Robert’s shoulders slumped as he stood at the low wooden gate on the edge of the property. From the dirt road the home looked unimpressive—squat, uneven stone walls supporting a thatched roof thinning toward uselessness. Looks could deceive, of course. Robert knew that in this case, they didn’t. The interior induced claustrophobia in all but the most stalwart of visitors, and no one was safe from the dampness, dust, and gloom. Still, though it wasn’t much to look at inside or out, it was his home.
And it had been defiled.
He’d known immediately, from the unnatural chill in the normally oven-like summer air, that the end had come. Sitting in the town’s meeting hall, mediating the final arbitration of the day, feeling the temperature suddenly plummet thirty degrees in a matter of seconds… his heart had never filled with dread more quickly. The last words of his decision puffed out of his mouth and dissipated in the frigid air; he barely heard the collective shiver from the townspeople in attendance as he rose and strode intently out of the hall. None of them could fathom what had caused the abrupt change in weather, but he knew. In his youth, during his rise to prominence among the townspeople, he’d let himself believe the bargain had been forgotten. But with age came renewed fear. He was foolish to think such a being would, or could, forget. And with that first gust of arctic wind through the meeting hall, he knew the day had finally come. The debt would be collected.
She had returned.
As he walked up the path to his shabby home, he knew he would find her within. The thick crusts of ice obscuring the dirty windows gave away her presence inside. And she would not be alone. He wondered how many of her disgusting creations she had brought with her to ensure he fulfilled his end of the bargain. Shuddering at the thought of those monsters and their inhuman stares, he reached behind his head and unsheathed his sword. He may have been the town elder, but he was still capable of defending himself. He would not give in without a fight.
The door was ajar. He pushed it inward to discover a semicircle of her servants just inside, waiting for him. Humanoid but certainly not human, the hoarwraiths were all identical: chest-height, black hair, ashen skin tinged blue, smoldering pits of blue fire where eyes should be, slightly protruding muzzles with lips that curled upward in perpetual sneers. Disgusting. They stepped backward as one, silently widening the semicircle as if inviting him to join them.
He wasted no breath on them; they would not understand language anyway. Glancing past their arc, he saw no sign of the creatures’ master. Appearances mattered little with her, though; he knew she was inside his house, somewhere. He also knew these vicious little beasts of hers would not leave, but would not attack him without provocation. Letting a stream of fog escape his lips, he raised his sword and stepped toward the one to his right, slashing in a deliberate arc to cut the wraith down.
It instantly ducked and sidestepped the attack. Then it raked his thigh with a swipe of razor-sharp claws. The searing pain of torn flesh mixed curiously with the stinging throb of frostbite. But at least he could get down to business now. As the other wraiths converged on him, he allowed agility and finesse to return to his movements, making his slashes and thrusts much more effective, even against a half dozen opponents. In a matter of minutes the creatures—or pieces of them—lay strewn about the front room of his home, though the only blood visible was his own, leaking from numerous superficial lacerations and one ambitious bite on his bicep. He nudged the lifeless body of a wraith with the toe of his boot—and watched as it disintegrated into a mound of white powder that began melting into thin streams of water.
He shook his head. If his memory served him, her constructs should have been much more difficult to kill. These were just a distraction; she was toying with him. Turning toward the dark fireplace opposite his home’s front door, he let his sword clatter to the floor and shouted, “Show yourself already!”
Silence answered him, save for a frigid gust of wind that gnawed at his bones. He stared hard at the scraps of wood in the soot-stained hearth as if to ignite them with his glare. But there would be no reprieve from the deep freeze that had settled in his dwelling, not until she concluded their decades-old business.
The whisper came right by Robert’s ear, and his hearth froze. Before his eyes a sheet of ice crystallized over the wood, the stones, the metal basket. She still knew how to make an entrance. Without turning, without shivering from the icy words in his ear, he sighed. “It’s been a long time.”
“Perhaps for you,” she mused, her voice a little further away. “I’d hardly noticed the years pass.”
He closed his eyes, ignoring her jibe. “My wife died yesterday. Must we do this so soon?”
“You understood the terms of our deal, did you not?”
He turned around at last and was surprised by the sight of her in his home, despite fearing the encounter for the last decade or so. She looked like the wraiths he’d cut down moments before—or rather, they resembled twisted, animalistic versions of her. Sleek, shining black hair cascaded over slender, pale blue shoulders. Her crystal-clear eyes fixed him with a heartless stare. “When we lose a loved one, we grieve,” he snarled, feeling the tears he hadn’t yet shed for his beloved welling in his eyes now. “Have a little decency.”
She chuckled in response. “Your wife. Your loved one. I bet she died not even knowing what you are.”
“She knew enough,” he spat back. “She knew I was different.”
Suddenly she was at his side again. “A half-truth is still a lie, you twit!” she hissed in his ear.
He couldn’t withstand the frost this time; a shiver swept through his body. With great effort he kept his composure and resisted snapping back at her again. “You haven’t changed a bit,” he said softly.
She drifted back from him again. “And you look like you’ve one foot in the grave.”
“One foot, and my heart.”
“Spare me the human melodrama,” she sighed. “You asked for this. You wanted this life.”
He sent another stream of visible breath pouring from his lungs and lowered himself heavily onto a rickety wooden chair. “No sympathy from you at all,” he muttered.
“You know that I warned you what was to come when we struck our bargain.”
The memory of her words on that fateful day returned to him. “Think hard on this. You may enjoy some moments of bliss, but it will end in suffering.” He looked up at her. “You knew,” he whispered. “You knew the anguish I would endure, and yet you granted me my wish?”
Something strange flickered in her eyes. Warmth? Compassion? Or was it pity? “You didn’t care,” she said, pain creeping into her words. “You saw the girl, and you wanted a life with her. I simply made it possible. As was my half of our agreement.”
He shook his head, closing his eyes. Again, he held back any retorts, any entreaties that came to mind. Saying anything more would simply delay the inevitable. He’d had his fun, from her perspective, and now it was time for him to pay back his debt. “Fine. Let’s get this over with.”
He stood, dragging his feet back to the fireplace where she waited for him. She faced him, her shield of icy indifference thawed by regret. He knew she wanted what she was about to do, but perhaps there was a shard of sympathy somewhere in her frigid shell of a body. She raised her hand above his head. “Are you ready?”
“Yes—wait.” His hand shot out to the mantel and retrieved a small wooden box. From inside he carefully removed a dull silver ring adorned with a single speck of ruby. Closing his eyes again, he lifted the ring to his lips, kissing the stone and imagining some warmth still lingered from… The tears flowed now, stinging his cheeks as the icy air stole heat from the drops. “Good-bye, my love.”
He kept the stone tucked between his lips as long as he could, squeezing flecks of ice water from his eyes until his ears caught her whisper. “You’re going to need to take that out of your mouth,” she said.
He gingerly returned the box with its ring to the mantel and heaved a shuddering breath, then nodded. Her hand rested on his head. A bone-chilling cold suddenly filled his body, rushing from head to toe, driving a visible scream of agony from his lungs as it coiled around nerves, pricked the insides of veins, turned muscle to stone. Powerless to resist his fate, he watched from inside as a shroud of ice encased him. And, once he was completely entombed within the frozen coffin, she approached again and touched a finger to the smooth, glassy surface on the other side.
The ice shattered.
As the din of small icebergs crashing to the floor subsided, he breathed deeply and locked eyes with her. The corners of her purple lips twitched in sadness and relief; her eyes sparkled with happy moisture. He glanced to one side, seeing his reflection in the ice coating a window. Gone was the white hair, the tanned, leathery skin, the hard age lines around eyes and mouth. A mop of black silk strands fell on a smooth, pale blue forehead. Calm, thoughtful crystal eyes gazed back at him. He looked like her. And not in the way her hoarwraiths resembled her. He was of her.
A small gasp escaped her lips. “Welcome back, my son.”
He blinked, feeling the cold coursing through him again. It carried no pain with it any longer; its return was an unexpectedly welcome comfort after all the years spent with warm blood pumping through veins. “Mother,” he said, stepping toward her. “I’m sorry for—“
She held up a grayish finger. “None of that, child. I am sorry, for being so harsh with you at first.”
He struggled for words, for order among the myriad questions he needed to ask her. “Mother, the pain… when she fell ill and died…” He lay his hand on his chest, where his human heart used to be. “It hurt, so much. How can they stand it? How can they live with such sorrow?”
“Most muddle through,” she replied. “Some cannot. But experiencing love and loss—that is the blessing, and the curse, of being human. And when you laid eyes on that human girl all those years ago, I knew it was time for you to learn.”
“Despite the pain I would suffer?”
“Because of the pain. And the joy. You needed to understand them, to understand being human, just as I needed to, millennia ago, before I could judge them.”
Judge them. His end of the bargain. He hadn’t any interest in judging humans when he was younger. But now that he knew them, and now that he’d arbitrated their disputes in life, he could agree to judge them in death. Without a word he nodded, letting his mother know he was ready.
“Let us return to the underworld,” she said softly. “Let us go home.”
She reached for his hand. He glanced at her, then took the small box from the mantel again. Tucking it under his arm, he took her hand in his. She smiled at him, and together they disappeared, leaving the world of humans to its joys and sorrows.
This week’s supernatural-fantasy flash fiction stems from another Terribleminds.com writing prompt. Writers choose three seemingly random sentences from a collection written by Chuck Wendig’s blog followers. The challenge is to use the three sentences in a story of roughly 2,000 words, giving credit, of course, to the original authors of the three sentences chosen. I used:
The whisper came right by Robert’s ear, and his hearth froze. – JBencomo
“A half-truth is still a lie, you twit!” she hissed in his ear. – Christopher Grundy
“You’re going to need to take that out of your mouth,” she said. – Sarah Beresford