Free iBook “Dominion” now available

The novellas and The Genesis of Max Variel are taking rather longer than anticipated to post to the iBooks platform, but the free novella ‘Dominion’ is now available for Apple users to download to iPhone, iPad, or Mac.

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Attention, Apple Users!

Want to read H. M. Snow stories but don’t want to mess with the Kindle reader app? Well, now matters have so arranged themselves that we are presently uploading all these stories on the iBooks app! The first entry out of the gate is a freebie— a novella called ‘Dominion,’ part of last year’s short fiction writing challenge. Yep, that’s right: a FREE novella. Watch for the entire library to appear on iBooks within the next several weeks.

Presidents’ Day Weekend Giveaway!

Not sure about taking a chance on an unfamiliar author? Download a free copy of Faerie Tales for Travelers and/or Travelers’ Guide to Mythical Beasts at the Amazon Kindle Store this weekend!

Writing Challenge: Week 6

Author’s Note: I told you they’d be back.

*

Mirror Bright

by H. M. Snow

“Eirian,” began Peter in a subdued voice. “Bertie wants you to come to town with us.”

Eirian finished polishing the mirror he held before he bothered to look up at his old friend. Even when he finally looked, he said nothing.

“Bertie and Rhonda decided,” Peter continued, “that Rhonda and Lew should go down to spend some time with Faina in the town.”

“Leaving Dilwyn?”

“No, no, not at all,” Peter hastened to say. “They’re taking him with them, but as he’s still encased, he didn’t have much to do with the decision. Dil has always been a bit slow anyway, bless him. So we’re driving them down today, this very morning.”

Eirian set aside the polished mirror and picked up an unpolished one. “And what has this to do with me, Pedr?”

“You know.”

“You ought to know,” added Peter’s wife Bertie as she wedged herself into the doorway of the workroom. “Get yourself up, Eirian. It’s past time you saw something besides mountains.” She snatched the polishing cloth from his grasp. “Don’t you grunt at me, Eirian; I won’t have it.” Then Bertie rolled out a barrage of Welsh that brought a dour frown to Eirian’s face. By the time she had finished, however, she had Eirian standing and ready to follow her out the door.

They found Rhonda, Peter and Bertie’s daughter, outdoors on the plateau beside a gray minivan. She smiled up at Eirian so winsomely that not even he could scowl at her. At her feet sat a bowling bag with a wide clear strip along the top. Seeing Eirian looking at this, Rhonda said, “Isn’t it clever? Faina found it for me.” She tapped the bag’s sole occupant, which had the appearance of a mottled gold-leaf ostrich egg. “This way, Dil can get sunlight while we transport him!”

“Do you have everything?” asked Bertie.

“Checked it three times, Mum.” Then, with a touch of her mother’s stern voice in hers, Rhonda shouted, “Lew! Stop playing! It’s time to leave! Ah, look at you— you’re filthy already!”

A boy just a bit smaller than Rhonda came trotting up to the minivan. “But Mum—”

“Don’t you ‘but Mum’ me, mister,” warned Rhonda. “I may only be a little bigger than you right now, but I’m still your mother and I’ll grow a lot quicker than you, since its my second go-round. I told you to keep yourself tidy!” She took out a handkerchief and scrubbed at the streak of dirt that marred the boy Lew’s cheek. “At least there’s time yet. I can put you back in order on the way.” She dragged her son into the back seat of the minivan. From there, she asked, “Eirian, can Dil sit with you on the way? I’ve enough on my hands with this one.”

Eirian took up the bowling bag and set it on the middle seat before climbing in after it. Peter took the front passenger seat while Bertie squeezed in behind the steering wheel. With everyone buckled in, she set off down the mountain tunnel road at a reckless clip.

When the van skidded to a halt, it was in a visitor’s parking spot in front of Tenney Elementary School. Peter opened the side door and slung Dil’s bag over his shoulder so that Eirian could climb out. Then he lifted his daughter and his grandson down to the ground in that order. Rhonda took Lew firmly by the hand so he could not dash about and inspect everything.

“You do not intend to take Dil in among the humans in that state,” said Eirian.

“We can’t very well leave him in the van,” Bertie countered. “He’s safer with us.”

“What’s more,” Peter added, “we’re meeting with Dr. Wade. He’s one of our contacts here. He already knows a little about us.” He led the way inside the school. To the lady behind the front desk, he said, “We have an appointment with Dr. Wade for pre-enrollment.”

“Welcome to Tenney,” beamed the secretary. “I’ll just call Dr. Wade and let him know you’re here.” She took up her phone and had a hushed conversation. Hanging up, she declared, “He’ll be with you in a moment.”

And, as promised, within only a few seconds they were approached by a compactly-built African-American man. “Hello…” His eyes went to Eirian first, and then to Peter.

Peter put forth his hand. “Peter Brown. We meet again, Dr. Wade.” They shook hands.

“Come to my office. My assistant has put all the paperwork together.” Once inside his office, Dr. Wade said, “I barely recognized you, Peter.”

“That’s understandable. When I was here last, I was no bigger than Rhonda. This is my wife, Bertie; my daughter, Rhonda; and my grandson, Lewelin. We call him Lew. And this—”

“—must be Eirian,” said Dr. Wade as he finally approached the final member of the family. “I’ve heard about you from Miss Brown, sir. I’m honored to meet you.” He held out his hand and waited until Eirian at last accepted it. “So! According to Miss Brown, we have one going into second grade and one into kindergarten.” He looked from Rhonda to Lew. “I hope you enjoy your time here. Miss Rhonda, you must be on your first renewal. That’s what you call it, right? Renewal? If you don’t mind my saying so, you’re very young to have started that already.”

“It wasn’t part of the natural cycle,” said Rhonda. “I got caught in battle with an enemy head and a swarm of offspring. I took too much damage. The renewal cycle served as a life-saving method.”

Dr. Wade nodded gravely. “I’m sorry to hear that. Your husband must have had to take up a lot of the slack, raising your son while you were incapacitated.”

“Not at all. Dil was beside me in battle.” Rhonda nodded toward the bowling bag sitting at her father’s feet. “My mother took care of Lew for us.”

“May I?” When Peter unzipped the bag, Dr. Wade leaned forward to examine Dil. “Well! I never expected to see one of Miss Brown’s folk in that stage of renewal. Amazing. But, if you were hurt at the same time, why is he still…?”

“Dil was hurt much worse than I.”

“Well, I hope he gets better quickly. But I shouldn’t delay you just for my own curiosity. Here are the papers.” Dr. Wade returned to his desk and led them through the business of enrolling Rhonda and Lew, commenting only, “Miss Brown requested to have Lew in her class, since its his first time out in the world. Mr. Johnston will be your teacher, Miss Rhonda. He’s not acquainted with the children of the light, but he’s really laid-back. I think you’ll enjoy being in his class.”

“Is Mrs. Jorgenson still here?” Peter asked.

“No, she retired last—” The phone rang. Dr. Wade apologized before he answered it. He listened for a few seconds. “Again, huh? Send him down. I’ll talk with him.” When he hung up, he said by way of explanation. “Walter. You’ve met Walter, haven’t you? He has some rough days. I don’t blame him. I remember how hard it was, back when I was like him.”

Walter made his entrance in a clamor of protests. The middle-aged woman who herded him seemed glad to turn him over to the principal and retreat. “I just wanna see Faina!” Walter yelled.

“Walter,” said Dr. Wade, “remember you’re supposed to call her ‘Miss Brown’ when you’re at school.”

“She said I could call her Faina, ‘cause I’ve seen them!” Walter froze. The presence of visitors had broken through his outrage at last, surprising him into silence. Then he studied Eirian with intense focus. Recognition came to him. “I’ve seen them! They’re here again.”

“Where?” said Eirian.

Walter pointed through the wall of the principal’s office. “Outside.”

Dr. Wade picked up his phone and dialed. The intercom tone sounded. “We are having a practice lockdown with security team in place. I repeat: we are having a practice lockdown with security team in place.” Once off the intercom, he said to his guests, “Don’t worry. We have protocols set up for this.” He picked up his two-way radio and a mirror from the windowsill.

“Walter, you stay here with me.” Bertie patted her ample hip so that Walter wandered over to stand beside her. “This is my daughter Rhonda, and this is Lew. They’ll be coming to school here with you.”

Peter and Eirian followed Dr. Wade out into the corridors. “It sounds official to say ‘security team,’” said the principal with a laugh, “but really it just means I patrol the hallways with the mirror Miss Brown gave me while she handles the threat herself. We’ve installed a mirror at each intersection, as you can see—” He pointed to a small convex mirror high on the wall at the corner. “Most of the staff use them to avoid collisions with the custodial carts, if they notice them at all. Only a few of us can actually use them as they’re made to be used.” Dr. Wade paused near an emergency exit. Checking the playground through the window, he said, “There’s Miss Brown now. I’ll bet you want to join her.” He unlocked the push bar and let the pair outside.

Eirian started forward, but Peter grasped his elbow. “No. Wait and watch. You need to see what she does here,” he said in answer to the hard glare he received from Eirian.

Clouds skimmed over the sun, throwing the town into light and shadow alternately. The wind tossed the tree branches and raised a ceaseless hiss from the leaves. On the wind-blown playground, one figure made leisurely progress toward the fence. Faina wore gloves and picked up rubbish to put into a plastic bag. She appeared to have no set destination, but her steps tended always toward the darkest corner of the playground, where the old trees cast the deepest shade. Light flashed off a metallic chip bag as she scooped it into the bag she held.

The wind howled as if stung by the flash.

“There’s a lot of them,” Peter observed.

“The offspring always run wild,” said Eirian, “until the head that controlled them regenerates.” He spoke in a neutral tone, but his body remained tense.

Faina picked up a dented soda can, causing another flicker of reflection to pierce the shadows beneath the trees. The shadows squirmed and writhed. Only the children of the day, or a human who had survived the enemy, could have seen the mass of offspring undulating there in a towering viscous tangle. When the heavy clouds covered the sun, the mindless offspring oozed out into the open, only to recoil when the clouds passed. Meanwhile, Faina drew nearer to them in her casual manner.

An especially broad and rain-heavy cloud slid across the sun. The offspring broke free from their corner like an oily wave, sweeping toward Faina. Her stride never faltered. At the last possible moment, light flashed beneath the cloud, quick and sharp as a blade. Heat flared and vanished, leaving behind it the thunderous explosion of superheated air. In a moment, the offspring disappeared. In the next, greasy shadows coated the ground, to be dispersed by the sun as it emerged from cover.

Faina tied the plastic bag shut. When she turned, her expression was for a few seconds fierce rather than cheerful. Even when she caught sight of the two awaiting her, her eagerness had a bloodthirsty edge to it that softened as she ran to them. “You’ve come!”

“You have a little…” Peter tapped his finger against his cheek. “Just there.”

Faina took a tissue from her skirt pocket and wiped shadow spatters from her face. Then she presented herself before Peter for inspection. “Better?”

“You can check for yourself.” From the side pocket of the bowling bag, Peter produced two hand mirrors. “They’re finished.”

“здорово!” she exclaimed.

“What is wrong?” said Eirian abruptly.

Faina gave him a blank gaze.

“You only lapse back into Russian when something is wrong.”

But Faina waved a hand in dismissal of Eirian’s concern. “I’m still tense from battle. Nothing is wrong. These are beautiful! I must find something special to show Marta my thanks.” She handed one to Eirian. “That’s yours.” Her eyes gleamed in challenge.

Contrary to all expectation, Eirian accepted the mirror. “You gave my last away.”

“Walter needs it, poor child. He must be upset now. His room is next door to mine, so I’m sure he could see all that.”

“He’s in Dr. Wade’s office with Bertie,” Peter offered. “He was the one who told Dr. Wade what was happening.”

“I wondered who gave the warning. I’d better get back to my class. Oh!” She unclipped a set of keys from the lanyard around her neck. “This is the front door key. You can settle Rhonda and little Lew without me, I’m sure. Don’t leave before I get home, though.” She used one of her remaining keys to let them back into the building. “Oh! Let Dr. Wade know it’s all right to end the lockdown, please, Peter.”

As they returned to the principal’s office, Eirian said, “Something is wrong.”

“Why would you think that?”

“She ignored me. She never does so, to the point where it’s irritating.”

Peter shrugged and did not reply. His wife was not so tactful later on, when the subject came up on their way to Faina’s house. “I expect she’s annoyed with you. She can cover it up well when she’s calm, but she wasn’t calm, was she? But why do you mind? You don’t want her attentions; you make that clear every time you meet.”

“She lives apart,” said Eirian. “I worry for her. I am responsible for her.”

“Then you’ll have to find a better way to worry for her than the way you usually choose,” said Bertie in triumph. “You can start when she gets home.”

Eirian did not respond. He slouched in the middle seat of the minivan, using his shirt hem to polish to exquisite brightness the mirror Faina had given him.

Slowly I Turned: The Challenge, Week 5

Before the story, a confession: I am mildly obsessed with flashlights. They qualify as one of the things of which one can never have too many, in my world. It’s light in a tube. What’s not to love? Anyway, on with this week’s short story.

*

Moonlight Creatures

by H. M. Snow

Julius Singleton hung up his phone with a sigh that ruffled the open magazine in front of him. He tapped a pen against the page in a monotonous staccato. Then he flung the pen irritably across the room. Julius got up and crossed his small apartment with restless strides to retrieve a coat and a bulky black telescope case from the closet.

Setting out afoot, Julius burned off his restless energy walking east toward the hills outside of town. From time to time he had to switch the case from right hand to left until he reached the tangled wooded slopes. Then he kept the case in his left as he used his right to grab handholds in aid of his ascent. The gaps between the saplings were often filled by thorny shrubs, so it took Julius some time to reach the bald summit. There he opened the case and began assembling the telescope. Although sunset was more than an hour away, Julius set up the telescope for a view of the only celestial body that would be visible that night: the almost full moon, anemic now in the light of day.

A loud sonar ping! sounded from inside his coat. Julius pulled his phone out of his pocket. “Hey. Yeah, I heard back today from the last one. No, a call– the director herself. Same as all the rest: not enough experience.” Julius exhaled in frustration. “No, Dad, we’ve been over this. I don’t want to hang around here all my life. I want to be where the firsthand research is, not grading papers in some high school.” He uttered a weary laugh. “Astrophysics and elementary school, Dad? Be serious.” After an extended period of listening, Julius responded, “I’ll keep trying for now. Yeah, I’ll keep you posted. Mm. Tell her I love her too. Later.” He put his phone back in his pocket and stared at the sky.

The sunset flamed a smoky orange and magenta in streaks across the sky, but the sun’s last colorful display faded to night. Julius scowled at the amount of light pollution from town. “This is as good as it’ll get,” he grumbled. Standing, he bent his long body a few degrees and put his eye to the finderscope to begin his night’s viewing.

He had studied the full moon many times, in textbooks as well as through a telescope, but still he drank in the sight. When his back grew tired, Julius sat down on the grass with a sketch pad on his knee, drawing the lunar terrain from memory and rising only at rare intervals to refresh the image in his mind’s eye. This exercise scarcely demanded a tithe of his attention, which sank inward so deeply that he often went quite motionless with tip of his pencil resting on the paper.

It was during one of these periods of contemplation that Julius became aware of a quick tug at the back of his coat. His first startled thought was that a squirrel had attacked him from behind, because the tugs ascended his back with agility. Then little claws dug into his scalp. The weight of a small furry body landed atop his head before launching from there to his telescope, triggering true alarm in Julius. He jumped up and swatted the creature down to the ground with the unconsciously illogical shout, “Don’t touch that!”

A shrill wail went up as the furry shape hurtled downward. All around, an answering wail arose from many more shrill voices. Julius took a step backward. At his feet, a thin chatter of syllables made him fumble for his keyring, where he kept a miniature flashlight. Its narrow beam showed him two creatures that were certainly not squirrels. The foremost was a lean, scarred little primate not quite as high as Julius’ knee. Its greenish-gray fur bristled, and its moth-eaten tail flicked back and forth in an angry rhythm. Its yellowish eyes with their slit pupils glared at Julius. It was obviously trying to shield the plumper, smaller primate huddled on the ground behind it.

They remained in this pose for several seconds as though mesmerized, Julius by the sight of the strange creatures and the creatures by the beam of his flashlight. The foremost creature’s tail stopped its angry lashing and lowered little by little. Then the elder creature turned reluctantly and herded its young kin away from Julius.

Julius used the flashlight to follow the creatures to the edge of the hilltop clearing, where the light illuminated dozens of pairs of yellowish eyes for just an instant. Then they vanished. A minute or so passed before Julius dared to avert his attention, but the hilltop remained quiet. He collected his telescope and used the flashlight to pick out a safe path down the hill back to town.

On the following evening, the night of the true full moon, Julius returned to the hilltop just before sunset. This time, along with his telescope, he brought a small battery-operated camping lantern. He found the hilltop just as he had left it. His sketch pad lay in a rumpled heap on the ground near the marks of his telescope’s tripod; his drawing of the full moon had been torn out. On the page behind it were three small smudgy handprints and a footprint to match. Julius set up his telescope as usual and waited for the sky to darken.

The sky was remarkably clear that night. The creamy yellow moon looked enormous above the horizon. Julius turned on the camping lantern and set it on the ground several feet away from his station. The darker the night sky, the brighter the lantern appeared. Julius busied himself with his finderscope, pretending not to hear the whispers around the edge of the hilltop clearing. Peripheral vision showed him weaving shadows that vanished as soon as he looked directly at them. It seemed at first that his presence would deter them. But as the moon rose, so did the whispers, as if the little creatures could not contain themselves. Before long, dancing figures between a foot and eighteen inches tall surrounded Julius so that he had difficulty pretending not to notice them. Whenever he turned his head, they would scatter, but the moonlight drew them back out into the clearing time and again. The vocalizations he had heard during the previous night’s encounter were nothing compared to the high-pitched chanting and laughing that rose from the hilltop in the dark.

As Julius had hypothesized, his lantern attracted them. Because it was strange to them, they would not stay near it for long, but they darted forward to touch it and retreat from it in almost the same movement. They seemed to realize after a time that it was not dangerous. Then they danced around it, the young amongst them especially.

Julius struggled to maintain his facade of indifference. He gave it up as a loss when a tiny clawed hand tugged at the knee of his trouser leg. Between the radiance of the full moon and the light of the distant lantern, he gazed at the creature standing beside him. In its hand was his drawing of the full moon. Its yellowish eyes gazed up at him with equal curiosity. It pointed to the picture and up to the sky.

Julius pointed from the moon in the sky to that on the page.

The creature offered up the paper to him.

Julius accepted it and, after a moment’s thought, returned it to the creature. He observed how the creature’s gaze kept drifting away from him toward the moon, so he acted on impulse and pointed to his telescope. He stood up to put his eye to the eyepiece. Then, meeting the creature’s gaze, he pointed from the eyepiece to the moon above.

The creature ventured closer to the telescope but would not touch it. It took a little persistence and ingenuity on Julius’ side to realize that it had taken his meaning, if not his words, from the night before and would not touch the telescope until Julius gave his permission. It disdained the offer of a hand to lift it up to the eyepiece. Deftly and delicately the creature climbed the tripod on its own, only to waver and nearly fall back to the ground upon its first view through the telescope. For nearly a full minute the creature stared at the moon through the telescope as if entranced. Then it gave a piercing cry that brought all the others near. One by one, they looked to Julius for permission before climbing up for a look at the moon. The littlest ones, still unable to climb, rode on the backs of their elders. They were so nimble and lightweight that the tripod never shook. When the last of them had had their view, they broke into a celebratory dance all around Julius’ feet.

The next few days were busy as he returned to his job hunt. Then it rained without ceasing for two days. He was unable to return to the hilltop until more than a week later. He brought the lantern again, since it was useful to him as well as interesting to the creatures. This time they did not hesitate in coming out of the shadows, but there were fewer of them. As Julius watched them, he noted that the little ones were not with them. The only ones who appeared were the elders, those with the scars and the ragged plumed tails. Their demeanor was different as well. They clustered around the lantern and groomed one another by its light. The moonlight sparkled on their fur as on water. Some of them had new scars, and others bound up fresh wounds with leaves and grass. Those who were not injured brought with them slabs of bark that they scraped with edged rocks. Julius, observing this, caught the gaze of the elder creature who had confronted him on the first occasion.

He did not need to frame the question with gestures and facial expressions. The creature seemed to sense what he wanted to say. It took up the bark that it was shaping and held it up like a breastplate. Then it returned to its work, scraping the rough side smooth and drilling holes in the corners with a fine-pointed stone. Lastly the creature threaded the holes with woven cords of grass and tied the breastplate onto its own chest with the aid of a companion.

A change came over the assembled creatures. No more did they bind wounds or work on their primitive armor. Now they were armed, ready for something. The one Julius was watching rose up to its full eighteen inches of height. It pointed at Julius, pointed then to the lantern and lastly pointed toward the city lights spread out at the base of the steep hill. There was a stern glint in its yellowish eyes that caused Julius to pack up his things at once. His last view of the creatures revealed a battle formation as they charged into the darkness.

Their attitude unsettled him, though he was accustomed to wandering alone in the dark nights, telescope case in hand. As he picked his path through the brambles and the young growth forest that clung to the hillside, he flinched at the smallest rustle of the undergrowth. The night seemed unusually dark, darker than it ought. Worst of all was the moment when Julius stopped to catch his breath and heard the undergrowth hissing without the aid of wind or his own passage. Then something prickly stabbed his ankle, like a nettle caught in his sock. Julius yelped in pain.

A shrill cry answered him as a few of the creatures from the hilltop sprang out from cover, their wild yellowish eyes all that could be seen of them. They dove at Julius’ feet. The stabbing pain withdrew, but the undergrowth rattled with the noises of a skirmish. Julius swung the lantern around just in time to see a clump of black needles explode into powder. Three moonlight creatures, one of them Julius’ particular acquaintance, stood panting with spears at the ready. The powder left behind by their enemy hissed through the leaf debris in a downhill trickle. Julius’ friend among the creatures again fixed him with a commanding stare and pointed to the city lights with heightened urgency. Then it and its comrades vanished into the undergrowth.

Julius retreated in swift obedience, or as swift as his throbbing ankle allowed. By the time he reached his apartment, he had stopped trembling but his limp had grown more pronounced. He pried off his shoes and socks to find a raw, swollen patch of skin spreading across his ankle. Its surface was rough as though torn by multiple tiny hooks. Julius cleaned it as best he could, applied some antibiotic ointment and a large adhesive bandage, and went to bed for the rest of the sleepless night. By midmorning, his injury hurt worse than originally, so he limped out to his car and drove to the nearest urgent care clinic.

Some days passed before Julius was able to walk unhindered again, at which point his first action was to go shopping. He picked up a pair of sturdy work boots at the first store, coveralls and a pair of Kevlar®-reinforced gloves at the next. At the local home improvement store he picked up a large clublike LED flashlight, an assortment of smaller flashlights and a headlamp. He drove rather than walked to the outskirts. Leaving his car parked at the bottom of the hill, Julius climbed through the tangle to the hilltop and scanned the ground with an idea to find tracks. Astrophysics graduates are not known for their woodcraft skills, however, and Julius soon gave up on that plan in favor of a general search along the wooded slopes. He noticed without immediately noticing the scent of smoke drifting on the breeze. When the scent at last registered in his mind, Julius searched until he saw a thin tendril rising from the undergrowth. It came through a crack in a massive old fallen tree that must have rested in that same place for decades, long before the current woods had been seeded.

He climbed astride the mossy trunk until he could stretch far enough to peer through the crack that ran half the length of the tree. The smoke stung his eyes until the breeze shifted. Then Julius saw the fire’s source. A flat stone had been dragged into the hollowed trunk. On it smoldered four parallel mounds, each one about eighteen inches long. One of the creatures, thin and white with age, crouched beside the pyre and murmured soft chants while fanning the embers. Tears matted the coarse fur around its eyes.Three others sat a little apart from the pyre. One shredded leaves into thin strips, while another spun the strips into thread and the third wound the thread into skeins. All around them, the remainder of the creatures slept deeply. Julius noted that few among them were uninjured.

It was such a peaceful, somber scene that Julius dozed off lying atop the mossy tree. When he woke, it was to a pair of yellowish eyes about an inch away from his face. Julius started upright. He recognized the creature as his acquaintance from before. It gave him a plainly exasperated stare and pointed downhill toward the town.

Julius shook his head. “You helped me; I want to help you.” He spread out his collection of small flashlights on the bark and showed the creature how they operated.

The creature observed this demonstration. Then it pointed at Julius. When this produced no reaction, it pointed again more emphatically. Still getting no sign of comprehension from Julius, it gave him a peculiar look, as if pitying his stupidity. It pointed to its own torso. “A-jats.” Then it pointed to Julius a third time.

“Oh!” Julius pointed to himself. “Julius.”

The creature Ajats jumped back down into the hideout. Among the shrill syllables that passed among the creatures, “Ju-ji-iss” occurred often. Ajats reappeared, collected one of the little flashlights, and disappeared into the tree trunk for another several seconds. Light flashed from inside. A long “ooooh” followed. Then Ajats and the rest of the most heavily-scarred creatures climbed up in their bark-and-grass armor. Julius watched, apparently forgotten, as Ajats distributed the remaining flashlights. Just before the creatures took off into the darkening dusk, Ajats patted the huge flashlight and pointed downward at the tree trunk.

This time Julius understood at once. He nodded and turned on his headlamp. After the fighting creatures vanished, he chuckled to himself. “I must look like a lighthouse to them.” He settled himself in to defend the hideout.

It was the night of the new moon and cloudy, so that even the stars were obscured. The wind plucked at Julius’ coverall. He perceived a hiss that had nothing to do with the wind. Flicking the switch on his flashlight, he scanned the undergrowth but only caught a hint of movement at the beam’s edge. Then he felt a scrape alongside his work boot. Alarmed, he looked down. His headlamp caught a mass of black needles before it could flee. The fist-sized attacker disintegrated to powder when the light hit it, but another peripheral flicker told Julius that it was not the only one. He searched the darkness with headlamp and flashlight, but the attackers were frighteningly fast. They moved like centipedes, using their hooked-needle appendages as legs when not attacking with them. More than once they snagged Julius’ coverall leg, but he got into the rhythm of clubbing them with his flashlight before they got a firm hold.

Barbed pain tore across his face without warning. Julius retained just enough presence of mind to turn the flashlight’s beam on himself. A spiny thing of monstrous proportions burst into sooty powder right before Julius’ eyes. He coughed, fanning away the dust. The soot settled on him in a thick layer rather than sifting away. Then he realized that other flashlights were shining into his face. The fighters had encircled him, weapons and flashlights poised and ready. Their enemy’s sudden disintegration appeared to have taken them by surprise. Then they raised a wild, piercing cry of triumph.

They crammed Julius inside the tree trunk hideout. Several of the creatures began dabbing at the blood that streamed from his cheek. Whatever ointment they dabbed on him stung like antiseptic and smelled green, like trees under the sun on a still summer day. The white-furred creature from earlier climbed up on Julius’ knee and offered him a drink from a shallow bowl. He accepted without much thought and then coughed so hard that the creature slid off his knee. “It burns,” he gasped.

A titter ran through the group of creatures.

Shortly afterward, Julius’ head began to sag forward. He blinked heavy eyelids at the half-dozen young creatures who danced in single-file, carrying his large flashlight on their shoulders. Then, as if someone had switched him off, Julius fell asleep.

When his eyes opened next, they blinked against the thin morning sunlight that shone through the crack in the tree trunk. He was alone. The creatures had gone while he slept, taking the little flashlights he had given them and leaving in exchange a rectangle of woven-leaf cloth covering the gash in his cheek and a small doll of twisted grass lying by his head. He took both items home with him and kept them as souvenirs, to look at whenever he was tempted to doubt that such strange events had really happened.

Slowly I Turned: The Challenge, Week 4

Week four already! Goodness, how quickly this is going. I just wanted to remark, before this week’s story begins, that these characters will probably turn up again. When I say ‘probably,’ I actually mean ‘most certainly.’ Some things take on a life of their own…

*

Walter and the Children of the Day

by H. M. Snow

There is a certain tone in a child’s scream that wakens the parental instinct in even the most nonparental of adults, especially at an elementary school during recess. When that particular scream ricocheted from the walls of Tenney Elementary School, every adult within earshot sprang upright. On the playground, staff members ran to the corner where an ashen-faced boy still screamed without ceasing. Tall oaks overshadowed him so that his pallor stood out boldly. He lay sprawled on his back, facing the depths of the trees’ shadow. The heels of his sneakers dug shallow grooves in the hard-packed ground as the boy tried weakly to retreat. He struggled against the adults who clustered around him. None of their proffered comforts distracted his gaze from the empty shadows or stopped him from screaming.

One of the teachers who arrived with the second wave insinuated herself through the concerned crowd so that she knelt at the boy’s back and dragged him backwards into the sunlight. From her pocket she took a small mirror. Without speaking to the boy, she held out the mirror from behind him so that the sunlight reflected into the shadows. The mirror’s convex surface scattered the shadows. “See?” the teacher whispered in the boy’s ear. “They’ve gone.”

He calmed enough to stop screaming, though his body trembled mightily.

The surrounding staff members relaxed. One of them said, “That’s Miss Brown for you!” and the others chimed in with their agreement, as though affirming Miss Brown’s mysterious ability to calm the most agitated of children. They began to drift back to their stations around the playground, except for a compactly-built black man in a fine gray suit. Suit notwithstanding, he crouched down to study the boy. “You aren’t a student here, are you?” he said pleasantly. “Or is this your first day?”

When the boy averted his face and refused to speak, Miss Brown spoke instead. “You have a good eye for faces, Dr. Wade. He doesn’t go here. He appears to be in considerable trouble.” She leaned forward again to speak in the boy’s ear. “If you want, I can help you, but I need to know your name first. Will you tell me your name?”

He grabbed her hand, the one holding the mirror, and raised it until the reflection illuminated the shade once again.

Dr. Wade started to speak, but Miss Brown intervened with a question– not for the boy, but for the principal. “Dr. Wade, do I have your trust?”

“Faina Brown, if I couldn’t trust you, I couldn’t trust anyone. Why?”

“I know how to help him, but it means taking him somewhere else. I can’t explain.”

“I’ll let Maggie know to find coverage for your class.”

Miss Brown smiled. A faint blush touched her high Slavic cheekbones. “Thank you.”

“We depend on you, Miss Brown. I hope you know you can depend on us in return.” Having said that, Dr. Wade stood up and returned to the school building.

“Quickly,” said Faina Brown to the boy. She raised him to his feet with surprising ease for a lean frame such as hers. Then she towed him by the hand to the parking lot. One of the keys dangling from her lanyard let them into a little gray BMW roadster. Miss Brown started the engine and pulled out of the school parking lot. “Let’s see where they went,” she remarked aloud. “They won’t have gone far.” She drove the perimeter of the school grounds at a leisurely pace. “I knew it. There they are.”

The boy shrank down into the passenger seat with a shuddery moan.

“Don’t be afraid anymore,” said Miss Brown. “We need them to follow us away from the school, or who knows what kind of troubles they’ll cause. They won’t catch us in this car, though, so cheer up. I still don’t know your name. Are you ready to tell me? My name is Faina Brown. The kids all call me Miss Brown, but I’ll let you call me Faina, since you’ve seen them.”

“Walter,” the boy whispered. “I’m Walter.”

“How do you do, Walter? That’s a nice name. It sounds very grown-up.” As she pulled onto the freeway entrance ramp, Faina opened the convertible roof. “Let us fill ourselves with the sun while it shines!” Then her foot lowered on the accelerator and the wind filled their ears.

They traveled the freeway for a good hour under the afternoon sun before Faina exited in favor of a rural two-lane highway. She kept to that highway for almost another hour, then made a left turn onto a smaller highway that turned into gravel after twenty miles. From there, their route consisted of increasingly narrower country lanes, until Faina made a right turn onto what appeared to be a path of leaves under a low canopy of birch and aspen. Then she raised the convertible roof. The rumble of tires over rutted tracks made her raise her voice a little. “Take a look in the side mirror, Walter. Can you see them?”

Walter leaned forward to check. He shrank back into his seat almost at once, shuddering.

“They’re ugly when they aren’t trying to take shape, aren’t they? Not to fear, Walter. I’ll give you this to hold. It will keep them away from you.” Without removing her gaze from the rough track ahead of her vehicle, Faina took the small mirror again from her pocket and gave it to the boy. “Have you seen what they really looked like before now?”

Walter shook his head.

“How did you first meet them? Can you tell me?”

Walter gripped the mirror between his hands and stared dully at it. After a time, he said, “Come to the door one night, man in a hat. Said he’d make us rich.”

“They do that. Who said yes to him?”

“Mom. Her boyfriend just dumped her an’ took his cash with him. She wanted lots of cash.”

“Is she still okay?”

Walter shook his head vehemently.

“Do you have any other family you can stay with?”

Again he shook his head. “Just Mom.” He started to tremble.

Faina reached over to rest her hand on his disheveled head. “Don’t be afraid. I’ll help you. Would you like to know what they are?” When his head bobbed under her hand, she went on, “I was born in Russia, where they tell the story of Goryshche the twelve-headed dragon and Dobrynya Nikitich who slew her along with her many offspring, and the Chudo-Yudo of many heads slain by Ivan Buikovich. Russia likes her monsters many-headed,” Faina added fondly. “This is one like those, but different in certain aspects. We do not name them; we call them ‘enemy’ and leave it at that. ‘They’ are many and yet one, with a single body hidden somewhere deep under the earth, many heads roaming the world, and many more offspring that swarm any human careless enough to invite them into the home. You know what that means.” She rubbed his head. “You’re blessed, Walter, did you know that? It was one of the heads who came to your mother’s door, and yet you escaped. We won’t let that go to waste.”

The tunnel of trees thickened as they followed it. Walter uttered an involuntary shriek when Faina veered left into the unbroken darkness of the mountainside. Her headlights showed the rugged walls of a cave tunnel just wide enough to admit two vehicles abreast. The long darkness brought a change to Faina’s expression, but Walter was in no position to notice. He was gazing raptly at the mirror he clutched between his hands. From the convex glass a faint amber-tinted light glowed, illuminating his young face. The amber light glinted from the semi-precious stones set into the mirror’s frame.

The convertible surged out of the tunnel’s exit onto a plateau and skidded to a halt. People came running from the assortment of buildings. Walter, still mesmerized by the glowing mirror, paid them no attention, but Faina jumped out of the convertible to greet them all with one terse statement: “We have a head approaching, attended by at least four dozen offspring.”

Those words sent everyone scattering, not in a panic but in practiced maneuvers to take up battle stations. The only one who did not turn back was an elderly man, tall and spare with sloped shoulders, who was still approaching from the chalet that dominated the plateau. His unyielding gaze swept Faina in one rapid assessment before taking in the boy Walter. Not satisfied by a look, the old man reached into the car and lifted Walter into the air at arm’s length, staring hard at the boy.

“You’re frightening an already frightened Walter, Eirian,” said Faina gently. “They didn’t touch him. I made sure before I approached him.”

“Yet a shadow covers him.” Eirian’s voice was as harsh as his features. “Why must you take such foolish risks, Faina?”

Faina circled around the car. “Stealing their prey from them and leading them away from humans in a strategic retreat counts as a more foolish risk than fighting them on my own? This is the first I’ve heard of it.” She waited for the old man to set Walter down. Then she clasped her hands behind her back and pivoted back and forth like a coquettish young girl. “I missed you very much, Eirian. Did you miss me at all?”

“Everyone missed you.”

“Boo.” Faina made a wry face. “That isn’t what I asked.” Then she abandoned restraint and threw her arms around Eirian’s neck. “There’s no use in my going away if you don’t miss me.”

“You are wasting your efforts, Faina.”

“And I shall go on doing so until you give in and accept me as your wife,” Faina replied sweetly. “I’ll give you a gold star for stamina, though. I was so sure you would have started your renewal cycle by now. Why are you so stubborn? I’m not speaking about my own interests now, Eirian. It isn’t good for you, dragging things out this way.”

“Now is not the time for your frivolity. The enemy head is near. Guard this human child.”

“His name is Walter.”

The old man pulled free of Faina’s embrace. Taking a knee stiffly beside Walter, Eirian spoke to him as sternly as to an adult. “You must watch what happens. You have seen the strength of them, and it has left on you a dark shadow. Now you will see the weakness of them. I will show you it, to take the shadow from you.”

Faina sighed. “I’m sure it’s no use to tell you that, developmentally speaking, this is a highly inappropriate amount of emotional trauma for a boy his age.” She whistled sharply. “Peter! Change places with me, please.”

“Faina…” Eirian’s gruff voice took on a warning tone.

“Peter may be my elder by a generation, but his latest renewal is still in its early stages. I am strong enough to stand at your side, Eirian. I will not be turned away from finishing what I started.” Faina stood with her fists propped on her hips and met Eirian’s scowl with a dancing devilry in her eyes.

Eirian exhaled audibly. “So be it.” A pure amber radiance enveloped him, first as a second skin and then expanding until it took ethereal shape as leaves of light. “They are here.”

Faina snatched at one of the leaves.

Despite himself, Eirian flinched. “A little warning would be more seemly.”

“A little warning, and you would deny me again.” Faina began to radiate light herself. Hers was a piercing silver-white. She plucked one of her own ephemeral leaves from the emerging cloud. Running to the chalet, she called out, “Marta! These are for new mirrors. Would you blend them together?”

The lean middle-aged woman who answered her call accepted the leaves dubiously. “This is enough for two mirrors.”

“Exactly. Two mirrors, his and hers style, but make sure they’re blended.” Faina loped back to where she had left Eirian. Faina redoubled her radiance until she cast shadows from every blade of grass and small rock on the plateau. “Walter! Be sure to watch and not be afraid. This is why we live, after all.” Her silver leaves spread out beyond their original cagelike framework and flew all around and above her. White light in the shape of eagles began to swoop around Faina.

Her radiance revealed an oily mass flowing over the lip of the plateau. When the mass stopped flowing, it congealed into one central mound of viscosity, surrounded by dozens of smaller droplets. The central bulk of it rose up into a column. Whiplike feelers stretched out on all sides, and the surrounding droplets grew small wings. As the column grew increasingly slender, its smaller offspring orbited through its chaotic storm of whipping feelers.

With a clatter the shutters of the surrounding buildings flew open to reveal an array of broad convex mirrors. Faina’s light in particular, when reflected from these mirrors, flashed like lightning. She called out in challenge to the enemy, “I am one of the children of the day. I will drive you from this world.”

A voice drifted from the black whips of the column. “I am the third head of the Yugra. I will not be driven from a world that is mine by right.”

“We shall see.” Faina’s blinding radiance could not disguise the mischief in her voice. “Whatever happens, I won’t let you go near Walter again.” The lightning that flashed from the mirrors behind her lit up the heights of the mountain. All around her, the other combatants under Eirian’s command cast their radiance to erase even the smallest shadows surrounding the enemy. Then Faina sped forward to attack, leaving the rest of the children of the day to rush after her with their battle cries echoing like untamed music through the skies.

Slowly I Turned: The Challenge, Week 3

Of The Old Well

by H. M. Snow

I wish I could remember how long I’ve been down here. When I lift my hand to touch the mud-crusted wall, I feel deep gouges in a row. So many tally-marks to count the days, but I can’t tell how many. My fingers are numb, coated with cold mud from the bottom of this old well. I tried to keep count by the daylight at first. The sky is overcast now, and has been for a long time. Without noon’s light, the darkness here at the bottom never abates.

Why can I not remember? I might have been here months or years. No, not that long. I went to school longer than the rest and learned much. Corporeal man can endure long weeks without food, but water is essential. The body dies within only a few days without water. I remember that. I remember the moment when, half-mad with thirst, I filled my mouth with the watery mud at the bottom of this old well. It felt as though I began to rot from within from that moment onward.

It is dark, so dark down here. Too many times I have discovered my weak hands roaming the filthy walls, tracing the gouged tally-marks and the crude scratched words. There is nothing else to do down here– except to yield and die. When the sun shone, I read the words. It is strange that, though I can see almost nothing, I know these etchings as if reading them even now. Just above the pooled mud, the faintest of them read, Mama did not save me. Why? Why? The words curve downward and lose themselves in the mud, as if the writer lay prone while scratching each letter into the filth. I am sure I could not have written them myself, first because I have never called my mother ‘Mama’ like one of the common village urchins might. I was taught better than that. Second, I could not have written them because I would have drowned before I finished. The well must have been drier then, or the writer even more petite than I.

If I lift my face toward the mouth of the well, I can see a disc of gray above me. Higher than I can reach, more words arrest my gaze every time I look upward: large words, wrathful words, deeply carved words. Rage drove the hand that gouged those letters into the stone. A CURSE ON THEM THAT CAST ME HERE. Uneducated, then, to believe in superstitions like curses, and strong enough to drive the words so deeply into the stone. It cannot have been my doing, but a man’s, a laborer’s.

I am not the first. How long have the innocent perished down here? And why? I wish I could remember the circumstances under which I came to be in this foul hole. When I cast my thoughts back, my memories differ each time. Sometimes I am certain that they came by night, secretly, and seized me from my bed. At other times my memories conjure up a lurid dawn sky and a remote pasture, when the crowds came to overpower me. Noon, evening, tea time: the only commonality to these memories is the horror of the faceless mob. They cannot all be true memories, but they are equally fearful to me. The days I lived before that day are faint now. I cling to what little I remember with certainty. I came to the village to teach. The villagers were polite, distant, clannish, like all rural people with little concept of society beyond their own. I taught their children during the day and returned to my rented cottage to prepare my lessons.

How long ago was that life mine? For that matter, how many days have passed since I heard a human voice? There was no disused well in the village. I am sure there was none. No one, not even a shadow of a human presence, passes overhead here. Silence weighs upon me, rings in my ears. Even in the solitude of my rented cottage, there was never this silence. Always the noisy children played at a distance and the village adults greeted one another in that gregarious way of country folk. Never was there any silence. An outsider myself, I knew so little about the ways of the village, but even I sensed the pockets of emptiness appearing in their ranks from time to time. I assumed that a few had chosen to seek a world of wider society and greater opportunity, but suppose they were…?

There, a fleeting sunbeam descended and then vanished so swiftly! The words it illuminated for that moment burn in my weakened vision: A CURSE ON THEM THAT CAST ME HERE. How are they carved so deeply? Liquid mud surrounds me, inches deep. Beneath it, compacted mud forms a floor for the well. There is nothing that could be made into a tool for carving stone, I am sure. My numbed hands searching the liquid mud encounter only slick solid mud, smooth as though polished except around the perimeter. There I can feel something, but barely. If I work at it, I can free it from its mud bed. It is narrow, as long as my hand, jagged at one end and pointed at the other. Hollow as well. I know what it was at first, and what it became. I ought to be horrified, as any civilized woman ought, but I am not. Perhaps I knew all along that the gouges in the well wall could not have been etched by anything else. It feels wrong to hold it so casually like this, as if I had desecrated a grave. If I let it sink back into the mud, the mud will receive it back.

The mud receives everything in the end. I knew it, hid from it, but I acknowledge it now. The mud will receive me soon enough. I believe I knew it from the moment I succumbed to thirst and drank this putrid liquid. From that moment, I imbibed the essence of the ones who came to this dreadful end before me. These memories– if I can no longer discern between my own and theirs, then maybe the mud has received me already. When I lift my hand, I see only a lump of mud. Not even individual fingers, but a mass of filth. I wonder if my fingers have rotted away. Will I end like this, just like the rest?

Another shaft of light pierces the darkness of the old well. This time, the light is so strong and so pure that I reach toward it instinctively. My clumsy, insensate hand slaps the wall where the gouged tally-marks stand out like the scars of frantic claws. I can see all the marks of the prior victims for just a few seconds. I am reaching, reaching, ever higher toward the light, driven by a longing to live. Now I can feel the full desperation of those who succumbed to the mud before me. Their misery pushes me forward. I reach higher still, touching that forgotten man’s bitter curse and higher even than that. When did my arm grow so long? It rises like a column of soft mud. It seems ready to collapse under its own weight, but it does not. Like the piercing light that even now fades back into gray, I feel the exquisite certainty that I can reach to the mouth of the well– not only reach, but pull myself out of the stagnant reek and into the light of the living world. I can. We can. We will.

Here now, I lay draped over the brink of my prison, clinging to the grass as a cloudburst drops its burden of rain on me. The rain cannot wash away the mud, but the mud absorbs the rain and spreads. My arm now is as thick as a man’s waist, swelled with the strength of fresh water. I feel my lower extremities dripping back down into the well. I am not strong enough to hold this new body together yet, but as the old well fills with rainwater, the rest of our body will soon reunite with me. A moment, a moment more, only a moment more and we will be free of the old well, free to seek the answers that we were denied. The rain turns all earth to mud, and all mud belongs to us now. We who were too weak to save ourselves, now our strength will know no limit. We will find out the reason why we were sacrificed in such a cruel way. We will stop this terrible injustice from happening ever again, even if we must turn the entire village to mud so that they feel our sorrow and our bitterness alongside us in this body.