep into my side.  The pain was immediate.  It came down on my scapula with the hilt of its blade, fracturing the bone and rendering my left arm useless.

I fell to my knee, and with my right, punched the clone solidly in the groin.  It let out a rattling grunt.

“You Muh…,” was all it could muster as it doubled over.

The clone glowered at me with teary eyes as I returned to my feet.  I drug the blade upward and left a chasm across its left breast.  Blood began to spill out in long ribbons.  I saw the clone loosen its grip on the blade.  I thought it would drop it.   I was unprepared for an underhanded throw.  The blade covered the distance between us too quick to react.  It ripped through my abdominal wall and buried itself to the hilt.

“You sonofabitch!” I screamed as I reached for it with my wounded arm.

It stood and approached cautiously.  The hilt of the blade protruded from my stomach.  It didn’t seem real.  I surveyed the injury.  It was not a kill strike.  The knife was lodged in the intestines, away from major arteries.

I made a futile attempt to stab at the clone, but the pain was unbearable.  It grabbed the hilt of its blade and pulled the knife from my body.  I fell onto my back.  Vulnerable, I knew the clone would come to finish me on the ground.

I went limp and seized my opportunity when it came in for the kill.   I tucked my arm into my body and shot it upward into its thigh.  A look of surprise crossed its face when I severed the femoral artery.  The clone fell to the hard metal.  A geyser of blood spurted from between its fingers as it grasped the wound.  The clone collapsed on its side.  It turned its head to the distorted images beyond the dome’s layers of accumulated gore.  It grew weak, drawing shallow breaths, slower and slower until its chest stopped moving.  The clone was dead.  I had won.

I stood, clutching my side, and raised my blade to the jeers of the crowd.  Throngs of angry spectators spewed torrents of acrimony.  I looked to the clone’s lifeless body.  Blood dripped through the metal grates below.  A stunned expression was frozen on its face.  A wave of guilt passed through me, as I dropped the blade at my side.  I turned and headed back through the tunnel.

I expected Milagro Mendez to come bounding through at any moment for her post fight interview but found Pantsuit was waiting backstage.  She didn’t appear concerned with the copious amount of blood spilling from my side.

“You didn’t see that?  I won…a clean kill…no organ damage to the clone, I can harvest them all.”

Pantsuit did not respond.

“Where is Milagro?” I asked.

“Ms. Mendez only interviews the originals…You won, but it was Tim Arden who died in that arena,” she said.

“What the hell are you talking about?” I laughed.

Over her shoulder, a monitor replayed key moments from the battle.  The words Clone Victorious scrolled along the bottom of the screen. It settled on me with a heaviness that brought me to my knees.

“I know just how you feel,” Pantsuit said.  “It wasn’t easy for me either; when I found out I had killed my original…The memories, right?  They are so vivid…so real.  How could I be a clone?  I know what you are thinking Tim.  I’ve been there.”  She traced her scar with the back of her middle finger.

The recovery room came to mind.  The way I felt so disconnected.  It all began in that hospital bed.  “It was all a lie,” I muttered.

“That depends on your perspective. You inherited Tim’s experiences, those are very real.  But he didn’t pass on his damaged organs.  Apart from the hole in your gut, you are healthier than he ever was.  I had liver disease…or my original did at least.  But now I have a second chance.  You can too.”

“What’s going to happen to me?”

“The choice is simple. You can bleed out on the floor or you can work with us.”

In the background, I became acutely aware of the crew. Many carried themselves in an unnatural fashion. Some limped, some trembled, and some had missing limbs or other disfigurements.  “You’re all clones?” I asked.

“Not all of us, but most of us. A clone can’t go back home. It’s just not the way it works.”

“So what… I stay here?”

“I am afraid so.  You are network property.  If you chose to die we will just harvest the organs, there are plenty of people willing to pay for them.  Or the network can take advantage of your military training.  You can help to prepare future contestants for their matches.”

My limbs felt heavy. The pool of blood was thick, dark and growing incrementally around my limp body. “Is it worth it?” I asked.

Pantsuits face registered a look of surprise. “It’s life.  You remember how important it was to Tim. But life only has the value you assign it.”

I cupped one hand over the wound and let the blood spill over my fingers in a warm rush.  I rested my head on the cool concrete and pondered the value of life.

 

 

The End

 

 

 

Author’s Bio:  John Dougherty works odd jobs to support his writing habit.  His fiction has appeared in various Ezines from Aphelion to The Zodiac Review. He dedicates his free time to pursuing his passion, writing short stories from his home in Santa Barbara, California.

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