Monday, 30 May 2011

Harker's Guest

Confession time; I love Dracula and vampires in general (excepting of course for their most recent, sparkly iteration). It all started when I was five years old and I read a graphic novel adaptation of Bram Stoker's classic novel really late at night. My young mind had the beejesus scared out of it, but like some sort of masochist to my own fears, I've had a fascination with the undead ever since.  I think I now have about twenty books on vampires scattered abount my bookshelves (and that's not counting the various sourcebooks for Vampire:The Masquerade and Vampire: The Requiem). 
So, when Chuck Wendig put up his flash fiction challenge of the week based on the concept of an uninvited guest, something long dormant in the back of mind clicked into place, and thus was born  this monstrosity. The title is a reference to the short story "Dracula's Guest" which was originally supposed to be included as a chapter in Dracula but was later edited out, and packaged and sold as a sort of 19th century teaser for the book. For the story I tried to come at the classic story from a different angle while at the same time staying true to the original, including keeping to its Victorian era propensity for purple prose. 
Please to enjoy!
   "Harker’s Guest"

    A sudden chill rose to the executor’s skin as he heard the cacophonous howl of the night storm raging outside his study.  The sheer violence of it was completely unknown to him living as he had these past ten years in the remote New England countryside. A sensation of intense disquiet gripped him for he swore that he could hear the distinct sound of a wolf howling somewhere nearby in the tempest winds and getting ever closer. After a moment he dismissed it as some dread conjuration of his mind, long overworked from facilitating the acquisition of several local properties for a mysterious foreign client.
    The client was a curious and mysterious gentleman, from his description a noble from the most archaic realms of Europe. The client was preparing to move to the area and corresponded his demands to the executor via telegram. He’d had much difficulty in accommodating the man’s strange demands of celerity in the matter, but was dutifully motivated by the large amounts of money the client promised upon its completion. It was also undertaken as a point of personal pride. His family had a long tradition of managing the estates of others, and even though he was far away from the family residence in England he still strove to practice that august legacy on the other side of the Atlantic.
    His nerves calmed by work, he was about to retire for the night when there came a sudden pounding at the door. The thumping, so fierce that it nearly rivaled the storm in its violence. Startled, the executor quickly made his way to the front door and, gathering up his courage, slowly opened it. There, standing in the rain and wind, was a tall man, clean shaven, with an unusual pallor that made his skin appear as white or light grey. His long black hair seemed to flow out from his hat like water and its length was nearly to his waist. Curiously enough the man’s clothes and person seemed dry, as if he were entirely unaffected by the tempest around him.
    “Mr. Harker?”the man asked, his tone uncertain. His foreign accent had a strange lilt to it, and the executor could rightly say that he had never heard its ken before. “Mister David Harker?”
    “Yes, I am he,”the executor replied.
    “Permit my curt introduction. I am your client, the Count Radu. Please excuse the lateness of my visit, but I have just recently arrived and wish to speak to you on the nature of my new estates.”    
    The executor tried hard to concentrate but he was finding it difficult. The count’s dark brown, almost black, eyes seemed to bore into him and he found that if he looked to long into them they produced an odd, hypnotic effect.
    “At this hour, Count? Surely it can wait until tomorrow,”Harker said, his mind slowed by gross fatigue and the count’s intense gaze.
    “Please, it is of grave importance that it be seen to this night, Mr. Harker,”the Count insisted. “May I come in?”
    Almost despite himself the executor welcomed the count into his home and led him to his study where he did his best to make him more comfortable. The count followed, his movements conducted with a grace that belied his tall stature. Each step he took had the unthinking ease of an athlete or a dancer but at the same time contained an unsettling,  predatory quality. The executor couldn’t help but be reminded of the deadly prowess of a great cat echoed in the count’s every gesture and stride. He dismissed the unease that his guest provoked and poured himself a glass of wine. He offered one to the count as well, though he refused it.
    “Though I have not dined tonight I am afraid I am not fond of wine,” he replied.
    The executor set about tending to the fire, ostensibly to make his unexpected guest feel more comfortable but in actuality to distract himself from the count's odd mannerisms. There was a long pause that was at last broken by the executor.
    “You will no doubt be pleased to hear that the acquisitions are proceeding quite quickly and should be completed by the end of the month,”he said.
    The count nodded. “Good,” was all he said on the matter, then added. “The northern most estate, the manor, I have heard that it was the spot of an execution ... a hanging.  Is this true?”
    “It is true,”the executor said but quickly added as an explanation. “But that was some time ago, back when the area was known as Salem. A girl was hanged there, accused of  witchcraft, though I must add that there’s been no other morbid activity there since. And I’ve heard no tales of the condemned’s spirit coming back to haunt it.”
    If the count understood the executor’s jest he showed no sign of finding it funny.
    “And, in this area do you still hang witches?”the count asked.
    The executor swallowed, shocked that his client would think that his new home could be so barbaric.
    “No, no of course not. I’m afraid that no one in America truly believes in witches in this day and age and if they did suspicion and superstition alone is not cause enough to execute them.”
    The count sighed. “Another sad indication of the weakness of the modern era. I am finding that the more changes that are made in the world, and the more progress in the cause of civilization, the less value is given to tradition and those old ways that have guided us for so long.”
    The executor decided that silence was the best recourse to the count’s ramblings.
    “Soon enough our old ways will be no more, swept aside by advances and the tenacity  of men of science. What will happen when the day comes that the new values overtake the old, and men can no longer decide for themselves which violations must be responded to in kind. When will be the time that men no longer believe that blood spilled must be paid in kind? Tell me Mr. David Harker, do you have any family?”
    The executor was stunned for a moment at the count’s sudden shift of topic and it took him a few moments to collect himself before he finally respond.
    “Yes, I have a brother, though we’ve not spoken for nearly a decade. I’ve heard that he’s recently married, and that he and his wife are expecting their first child.”   
    The count stared at him in a way that the executor imagined a wolf stares down its prey.

    “I too had a brother once, though he was taken from me quite recently. Like yourself, I was not close to him, had not seen him for a very long time. It would be best said that I hated him,”the count said, his voice almost given over to an unexplained anger before just as inexplicably growing calm. “But still, the old ways of honor must be observed.”

     He shivered, though it somehow seemed like a forced motion. “I feel a chill. Do you think that you could turn around and add more wood to the fire?”
    David nodded and set about the task, although some dark recess of his mind defied to turn his back to him. He did not hear the silent strides of Count Radu and too late felt the count’s strong hands grip themselves on his shoulders, keeping him in place no matter how hard he struggled.
    “We are both slave to the old ways, you and I,”the count whispered in his ear, and David smelt the awful stench of blood upon the man's breath. He felt a sudden sharp pain in his neck and then a dreadful dizziness overtook him as a darkness blacker than the night rose up to swallow him whole. 

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Malum in Se

Once again, this is another Flash Fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig's most excellent website. This week's challenge was to take a word or phrase from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable that begins with 'M'. The title of this story comes from a Latin term meaning something wrong or evil in and of itself. The story takes place just at the onset of the Albigensian Crusade, although hopefully you don't have to be a history major to appreciate it, and if you are a history major please note that some historical details have been fudged for the sake of story. :P

Southern France, 1208 A.D.
    The dark stone walls of Chateaux d’Hiver towered over the countryside of Languedoc, its battlements and ramparts soaring upwards in a fashion that seem to defy the commandments of God against the hubris of man, as He did with the Tower of Babel. Brother Martin, however, was not interested in the prideful sins of the castle’s builders but rather in the transgressions of a far more sinister conspircay. As he approached the castle portcullis he watched as the dusk red rays of the setting sun formed an infernal halo around the place. He prayed it was not an omen.
    When he got to the gate he was stopped by the guard there.
    “What’s your business here?’ the guard called out.
    “I seek only shelter for the night good sir. I am journeying to Saintes Maries de la Mer to as part of a pilgrimage and I hope that your lord and lady would be gracious enough to give hospitality.”
    “What kind of monk are you of?”the guard asked with narrowed eyes.
    “I’ve had the humble privilege to have taken my vows and live my life according to the Rule of St. Benedictine, in whose glory I may ...”
    The guard put up his hand. “Alright, alright. You may enter.” He waved to a nearby guard and a moment later the portcullis began to rise, its ascent making a sound like a great groaning beast. The gate did not rise completely, but only just enough to allow the monk to duck through. Even still the metal spikes at the bottom made him nervous, and he imagined the gate suddenly crashing downwards and impaling him. He shuddered.
    “There’s a storage room we use for pilgrims in the north-west corner,” the guard said, pointing. “It’s not much, but it’ll keep warm if you make a fire in the middle of it. You’ll be expected to keep to there and not muck about. Understood?”
    The young monk nodded and made his way to the lodgings. The storage room was even worse than the guard said it was; dank and dark, it looked as if no pilgrim had stayed here for a some time. Besides that, there was no sign of worship here, no altar or crucifix at all. Even the poorest and most decrepit rest point on a pilgrimage had some sort of religious sign, however small. Here though there was nothing. Curiouser and curiouser, Martin thought. It was beginning to look as he and his superiors suspected; the lords of the castle were not devout in the same way as others were. But it would take more than an empty rest point to make a case for heresy.   
    He took off his cloak and bags and laid them near the door. Underneath the cloak was not the brown robes of the Benedictines, but the dark black robes of a Dominicans; the newly formed watch dogs of the Church. What their Order lacked in experience they made up for passionate exuberance for the truth. He would see the true face here of Chateaux D’Hiver. 
    He kneeled and prayed to God to forgive his most recent sins; he’d lied to the guard about many things but the most glaring was his claim to be on pilgrimage to Saintes Maries de la Mer. His true purpose was to discover the true culprit of the papal legate, Pierre de Catlenau, murder near here. The papal legate had been sent by Rome to convince Raymond, the Count of Toulouse to give up his tolerance of the Cathar heretics in his domain. Indulged by the local nobles of Languedoc, the Cathars had festered and grown until their influence rivaled that of Holy Mother Church herself, a situation of intolerable blasphemy. After failing to persuade Raymond to turn his back on the heretics, the legate had returned to Rome, only to be set upon and murdered. There were some who believed that Raymond’s hand was in this; Brother Martin and his Dominican brothers thought differently and he was here to investigate the matter. So far that investigation had brought him to the Chateaux D’Hiver. He would give penance later for the lie he told as he asked to be forgiven those sins he would no doubt soon commit in order to learn the truth.
    “... sed libera nos a malum in se. Amen,”he finished and rose to his feet.
    With that done he had work to do.
     The robes he wore had slits along the legs, allowing for a greater movement than a normal habit. He flipped his hood up, and checked the black robe to make certain there were no blemishes that would show when he blended into the night shadows. He prayed it all would be enough. He slipped out of the storage room and heard the sounds of a feast coming from inside the castle keeps. The keep’s entrance doors were guarded, but Brother Martin would bet an indulgence that the windows above it were not.
    In his youth Martin had developed a knack for climbing the apple trees near the monastery where he grew up, and by the age of eleven he was able to scramble up nearly any surface. His prior and fellow monks had tried to discourage this practice once he’d become a monk for they said it was wasteful foolery but now it was of prime importance. He started slowly, scaling the keep walls with a patience only the cloistered life could bring. He slipped his fingers into the cracks between the castle bricks and pulled himself up with the scant leverage it provided. He had to stop when one of the guards looked his way, but fortunately his black robes made him look like a shadow amidst the dark and the guard turned away.
    At last he made it to the top window of the keep.. There was laughter there and jests, but all seemed to be tinged with a hint of cruelty and malice. Martin got onto the wooden rafters of the keep to get a better view, though his eyes strained through the smoke coming from below. What appeared to be the lord and lady were seated with a few others around a high table. A great bonfire raged in the middle of the hall. Nearby to the bonfire was a man in rags struggling against the firm grasp of two guards who were dragging him closer to the conflagration.
    “I beg of you, I am but a Good Christian,” he screamed at the lord and lady. “I have done nothing to do you harm.”
    ”Your sick devotion to your blasphemy is harm enough,”the lady replied. “Like a carrier of the plague your dogma spreads by your very existence and rots the soul the same way disease scars the body. Renounce your apostasy and your life may be spared!”
    It was then that Martin noticed the other things in the fire; black shapes that looked almost like...
    He suppressed a gasp when the revelation hit him. The shapes in the fire were burnt bones no doubt of former victims. The empty sockets of a skull seemed to stare up at him, the only earthly legacy of the countless many who had been burnt alive this evening.
    “The truth cannot be renounced even if the speaker lies,”the man in rags said. “I shall meet my fate as my brothers have already.”
    “So be it then,”the lord said, and motioned to the guards. They heaved the man towards the flames and threw him into the fire. The man’s screams echoed in the keep, and joined the horrific laughter of those seated. Their vile merriment and the scene of the charnel house below was so much that Martin was overcome and he tried to flee. His vision though was offset by the thick smoke, and just as he neared the window his lost his footing and fell. His drop was broken by one of the tables and he was winded rather than killed. His head spun and he heard the sounds of laughter stop abruptly.  He felt himself hauled up by the guards and made to kneel before the hosts of the castle.
    “It seems that a pretty black bird has fallen down among us,”the lady laughed.
    “Explain yourself. Why are you here?”the lord demanded.
    Martin spit on the floor. “I don’t answer to murderous Cathar heretics.”
    There was a wave of laughter amongst those seated.
    “I’m afraid you have mistaken us,”the lord said. “There are no more living Cathars here. Rather we can claim to be the only true pious amongst the nest of sinners of Languedoc. We do what we can to weed out the chafe from the wheat.” He waved his hand to indicate the bonfire.
    “No, it can’t be,” Martin stammered. “But everything about the legate’s murder has pointed here.”
    “On that count at least, little bird you are correct,”the lady said. “For too long Christendom has sat idle while the Cathars prospered and spread. Our fair cousin Raymond has been much too lenient of the Cathar dogs in his domain. Actions were necessary to force the hand of Mother Church to purge this mouldering heresy.”
    “You killed him knowing that suspicion would fall on the Catharists or the Count of Toulouse,”Martin said, dumbfounded. He could not believe his senses. Before him were not the beliefs and logic of the heretic but of those who thought themselves the most truly devoted. Their methods though ...
    “And now you know too much,”the lord said motioning to the guards. “We cannot let you live knowing what you do. Though it pains us to kill a true Christian, we cannot let your discovery reach the ears of pope. Too many pious lives have been sacrificed to goad the world to action. What is one more if the ends justify the means?”
    Martin kicked and struggled futiley as the guards dragged him towards the fire.
    “No,”Martin screamed. “You’ll never get away with this.”
    “But my dear little bird news of a crusade has already been spread. Soon all of Languedoc will be shown the light of the True Faith whether through the grace of God,”the lady smiled. “Or the fires of the righteous.”
    And then Martin was thrown into the flames, thrust into a darkness that had nothing to do with the absence of light.


Friday, 13 May 2011

Metric Shit Ton

This is a pretty disgusting story. Half of the blame goes to Chuck Wendig over at his website for the topic for this one. The other half is totally me. :P


   "Wow, that's a lot of fucking shit."Tim said, displaying once again his penchant for understating the obvious.
    We beheld it all through the window of the rental truck. Before us was a vast field completely covered by the most disgusting brow and green shit pile you could possibly imagine.  Great, heaping piles of unprocessed horse shit.
    This is why I don’t normally go for Tim’s get rich quick schemes. Not only is this parr for the course in terms of motherfucking stupidity, but they as a rule tend to end with us not getting paid and being left to clean up the shit left over. Except in this case, it’s fucking literal shit here.    So where the plan on paper was that a guy Tim knew cultivated and delivered some high grade horse manurer to a fertilization plant run by another guy Tim knew who’d process and bag the shit, we now had the sad stinking reality of it all; the shit being unceremoniously dumped all over a field owned by our silent partner Francis. Of course when I say silent partner I mean that we once went over the scheme with him while we were drunk in a bar; his response was to nod his head knowingly and tell us to let him know how it all turned out.  Francis was also an ex-marine, and, if the local rumors were in any way true, had killed 17 Iraqi soldiers during Operation Iraqi Freedom and had spent in total between two to four tours of duty between Iraq and Afghanistan. Believe it or not, the guy also was said to have a temper.
    In short, we were proper fucked.
    We got out of the truck to better survey the field and immediately wished we hadn’t as the stink hit us like a sledgehammer to the dick. We quickly scrambled back into the truck and made sure the windows were rolled all the way up.
    Tim whipped out his sunglasses and put them on. “Looks like shit just got real.”
    I looked up at the heavens and asked, “He’s not going to be any fucking help is he?” The no sign from above told me what Buddy Christ’s answer was. In the silence that followed though came a whirring sound that even Tim didn’t want to hear as the local sheriff’s car. As if the flashing lights weren’t enough.
    “Fucking hell, Tim,” I yelled. “Why the fuck do I follow your dumb ass retarded schemes anyways? Why the fucking do I believe anything you say? You got me into this shit damn fuck mess, you get us out.”
    “Relax, relax man,”Tim replied. “I know a guy on the force around here. Maybe this douchewad knows him.”
    Tim got out of the car and swaggered over to the sherif’s car. The cop got out and seemed to stare at Tim for a minute before laughing out loud and hugging the son of a bitch like they were related or something. Tim looked back at the truck with the shit eater grin, gave me the thumbs up sign and waved me over.
    “Shawn, this here’s Sherif Dave,”he laughed. “Though back in the day he wasn’t such a big man and we used to call him just Deputy Dave.”
     Tim hiked his pants and waddled around bow legged like he just received an atomic wedgie.  Dave laughed so hard you’d think it was the cream of comedy.
    “Jesus H. on a bicycle Tim, what in holy hell did you get yourself into?”Dave asked.
    “Ahhh, you know me. Same shit, different day.”
    Both of them laughed even harder at that.

    “I don’t know how you’re gonna cover this one up,”Dave said, wiping his brow. Specially with this being Francis’ land and all.”

    “Cover it up...oh, fuck Dave, if I hadn’t gone to school with you I’d call you a genius. You don’t happen to know Lane Charles’ number?”

    “Course I do. He works part time as the volunteer dispatch around here. He’s working right now in fact.”

    Sherif Dave went back over to his car to get on the radio.

    “Huh? What the fuck is happening?” I asked.

    Tim clapped me on the back.
    “Lane Charles owns the work crews around here. And even better he owes me a favor from way back. I’m pretty sure I can get him to send over some boys to dig up the field, smooth out the shit and then cover everything up with new sod before that cocksucker Francis knows what’s what.”
    I facepalmed; half because I knew that Tim was just as good at getting himself out of trouble as he was getting into it, and half because I didn’t want him to see the tears of relief swelling up in my eyes from not having an ex-marine see if he could blend my teeth with his shit kicker black boots.

    In half a day the deed is done, and all that’s left is a field that faintly smells like shit. Tim turned to me, tossed me one of the beer he’d been keeping for a special occasion and said:
     “You know even with this covered over we should probably leave the country for a bit. You know I know a guy who knows a guy in Turkmenistan who’s trying to get into the hotel business and is looking for some new business partners.”

Friday, 6 May 2011

Witches' Dance

     This story is written up for Dan O'Shea's most excellent blog Going Ballistic. Definitely check out the other entries there, as Mr. O'Shea will be donating $5 to the Red Cross for Tornado Relief for every flash fiction entry he receives. 
    This story is based very heavily on an old children's book that had pretty much this exact same premise, minus the added flourishes and a completely different ending. I can't remember the name of the book and couldn't seem to find it on the ol' Interwebs. If anybody knows it please tell me the name in the comments as the curiosity is really starting to get to me. :P

     Jorges saw the dark clouds gather on the edge of the sky as swift and merciless as the pale rider. He felt a shudder go through him like if the Devil had poured ice water on his bones. It had been many years ago since the last dance of the witches of Wellwick, for it had been a fatal one. The witches forever had been a scourge on the town for years, had descended down upon any unfortunate soul who wandered away from house and hearth at night and carry them away to  some wretched fate worse than death.  Or they would curse the livestock and the fields and make both as barren as the desert earth.
     The townspeople were helpless against the witches power: what could one do when your enemy fly through the air or call down curses at their bidding. The worst part though was the Oblations, where, once every thirteen years the witches would demand that ten strong young men come up to their home in the mountains, never to be seen again. Their fate was never found out, although rumors abounded that the witches, smitten by the young men, forced them to dance forever and ever until their bodies gave out and they collapsed and died of exhaustion. Who thought up this tale no one was able to say, although it seemed just such a thing as the witches might do and so no one thought the better of it.
     All of that changed when Jorges, named after his father, was chosen by lot to go up to the mountains on a thirteenth year. Jorges the elder was a stubborn and difficult sort, but he had a will made of iron and everyone in the village knew better to cross him when he had his mind set. So when he heard the news about his son he made a vow in front of everyone in Wellwick that he would be damned to hell before he let some "ugly pack of hags" steal away his boy.
     Jorges looked on at the oncoming clouds, now changing from pale grey to a black darker than the bleakest night.
     When the village wisemen asked him what he meant to do about it, he told them that though he was nowhere near as wise as them, he was twice as persistent. He would find a way. He'd heard there was a priest on the other side of the forest who had killed a witch when he was young man, and so Jorges set off on a journey to find the find the priest. By hook or by crook, he would learn the priest's secret for killing the witch. He set off on his quest and was not heard from again for many months. The villagers whispered that he was dead, that he had fallen prey to the wolves that roamed the woods. Jorges had despaired, for he thought he had lost his father along with his own life. Then suddenly he returned, a week to the day of Oblations. He told many stories about his adventure to a from the priest's house (much of which the others thought was rubbish, for his stories changed every time he told them) but what remained eternal was the lesson he'd learnt from the priest.
     The witches would melt in the rain.
     Few believed such a foolish tale, but when they thought back they couldn't remember a single time where the fiends would descend upon them in the rain. Jorges also said that he’d come up with a clever scheme while coming back from the priest’s house. It was so little to work with, but with nothing else the townspeople decided to go along with Jorges plan.
     They prayed that rain would come in the next week, and when God answered their prayers it came in torrents on the day before Oblations. They chosen sacrificed gathered together in the banquet hall, put on their thickest jackets, their longest scarves, and their heaviest boots and marched out into the rain. They made their way to the witches’ lair. Before the entrance to the lair an outcropping of stone that kept the cave dry from the rain. Perhaps it had been fashioned by the witches’ spells or perhaps it had always been
that way, and the witches chose it as their lair. All that mattered was that it kept the rain away, so that when they took off their heavy clothes that soaked up all the rain they were dry as summer dust. They hid the clothes and walked into the lair. There they found the witches, astounded to see them.
     “Why are you here a day early?”they cackled together as one.
     “Did you not know? It is a leap year, and so every day is a day sooner,”the chosen told them.
     “Feh,”the said. They walked towards them, eager to begin oblations,  but stopped when they saw that the chosen were dry despite the rain.
     “Tell us how are you dry when the pours down?”they demanded.
     “If we tell you will you spare our lives?”the chosen asked.
     “Of course not,”the witches laughed. “But we will no longer descend upon your town and take the hapless to their doom.”
     “Well,” they lied. “That is good enough for us.
     “We are dry because the village elders have taught us all how to dance between the raindrops.”   
     “Teach us how you do this dance,”the witches cried.
     “If we tell you will you spare our lives,”the chosen asked.
     “Of course not,”the witches laughed. “But we will no longer curse your fields and livestock and make them barren.”
     “Well,” they lied. “That is good enough for us.”
     And so the witches and the chosen paired up, and they danced together until night came and the rain grew worse. The witches eager to test their new dance urged the chosen to dance into the rain.  The chosen agreed, but said that they would have to hold them closely or else they would get wet.
     When they danced out into the rain the witches screamed and cursed, for of course they were getting wet and the chosen saw that they were melting.
     “You are not doing it right, you must hold us closer,”they lied, and the witches seeing that the no other choice held them closer and danced faster and faster. The storm grew fiercer and the witches’ screams grew louder as melted away into puddles that were swept away into the wind.    
     The chosen rejoiced and the townsfolk had celebrated their demise ever since. Jorges the elder died a hero years later, known throughout the land as the man whose plan killed the witches. Although Jorges the younger mourned his father and enjoyed the celebrations of the village, he never shared in them. He, like all the other chosen, had terrible dreams at night, of storms and cackling echoed in the wind. As the years passed all the other chosen either moved away or died, until, after thirteen years he was the only one left in the village. And so, when the night of Oblations came round once again thirteen years later, he looked up at the sky and saw the frightful storm there. He could hear the witches horrible laughter and could see their shapes high up in the sky.
     He knew then that the witches had never been defeated, that they had only stayed away because of their promises. He knew then with a knowledge that only the mad possessed, that witches had come back for their Oblations. He knew then that they had learned to dance between the raindrops.