Hunger

A vast feast lay upon the table. Baskets and fine pottery laden with tender cuts of meat, succulent fruits, and rich pastries, all untouched, all long since cold. Around the table, a stone hall, pillars cold and bare reaching to a distant arched ceiling. A room as cold as the feast.

           From a distant door, a figure entered, bare feet silent under long robes. She set a pitcher of wine on the table and stood a moment, listening. The clamor of the city had faded behind her as she climbed the hill to the temple. The wind slid against the stone walls.

           “Hunger.”

           The word she spoke died in the silence.

           “We call you, Hunger.” She stretched out her hands to the table. “We summon you that you may be appeased.” Her arms lifted to the ceiling, beseeching the stone. “Come and be satisfied.”

           She bent her head and prayed, certain that what she called would never come.

           The evening bells chimed in the distant city. Her arms fell to her sides. The table sat unchanged, the rich food tempting her empty stomach. In the morning, it would be tossed away and the feast re-laid.

           She turned back to the distant door, padding across the cold floor, but a faint whisper stopped her. A figure sat in shadow at the far corner of the table, a bent torso hunched between long, bony knees.

           “You cannot be here,” she said, stepping forward. “Leave. Now.”

           The hanging head turned. A yellow eye stared up at her. “Did you not call me?” a thin voice rasped.

           With quick steps, she returned to the table. “Only those of the temple may enter. Leave.”

           The figure rose, bent and twisted, impossibly tall, impossibly thin. It flexed gaunt hands, watching them curiously. “Why have you called me here?”

           “I… I did not call you,” she whispered.

           The yellow eyes turned back to her. “You spoke my name, and I answered,” it said with pointed teeth.

           Hunger stood before her, immense and wasted. In fear, she sank to her knees. “Eat,” she said timidly, extending her hands to the table. “This is what we have set for you.”

           A skeletal hand touched one of the bowls. Meat fell like dust from the bone. The apples shriveled to their cores. Hunger plucked one up before tossing it disdainfully away. The bony head lifted, listening. “I hear the cries of my followers in the streets, in the forgotten houses.”

           “But you cannot!” she cried. “We gave from our tables to appease you.”

           It stared at her with sunken eyes, and her stomach twisted, empty. Bones rattled against the stone floor as it walked past her. The shadow it cast was immense, blotting out the table.

           Like a wraith, the figure passed from the temple and down the hill to the quiet city. In the silent temple, the food had rotted, and the smell of vinegar wafted from the pitchers of wine.

Sparks

                Two fish swimming circles, an endless dance around the tank. One red, one yellow, darting sparks in a watery sky. A single plastic stalk waved lazily. Bubbles shuddered to the surface, breaking with a soft gasp, and the infinite spiral continued.

                Put a finger to the glass, and they swam faster. Never touching the walls that contained them, always surrendering to its shape. If placed in the openness of the sea, would they know? Or would they only swim and swim, unseeing, looking for invisible borders?

                A delicate layer between them and the vacuum, destruction. Inside, a haven, but so fragile. And they swam as if it were their only purpose. Swam with nowhere to go. Swam to swim, leaving no ripples behind.

                Until they stopped. Until they turned inward, vanished. Became nothing.

                The plastic plant waved alone. Bubbles trembled through empty water. Green fuzz dimmed the glass. In the blackness of night, a pair of stars, red and yellow, streaked across the sky.


Photo Credit: Image by 성혁 이 from Pixabay 

Unintended Consequences

                I took my morning coffee to the balcony and looked out over the swaying trees as I sat and sipped. Living in the forest was as pleasant as I had always thought it would be. Peaceful. Calming. Once you got past the fact that just last week my apartment had been in the center of an urban tangle of cement and metal.

                A shiver ran through the red leaves. It wasn’t autumn. They were just angry. A lamppost on the street corner sparked and collapsed with a creak of rending metal.

                The best and the brightest had put their heads together, deciding that what we needed in the age of deforestation and ozone-shrinkage was the fastest-growing, strongest, tallest, most oxygen-rich tree ever, and they were going to make it. They’d succeeded.

               Sentience had been an unintended side effect.

                It had been on the news as the greatest discovery of our generation. And then there hadn’t been any news.

               The rain forests were gone. Only bare dirt and a few fallen branches and confused jaguars remained. It wasn’t our doing this time. They’d come north to return the favor.

               I’m sure it was horrifying to wake in a world ruled by fleshy predators who stacked up the skeletal remains of your kin to live and park their fume-spitting metal carriages inside, carrying bits of your skin around inside their pockets and bags and burning your remains for fun on a cool summer evening.

                The ground was a writhing mass of shattered concrete, dark earth, and twitching roots. If you were fool enough to go outside, and there wasn’t much inside left to speak of, it wasn’t long before the ground swallowed you up and the new, hungry trees turned you into a human juice box.

                Still, of all the ways to go, in the peace and quiet of nature, enveloped into the welcoming, dark softness of the earth, wasn’t the worst. The roar of the city had stilled. Birds flitted in the leaves, bursting out in laughing flocks as the trees irritably shook their heads. A soft breeze floated by carrying the scent of fresh blossoms.

                The foundation of my building creaked. A long crack lanced up the wall next to me. I took another sip of my coffee. It wouldn’t be long now.

PUBLISHED: Toward Light

My short story “Toward Light” was recently published in the inaugural issue of DreamForge Anvil by DreamForge Magazine.

For something to thrive, something else must be consumed. Or is it possible to circumvent the cycle wherein the energy to sustain life is taken from a living thing? What would such a world be like?

~ DreamForge Anvil introduction to “Toward Light”

Read the story by clicking here.

Access the entire issue by clicking here. You’ll find some wonderful fiction stories and articles about writing and story craft.


Photo Credit: Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

Nisus III

               Nisus III looked like a marble from orbit, a swirl of purple and black beneath fraying sheets of white cloud. As the shuttle hurtled toward the surface, shaking and rattling in the thickening atmosphere, curls of gold began to streak across the mauve soil, growing to thick patches, the first sign of human settlement and habitation.

               The wheat had sprung up faster than we could have hoped. The rest of the grains languished, if they sprouted at all, but the wheat had lifted its golden head and spread like a weed. It grew faster than any crop at home, even without water or rain, coming to harvest in merely a few weeks. When we flew across it, making the fields ripple and bend in our wake, it looked like home.

                The shuttle came to rest on the bank of the black river where we made our camp. It was only a few portable buildings, a lavatory, and a water purifier chugging softly. Mona stood at the edge of the field, a broad-brimmed hat hiding her face. A few grains of wheat sat in her tan, wrinkled palm, and she poked at them, inspecting. “I think it’s ready,” she said.

                She pushed up the brim of her hat to gaze out over the fields. “From sprout to harvest in less time than even the fastest syntheticrops. Every agricultural unit in this sector is going to be dropping into orbit here.”

                “Are there more than yesterday?” I asked, shielding my eyes from the sun and peering toward the edge of the field.

                Mona shrugged and scattered the wheat kernels over the mauve soil. “They’ve been showing up off and on the past few days. Curious, I think.”

                They stood as dumb and still as trees, great bulbous lumpy things, watching us with black eyes. Their skin was knobbly and rough, like lichen-covered rocks. Someone had called them Ents, and the name stuck. Sometimes they bent down to the soil, spreading their elephant-like hands against the earth and humming, or waded into the black water to stand there quietly. Mona had scanned them. Brain waves indicated they were somewhere been dolphins and octopuses, too intelligent to become farm animals but not intelligent enough to understand resource management. They never touched the wheat fields, never came near them, but they watched.

                The scythe glimmered in the sun, and the wheat fanned out over the soil. It could stay there to dry, in the eternally temperate weather, but we filled our arms with stalks, impatient for a taste of our labors. We shook the tiny kernels from their papery skins until only the small oval grains remained.

                “What are they doing?” I asked, looking up to see that more of the Ents had gathered, standing mutely between us and the field.

                Mona glanced up from the small engine unit she’d been rewiring into a grinder. She snorted. “They’re getting comfortable. Likely to be a nuisance soon. Jorn will have to put up that electric fence.”

                We, five lone researchers in a strange purple land, gathered reverently around the small cookstove as Mona mixed the fresh ground grain with water and a sprinkle of salt, the only piece of home we could bring with us across the expanse. The sticky mass of dough clung to her fingers as she shaped it into an uneven round.

               The smell of baking bread filled my nose, and my mouth watered. The intensity of the sensation after weeks, months, (had it been years?) was almost overwhelming.

                The warm, flat cake was pulled from the burner and broken between us, the jagged pieces held like precious stones in our palms.

                “To human advancement,” Mona said and bit into her piece.

                The brown surface crackled against my teeth. It was dry and had the bland, dehydrating taste of under-seasoned grain. It was the best thing I could remember tasting since I’d left home. But something was wrong.

                A strange sensation burned in my chest. Mona collapsed running to the portable buildings for med supplies, one hand outstretched, fingers digging into the soil. Jorn was on his knees next to me, retching. Through bleary eyes, I saw another one of us fall into the river, trying to drink the black water. Bubbles gurgled then nothing broke the dark surface.

                I collapsed backward. Figures appeared above me, lumpy and solid against the pale sky, staring down at me with black eyes. A murmuring filled the air, a stirring whisper like wind through the trees. In the last struggling gasp of breath, I realized they were laughing.

The Faces of Ardune

                The mountains of Ardune have faces carved upon them.

                Three faces. One turned up to the heavens, eyes wide in wonder. Another looking down to the plains below. And the last with eyes closed and mouth open, green forest flowing like hair from the snowy peak.

                The faces sit, still and silent, on the mountainsides. In the dusk, the cavernous mouths spit black swarms of bats, and the rains of spring fall like rivers of tears from the pitted eyes.

                If a mortal hand carved them, it was long before ships came into the bay of Ardune. When Ardun the Mariner first sailed into the bay, the great faces glared out over the forests, and the sailors cowered in fear, thinking they had strayed to the land of the old gods. And the eldest of Ardune still speak in their thin voices of the siege, when the black ships of Korthyk covered the water, bringing steel and fire and death. A tempest rose that night, and when dawn came, the waters were clear and blue again. They say the mountains drew in the breath of the wind and blew them from the bay.

                But of all the legends of Ardune and the faces set there, none is more well-known than that of Selkan. Selkan the Heretic some call him, and they say that the eyes of the mountains glowed red in the setting sun on the day he stepped off the great ship Riverwrath onto the teeming docks of Ardune.

                When he came ashore, he asked one of the sailors who had been on the Riverwrath with him where he could see these faces he heard so much about.

                “There,” the sailor said, pointing over the uneven roofs of Ardune to the looming mountains.

                Selkan studied them a moment, turning his head first one way then another. “An interesting trick of the light,” he said at last. “Though from the tales, I had expected more.”

                And he set off into the narrow and winding streets of Ardune. He was a traveler and spoke with pride of his knowledge of the dry expanses of Erid and the tall forests of Arbur, though he never spoke of his home. Whatever his origin, he was the kind of man who, seeing a great mountain, saw not a shadow to be lived in but a thing to be scaled.

                “Why do you not mine the mountains?” he asked the folk of Ardune, and the tavern where he had come to spend the night fell silent.

                Farmers and sailors, those who knew to fear the land’s fury, turned their shoulders to him, staring into their beer. When Selkan was told the mountains were held in reverence, that none took even a pebble, he laughed.

                “Rock and boulder!” he cried. “You freeze in houses of lumber when you could have stone.”

                Others had tried. But none who had set out to cross the mountains and see what lay beyond had returned. A light came into Selkan’s eyes when he heard this, and he took up a challenge that hadn’t been given him.

                “I will go,” he said. “I will stand in its mouth and take a stone from its belly. Then you will see that you’ve been afraid of nothing more than a shadow.”

                The next day at dawn, he set out across the open plains, down the thin lanes between the fields, and into the deep forests, toward the great peak of Ardune where the black mouth stood open. And those who watched him go shook their heads.

                In the dead of night, two weeks after Selkan’s departure, the ground began to shake, throwing dishes from the shelves and stirring the waters in the bay so that the ships swayed. A great roar rose from the mountains then was still.

                In the morning, the people of Ardune saw that the stony mouth had shut. The mountain was sealed. And if Selkan yet lives, no soul in Ardune has seen him, but if asked, they will say that it was the mountain that swallowed him.


Tiny Tales is now listed on Feedspot’s Top 80 Short Story Blogs. Check it out: https://blog.feedspot.com/short_story_blogs/

Image by DarkmoonArt_de from Pixabay

Aftermath

Leaves skittered across the cabin floor, caught in the whirl and eddy of a night-time breeze. The door creaked on broken hinges. On the hearth, graying embers hissed and spat as cooling tea crept from the shattered mug into the red glow.

A chair lay on its side, one leg mangled. The end of the heavy bed jutted out into the room, lines in the dust where it had reluctantly moved from its place. Blankets lay crumpled over deep grooves carved into the heart of the wooden floor.

A scarlet drop ran along the jagged glass in the windowsill. With a soft moan, the tattered curtains gave way and fluttered to the floor. A red splash was painted there, leading out into the darkness, across the soft dirt, disappearing among the brooding trees.

Through the oppressive night shuddered a mournful cry.


Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

X Marks the Spot

                There’s nothing left of our village but a big charred spot and a few blackened logs still valiantly standing upright. It was razed to the ground, and seeing that we were a small coastal community located next to pirate-infested seas, you’d think it was them that did it.

                In a way, it was the pirates that set the whole thing off. They were always coming in and pillaging and being a general all-around nuisance until some clever person years back decided the best way to fend them off was to beat them at their own game. If we buried all our valuables and made out to be nothing but a poor sea village, they’d have no warrant to come and bother us. It wasn’t long before the citizens rivaled the squirrels for nesting away their goods in the forest, and you could hardly stick a spade in the ground without hitting someone’s forgotten chest or sack of gold.

                Eventually the pillagers, being a naturally lazy lot, showed up less often until they stopped coming together. Unfortunately by the time it was safe to retrieve our valuables, everyone had forgotten where they’d buried what. It wasn’t for lack of looking, but inevitably you found something that belonged to somebody else.

                At first, the finders generously took a finder’s fee, pocketing a portion of the re-discovered goods in return for the hassle of finding the owner, which was all well and good until it came to paying for your own valuables when the whole deal suddenly seemed a lot less fair. Fed up with that, we decided to forget the whole system and the finders could just keep whatever they found. The forest soon turned into a field of pits and exposed roots surrounded by a ring of growing dirt mounds you had to clamber over as everyone frantically tried to dig up whatever they could. This system certainly motivated, but it crumbled when the blacksmith, a seven-foot man with arms the size of barrels dug up a chest full of silk dresses and decided he neither wanted nor needed them. And the previous owner of the dresses, who had unearthed his broadsword beneath a copse of oaks, decided she’d much rather keep the weapon.

                As chaotic as this sounds, it would have settled itself in the end. The real problems began when we unearthed the journal. The original owner declined to reveal themselves (which was a wise choice as it turns out), and the finder delved into the brittle pages to see if they could puzzle out who it was. What they found was a collection of gossip so vile, so despicable, that they promptly shared it with everyone in the immediate vicinity.

               Once we started reading it, we obviously couldn’t stop. Whoever wasn’t mentioned within the pages must be the author, so it had to be carefully read from cover to cover and the vicious gossip identified. But nobody trusted anybody else to do the reading, in case they were the one who had penned it, and it became a public event which any and all could attend (and they did). And as there were quite a few names to be checked off before we got to the end, wild suspicions and accusations were flying before we’d even gotten ten pages in.

                On page three, the tavern keeper, a large and balding man, was described as “a lump of rancid lard” who smelled about as bad, and his ale was only slightly preferable to drinking the seawater that dripped from dead fish as they hung in the sun to dry. The outraged tavern keeper was convinced that the fisherman had done it, having always harbored a deep dislike for the man despite their feigned friendship, and sliced all his nets in the night. Again, it might have blown over except he just couldn’t hold back from telling the fisherman that maybe he should worry about his own smell. The fisherman, who had genuinely believed they were friends up until that moment and just now realizing the truth of the matter, poked holes in all the barrels of ale, flooding the tavern, and left behind a very generous and very fishy gift. (The tavern keeper opened his door the next morning to find a collection of very drunk eels.)

                After that, the entire village dissolved into chaos. Every secretly remembered insult and offense came barreling back into the light of day until people barricaded themselves in their homes at night and refused to speak to each other in the streets.

                The last straw (or the first spark) was the lengthy section describing the ineptitude, inability, and complete lack of imagination the town builder displayed in whatever project she touched. This was crowned by an assertion that the inhabitants would probably prefer to live in piles of cow dung over the buildings she created which so closely resembled them. She, the victim of a failed romance with the farrier, focused all her rage on him, and that night set fire to the stable she had so lovingly built, rather stupidly forgetting that all the houses were made of wood and built rather close together, and it wasn’t long before the whole thing went up like a great big hunk of dried dung.

                So now the village is nothing but a smoking black spot on the coast. The citizens cleared out shortly afterward, preferring to take their chances sailing with the pirates than staying one more moment with their loving neighbors. The journal disappeared in the fire, and the author, whoever it was, was never revealed. I have to imagine they were just expressing well-deserved and rather artfully described grievances. But it was rather disconcerting to watch a group of seemingly civil people descend into a pitchfork-wielding mob over a few innocent observations.

                In my defense, when I buried the thing, I didn’t think anyone would find it.


Photo Credit: Sharon Mollerus
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charred_Log,Park_Point_Beach,_Duluth(33615120923).jpg

Meliphi

            “Just press play.”

            “I don’t want to,” the man snapped and crossed his arms.

            Meliphi sighed. Humans were always infuriating, but somehow, dead ones were even worse. It was like they realized they had nothing left to lose and took it out on the poor incorporeal beings just trying to do their jobs. 

            “I don’t like it any more than you do,” Meliphi said, nudging the replay device toward the man whose name the being could no longer remember. “But I’d like to get home sometime before the next millennium.”

            The man’s lips pursed, and he hunched down in his chair. Meliphi was tempted to tell him he could die there if he was going to be this stubborn, but unfortunately…

            “It won’t be so bad,” Meliphi coaxed. “And then you can get out of this waiting room, this…” The being waved a hand at the blank whiteness. “Nothingness and on to” — The man’s eyes flickered to Meliphi. Curiosity. It always worked on humans. — “something else.” 

            The man humphed. 

            “Please?” Meliphi was desperate.

            The man sighed, and his arms dropped to his sides. “Why do I have to do this? Is this hell?”

            Meliphi burst out laughing, quickly stifling it behind a shimmering wing. “Sorry,” the being mumbled. “That heaven hell thing was all you guys. As if the entire divine doesn’t have better things to do than devote itself to your reward or punishment. No, this is purely for cataloguing purposes.”

            Meliphi nudged the replay device forward with another wing, offering what the being hoped was a friendly smile. The man sighed. “It’s just… a lot of it sucked. I don’t want to see it again, alright? Can’t you let me be dead in peace?”

            “Unfortunately, no. Look, I’d really love to do this with you all millennia, but I have other appointments, other people dying to see me.”

            “Hilarious,” the man muttered to Meliphi’s confusion. It was simply a fact. “Will you stay and watch with me at least?” he asked.

            Companionship, that strange human desire. It wasn’t standard, but why not if it got this over with sooner?

            Meliphi arranged next to the man, tucking wings and various other appendages into a semi-human sitting posture. “Let’s do this,” the being said with a grin.

            The man rolled his eyes before jamming the play button. 

            The screen flickered and went black. Meliphi’s seven eyes stared unblinkingly at it. The being had been ready to bail after year thirteen. Seventy-two more had followed. The man sighed.     

            “I… I’m sorry,” Meliphi said. “I know you said it sucked, but I… I had no idea.”

            “Eh, it wasn’t so bad. Seeing it all together like that… Damn, I did a lot.”

            Meliphi glanced over with three eyes to see him smiling. The being couldn’t even begin to understand this.

            “Would you do it again?” Meliphi asked quietly. “If you could.”

            The being always asked this question, but that was after the dead needing to be cataloged watched their lives replay while Meliphi’s seven eyes closed and the being’s consciousness popped over to the sixteenth dimension for some fresh air. Meliphi had never fully realized what the question meant.

            “I think I would,” the man said thoughtfully. “Except, maybe not that one day at the hardware store.”

            Meliphi grimaced. That was understandable.

            “Thank you,” the man said with a smile. “I think I’m ready to go now.”

            Meliphi nodded as the man next to him faded away into the something else. The being had always considered the Valori people of the Felta Galaxy, with their precognition and prehensile eye-stalks, to be as close to divinity as the universe came, but humans? Humans were the cockroaches of the universe, digging themselves in with remarkable stubbornness and continuing to exist even when all odds were against them. The being had never taken the time to consider what this meant, what such a life must be like. Earth was Time’s domain after all, and she was a merciful goddess of remarkable cruelty. Or a cruel goddess of incredible mercy. Meliphi was never sure which.

            The replay device pinged with a new arrival. Human. A young woman was sitting on the chair, wiping tears off her cheeks. Meliphi arranged into a sitting position next to her and held out one of many hands. “I’ll be right here,” the being said. “And when you’re ready, we’ll watch together.”


Photo Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hand_zur_Abmessung.jpg

The Honest Half

                The door was set into the smoke-stained stone wall and locked with a heavy black padlock. When she had been brought to the kitchens, as payment for her father’s debt to the crown, she had been told the door was to stay locked at all times. When she’d been caught with an ear pressed against the rough wood, she had been told it wasn’t to be touched, and when she’d stared at it too long, brow furrowed thoughtfully, she had been told it wasn’t even to be looked at. This was punctuated with a hand across her jaw, but it only fueled her curiosity.

All she’d heard through the wood was a faint drip. And sometimes, when she was sweeping the floors, she saw what looked like scuff marks, like something heavy had been dragged, trailing across the floor and disappearing beneath the sealed door. And as the stiff straw bristles slowly erased them, she would try to puzzle out what could be behind it.

                “Vari!” The cook’s snarl yanked her from her thoughts.

                She set the broom back in the corner and picked up the tray of food from the table. If she pretended to forget, to be busy doing other things, she hoped the cook would let her be and take the tray himself, but he never did.

               When she entered the great hall, the prince stared at her, one arm thrown over the back of his chair. “You’re late,” he said, as she set the tray on the table.

                It was a lie. Vari said nothing, serving the king first, who ignored her, then the bejeweled queen, and finally, the sneering prince. He grabbed her wrist and yanked her closer. “I said, you’re late,” he snarled.

                “Forgive me, Your Majesty. It won’t happen again,” she said, her eyes fixed on the poached egg sitting on his plate.

                His other hand grabbed her jaw, his fingers digging into her already bruised cheek as he forced her to look at him. Dishes clinked behind her. “Pass the butter, would you?” said the queen to the king, and the king did.

                “See that it doesn’t,” the prince hissed before shoving her.

                Vari tumbled to the floor. A half-eaten crust landed next to her. She snatched it and fled, wishing her hunger wasn’t greater than her pride.

                The cook was snoring in the kitchen, his feet thrown up on the hearth, the chair sagging under his enormous, greasy weight. A key ring hung from his straining belt. Almost before she knew what she was doing, Vari was sliding it free, taking the heavy black key and putting it in her pocket. She looked defiantly at the door.

                It stood still and silent, as it continued to stand later that night when she returned to the empty kitchen, barefoot, a candle in her hand.

                The padlock opened with a click, and a rush of dank air fluttered her skirts as the door creaked open. Behind it, stairs spiraled into darkness. Holding her flickering candle aloft, she descended. The drip of water, far below, grew louder, and the air became stifling, as she spun downward.

                She was dizzy when she reached the bottom of the stairs and stumbled through a black doorway. Putrid water coated the floor. She held up the candle and snorted. The light flickered off bare stone walls. The room was empty.

                “So, this is what all the fuss is about,” she said, glancing around the small chamber.

                “Depressing, isn’t it?” said a voice behind her.

                She whirled. A familiar figure stood before the stairs. With a gasp, Vari fell to her knees, hitting her forehead on the stones. The candle skittered across the water, sputtered, and went out.

                There had been no mistaking him, even wreathed in shadow. The prince.

                “Forgive me, Your Majesty,” she said. “I know I’m not supposed to be here. Please…”

                She would be lucky to get away with only a lashing. Men were killed for less.

                “Why are you here?” he asked after a moment. “You’re not the usual fare.”

                “I was curious, Your Majesty.”

                “Curious?” He laughed softly, then sniffed. “Is that… fresh air? Did you unlock the door?”

                She took the key from her pocket and extended it into the darkness. A cold hand took it. Water dripped steadily behind her.

                “You can get up,” he said.

                She pulled herself to her feet and wiped her dirty, trembling hands on soiled skirts. Something shifted in the darkness, and the candle flared to life in front of her, illuminating the prince’s grotesquely pale face inches from her own. But… he wasn’t quite the prince. Shaggy hair hung over sunken cheekbones, cheeks that just that morning had been full.

                “You’re frightened,” he said, looking down at her shaking hands. “Why? Afraid I’ll eat you?”

                He grinned with a mouth full of pointed, white teeth. She scrambled back, slipping on the wet stones, and he laughed.

                “What are you?” she gasped.

                “The prince,” he said. “Or the honest half of him, at least.”

                She backed against the far wall, pressing herself against the damp stone. “Honest half? What does that mean?”

                He sighed. “I suppose we have time for a story, but just one.” He lounged against the wall, absently running one sharp nail over the stone. “When the prince was born, the entire kingdom rejoiced. And why wouldn’t they? Another century of subjugation assured. The king and queen on the other hand were dismayed to find that another babe had appeared in the cradle beside their precious son. An exact copy. Well… almost.” His pointed grin glimmered in the candlelight. “There were certain differences. The affinity for human flesh, for one, but whenever they tried to kill the child, this abomination as they called it, the same torments were inflicted on their little prince. So, they locked me up. Fed me on beggars and desperate thieves.” He spat disgustedly. “Enough to keep me alive, to keep him alive, to keep him hungry.”

                “You… you eat people?” she stammered.

                The insolent grin returned. “We’re royalty. It’s what we do. But now…” He tossed the key into the air, snatched it, and shoved it into a tattered pocket. “He’s lived off of me long enough. It’s time to return the favor, don’t you think?”

                “Return it? What does that mean?”

                The prince but not quite the prince cocked his head. “I’m going to eat him.”

                “Won’t that kill you?” she whispered, frozen in fear.

                “Oh, I imagine it’ll hurt,” he said. “But then I’ll be free. Two made one again, and the likeness is startling, as you’ve proven. No one will know a thing has happened.”

                With a burst of courage that could only come from looking day after day into the face she feared most, Vari stepped forward. “I won’t let you,” she said, her voice shaking, her fists clenched. “I won’t let you hurt anyone.”

                The man who looked like the prince, but most certainly was not, raised an eyebrow before he sighed. “Fine.” The key clattered at her feet. “I’ll let you lock me up again, if you really want to, but I don’t think you will.”

                She fumbled with the key, her gaze fixed on the man in his circle of candlelight. “Why?”

                “You groveled like a frightened animal when you saw me, scared for your life.” He drew closer and tilted her chin up with a pointed nail. “Believe me, I know the look. You thought there was a monster in the darkness with you, but it wasn’t me you were afraid of. They locked me up, took my life to serve them, and left me so starved, I’d eat whatever scraps they gave me. Sound familiar?”

                She lifted a hand to her bruised cheek. “But you’re a monster.”

               “Am I?” he asked with a frown. “I devour to survive. What’s his excuse?”

               His face was so like the prince’s, except for the pointed teeth in his slightly open mouth. And his eyes. They looked more… human, less hungry. “If I let you out,” she said finally, quietly. “Promise me you won’t eat anyone else. Only him.”

                “I won’t make a promise I can’t keep, but I will tell you this.” He bent closer, his breath cold on her ear. “I won’t eat you. Besides,” he added when he’d straightened up. “I’m in the mood for something more”—he licked his lips—”royal.”

                His footsteps were almost silent as he followed her up the stairs, and she shivered, imagining she could feel his icy breath on her neck. When they reached the kitchen and stepped out of the dark doorway, he inhaled deeply and sighed before turning to her. “Stay here,” he said and disappeared into the hallway.

                He returned a few moments later with a thrashing bundle over his shoulder. It was mumbling frantically. The man who looked like the prince tossed it into the darkness. “Shut the door behind me,” he said and padded down the stairs.

                She shoved the heavy door closed. She could lock it, turn the key in the padlock, and they’d both be trapped forever, but eventually, someone would notice the prince was missing. Questions would be asked. Answers would be taken, willingly or not. She stood, indecisive, twisting the key in her hands until there was a soft knock on the door. She pulled it open a crack.

                The prince, or maybe not the prince, stood at the top of the stairs.

                “Smile,” she said warily.

                His teeth glistened, all pointed and white. “Worried about me?”

                She yanked the door open then slammed it behind him, locking it tight.

                “He isn’t going anywhere,” the not quite prince said, picking at his teeth with a sharp nail.

                “What happens now?” she asked.

                He took a deep breath. “I think I’ll take a bath.” And he padded out of the kitchen.

                The door in the kitchen, set into the smoke-stained stone walls, was locked with a heavy black padlock. It was not to be opened, not to be touched, not even to be looked at. The heavy black key hung on a cord around Vari’s neck. Each morning she carried a tray of food to the great hall. She served the prince first, who thanked her graciously, then the pale queen, and finally, the nervous king. The prince never smiled, but when she left the hall, looking back over her shoulder at him, the corner of his mouth would twitch up, just for a moment.


Picture Credit: Joseph Mallord William Turner
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph_Mallord_William_Turner_(1775-1851)_-_The_Long_Cellar_at_Petworth_-_N05539_-_National_Gallery.jpg