Archive for category Short Fiction
The vampire is waiting for me when I open the door to the basement, off to the left, away from the light.
“I was starting to think you’d never come.”
“I debated it. Got held up.”
“I can see that… Should I be concerned?”
“No. Back to the Depths with it. I’m starting to put a picture together of what this guys is doing, and I don’t like it.”
“Let me guess, just enough to be dangerous type?”
“What was your first clue?”
“He seemed… apologetic, when he kidnapped me. As though he didn’t really mean it but didn’t have a choice. When you know what you’re doing there’s a little bit more resolution to your actions.”
“I think he’s using the dead to get revenge on the living that have wronged him. But those deals tend to escalate quickly.”
“Well… while I certainly could eat a whole wheel of cheese right now, shall we?”
I nod and turn around. “There’s a lot of bright spots and reflected light filtering through the building, but I imagine he’ll be back here later tonight, so I don’t have another option to get you out. If you can run through the hallway half a floor up you can get to the service elevator…” I can feel her breath of my neck. Tense.
“And ride it up to the second floor?” Her voice runs along my flesh like satin, with an edge of diamonds caught in lace spiderwebs. Its a voice that could turn lumberjacks into simpering sycophants. I think about her face, what I saw of it, contorted by hunger.
“Yes.” My voice still cracks. I cough. “I’ll leave now and pull the blinds on the hallway window. 22A is on the right. Give me a count of 60 before you head out.” I start walking up the stairs. When I get to the normal elevator I toss the coffee into a waiting trash can, and run up the stairs the rest of the way. Halfway down the hall, I hear the service elevator door open and sprint the remaining distance, tossing my shirt up over the window to help obscure some it. She runs out the hall and into 22A, breaking the lock as she goes. When I hear the door click, I take the shirt down, putting it on while shivering. When it comes down off my face there’s a young man staring at me.
This time, my brain isn’t hyper alert, I’m not thinking of an excuse as to why my shirt was off, or why I’m putting it back on, I’m just staring back at him and waiting till he breaks the silence.
“What’re you doing?”
Still can’t think of anything. I can hear a whisper from the door of 22A, “There was a perv taking pictures on the street, thought I’d give him something to take pictures of.” He doesn’t respond, so I repeat what the whisper said. He nods, apparently not having heard it the first time.
“Fair enough. Wish I’d seen it though.” The dude shrugs then turns towards the stairs, and continues out the building. I shake my head and prepare myself to go into 22A.
Through the hallways, only slightly different from what I felt earlier traveling through as a ghost. More real, vibrant in the quick. My pulse is speeding up with the impending sense of conflict. I know what to expect, I know not to be ambushed, and my body responds by being hyper-alert. Eyes darting from movement to movement, stomach clenched, skin tingling. I start at the door to 22A. Heading down and mapping the spots of sunlight. Only problem is everything here is too bright, reflected light off of floors and white-washed walls now yellow. Move faster, I think to myself. I want to forget about the vampire, find someplace isolated and face down this thing that’s coming for me. I’m not sure why I want to save that thing, other than wanting to stop whatever this guy is doing. Making friends is a good thing right?
Only if they’re actually friends.
When I get to the first floor hallway, I realize that whatever it is, it’s here, and its not looking for me, its looking for it. I can feel the primal hatred moving through the building underneath me, going towards the basement. Sprint forward. Take stairs two and three at a time, hoping not to break my neck. I get to the landing just before it does. I can see the haze of darkness floating there, a spectral face distorted scrunched together and screaming. A woman and her child come out the first door on the right, look at me in the landing, right through the thing and scurry off, apparently scared by the look on my face. It hovers to a stop. I don’t bother trying to reason or talk to it, I leap forward, fist raised up to slam down on it before landing. My stomach relaxes enough to pull the energy up and out.
Contact. I stop midair, connecting with invisible solids, the grave-cold specter reels back from the blow and screams.
I hear a pop, and then nothing out of my left ear. A trickle down the side of my face, a rip through my shirt that barely misses passing into my abdomen.
Fists up, fighting stance. A man comes into the foyer and stops, looking at me, confused and somewhat alarmed. “Shadow boxing,” I say back to him, taking some jabs at the darkness that he can’t see. I’m distracted though, so I don’t connect. The thing scratches out at me, and I make a show of being light on my feet. Not light enough. It catches me on the same side, and I move so that the dude can’t see it. I can feel the blood. He rushes into his apartment, and I hope doesn’t call the cops.
I throw myself at the thing, grabbing it by the manifested face and somewhere that I want to call a chest but doesn’t really matter because it doesn’t have an abdomen. It screams, more of my skin rips open, especially on my face. I force some inner essence into the wounds so that the wounds seal into bruises rather than obvious cuts. I whisper some ancient Greek that I picked up from a book, entreating Hekate to claim her own. The two of us can hear the barking of dogs throughout the building, and the thing quivers, wretches left, trying to escape my hold, I keep going on the exorcism as it writhes, and I’m holding it, mentally hoping another one of the tenant’s doors don’t open.
There’s a whoosh, an out-gassing of air as I’m left breathless, suffocating. The archway into the stairs turns black, and the darkness in my hands is gone, sucked through. The world pops back into place. I take a deep breath and cough. I need to quit smoking. As I’m walking back into the foyer to grab the coffee I glimpsed when dude-face came in, someone else is walking in. The gasp at the blood.
“Shooting an indie film. I forgot my coffee.” I manage to look apologetic. Its a pretty close look to being in pain, so it works.
The coffee is cold again. I hurry down to the basement.
“He said the things below needed something more than human. I remember being ambushed in an alley, then I woke up here. That was weeks ago. Can I eat you?”
I can feel the need pulse, pass through the bars of the cage like they were nothing. “I can’t touch the cage, but you can. Know how to pick a lock?”
“Not in decades. Show me how?”
I pass a thin sliver of metal through the bars, floating it with ghostly hands. I should’ve had more of the cardboard pastry. Or her hunger is starting to get to me. Its hard to tell. She takes it. “We don’t have a hook?”
“Not that I can tell. Can’t see everything though. Not really physical.”
“This will have to do.”
I guide her, more with feeling than with actual words in what to do. A light brush along her hands here and there to let her know which way to turn, push and pull.
“So it does work like in the movies.”
“I can still leave.”
“You have to admit though—”
“No. No I don’t. I’m not actually dead, and this is not a pottery wheel. End of discussion.” The lock clicks open.
“Why not just talk me through it like I thought then.”
“Takes effort to talk, move things, not to be felt, ‘specially when you can see me.”
She takes the lock and opens the cage, stepping out and stretching. I am not reminded of domesticated animals, I am reminded of fierce, man-eating predators in the jungles. “Do you know a way out, or should I just wander?”
“Apartment 22A is empty. But its daytime.”
“Shit. Wondered why I felt tired.”
“Wait, ambush him.”
“I would need to eat for that to work.”
I can feel something. Something dark at the periphery of my senses, something non-real that could rip me to shreds, a dark reflection of hatred. I pull myself slowly inward.
“You’re fading. What’s happening?”
“Something comes. I’ll meet you up there.”
I pull back, fleeing not the way I came but through the walls and floor of the building. Coming back to myself in the alley. I gasp awake, the first breath of an entombed miner. The coffee is already cold. “Damnit.” I walk back into the coffee shop. “Can I get some hot water in this?”
A different girl than the one that got it for me smiles “Sure.” I’m bouncing a little on the balls of my feet. I can’t feel it anymore, but I know that if it finds the vampire, things will happen. I have to get the passage safe. “Here you go.”
I speed walk out, down the street a little ways to the entrance, double-locked. There’s a call-board in the foyer. I hit a random button.
“Hi.” My brain stops, too many things happening. “Building super sent me to take a look at some of the pipes on your floor, but didn’t give me a key, think you could let me in?”
The door buzzes, and I hurry inside, leaving the coffee cup in the foyer.
I walk out of the cafe and turn into the alleyway next to it. Dead end. Fitting. Everything so far has been a dead end. The summons, the ghosts, no one knows who this guy is dealing with, and no one seems able to find out. Or wants to. I can’t tell which. So, time to bust out the walking shoes and tail him. This looks like the place he usually gets his coffee, but I think I was made since he came in, didn’t get anything and left, I decide this is as good a break as any and I get myself something to eat. After a few cardboard-tasting bites, I throw it away in favor of the burnt coffee. At least its warm. I set it down outside, in the cold of the city, by the wall I’m leaning up against and close my eyes. I breath outward, extending myself, pushing, feeling, arcing over and under the doorways in the building, saturating the alley, the street, the building, feeling everything.
Bellow me, in a basement, I can feel a need so strong it startles me, and I have to refocus. Its a need for life that I haven’t felt before, and wouldn’t mind ever feeling again. I draw myself down, a ghostly specter into the basement, feeling the doorway and hallways, the locks on every one, planning the route out, planning on keeping everyone safe. This need is dangerous, deadly, a hunger so keen it will cut you if you’re not careful.
In the room there is no light, but I see through being everything, all awash in the strength of that need. I can feel the cages, the strength of high-grade steel and old magics deep within them, keeping me out. Chains built to withstand the strength of the elements, but certainly not the strength of this need. I see everything lit up in the reflector glow a red so deep it doesn’t project, a red that isn’t human. The thing in the cage turns to look at me. Long legs in a torn dress, hips and waist curvy and beautiful, strong, but still supple. Breasts to complement the figure without overpowering, one of which is free to the air since the dress stops existing at the waist for half her body, no bra. A slender neck, and then the face kills it. The need has contorted it, made it its own. Pretty eyes though, but the bulging upper jaw and incredible muscles look like they could bite through steel; the extra-long, sharp canines are bulging out, dying for flesh to rend and blood to drink.
“I always thought vampires would be prettier.”
The voice is sweet, incongruous with the distorted jaw in the way that possessed people talk: disembodied. Just like me right now. “We are, on our good days.”
“This then, is not a good day?”
“Are you here to help or mock me?”
“Depends. Who put you here?”
“Some ass-hat in a bowler hat. Ugh, god-awful thing that I thought had died long ago.”
“No, the hat.” She describes my mark.
My stomach rumbles.
I knew I should’ve eaten before the ritual, but too late now. Besides, better for my sensitivity to be hungry, the more aware of my surroundings, if the more likely to mess up as well. Oh well, no one said magic was going to be easy.
I can’t let the thoughts of what to eat afterwords distract me from what I’m doing. I can already feel some of the energy slipping away, leaking back into the unformed void. I refocus, pulling it all back into shape. It’s like gathering putty or clay together, unyielding and… goopy. Then trying to harden it into the shape I needed…
My stomach rubles again.
Deep breath, ignore it. I didn’t waste $75 on chalk from the cliffs of Dover, overnighted, or crystals from the four corners of world. I need this portal…
There’s a sudden, not-audible, whoosh as the pressure in the room drops, and with it the temperature. My breath comes out fogged as the crystals begin glowing and the chalk lights up from the glow. The spirit within rumbles, throws itself against the bindings and then turns to me. The thing is no bigger than your average toddler, except hunched over, a snout with long whiskers coming off the end the only thing to poke out from the depths of a hooded garment. Rat-like hands test the binding once more, and the thing turns to look at me.
“Who are you? What gives you the right to call me from the depths?”
My stomach groans. “Lawkeeper of the Depths. You will answer my questions to the best of your knowledge, without complaint and with complete honesty.”
“You do not command me.”
“I do not bargain, either.” A shaft of brilliant white energy arcs from the crystal towards the spirit. It screeches, mostly in the ultrasonic range, as far as I can tell.
“The day will come, mortal, when you shall be under my care.”
“Yes well. In the meantime I’ll just have to make offerings in apology. Father always said better to ask forgiveness than permission.”
The Lawkeeper looks at me. “Ask your questions.”
“Accept my terms.”
It sighs, throws itself against the bindings for a brief moment. Another arc-flash, another screech. Finally it looks back up at me.
“I accept. I will answer to the best of my knowledge without further complaint and with complete honesty.”
A picture comes out of my jacket, I turn it towards the creature. “This man has had trafficking with the dead. He calls them forth from the Depths in order to accomplish his foul deeds. No mortal can bring him to heel for his crimes. The living demand justice.”
It looks like its about to turn around and walk away, then stops, slumps forward. “I’ve not heard of deals broken or sundered, nor have I seen that man.”
“What tenant of your domain has made such deals, has wandered back to the physical world. Give me their name, that I might question them.”
“They are not lawbreakers, I have no command over their names.”
“One of them is. One of them has broken the balance and killed a guardian. Find that ghost and deliver me their name.”
“This is not our bargain.”
“I do not bargain, Lawkeeper.” Another arc-flash. This time I don’t stop until the thing screeches out an agreement. It is panting on the floor of the circle. The chalk undisturbed.
“I will bring your their name, guardian.”
“Without vengeance or malice. They are Lawbreakers. Do your duty.”
A growl, this time not from my stomach. With a deep breath I pull the energy closed, sealing the portal, the chalk bursts into embers briefly. Another expense I can’t afford.
The two of them walk further in silence. Kaori and her brother arrive in town, and soon the bustling of people is enough to prevent conversation. Several shopkeepers have retired inside their shops while food carts have been set up lining the road. Kaori and her brother stop at one and he buys two steamed buns for the both of them. Kaori delicately holds hers; even the thick paper is not enough to dull the heat of the bun. The winter wind cools it quickly as the two walk through the streets, Kaori following her brother. It takes careful balance to hold the parasol and the bun, and Kaori had wished that she had gone to more festivals in order to practice this skill as often as she practiced her poetry. The buildings before her quickly went from cheap bamboo and thin papers to brick and plaster with strong logs for support. The stopped before an imposing gateway, two guards stood to either side.
“The Inaba household seek an audience with Scribe Sengicha Hensei.”
The guards nod and ring a bell, a servant comes. One guard keeps eyes on Kaori while she attempts to quickly finish the bun. The inside however is hot, and slows her progress. Her brother steps between them, and the guard turns to face forward. The other guard turns back to the two of them while they wait.
Kaori is uncertain how she feels about these men. Her father had often described war as a demon that stole men’s minds and made of them animals. Yet he had trained their brother in the ways of war, as was their way. Armor and swords, philosophy and arts, these were things men usually studied while women turned towards the governance of households, the ability to keep everything together and in working order. Kaori would never consider her father to be radical, or even more beyond mildly progressive. If so then, why teach her brother to wield weapons or wear armor if warfare was so base? The guard is looking at her again.
He is not ugly, Kaori thinks. The angles of his face were still soft, red and a little chapped from the biting cold wind throughout the winter. She meets his gray eyes; he turns away and reddens. Her brother looks at Kaori sharply and the cobbled road is the next thing that meets Kaori’s gaze. The servant returns and speaks downcast to the guard.
“Scribe Sengicha will meet the two of you.” Kaori bows deeper than her brother as the two enter the compound.
Inside the roads turn and curve around graceful dwarf trees that are only as tall as she is. Kaori wonders if they were cultivated this way or simply young. Their needles have been carefully swept to the side of the paths, the rocks that surround them carefully placed. It is utilitarian, useful. The official nature of the building is reinforced to Kaori by the sweep of the landscaping. She would very much like to converse with this artist.
Kaori and her brother walk quickly. The clear sky and young sunlight cannot yet counter the cold breezes and chilly earth. Even still Kaori holds her parasol to protect her from the sun while her brother walks beside her.
“If I’d known this was going to be my exercise for the morning I would have spent more time stretching. Slow down Kaori, last thing you want is to come home with a wet kimono.”
“I would never hear the end of it from her. But I would never hear the end of it from Father if I did not act on her advice.”
“Why does Hensei have the poem, anyways?”
“Father gave it to him as a gift. Since they so rarely get to see each other now, he wished to give him something that would last and bring fond memories. I suspect there are jokes in those verses that even I missed, but I couldn’t tell you where they were or what they mean.”
“Its good to have friends that close.”
“I do, just not here anymore.”
Kaori slows to think, her fan has made it to her hand, but refuses to open; far too cold to be blowing around. “I don’t remember them.”
Her brother shrugs. “You were young. Their families were called on by their lords to attend their duties in war, I receive letters every now and then from those that are still around.”
“But that’s nothing like Father and Hensei.”
“Father and Hensei had the luxury of peace while they were growing up.” Ahead, a blue bird chirps from atop the red-painted wood of a gateway a little away from the road. He flies away when the two get closer and pass by. “You are right though. When they return it is likely they will be different from their time in the war. I do not know that our closeness will be as it was. Perhaps with time, but not now, and not soon.”
“Do you ever regret not going?”
“Only in the regard that now we have lost standing in the eyes of our liege. But Father wouldn’t let me, no matter how hard I tried.”
Several people pulling carts pass them by, inclining their heads and tipping their hats to them. Her brother nods, Kaori lurches forward slightly every time.
“I thought our position was favorable?”
“Favorable and stable. I heed Father’s wisdom, but… stability means we are not growing.”
“How do you figure that?”
“We have to rely on marriages and allies in other houses in order to bring ourselves favorable outcomes in the courts, we work for everything we get out of that. If I were at war, there would be more opportunities for us to bring honor and advancement to our family.”
Kaori smiles: “’Even the greatest tree begins as a single seed.’ I understand your frustration, but I am pleased to know I’m not the only one he has to counsel on patience. I have to agree with Father on this regard though: sometimes a slow growth is best…”
Kaori sits on the bench in the garden as the lanterns are lit. Hensei has left, with the poem the three of them wrote earlier. Kaori stares into the thawed pond, feeling much like it: still and reflective. She does not notice her mother approaching.
“Hensei is nice, a good friend of the family, works in the government.”
Kaori interrupts her mother’s line of reasoning before it goes too far. “He is a good friend of the family, yes. A boon to my career as well, but certainly not a husband.”
Her mother smiles at her, when Kaori looks again, she is still smiling. “What?”
“Sometimes I wonder where your stubbornness comes from. But then I ask myself if I would prefer a docile, unaware daughter, or one that notices and questions everything. Too often I find I love you just the way you are.”
Kaori tilts her head at her mother as a petal falls onto the water.
“Why do you think Hensei would be a bad husband?”
“I didn’t say he would be a bad husband, I just said he wouldn’t be my husband.”
“It would feel strange, there is so much history between him and Father that I would feel… like an intruder. Only their teacups would know exactly what has happened between them.”
“When I first came here, I was jealous of the friendship between your Father and Hensei. I even went so far as to confront your Father about it and said some terrible things. The next day, Hensei came to visit and told us he’d received a posting at the nearby records office for the city. I saw that despite the well-wishes and companionship between them, they were sad that it would mean less visits. I apologized to your Father for intruding in something that was none of my business.”
Kaori shifts, both from the cold of the bench, and from what her mother had said. No, how her mother had said it. Kaori had never heard this story, and isn’t entirely sure why she is hearing it now. Kaori reminds herself that it is not her place to question her mother and remains silent and mostly still.
“Your father says the Governor turned down your request?”
“The Governor,” Kaori pauses, “wished to express his sorrow that a verse of mine would not grace the pages of his commemorative poem, something about not having enough room at his Estate for both the Spring Festival and my sister’s marriage. He was polite and expressed his hope that he would still be made aware of my work in the future.”
Kaori’s mother places her hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “Kaori, he was not being polite. Propriety extends to his expression of sorrow and his gentle rebuke, but continued interest in your work is not required in a letter such as this. Was it his hand?”
Kaori’s brow scrunches, “Having not received letters from the Governor before, I cannot make that comparison.”
“Show me the letter Kaori, if he took the time to write it himself, the Governor is genuinely interested, and you may yet have your opportunity after all.”
Elder sage halo,
black fights with white and loses.
Your beard needs trimming.
Kaori brings the fan up to cover her smile. Hensei catches the movement of the fan out of the corner of his eyes. He picks up his tea as Kage does, and they both sip. So much history in teacups, Kaori thinks, watching the two match each other gesture for gesture, while each one’s eye is fixed onto the table. Hensei catches her watching.
“I feel eyes on me, and cannot help but notice.”
Kaori’s father leans towards her, “Fetch your writing box, and a servant to play the flute.”
Kaori smiles, stands and bows to the two men while backing out of the sitting room. She races back to her room, grabs the writing box and rings the bell. Miruna approaches and sits by the open door. “Grab my flute, Miruna, and come to the sitting room. Art is afoot.” She catches Miruna’s smile as they pass in the threshold, and finds it mirrored.
She bows as she enters, and sits down. The table has been cleared and her father turns to Hensei. “Honored guest, would you grace us with the first verse?”
“Of course dear friend, if Kaori will create the second?” Kaori nods, not looking up, Hensei will wait for her to finish preparing the ink and the paper before he speaks, taking solace in the grinding of the ink stone, the soft music of the flute.
Evening skylarks sing,
branches creaking in the wind.
Too much to enjoy.
Kaori is a little surprised that Hensei would set a season that wasn’t the current one, but she accepts it and continues in form.
Distant mists surround the tea fields.
Tea cup history begins.
Kaori’s father smiles, looks at Hensei.
Pilgrims pack their things
their faith is to be lauded,
I stay in taverns.
Hensei and Kage share a look and a brief chuckle.
Drink brings joy and merriment.
Never finding peace in cups.
His daughter jumps to the next verse quickly.
Crying from the loss,
lovers, goodbye, and depart.
New moon rains down stars.
“You’re too serious, Kaori.” Hensei chides. “Beautiful images, but so serious.” The table turns to look at Kage.
He brings the sickle and stubs
of cut paddies, dry, cracked
On a long voyage
to the farthest autumn sea,
So the sun travels.
Hensei chuckles again. “We will read this and will easily know who taught whom, won’t we old friend?” Kage smiles.
“A good student takes the work of their mentor and turns it into their own. My daughter is just getting warmed up, but be warned, her lighter notes can be just as cutting as the best of critics.”
“You sound like the voice of experience.”
“Everyone has to learn somehow, no?”
Hensei takes stock of the young girl in front of him, dressed for spring already in pastels with heavy contrast. She is not unattractive, the angles of her face are perhaps a little sharp, and her overall figure perhaps a little thin. She carries herself as though she would be forward, with a strong presence that is perhaps unbecoming of a young lady. Hensei sips his tea slowly and places it back down.
“Is this blend from your sister-in-law, dear friend?”
“Indeed, I would not greet an old friend with anything less.”
“It is good that even a humble clerk like me can have the opportunity to taste Imperial finery every so often. It is even better to have such friends to share it with.”
Kaori’s father smiles broadly. Hensei turns to her. “I am sorry to carry such ill news into your household, I know it would have brought much prestige for one so young to be a part of the collection.”
“One so young will have more opportunities to be a part of greater collections.” Kaori’s fan whips open, but does not flutter or move. “I appreciate your sympathy; I have much to be tended to here.” A brief, adequate pause before Kaori speaks again. “I have heard your niece is to be married rather far away.”
Hensei takes another sip of his tea, his eyes narrow over the brim of the cup. “My brother’s children and I have never been close. Always too much work to be done. Your father and I were speaking of how the governor knew of your work.”
“A small verse, a single blossom amid a tree of greater fruit.”
“Do you know the men who were involved?”
Kaori’s fan flutters rapidly, as do her eye-lids. She takes a sip of tea. “Introductions would have been like jagged rocks on a quickly-flowing river, so they were bypassed. The men did not use or say names either, on account of it seeming that everyone was familiar with each other, and the scribe seemed to know everyone’s name already, as did the judge. I was the outsider, the magpie atop the fence.”
Kaori’s father leans in. “Like a true star, everyone seems to know my daughter’s name, and yet with indifference does she treat how far it travels.”
Hensei smiles. “All in credit to her father and his tutelage.” The two raise their glass to each other and drink. Kaori sips her tea slowly.
“How goes the search for her husband?”
“Slowly. Still the Matchmaker does not respond, but the roads are yet icy and wet. I have faith that before Summer’s end, we will have prospects.” Kaori’s fan moves very slowly, stiffly as her eyes fixate on Hensei. He is older than her father, but not by too many years. Much of Hensei’s hair has gone, his long beard is streaked with more gray than black and frames his face with a soft halo. The image strikes a verse, and she tucks it away into the folds of her mind. The two have continued speaking about her marriage, but Kaori prefers not to listen to such talk.