Halloween Roundup

I’ve finally reached Assignment 19 of Writing 101, about a month after the original assignment was published. Fantastic!

This assignment was about featuring a guest post as part of a collaboration we were asked to consider in a previous assignment. Needless to say, that plan didn’t pan out in any way. So instead, I’ll go with the alternate assignment, which is to feature a roundup of posts that we’ve enjoyed reading this week.

For me, that’s an easy one. A couple of months ago, I had participated in the first WEP (Write, Edit, Publish) Challenge of the year, a bi-monthly blogging event hosted by Yolanda Renee and Denise Covey. It was a lot of fun, and when they announced a Halloween challenge, I was on board right away. I mean, how could I not write a story based around my second favorite occasion of the year?

The challenge took place from October 21st to 23rd, and there were quite a few spooky entries to check out. They’re all included in the link below. Please do check them out, and drop a comment or three! My entry can be found on my fiction blog Tales of Unusual Strangeness, but the direct link to the story’s on the list (it’s number 16):

WEP Halloween Challenge

Happy reading! For best results, make sure you’re completely alone with not a single light on. Bwahahaha!

Yikes!

So it just occurred to me that I’ve been neglecting Tales of Unusual Strangeness a bit. Nothing posted in almost two weeks?

Oops.

I’ve just put up another story:  https://unusualstrangeness.wordpress.com/2015/04/27/apocalypse/

Now I just need to stick to a regular posting schedule.

Let’s see how that works out.

Unusual Strangeness

At long last, after many months of dragging my feet, I’ve finally published my first short story on Tales of Unusual Strangeness. You can check it out here:

https://unusualstrangeness.wordpress.com/2015/04/15/out-with-the-old/

I’m trying to keep the worlds of fiction and non-fiction separate, so this will be the space for general ramblings on life, and Unusual Strangeness will be my story blog.

Go ahead and give it a read and tell me what you think! If that blog’s a bit too much on the unusual side for your tastes, well, you’re always welcome here.

Out of the Abyss

He walked through the darkness. He could see nothing around him. What was this place? He had no idea if he was in a basement or surrounded by a moonless night. The ground beneath him felt solid, but he couldn’t tell what kind of surface it was. Just where was he? How did he get here?

“Worthless.”

He froze, feeling his stomach drop. He knew that voice. Soft. Low. Cold. It was a voice he’d heard so many times, that he had tried to push away. He had pushed it away.

“You’re absolutely worthless.”

The sound came from everywhere, the air itself speaking to him. He took a step back, feeling his heartbeat increase.

The space in front of him lightened, barely. A dark shadow stood silhouetted against the gray surroundings. He could not see its eyes, but he know they were watching him, full of loathing.

“Please,” he whispered. “I don’t want to do this. Not now.”

“You don’t want? You think that choice is yours?”

It emitted a laugh that carried no joy, that seemed to pierce the air and stab into his very bones.

“If you were capable of making such choices, would I even be here?”

Its voice oozed scorn, and though its face was hidden in shadow, he knew it was smiling at him. Not being able to see that smile was the only small relief he had.

“You never were very good at standing up for yourself, were you? But then, you were never really good at anything.”

He winced at the dismissive tone of its voice.

“No, not that’s not true.”

“Oh?” it inquired. “And what have you done with your life so far? What have you really accomplished? Your peers have made a name for themselves. They’ve pushed forward with their careers and their families. They’re surrounded by friends wherever they go. And you?” It chuckled and gestured with one formless arm. “You’re here. With me. It’s the only place you’ll ever belong.”

He could feel himself shaking. He wanted to say that it wasn’t true, that he deserved better. Instead, he stood staring at his feet.

“You had so much potential,” it continued. “And you never missed an opportunity to waste it. You failed to be a good son a good brother, a good friend. Your time was instead spent digging trenches of failure, each deeper than the last.”

It was enjoying this. It always did.

“You could have graduated at the top of your class, but you chose to stay comfortably in the middle. You could have blazed trails in the professional world, but you languished in unemployment when your family could have used your help.”

“That wasn’t my fault!” He yelled louder than he’d intended to, unable to tolerate that final barb. “You know it isn’t! I tried my best, but nobody was hiring!”

“People hire those who have something to give the world, those who have value,” it retorted without a second’s hesitation. “Why should anyone hire you? What value do you bring?”

He had no answer.

“None. You have no value at all. And that is why nobody will love you either. Are you really ‘single and loving it’, as you claim to the world, or are you just a lonely man unable to find love as time passes him by? Who would love you? And why?”

His eyes were burning from the futile attempt at holding back tears. It was right. He was unlovable. Worthless.

It bore down on him, enveloping him in darkness. “Why would anyone ever love you?”

The words echoed all around him. He shut his eyes and clamped his hands over his ears, but could still hear the hateful voice taunting him.

“What could anyone possibly see in a failure like you?!”

“Hope.”

It stopped. “What?”

“He still has hope.”

As he opened his eyes, he saw a dazzling white light. No, that wasn’t it. It was a woman, wearing a dress that seemed to be made of light. She had long golden hair that flowed around her like liquid fire, adding to the brightness in the gloom. Most brilliant of all were her eyes, twin pools of rich amber on which emerald flecks danced.

“He’s made some poor choices and he’s seen troubled times, but that needn’t be his end. Everyone deserves another chance.”

“There have been enough chances already. He’s wasted them all.”

“Then maybe he needs a little help.”

“Why? What would be the point? History will just repeat itself again and he’ll end up back here. It’s better for him to stay.”

It reached out to him with long, smoke-like fingers.

“No.” Her voice was firm, determined. “I won’t let him slip into this abyss. There is goodness in him, in his heart. He just needs someone to guide him on the right path.”

“This is his path!”

She strode toward him and it shrank away, blending into the shadows. She put a hand on his face, immediately flooding him with a warmth that he had never before known. He looked into her eyes, transfixed.

“Let’s go,” she said, stroking his cheek. “You don’t have to stay here anymore. There is hope. There’s always hope.”

He nodded. She motioned to a doorway, made out of the same brilliant light emanating from her, and he followed her to it.

“NO!” it cried, struggling to escape its dark boundaries. “You can’t take him! He belongs here! This is the only place he’ll ever belong!”

She looked at it pityingly, then kept walking. It cried out again, its voice hoarse and ragged.

He turned back to look at it one last time. He saw nothing but darkness.

She took him by the hand and smiled at him, a smile filled with the radiance of a thousand suns. “It’s alright. I’ll make sure you never find yourself here again.”

He could feel himself tearing up once more. He nodded and followed her through the doorway, into the light.

*****

He took a deep breath, looking around the house. It was a fine house, one that he shared with his loving wife. He was living a dream, and sometimes he thought that was all it was. He was afraid sometimes that he would open his eyes and find it all gone, replaced by the cave of despair that he had trapped himself in for so long.

“Honey, are you almost ready? We’ll be late.”

The sound of his wife’s voice brought him back into reality. He smiled. This was real.

“I’ll be down in just a second, babe.”

He took his keys from on top of the dresser and paused for a second to look at the picture sitting there. It was from his wedding. He and his bride both looked so happy, on the verge of starting a wonderful new life together. He was sharply dressed in an elegant black tuxedo and she stood next to him in a dress of dazzling white, her golden hair pulled back into a loose bun, her eyes twinkling with joy.

And such beautiful eyes they were, twin pools of rich amber in which emerald flecks danced.

He Does Not Sleep

A Halloween special writing prompt from io9. Image credit to Michael Macrae.

He does not sleep.
He does not eat. Or speak. Or even breathe. He just sits in his old chair, hollow gaze fixed on the door.  Almost as if he’s waiting for someone. Or something.
She is his only companion in that frigid waste. She had come here many months ago, leaving her own life behind, to care for him. He was getting old, but refused to admit it. Every morning, he would rise and go hunting to bring back food. She was a more than capable hunter herself, but he was an exceptionally stubborn man, and so she stayed home, carrying on with her daily chores and cooking for the both of them. She would ask him about the hunt when he came home, and he would tell her, adding his own embellishments where necessary.
That morning, she had felt something wrong. It was colder than usual, with strong, icy winds slicing through the air. Even the fire would not warm their little cabin. She had told him not to go out; they had provisions to last them another week. But he was stubborn as always. The hunt was an almost sacred ritual for him. So he had left in the dim gray light of the day, and when darkness came, it did not bring him back with it.
She was anxious. What had happened? Had he gotten lost? Fallen somewhere? The weather would not have been kind to his old bones. She gathered up some supplies and decided to go in search of him. She had to find him, whatever the risk. As she was preparing to leave, she felt a wave of uneasiness pass through her, followed by a horrific, rotting stench. The door of the cabin opened and he entered. She would have rushed to help him, to inquire about where he was, to see if he was alright. Instead she stood in place, petrified by the sight in front of her.
He had come home, but he was not the same man, if he was still a man at all. His skin was dried out and leathery, stretched tightly over his bones, as if he had been mummified for centuries. His face was gaunt and skeletal, mouth contorted into a ghoulish rictus. And his eyes, his brilliant blue eyes that seemed to twinkle when he told one of his hunting tales, were gone. Empty sockets stared at her listlessly, and yet, she felt they saw more than she could imagine. She wanted to scream, but her voice was buried deep inside her. As she fought the nausea that was threatening to overtake her, he latched the door, walked over to his old wooden chair and sat down, eyeless gaze fixed on the entrance of the cabin.
That is how it has been for the past three days. She tries to search for some sense of normalcy, carrying out her daily chores and cooking meals for both of them. She leaves a plate for him at the table. But he does not eat. She tries talking to him, trying to understand what has happened. But he does not speak.
He just sits in his chair, hollow gaze fixed on the door. Almost as if waiting for someone. Or something.
He does not sleep.
She dares not sleep.

The Demon Cat

Science and science fiction site io9 has a weekly writing prompt where they ask their readers to come up with a short story based on an image or illustration. A recent prompt about the ‘Demon Cat’ caught my eye and inspired me to spin a little yarn. Today seemed like an appropriate occasion to post it.

(Image credited to Patrik Björkström)

Horatio looked at the cat with a great sense of disappointment. He consulted his summoning book again, thinking that he must have made a mistake. The creature certainly looked fearsome enough, with its luminous (yet oddly lifeless) eyes, wild black fur streaked with silver, claws like little daggers, and the twin pairs of steer-like horns that appeared to be jutting out of its back. But it was still, Horatio noted sadly, just a cat.
The cat merely glowered at him, its tail swishing languidly like a snake with a full belly. Horatio checked the spell once more:
Izzhgo Akr’al Bezral Belegha. This incantation is to be chanted five times after the proper rituals have been completed to summon the demon lord Bezral, Harbinger of Doom and Devastation, Devourer of Souls, and Master of Infernal Sciences.”
Yes, he’d certainly liked the sound of that. A touch theatrical, perhaps, but a Harbinger of Doom was exactly what he needed. Horatio Pendleton was an assistant manager at the Fixwell Hardware Store. He was a slight, timid man with eyes that always looked nervous and a smile that was far from reassuring. For the past year or so, he’d had an eye on the general manager’s nametag. But a promotion would be difficult to get, what with current manager David’s exemplary work ethic. Horatio’s only chance at climbing the corporate footstool was to remove David from the picture entirely.
He could have done the job himself, or hired someone to do it for him, but that would inevitably become a hassle. Some sort of evidence was bound to turn up, as it always does, and the police would no doubt find a reason to question him. Horatio was not a man of fortitude, and repeated interrogation might force him to accidentally confess. But supernatural creatures wouldn’t leave any evidence behind, especially not demons. They were a careful sort. No one would connect him to a demonic killing, and if they did, he could just summon his demon to kill them as well. It was brilliant!
So it was that Horatio had found himself at the old bookstore on the corner that always smelled like mothballs. After much research, he’d finally found what he’d been after: Hell’s Coming To You! – The Layman’s Guide to Demons and Summoning Spells. He’d thumbed through the book, finally settling on a suitable demon for the job (that demon being the Dread Lord Bezral, Harbinger of Doom and Devastation, Devourer of Souls, and Master of Infernal Sciences). As directed, he had collected the necessary ingredients for the summoning spell: the ashes of an oak branch, three drops of virgin blood (Horatio wasn’t very popular with the fairer sex), a piece of white chalk, and a tuna sandwich (he was rather hungry). With everything prepared, he had headed off to the nearest cemetery to start the ritual. At the first stroke of midnight, Horatio chanted the words, his voice shaking with excitement, mind swimming with visions of an all-powerful lord of hell that would impale David with deadly claws and drag him to eternal damnation.
And after all of that effort, he’d wound up with a cat perched on a tombstone.  A demonic cat, but then how was that really different from a regular one?  
Horatio shifted uncomfortably, watching the cat as it, in turn, watched him. He cleared his throat loudly and decided to address the beast.
“Er…evening, your, um, Lordship,” he began, lowering his gaze in an attempt to be reverent. “Welcome to, uh, to our world. Hope the trip was…pleasant?”
The cat continued to stare impassively.
“Now, ah, you might…you might be wondering why it is that I have summoned you here, “ Horatio continued, starting to feel extremely stupid. “Well, you see, there’s this favor that I, uh, that I need from you.”
If the cat were the least bit interested in what was being said, it was doing a good job of hiding it.
Horatio wondered if the spell had failed. Maybe he’d just come across a feral cat that some crazy person had glued horns onto. Were they even horns? Now that he looked more carefully, perhaps they were just tangled branches that were distorted in the moonlight. He laughed, nervously. Of course that’s what happened! He’d come here all worked up and ready to see a demon, so he’d fixated on the first living soul that came into sight. Horatio shook his head, still laughing. Demons. What a ridiculously fanciful idea.
He started to walk out of the cemetery, book tucked firmly in his pocket, when he heard a loud yowling noise behind him. The sound stopped him cold. He turned around, a cold chill running down the back of his neck, to see the cat leaping toward him; curiously, it no longer looked like a cat at all. Certainly not any he’d ever seen. Voice rising to a squeak, Horatio Pendleton managed a feeble “Your Lordship..?” before he witnessed the horrific success of his summoning spell firsthand.
************************************************************************
It was a crisp Monday morning, and David Eddings, general manager of the Fixwell Hardware Store, flicked on the switch for the neon ‘Open’ sign in the window while whistling a jaunty tune. “Ah, good morning, Horatio!” he said in a booming and almost unnaturally cheerful voice as his mild mannered assistant walked in.
Horatio smiled back mechanically, as if practicing that expression for the first time.
“You alright?” David asked, noticing the dark circles under Horatio’s eyes and the unusual (or was it, really?) pallor of his skin.
“Oh yes,” came the flat, monotonous reply. “Just fine.”
Now David Eddings wasn’t always the sharpest tool in his store, but he had a vague notion that perhaps everything wasn’t ‘just fine’. Before he cold press the matter any further, however, David felt a sharp, burning pain in his chest. He noted with no small measure of surprise that the source of the pain was Horatio’s hand, which had sunk wrist deep into his body. Some sort of portal had also opened up under David’s feet, and as he contemplated its sudden appearance, he felt himself get sucked into it, much like a speck of dust getting sucked into a vacuum cleaner. The only proof of his presence was a nametag lying on the floor with the words ‘General Manager’ inscribed on it.
 Horatio stared at the floor, fascinated, then picked up the nametag and pinned it on his shirt. He marveled at how he had allowed himself to endure such a subservient existence for so long. But that didn’t matter anymore. Now he was in control of this dismal establishment. And soon enough, he would be the Supreme Overlord of the Mortal Realm.
But there was plenty of time for that. Horatio allowed himself a contented purr and walked toward the manager’s office, licking the back of his hand thoughtfully.

The Librarian

Every shelf in the Library’s cavernous aisles is stacked with worlds and universes, full of life, and also of death. Nobody ever checks out any books from there, though. Nor are there any avid readers wandering around inside, casually flicking through pages while speaking to each other in hushed tones. The Library has existed for as long as anyone can remember, growing in size over untold years (or is it millennia?), a beast that subsists on knowledge and can never be satisfied. And deep in its silently beating heart sits the Librarian. He is the keeper of stories, a guardian of fiction and fact. He was there once upon a time and he will be there happily ever after, though he cannot say if it will be happy or not.

The Librarian has seen the Library’s foundation being laid. He will see its last stone crumble to dust. He has seen babies cradled in their mothers’ arms and old men laying on their deathbeds. He has seen lovers light up the dance floor and enemies scorch the battlefield. Heroes fighting villains; teenagers navigating their lives through friendship and love; regular folks grappling with careers and relationships, hoping to find happiness. The Librarian has seen them all, page after page, chapter after chapter.

He finishes reading the life of a famous radio personality with a dysfunctional family; the poor man dies alone and his family feuds over his assets before the body’s even gone cold. The Librarian sighs and closes the book. The family’s stories will have to wait for another day; perhaps he’ll read some lighter fare next. He returns the book to its shelf where it will be put away for good, never to be read again.

Endings are usually the problem. Some stories take their time building toward an inevitable conclusion, others are cut short abruptly; so many of them are tragedies. He had quite enjoyed the one about the dinosaurs, but was disappointed with how it ended. Asteroid impacts seemed like a cheap storytelling device. His chair creaks a welcome as he settles back into it, exhausted from today’s reading. He glances at the giant tome sitting on one side of his desk: The Saga of Humanity. That one’s been an ongoing project; he reads a handful of chapters every few years, but is no closer to the end. Sometimes, he finds himself tempted to peek at the ending, but that would spoil the surprise. He’ll pick it up again in a year or two and see how the story’s progressed.

The Librarian removes his glasses and rubs his temples, leaning back. Tomorrow he will once again explore new worlds, new lives. He hopes that at least some endings will be happy as he closes his eyes and drifts off into a sleep without dreams.