The last offering

The constant flashing of the nauseatingly pink neon flamingo was giving Jedidiah a massively pounding headache. He tried desperately to look away, searching for a dark place to rest his streaming blue eyes, but tubes of the gaseous light were everywhere, in all the colors of the rainbow, with even a few colors that were totally unnatural.

“Frink, are you sure we gotta go in there?” Jed’s voice was full of irritated anger. His friend and associate simply grunted in reply, so Jed clenched his teeth against the vile rant that threatened to emerge and followed the gargantuan man into the dark interior of the Flamingo dance hall.

The sudden swap from near-midday levels of colorful light to the muted, starlit darkness of a winter’s night caused Jed’s head to shriek in confused pain and outrage. But, since Frink didn’t even pause at the door, the small, mousy man had no choice but to rush ahead.

The monstrous bulk of the man ahead of him blocked Jed’s view of most of the interior of the hall. He assumed it would be like all the others, full of sweaty, stinking bodies in various states of gyrating frenzy, smoky haze in the air and the stench of stale alcohol wafting along on unnatural breezes of air from some hidden source.

Jed’s surprise when the bulk in front of him moved aside squeezed the excruciating pain from his head, because instead of the writhing bodies he’d expected to see, there was only one person, waiting rather impatiently on the ancient hardwood dance floor.

“Talia,” Jed heard Frink chuckle, “glad to see you’ve cleared the place out for us.”

The raven-haired woman cocked an eyebrow at the hulking man’s joviality. The ankle-length, wrist-thick braid of hair that fell from her topknot flicked sharply from side to side, seemingly with a life of its own. The delicate hands on her full hips twitched at the thinly veiled insult of Frink’s predatory smile.

“Well, Bartholomew,” the woman purred, causing Frink’s hands to clench in impotent anger, “I wouldn’t want you to look the fool in front of an audience. I’m generous that way.”

Jedidiah shrank backward, away from the boiling volcano of rage he felt bubbling up inside the larger man. No one called Frink by his given name. At least, no one that lived to tell the tale.

“Why don’t you introduce me to your friend, Bartholomew,” the petite woman smiled, daringly, at the silently spewing hulk. “I’m certain he’s someone I need to know.”

Without waiting for Fink to introduce them, Talia approached Jed, completely ignoring the danger of passing within arm’s length of the raging Frink. Her delicate hand, with elegantly long, scarlet painted fingernails, stretched toward Jed’s trembling arm.

“Jedidiah.” His name fell from her full, crimson lips before he could utter a word. The touch of her fingers on his arm sent millions of tiny electrical pulses racing throughout his body. Jed felt the static build and multiply, sending crashing bolts of lightning through his entire being.

Frink moved so fast that Jed had no time to warn the beautiful woman. But she needed no words from him, as the meaty fist that tried to wrap itself around her swan neck grasped nothing but coldly rushing air.

Jedidiah stared, his blue eyes stinging from the freeze of her sudden absence, at the space Talia had only just vacated, Frink’s presence looming beside him. The huge man, enraged beyond humanity, stalked toward the corner of the dance floor, where Jed could just make out the shape of the comely woman, standing calmly, waiting for the giant to reach her.

“Did you think to bring me another offering to postpone your own demise? Poor, sad Bartholomew. Perhaps your ploy would have worked, one more time, if only you’d brought someone else,” Talia’s voice echoed in the deserted dance hall. “But Jedidiah, he’s special. Could you not feel it when you chose him? I felt his soul when you entered the boundaries of my demesne. He will be mine, but not as your replacement.”

The woman’s words bounced off of the massive man, swirling and dancing their way to Jedidiah. The small man had no idea what they meant, other than that he was Talia’s, now. And that, he didn’t mind.

Wrapped in the silky, mesmerizing words, Jed watched, enthralled, as Bartholomew Frink fell to his knees, his blood spurting in choreographed arcs of crimson. The cruel, sharpened steel hooks he could now see in Talia’s braid, glimmered in the pale light of the cavernous room as it twirled and whirled around the prone body of Jed’s once-friend.

Talia stalked toward Jed, her braid quiet and dripping, her eyes sparking with lightning. “Jedidiah, at long last. Come, we have much to discuss.”

The binding words slipped from Jed’s body and he followed the dark goddess from the room. He paused only once, to gaze, unfazed, at the empty husk of Bartholomew Frink.

Dry mouth

The cottony feeling in Erin’s mouth made her short, upturned nose itch. She sat up in her bed, pushing the pink and brown comforter off of herself. Her long legs swung over the edge of the bed, her toes stretching for the thick-piled chocolate carpet beneath her.

A cough worked its way through her throat, emerging as a rasping, scratchy sudden eruption. The girl shook her head and tried to clear her throat, but the cottony feeling persisted.

Mentally shrugging, Erin hopped from her perch and strolled toward the bathroom. She flipped the switch beside the bathroom door and warm yellow light washed into the small room. Long legs made short work of the distance to the white porcelain sink.

Erin twisted the swan-head handle to turn on a gush of cold water. She pulled her blue and white toothbrush from the holder beside the sink and held it carefully while she opened the small tube of cinnamon flavored toothpaste. Erin smeared an eraser sized glob of the pink paste on the bristles of the brush then again carefully held the brush while she twisted the cap back onto the tube.

The sharp, hot flavor of the toothpaste startled the girl, as it always did, but after the first taste, her mouth remembered the feeling and she began her routine, alternately brushing vigorously then gently. She paid careful attention to her tongue and the roof of her mouth, hoping to brush out the sensation of a mouthful of scratchy cloth.

Leaning forward, Erin spat a foamy mouthful of water, spit and toothpaste into the sink. Movement in the bowl stayed her hand. She peered closer, her hand clutching her toothbrush tightly.

But she saw nothing out of the ordinary, so she continued with her brushing. Again, the alternating rhythms, then the spitting. This time, she was sure she saw movement in the pale pink foam. Looking closer, her brushing forgotten, she saw several small black spots, moving sporadically in the sea of ejected liquid.

Horrified, the girl pulled away. She looked at her reflection in the mirror, as if to ask herself if she really saw what she thought she saw. In the mirror, Erin saw a thin strand of something falling from her partially open mouth. Her toothbrush fell forgotten from her hand as she put both hands up to her mouth. She grasped the strand of foamy thread and pulled. She gagged as the  strand emerged from her throat into her mouth.

As she pulled, more and more frantic and horrified, she saw several more of the black spots, moving up and down the strand. Finally, after several moments of pulling and tugging, a pebble-sized, oval-shaped off-white object emerged from her mouth.

Erin dropped the object into the sink, disgusted and heaving. The force of the landing caused the object to break partially open and out poured multitudes of tiny black spots, all running on multiple legs.

The girl shoved herself away from the sink, stumbling across the bathroom floor to the perceived safety of her bedroom. She huddled on her bed, covered in her fluffy pink and brown comforter, staring at her bathroom door.

When her roommate found her, Erin was a gibbering mess, pointing to the bathroom and muttering nonsense about parasitic spiders.

Last day of work

Landon left the office much later than usual. But it was Friday, just before his vacation started and he had a special project that had to go out, no exceptions. He was the only one left in the brightly lit office building except the night cleaning crew. He nodded to a couple of the cleaners on his way out of the building.

The short, balding man smiled a satisfied smile, confident that there would be no interruptions of his plans now that the project was finished and deployed. His boss wouldn’t have any reason to call, his co-workers would be impressed, overall, Landon was entirely pleased with himself.

The street in front of his office was nearly deserted. The slow city wind silently blew through, skipping discarded papers along the pavement to catch on darkened parked cars. Landon glanced at his wristwatch, the simple leather-strapped device a throwback to a simpler time that his colleagues teased him about. The pale, glowing dial read 7:13.

The pudgy man’s smile faded a bit, as the idea that he was wasting vacation time floated through his mind. He quickened his pace. The normal route home, along well lit streets, would take him twenty minutes. But, he knew a shortcut, through several alleys, that would cut that time in half.

Determined to get the most of his work-free time, Landon turned into the alley a half-block from his workplace. But just inside the mouth of the dark, narrow area, he noticed several men, speaking quickly and near-silently while hovering in a tight cluster. Being a long-time city dweller, Landon knew a decision to enter the alley would end badly, so he backtracked the few steps to the main street and resolved to take the long way home.

Moving his short legs as fast as they would move, Landon rushed past the alley, into the main thoroughfare. The area was brightly illuminated by the amber glow of streetlights, evenly placed along the roadway. The road was deserted as was usual after dark on a Friday. Relieved to have left the danger behind, the short man allowed himself a sigh and a slower pace.

His relaxed demeanor faded with the first giggle.

Landon’s balding head whipped around, searching for the small child whose laughter floated so eerily into the night. But he saw nothing. Ignoring it as his imagination, the small man continued his trek home.

The second and third sets of laughter stopped Landon in his tracks. Despite his frantic searching, the street remained steadfastly deserted.

“Who’s there,” he called, his voice cracking. But silence was his only answer.

Frightened, Landon darted down the street, anxious to reach the safety of his home, only five more blocks away.

Behind him, the yellow pools of light vanished, one by one, each accompanied by a peal of laughter. Then the light he was under flashed out. The man’s steps faltered and stopped. Landon was exhausted.

He watched in horror as every street light along the street blinked out. He tried to still his racing heart, but the approach of children’s laughing voices made that impossible.

The voices surrounded the vacationing man. Landon reached for the closest voice, hoping to connect with something solid he could push away, but empty darkness was all he found.

The giggling rose in intensity, driving Landon to the ground, arms atop his head. He was still cowering, frozen in fear, when the Saturday morning papers arrived on the backs of the big box trucks.

Writer’s block

Joan was stuck. She had writer’s block so bad it hurt. She sat at her computer, staring at the blank white page, for hours. Every time she would think of something to write, she’d get three sentences in and realize it was a movie she had watched or a book she’d read only recently.

Her chocolate brown eyes peered through the thin, glare-free lenses of her designer framed glasses at the cursor, blinking in defiance. She growled under her breath, a sound sure to make her partner’s ears perk, if Marley had been around.

But Marley couldn’t help Joan this time. The lithe, blonde haired, blue-eyed beauty had gone on a sales trip two days before, not scheduled to return for another three.

Snarling again, this time with more anger and frustration, Joan reached across her desk to the ornate silver dish that held her special collection of hair accessories. She selected her favorite, lucky, polka-dotted black and white scrunchie and pulled her waist length chestnut hair into a topknot.

Sighing in relief and simultaneous disgust, Joan turned back to her computer to stare at the blank screen. Her hands flexed, poised over the mocking black keyboard, and she took a deep breath.

Before she lowered her hands, however, words began appearing, mesmerizing black on the stark white of the virtual paper.

Flowers bloomed and flowers died,
she only asked for one ride.
Moon shone high, above the night,
the night she undertook her flight.
Her heart did wither and wane
lying in the cold, dark rain.
Time, I took, with my pleasure
in the dying of your treasure.

Joan’s deep brown eyes widened in horror as the words took shape. Dazed, she watched the keyboard on her desk, under her trembling fingers, but not a single key was pressed, and no sound at all came from the black oblong thing.

The tall woman shifted uncomfortably in her desk chair, glancing around the room uneasily, the feeling of being watched suddenly in the air. The yellow light from the brass desk lamp was warm and cheerful, but the darkness outside her office window seemed to suck the safety from the room.

The cursor on the screen, blinking in place beneath the poem, mocked her fear, issuing a challenge to her shaking hands and frozen heart.

A voice, low and urgent, whispered in her ear, “Run!”

“Marley? What…,” Joan trailed off, realizing that while the voiced warning was from her lover, the athletic Marley was nowhere around.

Joan scrambled from her chair, knocking the faux leather monstrosity to the ground in her haste to obey her partner’s disembodied command. The towering brunette grabbed her purse from the desk, throwing both the keyboard and mouse from the desk. Her long legs carrying her quickly, she ran from the room, never looking over her shoulder.

The brilliant white of the virtual paper dimmed briefly and the cursor moved once again.

The salesman and the writer,
neither one much a fighter.
Pleasures untold, treasured,
marked and measured,
by the one so brash and bold,
as to take the brass and gold.
A pair of players, in a game,
whose winner has no name.

Experimentation

The egg-shaped white objects floated in the water just out of reach of Benton’s outstretched arm. He estimated them to be about a foot long and half that in diameter on the large end. The raft, made of hastily lashed together bamboo and shoe string, rocked with his movement.

The azure water was freezing. The waves sent splashes of icy wetness like daggers at his exposed skin. Shivers slithered up and down his spine, sending him into convulsions with every jab of the frozen water.

The nearly-naked man stretched out once again, groaning in agony as he reached for the strange objects. But, as with every time before, the devices stayed tantalizingly beyond his grasp.

Dimly, Benton heard a series of low, digital beeps, almost a melody, emanate from the nearest egg. It was the same sound that had led him to the trio in the first place. Wearily, he raised his shaggy blonde head to gaze in hatred and yearning at the prize he so desperately wanted.

Overhead, the fluorescent light that beamed down upon the deep blue of the water flashed, once, twice and three times. Startled, Benton jerked his eyes upward, the bleary green orbs straining to see clearly.

Inside a control room far away, two white suited figures turned toward another, suited all in ebony, handing over piles of tiny silver disks, each encoded with behavioral modification software.

“Gentlemen,” the black suited figure intoned, “I believe it is time our subject acquired his deepest desire.”

Benton tore his eyes from the flashing overhead light to the egg-shaped objects. The three devices were motoring toward his flimsy raft, beeping heartily.

Terrified, Benton thrust his nearly-frostbitten hands into the water, trying to paddle away from the menace of the eggs.

The overhead lights stopped flashing, plunging Benton and the frozen water into darkness.

Benton’s scream echoed through the facility.

The man in black nodded, satisfied at the outcome of the experiment.

Whispers under the bed

The whispers under his bed had been there his whole life, the words just beyond comprehension. He didn’t remember ever telling his parents. The sibilant sound was as natural to him as his own heartbeat.

He had always assumed everyone had whispering going on underneath their beds. It wasn’t until he was older that he realized it. He’d been on near-weekly sleepovers with his best buds, but he’d had so much fun and excitement each time that he’d never noticed the absence of sound when he slept.

But, when he was nearing the start of high school, he’d had one last weekend sleepover with his best friend in the whole world. The first night was the same as every other time he’d spent the night; the two friends had even more friends over to play an all-night marathon of video games and then they had all either fallen asleep or been picked up by over-anxious parents. The second night, though, it had just been the two best friends.

It was the second night he’d noticed the absence of whispers. His friend had gone to sleep, still holding a game controller, and he had stayed up to finish the mission. After he turned off the console and television, he had climbed into the bottom bunk, like usual. But he couldn’t fall asleep. There was no whispering, no sounds to lull him into slumber.

He lay awake all night, tossing and turning, trying desperately to fall asleep, but the silence in the room made it impossible.

The next morning, when his friend awoke, the boy pushed the sleeplessness away and the two boys returned to playing games and having fun.

When his mother arrived to pick him up, she commented on his blank expression and dark circles. But he waved it away as late night gaming.

The boy, upon returning home, wanted nothing more than to sleep the day away, to catch up on the missed night’s rest. But his mother had a surprise for him. His parents were redecorating his room, to make it suitable for a high school boy, she said.

He raced to his bedroom, but his bed was nowhere to be seen. Instead, plastic covered the window, the floor, and even the door. He turned anxious eyes to his mother and begged for his bed. But she explained to him that his bed had been taken off in preparation for the delivery of a new, bigger bed, but he could take a nap in her room, if he liked.

The boy raced to his parents’ room, hoping that, in his own house, things would be normal again. But there was no whispering. Not even after he’d been covered in the down comforter for over an hour. He, again, couldn’t sleep.

His mother and father, excited to see his reaction to his new, finished room, were surprised to find him still awake. They decided it must have been from his own excitement.

They escorted him down the short hall, threw open the door to his room, and watched his face for the pleasure they wanted to see.

Relieved to see a bed in his room, even if it wasn’t his old, comfortable bed, the boy sobbed and climbed wearily into his new bed. His parents, concerned he might be sick, left him to sleep.

Silently, the boy waited for the whispers. When they finally drifted to him, the voices were deeper, more menacing than they had been before. Frightened, the boy cowered under his blanket, wishing for the familiar, comforting sounds of his youth. But the new whispers grew louder, more distinct. They promised pain, anguish, and tortures unimaginable.

The boy didn’t sleep again.

The clearing

The sunlight streaming down onto her upturned face is pleasantly warm, knocking the chill from her body and thawing her smile. The yellow-tinted hue gives a spring-like freshness to the towering trees, clad in just-turning leaves. The springy moss under foot gives a satisfying bounce to her steps.

The girl is free and happy for a moment, until the heavy black chains on her ankles stop her sprightly steps. The rattle and clang from the thick links remind her of where she is and what she’s doing. Her masters wouldn’t hesitate to grind the smile from her face.

The looming specter of her masters brings her back to herself. She peers left and right, making sure she’s still alone in the forest clearing. Her purple eyes darken, piercing the deeply shaded areas around her. Her pointed ears pull forward, straining to hear unnatural movements, but she senses nothing.

The slim girl takes a few more seconds to commune with the early autumn sun before moving back to the tarred post she’s chained to. She stretches her legs out once more before crouching down upon the single moss-free spot of the clearing.

She is bait. The lure her masters use time and again to capture more magical beings. She hates being the meat for the trap, but this has been her fate since her mother was captured, long ago, the girl a mere spark inside, below her mother’s heart.

Her magical hearing allows her to hear her overmaster growl, “Cry, demon’s sake, or you’ll find me nothing!”

The girl begins crying, lightly but truly. If she coerces nothing into the trap, her masters will ensure she is even more pitiful on the morrow, with added bruises and bleeding. She would sob in earnest, then.

For several heartbeats, nothing happens. Then, the warm, comfortable sunlight fades, bringing a wash of frigidness to the clearing. The girl looks up, frightened by the abruptness of the change. She cowers, dropping to her bare belly on the hard ground, and throws her hands above her lank green hair.

The great sapphire dragon hovering above the clearing roars in anger and challenge. He is outraged at her condition. The trumpeting of his call echoes through the forest, sending lesser creatures scurrying for cover.

Even in her terror, the girl hears her masters’ voices, cawing in laughter and glee at their catch. They are sure the gem dragon is no match for their cleverness and greed. The ground trembles in her ears. Her masters are arriving.

Then a closer voice, gentle as the finest silk and chiming like glass orbs in a spring wind, whispers in her pointed ear, “Be calm, little one, your masters are masters no more. Look!”

The girl raises her purple eyes to gaze in wonder on the scene in the once-peaceful clearing. Her masters, all four massive, foul beasts with their piggish snouts and horned visages, are surrounded by magical beasts. The fear flowing from the masters is palpable to the girl.

Her lips spread in a slow, feral smile, showing her tiny, sharpened teeth. Her delight in the masters’ distress and terror tastes wonderfully crisp and sweet as it slides through her. She watches the sparkling, gem-encrusted sapphire beast hover above the masters, bugling orders to the other magical creatures of the forest. She admires the precious stones, craving the feel of the sharp edges, aching for the riches inherent in each pebble.

The dragon feels her greed, her lust for the treasure that adorns his body. He trumpets new demands into the crowd across the mossy clearing. As one, the group of masters is lifted bodily into the air, short stout feet flailing in impotent distress, and carried into the thickness of the forest.

Lost in her desire, the chained girl forgets her shackles, bounding her way to her feet. But the thick iron links hold her fast to her post. She cries out to the majestic blue dragon for help, but the beast’s cold-hearted reply leaves her gasping for air.

“No,” he says, “for you have become what you’ve hated. You, my child, have become a master, though you know not. I leave you here, to whatever fate finds you. You are no longer our concern.”

With that, the massive wings flapped, pushing frozen air like daggers at the girl’s bare skin, and the sapphire dragon flew away.

The girl turned her small, heart-shaped face to the warmth of the sun and contemplated her world. The small clearing, full of springy moss, teemed with possibilities. The masters had taught her how to take advantage. And she would, she thought, as she heard movement in the trees.

She whimpered, cowering next to the tarred post. Her purple eyes gleamed in anticipation.