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.”

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.

Interlude: The Right Path

Revisiting what you loved as a child might prove ill-advised as an adult.

Jenna’s eyes fluttered open. So bright. It felt as if she’d just gone to sleep. How could it be morning already? Her eyes focused on the sky above her. The sky?

She sat up, gasping. Her hands dug into the lush, green grass underneath her. She was on the edge of a forest. Two narrow, roughshod paths started a short distance away from her.

She slowly stood, looking about her as she went. This definitely wasn’t her bedroom, was it? She brushed self-consciously at her backside. She felt denim. So somehow she’d managed to get dressed, too.

Jenna jumped at a sudden flash of something gray moving in the grass before her. The gray lump stopped abruptly and looked upwards. It was a mouse. It grinned at her. “Hello, there! Welcome to our world.”

The young lady first gasped, then grimaced. “Oh, no… Not again!”

“Not again, she says.” The mouse crossed its tiny arms. “So rude!”

“Look, it’s nothing personal. This isn’t the first time I’ve been here, and it’s always a pain in the ass to get home, and…”

“Such language, too!” The mouse harrumphed.

Jenna clucked. “Yeah, well… That’s me.” She brushed an errant lock of hair from her face. She surveyed the two different paths. “Let me guess, one of these will lead me home.”

“Nope!” Jenna frowned. “Both of them will lead you home.” The mouse beamed.

“Of course they will,” she mumbled to herself. She turned back to her new friend. “So which one gets me there quicker? Hmm?”

“Well that would be the left one, but I really don’t think…”

“Thanks!” Jenna strode past the startled mouse and stepped onto the left pathway. She turned, smiling. “See you ar-OOF!” She found herself plastered against a very sudden, very solid brick wall.

The mouse winced. “I told you that wasn’t a very good idea.”

Jenna gasped. “You did not!”

The mouse’s eyes narrowed. “I certainly tried.”

“I suppose you did…” Jenna sighed. She turned back to the wall. “Well, every wall has a corner.” She turned to her left and was greeted by an adjacent wall. She cried out in disgust.

“Well, there’s the corner then, eh?” The mouse chuckled gleefully. Jenna shot him a death glare. He shrunk back. “You could always try the other path, you know.”

Jenna rubbed her temples. She slowly shook her head. “Fine. Sure. Why not? It’ll be fun.”

The mouse beamed. “Of course it will be fun! This is after all the land of…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know! Just… Let’s go.”

“How did you ever manage to get here with such a terrible attitude?”

Jenna rolled her eyes. “Just call me lucky.”

“Maybe one of us,” the mouse mumbled.


“Right this way, milady!” The mouse shot forward down the path to the right.

Jenna plodded along behind the mouse, a dour look on her face. It softened as she took in the forest around her. The midday sun was pouring through the treetops, making vibrant, dancing shadows on the forest floor. It certainly was beautiful, here.

“You’re remembering.”

Jenna blinked. “I’m sorry?”

The mouse stopped, turning around. “You’re remembering, from before. Surely your last visit here couldn’t have been so bad?”

She sighed. “Well… Not all of it, no.” Her hand subconsciously moved to the keloid scar on her upper arm. “I never asked to come back, though.”

“Right, well…” The mouse pointed. “Here’s another split for you, then. The left path is shorter again but I’d strongly suggest going to the right.”

“Left it is.” The mouse groaned, holding his shaking head. She peered down that direction. The ground appeared a little dampish, but the way was otherwise clear. “Don’t be silly. It looks fine.”

“As you will.” The mouse turned down the right path and bounded away without another peep.

“That’s more like it.” Jenna smiled, turning down the left path.

The trees surrounding her slowly pulled away from the roughshod path she walked. They were replaced instead with tall, flowing grass. The ground grew increasingly damp to the point where standing water appeared in places. Mosquitoes of alarming size and volume flew lazily about them.

A boggy pond came into view as she rounded a muddy corner. She grimaced, immediately regretting her decision. She turned around to return from the direction she had come, but it was too late.

A mud-covered, eight-foot-tall man stood before her. His sloping brow stuck out farther as he considered her. An ogre. His mouth stretched into a wide, toothy grin. “Well hello there, lovely! Haw haw!”

Jenna smiled hollowly. “An ogre! Okay! How lovely! Yes, well… I’m just wanting to go back the way I came, so if you don’t mind…”

“P’raps I do mind, then!” He crossed his log-like arms.

“If I’m on your property, I apologize. I’m just passing through.”

The ogre shrugged. “I’ll let you pass…” Jenna relaxed slightly. “If you give me what I want. Heh!”

Jenna shot him an incredulous look. “I am not that kind of lady!”

“Hold on to your garters there, miss. If I wanted your flower I’d pluck it, sure as the sun hangs high. I just want a kiss. On my forehead.” The grin returned. “Or is that too charged for you, eh?”

She sighed. “Well… I guess that’s not too terrible.”

“Less terrible than me tossing ya into yonder bog for being a pest, hmm? Haw!”

“Yes…” She stared absently at the path behind the ogre. “Yeah… Alright, I guess. Bend over so I can reach it.

“That’s the spirit!” He did as she asked and looked at her expectantly.

“Oh! No peeking now! That wouldn’t be very proper, you know.”

The ogre snorted. “Oh do pardon me, ma’am!” He closed his eyes and waited.

Jenna quietly tip-toed to one side of the ogre before making a run for it. She dashed past, brushing past him in an attempt to stay out of the boggy earth beside the path. It was a mistake that would cost her.

The ogre roared loud enough to shake the trees. He spun about and charged at her. He caught up with her in two strides and grasped the back of her shirt. She made a choking sound as her momentum pulled the neck of her blouse taut against her throat.

He lifted her clear off the ground by the garment. He held her at arm’s length, a smirk on his face. “We look slow, don’t we? But we ain’t! Haw! Not a bit, love.”

Jenna stared at the giant with wide, pleading eyes. “What… What are you gonna do with me? I’m sorry. I…”

“You’ll be sorry, right. What am I going to do with you?” He flashed a sinister look. “I’m gonna do just what I promised!” He started spinning around as he finished the sentence.

Faster and faster they spun around. Finally, he threw her with all his strength and a mighty roar that sent the birds fleeing from their perches. Jenna soared through the air, mewling and flailing as she went.

She fell back to earth in the center of the bog. She struggled to her feet, soaked in tepid water and rotting vegetation. She let out an exasperated scream.

The ogre boomed laughter. His mighty voice easily reached her ears. “Maybe next time you’ll just take your medicine like a good lass!” He swung one mighty hand in dismissal and pounded back the way he’d come.

Jenna fought back the urge to cry. She started dragging her way through the mud towards the other side of the bog. A familiar gray shape came into view as she neared the edge.

“You!” She flung out a muck-covered hand, extending an accusing finger. Mud flew through the air and landed to one side of the mouse. The poor creature jumped, peeping in surprise. “How!”

The mouse’s eyes narrowed. “How? I took the path I told you to take. Funny how I’m here nice and dry while you’ve been tossed in the wash.”

Jenna growled but said no more. She pulled herself onto the dry path near the mouse with a tired grunt. She sat down, turned back the way she had come from. She looked at her clothes and groaned.

“I tried to tell you to take the other path.”

Jenna sighed. “Yes, you did.” She pushed her way to her feet, absently shaking her arms as she stood.

“Right, well…” The mouse gestured towards the path. “Shall we?”

“Sure. Why not?” The mouse was all too happy to skitter away from the look on the young woman’s face.

A short walk later, and the unlikely duo found themselves standing at another fork in the road. Jenna’s misery deepened. “Great. Another fork.”

“Well it would be odd if it were a spoon, wouldn’t it?” The mouse tittered at its own joke. Jenna did not. The mouse nervously cleared his throat.

“Let me guess. I should take the right path.” The mouse shook his head. “So the left path, then.” The mouse shook his head once more. Jenna frowned. “Well I have to take one path or the other!”

“Yes, you do… Just not at the moment.”

Jenna growled. The mouse took an uneasy step backwards. “Yes at this moment! I want to go home!”

“Well right now you should go up.” The mouse nodded at the tree behind him.

“Up.” The mouse nodded. “You’re insane!” Jenna pounded past the mouse onto the left path. The mouse looked nervously on, then thought better and took his own advice. He watched her progress from a slightly higher vantage point.

Jenna plodded down the path, head hung low. Each heavy step raised dust and dropped mud from her soaked clothing. “Go up… I’ve had enough of this place. I loved this place! Such absurdity…”

She suddenly looked up. “What…” There came a loud rustling from further down the trail. She paused, listening. The sound subsided. “Just the wind.” She huffed and continued walking.

The rustling sound started again. She slowed. The rustling grew louder. “I uh… Maybe I should try the other path.” Jenna turned around and started back the way she had come.

The rustling did not subside. It instead grew louder, more consistent. She walked quicker. Was the ground rumbling? She slowed and ventured a look over her shoulder.

Her mouth formed into an “O” at the sight of the massive dust cloud rising in the distance. The rumbling grew in intensity. “Oh sh…” She turned and ran. “Mister Mouse! Mister Mouse!

A wild group of galloping ostriches clawed and leaped their way through the forest. The mouse’s tree was just ahead! She spared a look behind her and paid dearly for it.

The toe of her shoe caught fast on a root in the ground and sent her stumbling to the ground. She was quick to her feet, but the ostriches were even quicker. Jenna turned to see them bearing down on her.

The ostriches hissed and scratched and kicked as they scrambled around her. Jenna’s screams were quickly lost in the stampede that surrounded her. The crowd finally began to thin out. Jenna, shaking, collapsed against a tree and began to weep.

She stood wearily a short while later. She looked down and fought not to cry again. A quiet rustling came from behind her. She jumped, quietly crying out. It was the mouse.

“Pardon!” He looked at her from head to toe. “Oh… Oh, my. I dare say, you’ve been tarred and feathered, haven’t you?”

Jenna looked down again. The thick, sticky mud had clung to the loose feathers of the ostriches as they streamed by. It was an apt description. She sniffled, nodding slightly. “I just want to go home,” she said in a small voice.

The mouse sighed, nodding. “Best thing for you, perhaps. Maybe you’ll follow my advice now?” Jenna nodded numbly. “Right! This way, then! This path would have taken you straight to the razorhides.” Jenna did not recall the razorhides, but shuddered all the same.

They rounded the tree that the kindly mouse had scrambled up a short while ago and took the path to the right. It slowly arced in a semi-circle back in the direction of the left path. One path eventually crossed over the other via a gracefully arched stone bridge. The mysterious razorhides could be heard howling somewhere in the distance.

They emerged from the forest back into the brilliantly shining sun. The mouse sighed contentedly. Jenna frowned as the mess on her slowly dried in the heat. Tarred and feathered, indeed.

The mouse turned to face Jenna at the end of the path a short time later. “I’ve two things to show you, young lady. First, please follow me.” Jenna did as requested.

They ventured to the left a short distance through the grass. Soon they stood at the edge of a seemingly bottomless pit. The mouse turned to Jenna. “Not one person to fall in there has ever returned.”

Jenna shrugged. “That’s too bad? I won’t jump in there?”

The mouse smiled slyly. “You tried to!” He turned and pointed at a short cliff on the far side of the pit. “Up there… That’s the end of the path you tried to take at the beginning of this little adventure.”

“So that wall wasn’t trying to keep me from going home, it was trying to keep me out of the pit?”

“Looks that way, doesn’t it?” The mouse winked. “This way, please.” He skittered back the way they had come.

A short walk later and they stood before a round pool. Jenna ran a hand along the top of the slate wall that formed its sides and leaned over the edge. Her own gently rippling reflection stared back up at her.

Looking closer she saw something beneath the surface. Buildings and people were vaguely visible. Did she hear the drone of distant traffic? She spun around, smiling. “It’s the way home!”

The mouse jumped out of the way of a flying chunk of feathery mud, frowning. “Yes, I suppose it is, isn’t it? Perhaps you’ll be a bit cleaner on the other side of things…”

“Yes…” She looked down at her ruined clothes. “Still…” She looked back out across the fields before them. Maybe I could stay a while longer? I… Well, I missed being here.”

The mouse raised a furry eyebrow. “Fancy that, with you rushing for the exit so swiftly, hmm?”

It was Jenna’s turn to frown. “Yes, well… I suppose I haven’t been a very nice person…” The mouse nodded enthusiastically. “But perhaps if you gave me another chance…”

“Nope!” The ogre loomed up from around the far side of the pool and pounded towards her.

“What? How? I don’t…” Jenna’s head whipped back and forth between the petite mouse and the mammoth ogre.

“Quite true, you don’t. Haw!” He hoisted her up and dumped her unceremoniously headfirst into the pool. “Heh! The end, eh Mouse?”

The mouse nodded his head. “Quite! What a figure…”

Somewhere on the far side of that pool, in a city far away from the peace and tranquility of the other-world, Jenna rocketed out of a public fountain. The pigeons that had been sitting quietly about it screamed in defiance and fluttered into the air as she splashed back down. Jenna popped back out of the water, gasping. She spit out water, shaking her hands in front of her.

A police officer that had been leaning on the side of his cruiser stood up, eyebrows rising markedly. He shook his head and pushed on the bridge of his mirrored sunglasses. He walked towards her, talking quietly into his radio as he went.

“Hello, officer!” Jenna smiled innocently and waved. A chunk of mud flew through the air, just missing the officer. The man flinched reflexively backwards. “Oh… Sorry!”

The officer smirked. “Ma’am, I’m gonna have to ask you to step out of the fountain, please.”

“Oh, boy…” Jenna did as she was asked.

“So what’s your story? Take a wrong turn, or something?”

Jenna’s cheeks flushed. “Yeah, you could say that.”

Interlude: Killing Time

Not all is as it seems… or is it?

Kelly checked her watch again. “Two hours to kill.” She sighed. What was she going to do for two hours?

She looked up to see a woman dressed all in black pounding her stilettos into the sidewalk a short distance up ahead. “Where did she come from?” She mumbled the thought to herself.

The mysterious woman suddenly stopped. She slowly turned halfway around. Kelly unconsciously came to a stop and made eye contact with the woman.

The lady in black stared back at her with piercing black eyes. A smile slowly played out across her lips. There was a seductive feeling to it. She winked and abruptly walked into an alleyway on her left.

“Huh.” Kelly half-smiled. She started walking forward again. Curiosity welled up within her.

She stopped just shy of the alley. She stretched a bit, trying to get a glimpse of what lay around the corner. She sighed. “Well, I do have a couple of hours to kill.”

Kelly giggled nervously. Was she serious? She’d never really looked at other girls that way. This was nuts. She darted forward, meaning to walk right past the alley.

She stopped though, and turned. It didn’t feel entirely optional to her. She swallowed hard and peered into the alley.

At the far end was the lady in black. She had removed her trench coat. She had a black blouse on, the neck dipping dangerously low. The lady turned just so and smiled seductively before slinking out of sight to her left.

Kelly shook her head. “Yeah, okay… This is too weird for…” She slapped at her arm. “Ow!” Her hand came away trailing cobwebs. “Damn spiders.”

She looked up. The lady was leaning around the corner. She gave her another wink and disappeared out of sight. Kelly sighed shakily. “Why not…” She started forward down the alley.

The dull pain in her arm faded from her mind as she began her journey into the unknown. She grinned at the sun above her. She had a couple of hours, right? Maybe this lady would be more fun than the guy she was supposed to be meeting.

She grimaced. She lowered her head and shook it. This was nuts. Her arm was hurting again. Maybe she should just go home…

A cool, gentle wind wafted over her. Unheard voices whispered to her on the breeze. She opened her eyes and jumped. A small squirrel observed her for a moment before skittering down the alley.

She watched it bounce away, suddenly feeling better. She smiled and began to follow after it. The silent whispering voices reassured her all would be well. Of course everything would be well!

She breathed deeply through her nose. Had the air always been so fresh in this part of the city? The alley seemed to be widening the farther she walked.

The end, where the lady had turned away again, seemed farther away somehow. Kelly found she didn’t care much about it. The sun was shining so brightly in the alley, and…

What alley?

She laughed at herself. There were no alleys out here. She blinked the glare of the sun out of her eyes. She sighed contentedly, taking in the rolling verdant fields before her.

A dark figure dipped behind a tree in the woods ahead. Had that been the mysterious lady in black? Wait… What lady in black? She was going to meet…

A man. He peered playfully at her from behind the tree. She grinned back at him. She giggled and began to jog towards the treeline in the distance.

How silly was she? Kelly rolled her eyes. She probably just needed something to eat. Those two hours went by awful quick.

She stopped short of the tree her beau was hiding behind. She giggled. “Hello?”

The strapping young man popped out from behind the tree with a flair. Kelly giggled again. He smiled broadly. “Greetings, fair maiden.”

Kelly blushed. “Fair maiden, huh? Well, aren’t you sweet.” She walked up to him without realizing what she was doing and embraced him.

He smiled down at her. “We’ll do such wonderful things together.”

All seemed well from poor Kelly’s perspective, but from any other angle…

One would see that Kelly was not embracing an attractive young man, but was in the grips of a monstrous black spider. Its razor-sharp mandibles worked open and closed inches from her face as the young man spoke to her in her head.

“You should rest, first.” The young man wrapped a gauze-like white linen about her. Kelly’s eyes grew heavy. “Sleep well, and dream of the sweet music we will make together.”

Kelly’s eyelids slowly shut. “Yes… So beautiful…” She drifted off to sleep.

The spider skittered back from the cocooned woman and considered its handiwork. Only her mouth and nose remained visible. It let slip a small screech of approval. The spider skittered off deeper into the cave to inspect its other meals.

It stopped, rearing up at a screeching noise from just inside the entrance to its lair. The cave was suddenly flooded with dull, yellow light. The spider turned about, darting towards the commotion.

A young warrior in leather armor stood bathed in yellow-orange light. The cocoon before him ignited with a WHUMP as he touched his torch to it. The baby spiders inside screamed just as the ones in the previous cocoon had.

The mother spider reared up on her back legs, screeching indignantly through her quickly working mandibles. The man tossed the torch at the colossal spider’s feet. It skittered backwards.

The warrior unsheathed his sword and paced around the cocoon. The spider was gone when he reached the far side. The seductive sing-song voice of an unseen woman whispered into his ear. The tip of his sword dipped toward the ground.

The sound of another screeching baby spider snapped him back to reality. He spun around, lifting his sword just in time to hold back a killing blow from the mother spider. He fell over backwards onto the hard ground, the spider looming over him.

Kelly stirred inside of her cocoon, unaware of what was happening around her. The man shoved up on the giant spider with all his might and slashed into the spider. Hot, acrid blood rained down on him. Spider and man screamed in unison.

Kelly’s eyes fluttered open. The webbing covering her eyes glowed dull orange from the firelight. What was going on?

She had her answer a moment later. The young man tore the cocoon away from her face. He smiled at her. “Hello, fair maiden.”

Kelly smiled uncertainly. “What’s going on? You look familiar…”

“You were captured by a Dream-Weaver spider. I followed you in here.”

Kelly went white. “A spider… I was bit…” The man freed her with his sword. She stumbled forwards into his arms and embraced him.

The man smiled. “You’ll be safe, now.” He took her by the hand and led her out of the cave.

She looked over her shoulder as they left. A feeling of shock and horror passed over her, even as her mind refused to let her see the carnage she was leaving behind. She turned back to her beau, smiling gratefully.

They walked out into the open fields. The sun shone down upon them, warming them after the cold of the cave. She smiled contentedly, venturing into the unknown with her new companion.

Interlude: And the Blind Will See

A man’s hopes for salvation fade as he reviews his life.

The old man tossed his keys on the table and rubbed the back of his neck. “God, but I feel like shit.” He pulled out a chair and sat roughly down. “Probably doesn’t help that I’m over seventy.”

He laughed, then began to cough. He doubled over from the effort. He sat back, breathing heavily. “Hoo, boy. I uh…” Then the moment he had always feared finally came.

It felt as if someone reached through his chest and grabbed hold of his heart. His left arm first burned, then went numb as the hand squeezed hard. “God, no! God, I…” He slumped off the chair.

He crawled towards the phone on the wall. He collapsed halfway to his goal, the hand squeezing harder and harder. The old man passed away on his kitchen floor.

He opened his eyes again after an indeterminate period of time. He was standing. He looked around in a blind panic. Where in the hell was he?

He was at a lake. A beautiful lake, on a gorgeous summer day. He squinted at the big, blue sky. Not a cloud to be seen. “Hey, Dennis! Well you’re looking mighty fine, ain’t ya?”

The old man stared in disbelief. “Bobby Jackson?” He looked down at himself. He was much slimmer, his hands much younger. “Well, I’ll be damned.”

Dennis looked back up at Bobby. “Is it really you, Bobby? You…”

“Died?” Bobby laughed. “Yep. I sure did. One of those V.C. bastards cut me down while I was taking a nap. At least I woke up here, huh?” He grinned, looking out over the lake.

Dennis nodded numbly. “Ayuh. I remember.” He followed Bobby’s gaze. “Wait a minute…” He turned to Bobby. “I’m dead, too!” He clutched his chest.

“Yeah, I imagine. Turned out alright, though. Didn’t it? You ended up at Elmore Lake instead of Hell Avenue.” He chuckled.

Dennis blanched. He laughed nervously. “Yeah! Sure…”

He turned back towards the lake. The gentle ripples suddenly went out of focus. He felt as if the world was spinning underneath him. His vision blurred and darkened. He tightly closed his eyes.

Dennis clutched his stomach as the spinning slowed. He waited a few beats before trying to open his eyes. When he did, he found himself standing a short distance from a big, red barn.

“Come to help me finish up plantin’ for the season?” A middle-aged gentleman smiled gently at Dennis. “Then again, looks like you might’ve started without me.” He pointed at Dennis’ clothes.

Dennis looked down. Sure enough, he looked somewhat sod bound. He looked worriedly at his outstretched hands. They looked less youthful than they had a moment earlier.

He looked back up at the farmer. “You’re Jack Demple! It’s been what, thirty years…”

“I reckon about so. Time passes funny here. So what tore you down, huh?”

“Oh! A heart attack, I think.” Dennis absently rubbed at his chest.

“Quick and easy, I guess. I gotta say, though… I wondered if you’d end up here the way you were heading…”

A sullen look passed over Dennis’ face. “Oh. Yeah, well…” He gazed off towards the barn. The clouds above it were slowly gathering.

Jack stared up at them. “Well, whatever’s the case, here ya are. I better get to droppin’ seed, though.” He winked at Jack. “Might be rain soon, looks like.”

“Sure, sure…” Dennis watched Jack walk off towards the barn. Both man and building became fuzzy. “Oh, shit…”

He squeezed his eyes shut as the world spun again. He stumbled about a moment later, trying to find his footing. Something was surrounding him, pressing in on his legs.

Dennis opened his eyes to find himself in a field of yellowed grass. The sky above him was gray. There was another person standing in the distance. It was his ex-wife. He grimaced. This was feeling less and less like heaven.

“YOU! You worthless piece of shit!” She pushed her way through the tall grass towards him, finger leading the way. “You look like it, too. How in the hell did you manage to live so long?”

Dennis looked down at himself again. His stomach had filled back in, straining against the waist of his soiled jeans. He brushed at his filthy tee shirt with liver-spotted hands.

He lifted his shaking head to meet his ex’s gaze. “I was young…”

She snorted. “Yeah, then you got old… and mean. You don’t belong here! You hurt me, Dennis! You’d get drunk, yell at me, hit me…”

Dennis snarled. “You made me do it! I worked my ass off, only to come home and there would be no dinner…”

I wasn’t your slave!” Tears spilled from her eyes. Thunder rippled in the distance. “I was so glad someone wizened me up, got me out of there. At least I got a few years of joy before God took me.”

She glared. “You’re a bad man, Dennis.” She jabbed her finger at him. “You’ll get yours. You’ll see. You got a stench on you, and it ain’t coming off!”

Lightning crashed close by. The bright-white light blinded him. His scream was lost in the resounding boom. He squeezed his eyes shut as his ears burned.

He blinked, rubbing his eyes. His vision slowly cleared. He was standing on a highway beside a wide-open field, now.

A short distance away from him was a car parked at a funny angle on the side of the road. Rain started to fall. He gasped as realization flooded his face. “Oh… Oh, GOD.”

He numbly walked towards the front of the car. He already knew what he’d find once he got up there. He wanted to turn and run in the opposite direction. Something pushed him against his will.

Lying on the ground before the car was a bloodied young woman. An ice-cold wind blew across the road, making him shiver. The steadily-falling rain soaked into the woman’s tattered clothing.

The body twitched. Dennis jumped, taking a step back. The woman suddenly sat up, screaming. A deep gash in her cheek made her gaping mouth unnaturally wide.

Dennis screamed in return, stumbling backwards. Lightning streaked through the air in the distance. “Stay… Stay away! I didn’t mean to…”

The dead woman stumbled after him. Her broken leg twisted at an odd angle with each step. “But you did! Drunk driver… Ran me down!” Her voice was a hellish screech.

He turned to run. The woman appeared right in front of him. He screamed. She screamed back. “Drunk! Wife-beater… Wino! Took my whole life away…”

Dennis walked backwards. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry! I’ll do anything…”

“You’ll do nothing!” The woman’s eyes turned jet-black. She began to laugh, blood pouring from her mouth. “You’ll just pay!” She shuffled towards him.

He fell backwards onto the slick road. He blinked at the specter through the driving rain. “No, please! God…”

The sick smile faded from the woman’s face. She slowly shook her head. “God turned his back on you a long time ago.” A pair of black forms loomed behind the woman.

“No… No! I repent! I have sinned! God, forgive me…”

Red, glaring eyes opened in the shadows behind the woman. “Too late, Dennis.”

The wraiths lifted up and over the woman. They descended on the old man. The shadowy figures took hold of each of his arms, holding him fast. The road beneath him began to shift and buckle.

The rain hissed off the rapidly heating tarmac. Dennis began to scream as it burned his flesh. The ground violently tore open. Orange light poured out of the fissure.

Dennis hung suspended above the entrance to an immense chamber. Eternal flames burned far below. The heat blistered his skin. Dennis continued to scream.

The wraiths let go. He slapped fruitlessly at the immaterial specters before slipping through the crack. He stared wild-eyed at the woman above before being lost to the fires below.