The Watchman’s Wife

Arndt choked on the murky dregs of beer and slammed his pewter tankard down onto the bar top in disgust. He spit the remaining sediment that clung to the inside of his mouth out onto the dirty floor of the worst drinking establishment in town. His investigation into the smith’s apprentice came to an abrupt standstill over a week ago when his wife had vanished. Getting drunk was the only way he could ignore the whispers around town that his sweet Jiselle had murdered the Mullen’s boy. Arndt was unable to get drunk enough on the cheap swill served her to force thoughts of how convenient her disappearance was. In the end, he returned the money to the Mullen family and dropped the investigation. He spent his nights in whatever tavern was selling the cheapest ale now.

He hefted his purse with the intent of buying himself another round, only to realize that he’d already emptied it for the night. Shoving the empty bag into his vest, he pushed up and away from the bar. The brew sank its claws into him faster tonight than he expected. He pushed to hard and fell on his ass in the dregs he had recently deposited on the floor. The room roared with laughter.

“Fuck all of ya.” Arndt muttered as he recovered himself from the floor. The room felt like it was spinning as he stumbled out of the tavern. As he staggered down the streets toward his empty home, people crossed to the other side of the street to avoid him. He glared at them as they shared muted conversations, no doubt about him or his wife. Grimacing, he remembered how they used to come up and make conversation with him. He hunched over as a wave of nausea swept through his guts. He spewed out the rubbish he drank earlier that evening into the streets as more passers-by muttered in disgust. He straightened up when the churning in his stomach subsided and continued home.

As he approached his home, a wrongness nagged at his brain. He knew something was off but fretfully could wrest the wrongness into a coherent thought. For the third time of the evening he cursed the cheap beer and what it did to him even though he knew he’d repeat the same ritual tomorrow night. Arndt paused outside the door to fill his pipe and light it. The terrible wrongness asserted itself on him once more. Scratching at the stubble on his chin, he stared at the glow from the hearth in the window attempting to place his misgivings.

His pipe clattered to the steps as he realized the hearth had remained unlit since Jiselle disappeared. Ignoring his fallen possession, Arndt fumbled for his keys and burst into his home expecting to see his missing wife cooking dinner. Instead, lounging in a chair by the hearth was a man with a closely cropped haircut. Leaning against the chair within easy reach of its occupant was a sheathed short sword. As Arndt entered more cautiously the man spoke without turning around.

“I’m here to talk to you about your cultist wife.”


Apropos of: Arathania

-Crouse

Advertisements

Paladins

Arenth watched from the woods as the the men swarmed into the village. King’s paladins, by the look of them. In lieu of the traditional armor a knight of the Kingdom would wear, they wear clad only in robes of varying colors. Arenth scanned the invaders for one clad only in a white robe with an accompanying blue belt. He breathed a sigh of relief. The Justicar of the order had not accompanied the men on this raid. If Arenth played his cards right, he thought me might make it out alive, and more importantly, with the relic.

Arenth watched the so-called holy warriors as they kicked in doors to the flimsy shelters his people had erected in the woods. Here a woman was dragged out with her children. and tied up and left in the mud. The paladins moved from house to house scouring the interior for living people. Eventually a band of men who had been out hunting returned to see their loved ones left lying prone on the ground. One of the hunters knocked an arrow and let fly at the first paladin to walk into view.

Arenth knew what the outcome would be before he saw what happened. It didn’t stop him from hoping the arrow would strike true. The arrow would have been a killing blow. It flew directly toward the hard of the unsuspecting paladin. Just as it should have pierced the soft fabric that served as armor, the shaft and arrowhead splintered into hundreds of pieces. Not a single one so much as grazed the paladin’s skin. The shot itself served only to alert the young man of the new threat. Arenth heard the shouting as the paladin called to his companions and the hunters rushed in to fight them.

Arenth sighed and shifted in his hiding spot. He knew the hunters were untrained and the paladins spent a majority of their lives training. The battle itself was impressive. The paladins didn’t kill a single man who faced off against them. Each hunter was successively knocked unconscious either with the flat of a blade or a hilt. They were then disarmed and tied up with the rest of the villagers.

The paladins continued to search through the buildings until finally they all met in the center of town. Arenth would have loved to have been closer to hear what they were discussing. He needed to know if they knew of the relic or if this was merely a raid to root out those who did not follow their strictures. He saw some angry gesturing. Soon half the paladins rounded up their prisoners and began escorting them away. The remaining paladins set fire to the buildings. Arenth waited.

He waited until the paladins left. Then, he waited for the fires to burn out. He slept briefly and restlessly, always awakening and expecting to be tied up by the paladins. Each time he awoke alone was a relief. He waited as the sun set. Through the cold of the night he dared not stir from his cover. Even as hunger and thirst assaulted him, he stayed put, not daring to risk revealing himself. Finally, on his third day of delay, he saw what he had waited for. A solitary paladin rode into the clearing that now housed only rubble. He surveyed the destruction and dug his boots into the flanks of his horse, riding out. That night, Arenth ventured down into the ruins of his home. He dug up the Skull of the Red Horned God and stole away into the night.


Apropos of: Arathania

-Crouse

(Sorry for the delay in getting this up all!)

Eulogy

I didn’t expect to be invited to this. It probably helps that I’d been laying low. Hatching new schemes. It probably helps that for the first time in my life, I’d done something helpful. That I’d caught the man who did it. For at least one day, I was a hero.

I’d been in my lair. It’s what we-Super Villains-do. I can still remember precisely what happened. One of my henchmen called me up and told me to turn on the news. I laid down my t-square on top of the heaping piles of drafting paper, most of them scribbled over with red ink, some of them crumpled into balls. I set it down and turned on the news. And there was the footage. My arch nemesis fighting another super villain. What’s more, he was losing.

Some people like to think there’s a code of honor among super villains. That we wouldn’t confront another’s rival. It’s a load of bullshit. If a super hero comes for you, you put up a fight with them. That’s not the way this played out. This guy had gone looking for my nemesis. He found him. I watched him in the process of killing my nemesis.

Sure, I had toyed with the idea of offing him before.  It crosses every super villain’s mind. It would make life easier. What every super villain won’t tell you is that there’s a perverse pleasure in the struggle. I’m sure most super heroes feel the same way. We enjoy being challenged. Imagine Bill Gates without Steve Jobs. Imagine Bruce Lee without any one to challenge him. Do you think they would rise to such great heights without the challenge? That’s part of why we earn that honorary “super” in our job description. It’s the lengths that we go to in competition with others. So even though I’d toyed with the idea, my nemesis earned my grudging respect, and I’d like to think that maybe I earned his.

What I saw on the television flooded me with anger. I threw on my suit and headed out immediately. Unfortunately, I was too late. By the time I arrived, this other villain was standing over the corpse of my long time rival. Seeing his slackened body and the bloody tatters of his suit unleashed a primal fury in me. I gave chase to the cad who could murder in cold blood a man I respected so much.

We all know what happened with that story. The villain is currently serving multiple life sentences, and I’m here, speaking to all of you. But I can tell you this, even though my rival, my nemesis has been given the justice of having his murderer put behind bars, I still feel a heavy heart. There is a great super hero sized hole in my heart where my rival used to be. I’ll never be able to pit my abilities against him again. I’ll never be able to tell him what a great man he was. Nor will I be able to tell him what he really was to me. A friend.


Apropos of: This Prompt

-Crouse

Steps

My son sat with his ear pressed against the carpeting of the staircase as his siblings chased each other up and down them. I didn’t think anything of it as I walked past the first time to deposit a sack of groceries into our kitchen. By the time I had dropped off the last bag in the haul, concern nagged at my conscience.

“What are you doing, bud?” I asked him.

“Talkin’ to the stairs.” he said.

“Oh? Are they telling you anything interesting?”

“Yeah. They said Mikey and Allen are monsters.”

“I guess they’re a little rambunctious, yeah,” I said.

“Nooooo, Dad,” he whined, “monsters.”

“Okay, buddy.”

I ruffled his hair through the railing and went to help my wife cook dinner. We talked about our days as we cooked. Finally, the subject of Simon with his head on the stairs came up.

“Oh, is he up to that again? He was telling me earlier about how they don’t like being stomped on,” she said.

“What’d you tell him?” I asked.

“I told him that was true. I also asked him how he’d like to be stomped on. Hopefully he’ll walk more softly on the stairs from now. I just wish we could get Michael and Allen to stop clomping around like a couple of bulls.”

“Baby steps, I guess.”

My wife called the boys for dinner and we sat down to eat. Michael and Allen tucked into their food like they’d been starved for centuries. Simon, on the other hand, only pushed his food around on the plate. After each pea made circuitous route around the rim he cast dark glances at his brothers.

“What’s wrong, Simon, aren’t you hungry?” my wife asked.

In response he took a reluctant bite of his food and resumed circumnavigating vegetables around his chicken. I shared a glance with my wife. Our older sons excused themselves from the table, having cleaned their plates. The cacophonous pounding of feet resumed. Simon’s face became drawn.

“What’s wrong, buddy?” I asked. I received a mumbled nothing as Simon began to slowly eat his meal. My wife and I sat there with him, asking questions about his day and what he learned in school. He rewarded our interest with terse, short answers. Finally, after what felt like an interminable length, Simon finished his plate and excused himself. My wife began to put away the leftovers as I started the dishes.

We were making small talk as we listened to the boys’ general tomfoolery. My wife was standing next to me drying dishes and returning them to the cupboard when we the rambunctious play we had grown accustomed to end with a scream and a thud. The first thud was punctuated by a second thud in short succession.

My wife and I both rushed out of the kitchen to see Michael and Allen sprawled and motionless at the foot of the stairs. My wife flew into hysterics and rushed to our sons. I looked up at the stairs to see Simon standing looking guilty as the snake from the garden.

“Simon! What did you do?” I yelled up at him.

In response he offered a helpless shrug before saying, “The stairs told me to do it.”


Apropos of:  This Prompt

-Crouse

Vassal of the Red Horned God

Jiselle checked to make certain that Arndt was fast asleep by shaking him gently. She had refilled his mug with ale any time that the liquid had dipped below visibility; she suspected he would be asleep until mid-morning at least. When her attempts to waken her husband were answered by the continued rhythmic snoring she crept with adroit stealthiness from their bed. Clad only in her shift, she navigated the dark of a their single room home toward the wood pile. The only light was from the moon and the few dying embers left in the hearth.

She removed the small deer antler stashed among the pile of timbers and left through the front door into the chill of the the mid-autumn air. Shivering, Jiselle slunk down the main street of the town that led off to the woods where many of the men of town would hunt for their livelihood. Her gaze swept about the shadows cast by the building. In between two of the houses she thought she saw movement, but as she waited, her breath held for fear of discovery, the source revealed itself to be stray tomcat that hissed furiously at her as she continued toward the trees.

Once safely ensconced by the darkness of the forest, she quickened her pace, ignoring the crack and snarl of the underbrush as she trod carelessly through it. Thorns and burrs bit into the soles of her feet and she left a trail of blood as she passed familiar sigils carved into tree bark. The closer she came to her destination, the warmer the air grew. Soon she was sweating enough to soak through even the thin shift that she had worn to bed. Her stomach twisted itself with apprehension and eagerness, soon she would see her liege. Her knuckles grew white as her grip tightened around the antler.

Up ahead, flames lit the outline of the trees. Drawing closer revealed a bonfire, though no other entity was present. Rivulets of sweat streamed down her forehead as the heat from the fire compounded with the supernatural heat that hung in the air. She shed her garments, tossing them into the flames. With a steel resolve she turned the sharp tip of the animal weapon she carried and began cutting into her palm, using the crimson ink of her own blood to draw the runes of her god upon her flesh.

The symbols drawn, she recited the incantation the old crone had taught her. The flames of the bonfire roared up into a large column, shifting through various colors. Tendrils from it licked at her body, and the smell of burnt hair surrounded her. She tossed the antler into the inferno before her and she shielded her eyes as the resultant light became unbearable to look upon. Shadowy figures played across the canvas of her eyelids. As the intensity of the light seemed to lessen she lowered her arm opening her eyes to reveal that she had lost all faculty of sight.

You summon me.

The voice reverberated in her head, loud enough for her to fear that even her sleeping neighbors might hear it.

“I have done as your priestess dictated, my lord. I wish to become your queen.”

Silence and then the snuffling of hot air, as if a great beast were smelling her. Jiselle almost recoiled with the fear and disgust that now filled her.

You. You are not worthy.

Dread began to gnaw at her gut. She turned to flee from the unholy terror she had summoned only to trip an fall. As the red horned god feasted upon her, no one in the village was wakened by her screams.


Apropos of: Arathania

-Crouse

Customer Service

“That smile…where did you get that smile?”

I looked up from the newspaper I was reading behind the gas station counter. An older lady stood in front of me. Her skin looked like parchment and she smelled heavily of cloves. Her hair was wispy like strands of smoke clinging to her scalp. She was staring at me in horror; her jaw trembled. I hadn’t been smiling.

“I beg your pardon ma’am?” I replied.

“Where did you get that smile!” She screeched it out. It wasn’t a question.

“Do you need help pumping your gas ma’am?” I asked as I walked around the counter to her. She kept quietly whispering, the only word that I could make out was smile. I gently took her arm and was pleasantly surprised when she let me lead her out to her car at the pump. I sat her in the driver seat and filled up her tank. The boss wasn’t going to like that another customer was going to get a full tank of gas pro bono, but there wasn’t much I could do if I couldn’t communicate with her, and I wasn’t about to let her run out of gas after she stopped at the only gas station on a 500 mile stretch of road. After the tank was full I tapped on the hood and told her she was good to go.

She didn’t leave the pump until I’d gone back inside. She was the fourth person this month. I still had bruises from the last guy. I still couldn’t figure out what any of them meant by asking about my smile. It confused me all the more because I hadn’t smiled at any of them. I don’t have much to smile about working all alone at a gas station in the middle of a vast stretch of boring.

Attempting to push this most recent encounter out of my mind, I sat back down and resumed reading the newspaper and drinking my coffee. Customers came and went. Some of them bought sodas. Most of them just paid for their gas. None of them ranted to me about a smile. It looked like it was shaping up to be a better day.

Three cups of coffee later and I felt a familiar need take hold. A locked up the front door and flipped the sign to show I’d be back in a moment. Grabbing the newspaper off the counter, I made my way to the commode. Settling in, I leafed through the sports page briefly before settling into the lone comics page. It passed the time. After finishing, I stood in front of the mirror washing my hands. That’s when I finally saw it.

Floating directly behind me in the mirror was a large disembodied mouth tangled in a rictus grin. I spun around, but it must have been too fast for me. Somehow it managed to stay behind me. I bolted from the bathroom. I ran out to the lobby of the gas station, struggling with the door until I remembered I had locked it. With a click I was out into the parking lot and under the pumps where several cars had lined up waiting to fuel up. They all looked at me like I was crazy when I told them to save me from the smile. A couple of them wrestled me to the ground. They bound me. The smile seemed to have gone.

“Thanks, guys. The smiles gone you can let me go now,” I said.

They didn’t. They called the cops. Now I’m in a cell under psychiatric evaluation.

I can see the smile behind me in every reflection.


Apropos of: This Prompt

-Crouse

The Alley

Greg walked past this alley  everyday of the week on his way into the office. Every day of the week he’d spare a glance down the alley. A fine layer of detritus always coated the pavement, and, of course, there were always one or two bums sitting down amidst the dumpsters and puddles, usually sucking down some cheap hooch. Every day, Greg would shake his head in disgust and unconsciously brush off the sleeves of his Italian three piece as if just looking at the destitute people of the city he called home had somehow sullied him. Tarnished his success. Today, one of the bums was sitting near the entrance. A coffee cup rattled with loose change in his hand. He shook it as Greg walked by. Greg ignored him.

On his way back to his penthouse, Greg approached the alley again. He could see the man from this morning; he’d switched to the opposite side of the alley. The homeless guy made eye contact with Greg as he walked. Greg wanted to quicken his pace, but the thronging crowd before him made it impossible. As he reached the aperture, the old guy brushed the stringy, greasy hair that made up his bangs back and said, “For a dollar, Sir, I’ll show you some magic.”

“Yeah, you’ll make the dollar disappear. Piss off, old timer,” Greg responded. The audacity of the bum to speak to him curdled Greg’s gut. He didn’t eat dinner that night and scoured himself from head to toe in the scalding hot water of his imported marble bathroom. His dreams were of the homeless man’s weathered face and his yellowed grin as he addressed Greg.  Greg resolved himself to give the man a piece of his mind the next day.

That morning, as he approached the alley, the man was not sitting at its entrance. Greg paused at the mouth and walked in, an empty cigarette box crumpling under his foot. The entire alley was empty. Greg assumed that police had finally carted off the indigents. With a smile on his face he strode off to work. He was even in a good mood despite having to work late that night.

On his way home, the streets were much less crowded. As Greg approached the alley he saw some sort of blue light flashing inside. Not wanting to miss more of the filthy homeless being dragged off of the streets, Greg quickened his pace and turned into the alley expecting to see a police car and an officer escorting the homeless into the back seat. Instead, he saw the man from the day before. Greg’s jaw dropped.

The old man was floating about the alley a good three feet off of the ground. One of his slippers had fallen and the other dangled precariously, threatening to follow suit at any moment. The bum was looking down at the ground and gripping a mud spattered blanket around his shoulders.  Greg let out an involuntary gasp. The old man looked up and simply smiled at Greg. At this, some vestigial survival instinct kicked in and Greg turned around and began to run out of the alley his mind plotting a new path to work that would avoid the alley entirely. As Greg disappeared from the alley, the old man shouted out to him, “Hey, I showed you some magic, Mister. You owe me a dollar.”


Apropos of: This Artwork by Faraz Shanyar

-Crouse