Welcome! Table of Contents Below…

Welcome to writingjackal.com. This is a journal of original short stories that updates monthly. The topics can be broad but mostly cover science fiction and fantasy. I write all kinds of random stories with fantasy/sci-fi/horror themes. If you’re in a horror mood, try out Lynchpin, a story about a man who meets his fiancee’s parents.

I finished my first novel and self-published it on the Kindle store! It’s a comedy set in the Appalachian Mountains, and it’s kind of accidentally a Christmas story. There’s also deep-woods cultists, fertilizer crime rings,and mysterious Russian guests. I’d appreciate any Amazon reviews you can give — lots of reviews would help me market the book better. http://www.amazon.com/Vale-Cross-Laurence-Finn-ebook/dp/B015NLSANE/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1442934450&sr=8-2&keywords=vale+of+the+cross

Cover 48

It’s on hiatus, but I was working on a series of science fiction stories focusing on two people who try to recover the remains of their lost civilization. It’s meant to be fast-paced and action-oriented. I’ve taken down those stories for now, but they may come back later.

Horror, Fantasy, and other stand-alone short stories:

Lynchpin: Stephen meets his father-in-law for a cookout.

Runes in the Snow: The Wilks Family comes across a traveling salesman.

The Tree and the Wolf: Supernatural house maintenance problems abound for Felix…

Foxfire: A traveler comes across foxfire during a nighttime drive.

Loyalty: A strange woman comes to stay with the Henworthy family.

————–

Keto and Daine “Scavengers of Rhea” short story series [REMOVED]:

(1) “The Veil”– Keto’s attempted recovery of a medical device outside of quarantine goes awry.

(2) “On the Outside” — Keto and Daine travel to the northern wastes and find a massive, untouched structure.

(3) “Diversions” — Keto steals an artifact from the Regent’s Winter Palace.

(4) “Rain Down” — Daine gets involved with a crazed inventor named Lian Feng.

(5) “Bloodless” — Continued from “Rain Down.” Keto and Daine investigate a fallen object from Rhea’s orbit.

Sephen Reviews the “Shattered Sea” trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

Here is a review by a good Russian colleague of mine. (Reposted from “IsWinterComing.com”)


HALF A TRILOGY of Joe Abercrombie

Dobre Utra, comrades! At the insistence of Lori Petty I return once again to provide for you personal reviews of books I have read. Sister Mila has married rich capitalist in USA and she has taught me better English by correspondence, so maybe I do not embarrass myself in such a way as last few reviews.

Today I focus on SHATTERING SEAS trilogy of Joe Abercrombie finally deciding if STEEL IS OUR ANSWER????

(probably it is)

Before spoilers, I will say overall I am enjoying the trilogy but with weak third book…HALF THE WAR is repeat of many PRIMARY LAW elements for Young Comrade Literature. Characters are also not as good as first two books. So I recommend overall the series with that for consideration. Plot is good in third book but characters are boring. Overall is fine.

SPOILERS COME FOR US ALL!!!

Continue reading

New Novel: Vale of the Cross

Well, I’ve been gone from here for a while…

…but I finished my first novel and self-published it on the Kindle store! It’s a comedy set in the Appalachian Mountains, and it’s kind of accidentally a Christmas story. There’s also deep-woods cultists, fertilizer crime rings,and mysterious Russian guests.

I’d appreciate any Amazon reviews you can give — lots of reviews would help me market the book better.

http://www.amazon.com/Vale-Cross-Laurence-Finn-ebook/dp/B015NLSANE/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1442934450&sr=8-2&keywords=vale+of+the+cross

I’ll be working on a new novel next, probably a two or three-part fantasy thing. I still haven’t decided if I’m going to continue the “Scavengers” story on here or in a novel format, but look for posts on that sometime soon.Cover 48

Here is an excerpt:

Dare

Back when Mary and Alice were just kids, and Sarah had just hit thirteen (a point of immediate supremacy to not only her sisters but to everyone else in Valle Crucis), the girls went on a camping trip with their mother and Uncle Travis. It was a yearly affair, right at the end of the summer, before the nights started getting colder. They picked a different place every year, but this time they picked the campgrounds at the base of Grandfather Mountain.

What made this place unique was that it wasn’t too far from civilization. The mountain itself could be considered quite populated, at least on its southern face. There were all sorts of gift shops, even back then, and there were more things even in the works. They were even talking about replacing the wooden bridge with a sturdier metal suspension bridge, but the girls didn’t believe that sort of talk. They felt the danger of the bridge was part of its reason for existing.

Sarah was scared of heights, though she never admitted that to her sisters. She lacked the bravery and bluster of her sister Alice, who could do anything without losing her composure. She would always stay up the latest of everyone in the camp; the only thing she was afraid of was Mary’s ghost stories. (Alice even abhorred the word “ghost” or any other such devilish terminology). She was by far the most comfortable of the family in a wooded setting. Sarah and Mary sometimes would joke behind Alice’s back that she was some kind of mountain woman – that she wasn’t really a part of their family but rather, some kind of half-bear, half-baby that their mother found in a cave in the mountain.

The girls weren’t sure how the tradition of camping started. It was probably their father who turned their mother on to the idea, because Esther Leigh was hardly the outdoors type (though she had the tall body type for athletics). Any questions they asked about this were swiftly dismissed or deflected.

On this particular camping trip, when Sarah had reached the supremacy of the teenage years – notably before her younger sisters – the three of them were alone outside by the fire. Their mother and Uncle Travis had both gone to sleep in their tents – early, just like old people always did – leaving the girls to their own devices. On that breezy, slightly-chilly night, the girls set to scaring each other as little embers from the fire flicked away into the air and disappeared.

“Let’s play truth or dare,” said Mary, always the mischievous one.

“I hate that game,” said Sarah, mainly because she hated competition in general. And, being a teenager now, she was saddled with the responsibility of deeming every game that her sisters came up with as “lame” or childish.

“All right you’re on! I pick truth!” said Alice, who could never tell a lie.

“Okay…uh…did you really kiss Tommy during that church trip?”

“I did not! That was a lie!” said Alice. Sarah believed it; Mary just liked to give Alice trouble, since Alice thought all boys were gross. Well, most boys. Everybody knew she was sweet on that boy Drew from Sunday school. “All right, dare,” said Mary.

Alice looked out into the woods and raised her eyebrows, and if it was anyone less devout of a Christian, Sarah would’ve called her expression downright fiendish.

“I dare you to sneak off into the woods with me,” said Alice, directly at Mary, but staring at Sarah as well.

Before Mary could respond, Sarah shook her head. “No, you can’t,” she said. “I’m in charge.”

Mary nudged Sarah. “Yeah, you’re right,” she said, in that insidious way she used to get what she wanted. “You’re just a baby like us, right? You’re not allowed to do anything on your own.”

That got a rise out of Sarah. “Fine then,” she said. “Let’s go for a walk. See what I care.”

Years later, Sarah would reflect on this incident as the arrogance of childhood in full display. Here they were, Sarah would think, three little girls ready to set off into god-knows-what in the pitch black woods. It was dangerous, but in some ways, when Sarah looked back as a grown woman, it was a good adventure. In their youth, people dare to dream more than when they’re older.

All three of them got up and walked out into the woods. It got significantly colder away from the fire, even for a night at the end of summer. The girls shivered and hunched over as they continued on. They hadn’t packed nearly as many winter clothes, even though their mother had insisted.

“It’s a lot darker than I thought,” said Alice, muttering to herself.

“Oh come on now, you can’t chicken out on your own dare,” said Mary, whose teeth were starting to chatter.

Sarah had to agree with Alice, though. The night was a lot darker than she thought it would be. They had gotten so used to the street lights (though sparse, in such a small town) and the pinpoints of light from distant houses that now, deep in the woods, they were getting lost and quickly. But none of them wanted to back down, so they kept going. Sarah nearly tripped on a root, and wanted to grab onto Alice for support, but she thought better of it mid-fall, and twisted to catch a tree branch.

“Did I ever tell you,” said Mary, “about the ghost of Grandfather Mountain?”

“Mary…” said Sarah. She knew she was easily scared, and this wasn’t the time for it.

“Oh yeah,” said Mary, “a lot of people say the mountain got its name cause it looks like a face, but the truth is it’s named after an old man.” She stepped over a loud twig with a snap that caused Alice and Sarah to jump. “Long, long ago, this old man took his son on a camping trip one time in the mountain, right around this spot actually. They both got lost in the woods for days. It was so cold, and they got so hungry. The son couldn’t bear the hunger anymore, and he went crazy and ate his father alive!”

“Mary…” said Sarah, again. She could barely see in front of her, but Alice was there in close, and Sarah could see the look of scared, shaky defiance in her eyes.

“That’s a lie!” said Alice, very loudly.

“Careful! Not too loud! You don’t want to wake him up! Anyway, the old man was so upset that his son killed him that his spirit lived on in the woods. He didn’t go to heaven or hell because he was too angry. They say that throughout the years, he kidnaps children that get lost in the woods and eats them whole, just like his son ate him when they got lost all those years ago.”

Sarah could only hear the sounds of their breaths now, and could barely see anything in the pitch black. Then, there was another twig and another loud snap. “Oh no, it’s him!” said Mary, shrieking. Alice and Sarah were suddenly blinded by a flickering light, and they shrieked too, piercing wails that cut through the night.

But then Sarah heard Mary laughing, so hard in fact that she had to sit down on the ground against a tree. She was holding a little keychain flashlight in her hands, still waving it around. “Oh the look on your faces,” said Mary, panting from the effort of laughing so hard.

Sarah held her hands on her hips. “Well, well, if…if you had that flashlight the whole time, why didn’t you use it to help us on our walk!”

“Oh don’t be scared, sis,” said Mary. “Ghosts aren’t real.” She leered at Sarah and leaned in, shining the flashlight on herself. “At least, most of them aren’t.”

Sarah shoved Mary away playfully and stuck her tongue out. “Well, look, use your flashlight and help us find our way back,” said Sarah. It was time to lay down the law and be the responsible one. “It’s too dark out here. Now let’s just turn around and…”

She turned around to see the campfire, but there was nothing behind her except darkness. She spun around looking for the fire. “Where is –“

She was interrupted by a hand grabbing her shoulder. All three girls screamed in unison. Mary shined her flashlight on their attacker – a grizzled old man with a bushy gray beard. He had a rifle slung over his shoulder. “It’s the Grandfather!” Alice yelled. She covered her eyes and started praying. Mary and Sarah turned tail and tried to run in the opposite direction, but those firm hands held them still. Sarah punched out with both hands, trying to shove the man, but all she caught was air.

“Stop,” he said, and the single word had power over them. They all stopped in the tracks and just stared at the big man.

“Where’s your camp,” he asked, in a way that made it sound like a demand, not a question.

“We’re…we’re lost,” said Mary. “Over there…uh…” said Alice, pointing towards the gloom.

“Come on,” he said, turning on a big flashlight (the kind that takes those huge batteries). “Don’t lag behind.” It flooded the area with light and he walked on in front of the girls, looking behind every few moments to make sure that they were following.

Sarah saw the campfire again and she wondered if it was a good idea to say anything, given that she didn’t know this man. She was terrified, and she wished that she hadn’t let her bravado get the best of her. She wished she had told her sisters that it wasn’t safe to go out into the woods like that. It occurred to Sarah that maybe they would never be found. This man, the “grandfather,” would devour them. Or even worse, they would all get eaten by bears. Park Rangers can’t find people if they’re hidden in bears’ stomachs.

In any case, it didn’t matter, because the man was leading them on a beeline back to the campfire.

“What were you doing out here?” asked Alice, always the brave one.

“Huntin’,” he said plainly.

“Oh,” she said.

They made it back to the campfire at last; it was a longer walk than any of them could remember. They could hardly believe they had strayed so far away. Their mother Esther and Uncle Travis were pacing around and they ran up to the girls when they came back up.

“Father Lomas,” said Esther, sighing in relief. “Thank you so much for finding the girls.”

Sarah finally realized. It was Father Lomas, from the Plumtree Bible Church a few towns over. In the campfire, he looked a much softer man, albeit still big and hairy like a grizzly bear. “Keep a leash on these three,” he said roughly. “Plenty of things out in them woods.”

“Yeah,” said Uncle Travis. “Thanks.”

The three girls huddled around the fire, and Uncle Travis stayed out with them. They got warm again, which was a welcome relief. They girls all looked at each other as if they had all been through a near-death experience. Eventually, Uncle Travis made the girls get into their sleeping bags and go to sleep. He zipped them all up tighter than last time.

When she heard the rhythmic snoring of their Uncle, Sarah heard Alice whisper to Mary. “That…was awesome.”

Loyalty

Sarah Henworthy walked in her kitchen, hands full of clothes, to see a pale young woman feverishly eating a bowl of soup.

“Excuse me, who are you?” asked Sarah.

The woman glanced upward but didn’t stop spooning her soup, a repetitive, quick motion. She wore a faded, dirty linen dress with pieces of a lace trim. Her hair was seaweed the way it fell upon her face — long, gnarled locks acting like a black veil. She ate as though the world was ending.

Sarah’s husband, George, bounded into the room. He rested his hands on his hips, which framed his ample paunch. “Sarah! I’d like you to meet Estella,” he said brightly, his face red from the exertion of running across the house. “She is our guest.”

Sarah narrowed her eyes. “Okay. Help me out with these,” she said, nodded towards the pile of clothes in her hands.

They went upstairs to the bedroom. All the candles were lit, which was a rarity in the Henworthy household, unless there were guests. It was a humble two-story home, normally warm from the fires of the adjoining silversmithy. Tonight, however, there was a stranger in Sarah’s company, who had intruded with no warning from her oft-scatterbrained husband. The house was anything but warm and inviting to her.

“Who is that?” said Sarah urgently, after she closed the door.

“An old friend, a very old friend,” said George. “She’s come up on a bit of trouble, so I’m helping her.”

“Trouble? You know that we have plenty of trouble of our own.”

“Now, now, Sarah, we must remember our Christian duty.”

Sarah realized she was crushing the clothes in her hands. She relaxed and let them on the bed, gently. It had been a hard week for her side of the family. Her aunt Edna had passed away, with whom she was very close. She was an avid seamstress, a vocal member of the Church, and one of the few relatives Sarah could look to for strength and support. Her mother had passed away several years prior, but truthfully, it didn’t hurt, at least not as much as losing Edna. It left a cold void in her heart that chilled everyone around her. The clothes she was carrying were her aunt’s; she had just returned from helping settle her estate. There were several gorgeous sundresses that Edna made herself, as well as a unique, lacy wedding dress, custom designed by a boutique in Charleston. A rich gift from a wealthy uncle.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. I’ll make up the downstairs,” said Sarah.

“Actually, that bed is so uncomfortable, I was hoping we could take the downstairs and she could have ours,” said George.

Sarah winced. “Certainly.”

——————–

After a fitful night of very little sleep, Sarah awoke to the fires roaring in the forge, and the whoosh of the bellows. Hammer-strokes echoed throughout the house. Normally it was a normal sound, but on a Sunday, it was particularly foreign.

She looked outside. The sun was nearly at its apex. How long had she slept? My goodness, we’ve missed church! she thought urgently.

Sarah ran out to the forge, to find George and Estella. George’s girth was covered by his smoky silversmith apron. He used his tongs to reach into the fires of the forge. “There we are!” he proclaimed, laying down a fine silver chain on the workbench.

“It’s lovely,” said Estella. Her appearance had improved dramatically. She was wearing a nicer dress – a powder blue that Sarah had lent her – and her coloring was much ruddier. While she was slight and malnourished looking the night before, she now appeared voluptuous. She had brushed out her matted locks, and the flowed down her back like a waterfall.

“Where did you get the material?” asked Sarah. George made an adequate living as a silversmith, but he could scarce afford to keep the things he made. He frowned at his wife. “Don’t worry, it was Estella’s. An old heirloom she had me fix for her.”

A few moments later, a visitor walked up their lawn. “’Allo there!” he called out.

Nobody recognized this man. The man’s hair was black and wild, nearly shoulder-length, matching the strangeness of his clothing. His jacket was weather-beaten, a graying black, and his pants, while made of expensive cloth, were frayed at the edges. Sarah recognized immediately that though this man dressed as a gentleman, and perhaps had a gentleman’s upbringing, there was no way he moved in those circles now. Though a member of the working class herself, she had a fascination with the fashion of the ladies and gentlemen of Charleston. This man was putting on airs, but to a truly trained eye like Sarah’s, he was failing.

“I hope I’m not intruding on anything,” he said. “And who might you be?” said George, crossing his burly arms across his chest.

“Nicholas Calloway, I’m a journalist from Charleston,” he said. “I was hoping to have a moment of your time. I had hoped to meet with you at Church this morning.”

George nodded his head hurriedly. “Well, out with it then, we’re very busy here.” Sarah was amazed at George’s coldness. He was normally a socialite through-and-through. Everybody loved him.

“Very well. I was hoping to ask you about the current conditions of Summerville from the perspective of one of its families. A somewhat historical piece on the town’s genealogy. I also would like to give my condolences,” he said, putting his hand over his heart. “Edna Henworthy was a fine woman and friend to the Calloways. I was at her funeral, if you recall. Lovely service for a wonderful person.”

“Thank you,” said Sarah. She was unmoved by the sentiment. She sensed something hiding within this man; a sort of caged ferocity hiding in his eyes.

“Well I haven’t got the time,” said George.

“Please,” said Nicholas, smiling invitingly. “I would be quick and ask harmless questions.”

When it sufficiently cooled down, Estella picked up the silver chain and fawned over it like a child in awe. It was much too long for a necklace or bracelet. Then, she noticed Nicholas staring at her and rushed inside the house.

“See what you’ve done? Estella, here now, this man’s not going to harm you!”

Nicholas held his gaze at the door Estella had disappeared to. His anger was well-restrained, but Sarah picked it up. “Are you upset, sir,” said Sarah.

“Why would I be?” he asked, the somewhat-fake smile coming back. “I hope you don’t mind if I call again soon. When things have calmed down, of course.”

—————-

The next several nights were terrible for Sarah. All she wanted was to sleep in her own bed and grieve for her lost aunt. Instead, her husband and their new guest were having the time of their lives. There was laughter and music (Estella played piano) at all hours of the day. At night, she began to notice her husband coming to bed late. She didn’t ask what he was up to. Her gardening and sewing provided her mind little refuge from making the obvious assumptions. Why would he want a mistress? The good Lord hasn’t blessed us with any children, but it wasn’t for lack of love. Has he given up on me?

After that visit from Nicholas three days prior, they hadn’t heard word from him. “I don’t want you to let him inside, or anywhere near Estella,” said George, on the day of the visit. “She says he’s one of the men trying to kill her.” Sarah was at the windows often at night, fearing for the safety of her family.

Any questions she asked about their mysterious visitor were met with swift dismissal. “For our friendship, it’s the least I can do. I owe her my loyalty,” he said, using the last word as though it were foreign.

She was feeling altogether claustrophobic by the fourth day, and decided that morning that a trip to the park downtown would clear up her cabin fever. It was a brisk cold, the kind that comes along between seasons. If the sun had been shining, it would be a pleasant day. As it was, the sky was gray, and there were no souls in the park, save a few pigeons. The vermin of the sky, Sarah thought, remembering the Hugh Days article she read in the paper the other day.

She felt a tap on her shoulder, light as the breeze, and she jumped nearly a foot.

“Sorry to startle you, Mrs. Henworthy!” said Nicholas. He was dressed more plainly this time, a cream-colored button-down shirt with those same smoky black pants. “I thought maybe that we could talk, just you and I – some lingering questions I simply must answer for my writing.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Sarah, starting to walk away briskly. “But I do,” said Nicholas forcefully, cutting in front of her. She stopped walking and stared directly at him.

“You have a way about you, Mr. Calloway, a sort of falseness, and don’t think I don’t see it!” “I apologize if I intimidate you, ma’am. I mean nothing untoward.”

“Then tell me your true purpose!”

Nicholas gestured toward a bench, and they sat down.

“Your houseguest,” he said, tasting the last word as though it were a fine wine, “is of great interest to me. I have questions for her. And I did not lie about your aunt. Would that I had brought photographs with me to show you. My father was a missionary, and often brought me to the church here in Summerville.”

“And why would Estella be interesting to you?” asked Sarah.

“Is that her name!” he said, brightening. “Well, as I told you before, I’m a writer for the Charleston Gazette. Her background would make for a lovely column.”

“I still don’t believe you,” she said.

“But, you want to. You don’t want her in your house anymore, is that correct? Let me talk to her. Perhaps my line of questions will help her remember…more pressing business.”

Nicholas’s sudden darker tone prompted Sarah to get up and begin to walk away. “I’ll be staying at the John Rutledge when you change your mind!” he said, that smile returning.

—————–

That afternoon, Sarah came back and charged up to her bedroom – not the guest bedroom where she had been forced to sleep, but her own room. “George, I want –“ she started, bursting through the door.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t what she expected to find. She expected to find Estella naked, underneath George. Instead, George was reading a book to her, and Estella was laughing. A constant, nearly hysterical laugh. Neither of them recognized Sarah enter. George read with a zeal she had never seen before (his literacy was limited to receipts and newspaper headlines). And, what was more, the subject matter was bizarre – Shakespeare’s As You Like It. And, there was one more thing.

Estella was wearing Aunt Edna’s wedding dress.

—————–

Sarah arrived at Nicholas’s hotel room at the John Rutledge Inn and knocked twice. “It’s open,” said a voice.

She emerged through the doorway to see Nicholas sitting in front of a desk strewn with maps and notebooks. He was wearing wire-rimmed glasses that made him look at least ten years older. One thing in particular stuck out to Sarah — a map of the graveyard where her aunt was buried. The mausoleum, where her body was interred, was circled.

Sarah cleared her throat. “I’ve changed my mind. I’d like you to interview Estella. You know, what you talked about before.”

“Excellent, excellent!” said Nicholas. “It’ll make for a wonderful article, truly.”

He collected an empty bag, shoved something inside, and joined Sarah out the door and on the road to the Henworthy home. He asked her some odd questions, like “When was your family’s mausoleum last opened?” and “Did George explain where and when exactly he met Estella?” and lastly “Has he given her any gifts?” Sarah answered the questions as best as she could — to the first, her answer was 30 years; to the second, she simply stated she didn’t know because George never told her anything about Estella, despite her questions; and to the third, she said yes, a silver chain. Now, it was Sarah’s turn for questions.

She only got one.  “What’s in the bag?” asked Sarah.

“We’re playing charades,” answered Nicholas, once again with that mocking smile. “It’s part of the interview.”

They traveled the rest of the way in silence.

————–

The only way Sarah was able to tear George away from Estella was by setting their storage shed on fire. She cringed at how much damage was being done, but nothing else worked. This woman had gotten hold of George somehow, and she had to do whatever it took to get her out of his life.

When Nicholas walked in the bedroom and stopped Estella from following George out to fight the fire, Sarah considered what she was doing. For all she knew, this man was a rapist, a thief, or some kind of hired killer sent to take out Estella. She knew she should have felt guilty, but truly, she felt relieved that, somehow, this man was going to get Estella to leave her family alone. She felt sick to her stomach knowing that she would rather see this woman dead than lose her husband.

Nicholas sat Estella down at a table.

“Could you get us some tea, Mrs. Henworthy?” asked Nicholas. “We don’t drink tea,” said Sarah. Nicholas looked at her, his eyes afire. With a cryptic smile, Nicholas asked “Could you leave us, then?”

Sarah left the room and clomped her shoes as if she was walking downstairs, but she stood silently by the door, peering through a crack at the two. Nicholas and Estella were sitting opposite each other; she looked positively frightened, more like she was when Sarah originally discovered her, pale, thin, and devouring stew.

“You’re afraid of me but you don’t know why,” said Nicholas.

“I suppose that’s true,” said Estella, rearing back in her chair like a frightened rodent.

“Allow me to show you,” he said. Nicholas emptied the contents of his bag onto the table with a clang — an iron rod, it looked and sounded like. Then, he pulled down the collar of his shirt. “You know what I am, now.”

“I’m not leaving,” she said, shaking her head vigorously like a child. “I won’t leave again. I like George. He treats me nice. First nice one in hundreds of years.”

“Mrs. Henworthy,” said Nicholas, making eye-contact with Sarah through the nearly-closed door, “I would prefer if you were not around for this.”

Sarah went downstairs, reluctantly. Outside, through the window, she saw her poor George throwing water on the storage shed. Fortunately, most of it was still intact. She hoped that the crib survived, which George built for their eventual child — “a good outlook leads to favorable results,” he always said.

She went back upstairs to find Nicholas shoveling some ashes into his bag with his arm. Estella was nowhere to be found. He looked over at the doorway, and made eye contact with Sarah through the crack. “You can come in,” he said. “It’s over.”

Sarah trembled. “And…is she…”

“She’ll trouble you no further,” said Nicholas. He turned for the stairs, with his sack of ashes over one shoulder.

“Wait!” said Sarah. “Just please, tell me, for my own conscience, what did you do to that woman? What have we done?”

“I will say this –” said Nicholas, with a pause. He looked at Sarah askance, as if judging her. He sighed. “I will say this. She was no…that is to say…oh, hells, you would never believe me. Look, she’s in the bag, all right? What more is there to understand?” He laughed.

“Is this funny to you, sir?” asked Sarah, her voice trembling.

“I love my work,” said Nicholas, and he disappeared out the back door.

Foxfire

I was driving through the woods one night and a flickering light caught my eye; orange primarily, with tinges of green.  I wasn’t in any hurry to get anywhere, and the foxfire phenomenon sparked a strange curiosity inside me. I parked on the shoulder to check it out.

I found a dirt road just on the treeline. In the distance, past a fork, I saw a farmhouse and barn. The area was a thick marsh, and I idly wondered what kind of farming could be done in such a swamp. The green-orange light was closer now, and was actually several globes of light now, wavering in the trees — up and down, left and right. It reminded me of handheld lanterns from days of yore. Crickets and cicadas serenaded me while I trodded on the muddy path.

My heart caught in my throat and I jumped into the trees. Just in front of the barn were two men and an ambulance. Besides the shaky foxfire in the distance, the only light I could see was the glow from the back of the ambulance. The light illuminated the two men, both of whom wore orange prison jumpsuits. They were dragging and undressing two unconscious paramedics. I got a little closer, hiding behind a chipped white fence so I could hear the two escapees.

“This one doesn’t have the keys either. Now, can we get these chains off?” said one of the convicts — the shaggiest and most feral of the two. He had a gleam in his eye, a kind of flicker, that scared the hell out of me. He rattled his handcuffs angrily.

“Sure we can, Brady,” said the other man, a more refined-looking criminal. His black-gray hair was slicked back, giving him an antiquated look. “Calm down. I see an anvil near that stable. I’m sure we can find a hammer.”

Brady looked up at the moon and grinned wildly. “Man, I can’t wait ’til we get these off, and I can go see Maureen and Jimmy again. They’re gonna flip out when they see daddy’s home 20 years early!”

“Now, Brady, I hope you are not planning anything foolish,” said the other man.

“Man’s gotta right to see his family. And what do you care? You ain’t gonna see me again after this anyway. ‘Sides, we’re way past ‘foolish’ ain’t we, what with these two,” he said, giving one of the pale paramedics a kick to the ribs. Brady leered at his partner. “You ever killed a man? Huh?”

The foxfire lights in the woods got more intense now, and closer.

“Look at that, man…” said Brady the ruffian. “Kind of freaking me out. My grandma told me stories about them lights in the swamp, Will-o-the-Wisps she called ’em.”

The refined one looked into the woods. “Shut up and help me,” he said, losing his patience. He found a rusted blacksmithing hammer and was pounding at his chains, using a spike to get between links. Before long, all the chains were broken, and the men had switched clothes with the still-unconscious paramedics. I heard indiscriminate whispering from the gnarled treeline, not ten yards away.

“You know, on second thought, maybe we should cut through the swamp, towards those lights,” said the well-manicured prisoner, quietly, as if in a voice that was not his own.

“Yea, you’re right,” said Brady, scratching idly at his bushy black beard. “Could save some time that way.”

The two walked into the marsh at a brisk pace, fearing nothing, when not moments ago Brady trembled at the sight of the ghostly globes of light. Unlike the two convicts, I felt a sense of foreboding. Something was telling me not to follow them into the marsh, but I decided to anyway, just for a while. I looked behind me, noting the rotting, abandoned barn as a landmark.

As time went on the couple sped up more and more. The lights shifted to-and-fro, playfully drifting away just out of reach.

“Damn it!” said Brady. “Why the hell does it feel like we’re not gettin’ anywhere?”

“We should turn back,” said the gentleman-convict, and I could feel the horror shared between the three of us.

I heard a loud click like a switch, and all the lights went out. Laughter, mirthless and horrible, echoed from the deepest reaches of the marsh. Then, silence, followed by a sudden, persistent hiss like boiling water. I turned to run. Looking back, I saw arcs of flame slicing across the air, and I heard screaming — pleas for mercy cut short. I nearly made it to the treeline, when someone appeared to my side.

I looked into its eyes; terrible, smoldering, dread orbs, filled with hunger.

Runes in the Snow

The Wilks family Range Rover made its way ponderously through the snow and down the mountain. It was the kind of road trip that the whole family looked forward to, and then on the drive back, universally agreed was a terrible idea. (Bucky World was not at all worth the 500 mile trip, and the mascots, in particular Ruffy the Rabbit, made Savannah cry rivers.)

After thirty miles of nothing but dead landscape and white noise, Savannah pointed out the window. “Look mommy, a sign!” The small sign she pointed to was a weathered wooden board with letters burned in: What’s stronger than five mules? After they drove past, Savannah’s mother Holly idly mused, “I wonder what that’s for.” The father, Luke, dismissed it. “Probably nothing.”

A few tenths of a mile later, and another sign cropped up out of the snow: What’s more loyal than a golden retriever? A picture of a cartoonish dog dragging an oversized newspaper accompanied this sign. Savannah giggled. Even Luke grinned — but then he caught himself, and returned to his road trip scowl.

The final sign – much larger this time, like a billboard – came after a few more tenths of a mile. Zombies Unlimited! it said. (And boiled peanuts), it said in smaller text. This sign marked a small settlement just off the shoulder of the mountain road. “Honey, let’s pull over here,” said Holly. Luke obliged reluctantly.

The billboard dwarfed the snow-covered lean-to and trailer that comprised the little store. An older man, probably in his sixties, hustled out as fast as he could with a collie at his side. The man had the look of an eternally hurried person; his all-black suit was poorly tailored and wrinkled, and his black hair was matted and overgrown. Still, his smile was warm and his face was soft. “Welcome folks, welcome! My name’s Max – and this little fella here is Edric – and I’ve got the perfect solution to everything you need!” he exclaimed. The way he talked made Savannah think of old-time cartoon characters.

“Well, what exactly is it you have?” asked Holly, with a brilliant smile.

“Zombies, my lady! Strong, able zombies, ready to travel on home with you today,” said Max. He strode over at the lean-to, and removed a tarp to reveal half a dozen gray zombies standing at attention, their gazes drifting to nowhere in particular. Holly looked over and nearly jumped. Savannah let out a shriek. However, despite the word “zombies” being used to characterize them, they were surprisingly whole. Their skin was gray, and their eyes were mindless, but they were none worse for the wear. There were three women and three men, all dressed in white dress shirts and jeans. They were abnormally tall, muscular creatures; perhaps, they were chosen because of these qualities. Their hair kept life’s luster, and that, along with the various shades of gray skin, served to distinguish the zombies from one another.

“My word, that’s terrifying! Do you just leave them out like that, out here in the cold?” said Luke. The scowl was back.

Max held out his hands. “Now, now, you’ve got nothing to fret. These fellas don’t need much in the way of food or lodging, and they sure are great in a pinch. Had old Cecil over there help me haul some mulch at my ranch down in Pen-see-cola Florida just the other week! Did it without a word of complaint.”

“But they’re…dead,” said Savannah.

“Dead in the mind, yes, and maybe their hearts don’t beat, but look at this, little lady. Jonathan!” said Max, and a seven-foot tall zombie came up. Max uttered some words in a language the Wilks didn’t understand, and the Jonathan flexed his powerful muscles, lifting up Savannah on his shoulders. Savannah shrieked again, but then laughed. And Jonathan laughed too, a deep, hearty bellow.

“See? As friendly as a puppy and as harmless as a lamb,” said Max, his smile beaming. He then used that foreign language to order the zombie he called Cecil to start chopping at a nearby tree. Before long, the tree was down, and Cecil carried the whole thing over himself. “Such amazing strength,” said Holly.

Luke fished around in his pocket and looked up boldly. “How much for the lot?”

Max put on this strained look. “Well, all figured, you’ve got six zombies…see, I’m a whole-number kinda person…what do you reckon, 200 dollars? Plus I’ll throw in this-a-here dictionary which’ll surely help you talk at them.”

Holly smiled. “Well, 200 dollars would be a steal!” Luke nodded in agreement. “We’ll take them!”

Jonathan carried Savannah over to the Range Rover, and let her down gently in the car. A few zombies piled in and sat down, while a few had to be stacked in the trunk like firewood. “They don’t mind it at all,” Max reassured, “not at all, not at all.” The Wilks loaded up their zombie cargo, and then they drove away with the satisfaction that their whole road trip was saved by this chance encounter.

After he could no longer hear the engine or see the vehicle, Max took out an ice scraper and scratched away some markings on the frozen ground. Then, he struck down the lean-to and set it on fire. It was dangerous to leave such powerful magic unattended, and he had no way to control the zombies’ urges now that they were away.

“We did it Ed,” Max said to his collie. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he smiled a sad smile. “We’re finally free of them.”