Month: May 2020

The Price of Rebellion

Barandash Karandashich/Shutterstock.com

This post was originally published through Patreon on January 22, 2019.

Derrick gasped and the nightmare dissolved. He lay on his back beneath the light of the full moon, drenched in sweat, and loosed a hellish, world-shattering scream. A message. The dream had been a message, and its meaning was clear.

Derick’s family was dead.

He’d tried to protect them. He’d sent them to a place where no one could find them…or so he’d thought. He could still smell their incinerated bodies—singed hair, charred skin, smoldering flesh—a tainted, unholy perfume that would fester in his memory for the rest of his life.

It was the price of rebellion, a debt his family had paid in full.

How does it feel? The soundless words rippled through the world like the wind, an aftereffect of the dream. Was it worth it, Derrick? Was the cost of disobedience worth it?

Grief twisted his stomach into a series of progressively tighter knots. Whenever he closed his eyes, he could see his wife’s and childrens’ bloody faces: burned, angled toward the sky, eyes glazed and unseeing.

I could have done more, he thought. I could have stayed with them until I was certain they were safe, that the danger had passed.

Self-loathing battled with a searing, white-hot hatred for the men and women who’d murdered his entire family.

They died because of my carelessness.

And yet, deep in the recesses of his poisoned heart, he understood the truth: He hadn’t killed his family. They had.

And they would regret it.

Derrick scrambled to his feet, too disoriented by grief to do anything but stand while the sounds of the night cried out like a funeral dirge. He kicked the sleeping bag at his feet aside and heaved, wide-eyed, as one bone-rattling sob burst free from him after another.

“Awful, isn’t it?”

The voice came from behind—a man, judging by the tone—and Derrick spun.

“The magnitude of your grief must be incalculable.”

At that moment, all his rage surged out of him like a flash flood.

“Are you one of those murders?”

Derrick reached for the blade he always kept at his side, even when he was sleeping…only to realize it was gone.

When Derrick turned, he saw the man brandishing the curved sword as if it were his own, cold steel flashing in the monochromatic light of the moon.

“A precaution, you understand. I’ll give it back to you once you’ve heard me out.”

“My family!”

Derrick rushed to meet him, sword or no sword. If it was his fate to die this night, then at least he would return to his family. One step. Two steps. Three. Derrick was almost upon him when the man disappeared.

“I didn’t kill them, you ravenous idiot.”

This time, the voice came from where Derrick had been standing only moments before.

He spun again, sick with terror and blind, unfocused fury. The two emotions danced a lunatic jig in the dark, sweeping Derrick away, perilously close to the edge of insanity.

“You want revenge, don’t you? I can give it to you. I know who killed your family, and if you do as I say, I’ll deliver them to you.”

The Earth stopped spinning, and a deep, otherworldly stillness seized Derrick’s suddenly frozen heart.

“Yes,” the man said. “I see that got your attention.”

Time stilled, and it was a few moments before Derrick could speak again.

“Why?”

A shrewd clarity began to take root in Derrick’s heart, and his blood, boiling only moments ago, was already turning to ice.

“Why?” the man echoed. “Because your enemy is my enemy, and in a way, that makes us friends.”

“So,” said Derrick, “now we’re friends?”

The man shrugged.

“I have something you want, and you have something I want. If we can’t be friends, then let us be partners in a joint venture that will benefit both of us.”

Derrick’s skin prickled with alarm. Somewhere beyond the grief, in a part of himself that felt a thousand miles away, a sense of wrongness blossomed, along with a desperate warning to turn away before it was too late.

But if this man really knew who’d killed his family, and if he could help Derrick find them…

“What do you want?”

No, that distant part of Derrick cried. Don’t listen to him! But Derrick had already brushed the warning away.

The man smiled, and the horrendous, razor-sharp grin was so terrifying that Derrick took an involuntary step back.

“For now, just the promise that when I have need of you, you’ll come. Your skill with a blade is very useful, and I might require it later.”

“Then it’s killing you’re after?”

Derrick thought of those who’d killed his family. Would he now be asked to do the same to someone else?

“Does it matter?”

Derrick hesitated. His grief was still fresh, and paired with a conscience that found such an atrocity revolting, he was hard-pressed to offer this man his service. But his hunger for retribution at any cost was growing, further dulling an already withered heart, and he couldn’t quite bring himself to turn the man away.

“I could hire someone else if you’d like.”

“No!” The word sprang out of Derrick’s mouth before he could stop it.

What about your family? an interior voice asked. Would they approve?

The thought made Derrick hesitate again. This time, however, it was only long enough for him to quash the renegade voice of his conscience for good. The thirst for vengeance was too potent, too overpowering, too irresistible to ignore, and after a final futile struggle to reclaim his broken heart, Derrick gave himself over to the darkness.

“No,” Derrick continued. “That won’t be necessary. If you require a promise, then I’ll give it. As long as you promise to hand over my family’s killers.”

The man stepped forward and placed a hand over Derrick’s shoulder. The touch was a blast of arctic ice, almost painful, and Derrick recoiled. But his decision was made, and so he steeled himself and stood alongside his mysterious visitor while his soul necrotized like his childrens’ immolated corpses.

“Come with me before you go on your way,” the man said. “I would discuss our partnership further.”

He snapped his fingers, and the two of them were swallowed by the dark.

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Into the Forest

Tom Tom/Shutterstock.com

This post was originally published through Patreon on January 8, 2019.

It ended with the wind.

The sky had been overcast all morning, and a deep, abiding cold had permeated the air. The elders of my village warned me not to enter the forest, but it’d taken my brother, and I would not let it claim my only sibling for its own.

“If you won’t stay home where it’s safe,” Grandma pleaded, “at least take this.” She handed me a woolen cloak, which I draped over my head gratefully, and told me not to stay out past sunset, brother or no brother. “It’ll do us no good,” she said, “if the forest decides to take you, too.” She hugged me as if for the last time, then sent me out into the gloom to face the trees alone.

I believed I’d win, that I’d find my brother curled at the trunk of a tree, or hidden beneath a rock for shelter, and that, like so many of the heroes Master Gideon tells stories about by the light of a late-night fire, I’d emerge from the brambles and the trees triumphant, my brother in tow, ready to tell stories of my own.

But the forest had other plans.

By increments, the sky grew darker, and what started as a light, clinging mist soon turned into a drizzle. The drizzle turned into a downpour, and before I knew what had happened, the sky became a blazing torrent of thunder and lightning.

I scrambled over steep hills, tripped over gnarled roots and upturned stones, scratched my limbs against low hanging branches and thorny brambles. All the while, I pressed on, blind to pain and exhaustion, dead set on finding my brother.

Then the wind came, a violent, world-ending gale that knocked me off balance and stopped me in my tracks. I let loose a hailstorm of curses, but the forest was unyielding. Cold, weary, and out of breath, I had no choice but to huddle against a nearby tree and hug myself for warmth.

For centuries, my people had lived in fear of the forest and its ancient powers. But when its diabolical whims had culminated in the abduction of my brother, I was sure that I could best it, that somehow, the brash exuberance of youth could overpower its dark and terrifying magic.

Now, as the forest closed in around me, I discovered the awful truth, that it was no use fighting such raw, elemental strength. I’d been a fool to think myself superior to the forest, and it would punish me for my pride.

Just as I was ready to succumb to the will of the woods, a light caught the corner of my eye. I turned, and a pair of glowing green pupils looked back. I peered into their depths, and as whatever creature they belonged to edged closer, I knew that wherever the forest had taken my brother, I would soon join him.

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Connection

zef art/Shutterstock.com

The phone rings and Kevin answers.

“Hello?”

But static is his only reply. Kevin waits one second, two seconds, three, then ends the call and drops the phone back into his pocket.

The phone rings again.

Kevin glances at the screen—Unknown Number—and answers once more.

“Hello?”

Static.

Kevin waits some more, then drops the phone onto the coffee table and takes a seat on the couch, waiting for the other party to call back. He’s been through this a thousand times before and will go through it a thousand times again. He knows this call is important, and he’ll answer as many times as it takes to make a connection.

The phone rings again, and this time, when Kevin answers, there’s an ocean of static. The sound is so loud, so irritating that he has to hold the device in front of him to keep from going deaf.

“Hello? Can you hear me?”

Now, at last, the static changes. The pops and hisses run at first closer together, then further. The sound begins to take shape, but it has not yet resolved into a language Kevin can understand.

This time, he does not hang up. Instead, he leans back and puts the phone on speaker, saying, “I’m here when you’re ready. I’m listening.”

Now, a crackling burst of something that almost resembles a voice.

Come on, he thinks, silently rooting for the person on the other end of the line. You’re so close. You can do this.

“—ell— Can—”

The two partial words emerge from that roiling sea of static, and Kevin cheers.

“Yes,” he says. “I can hear you now. Keep trying.”

“—ello,” the almost voice says before collapsing into static.

“I’m still here.”

“—an you hea— e? —eed help.” Static. “—ou help m—” Static.

Kevin has the sinking feeling they’re not going to make it through on their own. It’s happened many times before, and Kevin, already aware of what he must do, cups his hand over the phone and closes his eyes.

All at once, he’s flying. Not his body, which remains planted on the couch in his apartment, but his soul, which shoots through space and time to bridge the gap.

I’m here, Kevin calls in a soundless voice that ripples across the cosmos.

At last, the two souls meet.

Help me.

That’s what I’m here for, Kevin answers.

Kevin can feel the other soul’s relief rolling off of him like heat.

I didn’t know if you could hear me. I thought— I tried—

But there they stop and say no more.

A soul, male, trapped between two worlds, stuck on the precipice between life and death.

Listen, Kevin says, having done this many times before, you have to let go. I can’t help you break free until you do.

But my wife, my children—

Kevin sees the cord that tethers him to the Earth, quivering with worldly concerns.

You can’t be with them anymore. It’s time to move on.

But who will take care of them?

Kevin understands this kind of post-mortem anxiety well. With great care, he makes contact. A connection is forged between their intersection, and for a timeless instant, the two souls merge. A spark of something like electricity passes between them, and the man, frightened, tries to pull away. But Kevin’s grip is tight and he does not let go.

See for yourself how your wife and children are getting on without you.

Kevin reaches across a great cosmic threshold, and together they traverse the intricate tapestry of human life that covers the Earth. Starting from the top, they burrow down through more than six billion lives, narrowing their focus until the man’s wife comes into view. They watch her, working hard to put food on the table, and when it’s clear his family’s financial means are taken care of, Kevin shifts their attention to the man’s children, playing on the swings at school during recess. They feel as one his wife’s and children’s pain, their sadness, and their grief, but also their determination, their grit, and most of all, their obstinate will to go on living.

As you can see, your wife is strong and capable of providing for your family on her own, and your children, though sad, have already learned to go on without you.

No, the man says, still afraid and clinging to what he’s lost. I can’t go. I can’t leave them. I can’t—

Kevin grabs the cord that binds his soul to the Earth, and in one deft motion, severs it in two.

The man’s soul howls, wounded and in shock.

No! he cries. Nonononono!

But without that tether to the Earth to hold him back, Kevin can already feel the man’s mind clearing and his heart preparing for the mysteries of Beyond.

Go, Kevin says, not unkindly.

For a moment, the two regard each other. Then the man’s soul nods, a gesture of gratitude and respect.

Thank you, the man says, then kicks off and rockets into Beyond.

Kevin feels a tug on his own cord. It calls him back to Earth, and soon enough, he’s opening his eyes on the couch, the phone still sitting on the table beside him.

“Good luck, my friend.”

There are other calls that night, a few as desperate as the first. Kevin answers each in turn—”Hello?”—and someplace, sometime, another connection is made.

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