Lord of Darkness

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Heart stammering, tripping over roots and shrubs, I stagger forward through the dark, fog rising up around me like gunsmoke. Beyond the fog there is nothing; I do not know which way to go.

Howls sound from all directions in supplication to the Lord of Darkness, the ancient, bloodthirsty god who seeks my ruin. The hunt is on, those canine voices say, and I know that if I wish to escape, I must be fast.

Gnarled roots push up from the ground like zombies from rotten, decrepit tombs. They grab at my legs, my ankles, my feet, and in the fog-filled darkness they attempt to pull me down.

“I won’t give up,” I shout, and for a moment those howling voices grow quiet.

I can do this. I can find a way out. I can survive.

Then a rock emerges from the earth below. Where did that come from, I think after my foot makes contact and I tumble forward into the soil. But I already know the answer.

The howling resumes, a rhythmic, ceremonial ululation that sets my teeth on edge and the hairs on my neck on end. I scramble across the forest floor, desperate to find my footing once again, but the vines have already started to close around my arms and legs, slowing me down, and when I look up, gagging in the midst of the thickening fog, there stands the Lord of Darkness himself, flanked by a pair of snarling death hounds.

He takes a step in my direction. I crane my head to meet his eyes, but those creeping vines have too tight a hold and all I can see are those fabled black leather boots, covered in mud.

“You have been a worthy opponent,” he proclaims, “but now the hunt is over and it is time for me to take what’s mine.”

“No,” I say, then cough. The fog has turned hot and humid and I find that I can hardly breathe. “No,” I say again, forcing the words out. “I will not surrender.”

“No,” the Lord of Darkness agrees, “you won’t. And that’s precisely why you were chosen.”

That background howling transforms into frantic, hooting laughter, and the hounds at the ancient god’s side inch closer, muzzles stained by blood and clay.

“I’ll fight you,” I spit out, choking on air that’s turned to poison. “With my dying breath, I’ll fight you.”

The Lord of Darkness leans close, and in a conspiratorial whisper, confides, “I’m counting on it.”

Then the hounds are upon me, and soon enough the Lord of Darkness is feasting on my manic cries.

Stephen King meets Neil Gaiman in this thrilling supernatural epic.

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Mastering Grief

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“Let’s make a deal.”

Two eyes beamed in the shadows of the night-darkened alley, each a bright arctic blue. The demon’s cold reached me from the other side of the street and I took an involuntary step back, mist pluming from my mouth like pipesmoke.

“Some sort of trade, perhaps?”

I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the way its whisper filled the hollow spaces of the world. I could feel that unholy voice reaching into my ears, curling icy fingers around my mind. A dangerous entity, and one whose tricks I knew too well.

“No,” I said. “No deal.”

“Are you sure? I can be persuasive.”

It stepped into the moonlight then, a slender, masculine creature with skin the pale blue of an Alaskan glacier. I moved across the lengthening shadows on the wall, already growing cold with frost, and the demon followed with unblinking eyes.

“I sense within you a terrible grief. You had a daughter, Cindy, but she died when she was…seven? Tell me, what would you do if I could bring her back?”

Despite knowing what it was capable of, my breath caught in my throat and I almost tripped.

“How do you know her?”

I circled around to the alley’s opening, keeping the demon within my sights.

“I know many things. You humans regard the world with your poker faces and believe your secrets are safe, but your mind is an open book. I can feel your pain. She must have meant a lot to you.”

“She was my whole world.”

I approached the opposite wall, shivering now that the air between us had dropped to subzero temperatures.

“Yes,” the demon said, “and you would do anything to get her back. I understand. I would consider it fair trade for leaving me alone. I suggest you take the offer. You know I can do it, and it’s not every day one has the opportunity to reunite with those they’ve lost in death.”

As we continued our dance across the dark length of the alley, as I peered into those cold and calculating eyes, I thought of my sweet Tinkerbell, so nicknamed for her love of all things Disney. I pondered her last moments on Earth, overshadowed by terror moments before a demon much like this one reached into her body and pulled out her still-beating heart, moments before it sucked the warmth from her drooping, failing body, moments before it dropped her blue and frozen corpse onto the kitchen floor, where it shattered into a thousand tiny pieces.

The demon sneered.

“I’ll bring her back tonight. All you have to do in exchange is allow me to continue on my way.”

At last, I came full circle and reached the wall where I’d first met its eyes. My circuit around the perimeter was complete. I could sense my newly formed ring of protection, thrumming with ancient unseen power. The demon sensed it too, and its smile finally faltered.

“What is this?”

The air was growing warmer, and I could see that the frost on the walls had already started to melt.

“You tell me. You’re the one who said I was an open book.”

The demon snarled, at last showing its true colors.

“This is impossible! How could I not see this in your mind? How could I not know your true intention from the beginning?”

“Grief is a powerful emotion. Some are consumed by it. Others hide behind it. I bear mine in the open, and in so doing have learned to master it. You sensed my pain and were unable to see past it. You thought it would give you the advantage, and I used that to my advantage.”

I pulled the ring of protection closer and the demon thrashed, its soul wriggling in my hands like a worm.

I peered into its fading eyes and said, “This is for Cindy.”

Then I pulled the ring into a knot and sliced the demon in two.

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I raise my head, bloody, beaten, broken, and gaze into the crowd.

“Citizens, behold your would-be king.”

Staff in hand, Deltor, the conqueror of humanity, steps onto the cliffside beside me, his cobalt cape flapping in the wind. He glances at the chains binding my wrists and feet, and after shooting me a condescending smirk, turns to face the people.

“And how,” he continues, “should we treat our royal highness, the rebel? What manner of death does he deserve?”

The crystal at the top of his staff begins to glow, casting a faint and sickly light on the world below. The same magic he used to subjugate humanity flows through its center, and I shrink back, afraid, remembering all too well the pain it conjured the last time the staff and I were acquainted. Meanwhile, the crowd looks up beneath an overcast sky, sallow-faced and numb. The sight of them breaks my heart, but there is nothing I can do.

“Perhaps we should let him decide.” Deltor faces me once more. “What will it be, rebel? Ask for mercy and I’ll give you a swift death. You’ll see, I’m not without some kindness.”

After days and weeks of beatings, of having my bones broken, then healed, broken, then healed, I’m ready for it to end. I open parched and withered lips, and in a reedy whisper, I begin to speak.

“M’lord, please—”

But I cannot continue, for a child has caught my eye on the rockface below. He stares at me with zombie’s eyes, the light of hope within utterly extinguished. He’s grown up believing freedom is just a bedtime story told in furtive whispers before the light of a dwindling fire, and now, in his presence, I’m about to give up the only freedom I have left.

I think, What I do now still matters. I, their leader, was captured and thus failed the rebellion. But perhaps, by teaching the rest of humanity how to be strong, I can redeem myself. I desire death like a desert longs for rain, but I can’t give in now, not when there’s still something I can do.

“M’lord,” I say again, then stop and pretend to cough.

Amused, Deltor steps forward. He gazes down at my swollen, broken body, decides I’m not a threat, and kneels before me, close enough that I can smell the sweat rolling down his neck in beads.

“What will it be?” he whispers. “A merciful death? All you have to do is ask.”

I peer into his charcoal eyes, alight with supernatural malice. That demeaning smile has always infuriated me, but today, the corners of my mouth twitch into a smile of my own.

Deltor frowns.

“What do you find so amusing?”

I tilt my head back, and by way of reply, spit in his face.

“I will ask nothing of you,” I cry, loud enough that all the assembled can hear. “You are a blight on the world, and with my dying breath, I call on everyone who stands to strike you down or die trying.”

For a moment, those inhuman eyes widen in surprise.

That wasn’t part of the plan, they seem to say, and in that moment, I know I’ve done all I can do.

Deltor is shouting now, spittle flying from his mouth. The light from his crystal has turned a bright and angry green, and soon I will learn the true meaning of pain. I ask myself if it was worth it, then glance at the child below to find that her eyes now sparkle with a light of their own.

Courage, I think before my mind is scoured in that green and terrible light. I gave them courage, and now there is nothing left to do but embrace the pain and suffer the sting of death with dignity.

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