Death is my Friend

I know, I know. You’re probably thinking “Charlie shouldn’t you be asleep?” or “Charlie don’t you have work to do?” The answer to both of those questions is yes. But instead of dwelling on them you should read the story I just wrote. It’s based on a writing prompt I saw on reddit this morning that I will link to at the bottom of this post.

“It really is okay,” I told them.

They all nodded together, holding back tears. They tried to put on a strong face, all of them. The kids, the wife, but I knew they were just doing it for me. I knew that seeing me like that was tearing them up inside. The cancer that had at first seemed beatable had gotten worse and spread. They had had to watch as my body withered and I was forced to entertain well-wishers sent by the White House, university deans with honorary degrees, and foreign dignitaries intending to pay their respects. No one, it seemed, could just leave me in peace while I died. Everyone wanted to get one last word in. Although, I suppose that was partially my fault.

Gathered around my hospital bed were my closest friends and family. Even more were waiting to see me in the lobby. I’ve made a lot of friends in my time, I’ve always been good at it. My friend Richard can fly and pick up a tank if he feels so inclined, Paul can conjure up illusions so convincing you won’t realize what happened until you’ve already walked yourself into the jail cell, Ashley could conjure flame.

Me, I make friends. I’ve got an irresistible charm that makes me people like me no matter how hard they try no to. So, while the others were putting bank robbers behind bars and making sure aliens kept well away, I was always in meetings. I convinced investors to fund the Watch Tower; a huge complex built to train and house the next generation of heroes. I spoke for the UN and through those efforts managed to not only achieve nuclear disarmament, I also got a world wild environmental protection fund established.

I’m not saying all of this to brag, it happened. Okay, maybe I am bragging a little. But it’s important for you to know the context, and why I have Nobel Peace Prize sitting in my office. My power isn’t dramatic, I can’t level a building, or fly, but I can make friends, and I see that as its own superpower. It’s hard to break down barriers and get people to the negotiating table.

I had done a lot. But at that point I just wanted some rest. Some peace. I don’t blame everyone for wanting to see me. It’s hard to say goodbye. For me though it was infuriating to have all of them around me constantly with their failed attempts to hide their sadness and concern. To be completely honest, I hated the looks of concern the most. All through my life, whenever someone learned what my power was, they looked at me with concern. No matter what I accomplished they doubted whether my power to make friends and win people over was a real power at all. Everywhere I’ve ever turned there were people who felt I needed to be shielded. Protected from the dangers of the world.

I was sick of it.

Surrounded by well-wishers and grieving family I did the only thing I could do in order to get some peace. I pretended to sleep. I learned early on during my stay at the hospital that people got quiet if you pretended to sleep. Although I could feel their eyes on me, wondering if I had just died.

Quiet whispers filled the room. Some of them were talking about me while they though I couldn’t hear. Others made small talk about the weather and other boring topics.

Slowly, ever so slowly, the room grew cold. I had first felt the chills that morning as a faint tingling in my fingers. There was no reason to be surprised. Death is a frequent visitor at any hospital, and as the day had progressed, I had felt the cold grow and move up my arms. Death was getting closer.

Eventually the cold spread to the rest of the room. My guests made the requisite comments about a sudden draft – the polite way of saying what they all knew was coming. I didn’t feel cold anymore. Like a man suffering from hypothermia I felt a sudden warmth. I felt myself smile despite myself. It was the first real smile I had had in days. Death was nearly there.

For all human history there have been accounts of the Grim Reaper, or someone resembling him. Countless scholars had debated his exact appearance, his goals, whether he was sentient or just a construct of our own minds. His was a much-dreaded visage around every deathbed. His passing left only sadness in his wake accompanied by tales of a ghastly visage and a terrible scythe. Almost all see him as a butcher culling his human herd. No one understands him.

Except me. He’s more of a lonely shepherd. A protector that sees us on to whatever it is that comes after this, one who cares deeply with his flock but must keep his distance.

The door opened with a slow creak. One of my guests, I think it was my cousin Leah, let out a shrill scream. The rest were silent.

“Jim?” asked a raspy voice.

I felt a grin split my face and I opened my eyes. “Hey Grim,” I said. “It’s been awhile.”

Death’s pale eyes stared at me with his pale eyes for what seemed like an eternity. He no longer carried the scythe and robes that so many knew him bye. He had given up the scythe decades before after its weight had started to give him back problems. He had turned him the robes for a tailored suit at my urging.

“I,” he said. “I didn’t know you were here.”

“Really? I thought you had lists of these kinds of things?” I replied. While we talked, I noticed my guests looking on in horror. Death rarely talked, and whenever he did it would inevitably result in dozens of books and dissertations arguing over the exact meaning and significance. Now Death was in my hospital room, greeting me as an old friend; which I was.

“I do,” said Death almost sheepishly. “But I have so much work these days it becomes a blur. I hardly have time to sit and think. Sorry. I should have thought to check in more.”

I smiled and dismissed his apology with a wave of my hand.

“No problem at all,” I said. “We all get busy. Lunch?”

“I, I don’t know,” said Death. “You don’t look too good.”

“You can fix that.”

Death looked over his shoulder, as if someone was watching.

He sighed. “I’m not supposed to do this. But alright…”

There was no change in Death’s demeanor. No sign that he had done anything at all. But in an instant, I felt all the pain that had troubled me for months slide away. Suddenly I could breathe easy again and strength flowed back into my atrophied legs.

I leapt out of bed. A move which elicited many shocked gasps from my guest. All hint of worry had disappeared and was replaced by a mix of horror and bewilderment. I took a moment to bask in their reactions knowing it would be the last time any of them ever thought of me as weak, then I turned to Death.

“How does Chinese sound?”

Mine Shaft

A quick story I wrote for a post of r/simpleprompts while I put off studying for finals. The link to the original post is at the bottom.

“I’ve waited…I’ve waited all these years,” Arnold huffed as he staggered towards the mine shaft.

After years of endless search and suffering Arnold was finally nearing his goal. He wasn’t as spry has he had been when he first set out. Age and injury had taken that from him. Ten years on the road can be hard on a man, and several broken legs had left him with a permanent limp. Nor was he as handsome. There was a time when he could have drawn the eye of every woman in town but those days, he knew, were long over. His hair had greyed, he had let his beard grow long and unkempt, and a grisly scar now disfigured his face. Others may have been dismayed by these changes. But he had long ago stopped caring about such things.

All that mattered was his hunt. That hunt was about to end.

He had hardly believed his luck when he had found his foe making camp in the mine shaft. For a decade the beast had been one step ahead of him. Always just a little out of reach. Finally, Arnold had the drop on him.

The task had required great care and some measure of skill. He had bought dynamite in the nearest town claiming he was a prospector looking to revive a few abandoned claims. He spent hours in the dead of night wiring the mine shaft to blow. It had taken all his self-control not to lash out, not to call his foe out right there. That, he knew, would have been futile. He would have lost.

Finally, as the sun crept up over the horizon he retreated to the detonator and cried out.

“Come out here you bastard! Come and face me!”

As soon as he saw movement in mouth of the tunnel, he pressed the detonator. Now he stood at the tunnel’s mouth. Sore from the exertion, tired from the sleepless night. There had been a time when he had dreamt of this moment. In his dreams he had written speeches that he imagined he would give over the creature’s corpse. Written epitaphs for any future traveler’s who found it’s grave. He did not care about any of that now. He just wanted it to be done.

Wearily, he drew a large hunting knife from his belt. A gun wouldn’t do. Then, from his pocket he drew a smaller knife and with it he pricked his thumb. Blood would be needed.

With his bloody thumb he traced on the blade the rune that he would need to kill the creature. In some ways his discovery of the rune had been a miracle. He had laid down drunk and defeated in a gutter, convinced that his quest was futile. In the course of that night he had contented himself with the prospect of drowning in the runoff. It would have been an ignoble death, but he and others would have been able to write it off as an accident, allowing him to go into the next lift with a comforting lie. When a strange man with a knowing smile had approached him and promised him the solution to all his ills.

To another man the rune might have been a curse. It was an evil thing. One not meant for this world. Its very presence was an affront to life, to warmth, to all that was good. It was Arnold’s only hope.

The simple act of writing it on the blade drained his strength, looking at it made his eyes ache. Already he felt the rot festering inside him. Holding the knife for too long would bring him ruin. Thankfully, he only needed it for a few moments more.

With his weapon prepared he entered the mine shaft.

There his foe lay buried beneath mounds of rubble. The snarling face was stuck somewhere in between man and beast. The blast had caught him in the middle of his transformation. In his enemy’s eyes, Arnold saw a flash of recognition.

He did not hesitate. There was no time for doubt. Every minute wasted was another minute that the creature could use to escape.

Moving carefully, he knelt down beside the beast, who lashed out with clawed hands but was unable to reach him. Arnold took the knife in both hands and raised it far above his head. His body trembled. The rune was sapping his strength. He was running out of time now. He had to act.

He took a deep, sobbing breath, and rammed the knife into the thing’s chest.

 

“I waited…I waited all these years” from SimplePrompts

 

A Fondly Remembered Abduction

I responded to another writing prompt on reddit. The original post can be found here: https://www.reddit.com/r/WritingPrompts/comments/9jowun/wp_you_lie_in_a_grassy_field_on_a_sunny_day/e6u5dos/?context=3

When most people imagine being abducted by aliens they imagine being woken up in the middle of the night by little grey men who poke and prod them. The reality is really quite different.

I had just left my friend Tom’s when I met them. It was Tom’s birthday and he had decided to throw a rager. I’ll admit that I had a bit too much to drink and on my walk back I tripped and fell into the path of a moving car. My head hit the pavement, and everything went black. I was sure that this would be the end. But they saw.

I woke up in an examination room. Everything was grey, cold, steel and plastic. I’ll admit that at first, I had a panic attack. I thought that I woke up in the morgue. That someone had mistaken me for dead and that I was about to be cut open. In my muddled state of mind, I searched around for something that I could use to defend myself. A pair if scissors on the counter was all that I could find.

I waited there for what seemed like forever. I was convinced that at any moment the morticians would rush in and tie me to table before cutting me open while I was still alive. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

When the door finally opened I was greeted by a diminutive figure, who by my guess was only about four feet tall. Its big amber eyes looked at me, and then down at the scissors that I was holding out like a cross as if I was trying to fend off Dracula.

“You,” it began. “You know that isn’t really needed, right?”

I kept the scissors pointed towards the creature. “What do you want with me?”

“Want with you?” It seemed confused. “You just looked like you needed help. That car was about to squash you. So, we teleported you here to our medical bay. I can promise that you are in good hands.”

My body wouldn’t stop shaking but going against every instinct I had I lowered the scissors. I remembered the car, but why would they help me? Why wasn’t I dead?

“Why?” I asked tentatively. “Why would you save me?”

“Normally we wouldn’t,” it said. “Our mission is simply to observe. But we saw that you needed help and we couldn’t just stand by.”

I let the scissors drop to the floor. I didn’t entirely believe them yet. But I didn’t have the energy to fight and decided that I might as well take this creature at its word. It wasn’t like the scissors would have been much good anyway.

“Anyway,” it continued. “We could use your help justifying this to our superiors.”

“Justify?” I asked, a little confused.

“Yes, justify. You see, we have very strict orders to not establish contact with any humans. Command was very specific after the Roswell incident; no contact.”

“But, you saved me?”

“Yes well. We happened to be nearby, and we couldn’t just do nothing. We’ll need something from you in order to justify this.”

I reached for the scissors again and paused. “What exactly do you want?”

As it turned out all the aliens wanted was the rules to football. They had some of the most advanced technology that I had ever seen but despite their best efforts they couldn’t figure out the rules of the game. I spent an hour or so explaining yard lines and touch downs to them. Then we split a case of beer and watched super bowl reruns.

I spent two days just hanging out with them. As it turns out aliens are pretty chill. But in the end, they told me it was time to leave. Having learned the mysteries of football they couldn’t justify keeping me any longer. In my time on board their ship I had already seen them answer a few calls from their higher-ups. They seemed pretty heated.

I was sad to go. Hanging out and watching football with aliens was way better than going to work every day. I like to think that they were sad to see me go as well. They sure seemed it. They promised that they would keep looking out for me, and I like to think that they kept their word. It’s nice to have some guardian angels of your own. It’s even nicer to know that you’re both rooting for the same team in the play-offs.

 

 

Powered by Blood

My response to an interesting writing prompt that I saw on reddit today.

The original post can be found here :https://www.reddit.com/r/WritingPrompts/comments/98ogf9/wp_you_are_living_in_a_world_where_every_energy/?utm_source=reddit-android

Being picked is a strange feeling.

I was too old when HemeCorp changed the world. Once their chips became mainstream, people suddenly gained the ability to charge their phones and all their other electronics with just a prick of their finger. HemeCorp circuits only need a drop of blood to generate a current. But as their usage grew so too did demand. A pricked finger can’t power a bus or a train after all.

Soon our entire system depended on electricity generated from human blood. The government started requiring everyone to sign up for a lottery on their eighteenth birthday, and every year the government uses this lottery to pick the new donors who will power the country. I was already twenty five when the system was implemented, I avoided donorship. Or I would have.

You see, when the law allowing the conscription of donors was passed, it specified that only individuals between the ages of eighteen and twenty one could be selected. Unless a state of emergency is declared.

I was thirty-five when terrorist attacks disable three of the country’s refineries in the same week. Some people rushed to volunteer and were quickly accepted by the Department of Energy, which at that point had gotten desperate for more of the blood that keeps our society running.

People like me nervously checked their email every morning, praying that they wouldn’t be picked.

Mine came on the last day of the lottery. At first I didn’t believe it. I told myself that maybe it was a scam until my wife read it. It was real.

We both took off work that day. But we waited to tell the kids. What else were we supposed to do? The terms of lottery gave me a week to report to the refinery. So we took the kids out of school took them on a weekend trip camping. Only when we got back did we tell them that I would be leaving.

They started crying, I cried with them. Up until that point I had been numb in a way. The fact that I would be leaving my family, to live out the rest of my life at a refinery, didn’t seem real. It all seemed like a dream.

On the day I was scheduled to report, the whole family came to drop me off at the refinery. I spent most of the car ride trying to cheer them up.

I’ll use this time to write a book like I always wanted, I told them. Then I said maybe I would learn to play an instrument, or pick up some extra degrees online. It wasn’t like I was dying, I said. But we all knew how it would be. The lives of donors are carefully regulated. They have to be be protected, kept healthy, and always near a collection point. It’s true that I wasn’t dying, but our lives together would never be the same.

When we got to the refinery I pulled my wife aside. I suggested that we get a divorced. Sure, I said, I’d be well paid and could send them money. But that was no substitute for actually being around. I told her it would be better if we divorced. I could still send them money and she could find someone that would be there for her and the kids. She just stared at me with was sad, desperate eyes, and told me that I was crazy for suggesting it. I laughed and told her she was right.

Then, on my walk to the refinery gate something broke inside me. I knew that if I was to keep my sanity as a donor, I wouldn’t be able to pretend that I had a life outside of the refinery’s walls. It’d be easier for all of us to pretend that I was dead.

I didn’t look back when I reached the gates, even though I could hear my family crying behind me. Last week I got my divorce papers in the mail. Turns out it only takes three years of no contact for your wife to leave you.

I’ll keep sending them money. Enough that the kids will be fed and able to go to school. If they’re lucky they’ll never be picked as a donor like I was.

I didn’t respond to the divorce papers. Or the fathers day cards. Or the photo albums. I’ve still to this day refused to look back, just like I refused to look back on that walk to the gate.

Other donors have asked me when I’ll come around and start talking with my family again. I try my best to avoid their questions. The truth is that I can’t look back. If I reach out, become involved, I’ll only be reminded of what I lost. What I could have been. If that happens I would surely break. And I’d have no way to pick up the pieces.

“Dark Green, Wet Fur, and an Echo” – Part 2

The creature roared and lunged at David. He dove to the side at the last moment and felt one of the monster’s teeth drag across his rib cage. Reflexively his hands went to the wound, causing him to slam his rock into his chest.

While he doubled over from his mistake, the creature’s momentum carried it out of the chamber and into the stream. It splashed violently in the water as it reoriented itself, giving David time to regain his composure.

Another roar was let out by the monster as it charged at him again. This time David intended to face it head on.

He ran straight for the creature’s maw as it opened. Its snout knocked the wind out of him and propelled him into the air. Just as he had hoped for.

His trajectory sent him flying towards the creature’s eye. With all the strength that he could muster, David slammed his rock into the beast’s eye, before he himself slammed into the top of the creature’s skull.

The thing let out a blood-curdling howl and attempted to shake him off. David was thrown against the cave wall and for the second time in the course of their fight had the wind knocked out of him.

While the creature continued howling in the cave, David seized on his opportunity to escape and ran back out to the stream. This time he followed it downstream, reasoning that if he followed it he would reach the shore eventually.

Paying little heed to the slippery and uneven path before him. David ran, eager to escape the sound of the creature’s howls that still thundered behind him. He still hadn’t figured what sort of beast it might be, but nothing he had even seen looked quite like what he had just fought.

Only when the howling faded did he risk slowing down to catch his breath. David was unsure of how long he had been running for, but already the cave seemed as if it had no end.

As the combat high faded David also became aware of the beating his body had taken. His head wound was still seeping blood, and the gash on chest had already soaked his shirt. All this was further compounded by the many sore spots he had just acquired that were sure to bruise later.

“And my wrists are still tied,” he said sadly, before pushing those thoughts from his mind. Right now his priority was getting out of the cave.

New sounds began to filter into the cave as he went on. He heard mostly the calls of tropical birds, and tantalizingly, the faint murmur of human voices.

Suddenly, he heard voices above him.

“Reckon he’s been eaten yet?”

“Aye. That bastard is all bones by now.”

David pulled himself closer to the wall. Was it the pirates? Somewhere above him he could hear their voices. He waited, expecting that at any moment one of them might look down into the cave and spot him.

“Sure was quite a ruckus. Think the old girl is having her fun?”

“Ha! Yeah. Almost as much fun as we had with his crew!”

David felt the anger well up inside him. He tamped it down. He was in no position to exact vengeance. Still, he took the voices as a sign that he was nearing the exit.

The cave finally ended. At its mouth the shallow stream that he had been following fell off a short cliff before snaking between the trees of the island’s jungle.

Again he could hear the voices from before. David ducked back into the cave just as a pair of men appeared before the entrance.

Both were unassuming and, David observed, drunk. Despite carrying weapons it was clear that neither of them were expecting trouble. They probably counted on the monster to take care of prisoners without issue.

With his hands still tied, David’s options were limited. His only real chance of success would be to tackle one of them, and hope they broke his fall off the cliff. He sized both of them up. The one on his left was a giant of a man, but carried only a knife, while the one on his right was equipped with both knife and pistol. Right it was.

Once he decided on a course of action he charged. Thinking about it anymore wouldn’t do him much good.

Both men yelled in surprised as he made contact with his target. Followed by the screams of his victim as he and David tumbled over the ledge. David closed his eyes and prayed. He’d find out soon whether he had timed his attack right or not.

The impact came quickly and was accompanied by a sickening crack as the man’s next snapped. Above him on the ledge, the man’s companion had already drawn his knife and was making his over to a narrow footpath that would bring him to David.

David lunged for the dead man’s pistol.He clumsily pulled it from its holster and managed to cock it.

With careful aim he fired as the second man rounded the corner onto the footpath. A bloody hole appeared in the man’s chest and he tumbled down the hill.

From the cave, David heard a muted roar. He beast had followed him.

Working quickly, he drew the knife from the first man’s belt and used it to cut the ropes binding his wrists together. He felt immediate relief from the chafed skin and stressed joints, but he had little time to enjoy it. The creature was sure to be closing in on him.

He tucked the knife into his own belt and took off running down the hill. Running down the incline he had little control over his trajectory, he cared little so long as it was away from that monster.

Soon he noticed the scent of salt water on the air. Finally he was getting close to shore.

He came too, or rather ran into, a low wooden fence that surrounded a small village on the beach. In appearance it was little different from any of the other countless illicit settlements built by pirates and smugglers.

If he squinted he could make out the silhouettes of four ships anchored offshore. David’s heart lept into his throat when he caught sight of his ship, the Sovereign, anchored safely beside the others. If he could reach it he would be saved. Although he had never put them to use, he knew that the ship had old enchantments that would allow a single man to sail her for a short time. His only obstacles were the village before him, and the monster behind him.

Inspiration struck when he looked down at his own blood-stained shirt. He had blinded the creature hadn’t he? The only way it could be tracking him was by scent, and he had left plenty of his own blood back in the cave.

Another roar came from behind him and he saw several heads in the village turn to look in his direction. He had to act fast. One last burst of action and he would be free.

David vaulted over the fence and ran up to the first building he saw. In his predicament he couldn’t afford to be picked. A glance over his shoulder told him that the beast was near, and currently crashing through the foliage outside the fence.

Hurriedly, David drew his knife and made a deep cut across his palm.He smeared the resulting blood along the wall and took off running towards the beach just in time to hear the monster crash into the house he had just marked.

He ran, paying little heed to the people around him or who he shoved out of his way. The crowds for their part were too distracted by the monster to pay attention to an escaped prisoner. Screams filled the air. Men ran to get their rifles, or just ran. Whatever semblance of order that had existed before descended into chaos, as the blind and angry beast tore into everything within its reach.

All along the shore people were scrambling for their boats. David could hardly believe his luck when he actually spotted an abandoned rowboat. He dove into it, allowing his momentum to carry the boat for the first few feet. Then he grabbed the oars and began paddling, ignoring the protests of his battered body.

Now he was treated to an uninterrupted view of the hell he had unleashed upon the village. Already several buildings had caught fire, and the flames were spreading. The futile crack of gunshots reached out to him across the water. David knew that massed volleys would be needed to take the monder down, and he doubted that the pirates had sufficient discipline to pull it off.

Where he should have felt guilt of the terror he had drawn to them, he only felt satisfaction. He had brought about his vengeance, even if it been inadvertent. David allowed himself this one emotion after a day of suppressing all others that came to him.

As he came up alongside the Sovereign he felt a strange sense of peace even as he watched the continued destruction. He’d being returning to an empty ship, as far as he knew the rest of the crew had been killed. He alone had lived.

He started laughing.

“Dark Green, Wet Fur, and an Echo”

My girlfriend has been babysitting a couple of kids all day. So I’ve been killing time by writing. This one I wrote in response to another reddit post, this time on r/SimplePrompts. The original post can be found here: https://www.reddit.com/r/SimplePrompts/comments/94ua65/dark_green_wet_fur_and_an_echo/?utm_source=reddit-android

David woke to the sound of echoing water droplets. It was a slow, ordered sound, and it only made him realize how thirsty his was.

His tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. Each breath he took seemed to catch in his parched throat. As he emerged from the depths of unconsciousness he became aware of a throbbing pain and sticky wetness on the left side of his head.

He tried to open his eyes and found them to be sealed them shut.

He cursed himself as the memories came back to him. They had been within sight of home when the pirates had boarded their ship. The pirates’ wizard had conjured a thick mist, allowing them to come within range without being spotted.

David cursed himself for his carelessness. Proximity to home had made him overconfident, and that had gotten his men killed. The crew had been unready to face the boarding parties that had materialized out of the mist. They had made David watch as most of his crew was slaughtered. While he himself had been bound, and a cloth bag had been placed over his head.

They had come ashore somewhere. Where exactly he could not say. But the clean smell of the air told him that it was no port that he knew. They had led him along for some time, across rough terrain where he had struggled to keep his footing. Eventually they had stopped, someone had hit him on the side of his head, and he had been left there.

He needed to open his eyes, he decided. His hands were found in front of him. But he was able to bring them up to his face. Through the thick cloth he rubbed his eyes, trying to scrape away whatever was holding them shut.

Blood. It was blood, he realized.

The dried blood tore at his eyelashes as it was removed, but slowly he was able to open them.

Small pinpricks of light shined through the dark green fabric that covered his face.

“Ok,” he said to himself, “Where am I?” At first he had suspected a cave, plenty of pirates maintained hideouts that they hid throughout the islands. It made storing loot and prisoners a far easier task. The rocks beneath him, the dripping water; and the damp, musty smell of the air had all screamed cave. But the lighting was natural, there was sky above him.

David decided it was time to take the bag off. It wasn’t secured tightly. But he could feel now that the blood had dried and stuck the cloth to his scalp.

He grabbed ahold of the bag, braced himself, and pulled.

Fresh blood flowed as the scabs tore away with the cloth. He resisted the urge to cry out. Hair followed, he didn’t look to see how much he had lost.

Sunlight blinded him. While his eyes adjusted he occupied himself by climbing to his feet.

Slowly his eyes adjusted to the light. David was soon surprised to learn that he was in a cave afterall. It’s rounded walls rose up around a grouping of shallow streams. Sunlight poured in through holes in the ceiling that gave it a honeycomb-like appearance.

He bent down to the water and tasted it. Those few drops of water felt like honey on his tongue, and he drank until he felt as if he might burst.

David rose back up to his feet, and looked along the steam in both directions. The water was flowing from his left, and headed towards his right. Save for that once difference, both directions seemed to be roughly equal. Both were lit by ample quantities of natural light, and in both directions there was a roughly cut path along the edge of the stream.

“Strange hideout,” he said quietly. He decided that his next order of business would be to cut the ropes.

To his left he spotted an assortment of bones lying in the water. Their time in the sunlight had bleached them white, and the water had worn smooth their broken edges. Still he thought he might find a broken one with a sharp enough edge to cut the rope.

He began walking upstream, searching the water for the implement that would free up. As he did, the musky scent that he had detected earlier grew stronger, and as he turned a bend he was greeted by a much larger cave, in which sat a huge mass of glistening, wet, fur.

David recoiled from the sight and nearly ran. Every instinct he had told him to run. But he gathered up his courage and approached it slowly. If he was going to escape those caves, he thought, it would do him well to know what else was trapped with him.

Upon closer inspection he realized that the creature resembled a six-legged wolf that also happened to be the size of a house. It’s entire body, save for its snout, was covered in the same wet fur. A single closed eyelid dominated it’s face. Jagged yellow teeth stuck out of its bald snout at odd angles.

He considered the fact that if he was careful, he might be able to cut his bonds on the creature’s teeth. Carefully, he moved even closer.

An outcropping of rock caught his foot and he tripped. He steadied himself, but not before he had kicked a small assortment of pebbles across the chamber. In the otherwise silent cave, each pebble sounded like a gong as they skipped along the floor.

He heard the creature stirring. Felt its hot breath on his face as it shifted to face him.

Reluctantly, David raised his head to face the creature. He quickly went over his options, he could see only two. He could run, if he did the creature was sure to chase him and snatch him up in its powerful jaws. Or he could fight, and probably die.

He snatched up a loose stone from the ground and held it tight between his hands.

He would fight.

Strange Requests

This story is written in response to a post on r/WritingPrompts.

http://www.reddit.com/r/WritingPrompts/comments/91axjn/wp_human_blood_is_a_color_impossible_to_replicate/

“It’s a magnificent color, don’t you think?” asked the king, as he thrust the blood-stained handkerchief towards me.

I quickly rubbed the sleep from my eyes and took the bloody cloth from him. “It is an undoubtedly unique hue,” I agreed. After ten years working for the king I had become used to these night-time summons. The clockwork antelopes had been tough to build, but doable. Then there had been the chandelier he had wanted made out of hard light. But I could already see that what he was about to ask of me would be impossible.

“Can you reproduce it?” asked the king.

I placed the cloth on the table, not wanting to touch it any longer than I had to. “Not exactly,” I said, “human blood is unique. Better alchemists than me have tried and failed to replicate it. The only way to get this color is to use actual blood.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound too hard,” said the king.

It took a conscious effort to stop my jaw from dropping to the floor. “You. You can’t be serious.”

“Of course I’m serious!” exclaimed the king, “I wouldn’t have called you here if I wasn’t. I need a new wardrobe made in this color for my gala next month. Get it done.”

“Y-yes sir,” I answer. The king got up from his chair and shambled back towards the bed, signaling that our meeting was done. I took my leave before he could think of any other tasks to ask of me. The one I had just been given was more than enough to keep me occupied.

The king rarely sees what it took to carry out his wishes. Worries like that are for people like me. The king only cares about results. These thoughts, and just how I would obtain the quantity of blood needed to craft the king a new wardrobe, occupied my mind as I walked to my quarters.

For a moment I considered going to the butcher, but I would have no way of guaranteeing the blood’s purity. Plus the king would probably notice the difference if he compared its color to that of the handkerchief. Human blood is just too unique. I cursed myself for not remembering to take the cloth with me. A doctor on the other hand probably couldn’t deliver the amounts I needed in time. I then considered the prisoners in the dungeon, but questions would be asked if someone began showing up to draw blood from them. I realized that I had only one option.

Upon returning to my quarters I ignored the tantalizing pull that the bed exerted on my tired body and instead grabbed a tattered brown cloak from the closet. It was one that I kept for tasks such as these. As I said before, the king only cares about results. My job is to deliver those results, and ensure that no inconvenient questions get asked about them.

The Black Horse Tavern was lit only by the dying embers of its hearth, and its patrons liked it that way. I walked up to the bar and bought two drinks before looking around for my contact.

I found him half-asleep in the back of the tavern. A quick kick to the legs of the table got him awake. I handed him one of the drinks and sat down at the table.

“You again?” he asked before emptying the tankard.

“Yes,” I sighed, “me again.” I had never asked for his name and he had never asked for mine. It was better for both of us that way.

“What can I get for you this time? Another lindworm tooth, or maybe some dragon scales?”

“I need blood,” I answered, “preferably enough to fill a tub.”

The man gave me a confused look. “What are you coming to me for? The butcher will be open in an hour. Ask him.”

“Human blood,” I said.

“Oh.”

Before he could object I tossed a purse loaded with gold coins onto the table. “You’ll get more when the job is done,” I said.

My contact counted the coins and sighed. “I’ll say this. Of all my customers you come to me with the strangest requests.”

“Can you do it?” I asked. I was getting impatient. The Black Horse wasn’t my idea of a fun place to be, and every minute I spent there was another minute someone might recognize me from the palace.

“Yeah,” he said, “Yeah I can do it. Meet me here in three days. I’ll get you your blood.”

I couldn’t help but breath a sigh of relief. “Thank you,” I whispered.

The man shrugged. “Don’t thank me. Thank the poor bastards it’s going to come out of.”

I pushed that thought out of my mind as I got up to leave. In my job I can’t afford to have a conscience. Besides, I had fabric to order.

 

Dreadnought Approaching

“Captain! Martian dreadnought approaching! Camera four!”
Captain Davis pulled into his chair and fastened the tethers that would hold him there if the ship had to make any sudden maneuvers. “Faction identification?”
“No beacon sir. Still waiting on a report from Optics, but no visible markings.”
“Crap.” Davis switched his console to the number four camera and a silvery dot appeared on his screen against the emptiness of space. “How long until it gets within range?”
“Six minutes.”
“And the Portsmouth? How far out is it?”
“Eight minutes.”
Davis swore. He had allowed their escort to go too far from them. They’d be sure to regret not having the cruiser and its guns if the dreadnaught came within firing range. “Get ready to hail them. All frequencies.” He turned to his left and selected a prerecorded message in eleven martian dialects, all demanding to know the dreadnaught’s intentions.
Davis resolved not to wait for the radio waves to go across the space between them and back. “Put the ship on alert, and call back the Portsmouth. Are the spitfires fueled?”
“Almost. Forty-two are reported ready, twenty-two still in progress. Autocannons are all loaded.”
Davis nodded to himself. Had the dreadnought appeared earlier during their test flights they would have been defenseless. “Launch all of our fighters.”
The alert aircraft took off immediately, becoming blips on the ship’s radar screen. Davis was relieved to see his untested crew working without hiccups as they readied the other spitfires for launch.
Meanwhile, the minutes ticked by with no response from the dreadnought. Davis hoped that theirs was a chance encounter, but he knew the odds of that. The space around them was completely devoid of anything of value. That was why they had picked it. It was a place to test Earth’s new carrier away from prying eyes.
“Two minutes.”
Still no response from the dreadnought. “And the Portsmouth?”
“Four minutes.”
Davis looked back to view of the dreadnought on his console. It was now close enough for him to begin to make out more details of its design. Like most martian ships it resembled a slab of iron with an engine strapped to one end. On its hull was an assortment of weapons clusters, sensor arrays, and docked support craft that looked like off-color pixels on his display.
Davis knew that in a one-on-one fight the carrier would be outgunned by the dreadnought. Their ship was designed to carry and support fighters, not exchange broadsides. He also knew that many of their spitfires would be lost to martian point defense canons. Space combat was still new to humans, while martians had over a century experience. His pilots would be turning theory into practice as they went. It was going to get a lot of them killed.
“One minute.”
Davis glanced at the blips on the radar screen. All of them were waiting for his orders. If he hesitated any longer the dreadnought would be on top of them.
“Engage.”

Imposter Syndrome

A cold wind swept over the surface of the tiny lake, buffeting Erik as he sat down on the gravel shore. He shivered, he had been gone a long time and was no longer used to the weather. Behind him, his new body guards stood ever watchful and seemingly unbothered by the wind. He looked out over the lake, examining the curve of it’s shoreline, and the gentle ripples that travelled along its surface.

As he sat there a singular thought consumed him, the same though that had occupied every waking moment he had had for the past week; he should not be there. No, he decided, it was more than a thought, it was a feeling, an instinct. One that reached deep into his core. He was neither worthy enough, nor suited for the task before him, and yet it was he who had been chosen.

He reached into his pocket and retrieved the crumpled letter that had been delivered to him just days before. When it had arrived, they had found him living in a small fishing hut in greece, the valkyrie that had delivered it was stern, as was typical for her type, but through her facade he had sensed a deep worry. It was then that he had found out that his brother Poul had died two weeks earlier, and he had learned what was to be his own fate.

You, Erik. Who have strayed far from northern shores and wandered for these past eight years, have been chosen by decree, vote, and fate, to rise to the demands of destiny. This is both a great honor, and burden, one that you have been judged capable of bearing. You will return to the land of your fathers with all haste. All travel arrangements have been made. Synnove, whose presence now indicates both the validity and urgency of this message, shall be your guide in whatever path you choose. We, your humble servants, eagerly await your return.

It hadn’t been a choice, not really. Returning home would have been the only way to find out what happened to his brother, and he knew that Synnove would have killed him if he refused. It never helped to have potential rival claimants running around. A flight out of Athens, with a connection through Germany, had brought him to Stockholm. Where yet another plane had waited to fly him to the little valley in which he now sat. All through the journey, Synnove had been a perfectly silent and infuriating travel companion. As she stood behind him now he was just as annoyed by her imposing presence as he had been when she watched him sleep on the plane.

Not that she was the only one watching him. A score of valkyries had dispersed themselves around him, trying their best to look disinterested. Meanwhile, if he looked around the lake and to the compound that sat on it’s northern shore, he could see security details bearing a dozen different family crests. Each house was especially suspicious of the other. He had learned on arrival that his brother had been killed in the most recent of ten assassinations that had taken place over the previous year. Everyone he had asked had heard a different rumor, all about a supposed new and unnamed Loki that was behind the assassinations. A few, although those were in the minority, thought that this might finally herald the arrival of Surtur, and the beginning of Ragnarok. Erik was partial to the idea that some foreign actor was trying to drive a wedge between the houses, but he didn’t go so far as to claim that this was the beginning of Ragnarok.

In such a tense environment each of the houses was accusing the others, and all feared that someone might interfere with the coronation. The Norns had bowed to the intense political pressure and allowed each house to send security details, on the condition that only the valkyries would have direct access to Erik.

Taking another look at the openness of his surroundings, he was surprised that his guards had let him come outside. Without trying he could spot half a dozen places around the lake that would be perfect for a sniper. No doubt Synnove was cross with him. The thought of her seething beneath her expressional face gave him a small amount of satisfaction, but was of little comfort.

Poul’s reasons for choosing him were clear. As his brother, Erik was unlikely to have killed him, and being away for eight years meant that he was distanced enough from the local politics that the houses would accepted him as a relatively neutral party. Thirdly, his travels had been extensive, and for a community that could at times become so consumed by its internal affairs that “worldliness” was correlated with wisdom in their minds. He glanced up at the compound, there was still time to escape. Not that the valkyries would let him get that far. He pushed those thoughts away. It was his duty to go on with it, both as a northman, and in memory of his brother.

A bell tolled in the compound.

“It’s time to go,” announced Synnove. It was the first time he had heard her speak in days. Erik brought himself to his feet. Might as well get it over with.

They followed him to the lake’s northern shore, where a set of covered stone stairs led up to the rest of the compound. The stone stairs were ancient, Erik would never have dreamed of trying to guess just how old they were, and the Norns weren’t inclined to reveal much about themselves. The steps were lines by wooden columns carved into the shapes of trees that supported sculpted roof of wooden leaves. To Erik’s displeasure it didn’t do much to stop the wind.

The stairs winded him. There he was having spent eight years walking across Europe, and still he could be defeated by a set of stairs. “Some All-Father I’ll be, huh?”

“A fine one indeed, sire,” said Synnove beside him.

Erik looked at her, surprised that he couldn’t detect any hint of sarcasm. “Do you think so?”

“Of course,” Synnove replied. “The best leaders are the ones who don’t want to be. It keeps you humble.”

“I hope you’re right…say, which way do we go now?” They had reached the top of the stairs, putting them in the middle of a long, curving hallway that went along the outside of the building.

“This way sire. We’ll take the long route.” Synnove led him down the hallway, which was lined on the outside wall with statues of past Odins and other warriors of note. Along the inside wall was the massive tapestry that the Norns labored on endlessly. Anytime something of note happened in the world the Norns wove its story into their great tapestry. Layers and layers of vibrant fabric were wrapped around the center of the building. Synnove took him to the leading edge of the textile, where a pair of younger norns were working on the tapestry.

His brother’s statue sat regally at the tapestry’s end, and upon closer inspection Erik noticed that they were adding his brother’s death to the weave. A stylized image of Poul was shown clutching a gunshot wound to the chest, and without any information on the shooter, an image of loki was used instead. The Norns had always favored style of fact.

“We don’t have time to wait,” Synnove reminded him. “Here, take these. They’ll help with the pain.” She handed him a pair of white tablets. Erik nodded his thanks and swallowed them quickly. Now that he was so close to the coronation he was filled with an overwhelming desire to get it over with.

The inner wall had a single arched entryway that the tapestry was woven around to accommodate. Inside was the great courtyard that took up most of the compound. In the center grew a massive oak tree, with a gray stone slab placed among its roots. The three eldest of the Norns presided over this slab, flanked by valkyries and various dignitaries. A host of arctic dwarves stood off to Erik’s left, and in the oak’s branches he thought he was able see the flutter of the elvish delegations. No words were spoken as Erik approached, and took his place at the slab across from the Norns.

“Erik Larson,” spoke the the most prominent of the three. “Do you accept the mantle that has been offered to you?”

“I,” Erik paused and looked around him. Most coronations were done with a sense of melancholy, it was a chance to say goodbye to the old ruler and welcome the new. He could see that his coronation would not be like that. On every face he saw sadness, worry, fear. It wasn’t about what he wanted, he realized. It was about what he needed to do. These people needed someone to lead them, who they felt they could trust, they needed him. “I do.”

Her wizened old face smiled sadly, and she nodded. Around the came the below of hunting horns, and a group a valkyries emerged from the arch behind Erik carrying a body obscured by  funeral wrappings.

The lead Norn drew a knife from beneath her robes and stepped around the slab. In unison they began to speak. “As we commend the body of the All-Father to the heavens, we welcome into our midst a new ruler. Erik Larson. Fate and circumstance have chosen you to lead us. Circumstances that once forced you away from our lands have now caused you to return, and fate decrees that it is you who will become our next Odin. Kneel.”

Erik lowered himself to his knees, and the Norn moved closer.

“Having accepted this burden you will now pay the price of wisdom. As have all those who have walked before you,” they declared.

Erik braced himself for what was to come. The lead Norn grasped his head and brought the knife close, and with a well practiced flick of the blade she removed his left eye. Erik recoiled and pressed his hand to the now empty socket. He fought every urge to cry out. He had to remain stoic. He had to prove that he could take the pain.

This was the price that every Odin paid for wisdom. It was felt that a leader could not lead until he knew pain. That before he declare war he must know something of it’s costs. That a leader must be willing to sacrifice for his people.

A pair of valkyries came and took him. Carrying him between them as if he were a sack of flower, they brought him around the slab, behind the Norns, where a small pond sat between the roots. He was dropped in, the strong arms of the valkyries holding him beneath the surface as he struggled for air.

Be patient, he told himself. He knew that this was just another part of the coronation, but what if it wasn’t? For a moment that thought entered his mind that it could have all been a ruse to eliminate the only person with reason to avenge Poul’s death. Where the Norns to blame? They were not ones to take such overt actions. No. He had to trust in the Norns, he had to let this happen.

As his struggling stopped he no longer felt the pressure exerted by the valkyries. A single hand reached down and grasped his, pulling him from the water. He gasped for air as he broke the surface and was pulled to his feet. Before him stood Synnove, his hand firmly grasped in hers. Behind her stood the Norns, watching, as they always did.

“Hail Odin! Father of all!” Cried the Norns. Synnove and the Norns bowed, followed by the host of assembled dignitaries. An attendant hurried up to him and kneeled at his feet, offering a lit torch. Erik accepted the torch and looked to the slab. The oiled and bound body of his brother had been placed upon on the slab, and piled high with oiled logs and cuttings from the tree.

Erik walked towards the slab. Reaching under his collar he pulled forth a medallion which Poul had once give him as a gift. He placed in over his brother’s heart, and lowered the torch to start the pyre.