Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Stuff of Nightmares

Erin shoved her arms into the basin, sinking into the viscous fluid up to her elbows. She closed her eyes as she groped around, her fingers brushing over all manner of strange things. She recognized the skittering of the N'rux bug - bulging warts on the thick hide of a nameless beast, it shrank from her touch before she could get a good grip. Serrated teeth nibbled at her fingers ad she pulled away with a wry smile. The Grib was always hungry and one day, she would be just a little too slow and start to look a bit too much like Auntie Grins, who only had three fingers unevenly distributed between her two hands.

Erin shifted and made a quick grab, her fingers closed around the slender body of the pale Reb. She pulled it from the fluid and it immediately began to cry a soft heartbreaking sound that brought tears to her eyes. Its body was grayish-white and veined with blue. It wrapped around her slender wrist, and before she could grab it with her free hand, it sank its proboscis into her warm flesh and began to suck. Her vision blurred and suddenly she --

Her training was supposed to go on for another three weeks, but due to an little-known custom, her Master had decided to move it to today. She had tried to reason with him, knowing that failure meant expulsion and expulsion meant she would be kicked out of the only home she had ever known.

"You should have taken that into consideration, Acolyte," said Master Tuum. "If you can't pass this test, maybe you deserve to scuttle about the wastes."

"Please, I just need a few days to review. By all rights --"

"You've heard my answer," he said, his voice cold.

Erin began to go through the motions. It felt like her limbs were moving through cold pudding. Nothing was connecting, her runes did not achieve their spiritual ascendancy, no matter how careful she was in their carving. Her incantations lacked any umph at all. And she could feel failure pressing all over her.

Erin stopped. Sweat plastered her hair to her forehead. She leaned down and bit her wrist. A spout of warm blood filled her mouth, but she kept gnawing, ignoring the agony. Suddenly, a cold, bitter taste filled her mouth.

Blue ichor mixed with her coppery blood and clotted into odd purple streaks covered her arm. And she knew it was smeared over her face as well.

"How did you like that, you little shit?" she asked, still tasting the Reb's ichor in her mouth.

"Well done!" cried Master Tuum. "It's hard to break the Reb's hold. How did you do it?"

"It was the Incantations. I knew they should be working, but the Reb doesn't actually know the words. I do. And I knew they should have sparked ripples across the world," said Erin.

Tuum elbowed the robed Master next to him, who gave him a rather irritated look.

"I told you she knew them in her sleep," he said with a guffaw. A couple of Masters nodded, but seemed less than impressed by his enthusiasm.

"How would you apply the Reb in your work?" asked Master Helen.

"Moistened meshed nets are ideal. Hands on is strictly for testing and emergencies," said Erin. "I would apply it to the hairline of a visitor. Often times it will tap into their stresses and feed. When sated, it will detach and can be placed back in the basin."

Cowled heads nodded.

"We will add the cost of the Reb to your tuition," said Tuum.

Erin knew this was more than fair. Other Acolytes who had applied to the School of Somnum Exterri had been assigned to capture some of the specimens they lost control of or killed, rather than pay for a new one. Often, those Acolytes never came back. It was a way to keep tuition low.

"Welcome, Sister Erin. Bring unease to our visitors. May they wake in terror," said Master Helen.

"May they wake in terror!" called the circle.

Erin couldn't stop herself from clapping her hands together and grinning like an idiot.

There was a sudden piercing pain on the side of her head, and she slapped her hand against her temple. There was an audible crunch, and a hot, sticky fluid oozed down the side of her face.

"Oh, no," she whispered. She looked at the remains of the Froob Bug, squished on her hand, yellowish guts boiling away into a noxious gas before her eyes. She would have a horrible, blistering rash on the side of her face for at least two weeks.

The circle of Masters faded. Reality came back. Her test for full admittance was today.

"For fuck's sake," she said.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Time and Time Again

Her face lit up when he walked into the room, and he stopped dead in his tracks and he could feel the blood drain from his face. He hadn't seen that look in... Was it really years? His heart was hammering in his chest and he could only stare at her. The look of gladness in her eyes melted into concern. And she moved forward, pressing a cool hand to his forehead.

"Cal, are you okay?" she asked. "You look... Are you sick? You look awful."

He struggled to speak and to focus on her face, but his vision was blurred.

"Ginny, I - No, I'm fine. I'll see you in a bit," he managed.

"Back to the basement?" she asked. And then he saw it, the seedling of the look he had come to recognize and resent in her eyes. But it was so new, without the bitter edge it took on after months and he saw it clearly - it was sadness. She missed him. He swallowed against the lump in his throat.

Calvin closed the distance between them in just three steps. He slid his hands in her hair and cupped the back of her head, pressing his forehead against hers and staring into her eyes - so dark brown. The smell of her hair - that vanilla stuff she used. How long had it been?

"I will be right back," he whispered. "And then we can go out to Poorman's for lunch."

That faint look of disappointment that had manifested in her gaze was replaced with a warm smile. He kissed the corner of her mouth, and felt tears skip loose when he closed his eyes. This wasn't what he expected.

When he stepped back from the embrace he felt empty. He descended the basement stairs quickly and saw himself there. A sense of wrongness and dislocation crawled over his skin, but he ignored it and grabbed himself and spun him around. It was like looking into a kindhearted mirror - fewer lines, less red shot through the whites of his eyes, less frost in the hair.

"Recognize me, Cal?" he said, his voice a rusty growl.

"It works," he whispered. His eyes took on a fevered look of excitement. "I knew it!"

"Shut up, jackass," said Calvin. "You're going upstairs now. You're going to shower. You are going to take Ginny to Poorman's and talk to her. And hold her hand. And -"

"Are you insane? You just told - no proved to me it works. I can't stop now," said Cal.

Calvin sighed. He could feel the memories forming in his brain. He could see himself bludgeoning himself to death. He could see binding him and trying to pursue Ginny himself. Different outcomes seemed to unfurl in front of his eyes. But each one was surrounded by strange crackling images - like the broken-spectrum aura he would get before a migraine. He knew it wouldn't work because he needed both of himselves to even be here. Goddamn time travel. What a fucking waste.

"I'll do it," he said. "You go, and I'll make sure it happens."

He saw the doubt flicker across his own, younger face.

"You know I will. But please... We can't lose her. She doesn't understand."

Uncertainty flickered across Cal's face.

"But Ginny's fine," he said.

"She is. Now. But we don't know when to stop, do we?"

"You coming, Cal?" her voice caused Calvin to close his eyes and he struggled and didn't quite succeed in stifling a sob.

"Jesus, does she die?" Cal's voice was a horrified whisper.

"No... She just. Couldn't compete. And she knew it. And you know it. We know it," said Calvin. "Please go. Please. I thought it was worth it - cause I'd have time. I'd have all the time I needed. But we don't. I don't."

"I'm coming, Gin."

Calvin watched himself ascend the stairs. Then he did the only thing he could. He got back to work.