Archive for: January, 2015

Unholy Spirits By Mario Piumetti

Jan 25 2015 Published by under The WiFiles

Warren heard the opening notes of Hole’s Reasons to Be Beautiful. He opened his eyes and saw he was in a bar. The bartender looked emaciated. His hair was spiky to the point where it resembled a patch of needles. He had a black vest, unbuttoned, and a grey t-shirt that read, “Pretty done.” He poured Fireball over the ice in Warren’s glass.

The bartender grinned and said, “Welcome to Hell. I’m Lucifer, your new best friend.”

“Pfft. Yeah, right,” said Warren. He took a sip.

“You don’t believe me? Well, I suppose I should know better than argue with a customer, huh?” Lucifer leaned in. Now he grinned like a little boy with a dirty joke in mind. “Where are you?”

“What do you mean? I’m in a bar.”

“Yeah, but how did you get in here? You don’t remember?”

Warren felt his pockets. His keys were there, but the memory of getting behind the wheel was absent.

“Maybe I’ve had too much to drink?”

“Keep telling yourself that. You had too much to drink, and that’s how you ended up in a dark bar with no doors.”

Warren spun around on his stool. There were other patrons at the bar, and more in booths behind him. An all-girl punk band performed on stage in the next room. They were all dressed like Catholic schoolgirls. An upside-down neon crucifix glowed on the wall behind them. By all appearances, it was the sort of place Warren found appealing except for the lack of doors or windows.

“Shit,” he said. “How did I get here?”

Lucifer did a little dance as he chugged from the Fireball. He spilled some onto the counter laughing at Warren.

“Allow me to subtly and cryptically explain: you were on the fifth floor of your office building. You felt the wind on your face, the sun on your skin. Birds were chirping, and then you went splat!”

Warren’s face fell. “I didn’t jump.”

Lucifer stood tall and faced the band. “Ladies, how did Warren here come on by?”

They practically sang it. “Warren jumped! Warren jumped! Warren fuckin’ jumped!”

“And over three hundred dollars!” Lucifer slapped his hand on the countertop. “Seriously, I’ve had guys do themselves in because they knocked up their secretaries. Someone did it because he ran over a guy while high. There was even a kid from Tokyo who did it because he got an A-. And yes, there have been folks who suicide over money. Happens all the time during economic downturns. But you snort the proverbial coke off a stripper’s ass. Don’t believe me?”

Lucifer stood aside so Warren could look at the mirror behind him. Warren didn’t see his reflection, but he saw himself. Splat was the right adjective. His body was on the pavement behind the building near the entrance to the subterranean parking structure. He’d jumped down to a concrete walkway by a little garden. One of his legs was curled up in an unnatural way so the ankle was beside his belt, and his radius poked out through the skin. His shirt and side were popped open like a balloon full of blood and something yellow. The top half of his head was gone. A halo of brain surrounded it. Police cordoned off the area and examined the body. Simultaneously, Warren saw his coworkers Christy and Madeline in their offices giving statements. Christy’s mouth hung open with tears down her cheeks. Madeline held her head in her hands barely able to keep herself together.

He couldn’t hear them, but he knew what they were saying.

“He was all right this morning,” said Madeline.

“I said hello when I got in,” said Christy. “He started to panic five or ten minutes later.”

Lucifer shrugged, and the mirror returned to normal. Warren saw a dumbfounded look on his face. He knocked back the rest of the Fireball and wiped the excess from the corners of his lips, but it was clear from the welling tears in his eyes that he was close to breaking down.

“And that, friend, is the end of one Warren Whitford.” Lucifer drew a fresh glass. He poured vodka, prinkled some powder, and added a splash of something from an unmarked bottle. “Here. My own special concoction. It’s made with red chili flakes and the tears of unborn children. Thanks to your people’s hard-on for abortions, I never run out of it. Go on. Give it a try. It’ll make you feel better. I promise.”

Warren wasn’t sure how much trust he should put in Lucifer’s promise. The thought of doing so brought to mind images of southern evangelists screaming about the empty words of Beelzebub and “them liberals.” But when he sipped the drink, he found its effects were as advertised. He felt a sense of calm. His hands and arms usually went numb when he was very stressed. They felt that way when he went up onto the balcony. Now he had full feeling in both of them.

“So now what?” he asked. “Am I going to burn for all eternity? Are demons going to carve me up?”

Lucifer pretended to think deeply. “Uhhhhhh, no. Now you get to kick your feet up and relax, dude. Have some drinks. Listen to some music. Maybe later I’ll introduce you to this succubus I know. She’ll rock your underworld.”

“No torment?”

“One sec.” Lucifer went to speak with one of his employees. He came back and started a round of drinks for a booth. “No torment. You’ve lived a pretty decent life. You didn’t kill anybody. You told a white lie or two, but who hasn’t? You committed suicide, so the rulebook says you’ve gotta be here, but there are different levels of Hell. Punishing you because of a terrible job market is like punishing gingers for having red hair. It’s beyond your control. Now the guy who cheated you, oh, I’m going to grab him by the hips and fuck him hard. I mean, hard!”

Warren said, “Sitting around doing nothing sounds pretty hellish to me.”

“You’ll get used to it. Just relax and free your mind, man.” Lucifer laughed. “I’m sorry. I sound like God right now. Fuckin’ hippie, that guy. But no, just do your thing. Make some friends. Check out the band. You don’t even have to be confined to the counter. Make yourself at home, because that’s exactly what this place is now. You and I are gonna hang out for a long, long time, palomino.”

Warren took another look at the place. It seemed so much larger than a few minutes before, so full of possibility. The dim light seemed to brighten. It felt less like a place and more like a thing, like a giant creature in which everyone was a cell, every conversation a fiber of the nervous system, and every beat of music a breath. He saw people walking in and out of the restroom, because even in Hell people have to pee. A flight of stairs by the restrooms went up to a door.

Warren pointed them out to Lucifer. “Hey, I thought you said there were no doors here.”

“Oh, that’s the balcony. You have to check that out. We got barrels of jungle juice up there with a layer of foam a foot thick. Ski shots. Everyone loves everyone, and you might find your one and only too. You can even smoke up there.”

“There are smoking and nonsmoking sections in Hell?”

“Of course.” Lucifer frowned. “That shit’s bad for you, dude.”

Warren finished his drink and made for the stairs. Away from the band below, it got quieter, but he could hear people on the other side of the door. The party sounded like a scene from The Great Gatsby with Motley Crue doing the soundtrack. Warren thought he could hear She Goes Down as he put his hand on the door. He pushed it open. A red light poured out over him.

End.

Mario Piumetti was born and raised in Los Angeles. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in English from California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, and his MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University in Los Angeles. His writing has been featured at Arts Collide and The Horror Zine. An avid music lover, his work is heavily influenced by rock, punk, and metal. Mario is also a staff writer for the dark culture magazine Carpe Nocturne. You can find out more at his blog: My Corner of the Catacombs.

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Dust to Dust

Jan 18 2015 Published by under The WiFiles

Kristina R. Mosley 4,765 words
P. O. Box 434
Kensett, AR 72082
(501) 593-8646
elstupacabra@hotmail.com
Dust to Dust
4,765 words

Dry Springs is a good name for this place, Constable Casey Robbins thought as he walked down the town’s deserted main street. The town had never been a big one, but when the bank closed, the rest of Dry Springs did, too. The fact that it hadn’t rained in months didn’t help matters. Everyone who was smart had already left.

The town never had a proper mayor, and it was too small and isolated to have any kind of police force. Twenty-four-year-old Casey had been the only real authority in Dry Springs since he was elected constable three years earlier. It wasn’t a tough job: the most he had to do was send a drunk home. He didn’t even need to carry a gun.

His footsteps echoed as he passed Bell’s General Store, one of the few places still in business. Just as Casey stepped in front of the doctor’s office on the other side of the store, someone bumped hard into his shoulder, so hard that the straw hat popped off his brown head. He staggered but managed to grab the person’s collar.

“You should be more careful,” he growled. He realized that he had Woodrow, the thirteen-year-old son of Hubbard Jones, in his grasp. He let go of the boy “Where are you going in such a hurry?” he asked. Casey knew something was wrong from the fear in the boy’s green eyes.

“Paw’s real sick.” Woodrow huffed, trying to catch his breath. “I gotta go get the doctor.” Sweaty red hair stuck to the boy’s forehead.

“Did you run here?”

“Yeah.”

“Dear Lord.”

The boy ran off, and the constable followed. By the time he caught up, Woodrow ran out of Dr. Lindsey’s office with the short, white-haired doctor in tow. Dr. Lindsey carried a large black bag.

“Casey,” he said with a nod.

“Doctor, can I have a word?”

The doctor stopped next to the constable. Woodrow glared at them from inside Dr. Lindsey’s green Chevrolet.

“I didn’t think Hubbard Jones was that sick,” Casey whispered.

“He’s not.”

Something’s not right here, Casey thought. “Mind if I tag along?”

The doctor gestured to his automobile. “Be my guest.”

Dr. Lindsey and Casey got in the car and headed to the Jones place.

#

After three bumpy, dusty miles, they arrived at the tiny wooden shack in the field of dirt. Hubbard’s older son, Floyd, and daughter, Mae, stood outside. Mae hid her face in her apron while her brother tried to comfort her.

The three got out of the automobile, and Dr. Lindsey ran ahead into the shack. Woodrow rushed to his siblings. He spoke to Floyd, but Casey couldn’t hear what he said. The older Jones boy shook his head, and Woodrow looked to the parched earth.

The constable nodded at Floyd Jones as he took off his straw hat and entered the home. It was dark, a sheet covering the only window. A thin layer of dust coated the furniture. Hubbard’s wife, Leona, sat at the small dining table, her gray-streaked red hair in a messy bun. She looked up at Casey, tears running down her heavily freckled cheeks.

“How are you, Mrs. Jones?” Casey asked quietly.

“He’s gone,” she sobbed. She put her face in her hands.

“I-I’m sorry.”

Leona wailed.

Casey felt like he should comfort the woman, but he didn’t know her well. He didn’t want to impose. After a few moments, Dr. Lindsey called from the other room. “Casey, could you come in here, please?”

The constable sighed and walked into the room. A thick layer of black dust covered the meager furnishings except for what was probably Leona’s side of the bed. Grime obscured Hubbard’s features, creeping into the man’s nose and mouth. Gray skin stretched over the bones of his desiccated body.

“I haven’t seen Hubbard in a while, but he wasn’t that skinny last I did,” Casey said.

“I saw him three days ago. He had lost weight, but not this much.”

“What was wrong with him?”

“Lung problems.” Dr. Lindsey reached up to brush the dirt away from Hubbard’s face. The dead man’s nose snapped off and fell onto the bed.

Casey yelped.

“That’s never happened before,” Dr. Lindsey said, wide-eyed.

“I wouldn’t imagine so,” Casey whispered. “What’s wrong with him?”

“I don’t know. It’s as if he’s been dried out.”

“What would cause that?”

The doctor shrugged. “I think I’ll take the body back to my office. Maybe I’ll discover something.”

Casey nodded. “Good luck.”

“Would you care to help me get him back to the office?”

The constable’s jaw dropped. “W-Why do you need me?”

“I’m an old man, Casey. I can’t lift him by myself.”

Casey sighed. “All right.”

“Thank you. I’ll drop you off at home after we’re done.”

“Well, let’s get to it,” the younger man replied.

#

Casey waved as the doctor drove away. Upon entering his small gray house, he took off his hat and placed it on the table. His wife, Clara, stood at the black stove, her back to the door. She didn’t turn around, so Casey snuck up behind her and planted a kiss on her ivory cheek.

Clara jumped. “Casey, you’re going to be the death of me,” she said after turning around.

“Oh, you love me,” he said, smiling. He reached a hand into her short blonde hair and pulled her close. He kissed her hard.

After a few moments, she pulled away. “What’s gotten into you?” she whispered.

“Nothing.”

She turned back to the stove. “Supper’s almost ready.”

“All right,” he said and sat down at the table. He couldn’t help but think about Hubbard. What illness made him dry out like that?

Clara placed a small bowl of brown beans in front of Casey and sat down.

“Thanks,” he said, trying to get the awful thoughts out of his head. He cut himself a piece of cornbread from the cast iron skillet on the table. He took a bite of the cornbread. It was gritty. There was dirt in the food, but he didn’t say anything to his wife. It wasn’t her fault that dirt was half of what he ate nowadays.

Clara chewed on a piece of cornbread. She grimaced and glared at the skillet. “How was your day, Casey?” she asked, straightening her face.

“Strange,” he said through a mouth of beans.

Clara raised an eyebrow. “Did you hear about Hubbard Jones?”

“That’s what I was talking about. Hubbard’s youngest boy bumped into me in town when he came to fetch the doctor. Dr. Lindsey thought things peculiar, so I tagged along.”

“What happened?”

“Hubbard was dead by the time we got there.”

“Oh no. How were Leona and the kids?”

“They were taking it best they could, I guess.”

She put down her spoon. “He died from his lung problem, right?”

Casey shook his head. “Dr. Lindsey doesn’t think so. I tend to agree with him.”

“Why?”

“First off, the doctor said Hubbard wasn’t that sick. Second, the body didn’t look right. It was gray and all thin and dry, like something left out in the sun too long.” He shuddered, remembering Hubbard’s nose falling off.

“How did he die?” Clara asked, her eyes wide.

Casey shrugged. “Dr. Lindsey doesn’t know. He had me help him get Hubbard back to his office so he could figure things out.”

Clara was quiet for a few moments, the only sound being metal spoons scraping against ceramic bowls. “I was talking to my cousin Dora today,” she said finally. “Her cow, Lula, died. Dora said she was awfully skinny.”

“Did the cow starve?”

“Doubt it. Dora fed Lula better than her own children.”

“Hmm.”

“I think whatever got her cow got Hubbard, too.”

Makes sense, Casey thought. “Sounds likely. I just wonder what it is.”

Clara shook her head slowly, and the two finished their meal in silence. She stood up. “Are you finished, Casey?”

He looked at his empty bowl. “I guess I am.”

She took his bowl and walked away from the table.

He sat there thinking. If Hubbard Jones were the only one to die, Casey would’ve assumed that the sick man’s death was natural. Strange, but natural. That didn’t explain Lula’s death. It could just be a coincidence, he thought. Then again, Casey Robbins didn’t believe in coincidences.

Clara began placing the dishes in a white enamel pan. Casey went to help her. As he filled the pan, his stomach twisted in knots. He couldn’t help but feel that Hubbard’s death was the start of something bad.

“Casey?”

He tried to shake the thought from his head. “What?”

“I asked if it was all right if I make something to take over to Leona and the kids. I know we don’t have much, but they have even less.”

“Yeah, that sounds nice,” he replied absentmindedly.

“Are you all right?” Clara asked.

“Something’s bothering me about Hubbard’s death and the death of your cousin’s cow. I know it’s probably just some disease, but it’s suspicious.”

She put a hand on his arm. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”

He sighed. “I hope you’re right, Clara.”

#

Two days passed. There were a few more animal deaths, and two more people had died. Casey knew that neither Lois Smith nor Lymond Cartwright were sick before they met their ends. The constable was sure something bad was happening in Dry Springs. He just didn’t know what.

Casey knocked on Dr. Lindsey’s door, the sound echoing off the vacant buildings.

“Come in,” the doctor called.

He entered the office. Dr. Lindsey sat at an oak desk, worry apparent on his lined face. “How have you been?” the constable asked.

The doctor gestured to a chair in front of his desk. “Confused, Casey, mighty confused. I take it you’ve heard about Lois Smith and Lymond Cartwright?”

Casey shifted in the hard wooden chair. “Yes, sir. They weren’t sick, were they?”

Dr. Lindsey shook his head. “No, they were not.”

“Did they look like Hubbard?”

The doctor nodded.

“You do know what it is, though, right?”

Dr. Lindsey threw his hands in the air. “I’ve combed over every medical book and journal I have. There’s no disease described in any of the texts that matches what’s going on here.”

Casey’s brow furrowed. “Bugs?”

“What?”

“All the crops are dead, so the bugs are trying to find food in folks’ homes. Lord knows how many locusts Clara sweeps out of the house each day. Spiders, too.”

Dr. Lindsey shook his head again. “There aren’t any bites. That wouldn’t explain the dust in people’s noses and mouths, either.”“Poison?”

The doctor shrugged. “I don’t know. Who’d poison them? The victims have nothing in common: they’re all different ages, different sexes. Never mind the animals.”

Casey looked off to the side, staring at the wooden floor while he thought. Dr. Lindsey was right. The three dead people didn’t really have any connection other than living in Dry Springs. “I don’t know what it could be,” he said quietly.

The doctor didn’t reply.

The younger man stood. “Well, I best be going. Good luck, Doctor.” He held out his hand.

Dr. Lindsey shook Casey’s hand and accompanied him to the door. “Thank you for the well wishes, Casey. I know I need all the help I can get.”

“Bye, Dr. Lindsey.”

“Goodbye.”

Casey had one foot out the door when he heard a woman scream for help. He gasped and ran down the street. He guessed from the footsteps behind him that Dr. Lindsey followed. Before the men stood Clara’s cousin, Dora. A dark dust devil swirled around her, whipping at her dress and tangling her long blonde hair. She swatted at the air, but the funnel didn’t relent.

“Help!” she screamed.

Casey began to charge toward Dora, but Dr. Lindsey held him back. The doctor pointed at the woman. Her skin shrank back and cracked loudly, clinging to her bones. Her screams hurt Casey’s ears.

Then, the screaming stopped. The cloud drifted into the air. Casey picked up a rock and threw it at the haze.

“That’s a cloud of dust,” Dr. Lindsey said flatly.

Casey turned his gaze away from the sky and saw Dora’s body on the ground. He and the doctor ran over to her. She was gray and dried out. Black dirt covered her nose and mouth. She looked like Hubbard Jones.

Dr. Lindsey knelt beside the body and lifted her left arm. He felt for a pulse, shaking his head gravely. “She’s dead,” the doctor proclaimed.

“Of course she is!” Casey yelled. “Why the hell didn’t you let me help her?”

“Did you see what happened to her?”

“Yeah, I did. She shriveled up and died.”

“Did you want that to happen to you?”

“Well, no,” Casey said, anger draining from his voice. “So, how’d she get that way?”

Dr. Lindsey shook his head, then his eyes widened. “The dust cloud.”

“What?”

“Think about it, Casey. There was dust all over Hubbard Jones’s house, all over Hubbard himself. There was dust in Lois and Lymond’s houses as well.”

“But the stuff’s everywhere, Doctor.”

“Not like that. Have you ever seen it that thick?”

“Only after a dust storm.” The constable thought for a moment. “When was the last time we had a dust storm, anyway?”

“I believe it was the day before Hubbard Jones died.”

Casey gasped. “But what does it mean? Why didn’t Leona Jones die? She was in bed next to her husband.”

The doctor sighed. “I think there’s something…wrong with the dust. It’s killing people selectively.”

Casey squinted. “That means it would have to think or something, right?”

“Perhaps.”

“How’s that possible?”

“I don’t know, but the people of Dry Springs need to know.” Dr. Lindsey walked back up the street.

Casey put out a hand to stop him. “Whoa there. Are we supposed to tell everybody that the dust is killing them? They already know that.”

“Well, I don’t know what you’re going to tell them, Casey, but I need to get a stretcher and get Dora’s body out of the street.”

“Me? Why me?”

“You’re the only law this town has. It’s your responsibility.” The doctor turned around and entered his office, leaving Casey staring at the corpse.

#

Dora’s family didn’t take her death well. The citizens of Dry Springs didn’t take the news of what killed her well, either. Every day, Casey saw more trucks and wagons headed out of town. He couldn’t blame them.

On the Sunday after Dora’s funeral, Casey and Clara walked to the small white church on the edge of town. They noticed a familiar Model T driving toward them on the road out of Dry Springs. A few trunks and pieces of furniture were tied to it. Casey flagged down the vehicle.
When the car stopped, Dora’s widower, Martin Ruckman, looked back at them. Their daughters, Martha, Mary, and Mabel sat in the car. Looking into the girls’ gaunt, dirty faces, Casey noticed how much they looked like their mother. He then remembered how Dora would drag her family into church each week and sit on the front pew.

“Where are y’all going?” Casey said, trying to sound casual.

“We’re leaving,” Martin muttered.

Clara gasped. “Oh goodness! Why?”

Martin’s dark brown eyes bore into her. “Why do you think? We were about to lose the farm. Then, after what happened to Dora…” He looked down.

“You still have family and friends here,” Casey offered.

“There’s nothing here but bad memories now,” Martin replied coldly. “It’s not safe. I suggest you and Clara leave, too.”

Martin’s tone took Casey aback. He merely said, “Best of luck.”

Clara looked to each of her cousins. “You girls take care of each other.”

The girls nodded and muttered that they would.

“We need to get a move on,” Martin grumbled. The car pulled away, leaving Clara and Casey in a cloud of dust.

Casey coughed and shook the dirt from his clothes.

“I think he’s right,” Clara whispered.

“What?”

“We should leave. Lord knows when the dust’ll get us.”

“It won’t get us, Clara,” he said. He placed a hand on her shoulder to reassure her.

She shrugged it away. “You don’t know that, Casey. Dust is killing people. Nothing here makes sense.”

“But*”

“You know what? I already have some folks out west.” She looked at the trail of dust that still hung in the air. “Well, I guess I’ll have a few more. We could move out there, too.”

Casey sighed. “People are having trouble finding jobs out there.”

“It’s better that we starve to death there than be killed here,” Clara whispered harshly.

After a few moments of silence, Casey noticed the church doors closing. “I’ll think about it. Now, we need to go.” He linked arms with his wife and walked to the church.

The old doors screeched when he opened them, and the parishioners inside snapped their heads back to leer. Casey sheepishly led Clara to a pew at the back of the dark church and sat down. Stuffy air filled the constable’s lungs. Even though it was late spring, the church’s windows were shut. I’d rather have dusty air than no air, Casey thought.

After a few songs and the passing of the collection plate, Brother Winthrop Jefferson walked to the pulpit. He opened his Bible and tapped his notes against the podium. As he spoke, Casey’s mind wandered. He’d never seen the church so empty. One way or another, the dust would make everyone leave town.

He wondered if he and Clara should be the next ones to go. She was right: the dust could get them at any time. He needed to protect his wife. What about the rest of the town, though? He was the only constable. Besides, he thought, Dry Springs was all he and Clara knew. How could they just move somewhere else? Before Casey could make a decision, the preacher’s booming voice shook him from his thoughts.

“These are wicked times,” Brother Jefferson said. “The Lord is punishing sinners. Just as He punished the wicked of Noah’s time with the flood, He’s now punishing the wicked of our world with drought. As it says in Deuteronomy, ‘The Lord shall make the rains of thy land powder and dust: from heaven shall it come down upon thee, until thou be destroyed.’”

A woman in the church cried out as Brother Jefferson pushed his silvery white hair out of his face.

“The drought wasn’t enough punishment, oh no. The Lord is acting more directly now. The dust is everywhere: in our businesses and in our homes. ‘Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.’ There is no escaping the scourge of God!”

A man yelled out, “What do we do?”

“I’ll tell you what you can do, brother,” the preacher replied, looking to the congregation. “The Bible tells us, ‘the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ The only thing you can do is repent. Get on your knees and beg God for forgiveness.”

The church fell silent, and Brother Jefferson pulled a silver pocket watch out of the pocket of his trousers. He flicked the watch open and checked the time. “Well, that will be all for today. I hope to see all of you next week. God bless you all.” He stepped down from the pulpit and walked to the front doors of the church.

The parishioners slowly stood up, wide-eyed, and made their way toward the doors. Brother Jefferson shook their hands as they left. Casey and Clara remained seated, in no hurry to wait in line.

“Doctor, I’m surprised to see you,” Brother Jefferson said.

“Well,” Dr. Lindsey replied, “I figured it wouldn’t hurt to come.”

“I hope you come back next week.”

Casey looked toward the door. What was the doctor doing here? he wondered. The physician had never been to church in the whole time Casey had been alive. Did he know something about the dust?

The constable stood. “C’mon, Clara, we have to go.”

“Why are you in a hurry?” she asked standing.

“Dr. Lindsey’s here. I need to talk to him.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Well, let’s go.”

Casey grabbed Clara’s hand and pushed past the few remaining people in line.

“Why are y’all rushing off?” Brother Jefferson asked.

“Sorry, we’re in a hurry.” Casey called back.

They stepped into the blinding sunshine. Casey’s eyes adjusted, and he found Dr. Lindsey walking away from the church.

“Dr. Lindsey!” he yelled, running toward the man. He still held his wife’s hand. She struggled to keep up, keeping a hand on her light blue hat so it wouldn’t fly away.

The doctor stopped. “Good afternoon, Casey.” He turned to Clara and nodded. “Afternoon, Clara.”

“I never took you for a churchgoer,” Casey said between breaths.

Dr. Lindsey smiled sadly. “These are trying times.”

Casey leaned in close to the doctor and whispered, “Do you know something else about the dust?”

The older man looked to Clara. “Are you sure we should discuss this in front of your wife?”

“She knows what’s going on.”

Dr. Lindsey sighed. “I spoke with a colleague over in Colton. He said a similar thing is happening there.”

Clara’s jaw dropped. “But Colton’s on the other side of the state.”

The doctor nodded gravely.

“Well, what do we do?” Casey asked.

“Have you two thought about leaving?” Dr. Lindsey wondered. “You’re young. You could make a fresh start.”

Casey shrugged. “We talked about it. Clara already has some folks out west. Maybe with all those people moving out there, they could use a lawman. If not that, I can do something else. I’m not too good to get my hands dirty. I just don’t know, though.”

“What do you mean?” Dr. Lindsey asked.

“This town’s all Clara and I know. I for one am not too keen on leaving.”

Clara sighed but didn’t say anything.

“What about you, Doctor?” the constable asked.

“I’m too old to pick up stakes.”

“Nonsense,” Clara offered.

“You’re just being nice. I have a duty to this town. I can’t leave everyone without a doctor simply because I’m afraid.”

The three stood in silence for a few moments.

“Well, Doctor,” Clara said finally, “I think it’s time for us to go. My husband and I have some discussing to do.”

“I’m sure you do. Good luck, Casey. Good luck, Clara.”

“You, too,” Casey muttered.

Dr. Lindsey walked toward his office while the Robbinses headed toward their house.

“Why do you want to stay?” Clara snarled.

“Someone has to be the law here,” Casey replied. “And you heard what Dr. Lindsey said. If this stuff’s happening in Colton, what’s to stop it from heading out west, or even back east? There might not be a place on God’s green Earth that’s safe.”

They were just a few feet from their front door now, and Clara stopped in the yard. “I’m just so scared, Casey,” she whispered.

Casey lifted her chin so that he could look in her eyes. “I know you are, dear. When we got married, I promised to protect you, and I don’t break my promises. Nothing’s going to happen to you.” He kissed her forehead. “Now, I think it’s time to find something to eat,” he said and opened the door.

#

The next morning, Casey walked into the kitchen. The air was heavier than usual, humid.

Clara looked out the window. “Come look at this,” she said.

He walked over and peered out the window. A big, gunmetal gray storm cloud was moving in from the west. “It looks like rain, doesn’t it?” he said, amazed.

“Dear Lord, I hope so.”

He sat down at the table, and Clara handed him a bowl of oatmeal. She sat at the other end and slowly ate her breakfast.

“I’m thinking we might leave,” Casey said.

She raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Yeah. After what the doctor said, the dust might get us anywhere, but we should at least have a fighting chance.”

Clara smiled slightly. “So, when are we leaving?”

“As soon as we can. I just want what’s left of the town to try to find someone new. I mean, big shoes to fill…”

Clara chuckled.

They finished their meals, and Casey stood up. “Well, time to make my rounds.”

Clara took his bowl. “Oh, I’ll go with you. I need to pick up a few things at the store.” She put down the bowl and took off her apron.

“All right.” He grabbed his hat off the rack by the door. Clara picked up her purse, and the couple left the house arm-in-arm. They were in the center of town within a few minutes.

The streets were busier than normal. Casey supposed people were trying to complete their errands before the rain came. Or maybe, he thought, they wanted to be out when the rain started so other people could tell them they weren’t crazy. Brother Winthrop Jefferson and his wife Louise greeted the Robbinses as they walked down the street.

“Why hello, Casey.”

The younger man nodded, and then tipped his hat at Mrs. Jefferson.

“Looks like it’s about to rain.”

“It certainly does, Brother Jefferson.”

Thunder rumbled in the distance.

“It surely must be a gift from God.” Mrs. Winthrop offered.

“Must be,” Casey muttered.

“Well, we’ll leave you to your work.”

“Have a good day, Brother Jefferson.” He turned back to Mrs. Jefferson. “Ma’am.”

The two couples separated. A steady wind began to blow.

“What’s that?” Clara asked, pointing.

Casey saw an enormous black cloud, darker than a moonless sky, barreling down on Dry Springs. “It looks like a dust cloud,” he whispered.

“I-It could be a regular cloud,” his wife stammered.

The constable looked to the nearby storm, then back to the cloud of dust. “No. It’s moving against the wind.”

“What do we do?”

“Run!” he screamed. “Everyone run! There’s a dust storm!”

Lightning flashed ominously. People screamed and scurried in all directions.

“Get inside!” Casey yelled over the thunder.

A smaller dust cloud flew past Casey and caught Mrs. Jefferson. She screamed as the dust dried her out and left her a lifeless husk on the ground. The preacher stayed near his wife’s body. “Lord, take me, too!” he cried.

“If you don’t get inside, He will!” Clara snapped.

Brother Jefferson gasped and ran into Bell’s General Store.

More of the dust devils attacked people, killing them almost instantly. Casey and Clara looked at the wall of dust, which was almost at the town.

“What happens when it hits?” she asked.

“I don’t want to know.”

Thunder grew louder as more small dust clouds flew past the husband and wife. One traveled under the closed door of Mackey’s Funeral Parlor. Several people ran out the door, only to be struck by more dust.

“Maybe the buildings aren’t so safe after all,” Casey muttered.

A door screeched open. “Casey, Clara, get in here!” Dr. Lindsey said.

“Okay,” Casey said. He and Clara ran toward the doctor’s office. A small dust cloud swooped in and attacked the older man.

“Dr. Lindsey, no!” Casey screamed.

After a few moments, the doctor’s body fell in the doorway.

“Oh God,” the constable whispered and fell to his knees.

Clara tugged on his shirt. “Casey, we have a bigger problem right now.” She pointed to the east of town. The wall of dust was no more than twenty feet away. “We need to get inside.”

“I’m tired of running, Clara. I want you to go in, though.”

She shook her head. “I’m not leaving you out here to die.” She knelt beside him.

He put an arm around her. “I love you, Clara.”

“I love you, too, Casey.”

Thunder boomed loudly above them. Casey looked up. The gray storm clouds collided with the black mass. Something dark fell from the sky. He covered Clara’s head and tried to hide his own.

Rain fell on the couple, soaking their clothes. Casey cautiously looked up. Black mud covered him and his wife. Clara looked up a few moments later.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“Yeah, I think so. What happened?”

“I-I don’t really know.”

He stood up, then helped his wife stand. The couple stood in the middle of the street, watching the mud fall from above. Townspeople slowly milled out of the buildings.

“I-Is it over?” Brother Jefferson asked.

“I have no idea,” Casey said, looking to the sky.

Kristina R. Mosley lives in Kensett, Arkansas, a tiny place no one has heard of. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including Micro Horror, Fiction on the Web, Dangerous Dreams, We are Dust and Shadow, and Silent Scream. She recently published her novelette Strange Days on Amazon. She tweets too often at twitter.com/elstupacabra.

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Chainman by Dominique Collier

Jan 11 2015 Published by under The WiFiles

The wind roared and howled and beat against the windows like an angry demon intent on entering. It nearly drowned out the crunch of tires on gravel as the beat up old Chevy approached the house, but Abigail had tuned her ears to hear it. She glanced at the clock on the nightstand. 2:39 am. Her whole body tensed. Downstairs the front door slammed and heavy boots clomped across the kitchen floor.

Next she heard the refrigerator door open and close. Coming home never meant an end to the drinking. She had learned this over thirteen years of marriage. She needed something to calm the anger that raged inside her like a savage beast.

Who was it this time? What woman did he give his night to, when he should have been home with his wife?

Under the mattress she found a bottle of vodka. Her hands shook as she unscrewed the cap and took a swig. Just one. And another. Just two, that’s it. The bottle was stashed in its original hiding spot.

Abigail glanced in the mirror across the room; saw the blue and purple blob that surrounded her swollen eye. Her split lip had puffed like the botched result of a bad Botox injection. She rolled over and pulled the covers over her head. She shut her eyes tight. Just let me die.

The bedroom door slammed open. Abigail’s anger turned to fear.

“Why didn’t you finish the dishes?” Tom hissed. “This place looks like a shit hole.” His words were slurred. He’d clearly downed more than a few drinks. Abigail remained quiet. “Answer me!” he screamed.

Tom grabbed Abigail by the wrist and twisted her arm violently. She howled as pain shot through her. He didn’t let go, but flung her off the bed. Her head slammed into the wall. Pinpoints of light dotted her vision.

“This place better be clean tomorrow,” Tom said. Then he left the room. Abigail crawled back into bed and cried herself to sleep.

In the morning Abigail found Tom passed out on the couch, a half empty beer bottle in hand. He hadn’t even taken his shoes off. Without waking him she tiptoed out of the house to start the never ending, grueling chores that the ranch demanded to survive.

The sun barely peaked its head over the brown hills on the horizon. Abigail turned and stared at the signpost at the foot of the drive. “Walking M Ranch,” it said. She frowned. A year ago Tom had inherited the ranch when his uncle died, and the couple had been obligated to leave their home in the city to take over its care. In the beginning Abigail had thought it could be a fresh start for their relationship. They tended the animals together and spent hours discussing the finances, the auctions they would take part in, and the livestock they would buy or sell. But Tom was bitter about having to leave the city. He was bitter that Abigail could not give him children. He hated the ranch and he hated her, and in a short time it became apparent.

Now, as on every other morning, Abigail was forced to do the chores alone while Tom slept. And as on many other mornings, she cried as she went about her tasks. While her practiced hands drew milk from Guri, her favorite goat, the trickle of tears became a torrent. She leaned her head into Guri’s flank and sobbed.

When the tears had dried, Abigail did not move for several minutes. Finally she stood, knocking over the half-filled bucket. She walked, almost floated, in a daze, toward the barn, her face as blank and unreadable as a rock wall. Inside the barn she collected all the chains she could find and hauled them to the loft.

For several days and nights she worked. She rarely stepped foot in the house. She hardly ate. She talked to herself and hummed and cackled.

“You’ll pay,” she said over and over. “You’ll pay for what you’ve done, what you’ve turned me into. You want a child? I’ll give you a child. One that comes from hell to haunt and terrorize you.”

By lamplight Abigail toiled. She put her sweat, tears, and blood into her work. By the fourth night she was ready. On a table in the loft lay a heap of chains, welded into the shape of a man. She pulled a knife from her belt and drew the blade determinedly across her palm, slicing deep into the skin. The wound wept scarlet tears. She let the seeping blood drip over the pile of chains. They began to rattle. She smeared her blood over the arms and hands, then the feet and the head. The chains convulsed violently. Abigail tore out her hair and tossed it over them. The man-shaped form began to rise. She gathered it in her arms and drew it against her own body. She willed her life force into the creature that she called Chainman.

“Take my life,” she said. “And then take his.”

Abigail laid the chain man on the table. It sat up and watched her lift the rope she had secured to the rafters above. At the other end of the rope, a noose had been tied. Abigail slipped it over her neck, pulled it tight, and stepped to the edge of the loft.

“Goodbye,” she said. Then she jumped.

Chainman leapt off the table and reached out, but he was too late. The woman who had given him life dangled below, her neck bent at an impossible angle.

**********

Tom hurled an empty beer bottle across the kitchen. It smashed against the wall with a satisfying crash. If he drank a lot before Abigail’s death, now his drinking was out of control. He picked up his eighteenth bottle of the night and peeked out the window at the barn.

I oughta burn it down.

He hadn’t slept much since the night he’d found her body swinging from the rafters: blue, cold, frowning. Eerie noises kept him awake. A scratch at the window, the rattle of chains, something dragging across the floor. He kept his shotgun by the bed.

The sun had set long ago. Tom made his way wearily up the stairs to the bedroom where his wife had so recently slept. Images flooded his mind of her body at the other end of that rope. Judgment and wrath poured from her otherwise lifeless eyes. Tom shivered. He crawled into bed, drunk enough to pass out into a coma, yet he couldn’t sleep. He knew the noises would start soon.

Rata-tat-tat. Rata-tat-tat. He looked out the window but saw only darkness. He pulled the covers to his chin, his eyes wide.

Creeeaaakkk. It was the front door opening. Tom knew he had locked it.

Scratch, scratch. The sounds of chains dragging across the floor. They came from the hallway. Tom grabbed his shotgun and aimed it at the bedroom door.

The door slowly opened halfway. Tom fired the gun. Stillness. Then the door began to ease open the rest of the way. In the void stood a man made of chains. Tom squeezed the trigger again. A spark flashed as the bullet glanced off the chain man. It dragged itself toward the bed.

“Help!” Tom yelled. “Stay away from me!”

He swung the gun like a club at the figure. A chain wrapped around the shotgun and ripped it from Tom’s hands, then flung it across the room. Tom tried to back away, but a chain arm shot out and wrapped around his neck. It squeezed. Tom’s eyes bulged. He tried to shout but could make no sound. More chains encircled his body, pinning his arms to his sides and his legs together. The circles of chains tightened and constricted. Tom’s bones snapped. His tongue protruded from his mouth, engorged. Blood vessels popped in his eyes. Finally the chains loosened. Tom fell to the ground, dead.

Chainman left the house and went back into the fields, where he mourned the death of his creator and swore vengeance against humankind.

************

Seven-year-old Roman’s eyes opened wide. His jaw dropped.

“You’re lying, Nicky,” he said to his thirteen year old cousin, not believing his own words.

“No I’m not. The story’s true. We’ve seen evidence. Haven’t we Ella?”

Roman’s eleven-year-old cousin looked solemn. “He lives out in the fields. We see chain marks all over the ground out there. And we find dead chickens and cows. He eats them, or sucks their blood, or something.”

“He’s not a vampire Ella,” Nicky said.

“But he’s a monster,” she responded vehemently. “Everybody who’s lived on this ranch has either left because of him, or been killed.”

“D-d-d-does he kill kids too?” Roman asked, shaking.

“He kills kids,” Nicky answered. “Especially ones from the city. He hates city folk. And today is the anniversary of the day he was created. If he’s gonna come, it’ll be today.”

“I’m getting out of here.” Roman hurried down the dilapidated ladder from the barn loft to the ground. He sensed Nicky and Ella following him, seeming to enjoy his fear.

“Roman’s a scaredy cat,” Nicky whispered to his sister, just loud enough for Roman to hear.

Inside the house Roman peeked into various rooms.

“Where’s my mom?” he asked.

“She’s gone,” Nicky replied matter of factly. “She left with my parents to go into town. They’ll be gone all day.”

“Then who’s making those noises?” Roman asked with trepidation.

From outside came a din of clanking and rattling chains.

“It’s Chainman,” Ella whispered. “He’s coming. We need to hide!”

The three children tripped over each other running into the nearest bedroom. Nicky slammed the door and twisted the lock. They stared at it as they backed toward the far wall in a huddle.

Rata-tat-tat. The sound came from the window that looked on the fields behind the house. On the other side of a mere inch of glass hovered a mass of chains. It raised an arm and scraped it against the window. Roman squeezed his eyes shut and counted to three. When he opened them, Chainman was gone. A few seconds later he distinctly heard the front door creak open. Maybe it’s my mom. He knew it wasn’t.

The chains rattled and clinked as they advanced down the hall, toward the bedroom where the children cowered. Roman’s chin quivered.

“I-i-i-is it ok if I cry?” he asked his cousins shakily, tears already in his eyes.

Nicky’s confident grin was long gone. “It was true,” he whispered, eyes wide.

Bam! The door rattled as the creature slammed into the other side of it. Bam! Bam! Again and again. Each time the door shook. Then it began to splinter around the knob.

“Out the window,” Nicky shouted.

Ella scrambled to unlatch and lift the scratched pane of glass. As soon as she had raised it enough for them to fit through, she hefted her leg over and crawled out. Nicky followed. Roman remained in the corner of the room, frozen with fear. Nicky stuck his head back through the window.

“Come on!”

At last Roman bolted after his cousins. He tumbled through the opening and rolled onto the ground outside. As he pushed to a standing position the bedroom door crashed open.

“Hide in the barn,” Nicky said. The three children dashed toward the bulky structure. Nicky reached it first. He hauled open the barn door and rushed the other two inside before he pulled it shut behind him. Enormous bales of hay filled the ground level. Roman slunk behind a stack of them near the back of the barn.

With his nose pressed against the hay, its earthy smell nearly gagged him. His tears had dried but his body shook with terror. Roman didn’t know where his cousins had gone. He guessed they’d followed suit and hidden behind other bales of hay. He glanced around for an escape route. About ten feet from his position, the rickety ladder rose to the barn’s loft. His eyes traveled to the second story high above, dizzying him.

At that moment the barn door swung open. Daylight poured in. Roman was momentarily blinded. When his eyes adjusted he peeked around his hay bales. He hoped to find Nicky at the door. Instead he encountered the man of chains. It loomed in the doorway, giant, evil. Hot liquid streamed down Roman’s leg. The smell of urine filled his nostrils. Its pungency jolted his senses and startled him into motion.

The ladder sagged under Roman’s weight. Splinters jabbed his fingers and palms as he grasped the rungs. He ignored them and continued to climb as fast as he could. In his periphery Nicky and Ella climbed over bales of hay and slid between tall stacks of them. They were headed toward the barn door. Roman twisted his torso to see behind him. Chainman stood at the foot of the ladder.

He forced himself to keep moving. Chainman sped up the ladder behind him. Halfway up, one of the rungs shattered beneath Roman’s feet. He lost his grip as his feet crashed through the broken rung and he began to topple downward. His arms grasped empty air as he flailed for another grip on the ladder. Below him chain arms snaked upward toward his falling body. Finally his hand made contact with a rung and he wrapped his fingers around it. His arm nearly ripped from its socket as it caught the weight of his frame. His shoulder throbbed. He had fallen too far. One of the chains reached him and wrapped around his ankle. It clenched so tightly that Roman thought it would crush his bones. He kicked wildly, but the chains held on. Fear swallowed him and he shrieked. The ear-splitting sound seemed to be more than Chainman could bear. His arm released its grip on Roman’s ankle as he writhed in agony.

As soon as he was free, Roman scrambled the rest of the way up the ladder and hauled his scrawny body onto the floor of the loft. Without pausing to think he wrapped his arms around one of the bales of hay that littered the loft floor. It was too heavy for him to lift. He put his back against the far side of the bale and pushed with his legs. It inched toward the ladder, then gave way and tumbled over the side of the loft.

Crash. Roman heard it collide with the mass of chains, though the sound was muffled by the hammering of his own heart. There was no time to look and see if Chainman had been knocked to the ground. Besides, Roman didn’t dare peak over the loft’s edge. His head could be grabbed by chains and ripped from his body.

His eyes were drawn to the hole in the wall through which the late afternoon sunlight poured; sunlight that seemed to steel his nerves and banish the overwhelming fear that had possessed him.

Roman scurried to the hole and leaned out. He looked on the fields behind the barn. Far below, Nicky and Ella shielded their eyes from the harsh sun as they peered at him. Next to the barn under the hole sat yet another gigantic pile of hay. Behind him the ominous rattle of chains moved up the ladder once more. Roman hoisted his legs through the hole and stepped gingerly onto the ledge outside. The drop appeared impossibly long. When he looked down the barn seemed to sway beneath him and the ground swam. He took aim, squeezed his eyes shut, and leapt.

Pain shot through Roman’s back and legs as he landed hard on the solid bales of hay. He turned to look at the hole through which he’d just escaped. Chainman leaned through it, his chain arm grasping the air as if he’d been inches away from grabbing Roman mid-leap.

Ella squealed. Roman jumped to the ground and the children sprinted together through the fields. About a mile in a barbed wire fence threatened to impede their way. Nicky and Ella hurdled it like they’d done it a thousand times. Roman tried to do the same. As he clumsily leapt over the fence, one of the barbs caught his leg and sliced into his shin. Unable to right himself, he rolled on the ground. Blood smeared the dirt. Ella halted and returned to his side. She helped him up and they ran again. Roman’s lungs felt ready to burst by the time they finally came to a rest. All three leaned forward, hands on their knees, and fought for breath. A statuesque elm tree stood over them like a sentry. Though they peered hard in every direction, there was no sign of Chainman.

“Eeee!” Ella screamed. She stared at the ground behind the elm. The boys came to see what had frightened her. A wooden X made of sticks tied together by twine jutted from the dirt.

“This is where he’s buried,” she said. “Tom Avery!” Roman stared at her, agape. “This is where Chainman put his body after he’d killed him,” she continued.

“That’s it.” Nicky said with excitement. “They say the only way to kill Chainman is to prove to Abigail’s ghost that her husband is really dead. She wanders the fields of the ranch, looking for his body. If she sees it, supposedly she’ll call off Chainman.”

“Then we have to dig him up,” Roman said with a new authority. He’d never felt this brave before. “I’ll get the shovels. Wait here.”

As Roman crept back toward the barn where the shovels were stowed, he kept his eyes peeled and his ears tuned for any sign of Chainman. The place loomed as still and silent as a graveyard. He collected the tools they needed, then dashed into the house and back again before he hurried to the elm where his cousins waited.

For several hours the children dug, until the sun had snuggled into its berth and stars dotted the dark sky. They didn’t speak as they plunged their shovels into the hard earth and flung dirt to the side. Then Roman’s shovel hit something more solid than the packed dirt. The children doubled their efforts until they had unearthed a full skeletal body. Tattered clothes hung in rags from the bones. The skeleton face was forever set in an expression of utter horror. Worms crawled through its eye sockets and open mouth.

The children lifted the body carefully out of the hole and set it on the level ground.

“Now how do we call Abigail’s ghost?” Ella asked.

“I thought we might need some candles, for like, a séance or something,” Roman said. He produced the candles and the lighter he’d taken from the house. With the candles lit, an eerie glow pervaded the scene. The flames flickered and licked at the open sky as if they called out to any ethereal beings to come forward. They waited.

Before long the children heard sounds approach, but they weren’t the sounds they hoped for. The clatter and clink of chains reached their ears like news of the devil. From what direction it came, they could not tell. In an instant a chain arm reached out of the tall grass that surrounded the elm’s clearing. It grabbed Nicky around his chest and began to pull him backward.

Roman dove across the distance that separated him from Nicky to clasp his cousin’s ankles. Another chain arm wrapped around Nicky’s neck and began to squeeze. Nicky clawed at it but the grip did not loosen. He gasped for air. Then a female voice that was not Ella’s pierced the air.

“Is that Tom? Is he really dead?” the voice asked.

Nicky’s eyes bulged and he could no longer even gasp for air.

“Prove it. Cut his head off,” the ghostly voice demanded.

Roman released Nicky’s ankles and jumped to his feet. He wasn’t strong enough to pull Chainman off of Nicky, so he had only one other option to save his cousin’s life. He picked up a shovel and placed the blade against the neck of Tom’s skeleton. With one swift motion he threw all his weight onto the shovel. The skeleton’s head snapped off and rolled back into its grave.

“It is finished!” the voice shouted gleefully. “I am free.”

The chains that held Nicky it their vicelike grip fell to the ground, lifeless.

*****************

Back in his plush city bed, Roman had the indulgence of time to think about his experience with his cousins at Walking M Ranch. Nicky and Ella’s parents, Albine and Rory, had never learned the truth. The children had invented a story about a bully on one of the neighboring ranches, whose name they didn’t know, who had attacked the boys and caused the scrapes and bruises on their bodies. Nicky wore a turtleneck to hide the gruesome marks around his neck, and said he’d lost his voice from shouting at the bully to leave them alone.

The trio vowed never to tell anyone what had really happened. Nobody would believe them.

“They’d stick us in a loony bin,” Nicky stated.

Roman felt that he’d grown up in way. He had been brave in a situation like none his friends had ever faced. He had saved his cousin’s life. And he was no longer afraid of the boogey man.

End

Biography: Dominique Collier’s work has appeared in Roar and Thunder Magazine and The Lorelei Signal. Dominique has a degree in psychology and apart from writing, she works in the behavioral health field in Phoenix, Arizona

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Of Soil and Pine by Tyler Bourassa

Jan 04 2015 Published by under The WiFiles

A cool breeze caressed Aedilas’ cheek and made him think longingly of the pitcher of water he had waiting for him in his cabin. He’d been cutting wood for what seemed like hours now and was covered in a sheen of sweat. Every three days he’d go out and chop up enough wood to last him for three days and nights. Then he’d pile the wood up on the side of his cabin, so that it would be easy to get if he needed it. He’d always done it this way, since back when his wife was still alive.

Whenever Aedilas thought of his wife, it awoke the pain inside. It had been ten years since she’d died, but the terrible ache was just as strong whenever he thought of her. She had been his best friend and constant companion for much of his life. Not counting the Dark Times, when war had ravaged the land, and men spent their days either fighting or fearing for their life. She hadn’t known him then.

It was getting harder to hold his axe steady and split the wood. Aedilas had a pain in his hands that seemed to be coming more often and his arms didn’t have the strength they once did. Aedilas was getting old, but didn’t consider himself an old man yet. His hair was more silver than it was black, but he still held his head up high when he walked and could fend for himself.

“Aedilas! How’s the stew today?” Varius yelled and waved, as his two dogs barked their own form of greeting.

“It’s good enough, but always tastes better when I’ve got some good conversation to go with it. How’s the real world doing?” Aedilas asked fondly. Varius was a hunter that would visit Aedilas whenever he was in the area. He’d bring Aedilas fresh meat and stories and Aedilas would offer up a spicy stew and brandy he distilled in his cellar. Both men thought they were getting the better end of the deal.

“Men fight, men die, and women keep birthing more. It’s the same as it’s always been. You’d know that yourself if you ever left this cabin of yours.” Varius gave each dog a pat on the head, then tossed them two bones. They curled up on the ground and started gnawing on them contently, and Varius helped stack the firewood against Aedilas’ cabin.

“What use do I have for other people? I have no family and the only woman I’ve ever loved is already in the next world. I’ll stay here with my trees and my brandy and live out the rest of my days,” Aedilas said.

Varius nodded. He spent most of his days alone with his hounds in the woods, so he couldn’t fault Aedilas for choosing a life of solitude. People would smile to your face and stab you in the back, but nature never did. If you respected nature and knew your place, then you’d get along just fine with each other.

“Well, let’s get inside. Night will be coming soon and the stew should be almost ready. I’ve got a fresh batch of brandy too. It’s a bit stronger then the last batch,” Aedilas said and grinned.

“Dear gods, I couldn’t see for two days after drinking the last stuff you made.”

Aedilas chuckled and opened his door. He stepped inside and Varius followed. “I guess you’re staying the night then?”

“I have no desire to try and wander these woods drunk and blind,” Varius replied and shooed one of his dogs outside when it tried to follow him into the cabin.

The cabin was warm from the fire and filled with the spicy aroma of stew. Varius was never able to figure out what it was that Aedilas put in his stew that made it taste so good and the old man wouldn’t tell him. It must be herbs that grew locally though, since Aedilas never went to town to buy anything.

Varius sat down at a table in the kitchen and Aedilas walked over to the pot of stew that was simmering over a fire. Aedilas picked up a long wooden spoon and dipped it into the stew, then brought it to his mouth. He tasted it and nodded in satisfaction.

“Stew’s ready,” Aedilas said and grabbed two large bowls to fill up with food.

Varius stood and opened up a cupboard, where he spotted a jar of brandy and two mugs. He grabbed the brandy and the mugs and set them down on the table. Aedilas had a bowl of stew for each of them and two spoons already sitting on the table.

Aedilas filled up the two mugs with brandy and raised his in a toast. “Here’s to you, Varius. Keep bringing me meat, to keep my belly full and I’ll keep giving you brandy, to keep your wits dull.”

Varius laughed and both men took a long pull from their mugs.

“You weren’t joking, this is potent.” Varius said and wiped a tear from his eye.

“When a man gets up in years like me, he needs strong drink to keep his bones warm at night. Where’s my meat anyway? I’m starting to get low.”

Varius smiled. “Give me a couple weeks of hunting and when I’m done I’ll stop by here and give you a share.”

Aedilas nodded. “Fair enough. Just don’t take too long, or you might find me starved to death.”

“If that’s the case, I’ll pour us each a mug of brandy and drink them both in your honour!” Varius declared.

Both men laughed and began to eat their stew. It was good and the brandy was strong and they stayed up long into the night retelling old stories that seemed to grow more outrageous with each telling. When Aedilas awoke in the morning, with a headache and a tender stomach, Varius was gone.

#

Three days later, Aedilas frowned at the dull ache in his hands. It was so bad he could barely keep a hold on his axe. He looked with dismay at the wood he had to cut and briefly thought about doing it another day.

“No,” Aedilas muttered. “I do this every three days, Liliana always said it was important to have lots of firewood.”

Aedilas swung the axe and struck the wood in front of him. He cried out in pain and dropped his axe as the force of the blow reverberated through his aching hands. “Gods, above!” Aedilas swore and gently rubbed his hands together.

His hands throbbed painfully, keeping time with his heart. Aedilas closed his eyes and breathed deep, trying to slow his pulse and accept the pain in his hands. If you could accept pain, then you could overcome it. He slowed his breathing and focused on the pain.

His hands became warm and the pain receded so quickly, that he almost lost his concentration. The warmth spread out from his hands, through his arms, shoulders and the rest of his body. Aches and pains that he’d lived with for so long, that he forgot they were there disappeared and he stood in surprise, feeling like a man half his age.

Aedilas grabbed his axe, and noted that he held it steady. He took aim at the wood and raised the axe up and brought it down. The wood split and Aedilas let out a gleeful chuckle. He didn’t think his old trick of accepting pain would work so well. He cut through the rest of the wood, and piled it neatly against his house.

“You’re much stronger than you were,” a feminine voice exclaimed.

Aedilas let out a scream and jumped into the air. He turned around and held his axe out in front of him, ready to attack the intruder on his land, woman or no. The strangest woman Aedilas had ever seen was standing in front of him. She was tall, about the same height as him, and had long green hair that was the same colour as the leaves on the trees. She was only wearing a white diaphanous dress, that barely concealed her dark brown skin.

“Who are you?” Aedilas finally asked, when his voice returned to him.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the woman said and giggled. “I forgot you’ve never seen me! My name is Maelin.” Maelin twirled around in a circle, making her hair and dress fan out around her, before facing back to Aedilas.

Aedilas forgot his fear as he regarded Maelin. The old curiosity that burned inside him when he was young and didn’t know better flared up again. “I take it you’ve seen me before?”

Maelin nodded and smiled. “Do you like your gift?”

“What gift is that?”

Maelin slowly walked towards Aedilas, “You were broken. Someone had put out your Flame,” Maelin said and placed her hand on Aedilas’ chest. “I lit it again, I made you whole! Does that make you happy?”

Aedilas’ heart skipped a beat and he broke out in a cold sweat. “Dear gods, no. You broke the High King’s decree?”

“Do not worry, Aedilas,” Maelin said. “Your King has no power here.”

“His power is everywhere,” Aedilas whispered. He sat down roughly on the grass as his mind raced. “Why did you do this?”

Maelin sat down beside Aedilas and rested her head on his shoulder. “I promised Liliana I would look after you. She said that I must make sure you remember to put your shoes on the right feet when she is gone.”

Aedilas’ eyes widened in surprise. “You knew my wife? For how long?”

“We were friends for many years. I wanted to be your friend too, but Liliana thought that I’d make you think of a time better left forgotten. When she grew sick I wanted to fix her, but she would not let me.” Maelin frowned.

Tears fell from Aedilas’ eyes and wet the wispy beard he’d forgotten to shave. “I don’t suppose she would. My Liliana was a great believer in destiny.”

“Do not cry,” Maelin said and wiped the tears from Aedilas’ face with her finger tip. “I have seen Liliana. She is happy where she is and patiently waits for her love.”

“Can I see her?” Aedilas asked.

Maelin raised her chin haughtily and struck Aedilas on the nose with her finger. “Do not ask such things, Aedilas. You must wait until your turn to go there. That place is not for mortals, who still breathe and sleep.”

“My apologies,” Aedilas muttered.

Maelin’s smile returned and she stood up. “I must go. Enjoy your gift and be happy again!”

“Wait!” Aedilas exclaimed and jumped to his feet. “Will I see you again?”

“Of course,” Maelin replied and raised her hands to the sky.

An aura of light surrounded her and Aedilas could smell soil and pine. He closed his eyes and breathed the smell in deep. When he opened them again, Maelin was gone.

#

Over the next week Aedilas explored his ‘gift’ and revelled in the power it gave. Half forgotten words of magic returned to him and he made mundane tasks, like tending a garden, become exercises in Spellweaving. His spirit soared, as he recalled how to shape reality to his will, and life felt new again.

Maelin was as good as her word and returned everyday to watch him Spellweave. She would laugh and clap as Aedilas summoned hazy phantasms to dance for them. He even gave a mouth and eyes to an old tree, who spent the whole hour of the spell complaining about a family of squirrels that had made him their home.

One day, when the first week was over, Aedilas lay down on the grass surrounding Tonderan Lake. He had just spent the morning exploring the bottom of the lake in a bubble of air and was now relaxing in the sun and enjoying some of his brandy. A breeze smelling of wildflowers brushed his shoulder and he turned to see Maelin sitting beside him.

“Hello, Aedilas,” Maelin said and grinned mischievously.

“Hello, Maelin,” Aedilas replied and offered her his jug of brandy. “Would you like to try some?”

Maelin’s nose wrinkled up in disgust and she shook her head. “That smells terrible. How can you drink it?”

Aedilas smiled. “The smell and taste grow on you after a while. Truth be told, most men drink brandy for the way it makes you feel, not the flavour.”

“Nothing that foul could make you feel good, Aedilas. The sun above, and grass underfoot. A sheltering tree and a cool breeze. These are the things that should be cherished. Not smelly bog water,” Maelin declared.

“Those are all wonderful things. Yet, sometimes a man needs more in his life,” Aedilas said and took a drink from his jug. “May I ask you a question, Maelin?”

“Of course, Aedilas!” Maelin exclaimed and rested her head on Aedilas’ shoulder. “We are good friends now. You can ask me anything.”

Aedilas cleared his throat nervously, “What, uh? What exactly are you?”

Maelin’s head popped off Aedilas’ shoulder and she narrowed her eyes at him. “Aedilas! What kind of question is that?”

“Forgive me. It’s just, I know you aren’t human. Are you some type of forest creature that I never learned about?”

Maelin jumped up and turned away from Aedilas before crossing her arms. She turned her head back to him and said, “I am not a creature, Aedilas. I am a woman. Can you not see?”

Aedilas eyes widened, as Maelin’s dress became even more translucent. Suddenly her womanly curves were much more pronounced. She turned around and he could see her nipples standing upright and the hair of her sex, dark and inviting. Aedilas quickly turned away and flushed in embarrassment.

“I’m sorry. Of course, you’re a woman. A beautiful woman.” Aedilas paused, and tried to calm his racing pulse. His eyes were drawn back to Maelin and he slowly ran them up the length of her body. Maelin preened under the attention, enjoying the touch of his gaze.

“Now do you see, Aedilas?” Maelin purred. “Do you wish to see more?” She shrugged her shoulders and her dress fell to the ground at her feet.

“Dear gods, I’m an old man. Why would you want to be with me?” Aedilas asked. He was trying unsuccessfully to keep his eyes on Maelin’s face.

“You make me happy and I make you happy,” Maelin said and pressed her lips to his.

Aedilas kissed her back and decided that there was no point in trying to argue with that.

#

Hours later, they lay in each other’s arms, dozing idly in the sun. Aedilas was still reeling from Maelin’s touch and silently debating if it was worth waking her up to reach for the jug of brandy laying just out of reach. After careful consideration, he decided that he could have brandy anytime, but doubted that he would have many more sun filled afternoons in the arms of a beautiful woman. Aedilas lay there feeling proud of his decision, when the familiar bark of two dogs jolted him upright, and woke Maelin.

“Gods, it’s Varius. Should you hide?” Aedilas asked in worry.

Maelin calmly stood up and stretched, arching her back and causing Aedilas to curse the luck that made Varius come by on this day. “Do not fear,” Maelin said and put on her dress. “I will go now. Men always get sleepy after lovemaking, anyway.”

Aedilas raised an eyebrow and briefly wondered how many men Maelin had been with. As he was pondering this, Maelin raised her arms and disappeared in a beam of light, leaving Aedilas with his thoughts and the scent of rain showers.

Varius’ two dogs started barking and ran towards Aedilas, as they spotted him near the lake. “Hello, Aedilas!” Varius called out.

Aedilas looked towards Varius and waved, remembering belatedly, that he was naked. Aedilas quickly dressed and said, “Hello.”

“A fine day for sunbathing,” Varius said and stifled a grin.

“Indeed it is,” Aedilas growled. “Now, let’s get all the jokes out right now. I don’t want to hear any comments from you about finding an old hermit, naked by the lake.”

Varius scratched one of his dogs behind its ear, and gave Aedilas a solemn look. “The way I see it, this is your land. If you want to walk around naked on it, then do it, by all means.” Varius paused and his face split into a grin, “I just ask that you keep your clothes on when we’re together. I wouldn’t want my poor hounds to confuse you for a piece of old jerky.”

Aedilas smiled and the two of them laughed as they made their way to Aedilas’ cabin. “Did you bring me any meat this time? Aedilas asked as they walked.

“I did. Some delicious venison and a bit of rabbit. It should last you sometime,” Varius replied. “I left it back at your cabin.”

Aedilas nodded. “That’s good. Thanks, Varius. I suppose you’re going to be wanting some of my famous brandy then?”

“I’d love some,” Varius said and gave Aedilas an appraising look. “I must admit. You look much better you did than the last time I saw you. You look years younger, truth be told. What’s your secret?”

Aedilas flushed and looked away. “I started exercising. I swim in the lake every day. It’s gotten my blood flowing again, and I feel like a young man again.”

“You look it,” Varius replied.

Aedilas smiled and they spent the rest of the walk speaking of trees, birds and things that men who spend most of their life in a forest like to talk about. When they arrived at the cabin, Varius took the meat he had brought and placed it in the shed to be salted and dried. They both went in the cabin and Varius grabbed a jug of brandy and sat at the table expectantly.

“I don’t smell anything cooking and your fire is out. Do you want some help preparing things?” Varius asked.

“Nonsense. Everything’s ready, just give me a moment. I need a bit of leyleaf to spice the stew, go outside and get some.” Aedilas knew that would keep Varius busy a while.

Varius grinned and stood up. “Now I know your secret ingredient! Aren’t you worried I won’t come back?”

“Bah. We both know you’re too lazy to cook for yourself. Now get out there and gather the herbs,” Aedilas growled and made shooing gestures at Varius.

Varius laughed and left the cabin, calling his two dogs to follow him as left.

“Gods above,” Aedilas muttered. He peaked outside to make sure Varius was gone, then shut the door. He stood over his stew pot and called on his magic, or ‘Flame’, as Maelin would say. It answered his call and he muttered words of power. The wood under his pot burst into flames and the ingredients he needed flew from their homes and into the pot. Within minutes, the stew was boiling.

The door swung open and Varius strode in, shaking his head. “You sly old devil. You sent me on a fool’s hunt for those herbs, so you could prepare the food without me watching. I should have known better.”

“Yes, you should have.” Aedilas tasted his stew and frowned. “It’ll be a while before the stew’s ready.”

“Well, the brandy’s fine,” Varius replied.

Aedilas grunted in response and sat down at the table. Varius passed him a mug and each man raised theirs to the other in salute.

“You’re staying here the night?” Aedilas asked.

“If it’s not too much trouble.”

“As long as you’re gone in the morning. If you stay any longer, I’ll run out of brandy and I don’t think I’d like to spend too much time with you sober,” Aedilas said with a grin.

“I promise, you won’t see me when you wake!” Varius said and the two men started some serious drinking.

#

Aedilas woke with a pounding headache. He reached over to the table that sat near his bed and cursed as he knocked over the cup he left there, filled with water. He tried to call on his Flame, but his Spellweaving failed. Aedilas cursed again as he realized he’d have to get up and get some water the normal way. He was too sick to Spellweave.

Aedilas filled his cup and took a long drink of water before getting dressed and going through his morning ritual of washing his face and mouth. When he was finished, he stepped outside and squinted at the bright sun. He looked around and saw that Varius and his hounds were nowhere to be found. Aedilas could never understand how that man could drink so much and be awake and on the road so early.

The day promised to be a hot one, so Aedilas decided he’d head down to the lake for a swim. He walked slowly, enjoying the smell of the forest and the heat of the sun. Maelin would come and find him soon, she always did before too long. Aedilas made it all the way to the lake and still Maelin hadn’t appeared.

Aedilas decided to wade into the water a bit, and rolled up his pants over his knees so they wouldn’t get wet. He took his first step into the water and felt a breeze brush his cheek, smelling of honeysuckle. Aedilas turned and saw Maelin smiling at him.

“Hello, Aedilas,” Maelin said as she walked into the water and took Aedilas’ hands in hers.

Aedilas smiled and kissed Maelin’s hands in reply. She shivered with delight, then broke away from Aedilas and ran along the shore. Aedilas laughed and followed after her.

Maelin sat down on some grass and waited for Aedilas to catch up. When he did, she pouted and said, “I don’t like your friend. He smells like death, don’t let him come around anymore.”

“Of course he smells like death, he’s a hunter. It’s his job to get meat for myself and others back at town. He’s a good man, Maelin.” Aedilas said.

“I don’t think so.” Maelin opened her mouth to say more, but Aedilas silenced her with a kiss. It lasted long and Aedilas wanted it to last longer, but he felt Maelin stiffen in fear. Aedilas pulled back and turned his head to follow Maelin’s gaze.

Varius was standing a short distance away with an arrow knocked. His two hounds were growling and eyeing Maelin up like potential prey.

“Step away from it,” Varius commanded.

Aedilas placed himself between Varius and Maelin. Even though Varius had his bow, Aedilas was more concerned that Maelin would hurt him. She was obviously powerful and Varius was out of his depth.

Aedilas put his hands out towards Varius and said, “Put down your bow, old friend. This is Maelin, she’s a friend of mine and the reason why I look so much better. She’s reminded me that life is a gift and not a serious of chores. Sit with us and I’ll tell you about how we met.”

Maelin gripped Aedilas’ arm tightly and whispered in his ear, “He is not what you think. He means us both harm, Aedilas.”

Aedilas looked towards Maelin, taken aback by the fear in her voice. “He’s my friend.”

“That I am, Aedilas. Now step away from it and let me strike it down with my bow,” Varius yelled and his hounds started to circle Aedilas and Maelin, growling and snapping at the air.

Aedilas’ eyes grew dark, when he saw Maelin flinch away from the snarling dogs. He looked towards Varius and spoke in an old voice, the voice of a man he’d thought dead long ago. “Call off your hounds, Varius. Maelin is dear to me and I will suffer no harm to befall her. It is within my power to stop you, though I’d prefer it if you put down your bow willingly.”

Varius smiled. “I know of your power, Aedilas Shadowbane. You were the greatest of the High King’s Spellweavers. You were at his side in the Dark Times, fighting against the Shadowlings from the Sunless Realms. When the High King was hurt, you used the Staff of Daegelon to shut the portal and banish the Shadowlings forever.”

Unwelcome memories of that terrible day flooded Aedilas’ mind. His face turned ashen, as he remembered the sound of Shadowlings tearing a man apart. Many of his friends died that day, so the world could be free. The High King murdered the remaining Spellweavers and took away Aedilas power as a reward for their sacrifice.

“How can you know these things?” Aedilas asked quietly.

“The High King told me, of course,” Varius replied. “He bid me long ago, to keep watch over you and make sure you never regained your powers. Spellweavers are too dangerous to let live or roam free. It looks like that creature beside you returned your power somehow.”

“I am not a creature!” Maelin yelled and pointed a long finger at Varius. Maelin’s eyes were hard and her mouth was set in a grim line. “I am part of this forest, and your King has no power here!”

“His power is everywhere,” Varius said, echoing Aedilas’ words from days ago. Varius whistled and his hounds jumped on top of Aedilas, knocking him down.

Aedilas called on his Flame and a powerful wind came and knocked the two dogs off of him, and into a tree. He stood and turned towards Maelin when heard her scream. An arrow was sticking out of her chest and her eyes were shut. Light was streaming out of her wound with a growing intensity.

“What have you done, Varius?” Aedilas screamed. He ran towards Maelin, but before he could get to her, she exploded in a flash of light. The blast knocked Aedilas onto his back and left him blind for a few moments. As he rubbed at his eyes, struggling to see, he smelled the faint scent of fallen leaves.

Aedilas heard growling and stood, shaking his head as his vision returned. He looked to where Maelin had fallen and saw only dead grass in the shape of her body. Harsh growls from each side of him, alerted Aedilas to the threat of the dogs.

“Calm yourself, Aedilas,” Varius said. “The creature is gone and I am willing to let you back into the High King’s good graces. He spared you, all those years ago, for the service you did the realm. If you give up your power willingly, he’ll let you live out the rest of your days in your cabin.”

“The High King is generous,” Aedilas whispered. He felt the power of his Flame coursing through him in a raging torrent and let a little of it escape him and flow into the sky. The cloud’s darkened and the wind began to howl. “Yet, why should I need his permission to live in my own land?”

“He is the High King,” Varius replied and pulled an arrow from his quiver. The arrow glimmered with a crimson light, that spoke of power stored within. “This land and all others are his domain.”

“Not anymore,” Aedilas said and closed his hand into a fist. The two hounds yelped, then burst into flame. Within seconds they’d burned to ash and were blown away by the wind.

Varius loosed an arrow, and Aedilas shouted a word of command. The wind obeyed and blew the arrow into a tree, which began to burn from the arrow’s enchantment. Aedilas opened his hand, palm down, and lowered it. Varius felt his legs stop working and he fell onto his stomach and dropped his bow.

Aedilas slowly walked towards Varius, with a thoughtful look on his face. “When I first met the High King, I was a boy. Did he ever tell you that?” Aedilas asked.

“He didn’t,” Varius gasped. There was a force pressing him down, and making it hard to breath.

“He taught me all I know and would often look at me with pride as I eclipsed all the other students. Yet, sometimes I would see a strange look in his eyes. Something akin to fear, or maybe jealously.” Aedilas spoke a word of magic and Varius was raised into the air, with arms and legs stretched out to his sides.

“You must stop this,” Varius pleaded. “The High King checks in with me regularly. If I’m dead, he’ll know you have your power back and he’ll come for you!”

“I look forward to seeing him,” Aedilas said and pointed at Varius. Varius’ feet burst into flame and the fire slowly burned up his legs and body, scorching his flesh, even as his screams assaulted Aedilas’ ears. In moments it was over, and Varius was a charred husk laying in the grass.

“The High King has no power here,” Aedilas whispered and fell to his hands and knees. He bowed his head as his anger left him, and the old familiar ache returned to his heart. It was worse than ever, as memories of two dead women danced through his mind. Even the thought of facing the High King, and killing him for what he’d done, gave Aedilas no respite from his sorrow.

Despair threatened to overwhelm him. He shook his head angrily, picturing what Liliana would say if she saw him feeling sorry for himself. Aedilas stood up and turned towards the lake. When he did, he felt a breeze touch his cheek, smelling of soil and pine.

END

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