What is Winning by Gabe Smith

I have another guest writer to feature on The Ink Owl, Gabe Smith. I’ve worked along side Gabe in the past, and it exciting to see how far he has come with his writing. This post features an excerpt from a larger story. Enjoy!

The holiday atmosphere of the pub spilled into the street where the festivities continued.  Neon lights seemed to shine more brightly and in the joy-soaked minds of the celebrants the lights would always be remembered as bright and beautiful and never the garish yellows, pinks, and greens that they actually were.  Fireworks were launched into the night sky with pops and bangs that served to punctuate the excited shouts and laughter that were in the throats of all the gathered crowds. But even in the most brightly lit and star-studded sky there are dark spots and, in the effervescent crowd, that dark spot was named Jeron Smythe.

Jeron wore the Peace-keepers uniform, faded blue with tarnished silver, a complement to his dark looks, a glower and a frown.  The uniform had been a beacon of hope for years during the War of the Master.  Though, Jeron’s uniform was dirtier than usual with burned patches, dirt, and blood crusting large swaths of the jacket and pants.  The fighting he had engaged in the night before had been close and nasty where fists were used when it took too long to get a spell off or ammunition had run dry.

Though now, the pub denizens slapped his back, hugged him, gave him kisses on the cheeks, and generally praised him for his role, no matter what the role might be, in the now ended conflict.  Last night Jeron was a rebel fighting for a slim chance of peace, today he was with the establishment and a hero.  Yet, with each touch his frown deepened and he glared across the pub at another Peace-keeper, his uniform a bright sky blue with shining silver, receiving the same accolades.

The other man, a wizard who’s speciality lay in illusion, was named Ian Kimball, though everyone called him Kimby.  His uniform, in addition to being much less worn, bore a swath of unfaded fabric in the shape of manacles, the sign of The Master.  Yesterday, Jeron had knocked Kimby down to protect his family, friends, and even complete strangers in the name of freedom. The other man had fought just as hard in the name of duty.  Today, The Master was dead and it was Jeron who had to be pardoned.  While Jeron glowered at him, Kimby stood up and moved through the shifting crowd, turning down drinks and returning handshakes, to make his way to Jeron’s corner table.

“Hey, Jer.  It’s been a while.  I mean since we talked and everything.  Yesterday was crazy but we did it.  The Master is gone and I hear that old Nabiri McMahon’s star is rising in the East.  With her at the helm that’s going to be a big change…” Kimball’s ramble slowly ground down as he saw Jeron’s frown tighten.

“Look,” Kimball tried again. “Look, it’s all over.  We won and we can put the past 3 years behind us.  Come on, now, don’t give me that look.  I did my job but we both know I was always on your side.  I stood in Freedom’s Light and all that.  But, I have a family.  There was too much at risk for me to go all out.  I had to provi…”

“How are Reggie and Arline James doing?” Jeron interrupted him.  “What about Mary Wilds? Or have you kept in contact with Helmut Yarman?  I hear he is still alive, at least, though his brain isn’t much to speak of.”

“Hey, that’s not fair.  We both know I was just doing my job.  We both did things we aren’t proud of.”

“You’re right.  I regret waiting a week, following orders for a week, after that bastard took the government.  But I guess in my defense I used that time to figure out who to pass information to and how to cover myself so I never had to hurt anyone that didn’t have it coming.  So, yeah, I guess we are the same here,” Jeron said to Ian’s gaping face.  “Why are you wearing the blues when it’s only pardoned keepers for the next 3 weeks while the hunts play out?  Taking advantage of the general goodwill for those who fought?”

“Just because I wasn’t stupid enough to fight the inevitable doesn’t mean I didn’t want it over.  I did what I had to survive and all the others just weren’t good enough.  They’re not on my conscience and I won’t lose any sleep over it.  In a month, no one will remember ‘em anyway.  But if you want to go, let’s step outside.  I let you go last night but we both know who the better man is,” Kimby said, standing up and roughly pushing his chair out behind him hitting several other bar patrons.

Jeron stood slowly without a word, the fire and energy that had lit his words now extinguished and replaced with an immense weariness.  Ian stood with one arm extended as though to say “after you”.  Jeron led the way to the front door, his shoulders hunched forward, a look of defeat in his eyes.  As Jeron walked past the other man, someone in the crowd shouted a warning and an electric crackle sounded sharply.

Jeron whipped his head around to see Kimby with his hands extended, thumbs touching and his index fingers extended with a bright line of electricity discharging between them, lunging at him.  Before he could react, a small man who looked vaguely like a rat, with ears pointed a little too much and buck teeth that needed a dentist’s touch, poured beer on Kimby’s head with one hand and grabbed his left wrist with the other, breaking the spell, leading to a harmless discharge of energy into the people around him.

“Watch it, Kimby.  I remember when you kept your shackles shiny on your chest.  Taking ‘em off one day doesn’t make you a hero the next.  Tell you what, you go home and I won’t kill you here,” the rat-faced man, named Jacob Tunn, said without raising his voice.  His whole expression showed an amount of pleasure at the exchange. “Ah nevermind, I’ll let our dearly esteemed Mr. Smythe decide what to do with you. What do you say?  Do him like the Master? Put him in a pyromantic feedback and let him burn to a cinder?”

Kimball didn’t reply though his face grew pale.  He brought his hands up as though to grip Jacob’s wrists but he lowered them before he made contact.  Kimball looked around and when no one would meet his eyes he looked to Smythe.

“No, Tunn. It was just a disagreement.  It happens with emotions running so hot.  We were both on our way out anyway.  No need to do something we would regret when we’re sober.”

“Whatever you say, Jer, but I’ll tell you I just lost my first drink.  I’m as sober as a stone and I could sleep like a babe every night knowing I got rid of the shite who did that girl Marci Grimes.  Saint of a girl and she would have been a saint of a woman.”

Before Ian Kimball could respond, Jeron patted his rescuer on the shoulder and said, “We’re all on the same side now, at least we should be.  We fought yesterday, let’s let someone else be the judge and jury today.”

“Right, Mr. Smythe.  Right, I see what you are saying. But, you see, I know I’m a rat, or at least I look like one, and it burns me up to see the real rats get away from the exterminator. Sure, we cleared the nest last night but you know the dirty, plague bearers will be back.  Breeding and filling up their hole, it makes me sick to let ‘em go.” And with that, the shorter man began pummeling Kimball with his fists.

This fight, unlike the first attempted fight, was not broken up.  Other bar patrons began to pile on top of Ian Kimball, venting their fury at his continued existence.  They did not use their magic and they didn’t need to.  In seconds his blood began to flow freely from cuts caused by muscle and skin being pressed so forcefully against unyielding bone that they split in long lines.  Kimball’s face was unrecognizable before the pile of inhumanity began to really pulverize him.

Jeron was shocked at the sudden brutality of the situation and looked on in a stupor that he gradually shrugged off.  He made as if to turn but shook his head and began moving his arms in sweeping movements, his hands making arcane symbols to gather large amounts of energy.  With a sudden gesture a shock wave of force shot out from his left hand bowling the attackers off of the now bloody Peace-keeper, his uniform now just as bloody as Jeron’s.  Kimball was still alive and moving though he seemed to have lost his sense because his movements were sporadic and did nothing to either address his wounds or help him stand.

“You all know me to be a fair ‘keeper.  I try to show justice and I fought and sacrificed with all of you.  You all know I sacrificed for all of you.  But you know I can’t let you kill this man.  What would that get you?  What happens after he’s dead?  Would you kill me next?  I may not be on duty now but I would have witnessed this.  Why don’t you all go home.  Go home and give your husbands and wives and children and whoever else a hug and a kiss.  Go be with them and be glad that you are alive to celebrate today.  There is no victory in punching down,” Jeron said.  It had started with a yell and had finished in a voice so low that the people lying on the floor had to strain to hear him.

The group who had attacked picked themselves and each other up, not meeting Smythe’s eyes.  Some moved back to the bar for another drink and others left the bar out of embarrassment or perhaps looking for other unprotected prey for their ire.  There were no apologies and not a single one attempted to help the still twitching Ian Kimball.

Jeron walked to the spot where Kimball lay bleeding, a growing puddle of blood surrounding him.  Jeron bent down, hands gathering energy and laid hands on the man.  The puddle seemed to flow in reverse, the body reabsorbing the blood.  Audible crackling bore testament to the number of broken bones that had knitted back together.  Had Kimball been conscious he would have howled at the pain but, with all the trauma, he didn’t even whimper.  After the blood had cleaned itself up and the bones stopped shifting under the skin, Jeron again moved his hands gathering the magic from the air and pressed his hands on Kimball’s head.  With a jerk Kimby regained consciousness, stumbled to his feet and out the door of the pub without a ‘thank you’ or a backward glance, leaving Jeron crouched over a, now clean, patch of wooden floor.

He stayed crouched for a moment until a shadow loomed over him.  It was a large woman. She stood taller than everyone in the building including the barman positioned on an elevated platform behind his bar.  She stood with hands clasped behind her back and shoulders squared.  Though she wore civilian clothes everything in her demeanor seemed to shout that she was military.  Her hair was gray and missing where shining patches of scar tissue crisscrossed on her scalp and face.  She was not fat and the chords of her forearms and neck spoke volumes about an era of meager supplies and lean times, nevertheless, she radiated power.

“You were always good with healing and I shudder to think I was the one that drew you away from a higher calling to serve in the trenches with the dregs of society,” She said, putting out a hand to pull Smythe up from his crouched position.

“I think the healing was a necessity when we worked together.  You remember our first case when I broke your arm falling down the stairs? How are you Nabiri, or is it General McMahon or…” Jeron trailed off accepting the hand and using her support to lift himself from the floor.

“Nabiri will always be just fine coming from you.  Our friends mentioned to me that you haven’t been in to check on your wife since yesterday.  Let me walk you there,” McMahon responded.  It was not a suggestion or invitation; the tone spoke of command and Jeron followed as he had done for years as a Peace-keeper in training.

McMahon did not say anything to her former protege as they walked out of the bar.  The continued fireworks gleamed off the older woman’s scars as they walked out the door. The larger woman put her hand on Smythe’s arm to prevent him from walking further, gathered energy with her hands, and launched a much brighter light into the sky that hung for a moment before bursting into the shape of a key.  Within seconds four men and two women appeared, their clothes were plain but each had a pin of a key on their lapels and worn, silver and blue ribbons festooned their arms to set them apart from the common man.

“You can never be too careful right now.  Recent shift in power and a change in official policy.  This makes for a prime time to settle an old score,” the general said to her former partner.  “Alright, my friends, we are just taking a walk to Mr. Smythe’s house.  Eyes alert, yes?”

The group of 8 turned out from under the awning and passed the sign of the upside-down crown that advertised the pub they had just left.  They turned left walking down a lit street with flashes of light illuminating revelers, men and women alike.  The six men and women took their places naturally, and without needing to be guided, around Jeron and Nabiri their positions constantly moving as though to disguise the actual position of their leader despite the fact that she towered over all of them by no less than six inches and was taller than the shortest by more than a foot.

“You know, Jeron, I have heard reports about what your wife has been up to today,” Nabiri began as they walked.

“She’s a hero.  Working harder than the rest of us,” said one of the bodyguards, the intermittent illumination insufficient to give away defining details of her face.  Judging from height, Jeron thought it might be Clarissa Tanner, one of McMahon’s inner circle.

“She is a hero,” Nabiri agreed. “I notice you have not been with her today.  I do not mean to call you her keeper but, Jeron, you have been very careful with her since your…”

“I know, you don’t have to bring it up.  I know.  Just don’t bring it up,” he pleaded.  The first flicker of emotion other than defeat flickered to life on his face.  It was pitiable and pitiful.  Volumes on loss and sorrow were writ large on the man’s face.  “Please, just say what you came to say.  Don’t bring him up.  Please.”

“I was saying, you seem to be okay with letting Marija go on her own again.  This is good, I think.  She will heal better with getting back to work.  I could definitely use her again in the Peace-keepers.  But you, Jeron, do you want to be a Keeper forever?  What I mean to say is, I could use you in the new government, Secretary of Security.  You’re passionate about justice and mercy equally.  I need that kind of levelheaded thinking around me.  The people, our people, deserve to have someone like you watching out for their welfare.”

They walked in silence for a time, Nabiri McMahon letting Smythe roll the invitation in his mouth, to swallow it, and see how it sat deep in his gut.  The silence stretched thin until it turned to tension.  The tension stretched taut to razor wire that threatened to cut whomever would attempt to break it.

“Mr. Smythe, we must have you at the top.  I worked with your wife when she was with the Keepers.  We all knew when you both were married that you must be something special.  And if you were heading Security perhaps Mari, I mean Mrs. Smythe would return to duty,” the shortest guard said in a deep bass that resonated in Jeron’s chest.  He did not know the man and had never heard his wife speak of someone with such a distinctive voice.

“I know you mean well and I understand your sentiment.  You may have known who my wife once was but you don’t know who she is now.  The way you talk about Marija sounds like you may have been close but there’s probably a reason that I’ve never heard of you.  I’d guess that reason is you’re a pompous ass.”

The tension snapped, lacerating the bass-voiced man, leaving his mouth agape and his eyes bugged.  In the flickering light the man appeared distinctly like a frog.  He sputtered and gaped but at a gesture from his general he spoke no more.  The silence had been broken and the large woman laughed softly.

“Jeron, that is why I want you in power.  You so obviously don’t want the job that I think you would never abuse the power.  You would be so conscious of that power all of the time that you would be practically untouchable when it came to bribes or blackmail.  And the way you spoke to the prospective Secretary of Finance tells me you wouldn’t let anyone else get away with anything either.  Besides, we need one of us to make sure the right people get arrested and the right people… don’t. It’s basically what you’ve been doing for the past three years, just on a larger scale,” Nabiri said. She looked down at him to catch his eye and winked large enough to be visible in what little light remained.

“There are going to be trials, Jeron.  There are going to be very public trials that will be widely reported.  The evidence needs to go where it can be best used.  There are certain supporters that came to our side, after The Master fell, that have ties that need to be protected.  We just need to sweep a few minor indiscretions under the rug to have their continued support. With your well-known zeal for justice added to your family history, you would be perfect for the part.  If you say someone is clean, everyone would have to agree.”

“Nabiri, I don’t mean to be slow here but I’m not sure what you mean.  What I hear is you telling me that you want me because I look clean.  Then, you say you want me to be just a dirty as The Master’s old cronies who swept evidence under the rug for favors or money.  I know you wouldn’t ask me to do that.  But if you were to ask me to do that you should already know my answer.”

“Jeron we were partners for 2 years and we saw a lot together.  I taught you the ins and outs of keeping the peace.  Let this just be another lesson about how to keep the peace.  This conversation is really just a courtesy.  Our sources in the media are already reporting that you will be the next Secretary of Security.  You are going to act as judge in the coming high profile cases.  For the first three weeks, we will have some of the more well-known or heinous criminals.  You can be as holier-than-thou as you want to be, sentence them to death if you want.  The people will love it because, honestly, these criminals deserve to die.

“After the three weeks are up, we will start having trials for some new supporters who will need to be acquitted so they can continue business as usual…”

“Who,” Jeron interrupted. “Who am I going sell myself out for?”

“What?  Oh, just a few of the old guard who have advantageous connections.  A genius or two who got wrapped up in the wrong group but have seen the light.  Don’t worry too much about it.”

“If it’s my name attached to the record, I’m going to worry about.  Nabiri, General, we go back and you know me.  You know me well enough to know that I am clean and these people you want pardoned better have good excuses and give me a solid show of faith.  But most of all, I need to know who you want me to let go,” Jerron said, stopping short and causing two of the guard to stumble into him before the group noticed the his change in speed.

Another voice spoke up.  Jeron looked around to see which guard was speaking but could not see any mouths moving.  He realized one of them was wearing an illusory mask to hide to face. “General McMahon, we already had reservations about your dog.  If you can’t call him to heel, we’ll have to withdraw our support.  I’ll take my leave now, to report to my colleagues what was said tonight.” The figure stepped away from the group, gathered energy in a way that was clearly meant to be showy, and disappeared as quickly as if he had never been there.

“Jerron, I’m disappointed in you but I’m not surprised,” the General said turning to face her guards.  “Northwood, you and Benoit go to that group of idiots and let them know the deal is still on.  If you can’t assure them that everything will go according to plan, at least stall them until I can get there.  Make sure you don’t threaten them, though, that’s last thing we need.”

She turned back to the man who had caused her the trouble and said, “Well, if you’re done with your little tantrum, perhaps we can talk like civilized people again?  Yes, I do mean to pardon most, if not all, of the Stars.  That includes Müller, Kahn, Williams, and Chen.  Yes, I know you have history with them and that’s where it will stay, in the past.  When you pardon them, people will know you are fair even to your enemies. Now, I don’t have time to coddle you anymore.  Claudius Alistair and Jamila Mayhew will escort you to my office tomorrow.  You will be there for the inauguration and the trials will begin immediately afterward.  I wanted to do this as friends but, either way, you are my subordinate.  Now go home and sort your wife out.”


Turning to her guards she said. “What a ridiculous fiasco.  You all go to the Diet for the Emergency Session.  Keep things moving in our direction.  I don’t need anymore roadblocks.  If there is any opposition, make them out to be traitors.  We need to lock this down tonight.  No excuses.  I’ll deal with the Stars and be there in, let’s see…” She checked her watch. “Five minutes to make the deal and ten to seal it.  If I’m not with you in fifteen minutes, send Jabar to get me on ‘Diet business’.”  The general and the three remaining guards gathered energy with short sharp movements and vanished as one, leaving Jeron standing alone in the middle of the street with nothing but the occasional flash of light for company.  

From “Election” by Spencer Cook

2017-01-24
Artwork by Jarom Neumann
What was that? He stopped his scream and sat up, mouth still open. Just behind a nearby bush, there had been a cough. No, not a cough, it sounded more like a choking dog. An awful sound, but yet, nothing was there. And then Joshua’s heart stopped. The beasts…the beasts they had told him about. They were real.

Fear struck him immediately as his eyes poured into the area of the sound, desperately searching for its source. Too afraid to blink, he slowly stood, fighting to remain silent. His first instinct was to shout for help, but no one was around to hear him. Then it came again. This time, louder and longer, similar to a man gasping for air, but deep, almost wet sounding, it came and was followed by silence, but only for a moment. At the second sound, Joshua bolted forward.

The forest was painted black with night and where he ran he did not know as long as it was far from the source of the sound. Filled with new energy, he sprinted blindly through the foliage, pushing himself to his limits. He was sure he had never run as fast or as long in his life, until other loud, terrible noises rang out. Whatever that was, it was following him. A sudden misstep caused him to stumble forward, and when he stood upright again, he ran headlong into a low branch, which knocked him onto his back.

Groaning and rolling onto his side, he listened as the sound of his running feet no longer covered the hundreds of other footsteps that pressed the grass behind him. They were multiplying. He yanked at the grass and pulled himself forward and sprang upwards and hurdled shapes that covered the ground cautiously, working to not fall again. Suddenly, before he could stop, he found himself running towards a drop-off. Left with no option but to jump, he spotted a sufficiently thick branch sticking out just beyond the ledge, waiting for him.

With one last step, he pushed off of the ground, soaring through the air, arms flailing until his chest collided with the branch. Throwing his arms over it, he squeezed himself to it. The ledge had to be a drop of nearly twenty feet, as he looked down to a night so dark he could barely see his own feet hanging below him, with no ground in sight. The branch held strong, but the tree itself cringed as the rotting roots gave away and it began to tip, falling faster and faster until it stopped suddenly as the trunk collided with another tree. The stop took Joshua by surprise and he lost his grip, falling a meter to the ground below him, and rolled out of the way in time to watch the massive trunk smash onto the ground where he had been laying.

Looking up towards the ledge, which was made visible because from moon that had risen behind it, he saw a dozen, and then two dozen, and then three dozen figures approach the cliff.

They stared down at him.

Standing on two legs, their hunched and twisted forms angled oddly in a sick mockery of a human imitation. Many of them twitched spastically as if it were impossible for them to be still. Low, awful voices whispered to one another for a moment, before a shout behind them caught their attention, and they vanished, chasing whatever it was above. Climbing to his feet, Joshua continued forward, unable to keep up a sprint. His legs burned and wobbled as he moved and his lungs felt like old cloth, worn to rags. He could not stop, but he could not keep moving.

The trees began to disappear as he entered an illuminated clearing. Stopping just short of the moonlight, he stared forward to find a village sitting peacefully four hundred yards away peacefully, offering to protect him. He quickly weighed his options of staying hidden in the trees but having no idea what surrounded him, or bolting into the light and revealing himself but also possibly making it to the village and finding help. What would he do alone in the forest? Any hiding place chose might just as well be hiding the creatures that searched for him. He could feel their eyes watching him from the tree tops and the shadows of the thickets. The forest was dangerous. He had to risk the run to the village. He ran forward, wincing as his figure entered the moonlight, and yet there was no response. All was still as he approached the nearby houses.

He found the nearest house, where a small man sat sleeping in his rocking chair. Throwing a hand onto the man’s shoulder, Joshua tried to whisper could only gasp loudly, “Help…please…they are coming…” He nearly choked on his own shock as his fingers found the cold, moist fabric of the stranger’s shirt. Snapping his hand away, he felt a cold liquid kiss his fingers. The moonlight revealed blood that had climbed onto him from the man’s soaked clothing. The jolt of Joshua releasing him caused the man to fall from his chair, face first onto the ground into a crumpled heap. He was dead.

Lifting his eyes, Joshua looked up to find hundreds of corpses lining the ground. Many of the houses had been pillaged and destroyed, and yet everything was silent. The silence was deafening as his heartbeat resounded in his ears and his own breathing felt as loud as screaming elephants, for he was the only sound in the entire village.

He clutched the porch’s pillar beside him as his exhaustion overcame his terror momentarily. Pain racked his lungs with every breath as his inhales seemed to swallow all the air around him. His body throbbed and swelled with his breathing and his legs trembled beneath him, threatening to give out. He considered sitting down, sudden throaty howls echoed into the air. The world seemed to fold in on him as he stood straight and realized beasts had left the forest and entering the clearing. They had found him.

Shrieks and snarls grew louder as hundreds of footsteps sounded out from the field behind the village. Joshua almost sobbed in fear and frustration as he jumped into the dead man’s house, eyes darting for a place to hide. Deciding between the closet and the bed, he changed his mind, choosing the large chest that sat at the foot of the bed. Opening it and throwing the blankets out, he climbed into the box and pulled a blanket over him and closed the lid just in time to hear the roars of the beasts as they entered the streets of the village. He watched through a crack in the wood of the chest as they entered the streets and began to attack the corpses to be sure none of them were faking dead. The shadows hid their true appearance from him, but their rabid movements caused him to tremble in his box. A box that could quite possible become his coffin.

Then all was dark. Painfully dark. One of the beasts blocked the moonlight, standing in the doorway. The light seemed to bend around it as its silent presence stood at the house’s opening. Exhale. Most of its features were hidden in the shadows, but he could tell its head was slowly moving side to side, scanning the room. Exhale. While the roars of the beasts outside resounded strongly, the room seemed to be silent as the monster took a step forward. Exhale. A small thud of its heavy foot against the wooden floor sounded, followed by another as it slowly entered the house. Exhale. Its breathing was heavy and bubbly, like breathing through a throat full of mucus. Exhale. Steam seeped from its invisible lips as its warm breath entered the chilled air. Exhale. Joshua threw his hand up to cover his own mouth, which was still wheezing loudly, hoping to stifle the noise. Exhale.

And then there were two. A second entered behind the first, whipping its head quickly from left to right, before it spoke.

“We’re wasting time,” it said in a dark rattle of a voice. “Why would he come back here?”

“Where else would he go?” said the first, which was considerably bigger.

“He’s got to be moving still. This place would only trap him. If we wait too long, then he’ll reach the castle. We have to find him tonight.” The larger turned, towering over the smaller, looking down on him like an angry father.

“We search every house,” he growled. “Gather every hunter.” The smaller nearly responded, but was stopped by a man’s shout in the distance.

They were gone. In an instant, the streets emptied as the monsters vanished, sprinting silently back into the forest. Moonlight spilled back into the room. Joshua was left alone.

Reality Takes Leave

download_20170113_193745.jpeg“My dear Emiline, you simply must face the facts. Your parents were not carried off by a,” Governess Metlock waved a hand in Emiline’s direction. The white lace trim of her black satin sleeve danced in the stale air, “what did you say? Winged bear?”

Emiline sat in a straight-backed chair, her feet swinging through the air. Her dark hair drew back into a long braid. She nodded, “Yes Governess, a winged bear.”

Thin eyebrows disappeared into the graying woman’s hairline. With a shake of her head Metlock looked down at a stack of papers with a sigh, “It was a most unfortunate accident. Your parents died in their coach on the way to the train station.”
The young girl clenched her fists, anger wrenching at her heart. Emiline knew better. She had seen the beast lurking at the end of the lane, waiting.

The Governess continued, rifling through her papers as she spoke through pursed lips, “Reality can be hard on a young, moldable mind. The fact is, you are the head of your household now. Your brothers depend upon you and there is no time to waste on frivolity.”

Governess Metlock paused in her work and looked over half-moon spectacles. “This day you are to become a woman, Emiline Bunting, a girl you are no longer.”

Emiline’s anger snuffed out as she felt the implications of the Governess’s words weigh down on her shoulders.

I am the head of my household. Mamma, Pappa, they are gone. We are all that is left.

Emiline felt her bones sag against the wood chair. Her resolve melted into its course recesses, rooting her to the spot. She looked around the now uncomfortable room. Dust drifted from dark wood bookcases as memories raced through her mind.

How many times have I stood in this office? How many times was I told this was our safe place? Home away from home.

Her father had stood in this same room, hand on the Governess’s shoulder. He had thanked her for the work and care she had given his children.

Father trusted her. And now he’s  . . . gone . . . and she’s turning us away.

Tears welled in Emiline’s eyes as she noticed the stiff woman had pulled out a ledger. A quill scratched against paper, underlining the silence in the room. In that moment, Emiline realized just how little the Governess cared about her family’s plight.

Without raising her face the Governess spoke. “Now take your cloak, and bag too. Your brothers are waiting by the front gate. What happens to you lot is no longer any concern of mine nor this establishment. I must cast you from our good graces and pray that fortune is kind to you. Good day.”

That was it, her final statement on the matter. A page turned as Emiline’s mouth fell open.
“But…b-but…” Emmaline’s face burned in anger, tears stung her eyes as fear blinded her thoughts. Tension grew within the room, and a row of candles guttered in a sudden breeze.

“Enough! That is enough!” Governess Metlock snapped her book shut, flicking wet ink over her desk. Emiline shrank back, her voice collapsing in on itself.
The woman rose from her desk, eyes piercing Emiline where she sat. She took a nimble step around her desk and bent down to the young girls level. “I thought I had made this perfectly clear. There are no such thing as winged bears. There is no room in this world for imaginative minds. You are a silly girl about to meet reality in a very cold, very dark way. Your parents are dead. They will not be coming back and you are the only one who can save you and your family. Now wake up and start living in reality.”
With her last words Governess Metlock pulled Emiline from her chair. All resistance fled Emiline’s body as her former caretaker pulled her into a damp foyer. Rain poured down clouded glass windows as the evening outside deepened.

“Here is your cloak and bag. I’ve seen fit to have your brother’s wait outside for you.” Governess Metlock deposited a thick gray cloak into her hand as a dusty carpet-bag thumped onto the cold wood floor. Moving as if in a dream, Emiline pulled the cloak and hood over her shoulders. Without ceremony Governess Metlock picked up the carpet bag. She thrust it into Emiline’s chest and at the same time threw open the front door. Rain spattered onto the floor as Metlock pushed Emiline onto the front porch.

Water poured out of gutters and ran through the streets. The cacophony filling the silence Emiline felt within her mind.

At the bottom step, with a bag in each hand stood two forms. One stood taller than the other, his head moving from side to side scanning the street. They were Julius and Samuel, Emiline’s brothers. Rain poured out of their small black bowler hats as both waited. Julius was looking up the street, no doubt he already a direction of where to go in mind. Samuel stared up at the Governess Estate, taking it in one last time. Tears coursed their way down his cheeks, mingling with the rain.

Before Emiline could turn around the door banged shut.  A deadbolt dragged into place, and light disappeared beyond the tall glass windows. The smaller figure began to cry. Rain continued to soak into Emiline’s coat. She wanted to kick the door, hit it with all her might. Her fist tightened as tightly bottled up screams threatened to rip free of her throat.
A small urgent voice floated up to her,”Emie, we need to get moving. It’s growing darker and They are out there.”

It was Julius, he had a hand on young Sam’s shaking shoulders. He looked Emiline in the eye as she descended the steps. His words spurred her forward. Of course he was right, They were coming.

In Death’s Garden

“Walk with me.” Said Cerum. The command was quiet, yet it willed the very air around my body, pushing me forward.
“Yes, Mastre.” I ducked my head,  feeling my skin crawl as I fell in stride with the Lord. Beside us his hunched attends walked, tactfully blocking any chance of evasion.
Cerum held up a wraith like hand, motioning at the sleeping wood. “Behold this, my Garden. A product of my own dark creation.”
Oily black liquid bubbled in a slow flowing stream. The lane stretch before the two, clouds of sulfur stretching between dead wood.
Hooded head turning to take in the scene, Cerum continued, “Is it not a magnificent mirror for the Empire I have created?”
Gulping down tainted air I managed a,”Yes my lord it is.”
I could feel his gaze upon me, like cold dead flesh pressing upon me. Could he see through my lies?  My deceit?
His next words were said with a smile, one you heard rather than saw. “You do not approve, Mernor? Is it the stench? Tell me.”
What was I to say? What was I to do? I looked around, feeling my carefully constructed walls of protection falling down around my ears. He would know soon enough the lengths I had gone to see his empire fall.
For a moment I gazed out beyond the edges of that hellish garden and saw into the true free world. Crisp blue mountains covered with snow. Fresh clear air and a wisp of cloud floated contentedly, beyond Cerum’s control.
The Lord of Filth stopped where he was. His black tar cloak clinging to the ground as he twisted to face me. Dead eyes took in my body, looking through my skin. His face was that of a man long died at sea, face translucent to the bone. Two broken horns held up his sagging cowl, framing a damned face in black pitch.
His lips parted,and a pointed blue tongue wet his lips, “Well?”
I took a deep breath and reached within myself to speak, “I do not approve of the end of this garden.”
Cerum’s eyes blinked, taking in my words. He was taking in the lie.
I raised my hand to the horizon, to the open world. “Out there, Lord, those blue mountains. They stand as a mockery to your power and prestige. Out there, the free folk of your world mock you with their rebellions. Each of their victories is a personal assault on you, my Greatness.”
Cerum raised a hand, silencing me, “What do you mean by this? Betrayer? Could this be you are fully committed? By these words you damn those you hold dear to a torment more painful than life itself. Do you wish to commit to me? To death itself? I can see through your flattery, lowly one. But I see your heart, I see the anger. Do you wish to unleash my darkness upon this world?”
I looked him in the eye, feeling the turmoil within my body. Knowing what I must say, but regretting each of my next words I spoke.
“I do, my Lord. Kill them all.”
There was a long silence as Lord Cerum looked upon my flesh. His eyes roved over me, and then to the garden around us. He stepped away from me, continuing down the path. We a flick of his hand he signaled to his attendants. They hurriedly pushed me forward. I followed, unsure of what was to happen.
A low iron wall ran round the perimeter of the garden, separating it from the rest of the palace. The Lord Commander placed a booted foot on its edge, metal grating on metal. He considered the open world before him. Trails of ash and smoke billowed up from great vents in the ground, shrouding the pinnacles and spires of his mountain fortress. Below them the foot hills crawled with savage warrior, underlings, and laborers all under his command.
Beyond his kingdom lay a lush valley surrounded by unmarred mountains. The world lay before them, ripe for the taking.
Cerum turned to Mernor a smile pulling at his grey face. When his lips parted, a smooth and confident voice rang in Mernor’s ears, “So be it. We will bring the world to it’s knees. There is no one to stop us now.”

Flight of the Demigod

“AHHHHHHH!” Screamed Orion. His coarse beard whipped painfully into his eyes as air roared past him.

Heedless of his reputation, his ego, or anyone else in the vicinity he continued to scream. His body shot into the heavens, hurtling towards vast mountains of puffy clouds.

A calm voice somewhere in the vicinity of his booted feet spoke calmly, “Do you always scream this much?”

“Ahhhh-hicrrr-,” a blast of icy air cut Orion’s guttural cry short and for a minute his face turned as blue as the sky around.

The great eagle flattened his wings, slowing their accent and turning into a lazy spiral. He cocked his head to one side, considering his passenger, “For a Demigod, you’re not that brave are you?”

“Wha-wha- what do you mean by that?” Orion stammered, his pride catching him up. Chest heaving the burly man glanced down. It was a mistake.

The eagle crowed, “Stop squirming like that! Or we’ll both be in trouble-No! Stop it! Now!”

There was an awkward moment, with the greatest Hero of the Ages scrabbling to grab everything and anything solid in sight. Both forms dropped like a stone, passing through a large clump of cloud.

“You’re an idiot!” Screamed the eagle, his voice echoing off of several pearly masses. When they emerged from the cloud their bodies dripped with condensation. Orion found himself bent over backwards, his face pointed to the distant land forms below. Hundreds of fathoms below.

The eagle squawked again, “No! Stop! Stop this now, or I will drop you!”

He clung onto the human with one large clawed foot. Struggling to keep the being from twisting his leg from its socket.

“You’re as terrible as that rabbit I caught this morning. It couldn’t just lay there and die.”

Being associated with common vermin brought the warrior to his senses. Eyes flashing with rage, Orion addressed the creature, “Excuse me? Eagle, are you aware of to who you speak? I suppose The Knight of the known world is a joke to you.”

“You lack in tact as well.” The eagle felt his pool of patience reach rock bottom. “And it’s not ‘Eagle’ or ‘Beast’. My name is Acquim. Acquim the Third, son of Londrum, King of the Sky. I’d have hoped that someone of your . . . intellect and stature would understand the common courtesy given to royalty.”

Orion gritted his teeth, his own temper finally breaking. He interrupted the great bird with a roar, “Common courtesy? Why don’t you just drop me already? That’d be courtesy enough for what you’ve put me through! For one destined to be the noble steed of the Hero of the Century, you certainly have a way with showing loyalty.”

As he spoke, Orion glanced to his belt, clutched tightly within the creatures talons. There were several deep gashes in the hand crafted leather where the beast had pierced it. It was a mark of Acquim saving his life, but Orion could only think of his wounded pride. He blundered on, heedless of Acquim’s look of complete befuddlement and disbelief. “And for that matter intelligence, you’re lacking . . . rather a lot.”

There was an awkward moment, when their eyes met. But before either could respond, Acquim’s leg spasmed dropping the large man into open air.

“You dare-“, was all Orion could utter before he disappeared into a massive cloud bank. In stunned silence Acquim stared at the man’s body print. Legs and arms spread wide. Then a chill wind twisted the vapor and the image was lost.

“He really is that stupid.” He spoke to the now silent air.

His father’s words rang in his ears as he remembered earlier counsel given. You two are destined for greatness, you and that half-immortal. The Skies have foretold his coming to us. My son we cannot turn him away. I won’t say he is lacking in . . . refinement, but the two of you will make the impossible, possible.

Rolling his eyes as a wave of guilt passed through to his tail feathers, Acquim gathered wings to his sides and dove.

Father had better be right about this. He thought as his vision blurred from the cloud bank. Sunlight blinded him as he burst from the cloud. Below him stretched the wide world, a vast bowl of green and brown broken by ribbons of blue. In the exact center of the living tableau, a figure spun round and round. A faint wail echoed up to him.

“Alright, ” he said, smoothing his feathers from head to tail, “let’s show this human what we’re both made of.”

With that Acquim dove, air and water streaming from his body as he shining beak split the air. A howl formed from his feathers as the elements parted, urging his body onward.

Orion was to the point of prayer. The ground was growing closer with each of his sobbing breaths.

Maybe I shouldn’t have called him a steed. He thought as tears leaked from his face. I’m not ready to die, I can’t go like this! I’m the Hero of Destiny, I’ve been told from birth I would live to make a difference in this world. Not fall to my death from some stupid oversized pigeon!

Clouds whipped by, completely unconcerned by his presence or trajectory.

Perhaps this is just a dream- That thought was pushed from his mind as he ripped through a flock of gulls. One caught on his sheathed sword and evaporated in a puff of feathers.

“Great Gods of the Air I’m going to die!” He screamed, realizing just how quickly his mortality was catching up to him. Individual peaks and forests were making themselves more distinct in his vision. There was no getting around it. He was going to die.

“Gods grant me mercy” He whispered, closing his eyes tight.

Air roared all around him. And then, something was enfolding him. His body tugged to the side, away from the waiting mountain peaks. The roar in his ears changed. And then, with a wrenching in his gut he was hurtling upward, warm feathers pressed into his face.

“Acquim?” He hazarded a guess, eyes still shut tight.

The eagle spoke with a certain calm, “I am here, Orion . . . your loyal steed.”

Tears of relief and gratitude poured from Orion’s eyes as the two soared into the sky.

He opened an eye, looking at the blurred blue and white world passing around him.

“Thank you,” he said gently, “I am a coward and prideful and I shouldn’t have call you steed.”

Acquim cocked his head looking at his rider, “And I’m an arrogant chicken. I guess there’s some things we can work on. Together. Agreed?”

Orion glanced up towards the sun. He smiled and nodded his head, “Agreed.”

Below them the world turned.

-M.E. Inkowl

Dragon Moon

Art by Jarom Neumann

Her body twisted in the evening breeze, gown billowing from her thin frame. She moved around an empty ring of grass. The night spoke through bending trees as the young girl danced.

“Tis bad luck to dance the night before the Dragon Moon.” Hissed the young girl’s father. He watched, eyes filled with scorn and ire. “Does she not understand the dishonor that comes from her choices? From her . . . movement?”

“She is no daughter of ours, Ferrind.” Growled Joya, Ferrind’s wife. Her jowls quivered as she spit out each word, “When she comes back to us all that will be waiting for her will be a locked door and shuttered windows.”

For a moment they both looked on their own flesh and blood as she leapt from side to side.

Behind the woman Ferrind turned the key in its lock. “When the Dragon Moon rises, no one will be there to save her. As it must be.”

Leaves twirled around Shanri, emphasizing the rise of her limbs and silken sleeves.

One am I with this Earth. Our hearts as one.

Her thoughts echoed in the darkness of her mind, reminding her of what she must endure.

Through hatred and poisonous envy I wade, One alone to save this Earth.

Shanri executed a fluid kick and somersaulted onto the short cropped grass.

A dancer I must be, of the unmoving mountain. I bow to no one, but move as supple as the wandering brook.  Like a sapling I sway in the wind, anchored by the earth.

Not a soul acknowledged the young girls efforts as Shanri pulled at the elements around her. She reached youth filled hands into an ever-living pool of history. Withdrawing the energy of Mother Earth she pushed it out to the village around.

The night air reverberated with magic as iridescence settled over the unsuspecting village.

I am one with this world. And with this energy I bind this last village, these the last of my people to an uncertain fate.

High above the young girl a radiant circle of light peaked over a ridge.

I call to you, Dragon Moon! Dragon Moon!

Flecks of green and shimmering silver fell from the moon as it rose into the night sky. Shanri continued her dance.

Let fly this weakness, from my mortal flesh. For the Gates of Destruction have opened.

Spreading her arms wide, the young girl spun round and round. Her robes once again swirling about her. Above her lines of moonlight struck the far side of the valley, causing cliff-faces to glow.

Rise Dragon moon.

Shadows fled from the mountain side as an imperceptible shiver ran through the ground. A chill wind blew through the valley, twisting around the silent village. Shanri was a blur of motion as she felt the fear rise. Beyond her, the mountain opened as she bent her body back low, completing the rite. Moonlight streamed into a gaping chasm as a thousand years worth of dust seeped into the world.

A low growl echoed through the valley.

Rise.

-M.E. Inkowl

January, On The Ink Owl

wp-1482388469745.jpegA very Happy Eve before New Year’s Eve to you all! We are on the cusp of a new beginning for life. Who knows what 2017 will bring. When January comes it usually ushers in a wave of seasonal depression for me. Even though it’s chuck full of fun snow storms, birthdays and a plethora of warm places to hunker down and write I still find it hard to get through. That is until this year.

On the Ink Owl this month I will be starting a new challenge: write Fantasy flash fiction! I’ll post either every other day or every day, depending on how many pieces I have ready. For those of you already following this will be like my Sinister Countdown I had in October. I would appreciate all the likes, comments and shares you can send my way.

I’m also excited to say that I will be featuring a few fellow unpublished writers within the month. Also being featured through out the month will be featured artwork from one of my greatest friends and animator Jarom Neumann. He is incredibly talented and looking at getting his name and art out there. So Follow the link to his tumblr site, or look him up on Facebook @jaromneumannart or on Instagram @jaromneumann.

Again I can’t wait to begin this new adventure with the world. See you on January 1st!

A Gathering of Wyrms

download_20170110_011536.jpeg
Artwork by Jarom Neumann 

Wind blew ice and snow against silver helms. Metal blistered against skin as the sky tore open and fell upon the shielded knights.
“Callum, to the cave! They are vulnerable!” Kasia shrieked. She leapt to the side as another powerful downdraft of air iced over the rocks where she had stood. Powdered snow and chunks of frozen water clanged off of her metal chest plate. She rolled under the branches of a low evergreen. Something above her roared in frustration as wicked talons gripped the cold.

Krullen. Seethed Kasia.

Branches cracked above Kasia as the Krullen gripped the tree in its powerful claws. Wind buffeted her body as two sets of wings beat an upward retreat.
No, not retreat. Oh no! She had not time to think, or even breath. Rolling out from under the tree Kasia caught a glimpse of an ashen grey body, covered in curling hooks and barbs. Great wings beat against the mountain air as muscle flexed. Four cold eyes scanned from a horned and twisted face.
“Kasia, no!” Callum screamed as he lifted his bow to the beast. A piercing shriek filled her ears, swallowing the sound of her own scream.

Callum’s arrow sailed true into the Krullen’s face. Roaring in pain it fell to the ground, supple neck twisting back and forth in pain. Kasia rolled away from writhing limbs. Snow and rocks shifted under as the beast continued to roar.
The idiot! What was he thinking? Stumbling between rough stone Kasia made her way to where her companion had been. Behind her the raging beasts calls echoed between the mountain peaks.

“Callum! Callum, where are you?” she screamed above the Krullen’s cries. Snow blasted into her face, causing her skin to tingle. Snow whirled around her as the storm intensified. She could no longer see the twisting beast.

“Callum!” Her cries blended with howling wind as the full fury of winter was unleashed. Frosted crystals tumbled from bruised clouds, obscuring the twin peaked mountain.

She screamed a few more times, making her way up a small ridge, half sliding in the rapidly accumulating snow.

It’s no use. She thought as fear tightened her chest. We’ll never find each other in time. There has to be more of them that heard us. We’re running out of time!

“Callum!!” she cried into the swirling vortex.

Something caught around her legs and she fell hard on her side. A gloved hand pressed against her mouth as a human form pressed against her.  Kasia reached for her belt knife, but hands as strong against solid wood held her fast.

Strange furs wrapped a form in a cloak of black and gray.

“Who are-” she tried to say but the being help up a hand. All around them raged the wind raged.

Kasia was about to try again when something massive impacted on the ground. She felt the ground beneath her shiver from the impact.
No, she thought, those are impacts. The ground continued to vibrate as massive bodies fell from the sky.

The being that held her fast shifted around, looking into the sky. Between the ridge she pressed against and the cloaked stranger Kasia couldn’t see much, but she could hear.

Chill hisses escaped from a dozen throats.

Beasts raged all around, their calls whistling and shrieking into the wind.

A deep voice whispered into her ear, making her jump, “You must remain calm, they can smell your fear.”

Suddenly conscious of her own breaths Kasia stammered out, “M-my companion,  where is he?”

Rocks cracked under clawed feet as Kasia watched the half hidden face turn this way and that.

“Please, tell me.”

Something outside of her view shifted and a thick cloud of snow fell on them both. Kasia wiped at he face, she spit out a mouth full of ice.

Above them both, not an arm’s length away, an ivory foot gripped the ridge. Shining talons as long as Kasia’s forearm dug into rock and frozen earth.

The stranger pressed against her his face almost nose to nose with hers. A pair of shining golden eyes looked into her own. She felt a sudden calm run through her body as he opened a bearded mouth to speak. “He is in a safe place, your companion. Much more safe than where we are now. You’ve got to listen to me and do exactly as I say or we’ll both die.”

Relief flooded Kasia face as she felt the tightness ease in her chest.
He’s alive!

The moment wash short-lived as two more scaled bodies shifted around their hiding place, effectively blocking say route of escape.

“There goes any chance of us escaping anytime soon.” The cloaked man growled. “Looks like we’re in it for the long haul.”

Consternation replaced the young girl’s calm.

“What do you mean the long haul? We’ve got to get back, I’ve got to get Callum!”

The man shook his head, “This has turned into a Wyrm-moot, don’t you see. There are literally hundreds of Krullen out there.  If we try to run now we’d be dead in a second. And that would leave your prince in quite a predicament.”

Kasia’s brow rose in astonishment, “How did you know Callum’s the prince? Who are you?”

The man gave her a small smile. “I am Galbraith, Last Mountain Druid of the North.”

Kasia blanched at the name, eyes doubling in size.

Above them a Krullen twitched. Galbraith waved her silent pointing upwards, “And if you don’t shut your mouth and listen to my instructions, Kasia, they will name you Prince Slayer.”

She nodded, eyes wide.

“Good, now let’s see about getting out of this mess.”

 

When World’s Collide

wp-1484110942069.jpeg

The clock hanging on a sterile white wall read 3:15 am. Below it the barista sprayed whipped cream onto my hot cocoa.

“Did you feel that?” My coworker set her coffee down with a small thump as the ground shivered under our feet.

“What’s going on?” I asked, looking around the hospital coffee shop. Other people around us had paused mid conversation and were getting up out of their chairs. I turned around to see a drowsy couple looking up at the ceiling, murmuring to one another.

The ground shook again. Muffled sounds echoed down the vast open entrance hall. Drawn by the weird sounds I walked away from the growing crowd.

Traci called out after me, “Is it an earthquake?”

Looking to the walls on either side of me I noticed a lack of cracking sheet rock and falling debris.  Nothing. I called back to my friend, “I don’t think so. We’d probably would all be dead.”

The ground shivered again, accompanied by more muffled sounds. I tried looking out the wall of square windows, and rotating from entrance. Condensation blurred red and white flashing lights.

Someone in the crowd spoke out loudly, “Why aren’t there any sirens going off?”

I approached the empty front desk. Why isn’t anything going off? Where’s the night guard? I thought as the front entrance rotated, depositing frigid winter air into the lobby.

There just in front of the door stood a man in night security fatigues. A walkie-talkie hung in a limp arm. Something in the way his body sat gave me chills, more so than the cold air pouring through the entrance.

“Michael?” Tracie called after me, her voice suddenly sounding a lot further away.

I walked over to the rotating glass, feeling a sense of urgency fill my body. My breath fogged the passing glass. And then everything shook. Glass bowed in front of my face as I heard people in the hall scream. Cracks tracked through windows and doors.

Outside the man felt onto his backside. He started scooting away, mouth open in terror.

He’s screaming. My brain registered as reflexes snapped into action. I was pushing an emergency exit button and throwing myself into the night air before I felt the cold hit me. A symphony of sirens, and whistling of steam filled my ears as I grabbed the man. His screams melted into the maelstrom as I tried pulling him into the hospital. The ground beneath me bucked and I fell back against a pillar. To my left asphalt and concrete cracked as the ground gave way, sinking in on itself. Bits of glass and metal scattered into the ground from several stories above. A metal rod impaled a wheel chair access sign.

“Get in side sir!” I yelled at the man, who just continued to stare across the asphalt round-a-bout. A blast of heat engulfed us, vaporizing the falling snow right out of the air. I turned my head to see the main parking structure, three stories tall on fire. But it wasn’t on fire. Great clouds of vapor and mist poured from each level. Long tendrils snaked from the structure, disappearing into the air. Below a half-dozen fire engines were parked, lights rotating.

“What’s going on?” I shouted at the guard. He looked up at me in shock. I took a limp hand and pulled him to his feet. Mist continued to run up and down the sides of the building, twisting into the air.

“What’s happened?” I shouted in his ear. Somewhere within the structure metal scraped and tore. Fire men scrambled out of the mist, running past their fire engines. A shadow moved on the second level. With a crunch and groan of metal the smashed nose of a truck broke through a large framed opening. It flipped tail over head and smashed into a fire engine. Water sprayed from ruptured tanks, spraying water across the round-a-bout.

“What the-” I tried to say, but then another car careened out of the second floor, smashing onto the pavement below. Fire fighters were scrambling back into their trucks, trying to get away.

Clouds of vapor billowed around a vast form. It prowled back and forth, tossing vehicle after vehicle over the edge. I stood where I was, disbelief freezing me to the sidewalk. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

And then whatever it was inside the parking structure hissed. It was loud enough to cover all other sounds in the area. The guard, having now pressed past me ran into the rotating doors, screaming.

I stood alone in the night, watching the unknown, and unbelievable occur. Something large enough to throw cars was in that structure. With a deafening bellow it tore through brick and mortar, crashing down onto a hapless fire engine. Claws tore into metal frame like a heated knife through butter. A long scaled neck twisted back and forth as crocodile jaws opened into a roar. Flames shot from its mouth, engulfing the Emergency Department to my right.

“I-It’s a-a . . .” I stammered as great glistening wings, as black as the night, unfurled. Turning back to where it had just crawled out, the beast opened its jaws wide and filled the crumbled structure with flames.

I felt adrenaline kick in as my body jumped into action. I ran back into the hospital lobby to find half a dozen people paralyzed with fear. Tracie stared at me, eyes wide and mouth open.

I open my mouth and screamed, “RUN!” as the wall behind me erupted into flames.