C. M. Chapman
The Captain of the Night Watch awoke drenched and terrified. It took a long minute to pull himself together, only to find he was still shaking. Of all the nightmares that had plagued him every night over the last few weeks, last night’s was the worst.
Last night, of course, was technically a misnomer since he had retired to bed in the early dawn, but the captain was still having some trouble with that distinction. Sleeping was properly a night-time activity in his mind. But the promotion to Captain of the Night Watch had come with the change in shift. Night was his day and day was his night now.
He stayed in bed for several minutes, trying to slow his heartbeat, trying to fool himself into believing that waking life would bring relief, and failing on both counts. He stared at the ceiling and wished that he could blame all of this on his change in work pattern. After all, he was coming off twenty years of humping a daytime beat through the Shell Heights market district, breaking up arguments, keeping disreputable merchants in check, and chasing pickpockets or children with stolen bread. It would be so much easier to think that the change in lifestyle had unhinged him and that none of it was real.
But that was not the case. Doom wasn’t just in his dreams. It awaited him, tonight, on the watch.
He had deserved that promotion, by the gods he had. And he’d needed it badly, with three children now to feed. Things were just starting to get easier and then-- this. He looked at the empty side of the down mattress. Mary would have been up for several hours now. The sky must have been overcast because the usual shadows of time were absent from the walls. He guessed it was well before midday, hardly a rest for a man on the edge. He sighed and rolled himself from the bed. There would be no more sleeping after that dream. As he slipped into his britches he wondered which was worse, the impending horror of his shift tonight, slowly creeping toward him like some putrid, carnivorous worm, or the impending horror of his dreams, ready to spring on him like a wolf to his throat.
After last night, he figured it was a toss-up.
He shuffled into the house’s living area. This home was much nicer than their previous one, thanks to his promotion. The walls were of smooth clay and stone and the roof was nicely thatched. They still had to live with a dirt floor but at least it was level and didn’t get wet when it rained.
Mary had already fetched the water, effectively ruining the captain’s plan to make himself useful. She was nowhere to be seen, which meant she was probably at the market. The captain altered his plan and decided to go out for some extra firewood instead. Jonah Simms and his boys regularly cut in the forest beyond the city walls and sold the wood on this side of the city.
The forest. He shuddered. He didn’t think there was a promotion in the world that could make him go in there.
That was where it began. It was from those woods, or at least the space once occupied by those woods, that he first heard the three accursed words which now plagued his existence. If only it had ended there. If only he hadn’t seen anything.
The King’s High Necromancer would be waiting for him tonight as he had been every night since the first incident. The wizened old man would be lurking at the entrance to the tunnel stairs as he passed through the garrison muster hall.
“Good evening, Captain,” he would say with that disconcerting lick of the lips, “Did you dream again?”
The thought of it made him uneasy. Would he confess his dream of this morning? He didn’t know. His willingness to share them had diminished as they’d become increasingly more bizarre and disturbing.
In the beginning, he would have talked to anyone, anyone, who would have displayed the tiniest amount of empathy. The shock of that first encounter had left him shaken and shattered. His men had looked at him like he was crazy. The Garrison Commander had even threatened to demote him. The High Necromancer had intervened, pulled him aside, and spoken to him in soft, reassuring tones.
“What did you see?” the ashen-skinned, wraith of a man had asked.
“I don’t know,” the captain had said, still blubbering, “It was as if the forest suddenly melted into one thing- or part of a thing- and that thing- oh gods- it reached into me--.”
“Try to calm yourself, Captain. What sort of thing? What did you see?”
And so the Captain had related, for the first time, how the forest morphed into sinister, seemingly formless black in front of his eyes, emitting waves of what could only be called sickness, seeping from it like heat, making him want to vomit, sucking the life from his soul, and robbing his legs of their ability to stand. He told the necromancer of the slow comprehension that the massive thing in front of him was only part of something vastly bigger, and how after what seemed like eternity transfixed by the thing, he’d finally understood that he was staring into a monstrous, pitch-black eye, unblinking, stretching nearly the entire length of the southern forest.
Once it began spilling from him, it all came. The eye was unfeeling, uncaring, detached from human concerns and obliviously destructive. It seemed like the eye of a giant bird, no bird of beautiful plumage, but one ancient and flightless, lying in a festering heap just behind the illusion of the forest, its consciousness probing the captain’s mind like the tentacles of a man-o-war. He told the necromancer about the three words, unbidden, forced like rape, words which he knew were not just for him, but for the whole world.
The necromancer had smiled, a kind smile that seemed completely alien. “Don’t worry, Captain,” he said softly, “Open yourself. You are the herald of a new age. Soon, all of King Humphrey’s enemies shall fall and we will enter a golden age of unparalleled knowledge. This is a good thing. Rejoice in your heart.”
But it did not feel like a good thing. It felt about as far away from good as possible, farther even, than the laws of nature allowed.
One step out of his door informed him of why it was so difficult to judge the time. The world had obviously changed and, from the looks of it, not for the better. The captain found Jonah Simms in his usual spot but not his usual mood, which was hardly surprising under the circumstances. Simms looked at the captain like the harbinger of death, not the look of a man who is afraid of it, but one who recognizes an inevitability. There were no words spoken. The captain handed over his money and took his small stack of wood, conscious of the fact that these actions seemed futile and meaningless. He turned to go home. It was true, then. They were all going to die. If not tonight, then very, very soon.
“Planning to burn down the city?”
He turned toward Mary’s voice to find her behind him, their wooden cart in tow, loaded down with firewood, turnips, onions, and several loaves of bread. Even in the fluorescing light of doom she was caring for her family, planning for a future, if only in the form of next week’s meals. There was humor in her eyes attached to the question, but it was a dark joke. He was overwhelmed by his feelings for her.
“Well,” he said, smiling, “I guess it’s an option.” He added his stack of firewood to the cart and leaned over to kiss his wife. He hadn’t been able to see her enough lately. She had a lovely face that touched him as deeply as ever, and even though three births had left her with an egg-like figure, in his mind she was still the slender beauty he had wed many years ago. He wished (hoped) that the strength of his love for her could be enough to turn back whatever was coming, but he wasn’t strong enough to believe it.
The captain took the handles of the cart from her and they walked in silence toward home.
“You didn’t sleep well again,” she said after a few moments.
“Anything you want to share?”
“No.” He smiled and kissed her on the forehead.
She knew. Just like Jonah Simms. Just like everyone by now. It was no secret. The morbid nature of the royal family had been public knowledge for generations. The necromancer order was the most powerful order in the city, more powerful than the City Watch, by far. It was even said the elaborate and massive city walls, which encompassed all the disparate districts of the city, were constructed in the shape of some arcane symbol.
And more and more people had seen the thing as time went on. Not all perceived it as an eye. Two of his men had perceived a great, black egg, seeping putrescence from many cracks, about to hatch.
His duty-honed observational skills told him everything he needed to know as they walked. Everyone knew death was near. It was obvious, if only in the unnaturally pale green sky laced with slender, silken tendrils of silent lightning that pulsed above them. The captain walked along with his wife, conscious of the fact that there were things he should probably be saying to her, thankful to her and loving her more for not having to say them.
At home, Mary fried some sweetbread for lunch. Her husband helped her by brewing some mint tea, not something he would have usually done. A couple times they got in each other’s way and those were times of lingering touches, sad smiles.
“Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it?” she asked at the table, “I would share your burden.”
“I am sure,” he said, “and I know. You are too good to me.”
“I am your wife.”
He had not burdened her with any of the dreams. The first time that he’d been able to sleep after seeing the eye, he dreamed of floating, suspended in blackness, the same three words he’d heard earlier, coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. Those three words were never to stop. They would be present from then on, except during those waking hours when he wasn’t on duty and could shut them out. But even then, they echoed.
The dreams escalated in horror, both physical and existential, and each one, he knew, was a message from that abomination outside of the city. Some were incredibly bizarre, including one where he looked down at himself to find he was fat, with legs not big enough for his body. He was dressed in a strange outfit with half-pants and suspenders, the words swirling around him like a whirlwind of sound, making the world spin out from under him.
In another, a slobbering demon peeled his hardened skin from him in chunks and ate him. They grew stranger and stranger, worse and worse, but the dream of that morning had an air of finality to it that seemed incontrovertible.
In it, he was being ripped to shreds. He was in pieces, lying upon the blackness that he now knew to be the eye, like he was held by gravity. Over and over, the three words bombarded, pierced him, in all inflections and dialects, all languages, none of which the captain knew and yet which he understood clearly. He heard them from without and within, even in languages dead for millennia. A thin silver strand held his disparate pieces from floating away from each other but it was being gnawed upon by greasy flightless, shambling birds and each peck was an agony to his scrambled soul. In the dream, he knew the end had come at last.
He was not going to share that with his wife.
In time, the children were home. Too soon, he thought, or not soon enough. Time seemed to have slipped loose of its moors. In what seemed only a brief moment, Mary was setting the table for dinner. His shift was approaching.
He helped his wife get the children ready for bed, lingering to touch each child’s face a moment longer and exacting a kiss from each. As his youngest, Tessa, kissed him gently on the cheek, an involuntary spasm of breath forced its way through his nostrils. He held it at bay.
Part of him wanted to stay, but the captain was, in the end, a man of duty.
So he left home with the fleeing daylight, such as it was, knowing deep in his heart that tonight would be the end of all things. There was no sound of frog or cricket in the air, no evening swallows diving and swooping above the rooftops. All nature seemed to have fled this place. Nevertheless, the captain kept a slow pace. He was in no hurry and, in fact, was fighting a primordial urge to flee blindly in any direction. An easy enough urge to fight. No direction held safety.
In the muster hall it appeared that many of his men had not come tonight. The garrison commander was still there, at his table in the side chamber off the main hall. He glared as the captain passed his view. Those men who had shown up were gathered in a corner of the hall. All had the look of the woodcutter. He passed them, avoiding contact.
The necromancer was waiting with his hungry smile.
“Good evening, Captain,” he said, bowing, “Do you dream still?”
The captain had decided not to tell him. Let him be surprised.
“I try to remember, Holiness, but they are hidden from me.”
“Ah, so it is, then.” He bowed again and the captain returned the bow as he slipped past him into the wall’s inner passageways. He followed the torchlit tunnel until he came to the stairway to the southern guard tower.
At the top of the stairs, the Captain of the Day Watch was waiting, looking most relieved to see him.
“Captain Ernst, I present myself as your relief,” he said, with a crisp salute.
“Captain Dumpty,” Ernst replied, returning the salute, “the wall is yours.” And then he was gone.
The captain stepped out onto the ramparts and looked toward the forest. There was the ancient, avian eye, locking on to him, sucking at his very essence. He thought maybe he was beginning to perceive the rest of the thing, or at least the potential of its existence. The air around the eye was shimmering as if it were ready to dissolve into form. The words, unheard during the time he’d been able to concentrate on his wife and children, renewed their assault on his mind.
“You. Will. Fall.”
Perhaps, tonight, he would.
Larry D. Thacker
Wilma didn’t think. She acted.
It was a reaction driven by pure adrenaline.
She would have defended herself with a rolled up Sunday newspaper if she’d been on the front porch reading one when Jake came after her, not that it would have done her any good. Lucky for Wilma though, come to find out a frozen roll of chocolate chip cookie dough is about the same size and striking strength as a wooden rolling pin. She’d just pulled the package out of the freezer to let it thaw a bit when Jake stumbled from the living room for another beer, bumped into the kitchen table, and knocked the fresh lemonade Wilma’d been squeezing on all over his clean, pressed jeans.
“I was gonna preach in these tomorrow night, woman!”
The accident was somehow Wilma’s fault, which meant she’d get it upside the head at least once if he could catch her, which he did, but not as hard as it could have been and not as lightly as she might have hoped, but on this occasion something deep in her head clicked in a different direction than usual, she saw red, and she swung back. Again, it could have been a frozen bean burrito or a hot iron. The iron skillet Jake’s momma gave her or the six-pound, three-generation family Bible they kept on the coffee table. But it was a rock solid, thirteen-inch-long, two-inch-thick roll of cookie dough that might as well have been cast iron. His fist grazed her cheek. She countered with a two-fisted swing that would have put his head across the street into the neighbor’s lot if it hadn’t been connected to his neck. He crumpled like a winter sack of potatoes, his temple split wide open. He started bleeding in such a way as Wilma’d never seen anyone bleed, like the water hose was left on and it was the bloody Nile during the plagues running from her husband’s ear and the long dark gash across the left side of his head. Jake loved preaching about Moses and children of Israel and the Great Exodus into the wilderness for forty long years.
There was a little lemonade left in the pitcher. She turned it upright and poured what was left into the morning’s coffee cup and sipped it. Her cheek hurt a little. He’d mostly missed, but it might still bruise. She hoped not.
When life got tough, whether with him and Wilma, or at the Copper Creek Temple, Jake laid it at the Lord’s feet, as he’d say.
Lay it at the Lord’s feet. God’s will’s got a plan for everything. If he didn’t want something to happen, it wouldn’t now, would it?
It was one of those catch-all phrases that fit most any bad situation. While most church members took solace in that sentiment and it even helped Wilma feel better most of the time, she wasn’t convinced when “Preacher” Jake started beating on her after a six-pack and some shots on a Friday night. She’d asked him once if God wanted him hitting her all the time and he’d threatened to send her to heaven to ask the Lord in person.
And now there Jake was, piled up on the kitchen floor, having breathed his last, a pool of blood growing like a scarlet halo around his two-faced, drunk-assed head.
“Shame he fell and hit his head on the countertop like that,” she muttered out loud, sipping the last of the lemonade. “I swear, he must have slipped. He’d been drinking, again. He fell all the time.”
God’s will and all. Lay it at the Lord’s feet.
Wilma looked around the kitchen, the one room of the house she felt safest, though that obviously wasn’t always the case all the time. She still held the roll of dough. There was the slightest dent toward the end. A spot of red marking the spot. Her hands still trembled. The area under her intense grip was thawing now. Her whole arm throbbed up into her arthritic shoulder.
She set the dough roll down, at about where she was rehearsing in her mind the side of Jake’s head smacked the gray and white streaked marble countertop, sort of near the corner. She practiced the sound in her head. What it sounded like from the back porch pantry where she’d say she was at that terrible moment, when she was head first in the deepfreeze digging for frozen catfish fillets for supper. Would it have been more of a whack or a thump or a sort of wet smack? Would he have let out a holler? A moan or groan? Yes, more like a ka-thwack and a yelp. Then the thump of his heavy body.
She lifted the hems of her denim skirt and stepped quietly over the dark pool setting up on the linoleum, reaching for an oven dial. She’d made these cookies so often for the grandkids she knew the proper temperature – 350-degrees. She prepped a baking sheet with some wax paper. She could have done it blindfolded, this act of baking love for the young’uns. Pulled a knife from the utensils drawer and split the spine of the package open exposing the tannish and speckled dough. It felt like cutting through flesh. A bit tough, but giving with enough pressure, the plastic snapping through. She cut little rounds off the roll just as if she were slicing up an apple, filling the sheet up. Her hands were still shaking. She had to be careful. But what about blood on the plastic?
She eyed the end of her thumb as the knife swept by with each slice. Another. Another. Then an icy pain hit. Her own blood rushed forth. Like water from the rock. The sin of Moses. It dripped on the countertop. She turned, letting some drip to the floor to mingle with Jake’s dying lifeblood. She wondered if his blood was still flowing. If there was any life at all left in the body. She thought of Lazarus coming back to life and wondered if even the Lord had been surprised.
The oven dinged, signaling it was preheated and ready. The blast of superheated air shocked her when it struck her face and neck and upper chest. The twisting elements glowed, always reminding her of what the tiniest percent of damnation must be like. Is that just the smallest inkling of the devil’s hell? The lake of fire? A sinner’s destination for the ultimate transgression? Even if they were defending themself?
She shoved the pan of cookies in with a metallic rattle and slammed the door and set the timer for fifteen minutes and went to the living room to think. Jake not laying stretched back in his beat-up recliner was awfully odd. That he wouldn’t ever be there again seemed odder. Five empty beer cans set around the chair. Another one on the edge of the coffee table leaving a circle. She couldn’t wait to drag that chair out back to the burn pile.
Things would change, wouldn’t they? Right quick like. What would the church do? Would the Temple keep on going? Find another preacher? He’d started Copper Creek, hadn’t he? Would they want someone else? Too many questions. Did any of it matter? It’d work out.
God’s will and all.
The oven dinged. Cookies. Didn’t they smell good.
Wilma got up from the couch and went back to the kitchen. Something hung in the kitchen air besides the thick aroma of warm cookies and melted chocolate. The essence of aging, coagulating blood. Like someone had left hamburger out all day. Along with the rancidness of urine. Jake had pissed himself come to find out. But thank goodness it was mostly cookies she smelled now. She’d had bouts of a weak stomach in the past and now wasn’t the time for a relapse.
She grabbed the sheet of cookies from the oven with her best oven mitt, the one she kept hanging on the wall for special occasions, the one that said: Lord, Bless This Mess. She slid the cookies onto the countertop, wishing the grandchildren were around to enjoy them.
The cookies made a perfect little pyramid on the large plate she chose from the cabinet. The Dollywood one with Dolly singing into an old style microphone and playing a big guitar. She didn’t want to be alone eating all of these cookies.
God’s will and all.
She grabbed her diabetes meds and swallowed one down. Maybe that would balance out the task ahead. There were twenty-five good sized cookies. At least they were warm. They melted in your mouth when they were fresh out of the oven.
She poured herself a cold glass of whole milk. She walked out to the porch with the plate of cookies, grabbing the cordless phone along the way, and sat on the metal sled rocker with the plate on her lap. It looked like it might rain. The grass needed cutting.
She picked a single cookie from the top of the pile, pushed it full into her mouth and chewed the sugary warmth with a smile and swallowed.
Then she dialed 911.
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