Ritual

It had been a very long day. He had decided a drink was in order, so he stopped by a pub on the way home. The stools at the bar were empty, so he sat and slapped a twenty down. “Jameson’s. Neat.” The bartender nodded and placed a glass in front of him. The whiskey was good and the bar was quiet. A nice contrast to the day.

A woman walked in. It would have been hard not to notice her, and not just because of how slow the place was. She had on a black dress and heels. Stunning. It was clearly a special date. Surprisingly, she walked right up to him.

“Excuse me.”

He smiled. “I think you’ve got the wrong guy.”

A puzzled look crossed her face. “No. I was just wondering… I know this might sound weird, but… Would you mind moving down a couple of seats?”

“Oh. Sure. No problem.” He moved down to the corner of the bar so as to give her and her date plenty of space.

He watched as she waved the bartender over and handed him some money. She said something to him, but it was too soft for him to hear. The bartender nodded and then made two drinks. He gave her a rum and Coke and put a whiskey sour in front of the stool next to her. She took a few sips and her drink, thanked the bartender, and then left.

“Cold feet? Or did she get stood up?” He asked the bartender.

“Neither. She paid for the drinks and asked that I leave the whiskey sour there for about half an hour after she left. Then I could pour it out. She said no one would be by to drink it.”

“Huh.” It was the only response he could think of as he stared at the two abandoned drinks on the bar.

A Game of What If

S: This has been a very bad week.

J: That is putting it mildly.

P: We need to do something to lift our spirits.

S: Such as?

P: What would he do if he were here?

M: Probably tell us one of his stories to illustrate that death does not matter.

J: Or tell us about the next life.

S: Yes. That he would.

T: I do not think this is appropriate. He is only recently killed.

M: Thomas, we are just trying to remember him. Grieve his passing.

T: Still…

S: What would you say to him if he were here right now?

T: That is an odd suggestion.

S: Perhaps. But what would you say?

T: I would want some proof it was really him?

M: And he thinks we are inappropriate.

S: What if he showed you his wounds? Let you touch them?

T: Yes, that would probably convince me.

B: Hold on. I am trying to write all of this down. It would be a good end to this story. Something to remind us of the hope he represented.

The Salamander King

This is a brand new, completely rewritten from scratch, draft of a story I wrote more than 20 years ago. I thought it was time to revisit the character.

A red light appeared and slowly expanded in midair at the front of the church. A claw reached out of the light and seemed to grab the edge, pushing it wider.

“What in God’s name is that?”

“Wrong direction, Father. Think hotter.” The priest gave me a look of disbelief. I nodded confirmation. “You might want to run. This probably will get a little chaotic.”

The priest, frozen with fear, didn’t move. There was no time to worry about him, though; the demon was nearly through the portal. All I could do was draw my sword and move between the two, try to force the demon to deal with me first.

At least seven feet tall, scaly, and sharp points and edges everywhere, the thing was right out of nightmares. It saw me right away and snarled. “What do you hope to do?”

Intelligent as well as powerful. Not a good combination for me. It would be even more dangerous than I had feared. Best to end this quickly. The demon smoldered as it began moving cautiously towards me.

I took a couple of wild swipes with my blade just to see what its reaction would be. Nothing. It didn’t flinch. Simple steel couldn’t hurt it, and it already knew that. Good. That would make my task easier.

The demon laughed. It was a horrific sound. I had to duck a halfhearted swipe, as though I was nothing more than an annoying insect. Coming back up, I drove the sword into the demon’s chest. More laughter.

Until I released the fire from inside the blade. The demon screamed, a sound much worse than its laughter. It caught sight of my eyes, also alight with the same flame. Its terror grew. “Who are you…?”

Mercifully, the ordeal was short-lived. The screams, the words, died as the creature turned to ash. The sword, still lit, grew heavy in my hand and the tip brushed the floor. The fire did not catch the carpet, but simply hung tightly on the blade.

“What… what just happened?”

“Not to worry, Father. It’s gone.”

“Fire killed it?”

“Yes. Demons hate fire. That’s why hell is such torture for them.”

He nodded, but it was obvious he was still in shock. “Thank you… I… I don’t even know your name.”

“Jack. Jack Nimble. But when the authorities show up, best not to mention me. Or the demon. They don’t like me and don’t believe in them. Okay? Will you be alright?”

He nodded again, but managed no words. I needed to get going before anyone else showed up. I sheathed my sword and stole out into the night, disappearing into the darkness.

Giving Thanks

It was his turn. He stood and raised his glass. Everyone looked at him expectantly. He knew what he was supposed to say. Tradition dictate that he express thanks for his family, his friends, his job, the food… All the usual things. Despite knowing that, the words wouldn’t come. He’d said them every Thanksgiving for years. Now they refused to pass his lips.

Instead, he merely raised his glass to the table, took a sip, and sat down. There were several sideways glances thrown his way, but his brother stood and kept the ball rolling. Soon, everyone seemed to have forgotten his bizarre behavior.

Food was served and face-stuffing commenced. Uncle Bob valiantly talked through the bites. His brother elbowed him and rolled his eyes at every pun. The food was good and the conversation light.

After he helped clean up, he went outside to sit on the back step. The chill in the night air wasn’t too bad, and the moon overhead gave everything a soft glow. He was just glad to be alone.

But not for long, as his brother soon joined him. “So what’s up? You seem out of sorts tonight.”

“That obvious?”

“You didn’t say anything during the thankful thing.”

“Yeah, I suppose that’s pretty obvious.”

“Yeah. So what’s up?”

He shrugged. “I just… I don’t know. It all feels so… trite? Each year, it’s the same thing. I know I should be glad for everything I have. But I just don’t feel it this year. And I feel like an ass because of it.”

His brother nodded. “I think I get it.”

“So I’m an ass, right?”

“Look, you know I love you, right?”

“Yeah. And I love you.”

“Right. You’re my brother. If you’re not feeling Thanksgiving, you’re not. I love you anyway. You’re here. That matters. It’s all that matters. Traditions are fun. But they’re not what’s important. You’re not an ass just because you don’t want to jump through an old hoop. Words don’t matter. This matters.” He smacked him in the chest.

“Oof. You still hit like a wimp.”

“Yeah, well, at least I can talk at the table.”

They laughed together, just like they always had. When they stopped, his brother stood to go back inside. He put his hand out to stop him.

“Wait. Before we go back in… Thanks. I needed that.”

“See, you are thankful. Now. Pie. I need pie.”

Together they walked back into the house.

The Grey Room

“Why is everything grey?”

“It helps him focus.”

They were in a small sitting room. Everything was indeed various shades of grey. An old, yet somehow ageless, man was led into the room by an assistant. The assistant brought him to an armchair facing the two men and then departed.

“How are you today, Tiberius? This is my new associate, Sam Proctor. We were hoping to ask you some questions. Do you feel up to it?”

The old man, Tiberius, smiled at him.

Sam looked at his partner. “What’s wrong with him?”

“Quiet. Let me talk.”

“They are coming, John. You should be ready.”

Sam was clearly confused but stayed silent.

“Tiberius, I’m not John. I’m Christopher. Do you remember me?”

Tiberius stared at him. “Oh yes! Of course. My apologies. I am expecting John later. Mustn’t forget his message.”

Christopher nodded encouragement. “Good. Good. Do you have any messages for me?”

Tiberius smiled. “That depends on your questions. Ask.”

“We are looking for someone. He’s…”

“Yes. You will find him this evening. Downtown. The library. Be careful. He will be armed. There is a good probability of someone being shot.”

“Who?”

“Impossible to be certain. That’s why I told you to be careful.”

“Do you know his name?”

“Indeed. But it would be best if I did not tell you.”

“Are you sure?”

“Very.”

“Okay. Anything else you can tell me?”

“If you have other questions.”

“Okay. Well, thank you for your time. We’ll see ourselves out.”

Tiberius nodded. “Good luck.”

They left to go to the library.

* * * *

“Thank you for seeing me, Tiberius.”

The old man smiled.

“I’ve got a problem. A couple of men are chasing me.”

Tiberius pressed a button, and a few moments later his assistant entered.

“They are coming, John. You should be ready.”

His assistant handed John a gun.

“They will find you this evening at the library.”

John took the gun and stood to leave. “Thank you, Tiberius.”

“Good luck.”

Jacob Lott

Jacob Lott had made a deal with the devil. He knew from the start it was a bad idea, but he didn’t care. The world had gone to hell, and Jacob had decided it was time for it to end. The devil had merely provided the means. The one thing that worried him the most was that the devil had asked for nothing in return. Jacob was given power and resources to use as he saw fit. The devil had put no conditions nor price on it. It was reason to be suspicious, but it was too good an offer for Jacob to pass up.

There were all the usual complaints about the state of the world, humankind’s basic inhumanity in treating other humans. The senseless death of good people, including Jacob’s sister. Humanity needed to be taught a lesson before it was scrubbed off of the Earth. And then all the suffering in this world would end. If human beings were the cause of evil, then eradicating them was the only answer.

Yet he had to go about this the right way. Yes, the deal had given him what he needed. But simply eliminating humans was not enough. They needed to know why. It would be a slow process, accumulating power and influence to make getting his message out possible. To lay bare the various sins of humankind. Only then would he be ready to end it all.

It was time to get started.

Last Man Standing

Every day started the same way: when he woke up, he picked up his knife, pressed it against his wrist, and considered ending it once and for all. There was no one left to miss him. His mother had passed away weeks, or was it months, ago. His only friend and lover had died in a falling accident before that. And the rest of the two families quit the earth long ago. As far as he knew, he was the last human being alive. And every morning he wondered what was the point.

Humanity’s end had been a long time coming. There was no apocalypse. Slowly declining birth rates, rampant epidemics, and mass starvation events had slowly eroded the population. Several attempts were made to colonize other planets, but those had all apparently ended in failure. When there were but a few thousand people left, they gathered in the last city to make the best of the end.

By the time he was born, there were only a few dozen still alive. He had heard all the stories, as well as anyone could remember. One after another, by age or illness or accident, they all died. He was the last.

Or so he had been told. There had been rumors that some humans had not come to the last city. His mother had dismissed them as wishful thinking. And even if there had been such people, they would have died off long ago.

Now he had no one. And he woke up every morning determined to end the loneliness. But if there really were other humans somewhere, somehow, he didn’t have to be alone. But the world was large. Who knows what he might find out there? The knife would be easier.

Yet, once again, he could not bring himself to drive the blade into his flesh. He sheathed it instead. He could find the maps they had in the library. Study them. Maybe the rumors would prove to be true after all. He had nothing to lose and nothing else to do. The knife would always be there tomorrow.

New Perspective

It was during a walk in the park that she first saw him. He was laying with his back on the ground and his feet on a bench. Curiosity won over weirdness, and she walked over to him.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

He didn’t look at her. “Just getting a fresh look on things.”

“Seriously?”

“Sure. It helps to look at the world from a different angle now and then.”

“Helps what?”

“Helps me imagine new things, gives me new insights on old problems.” He looked at her with a wry smile. “And it seems to freak people out a little.”

“So you do this just to get attention?”

“No. Not really. I really do just like thinking about the world upside down. Most people don’t come anywhere near me. In fact, you’re the first person to talk to me when I’ve been out here.”

He went back to staring at the sky. She looked at him for a minute. It only took her that long to make up her mind. She laid down on the ground and put her feet on the bench, too.

“Huh.” The tops of the trees upside down against the blue sky looked both familiar and new. He rolled his head to his right, looked at her with some surprise.

“You come out here regularly?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“When’s the next time you’ll be here?”

“Tomorrow. It’s supposed to be sunny again.”

She smiled at him. “I’ll be sure to be here.” Then she went back to looking at the world from her new perspective.

Web of Lights

Her eyes fluttered open, and she was awake. The darkness in the room indicated it was still night, so why was she awake? Then she saw the lights.

At first, there was only one. As small as a gnat, though bright for its size, it flitted above her while tracing an unfathomable path. A second light joined the first, and the two began to dance an even more intricate pattern. A faint glow trailed off them, leaving an ephemeral map of their passage.

If she listened hard enough, she could almost hear music accompanying their movements. Then a third joined, and the tempo quickened. And a fourth. Before long, at least a dozen lights spun and whirled above her bed.

Slowly, she raised her hand and pushed it into the middle of them. The lights easily adjusted, moving around her fingers without stopping, merely integrating them into the web. Her hand grew warm and energy crackled through it to the rest of her. The music grew louder, and she found that she understood the dance, could follow it. It went on forever.

The next morning, her bed was empty. No trace of her could be found, and no one ever saw her again.

Volunteered

“This is an Omega-Level alert. Attention. This is an Omega-Level alert.” The automated voice coming from the speaker sounded calm and impassive. The message continued to repeat.

A supervisor stuck his head in the room. “Let’s go everyone! Twenty minutes. This isn’t a drill. Move it or get volunteered.”

He knew better than to ask the supervisor, so he turned to his neighbor. “Volunteered for what?”

His neighbor looked at him with disbelief. “Is this your first Omega?”

“I just started two weeks ago.”

“Oh. They should have told you about this in orientation.”

“There was just so much information.”

They both kept packing. “Well, the slowest people preparing for evacuation get volunteered to stay behind to serve as the token contingent that must deal with the Omega event.” He paused to stare at the new worker. “It’s practically a death sentence. So hurry.”

They grabbed a few essential files and several back-up flash drives.

“I know I should know this. But there really was a lot we went over in my training. What’s an Omega event?”

More disbelief. “Really? You don’t even know that? The heroes are coming. It always ends the same way, with them destroying the base. We leave some stuff and people behind to keep up the appearance of a fight. We relocate and keep working without having to start over. You didn’t learn anything, did you?”

They threw the last of the essential stuff from their work areas into a bag and headed for the door. The supervisor came back.

“Times up. Anyone still next to their station is volunteered. Everyone else, let’s go.” There were a few curses and even some crying from those who had to stay behind. They made it to the transport and headed to the new base.