Word Count: 512
The night was moonless and cirrose. The flickering street lamps only penetrated the darkness sufficiently to create a ring of light around a young man before the shadows beat it back.
The street was silent as the grave. The city was settled down to its slumber. In the distance cars rumbled and honked and screeched; somewhere cats caterwauled and dogs barked. The night sounds of the city of the city were vibrant as always, but they were far away. And he was alone.
He peered into the gloom. There were no discernible shapes in the darkness, only flashes of movement. His heart thumped in my chest like a ticking time bomb. Something was breathing. It was a deep, resonant, gnarled tone.
And then he heard its growl, the soft susurrations of its feet as it drew nearer. He backed up against the lamppost. The prospect of fleeing blind into the night was not a pleasant one, but he could not have moved had he wanted to. He stood there, petrified with fear. As suddenly as a flash of lightning two eyes opened in the shadows, large as a truck's headlights, glowing a red as red as blood.
And then its head loomed into the light. Horns sprouted from its forehead, diverging like a thicket of thorns. Scales covered its face, from its smoking nostrils to its tapering ears. Its mouth was bigger than a whale's, and glistened with enough teeth to make a shark green with envy. Its breathing was as strong as a tempestuous wind, odoriferous of a scent that combined a skunk's, a musk ox's, and a few dozen durians'.
He stared, transfixed, as the creature circled the lamplight, revealing the full extent of its size and the remainder of its form. It was bigger than an elephant, its body a gruesome disparity of colors and shapes. Its neck was long, furry, spotted; that of a giraffe. Its chest was golden and rippled with muscles; a lion's. From its shoulders sprouted wings bigger than an albatross's; wings overlaid not with feathers, but razor-edged claws. Its posterior was tall and plumose and black; that of an ostrich. It had a tail adorned with scales and dual crests; like an alligators, but far longer, trailing away into the darkness, lashing back and forth with a sound like a whip.
It was a grotesque chimera, contrived of discordant parts that would have seemed ludicrous if the creature had not been as menacing as it was.
The creature grinned down at the poor man shivering beneath the streetlight. It growled with a rapacious asperity. It was hungry.
The man cowered, incapable of tearing his eyes away from the beast's until it closed them. It opened its jaw slightly and breathed deeply; then the man crumpled.
Fear. Pure, raw fear. The monster had preyed upon the man's fear and consumed him through it. It thrived on sweet, savory terror.
The creature curled up in the ring of light, which extinguished under its influence. By the time my eyes adjusted to the darkness, it had vanished.
Word Count: 598
I leaned over backward to dodge a wild swing of my opponent's blade and retaliated with a downward slash that was narrowly evaded. He lashed out and I raised my sword to parry. He lunged. I flicked it to the side. He swung the blade round his head to sweep it at me but I caught it over his shoulder. He kneed me in the stomach. I reeled. He thrust and I deflected and he sliced and I blocked.
My opponent was handling his blade more like a mad chef than anything else. He may have been capable of cooking a delicious meal but not of fending off a trained swordsman. He was also capable of theft, but not of escaping successfully with his treasure.
His antics were amusing, but I was growing weary of his unskillful display. He thrust again and this time I stepped nimbly to the side, weaking his arm with a punch to the elbow. He diverted his swing to the side. I easily blocked it and struck his wrist with the hilt of my sword. Now he swung with his free hand and I blocked the punch with my forearm. He brought his sword round his head into a downward sweep. I caught this easily with my blade and elbowed him in the face.
Now he lashed wildly. I dodged and deflected with ease his clumsy thrusts and slashes. Finally I blocked a swing and then forced his sword above his head. Expecting his attempt to knee me in the stomach I caught his leg with my free arm, and all at once I kicked his leg out from under him, pushed his arms back farther over his head, and bashed his skull with my own. He crumpled at my feet, chest heaving, eyes half-closed.
With my sword I deftly retrieved the periapt hanging from his neck. According to ancient Mayan legend, it had the power to bring to its its wearer auspicious fortune. Gazing down at my opponent I hoped there was more truth in the monetary estimate I had been given.
But that had been years ago. Now, old and tired, deep in senectitude, I put the artifact back where it belonged, along with the remembrance it conjured. I hung it alongside its fellow mementos on my trophy wall and took my chair to warm my bones before the hearth.
The amulet was but a sumptuous trinket, made of pure gold and inlaid with gemstones; but it was worth nothing in any other way. All it had ever been worth to me was an ostentatious token of my glory. But with my youth I had lost my fame--and the closer one gets to one's grave, the more one realizes the ultimate inanity of fortune.
"The only treasure of real value I obtained that day," I murmured to myself, as I was wont to do in my lonely villa, "was knowledge gained, a lesson learned. Indeed, if I've learned anything, it's that the only worthwhile treasure among those I've accumulated is knowledge."
I rose and crossed to the fireplace to stir the logs. "Ah, but there was one treasure even more valuable. The one I didn't accumulate." I straightened up and half turned; but my eyes strayed to the picture frame upon the mantel.
I seized it and I sighed, "The greatest treasure was that which I learned too late to appreciate." And I caressed the aureole of hair that curtained her face, the elegant nose, the incandescent smile, the eyes that scintillated even through a monochrome photograph. . . .
The Right Path
Word Count: 543
"It is time for you to make a choice."
The voice was a discordant union of high and low, soft and harsh, warm and cold. It was simultaneously mellifluous and malefic.
The speaker had its back turned to me. But the rear view of its humanoid figure was not without interst . . . though it was without harmony. Its long, billowing cloak was a schism of color, half a tattered black, half a gold-trimmed white. A wing protruded through each shoulder, one chiropteran and battered, one silkily feathered. Its head was on the left side bald and scarred, a deep red hue, topped with a single gnarled horn; and on the right, adorned with a half-crown of golden locks.
"You may proceed. Or you may turn back now."
"I'm continuing," I confirmed without a momen't hesitation.
"So be it."
The door behind me slid shut. At the same moment, two more opened before me, one on either side of the creature.
Through one door I saw a winding road along rolling hills bathed in sunlight. Birds twittered and fluttered about the trees that dotted the slopes.
Through the other door was a shadowed forest path, long and thin. On either side thistles and briars enchroached upon it. I could hear resounding within its depths the howles of wolves, the hoots of owls, and the terrible calls of beasts unknown.
As I glanced from one path to the other, the creature turned, drawing my attention. The first ninety degrees of its revolution displayed the face of a beautiful, fair-skinned maiden. But as it turned round entirely, I stifled a gasp of repulsion. The remaining fragment of its face, separated by a jarring margin, was disfigured and lurid, red as blood. This half-angel, half-demon smiled and sneered simultaneously.
"My next query: Which path do you choose?" asked the Dyad. "Do you choose to turn to the right--or to the left?"
I regarded the sun-filled hills. The right. And I peered into the dark forest. The left. The winding country road or the narrow thicket path.
"Choose wisely," the Dyad advised.
I considered. The right road was bright, warm and inviting; the left path was stygian and gloomy. Was I to walk the path of evil or the path of peace? to brave the road of darkness or traverse the easy road?
"The doors hang open. Choose your path."
My heart was thumping. It is never easy to discriminate the proper course. What if I chose incorrectly? What would happen if I failed the test?
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I felt I knew the answer. I had made my decision. But if I was wrong--I dreaded to think what might happen.
I snapped my eyes open, squared my shoulders, and stepped forward. I did not turn left--nor did I turn right. I marched straight toward the Dyad and brushed it aside.
Its demonic face was wide-eyed and snarling, its opposite resplendently smiling. "What are you doing?"
"I'm going . . . forth. Neither to the right, nor to the left."
I strode up to the wall between the doors. I was no longer afraid. I knew I had made the right choice.
And I stepped through the wall.
Theme: Character Story
Word Count: 595
He was the doctor you knew when you were a kid. You remember the one with the strange tattoo and that even stranger hat? Whenever he rolled up his sleeves you could see the crowned canis lupus on his arm, and he never removed the incongruous beret, ever. He had an incomprehensible recipe for alphabet soup hanging from the waiting room wall. There was something artificial to his smile, and beneath that superficial film covering his eyes which he claimed helped him to see you knew their lay deep waters. And the only explanation to his hands was the bucket of ice he surmisably kept in that back room.
At first you thought he was an alien, and that beneath that beret you knew he concealed his disguise zipper. Clearly the mask didn't fit right, with that ripply forehead and those sagging jowls. He was here on Earth, you reasoned, to abduct humans for his fellow Zogwarg biologists to study, and you always insisted your mother enter first.
You soon dispensed that theory as folly. That wolf tattoo was something no alien would think of. Indeed, it was too incredible. He must have been an ex-cop, that doctor, discharged for brutality and illegal interrogation tactics.
After that he had turned to the dark side of the city and joined a gang. That was where he got his tattoo; it was the mark of the Wolf Pack. The crown meant he was their king. He had probably killed a few people and stolen a lot of money. That's why he could afford such expensive suits and all those paintings that old people who cleary haven't the slightest idea what they're talking about call art.
But he played violin and read books. No gangster worth his salt cared for music or literature. That was sissy stuff. Which could only mean he was one of one of those weird foreigners from artistic, refined countries. And though you couldn't place his accent, you had seen berets upon the heads of French people in pictures, and the prison-stripe shirts they wore could be no coincidence. There he could only have been part of one of those secret cults where they study and play music and practice black magic. He had fled to America to be safe from rival cultists and witch hunters.
But then there was that smile. It was artificial, but also vain and dignified. He was obviously hiding something. Now you knew what it was. He must have gotten all those fascinating gadgets somewhere. He was a secret agent for the government, and you were more excited than ever to see him for him to question you and exploit your knowledge for the good of Uncle Sam.
But when he didn't, you were convinced he was a terrorist, and spent some few hours trying to figure out what the equivalent was, in a doctor's case, of convincing your mother you were sick to get out of school. But no matter how much energy you displayed coming down the stairs, no matter how many times you flexed your muscles, even when you ate that dreaded asparagus, it was all to no avail.
As you got older you realized he was just a doctor, a person like anyone else, only he got payed a lot more. You decided you wanted to be a doctor, too, because they were rich and never got sick.
But still that artificial smile and those superficial eyes haunted you. Even now you wonder . . . just what secrets was he hiding all those years?
To Be a Warrior
Word Count: 600
I closed the monastery doors behind me, shutting out the whirling snow. Slowly I stepped forward into the empty courtyard. I felt disappointment welling up within me. I had heard rumors that the monastery was abandoned, but I had refused to believe them. But I saw no signs of life. Had I really traveled all this way for nothing more than a legend?
I couldn't decide between relief, surprise and fear when I found myself suddenly surrounded by a ring of ebon-clad men. I decided fear was appropriate as they struck out simultaneously, battering me from all sides before taking my feet from beneath me.
I had hiked for days through snow and sleet, for miles up steep inclines and sheer cliff faces. I was tired, I was hungry, and I was cold. And now this was the greeting I received? I refused to take it lying down, literally or otherwise.
I leapt to my feet again and, before my attackers could react, kicked one back. I raised my arms to block punches from two of the others and then seized their arms. I jumped up to kick at the other two and upset the balance of those I was holding.
The first regained his feet and lunged at me. He punched and kicked and chopped, and I matched him blow for blow. His foot connected with my stomach but I grabbed his knee and twisted. While he fell over I turned to his brothers who were back on their feet.
I turned to identify the speaker. A man with two short strands of beard and deep eyes stepped out of the shadows. His hands were folded behind his back and his lips were drawn in a long frown.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"Just a man like yourself, seeking to make the world a better place."
"And how is it you came to find us?"
"A mutual friend told me."
He raised an eyebrow. "And why is it you have come?"
"I wish to join you."
"Join us! And what makes you think you are worthy? My warriors are trained to fight a hundred in battle."
"And I just held my own against five of them."
"My warriors are brave."
"Give me a few more minutes, and they'll turn tail."
"You are bold, I'll give you that. But being a warrior means much more than that. My warriors are selfless."
"I didn't come all this way in hopes of ransacking an ancient temple."
"My warriors are persistent and tenacious."
"This wasn't the only mountain I've climbed searching for this monastery."
"My warriors are devoted. Can you dedicate yourself entirely to our cause?"
"I would lay down my life for it."
"My warriors are humble."
I hung my head. "That I am not."
"And for that reason," said the man, "I believe you are." He regarded me. "But answer this: Why is it you wish to join us?"
"My life has been a penurious one. I've been oppressed by hooligans and thieves. I have seen firsthand the damage done by wrongdoers. I havelearned to fight back. I believe it is my purpose to protect the innocent, and that is what I have been trying to do. But I heard that here I could become more than just that. I heard that you could give me the strength I need to be a hero."
The man was silent. Then his lips curved into a smile. "You are among the worthy. Your life has prepared you for my teachings." He bowed to me. "Welcome, brother! Welcome to the League of Shadows!"
Word Count: 581
'Twas a long and winding road rare travelled, a footpath rough and harshly gravelled,
It was a path traversed by fools only, or by spirits down or spirits lonely.
It was one such foolish lonely fellow who marched this day along this wooded track,
Enchroached by thorns and briars and thistles, and flanked by a stream gurgling in a crack.
He trudged on feet feeling heavy as stones, encumbered by the sorrows on his back.
'Twas on this road he met a grizzled tramp, ensconced within a clumsy makeshift camp.
"Hark there," said he, "come and by my fire sit! Avail yourself here of comfort for a bit!"
Of this old tramp the young man was wary, but his body languished for rest and food.
So he sat by the fire and joined the tramp, who said, as he sat, to lighten his mood:
"A comrade with whom to share my blessings is reason enough for me to feel good!"
"Well, I'm glad," said the boy, "that you are content with what little you have to complement.
It seems, indeed, that you have far more than me. You're friend to the world, I'll bet, and you're free.
For you life's an adventure, each day's new; my life is banal, in my life I'm snared.
I'm alone and without companionship, I'm jobless and penniless, taxed and tared.
But surely you can't be truly happy. Share with me your wounds, now that mine are bared."
But the tramp shook his head, and smiled sadly, saying, "Life has not treated me badly.
I'm alone, without a cent to my name, with no roof to protect me from the rain.
But when one has naught, he's but naught to lose, and what he most needs cannot be taken.
I have breath and life and laughter and song, and the sun rising up when I waken.
I have what is most important to my life, and if you think you don't, you're mistaken."
The boy regarded the tramp and inquired, "But how can you be so happy thus mired?
You've no house nor money to call your own; you've no friends nor family, you are alone!"
Said the tramp, "I have more than men of wealth, for I have each tree and bird in this wood.
I have the moon, and I've the sun golden. I have more friends here than other men could.
I have what the rich neglect to observe, and that's all the cause I need to feel good!"
Over this wisdom the boy pondered long, and came to realize he had been wrong.
He had all he needed, far more, in truth; he saw what he'd missed, cured now of self-ruth.
"You're right," he said. "You are most right indeed! I have no reason to woefully brood!
You gave me what I did not know I had, you proved my sorrows were selfish and crude."
The tramp said but this: "I'm glad I could help. But don't you forget my advice: Feel good!"
Thankful and content, they shared a warm meal. Joy in their hearts, they ate with hungry zeal.
With final thanks and a final adieu, they parted their ways, those fortunate two.
The boy walked home down that rare-travelled path, feeling light in heart as rightly he should.
The tramp remained behind, warm by his fire. With twinkling eye he smiled and said, "Feel good!"
He had cheered a sad and lonely soul, and for that reason he certainly could.
Thanks for reading! I'd love to hear your thoughts on any or all stories, whether you liked them or not. Instructive compliments, constructive criticism; it's all welcome here!
From the desk of Nuile: Lunatic Wordsmith