A Kerrnish Birthday

This story was written for Chuck Wendig’s @YouAreCarrying prompt. Rather than travelling all the way to an outfitter or mercantile, I hopped on Twitter. A tweet later, I’d been granted an inventory of items to include in my story:

I decided to go with a light-hearted fantasy setting for this one, relying more heavily upon dialogue than I usually do.

Critiques are
always welcome! Without further ado, then.

A Kerrnish Birthday

Erin Bek entered the apothecary carefully, grimacing at the scent of Kerrnish tobacco. The herb gave off a distinctive, burnt-hair scent when smoked, which was so unpleasant to most residents of Berat that it was used primarily for its considerable medicinal properties. Even then, its application was a last resort – the distinctive aroma clung to clothing for days, and few found the smell pleasant except the Kerr themselves. That was Erin’s first clue to the identity of the burglar.

Sure enough, as the apprentice apothecary opened the door to the store room, she found Khas Merren sprawled across the floor with her back propped up against a oaken shelving unit. Her eyes were unevenly dilated, and she still clutched a bone pipe in her right hand. The pipe was carved with a caricature of an orc, and Khas frequently insisted to whoever would listen that her grandfather had carved it from the bones of an actual goblin. Erin suspected that Khas had stolen it, as she had so many other things, but had never dared to question her on the subject. There was a matchbook nearby, heavily burnt as if Khas had forgotten to close the cover before attempting to light the tobacco. What remained of the stiff, paper booklet bore the name of their favorite local tavern, The Thieving Bastard.

“Khas Merren, what the hell are you doing in my shop?”

“One – this is not your shop. B – I’m just sampling the mishnat. It’s my birthday, after all.”

Khas savored the word birthday, accompanying it with a soft, throaty rumble which made Erin think of the purring of a cat. She blushed at the thought, knowing how harshly Khas would admonish her for such a bigoted comparison. The Kerr didn’t celebrate birthdays, and Khas had never really grokked the idea, as much as Erin tried to explain it.

“What do you mean, your birthday?”

Khas held up a small envelope, opened at the corner to reveal a piece of aged parchment.

“Well, this gift came for me – found it on my doorstep. It’s a map of some sort, or at least I think it is. It’s too dark to read in here – you might want to tell that master of yours to invest in some lamps. Plus, you dropped this key, which is how I’ve come by the mishnat. Two gifts in one day, so it must be my birthday, right? Let’s go celebrate – the Bastard should be open by now.”

Erin’s eyes widened as she grabbed at the key, which could unlock any door in the shop. Khas was a thief, and a bit of an asshole, which seemed to make her choice of pub particularly fitting. On the other hand, they were the best of friends, and the shop was closed on temple-day, while the pub would indeed be open. The logic was flawless. Erin pocketed the key before taking Khas’ hand and helping her to her feet. Mishnat had a tendency to fuck with depth perception as well as light sensitivity, and Khas steadied her lean, sleek frame against Erin’s shoulder as the two crossed the street to the pub. A pint or two would set Khas right in no time.

~~

A few hours later, Erin was beginning to flag, though Khas continued to drink with typical Kerrnish aplomb. Some local farmhands had been seated at the bar when Erin and Khas entered, and had been striving in vain to keep up with Khas ever since. Accordingly, they’d been growing louder and less coherent, and the loudest among them was staring unheeded daggers at Khas across the maple surface. Erin was glad that Khas didn’t seem to have noticed this – it had cost them each a silver piece the last time Khas had started a brawl. Her relief faded, however, when the farmhand began taunting Khas directly.

“Fucking Kerrnish drunkards – don’t you know you’re not welcome here?”

The tavern keeper placed yet another pint of beer in front of Khas – strong barleywine that would have been served in a half-pint if Khas had not been so insistent. The Kerr returned the farmhand’s stare, glaring silently as she tipped the pint back, draining it halfway without breaking her gaze. She took a deep breath before returning the frosty glass to her lips, continuing to drink as one of the other hands chimed in.

“You deaf, Kerr? Go on, get out of here! Shoo, Mittens!”

The slur crossed a line. Finishing the pint, Khas slammed her cup down before leaping up onto the bar itself. The man’s drunken guffaw was cut short by the sound of glass shattering as Khas’ padded feet swept the surface clear of dishes. Erin blanched, swiping clumsily at Khas’ arm in an attempt to rein her in. After a second try, she caught the Kerr’s leg, arresting her progress before she turned the confrontation into an outright brawl. Helping Khas down from the bar, Erin fished in her pockets for some loose pieces of cotton from the apothecary. She stuffed the cotton in Khas’ pointed ears, hoping to block out the farmhand’s continuing taunts, then slapped a few coins down on the counter and dragged the stubborn Kerr out the door.

“You heard what that bastard called me, Erin. I ought to scratch his eyes out.”

Khas had long ago ceased to grow her fingernails out in the Kerrnish fashion. Even so, the threat was hardly an idle one – the nails of her feet were veritable claws, and she could undoubtedly have maimed the bigot for life if Erin hadn’t stopped her.

“He’s not worth it. Besides, we’ll have to replace the mugs you broke as it is, and I can hardly afford to cough up another silver piece if we’re caught brawling again. I don’t suppose you have enough cash left to pay for the damages?”

Khas responded with a sheepish, awkward grin.

“No, I… Wait! I’m forgetting my birthday gift – there’s bound to be at least a handful of coin at the spot marked on the map! It’s obviously a map of Berat, and it looks like there’s an X drawn right over the temple spire!”

Almost certain that Khas had drawn up and mailed the map herself, Erin decided to humor the Kerr.

“Sounds like a plan, Khas, although I’ve no idea how we’re going to get inside on temple day.”

Khas brightened visibly.

“Oh, don’t worry about that. There’s a ladder in my bag.”

Erin squinted at Khas, obviously skeptical.

“A rope ladder, dummy, with hooks at the ends. It… comes in handy, sometimes.”

~~

The street was mostly abandoned, with the majority of the population in either the temple or the tavern. It only took a couple of tries to hook the ladder to the tower’s door, and they were climbing in no time. Erin didn’t expect that they would actually find anything, in spite rumours that the Church deposited valuable artifacts in the spire of each house of worship. Reaching the top, Khas dropped softly into a small chamber, followed by Erin, who, lacking Khas’ height and agility, lowered herself gingerly from the sill before tumbling the last foot to the floor. Khas tapped her on the shoulder, pointing toward a podium which held a tapered length of aged wood and a thick, white book.

Without a word, Khas leapt upon the book, flipping through the pages with an expression of increasing disappointment. Shutting the volume, she took the wand before turning to Erin and shrugging.

“Just a damn psaltry. Wonder why they’d keep it all the way up here… No coin, either, but at least I won’t leave empty ha-”

She was interrupted by the sound of heavy feet outside the chamber’s single, heavy oaken door. The door was barred from the inside, but from the sound of whatever was approaching, Erin wasn’t convinced that that would do much good. Khas turned toward the door, brandishing the wand as if it were a bladed weapon.

“Give me the wand, Khas. You’re no mage!”

“Says the apothecary’s apprentice!”

“An apothecary’s nearer a mage than a sneaky fucking runaway blacksmith! That’s a delicate and finely tuned magical instrument, not a club or a dagger.”

“Still, we found it using my birthday map, and besides, I don’t have any other weapons. If my ears don’t deceive me, that’s a god-damn troll out there.”

“You’d have a broadsword if you hadn’t traded it for that glass ‘emerald,’ like a greedy fool.”

“I keep telling you, it reminded me of my mother’s eyes. My poor, dead mother! Is an orphan entitled to no sentimentality?”

Erin knew that Khas’ parents were alive and well back in Kerrn, but Khas didn’t much care for them, and generally insisted that they had both been slain by orcs in her early childhood. Flayed in front of her, she claimed, and had shown enough commitment to the farce that she had wept into her ale for over an hour when she’d first spun the tragic tale.

The troll was upon them now, pounding its oversized fists against the oak door. The wood shuddered and splintered as the monster rushed in, lumbering toward them with deadly intent. Erin turned and ran for the window, but stopped dead in her tracks when the troll spoke in the mumbling, dull bellow characteristic of its species.

“Bad kitty!”

Khas responded with a hiss, and Erin could tell that her teeth were bared before she even turned around. The Kerr’s toenails clattered against the stone floor of the chamber as she ran forward, vaulting off the floor and wrapping an arm around the troll’s massive, tree-trunk neck.

Khas gripped the wand, her knuckles growing white as she stabbed the troll repeatedly in the throat. Too shocked by Khas’ ferocity to fight back, the brute succumbed to her onslaught. With a ponderous groan, the hulking monster came crashing to the floor. Erin hurried around the corpse to find Khas gleefully rummaging through the monster’s satchel.

“Trolls are just the best, Erin. They scavenge whatever they can, even if they don’t have any use for it. This one could have hired a decent butler for a month or two with silver pieces alone. Not only that, but he’s a big motherfucker. He’ll make an excellent stepladder.”

With that, Khas looped the satchel around her shoulder, climbing onto the troll’s back and leaping to the open window. Still in shock, Erin followed, descending the rope ladder with haste. Pulling a cord at the bottom, Khas released the hooks and packed the ladder away, whistling a jaunty tune as she did so.

~~

That night, the successful treasure hunters celebrated at the Thieving Bastard. Even after settling debts with the tavern owner, there had been a tidy sum left – perhaps even enough that Khas could actually pay for her next few packets of Kerrnish tobacco. They nursed their drinks for hours, enjoying their good fortune. About a quarter after midnight, Khas grew dejected, hanging her head over her plate of roasted chestnuts. Confused, Erin placed a comforting hand on the Kerr’s shoulder.

“What’s wrong, Khas? I’d say you’ve had an excellent birthday.”

“I just can’t stop thinking about that troll. As I stabbed it to death with my ‘delicate magical instrument’, it looked right into my eyes. They were so big – wide, actually, as if it didn’t understand what was happening.”

Khas looked up, and Erin saw that her eyes were welling with unshed tears.

“Its eyes were just so deep and beautiful. They were emerald green, Erin – just like the eyes of my poor dead mother!”

Ever the dramatic, Khas released the torrent which had been building in her tear ducts as her shoulders began to shake with pitiful, throaty sobs. Relieved, Erin signalled the bartender.

“Bartender – we’ll each have a glass of your finest barleywine! We’re celebrating a Kerrnish birthday over here!”

Bloody Dandelion Blast

This story was written for Chuck Wendig’s recent Genre Mashup writing prompt. I rolled the ‘zombie’ and ‘haunted house’ genres, both of which are practically choked by easy cliches and tired tropes. I tried to avoid most of those, with limited success.

Critiques are welcome!

Trigger Warning: Some of the violence depicted and discussed in the following story could be triggering. 

Bloody Dandelion Blast

Caution abandoned, Kyle and Michelle raced through the forest, snapping twigs and rustling leaves with a lack of concern which would have been reckless ten minutes earlier. True,  they ran a risk of attracting more of the ravenous husks, but the only alternative was to travel so slowly that they would be little more than sitting ducks. Michelle hadn’t dared looked behind her since they first took flight, relying instead upon the growing volume of the guttural,  animalistic snarling of their pursuer. She hoped they would find a safe place soon – a hospital, a friendly encampment,  or an abandoned house would do nicely. Just so long as we steer clear of any goddamn shopping malls.

This was all Kyle’s fault, and wasn’t it always? They’d found shelter, security, and a welcoming community, but Kyle just had to go to work on one of his typical scams. Always biting the hand that fed him, the sorry bastard, but she could hardly abandon him. Not after Columbus.

Their clamorous exodus had attracted more of the living dead. From the vicious growling which had joined that of the original pursuer, she’d guess that at least two more corpses were on their trail. Three years after the CDC’s report was released, everyone knew that the infected weren’t actually dead, but that hadn’t been enough to prevent the adoption of the hackneyed terminology introduced by a half century of popular media. Michelle figured this was a mental defense mechanism of some kind, allowing the uninfected – the ‘survivors’ – to dehumanise the infected enough to do what had to be done.

There was no cure, at least not yet, and the relentless aggression of the infected made non-lethal self-defense seem like the punch line to a joke that wasn’t particularly funny. It was easier to hack little Sally’s head from her shoulders if you could tell yourself that she wasn’t Sally, not even really human. You’d cling so tightly to comforting self deception, telling yourself that the scientists were wrong, that the government had lied, and that it wasn’t really betrayal that you saw roiling in Sally’s milky, bloodshot eyes before you landed the killing blow.

Michelle’s calves felt like they were nearly shredded from the constant exertion. A brief, comically macabre image of the dead greedily devouring the pulled-pork flesh of her legs came to mind, spurring her to even greater haste. She could see that Kyle was similarly spent – they’d had it too good at the camp, and neither of them had stayed in shape. She didn’t think either of them could go on much longer, but they didn’t have any choice.

When they came upon the clearing and the house, it seemed almost miraculous, like whatever god had presided over global events during the past four years thought it was, at last, the perfect time to intervene. The house was well fortified, surrounded by cement walls that must have been at least two feet thick, interrupted only by a heavy, iron gate, which was liberally threaded with rusted barbed wire. The obstacle would prove insurmountable to zombies, even to most survivors, but the fleeing couple had come prepared to scale a wall or two. It was easy enough to catch the claws of their grappling hooks on the barred windows of the second story, and they were descending the interior of the wall in no time. Reaching the yellowed grass which surrounded the house itself, they took a moment to catch their breath, listening as their attackers plowed into the concrete surface, snarling and grasping in utter futility.

“Well, we might as well knock. Hopefully, whoever lives here will let us stick around for a while, inside where these things can’t smell us. Once they’ve lost interest – tomorrow morning, probably – we’ll head back out. Hell, this place looks pretty well-prepared. Maybe they’ve even got a stockpile.”

Kyle nodded his agreement, raising his hand to knock on the front door. Just as his fist was about to connect with the heavy oak, the door swung open, creaking loudly on its hinges.

“Hello? Is anyone there?”

There was no response. Michelle felt for her knife, suspecting that whoever had opened the door intended to spring some sort of trap. Still, the clawing monsters behind them showed no sign of waning interest, and there was nowhere else to go at the moment. They entered cautiously, muscles tensed in spite of their absolute fatigue. A staircase ran from the foyer to the second floor, its lighter, natural tones revealed by deep scratches which pitted the mahogany finish. The first floor was uninhabited, with the kitchen and living room serving as makeshift, though well-stocked, pantries. Rats scurried to and fro across floorboards ravaged by dry rot and mildew, likely evidence of prior flooding.

They mounted the stairs, only to find that the door at the top of the flight was locked. Taking a seat on the landing, they pressed their backs up against the wall, tempering their desire for rest with a reasonable degree of concern about the intentions of their unknown host.

“You get some sleep, Mitch. I’ll take the first watch.”

Luke’s pet name for Michelle hadn’t been amusing in years, but she was too tired to protest its usage. Propping her head up against her pack, she shut her eyes. The sound of the rats on the first floor made sleep difficult, and she woke abruptly three or four times, thinking she’d heard the sound of footsteps on the second floor.

She woke again to find that Kyle was no longer seated beside her. Panicked, she leapt to her feet, which were bare. The door at the top of the stairs was open now, and there was a light on somewhere beyond the aperture. The steps which descended from the landing shifted in a black, hazy, fog, and there was nothing visible beyond the dust-coated glass of the window. Telling herself that this was a dream – that it must be a dream – she ascended the stairs toward the open, inviting door.

There were voices now, thick and trembling with raw emotion, playing over a background track of howling, hungry wind.

“You need to eat, Meg. You’ve got to keep your strength up.”

The response was an indistinguishable, muttered protest. Michelle kept moving forward, passing a door which was blocked by a heavy dresser.

“At least have a little broth. There – that’s better, isn’t it?”

A single word, voice cracking with grief.

“Emily.”

“Emily would want you to take care of yourself, and she would have understood what you had to do – you know that.”

“What’s the point, now?”

Michelle had almost reached the bedroom at the end of the hall. The wind had continued to grow louder until it was impossible to make out the rest of the conversation. As she entered the room, she felt the wind whipping about her shoulders, sweeping the walls and ceiling away, carrying them into the aether in which the floor was now suspended. A woman knelt on the floor, weeping openly as the man whose head rested in her lap continued to bleed from deep, red wounds on his wrists.

“Mark… no… you can’t.”

“You said it yourself, Meg. What’s the point anymore?”

Meg nodded, broken, and withdrew a pistol from a holster at Mark’s hip. Ammo was always scarce, and ranked among the most precious of commodities in the pandemic economy, but she wouldn’t have any further need of their last few bullets. Michelle watched, frozen in place as if her feet were buried in drying cement, as Meg placed the barrel up against her right temple. As she squeezed the trigger, the wind’s fury intensified, blasting the dying couple away like the seeds of a dandelion.

Michelle woke with a start. Kyle was still seated next to her, though he’d proven unable to stay awake as he’d promised. The door at the top of the stairs was indeed open, and the landing had grown decidedly chilly. With a flashlight in one hand and a knife in the other, she mounted the steps, desperate to see what lay at the end of the darkened hall. The blocked door was right where she had dreamt it, though the bedroom at the far end remained unlit.

Stepping into the bedroom, she knew that the dream had been much more than a simple nightmare. Two skeletons lay sprawled across the floor. The forehead of one had been nearly obliterated, and both were surrounded by deep, dark bloodstains. There was a pistol clutched firmly in Meg’s hand. Survival instincts prompted Michelle to retrieve the weapon for herself, and she did so, shuddering involuntarily at the eerie scene.

Michelle was on her way back to Kyle when she heard the footsteps again, pacing back and forth. She was certain that the sound was coming from the barricaded room. Straining against the dresser, she pushed it back, passing through the door with the pistol raised and ready to fire. She was met by a cool breeze – the broken frame of the window clattered repeatedly against iron bars as the wind rushed through it. There was a third skeleton in this room, smaller than the other two, and its skull sat several feet away from the rest of it. Emily.

Kyle’s first scream ripped through the air, choked with pure panic. Michelle ran from the room, cursing herself for leaving him unattended as she barrelled toward the top of the stairs. She stopped short at the top step, bracing herself against a wall so that she wouldn’t hurtle headfirst toward the landing. Kyle screams diminished into weak, pitiable moans as the spectre clawed at his flesh, transparent, seemingly non corporeal digits ripping into his skin. Michelle yelled something – she wasn’t sure what – but the girl continued unabated. It was almost certainly too late to do anything to help Kyle, but Michelle had to try. Approaching the landing, she slashed tentatively at the spirit, unsurprised to find that the blade simply passed through the zombie as if it were nothing but thin air.

Kyle wasn’t struggling any longer. The front of his body has been chewed into a bloody pulp, and Emily was losing interest. It’s not as if she actually has to eat anymore, Michelle thought. The ghost seemed suddenly aware of Michelle’s presence, gnashing her teeth viciously as she turned. The lone survivor retreated up the stairs, walking backwards, refusing to let Emily out of her sight. Reaching the bedroom, she put her back to the wall, trying desperately to think of a way out. Emily was still pursuing, slowly limping down the hallway, her translucent figure barely visible in the flashlight’s dim beam.

Even knowing that bullets were unlikely to do anything against such a threat, she raised the pistol, aiming for the head as she’d done countless times before that night. Her hands trembled as she struggled to fire, but the trigger wouldn’t budge. Two hands wrapped around her own, comforting at first, then forceful and commanding. Her elbows bent, bringing the weapon toward her face, as a second entity gripped her chin and forehead, holding her firmly in place. The voices came in a disembodied chorus, soothing, and yet full of despair.

What’s the point anymore?

Her blood pounded in her ears, roaring like the wind, and calling to mind the bereaved couple of her dream, blown away in a bloody, dandelion blast. In the last trembling seconds before the weapon went off, the sentiment echoed through her head, finding silent, sympathetic agreement.

 

Subject Thirty-Seven

The following piece of flash fiction was inspired by Chuck Wendig’s Cocktail Writing Prompt, for which I rolled Monkey Gland. I’ve never had a Monkey Gland,  and unfortunately,  there isn’t any absinthe in my liquor cabinet. [Insert impotent shaking of fists.]

I stuck to a fairly literal interpretation of the title,  and left actual alcohol out entirely. Of course,  feedback is encouraged.

Subject Thirty-Seven

Jonathan Rigby poured his third cup of coffee, wrinkling his nose at the acrid scent. He was hardly a squeamish person, but there was something about subject thirty-seven which had been keeping him up at night. Since he worked the morning shift, sleeping late wasn’t an option, which left him with no recourse other than the foul-smelling sludge that passed for coffee at Typhon Industries. A glance at his watch revealed that it was five to nine, which gave him only a few minutes to get back to his office before the conference call with the DOD.

The nerves which gnawed at his insides seemed excessive – he’d engaged in dozens of similar calls during his time at Typhon – but the lack of sleep and excess of caffeine had made him jittery. It didn’t help that the project was still floundering. Sure, he had pages and pages of data, neatly collated and analysed, waiting on his desk. He knew, however, that the scientific details were little more than a nicety. The bottom line was that they’d had no success in boosting adrenal response so far. Incidentally, they’d turned up some other intriguing details, but the DOD was only interested in concrete, practical results. As far as they were concerned, all of his precisely worded reports were a big, fat stack of nothing.

Returning to his office did nothing to brighten his mood. The several hundred pages of the report were scattered about his desk and the floor, exacerbating the visual impact of the already cluttered office. Grumbling, he began collecting the pages in no particular order. There would be plenty of time to sort them later, during the conference call. The subjects’ charts were in a state of particular disarray, with some lying by the door, clear on the other side of the office.

As he gathered the charts, Jonathan caught a glimpse of thirty-seven’s photographs. Anesthetized, the rhesus monkey looked almost peaceful, and Jonathan would have guessed he was asleep if it weren’t for the fact that the top half of his skull was missing. The recovery photos, however, were a different matter. Thirty-seven’s personality had changed markedly after the surgery, which wasn’t entirely surprising when one considered that they’d removed his adrenal glands. Still, the way the monkey stared at Jonathan from the two-dimensional printout typified all too well the cold, dispassionate way that it watched him work.

The clock read 9:01, which meant that he was already late for the conference call. He knew his supervisor would not be pleased, but the best he could do was jump on the call as quickly as possible. Shuffling the disorganized heap of papers, he sat down, placing them in a relatively orderly pile on the desk. He was just about to dial in when he heard a muffled, shuffling noise from behind him, followed by the sound of a filing cabinet drawer rolling in its track. He felt a sudden, sharp pain in the fleshy part of his thigh, followed by the cool rushing of liquid from a syringe.

Shocked, he spun in his chair to find thirty-seven looking at him, those same somber eyes watching him with their characteristic patience. The anesthetic went to work quickly, dulling his senses and relaxing his muscles. He felt himself slump forward, falling face-first to the floor of his office. As he began to black out, the last thing he heard was the mockingly triumphant cry of the monkey.

~~~

Bob Carroll choked down a hot dog, steering his van with one hand. He didn’t normally eat while driving, but he hadn’t had a meal all day, and the call had come in just as he got to the end of the vendor’s queue. Pulling to a stop, he checked his teeth in the mirror before exiting. It wasn’t hard to find the animal in question – a small group of people stood around the monkey, keeping their distance in case it proved dangerous.

The police officer who’d put the call in to animal control had stuck around, and began shooing the spectators away as soon as she caught sight of Bob. The animal sat on the ground, motionless but for its constant shivering. Bob had seen plenty of loose zoo animals before – some posed a danger to themselves and to any bystanders, running unconstrained among people who didn’t have a healthy level of respect for wild animals. Others were simply afraid, unsure how to function outside of their artificial and carefully constructed habitats.

The rhesus didn’t seem to be afraid, in spite of its trembling. The animal’s face was almost expressionless, staring forward unresponsively, and the weather wasn’t nearly chill enough for it to be shivering from the cold. Rather, it appeared to be in a state of shock. As Bob moved closer, he felt for his radio, refusing to take his eyes off of the wounded creature. It’s head was wrapped in white bandages, stained brown with dried fluids in places, and wet with fresh blood in others. The dressing didn’t follow the natural contours of the monkey’s head. Instead, the bloodiest patch of fabric stuck out in a lumpy protrusion, as if someone had hastily crammed something into the wound before applying the bandages.

Bob tried to still the shaking of his hands as he switched on the radio, vaguely aware that the cop was also squawking something into her own device, signaling dispatch for assistance. Her concern lay not with the monkey, however, but with his grim, surgical accessories. There on the grass, reflecting the light of the park’s dim lamps, sat a bloodied bonesaw and scalpel, still crusted with bits of bone and grey matter. In his quivering tail, the monkey held a single, laminated employee identification card. Jonathan Rigby – Typhon Industries.