Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Theme Story - Superstitions

Mack crept slowly through the doorway, squeezing between the unfinished stone surface of the door and the doorframe and entering the great hall. And that it was a great hall was unmistakable – soaring columns at regular intervals along either wall led off into the distance, carved with exquisite detail in direct contrast to the unfinished rock wall that gave entry to this room. Though he could not see the ceiling in the murky, flickering light thrown off by the line of braziers down the sides of the room, the echoes of his footsteps as he crossed the polished marble floor told him that it certainly lay far above him.

He looked about warily as he moved, expecting an attack at any moment, but saw nothing save a free-standing mirror in the center of the great hall. It glowed with a green light, casting a sickly pall that seemed to negate the effects of the flames – cold where the firelight was warm, static where the firelight flickered, chilling where the firelight was comforting. Mack saw himself in the mirror as he approached, his steps showing more confidence than he felt. The light gave his jovial features a grim cast, his bright red beard looking almost black underneath an unearthly pale face.

“So you have finally come.”

The voice seemed to come from everywhere, assaulting Mack at his very core as it battered his ears. He looked quickly about, but could see no source for the sound in the room. A flicker of movement caught his eye, and he turned back towards the mirror. His reflection seemed darker somehow, as though something blocked the light approaching him. Mack squinted, and was able to discern a ghostly shape in the shadow. As he watched, the shadow in the mirror solidified. Darkness gave way to light as features emerged – a head took shape, a hawkish nose growing out of its center, and a dark body became ornate robes with glowing embroidery.

Before long Mack was face-to-face with a figure that was not there, seeing only a reflection in the free-standing mirror that should not be. A tall, pale man looked back at him. His robes rippled in black and green, with embroidery along the collars that glowed with the same unearthly green light as emanated from the mirror. Dark eyes looked out over a long nose, but no hair framed the eyelids, brow, or head. Most disturbing was the complete absence of a mouth – between the hooked nose and the strong chin lay flesh without blemish – a solid sheet of white that jarred Mack's sense of reality.

“I have watched your progress through my domain.” The voice continued to beat at Mack, gravelly and rasping. “You are the first person to reach my chamber in twenty years.”

Mack peered around him, looking for both the origin of the voice with no source and the body casting the impossible reflection, but saw only the sickly light of the mirror fighting back the firelight from the surrounding hall. He turned back to the mirror. “Who are you?”

The voice chuckled. “Seems as though I should be asking you that question. You are the invader here, after all.” The reflection heaved a sigh, then the voice continued. “When this land was young, and your people were emerging from their caves across the oceans, I was worshiped as a god. When you had taken your first stumbling steps, I had been here for a thousand years. Ten thousand.”

Mack shook himself free of the aural assault. “You're the Destroyer.”

The figure nodded, though it had not been a question. “Where there is good in this land, I bring evil. Where there is light, I make darkness. Where there is peace, I bring war.”

Mack pulled a stone from the pouch on his belt, sliding it into his sling. The weight felt odd, heavier than a stone should be at that size, but he only noticed this in passing. “Not anymore. Show yourself, Destroyer.”

The mouthless figure looked at him intently. In his mind's eye, Mack saw an evil grin but the smooth patch of skin on the creature's face remained unchained. “But I already have.”

Mack whirled about, looking for the source of the reflection, but an empty hall met his gaze. He turned back to the mirror. “You lie. I command again – show yourself, coward!”

The figure raised a white hand, nailless finger extended towards him. “You command nothing here.”

The Destroyer made a jabbing motion, and Mack flew backwards. He landed in a heap on the marbled floor, sliding to a halt. Pain emanated from his chest as though he had been hit with a battering ram. He scrambled to his feet and looked around, readying himself for the next blow, but still saw nothing to defend against.

The Destroyer laughed, the sound beating against Mack's sanity. “I am sad to say that your journey is at an end, today.”

Its hand swept to the left, and Mack went sliding with it, crashing into a column. He stood, only to be knocked from his feet again at another gesture of the creature. The blows began to come more frequently, tossing him about as though he were a rag doll. Mack took bruises from the columns and floor, bouncing off of them as he was sent careening around the space. He did his best to absorb the impacts, but could not keep up with the sheer volume.

Seconds stretched into minutes as he was dashed into the columns and floor, until suddenly the motion ceased. Mack spat blood as he rose to a knee, breathing heavily and wincing at the pain of cracked ribs. He rose and slowly approached the mirror again, watching the Destroyer's reflection warily.

The figure in the mirror laughed again. “Oh, what fun you have brought me.”

Mack wiped a hand across his face, clearing his vision and some of the pain. “That is not all that I bring you, beast.”

The Destroyer cocked its head. “You have a tribute?”

Mack nodded. “And per the old code, you must allow me to make my offering.”

The figure waved a dismissive hand. “Do not speak to me of my obligations, mortal. Present me with your gift, and then we shall return to your lesson.”

Mack smiled slowly and began to swing his sling in a circle. He opened his mouth and spoke the words he had been given. “I have journeyed far, with this piece of a star. Fought battles grand within your sickly land. Now I strike the killing blow at the beast that does not show, creating fortunes poor as I close the door.” As he completed the verse he released the end of his sling and the special stone flew outward. Time slowed as it crossed the distance to the mirror, the small crystals on the star stone glowing with a red light.

The Destroyer's eyes opened wide as the stone reached the surface of the mirror and, with a loud noise, bounced off the surface. It hit the ground just in front of the mirror, rolling to a stop at Mack's feet. The laughter came again, and the voice assaulted him once more. “It seems as though your gift has been rejected.”

Mack smiled. “Has it?”

The Destroyer began to raise a hand again, but a thunderous noise interrupted his motion. A great crack appeared in the surface of the mirror, cutting across the middle of the creature's body. The Destroyer shook itself as though it had been struck, but before it could recover another peal of thunder came, and another crack, quartering the visage. Mack heard a scream begin in his head, an anguished howl scrabbling at his mind, but the sound was silenced as the mirror shattered into a thousand pieces. The shards sparkled in the firelight as they fell to the ground, the unearthly green light extinguished. As the last piece struck the ground, a tremendous wind arose in the hall. It howled through the columns and echoed under the vaulted ceiling, sweeping the darkness before it as it traversed the room.

A single ray of light stabbed down from the ceiling at the far end of the hall, then another, and still another as they marched toward Mack from the distance. The light reached him and he shielded his eyes against the sudden glare, feeling the room heave beneath him. His eyes adjusted after a moment as the rumbling died down and the wind faded, and he opened them to gaze upon a transformed hall. Gone were the murky firelight and shadows. In their place polished and ornate stone glittered in sunlight, coming in through great square openings in the vaulted ceiling.

Mack basked in the warmth for a moment, reveling in the satisfaction of his victory. He took a step forward, and promptly placed his foot directly on the star stone. The stone skidded out from beneath him, taking his balance with it as he crashed awkwardly to the ground. Mack shook himself and rubbed at his hip, which had taken the brunt of the fall. He looked back at the shattered mirror, and winced. Seven years was a long time, but he was ready to face the bad luck. He put a hand down to help himself up, and winced again as a piece of the mirror penetrated his skin. He just hoped he would survive the ordeal.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Theme Story - Fingers Crossed

“Keep your fingers crossed.”

Those were the last words she had spoken, over a month ago. Steve had considered going to the police – several times, in fact - but with the way things were playing out in the streets he suspected that the cops had better things to do that track down a wayward wife. Steve figured that she had found a spot on a boat, and taken her chances on her own.  She certainly hadn’t returned with any of the supplies they had so desperately needed. Steve idly wondered whether the furtive whispers he’d overheard were true. Stacy was still a comely woman, though she was pushing forty. He tried to think the best of her, but the worst of times seem to bring out the worst in humanity.

Steve walked into the kitchen and grunted at the meager remains. True, Stacy’s departure had left him and Evan just barely enough to get by on, but they were down to their last couple pounds of rice, only a bag or two of dehydrated beans remained sitting on the counter, sagging as though in defeat. He walked past the counter to the window bringing the only light into the galley kitchen, watching the pandemonium as best he could.

The water had crested the docks yesterday. Steve did a quick bit of mental arithmetic and realized that if the water continued to rise this quickly that his tiny apartment would be beneath the surface in just over a week. He could already see makeshift boats in the streets, people doing anything they can in their desperation to get to safety. They wouldn’t make it far, of course – the last of the real boats had left over a month ago, back before the planes had stopped flying – but that kind of logic was lost on a person desperate enough to take two doors lashed together out to sea.

He heard a small shuffle behind him in the two-bedroom apartment, but didn’t move from his perch. The footsteps trailed across his hearing as they moved over the hardwood, registering but failing to penetrate Steve’s thoughtful despair. It wasn’t until the tiny tug he felt on his pants that he looked down to see Evan, bright and chipper with the energy and innocence only a five year old can show.

“Is mommy coming today?”

Steve shook his head. “Not today, buddy. She’s still out.”

“She must be bringing back a lot of food,” Evan concluded with a child’s confidence. “I hope she hurries. I want that pizza.”

“Me too, buddy,” Steve agreed absently. He watched as two boats in the street below collided, sending their respective loads to the asphalt below as the owners took out their shared frustration on each other. He turned away before the inevitable escalation, not wanting to see yet another killing in the street. Steve dropped down to his knees, putting on a smile and looking Evan in the eye. “What say we play a game of checkers before breakfast?”

Evan’s eyes lit up as he giggled with anticipatory glee. “Yes! I’ll be black this time!”

Steve smiled and nodded. “Sounds good to me. Go get the board, buddy.”

Evan raced off as Steve straightened up, taking one last look out the window. “Good luck, Stacy,” he whispered, “wherever you are.”