Chapter 5: Into the Fire

All right, here is a newer version of this chapter. See the rest of the story as I work on the new material here.

The rain stopped. Water drained from the roofs, percolating through the muddy streets and the silence. Thunder rumbled far away. The storm responded as if Esmerelda scared it away with her deliberate manipulations.

Darren pulled himself off the wet, muddy road; his clothes drenched and caked with mud. Marcus strolled over to him; the warrior’s gait had a pronounced limp. His shield was bent inward at the center where the pillar of flesh had concentrated its strength.

“That was a Thing,” Marcus said with a swift smack on Darren’s back.

Darren nearly fell over from the friendly pat. His right foot slid in the mud to balance himself.

Darren glanced at his friend. “It’s not dead, is it?”

A howl filled the street, followed by the murmuration of incomprehensible, but pained, voices.

“It is not.” Esmerelda’s tone was flat, yet menacing. She stared straight down the road ahead; she wouldn’t blink. Her lips curled with the same anger that whitened her knuckles as she gripped her staff.

Marcus hobbled over to her, inured to her foreboding anger. Darren stayed behind, peeking out from behind Marcus, in case the warrior became a target of the blind rage that was boiling in Esmerelda.

“You know what’s happening?” Marcus asked.

Esmerelda nodded, but did not turn toward Marcus. “Clair, what did you do?”

Darren raised a finger above Marcus’s shoulder. “Um, who’s Clair?”

Still staring down the village road, Esmerelda said, “Claire was my roommate at the university in Parburg. She was obsessed with magic that could conjure creatures from outside our reality. It is a place simply known as the Other. Wizards contacted the Other long ago but conjuring creatures from it was a costly venture and always met with failure.”

Darren raised an eyebrow and his hand fell limp on Marcus’s shoulders. “Huh? Why?”

Marcus craned his neck to answer. “The Other may be incompatible with our world.”

“How do you—”

“True. Entities conjured would die within a minute.” Esmerelda continued, “Claire believed she could correct the failure of past wizards, certain she had cracked the code. Her advisor expelled Clair from the university when she attempted to use animals as vessels when conjuring a Weird. Her advisor expressed his anger that what she was proposing was worse than necromancy.”

Esmerelda released the grip on her staff and the road ahead with a deep sign. For the first time, she blinked. “It looks like she succeeded, but made herself part of the experiment.”

“Or it made it a part of her,” Darren quipped.

“Or that.” Esmerelda turned back to the road and started walking. “Where did the Weird first appear?”

Darren maneuvered around Marcus. He pointed a shaking finger toward a two-story building to the left of the street. “That one.”

As he pointed, the wind blew another chorus of wretched pain throughout the town. Darren dropped his finger quickly. “Wait. What good are we against that Thing? That Thing just kept coming.”

“Yeah, but it ain’t invincible,” Marcus said with a spit. “Esmerelda blew chunks of it all over the street.”

Darren turned and saw Marcus fiddling with pieces of the hardened claws the Thing had used to brace against Esmerelda’s attack. Esmerelda walked over to her warrior-friend with a glint of curiosity in her eyes.

“I wonder if the lightning hardened it,” she mused. “That might make it easier to wound and less mobile.”

She bent down and picked up a piece of the claw. It crumbled in her hands as if made from sand. “Interesting.”

“Well, we have to stop it.” Marcus said with a shrug.

Esmerelda tilted her head toward the house. “If it’s there, it will be in a confined arena.” She brushed the sandy remnants of the Weird from her palm. “Give me your weapons. Darren, you too.”

Darren reluctantly walked over.

Murmuring to herself, Esmerelda brushed her hand along the blades belonging to Marcus and Darren. Faint electricity flashed from her hands to the metal. The blades pulsed with electrical energy. Darren stared at his sparking weapon with awe. Esmerelda had captured lightning in his blades.

“It won’t last long. The charge in the air from the storm is passing. We have to move,” Esmerelda said.

“Well then, let’s not waste any time,” Marcus said. He moved toward the house.

Esmerelda followed; her eyes focused on the building.

Darren noticed the Thing had busted the front door inward and crushed the front steps. The front wall buckled near the door and a window hung precariously in the open space.

Darren heard whispers behind him. A small lantern revealed a woman and two kids peering fearfully from a window.

He knew their fear. He felt their fear.

We got this handled, He mouthed to them. He did not believe it.

© 2020 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.   

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Chapter 4: A Dark and Stormy Night

Another revision for It Came From the Wizard’s Cellar. Here is Chapter Four revisited. I hope you enjoy.

Read other chapters from the Table of Contents here.

Thunderless lightning branched across the sky. The dark clouds held their rain like Darren was holding his breath. His footsteps scraped across the dirt road.

Lightning flashed down the street, empty streets and shuttered windows were all Darren could see. Empty or dead, Darren wasn’t sure, but he took solace it not seeing scores of corpses littering the road. He gulped, the Thing probably didn’t leave corpses. He hoped the townsfolk were secured in their homes, holding their children beneath their beds.

A monster was prowling the street. With each sky flare, Darren feared to see that Thing, its many eyes and mouths, or the woman it mimicked. So far, there was only the road. Darren didn’t know which thought made him more nervous, knowing there was a monster somewhere or realizing exactly when it would be upon them.   

The trio turned down the major street near the alley where Darren last left Jacob to die. A smile crept across Darren’s face. Jacob’s death was a welcome bonus to this whole mess.

The rain rushed upon the team from behind. They were soaked in seconds. Lightning flashed through the sky again, bouncing off droplets of rain.

Darren stopped, he saw a form up ahead. “Marcus,” he whispered, “I think I see something.”

Marcus gripped his sword and grunted. He nodded and raised his shield.

A horizontal pillar of wet flesh pushed through the falling rain. Darren rolled left while Marcus stood his ground. His shield took the blow, the flesh hit the shield like a waterfall of slimy mud. His legs bent at the knees and he leaned forward. Tiny tendrils of mud reached around Marcus’s shield. Darren gulped; the flesh pillar was trying to pull away Marcus’s shield.

Marcus grunted under the weight of the attack. “Ez, it’s your turn.”

Esmerelda stepped to Marcus’s left. She lifted her left hand, bared her palm, and fired orange yellow orbs of light and flame through the downpour. Three orbs hit something in the darkness. Esmerelda closed her left hand in a fist and brilliant blasts of light and fire ignited.

A haunted flash of teeth and eyes pierced through the rain with each flash from Esmerelda’s attack. Orbs of flame burned on the Thing. The rain couldn’t douse Esmerelda’s flame.

Then, the orbs were consumed by the fleshy Thing. They darkened inside, smothered by flesh. The creature pulsated in the dwindling light, blazing a lattice network of nerves or blood vessels. An eye floated, its pupil burned with the absorbed flames.

It made no sound. Was it even in pain? The flesh pillar released Marcus’s shield, returning to the mass. The flames went out.

Marcus grunted. “What now?”

Don’t ask that, you fool? thought Darren.

The deluge was heavy; it sounded like falling sand or large beads. Through the rain, Darren heard something else, a gurgling laugh, like a madman happily being drowned. It was followed by another laugh, but different in pitch. Soon, the sound of rain was replaced with a cacophony of gurgling, drowning laughter.

Marcus held his shield close to his body, protecting his face with only his eyes exposed over the metal rim. “This can’t be good.”

A brilliant red glow erupted from the rain before them. Lit flesh filled Darren’s vision. A large circular maw filled with jagged, inward-pointing teeth opened.

Esmerelda’s eyes widened. “Run!”

A fiery orb, three times as large as Esmerelda’s sailed through the rain, forming a tunnel of evaporation. Esmerelda crossed her arms, a purple shield encompassing her body. The orb erupted and engulfed Esmerelda. Marcus was flung across the street. The concussive blast tossed Darren into the porch of an abandoned building. Flame nipped at Darren’s face that he blocked with his leather bracers. They caught fire; he rolled into the nascent puddles in the street. The smell of burning leather evaporated as the fire was drenched.  

Little smoke formed in the rain. Darren squinted, looking for Esmerelda. A white light illuminated the falling rain. Esmerelda’s staff lit up the street. It drowned out the lightning that arched through the sky. Thunder rumbled as Darren stared at the great maw that towered over Esmerelda. Eyes circled along the rim of the creature’s lips. A gurgling, choking laugh echoed from the maw.

Then it spoke with a feminine voice, wailing from a torment that Darren’s body quivered from in fearful revulsion. “I know you.”   

Esmerelda tilted her head. She gazed up as the lightning flashed. She reached up her right hand and snapped her fingers.

Darren was stunned. The branching lightning in the sky froze in place. A low rumble of thunder rolled across the dark expanse, like a stampede. Esmerelda dropped to her knees, slamming her right hand on the ground. The lightning arced from the sky and into the beast’s mouth.

A female scream ripped through the streets of the town. The lightning pushed back the creature. Fleshy appendages flailed out, and arcs of electricity traced along its amorphous body. These appendages hardened into long spindly legs ending in a single sharp claw. They dug into the muddy road.

How was it still up?

Esmerelda looked up from her kneeling position and screamed at the creature. Her voice was muffled by the angry roar of the sky. A wave of thunder poured through the street. Darren laid close to the ground as shop signs swung and splintered and windows shattered behind cracking shutters. Waves of thunder hit the Thing. It pulsed and rippled as if it were a pond assailed by an avalanche of boulders. Its more solid appendages shattered from the blast. Flesh, teeth, and eyes flowed from the severed wounds. The Thing licked up those oozing tendrils of flesh and pulled away from Esmerelda. It howled into the darkness.

Darren could still hear it laughing. A muffled chorus of agonizing, drowning laughter.

© 2020 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.   

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The Bog: Part Two

Five ponds dotted the landscape, each boasted one bald cypress at the shore. Sinuous roots plunged into the water with several knobby knees surfacing at the pond’s edge.

I hopped out of the truck and gazed at the pond. Water trickled through small, eroded inlets toward the major body of water we had driven over.

So, the ponds are elevated? Or was there a natural levee here at some point?

I looked toward the large body of dark, stagnant swamp water behind us.

“So strange. What geological event created this place?”

Patrick peeked up from the bed of the truck. “No idea. We are not geologists. And I don’t want to collect their samples too.”

“No, we don’t.”

I grabbed the black case and my backpack from the cab. Patrick handed me our plankton and dip nets. I also balanced two trays of sample bottles between my bent arm and chest. With a snicker, he tossed the throw net over my head.

“I am not a lab sample.”

“We are but field mice in our advisor’s lab.”

Patrick stacked two coolers on the edge of the truck. He jumped from the truck and grabbed the bottom cooler by its handles. Between free fingers, he grabbed the handle of an empty bucket.

We placed our gear at the edge of the pond and returned to the truck for the rowboat. We set the rowboat near the water and stashed our equipment in its center. I sat up front and Patrick pushed the boat out and hopped in.

The environment around the pond was quiet. The water was smooth as glass and opaque like oil. Submerged vegetation reached for the sun along the edges of the pond, their stems disappearing into the oily water. Small fish and tadpoles darted through the vegetation and cypress knees. The center was a slick, black mystery.

The plan was for a simple transect from the middle of each pond to the shore, collecting samples at three points. Afterward, we would sample around the cypress trees.

Patrick grabbed the yellow logbook out of my pack. I grabbed the Secchi Disk from the bucket. It was a thin, plastic disk with four alternating white and black quadrants. It had a lead weight at the bottom and a rope attached on top. The rope had black marks at every ten centimeters to estimate depth. I lowered the disk into the pond. Within ten centimeters, the white and black patterns vanished.

“Visibility less than 10 centimeters,” I said. “No surprise there.”

Patrick scribbled into the logbook. “Well, what’s our depth?”

I lowered the Secchi Disk into the pond. The marks on the rope passed through my hands and disappeared into black water: one meter, two, three.

The rope slacked. The disk hit soft bottom before rope’s four-meter mark. I whistled.

“How is it that deep?” I asked.

Patrick shrugged.

I pulled the Secchi Disk from the water and placed it back into the bucket.

I opened the black case. Within was a handheld device with a long cable attached to an enclosed tube with a series of exposed sensors at one end: a data sonde. The sensors would detect the water temperature, conductivity, pH, and dissolved oxygen. I held the sensor in the water and fired up the handheld device with the other. I waited for numbers on the screen to stabilize.

“Who the hell dumps a pile of dead nutria deep in the forest?” Patrick mused.

“That bothers you, huh?”

“Yeah, it makes no sense. I get that they are an invasive species, rangers should remove them from the environment, even the dead ones.” Patrick laughed. “Perhaps it’s one of those creatures from the swamp you keep hearing stories about on that WHAU scary broadcast.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Hey, it’s entertaining. I’ll listen to anything that gives me a break from reading science articles for an hour, especially around midnight.”

“Can’t fault you for that.”

“Ah, the readings stabilized.” I lowered the cable into the water. “Let’s get back to work.”

I held the cable and read off the temperature, conductivity, pH, and dissolved oxygen numbers to Patrick. He recorded them in the logbook.

After scribbling down the data from the two-meter mark, Patrick broke the silence. “I just thought of something. The dead nutria. Whoever caught them and left them here to rot messed up. They could make money off those things.”

“How so?” I asked. The sonde had reached three meters. I stared at the digital readout as the numbers ticked away.  

“Well, I read in an article that nutria pelts are top quality. Could make some money off them. Maybe turn them into shoes, handbags, or something.”

“Interesting. Numbers are ready.”

“Fire away.”

I read the numbers off the meter and lowered the cable until the sensors touched bottom.

“If the whole graduate school schtick doesn’t work out for us,” Patrick said, “perhaps nutria hunting would be more lucrative.”

“It would be more lucrative, considering our current salaries,” I replied.

There was a tug on the cable.

“What the—”

“I can see it now: get your new nutria man purse by Invasive Limited.” Patrick chuckled.

A second slight tug on the cable.

“Come on, that was a good one,” Patrick said.

I looked back on the data logger in my hand. “Yeah, yeah, funny.” I managed a smile.

“No man purse for you, huh?”

“Not my style, but I wouldn’t mind making money on those fellas who want them.”

“That’s the spirit!”


“Here we go, last set of numbers. Oxygen concentrations are stable all the way down.”

“Mid spring, not warm enough to stratify the water column. Ready with the numbers.”

I read off the numbers. I curled the cable around my arm, gently lifting the sensor out of the water. “Well, let’s collect some water for the chemists.”

Patrick handed me a horizontal PVC tube. It had removable caps at the ends. An elastic band through the tube’s center connected the end caps. I opened the ends, latching the caps to a metal piece at the top of the tube. This way water could flow through the tube. I lowered the sampler in the water with an attached rope. Once the sampler was near the bottom, I sent a lead weight down the rope. There was a tug on the rope as the weight hit a button on the sampler, snapping it shut with a water sample inside. I hauled the sampler up and partitioned the water into several containers through a spigot on the cap.

Next, plankton collection.  Patrick dropped the plankton net into the water, holding it steady with a pole. I rowed the boat back to shore. The water flowed through the net, corralling the plankton into a collection bottle at the end. The plankton sample was transferred to a separate bottle to be preserved with formalin at the truck. We would repeat method at three different depths.

On the third run, I heard a splash in the water. Tiny ripples appeared around the rowboat, probably sunfish investigating the situation.

The rowboat lurched. Patrick slipped and fell flat on his back. The pole slipped from his hands and into the pond. An orange float, attached to the pole, bobbed where the pole had disappeared.

I crawled to Patrick’s side as he gasped for air.

“Breathe, buddy,” I said. “Just give your body a moment to recover. That was a nasty fall.”

It was a long minute as he gasped and fought to regain air in his lungs. He recovered and sat up. He pointed at the orange float bobbing ten feet from the boat in between a trio of cypress knees.

We paddled out to retrieve it. Patrick reached into the water and grabbed the float. He gripped his wrist around the pole and pulled. Snagged. Patrick’s hands slipped on it. Perplexed, we pulled on the net together.

It ripped free. The net was torn beyond repair, ripped down to the where specimen collection bottle would be. Luckily, we had brought the spare net.

Patrick quipped, “Something doesn’t want us to finish our work.”

I smiled and replied in an excited whisper, “Gators!”

Patrick groaned. “Idiot.”

We finished our work at the first pond with the spare plankton net and headed to the second.

The bottom of our rowboat scraped along submerged cypress knees. Together, we had to push off from the shore.

We checked the depth of the pond as before. Still deep and well-oxygenated throughout. We collected the water samples and started our plankton collection.

“Oh, shit!” Patrick exclaimed.

I craned my neck from rowing and saw Patrick struggling with the net. We had caught something large in it.

I turned to help. “All right, we caught ourselves a sunfish.”

“Not funny,” Patrick struggled to speak. “It could damage the net!”

Patrick pulled the net toward the boat. I leaned over the boat. The fine, white mesh of the net emerged out from the black water. The net bulged and lurched, some form was pushing against the sampling bottle at the end. If the sample bottle broke from the net, our spare would be ruined.  

I grabbed the dip net and blocked the open end of the plankton net. Patrick grabbed the sample end and tilted the plankton net.

With a wet thud, a froglet, the size of a human infant, fell out of the plankton net and into the dip net. It had a long tail and four nascent limbs. A bizarre, spiny dorsal fin stretched from its head, down its back, tapering at the base of the tail. Its eyes stared at us, thin, yellow irises with large pupils.

It hissed.

Patrick and I stood up. The boat rocked.

“Have you?”

Patrick only shook his head.

“We should grab it!” I exclaimed.

“We have nothing big enough to carry it safely back.”

I rushed to my pack. “Compromise, we will photograph it.” I grabbed my cell phone from the pack. “Man, the cryptid crazies will not let us live this down.”

The froglet rose on its back legs. It was clumsy and trembled under its weight. It slumped back, bracing against its tail. Trapped in the dip net, it let out a high-pitched growl, like a human infant gurgling with a mouth full of water.

Calling for help? I wondered. I rose the camera to my face. “We just need a picture, little guy, and then, you can go free.”

The rowboat rocked. The froglet bolted, dragging the dip net with it. Patrick rushed forward as I snapped the photo: a blurred shot of Patrick’s backside. The froglet bumbled and slithered across the rowboat. It was fast. I kept taking quick photos while Patrick lurched for it.

He caught it. The froglet arched its back and dorsal spines pierced Patrick’s hands. He pulled back, hands bleeding from small puncture wounds.

“Did you get it?” he shouted.

“Not sure, probably several blurry pictures.”

With a wet growl, the froglet hopped out of the boat and into the black water.

The boat struck something under the water. The stern lifted. I fell back, smashing my lower back against the boat. Patrick flailed into the pond.

Patrick! My thought screamed as my lungs gasped for air.

His hand grabbed the boat. His head appeared with a spit of water and gasp of air. “Gross.”

As my breathing returned, I chuckled. I reached for our logbook sitting on the cooler. “Well, get back in the boat. I’ll record the find.”

I sat down with the logbook and recorded the unknown froglet and our attempt to capture or take pictures of it.

Patrick did not come out of the water.

“You need help?” I asked, engrossed in recording the day’s events.

Silence.

Finally, I looked up. Patrick, wide-eyed, stared behind me.

I turned and saw a bald cypress lurch forward like a drunken man coming out of a stupor. A twisting mass of roots slithered on the pond’s surface toward the rowboat.

Not possible.

I heard splashes from Patrick. He was reaching through the water as if trying to grab the distant shore as he swam.

“Patrick, you mother—”

A force collided with the rowboat, lifting it vertically out of the water. I splashed in the water, submerged in darkness.

© 2020 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.    

CJ’s Notes: This short story was inspired by a friend and colleague’s Alexandria Archives. Originally, I wanted to share this story with the podcast, but life got in the way before their podcast run ended. She let me keep the Alexandria university name and setting for the story, a North Carolina university situated near the Dismal Swamp. It’s longer than other short stories I have here, so it will be split up into three parts of the next few weeks.

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Chapter 3: Time to Find that Damn Hero

Another revision for It Came From the Wizard’s Cellar. Here is Chapter Three revisited. I hope you enjoy.

Read other chapters from the Table of Contents here.

Darren sprinted through the dark city streets. Another agonizing scream reached his ears. The scream was soon muffled. He willed his legs to move faster. Jacob was supposed to be a distraction, a delay tactic. No one would miss that piece-of-shit. Darren was confident he did the right thing. He just couldn’t fathom how quickly that Thing could eat.

The Traveler’s Dream was a tavern where Darren’s friends, who could help, were relaxing from a long journey. A distant, wet scream went silent as he hopped up the tavern’s steps.

He burst through the door and crashed into a bar wench carrying drinks. She lost her balance and nearly fell to the floor. Darren, running entirely on instinct, grabbed her arm, preventing her fall. Without breaking a stride, he pulled her to her feet, let her go, and slid through the fallen mugs and spilled alcohol. He wanted to cry a little, he was going to need twice that many drinks later.

If there was a later.

The patrons cursed as Darren ran between them, pushing aside those who got in his way. He was aiming for a table in the back. There sat a tall man with his feet stretched across the table, nursing a large glass of some alcoholic sludge. Darren had tried it once, it was terrible, but it certainly got him drunk and thrown in jail for a night. A petite, dark-haired woman sat next to him. She was nursing an ale and browsing through a book. She brushed her hand over a page and it turned on its own.

Darren stopped short of colliding with the table. The sound of the tavern was muffled around his friends’ table.

The man looked up from his glass. “Darren, are you bringing a ruckus into our pleasant little bubble here?”

That alcoholic sludge smelled awful too. How could Marcus drink that? Darren shook his head. “Doesn’t matter.” He was out of breath. Between quick breaths, he said, “There is a, uh, Thing, attacking the town!”

The woman raised an eyebrow, another page turned freely in her book.

Marcus grinned. “And you haven’t even been drinking today.”

“Nope.” Darren was still out breath. He was hyperventilating. “There is a Thing, made of flesh, ate a dog, became a woman, ate Jacob.”

Marcus narrowed his eyes. “Jacob’s in town.”

Darren nodded quickly and shrugged. “Was, probably little more than excrement now.” And why was that the only thing Marcus thought to comment on?

“Make some sense, dear.” The woman’s antagonizing tone was infuriating, but not unwarranted, nor new.

“Ez, there is a monster, some sort of shifter, killing people in the street right now!”

“Like a werewolf?” Marcus asked, grinning.

“Nope, worse. I can’t explain it.” Darren moved from the table. “You just have to come with me.”

“This better not be another get-rich scheme of yours.” Marcus swung his feet to the floor and placed the glass on the table. “I’m leaving good alcohol on the table for this.”

Good alcohol? Darren gagged. “Plenty of time to drink afterward. You’ll need it.”

Marcus reached a hand to the woman. “Esmeralda, if you please.”

Esmeralda smiled and gently placed her hand in his open palm. She stood.

Marcus released her hand and grabbed a massive sword and spiked shield leaning on the wall behind him.

Darren stood there, trembling and motioning the two of them to follow. He must have looked like an excited child. Or a complete idiot. His compatriots were always calm in deadly situations. They had seen and done so much more than him. Darren was always looking for a way to get rich, but his friends had slowly been instilling a sense of urgent fairness for all people in the once troublesome street urchin. To see them take their time, not knowing the threat, irked Darren.

They headed toward the exit.

“So, how is it that you found Jacob here anyway?” Esmeralda asked. “We had planned for a relaxing few days after that troublesome medusa in the Varak Peaks. You recommended this town as the perfect spot.”

Darren swallowed. “I lied. An informant told me he was in town. I wanted payback. For my partner.”

Marcus threw open the doors and walked into the street. “Why lie to those who would have helped you?”

Darren quickened his pace down the stairs and into the street. “Old habits and all.” Darren stood in the street and pointed west. “This way.”

Marcus stood at the base of the stairs and looked around. “I don’t hear anything.”

Darren stopped, slowed his breathing, and listened. The cacophony of panic and death was absent. All he heard was the muffled, drunken debauchery from the tavern. “I’m not lying, there is a Thing—”

Marcus raised a hand. Darren went silent.

“I trust you, Darren. I’m saying that I don’t hear a damn thing.”

Esmeralda’s brow creased, her eyebrows dipped toward her eyes. She folded her arms as she scanned the street. Darren couldn’t tell if she was thinking or angry.

Darren’s ears were alert for any sound. The town was silent. Marcus moved forward with his sword brandished in his hands. He looked at every window, door, and dark alley. The silence worried Marcus, which worried Darren.

© 2017 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.

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The Bog, Part One

“Well, all the sample bottles are here. Damn, there are a lot of them. I do not envy the chemistry lab.”

Patrick talked with his head hung over the sample cooler, body stretched over the truck’s side.

I was in the truck bed securing the formalin container. “Yeah, they are busy, busy grad students over there.”

“Ha! So are we!”

I secured the formalin container against the truck’s cab. Last thing we needed was to have a hazardous spill deep in the Dismal Swamp.

Patrick popped his head out of the cooler. His body slid down the side of the truck. “At the very least one of them could have come along.”

I chuckled. “Sure, they’re the lab rats; we’re the field mice. Just like my time in South Carolina.” I hopped off the truck. “No one wants to wander through the swamp, but you and me.”

Patrick grunted. “Yeah, they’ll just bitch about the mud and the bugs.” He took one long gaze over the equipment. “Still, this is a lot of shit for two people on one trip.”

I yawned. “Well, look at this way: we will have all of our samples collected and preserved with the formalin when we get back tonight. Those lab fools could filter water passed midnight.”

Patrick smiled. “True. The early bird gets to hit the bed early. Well, shall we go?”

I tapped the side of the truck. “Indeed.”

I opened the passenger side door and looked through my pack again. Our yellow, waterproof lab notebook, my lunch, and bug spray were there. I secured our electronic equipment in a plastic case near my bag. We hopped into the truck and set out with the morning sunset.

We were overworked, but still ecstatic about breaking new scientific ground in the Great Dismal Swamp. Deep in the swamp was a series of ponds cut off from the larger bogs and waterways. Dr. Ward, our advisor, formed the hypothesis that the ponds were a favorite breeding habitat for amphibians as the isolated ponds protected their offspring from aquatic predators. Dr. Ward discovered the area on a routine helicopter survey several months earlier. Our advisor negotiated with the rangers, which involved many free tickets for Alexandria University’s sports seasons, and they granted Dr. Ward permission to access the ponds. Professors from the chemistry department soon jumped on board to analyze the water properties of the ponds and how it may sustain breeding populations. So, they wrote proposals and won grants. Then, Dr. Ward sent Patrick and me deep into the swamp, emissaries for the Dismal Aquatic and Terrestrial Ecology Lab.

The work day would be long. This was a survey trip; which meant the professors burdened us with collecting tadpoles, microorganisms, real-time water data, and water samples. The labs’ future progress on this grant would depend on our work today.

Patrick stopped the truck at a closed service gate. I hopped out and pulled the gate key from my pocket. The early morning was alive with the low croaking of frogs; searching for mates.

“You better be using our ponds,” I muttered.

I unlocked the padlock and unwrapped the chain around the gates. A wave of cicada droning drowned out the squealing metal as I pushed it open. Patrick drove the truck passed.

I swung the gate closed. I wrapped the chain around the gate, secured the padlock, and headed toward the truck.

The cicada droning stopped. The entire swamp went silent. I stood dumbfounded at the sudden stillness, just the ambient sound of trees creaking in the wind.

What wind? Not a single tree moved in the nonexistent wind.

A single frog croaked from somewhere in the swamp. The droning cicadas fired up their monotone musical set.

“You getting in or are you walking?” Patrick shouted from the driver’s seat.

I shook my head clear and opened the truck door. I hopped in and buckled my seat belt.

“There is time for hiking on another day,” Patrick said, rubbing his eyes.

I smiled. “Still not a morning person, eh?”

Patrick shook his head. “Why did I agree to field work involving primary production? Sun up to sundown water sampling. Ugh.”

Patrick nudged the gas, the truck lurched down the uneven, muddy road.

This area of the swamp was densely populated with enormous cypress trees hugging the shore. Some had grown out of the swamp, creating small islands of mud and peat around their sinuous root systems. Patrick turned the truck left, turning onto a land bridge crossing a body of stagnant swamp water. Blocks of granite protected the bridge from erosion and collapse. Cypress knees protruded from the water like wooden knobs, allowing for air exchange and to help the trees from collapsing into the muddy sediment of the swamp. The number of cypress knees increased as we approached the opposite side of the land bridge.

“What the hell?” exclaimed Patrick.

He brought the truck to a halt. I braced my hand on the dashboard. My seat belt tightened around my chest.

Patrick, grumbling, hopped out of the truck and slammed his door. I fumbled with my seat belt, unbuckled it, and followed. A predatory buzz near my ear forced me to hop back in the truck and grab the bug spray from my pack.

Patrick was already ahead of me, but I did a quick spray of my clothes and arms as I headed toward him. I shouted after him, “Running out here without a good dousing is a terrible idea.”

The spray bottle fell to my feet as I saw what had gotten Patrick’s attention. He stood before a roadblock of animal corpses, maybe three feet high. The stench was overpowering, similar to finding spoiled seafood in a refrigerator. I held my nose as I walked up beside Patrick. The corpses at the bottom were skeletons, others were half-consumed by decay and a host of bugs. The most recent, and recognizable corpses, looked similar to beavers, except their large front teeth pointed inward. Their tails were rat-like.

I turned my nose up in disgust. “Nutria. Worthless, invasive vermin.”

“I agree,” Patrick said with a nod. “But there must be hundreds of them. Who would come down here and just leave them on the trail? Who had the time? Only the rangers would be down here.”

I shrugged. “Rookies? Lazy rookies?”

Patrick leaned toward the pile of dead rodents. “I guess.”

“Maybe some enterprising rangers thought to let nature take its course, rather than taking the time to dispose of the bodies themselves. The bastards are invasive, so I don’t care. How is the smell not bothering you?”

Patrick shook his head. “Yeah, but now I get to drive right over them, dumping their carcasses back into the swamp.”

“Ha!” I exclaimed. “Sustenance for the detritivores. A fitting end for the cypress-munching bastards.” I slapped Patrick on his shoulder. “Just hit the gas and roll right over them, like fleshy bowling pins.”

Patrick shrugged. “I guess. This is just highly irregular.”

“It is. However, daylight is wasting.”

I headed back to the truck when I caught the site of something slithering into the swamp in my periphery. I peeked over in time to see a knob of rough skin disappear into the black water.

“Hey, Patrick, gators haven’t migrated to the swamp, yet, correct?”

“Doubtful. Why do you ask?”

I turned from the water. “Just curious. I thought I saw something.”

“Still paranoid of your undergraduate work in South Carolina?”

I laughed as I reached the truck door. “Don’t get me started, man. You spend your field days sampling in waters home to alligators, just to spot one as it submerges—”

“and then you are counting the seconds until it could swim to your boat,” Patrick laughed. “I’ve heard your stories before.”

I hopped into the seat and closed the truck door. “It changes your entire perspective.”

Patrick turned on the ignition and put the truck into drive. “I can only imagine. That’s too far south for me to do freshwater wetland work.”

I fastened my seatbelt and looked at the pile of nutria ahead of us. “Run them over with extreme prejudice.”

Patrick smiled. He might enjoy it. It’s not every day that an environmental scientist gets to not care about a pile of dead animals.

Patrick hit the gas and drove through the corpses. A wave of dead nutrias rolled into the water.

I tapped the dashboard of the truck with approval. “Take that, you bastards.”

“Yeah, take that.” Patrick’s fervor was half-hearted.

Two massive cypress trees stood like guardians on the opposite end of the land bridge. Small creeks dripped water from nearby ponds: our study site.

© 2020 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.

CJ’s Notes: This short story was inspired by a friend and colleague’s Alexandria Archives. Originally, I wanted to share this story with the podcast, but life got in the way before their podcast run ended. She let me keep the Alexandria university name and setting for the story, a North Carolina university situated near the Dismal Swamp. It’s longer than other short stories I have here, so it will be split up into three parts of the next few weeks.

Go ahead and haunt me on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

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Chapter 2: A Deal Gone Weird

Hey Echoes,

Here is a revamped Chapter 2 from It Came From the Wizard’s Cellar. I radically changed the quick history between Darren and Jacob. It should work better this way, the originally just did not fit the tone of this story.

Check out the other chapters of this story here.

“Lord Rinsen will appreciate your efforts in weakening his enemy’s infantry.”

“Yeah, I prefer to not be named in this endeavor. However, I would to see Duke Wells’ face when his troops are crippled by tainted supplies. Then, Rinsen will rush over his forces in that mud hole Wells calls home. Wish I could be there.”

“No, you don’t.”

“You’re right. I am a little squeamish when it comes to open warfare. A little cut and a few dead bodies sure, but battle, I could die.”

The two conspirators snickered in the alley. They were out to make a fortune and alter the wars of the continent, possibly for years. However, Darren didn’t really care about that. He had a score to settle.

He leaped from the shadows and threw a knife that struck one of the conspirators behind the knee. The victim smashed his kneecaps onto the cobblestone street. He howled in agony.

“Darren!” The other shouted drawing a weapon and a shield.

Darren was too slow on his recovery and the second conspirator blocked his knife attack.

“I’m surprised to see alive and clothed,” the conspirator growled.

Darren shrugged with a smile. “Surprise.”

“Get out of here, wretch. This is none of your business.”

“Jacob,” Darren said, pointing another knife at the conspirator. “I enjoy ruining your life. You betrayed me, you tortured my partner, you left me alone and naked on the street. There was enough from that heist for each of us.”

Jacob licked his lips and smiled ear to ear. “She was in over her head. From what I understand you have a new crew. Maybe she was holding you back. You should thank me.”

Darren shook his head. “You mother—”

A gut-wrenching scream poured out of the building next to them. It was muffled by the thick walls, but it sounded like a woman.

Darren sighed. “Your handiwork again?”

“I had nothing to do with that.”

Heavy footsteps, irregular footsteps vibrated the building’s windows.

“What the hell?” Jacob said.

The window blew out. The wreckage of a wooden rocking chair flew into the alley. A calico cat, bloodied and frantic, followed right after.

“Nico-de-muth!” A garbled, female voice shouted from within the building.

A tentacle of flesh and toothy maws caught the cat in mid-air. The tentacle swung to the ground, crushing the cat on the street.

Darren stared wide-eyed. “What fresh hell is this?”

The wooden wall groaned outward as a wave of flesh flowed from the window. Eyes and mouths were visible all over the mass. The wall’s thick planks splintered outward under the stress of the flesh’s weight. It flowed along the ground, a hungry river, with chittering teeth and white eyes. Then, it retracted, like a building wave and morphed into the form of a dark-haired woman. She was wearing a thin brown robe tied with a simple gold cord on her hips. The dead cat was clenched in her hands.

Darren squinted. No, the cat’s head and upper legs stuck out her open palm while the tail and black legs broke through her elbow. She paid it no mind, but it must have hurt.

Darren nodded. “Yep, definitely a new hell.”

Jacob started to walk back toward Darren. “We need to run.”

The wounded conspirator squirmed on the ground, attempting to crawl away.

The women’s face contorted. She bared her teeth, her eyes squinted. She let out an ear-shattering screech. Her arms clutched her chest.

“Pain, Hungry!” She said. Her voice, less garbled.

The wounded conspirator shouted at the top of his lungs, “There’s a tavern down the street!”

The woman made a step forward and extended an open palm toward the wounded man. Flesh and teeth hit the man like a geyser of hot water. He was engulfed. His scream silenced.

The woman threw her head back, opened her mouth, and let out a moan of pleasure and relief. Her attention turned to Darren and Jacob. “More!” She smirked, but her upturned lip drooped below her chin, like an oil painting sprinkled with turpentine.

“Nope!” shouted Jacob. He turned to run.

He slammed into Darren and his brandished knife.

Darren smiled. “I only have to run faster than you.”

“But—”

Darren twisted the knife under Jacob’s rib cage. Jacob stumbled back as Darren removed the blade. Blood poured through Jacob’s hands, splashing into the rivets of the cobblestone street.

Darren broke into a sprint and ducked out of the alley.

“Hungry!”

Jacob let out a pathetic, muffled scream.

I saw that going better in my head, thought Darren. He sprinted to find help.

© 2017 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.

Heard

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A Foggy Morning

Hey Echoes,

Just a picture today. It’s hard to keep track of the days during stay/work at home. I do get out as I have a hiking trail near my abode. Someday, I hope to get back on the road, taking some pictures of parks and natural wonders I have yet to see (or don’t remember seeing). Before I reunite with the open road, I will post some pictures to remind us all what the outdoors looks like. DSCN2049

 

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Echoes

Flint flipped through the monitors’ outside views of the station and the gas giant they orbited. Turbulent cloud bands and a wide, vertical icy ring were the only sights. He once imagined the galaxy’s stars full of civilizations waiting for discovery, but most were empty and others were tombs.

Muted laughter drew Flint to the third monitor. A party played on that screen. Ten years ago. A woman with deep blue eyes smiled into the camera. Her shoulders draped with her long, brown curls framing her olive skin. She lifted her hands, revealing a brownie with a single lit candle. She mouthed “happy birthday” and laughed.

Sarah.

“We still felt alone out here then, but we were happier,” Flint muttered.

He caught a familiar scent: strawberry and cucumber, the aroma of the shampoo Sarah used. Flint swiveled in his chair and stared down a simulacrum of a short man with wide-rimmed glasses approaching.

“You’re trying to help again, Prometheus,” Flint said, fighting tears in his eyes. “It’s not working.”

The aroma vanished, replaced with the cold smell of dust and metal.

“I apologize. The captain assumed it would be a good idea. She is worried about you since it is the tenth anniversary of—”

The anger welled up inside him, but Prometheus was just following orders. He was a relic found adrift; an artificial, alien intelligence trapped in a probe; his creators extinct. There was no reason to be mad at him. “The captain wants me to be obedient, not comforted. Don’t worry, I’m not a danger to you.”

He turned back to his console so that Prometheus wouldn’t see the tears.

A blue light flashed.

Shit, it was the big blue light!

After decades of eavesdropping on alien signals, someone was sending them a message!

Prometheus gripped Flint’s shoulder, then turned shouted into the PA. “All officers report to the command center. We have a Code Blue.”

The monitor flashed with data and figures.

Don’t stop. Please, don’t stop. Flint thought. Let us find you.

The screen shimmered and flickered. The map turned red.

Flint whistled. “The source is outside of our galaxy. How is that possible?”

“Running diagnostics,” Prometheus droned.

“Flint, touch nothing!” Dr. Erin Fletcher’s voice boomed from behind him. The captain had arrived.

He raised his hands and stepped back from the consoles. “I didn’t do shit this time. I’m annoyed that you still don’t trust me. That was years ago.”

Erin walked passed Flint. “I don’t forgive easily. What did you do

“Nothing. This looks like the real thing. A message.”

“It has to be a fast radio burst, a natural occurrence. Powerful enough to trick our instruments into assuming it was directed at us.”

Prometheus shook his head. “Diagnostics cleared. This is an authentic signal. It’s on the narrow bandwidth we would suspect: the hydrogen line.” He pushed his glasses up his nose.

Erin raised an eyebrow. “Impossible. Who could see us from outside the galaxy? No species has spotted us within our own.”

The two other officers, Charles and Cheryl, rushed through the door. Prometheus continued, “Regardless, Captain, the signal’s source is even farther out that I originally concluded. The amount of power to project a signal this far is astounding.”

The signal was real, beyond the galaxy, and directed at them. Erin just refused to see it.

A single deep ping echoed over the PA system, followed by two high-pitched pings. Silence. Three pings followed. More silence. Four pings. They held their breath, waiting.   Five pings. Silence.

“Four seconds between each series of pings,” Flint said.

“This is a programmed message.” Charles said, out of breath.

“It’s the real thing!” Cheryl exclaimed.

Six pings. Silence.

Erin shook her head. “Prometheus, did you get a source yet?”

Prometheus nodded. “You won’t like it.”

Seven pings. Silence.

“Out with it.” Erin folded her arms across her chest, narrowing her eyes at the AI.

“46.6 billion light years.”

Eights Pings. Silence.

Erin raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”

“Running the calculation again, but those are my results,” Prometheus said, his voice seeming to tremble.

Nine Pings. Silence.

Flint counted the seconds on his fingers, he counted to ten without another signal. There was only static. After a minute, a single ping shattered the silence.

Flint counted. In four seconds, two pings came over the PA system.

Prometheus raised an eyebrow to Erin. “And it repeats. This is not a natural phenomenon.”

“And its origin?” Erin replied.

Prometheus sighed, turning back to the screens. “Impossible, but correct. The signal is from the birth of the universe—plus or minus 100 million light years.

Cheryl glared. “Someone sent a signal from the birth of the universe to this location, knowing we would receive it now?”

“Could be from a part of the universe we cannot observe,” Charles said.

Erin gazed over the calculations and the intergalactic map. “Or a message from entities in a parallel universe.”

“Or a god. Or God,” Cheryl said.

Everyone turned to her.

“Well,” she said, “anything that can do this has a technological level way above our own. Hell, it is way above anything Kardashev dreamed up. Close enough to God for me.”

“There isn’t any protocol for this,” said Erin.

“We respond,” Flint said. “Isn’t that what we are doing here? We get a signal; we send a signal back.”

Erin growled. “That’s seems to be your go-to plan.”

Flint rolled his eyes. “It was a mistake, Erin. Sarah had passed away. We sat right here, you and I, watching the civilization crumble on AZR-310 from a thousand light years away.”

Erin’s narrowed. “Yes, I remember, everyone does. I leave for coffee, return, and find you sending useless we-heard-you messages.”

Flint’s chest heaved, his eyes watered. “A world was dying, screaming into the cosmos to anyone who would listen, and Erin, the fearless leader, went for coffee.”

“We have protocols for a reason! Do you remember how many important systems collapsed because of the power you rerouted to send the signal?”

“I get it! I was in pain. Turns out the universe is pain!”

“You could have permanently damaged this station! To respond to a message 1000 thousand light years away! It was useless!”

Cheryl stepped in between Flint and Erin. “Revisiting this old feud doesn’t get us closer to an answer. And how do we even respond to this? What do we say to God?”

“The number 10,” Charles said. “The message is simple, and only requires ten pings in response.”

“But we don’t know what sent the message,” Erin said. “Does the messenger operate outside of the bounds of space-time? Do you want to respond to that? It waves, we wave back. Then, it appears and knocks on the door!”

“Wouldn’t that be something?” Flint mused aloud.

“No, it wouldn’t, Flint!” Erin said. “I prefer the way things are, eavesdropping on past civilizations.”

“By your logic,” Prometheus said, “if an entity not bound by space-time sent this message, it may knock on the door regardless, knowing we would be here.”

“This is our greatest breakthrough: communication from an alien civilization!” Charles said, fixing his sliding glasses. “This could prove parallel universes exist or it may prove that the expanse of our universe is greater than light can show us! There is so much we can’t fathom, we can’t just ignore it!”

“Slow down, Charles,” Cheryl said. “If we send a message, then it is for whoever comes after us to discover them. We are chained to light’s limitations and that signal is a Big Bang away. This station won’t be here by then, nothing that once said ‘Humans Were Here’ will exist. It sounds like a lost cause.”

“Charles is right,” Flint said. “We must let another civilization know we heard them. That for a moment we didn’t feel so alone out here. We’ve eavesdropped and categorized several failed civilizations, most failing to reach their moon. Space is a cruel filter. This is our chance. We can send a message to another civilization that has survived. Maybe they will never receive it. We will likely never get a response. However, we can still make this count. Maybe through the billions of years, another lonely listening post could intercept our message. They could learn about us.”

“Rousing,” Cheryl said.

Flint locked eyes with her. “This is everything we’ve worked for. We don’t do this for us, but for any life out there, charting the uncaring void.”

“By sending the number 10?” Erin asked.

“If that is all we want to do,” Flint said, “but I have another idea: we send them a video. A day in our life. We recorded and stored generations of videos. One small archeological piece of universal history.”

“What do you propose?”

Flint opened a second file window on the monitor. A video played in the window: Sarah’s face filled the monitor, smiling over a lit candle on a cupcake.

“Sarah,” Erin breathed.

The video panned out to see the command staff celebrating, joking, and laughing, except Flint who had been holding the recorder.

Flint craned his neck toward her. “Better times.”

“It’s a noble sentiment, Flint.” Erin placed a hand on his shoulder. “Prometheus, how much energy would it take to send a signal back to its source?”

“Taking advantage of a few celestial objects that could be used to ease energy requirements, it would be impossible to sustain the station and beam a coherent signal that distance.” Prometheus’ toneless voice was a gunshot to Flint’s ears.

Erin nodded. “A total collapse of life-support, Flint. Everyone on this station would die.”

Panic gripped Flint. Erin was blocking him, again. “Are we going to let this moment pass? We discovered we are not alone, and you won’t let us tell our story?”

“No.” Erin said.

“So, we pretend that this astounding event never happened?”

“No, Flint, we record it. We study it, we learn all we can about it. But we don’t kill every person on this ship! This is the greatest discovery of our lives! This is why we are here! But not as a sacrifice!”

“We are finished as a species! This station is all that is left of us! We are staring into the black abyss with no hope of coming back! Someone should know we existed!”

Tears fell from Flint’s eyes. His argument was ludicrous, but he wanted to beat Erin.

Erin exhaled; her forehead straightened. “One hundred people have a right to live, to the bitter end. I will not deny them that. Why would you? What would Sarah say about your proposal?”

“You cold-hearted bitch! If that oxygen tank had not exploded during a routine check, she would be right here cheering me on against you. Don’t you dare spoil her memory for your cause. She believed in this.”

“She wouldn’t want people to die for it, Flint! Not a single one of us. Is this really about her or your grief?”

Flint shook his hand at Erin. His entire arm was shaking. Why was she always so damn right? From a glance he saw a slack-jawed Charles and teary-eyed Cheryl. Flint had gone too far. He collapsed in his chair and lowered his head in his hands.

“I’m sorry.” Flint’s muffled voice sounded cracked, tortured. “I, I love you guys. Everything is too much.” He sought refuge in Sarah’s smiling image on the monitor. He breathed, his body shook. “Maybe I should be transferred to hydroponics.”

“Never, Flint,” Erin said. “Prometheus, is there a way?”

“There are no current solutions, only hypotheses,” Prometheus responded.

“We are a station of geniuses,” Erin said. “Looks like we have work to do.”

“You ask the impossible,” Cheryl said.

“Yes,” Erin said. “The impossible got us here. The evidence suggests where this message originated from and that it was sent to us. Let’s keep looking at the data on this extraordinary situation, while we look to solutions for responding. There is much work to do, so let’s not waste time.”

“And if we fail?”

“Then we use your plan. When the lights here go out, we send our message.”

Flint nodded.

“Very well.” Erin clapped her hands together. “Let’s go to the command mess hall and talk about solutions—while we also celebrate this occasion. We’ll pass the information to the crew tomorrow.”

“My shift isn’t over,” Flint said, standing.

“Take time off,” Erin said. “That is an order. Prometheus can keep a watch on things.”

Prometheus nodded.

Flint tried to smile. He never meant to suggest a sacrifice of the station.  It was a mistake born from desperation of seeing a dream born and still be impossible to reach. An event Sarah would have loved to see. There was a messenger out in the void, searching for them. Flint hoped, one day the station would answer the message, even if he never lived to see it.

© 2019 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.

CJ’s Notes: This short story was featured in an anthology featuring writers from Corpus Christi, Texas, last year. I reprinted for your enjoyment here for 2020. Just maybe, through all of the deep shadows, there is still a reason for hope. Enjoy.

Go ahead and haunt me on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

 

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Chapter 1: With a Gentle Hand

Hey Echoes,

Since I plan to work more on It Came From the Wizard’s Cellar. In order to get everyone caught up, I will post the older chapters throughout the next few weeks. So here is Chapter 1.  I decided to do it as a blog post, so it was easier to find. The chapter can still be found through the links in the serial’s Table of Contents below. Enjoy

Stay safe, stay distant, stay healthy.

Check out the continuing serial here.

Chapter 1: With a Gentle Hand

With a gentle hand Clair caressed the Weird. White, transient eyes, lacking pupils, peered at her. The wooden, slimy flesh of the Weird absorbed random eyes, while others surfaced along its mass. The pulsating, blue light from the portal beside her reflected off the walls of her basement lab. The creature’s skin undulated in rhythm to the portal.

Clair sobbed tears of joy at the Weird. She was moments from complete success. The university would be so jealous of her accomplishment, they would have to accept her back. Piercing beyond the bounds of reality without their assistance–or consent–was a great feat. Her first failure would not define her; this would be her legacy.

She brushed her hand lovingly along its leathery, wooden skin. “You will be my great victory,” she whispered.

A toothless maw coalesced from the flesh around it. It made wet, smacking noises. A tendril of flesh appeared in the maw’s center. “Bic-tar-ee.”

Claire smiled from ear-to-ear with intellectual ecstasy. It learned to simulate a tongue in less than a minute of creation. Somewhere within its fleshy mass were nascent vocal cords. But how did it know to do that?

Another maw erupted from the oily flesh. It coughed and spewed a mass onto the floor. The mass morphed from blue to brown and quickly desiccated.

The Weird shuddered. The undulated blue color on its body faded. The maws moaned with low gurgling sounds, like a submerged, drowning animal.

It was dying!

An entity from another reality could not last long here without assistance. It needed a shell. A body to meld with its own to survive the harsh conditions of Claire’s world. But she knew this; her mistake–her disgrace–at the university taught her this.

Claire stood, cradling the dying mound of flesh in her arms. The toothless maws slurped against her robes, searching.

“That’s not the type of mother I want to be,” she grumbled.

The Weird gurgled and slurped in response.

With her free hand, Claire reached for the cage with her bothersome calico locked inside. The cage door was open! The smart bastard escaped! Claire checked under laboratory table; no cat.

The Weird squirmed and quivered in her arms. It was hemorrhaging, desiccated pieces fell to the ground like a trail of breadcrumbs.

Clair groaned and shouted, “Dammit, Nicodemus where are you?” She peaked under a storage table. Finding no cat, she continued, “Here, buddy. I just need to sacrifice you for progress.”

The Weird wailed from one of many toothless maws. “Neek-oh-de-muth.”

Claire’s greatest achievement–the greatest achievement of any wizard–was going to die in her hands if she couldn’t find that crafty little feline.

A sting of pain shot through her arm as her muscles were torn, like an attack from a dagger. She spun around, the room was empty. The dagger sliced further up her arm. She dropped to her knees from the pain. She let go of the Weird. It hung from her arm. It was attached to her! Claire stared as  a stinger the size of a knife morphed from the Weird’s flesh. It punctured her just below the armpit.

Clair screamed.

A toothless maw and a single, white eye stared back at her. The maw screamed, a high-pitched gurgle. Claire, screaming, reached for the Weird. The maw wailed in response, imitating Claire’s voice, a drowning, horrendous imitation.

The Weird stabbed her left shoulder blade. Claire’s grip weakened. Blood poured freely from the wounds and many toothless maws licked it up.

She screamed.

A chorus of slimy maws replied, echoing her fear, her distress.

Her voiced was muffled, as if Claire was pulled underwater. She felt pressure on her ears. The Weird was squirming its way into her brain. It was looking for a place to nest, to be protected from the harsh environment of her world. The Weird was doing to her, what she wanted it to do to her cat!

Claire collapsed to the ground and the flesh of the Weird covered her face and poured up into her mouth and nostrils.

Then, Claire saw Nicodemus. The cat had just come out from behind a bench. It hissed at her.

Claire reached a bloody hand out to her cat. If she could catch it, she was going to strangle it. The cat jumped back and hissed. Claire yelled at the cat, but the Weird’s flesh rushed into her mouth, gagged her throat.

Undulating blue flesh covered Claire’s eyes and pressed inward. The pain was excruciating. Claire screamed in silence.

But she heard her voice. “Neek-oh-dee-muth.”

© 2017 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.

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Calling Out Into the World

Hey Echoes,

I hope everyone is safe and healthy in the mess that 2020 has become. It’s amazing how a stay-at-home order feels like the perfect time to write, but turns out more demoralizing (although quite necessary). I would prefer free time that didn’t have me constantly thinking of overburdened medical workers and the mounting death toll. Many lives snuffed out before it was time. I have no idea what to bring here to combat that.

I guess the only thing I can do is to continue writing. Perhaps something here will continue to entertain, distract, or inspire. It might help my sanity as well. I have a short story that is nearly ready for editing. Another short I have been editing for far too long. There is a third science fiction story that was published last year in an anthology that I will share in a couple weeks.

Also, a friend recommended some quicker turn around in my three serial stories. An obvious oversight on my part, but I decided to focus on one serial through to completion and repeat. The current focus will be It Came From the Wizard’s Cellar. For the next several weeks, I will start highlighting the earlier chapters while I work on new ones.

But today I wanted to highlight an older story. This is a story that any new followers may have not looked at. It’s my first short story, when I was experimenting with my writing style. So here is a link to Runner.

Please, enjoy! More is to follow

Go ahead and haunt me on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

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