Forbidden Tomes

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The parchment sealed, Elmyra hobbled outside on tired legs.  Wind breezed cold on her face, forcing her to squint as she walked to the small pigeon coop off to the side of her hut.  Sunshine felt far away.  A fluttering of wings and a bit of twine send the parchment into the sky, and old eyes stare after it.  Ancient eyes.

One pair of eyes belonged to the Elmyra.  The others? Well.

 


 

The bird wasn’t the fastest bird, or the most graceful.  But it was the only bird Elmyra Cairon had.  The others had fallen to the last winter, and she didn’t care to buy more.

She didn’t believe that she would be around much longer.

The bird fluttered along above the treeline, clumsily gaining altitude.  Its yellow-red eyes stared out, blinking quickly.  Were it a human, it would wonder if it was able to make it.  But instinct drove the bird higher.  Farther.  The pigeon may not have been graceful, or fast — but it was old and reliable.

The parchment staggers its stride, but pigeon pride ensures that it reaches its destination just in time.

Finally able to descend, our pigeon makes an exhausted dive down toward the treeline, leaving what was left of the sun disappearing behind the Zephyr Mountains and entering the cool of the shade.  It seemed to breathe a heavy sigh, swooping to land on the arm of a tall and lanky elf.  The man gave a chuckle as he untied the paper from the bird’s quivering leg.

“Ch’arleh, a message came for us.  Judging from the bird, its probably your mother.”

A snort-laugh came from a cave entrance behind the tall elf.  The sound of a sword sliding into a sheath was followed by a whet-stone thudding on a wood table.  Ch’arleh came out, auburn hair pulled into a high ponytail.

“That’s definitely my mother’s bird.”  He picked it up gently and stroked its head.  The bird cooed pleasantly.  “She’s had this thing for as long as I can remember.  Its time is almost up though.”

He set the bird onto a branch, and it sat and stared at him as he took the parchment back into the damp cave.  Ducking to get into the opening, he stood and walked long strides into the mountain.  Candles perched wherever they could, casting dancing shadows over shelves of scroll and tome.  The oaken chair that used to be his father’s waited patiently for him, and he sat with a grunt.  Cracked wax and rustled paper revealed the words with familiar handwriting:

Halharken East of the Zephyrs and travelling Westward.

Among them is one of your cousins from your father’s side and a human noble.

He has some understanding of the arcane. 

Something is not right, son.  Please be careful.  With love,

                                               Your Öntarii

Ch’arleh stared at the parchment for a long time, feeling its rough texture between his fingers.

How much magic did she use to get this information?  

He shook the concern over his mother aside and set his mind to work.  He had little cause to worry for her, considering his plan.  The Halharken have exposed themselves on this side of the Zephyrs during the peace.

“Hmph.  Peace indeed.” He whispered to himself.  Action needed to be taken.  If the Halharken were here, it meant that the Crown was willing to risk exposing itself.  What made this risk worthwhile?

“J’imh!  Send word to the outposts to recall their troops back here.”  Ch’ar shouted into the mouthpiece of a wooden tube that ran from beside his chair, along the ceiling and to the mouth of the cave.  He removed his hair, and let it hang down to his shoulders.  The flickering darkness intensified as the smallest breeze toys with the candles.  A poison breeze that comes from within the cave.  From the shadows themselves.  Ch’arleh smiles to his invisible allies, whispering words that allows their dark energy to flow through him.   Words neither human, elven, or even ancient orc.

He felt electric as his hairs seemed to throb with hungry power, standing on end.   A power no one knew of but him.  Not even his dear, sweet mother.

A fluttering of wings outside disappeared into the darkening woods, calling his Ravens.  Ch’arleh opened a scroll he had read dozens of times before — a scroll that had the language he spoke inscribed in harsh, foul-looking scribbles.  Scribbles that seemed to shift and change to an untrained eye.

The symbols surrounded an image of a particularly evil-looking mask.  He mouthed the words that titled the forbidden paper to himself with a smile:

“Khosst Am’ojaan”

 


 

Robert and Omar smiled at each other and took a swig of their water at the same time.  The plan they devised was perfect.  They finished with just enough time for the sun to retire and for a crescent moon to rise.  With the Halharken keeping guard around the makeshift campground, they both felt comfortable enough to get their rest.  They needed it in the day to come.  Omar fell asleep instantly, soft snores oozing from a wiry beard.

Hours passed, and the sliver of moon crept slowly above.  Robert tossed and turned on the hard ground.  He stood with a frustrated sigh.  Maybe a walk would calm his nerves.

The Halharken were notoriously silent and so Robert did his best to match as he walked.  The night itself seemed to absorb sound, as even the insects held their breath.  He felt lonely even though he knew he was under guard.  Finally, he saw a hooded figure standing next to a thick tree trunk.  Thinking some small talk might just bore him enough to sleep, Robert strode to the silhouette of his guardian.

“A quieter night I have never seen.  And yet I cannot sleep,” Robert softly spoke as he walked up.  “How goes your watch, tracker?”

Silence replied from the leaning figure.  a beat passed and Robert froze where he stood.

“…Tracker?”

More silence.

He kept his distance as he circled around wide, hand on the pommel of his weapon.  A cloud passed over the waning crescent moon, stealing what little light there was.  The hood still obscured the face of the figure as he came to stand in front.  Roberts nerves were frayed and he shouted over his own thundering heart:

“Speak or I will cut you down!”

The figure jerked suddenly, no longer leaning against the thick oak.

“Oh, Gods!  Sir!  I apologize, I must have fallen asleep.”  The man sheepishly admitted.  Robert breathed a sigh of frustrated relief and chuckled as he looked down.

“You scared the iron from my blood!”  Looking back up Robert saw the man’s face.  Young.  Eyes bulging in terror.  Robert’s mouth hung open – unable to speak – as he saw a thin line appear across the youth’s throat.  A thin line grew thicker and began to spray blood as his head rolled from his shoulders.  The head plopped to the ground and rolled enough for the bulging eyes to reflect the light of the moon peeking back out from the clouds.  The body remained standing perfectly upright.

Robert steeled his stomach against the urge to projectile vomit and drew his blade with a practiced hand.  Glances around him revealed no one.  Nothing.  The headless body still stood with an eerie stiffness.

Then it shuddered!

 

tales of a travelling salesman final

 

Thanks for reading!

Until then, read this funny story I wrote about magic in modern times!

 

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Just Beneath the Surface

Click here for the Tale before!

A darkness so complete.

He felt cold.  Looking all around, there was nothing to see.  He could not even see his hands or his body below him.  He felt as if he were a solitary eye floating in ink.

A darkness that breathed.

Continue reading

Escape to Dream

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Knuckles aching on the wheel, Robert glanced again nervously into his rear-view mirror.  His imagination had been playing tricks on him – the police officer was exactly what he appeared to be.  Not a horrifying demon aching to consume him.  Merely a man.  Robert began to pull over, the black truck crunching onto the gravel shoulder of the road.  The cop’s car eased in behind him, and rolled to a stop with a loud creak.  Dust settled around them both as Robert looked again at the policeman and his dark sunglasses.  He was still just a man.

For now.  I have to make this as quick as possible.  

With an involuntary sigh, Robert stared at the road stretching itself out in front of him.  The trees swayed lazily in the breeze, the clouds slowly tumbled over each other across the bluest sky he had ever seen.    This was a day to stretch out somewhere silently in the shade of a great oak – maybe in a park somewhere – and dream.  Sitting in the quiet of the truck’s cab with the windows down, a cool draft of clean air caressing his beard and hair made it almost impossible to keep awake.  He snapped himself alert and rubbed his tired eyes.  Falling asleep was exactly what the darkness wanted.  For a reason unknown.  Something they desired was dependent on his being unconscious.  They needed him to fall into strange and impossible universes.  They wanted him to descend further into the endless depths of thirsting darkness echoing with the laughter of forgotten gods.  But his eyes were so heavy now.  Too heavy. The lazy air was laced with the faint scent of wild flowers.

wildflowers

The cop knocked on the roof of the cab and shocked Robert back into this reality.  Quickly jerking awake, Robert began to apologize:

“Officer, sorry for spee–“

“License and registration.” He cut Robert off with a blank expression that was somehow laced with suspicion.  No doubt earned through countless stops just like this one.  Countless apologies that fell on deaf, stoic ears trained by years of experience.

“Sure! Just, uh, bought this truck, actually.  So the registration is not updated yet but let me give you the card of the fellow that sold it to me.  It’ll check out.”  A nervous grin spread on Robert’s face.  His normal salesman smile probably wouldn’t have helped him anyway.  Not with this statue of a man.  He looked at Robert’s license, then at his face.  Without a word he turned and walked back to his squad car that looked freshly cleaned and waxed as it glistened in the shimmering sunlight.

Hands on the wheel at 10 and 2, Robert’s hands tapped with the rhythm of war drums from a far-away land that he had never even thought of once in his life.  He stared straight ahead as best he could, watching the clouds roll over the world in front of him.  The cop was probably far enough away that he was safe.  Both Robert and the cop were safe.  With a sigh and a stretch he eased his head back to look into the rear-view mirror at a towering juggernaut with black armor walking toward him.

Goddammitholyshitwhatthe —

His hands fumbled clumsily for the keys and they flew up into his beard and got tangled in the wiry hair that he was still not used to.  Swears turned to pleas for mercy as he finally just ripped the keys out, taking a chunk of hair and skin from his horrified face.  Blood trickled down from his chin as he shakily put the keys in the ignition, the car growling instantly with desperate fury.  As he peeled away, throwing up gravel and dust, he stared at this new creature.  Towering and slow, the armor was shining shadows, absorbing light and yet glistening like folded steel.  It came to a stop and stood with its freakishly long arms crossed, the sharpened smile so familiar to Robert now adorned the black space that was its face.  Tires gripped the pavement and pulled Robert away, and he looked again at the monster.  It pointed now in front of his truck, and he followed its gaze to a billboard that read:

We will always find you.

 

He slammed his fist on the wheel in rage.  Tears welled up in his eyes as he fought off accepting the truth of his situation.  The roads were familiar now.  He was almost home, where his wife waited patiently to find out what happened to her husband.  She must be either terribly scared or terribly angry, and Robert felt terrible to be the cause of either.  The truck roared down the road, going around one curve on what felt like two wheels.  The air whipped into the cab through the open windows, flicking drops of blood from his chin onto the windshield and all over the place.  A red, macabre version of Jackson Pollock’s work.  The wind smelled impossibly fresh, the rain’s scent still strong from the night before, mingling in along with the growing sound of sirens behind him.  The cop car began to pull itself closer to him, and Robert glanced to try and catch a glimpse of the demon, but it was the policeman again behind the wheel.  He was probably oblivious that Robert was fleeing because he had turned into an armored hell spawn moments before, with arms that dragged the pavement and threw sparks with each step.

The policeman pulled the cruiser up close to the truck’s bumper, and nudged it.  At the speeds they were going it caused Robert to nearly crash, a horrifying lurch to the right and then straight again let him have a moment of relief.  Robert had almost over-corrected, nervous and exhausted as he was.  Even in this situation, with tons of steel and fire rushing down the road – trees whipping by – the roar of the engine was more like a hum trying to coax him into sleep.  The cop was gaining again, and moved to try and hit the side of Robert’s truck inside of the next curve on the right.  A near-miss that could have been the end, Robert looked to see a familiar block up ahead, he was so close to home now!

So close.

An amazing tree stood towering on the corner of his street, a tree that his son had played under all those years before with the neighbor boys who were also grown now, working and living somewhere else in this universe.  As he began to slow and turn the corner, he could almost see the shadows of the life that he was racing back to: a football spiraling slowly through the summer air into the hands of a laughing child as the smell of slightly burnt hamburgers danced into their noses.

The cop almost caught his bumper again during the turn, but the maneuver was unnecessary.  Robert had taken the corner too quickly and over corrected, causing him to fishtail down his street.  The truck finally caught traction, but the angle of it threw his truck onto his next-door neighbor’s yard and into their apple tree with an immense thundering.  The windshield shattered and rained glass onto Robert’s head as it slammed into the steering wheel, and it was only through sheer will that he remained conscious.  Pain burned red hot throughout his body, pulsing.  The sun even seemed to pulse in tandem, high in the sky.

Steam poured from the crumpled hood of the truck, and the crash lured neighbors to their windows to investigate the normally quiet suburb.  Sirens began to drone louder as he unbuckled his seat belt, and collapsed from the car in an exhausted heap.  His head hung low and he stared at the grass, vibrantly green and pulsing with detail in rhythm with his pain.  Blood trickled down his face and dripped slowly onto the ground, and he forced his head up to look at his house.  His wife’s car was in the driveway, and his heart nearly exploded with joy.  Tears welled up as he staggered to his feet, clutching ribs that felt broken.

Only… a few steps… 

He shuffled and kept staring at his house, at the windows and the door.  He knew in only a moment or two his wife would look out and see him like he had never been before.  A fear blossomed inside of him.  A fear that he would be a stranger to her like this, unrecognizable with the blood and the beard.  The suit that was once so fresh was sticking to him with sweat, and covered in stains.

A few… more steps…

A ringing in his ears began, and it drowned out the sounds growing around him: The shouts of policemen drawing their guns and telling him to get on the ground, the screams of housewives running back inside their homes.  But the wind blowing through the trees remained clear.  The calming rustle of leaves against each other, and the whispers of molecules winding their way through the branches.  The only other sound that was just as clear to Robert was the familiar moan of his front door that always creaked no matter how he oiled it.  A former source of frustration coaxed the tears of joy to flow harder.  The front door was opening, and his beautiful wife came out.  Her long, black hair flowed over one shoulder, and she stared at him in disbelief.  She recognized him!  But the recognition was tainted with something else.  Something familiar to him now after the last few days.

Horror.

She turned and went back into the house, covering her mouth with one hand.  The door stayed ajar.  Robert was exhausted, and he collapsed onto the grass and pain exploded in his chest from shattered ribs.  He used his entire strength to look up at his home, the one that he had fallen in love and raised his family in.  He looked, and he saw himself standing in the doorway.  Clean cut, wearing a fresh new suit tailored to fit.  A black suit with a black shirt and tie.  The Robert in the doorway smiled at him, with a horrible malevolence.  The smile of a sadist.  The Robert in the grass collapsed, and had no strength to lift his head more, so that his view of his doppelganger was sideways and distorted.  Robert could feel his hands clench into fists and his teeth grind together as the other Robert smiled and turned his head to match the angle of the true Robert.  The fake mouthed three words as the tunnel vision grew and unconsciousness gripped the real Robert:

“We are everywhere.”

tales of a travelling salesman finalClick here for the next part!

The Whispers

 

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Hours passed.  The light began to flicker in the lamp behind Robert.  Stopping his nervous tapping on his legs, he turned to look at the chaotic strobe.  The room was in a state of flux between darkness and light, each flicker an explosion of lightning in the empty room.  Suddenly, one of the flashes revealed a shadowed figure in the center sitting on his bed looking at him with a predatory smile — God, those teeth!  Shooting up, he knocked the chair over and almost fell over it as he stepped back.  Robert was stumbling as the impending darkness washed back into the room, like a wave crashing onto the shore.  His heart was cold as he reached for anything he could use to protect himself, blindly grasping at the scratchy curtains and the end table.  All was deathly quiet now, save for his scrambling.  The light crackled back into the room as he fixed his eyes on an empty bed. Perfectly made.  Untouched.

Moments passed as he flicked his eyes around the room, assuring himself that his mind was playing tricks on him.  The lack of sleep was not helping his nerves, and neither was this spastic lighting.  He walked over, and adjusted the bulb so that it sat better within its home, and clicked the ceiling light on as a backup.  Considering how heavy his eyes were, brighter was better.   Anything to help keep him awake.  He thought about the bathroom, and the shower that was sure to be inside.  Walking across the light brown carpet, he opened the door to the modest restroom and flipped the light on.  It was what you would expect: A decent sized shower with white-tiled walls and a tacky shower curtain with a flowered pattern commonly found in the homes of the elderly.  The mirror and sink were clean, and he looked at the tired-looking man staring back at him.  Big bags drooped under his eyes, and his clothes were rumpled looking.  The suit that had been so crisp and clean had been turned into third-hand clothing within  24 hours.  He shrugged at his reflection, and went to relieve himself in the toilet.  A wave of ethereal relaxation rushed over him, and he remembered he hadn’t had a chance to do this in forever.  It was almost too euphoric to handle, and he chuckled.

Upon flushing, he noticed that the water pressure was quite weak as it refilled the bowl.  Trying to wash his hands, he saw that the water was now nonexistent in the pipes.

Damn.  I really needed a shower, too.  Would have helped pass the time.  

 He glided back out into the bedroom, beginning his first lap of pacing back and forth.  Step by step he had to hold his eyes open, feeling the strength draining from his body.  He let himself close his eyes – thinking that if he relaxed them while he walked that he could get a second wind.  Fatigue does this to people.  It tricks our trains of thought onto the rails of foolishness.  However, Robert was correct in thinking that he would find his second wind.  It was from a different source, to his dismay.  Sometimes when we first begin to fall into sleep, there can be an uncontrollable jolt of raw fear. A powerful sensation of falling can snap us back awake whether we like it or not.  Many find it an inconvenience.  After the initial shock, Robert was relieved by it.  He had almost fallen asleep while pacing on the floor.  Legs like jello, arms like cement.  Robert was afraid that he could not keep himself awake.  Raising his arms out to his side, he opened his palms and began to smack the shit out of himself.

“Stay – a – WAKE!!” Each syllable sounded in time with a quick smack on his reddening cheeks.  Smack.  Smack.  He paced across the floor in time to his new found rhythm.  Robert tried his hardest to push the horrible reality of why he was doing this out of his mind.  Gleaning the tiniest bit of humor he could, he held on to this and forced an internal laugh.

Stop hitting yourself.  Stop hitting yourself.

That bully he knew would have found this hilarious, no doubt about that.  He was confident that he was awake.  For now.  A stinging heat welled on his face.  His eyes were tired, but his mind had hardened itself.  It had to.  Oblivion was within Robert, and it waited with a hungry maw just behind his eyes.  He knew it was there.  Licking his lips and staring out of the thin part of the curtains through the window outside, Robert knew this was a healthy fear.  Like his stomach groaning into the silence, it would help keep him awake.  Hopefully.  Maybe more fear would add to the mental bulwark against the black.  He could study the evil, perhaps.  Gaze at it with steadied eyes, and see if he could understand.

moon gif

There was something important he forgot, though.  All know this to be a truth somewhere deep down inside, no matter their culture.  No matter the philosophy or belief.  It is a law, one that has been etched into the definitions of existence.

Those who study Evil, are studied by Evil.

This was something that could not be helped.  Robert cracked his neck, twisting it to one side in a habit he had since he was a child.  It felt great, tiny pops of pleasure amid a body of creaking bones and tight back muscles.  Staring out into the night, he tried to remember the moments in between the worlds he saw.  A dark hallway filled with dots of light, the obsidian hole he fell into filled with vile eyes that gazed into his soul.  Did he see any hints? Anything that could help him understand? There were whispers, he remembered.  Whispers of some enigmatic language he had never heard before.  What were those strange words? His mind focused on that memory, pushing into the past with prying sight.  His ears tingled for a moment, and he stared at shadows on the parking lot darker than the night sky above.

Lano kala bo’shar lanu novala 

These words burned like fire into his mind and felt as if they were whispered loudly into both of his ears.  He whirled around and stared at the empty room.  The lights both flickered weakly and went back to normal, as he felt for spit on his ears.  He could have sworn someone ha –

Pharom car’ana mokkada bah’jah ko se

Tears welled in his eyes as he spun around again, he could hear the tongues clicking in his ears and he could feel the spit of the hissing whispers without question, and yet he was alone.  He fell to his knees, knocking over the end table in the process.  The Gideon’s bible fell from the drawer onto the ground in front of him, and he was struck with a thought.

Maybe this will help! 

One hand brushed tears away as the other turned pages.

The Lord is my Shepard, I shall not… want

He sniffled a bit, and read the rest of the passage as quick as he could.  He felt much calmer now.  A deep breath after each few lines brought his heart rate down.  Turning the page to continue, he stared in horror and could not help but read this next part out loud.  Weakly, he whispered to the empty room.

“Go to sleep, Robert.”  Printed alone, and centered on the page.  And the next page.  And the page after that.  Robert continually read it aloud, turning the pages faster and faster and reading it louder and louder.  Yelling out into the hotel room he gave the book a cathartic throw and it slapped heavily on the wall, then dropped to the ground with a soft thud.  He began to cry heavily, labored breathing in between sobs.  Finally managing to calm himself down, he sat with his back against the bed.  The clean linen scent wafted into his nose as silence echoed into the room.  Only the soft hum of electricity accompanied its melody.  He stood up and moved back to the window and sat down, tapping a different beat cautiously on his knees.  Tap.  Tap.  Grimly he thumped, shadows outside waxing and waning as clouds passed quickly over the moon.  Seemed like a storm was coming, the trees swaying in the passing moonlight.  Black clouds rolled in from beyond the horizon, covering the land in a pallid shroud the color of coal.  Low rumbling filled the room with static buzzing invisible through the air outside.  Any minute now it would pour.

storm gif

As a streak of lightning traced across the sky, the parking lot was illuminated with a clear light. Enough for Robert to see several shadowy hominids crawling low to the ground, only to be swallowed up by the darkness as the lightning turned into a growling roll of thunder.  He pulled the blinds shut and squeezed the curtains together, eyes bulging from his skull.  Backing away, he turned and looked around for something he could use as a weapon.  Three loud knocks rapped on his motel room door, and lightning crashed outside.  Robert could barely breathe now,  horror clutching his throat with its strong hands and squeezing him with fingers of terror.  He was frozen solid.  Whispers spoke again into his mind:

Ko’se lano makora kojani noss’e

Three more knocks, louder than before.  Urgent.  He was surprised that the beings did not force their way in by crashing through the window.  He could imagine the storm blowing wind in through the shattered glass as the demons crawled closer toward him, their hellish teeth bared in the cheshire smile of a hated creature, twisted by time.  Three more knocks, a pause between each distinct thud on the door.  Against his better judgement, he walked to entrance and looked outside.  Standing there in the storm was Don French!  The old man had his brown coat drawn tight against the wind.  Making a frustrated gesture toward the door he began to walk away.  Robert watched his back as he shuffled weakly around the corner. The wind was pushing and pulling his body in a way that made him look like a drunken man finally stumbling home.

Robert slunk back over to the window with all the stealth and precision he could muster, and looked back into the parking lot.  The various blacks and grays swirled together, shadows dancing wildly as the wind flew violently through the trees.  The gusts were so strong that even the cars swayed lightly on their chassis.  A lightning bolt crackled through the clouds above, tracing its way across the sky.  It was enough to restore his view outside, and Robert stared at nothing but an empty landscape being buffeted by the storm.  No demons, no black tongues curling between spiked teeth.  No apex demon with the horns of a ram that looked doused in fresh blood.  A shiver found its home in his shoulders as he thought of the various creatures he had seen.  His eyes were heavy still, and heavier by the minute – but his fear helped keep them pried open.  Like a device used to peel your eyelids back.  But instead of cold metal prying into his skull, he had the whispers and an ancient evil that was stalking him.  This room had kept him safe somehow, despite the horrors that unfurled their tendrils within his thoughts.

Because I am alone here?  Do they need a… vessel? 

The storm roared outside as he glanced at the clock, the strong white numbers stood out against the black tiles they sat on.  They flipped, and showed that it was so much closer to morning than Robert would have guessed.  His heart twinkled in his chest for a moment, and in that tiny time a small smile toyed at the edge of his mouth.  He had stayed awake this long, he could make it for a while longer.  He began to tap an upbeat rhythm on his knees now:  Tappity-tap-tap-tappity-TAP! Robert felt a warmth in his stomach, and its rumblings had calmed along with his mood.  The storm was beautiful, a wild force of nature whirling overhead.  Chaos raged in the heavens and with each bolt of lightning and crack of thunder his hands tapped to the beat.  He felt strangely happy suddenly, all things considered.  He was closer to home.  His wife was sleeping now, probably listening to the same storm buffet against her window.  Clouds almost as black as her hair, that pure raven shimmer of beauty.  His minds eye painted a picture for him: framed by the white of the bed and the clean sheets, her lovely face softly sleeping with the glow of an angel.  Robert’s blood ran icy in his veins as he felt the air of a whisper slither into his ears.

  Kaa…La — K’osst AMOJANN!!

Each syllable was stressed with the flinging of invisible spit into his ears, and he involuntarily wiped at them.  There was no rest for the weary, and definitely not for him. He paced.  Thinking about going to sleep for the smallest second he shook his head violently and smacked himself in the face.  No sleep.  This was his one chance, as far as he knew. Robert might not make it back to this frame of existence again.  He had to take this chance as far as it would let him go.  As far as the darkness would let him.  Robert stared at his hands, and turned them into fists.  Nothing would stop him, and he found a new conviction in spite of his fear.  The storm raged on in the sky outside, the electric air buzzing and rumbling.  A roll of thunder almost drowned out a new knock at the door, a shave-and-a-haircut pattern.  Robert went and looked through the peephole at a different man than he expected, as it was not Don French.  It was a stranger, someone he had never seen.  He had a toolbox, and he did not look happy at all.  It was early morning now, and Robert supposed that he was not the only tenant here that had no water.  Why did he need to get into his room?  Robert decided to let the man knock uselessly, there was no way he was going to open the door.  Spending time with anyone inevitably led to their being engulfed by the tentacled cloud of shadows.

The knocking continued, turning from the amiable pattern into the typical three loud knocks of someone in a hurry.  They shot into his room over the rumbles from the sky, and then Robert thought he had gone away.  A lull in the chaos made for a deafening silence, and the sound of a key sliding into his lock sent a numbness into his body.

His heart pounded in his chest.  The lock turned, and the door handle began to twist.

key gif

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Cheshire Dark

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It was as if he continued to fall.  Even after the explosion of pain from when his head smacked into the roof of the car.  Falling, falling through a darkness that watched him.  He could feel something vile looking into his mind, its evil tenacity prying past his eyes and into his brain relentlessly crushing his will, peeking into his body and violating him. A sensation of spiders covered in oily hair that were crawling inside of his skin and skull.  Gnawing, scratching, nibbling, tickling.  Laughter erupted from the greasy arachnids, their mandibles quivering with devilish glee and dripping with saliva.  He fell into the black screaming, crying and clawing at his eyes scratchi —

A solitary heartbeat, thumping in the darkness.

Glasses clinked.  A toast.  Familiar music fuzzily found its way to his ears, that haunting tune:

“Stopped into a church
I passed along the way
Well, I got down on my knees (got down on my kneeees)
And I pretend to praaay…”

Robert’s eyelids were heavy, and he blinked away the sleep.  He sat up and looked at a darkened bar, men leaning against a wooden wall talking.  A dart thumped into a board amidst mixed cheers and groans, and R.J. wiped at his eyes.  He felt like he was drugged, or still drunk from the night before.  A nausea twinged in his gut as he smelled himself.  He looked down at the ragged suit he was wearing, tattered and stained.  He really smelled like something that had died and sat in the sun for too long.  Robert mused about the witty comments Linda would have made if she could see him now.  The faint smile disappeared from his face as his past experiences came rushing back to him.  The bloody mess in the forest, the vacuum of space, the post-apocalyptic hell all filled his mind’s eye.

Where is this? Seems… Normal enough.   

There was an empty glass on the table in front of him, sitting on top of a newspaper that read the date.  Robert’s heart skipped a beat and he stood up with a start, looking for the bartender.  He noticed that his cheeks itched as he strode across the dark wooden floor.  A thick beard has found its home where his clean-shaven face used to be.  Odd.

“Say, barkeep…” Robert said with a wave of his hand as he sat at the counter.  The man turned and hesitated before walking over.  Picking up a glass to clean, he looked at R.J. and nodded.

“What city is this?” Robert asked, barely able to hide his hope.

city 3

Laughter swelled in the tavern as the bartender told him, and Robert’s eyes lit up with joy.  He was home!  Well, almost home.

“Pour me a cold one, friend.” Putting a bill on the counter he smiled at the fellow, and the fellow could not help but smile back at Robert’s happy face.  R.J. had one of those types of smiles: rare, but when they came you HAD to smile back.  Perfect for a travelling salesman.  He had closed a few big deals with this talent before.  The man poured R.J. a nice cold beer with a modest head, and he took a sip.  It was impossibly refreshing to Robert, and he felt he could cry he was so happy.  Finally he was safe.  Suddenly, the bartender’s smile became stretched almost…  like a caricature.  His eyes narrowed and changed somehow.

Did it just get darker in here?   Or…

“You… do not belong.”  The barkeep said with an ominous monotone.  The voice was distorted and had undertones of static.  Invisible ice crept over Robert’s shoulders and shot down his legs as  the man leaned toward him threateningly. Now Robert could see that darkness was emanating from the space around the being.  The shadows were pulsing, bubbling out from nowhere, and R.J. felt like he was making eye contact with it.  As an elongated tongue curled from the being’s mouth Robert leaned back from the demon barkeeper in awkward horror, and he looked to his left at the man sitting two chairs away.  The jovial fellow did not seem to notice this petrifying thing pouring drinks!  Robert felt as if he was freezing solid, and leaping from his bar stool he made his way to the entrance, clumsily weaving past people as they enjoyed their night. Passing back frenzied glances at a thing of madness.

“YOU CANNOT ESCAPE.” A roar blew from the darkened space swirling behind the bar, framing the shadowy humanoid.  Robert noticed how unnaturally tall it was, and that everyone around him seemed to not notice anything.  Talking and laughing, blissfully unaware that something had consumed the…barkeeper?  With the blink of an eye the devil vanished from existence, the darkness resting for now.  Glasses clinked again and conversations blended into a chorus of humanity.  Maybe he was seeing things.

A bell chimed as he left the bar, twinkling in the doorway with warmth.

So much for not escaping.

 Considering where he woke up the last few times, Robert felt at ease despite what he saw.  He looked at this old city, one he had grown to hate, and saw a paradise.  It’s amazing what peering into hell can do to your world-view.  It was a nice day out, and Robert walked briskly through the crowd with ease.  Folks were avoiding him due to his odor and appearance, and a light laugh came from his chest.  There was a homeless man in the window pane next to him, smiling back and wearing the same tattered rags.  He couldn’t let his beautiful wife see him like this!  She would make him sleep on the couch and bathe in tomato soup for a WEEK!  Her smile, with those ridiculously perfect teeth, filled his head with feelings of longing.  The beard could wait, but he needed new clothes.  Luckily his wallet was still hanging in the clump of threads that used to be his back pocket.  A storekeepers eyes changed from suspicious to thrilled quickly with some clean green bills.

As he walked out, buttoning his black suit coat, he could feel the owner watching him.  Casting a glance over his left shoulder as he strode away, he caught shadows of darkness surrounding a figure wearing the smile of a Cheshire.  Robert’s blood ran cold in his veins despite the sun shining onto the city streets, and he picked up his pace.  He felt his paranoia was getting the better of him.  Thinking back as he walked, he thought that this really must have all been some strange drug induced amnesia.  Robert felt certain that all that had happened had been just dreams, and he felt braver because of this.  Finally he was on his way home, to his wife who must have had every cop in the state looking for him.  He turned down a block and he could see the park that he went to each morning and —

My car!! Yes!! 

city 1

He produced car keys from his coat pocket and trotted to his sedan.  Amazed that it could still be here after what seemed like forever, he stood and looked around at this day.  It really was a lovely one.  Birds sat lazily on a wire, watching people going about their lives.

“Hey, R.J.,! Is that you?” A voice shouted out over the hustle and bustle of the city.  Robert turned quickly to look at an old friend.  The doctor he met once during a sales call, and R.J. tried to get him to buy several vacuums.  Several!!  At the time, Dr. Charley was incredulous to the point of hilarity.  He instantly had a soft spot for this bold salesman, rattling on about how useful it would be to have several vacuums — one for the house, the practice, and back-ups just in case the others broke!  Ridiculous!  Yet there was logic in his rhetoric.  And the only reason Robert did this was so that he could negotiate down to just the two.  Start high, they always tell you, set a high benchmark to set the tone of a negotiation.  Robert smiled at him as he walked over through the crowd.

“Barely recognized you with that beard, R.J. Lowman!  What are you doing with one? Found a job that let you keep it?”

“No… Just…” Robert paused and looked up to the sky.  A crow was flying against the wind, struggling and getting nowhere.  But it was beautiful, he supposed.  Sighing, he looked back to his friend:

“I’ve taken some time off, I guess.  From the search.  I’ve been meaning to ask you about those sleeping pills you gave me, are you sure that they were OK?”

“What do you mean?” Dr. Charley tilted his head and crossed his arms.  He looked as if he was still in the office, wearing his lab coat and stethoscope.

“I had some very strange… dreams, and I don’t remember the last…”  Robert sheepishly looked to the ground, “… I don’t KNOW how long.”  A moment of silence passed.

“That’s just too bad.” Dr. Charley replied flatly.  Robert looked at him in surprise.

“What do you mean, ‘that’s too bad’?!  You’re a doctor!  Sort it out!” The doctor burst into  loud laughter at him, gregariously throwing his head back.  After a moment he calmed down and caught his breath, wiping the tears from his eyes.

“Robert, do you still think that I am Dr. Charley?”  He looked at the smiling doctor, who watched him with the gleeful curiosity of a child.  A bitter cold spread itself through R.J., tracing its path down his back to his feet.  He felt weak.

“We are everywhere, Robert.  You cannot escape us!”  At this, Robert backed up, reaching behind him for the door handle — eyes locked onto his friend.

“What are you talking about?  You’re Doc Charles!”  The doctor stared back at him in disbelief.  He chuckled and shook his head, looking down at the ground as if remembering some punchline to some joke.  Robert was horrified.  He knew now that what he looked at was not his friend.  There was no doubt.  He felt the tingling of fear again, surprised he was not desensitized to the feeling.  In one swift motion he swung himself into the car and shut the door, turning the engine on.  Dr. Cha — something leaned casually onto his car and stared into the window, looking right into Robert’s eyes with a knowing smile.  Like a friend would.

“Try as you might, but the cycle must continue, Robert.”

Robert slammed on the accelerator and peeled into traffic.  Glancing into the rearview mirror he could see the fake doctor, standing there waving at him with one hand while the other was tucked into his lab coat.  Robert whirled his car around the corner, tires squealing over the black asphalt.  Pedestrians threw themselves out of his way as he raced out of the city.  He had to get home.  He had to get to his wife before they did.

” We are everywhere.”

The city finally began to grow smaller in his rear-view mirror, and R.J. breathed a sigh of relief.  The radio quietly comforted him as did the dull roar of his engine.  He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel over-zealously to the rhythm of the song, the same evocative tune from the bar:

“You know the preacher like the cold (preacher like the coooold)
He knows I’m gonna stay (knows I’m gonna staa-aaay)

Caal-i-for-nia dreamin’
On such a winter’s daaay”

He drove for a while, and stopped for gas.  As he pumped he noticed a man sitting by his motorcycle in all black, watching him.  Dark sunglasses hid his gaze, but Robert could feel eyes on him.  R.J. cut the pump early, and got back into his car to leave.  The man kicked on his bike and sat on it as it rumbled, glancing at his watch.  Robert carefully turned back onto the main road, and got up to speed as fast as he could.  He felt uneasy after what happened in the city, despite attempts to calm himself down.  The rear-view mirror held no dark motorcyclist.  He breathed a sigh of relief, but still his heart pounded in his chest.  Thumping against his ribs.

The reflection off of the motorcycle’s chrome flashed in his mirrors.  The man in black was coming up on him.  Robert accelerated, pushing the gas down and shifting into gear.  There was no way that he could out run the bike, he knew, but maybe somehow he could cause him to wreck.  The man was barreling up the road, coming closer and closer.  Robert felt his heart in his throat beating mercilessly.  They were on a straightaway now, and the man in black flew up behind him, and passed him without effort.  Then he kept going.  Apparently, the only thing that man was looking for was the open road.  R.J. felt like a nervous fool.

But then the motorcycle stopped off in the distance, and turned around.  It looked like the exhaust was pumping out black smoke but he was surrounded by that darkness.  The same thing that consumed the others.  The motorcycle roared toward Robert, some kind of demon flying toward him with the throttle pulled back.  Robert pushed further on the accelerator as he wiped the sweat from his palms.

He had never played a game of chicken before.

But nothing was going to get between him and his wife.

Not even hell itself.

 

 road

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