Failure at 40,000 Feet

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Authors’ Note: Welcome to another fabulous Fic-mas celebration. For the next twelve days you can expect a daily story in The Arbitratus Universe. Each story will feature a winter holiday theme. But don’t get too comfortable. We love to shake up tradition.

Have fun and let us know what you think!

Today’s story features an old friend who’s been with us since our first Fic-mas. For the hardcore paranormal pop culture nerds in the crowd (hello, fam!) there are a few easter eggs here that we hope you find. If you aren’t already familiar with our friend Eugene, check out Fic-mas 2017 and Fic-mas 2018. The drafts are available here on the blog, or you can click the link to read the polished work for free on KU.

Merry Fic-mas!

Failure at 40,000 Feet

Eugene adjusted himself in his seat, trying in vain to get even a little bit comfortable. He regretted … well, a lot of things, but right now choosing to fly Economy on a discount airline was right at the top of his list. He wasn’t an especially tall guy, but he still barely had room for his legs. At least he had an aisle seat. It wasn’t much, but he’d take what he could get. 

He couldn’t quite turn to stretch out both legs, but he managed to get his left leg straightened into the aisle, tight to the seat in front of him, where it wouldn’t be in anyone’s way. Now that he was marginally more comfortable, he cacophony around him encroached on his moment’s relief. He sighed and turned up the volume on his headphones. 

He started to relax into his audiobook, thinking he might even be able to drift off and ignore the unpleasantness on board Flight 1015. He closed his eyes and sank down into the stiff seat, ignoring how it smelled faintly of something unpleasant. Either the food or someone missing their airsick bag from the last flight if he had to guess. Given his previous place of residence in Hell (one of the nicer neighborhoods, but still) it wasn’t terribly hard to ignore. 

It wasn’t long before he’d drifted off, lazing in a pleasant dream of the day he’d quit being Krampus and walked out of Hell and into a life on Earth, when a firm tap on his shoulder dragged him back to earthly reality. He took off his headphones and looked politely at the flight attendant leaning over him. “Yes?”

The young man’s smile had a practiced, plastic quality that said he’d had more than enough of the passengers on this flight. The Thanksgiving crowds were not his favorite. At least it wasn’t as crowded or as raucous as the ones who packed in for the Christmas holidays. His tone carried understanding of the uncomfortable traveling accommodations when he spoke. “I’m sorry, sir. I have to ask you to keep your feet out of the aisle. It’s for safety, sir.”

Eugene nodded grudgingly and slowly eased his leg back into its cramped position touching the seat in front of him. “Sorry about that,” he said, almost meaning it. He didn’t envy the attendants on this flight, or any other for that matter.

“Thank you, sir,” the young man said, grateful to not have to argue. “Wouldn’t want anyone to trip, would we?”

“I suppose not.” Eugene offered a smile in return.

“Something to drink, sir?” was offered as a thanks for at least one thing on this flight not being a terrible trial.

Eugene smiled. “Yes, thank you. The stiffer the better, son.”

The young man, Robert, according to his name tag, nodded. “I’ll be back shortly, sir.” He moved off toward the drink cart at the front of the cabin, but hadn’t gotten three rows up when he nearly tripped over a woman’s leg. He didn’t get so lucky with his request to her to move her leg. 

Eugene shook his head as Robert patiently tried to explain the safety issue to the woman, thought all it accomplished was an increasingly shrill response. He didn’t think he’d be seeing the offered beverage any time soon. He checked his watch. Only 10:15. Damn. At least another couple of hours before landing. He put his headphones back on, turned up the volume, hoping to drown out the noise and resume his nap.

It was too loud for that now, he supposed, grimacing as another baby started crying, utterly ignored by its parents. He surveyed the cabin. He’d expected the flight to be crowded, but hadn’t anticipated the number of families heading back from their wherever their holiday weekend had taken them. 

The parents in question didn’t look especially bothered by the noise, or the snacks that sailed over seats, or the general obvious discomfort of the rest of the passengers. The kids appeared to revel in it. At least a few of these little darlings would have warranted a visit from his alter ego in about a week if he hadn’t said goodbye to his centuries old role as Nick’s dark counterpart. 

“Well,” he mumbled to himself. “That’s in the past, old boy.” 

In the past like his expense account. Like not living on a budget, like easy magic, like any number of perks that went with being Krampus. He hadn’t much cared for the form he’d been expected to live in. And Hell wasn’t exactly a great place for a vacation. But it wasn’t without its charms. 

He wondered how good old Ben was making out. He’d heard the demon had managed his departure brilliantly, and somehow to not cast suspicion on himself. Eugene also heard he’d gotten an assignment up top. He’d been enjoying himself, according to a mutual friend, for a number of years. Not as good as being able to quit, but an upgrade nonetheless. 

A potato chip landed on his lap from a few seats away, fueling additional thoughts of his heavy pack and silver switch. You weren’t doing any good anyway, Eugene. Let it go.

He tried. He really did. But as he sat there watching children argue with their siblings (and their parents), make raucous noise disturbing all the other passengers, including the babies who only added to the din, toss food, spill drinks, and generally behave like spoiled little monsters, it became harder and harder to do. 

He made up his mind to switch his listening to music and perhaps hide behind the paperback he’d purchased in the airport. He stood to retrieve it out of his carry-on bag in the overhead. A girl of about eleven nearly knocked him over as she raced her brother to the bathroom. He grumbled under his breath, but managed to get himself back into his seat. He got some Mozart queued up on his music player, which seemed more effective at drowning out the noise and buried himself behind his copy of the innocuous bestseller he’d grabbed off the rack. He’d almost managed to relax when the seat in front of him slammed into his knees.

“Are you kidding me?” he growled, pulling off his headphones and stuffing the paperback into his seat next to his leg.

He tried just pushing back against the seat with his legs. Big mistake. It rammed into him again, this time painfully. He clenched his jaw, but plastered on a smile that would have made his flight attendant proud. He undid his seatbelt and leaned around the edge of the seat. “Pardon me?” he called as pleasantly as he could manage. “Could you please move your seat up a little?”

He stopped short. The person in front of him, who’d rammed his knees like an angry linebacker, was a child of about eight. The kid grinned at him and stuck his tongue out. The grin got an edge that reminded Eugene more of a vindictive adult than a child, and the kid hit the lever to recline his seat.

“Ow! Kid, c’mon, cut that out.”

The boy’s mother looked their way. If looks could kill, Eugene figured he’d be dust in about ten seconds. “He’s not hurting you.” 

“Beg to differ, ma’am.” Having spent far too many centuries without having to keep his tongue or his tone in check, he added, “You are familiar with the concept of legs having bones, I presume.”

“If my Nicholas wants to have his seat reclined, then reclined his seat will be!” He opened his mouth to rebut her ridiculous statement, but she leaned across the boy and get closer to Eugene. Her threat was clear in her tone. Getting him added to the no fly list would absolutely make her day. “Don’t make me get one of the attendants.”

“Fine,” he growled with a roll of his eyes. The kid’s name had to be Nick. Like a reminder from the universe that giving up his work, his partner, allowed stuff like this to go on unchecked.

He leaned back into the palpably inadequate airline seat, thinking the advertisements for ‘spacious economy seating as compared to other airlines’ in their marketing material should be updated to ‘the Inquisition’s got nothing on us and you’ll pay extra with a smile’. He was both surprised and relieved when the seat in front of him returned to its fully upright position.

Grateful, Eugene repositioned himself and got his book out again. He’d read three or four pages and was almost comfortable (or at least as close to it as he was likely to get here) again, when the kid’s seat slammed into his knees again. 

“Oh, for f…” 

He stopped himself. That wasn’t going to get him anywhere. The little darling’s mother already made it pretty clear that if a scene was going to be made, she was more than happy to be the one to make it. He sighed and tried to make himself smaller in his already inadequate seat. 

It helped a little. For about three minutes, before the kid started moving it backward and forward again, seeming to make sure he connected with his fellow passenger’s rapidly bruising kneecaps. He checked his watch again. There was no way he could tolerate this nonsense for the rest of the flight. He rose and went in search of one of the flight attendants.

He caught up with a young man named Asa, who was hiding by the drink cart in between passenger cabins. “I’m sorry to bother you. You look like you’re enjoying this flight about as much as I am. But I could really use your help.” Eugene proceeded to explain his plight to the harried attendant.

 Asa nodded his understanding, but opened his palms so Eugene knew his answer would be disappointing before the guy even opened his mouth. “I’m sorry, sir. I can’t really be of assistance with this. People are allowed to recline their seats. And it’s not like we can set a limit on the number of times they do it.”

“But there isn’t room!” His legs ached, and they’d hit another little pocket of turbulence which set a number of babies who had quieted back to squalling again. 

“We meet federal guidelines, sir.” The seatbelt light went on with a distinctive chime. “I’m sorry, sir. You’ll need to take your seat.”

There wasn’t much arguing once the seatbelt signal was lit. If he didn’t sit, heaven knew the air marshall that was almost certainly on board would probably force a landing. And nothing would make little Nicky’s mother happier than seeing him get himself kicked off the flight. A plaintive note crept into his final plea. “Are you sure there’s nothing you can do?”

The young man gave a tired shake of his head. “Between you and me? I’d love to. I usually love this job, but between the week before Thanksgiving and New Year’s, I always think about changing careers. The kids are bad enough, but their parents are the worst. My fiance is a teacher. I don’t know how she does it. I really wish I could help, but my hands are tied.”

“Another seat maybe?”

“I’m sorry, sir. I really am. Can’t move you around with the light on. I really need you to take your seat and I need to go take care of the folks ignoring the sign.”

“Okay. I understand.” He did, too. The feeling of impotence in the face of legions of the callous and ill behaved was grating on him, wearing him down. He suspected he looked as tired as young Asa of the wrinkled airline uniform himself. “Thank you anyway.”

Eugene made his resigned way back to his seat, squeezed into the tight space, and did some deep breathing. Unable to get a rise out of him, it wasn’t long before Darling Nicky stopped his relentless seat torment. Eugene put his headphones back on and closed his eyes, hoping if he tried hard enough he could just sleep through the rest of this interminable flight.

He’d just about dozed off when a rhythmic thudding on the back of his seat jostled him back to full consciousness. “Oh, what fresh hell is this?” He gritted his teeth and mumbled, “I’m not going to say anything. I’m not going to say anything. I’m not going to … No, you know what, screw that.”

He undid his seatbelt, sign be damned, and turned around to see the source of this new misery. It turned out his new tormentor was a girl of perhaps twelve kicking his seat by alternating her feet. She smirked at his expression. He forced his face into a pleasant smile. “Excuse me, miss. Would you mind not kicking my seat, please? I’m trying to nap.”

“Yeah, I would mind.” Her smirk grew and she kicked it harder.

“Excuse me. Excuse me, sir!” Eugene waved to get the father’s attention. 

The man removed his headphones and answered curtly, “What?” 

Eugene’s politeness had reached its outer limits, but he tried to keep his tone pleasant and conversational. “Your daughter is kicking my seat. And isn’t inclined to stop when I ask. I thought perhaps you could help,” he bit out, doing his best to suppress his growing ire over the uninterested expression the man was wearing. 

The man didn’t exactly roll his eyes, but Eugene thought it was a near thing. Then he turned to his daughter and said without much interest in her either,. “Honeyhunny, would you mind not kicking this man’s seat?”

“I’m bored. And it’s fun.”

The man returned his gaze to Eugene. “Well, there you have it. I’ve done what I can do.” 

The man put his headphones back in and turned away, effectively ending the conversation.

Eugene couldn’t believe it, so he just stared for a minute. The girl smirked at him and resumed kicking his seat. He glared at her, but after seeing the glint his attention put into her eyes he just turned around. His knees were once again pressed into the reclined seat in front of him, the rhythmic pounding against his back keeping time with his racing thoughts. The flight attendant finally returned with the drink he’d been promised what felt like a decade ago. All it did was go sour in his stomach as he surveyed the scene around him: Children out of control, loudly and messily, disturbing others intentionally, and the more people tried to ignore their antics the louder and more atrocious their behavior got. 

And the parents … They just didn’t seem to care. No, that wasn’t right. They seemed almost to encourage it. At first he’d taken it as simple over-indulgence. But that wasn’t right either. They didn’t see anything wrong with it. 

Eugene mulled that over for a while. He’d become frustrated with his role as Krampus when it became clear to him the kids were too jaded to benefit from his correction. Now he wondered if the same thing was wrong with their parents. Or perhaps, the lack of his presence had allowed those people to finish growing up without the consequences they so sorely needed.

His eyes lit up with the realization. He’d abandoned them when he retired. These people weren’t correcting their children because he’d left his post. The kids weren’t the problem at all. The parents were. 

He couldn’t officially come out of retirement. That would mean going back to Hell, but … The magic was still his to command.

He could …

He could be a vigilante.

Righting the wrongs of a world without guidance. He smiled as he started to call his former form to himself.

It would start here on Flight 1015, but that’s not where it would end. 

Krampus would return to his former glory, unburdened by the constraints of Hell or the earthly calendar year.

He smiled.

He was going to need bigger sacks. 

*****

 

The Taste of Fear

Author’s Note – This is another little fiction from a one word prompt over on Instagram. The word was taste. I saw a lot of responses that were either foodie or sexy. And I was tempted. But Ben was feeling chatty. He shared a dream with me. He does that. Let’s me have his nightmares sometimes. So this is what we got instead. The Taste of Fear. ~ J

Copy of Taste

The blackness was total.

It went past mere idea or circumstance.

It was physical.

First it was an enemy. It left him flailing, yelling, then finally panting and sweating.

After a while when it was all there was, he tired of that.

Then the dark around him, so smooth, so complete, so constant, was almost a friend. But the kind you knew would stab you in the back eventually. You just couldn’t prove it.

He didn’t remember it, but they must have grabbed him at that last stop.

Why leave him like this? If he was caught, why not just get it over with? 

He shivered. 

Over probably wasn’t on the docket. Not any time soon. But even torture might be preferable to this unending, muffling, blanket of dark silence. 

Okay, maybe not. 

But the nothingness was a torture of its own.

He wasn’t restrained or hurt. He felt around carefully. Nothing near him but the ground beneath him. So smooth, he wasn’t sure what it might be. Not earth, not pavement. It was strange but it was solid. Probably.

Stay calm. You have nothing to gain by losing your shit right now.

He rose carefully. One hand above him in case there was a low ceiling, the other protectively in front of him, for no particular reason other than reflex. Once he was upright, he reached out to explore, slowly at first. It seemed there was truly nothing around him. 

“Hello?”

Not even an echo. His voice sounded like something meant to be experienced in three dimensions squashed onto a piece of paper.

He swallowed hard. 

Oblivion.

This is oblivion.

They found you.

And instead of revenge or torment, they put an end to you. 

That’s why I don’t remember anything.

The final death.

But it’s even worse than you thought.

Because I’m still here.

In the dark.

Alone.

Forever.

An insidious, familiar, unwelcome, long despised voice whispered in his ear, “I can taste your fear.”

Panic came then. 

Ben bolted upright in bed, half falling out of it before Mal caught his arm. “Hey, hey, it’s okay,” she soothed in familiar tones, gathering him close. “You’re okay. Just another dream.”

Ben lay back down next to her for a while, letting his breathing return to normal, appreciating that she didn’t ask about his nightmares.

When faint grey light peeked in the curtains, he leaned in and kissed her cheek. She was almost back asleep. “I’m going for a run.”

“‘Kay,” she murmured.

Ben got a couple of miles in before he had to stop, leaning against a tree, gasping.

Almost like it was real, he heard the voice in his ear again.

“You’ll never be able to stop running.”

Ben gasped and looked around. There was no one there.

Still, the whisper came again.

“And I can still taste your fear.”

*****

It’s a Celebration!

“It was strange being surrounded by the glory of Heaven, knowing you had nothing, but trying to hang onto it anyway.” ~ From Always Darkest

Feathers

It’s a special day for Demons Run Lit.

Always Darkest is having a birthday!

You can visit our social media to enter to win a signed copy, here:

Demons Run Lit on Facebook

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If you want to celebrate with us here, we thought an excerpt from the sequel would be a fun way to do that.

From Before the Dawn (Coming Soon) …

Teddy made his shuffling slippered way down the hall, rubbing his eyes. It wasn’t so much sleep stickiness now; they were beginning to burn. Awful smells started to overpower his mom’s good cooking. One smelled mechanical like when Mal’s catalytic converter went on the fritz a while ago, one smelled kind of like the stink of the grill on the patio the morning after a cookout, and the other was a sickly metallic smell that made Teddy feel as though he’d eaten ten pennies.

He was stopped cold by the tableau he witnessed as he entered the dining room, and fell to his knees retching and weeping, remembering all at once that this couldn’t be real, remembering what had happened, and realizing that it didn’t matter if it wasn’t real, he was really here.

Spread out over the dining room table was his father’s dismembered and smoking corpse. It was arranged carefully on various platters, as though this was some kind of nightmare holiday. In serving bowls tucked neatly in between the plates were dishes with big spoons and ladles containing what could only be blood, brains, and ugh, Teddy didn’t even know, but probably other inside parts. Teddy saw that Kelly’s highchair was empty but there was a split down the middle of its back and a long, curved blade rested in the wood of it, blood pooled in the seat, turning black and sticky as he looked on.

In front of the empty chair was a large platter covered with a silver dome, a gleaming carving knife resting on its edge. Teddy prayed under his breath that no one would open it. Then he thought about what would be there if they did and he immediately threw up all over his mom’s favorite cream-colored carpet. This was all terrible enough, he didn’t want any of that all over him. He struggled to his feet, using the door frame for leverage to compensate for his shaking legs and he leaned against it heavily, pretty sure he was going to pass out any second.

He glanced to the side and out on the terrace, the smoking wreckage of the waterfront as its backdrop, Teddy saw his friends, dangling by their ankles from the balcony of the apartment above like some sort of perverse wind chime. It looked like they were dead, but in the silence of the dining room he could hear whimpering and weeping. One of the voices he could hear was distinctly Mal’s. His knees nearly buckled again.

As he started sliding back down the door frame into the stinking mess he’d made, he saw an even greater horror at the head of the table. His legs froze, and he straightened almost against his will. At the head of the table sat the monster from Petra’s, the monster from his dreams.

The Handsome Man, for that was how Teddy thought of him in the long hours he spent thinking of him every day, was sitting in Teddy’s father’s chair comfortably, his beautiful monstrous face split into a wicked grin, a newspaper he was clearly not reading held up in front of him as a prop for the scene he had created.

Behind the Handsome Man stood Teddy’s mom, his no-nonsense heart surgeon mom, dressed like someone out of a 1950’s TV show and looking down at The Handsome Man with blank affection while calmly rubbing his shoulders. Teddy tried not to let it happen, but he bent over at the waist, throwing up again, more violently this time. His stomach muscles were starting to feel a little sprung already. Maybe they’d just let him stand here and throw up until he was so dehydrated that he’d die. That sounded pretty good.

The Handsome Man folded the paper and put it down on the table next to Teddy’s father’s head and looked at him reproachfully. “Come now, Theodore, is that anyway to greet your new daddy?” …

Child of the Air

orchid-2952074_1920

Author’s Note – Today’s flash fiction challenge was to write about an extinct flower that somehow blooms for the first time in a hundred years. Of course I couldn’t help putting an apocalyptic spin on a little floral fiasco. ~ J

 

It seemed like such a good idea, you know?

Just grow this seed into something people could connect with …

The rest of our work is so distant and impersonal to most of the world. Go dig around where the permafrost is thawed, tell everyone about what climate change is revealing, what it’s doing to us and our world.

Noble, important work, right?

Yeah, well, most people don’t give a shit. And I want them to. I want people to care.

As a botanist, my enthusiasm for finding the plant was no surprise, but the whole team was intrigued by my discovery. Here was the seed to a species that no one alive has ever seen bloom. Aerides glacies orchidaceae, a flower so long extinct that we don’t even have any photographs.  Not just the seed either. But spores from the fungus it would need to penetrate its route systems to nourish its growth.

I just thought, if I could grow it, take my work out of the lab … Maybe people would care about it, care about the other things we’re finding, too.

I guess it worked.

Everyone knows about my ice orchid; a flower no one had seen or smelled in a hundred years.

Unfortunately, it’s killing them.

And I don’t know how to stop it.

 

Pool Shark

 

There’s something in the water.

The thought came with such easy certainty, Roz almost laughed.

When she was small she wouldn’t even go in the pool because Sean had told her the pool sharks would eat her. Home from college on summer break, he’d given her shit about it at the breakfast table this morning. She’d chucked a syrup covered Eggo at his head and gone up to her room in a huff. She’d brooded about how to shut him up about it for hours.

The sounds of Rob’s noisy old pickup pulling in next door. She hadn’t seen him since the start of summer break. He’d been off doing some junior counselor soccer camp thing. Before exams started he’d never even noticed her as anything other than the awkward neighbor kid before … But they’d been partnered up in the Chem final and it apparently occurred to him that she was a lot less awkward, and maybe a lot more graced with cleavage, than she had been.

It was hot and Rob and his brother would almost definitely go swimming. Roz’s pool was easily visible from the Danforth’s deck.

She decided she’d kill two birds with one stone and go for a swim. Casually hitting the pool alone ought to shut Sean up. And … it couldn’t hurt neighborly relations any for Rob to see her in the ruffled fuchsia bikini she could finally fill out.

She got changed, grabbed one of the big fluffy towels from the linen closet, and headed out onto their deck. Sean has raised his eyebrows at her announcement that she was going to catch some sun and go for a swim, but he didn’t say anything. Maybe he didn’t believe his baby sister’s stated intentions. He was probably just waiting to give her more crap when she didn’t go through with it.

She glanced around. No sign of Rob yet. But she could hear talking and laughing through the screens next door. She cranked up her radio so the boys next door couldn’t miss that she was outside and stood on the edge of the deck looking into the cool blue water.

It was perfectly tranquil and had the inviting Caribbean color that had always sort of fascinated her.

Throwing caution to the wind, and trying not to over-think how edgy the idea of swimming alone made her, she took a running start and splashed noisily into the water.

At first how chilly it felt compared to the warm air set her gasping and sputtering. But she quickly adjusted to the temperature and after swimming a few laps, she started to actually enjoy herself. She was having such a nice time, in fact, she got one of the pool floats off the deck. She tossed it into the water then followed it with another loud and splashy jump in.

She stood on her tiptoes in the shallow end, trying to glean any sign that Rob might be on his way outside. The quiet yard from across the fence yielded no encouraging information, so she stretched out on the float and closed her eyes. The baking sun had her sweating in minutes. She wasn’t ready to get all the way back in yet, so she let her legs hang off the float and trailed her hands through the water.

That’s better.

She had almost dozed off in the sun when the thought jolted her back to wakefulness.

There’s something in the water.

A warning from somewhere outside herself, sending a shiver over her whole body, raising goosebumps on her arms and legs.

Don’t start being ridiculous Rosalind Kelly, she chided herself. No way was she going to let a reemerging case of toddler brain send her running inside so Sean could pick on her and she could miss seeing, and being seen by Rob.

She talked herself down and pretty successfully. She started to relax again.

The tug on her ankle was so sharp, so sudden, for a second she didn’t even process it. Before she envelope opened her eyes she was ready with Sean’s most embarrassing childhood nickname and a plan to dead arm him maybe on both sides.

But he wasn’t there.

The back yard and pool was empty except for her and her blaring radio.

Another tug.

This one hurt.

She was about to call for help, but she was pulled under too quickly.

She screamed, but no one heard her over the radio. And it was over quickly in the time that existed above the surface of the water.

 

Underneath, the end went on forever.

 

 

When Rob Evans headed outside a while later it was wearing his nicest swim trunks. He wasn’t above trying to impress the neighbor either. He strode out onto the deck, cocky smile firmly in place. He looked over toward the Kelly’s pool.

 

This time everyone in the neighborhood heard the screams.

Our Frightful Position

stormy sea

The world knew.

It had been told again and again.

By artists, poets, writers, and madmen. The day would come.

In his house, in its undisclosed place with its mythical name, the dead god slumbered, dreaming his dead dreams. Waiting.

We should have realized.

Nothing waits forever.

I was alone when he came for us.
On the beach, mourning the dog who wasn’t with me for the first time in over a decade. I’d walked aimlessly since well before the dawn.

I felt a vague tremor of the earth beneath my feet as light broke behind me. It was as unremarkable as the sun rising at my back as I stared out over the Pacific, noting an almost eerie calm befall the water.

Another tremor came a moment later and the glassy sea began to foam.

Then he rose.

To my dismay, he did not eat me first.

I am not one of the faithful.

He passed over me like I didn’t exist.

No, that’s not true.

His fathomless eyes met mine for just a moment. I felt my sanity waver, but he left it intact.

I think …

I think he wanted a witness.

Shaken By A Strong Wind

The dream had been plaguing me for days. I’d go to bed determined that this night would be different, that I’d break the cycle. But I couldn’t.

 

I should have paid more attention to what the dream was trying to tell me.

 

I’m in bed, and at first, I think I’m just waking up in the random way people do where we sigh and roll over and drift right back off. Then I realize that it’s cold.

 

My bedroom is never cold.

 

The heat must be broken. I reach over and shake my husband’s arm. “Joshua,” I whisper, not wanting to wake the girls sleeping next door. “The fire’s gone out again.”

Josh mumbles something unintelligible and throws an arm up over his face.

 

He’s been working so much. I decide I’ll just take care of it. I always get splinters when I fill the stove, but there are worse things.

 

I get up and slide on my robe. I tiptoe past the girls’ room and out into the living room to take care of the fire.

 

It’s too bright out there, but not because there are any lights on. The moon must be full, I think absently.

 

I nearly jump when I start to walk past the bay window and Rachel’s bell clear, but startlingly inflectionless, voice says, “Mamma, the stars went out.”

 

It takes a split second before I can breathe again. Then I answer. “Sweetie, you scared me half to death! What are you doing out of bed?”

 

Carolyn speaks then, sounding, as always, exactly like her twin. “The stars went out, and now they’re falling. We want to watch them burn it all up.”

 

Gooseflesh zings up and down my arms, my spine. I look out the window, past their identical white blonde heads stained lavender by the strange light pouring in the picture window.

And they’re right.

 

The stars are indeed falling from a sky that looks nothing like it could possibly belong to Earth.

 

The girls turn toward me then, and their light blue eyes are gone. All that’s left are puckering holes filled with the light from that alien sky.

 

It woke me up screaming every day for a week. Once I could breathe again, once I could stop sobbing in terror, I’d go make my coffee, regardless of the hour and be up for the day.

 

Why didn’t I seek comfort from Josh, or go check on my girls?

 

Because they don’t exist. And they never have.

 

I’ve never married, and I don’t intend to. I’ve certainly never had children. I can’t. And even if I could, I don’t think I’d want them.

 

Especially now.

 

Now that I know.

 

When the dream came to me again this morning, instead of getting up and making coffee, I lay in bed for a long time.

 

Thinking.

 

I finally got up a couple of hours later and dressed for a long hike. I even packed my backpack for one.

 

I walked straight through my silent living room, not looking left or right. I especially avoided looking at my bay window. It was no longer stacked with pillows as a reading nook. As the dream persisted, I started filling that shelf up with everything I could that would prevent anyone, including eyeless dream offspring, from sitting on it.

 

I walked out my front door, not bothering to lock it behind me. I knew with eerie certainty that locks stopped mattering sometime between the dark and the dawn.

 

I looked up and saw what I’d been both dreading and expecting.

 

The sky has gone purple.

 

The same purple as the eyes my twins didn’t have. My twins that don’t exist.

 

The stars aren’t falling yet. But I know they will.

 

I feel it.

 

Deep in my chest.

 

But I feel something else, too.

 

We might be able to stop it.

 

 

 

I’m sure as Hell going to try.

 

Something Wicked

Skull

Author’s note – I’m participating in a little May Flash Fiction Challenge in a writing group I admin, so I thought it would be fun to share the fruits of that here, since otherwise I’m busy wrapping up Book II, Before the Dawn.

Today’s challenge, “Your character gets a threatening letter,” offered me the opportunity to write a little fan fiction for our own characters. How can I resist that? ~ J

 

Ben started down the steps of the RV and froze.

Mal nearly ran into his back. After a split second of thinking he did it on purpose to get another embrace, she saw his tension. His whole body looked like an over-tuned guitar string someone had plucked just to get it to snap.

She followed her original impulse and wrapped her arms around him from behind. Maybe he wasn’t playing around to steal another hug before their run, but he clearly needed the contact right now.

“Ben?” she prompted.

At the sound of her voice, something in him unlocked and he was able to breathe again.

“Sorry.” He sounded like someone had their hands around his neck. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Sorry.”

He paused, biting his lip. This was probably going to be an argument, but he felt like a live wire, like danger was suddenly all around them. He caressed her arms, wrapped tightly around his middle, and gently pried them away, squeezing her hands as he released them so she wouldn’t read the gesture as having to do with her.

He scanned the sparsely populated campground. No one appeared to be awake. The sun was barely up.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Nothing except the parchment envelope placed neatly at the foot of their steps.

Ronoven, Count and Marquis of Hell
Open immediately

“Mal, I need you to head back inside and close the door. Get Chris up, too. I’ll be right behind you. I promise.”

Her arms went stubbornly around him again. She couldn’t see around his broad shoulders, but she knew the subtleties of his voice and body language well enough to know he sensed a threat and was about to do that thing where he tried to face it all on his own.

She was going to break that particular bad habit if it was the last thing she did.

“Ben, what’s wrong?” He drew in another breath and held it. “You know I’m not going anywhere so spit it out.”

Roughly an hour seemed to pass before he exhaled slowly. “Do you have your knife on you?”

“Of course.”

“Not your pocket knife. Your … I meant the weapon one.”

“I know what you meant. I always carry it now.”

“Okay.” Another long breath. “There’s an envelope on the ground with …”

“Ben.” Her voice lost some of its soft understanding. He clearly needed help. And he was going to get it whether he liked it or not.

“With my demon name,” he admitted.

Oh, how he hated that, hated that he had to say those words out loud, hated anything that reminded him he wasn’t just Ben Brody. Even more, he hated having to remind Mal of that fact.

“And my titles. Someone from Hell might be watching right now. Even if it’s not Hell, it’s still somebody dangerous enough that it doesn’t matter.”

Mal released him and drew the knife from the clever sheath Teddy had made her for the small of her back.

“Let’s see what it says. I’ll keep my eyes on everything.”

He sighed. “Okay.”

He drew his own dagger and carefully edged down the last few steps, eyes darting around, trying to look everywhere at once. He bent down to retrieve the envelope. As soon as his fingers closed around it, it grew almost unbearably hot in his hand.

He put it back down. It was treated with something not awesome for him. Something blessed, if he had to guess. Before Davi’s magic it might have lit his hand on fire, or at least blistered it. But now, it just stung. Still, it wasn’t a good idea to hang onto it. Just in case.

“You okay?” Mal stood next to him, but wasn’t looking his way. She was scanning the area, just like he, Chris, and Aife had taught her. In spite of the situation, he felt his lips quirk up at the corners. How did I ever get lucky enough to know her?

He found it easier to answer this time. She didn’t care about his, as she put it, demon bullshit. “It … um … I think it’s got something consecrated soaked into it.”

“Are you alright?” She moved like she’d take his hand to look it over.

“I’m fine,” he said hastily, holding it up before she could slip into her ‘team medic’ role. “But …” Why does asking her to do this feel like jumping off a damned cliff? He knew it was the right thing to do. For both of them. But his protective streak still had a hard time being reigned in. “Could you pick it up and see what it says? I’ll stand guard.”

She flashed him a little smile. He was trying so hard not to shut her out or close himself off to protect her. It warmed her all over when he did things like this. In her mind, it meant he really saw her as an equal. She didn’t like it when he treated her like she was better than him, exalted in some way. She bent and picked up the envelope, feeling it’s texture between her fingers, then sniffing it.

“Seems like it was maybe soaked in consecrated salt and holy water. It smells a little oceany. Feels gritty, too.”

Ben couldn’t help the lopsided grin that pulled at his lips. “Alright Miss CSI, but what’s it say?”

She slit the envelope with her knife, then put the blade back in its sheath. She unfolded the letter inside, careful not to rip the stiff, crinkly paper. It wasn’t parchment like the envelope, but it was something other than plain paper. It felt strange in her hand. The ink was rusty colored. And the letter stunk.

“Blood,” Ben said in a disgusted almost whisper.

Mal’s nose did an involuntary wrinkle that he usually found adorable, mostly because not much grossed her out. Right now all it did was make him swallow hard, his momentary smile fading into a frown with the fluid ease of muscles that remember it too well.

She quietly read the short message aloud.

“I know what you are. I know who you are. I need demon blood. This letter represents the dregs of my last acquisition. How convenient that you’re here in a body that belongs to you.” She paused for a breath and realized Ben was holding his again. “Surrender yourself in the clearing by the stream immediately, and I won’t curse the rest of your party to oblivion. If you don’t, they’ll die a bloody death, in terror, and it will be on your hands.”

He still hadn’t breathed. He tried; tried to speak, too. But his brain and body were having none of it.

Mal’s eyebrows drew together in concern. “Ben?”

Still nothing.

He was actually contemplating going to that clearing and giving himself up.

Nope, not happening, Brody. She made a snap decision.

Turning toward him, she reached into his front pocket as provocatively as she could and retrieved his lighter. Not that he really needed it with his ability to light things on fire psychically, but he liked to fidget with it.

Finally, he gasped. “Hey! Getting fresh while we’re being stalked by some dark witch or worse, because lots of magic-abusing pricks like demon blood, too, is probably a really bad idea.”

She forced a natural looking smirk onto her face even though she was, truth be told, shaking a little. “Since when does me getting fresh ever end badly for you?”

She sparked the lighter to life and held it to the corner of the note and envelope. It caught slowly, burning with a smoky orange-yellow flame that told her she’d been right about it being treated with salt. She walked the burning paper over to the campsite’s fire pit.

Ben followed, right on her elbow, dagger still in hand, eyes taking in the whole area. “What are you doing?”

“Making sure this can’t be used to track us.”

Ben smiled. “Good idea. I hadn’t gotten that far in my thinking, I guess.”

Because you were thinking of giving yourself up, she thought, but didn’t say. At that moment the flame reached the letters and they popped and sparked, burning red and deep blue alternatively. Ben’s brow creased and he mumbled in what sounded like realization. “Huh.”

“Someone you know?” she asked, half teasing.

“Actually, I think so,” Ben nodded slowly. “Most likely Zuhal. A friend. Such as they are in Hell.” His eyes watered with the stink of sulphur and the images it conjured in his mind. He almost sighed with relief that telling Mal something more of Hell seemed marginally easier this morning. “He’s probably fine though. He’s always trading his blood to lovelorn witches for …” He cleared his throat, suddenly blushing furiously all the way up to his ears. “Favors,” he finished awkwardly.

Mal dropped the letter into the pit before it could singe her fingers. She slid an arm around him for a brief hug. “Let’s go wake up the others so we can get out of here.”

Ben glanced around again, then sheathed his knife. “I like the idea of getting right the Hell out of here, but what are we going to do about this threatened curse?”

She opened the door to the RV, but turned to give him an encouraging nod. “Protection spell, obviously. I’ve been practicing. Besides, we’ve got our own badass witch, and Chris, and you.”

They got inside and turned on the lights, eliciting groans from their sleeping travel companions. “The vibe I got off that letter was it was written by somebody pretty powerful,” Ben said, chewing his lip.

She cocked an eyebrow. “Some dumb evil witch doesn’t scare me.”

Ben pulled her into his arms, feeling himself relax already, even though he was certain there was real danger here. “You’re not scared of anything,” he said, voice full of admiration as he buried his face in her tangled curls for a moment and kissed the top of her head.

Except losing you, she thought.

What she said was, “Damn right. Let’s get them up and get out of here.”

He squeezed her again. “Whatever you say, Mal.”

Merry Fic-mas Eve!

ficmas

It’s that time of year again. Our favorite holiday tradition is here.

Can you call something you’ve only done once before a tradition?

Sure. Why not?

We had so much fun challenging ourselves with last year’s Twelve Days of Fic-mas, we decided to make it a thing. Which as our favorite Time Lord will tell you is like a plan, but with more greyness.

So, the Twelve Days of Fic-mas is back! Twelve original stories (we are literally writing as you read this) that celebrate the festive spirit of the holidays, hearth and home, and occasionally the darker side of the season. This year you’ll see familiar faces if you’re a fan of the Always Darkest Universe, some friends returning from last Fic-mas, and maybe a few surprises. We hope you’ll join us on this year’s fictional adventure.

If you’d like to check out last year’s Twelve Days, the rough drafts are still up here on the blog, or you can pick up a copy of our polished up collection (lovingly beta read by some of the universe’s biggest super heroes and best friends) over on Amazon at http://mybook.to/12daysoffic-mas.

New readers, welcome! Old friends, welcome back! And Merry Fic-mas!

The Mirror ~ J

beautiful-black-blur-987627

I’m at my desk, obsessively proofreading, like any other morning. I notice I’ve accidentally used ‘their’ instead of ‘they’re’. Hell and damn. I guess that’s what you get for writing half asleep. I reach for my mouse to eradicate this grammatical travesty, instead coffee sloshes on my hand.

“Huh.”

It’s a surprised sort of sound.

I’d lost track of my surroundings. I glance down, admonishing myself to be more careful, and my stomach drops. Everything on my desk is reversed.

Not just out of place. A mirror image of what I’d sat down to.

I’m breathing faster, feeling panicky nervous sweat between my shoulder blades. I want to act, but I’m momentarily frozen.

What do you even do in this situation?

Then I start to calm down. Obviously I call 911 because clearly I’m having a stroke. Or maybe the day job finally caused that nervous breakdown I’m always joking about, haha. I get up slowly. The cat perched on the back of my chair is white with pink eyes.

My breathing picks up again.

Not hyperventilating, but damned close.

Then I see her.

In the mirror hanging on the wall opposite my writing desk, there is another me, sitting in my chair with everything looking the way it should. She glances over her shoulder, and meets my eyes. For a moment blue meets blue, then hers flash dangerous red. Through the glass I can make out the sounds of my family coming downstairs.

She smiles.

I see her teeth.