Fred’s Christmas Caper

“Yes Fred, I still like Santa Claus.” Jacob refused to look up from his computer screen.

“Then why don’t you want to come? Huh?” Fred crossed his arms and pouted.

Jacob turned to face Fred. “Because you’re wearing a Santa suit again. The last time you wore a Santa suit, it ended with Godzilla getting its ass kicked by an elder god.” He blinked. “In retrospect that sounds awesome but it certainly wasn’t at the time!”

“This is my own suit. I swear! Scout’s honor!” He held up two fingers on his right hand, fingers crossed. “Wait, I did that wrong.”

Jacob shook his head, frowning. “No, Fred.” He turned around.

“Yes it is, then!” Fred grabbed Jacob by the collar. Both men disappeared in a puff of glittery pixie dust.

They reappeared on a ridge just outside Santa’s village, laying on their stomachs. Fred had a pair of binoculars out. “There it is.”

“Fred! Damn it! I have paperwork to file… Is that Santa’s village?” Jacob began to grin.

“Atta boy.”

Jacob sighed. “Okay. We’re here. What hell are you going to wreak this time?”

“Aw now I’m just going to pull an itty bitty prank is all.”

“You don’t do anything ‘itty bitty’.”

“True…” Fred sat up. “I’m gonna prank dear cousin Santa with this!” He produced a small, green baby alien. It looked at Jacob with glistening black eyes and a tiny little smile.

“Holy shit, Fred! Is that baby Yoda?”

Fred hushed him. “No, no, no! Do you want Disney to hear? This here is a what you call a grade A knock-off! It’s a baby Shoda!”

Jacob smirked. “Right… What are you going to do with it?” He nuzzled the baby’s cheek with a finger.

“Well you see, baby Shodas are super magical. That magic goes all crazy when they cry.”

“Fred, you are not making that baby cry!”

“Of course not! Cute widdle guy!” He noogied the baby’s head. “I don’t have to! What happens when you give a baby to Santa Claus?”

“It cries. Oh, Fred, that’s terrible.”

“Terribly awesome!” Jacob took a double-take. Fred was already up and running towards the village. Jacob sighed and followed.

The baby was starting to sniff and whine by the time Jacob caught up. “I thought you said you weren’t going to make him cry!”

“I’m not! The little bastard is hungry!”


“You’ll agree if he starts crying, son. There!” Fred pointed at Dingle’s Pizza Emporium. “Let’s get him a slice.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Sure it is! Didn’t ya read the sign?”

Jacob looked back at the storefront. A sign in the window did in fact read “Perfectly Fine to Feed to Infants!” Jacob rolled his eyes. “How foolish of me. Okay, fine.”

Fred frowned. “I uh, forgot my wallet and…”

“Fine!” The baby whimpered. “Hush, little one!” Jacob darted inside. He returned a minute later with a slice of pizza. “You owe me five dollars.”

Fred handed the baby the pizza. It tipped its head back and promptly swallowed the slice whole. “Holy shit!”

“Is that normal?” Jacob grimaced.

“Is any of this?”

“Good point.”

The baby giggled and clapped its little hands. He released a might burp and hiccuped. There was a bright flash. Fred squinted at Jacob. “Say Jacob, have you always been a moose?”

“What are you…” Jacob looked down at his chest, which was now a moose chest, because now he was a moose. “AH! What did you do?”

“I didn’t do it!” The baby hiccuped again. Fred blinked his three eyes. “It must be the baby… I think I’m seeing double.”

“More like triple.” The baby hiccuped. “Oh, what the hell!” Jacob looked down at his ample breasts and buxom hips.

“What? You look all right to me.” Fred winked. Jacob dry heaved. The baby hiccuped.

Fred and Jacob returned to normal, but… “Fred! You look like you belong in a Rankin/Bass show!”

Fred shook his limited-animation finger. “Are you calling me a fish?”

“No! Think ‘Year Without a Santa Claus’!” The baby hiccuped. Half the village turned into cheddar cheese.

“It’s going to be a year without a Santa Claus if we don’t get this baby to stop hiccuping! It’s getting worse!”

“This was your idea! What can we do?”

“Well you can stop being a dildo, I can tell ya that!” The baby hiccuped. Fred burst out laughing.

“What?” Jacob looked down. “I’m a… I don’t even want to know how a baby would even know what a dildo is.” Jacob started jiggling towards Santa’s house. “There’s only one man that can fix this!”

The baby hiccuped again and again. Sparks flew. The village shimmered as it cycled through various textures and questionable references to pop culture.

Jacob came to the stop at the sound of a familiar base beat. He turned to see a wide-eyed, zombified Fred shuffling towards him to the beat. His Santa suit was replaced with a red and black leather one.

A bunch of elves ran up behind Fred. They joined him in shuffling to the beat. Fred started twitching his head.

“Uh, wrong holiday, you guys.” Fred tossed Jacob the baby Shoda. “EE HEE!” Fred and the elves started dancing in formation. Jacob spun around and stood on the tips of his toes.

“Sh’ mon, little Shoda!” Jacob Jackson broke into a run for Santa’s front door.

It opened as he approached. Hiccup. JACOB skidded to a stop, the baby landing on the glossy black hood of the mid-eighties sports car. The red light on the front of Jacob swooshed. “Well this is awkward.”

Santa glowered. “Jacob, is that you?” The baby hiccuped. Jacob caught it in his big, green ogre hands. “It is! And Fred!

Fred trotted up. “Now just listen, Santa.”

Jacob turned. “Donkay!”

Santa smirked. “More like an ASS.”

Fred stomped his hooves. “Language! It’s the baby’s fault, anyway.”

“It was Fred’s idea!” Jacob added helpfully.

Santa harrumphed. “Of that I have no doubt. What to do, though?”

Jacob held up a finger. “Good question!” Another hiccup turned him back to normal… “Hey! Cool! Wait…” Except for his spider legs. “Hmm…”

“Could be worse.” Fred blinked all eight eyes at Jacob.

“GAH!” Jacob tossed the baby up into the air. Santa caught it handily. “No Santa, wait!”

The cute little Shoda looked up at Santa and stopped hiccuping. Then its face screwed up. Then it began to cry. “Aw, poor little guy!”

Fred and Jacob, along with the whole village began to rapidly change. Stupid cat memes gave way to vague references to Saturday morning cartoon shows that nobody remembers. That gave way to gritty reboots, closely followed by direct-to-TV movies with questionable plots.

Santa remained Santa through it all. First he laughed, then he rolled his eyes, then he produced a pacifier. He offered it to baby Shoda. The child took it eagerly and closed its widdle eyes. Everything grew quiet.

Jacob lowered his Buster sword and scratched at his spiky hair. “How come baby Shoda’s crying didn’t affect you?”

Santa laughed heartily. “Do you know how many centuries I’ve been putting up with crying babies?” He winked. “It doesn’t even phase me anymore.”

Jacob looked down at his strangely polygonic body. “Well, can you fix this mess, then?”

“Of course, not! Baby Shoda?” The baby looked at Santa, then at Jacob. It pulled out the binky and shouted “Woo!” Everything returned to normal except for…

“Hey, I’m pretty hot!” Fred leered at his own body. “Nice rack!” He looked up at Santa. “I uh… Where’s the closest bathroom? I have to go real bad. Heh…”

Jacob grimaced. “Dude, gross!”

“Agreed!” Santa looked at the baby, which wrinkled its nose. It pulled out the pacifier again and blew a raspberry at Fred.

The old farmhand was returned to normal, save for his second-hand Santa costume. “Aw, man!”

Jacob turned to Santa. “So, now what?”

“Now I finish getting ready for Christmas. You go with Fred and make sure he returns baby Shoda to his totally-not-a-knock-off-fictional-reality. And…” Santa turned to face you, the reader. “I’ll see you in a few short days. Merry Christmas!”

Jacob nodded. “Yes! Happy holidays!”

Fred shrugged. “Do these stilettos make me look pretty?”

Baby Shoda? Well folks, he just winked and smiled.


FlashFic: The Gift

A man fighting for survival finds himself face to face with an other-worldly creature.

So cold.

He didn’t know how long he’d been walking. He started at first light. The last light was rapidly giving way to night, now. The skeletal trees stretched their bare limbs to the skies as if reaching for the last bit of warmth.

The snow was several inches deep, even in the wood. His legs burned with every step. His feet felt nothing. They grew numb hours ago. He paid it no heed. What good are warm feet if the rest of him is dead?

It was no good. He dropped to his knees. His hands sunk deep into the wet snow. It burned his fingers. The sensation served to help clear his dampened mind. Good.

Light began to creep back across the blanket of snow. He suddenly felt warmer than before. No… That’s not right. He sat back on his ankles and stuck his hands into his armpits.

His grandfather taught him long ago that the worst thing you could do is feel warm in such a situation. He’d told him that he’d seen men smiling at their new-found warmth even as they lay dying. But there was something else.

There was the light.

Grandfather had never mentioned this. Was he dying? Hallucinating? He looked up. Hallucinating, then. The most beautiful woman he had ever seen stood before him.

Her body glimmered in a vivid blue-white light. Her eyes shone pure white. An angel? “Yes, an angel.” The woman responded to his thought. “I’ve come to guide you.”

His father had warned him of false prophets, as well. “How can I trust you, spirit?” His voice was a ragged whisper. He coughed crimson onto the pure snow before him.

“How can you not?” The spirit raised an eyebrow and her right hand. She offered it to the fallen traveler. He reluctantly took it.

Half a day’s walk away, a young woman of similar beauty but normal radiance watched the events unfolding in an ornate scrying mirror. “He trusts her!”

The woman beside her, perhaps twenty years her senior, smiled gently as she held a gnarled wooden wand before the mirror. “Does he? Or does he trust that he’ll die otherwise?”

The man found it startlingly easy to stand. The warmth he felt was slowly worming its way into his body like tendrils. The sensation was both welcome and somehow disgusting to him.

The spirit woman’s eyes opened wide, the light within them bathing his face. He squinted his own. Cold tears ran from them. “Please guide me.”

“As you wish.” She gently placed her other hand on his cheek and caressed it. The last thing he saw was the white glow of her eyes turn blood red.

The serene look on her face turned to one of malice, contorting her features into a demonic mask. The hands holding him became twisted claws. The man did not resist even as she grasped his head and pulled him closer.

She closed her eyes and leaned forward, as if to kiss him. Instead, a thin white mist began to pour from his mouth. She drew it into her own, allowing his lifeless body to drop to the ground. Her features returned to normal as she stepped back.

“That was amazing.” The young woman looked at the witch with a mixture of awe and fear.

“It’s a gift.” She began to smile. “It’s one you possess. Would you like to learn how to wield it, child?”

Something dark and hungry laid just behind the woman’s widening eyes. “Yes, please.”

FlashFic: Dark Skies, Cold Hearts

A mysterious sight in the night sky takes a treacherous turn.

“What is it, grandpa?”

The old man stepped out onto the porch and looked up at the night sky. “Looks like a shooting star!” The bright blue object did not fade, though the man’s smile did. “No, that ain’t right…”

The boy’s father stepped out of the house. “What is it, Pop? Meteor shower?”

“I don’t know.” The object had tripled in size and brightness. The sky started to rumble. He shielded his eyes.

“Jesus…” The younger man squinted. “That’s not a meteor, is it?”

“No…” The grandfather took a step back. “That’s an aircraft, or something.”

“I bet it’s a space ship!” The boy ran off into the front yard.

“Danny, no!” His father ran after him.

A screaming sound accompanied the rumbling. The object gleamed in the sky. It was triangular, with three brilliant blue circles beneath it. “I told you! It’s a space ship!”

The boy began waving at the UFO. Danny’s father grabbed him and started pulling him backward. “No, Danny! We don’t know if they’re friendly…”

A beam of pure white energy zapped from the spacecraft and struck the father in the chest, knocking him backward. “GAH!” A brown scorch-mark graced his sky-blue dress-shirt. “I can’t move…”

A second beam, much wider and violet-white, engulfed the boy before he could run to his father. “Dad!” The man watched helplessly as his son lifted off the ground. “Dad! I feel…”

The boy disintegrated before the man’s eyes. The individual bits of matter pulled apart and shot up the beam into the ship. “DANNY! NOOO!”

The grandfather burst back out of the front door with an old service rifle just as the purple beam dissipated. “DON’T YOU TAKE MY GRANDSON, YOU SONS OF BITCHES!” The old man took aim and opened fire.

The shots plinked uselessly off of the spacecraft. The father turned his head towards the grandfather and shouted. “Dad, no!”

There were tears in the old man’s eyes. “Hell YES!” He emptied the gun into the spacecraft. The last round caused sparks to shoot out of the front of the UFO.

A third light beam, this one blood red, shot from the spacecraft and into the old man’s chest. “DAD!” The old man’s body was silhouetted in glowing orange light. It disintegrated like the boy’s body had, but the particulates fell to the ground, burning ash blown in the wind from the UFO’s wake.

The spacecraft turned. It rocketed up into the air at an impossible rate. A wash of blue energy blew backwards into the old farmhouse, setting it ablaze. The still-paralyzed father slipped into the cold black hole of unconsciousness.

He awoke sometime later. Several dark figures stood around him. He cried out and flailed his way backwards. “He’s awake.” The voice was distant and quiet to him.

“Shit,” another voice said. “Grab him.” Two pairs of strong hands grabbed the father’s arms and held him fast. They propped him up on his feet and let go.

One of the figures stepped forward, slowly coming into focus. It was a man in US Army fatigues. The father began to cry. “Please! My son…”

The Army man held up a hand. “We know what happened. Did you call anyone? Call for help?”

The father shook his head. “No… I didn’t have time. They took my…”

“We know.” The man took out a pistol. “Too bad they killed you and whoever that ash pile is.” He aimed it at the father’s head and pulled the trigger.

The father let out a single piercing screech and fell dead to the ground. The man put the gun away. “Secure the area.” He turned and walked back into the shadows.

Interlude: The Final Mission

In a world ravaged by war, the environment is often painted in shades of gray.

Here it is: a new Interlude, with a twist. This short story was the inspiration for my new novella series No Road Home! Enjoy this story heavily influenced by Fallout series of video games. Then buy Echoes, the first book in the No Road Home series at on October 15, 2019.

He did now know pain.

At least, not anymore. They saw to that in the lab. They beat it out of him in training. He was oddly grateful for it in the blistering heat of the day.

The sun seared your flesh in a short period of time out here. His skin was accustomed to it. The back of his neck was like leather. Still, the sun was causing it to crack and bleed.

Doesn’t matter, now. The sun, the heat, the hunger… That still hurt, he’d admit. They made him resilient to starvation, but they didn’t quiet the hunger that accompanied it.

He pushed it out of his mind. He had an entire country to avenge. An entire country, ravaged by a war they never asked for, seared by nuclear fire, left to die, like him, in a parched desert landscape.

A house emerged out of the dusty haze ahead of him. Perhaps there might yet be food inside. People? Surely not. Nobody stayed out here after the dust settled.

Those that did were quickly slaughtered by bands of raiders. Their remaining possessions were torn apart, gutted, left to rot along with their decimated corpses. Their ransacked homes became their makeshift tombs.

He stood at the entrance of the home. The surname Garcia was painted in faded black letters above the house numbers. The door before him was shut.

He reached for the doorknob, but stopped himself. A brief glimmer of humanity sparked through him. He knocked gruffly on the weathered paint and listened.

There came no response. He tried the doorknob. It did not turn. He looked up at the top of the door frame. He ran a weathered hand along it. His fingers happened upon an oddly-cool piece of metal.

He slipped the key into the doorknob and turned it. The lock clicked. He turned the knob at last and pushed his way inside.

The temperature dropped noticeably as he stepped into the entryway. His footsteps sent a cloud of dust into the air. The sunlight entering the house flitted off the particles, casting ghosts about the room.

He looked at the floor. There was a dropped purse, a backpack full of unfinished homework. Shoes were scattered around an open closet.

Perhaps this home had escaped looting. He continued forward into the family living room. He wrinkled his nose.

Before him was a long-abandoned couch. In the corner was a worn, green recliner. In it were the mummified remains of an elderly lady.

“Little Pete, what’s to eat? Maybe grandma’s got a treat!” The man blinked the image of his own grandmother from his mind. He turned from the corpse, rubbing at his course cheeks.

A long-darkened TV panel stared back at him from the wall. He stepped over to it and tapped one corner. The screen remained dark.

He stepped into the kitchen. He looked over the fridge. No power meant nothing good in there. He was thankful for modern sealing technology.

The cabinets were fully stocked. The reality made him nervous. His stomach made him decisive. He chose a vintage, unopened box of Cheerios.

He opened it up and ate directly from the box. He looked for the expiration date as he munched away. Not bad for being a few months past freshness.

Something clicked and whirred in the hallway beyond. He put down the box and pulled out his handgun. The whirring and clicking was louder now, but also slower.

He popped around the corner, gun raised. A home security bot was very slowly trundling down the hallway. Its bright yellow eyes barely registered a somber orange.

“Intruder… alert.” The robotic words were barely a whisper in the silence, strung out and broken. So this is why the house was untouched.

“Military clearance alpha delta four two nine zero.” Two weak beeps came from within the robot. It remained still. It’s nuclear battery nearly spent, it wouldn’t have been able to carry on, anyway.

Peter the soldier emerged from the house a short time later. The hastily discarded backpack was now on his shoulder. Its textbooks had been replaced by breakfast cereal and canned goods.

A mansion appeared over the horizon sometime later, a lasting nod to the separation of rich and poor. He eyed it with interest as he drew closer. There could be some good gear in there, perhaps even a functional vehicle. There would almost certainly be greater security…

And of course there was. The hills surrounding the mansion were fenced in. A single, large gate opened onto a grand driveway that led to the main building.

A crazed, bipedal robot stormed out from behind it, screeching. The robot’s silver and white color scheme was quickly being taken over by a sheen of dark brown rust. The battery in this one was quite charged. Time for the gun again.

The soldier called out his clearance code to no effect. He tried to assert his dominance with the gun, instead. The robot barely slowed. “Shit.”

He holstered the gun and raised his fists. He slammed them full-forced into the robot’s chest, sending it skittering backwards a full two feet. The blow revealed the shiny titanium beneath the synthetic flesh covering the soldier’s knuckles.

The robot screeched. It quickly covered the distance between them and grappled with the soldier. “Not allowed! NOT ALLOWED! Violation of grounds! Protect protect PROTECT…”

“United States Army! STAND DOWN!” The robot headbutted him. He yelled as blood burst from the split in his skin.

He grabbed the robots chest plates and pulled with all his strength. The steel slowly peeled back. He jabbed one hand into the robot’s chest. He pulled it back out holding a fistful of wires.

The robot dropped to the ground. Its head and limbs twitched as its systems crashed one by one. The soldier warily stood over it, waiting for it to power down.

It became still at last. The robot turned to look on the soldier with blinking, fading eyes. “Daddy!” It was the voice of a young child, a recording.

“Daddy, I’m scared.”

“I know son,” the father’s voice was heard to answer.

“Daddy, I don’t want to die!” The light faded out of the robot’s eyes for the last time.

He shook his head, then lifted it skyward. He sighed deeply, letting it droop again. He produced a handkerchief from his pocket. The soldier wiped at the blood on his forehead.

Emotions. He’d had enough of them. Yet this world kept shoving them in his face. Part of the “enhancements” the military had given him was an emotional damper. He wondered, did they ever think it would be tested like this?

The soldier continued on his way. Cars were starting to appear on the side of the road, mostly on the right. In times of danger, citizens often look to the military for help.

Most of the cars were abandoned. Many, unfortunately, were not. He stopped looking when he passed a fully-loaded sedan, complete with an occupied child safety seat.

Army Base Delta started to come into view at long last. The lowering sun cast a long shadow before him. It took him longer than expected to get this far.

Something moved behind one of the abandoned cars ahead. He froze. There was another noise. He drew his gun.

A dog walked out from behind the automobile. The soldier grimaced, rolling his eyes. The dog stood staring at the man. It began to pant.

The soldier put away his weapon and continued on. The dog turned and began to follow as he passed. He stopped. The dog stopped. “Shoo.”

The dog sat and stared at him. “Stay.” The soldier waited a moment longer, then continued. The dog remained where he was.

The verbal detent wasn’t very effective. The dog jogged along to catch up. The soldier turned in anger. “I said SHOO!” He swung a foot at the dog.

The animal pulled up short, nearly falling backwards. He looked at the soldier with heavy eyes. “GO!” The dog turned and left with his tail between his legs, whimpering.

The soldier didn’t like what he saw as he drew closer to the Army base. He pulled out a small black device and activated it. The item started clicking immediately: a Geiger counter.

He replaced it with a packet of pills. The packaging was marked “Anti-Rad”. He ripped it open and dry-swallowed the contents.

He picked his way into the remains of the base. It appeared to have taken a direct hit in the nuclear strike. All that mattered was if one particular part of the base had survived.

It had. In the middle of the destruction stood a simple concrete dome. A heavy metal hatch remained intact on one side of it. Heavy black soot coated a half-melted keypad in the center of the hatch.

He cleared it as well as he could and typed in a string of numbers. Nothing happened for a moment. He was preparing to straighten up when there came a loud click from within the door.

He grabbed the large handle on one side of the hatch and pulled. It swung up and out to one side. Dim, yellow lights running on emergency power lit the shaft within.

A cool, dark tunnel extended from the bottom of the shaft. A gentle breeze brought the stench of decay with it. Not a good sign.

At the end of the shaft was a simple bunker consisting of a latrine, sleeping quarters, and a communications room. Inside the comm room, he found the corpses of two men. One was laying in one corner, a bullet hole in its head.

The other sat at one of the computer terminals, also with a bullet in its head. Murder-suicide. The screen was still lit, casting a ghostly glow on the corpse before it.

He slid the corpse’s chair out of the way, opting to sit in a slightly-less defiled chair nearby. On the screen he read “PROJECT: RETALIATE”. Below that, “Critical targets acquired. Launch warheads?”

He leaned back and sighed. One key press. He had come all this way for just one key press. One simple confirmation, and the United States would be avenged. Those responsible for this mass slaughter would be slaughtered themselves.

The soldier closed his eyes. “Little Pete,” his grandma told him. “Don’t repeat, death’s no treat!” He blinked his eyes open, and saw the corpse of the elderly woman in the house.

He squeezed them shut again and saw the corpses in the cars along the road. He saw the tiny skeleton in the safety seat. Heard the recording of the young boy. “I don’t want to die!”

Peter opened his eyes. He stared at the two buttons in the center of the screen: “OK” and “CANCEL”. Just one key press.

He was never sure how long after he opened his eyes it was before he moved. He supposed it didn’t matter. He’d go to his grave certain that he made the right choice.

Peter moved the cursor over the “CANCEL” button and clicked. The computer asked him if he was sure. He told it that he was, without hesitation.

He struck out on the road past the old Army base, the sun stretching out his shadow farther and farther before him. It was joined sometime later by a second shadow. This one was panting.

He stopped and looked to his side. The dog looked back up at him, his tail cautiously wagging. The soldier smiled, reaching down to pet the dog’s head. “Let’s go.” The companions continued down the road, leaving the horrors of the past behind them, looking towards the future.

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Interlude: Chasing Shadows

A young adventurer tests his mettle in a castle full of deadly secrets.

Joseph exploded through the heavy oak door. He spun around and made to heave it back shut. The monstrous entity trailing him had other ideas. One of its muscular green arms shot through the gap, a black-clawed hand gripping the edge of the door tightly.

“I don’t… want… to play!” Joseph shoved repeatedly against the door, making little progress. He reached into his brown leather vest and produced a gleaming dagger. He jabbed it into the bulging green hand and twisted the blade back and forth.

The monster on the other side of the door howled in pain and anger. It retracted the hand, nearly taking the dagger with it. Joseph hurled himself against the door once again. It slammed shut with a resounding boom. He smiled, turning the knob below the handle to lock it shut.

He stood back, breathing heavily. He nearly wiped the dagger on his clean white shirt, but caught himself. He opted to clean the black ichor from the blade on his ragged trousers, instead.

Joseph tucked the dagger back into his vest and turned around. This room was filled with rows of shelves covered top to bottom with glass beakers, vials, and bottles holding liquids of every color and description. Unidentifiable animals, freshly vivisected, were stretched across a bloody operating table. Their mutilated bodies occasionally lit in vivid blue by a nearby Jacob’s ladder electrical device.

He walked slowly, cautiously past the shelves and around the operating table. He shuddered as he passed the still-twitching bodies. A bloodied head turned towards the sound of his footsteps, single eye pleading for death. He quickly looked away, swallowing hard.

He suddenly lurched to one side. The glass ball that had caught his eye went shooting past his head. It smashed into a million pieces on the wall behind him. He spun around to see thick smoke rising from the spilled liquid from within. The acid hissed as it ate at the stone floor and wall.

The cackles of an unhinged mind rang out from somewhere beyond the rows of shelves. Joseph reached back into his vest and found the dagger. He looked it over. It suddenly looked very small to him. He held it out before him as he proceeded past the operating table.

He passed into a narrow aisle separating two sets of wooden shelves. The close quarters and limited freedom made him uneasy. So too did the various specimen jars he observed as he crept quietly along. Some of the specimens appeared to be staring back.

Joseph hesitantly stepped out into the open past the end of the wooden shelves. He paused suddenly, his heart skipping a beat. A sound, surely a foot dragging on the dusty stone floor, echoed loudly through the room. He held his breath and listened intently.

First there was a blur, then a great set of powerful hands thrusting into Joseph’s shoulders. The blow forced him backwards into the end of one of the wooden shelves. It shuddered violently. Some of the woeful specimens found their way to the floor, their glass cages shattering. He cried out in pain and surprise.

Joseph lifted his dagger, poised to strike out at his attacker. The other man, a crazy-eyed scientist with white, untamed hair struck the blade from his hand with an arm forged from steel. Joseph cried out and slunk to the side. The mad scientist’s unhinged laughter chased him across the laboratory.

The young adventurer scanned the room for any type of weapon. His hand found a length of steel pipe. He grinned devilishly as he turned it on the mad scientist. He struck out at the man, who easily smacked the pipe away with his steel arm.

The resulting clank rang in Joseph’s ears, the strike sending waves of pain down both arms. The scientist cackled quietly. Joseph swung again, causing the scientist to hop backwards with a small growl. The Jacob’s ladder hummed and crackled somewhere behind him.

A smile slipped across Joseph’s face, a plan blooming in the back of his mind. He swatted at the mad scientist again and again, backing up after each jarring impact. He at last found himself close enough to the Jacob’s ladder to smell the burning ozone lingering in the air.

Joseph brought the pipe crashing down right into the metallic hand of the crazed scientist. The maniacal creature smiled smugly as he ripped the pipe from Joseph’s hands. The man reacted in mock horror, stepping backwards towards the crackling Jacob’s ladder.

The mad scientist’s smile became a grimace as he swung the metal pipe straight at Joseph’s head. The young adventurer deftly ducked. The pipe crashed into the Jacob’s ladder, just as he had hoped it would.

Jagged blue-white arcs of energy surged into the pipe, up the scientist’s arm, and into his chest. The monstrous man jerked violently, smoke curling up around his wild white hair. The Jacob’s ladder gave one final, large jolt before failing completely.

The mad scientist continued to stare at Joseph, his body trembling. The pipe slipped from his grip and fell to the floor, causing an ear-splitting cacophony. The light left the scientists eyes. He collapsed.

Joseph kept his place and watched the body intently for several moments. Steeling himself, he slowly rose to his feet. He crept past the still-smoking scientist. The smell of burnt flesh twisted into the young man’s nostrils and held fast.

His footfalls became quicker, more sure as he strode towards the door. They halted suddenly as he spotted a writing desk. More to the point, he spotted the pair of crossed rapiers hung above the desk.

He stretched to reach the handle of the left one. He smiled as his fingers wrapped around the seasoned leather grip and pulled gently. The sword slid away from its fastening. He was heartened to see that the weapon was not merely ornamental.

He held the rapier to one side and continued through the door on the far side of the room. He climbed the jagged stone stairs with care. He craned his neck as he turned each corner, half-expecting someone — or something — to be waiting for him on the other side.

Joseph soon found himself standing before a large wooden door at the top of the stairwell. He braced himself and kicked the door open. The old hinges cried in protest at the rough treatment. The heavy door slammed into the wall on the other side with a deafening boom.

Then there was silence.

On the other side of the door was an ornate resting room. Multiple couches and chairs were arranged artfully throughout the chamber. Large book shelves lined the far wall. A small sampling of the estate’s manuscripts were placed on various coffee tables and side tables throughout the room.

First appearances would suggest that a book club had just adjourned, but the thick dust on everything attested to a sadder truth. It had been some time since the living had tread the ornate carpet before him. And yet, there was a feeling…

There, on one of the coffee tables. A book moved. He stared at it, unsure of what he saw. He walked towards the table. He stopped as the book in question slowly lifted itself into the air.

Joseph approached it with a sense of awe and deep distrust. He stretched his free hand towards the book. It suddenly dropped back onto the table. He jerked his hand back in surprise.

An eerie, feminine laugh floated to him from nowhere and everywhere. He warily stepped back from the coffee table. He jumped and winced as something bounced painfully off his back. The taunting laugh echoed throughout the room again.

He whirled around to face his attacker. There was none to be found, save for another book resting on the floor at his feet. Vague whispers caressed his ears. He swung back around, eyes darting from spot to spot, seeking out his tormentor.

More laughter greeted him. “Show yourself, foul creature!” The laughing abruptly stopped. Multiple books throughout the room lifted from their resting places. Joseph started inching backwards.

His fears were validated as one book after the other threw itself at him. He dodged some, slashed at others with his scavenged rapier. The laughter returned as he jumped and flailed.

The activity stopped as suddenly as it had started. The sound of a dozen books crashing onto wood and stone filled the air. He winced at the cacophony. Joseph held the rapier before him, prepared for further attack.

The air before him shimmered ever so slightly, like a mirage. He heard a feminine giggle. Something shoved into his chest, forcing him back a couple of steps. There was more laughter.

Joseph slowly turned around. He strained his eyes for any glimpse of his attacker. The air rippled beside him. Something jabbed into his ribs. More giggles. He growled in frustration.

He turned about once again. This time he strained to look out of the corner of his eyes. Back and forth. Left to right. His vigilance was rewarded. The air to his right glimmered.

He snapped his rapier up and jabbed it to the right. The blade found its way into solid flesh. An ear-piercing scream filled his ears. He turned about to find himself facing a ghastly pale young woman.

Her wide, black eyes stared through his soul. Her mouth worked, but produced no words or sound. Her head dipped, her body pulled backwards off of the sword. She disappeared from sight just before hitting the floor.

Joseph stared at the spot where the woman should have lain. His eyes shifted to the rapier. Its blade was clean, save for a barely disturbed layer of dust.

Awe gave way to determination. He strode through the grand door at the far end of the study. He found himself in a large room that gave way to a balcony overlooking the land behind the castle. It was very dark here, save for the occasional flash of purple-tinged lightning in the distance.

A pair of yellow eyes formed in the darkness. The body they were attached to stepped forward out of the shadows. A demonic form eight feet high stood before Joseph. Impossibly large muscles writhed and rippled under grayish white skin. A filthy brown cloth was the only thing that preserved the demon’s modesty, such as it was.

“Daganon, we meet at last.”

The mighty demon’s laughter boomed louder than the thunder that surrounded them. “I have been watching your journey closely, human. I must say, you’ve survived longer than I thought you would.”

“I’ll survive longer than you!” Joseph broke into a run, sword held back and at the ready. Daganon crossed his arms, a sly smile playing out across his lips. Joseph swung the sword with all his might, crying in fury.

The demon disappeared in a flash of yellow light. Joseph threw his weight backwards in a bid to stop his momentum. The balcony outside loomed as he dropped the sword and pinwheeled his arms. He stopped with one foot resting on the shallow balcony.

More booming laughter came from behind him. Joseph reeled around to see Daganon standing with his arms still crossed on the far side of the room. “Are you finished, adventurer?”

“Never.” In one fluid movement, Joseph produced and threw another dagger from his vest. Lightning glinted off the blade as it sailed towards its mark. Daganon never shifted.

Instead he watched, amused as the dagger passed uselessly through his body and stuck in the door behind him. He looked up and grinned at Joseph. “You cannot win.”

Realization washed over the young man. “You’re not even here.”

“You are correct. And I promise you… You will never find me. Give up, fool.”

Joseph gritted his teeth. “I will see you dead.”

“Perhaps… but not tonight.” Thunder crashed. Daganon disappeared in a flash of yellow light, replaced by a small colony of screeching bats. Joseph ducked as the flying rodents rumbled past him into the night.

The demon’s fading laugh rode upon their wings, then scattered into the chilling wind outside. Joseph stood and stared into night. He silently renewed his vow to see the demon destroyed.