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D. A. Ratliff: Publish or Perish

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, and Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

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Publish or Perish

A Detective Elijah Boone Mystery 

D. A. Ratliff

Dr. Mortimer Lane was about as dead as anyone could be. He was as dead as someone with daggers plunged into his left eye, heart, and lower abdomen, which was pretty dead.

I turned toward the campus police officer who was first on the scene. “Who found him,” I said, squinting at his name badge, “Officer Devers?”

“His administrative assistant, Iliana Perez.” He gestured toward a young woman standing in the corridor. “She arrived about eight-thirty this morning and knocked on his door. When he didn’t answer, she thought it surprising because his car was in the parking lot. She walked in and found him.”

I heard a grunt and turned to see my partner, Hank Guidry, enter, followed by medical examiner Julia Marrow and two CSU technicians. Despite being a homicide detective, my partner Hank always displayed a visceral reaction to dead bodies, one of disgust. His response to this body was no different. His nose wrinkled, his upper lip curled upward, and his eyes narrowed. I never needed to look at him to know his expression.

“Good heavens, Eli, a bit of overkill, don’t you think?”

Marrow laughed. “Somebody wanted him good and dead.” She flicked her hand. “Tight quarters here, gentlemen. Could you give us some room?”

I nodded my head toward the door, and Hank followed me. I was about to talk to the secretary when a tall, thin man in an impeccably tailored suit entered the outer office. He strode our way, a look of exasperation on his face.

“What is going on here? Campus police called me and said someone found a body in Dr. Lane’s office. I demand to talk to the officer in charge.”

I silently muttered to myself, “I hate this job,” and then spoke. “I am Detective Lieutenant Elijah Boone of the New Orleans Police Department. My partner, Detective Sergeant Hank Guidry. Let’s start with who are you?” His eyes turned to daggers as I suspected he was offended that I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t.

“I am Dr. James Adair Delong, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Is the dead man Dr. Lane?”

“We are waiting for the ME to confirm identity, but his admin identified the body as Mortimer Lane.”

Dr. Delong sucked in his chest. “Great. He’s the Archaeology and Anthropology Department Chair. I don’t need this now, but it saves a lot of paperwork.”

I bit my tongue but couldn’t resist one little snark. “I doubt he’s happy about this either. When was the last time you spoke with or saw Dr. Lane?”

“I spoke with him by phone on Thursday. I was off campus from Friday through Sunday for a wedding.”

“What did you talk to Lane about?”

“I called him to discuss an issue with a student who was making a complaint about his work.”

“Friendly conversation?”

“A business conversation, and no, any conversation with Dr. Lane was hardly friendly.”

“Why was that?”

“He was a tedious, pompous man. Brilliant in his field but, in my opinion, had been slacking in his responsibilities. He has not published in a very long time, and the Regents are unhappy. You know the rule, publish or perish. Now, I must inform the president about this—matter. You may reach me in my office if you have further questions.”

Hank whistled low as the dean walked away. “I guess they take that publish or perish thing seriously around here. I think the good dean personally knows all about tedious and pompous.”

I chuckled. “Indeed, they do, and he certainly didn’t seem to like our victim.”

I spotted Iliana Perez in the hallway talking to a group of people. Word travels fast in halls of academia. I walked to the door and called her into the office.

“When did you last see Dr. Lane?”

“Friday afternoon, about four-thirty. He said he’d be working late and I could go home. He wouldn’t need me.”

“Did you go home and stay there all night?”

“Yes, I didn’t go out again until Saturday afternoon to the grocery.”

“What happened when you arrived on Monday morning?”

“I spotted his car in the faculty lot this morning as I turned into the parking structure and thought he was already at work.”

“Was he having any issues with a colleague or a student?”

Perez hesitated. “Dr. Lane argued with a lot of people. He wasn’t known for his patience.”

“Can you…” 

Shouting from the hallway interrupted, and Perez stepped into the doorway. Hank pushed her aside as we stepped into the hall where two campus officers were restraining a young man.

“Is he dead? Tell me he’s dead.”

“I’ll talk to you as soon as you calm down.” He swallowed hard and nodded. I motioned for the officers to let him go.

“Name?”

“William Hawke.”

“Why are you here?”

I just wanted to see for myself if he was dead.”

“Why is that?”

Hawke’s upper lip curled, and I thought flames might erupt from his eyes. “Because he stole my discovery and planned on publishing it as his own. Tell me who killed Lane. I want to give him a medal.”

Marrow came to the door. “Eli, have a prelim for you.”

I nodded. “Hank, get this guy’s info and find out where he’s been all weekend.”

The CSU techs were busy collecting evidence as I entered. “So, what’ve we got besides the obvious?”

“Victim is Mortimer Lane, age fifty-eight, according to his driver’s license. Body is out of rigor, and considering the ambient temp and condition of the body, I would say he’s been dead since Friday night, roughly between seven and ten. Not sure I can get it any closer. “She pointed to the daggers, now in separate evidence bags.” The murder weapons are from a collection of daggers. Two are still on display.”

I walked over to a polished wooden box hanging on the wall. There were brackets for displaying five knives, but only two daggers remained.

“Killed with his own knives. Any idea which stab killed him?”

The ME pointed to blood that had seeped into the victim’s clothing around the stab wounds, the cloth now dried and stiff. “I think he was stabbed in the abdomen first, the heart next, and what likely killed him instantly. The stab in the eye looks like rage to me.”

“Yeah, that it does. Wrapping up here?” She nodded. “Good.” I looked at one of the CSU techs. “Get more techs here. I want everything on his desk logged as evidence.”

I looked over my shoulder at Hank. “Get me a search warrant for this office, any research labs, his home, and his car. Tell the judge I want the warrants now.”

~~~

I stopped by NOPD headquarters to check in with Captain Lourdes, head of Major Crimes. I like this man. He hates the bureaucracy we have to deal with and finds a way to deal with it in stride.

I sat down. “No need to tell me. Tenured college professor, department chair, next thing you will tell me is that there’s going to be a movie about his life. I imagine the mayor is in a tizzy.”

Lourdes laughed. “Not the mayor, but the university president is in a tizzy. He wants this solved now. Any leads?”

“Maybe. Lane wasn’t well liked. Pretty certain the dean of his college would have gleefully strangled him, but he has an alibi. There’s a disgruntled post-doctorate claiming Lane stole his research, but that’s it so far. Have search warrants for the obvious places and the Crime Scene Unit at all sites. We have uniforms doing door to doors where possible. Hank is interviewing people at the college. I requested the surveillance tapes.”

“That’s a start.”

I chuckled. “You’re never satisfied, Captain.”

“That’s what they pay me for.”

~~~

Warrant in hand, Hank and I went to Lane’s house accompanied by a CSU team. Hank called the alarm company to disarm the alarm. We found a keychain with two door keys on Lane’s office desk, and I tried one. It opened with the second key. Ordering the others to wait, I slipped on booties and gloves and walked into the house alone.

The professor lived in an older upscale neighborhood. The house was clean and sparse, except for bookcases of artifacts that covered numerous walls in several rooms. His office was tidy and also full of artifacts and books. I shuffled through the papers and journals on his desk, not seeing anything out of the ordinary. That didn’t mean much. I was no archaeologist, and what I looked at was gibberish.

As I flipped through a journal, Hawke’s claim that Lane had stolen his discovery echoed in my head. I needed to find out exactly what that meant. The NOPD had a forensic anthropologist on retainer, and I decided to call her to either shed some light on what all this paperwork meant or put us in touch with someone who could.

On the second floor, Lane’s bedroom was as spartan as the first floor but also crammed with books, many stacked on the nightstand. The other doors in the hall were open except for one. I tried the doorknob, locked. I tried the second door key, and it worked.

A second office had photographs of a stark rustic site with stone monoliths rising from the ground tacked on the walls. I picked up a notebook with William Hawke’s name on the cover. Lane had hidden Hawke’s research in a locked room. Motive? I intended to find out.

~~~

The following afternoon, Hank and I updated Captain Lourdes on what we knew. Hank went first.

“We’ve interviewed Lane’s colleagues, students, and staff. No one liked him but most respected his knowledge. Have the squad running down alibis, but we have quite a few we can’t corroborate.” He paused, looking at his pad. “Three people—two students and a professor—seem to hate Lane the most. William Hawke, who claims Lane stole his work. Jessica Wilson, who Lane turned down for a post-doctoral position, and Dr. Jeremiah Constantine, a professor in Lane’s department. None of them have alibis that we can prove. Hawke said he was at the library, but no record of him coming in or out. Constantine said, and I quote, ‘I hate the son of a bitch. I wish I’d killed him. Fitting the daggers that killed him were the ones he always bragged about.’”

Lourdes stopped him. “What do we know about those daggers?”

I answered. “I asked Dr. Frazier, the archeologist we have reviewing Hawke’s research. He said they were medieval Rondel daggers. I learned from Lane’s secretary that the British Museum gave him the set for all the work he had done for them.”

Lourdes nodded. “So, we have three suspects. Any guesses?”

“My bet is on Hawke. His anger is palpable.” I shrugged. “We don’t have enough to put any of them at the scene. There’s been a glitch in the security software, and we haven’t gotten the security footage from the university. A forensics IT guy’s there helping retrieve the video. We had a uniform canvass the area surrounding his residence and the entire building where his office is. No one saw anything.”

“Autopsy results, forensics, trace, anything?” The captain glared at me in frustration. “We need some answers. So far, no screaming from the university or the mayor, but that’s coming.”

“Cause of death, stab wound to the heart, the other wounds from rage, as for trace, zilch. Fingerprints don’t help, either. Too many people in and out of his office. No print we found didn’t have a reason to be there.”

“Nothing on the daggers?”

“Only Lane’s fingerprints. His assistant said he loved to take them out of the case and show them off.”

Lourdes nodded. “Keep me informed.”

~~~

Dr. Cameron Frazier was working in an interrogation room. It was late afternoon when he called me to come down. I grabbed Hank to join us.

Frazier sat at the table, photos and notes spread about him. We sat opposite him. “What do you have, Doctor?”

He turned his laptop toward us, displaying an image of the upright stones. “This is an area in Scotland called Orkney Island, an archipelago just north of the Scottish mainland. It’s known for the remarkable number of ancient sites on the islands. This site is the Ring of Brodgar, a neolithic site and one of the few henges in a complete circle. These stones date back as far as 2500 BC, but the site’s exact age has been elusive. Data from an expedition in the early 2000s to determine its age remains inconclusive.”

I pointed to Hawke’s journal. “So, what did Hawke or Lane find?” 

“No structures have ever been found inside the large ditch built to hold the stones. One reason we can’t determine the exact age.” He picked up the journal. “Two years ago, the British Museum funded an expedition to Orkney to search for structures. Dr. Lane, an expert on these ancient sites, was tapped to lead the expedition. Dr. Hawke was his assistant. They added several students and spent the last two summers on Orkney. From the data, it appears that Hawke followed an idea of his own and began to search the terrain by comparing site elevations taken over the years. Lane’s approach was to use ground sensing radar to look for structures.” He paused. “It’s a big area, Detective, and searching using radar is tedious. It appears to me that Hawke’s method worked. He targeted certain spots by considering how the land settles over structures or open areas. He found a structure, and that’s where it gets dicey.”

“What do you mean?”

“Lane amended his journal. He scribbled notes in the margins and inserted them into his final notes after he’d completed his report. It’s easy to see where and when he amended the text. Hawke’s claim that Lane took credit for his work appears valid.”

Hank whistled as Dr. Frazier continued. “Now, understand, Lane was in charge of the expedition. The entire team shares in the discovery, but the main credit goes to the person who made the find. I can see here that Dr. Lane changed all indications to show that the terrain observations were his and his alone.”

“So, Hawke is right.”

“Yes, in my opinion, this discovery should rightly go to Dr. Hawke. And, Detective Boone, while I’m associated with a different university, Lane’s reputation is well known. This isn’t the first time someone accused Dr. Lane of coercing his students or colleagues to allow him credit for their discoveries. He offered doctorate study and teaching positions in exchange for his accolades.”

We finished with Dr. Frazier and caught the captain up with the findings. It was nearly six, and Hank and I hadn’t eaten all day. After checking in with the forensic IT tech working on the security cams, we headed to Mama Leone’s for dinner.

Something about Mama Leone’s warm atmosphere settled my soul. Mama hugged us, gave us my favorite table, and told us not to order. She had a special dish for us. We chatted with Uncle Matteo as we waited and were not disappointed. Mama brought two steaming plates of Gnocchi con Gorgonzola, Noci, e Pere.

Hank stared at his plate. “It smells delicious, but what is it?”

Uncle Matteo rose and slapped Hank on the back. “It’s gnocchi with gorgonzola cheese, pears, and walnuts. Buon appetito.”

One taste, and Hank didn’t speak until he’d consumed half of his food. “I gotta think Hawke’s our killer. Young dude like that finds a big discovery that will make his career. He had to be livid.”

“I agree, but remember what the dean said. He was calling to discuss a student with a complaint. If Delong thought he had something on Lane, he’d jump at the chance to remove him. So that takes the wind out of Hawke’s immediate wrath.”

“True. So, where does that leave us?”

“Nowhere unless we get lucky.”

~~~

We got lucky. As we left the restaurant, the forensic tech called. He had retrieved the video. We met him at headquarters.

“Took some doing, but we figured out the problem. There are cameras on all sides of the building, but no entry except the front entrance at any time. The other doors are fire doors and only open out. I checked those cameras, and no one came out during your requested time frame.”

The tech clicked on start, and we sat quietly, watching people come and go from the building. Around the six-p.m. timestamp, traffic slowed, and I had the tech speed up the vid a bit, stopping only when a figure appeared. At six-forty-seven p.m., William Hawke showed up.

Hank scooted closer. “That’s Hawke for sure. He said he was at the library.”

As Hawke walked up the steps, a woman wearing a hoodie ran up behind him and grabbed his arm. He jerked his arm away, spoke with her briefly, and then left. The woman stood for a moment before she hurried into the building. We couldn’t see her face.

“Hank, bring William Hawke in.”

~~~

Forty minutes later, a ticked-off Hawke sat fuming in an interrogation room. As Hank and I walked in, he jumped up, but the officer guarding him pushed him into the chair.

“What the hell am I here for? I told you I didn’t kill Lane.”

I sat down across from him and laid my tablet on the table. Hank leaned against the wall behind me. I formally opened the interrogation—date, time, and those present. Then I asked one question.

“Why did you lie to us?”

“I didn’t lie to you.”

“Yes, you did. You told us you were at the library. We checked. You weren’t—you were here.” I turned the tablet toward him, and the image clearly showed him at the scene.

“That’s you entering the archaeology building at six-forty-five p.m. It also shows you leaving at eight-seventeen p.m. Plenty of time for you to kill Dr. Lane.”

“Oh man, I didn’t lie. I didn’t think about the name. The library is what we call the resource room. Past students donated books about archaeology and anthropology and created a collection. I was in there looking for some information on other stone structures around the world. I didn’t think you would assume it was the main library.”

“I’m going to ask you again. Did you kill Dr. Lane?”

“No, I didn’t.” His eyes tracked to the still image on the screen. “Man, why don’t you ask her? She’s always following me, trying to get me to have coffee with her. She said she could prove Dr. Lane stole my work, but I didn’t believe her. He’d never share anything with her. I told her to go away and not bother me again, and I walked off.”

“Who is that woman, Dr. Hawke?”

“You can’t tell? That’s Iliana Perez.”

~~~

Hank once again brought a suspect into the station, and we repeated the interrogation process. Iliana Perez sat in front of us, hands clenched and shaking.

I didn’t mince words. “Ms. Perez, we know you lied to us. You returned to the department on Friday night. We have you on the security cam entering the building at approximately six-forty-seven p.m. and leaving thirty-four minutes later. Enough time to kill Dr. Lane.” I pushed a printed still from the video across the table toward her.

“That’s not me.” Her voice was on the verge of panic.

“Yes, it is. We have a positive ID. That is you, and you killed Dr. Lane. It will go easier for you if you tell us the truth.”

Tears spilled from her eyes. “I didn’t mean to, but he was so vile. I knew he took William’s research for himself. I saw his paper before he added all the lies. I tried to tell William, but he didn’t believe me. I wanted William to like me as much as I liked him. I went to Dr. Lane to beg him not to do this to him.”

“Tell us what happened.”

“He laughed at me. Told me I was nothing. He said I know you have a crush on William, foolish girl. He’ll never like a girl like you. Not smart enough to get into graduate school. That William was his assistant, so the results belonged to him. He pushed me, and I fell toward the cabinet. I spotted those daggers that I dusted every week, and I grabbed one, spun around, and stuck it in his belly. He lurched toward me, saying he’d kill me, so I grabbed another and stuck it in his chest.” She was gasping for breath through sobs. “He fell on the floor, not moving, but I wasn’t satisfied. His eyes were still open. So, I grabbed another dagger.” Her sobs turned to laughter. “The dean was pushing him to publish or perish. I stabbed him in the eye. Now, he perished, and William gets the credit.”

~~~

It was past seven p.m. before we wrapped up the paperwork. Hank and I were tired, hungry, and about to leave when Captain Lourdes caught up with us.

“Great job. You two didn’t want to join Major Crimes, but you’ve been an asset.”

“Thanks, Captain.” Hank nearly choked up.

“Eli, what’s that restaurant you love so much?”

“Mama Leone’s.”

“Don’t know about you, but I’m hungry. Let me buy you guys dinner.”

As we walked to the SUV, I smiled. Mama was just what we needed. 

Please visit Deborah on her blog: https://daratliffauthor.wordpress.com/

Kenneth Lawson: The Lights

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, and Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

The Lights

Kenneth Lawson

The winds swept across the open fields, at times slightly changing directions. The dark green moss surrounding the pillars that dotted the landscape squished somewhat under my feet as I shivered in the wind. “What in the world am I doing here?” I muttered to myself as I paced around the tall pillars that initially seemed to stick up randomly from the ground. The question was less about the Moors than about this place.

Though here for many years, the constant wind and cold continued to bother me. The longer I was here, the more I realized there was a pattern to the weather, which surprised me. My home was in a warmer climate, where weather extremes were nonexistent. Assigned to this godforsaken place had been but another nail in my professional coffin. At this rate, my personal coffin too, and that made me bitter.

***

A phone call from the station in the middle of the night had brought me out of my nice warm house into the early morning cold. Something was going on at the old landmark pillars, and I drew the short stick. Even though I am the sheriff, dispatch informed me that everyone else was on a call. I drove across the rugged roads through the Moors to reach the mysterious landmarks. Villagers had reported strange lights in the area, which was probably nothing, which was why no one else wanted to go.

Whatever the villagers had seen overnight was gone, and I returned to the warmth of my Land Rover. There was something comforting about the slam of the steel door against a steel frame—strong and substantial. Much stronger than I felt. I shivered and cranked the heat as high as it would go. I opened the thermos left in the front seat early that morning, needing caffeine, but the coffee in the thermos was lukewarm and undrinkable. I cracked open the door, dumped the remaining coffee, and shut the door quickly to keep out the wind.

The drive to the village was tedious. What passed for roads out here were little more than ruts and paths, and the early morning dampness and moisture made them slippery. Fortunately, the old Land Rover was up to the task. Twenty tedious minutes of navigating the road away from the Moors brought me to the main road leading into the village. Once I got onto a decent road, it took no time to get there.

***

The Bears Claw Pub had just opened for the day. The fire in the hearth was inviting, and I sat at a table near the roaring fire to thaw. Lucy, a plump middle-aged lady with black hair in a loose bun, came over with a coffee cup without asking. Lucy had been one of the few bright spots in the age-old town that still believed in ghosts and goblins. They would probably burn me at the nearest stake if they knew my true identity and origins.

I thanked her and held the warm cup in my hands while I tried to figure out exactly what I’d seen last night. The steam from the cup of liquid life wafted to my nose. The smell of coffee helped bring me back to life and warmed up my cold, tired bones.

While I was too late to see what the villagers saw on the horizon, I did see something, and a nagging thought fluttered in my mind, but I didn’t allow the thought to form.

Lucy returned and sat across from me, leaning forward, her ample bosoms resting comfortably on the table, shielded by her hands which held a large cup of coffee. She grinned almost childlike and finely burst out.

“Well?” She sipped her coffee, waiting, eyes wide open, for my answer.

“I don’t know. I didn’t see anything.” That was not strictly true. I didn’t see anything, but I sure felt something was different. I wasn’t going to tell her that.

“You didn’t see anything?”

“No. By the time I arrived, whatever it was, was gone.” I sipped my coffee as an excuse not to say anything more.

Lucy sat upright and swore under her breath. I didn’t blame her as I’d done some swearing this night too.

“Want breakfast?” She changed the subject like last night hadn’t happened. I nodded in the affirmative. She smiled. “Eggs, toast?”

“Biscuits if you got them.”

She nodded, rose, and disappeared into the kitchen. Lucy had always been friendlier than necessary. In some ways too friendly, and I suspected a small fire burning for me under all that plump exterior. I never did anything about it, although the thought had crossed my mind a few times.

I sipped my coffee, now cool enough to drink. I had seen something out among the old carved stone pillars, but I wasn’t sure what. I couldn’t even tell myself what I’d seen, much less the likes of Lucy. She was a fixture of the old village. Her family had run The Bear Claw Pub since the beginning of time. No one remembered when it had opened. It had always been here. The more I thought about it, Lucy herself had always been here. She was always fun to be around, joking with the customers and childlike in her wonderment of all things unexplained.

When Lucy returned with my breakfast and a pot of coffee, my coffee was half gone. She slid the plate to me and again sat across from me.

“Tell me more,” she prompted as she poured more coffee for me and refilled her mug.

I busied myself rearranging the food on my plate and munching on biscuits for a few minutes because I was hungrier than I thought and, well, as a stall.

“Not anything to tell. I drove out where you all had seen the lights, and nothing was there. Except for freezing wind and darkness.” I shoved eggs into my mouth so I wouldn’t have to talk anymore.

“There was something there!” Lucy insisted.

“Whatever you saw, it was gone when I got there.”

In between bites, I elaborated on the weather and the pitiful excuses of roads in the area, none of which interested Lucy. Finishing the last morsel of scrambled eggs and a third biscuit, I pushed my empty plate toward her.

“Look, Lucy, I don’t know what to tell you or anyone else. I know you all saw something. I don’t doubt it for a second, but whatever you saw was long gone by the time I got there. Everything looked the same as the last time I was there.”

She nodded as if to say okay, but I knew she didn’t believe me. Hell, I wasn’t sure if I believed myself either, but I wasn’t going to say that.

“Thanks for breakfast, Lucy.” I stood and laid some money on the table in front of her. She glanced at it and collected it.

“That’s too much.” She tried to hand me back some of the money.

I waved her off. “Keep it. Put it toward next time.”

Once outside the old pub, I took some deep breaths and let the freezing air work its way into my lungs. The fire had been nice for about five minutes and then became too hot. I knew the cold would be nice for about two minutes, but by the time the cold was too cold, I was inside my Land Rover. I cranked the heat again after I started it.

I’d been to the Moors before and spent many hours exploring the mysterious ring of stone pillars. I knew exactly how many pillars there were and how far apart they were, even photographed them from the air. But last night was different as if another presence was there. 

I drove to my small cottage on the far side of town, where I showered, and then headed to the station to write the official report of my visit to the Moors. Official? I didn’t even have an unofficial report. 

***

My report was short and vague—only a half-page long. I stated what happened from when I got the call until I left the Moors and what I’d seen there, which wasn’t much. At least not that I could explain to myself or anyone else.

It was a slow day, as it always was in this sleepy town, so I decided to return to the Moors. I filled a thermos with coffee, rummaged through the station refrigerator, and made a couple of sandwiches. I stopped at the local petrol station and filled the tank. As I was paying for the petrol and some snacks, I noticed the old man behind the counter looked like he’d been awake all night. 

“You see the lights last night?” I asked while paying for the petrol.

He nodded yes and counted my change.

“Yeah, what time?”

He looked up from counting and seemed to look past me toward the Moors in the distance. “Can’t say exactly, but it was late. I know that.”

“You remember anything else?”

 “I’d seen them before, but never this bright or as long. They seemed to stay for a spell.”

“You’ve seen them before. When?”

“I don’t know, a few times over the last few years. Usually, they don’t last, flash on and off. But last night…” his voice trailed off.

I finished for him. “They stayed on a long time.” He nodded yes, and I asked, “Who else saw them?”

“I don’t know, probably everybody awake. They were pretty bright.”

I thanked him and headed for the Rover.

***

The drive to the Moors was just as bad in the daylight as last night in the dark. The only difference was that I could see to avoid some of the worst potholes and ruts in what passed as a path on the outer regions of the land.

I quickly found the same place I’d been to last night and parked in the same tire tracks. The fog had started to lift some by the time I got there. The stone pillars looked just as lost and forlorn as they had last night, and the ground was still as soggy and damp as it had been last night. My footprints still showed in a few places. Shivering in the ever-shifting winds, I wandered around the site again.

In the dead of night, with only my headlights and a torch to look around, I couldn’t see much. Even in the daylight and with the ever-present cloud cover, it wasn’t easy to get my bearings.

I couldn’t find an obvious source for the lights seen from the village miles away. My phone barely had any signal out here, but I could pull up text flooded with pictures of the lights. The photos were pretty much useless. 

Pulling my binoculars from the back of the Rover, I stood where I could make out the village through the fog that hung over the area as a blanket to keep the sun from warming up the region. It had been foggy last night as well.

Scanning the horizon, I found the church or, rather, the steeple of the old church. I steadied the binoculars by resting my arms on the hood of the Rover and could barely make out tiny shapes moving in the fog. A glance at my watch told me it was time for the morning confessional. Many villagers would undoubtedly be in church to confess what they’d seen last night to the priest.

Villagers saw lights coming from here. What could make lights bright enough to cut through the thick fog and be seen a few miles away? There was nothing here that hadn’t been here all along—just the tall stone pillars with strange markings on them. The markings had been copied long ago and studied. They resembled Gaelic letters or, perhaps, another dead language.

The ground was too soft to hold any heavy equipment without at least leaving a deep imprint or mark. So, nothing was brought In, and there were no other footprints than my own from last night.

But I had seen something. The mist diffused my headlights and torch in the foggy darkness, so I couldn’t be sure what I had seen. Yet, I knew something had been here with me last night. I vaguely remember movement in the distance, just out of reach of the headlights.

I worked my way out from the flat area surrounding the pillars into the grassier land that was the fields that made up most of the ridge. Looking towards the village with my binoculars, I saw no more than I had before. I turned to head back to the Rover when I caught movement up by the pillars. Something was up there.

My heart pounded as I ran on the damp uneven ground, but I made it back to the pillars as fast as possible. Panting from the exertion and excitement, I caught my breath as I approached the clearing.

He was leaning against the front fender of the Rover, hands in his pockets and a hat pulled down low over his face to keep the wind off.

“It’s about time.”

Between breaths, I managed to speak. “You could have called. I thought we only used the lights to scare the people on this planet.”

“Yes, but then I wouldn’t have all the fun of watching them.” He nodded towards the town across the valley. “I used the cover of the lights to drop in, but you didn’t see me before I got pulled away. The lights were stronger because they kept trying to pull me out, and I kept moving out of the beam’s reach.”

“What do you want?” I leaned against the fender next to him, panting.

“My, my, you’re out of shape. You are getting too soft on Earth,” he observed. I glared back at him. “I didn’t dare call. You know how they like to scare people.”

I nodded yes. “Yes, I knew they used the lights to keep people from coming here, as this is the easiest place to beam on and off the planet. I never realized they were using the ancient pillars for their amusement.”

He laughed. “Had you fooled too.” He became serious. “I just got word there’s another attack coming. This one is a doozy. Going to kill many people.” 

“You can’t stop it?”

He shook his head no. “Too many variants and impossible to track until it hits.”

“Then whatever is going to attack is already here?”

“That it is. Give me your arm.”

I held out my arm, and he slid my sleeve up and pressed the steel injector against my upper arm. “That should protect you, and it won’t appear on their test.”

“What about you?” I rolled my sleeve back down.

“I’m leaving. I got a new assignment.”

“So, you’re just going to leave me on this planet alone?”

“You won’t be by yourself, and someone will check in. We need you to catalog the attack. Good luck.”

 A flash of light blinded me for a minute, and my friend was gone.

***

I spent the next two years recording the effects of Covid and reporting the results to my home planet. As observers of Earth, we were not allowed to interfere. A pity, as many died, for my friend was right. This one was a doozy.

Please visit Kenneth on his website: http://kennethlawson.weebly.com/

—————

Images are free-use images and do not require attribution. Image by maxwell-andre from Unsplash.

WRITE THE STORY! NOVEMBER 2022 PROMPT

Welcome to Write the Story!

The ghost and goblins, witches, and wizards are back in the attic but not before they gave us a fun October. Not only did we have great stories from the WTS October 2022 prompt, but also amazing stories from the WU! Witching Hour Collection. From scary to funny to downright terrorizing, the WU! members gave us great stories to read. Thanks to all who shared their writing with us and to all of you who read their work!

Click Here for the WU! Witching Hour Collection

On to the November 2022 prompt!

A reminderWU! created this project with two goals: providing a writing exercise and promoting our author sites to increase reader traffic. We ask that you please include a link to the Writers Unite! blog when you post your story elsewhere. By doing so, you are also helping promote your fellow members and Writers Unite! We encourage all of you to share each other’s stories to help all of us grow. Thanks!

Write the Story! November 2022 Prompt

Images are free-use images and do not require attribution. Image by maxwell-andre from Unsplash.

Here’s the plan:

  • You write a story of 3000 words or less (minimum 500 words) or a poem (Minimum 50 words) based on and referring to the image provided and post it on the author site you wish to promote. Don’t forget to give your story a title. (Note: You do not have to have a website/blog/FB author page to participate, your FB profile or WordPress link is fine.)
  • Please edit these stories. We will do minor editing, but WU! reserves the right to reject publishing the story if poorly written.
  • The story must have a title and author name and must include the link to the site you wish to promote.
  • Send the story and link to the site via Facebook Messenger to Deborah Ratliff or email to writersunite16@gmail.com. Put “Write the Story” in the first line of the message.
  • Please submit your story by the 25th day of the month.

WU! will post your story on our blog and share it across our platforms— FB, Twitter, Instagram, etc. The story will also be available in the archives on the WU! blog, along with the other WTS entries.

We ask that you share the link to the WU! blog so that your followers can also read your fellow writers’ works.

The idea is to generate increased traffic for all. It may take some time, but it will happen if you participate. The other perk of this exercise is that you will also have a blog publishing credit for your writing.

Please visit Writers Unite! Facebook and join us at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/145324212487752/

Kenneth Lawson: Witches?

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, and Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

Images are free-use images and do not require attribution. Image by Kathrynne from Pixabay

Witches?

Kenneth Lawson

He eyed me sideways across the bar. “Hit me again.”

He didn’t need any more. I could smell the beer from my side of the bar. I poured him another glass and slid it over to him. “Tell me again. What happened?” 

 Ross Carmichael took another swallow of beer and burped loudly.

“I told you.”

“Tell me again.”

“Oh, hell, one more time isn’t going to make it any better.” He shrugged. “All right. I was in the woods. You know, north of town….”

I nodded. I knew those woods well, as they had been used as a training ground during the war. Part of a nearby military base then but abandoned these days. Now was a prime hang-out spot for local kids looking for a place to hide, smoke, or do drugs. More than a few kids had been found there drunk or half-dead from drugs. It had been the suspected scene of several rapes and assaults. The place was getting a bad reputation.

“Ross, what were you doing there?”

I told you, I was following a bird. You know, a dame.”

I cocked my head. “Who?”

“Linda Warner. I was hired to follow her by her ole man. He thought she was stepping out.” 

“Was she?”

“Hell, I don’t know. I followed her into the woods, down that little path from the back road. I lost her for a second but caught up to her around the end. She was there all right, but she wasn’t alone. There were three of them, Witches. I swear. They had hats and black dresses, just like you see in the pictures. And they had a black pot—A BIG ONE.” Ross swallowed the rest of his beer and burped loudly again, this time spitting out beer on the table.

“Ross, you’ve had enough. What next?” I pulled the half-empty beer mug from him and wiped the table with an old rag. 

“They saw me. And the next thing I knew, I was in the pot. They were going to boil me. ALIVE!!” His eyes grew wider than before. 

“And?” I prompted again.

“They were swearing and saying some weird stuff, and I could feel the water getting hotter. My feet and legs were already too hot. I swung at one, hit her, and she swore and cursed me. They grabbed me and tried to hold me in the pot, but I managed to push them away and, in the process, tipped the pot off the fire. Water went everywhere, and I crawled out of the pot and ran. I could hear them screaming and chasing me until I got to the edge of town.”

“Okay, you had a bad time with some supposed witches. What do you want me to do?”

“Come with me. Let’s find those witches and kill them.”

“You know, if you pissed them off that bad, they’ll find you.”

Ross blinked hard at the thought. He clearly hadn’t thought of that. “So?”

“So, you aren’t safe. Even here in town.”

 “How are they going to find me here?”

“It’s not hard.”

I nodded toward the door as Linda Warner and her two friends entered the bar.

Ross Carmichael looked at them, then at me, and fainted, falling off the barstool.

Linda smiled. “You’d think he’d seen a witch or something.” She and her friends sat at the bar, and she smiled again. “Pour us a drink.”

Please visit Kenneth on his website: http://kennethlawson.weebly.com

D. A. Ratliff: Eleanor’s Journal

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, and Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

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Eleanor’s Journal

D. A. Ratliff

Eleanor Longwood had always been a strange child. From the moment she entered kindergarten, her teachers had whispered about her. She was brilliant, wise not only in knowledge but in manner, well beyond her years. During recess, she would sit quietly reading a book. Usually, a book more advanced than her peers would be reading. She never appeared aware that no one interacted with her, nor did she seem to care.

She lived in the old Algonquin Manor House with her parents and a younger sibling. Her parents, mind you, were a tad eccentric but quiet, studious, and always attentive to school functions. Once during a Parent-Teacher “meet and greet” at the beginning of her fourth year, I found myself at the dessert table with her mother, Agatha Longwood. I attempted to make small talk centered around an exquisite necklace she wore—similar to one my grandmother left me that I always wore. I assumed the stones were opals like mine, but she offered the slightest of smiles and said the stones were moonstones and hers, like mine, was a family heirloom. Surprised, I stammered that they seemed to glow from within. She offered another sly smile and replied, “Because they do, Ms. Spencer.”

Agatha had glided away from me, and I didn’t speak to her again until Eleanor entered my sixth-grade English class. She and her husband Gerald, Eleanor, and her younger brother Ambrose toured my classroom one evening before school started. The funny thing is I remember being aware of the family’s presence yet could not remember my interaction with them.

I loved teaching English, both grammar and composition and was enjoying this particular group of children. They were bright, enthusiastic, and challenging. At times, it felt like I was teaching middle-school students since kids at that age loved to challenge their teachers.

We had finished the unit on expository writing, and today, October 17, I introduced the unit on descriptive writing. In addition to descriptive writing and character development assignments, I assigned a daily writing exercise—to keep a daily journal. Hands were raised about the room as my students asked how descriptive I wanted them to be.

Eric laughed as he raised his hand. “Ms. Spencer, you want me to describe how bad my mom’s cooking is? I won’t get into trouble?”

“Be as descriptive as you choose, and I promise we won’t tell your mother.”

I was surprised when Eleanor’s hand went up. She always answered when called on but rarely offered any comment. “Eleanor, your question.”

“Ms. Spencer, I was wondering if you wish us to be truthful about our lives outside school.”

A little chill flew down my spine. “I want you to treat this exercise as a means for learning to write descriptively, and that’s often easier when you are experiencing the visuals and the sensations of the events as they occur. I do not expect or want you, any of you, to write anything personal or embarrassing about your family.”

Another little chill passed down my back as Eleanor gave me the same sly smile as her mother had done before. I tamped back a sense of unease and continued.

“I would like you to write each day’s entry on the assignment file in Classroom and then submit the doc to me on Fridays. Please write down your activities each day and be descriptive. Don’t write, ‘I had dinner.’ Describe what you had and how it looked and tasted. This assignment will also help you develop the habit of writing daily. Now, let’s open the textbook to the first exercise on character descriptions.”

~~~

After school on Friday, I went home, fed Clyde, my orange tabby cat, and settled on the couch to read the journals of my two sixth-grade classes. I had three hours until my mom said she would call, which gave me enough time to read the students’ journals for the last four days. I hesitated, my fingers resting on the mouse. Did I click on my classes in order, or did I start with Eleanor’s entry? I was itching to read what Eleanor had written but forced myself to stay organized and read the classes in order.

~~~

My first class had done well, and I was pleased, but when I clicked on the assignment folder for Eleanor’s class, I decided to read the other students before I went to her file. Not exactly sure what I anticipated, but I held my breath as I finally clicked on hers.

October 17

As the instructions require, let me tell you about my family and where we live. My PaPa, Gerald, is an artist who paints portraits, among other subjects, and is also the Gatekeeper. My MaMa teaches the arts at a private school in our hometown of Crystal Hollow. My ten-year-old brother Ambrose does have his usefulness, but mostly, he’s annoying. We also have a pet, a cat named Giles, my best friend.

We moved to Algonquin House when I was four and Ambrose two. The Gatekeeper before my father retired to tend to his pumpkin patch. Being Gatekeeper is an enormous responsibility for PaPa, and we must act accordingly.

I love it here. The manor house is enormous, and Ambrose and I have spent many hours playing hide and seek in the wings. I especially love the winding staircases and stained-glass windows. I would make up stories about our ancestors, immortalized on the windows, who lived in this house so long ago when our kind walked freely among the outlanders.

On this first day of my journal, my routine was as always. I came home, changed into jeans and a sweater, and retreated to my favorite spot in the large tower to do my homework. Giles went with me and quizzed me on my history chapter, as I have a test tomorrow.

I am excited. I will attend the Joining Celebration held during the Halloween Ball in two weeks. At dinner, my mother served my favorite, lasagna. She embraced Italian cooking, and I loved the gooey cheese and spicy sauce. She told us we were traveling to Crystal Hollow tomorrow after school. Aunt Esme wants to do the final fitting of our dresses and Ambrose’s cloak for the celebration. The Joining is a special day for me as I will join my mother’s coven, a huge honor for someone so young.

PaPa and Ambrose threw a football in the front yard while MaMa worked on a sculpture, and I read. Bedtime at nine-thirty came too soon, but Giles and I talked in the dark until I finally fell asleep.

I trembled as I clicked on day two of Eleanor’s journal. I had never known the child to lie but what I was reading was worrying. I read on.

October 18

Ambrose and I rushed down the long driveway from the bus stop to the house. We hadn’t been to Crystal Hollow in several months, although we had many visitors. MaMa insisted we do homework first, so we got that out of the way as quickly as possible and waited with Giles on the back steps for our parents so we could go.

Finally, we passed through the iron gate at the edge of the grounds onto the path through the woods. Outlanders who wandered into the woods would only see a thick forest as a spell concealed the path. As the glow from the portal appeared, my heart began to race. Giles jumped into my arms so that I could carry him through. The glow soon enveloped us, and a sentry stepped out of the light. He greeted us and motioned for us to enter. Ambrose let out a yell as he jumped into the portal. Giles loudly meowed as I stepped through, loving the warmth that caressed my body, and within seconds we were in Crystal Hollow.

Choruses of hellos greeted us as we walked down Main Street. My father was well known, and many members of the Coven or Pumpkinists stopped him along the way. Yet all did not seem jovial, as some people appeared agitated. Near my aunt’s house, PaPa left us for a meeting at the Council House while we continued to my aunt’s.

I loved Aunt Esme’s house. It was four stories with rickety walls and crooked towers, surrounded by sunflowers, apple trees, and a pumpkin patch in the backyard. And as soon as the door opened, the smell of pumpkin bread and hot apple cider wafted into my nose and warmed me more.

The fittings went well. Ambrose looks so grown up in his cloak. MaMa will wear a traditional green velvet dress adorned with glittering jewels. I will wear the burgundy color of novice Coven members.

My father joined us, as did Aunt Esme’s husband Simon, and Nikan, a Pumpkinist council member. Over dinner, a discussion about the fate of Crystal Hollow became heated, and MaMa sent us from the room. Ambrose and I had heard the rumors about the rift between Coven members but didn’t realize it had gotten so intense.

Shortly afterward, we hurried home, MaMa insisting we go straight to bed.

A chill swept through me, and I pulled the afghan across me as I pondered what I had just read. Eleanor must be playing a joke on me, but it was so unlike her. She was studious and reserved, always polite. This was so out of character, but I read on.

October 19

Ambrose and I got off the bus and slowly walked home. We sensed great tension in the house as we left for school. Giles met us halfway, warning that visitors had been coming and going all day, and PaPa had scheduled a meeting tonight.

When we got home, MaMa met us, sending us upstairs to the sitting room to do our homework. She brought dinner, and the door closed behind her with instructions not to leave the room until bedtime.

We ate the hearty homemade soup and pumpkin bread, but neither Ambrose nor I enjoyed it. Not even the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies helped the pall we felt lingering over the house.

Giles realized MaMa didn’t order him to stay in the room, so he snuck out as only cats can and left to see what he could overhear. We watched TV until Giles returned and told us what he had heard.

A faction in Crystal Hollow wanted to reveal our existence to the Outland, where witches and wizards were not welcome. Others feared the dangers of the past when we did walk together. The Pumpkinists were doubly frightened because they were different and feared being outcasts. Giles said that my father was a leader of the group who wanted to move into the Outlanders’ world and that he was in danger.

MaMa came to us at about ten and ushered us off to bed. Sleep did not come easy.

I scrolled down to the next entry.

October 20

Neither Ambrose nor I slept well. He came into my room around three am, and we talked until we both fell asleep. On the way to school, we decided to behave as if nothing was wrong, but we left Giles to spy on what happened during the day.

When we returned home, MaMa greeted us and sent us again to the upstairs sitting room, where we would have dinner. This time, MaMa had ordered Giles not to leave, and he obeyed her. We went to bed, listening to the arguing from downstairs.

Eleanor’s words stunned me. I was either dealing with a child with a fantastic imagination or a delusional child who needed help. I couldn’t comprehend that her words might be true. I sat staring out my patio door, my mind reeling. Only the call from my mother brought me back to the present. I shook off my thoughts and turned my attention to the call.

~~~

I spent a restless night, waking up intermittently between dreams of pumpkin-headed people and witches circling me. As the morning wore on, I became increasingly worried about Eleanor and Ambrose and curious about the portal. By midday, I couldn’t stand it any longer, and I got in my car and drove to Algonquin House.

I parked outside the gate and pressed the buzzer on the call box—no answer. Now what? I debated on going home but decided against it. Feeling somewhat foolish, I decided to try the gate. I grabbed my phone and keys and locked the car.

The gate was at least ten feet tall, as was the stone wall. Timidly, I wrapped my fingers around the cold wrought iron handle and tugged, then jumped back. The gate swung open with ease. I blew out a deep breath and entered.

The cobblestone driveway was long and lined with stately trees. It was chilly and dark under the canopy of thick limbs, and fallen orange and yellow leaves crunched beneath my feet. I wrapped my sweater tighter around me to ward off the chill.

As I got closer to the manor house, I was shocked at its enormous size, three stories with three towers, one quite large with a turret, more a castle than a house. I climbed the long expanse of steps, admiring the well-tended gardens. A brass doorknocker on ornately carved wooden doors gleamed in welcome. I rapped the knocker several times, but no one answered. What next? I knew what was next—find the path to Crystal Hollow.

I hurried down the steps and followed a narrow brick path around the house. The backyard was enormous and inconsistent with what I had read in Eleanor’s journal. My idea of witches did not include a patio, swing set, and swimming pool. At the rear of the yard was a gate identical to the front entrance—time to find the path.

The rear gate opened with a slight tug, and a thick dark forest lay before me. I couldn’t see a path, but I pushed on. It had to be here. I walked about twenty feet past the tree line when I noticed a parting in the trees. I headed toward the open space, and as I passed through the opening, a path began to widen before me.

I can’t explain the sensations that flooded me. I was anxious but compelled to continue as if my will was no longer mine to control. The dark horizon began to glow, and the trees seemed to move farther apart as I walked on. As the pale glow became a deeper, brighter orange, I felt something warm against my chest. I looked down, and the opaque white stone of my necklace was glowing. My heart thumped wildly. What was happening to me?

The portal filled my vision—its surface swirling in shades of orange. I reached out to touch it when two men burst through.

“Who are you?” One man glowered at me.

“I’m Nora Spencer. I’m Eleanor Longwood’s teacher. Who are you?”

“We are the Sentries of the Gate. You will come with us.”

Each man took me by the arm, and we stepped through the portal. The warmth Eleanor described flowed around me like a cocoon. Then abruptly, we were standing on a street resembling a children’s book illustration. Quaint red brick buildings with colorful trim sat along the tree-lined avenue, where stalls selling vegetables and flowers sat on the street corners. People wearing clothing reminiscent of the early 1900s stopped as we passed, no doubt curious about me.

We came to a store with “Apothecary” on the sign above the door. A man exited, and I uttered a startled oh, taken back by the shape of the man’s head, which was round with lobes like a pumpkin. His skin was pale with a slight orange tint. This man was a Pumpkinist, as Eleanor mentioned in her journal. His yellow eyes widened at my reaction, but he bowed his head and smiled, continuing on his way.

We entered the tallest building on the block—with portraits of humans and Pumpkinists covering the lobby walls. The sentries ushered me up a flight of stairs and into a large chamber. A wall of windows framed seven people sitting behind a bench on a raised dais. In the center was a raven-haired woman. She waved her fingers—her black lacquered nails glinted in the sunlight. “Bring her forward.”

The sentries took me to a platform in front of the bench. Indignant, I spoke. “I need to know who you are and what this place is.”

The raven-haired woman left the bench and approached me. “I think the better question is, who are you?” Her eyes fell on the necklace I wore. “Where did you get this?”

“Please tell me who you are.”

Anger flared in her emerald eyes. “I asked you where you got this necklace.”

“I inherited it from my great-great-grandmother.”

“Her name?”

I hesitated. “Her name was Nora Crane.”

A gasp erupted from those in the chamber. “Your name?”

“Nora Crane Spencer.”

“How did you find us?”

“I just… stumbled onto the portal.”

Anger flared again in her eyes. “No one stumbles onto the portal.” She whirled toward a sentry. “Find me the Gatekeeper. I know he is here.”

I stood silent and shaking for ten minutes before Gerald Longwood arrived. As he stood by me, his eyes widened when he recognized me. He addressed the woman. “High Priestess Rowena, why have you brought me here?”

“Why is she here?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do not lie to me. Do you know whose great-great-granddaughter she is?

Gerald glanced at me. “I don’t.”

Rowena descended from the bench again and stood before us. “She is the descendent of Nora Crane.”

He swallowed. “We suspected she might be of our blood, but we had no idea.”

“No idea? Yet you are lobbying for us to reveal ourselves to the Outlanders, and you do not know?”

“She’s my daughter’s teacher. My wife sensed her power when she saw the necklace.”

“Her ancestor tried this many years ago, openly practicing witchcraft, good witchcraft, I might add, and it nearly got her burned at the stake. Now you lead the effort to do the same and led her to us. I should have you punished for sedition.”

My body trembled so intensely I feared I couldn’t speak, but I had to tell her. “He has said nothing to me. I read about this place and became curious, so I came looking for it.”

“Read about it?” Rowena’s voice rose. “Where?”

I intended to lie about Eleanor’s journal to protect her, but a voice interrupted me.

“I told her.”

Eleanor stood in the aisle. “Ms. Spencer gave us the assignment to write about our home life. I had overheard my father talk about revealing ourselves to the Outlanders months ago. I decided to tell her and see her reaction so I could tell my father.”

Rowena turned toward me. “This is why you came, based on what this child told you?”

“Yes. I was concerned that she was safe as her journal entries were so unusual. I didn’t expect to come here.”

“You should know something. The skill to locate our realm must be strong, and you possess those skills. Now that you are aware of us, what are your thoughts about our becoming known to your kind?”

“I’m overwhelmed. Fear of the unknown is powerful and clouds judgment, but I think given time and handled well, they would welcome you.”

Gerald reached for Eleanor’s hand. “Priestess, I came to Crystal Hollow to deliver a petition. We have collected more than the required number of signatures to activate an inquiry into contact with the Outlanders. Those who visit the other realm love the people but recognize that it will be difficult. All we are asking is a chance.”

Rowena nodded. “We will take up your petition, Gatekeeper. You may leave and take this Outlander with you.”

I went with them to Aunt Esme’s home, where we shared a meal, and I met Nikan, a Pumpkinist council member. After dinner, he approached me. “I’m certain you would like to know how we came to be.”

“I am curious.”

“Many eons ago, a dark-arts witch decided to conjure an army of pumpkin people. She cast a spell on several humans and pumpkins to create one creature. It worked too well, and the Pumpkinist came into being. The only problem is the spell she cast was a permanent one, and while we have managed to undo part of the spell, it left us with a rather pumpkin-shaped head, pale orange skin, and yellow eyes. Do you feel your fellow Outlanders will accept us?”

“I’m not going to lie to you. It will take time.”

He smiled. “Then we’ll take the time.”

Gerald approached us. “And it is time to take you home. We hope you’ll help us in our quest to join your world. I promise we have eradicated the dark witches, and it’s time to move forward.”

“I want to learn more about my relative. I’ll be happy to do what I can.”

I left with an invitation to attend the Halloween Ball.

~~~

The house felt eerily silent as I closed the door behind me. I had left that morning not knowing what I would find at Eleanor’s and returned home stunned by what I had learned. The knowledge that a world of witches, wizards, and Pumpkinists existed and I was now involved in helping them join my world was overwhelming.

I needed coffee and headed to the kitchen. As I was scooping coffee into the filter, Clyde wandered in and jumped on the counter. I scratched his head. “Clyde, you will not believe my day.”

The next moment stunned me more than the entire day had. Clyde answered me.

“I could tell you were upset when you left. Tell me about it.”

I stumbled backward. “What—what…? You talk?”

“I could always talk, but you could not understand me. That appears to have changed. Tell me why.”

With my coffee cup in hand, I curled up on the couch, Clyde beside me, and told him about my adventure. An adventure that was only beginning. 

Please visit Deborah on her blog: https://daratliffauthor.wordpress.com

Anita Wu: Death of Colors

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, and Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

Images are free-use images and do not require attribution. Image by Kathrynne from Pixabay

Death of Colors

Anita Wu

A soft glow illuminated her trail, the kind that she could only catch when the sun sat exactly where it stood now, bare and proud, not hidden behind its army of clouds.

Only then did the orange leaves appear to shine, and only then would energy, as though a gift from the sun itself, kiss her, pouring through like a wave at sea.

It was magic, beautiful and pure and calming.

Yet, she felt the tinge — a mere speck of dust — meaningless but overpowering. It lingered, refusing to leave with the flow of magic that passed through her body. It found the darkness within her heart, the secret behind the lie that she led everyone else to believe. It made itself comfortable, snuggled in the warmth of the void, feeding off the emotions she used to veil the harsh truth.

Just like it fed on the colors around her.

The reds and oranges disappeared as though fall had never visited the area. Branches turned to ash, gray snow falling from the sky. A dark omen. Trunks appeared burnt so severely that a flutter of wind could fell the tree.

This sudden shift could only stem from a spell — and one she knew all too well.

The dying trees were the first signs. The runes came next.

They appeared in the distance as if on cue. They were just as she remembered them: an innocent-looking circle that appeared at a seemingly random spot that would glow a deep red for half a second before darkening to pure black. Then, another circle would appear and pulse again, farther away as the rotting trees expanded. This repeated until they found flesh. Then they latched. And devoured.

And she remembered the metallic smell of blood and the ear-piercing screech that came from her brother when the circles caught him then. They burned through the soles of his shoes and stuck to his flesh. Acid, he had screamed.

“Stop it, Mae,” he managed to lower his cries to a level of communication, if only she had been able to make sense of his words instead of being consumed by grief.

She understood them now, as she side-stepped the next circle that appeared too close to her own shoe. She spared only a second to look at the wasteland around her before following the obvious trail to where it began.

She had to stop it before it went too far, before more lives were lost.

***

The air seemed heavier as she followed the runes to its birth. The hairs on her arm rose, and her lips quivered. She didn’t know if the cause was the unrelenting chill that seeped into her bones or the fear that lingered from the darkness spilling into her consciousness, but it dug up the memories she had buried.

The ones where her best friend chased her around the garden, ducking under vines and jumping across fallen trees. A head taller than her, he pretended not to be able to keep up, letting her escape his grasp. She would stick her tongue at him, then he would sprint and collide into her until they both fell onto the ground and rolled around until grass stuck in her hair.

The ones where she kissed him to make her then-crush jealous. He yelled at her immediately after, wiping his mouth yet keeping a smile on his face. She pouted, so he would present her with a candy to cheer her up.

The ones where she laughed with her best friend and his fiancé when they sat together on the rocks, the waterfall drenching them with its mist. She would look away and pretend to smile when they held hands. Despite the years together, he never believed her when she said the woman was bad news.

She never regretted what she did to that redhead. She only regretted that her best friend found out about it.

And her heart ached at his absence.

It ached again, now, wanting once more to give into the ritual that was happening before her eyes, to join the caster and offer her own wish.

Her tears blurred her vision, and only when she wiped them away did she realize that she stood next to the caster. Her breath caught when she saw the red curls — the same ones that belonged to the woman. Her body acted without knowing. She lunged at the girl, her fingers clawing at her neck, and her screams escaping her lips before she even realized it.

But the body was just a shell as it fell onto the torched earth, and the runes pulsed red. The feel of the neck on her hand was wrong. The eyes were wrong. The cheekbones were wrong. The body was much smaller, much younger. This body was not the redhead her best friend proposed to.

“Ah.” She remembered that the woman had a sister, a grieving sister who apparently felt as strongly as she did for her best friend, a grieving sister who read all the texts and learned all the steps needed for this ritual, a grieving sister who was no longer alive.

The runes never hurt Mae because they had already consumed the poor girl and left only a shell sprawled on the ground.

Realizing she was still strangling the body, Mae let go of her neck. Red marks remained where her hands wrapped around skin.

“Hmmmm.” Mae heard the voice, the one that could melt any man’s heart, just like it did her best friend. She remembered it all too well. It sounded just as sweet when they were screams in her final moments a few months ago. The same moments that Mae had cherished.

She turned around and saw the red curls she thought she saw earlier, the perfect curve of her cheekbones, the fierceness in her eyes, the arrogant tilt of her smirk. The hands that served her best friend his last moments.

“It’s been a while, hasn’t it? My dear sister did what she was supposed to do?” She tilted her head to look at the body lying on the ground. Her smile widened.

“Ready for a rematch, Mae?”

Please visit Anita on her blog: https://soreispeaks.wordpress.com/

Lisa Criss Griffin: Bethany’s Battle

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, and Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

Images are free-use images and do not require attribution. Image by Kathrynne from Pixabay

Bethany’s Battle

Lisa Criss Griffin

An unexpected breeze whipped Bethany’s hair across her face as she took the familiar shortcut through the colorful forest. The brilliant leaves covering the path crunched under her feet, releasing the pleasant smell of autumn into the air. The young girl whispered happily to her unseen friend, who had been with her ever since she could remember. He was always kind. A comforter, one might say. 

It was only recently that Bethany came to realize many others could not hear him. They thought she was either highly imaginative or possibly crazy. Some people actually scoffed at her and took pleasure in making fun of her behind her back. She could feel those people… their poisonous thoughts rolling into the atmosphere like scarlet acid dripping through a wispy wall. 

They were everywhere now, and lately, a sulfuric, ferrous stench also accompanied their thoughts. Her young classmates were bad enough, but the thoughts of adults were much worse. And she could feel them all in her soul. Bethany had learned to wall off the tender, vulnerable part of her heart as a matter of survival. Her invisible friend was a balm to her soul, comforting and encouraging her amidst the presence of the ever-increasing torment.

Another gust of wind swirled through the forest. The golden sunlight streaming through the trees began to grow dim as blue-gray clouds skittered across the sky. Bethany walked a little faster. Something was terribly wrong. She could feel the malevolent shift in the atmosphere. 

The faint voice of a weeping cello wafted eerily through the woods from old Mr. Ficaro’s house. She usually loved to hear him play, but today his music was sad. Too sad. A lump burned in her throat as she hurried by his home, trying not to listen to the haunting melody swirling around the peeling bark of the trees. 

A shroud of gray mist dropped into the outstretched arms of the forest, moist and cool on Bethany’s flushed face. She shivered from the heaviness of the undercurrent flowing through the glen hidden by the fog. Something was very wrong. She could feel it coming closer… and closer. 

“Hide, little one. Over there. In the hollow of the big oak tree.”

Bethany left the leaf-littered pathway, stuffing her slim body into the gaping hollow at the base of the tree.

“Pull that branch on the ground across the hollow entrance. Hurry!”

The youngster followed her unseen friend’s instructions, surprised by the amount of cover the branch provided.

“Be quiet, no matter what you see or hear. You don’t want anyone to find you. Don’t be afraid. I am with you… always.”

The warmth of relief spread through Bethany’s mind, relaxing her clenched muscles. She didn’t need to be afraid. Her father was the king of their country, only he left to help stave off a massive invasion by a wicked horde of marauders on the far southern borders. Her mother had told her so before she died two years ago. Bethany would never forget the compelling look in her mother’s intense green eyes as she grasped her small hand tightly.

“Always remember, my beloved girl. You are the daughter of the one true king. He will be back. He promised. I believe him. He left our unseen friend here with us until he returns. You must believe it too, even when I leave. Promise me!”

“I promise, Mommy. Thank you for sharing your invisible friend with me. He is kind.”

“He wants to be with us. He is… such… a comfort.”

Her mother smiled, then sighed, her delicate hand falling gently onto the bedspread. Bethany watched the life slowly fade from her mother’s emerald eyes. It was the only clear memory of her mother she could recall. Bethany had lived with Auntie Pearl ever since. The only memento she still had of her father was a book.

An ominous rumble enveloped the darkened forest. The young girl shrank further into the hollowed-out tree as the ground beneath her began to vibrate. A hideous, malodorous stench filled the air. She choked silently, only daring to take shallow breaths. Hair rose on her forearms as a dense black shadow stopped in the pathway not far from her tree. It stretched up, sniffing. Red beams of light darted across the fallen leaves of the forest floor, searching…. The reddish illumination made its way toward her tree. She held her breath and shut her eyes, willing her mind to shield her presence from the demonic creature.

The roots of her tree glowed like red hot coals as the thing stalked her. More of the evil creatures arrived. The red gaze whipped away. Inhumane shrieks filled the forest as the group grew larger and larger still. The stench was so overwhelming that tears rolled silently down Bethany’s horrified face, dribbling onto the goosebumps covering her small arms. She could barely breathe.

The group slowly moved to a larger clearing in the forest. Hideous, otherworldly sounds bounced off tree trunks, spreading deeper into the forest. Her eyes popped open when she heard the voice of a man. Bethany listened carefully to his voice as it boomed with a laughter that made her skin crawl. She knew that voice. It was the voice of a man her father trusted. It was the same voice that announced her mother was dying. She hadn’t heard it since the night her beloved mother died. She hadn’t liked it back then. She found it revolting now. The wretch had sold his soul to these devils. Even she, at her young age, knew this was treason.

A flash of anger bubbled up inside her, quickly replaced by a deep compassion for her father. He would be heartbroken when he returned to find such evil had been running rampant during his absence. 

The high pitch of a tiny boy screaming hysterically pierced the darkness of the drifting fog. Oh no! Surely not! She had heard rumors of such things, but this depth of evil had always been hard to believe. But what could she do all by herself?

“You are not alone, Bethany. In fact, you could command a great army to intervene if you are willing.”

“How? No one else is here.”

“They are here. You just don’t see them.”

“Can I see them?”

“Only if you have the faith to see them. Only if you are willing to give the word.”

“The word?”

“Something relevant out of the book you were given.”

“Oooo… kay.”

Bethany slowly sucked in some air, then eased her body out of the hollow of the tree. She frantically searched her memory for some words from the book. She grabbed handfuls of her thick, curly hair and pulled it in frustration, terrified she would be instantly discovered. Suddenly, she knew the verses. She stood in reverence and began to whisper the words to a song from the book.

“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will remain secure and rest in the shadow of the Almighty whose power no enemy can withstand. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, My God, in whom I trust with great confidence, and on whom I rely!’”

The toddler stopped shrieking and began to sob. She was all in now. There was no going back.

“For He will save you from the trap of the fowler, from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you and completely protect you with His pinions, And under His wings, you will find refuge; His faithfulness is a shield and a wall.”

‭‭‬‬‬‬Bethany spoke a little louder as she continued.

“You will not be afraid of the terror of night, nor of the arrow that flies by day, nor of the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor of the destruction (sudden death) that lays waste at noon.

‭‭A thousand may fall at your side and ten thousand at your right hand, but danger will not come near you.”‬‬‬‬

‭‭‬‬‬‬The evil creatures turned away from the boy and faced the young girl. They moved through the swirling fog as a group, hissing and shrieking their intense revulsion to the words of the song. Bethany stood tall and spoke with greater authority, locking eyes with the terrified boy.

“You will only be a spectator as you look on with your eyes and witness the divine repayment of the wicked as you watch safely from the shelter of the Most High. Because you have made the Lord, who is my refuge, even the Most High, your dwelling place, no evil will befall you, nor will any plague come near your tent.”

‭ ‬The demonic devils continued to close in on her, their flaming red eyes dripping with pure hatred. She pointed at each one with her index finger as she began to yell with conviction.

“For He will command His angels in regard to you, to protect and defend and guard you in all your ways of obedience and service. They will lift you up in their hands so that you do not even strike your foot against a stone.”

Then, without warning, she saw them! The spectacular angels of light were much larger than the evil creatures and outnumbered them at least three to one. Many of them had fierce expressions and were obviously warrior angels. Her mouth dropped open in awe, the rest of Psalms 91 now silent on her lips. 

The magnificent beings made quick work of the snarling, vile demons, hauling them away in brilliant flashes of light. Rainbows of color lit up the sky as the clouds dissipated. The man her father had trusted was on his face, repenting and sobbing for forgiveness. She felt a tug on her hand. The boy was very young, but his eyes were filled with a supernatural peace.

“Tank you… tank you berry much. Are you… ummm… God?”

Bethany laughed and took his tiny hand, leading him out of the forest into the warm sunshine.

“Oh no, no. But we are friends. Would you like to be His friend too?”

The little fella looked up at her and nodded his head enthusiastically. 

“He good! Has big army too. I wanna be His fwend. He berry good!!”

Bethany looked down into his sweet face and returned his smile.

“Yes, we will ask Him to be your friend now. And you are so right. God is… absolutely good!”

Copyright ©️ 2022 Lisa Criss Griffin
All rights reserved

Please visit Lisa on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/authorlisacrissgriffin

Cheryl Ann Guido: The Red Princess

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, and Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

Images are free-use images and do not require attribution. Image by Kathrynne from Pixabay

THE RED PRINCESS

Cheryl Ann Guido

“She must be troubled today.”

The queen sighed as she observed the forest sky bathed in a bright orange glow. Her trusted servant stood by her side. It had become an all-too-familiar event. Hands clasped behind his back, he shook his head.

“Forgive my impertinence, Your Highness, however, she seems to be troubled on many days.”

Lowering her eyes, the queen turned her back to the window. “It does appear that way. We can only hope that one day she will be able to overcome her guilt and return home to us.”

***

I used to have a name once. I still do, although no one speaks it anymore. Now I’m simply referred to as the Red Princess. I suppose that is because on many nights, I light the sky with fire. I have become a complete recluse. None of the people in the kingdom have ever attempted to seek me out or even say hello. Even the young man who delivers my supplies simply drops them off at the outskirts of my property.

My home is simple. It once belonged to my mother, a powerful witch. My father was a troubled man. He had never been understood or accepted by my grandfather, the king. He was considered frivolous, only interested in drinking and gambling. When the time came to name a successor, the king declared him unfit to rule, proclaiming that the title of King would instead be bestowed upon my uncle, his younger brother.

When the death bell tolled the king’s demise, my father grew bitter and fled into the forest. It was there that he met my mother. She took him in and attempted to quell the fiery rage in his heart. Despite his constant plotting of wicked revenge, she fell in love with him. Unfortunately for her, he did not feel the same. He only used her as a teacher who taught him how to use powerful magic. Magic he inevitably used to exact terrible revenge upon the royal family and the entire kingdom.

When I was two years old, my father decided that the time for retribution had come. My mother tried to talk him out of his evil plan, and in anger, he slew her. He then conjured a wicked spell turning all of the inhabitants of the kingdom of Arcenciel into animals. He took particular pleasure in changing a particular young female child into a fearsome Solovite. Solovites existed only in ancient myths. However, my father devised a spell to transform a human into the terrifying creature. I found his spell scrawled on a piece of parchment in my mother’s home:

Lion’s head and dragon’s wings
Horns of ram with silver rings
Scales of reptile strong and bold
Tail of fire, eyes of gold
Legs with hoofs to powerfully crush
Mane snow white and voice of thrush
Face of maiden full of beauty
I transform thee to do my duty

That last part of the description he added on a whim. It fed his ego knowing that after the Solovite matured, he’d have a beautiful woman to do his bidding, even if her body was that of a beast.

Shortly after, my father sent me far, far away to a land devoid of magic. The reason for this was that he feared that I would inherit my mother’s powers and become a formidable foe. He could have slain me, but he did not. Instead, in a rare moment of kindness, he paid two foreigners to take me away. Hence, I grew up never knowing this land or my true heritage.

My father never considered the possibility that I would return. I did not return knowingly or even willingly at first. I was just a sixteen-year-old kid running away from abusive parents. Somehow, I found myself on the outskirts of Arcenciel, although I did not know it then. After I entered the forest, I met a talking robin, noble and pure of heart. He convinced me to accompany him to Arcenciel on a quest of which he did not fully explain other than that it involved the restoration of a kingdom to its past glory.

At first, I hesitated. Why should I help him? Arcenciel meant nothing to me. Yet, he remained persistent. He sang of the beauty of the kingdom with its rainbow-colored buildings and gleaming streets. He told me stories of bravery and happy citizens. He lamented that the kingdom had fallen because of a wicked sorcerer who had proclaimed himself king. I listened, grateful for company on my lonely journey to … where? I had no plan. I had simply run away.

We continued to travel, making friends along the way. One of them, a mighty golden dog, turned out to be a ferocious protector who asked to join us on our travels. She also spoke like a human. What a strange place, I thought.

One morning, the robin’s sweet-sounding song sounded almost joyous. His happy melody woke me, and I gazed off into the distance at a glorious sight. The sun had risen overhead and cast its rays upon the buildings of Arcenciel, bathing them in their shining pastel colors of bright pink, blue, white, and gold. The crystal domes of some dazzled like prisms, the light almost blinding as it split into rainbow colors bouncing off of their rounded sides. I was in awe of the city’s sparkling beauty. It was then that I decided to aid old Baltar — that was the robin’s name — on his quest. Together, the three of us approached the city and began what turned out to be a life-changing adventure for me.

Upon reaching the perimeter, we stopped. A deep moat surrounded the tall stone wall that had been erected around the city. It had a locked thick metal gate that completely sealed Arcenciel off from any intruders. Baltar could have flown over, however, only having wings, he lacked the ability to unlock and open the gate. We needed a plan. As we commiserated, a mermaid arose from the water. She tried to warn us away. She told us of the evil sorcerer king and advised us to turn back. When we declined, she said: Don’t say I didn’t warn you in a cheeky tone of voice, then dove back into the moat.

Still baffled by the seemingly impenetrable wall, we sat at the edge of the moat deciding how to proceed. A bit later, the mermaid again popped out of the water. Surprised that we had not departed, she asked us if we were still going to try to break into the city. We said yes. She smiled, for though she was an impish mermaid, she had a good heart. She offered to guide one of us to an underwater opening. Once inside the city, the gate could be unlocked and opened for the rest of us to enter.

Never a strong swimmer, I declined, and Baltar lacked the proper form to swim underwater. That left the task to Sheena. Brave as she was, I knew that the possibility of drowning weighed heavily upon her. She almost did not make it. She hit her head on a rock just outside of the opening but was pushed through by the mermaid. Once inside, she regained consciousness and opened the gate.

After we entered the city, we made our way to the palace. Unfortunately, having human form, I stuck out like a sore thumb. We did not get far before the king’s guards captured me. Sheena and Baltar escaped and went into hiding in an old garden shed near the palace.

The soldiers brought me to the sorcerer king, a fearsome man dressed in black leather from head to toe. An earring in the shape of an upside-down cross hung from his left ear. He sat with one booted leg thrown casually over the arm of his golden throne. In one hand, he absentmindedly twirled a sword while the other caressed a skull carved into the end of the armrest. He smiled with a sinister wickedness that chilled me to the bone. Of course, at that time, I had no idea that this evil man helped give me life, and neither did he.

He correctly guessed the reason for my being there, then taunted my obvious shortcomings as a mere mortal. He scoffed at the idea of a tiny young girl with no fighting prowess or magical powers having the gall to challenge him. To drive his point home, he summoned his she-beast, who circled me, snorting streams of fire that passed dangerously close while His Wickedness clapped his hands and laughed with maniacal glee. At the end of that torturous exercise, he pushed the tip of his sword ever so slightly against my throat. The events of my brief life raced through my mind. Terrified, I passed out.

When I awoke, I found myself in a dark musty cell. Constructed entirely of stone, it had a solid wooden door with no handle on my side. The cell curved around in a perfect circle. I guessed that it must be one of the castle turrets that we had seen when we entered the city. I was not below ground; I was above it. The only light came from a narrow slit in the stone.

I became aware of long tendrils of smoke winding their way inside through that tiny slit. A shooting flame emerged, identifying the source. It was the Solovite hovering outside of my prison. I flattened myself against the wall and closed my eyes. Surely, she had come to slay me. But she did not. Instead, she spoke with a voice that sounded like a thousand tinkling bells. I am not here to harm you, she said. I did not believe her. Why else would she be there except to do the bidding of her master?

Again, the melodious voice spoke. It seemed to fill the entire room. I came to make you a deal. A deal? What kind of deal could I possibly make with that monstrous beast? Still, her offer opened up the possibility of freedom for me.

What do you want? My voice trembled, betraying my fear.

Do not be afraid, she cooed. I believe we can be useful to one another.

In what way? Now I was intrigued.

You want to slay the Master. I want him dead too. Only by his death will I be set free.

Why would I want him dead?

I had never considered that possibility. I only knew that Baltar suggested that we restore Arcenciel to its former glory. He said nothing about killing the sorcerer or anyone else.

She snorted. She must have thought I was terribly dense.

Because the only way to break the spell over Arcenciel is by killing the sorcerer king.

And you know this because …?

Another bump. She must have slammed her massive tail against the wall. Stupid human! Do you not know the prophecy?

No, I did not, but I assumed she would enlighten me. I decided to play along. Tell me.

She exhaled loudly, and again a bit of flame and smoke oozed through the narrow slit. An unlikely savior will kill the sorcerer and set Arcenciel free. You are about as unlikely as one can be.

I considered her words. A partnership between us could certainly be an advantage for our cause. But killing someone was not something I thought I could do. That aside, could I trust her? How do I know that you’ll keep your part of the bargain?

You don’t, but if you ever want to see the light of day again, you’ll join me.

I could not argue with that, so I agreed. Shortly afterward, two guards came to my cell and dragged me to the throne room again. He stood there with his arms crossed, staring. He did not speak, he simply … stared. I stared back. He then took a step backward and summoned the she-beast. She circled as before, snorting flame and flailing her tail, and I could see him salivating as he waited for the kill. Just when I thought she had betrayed me, her tail swooped down, lifted me up, and tossed me on her back. We flew out of the palace leaving a very angry adversary behind.

She dropped me off at the garden shed, then flew off somewhere. Baltar, Sheena, and I formulated our plan, and after sneaking back into the palace, we put it into action. When we reached the throne room, he was waiting for us. He recognized Baltar instantly and laughed, his eyes sparkling with madness. He chanted a spell and Baltar transformed back into his human form. I realized then why our mission had been so important to him. Baltar was my father’s brother, the King of Arcenciel.

The fight for Arcenciel began, but battles between brothers never end well, and although Baltar fought with valor, my father resorted to trickery and magic to wear him down. In the end, he simply plunged his sword into Baltar’s chest. Baltar’s dying words were to me: It’s up to you now.

Rage surged through my body as I watched my friend die. I could feel an electric tingling in my fingers as my eyes blazed. To my surprise, a dazzling ball of energy formed in the palm of my hand. It took the sorcerer by surprise as well. Only one other person ever produced this kind of magic without a spoken spell — my mother. He knew then that I was the daughter he had given away so many years before. The shock only immobilized him for a moment. He regained his senses, and after chanting a short spell, a ball of sizzling energy appeared in his own hand.

Confused and disoriented, I stood there, my magic weapon waiting to be deployed. He, on the other hand, knew exactly what to do and hurled his white light directly at me. It knocked me down. and he began to taunt me again, saying I sorely lacked magical skill. Unused, the energy dissipated. I spied the sword Baltar had dropped, and as my hands wrapped around its hilt, my heart grew heavy, for I knew how this had to end.

I lashed out at him as he approached, but he sidestepped, turned around and rushed at me with his own sword. Still on the floor. I held my weapon over my head and blocked his lunge. From the side of the room, Sheena attacked and knocked him down. I jumped to my feet. He tossed Sheena aside like a plush doll, then advanced toward me again. The room became filled with the pungent odor of smoke. The Solovite had returned. She slashed at his body with her long tail sending him flying against one of the walls. Realizing that she had switched sides, he implored me to intercede. Daughter, you cannot let her do this to me.

Daughter? My mind screamed as once again the she-beast attacked, blowing scorching flame at his broken body. Again, he begged. Help me and I will make you my co-ruler. As the first born of the first born you are heir to my throne.

These revelations were too much for me to bear. Knowing I had been raised by surrogate parents was traumatizing enough, but finding out that my real father was a wicked sorcerer who had usurped the throne and exacted revenge upon an entire kingdom exploded my mind. I had a hard time processing all of this new information.

The sound of Sheena’s ferocious growl brought me to my senses. I blinked. then saw that the she-beast and my faithful canine friend had my father trapped in a corner, his death imminent.

Stop! The word came directly from my heart by way of my lips.

The Solovite stopped. Sheena stopped. My father stopped. In fact, everything stopped. Somehow, I had made time stop. Everyone was frozen in place except me. I approached the three of them. It seemed like a surreal dream. They stood like statues sculpted in motion. Sheena had been jumping up and hung suspended in mid-air while the Solovite’s fiery breath extended from her nose in a long red-orange stream. I touched it. then pulled my finger back in pain. for it was as hot as it appeared.

As I looked from my father to Sheena to the she-beast, I realized that I had a gut-wrenching choice to make. Either I let my father live and join him in his wicked ways, or I slay him, thus terminating the evil spell and setting Arcenciel free. I slid between them. After gazing deep into my father’s eyes, I gently touched the side of his face with the tips of my fingers. I wished that somewhere inside of him some good remained. I wished that I could persuade him to give up his evil ways. I wished that I did not have to do what I had to do. A tear slid out of my eye and rolled down my cheek as I raised my sword and ran it through his heart. The sorcerer was dead. The spell was broken.

Sheena and the Solovite returned to their human forms, the former being a mighty General and the latter being my cousin Dinara, daughter of Baltar. Dinara proclaimed me Queen, but I declined. I could not accept that responsibility, nor did I feel worthy of it after gaining the throne by executing my own father. Committing that heinous act sickened me.

As daughter of the younger brother and king, the crown then passed to Dinara. I retreated into the woods back to my mother’s cottage, and here I have lived for the past two years evidently frightening the locals with my glowing spells.

“And then you saved me.”

“Yes, my little friend. Lucky for you that I was under that tree when you fell. What kind of creature are you anyway?”

“I’m a Timetarg. Can’t you tell by my eyes? They’re shaped like little round clocks.”

“A Timetarg you say? I thought Timetargs only existed in legends.”

“No, we are a rare breed but real.”

“Well, thank you for listening to my tale. Now, off you go. You are safe.”

“I am in your debt, Red Princess. If you like, I can take you back in time.”

“Why would I do that?”

“To help your father. Perhaps you can make things right before they went wrong.”

“It is said that changing the past makes the future worse.”

“Not necessarily. If you are careful, you can make the future better. Would you like me to take you back to the time when your father was a child before he became evil? Perhaps with your guidance, he can grow up to be a good man. Then, Arcenciel will never have been cursed, but more importantly, it means that you never had to kill your own father.”

My eyebrows arch as the impact of his words ignited a tiny flicker of hope in my heart.

Please visit Cheryl on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/cherylannguidoauthor

Calliope Njo: The Test

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, and Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

Images are free-use images and do not require attribution. Image by Kathrynne from Pixabay

The Test

Calliope Njo 

Well, here we go, rather me, but…. I walked up the stairs and knocked on the door. It seemed strange that somebody would burn a flower smack dab in the middle of the door. Maybe that was because I never saw it before.

The door opened, and I stepped in. The directions said to ring the bell and wait. I found the golden bell, rang it, and put it down. Meanwhile, I looked around the room. The dark wood had a reddish tint to it. The fireplace took up the entire wall, with shelves on either side. They filled all of them with dolls. It felt like they watched me as I moved around.

A big couch sat against the right side of the tremendous fireplace. It looked puffy and comfy to sit on. The deep green gave it an almost cabin-like feel to it.

“Come,” somebody said.

I didn’t have a choice, so I did. I remembered my mother’s lessons. If you want something bad enough, you have to do what they tell you to do.

I kept going until they told me to turn left here. I couldn’t tell anyone if it was a house or a library. All I remembered was the shelves of books as I passed. I heard that sometimes things don’t appear as they seem.

“Come inside the room on the left, close the door, and wait. We will be there.”

I did that. I wanted a place to sit, but I didn’t want to ask. My throat was dry, and I could swear that my heart was beating a mile a minute.

Four people appeared from somewhere. People may not appear out of nowhere, but they did. First, I saw floating hooded capes. Then people’s faces appeared after that, and I can’t say if it made me feel better.

“You found us, Hildegarde. We have been waiting. While it may seem expected to follow the dominant in a household, what was your choice?”

If I had a choice, I would’ve gone to a university to become a teacher. “I came here to find out more about my mother and my aunt. They always told me stories, and I needed to know more. There were details missing, so I thought I would find out for myself. I asked both of them what this secret society was called, but they never answered. It was only because a few others wanted to know the same thing that I could find out. That’s how I ended up here.”

“That tells us why you found us, not your choice.”

“Oh. Right. I just chose this because to me it seemed interesting. A sort of secret society that exists in plain sight without existing in plain sight.”

“So, would you say curiosity got the best of you?” somebody asked.

“Yes. I suppose.”

“All right. We have a selection process. It is possible that you will not undergo testing. You may or may not be given a secret mission. You may or may not undergo observation. Anything can be used to make our decision, and our decision is final. It is only a pass or fail. Do you understand?”

Somehow, that felt an awful lot like finals. “Yes.”

“Good. We will let you know in a fortnight.” With a flash, they disappeared.

Mom always told me, don’t ask questions you don’t want the answers to. I kept that in mind when a man that looked half-dead opened the door and pointed the way to the front door.

I heard the door close and kept going. There was only one path that led to the house, and I followed the same path. At least, I thought I did, but there weren’t so many trees here before. There was asphalt here, but it changed to dirt and leaves.

A sudden cool breeze blew my hair in my face as I regretted not bringing a scrunchie with me. I kept going straight, hoping to find the main road.

A town was there instead, and maybe they had a phone. I heard Mom yelling at me in my head about coming here, but I concentrated on my current circumstances instead of what I should’ve done.

The buildings had an old feel to them. It could’ve been the peeling paint or the fact that nobody was around. It was hard to explain, but maybe somebody was there.

Every building was empty. No one even greeted me or yelled at me. I learned to trust my gut over the years, and it told me to leave. I couldn’t, though. Something kept me there.

I left town only to find out if they had a sign that had the name of a town written on it. The path here was still the same. Tree-lined pathway with autumn colors and piles of leaves that colored the dirt. Either I was the only stupid one that came in here or the only brave one that dared to come in here. I didn’t know which one yet, although knowing me, it would’ve been the former.

I turned around and almost bumped into someone. “Hi. My name’s Hilde. Sort of an old family name. Could you tell me what town this is?”

She laughed. “Hilde? Yes?”

I said that already so I raised my eyebrow.

She shrugged. “I thought I was the only one with a strange name. I got excited when I saw somebody else. My name’s Brunhilde. As for your question, I have no idea.”

“All right. How about if we just find a place to sleep? I think the sun is going to set soon. You wouldn’t know where we could find food?”

I looked at her. Long black hair and pale skin, talk about different shades on one body. Being only four feet ten and a half, everybody else was tall. So I couldn’t say if she was tall or not. What I could say is that she looked pretty fit to me. I only wished I paid more attention to her eyes when she was up close.

“There’s a place up the road a bit. You try to make the place comfortable while I scrounge around for food.” She left me there.

“Brunhilde, where?”

“The place with the only sign on it. Nobody’s there. Just go on in, and I will be back.”

I did what she told me to do only because it seemed like the logical thing to do. Also, maybe I didn’t know where to find food. On the other hand, how did she? I walked through this town, and none of the buildings had a sign. It could’ve been that I missed one.

The sign read Saloon, and I went in. I heard glasses jiggling and chairs screeching. A few of the tables even moved.

Mom always told me I had an imagination, but I always wondered. I walked up the steps, and a woman in a sort of outfit stood in front of me.

She smiled as she grabbed my arm. “There’s a man in the room who may like your style.” She let go.

I didn’t know what she was talking about and went into the first room. Nobody in there, and the bed was made. Both were good things. If only the big metal basin was filled, it would’ve been even better. I felt filthy.

The door opened. I turned around, and it was a tall and slender man. OK, everybody was tall, but his head hit the top of the doorway.

“A bit scrawny, ain’tcha? No matter. Just give me what I want.” He undid his belt and started with his pants.

I had an idea what he was talking about and didn’t feel like finding out if what I thought was right or not. I wished, what’s her name again, would hurry.

I got thrown on the bed, and I closed my eyes, expecting that man to handle me.

“Hilde? Hilde? It’s all right now.”

I shook my head and screamed. “No. No. No.”

“Hilde, it’s me. It’s Brunhilde. Now, come on. I brought food.”

Huh? I opened my eyes and put down my hands. “Oh. It’s you. Where did that man go?” I caught a glimpse of red before she brushed her hand over my face.

“What man?” She pointed to the food on the table.

Right. Nobody else saw what I did. “Never mind. What did you find?”

“If you tell me what man, I may be able to help you.”

I lost a lot of friends that way. I ignored her, picked at the offerings, and saw what looked like a sandwich. Another one of Mom’s lessons came to mind. Don’t bite into anything that you didn’t know the origins of.

“Thank you for the food, and I apologize for complaining, but I lost my appetite all of a sudden.” I sat on the edge of the bed, almost too afraid to ask. “Now what?”

“Hildegarde—”

After getting off the bed, I stood in front of the door. “I never told you my name. I only said it was Hilde. How did you know?”

“There’s a lot I do know, and that’s your name. I can’t explain how, though. It gets complicated. Just like you won’t explain what man you saw.”

I swallowed. “Maybe next time. Now what?”

“How about if we relax and find out what happens, then? This place can’t exist forever, especially since it’s not supposed to be here anymore.” She brushed her fingertips on my lips and tilted her head a bit.

I didn’t like the sound of that and kept my trap shut. I left the doorway, but I kept her in my sights. Until she explained herself, I couldn’t let it go.

That food looked too good to pass. It seemed to beckon me, but I needed to resist the temptation. Something about all of this didn’t sit right.

Who was she, and where did she find the food? How did she know what my favorites were? How did she know my name? I told no one what my real name was.

When she closed her eyes, I left the room. I tried to be as quiet as I could, but the noise from downstairs canceled that attempt. I stood against the wall and waited a few seconds, but she didn’t come out.

After I left the building, I came back onto the street again. Now the streets seemed busy with horses and people. I wondered if she had anything to do with it or not.

A place down the road was the blacksmith. Across from them was an eatery. Today’s special was meatloaf, according to a lady. Next to them was the General Store, run by an old man and his wife. If only there was another place to stay until the sun came up high enough for me to see.

On the basis that every town had a church, that’s what I looked for. It was a single building that overlooked a creek. Once over the bridge, I stepped inside and sat down. Maybe they wouldn’t mind me spending a bit of time in here. I lay down and hoped for the best.

The creaking door woke me up. I rushed out before whoever it was asked me a question I couldn’t answer. That and there was business to take care of.

Business taken care of, I went back to town to the entrance to see if maybe things changed. It didn’t. The same road was still there.

“You know, I cannot believe that you’re trying to avoid me.”

Uh oh. She found me. I tried to think of the best lie I could think of. “No. No. I just couldn’t sleep and didn’t want to wake you up. That’s all.” Yeah, and you’re the Princess of Prussia.

She laughed. “You don’t lie very well. No matter. We need to get back to the Saloon. I got some more food for you. You must be starving by now.”

“My stomach isn’t feeling very well.” Not a complete lie. “So you just eat, and I’ll spend time downstairs. I always wanted to learn how to play poker.” I only needed a minute.

“No. No. Both of us are in this together. I already had my fill, besides.” Her eyes twinkled. Another thing on a long list that didn’t fit her. So things went from bizarre to disturbing.

“I need to move around. You know. Exercise and all.”

“Do you expect me to believe that?”

I didn’t think so, but I thought I’d try, anyway. “Look. You don’t have to take care of me. I’m sure whatever this is about will resolve itself. What can go wrong?” Other than everything. “Something’s gotta change. Right?”

Uh oh. She powered herself up by drawing in energy. That and her eyes turned red. I ran into the blacksmith’s and out the back. I hopped over the fence to go somewhere. She found me.

I turned back around and made my way through the blacksmith’s again and into the General Store. There had to be something there to reflect her magic back to her. Either that or jerry-rig something.

She didn’t come in, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t. I needed to hurry to find something. There was a lantern and a tin plate. The tin plate may not reflect enough, but I had to try. She came in as I lit the lantern. I put the tin plate behind it, and nothing happened.

She had been staying in the shadows up to this point. So she wasn’t immune to light. At least, I hoped. I only needed to find the sun and, at the right angle, no more Brunhilde.

I looked up at the sky, and my plan wouldn’t work because the sun was not within the distance I needed.

The church had Bibles. Out of desperation, I went into the church and grabbed one. I never believed it would work, but I didn’t know what else to do.

I started on page one and kept reading until she screamed and fell to the floor. I ran outside and they turned into shadows with red eyes as well. Don’t even get me started with the animals.

Out of pure luck, half the street was covered in shadow and the other half was covered in sunlight. I ran in the sun all the way to the main road. It was still a shadow-covered dirt path. The moans behind me got louder. I assumed they were behind me.

I kept going straight to get to the house. Except it wasn’t there. Things appeared and disappeared. Well, they weren’t supposed to.

I still had the Bible in my hand and started reading it. Most of the shadows vanished except Brunhilde. She was still there. She screamed a lot, but nothing else happened.

I turned around and ran, and somewhere along the way, I dropped the Bible. I couldn’t run fast enough because she caught up to me. A branch broke somewhere, and that got her attention.

I ran past her and into the trees. There had to be a main road. Out of breath and in pain, I couldn’t run anymore. I hid behind a tree to think until I realized how stupid I was.

Shadows didn’t make noise, so how was I supposed to know where she was? Of course, I had to look. OK, on the count of three. One. Two. Three. I looked, and nothing was there.

Wait a minute, that was too easy. She wasn’t anywhere around me. If I was her prey, she should’ve been here and not out somewhere. This was too weird.

Each step I took was planned and precise. If, by any chance, she became one with the trees, I needed to be careful. I made it up a hill, and nothing.

Cars zoomed past me. The sun was almost down. Things didn’t add up, but there was no way to figure out what happened or even why.

I sat down against a tree to rest for a bit before calling Aunt Marty. This would be one tale for the ages. I could almost hear it. One day, when I was still in high school—I laughed.

“Oh my God, I have to figure out a way home. I can’t do that if I’m sitting.” I stood up and started walking. Maybe out of some miracle, somebody would feel sorry for me and offer me a ride.

I looked across the street, and there was that house. They had to have communication in one form or another. At the very least, a telephone.

I knocked on the door, and it opened. There wasn’t one in the front room, so I looked for another room. I knocked on the door to find out if anybody was there.

“Yes? Come in.” That voice sounded familiar.

I opened the door and saw her sitting behind a desk. “Who are you, and how did you get here?”

She smiled. “Everything will become apparent, my sweet. Please, you must be exhausted.” She got up and pulled out the guest chair.

Please visit Calliope on her blog:  https://calliopenjosstories.home.blog

The Self-Confident Writer

Yesterday as I was driving around alone I thought to myself out loud: I have a confidence in my writing, and in myself that I have never had before in my life. And of course, that got me thinking about why I think and feel this way.

For so many writers, including myself, I always looked at whatever I wrote at any given time and said it was pure, unadulterated crap though no one writes a perfect first draft. Yes, sometimes things come out right the first time but for the most part, they don’t. Take this piece for example: I wrote several paragraphs before I wrote the one that started this off. Once I got that paragraph, I deleted the other ones I’d written and started over. I know there are times when I need to vent off thoughts before I find what I’m looking for and that’s okay. The world is not going to end if you have a false start (or more than one).

In the past, whenever I did a huge cut like that some dumb voice inside my head asked me what ‘someone’ (no one specific as far as I can tell), would think about me making wholesale cuts like that. One, unless I reveal I’ve made wholesale cuts like this no one would know to begin with. Two, if someone doesn’t like the way I write why should I freaking care about their opinion? Yes, I’ve had people tell me not to do wholesale cuts like that unless I dump the cut-material into a file to salvage later. I’ve tried doing that over the years and you know what- I never used those cut-files. I always worked from the new material I’d come up with. And the world doesn’t explode, and my writing doesn’t suffer if I don’t use this cut-material. Now I won’t tell anyone else not to do this because everyone has their own way of doing things. But for me, I don’t need to be a word-hoarder.

In the last few years, I’ve been saying writing is largely instinctive for me, that I can just read something and know if it’s working or not. I’ll go at it and see if editing and revising will work and if not, I’ll just chunk it and start over.

I feel like these instincts have grown as strong as they have because I’ve stopped beating myself up mentally and emotionally, and I’ve stopped worrying about what some mythical ‘someone’ might think about what I’m doing. Lately I’ve been telling myself my job in life is not to pull someone’s head out of their backside for them and I’m starting to truly believe that. I focus on myself and my work and not on what other ‘people’ might think. I used to think I couldn’t stand up for myself if someone did have the stupidity to come at me and get all butt-hurt when I pushed back against them. Now I know I have the right and the ability to stand up for myself and do my own thing. And luckily I haven’t had to deal with anyone’s crap because of it. I believe people have a right to their thoughts and feelings no matter what they are. But I also believe I have every right to my own thoughts and feelings and to live my life the way I want to.

To wrap things up here I want to share something my late father was fond of saying to me: “Don’t ever get into a one-legged ass-kicking contest with yourself because you’ll always win.” What he meant was don’t beat yourself up because that doesn’t accomplish anything. And in regard to writing, that means don’t just say your writing is all crap all the time. Instead, look at on its’ own merits and if it’s working and your gut is telling you you’ve got something to go on, then go with it. Most writing involves a fair amount of revising and editing and sometimes that’s where the really good stuff comes from. And if you want to put stuff into a cut-file, do so. Feel free to go back to it, too if that works for you. You may get to a point in time like I have where those cut-files aren’t needed. But the writing process is something that is in a constant state of evolution and change. And I think once you accept that evolution and change, you’ll gain the confidence needed to write well.

Because for me, true confidence in my writing has shown me I have the ability to write in ways I’ve dreamed about and aspired to for many years. And yes, sometimes those ways are blunt and hard, or deeply emotional, and just good writing that flows well. I don’t think about perfection in any way when I’m writing. I think about going over something I’ve written as many times as I need to in order to get it to where I want. And like a musician finding that perfect melody, I’ll know it when I see it. I won’t doubt myself or think that I’ll never be good enough. I won’t listen to the voices of doubt and negativity anymore because those voices won’t help you at all.

My favorite writing quote is from one of my all-time favorite authors, Nora Roberts: “You can’t revise a blank page.”

So I’ll add this: face that blank page with confidence and faith in yourself, and don’t tell yourself your work is all crap. It’s just a work-in-progress.

Originally appearing on my blog, https://michelesayre.com/blog-conversations-from-the-road/

For more about me, please visit my homepage: https://michelesayre.com/