Delfi

Have a flair for poetry, stories, or even write songs? Need some advice or looking for a beta-reader? This is the place for you!

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Delfi

#1

Post by Contrast »

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Coming soon...
Read my novel here: Ander
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Re: Delfi

#2

Post by Adagio »

Oooh! You starting a new novel?
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Re: Delfi

#3

Post by Contrast »

It's already done. It just needs a bit of tweaking.
It was originally going to be another multi-novel series like Ander, but I didn't want to waste 7 years again if it wasn't going to go anywhere, so I only finished the first book. Still, I really liked it, and I didn't want it to go to waste. Maybe if this first part gets popular I'll write book 2.
Read my novel here: Ander
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Re: Delfi

#4

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Delfi
By Contrast
Prologue
A Precious Flower
1
Lily Darrow awoke to the smell of fried eggs and toast, and the voice of her father, calling her to breakfast for the very last time.
Neither of them knew it, though.

She opened her eyes and was greeted by the familiar ribbons of sunlight flowing over her blankets and spilling across the wall. A bird was outside somewhere, chittering happily. A thossie, maybe? They were always out and about this time of year, never walking along the ground, but always hopping from place to place, like fuzzy little frogs. Sometimes she would find their tracks in the vegetable garden, two by two, and she’d always have herself a little giggle at the sight of them for reasons she didn’t quite understand herself. Something about them was just cute, that’s all.

“Lily, breakfast’s almost done!” Papa called from the kitchen, and Lily knew she could keep lying here for a few extra minutes, or she could have a warm breakfast, but not both. Thankfully, it was a decision she didn’t have to mull over for very long. The smell of eggs, swimming in butter, made up her mind for her.

She sat up, swung her legs over the side (they hung a few inches off the floor, even though Papa insisted she was growing like a weed), rubbed her eyes, let out a huge yawn and a stretch, and hopped down, her nightgown billowing behind her. She had nearly tottered all the way to the door when she remembered she still had to wash her face, so she made a quick detour to the wash-up bowl and gave her cheeks a good splash, not being particularly mindful of her hair. It was a bit too long for her tastes, and it often got in the way, but she was hesitant to ask Papa to cut it for her, especially after what happened last time. She loved her Papa very much, but he was more handy with an axe than a pair of scissors.

“Oy, lazy bones! You up yet?”

“Coming!” Lily wiped her hands on her nightgown and practically made a run for the kitchen. Everyone knew that eggs were the best when they were still a little bit goopy in the middle, but if she wasn’t there to supervise, Papa would definitely overcook them.

“I’m here!” Lily said, grabbing hold of the doorframe and practically swinging herself into the kitchen, lightly balanced on one heel.

“Whoa, careful!” Papa was standing in front of the stove, holding a big, sizzling pan over the fire. “Breakfast’s not gonna sprout wings and fly off, you know.”

“No, especially if it’s burned to a crisp,” Lily said, sidling up to her Papa. Thankfully, the eggs were still in their bubbly phase, and the toast was off to the side, brown and steaming.

“Excuse me?” Papa looked down at her with the cockeyed frown that always made her giggle. “When have I ever burned anything in this house?”

“There was that piece of ham Mr. Colten gave us last week.”

“I’ll have you know that wasn’t ‘burned’, that was ‘charred to perfection.’ Your palate is just too immature to appreciate a well-done slice of –”

“Egg’s ready.”

“What!? It’s still raw!”

“No it’s not, it’s just perfect.”

“It’s all wet and runny.”

“That’s what makes it perfect.”

With a long-suffering sigh of resignation and a roll of the eyes, Papa slid one of the eggs onto a plate, added a piece of toast, and presented it to her with the air of someone conferring a great favour. “Sometimes I wonder if I’m actually raising a bear cub instead of a little girl.”

“Rawr!” Lily growled, taking the plate and sitting down at the table. Papa, meanwhile, stayed by the fire, slowly turning his own egg into charcoal for reasons unknown.
Lily Darrow.jpg
“Do you have to go work today, Papa?” Lily asked, poking a hole into the yellow of her egg, just to make sure she had saved it from the pan in time.
She had.

“Yeah. Pretty sure the goldwood’s gonna come down today. They’ll need all hands to set it down and clean it up.”

Papa was a ‘lumberjack’, even though his name was John and not Jack (this made Papa roar with laughter when she first brought up the idea of a lumberjohn, and although Lily hadn’t understood what was so funny, she had still laughed along). They’d been working a big old goldwood in the forest for two days straight, and when he said ‘set it down’ what he actually meant was chopping it down, and by ‘cleaning it up’ he meant stripping it of all the branches. Although Lily was just a little kid, she always paid attention when Papa explained stuff. And also when…

“You’ll be careful, right?” she asked, perhaps just a little bit sheepishly. She tried to cover it up by biting into her slice of toast, but of course Papa noticed it. He always did.

“You worried about something, sweetheart?” Papa (finally) plated his breakfast and sat down, ignoring his daughter’s look of utter disgust at his idea of ‘well-done’.

“Well, it’s just… Mr. Lander…”

“Mr. Lander? You mean that souse?” Papa took his egg (which now more closely resembled a piece of dried lizard skin) and put it on top of his toast (which more closely resembled a piece of char broiled tree bark). This in and of itself was also a practice that made Lily want to throw her hands up in silent horror. She didn’t like the idea of two different kinds of food touching each other on the plate (something about it just didn’t seem proper), but tell that to her Papa, who often liked to jam two or three or even four different things onto the same spoon.

Papa was a strange man, but she loved him regardless.

“You don’t need to worry your pretty little head over something like that,” Papa said, taking a big, suuuper crunchy bite out of his blackened sideshow of a breakfast. “Man came in to work drunk. Didn’t pay attention. Stood where he wasn’t supposed to. That’s what he gets.”

“But his foot was all purple, Papa! I saw it!”

“Yep, five tons of pine will do that. Bastard’s lucky it didn’t hit his head.”

“But that won’t happen to Papa, right?”

“Sweetie.” Papa reached over and briefly covered her hand with his big bear paw. “There’s no need to worry. I’m always careful. You know that.”

“I know, but…”

“But what?”

Lily bit down on her lip and looked down at her half-eaten breakfast. Suddenly she didn’t feel much like eating anymore. There was this feeling deep inside of her that she didn’t quite understand.

She gave her Papa’s hand a little squeeze and smiled big. “It’s nothing, Papa. I’m just being silly.”

Papa smiled back and took another bite of his lizard and bark sandwich (keeerunch!).

“Is the goldwood a good tree, Papa?” Lily asked, not because she was particularly interested, but because she wanted something to focus on. Something that wasn’t this uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. Maybe the egg really was a bit raw after all? But no, she would never admit that, even if it was the case. Which it probably wasn’t. She was pretty sure.

“A real good tree,” Papa replied, his cheeks absolutely stuffed and standing out just like a squirrel’s. “It’s gonna take a lot of work. Goldwood’s hard. But once it’s all chopped up and shipped out, me and the boys are gonna make out like bandits.”

“That means to make lots of money, right?”

“Exactly.”

“How much money?”

“Well, let me think…” Papa swallowed his unholy amalgamation of burnt eggs and toast and started to list off all the things he intended to buy, counting them off on his fingers as he went. “We’re running low on salt. Always need that. Maybe some flour, too. Flynt is nearly all used up. Some candles. Some lamp oil. Oh, and a bag of chicken feed. And some new chickens, I guess…”

“Did the fox come back again?”

“I’m not sure what it is anymore. Damn thing keeps getting into the coop. Checked it just this morning and we’re down two more.”

“Aw no! Which ones?”

“The spotted one, and the one with the gimpy leg.”

“Aww, not Claire and Lulabelle!” Lily said, genuinely dismayed.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart. I’ll patch up the fence and lay down some traps, okay? That fox or weasel or whatever it is won’t get in there again, I promise.”
“Okay,” Lily said glumly, poking at her half-eaten egg. She might need to add another two graves to the rapidly expanding chicken cemetery behind the vegetable garden for these latest victims of the fox/weasel/whatever-the-hell-it-was stalking their humble little coop. If there were any ‘bits’ left, that was. Last time it was just some feathers and a few spots of blood, which was so depressing Lily couldn’t eat anything the whole day. Maybe if there were other kids up on this mountain she wouldn’t feel this way, but it was just her and her dad (and a bunch of lumberjacks), and with Papa out chopping trees most of the day, their little family of chickens was about the closest thing she had to actual friends, as sad and pathetic as that sounded.

“Come now, Lily, cheer up,” Papa said. His knee was bouncing a little, and Lily could feel it in her elbows every time he bumped the underside of the table, a sure sign he was trying his best to think up a way to get her mind off those two dead chickens.

His face suddenly brightened. “You know, with all the money from that goldwood we’ll be able to afford some luxuries for a change. Some butter, a little sugar, and dare I say, maybe even…” he leaned over the table, a sly grin showing through his beard, “some cheese?”

Lily looked up from her plate, just barely supressing a smile. No matter how much she loved cheese, to smile now would be an egregious act of disrespect towards the late Claire and Lulabelle and their grieving loved ones. But, while they were on the subject… “What kind of cheese?” she asked, poking at her egg with the proper, respectful amount of disinterest.

“Grovenglen, Darvin, Cordentall…”

“Ew, not Cordentall!” Lily exclaimed, so shocked and disgusted she very nearly dropped her spoon. “It’s got mould in it!”

“Alright, alright, not Cordentall,” Papa said, laughing a little. “What about Sutherdell? You liked that one, right?”

“Is that the one the nice Elf lady sold us that one time? With the biiiiiig earrings?”

“That’s what you remember? The earrings?”

“They were like, this big!” Lily put her thumb and pointer finger together in the shape of a circle. “I remember because there was a – the whole wall behind her was just, a rack of cheese! Like a bookcase but with cheese! And she gave me a big piece for free because she said I was so cute, and it was soooo good! It didn’t have any mould or nothing! Not like that stinky Cordentall.”

“Alright, we’ll get the Sutherdell.”

“Really?”

Papa nodded. “A great big wheel of the stuff. And while we’re down there, we can get you some clothes for the winter, too. Some socks, a coat, maybe some shoes…”

“Oh, that’s okay, Papa, I don’t need any -”

“Hey, don’t give me that now.” Papa flashed one of his rare cautionary frowns. “Your stuff’s all worn and frayed from last winter. And you’re shooting up so fast I doubt it’ll even fit anymore.”

“But those things are always so…” Here Lily’s words failed her. She knew what she wanted to say, but she also knew that if she said ‘expensive’ it would hurt her Papa’s feelings, like she was actually saying she didn’t think he’d be able to buy her nice things because he wasn’t a good Papa, even though that was the exact opposite of how she really felt. He was a great Papa, the best one in the whole world, and it was because she loved him so much that she didn’t want to be a nuisance for him, especially because they were living up here in the mountains and sometimes the going got tough. He was always working so hard, not just at the lumber yard, but with everything. Tending the vegetable garden, hunting the occasional deer, fixing the roof every time it sprung a leak. All kinds of stuff. And he never complained about anything. Lily tried her best to help out, but the fact of the matter was, she was only six years old, and there really wasn’t much a six-year-old could do. She could pull weeds, help keep the house neat and tidy, do the washing, but that always seemed so paltry, especially when she saw her Papa come home in the evening, cracking his back and rubbing his arms, his face all brown with sawdust and flecks of bark. He was saying that her own clothes were worn out, but his were little more than rags at this point. Wouldn’t it be better if he spent some of that money on himself?

“What I mean is…” Lily continued, counting her words carefully. “I think my clothes should still last. At least one more winter, I’m sure.”

Papa smiled. It was a warm smile, almost like he was hugging her from across the table. He stuck out his leg and patted his knee. “Lily, come here.”

Lily hesitated, but only for a moment. She hopped down from her chair, went around the table, and allowed herself to be lifted onto her Papa’s knee, a practice she felt she might be getting a little too big for, but didn’t have the heart to say just yet.

Papa looked down at her with that warm smile of his, that smile that was almost completely hidden behind the bushy tangles of his beard, and yet still managed to shine out brightly, like the sun peeking out from behind a bank of clouds, and asked her: “Now, what’s this nonsense all about?”

Lily looked down and swung her legs back and forth, trying to think of a way to explain. For her age, she was an incredibly thoughtful child, one that always tried to put herself in the shoes of others. This was a habit that sprung up because she often spent so much time alone, with nothing but her own thoughts (and a bunch of chickens) to keep her company. Because of this, she had a tendency to daydream, to make up stories in her head, and of course, you couldn’t make up any good stories if you didn’t understand how the people in them felt. It was like the stories Papa sometimes read to her before bedtime, about dragons and princesses and knights and kings and wizards and all kinds of spectacular people and places. But out of all of those, her favourite was ‘Spickerflick’, a story about a curmudgeonly old Spickerflick bug who spent most of the story arguing with a Crow who had dragged him out of his little hibernation hole to see the snow. If you only looked at it from the Spickerflick’s side, the Crow was a big ol’ jerk who wouldn’t take no for an answer. But if you only looked at the Crow’s side, the Spickerflick was a giant fool for not appreciating the beauty of winter, a sight the Spickerflick would likely never see again. It was only when you looked at both points of view that you could come to realise that neither of them were necessarily in the wrong, and that sometimes you have to take a moment to try and appreciate what someone else is feeling in order to understand them. Lily was trying to do that now with her father, a practice even most adults have trouble with. Her Papa was a man who was very proud of himself and the work he did, and rightfully so. A man who loved his little girl with all his heart, and wanted nothing more than to see her happy, even if that meant swinging an axe until his shoulders ached and his fingers were all hard and bumpy with calluses. Lily understood that just fine, but there was something else in there, too, something she didn’t understand as fully as she would have liked because she knew next to nothing about it, except that it crept up on him from time to time, a kind of sadness in his eyes. Sometimes he would sit out on the porch and just look up at the sunset slowly bleeding into the mountains, and he’d stay that way until it was dark and the skitters were out in buzzy clouds and just about eating him alive where he sat, but he never noticed because he was so lost in whatever was making that sadness in his eyes. It was at times like these that Lily wished she could do more for him than just dust the house and water the vegetables, but she didn’t know how to articulate her thoughts in a way that would make her Papa understand.

“Lily? What’s the matter? You can tell me anything, you know that.”

“I just… don’t want to be a nuisance, that’s all…” Lily ended up saying, falling woefully short of what she really wanted to tell him.

“What?” Papa looked genuinely surprised by that. “How on earth could you possibly be a nuisance? In fact, sometimes I wish you’d be more of a nuisance.”

“Huh?” Now it was Lily’s turn to be surprised. “What do you mean, Papa?”

“It’s like… You hardly ever ask for anything, and when you do, it’s always things for the both of us, or for the house. You’re just a kid, Lily. It’s okay to be a little greedy sometimes, you know? Now me, I’m kinda stupid when it comes to these things, so I won’t know how to make you happy unless you tell me, okay?”

“But I am happy!” Lily said, suddenly terrified by the notion that her Papa somehow didn’t already know that, that he didn’t know she was happy every single day, even though it was a little lonely sometimes. “I’m really, really happy! So you don’t have to worry, Papa! Honest! That’s why I think it would be better if you use the money for something else, instead. Like… erm…”

Lily cast her mind for things her Papa might like to buy for himself, but she didn’t really know what adults did when kids weren’t around. Mr. Lander liked to drink lots of beer, but Lily had never seen Papa drink anything like that, not even at the parties the lumberjacks sometimes threw. Some boots, maybe? Or a new axe? No, that was for work. But then what?

Papa smiled down at her, gave her head a little pat, and said something he had told her many times before. “By the gods, Lily, sometimes you’re so much like your mother it’s a little scary.”

Lily never really knew how to take that. Mama had gone to heaven when she was just a baby, so she never had a chance to know her, but from what Papa told her, she was the nicest, most caring person in the whole wide world, which was saying a lot, since Lily was of the firm conviction that Papa was the nicest person in the whole wide world, so to have someone even nicer than him was something she could hardly parse. All of that was a good thing, she was sure of it, but what really confused her was the look in her Papa’s eyes whenever he mentioned her. It was just like the look he sometimes wore when he was staring out at the sunset, waiting for the day to end. Lily wasn’t stupid, she understood that he missed her, and that missing her was what made him sad, and the fact that she was a wonderful Mama made it hurt even more, but what on earth was Lily supposed to do about it? Was it even her place to try and do anything? And floating underneath all these worries, a thought as black as coal, a thought so scary and adult that Lily didn’t want to look at it, not even in her imagination. The certainty that, somehow, she was the one responsible for those sometimes-sad looks in her father’s eyes. That maybe, by the simple fact that she reminded him so strongly of the Mama that left their little family behind six years ago, she was constantly pouring salt into a wound that simply would not heal.

Could that be true?

Could it?

“Lily?” The concern in Papa’s voice, the genuine love she could feel from him just by hearing him say her name.

It almost made her want to cry.

“Papa…?” She looked up at him, trying furiously to hold back the tears. She had no idea what she wanted to say, or what she should say, so the question that came out of her mouth came as just as much of a surprise to her as to her father. “What did Mama look like?”

Papa’s eyes widened a little, and for a moment Lily was terrified she had done something stupid, but then his features softened again, and it was just her Papa again, smiling down at her, just like always. “What’s with that, sweetheart? You know she looked just like you. I’ve told you before, haven’t I?”

“Yeah, but that’s not actually saying anything,” Lily said, wondering why she was trying to push the issue. It just suddenly felt like she had to know. “Every time you say that I just imagine my own head on a grownup’s body, and that just looks silly.”

“Heh, yes, I suppose it would. Hang on…” Papa reached out over the back of his chair and started to open drawers and cupboards seemingly at random, muttering beneath his breath until he found what he was looking for: a square piece of paper. He blew the dust off, set it down on the table, smoothed out the wrinkles, then fished a piece of charcoal from his breast pocket.

“Papa, you don’t have time for this! You’re gonna be late for work!”

“This is more important.” He leaned forward a little, pressing the tip of the charcoal against the paper. “Look carefully, Lilly. You might learn something nice.”

Lily pulled the hair away from her eyes and hooked it behind her ears, watching the piece of paper with an eager smile on her face. Lily always paid attention as a matter of principal, but when her Papa outright told her to pay attention, that was a cause to really set her head to work.

At first he didn’t seem to be drawing anything in particular. The way he moved the charcoal didn’t form any recognisable shapes (not to her, at least), but rather a slew of short, rough lines. Lily had no idea what he was doing or why he was doing it, but she was taking it all in regardless, even the way he positioned his hand so it wouldn’t smear.

After a short while, however, those crude-looking strokes began to connect, flowing over and into each other, until Lily could clearly make out the shape of a face. A few more lines and suddenly there was a neck, too.

Lily glanced up and supressed a giggle at her Papa’s face. His tongue was poking out of the corner of his mouth and slowly moving from side to side, something he only did when he was concentrating really, really hard.

At this point Lily pretty much forgot all about analysing and just sat mesmerised. She knew her Papa could draw (it was his favourite hobby), but had she ever seen him put quite as much effort into any of his previous works? She wasn’t sure. All she could do was watch, fascinated, and maybe just a little sad, as the lines and shapes came together into the image of the woman she would have called her mother, had the gods not been so cruel.

She was very pretty. Even without any colour, Lily could tell this woman had the exact same blonde hair and blue eyes that she saw every time she glimpsed her own reflection in the mountain streams outside. Her smile seemed to touch her entire face, just like Papa’s, radiating a warmth she could feel all the way inside her heart. And sitting in her lap, laughing right along with her…

“Papa, is that me?” Lily asked, a little confused. When he didn’t answer her right away, she looked up and saw that strange, slightly sad look in his eyes again, like he wasn’t really looking down at lines of charcoal, but rather a different time altogether. A time that never existed, and never would.

He jumped a little, as if he had just woken up, and smiled. “Yeah. That’s you, sweetheart. Do you see now? How much you look like your Mama?”

“Mm-mm,” Lily nodded, not quite sure how to feel. It was a beautiful picture, and every line and scribble her Papa was adding was making it even more so, to the point it actually made her heart ache.
Charcoal Sketch.jpg
If Mama had lived, what would their lives have been like? Instead of waiting for Papa to come home all by herself every evening, there would have been someone else, too. Someone to talk to, someone to laugh and play with. Someone to teach her how to sew and bake bread. Maybe there would have been a little flower garden next to the vegetables, or maybe the curtains would have had a different pattern. There would have been an extra chair at the breakfast table, and instead of playing with little wood-carved horses and cows, maybe Lily would have been playing dress-up with dolls made of cloth.

Although Lily had never met the woman in this picture before, she suddenly missed her with all her heart. And if it was so bad for her, just looking down at a few lines of charcoal, then how bad must it be for her Papa, who actually knew this person for real? Who had touched her, hugged her, loved her?
This person who looked so much like his daughter… the little girl who reminded him of what he had lost every moment he looked upon her…

Was that the way her Papa saw her?

Lily wanted to see her Papa’s face. She wanted to look up and try to decipher whatever there might be. But at the same time, she was too terrified to do that. Wrestling with all these thoughts that were decades beyond her was just too much, so she looked down at his hands instead, not just because she was afraid of what she might see, but because she was afraid of what her Papa might see in her; a feeling of guilt and shame that would only make him sadder.

Lily desperately, desperately didn’t want to do that.

Papa dragged his thumb along some of the lines, smearing them just a tiny bit to give the illusion of light and shadow. He did the same with the background, making it appear softer than before, as if they were both sitting in the sunshine, these two girls, smiling and laughing as if they didn’t have a care in the world.

Is that really what they would have looked like?

Again, Lily felt absolutely torn, split between two ways of feeling without fully understanding either. This was a beautiful picture of her and her mother together, made with painstaking attention to detail, right down to the curls in their hair and the lace in their dresses. It was drawn by the hand of her Papa who, above all else, wanted her to be happy, wanted her to know what kind of a person her Mama really was, how the light shone in her eyes and how the dimples formed in her cheeks when she smiled. But at the same time, this was a picture of a time that simply did not exist, a dream that could never come true. She could never sit on her Mama’s lap like this or feel her arms wrap around her middle because Mama wasn’t around and she never would be. It was just a fantasy. A beautiful fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless.

How was she supposed to look at this, then? Was she supposed to feel happy or sad? Was she supposed to smile or cry? She didn’t know.

“We look so happy…” Lily whispered, and before she knew it, while she was still trying to figure out her feelings, while she was still struggling to cope with this strange internal conflict, the tears simply came, because the thing about feelings is that they are always within you and they will always come out, whether you understand them or not, and right now, the feelings that overshadowed all others in Lily’s heart was an overwhelming love for her Papa, and a sadness that she would never be able to do anything about this wound in their hearts. Just a tiny scratch for her, but a gaping hole in his.

“Lily? Lily what’s wrong?” Papa asked, twisting her around on his lap, trying to get a look at her face, and the concern she heard in his voice only doubled the tears, and she buried her face in his side, choking back her sobs.

She felt his hand on her head, gently stroking back and forth, and listened to her name being whispered over and over again.

“Lily, Lily, it’s okay. It’s okay, Lily, it’s okay…”

“I- I’m suh-sorry…” Lily finally gasped out, her voice muffled against her father’s heavy coat. “I’m suh-sorry, Papa…”

“Now what on earth do you have to be sorry about, girl?”

Try as she might, Lily simply didn’t know the answer, not to that question, and not to many others. It was too much of a load to bear, and so she hugged her Papa tight and hid her face against his side and breathed in the smell of old leather and sawdust and listened to her Papa tell her that everything was okay, that everything was all right, that she was a good girl and everything would be fine.

After a while her crying died to sniffles, and when she pulled her face back – a little disgusted by the wet patch of tears and snot she had left on her Papa’s coat – he had a handkerchief at the ready. He pressed it up against her face and Lily blew as hard as she could, getting rid of some of the oogy nastiness that always clogged your face after the tears were mostly gone.

“I guess this drawing was a bad idea, huh?” he sighed. “What was I even thinking?”

“Nu-uh!” Lily pushed the handkerchief away. “No, Papa! It’s a beautiful picture! And now I know what Mama looked like! It’s really, really good, so please don’t say it’s bad!”

“But then why are you crying, sweetheart?”

Lily opened her mouth to explain, but then closed it again, unsure of how to proceed. Why was she crying? This wasn’t the kind of crying you did when you fell and scraped the skin off your knee, or when you were scared because you thought there might be a monster under your bed. Lily had never cried like this before, and the reason for that was…

“It’s not for me…” she whispered, finally coming to understand.

“Hmm?”

Lily looked up. “I’m not crying for me, Papa. I’m crying for you.”

“For me?”

Lily nodded, but then saw the confused look in her father’s eye and knew she would have to explain. She looked down at the picture, trying to think of the right words, and after a while, they came.

“This was my Mama…” she said, lightly touching the corner of the paper, being very careful not to smudge it.

“That’s right, sweetheart.”

“And you loved her very, very much.”

“Of course.”

“Do you…” She could feel the tears start to well up again, but she had already cried so much it was as if they were too tired to actually leave her eyes, so they just loitered there, a constant, blurry sting. “Do you miss her?”

Papa smiled. “I do. Sometimes it comes at odd moments, like when I’m sharpening my axe, and I think about how your mother would always caution me to be careful lest I chop off my fingers. Or when I stoke the fire and I think about the time a spark landed in my beard and damn near set the whole thing aflame. Your mother was right there to beat it out with a washcloth, but only after she just about fainted laughing. She was quick to worry, your mother, but she was also quick to laugh. She had a grumpy side, and a soft side. She liked to play pranks and experiment in the kitchen. She loved owls, and always got really mad at anyone who said they were a bad omen. She loved hugs, both giving and receiving, and every time I came home from the woods, no matter what she was doing, be it washing or cooking or tending the garden, she would always drop whatever it was to come and give me a huge hug, and sometimes, even though she was a bit of a shorty, those hugs were so strong and fierce it felt like I was being hugged by a bear. Now, does any of that sound familiar to you, sweetheart?”

It did. Lily was always worried whenever Papa sharpened his axe (all those sparks flying everywhere). She thought owls were just about the prettiest things ever, with their big golden eyes and creamy feathers. And every evening, when the sun was about to set behind the mountains and the sky was just starting to turn rosy, when she heard the front door bang open and her Papa’s hearty cry of “Lily, I’m home!” she would always drop whatever it was she was doing and run up to him with her arms spread wide and give him a big hug. It was something she had never really thought of before. It just felt like a natural thing to do. Sometimes he would lift her up a little, grunting about how heavy she was getting, and how one of these days she would bowl him right over.

“It’s more than just your looks, sweetheart,” Papa said. “You are just like your mother in so many ways. You’re kind and gentle and you have the biggest, brightest smile in the whole wide world.”

Lily wiped her nose on her sleeve, wishing that the damn thing would just stop leaking already. “Buh- But if I –” She sniffed once more and tried again. “I was worried that I… I was making you sad because… you love Mama so much, and she’s not here anymore… and if I look so much like her… and act like her… then that’ll make you sad…”

“Oh, Silly Lilly…” Papa wrapped his arms around her and gave her a tight squeeze. “You could never, ever make me feel sad. I do miss your mother sometimes, I won’t lie to you about that. But you know what?”

“What?”

“Your mother didn’t truly leave us. I carry a part of her right here, with me.” He pointed at his heart. “And there’s another part around here somewhere. Do you know where it is?”

Lily shook her head. The last tear, the one that had been struggling so hard to break free, finally started to roll her down her cheek.

“Right here.” Papa placed his hand above her heart. “Even though your mama isn’t with us anymore, her spirit is still alive inside of you. That’s why I don’t feel sad or lonely. I’ve got you, Lily, and I love you with all my heart. And so does your Mama. That means that, as long as we’re together, the three of us will always be a full set. A whole family. You got that?”

Lily nodded, not quite trusting herself to speak. She was biting down on her bottom lip so hard it was starting to hurt, but that other hurt, that deep down hurt she couldn’t explain, was finally fading away. She was starting to feel good again.

“That’s my girl.” Papa reached over and wiped the last of her tears away, rubbing his thumb across her cheek, first one side, then the other, just like he had done to make light and shadow on his picture. For a moment, Lily felt like she was one of Papa’s pictures, too. Maybe a picture that wasn’t completely done yet, but a work of art regardless, because that was the way her Papa would always see her. Not as a reminder of what was lost, but as a celebration of the love that made her. Something beautiful. Something happy.

His precious daughter.

Papa scooped up the last bit of his breakfast, scrunched it all into his mouth (even though it must have gone dreadfully cold by now) and laughed when Lily planted a kiss on his cheek.

“Thanks, Lily,” Papa said. Or, at least, that was what Lily assumed he said. With both his cheeks stuffed, it sounded more like: “Han oo hihee…” He glanced at the window and whistled at the slant of sunlight falling across the table. “I gotta get going, darling, otherwise that old goat’s gonna give me all kinds of hell.”

“Okay.”

Papa buttoned up his coat, gave her hair a passing ruffle, and left the kitchen, wiping the crumbs off his beard. Lily followed him all the way to the front door and watched as he lifted the axe off its hook and slung it over his shoulder. She had seen him go through these exact same motions hundreds of times, but something about this time seemed a little different.

“Papa?”

He looked down, tilting his head a little, as if surprised to see her still standing there. “Yes, sweetheart?”

Lily went up to him, wrapped her arms around his middle, and rested her head against the warm folds of his coat. “I love you, Papa.”

Papa dropped down to one knee and returned her hug a thousand fold, squeezing her tight tight tight. “I love you, too, Silly Lilly. I’ll be back before you know it, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Goodbye.”

“Goodbye, Papa.”

He stood up, gave her a little nod, and stepped out the door. At this point, Lily ordinarily would have gone back to the kitchen, but this time she felt compelled to go onto the porch and watch as he slowly meandered his way up the curving footpaths. He would disappear behind a chunk of rock or a thicket of trees, and then reappear on the other side a few seconds later. But then, all too suddenly, his shape disappeared behind one of the mountain’s many reaching fingers, and he was gone.
John Darrow.jpg
Lily took a deep breath of frigid mountain air and blew it out again, watching as the steam billowed out from her pursed lips. She stood outside for a moment, wearing nothing but her nightgown and rocking back and forth on her heels before the cold became too great and she went back inside, latching the door behind her.

Lily did not know it, but she would never hug her father again.
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Re: Delfi

#5

Post by Contrast »

2
Lily had all kinds of things to keep herself busy while Papa was away. First, she went back to the kitchen to finish her breakfast. It was all oogy and cold, but that was kinda her own fault, so she ate every last bite without complaint (there was no one around to complain to anyway). When she was done, she cleared the table, washed up, and wiped all the crumbs. Easy. After that she made her bed, then went into her Papa’s room to remake his. Papa wasn’t a lazy man by any stretch of the imagination, but his idea of ‘making the bed’ was just yanking the blankets back into a semi-linear position. Lily, on the other hand, was more particular about such things. First, she took off the blankets, made sure the bedding wasn’t spilling any hay anywhere, then spread them back on, one by one, nice and even, with just enough room at the top to accommodate his pillow, which she gave a good fluffing before putting back. Lastly, she tugged the top blanket a little at the corners to get rid of any wrinkles, a technique much more effective than a bunch of slaps and sweeps. Finally done, she stood back, surveyed her work with her hands on her hips, and gave a little nod, satisfied.

What next?

She gave the whole place a proper dusting, even though it didn’t need it. She opened the windows. Put the plates and spoons away once they were all dried out. Swept the porch. It was just busy-work, to be sure, but she didn’t mind. Papa wasn’t a slave driver, and although he expected her to do a few chores around the house while he was away, it didn’t come even close to her every-day routine. If Papa ever had a mind to make a list, it would have looked something like this:

1. Feed chickens.
2. Water veg gar.
3. Play.

Lily giggled a little at the thought, then gasped at the realisation that she hadn’t gotten around to the chickens or the ‘veg gar’ just yet. Maybe some shadow in the back of her mind had kept her from thinking about them because, truth be told, she was kind of reluctant to go back there, what with all the gruesome murders. But it was her duty to look after them, was it not? They relied on her. She would just finish up her sweeping and then get right on it. No problem.

Lily swept the dust off the porch, liking the repetitive swoosh swoosh of the bristles against the wood. She even set Papa’s chair aside so she could get underneath, sweeping up all the dust and leaving everything nice and clean, the way it should be.

“Okay, back with you,” she whispered under her breath, putting the chair back in place. Papa often sat here in the evening, sometimes doodling with a piece of charcoal, sometimes whittling away at a nice piece of wood he had found at work (most of her toys started out this way), or just sitting back and watching the clouds slide over the mountain peaks. Sometimes he’d fall asleep and Lily would have to shake him awake, always feeling a bit guilty for doing so. But she couldn’t very well just leave him to sleep out on the porch, could she?

Lily was still thinking about this, a little smile playing across her face, when she turned the corner and saw the Demon crouched in front of their chicken coop, its long, stringy white hair spilling across its back like a curtain, its tail whipping back and forth. There was a fluffy red something in its clawed hands, something Lily should have recognized right away, but in her shock it just didn’t click, not until it lowered its head and took a huge juicy bite out of it, smearing its face in that same shade of red. It was running down its chin and dripping down into a puddle on the ground. The Demon went back for more, biting into that fluffy red and white mass with the most horribly wet, crunchy sounds. It tore loose another piece, and the jerking motion of its hands caused the mass to shift, and that’s when Lily saw the head protruding from one jagged, half-eaten side. A chicken’s head. Marguerite’s head. It swung back and forth, dangling by a thread of meat and sinew, then simply broke free and landed in the soil with a soft thud. The eyes were black and dead, ringed with blood, but they were looking right at her, staring even as the feathers around her neck started to turn from white to red.
Adult Demon.jpg
Lily gasped. It was a tiny sound, but the Demon’s head snapped up, its long, pointy ears twitching back and forth like a horse’s. It looked back over its shoulder and saw her standing there, a little human girl with a small bag of chicken feed clutched to her chest.

It stood up to its full height, maybe just short of two strides tall. A full-grown Demon with skin as black as coal. But even more than its size or the colour of its skin, the thing that grabbed Lily’s attention was its eyes. Deep red, the exact same shade as the blood dripping from its wickedly sharp canines. It took a step forward, then another, the piece of meat that used to be Marguerite hanging idly by its side.

Different children would have reacted differently to this horrific sight. Some would have bolted, and no adult hearing this would have thought it strange. Others would have screamed or cried or fainted dead away, and no one would have thought that strange, either.

But Lily was not like most children. Where others would have seen nothing but a monster straight out of a nightmare, Lily saw just a bit more. She noticed its clothes. Lumberjack’s clothes, most likely stolen from one of Papa’s friends higher up on the mountain. She saw the way they were frayed and torn, especially at the knees. She saw the baggy way in which they were hanging off its body, like they were two sizes too big, even though the Demon was so tall. She noticed its bare feet and the calluses on its hands. She saw the scabs running across its face; short, thin lines, perhaps made by branches whipping back. She looked at the way he was hunching forward, at how his eyes, although scary, were deeply sunken. His whole face was gaunt to the point where she could almost make out the skull beneath his skin. Even his fingers, although tipped with claws as sharp as any wolf’s, were bony and emaciated.

This creature, this Demon, was on the verge of starvation.

Maybe it would have been better if Lily had been a little more like other children. Maybe it would have been better if she had just screamed and run away. Maybe things would have turned out differently.

But then again, maybe nothing would have changed.

Lily pulled the drawstrings on her little bag of chicken feed with trembling hands. It was just some chicken feed, some dry kernels of corn mixed with bird seed, but it was perfectly edible. She even snacked on it herself once in a while, if Papa was late to come home and she didn’t want to start on dinner without him.

It wasn’t much, but it was all she had, and she couldn’t bear to look into those blood red eyes any longer. Those eyes that looked so hungry…

She held the bag out like an offering, swallowed back her fear, and said: “Here… you can have this, if you want.”

The Demon reached out with shaking fingers, licking its lips, and a wave of relief washed over her. This Demon wasn’t scary after all. It was just hungry. Maybe she could take him to the kitchen and give him a proper meal? She was sure they still had some bread left. Maybe some meat, too.

Lily was still thinking these things as the Demon’s fingers passed over the little bag of feed and snapped shut around her wrist.
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Re: Delfi

#6

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3
John was dead tired. His arms ached. His shoulders ached. His legs ached. Even his fingers ached. He and everyone else had been so sure that the goldwood would come down today, and although they had made considerable progress, the old behemoth was still standing in the exact same spot it had been growing in for the past hundred years or more. It did start to make some rather unsettling sounds by the end of the day, though. A low, agonal groaning. If you pressed your ear right up against the trunk, it was as if you could hear the years snapping away under their own weight. A death rattle of hours. It was kind of creepy, to be honest.

But despite his fatigue, John was in a cheerful mood. Part of it was the thought of how much money that tree would bring in once it finally surrendered to the pull of the earth, but mostly it was just the simple routine of walking down this winding path. On his left the mountain gently rose up to the sky, covered in a blanket of spruce and elm, their roots occasionally breaking through the slopes like intertwined snakes. On his right it was the opposite, with the earth sliding down into the valley below, with nothing between him and the sharper drop-offs but a neat little ashwood railing. From here, he could see the tops of the trees vying for sunshine, blazing gold and ruby red, a crown so grand that not even the greatest of kings could ever wear it. But even if this had been a thorn-infested swamp covered in shit, John still would have loved every step of it, because no matter how tired he was, no matter how much his muscles ached, this was the path that would always lead him home.
The Way Home.jpeg
He passed by a fledgling elm, then a broken log half-buried in the soil, and finally, the last landmark, just as effective as any signpost: a crumbly old boulder, its shadeward side covered in a thin layer of black and green moss.
Home.jpeg
John skirted around the stone and there it was. His home. Their scruffy, rough-around-the-edges little cabin in the woods, with its crooked chimney and creaky porch, a sight that always made him feel like the weight of the day was just sliding off his back. He rolled his shoulders and stepped onto the little paving stone path he had laid with his own two hands almost eight years ago, one branch leading to the porch steps, and the other connecting to a little alcove off the side, with a single well-worn chopping block standing guard over stacks of firewood. He could hear the chickens clucking somewhere around the back, maybe still mourning the loss of their sisters. He’d need to remember to set up a few extra traps before nightfall, otherwise they might have to get through the winter without any –

Something crunched beneath John’s boot. He looked down, puzzled to see a small bag of chicken feed lying in the dust. Did Lily drop this? That wasn’t like her. But then again, she was still a kid, and kids could be messy sometimes, even ones as fastidious as his little girl.

Putting the mystery of the spilled chicken feed out of his mind for now, John climbed the two squeaky stairs up to the porch, fishing his key from his front pocket and thinking about what he and Lily would have for supper tonight. Maybe a nice potato stew? Or some yams and beans and a bit of salted pork on the side? They almost always prepared their meals together, fussing and arguing over the finer points of mountain cuisine, such as the correct amount of pepper (if any) to add to a dish that already had red peppers in it, or the optimal cooking time for a fresh hunk of wild boar shank (medium well for him and basically raw for her, the little monster).

Smiling to himself, John slid the key into the lock, taking care to rattle it extra-loud. This was the best part of his day by far, and although he knew his fellow woodsmen would bust a collective gut if they could see him now, big ol’ John with the bushy mountain-man beard, standing out here on his own front porch and smiling like a loon, he didn’t care in the slightest.

It was a silly routine, but it was their silly routine, and he knew it wouldn’t last forever. One of these days she would outgrow things like this, and he intended to savour the little things for as long as he could.

He threw the door open and stepped inside, the late evening sunshine spilling around his bulky frame and washing through the hallway in bright, golden swaths.

“Lily, I’m home!” he called, quickly removing his hatchet from his belt and hanging it up on the hook by the door. He was always so paranoid about Lily cutting herself on the damn thing.

“Lily? You there, hun?” John slipped his coat from his shoulders and hung it up next to the hatchet, his cheerful smile slowly turning into a frown. Ordinarily Lily would have come sprinting down this hallway faster than a lightning lizard, her arms outstretched and a smile as bright and shining as the sun itself stuck to her face.

But not today?

John took a few steps deeper into the hallway, his heavy boots thudding against the floorboards. Maybe she was out playing in the woods, or maybe she had gone down to the village and had simply lost track of time? It had happened before.

Maybe she took sick while he was gone?

It was in that exact moment that the sun began to dip behind the tallest peaks of the mountains, dyeing its setting light from golden yellow to rusty crimson, the colour of rancid wine. It was a foul colour, streaming into his home through every crack and crevice.

“Lily?” The first tendrils of fear were starting to snake their way into his heart, but John couldn’t say why. He had come home late before. He had come home to silence before. He had seen this very same quality of light before, almost always just before autumn began its gradual descent into winter. Something about the light shining off the mountains in just the right way, he supposed.

But still. There was this feeling. This deep, incessant feeling.

He began to move forward, treading softly for some reason he couldn’t fathom.

There was a sideboard halfway down the hall, with a vase of wildflowers neatly arranged on top; drops of water still fresh and shining on their golden petals. Lily was always doing stuff like that. Picking flowers, arranging them around the house, making everything nice and pretty. But in this hellish light the flowers looked worse than dead, and the beads of dew adorning their leaves had taken on the colour of diluted blood. Even the vase itself was taking this light and throwing it against the wall in warped ribbons of colour, making the hallway seem far longer than it actually was, more like a raw, bleeding throat.
Wilted Flowers.jpeg
He was just about to call out again when he noticed something on the floor. Something white. He picked it up. It was the charcoal sketch he had drawn for Lily this morning. His daughter and late wife smiling up at him from inside a small square of paper. But how did it get here? The wind, maybe?
John stood up and set the picture down on the sideboard, thinking of nothing more than putting it someplace safe where it wouldn’t get stepped on, but as he moved his hand away, he saw that one of those ribbons of light had fallen over the picture; a glaring red line slashed directly across Lily’s face.

In an uncharacteristic act of superstition, John moved the picture just far enough for that mark to slide away, but it was already too late. He could still see it, burned into his eyes like an afterimage. That blinding red line, like a dripping blade…

John’s heart began to thud in his chest. He couldn’t breathe. There was sweat pouring down his face. His muscles were tense. His eyes kept darting from shadow to shadow, but there was nothing out of the ordinary. No real reason for him to feel this way.

Except for the silence. And that single door at the end of the hallway. The door leading to his daughter’s bedroom. The door that was, despite her papa coming home, still shut tight.

He passed the sideboard, trying to keep the demonic light from washing over him as he stepped by, but of course it slithered all over him, and damn if he couldn’t feel that light squirming against his clothes, trying to get at his skin.

“Lily? Are you all right? Honey?” He reached for the doorknob, but ended up knocking instead, lightly rapping his knuckles against the wood. “Lily? You in there?”

No answer.

John swallowed. Grabbed the doorknob. The same, sickly red light was seeping in from the crack beneath her door. Of course it was. There was a big, west-facing window in there, and even though she was only six, she loved to sit up in bed with her back to that window, a big, heavy book propped open against her knees, staying up and reading until the very last dregs of daylight faded away.

Maybe she had just fallen asleep?

Holding on to this thought, clutching at it like a drowning man would clutch at a piece of driftwood, John pushed the door open. “Lily, are you –”

The door was still swinging open, slowly creaking along on rusty old hinges he had bought in the village almost eight years ago, back when the days were long and the nights were warm, and in the short amount of time it took that door to fully open, groaning the tired old song he had heard every day of those eight years, he saw everything, everything, down to the tiniest detail, instantly seared into his mind.

She was lying on the floor, face down, her golden hair spilling around her head. Her blanket had been pulled halfway off the bed and was pooled around her feet. The setting sun was saturating everything in a filthy red glow, streaming in through the broken window, its edges lined with fangs of glass. Razor sharp slivers lay strewn across her room, rivers of silver flowing through the wrinkled folds in her sheets.
Lily.jpg
The door was still swinging open… still swinging open… letting out its deep, hollow groan.

Her bookcase had been knocked over, and all her favourite stories, so carefully arranged (not by name, but by author), were scattered every which way, the covers tented and the pages cruelly crumpled. Even in his frozen state of horror, John instantly recognised the ones he had read to her back when she was still just a very small child, even smaller than she was now, huddled together beneath the blankets, her cheek resting against his arm as she looked at the pictures. “The Ant and the Bee”, by Jeremy Hollinger. “The Kindly King”, by Sizzeriah Webfoot. “Spickerflick” by Samantha Irstwhistle. A dozen others.

Lily will be mortified to see her books in such a state, John thought, his mind reeling. She’s such a neat little girl… Always tidying up, always helping with the dishes, always…

An image flashed in his head, of his darling little daughter, no more than five years old at the time, with a spotted bandanna tied around her head and a huge old feather duster clutched in her tiny hands, smiling and sneezing as motes of dust drifted through the afternoon sunshine.

Am I doing it right, Papa?

The door was still swinging open. Still swinging open. Still groaning and creaking, the sound growing louder and louder, slowly tearing through his sanity.
The light. There was something wrong about the light. It was redder than it was supposed to be, even with the setting sun, even with the bloody hue from the mountains, even with all these shadows spilling everywhere, it was just too deep, too dark, too red…

Too glistening…

The door finally stopped moving, the groaning finally disappeared, and that was all it took for the spell to be broken. The longest three seconds of John’s life…

Shattered.

“Lily!” John rushed to her side and dropped down to his knees, his eyes wide and staring. It was blood. That’s why it was so red. It was blood. Thick and viscous, a great pool of it, seeping through his pants. The dying light was bouncing off the semi-coagulated surface in a dull, golden half-sheen. He reached for her shoulder, but the moment he touched her, the moment he heard the soft squelch of her dress against his gloved fingers… such a tiny sound…

Such a wet sound…

He slowly turned her over. Her light blonde hair, covered in streaks of red, made a nauseating tearing sound as the strands pulled back from the floor, like weeds being ripped from the soil.

“Lily?”

Her eyes were wide and staring. Such a beautiful shade of sky blue, now faded to the colour of murky dishwater. Her skin, which had always been a bit pale for a child of the mountains, was now even paler, almost completely white. No colour at all…

Except for the single, deep red line slashed across her throat.

“Lily?” He carefully, oh so carefully, lifted her up and cradled her in his arms. Her neck began to lol and the cut in her throat threatened to yawn wide. Stifling a gasp of horror, John hugged her to his chest. She was so limp, and there was no warmth. It felt like he was holding a sack of grain rather than his own flesh and blood, his own daughter.

“No… please, no…” he whispered, rocking her back and forth, tears streaming from his eyes and dripping onto her upturned face. “Lily? Papa’s home… Papa’s home, see?”

He touched her cheek. The same cheek she would sometimes rub up against his beard when she gave him a hug. The same cheek that would always flush with colour whenever she came back from playing outside. The same cheek that would always dimple on the left side whenever she smiled.

She was cold. She was so, so cold…

By the time John noticed the footsteps, it was already too late.

He twisted around and the Demon was standing right behind him, the hatchet from the hallway raised high above his head.
Attack from Behind.jpeg
“Ekkis yamare,” he said, his blood red eyes glowing from inside a pair of deeply sunken sockets, and swung the hatchet down…
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Re: Delfi

#7

Post by Contrast »

Chapter 1
A Trampled Flower

John awoke with a start, one hand clapped over his forehead and the other groping beneath his sheets for a sword that wasn’t there… hadn’t been there for years now.

Scar was still there, though. He could feel it underneath his palm: a rough, ugly-looking thing. It started at the top of his forehead and ran all the way down to his right eyebrow, thinning along the way.

He let out a tired groan, kicked the blankets off his sweat-drenched body and just lay there on this moth-eaten excuse for a bed, staring up at the ceiling, waiting for the aftereffects to subside. He didn’t want to think about what he had just seen, so he just stared at the dank old support beams above his head, covered in dust, cobwebs in just about every corner, big fat spiders crawling along the strings. Damn lot of good they did. Fuckin place was buzzing with skeeters every goddamn night regardless.

John covered his eyes with the crook of his elbow. Partly because he didn’t want to look at this place a second longer than he absolutely had to, and partly because he was hoping it would help alleviate this motherthumper of a headache he had incubating behind his eyeballs. As if the dream wasn’t bad enough…

Papa…

He clenched his teeth and groped for the nightstand, hoping to find some hair of the dog. There should still be some brandy left, at the very least. Unless he finished it all last night in one of his drunken stupors. Fat lot of good it did him if he couldn’t even go one goddamn night without seeing that godawful –

His fingertips brushed something cold and smooth, and the next instant he heard the crash of breaking glass. A few seconds after that, the smell of brandy floated off the floor, thick and sweet.

“Goddammit…” he whispered to absolutely no one. “God fucking piece of shit…”

He should probably get up. A normal person, even one as hopelessly hungover as he was, would get up. Or would at least try to. A normal person would at least make a token gesture of cleaning up the mess, even if it only entailed soaking up the booze with an old pair of shit-stained pants. Gloria had already given him an earful about this place smelling like a brewery, and he didn’t want to give that old hag any more excuses to up the rent. But even so, John made absolutely no effort to get out of bed. Didn’t even remove his arm from across his eyes. Just lying here, trying not to remember the dream, was hard enough by itself. He didn’t need to add any other bullshit on top of that. Stuff like getting up. Getting clean. Eating. Working.

Oh god, was he supposed to go to work today? What day was today, anyway? He couldn’t remember. He wouldn’t have gotten fall-down black-out piss-down-your-leg drunk last night if he knew he was supposed to come in to the quarry today, would he?

Would he?

John gave it some thought, and concluded that yes, Past John absolutely would have done exactly that. And come to think of it some more, so would Present John. So what was the problem?

The problem was, it felt like, should he move even a quarter of an inch, he would lose all the valuable remnants of last night’s debauchery in one fell swoop of the gut, and he had absolutely no intention of lying here in his own filth (well, any more than he already was), stewing away in a craphole that did a perfectly adequate job of smelling like vomit without any additional help from him, thank you very much.

He could really, really use a drink, though…

“Urgh…” He slowly, slowly rolled onto his side, grateful that Past John had at least had the forethought to pull the drapes before conking out last night. Even the meagre amount of morning sunshine trying to pierce through the fabric was enough to give the darkness behind his tightly shut eyelids a reddish tint, which was doing his headache no favours at all.
Good Morning.jpeg
Voices, too. A steady rumble from outside. Just a thousand assholes going about their asshole days. The wonders of city life, right outside his window.

“Oy! Tail-stain! You call this eggs fresh!? This eggs ain’t no fresh!”

“What’re you talkin!? Melly shat ‘em out just this morn!”

“I’ll give you half-crown for the dozen.”

“Half-crown? Half-crown!? Thems two crown! Read the sign, fin-head!”

Taking slow, deep breaths and saying a silent prayer that he wouldn’t fall on his face, John leaned over and began to grope underneath his bed. His fingertips brushed something soft and furry, maybe a dust-bunny or a dead rat. Something that crumbled to dust underneath his reaching fingers. Something that skittered away with a disgruntled clicking. More cobwebs.

“Oh come on…”

And finally something smooth and round.

Yes!

He pawed the bottle out from underneath the bed, but it was empty. So was the second and third he managed to extricate from the Nether Realm. The fourth, however, still had a reddish ribbon of… something sloshing around down there at the bottom. Just barely enough for two swallows.

“I thank thee, oh merciful Kaloa, goddess of fermentation, holy matriarch of all things boozological, for the bounty I am about to receive. Unless this turns out to be Jackal Moon, in which case, kindly go fuck yourself. So I pray.”

John sat up, brushed a spider off the lip, and upended the whole thing in two quick swallows that tasted like gutter-water. When he was done with that, he tapped the bottom with his palm, hoping to get the last drop to fall onto his tongue, the last drop of booze that always seemed to cling to the bottle, catching the sunshine like –

Like a drop of blood. Slowly running down her neck. Slowly, because it had already started to dry against her skin.

It fell onto his tongue, just like he had wished for, and the taste spread through his entire mouth in an instant, bitter and cloying.

I love you, Papa.

He threw the bottle down and smashed it to pieces, narrowly avoiding his bare feet. Ten years. Ten fucking years since that day, and still, still it kept sneaking up on him like that, picking away at his heart and mind. He buried his face in his hands and took long, slow breaths.

Long. Slow. Breaths.

It didn’t help.

He knew what would, though.

John rolled out of bed (on the glass-free side), picked up his coat and managed to slip his arms through the sleeves after only four tries. He stagger-slouched his way over to ye old “dining room”, which was a grand total of three steps away from the foot of his bed and consisted of two creaky chairs and a rickety old table with a single wooden bowl on top. Ooh la la.
Dining Room.jpeg
If there was one thing he could say about this rat’s nest, it was that everything was a highly, highly convenient distance from everything else. Really no more than four walls and a hole to shit in, but that was okay. Rent was almost non-existent, which left all the more money for the important things. All he had to do was go on a perilous journey to the farthest reaches of Arden… where all kinds of danger might be lying in wait… eager to ambush the unwary traveller…

“Got my money…” He checked his coat pocket. “Check. Got my key…” He checked his pants. “Check. Got my shoes…? No? Where did I…?” He spotted his boots slumped in the corner and, after a cursory glance to make sure they weren’t filled with vomit, slipped them on. “Shoes, check. Now to make myself presentable for a day on the town…” He raked his fingers through his beard, dislodging a piece of… what was that? Potato bread? Whatever. Check.

“All right…” he said, groomed and ready. He grasped the doorknob, squinted his eyes shut against the inevitable barrage of sunlight about to assault his eyeballs, and opened the door.
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Re: Delfi

#8

Post by Contrast »

2

It was a ‘beautiful’ day, to be sure. Little brown birds, hopping along the rooftops, singing their merry songs. Sparkling drops of early morning dew hanging off the window sills. Fat rays of sunshine streaming in through a thin smattering of clouds like godly spotlights, perfectly illuminating the cracked and broken cobblestones as they wound their way through the Coil, the lowest, filthiest slum that ever had the indecency to pop up in what was supposedly one of the greatest multi-cultural (a fancy way of saying that everybody hated each other the same) trading hubs of the entire kingdom. A twisting street where morning glories gaily bloomed from the eaves of one house while a stinking dog corpse rotted in the gutter just below. Where children played on one corner while an assassination deal was being worked out just opposite. A place where you could buy medicine and poison all from the same shop. Where brothels made you sign a waiver before they let you in. A world where the hands were quick and the coin was bloody.

John pulled his coat a little tighter around his chest and set off, taking great care not to bump into any of the fine citizenry, a task which would have been much simpler if they weren’t all a bunch of ill-defined blurs.

“Hey, watch it, Humie!”

“Watch yourself!” John shouted right back, but it was already gone, merged with the crowd. A scant second later yet another blur bumped into him, this one a light greenish colour. It stumbled back, opened up a big, red, toothy maw and hissed at him, an insult which John would not allow to go unretorted. “Oh yeah? Well tsssssss to you, too, buddy!”

It flicked its tongue and slunk on by, nearly tripping him up with its stupidly long tail. Why did the Lizzies always have to swing ‘em like that? Like they were always trying to one-up each other. Look, my tail is the longest and stupidest of them all! Look how much I’m inconveniencing everyone around me! No, my tail is the biggest and swooshiest of them all! No, my tail has a poisonous barb on the end! Watch as I haphazardly swing it around a bunch of children!

Just a giant dick-measuring contest was what it was. ‘Cept with tails.
Tsssss.jpeg
John rubbed his bleary eyes. His headache was getting worse, but the blurs were going away, becoming almost clear, and that was bad. That was very bad. It meant he was sobering up, and that meant…

That meant he would just have to find some new booze, that’s what it meant.

How far have I come, anyway?

John looked back and a Fairy nearly flew right smack into his face. She swerved drunkenly, glowing a rather morose brownish colour (quite possibly the same colour of whatever had filled her thimble last night). She hiccupped once, but instead of all those sparklies that ordinarily followed them around like a goldfish’s turds, this one only had a string of ethereal bubbles following in her wake.
Day Hooker Fairy.jpeg
“Sorz about that…” she squeaked, looking for all the world even worse than John felt. “Ooh, but wait, are you alone, Mister?”

“Oh you’ve gotta be kidding me.” John spun around and started back down the road, hoping that the inebriated little glowbug would get the message.
No such luck. She flew up right alongside him, sort of bobbing up and down, unable to maintain a steady altitude. Her glow was slowly turning from brown to pink. All business now. “Say, Mister, you looking for a good time?”

John glanced at the clock tower, rising up above the other buildings like a sentinel. “It’s half seven in the morning.”

“I give a mean body-job,” she said, and then, much to John’s horror and embarrassment, she went on to demonstrate by wrapping her arms and legs around an imaginary dick and fluttering her lacy wings as fast as she could, her glow deepening till it was almost magenta. “Mhmm! Make you ‘splode so hard you’ll see stars! What about it, Mister? Just two Crown! Whattaya say?”

John puffed up his cheeks and blew as hard as he could, sending her up into the air, spinning like a pinwheel.

“Hey, you scarfaced son of a bitch!” she screamed, sounding like an angry whistle. “Don’t you dare go blowing on me like that! Goddamn Humie! Have fun dying in like, fifty years, you piece of shit!” Her glow was turning bright red. “How about I shove my leg down your peehole, huh!? Bet you’d like that, huh!? You’re lucky I don’t curse your balls off, you sick fuck!” She suddenly clasped both hands over her mouth and horked a glowing stream of rainbow-coloured vomit into the crowd below, which resulted in a lot of angry mutters and grumbles. Nobody seemed too surprised, though. Another day, another spot of day-hooker Fairy vomit on the sidewalk.

John shook his head, sighed, and went on his way, trying to ignore the calls of “Hey, wait! What about one crown? Just one crown! Full body-job, half price! Come on!” following him down the street. Thankfully, the shrill sound of her voice faded away to nothing after he turned the corner and was once again able to focus on the more important things in life. Like getting his hands on whatever that fairy was on, because damn. Pixie dust, maybe? That shit’s supposed to make your fluids all rainbowy, if he recalled. Wait, can Fairies even use Pixie dust? Isn’t that like cannibalism? Wait, are Pixies and Fairies the same thing, or –

The smell hit him, and he knew, without even having to look up from his scuffed and dirty boots, that he had just walked straight into the one part of the city he hated more than any other. All thanks to that stupid, drunk turd with wings.

Don’t look, John told himself, keeping his eyes on the ground. Don’t look. You don’t have to look, so just don’t. It’s easy. You don’t have to look. You don’t have to.

But that wasn’t true, and repeating it to himself wouldn’t make it so. He had to look. He had to.

John’s head turned to the side all by itself, and even though he slammed his eyes shut and turned away almost immediately, he was just a moment too late. He saw everything, and everything was just as terrible as it always was in this cramped little plaza in the centre of the Coil, a hexagonal meeting place of six twisting roads, all converging on the greatest monument to ever stand within the walls of man. A monument to a terrible war, hard fought and hard won: the Dead Gate.
Dead Gate.jpeg
John had often heard it described as two towering vines of black stone, but to him it looked more like a giant burn mark, like when you drop a hot coal on a piece of cloth. The black edges surrounding the hole, cracked and glistening, rising up and up, towering over the surrounding buildings.
These monolithic black lines were all that remained of what was once known as the First Gate, the portal that allowed the Demons to force their way into this world over four hundred years ago. Jagged spikes grew from the sides like thorns, and it was from these thorns that the gibbets hung: tiny cages in vaguely humanoid shapes, so cramped you wouldn’t be able to lift your arms or bend your knees were you to find yourself locked inside one. Most of them were empty, swinging creakily from rusty chains, but two of them…

Two of them were not.

One held the skeleton of a Demon caught almost a full year ago, stripped to nothing but bones by swarms of crows. The tail was long gone, but the horns were still clearly visible, growing from the skull just above the temples.

The other gibbet’s occupant was more ‘fresh’, and swarming with maggots. They pulsed in his eyeless sockets and squirmed beneath his skin, making it look like he was moving, like he was somehow still alive in there. More and more maggots came crawling out of his mouth, nose, and ears, and dropped down to the bottom of the cage where they all squirmed together like a writhing white carpet. The cobblestones beneath were littered with their corpses, shrivelled in the sun.

There was a plaque beneath this monstrosity, mounted on a sombre dais of grey granite. John had read that plaque so many times over the past three years he didn’t even have to look at it to hear the message echo through his mind, word for word…

Year zero, first day of the month of Sickles, 53rd year of King Adrian’s reign, the First Gate opened.

Year nine, last day of the month of Harvest, eighth year of King Arden’s reign, the Last Gate was broken.

Scattered we fell, scattered we died. United we fought, united we won.

May the Dead Gate remain as a tribute to all who lost their lives, and a reminder for those they left behind.


A wholesome message, all about how the Alliance of All drove the Demons back and shattered their gates after nine years of fruitless struggle. Even the rich folk from the upper districts sometimes bring their tots down here to show them the Dead Gate, and teach them about how they should try to get along with their school mates, even the ones from different races and backgrounds.

Together, they hold hands underneath the swinging Demon corpses, wrinkling their noses and smiling.

Keeping his eyes fixed firmly on his boots, John skulked out of the plaza.

He had never needed a drink more badly in his life.
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Re: Delfi

#9

Post by Contrast »

3

The rest of the walk was rather uneventful. He got the side-eye from a pair of elves (the hoity-toity kind that always have that look on their face like they just stepped in a puddle of dog piss), but that was about it.

And then, finally, after what felt like a perilous, weeklong journey filled with bloodshed and strife (but what the clock tower insisted was only ten minutes) John arrived at his destination.

It was a rather quaint-looking tavern for all persons of… ‘questionable origins’. Quaint-looking for the Coil, at least.

It had a steep roof covered in moss-green shingles. Vines of ivy running down the walls. Two windows, still tightly shuttered, mostly for the nightfolk, but also out of consideration for those who just don’t cope too well with bright and cheery spears of blinding holy light. In other words, people with hangovers. In other other words, people like him.

John took a deep breath, which was nice, at first (got a good whiff of those little yellow flowers in the window sills) but then the true smell of this place came rushing in, which was more of a mixed bag.

Dozens of different types of booze; brandies, beers, ales, all mixed together and seeped into the very woodwork. Good.

The stench of vomit and urine from gods only knew how many different drunkards that had graced this fine establishment over its four years of business. Bad.

Cheese and tickernuts and dried potato slices. Good.

The fetid aroma of desperation from sad old men who never seemed to get their noses all the way out of the bottle anymore and would likely die lonely, miserable deaths in the darkest corner of some back alley one day. Bad. Not that he was one to judge.

John’s eye travelled up to the sign hanging above the door. He’d never admit this to Bob or his galumphing cow of a wife, but he really liked that sign. There was something welcoming about it. A simple plank of cherry wood hanging by two black chains, the words “Four Horns” delicately chiselled into both sides. A large pair of bull’s horns were carved underneath the letters, curling up at either end as if to bracket the name. And then, to finish it off, a smaller, more dainty pair was carved above, like a pair of accents. You could tell that they –
Four Horns Sign.jpg
John reacted even before he knew there was anything to react to. Probably a holdover from the seven years he spent doing… things he no longer did. Maybe, if he hadn’t been hungover, he would have been able to avoid the speeding little thing. As is, he was able to twist around (again, reaching for a sword that hadn’t hung from his hip since the day he called it quits) just in time to see what looked like a living shadow come smashing directly into his midsection, knocking all the brandy-scented breath from his lungs in one hard gasp.

“Oof! Watch where you’re going you little -”

It was a Demon girl, no more than six or seven years of age, wearing a filthy set of rags that barely came down to her scabby knees. Her skin was dark grey, just like the slate they sometimes dug out of the quarry, making it look like her whole body was covered in a single, gigantic bruise. A black pair of stubby little horns grew from her head, poking out of a roiling ocean of hair that came spilling over her back and shoulders in messy tangles. It might have been pure white at some point, but now it was the dull grey of soapy dishwater, streaked with soot and dirt. Probably teeming with lice, too.
“Ark magaiya!” she yelled at him, flashing a pair of wickedly sharp canines. “Fetter si tow?”
A Young Demon.jpg
This was where a nice person would give the kid a scalding glare and tell her to fuck off back to Hell. Or, conversely, this was where an asshole would give her a swift kick in the rear. John however, could do neither. All he could do was stare at those eyes; the deepest, darkest shade of red, like blood turned to crystal. He could feel all those black thoughts bubbling back to the surface. Thoughts of smoke and fire. Of screams in the night.

She dusted herself off, spared him one last furious glance, and then, with a flick of her tail, sped off into the crowd, leaving him to stand on the Four Horns’ doorstep, sweat pouring down his face and bile rising in his throat.

Pull yourself together, he thought. It’s just a Demon, for fuck’s sake. You’ve seen ‘em before. Lots of ‘em.

Oh yes. He had. Dozens of them. All thrown together into the same hole, arms and legs all tangled. Random shocks of dirty white hair, slicked with splashes of oil. Their dead eyes, wide open and staring, waiting for the torches to drop…

John clapped a hand over his mouth and took slow, deep breaths, fighting the urge to vomit. Bob would use him for a dishrag if he barfed all over Mari’s precious daffodils.

After a while the feeling passed, but the desire – no, the need – for a drink was at an all-time high. Or maybe two drinks. Or maybe as many as he could afford.

John straightened his back and opened the door, welcomed (as always) by the hollow clang of the cowbell hanging just beyond the threshold.
Soon, he wouldn’t need to think about much of anything anymore, and that was just fine by him.
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Re: Delfi

#10

Post by Contrast »

4

Most of the tables were empty this early in the morning, but even so, the Four Horns was doing pretty good business. There was a group of Humans in one corner, playing cards by candlelight. A lonely Dwarf staring through a line of bottles he had vanquished the night before. A single Fairy up in the rafters.
Drunk Fairy.jpg
One table was host to a Vamp and a rather anxious-looking Goblin, both of whom were staring down at an odd assortment of items: a bag of coin, a tourniquet, and a minute glass. Neither of them looked particularly pleased with the arrangement.

And last, but certainly not least, that one skeevy fellow who always seems to pop up in skeevy places such as this, glaring at the world from beneath a skeevy, patchwork hood.
Skeevy Figure.jpg
Already John was starting to feel better. At least until everyone noticed his entry.

“Look at him,” someone said, making no effort to keep his voice down. “Crazy fucker’s back again.”

“I wish he’d just off himself and be done with it.”

John sat down in his usual spot, front and centre, where the distance from shelf to glass to hand was at a minimum.

“Hey! Hey, Darrow!” Shouting now. “You lookin’ for round two, huh? You wanna go again, you old fuck!?”

“Shut up, Trev. No point in beating on a useless asshole like that. You’ll just get your hands covered in shit.”

Some laughter greeted this. Almost enough to drown out the seething grumbles of a man-child who was weighing the pros and cons of throwing a massive temper tantrum over a fight John could barely even remember. He was here to get drunk, and by Kaloa, drunk was what he was going to get, and the only obstacle standing in his way wasn’t some pouty kid.

It was Bob, the owner/bartender/bouncer of this fine establishment. Standing in at just shy of three strides tall, not counting the horns (corked for safety, of course), Bob was one of the few full-blooded Minotaurs of Arden City, sporting a thick pelt of shaggy brown fur, an apron with a little heart sewn into the front, and a gold ring piercing his cavernous nostrils. He was the type who could easily toss an unruly drunkard out the window with one hand while pouring a pint with the other.

And he did not look happy.
Bob.jpg
“Hello there, John,” Bob said, cleaning a glass with a rag almost as dirty as the look he was giving his latest customer.

“Good morning, Bob.”

“Oh, I never said ‘good morning’. You see, it was a good morning. Up until some souse decided to traipse into my bar, stinking up the place with his Hume fumes.”

“Hey!” One of the Humans from the card game stood up, evidently incensed by this outrageous display of racial insensitivity. “You don’t exactly smell of roses yourself, Bob!”

“How would you know? Humies can’t smell for shit!”

“Fuck you, steak face!”

“Yeah? Fuck you, too!”

“No, fuck you!”

“Hey, Trev.” One of his card buddies poked him in the arm. “I call.”

“What!?”

“Queens over aces. Pay up, bitch.”

“Oh fuck you!”

“No, fuck you!”

Fuuuuck you!”

Bob sighed and turned his attention back to John. “So what’ll it be?”

“Give me a -” John stuck his hands in his pants pockets, first one side, then the other, but his fingers brushed naught but lint. Wait, where did he put his purse again? His coat, wasn’t it? He stuck his hand down the collar of his coat, not bothering to undo any of the buttons (he was far too hungover for such feats of dexterity anyway), but before his questing fingers could worm their way into his inside pocket…

“You had the dream again, didn’t you?”

John froze. The spit dried up in his mouth. “No.”

“Don’t try to bullshit me. Ain’t nobody knows bullshit better than me.”

“That’s because you literally shit bullshit.”

“Shut up. You come in here last night, drink enough to put an army to sleep, stagger outside to do gods know what -”

“Sleep, mostly.”

“- and now you’re back here again? You should be dead to the world, John. But no, here you are, barely five hours later, wearing the same sweat, sitting in the same chair, asking for more. Ain’t nothing can wake a man from a night like that, ‘cept maybe one of your morning screamers.”

“I didn’t scream. You would’ve heard me if I screamed. I live right up the bloody road.”

“So which one was it this time? The first one?”

“Just give me a bottle of Jackal Moon.”

“You hate Jackal Moon.”

“Nothing gets a man drunker faster than a bottle of Jackal Moon.”

“And that’s what you need right now?”

“That’s exactly what I need right now, yes.”

“Bullshit. What you need is water, and lots of it. And maybe some potato soup. You like potatoes, don’t you? Course you do. All Humies love potatoes.” He threw his head back and shouted in the general direction of the kitchen. “Hey, Mari! You got a customer wants some potato soup!”

“Potato? He a Humie, or something?”

“’Course he’s a Humie! And add some corn! Humies love corn!”

“Okayyy, love you!”

“Love you, too!”

John gave the counter a good smack. “I didn’t come here for soup, Bob. I came here -”

“To drink yourself into oblivion, same as last night, and the night before, and the night before that. Except now it seems you’ve graduated to day-drinker. Congratu-fucking-lations, John. You’re a lush.”

“And yet my cup is empty and my mouth is dry. Some bartender you are.”

With a disgruntled snort, Bob grabbed a bottle of Jackal Moon from the shelf and slammed it down on the counter so hard it was a wonder it didn’t explode. “There. Drink yourself into a stupor for all I care. But this shit won’t do anything for you or your dreams.”
Jackal Moon.jpg
“No, but at least it won’t bitch at me, either.” John pulled the cork and upended the bottle, draining it down to the halfway mark in several, long swallows. The taste was the same as ever – more like Jackal piss than Jackal Moon, as the old joke went. But the fire soon bloomed in his gut, and that was all he really cared for. Already he could feel the shakes begin to fade, the nightmare turning back into just that: a nightmare. Something to be boxed away in the daylight hours. Something to be kicked under the bed and forgotten.

Well, until night-time rolled around again, but John wasn’t planning on being ‘present’ for that. If everything went according to plan, he would sit in this chair, downing bottle after bottle of cheap booze, and then wake, safe and sound in his own bed (or maybe some harlot’s), the next morning.

Yes, he planned to skip the entire night. He’d done it before. It was just a matter of balancing the quantity of booze with the proper timing.

Right on cue, the clock tower chimed eight times. Another hour gone by, another increment closer to the time he’d be able to get some sleep, unhaunted.

Hopefully, anyway.

John finished the rest of the bottle before the clanging of the bells could entirely fade away and stifled a burp against the back of his hand. “Another one, Bob. Just keep ‘em coming until my purse runs dry.”

Just then, the door to the kitchen banged open and Mari, Bob’s heifer of a wife, came backing into the bar area, a steaming bowl of soup held in her furry (and very much ungloved) hands. Just one of the reasons John didn’t like being served any kind of food or beverage by the beastfolk, unless it came in a tightly corked bottle.
Mari.jpg
“One order of corn and potato soup, made with love, and just a dash of -” Mari turned around, and the moment her big, muddy eyes spotted John at the bar, her friendly smile curdled like milk. “Oh. It’s you again.”

“Good to see you, too, Mari. And may I say, your horns are looking particularly shapely today.”

“Stuff it.” She smacked the bowl down in front of him, then eyed the suspiciously empty bottle of Jackal Moon beside his elbow. “A little early, isn’t it? Even for you.”

“What can I say? I just couldn’t stay away from your charming countenance.”

“Just shut up and eat ‘fore I gore you.”

“Ergh…” John picked up his spoon and just sort of… stirred the contents around a little. He was indeed hungry, but the thought of food made him want to throw up. A problem that could only be rectified by more alcohol. “Bob, I could use a refill here.”

“Not gonna pace yourself?”

John didn’t even dignify that with a response.

“All right, fine.” He turned around and started pulling bottles of Jackal Moon off the shelves, pinching them between his sausage-like fingers. “You could vary it up, at the very least. Got a whole barrel of King’s Crown right here. Some Blue Dove. Some Rockshatter Brandy. The good stuff. But noooooo, you just want to get shitfaced, don’t you?” He turned around and set four bottles in a line, like soldiers facing the firing squad. “After all this time I’m surprised you’re not pissing Jackal Moon yet.”

“My dearest Bob,” John said, grabbing the closest bottle, “If I could get drunk off my own piss, I sure as hell wouldn’t need to come to this dump every day.”

“Wouldn’t that be a blessing,” Mari said, folding her arms across her voluminous chest.

John, not being the kind of guy to take such insults lying down, responded to her jibe by first tipping her a wink, and then tipping half a bottle of Jackal Moon directly into the bowl of soup she had spent all of five minutes preparing, until the contents were nearly spilling over the rim.

“Hey, you’re ruining it!” Mari exclaimed, visibly distraught.

“No, I’m making it edible.” To prove this, John scooped up a big spoonful of what was essentially cloudy whiskey with a lump of potato floating in it and took a big bite. “Mmm!”

“Urgh!” Mari threw her hands up in disgust and stormed off back to the kitchen, where her booming voice could be heard, loud and clear, even after the door had swung shut. “Fucking Humies, I swear to Breya!”

“No reason Breya and Kaloa can’t get along!” John said, shovelling another unholy spoonful of whiskey, corn and potatoes into his mouth. To his surprise, this combination actually didn’t taste all that awful. Not that he’d ever admit that to Mari, though. The fat cow…

Bob was not impressed. “If you keep antagonizin’ my wife like that I’ll charge you extra!”

“And I’m sure it’ll be worth every Crown,” John replied, washing down his whiskey soup with some more whiskey.

“Speaking of charging, you’ve yet to show your coin.”

“Hm? Oh!” John dropped his spoon with a plonk and restarted the search for his errant coin purse. First he checked his pants, but then he remembered that he had already checked his pants, so then he switched over to his coat. Nothing in the left pocket. Nothing in the right pocket. Then the inside…? His fingers closed around something cold and metal, but that was only his key.

Wait, what the fuck?

John checked every single pocket, then took off his coat and checked every single pocket again, the scowl on Bob’s face steadily growing darker and darker by the second, like some living, breathing storm cloud.

“Hang on, hang on, I got it here somewhere! Just give me a moment…”

But this was ridiculous! He distinctly remembered checking his coin purse before he left, so where on earth did it…?

And then it hit him. All at once. Like a blow to the gut. “Oh… Oh, fuck me! Fuck me with a pitchfork! Oh, that little bitch!”

“What is it?”

“Um, say, Bob? How good is my credit in this place?”

“Lousy.”

“Can it get any lousier?”

“Maybe a little. Why?”

“Because a goddamn Demon stole my money, that’s why!”
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Re: Delfi

#11

Post by Contrast »

5

Delfi was scared. Excited, too, but mostly scared. She didn’t like being out in the sunshine, and she didn’t like the looks people were giving her, each face different, and yet each set of eyes exactly the same; surprise slowly turning to disgust.

She bumped into a Human who took one look at her and jumped away as if she was a giant cockroach.

“[What the everloving] fuck!?” he shouted, his eyes wide. Delfi had no idea what the first part meant, but she had heard the word ‘fuck’ enough times by now to understand it wasn’t good.

She kept her head down and kept going, clutching the bearded man’s coin purse to her chest, terrified that someone would see it and try to take it away. Such things weren’t uncommon, especially in this part of the city, where coin could change hands dozens of times in the span of a single day, and not always by fair trade (she would know). This place was like a nest of spiders. Kind of pretty, if the sunlight caught the dew-dappled strands in just the right way, but still just a messy tangle of interwoven streets filled with monsters masquerading as people, all of them full-up with venom and just itching for something to bite.

This place was terrible, yes, but that’s exactly why she had at least some freedom to move around. What concern was a raggedy little Demon girl when there was an Ogre galumphing down the street with fists big enough to crush your skull to powder? Or what about all those Humans who go around selling drugs strong enough to take you straight to heaven, sometimes for an hour, and sometimes forever? What about the Vamps who slink from street corner to street corner, holding out empty syringes instead of tin cups? What about all the assassins, thugs, murderers, thieves and whores that sprinkle every inch of these twisting paths?

Yes. Walking through this city, Delfi felt like a lump of coal on a snowy field, but this was a field absolutely riddled with coal.

She wouldn’t have been able to survive this long otherwise.

Delfi worked her way through the crowd, shoving her way from one side of the street to the other until she was finally able to slip inside a narrow little alley.

She leaned against the wall to catch her breath, grateful for the shade. The crowds bustled by on both sides, rivers of people, their shadows sliding across the ground.

Delfi looked down at the coin purse she had snagged from the big Human by the Minotaurs’ tavern. She hadn’t had a chance to really inspect the goods before now, and the weight of it was making her heart race. She opened the draw string and took a peek at all the coins inside. Crowns and Half-crowns and silver Tennies. She didn’t have time to count, but at a glance there had to be at least thirty. She hadn’t expected this much from some scruffy old souse outside a bar, but she supposed he must have had one hell of a thirst to quench.

Well too bad. This was hers now.

She hugged the purse to her chest for a moment, took a deep breath, then stowed it in the hidden pocket she had sown into her rags. Well, it wasn’t much of a ‘hidden’ pocket per se, considering you could clearly see the stitching from the outside, but she had worked hard on it, it was useful, and she was proud of it.

Now to get out of here.

She started down the alley, keeping her head down out of habit (a cloak or a hood might be a wise purchase, if she could find someone willing to do business with her). She was about halfway when a sudden movement made her jump. What she had at first dismissed as a frumpled pile of garbage was actually a small person. An empty bottle was lying right next to him, with flies lazily crawling over the dark green lip. His eyes were closed, and a wheezing kind of snore was stuttering from his nostrils with every slow, laboured breath.

“Hey, mister?” she said, not holding out much hope. “Hey! You can’t sleep out here, you’re gonna get shanked!”

He just kept on sleeping. Well, this really wasn’t Delfi’s problem, anyway. She had her hands full just making sure none of the stabby stuff happened to her (and in this city, there was no shortage of people who would love to put a knife to her throat). So Delfi did the smart thing and continued on her way. For about five steps.

“Hey, idiot!” she said, turning back. “Hey, I’m talking to you!”

He shifted a little. His snoring broke. He made a sound like he was making out with his own tongue, and then promptly went back to sleep without ever opening his eyes.

“Oh for fuck’s sake!” She raised her foot and stomped down on his shin (and not lightly either). “You can’t sleep here! Hey!” She stomped him again, but his head just lolled back and forth against the wall like the world’s biggest, ugliest baby. And why was she even trying to help this guy in the first place? “You know what? Fuck it! I’m done! Get mugged, see if I care!”

Delfi turned away, half in disgust for the sleeping bum, and half in disgust at herself, wasting so much time. She still had a lot to do today, and it wouldn’t be very –

The snoring suddenly stopped, and when Delfi looked back, she saw that the bum was blinking his eyes groggily, trying to get her into focus.

“[Heh? Heh, wha?]” he said, rubbing his eyes. Delfi wasn’t sure if those were actual words or just sleep-grumbles.

“You can’t sleep here, Mister,” she tried again. “Anybody could just come in here and chop your head off.”

The bum rubbed his eyes, stared at her, rubbed his eyes again. And then…

Well, Delfi should have seen this coming.

He reared back with a sound that was partway a gasp and partway a scream, nearly braining himself on the wall.

“[No! Gods almighty no!]” he screamed, his eyes wide and staring. Delfi could see they were pinkish and bloodshot from all the booze. [“No! You get the] fuck [away from me! You get the] fuck [away from me right now, you] fucking Demon!”

He started rummaging in his pockets for something, and Delfi quickly backed away with her hands raised, thinking he was about to pull a knife, but what he produced instead was a little silver trinket on a chain.

“[You stay back!]” he shrieked, brandishing the trinket like a weapon. “[She was already dead when I found her, so you just stay back! I didn’t do nothing wrong!]”

Delfi was backing away from the screaming madman, but apparently it wasn’t fast enough. He seized the bottle and flung it with all the crazy strength in his street-skinny arm. Delfi saw it coming, a spinning flash of green, but she was too slow to react and it shattered against her forehead. It made an oddly musical sound that seemed to travel to her ears from inside her own head rather than out. She dropped to her knees, razor shards of glass raining down like flecks of ice. Her hands had gone to her face automatically, as if to try and hold the pain in place, but it was throbbing beneath her palms like a living thing, spreading outward.

The small Human fled down the alley, tripping and stumbling all over himself, slamming into the walls and careening off again, still screaming the entire way. Delfi saw none of this, though. She was too busy staring at her own blood. Small spots of red simply appearing on the ground as if by magic.

She couldn’t stay here. If that guy went to fetch the catchpoles, they would… they would…

She tried to stand up and the world suddenly tilted beneath her feet. Refusing to fall, she stuck out her hand, and that’s when the sliver of glass drove itself deep into her palm.

Delfi drew in a startled gasp, but before the scream could get out, she bit down on her tongue – bit down hard. She could ill afford to go to pieces right now. Or ever, for that matter.

Sweating and shaking, she turned her hand over to inspect the damage. The glass had embedded itself in the fleshy area underneath her thumb. It was throbbing in there. Hot like a furnace.

Holding her breath, Delfi pinched the sliver of glass between her thumb and index finger and slowly started to pull it out. Blood flowed down her wrist in a solid line, but she didn’t cry out, even though the tendons in her neck were standing out like cables and her face had flushed to the colour of pitch. She refused to cry out. Not over a little baby cut like this.

“Fuck… fuck… fuuuuck…” she muttered beneath her breath, picking at the damn thing with fingers that just wouldn’t stop trembling. The glass was slippery with blood and she kept losing her grip. After a while she couldn’t even see the green anymore. It was just red. “Come on, already!”

Finally, supressing a grunt of pain and frustration, she yanked the whole thing out in one quick motion; a curved sliver of glass about the size of her thumbnail. The cut it left behind was a straight black line in her flesh, constantly weeping blood.

Great. Just great. Just freaking fantastic…
Good Morning 2.jpg
With her breath hitching in her throat, but not crying, Delfi got up, flicked the glass off to the side, and started on her way back to the main road, cradling her hand to her chest and being very, very careful not to step in any of the glass shards with her bare feet.

Maybe, if she was lucky, she’d find something to eat today.
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Re: Delfi

#12

Post by Contrast »

6

“People tell all kinds of crazy stories about Demons,” John said, staring down the throat of the bottle between his hands. Bob had, out of the goodness of his heart, allowed him a bit of leeway on his credit. ‘Money for tomorrow’ he called it. John wasn’t so sure about that. ‘Tomorrow’ (for him, at least) was a concept better forgotten, along with other such vagaries as ‘yesterday’ and ‘sobriety’. Demons, too, if he was to be perfectly honest, but his thoughts kept going back to that girl. The rag she had worn. The dirt in her hair. The scabs on her knees.

“And what kinds of crazy stories would those be?” Bob asked, never taking his eyes off the pint he was pouring for the skeevy fellow at the end of the bar. Not one to give even a hair’s breadth of foam for free, was Bob.

“Stuff like… how they’re crazy strong,” John said. “Or incredibly fast. How they can lift a cart with one hand and outrun a purebred stallion. I tell you right now, almost all of it’s pure horseshit.” He lifted the bottle to his mouth and, in so doing, caught a glimpse of the perplexed frown that had furrowed good ol’ Bob’s brow.

“Forgive me for saying this, John,” he said, plonking the stein down in front of Mr. Skeevy’s gloved hands, “but I wouldn’t trust your opinion on ‘taters, let alone Demons.”

“They’re not that strong,” John insisted. “Not that fast, either. At least, not more so than your average Human. We’re a lot alike, actually. Us and them.”

“Oh? You gonna grow horns and a tail and start shooting fire from your nostrils, John?”

“That’s horseshit, too. I’ve never seen a Demon that could spit fire.”

“You’ve never seen a Demon, period. Except for the one outside my bar, apparently. The one who so conveniently stole all your money. In broad daylight.”

“You think I’m lying?”

“I think you’re so hungover right now you’d mistake a donkey for a duchess. What you saw was probably an Elf with a tan.”

“Mrergh.” John took another swig of the Jackal, hating that godawful taste, but swallowing it anyway. The more of this stuff he could force down his throat, the less he’d have to listen to this overblown bull flap his nose ring.

“So what else is horseshit? Bob asked, crossing his elbows over the counter, settling right in. “Please share your expertise, oh great knower of all things demological.”

John wiped his lips with the heel of his hand. He didn’t really want to talk about this, but then again, he also didn’t really want to be pouring fermented poison down his throat, but here he was, doing both. Maybe it all served the same purpose, in the end. “They don’t live for thousands of years, for one. Most of them never even reach a hundred. And they don’t come crawling out of holes in the ground, either. They fuck, they have babies, they grow old, they die. Or they get killed. Same as us.”

“But what about magic?” Bob said. “They got those crazy insane spells, don’t they? Things that’ll turn your skin inside out, or raise the dead.”

John shook his head. “Nah. Some of ‘em got magic, sure, but they’re pretty rare, just like with Humans. And even then, it’s just the basic stuff. Like setting things on fire, or making ice, or moving objects without touching them. I bet the Fairy up there got more magic in ‘er than the average Demon does.”

Said Fairy was still up in the rafters, struggling (and failing) to wake up all the way. At the mention of her kind, she raised her head, looked around a little, and then promptly went back to sleep, her glow shifting from brown to blue and back again.

“Okay, now I know you’re full of shit,” Bob said. “The Demons came to this world through massive gates that just appeared out of thin air one day. No warning, no nothing. Just an instant invasion. Thousands of Demons pouring into the streets, slaughtering men, women and children. I forget the date… when was that? Hey, Mari!” He turned to the kitchen. “When was the Demon Gate thing?”

“The what?” she shouted back.

“The Demon Gate! When was that?”

“Year zero, wasn’t it?”

“I know it’s year zero, woman! I mean the day!”

“The fuck should I know? This ain’t no bloody history class!”

“First of Sickles,” John said, slowly twisting his bottle around and around. “That was 419 years ago.”

Bob looked at him for a second, his frown deepening. Then, remembering that he had a point to make: “Well anyway, you can’t just make a door like that out of nothing. You need crazy strong magic to do that. Not even the bigwigs up at the University can copy that shit, and if you’re right about the date –”

“I am.”

“- then they’ve had over 400 years to try. That doesn’t sound very ‘basic’ to me.”

John shrugged. “I don’t know anything about the gates. Just that Demon magic isn’t anything special. It’s just the same as any other kind of magic you’d find in the city.”

“Are you seriously trying to tell me that Demons, Demons, for fucks sakes, those things that eat babies and crap out sulphur, are no different from you or me? Is that what you’re saying Mr. Smartguy?”

John thought for a moment. “Well… there is one thing that’s different.”

Bob leaned forward. “What?”

“Their eyes.”

He leaned farther still. “What about their eyes?”

“They can see pretty well in the dark.”

Silence between the two. John raised his bottle, took a long swallow, and set it down again.

“That it?” Bob asked.

“Yeah.”

“They see good?”

“Pretty much.”

“A race of monsters from wherever the fuck someplace that isn’t here, appeared out of nowhere and just about damn near killed the entire world, and you’re telling me they were basically just a bunch of Humies with night sight. Is that it?”

“Ah-huh.”

Bob threw his head back and laughed. “Hah! Oh, John, you nearly had me going there for a second! As if you would know anything about this crap! Now, if I ever need your thoughts on how to throw up without getting any on my face-fur, then I’ll come to you! Ha!”

“Oy, Steakface!” One of the Humans at the card table was waving an empty stein in the air. “What do I gotta do to get a drink ‘round here? Suck it from yer wife’s tiddies?”

“Alright, I’m comin’, I’m comin’!” Bob pulled a fresh pitcher from underneath the counter and started filling it from one of the spigots, still chuckling to himself. “‘Not so different’ he says. Heh.”

John raised the bottle to his lips, not in the mood to start an argument over something like this, but all he got for his trouble was a mouthful of booze-flavoured air.

The bottle was empty.
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Re: Delfi

#13

Post by Contrast »

7

The chiming of the bell tower jerked Delfi from an uneasy slumber. For a moment she didn’t know where she was or what she was doing there, but then the smells brought it all home. She was behind an inn that always smelled like bread and meat and beer. All pleasant smells, except that, from here, she couldn’t smell anything other than putrid piles of garbage, because that was exactly where she was sitting, hunkered down in the darkness with her knees drawn up to her chin, her grain sack ‘tunic’ pulled down oh so carefully so her bottom wouldn’t come into direct contact with any of the ‘water’ that always seeps into the stonework of places like this.

Through the buzzing of the flies, she counted the tolls of the clock.

“One…”

There were flies crawling over her toes. Even more landing in her hair.

“Two…”

A rat popped out of the garbage, rubbed its whiskers, and disappeared with a flick of its naked, wormy tail.

“Three…”

Another fly landed on her face and she swatted it away, only to be reminded of the horrendous bump on her forehead. It had swollen pretty badly, but at least it had stopped bleeding. There was a sticky runner of blood stuck on her temple, and her hand was throbbing out a steady rhythm, too.

Hurt HURT. Hurt HURT. Hurt HURT.

She looked at it, but didn’t really feel one way or another. She had rinsed it off with the trickle from a water spout, and that was about as close to clean water as she was ever going to get in this city. Well, there were the fountains and the hand pumps, but those were too risky. Just walking around in the sunshine had been a huge gamble. A huge gamble that had paid out, as was evidenced by the heavy lump of coin resting against her chest right now, but she didn’t make it this far by risking her life twice in one day, thank you very much.

She leaned back, yawned, and tried to ignore the stinging in her hand. It could have been worse, she supposed. It could have been her eye. Or the Human could have been of the fighting persuasion. It had happened before. Lots of times.

Being thankful that she only had a lump on her head and a cut in her hand did not seem like such a strange thing to Delfi, and neither did she find it surprising that there were people out there who would throw bottles at her face without warning, or try to chase her down and beat her up. It was just the way things were. Her Mama had explained it all to her one snowy night, taking her up on her lap and holding her tight against the cold.

Long, long ago, many years before anyone who was alive today was even born, Demons came to the world. They weren’t nice. They only wanted to hurt people. That was the way Mama had put it. ‘Hurt’ people. But looking back on it now, Delfi was pretty sure she actually meant ‘kill’ people. And apparently they were really good at it. They killed so many people that everyone became scared. They banded together and formed an all-eye… all-eye-ants? What had Mama called it? Something like that. A single army made of Humies, Elves, Dwarves, Lizzies, Minotaurs, Goblins, Fairies, the works. Even the Beast-folk and monsters you ordinarily wouldn’t take for team-players showed up to lend their support. Ogres, Wolf-kin, Cat-kin, Vamps, Harpies, Cyclopses (Cyclopi?). Everybody. They all gathered together and swept across the country like a swarm of ants, killing Demons and breaking the gates they had used to come here. Eventually, almost all the Demons were dead, and everyone was happy again. They had saved their homes, their families, their entire world.

So no, Delfi didn’t think it was strange that everyone hated her for being a Demon. She didn’t think it was strange that everyone wanted her dead for something her ancestors had done hundreds and hundreds of years before she was even born. It was normal to be angry about such things. It was normal to hate such things. She understood that perfectly well. She just…

She just wished she didn’t have to be so hungry on top of everything else.

The bell tower started chiming again, and this time Delfi paid careful attention to each toll, counting them out on her fingers as they echoed through the city until she had one full hand’s worth. Five o’ the clock.

Time for supper.

The back door rattled and Delfi retreated further into the shadows, making herself as small as possible. A portly man dressed in a cook’s apron stepped into the alley with a big metal pot under his arm. Wrinkling his nose at the piles of garbage from meals past, he upended the pot and a small brown deluge of fresh leftovers spilled onto the street, scaring a swarm of bugs into temporary, buzzing flight.

“[Yergh, that’s got yer.]” he mumbled, stepping back into the kitchen and closing the door behind him, shutting off the smell of fresh bread and meat that had just now started to reach Delfi’s nose. Maybe a little hint of fried onions and mushrooms, too. But no matter. Those smells were so far out of reach that Delfi didn’t even feel the slightest pang of desire. It was an absurd thought, like wishing for the stars in the sky.

Drooling a little, she crept forward, staying low so as to avoid the window and the shadows that sometimes swept by beyond the glass. The garbage pile, with its fresh, wet layer of leftovers sprinkled on top, had already accumulated a peppering of flies and other bugs, but that was okay, she would just eat around them. And if one of them got mixed up in her next handful, well, that was okay, too.

Food is food, after all.

She plunged her good hand into the viscous mess (she did not, under any circumstance, want to stick her cut hand into anything that might contain bug eggs of any kind), rooting around and occasionally plucking out something solid. A mushy brown lump of something or other. She put that in the ‘maybe’ pile. Another brown lump of mushy stuff, this time with a lumpy white protrusion sticking out of the top. Also for the ‘maybe’ pile.

Flies kept landing on her arms and legs, but she just let them scurry all over her. It was too much bother to stop and shoo them away by this point, and she didn’t exactly have all the time in the world here.

The next thing she fished out was a flip-floppy flap of brown-looking something. She tentatively put in her mouth, then sucked it up eagerly, delighted to discover that it was a bit of potato skin. The next find was wonderful, too. A whole piece of chicken bone, that weird little curvy piece that comes from the breast. There wasn’t any actual meat on it, but the end still had a good piece of cartilage sticking out of it, and she crunched down on it greedily, swallowing back gritsy chunks of the stuff. ‘Breaky bones’ as Mama called them.

She tossed aside the hard bits and went back for more, carefully sifting through the brown muck that had seeped through the garbage and was now running between her toes in sticky rivulets. Her next finds weren’t anything special. Some empty egg shells (she gave the insides a good licking anyway) some more brown and white sludge for the ‘maybe’ pile, and some hard black thingies that smelled like shit and tasted… also like shit. She spat them out and continued her search.

She lifted up a large, leafy green flap of something that may or may not once have come from some kind of vegetable, then froze in place at what was underneath it.

A long, curvy fish spine, the bones sticking out like long white needles, top and bottom. And most of the head was still intact.

Delfi couldn’t believe her luck. The fish was just staring up at her with its black, jelly-like eyes, its toothy mouth half-open, as if to ask, ‘Well, what are you waiting for?’

She reached for it, licking her lips, all the misfortunes of the day completely forgotten.

And that’s when the rat jumped out from inside a mould-infused hunk of bread and plunged its razor-sharp little rat teeth into her finger.

“OOWW you son of a bitch!” The scream burst out before she could stop herself. She flailed her arm in a mad attempt to dislodge the little fucker, its furry body whipping back and forth, its buck teeth sawing through the skin of her knuckle. Finally, rather than releasing its bite, the skin itself tore free and the furry monster went tumbling down the alley, squeaking in protest. It spared her one last glance with its beady little eyes, tiny droplets of blood stuck to its whiskers, and then bounded into the shadows.

“You’re lucky I don’t take a bite out of you, you little prick!” Delfi shouted after it, an action she immediately regretted.

“[Hey, who’s out there!?]”

Delfi clapped her hands over her mouth and sat perfectly still. If she knew any of the gods’ names, she might have said a little prayer in her head, but she doubted any of them would have lifted a finger to help a Demon like her, so she just settled for being as quiet as possible.

It didn’t work. The back door burst open and the cook came charging into the alley, a butcher’s cleaver clutched in one meaty hand. He took one look at the Demon girl hunching over his precious garbage, her hands all torn up and bleeding, and immediately went after her.

“[You again!]” he shouted, raising the cleaver above his head. “[You get the fuck away from my kitchen, you] Devil bitch!”

Delfi was on her feet and ready to run, but –

The fish!

She made a desperate grab for it, her blood-slick fingers closing shut over its scaly tail.

“Graaaargh!!” The cook swung the cleaver down just as Delfi yanked her arm back, and the cook succeeded only in cutting through a big chunk of week-old kitchen refuse, splashing the both of them with garbage water. “Eeurgh, [you little] bitch! [Get back here, gods] damn [you!]”

Delfi did not stick around. Taking a page out of the rat’s playbook, she turned tail and ran for all she was worth.

“[Next time I find you back here I’ll serve my customers some] Devil [soup! Ya hear me, ya little cunt!? Stay the] fuck [away!]”

Delfi didn’t understand what he was saying and she didn’t care. She had done it. She had gotten away with a whole fish head! She wouldn’t have to go hungry tonight! She’d be able to sleep without curling into a ball, clutching at her stomach. She’d be able to walk ten paces without worrying about suddenly bursting into tears because of the pain in her belly.

She made it to the end of the alley and skirted around the corner, gasping for breath in a wild delirium of happiness and triumph. And probably hunger, too. Actually, this light-headedness was probably almost entirely hunger, but that was fine! She had a fish head and everything was all right!

She leaned up against the wall, too tired to stand up straight, and looked down at the fish in her bloody hands.

She looked. And she looked. She looked for a long time.

The fish in her hands. She had the tail, the string of vertebrae attached to it, the long, sharp pieces of bone sticking out of the sides like needles. But where the head should have been, the spine was severed clean off.

As if chopped with a butcher’s cleaver.

Through an open window somewhere above her head, she could hear the voices of the patrons inside. Laughing and singing. Telling dirty jokes. Sharing gossip. All to the music of flute and fiddle.

She could also hear the sounds of spoons scraping along the bottoms of wooden bowls. The clatter of knives and forks. Steins and tankards bashing against each other and being held aloft above tables that were covered in plates and plates of half-eaten meals. Chicken and fish and potatoes. Scraps that would eventually be thrown out into the dirty street for the rats to fight over.

Rats like her.

Delfi squeezed the fish carcass between her bleeding fingers, the spines digging into her palms like rusty nails. She could feel a dull, throbbing heat building up inside her head. Her hands were shaking. The world was starting to darken around the edges of her vision, pulsing like embers. She could feel it rising up…

Delfi hurled the fish against the far wall, wanting to scream with all her might. She wanted to crouch down here in this filthy alley and scream, scream at the fish, scream at the wall, scream at the ground, at the garbage, at the fat cook with his butcher’s cleaver, scream at the Humans inside the inn with their happy voices and mountains of food, she wanted to scream and scream and scream until her heart was just as empty as her stomach.

What Delfi actually did was to close her eyes tight and take a long, deep breath. When that didn’t work, she did it again. And again. Until that red halo faded away and disappeared.

She would be okay. This was nothing. Mama always told her she was a strong girl, and Delfi had no intention of proving her wrong now. She had been hungry before. This was nothing new. She would just have to buckle down and hope for better pickings tomorrow.

Tomorrow…

Her stomach rumbled just then. A deep, agonal groaning that seemed to stretch all the way into the very core of her body, deep enough to drop her to her knees.

“Oh…” she moaned. She hated it, but she couldn’t help it. She clutched at her stomach, squeezing tight, and after a while, the pain began to subside. It didn’t leave entirely, though. It rarely did, these days.

But maybe…

Delfi fished the coin purse from inside her rags, still amazed by the sheer weight of it, and looked inside. So many coins in there, all rubbing together, making a music all their own. Just little circles of metal, but they had the power to give her almost anything she wanted. Anything at all. Even –

Delfi wrenched her eyes away and folded the bag shut, as if she had just unwittingly stuck her nose into a bag of venomous snakes.

This money was not for food.

“Not for food, not for food…” she repeated these words to herself, over and over, but…

Her stomach growled again and this time the pain was even worse than before. She clutched at her midsection, squeezing hard in an effort to dull the pain.

Not for food. Not for food.

Not for food…
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Re: Delfi

#14

Post by Contrast »

8

John was… not okay. In fact, you could say he was pretty much fucked up.

And that was perfectly fine by him.

Bob? Not so much.

“John? Hey, John!”

John wasn’t passed out, per se. He was in that odd, numb area between being perfectly aware of what was going on around him and being absolutely shitfaced, resulting in a state where some things stood out with perfect clarity, while others simply didn’t exist at all.

He could feel the countertop against his bearded cheek. Nice and cool, if a bit sticky. His hands were there, too. One was grasping something. Maybe a bottle, maybe a glass, he wasn’t sure. He could feel the bar stool beneath his ass. This bubble of awareness, however, only seemed to extend for about two feet. Outside of that, everything was covered in a thick, fuzzy blanket. Light was hazy. Sound was muffled. Even the smells of this place, ordinarily so pungent, only hung in the air. This was good. It meant he was well on his way to achieving the blackness he was hoping for. A good, solid twelve hours of absolutely nothing. No memories, no dreams, no blood on the floor. No piles of blankets, twitching in the dark.

Papa?

He wasn’t there yet, but nearly…

Nearly…

“Godsdammit, John!” Bob slammed his fist down against the counter, sending an unpleasant shockwave through his jawbone.

“Hrugh?” John laboriously lifted his face into a more upright position. “What, what is it?”

“I don’t want you passing out at the bar again! It’s bad for business!”

“You had the…” he knew exactly what he wanted to say, but the actual words were being elusive, “…the others, in the… the thing.”

“I don’t mind two or three drunks who need a while to get back on their feet, ‘slong as it’s not the busy hours.”

“Busy… hurs?” John twisted in his seat and looked around. Or, at least, he tried to. Everything was just a blur of moving colours, and he really had to stop and focus just to be able to make out what was going on. At some point in time, probably while he was busy sailing the brown ocean, the tavern had filled up considerably. Humans, mostly, but there was a group of Goblins in one riotous corner, lifting oversized mugs of mead to their hook-nosed faces. A lone ogre at the table next to them, sitting cross-legged on the floor because there were no chairs big enough to accommodate his girth. A Dark Elf and a Wood Elf were sharing a pint, chatting about who knew what. Elf stuff probably. Mari was mixed in there as well, clippity-clopping from one table to the next, trays of drinks balanced precariously betwixt wrist and elbow. In short, there was a whole mess of people doing a whole mess of things and making a whole lot of noise, and John didn’t care about any of it, so he turned back to the half-finished bottle of Jackal Piss in his hand. Much nicer on the eye. Much lighter on the mind.

Bottoms up.

He raised it, drained it, very nearly dropped it (Bob wouldn’t have liked that) and set it down again. “Give me one’mrr.”

“Are you gonna throw up?”

“No.”

“Are you gonna throw up, John? Because if you’re gonna throw up -”

“I’m not gonna throw – erp. Throw up.”

Bob looked him up and down. “All right. But if you feel the need to void yourself, you do it outside. And if you feel like you can’t make it to the door, you stick your head out the window. But not the one with the begonias out front. The one with –”

“Bob, for the love of all that is good, would you please just shut the fuck up and do your goddamned job?”

On some level, John knew he was being an asshole, but he was too far gone to care. He just wanted those last few bottles of Jackal, just enough to get the numbness to spread. It was in his arms and legs, and he was pretty sure if he tried to stand right now he would just fall flat on his face, but it wasn’t enough. If he closed his eyes now… if he allowed himself to go to sleep now…

Bob snorted a big plume of steam through his nostrils, a sure sign he was getting pissed off. “You skip out on work to drown yourself in cheap whiskey and you’re telling me to do my goddamn job? Fine.” He took another Jackal off the shelf and slammed it down on the counter. “Just don’t expect me to wipe your ass when you inevitably shit yourself.”

John wrapped his fingers around the bottle, neatly covering up the label and its silhouetted jackal howling up at the moon. “I wouldn’t dream of it, Bob.” He lifted it to his mouth, but before he could take that first sip, a shadowed blob of movement came and plopped down in the seat right next to him, making it creak in protest.

“And a very very good eve to you, Bob!” the mess of colour said in such a jolly, cheerful manner it hurt John’s ears. “How are you doing?”

John blinked a few times to clear his vision, then gave this latest patron a good dose of the side-eye. The colours solidified into a middle-aged Human who was completely bald on top, but seemed to be compensating for it with a horse-shoe curtain of wavy red hair streaming all the way down to his shoulders. His nose and cheeks were ruddy with burst capillaries, and his ample gut was partially spilling over his belt, like dough that had been left to rise in the pan for too long. He looked vaguely familiar, but John couldn’t quite place him.

“I’m doing just fine,” Bob said. “Well, as fine as I can in this bloody place.”

“Ha! I hear you! Whole world’s just a life-long trip-and-fall into the shit, am I right?”

“Feels that way sometimes,” Bob agreed. “So what can I get you, Eddie?”

The name locked it into place. This was Edward Morgan. He and his wife ran a little general goods store at the base of the Coil. He remembered buying his boots in that store… what was it? Three years ago? Something like that.

With the mystery of reddish blur finally solved, John took a sip of the Jackal. Some of it spilled down his beard and dripped onto the counter, another sign that he was making good progress.

“Give me a… hmm… You know what, Bob? Give me some of that Royal Crown.”

“Ooh, fancy. I might actually have to clean a glass for once.”

John took another swig. He was starting to slow down. Hell, the whole world was starting to slow down. Or was it speeding up? Motion seemed slow, but Mr. Morgan was already downing his glass of Royal Crown with royal abandon, his adam’s apple going up and down with every swallow.

“Haaaaaargh! That’s the good stuff!” he said, wiping his mouth with the heel of his hand. “Hard booze after a hard day, that’s the only way, I say! Ha!”

“Indeed.”

John was doing his best to filter out this man’s booming voice, but he wasn’t having any luck. He was the Human equivalent of a braying donkey.

“Say, Bob?” Morgan said. “I heard you and the wifey are thinking about having a little calf. That true?”

John had been raising his Jackal for another swig, but now his arm stopped halfway. He came in here almost every day, except for when he positively had to show up for work, or when he was far too hungover to even crawl out of bed, and he had never once heard anything about Bob wanting kids. Actually, putting it that way, it probably wasn’t all that strange that John didn’t know absolutely everything about his favourite bartender’s personal life.

“Well…” Bob shifted uncomfortably, yet another first, his hooves scraping against the hardwood floor. “We’ve talked about it, and Mari really wants to start a family. I do, too, of course, but the thing is… with this economy, I think it would be better to wait a year or two. Save up some money before we leap into the deep end, you know?”

Morgan was nodding like a sage, ‘hmm’ing’ and ‘aah’ing’ like he knew exactly what Bob was talking about. “And let me guess, the fact that you want to wait a while is pissing her off because, in her mind, that’s like you saying, ‘Ew, no! I don’t want no kids! Get you and your overactive ovaries away from me, you horny cow!’”

“Well, I wouldn’t put it exactly like that, but…”

“I hear you, I hear you.” Morgan took another swallow from his glass of Royal Crown. Wiped his mouth. Set it down. “You want some advice from a family man such as myself, Bob? Heh, that’d be a funny, a customer giving sage-advice to the bartender. Hah!”

“I appreciate it, Eddie, but I don’t really –”

“My advice to you, Bob, when it comes to kids is…” Morgan leaned forward, his eyes widened for dramatic effect. “Don’t!

Everyone in the tavern turned to look at him, but evidently Morgan didn’t care. He was too busy leaning back in his chair, holding his stomach and laughing. “Don’t, I say! Just don’t do it! Ha!”

Even in his drunken state, John had enough wherewithal to notice Bob rolling his eyes and shaking his head. John showed his commiseration by shaking his head as well, and taking another swig. Almost halfway done with this one. Maybe then he’d go home and try to get some sleep. Or pass out in the corner with his boots on, more likely.

“Listen to me, Bob!” Morgan said, getting himself back under control. “You do not want kids, economy be damned! Bunch of overgrown cumstains running around, getting their sticky little fingers all over everything, it’s a mess!”

“Says the Humie with not one kid, but two.”

“And another on the way! Ha! Oh Lords, why did Marala bless my loins with such virility? It is a curse, I say!”

“Oh, my sympathies to you, having to suffer under the yoke of a loving family like that. Surely, it must be Hell on earth.”

“‘Loving’? I wish! Miranda just sits on her ass all day, blowing up like a cow (no offence) and screaming at me to do this, and do that, and then do the other thing again because I didn’t do it right the first time! It’s just yapyapyap, all the live-long day!”

“Uh-huh.”

“Now the kids, don’t even get me started on the kids!”

Bob was doing a passable job of keeping his annoyance in check, and there were two good reasons for that. Number 1, this was a customer, which he relied on for money, and therefore he was willing to put up with a relatively high level of bullshit so long as the bullshit in question didn’t result in any harm to himself, his wife, or his business. Number 2, he was completely sober, which helped a lot when it came to dealing with loud obnoxious gasbags like Edward Morgan.

John, on the other hand, had none of those things going for him, and therefore, no reason whatsoever to not get pissed. His fingers were already opening and closing, opening and closing around the base of the whiskey bottle, like he wanted nothing more than to smash it over this ape’s shiny bald head, but he kept himself in check, and left that image as a mere fantasy and nothing more. Randomly going around bashing people’s brains in was a fun flight of fancy, but doing something like that in real life would just make him an asshole. And also a criminal. With no bail money.

Not a good idea.

So John left old Morgan to bitch and moan about his family, same as thousands upon thousands of drunkards have done to long-suffering bartenders since time immemorial. Until something came up John couldn’t ignore.

“Now Melissa, she’s my youngest, you know what that little cumsprout did the other day? Huh? She got into the kitchen pantry (don’t ask me how she unlocked the damn thing), took all the eggs, all the flour, all the milk, all the sugar, just about everything she could get her nasty little hands on, and smeared the whole kit and caboodle all over the kitchen floor! Maybe that by itself wouldn’t have been so bad, we got a maid, after all, cute little Beast-kin thing with fluffy ears. Lynx type she calls herself. Gets pissed whenever I call her a cat. But anyway! Just spreading that shit around wasn’t good enough for the fruit of my loins, oh no! She had to go and get a bucket of water, a bucket of water from the well outside, mind you, and carry it into the kitchen with her stubby little bow-legs, and tip the whole thing over! My four-year-old girl! I swear to all the gods it was the biggest mess I had ever laid eyes on! This milky white water all over the place, with eggshells floatin’ around in it, attractin’ bugs! By Lurana, I was angry!”

Bob chuckled a little. “She sure sounds like a handful, alright. But I’m sure ten years from now you’ll –”

“So I took her out to the choppin’ block outside and gave those sticky little hands a good bashing with a length of firewood.”

John’s fingers twitched. Bob, being a veteran of the bartending business for almost ten years, noticed that tiny movement and knew immediately what it meant. He caught John’s eye, and with an almost imperceptible shake of the head conveyed a simple message: Don’t do anything stupid.

Morgan, meanwhile, was taking long swallows of Royal Crown, his ass practically overflowing his seat.

“Now, when you say ‘bash’,” Bob said, “what exactly do you mean by that?”

“I mean –” He stifled a burp against the back of his hand. “‘Scuze me. What I mean is, I took her sticky little hand, held it down against the choppin block, took a length of firewood, like this,” he grasped one of John’s empty bottles by the neck, and then banged it down against the counter like a stamp. “BAM! Just like that.”

John’s breathing was getting heavy. A deep, burning heat that had absolutely nothing to do with booze was beginning to build in his cheeks. Even Bob was just staring at this fat old man, not knowing how to respond.

“Why so quiet?” Morgan asked, looking from Bob to John and back again, a bemused kind of smile stuck to his face. His eyes suddenly brightened and he slapped his knee. “Oh, wait, I get it! You guys think that I…? Oh, no, I assure you not! What kind of monster do you think I am? I didn’t break her bones or anything like that! Perish the thought! How’s she supposed to do her chores with broken hands? No, I just gave her a light bashing, that’s all. A bit of bruising, a bit of swelling. Nothing more than that. I pride myself on putting just the right amount of force into my punishments, you know. Too light, and they won’t learn a goddamned thing. Too hard, and they might end up costing you a doctor’s fee. No, it needs to be juuust right. I don’t know how tough Minotaur calves are, but if you’re going to have one, Bob, it’s a skill you’ll need to learn, too.”

“Mr. Morgan, if me and Mari ever do have children, we’ll figure out how best to discipline them ourselves. If you don’t mind me saying.”

Morgan raised his hands. “I hear you, big guy, loud and clear! No need to get all loomy like that, Gods! But hear me, and hear me well.” He leaned forward, pointing like some scholar about to impart great wisdom upon an eager and waiting audience. “Children are stupid. They don’t understand words the same way adults do. If you catch one of them playing with an open bear trap, what are you going to do? Sit them aside and explain to them that it’s dangerous? That they might lose a finger or a hand or even their life? You think they’ll understand that? No! It’s all a game to them! They won’t learn their lesson until that thing slams shut on their grubby little fingers, and why do you think that is? It’s because of pain, Bob. Pain. All children understand pain, no matter how old they are, no matter what race they’re from, whether their a boy or a girl or something in-between. All children understand pain. It’s the language underneath all languages, and the only one they’ll understand with absolute clarity. If you’re going to be a parent, you have to use it if you want your kids to have even the slightest chance of turning into good, upstanding adults one day. They play with fire? Hold their hands above an open flame so they’ll learn how dangerous it can be. They spill their food? Make them go without bread for a day or three, and they’ll learn to value the nourishment their parents gift them for free. They mouth off at you? Bust their lip wide open, so they may understand never to disrespect the ones who gave them life in the first place. That’s what it means to be a parent, Bob. That’s what it means to be a good fath-”

“Was there a bowl?” John asked, cutting him short.

Morgan looked at him. “I beg your pardon?”

“A bowl,” John repeated. “In the mess your daughter made. Was there a bowl?”

“How on earth am I supposed to remember a trivial thing like that? This happened almost two weeks ago!”

“If she was just up to mischief, she wouldn’t have made such a careful selection of ingredients. She would have just grabbed everything she could reach and thrown them around willy-nilly. Likewise, if she was after the sugar, she would have taken just that. But according to your story, she didn’t do anything of the sort. She had a very specific list of ingredients in mind. Eggs, flour, milk, sugar.”

“What are you trying to say, Mr…?”

“John Darrow. And what I’m saying is, I believe your daughter isn’t quite as ‘stupid’ as you seem to believe she is.”

“Ha!” Morgan slapped his knee. A real knee-slapper, evidently, was old Morgan. “Mr. Darrow, I’m sure you mean well, but quite frankly, you have no idea what you’re talking about. My Melissa, gods bless her soul, is about as bright as a mine shaft.”

“Two weeks ago. Was there a special occasion in your house? An anniversary, a birthday, anything like that?”

“What does that have to do with -” A thoughtful look stole across Morgan’s face. “Well actually, now that you mention it, it was my son’s birthday. He turned eight.”

“Your daughter was trying to make a cake for him. For his birthday.”

Morgan burst out laughing, a great big belly laugh that sent his jowls a-shaking. “Nonsense! Melissa doesn’t know how to hold a spoon properly, much less bake a cake! She’s four, for crying out loud!”

“She probably spent a lot of time watching your wife baking, and tried to imitate her. Kids do that a lot.”

“My wife doesn’t bake. Like I said, all she does is sit around the house and yell! Kirata does the cooking and cleaning. That’s the maid I mentioned.”

“Then it was the maid she was trying to copy.” John hadn’t allowed his eye to leave the narrow opening at the top of the bottle in his hands, certain that if he were to look Morgan in the face one more time, he wouldn’t be able to hold himself back. “And speaking of the maid, why didn’t your daughter ask this Kirata for help when she made the mess?”

“Well, that’s because -”

“It’s because she was terrified of getting caught, so she went to the well, drew water, and tried to clean it up by herself because she knew you would try to hurt her.”

“Heh. You say that as if it’s a bad thing, Darrow.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Fear can be a good thing. A great thing. Whereas pain teaches a child all about the consequences of their actions, fear teaches them to be wary of such things before they put themselves in danger.”

“But do you really think they should view their own father as something ‘dangerous’? Something to be feared?”

“Absolutely.”

John looked up sharply. Morgan was sitting there, casually swirling his Royal Crown around and around, a smug smile plastered to his doughy face. “Mr. Darrow, do you have any children?”

An image flashed through the haze of alcohol. A broken window. Crimson light streaming past a line of jagged, glass teeth. Shredded curtains, flapping in the breeze.

“I’ll take your silence as a ‘no’,” Morgan said. “If you did, you’d know that I’m telling the truth. I see it every so often, people like you. People without children. They have this idea that kids are these precious little angels who can do no wrong, but nothing can be further from the truth! They’re not even actual people, in my humble opinion. They’re merely ‘place holders’ for the people they will eventually become.”

John’s fingers tightened around the bottle so hard they ached.

“But even calling them ‘place holders’ might be giving them too much credit. It might be more accurate to liken them to wild animals. They see something, they want it, they go after it tooth and claw! Food, toys, whatever! Greedy little animals who can only consume! And when they don’t get their way, they throw the most horrid tantrums! Just this insufferable howling! No better than rabid wolves, they are! Oh, but wait, calling them that might be doing the noble wolf a huge disservice. At least wolves can take care of themselves. Children, on the other hand? They latch onto their parents’ collective teat and they don’t stop sucking until their host is completely and utterly drained. Oh! You know what? That’s the perfect analogy! Yes! They’re not place holders or wild animals, they’re parasites!”

A crack appeared in the bottle between John’s hands. Neither John, nor bob, nor Morgan noticed.

“Yes, parasites!” Morgan continued, his eyes shining in delight at his own genius. “Just like ticks, they are! Once they latch onto you, it’s impossible to rip them out! But oh, if only it was mere blood they were after, but no, it’s much worse than that! They suck out your money, Darrow! Your money! It’s always money, money, money! Money for food and drink and clothes, money for toys, money for schooling, money for this and money for that! But you think it stops there? Oh no! All the energy that goes into raising those little snot-nosed brats, gone! Every day I’m exhausted! They suck and they suck until there’s nothing left but a desiccated husk!”

“Oh, sure, that’s why you’re all skin and bones,” Bob said, perhaps in an attempt to lighten the mood, but it didn’t help at all. If anything, it only riled Morgan up even more.

“But you know the worst thing, Darrow? The absolute worst thing those parasites take from you, huh? It’s time, Darrow! It’s time! Nothing more precious than time in this world, if you ask me, and children consume it by the barrel! Why, before I beat that behaviour out of my eldest, he was always running up to me, saying, ‘Play wif me, Fafa! Play wif me!’ Gangly little brat, not even understanding that my work, which he was so rudely interrupting, was the very reason he even had such nice toys to play with in the first place! And now, now my daughter is getting to that age, too! Always waddling up to me with this damn book in her hands. ‘Read to me, Fatha!’ Read to me!’ Needy little bitch! If she asks me to read that fucking Spickerflick book one more time, I swear to God I will whip her so hard she’ll -”

John punched him dead in the face. The crack of his fist against his ruddy nose was like a tenderising hammer striking a raw piece of steak. Blood burst from his nostrils in twin jets as he fell off his seat and crashed to the floor, his eyes widened in shock.

John stood up.

“John, stop!” Bob yelled, but it was no use. John approached the blubbering mass of jelly on the floor, his fists clenched and his teeth bared.

Morgan, realizing that he was dealing with an actual madman, tried to scoot away on his butt, whimpering like an infant. “Nuh! N-Nuh!”

John bent over, grabbed the man by the collar, and yanked him up until their faces were barely an inch apart. “If your kid asks you to read her a bedtime story, you fucking read her a bedtime story!” he shouted, spittle flying from his mouth. “It doesn’t matter if she’s four or fourteen or fucking forty! You read her that goddamn bedtime story because you never know when it might be the last time! It could have already happened, you stupid fuck!”

John let go and Morgan dropped onto his elbows, staring back at him without a word, blood flowing over his lips and down his chin in absolute silence.

“John?”

John looked around, realising that it wasn’t just Morgan. The entire tavern had frozen in place, people of all races just staring at him with their jaws agape. Card games stuck in limbo, with half the cards undealt. Tankards half-raised.

“What the fuck are you staring at!?” John yelled, spreading his arms wide. “Anyone got a problem with this, huh!? This fat sack of shit your buddy, is that it!?”

“John.” Bob looked perfectly calm, but he had pulled a truncheon from underneath the counter, and was lightly bouncing the head against the palm of his hand. “I don’t want to do this, but if you don’t calm down right now…”

John raised his hand in a placating gesture. “I’ll go,” he said simply, not trusting himself to speak any more than he absolutely had to. He just wanted to get out of this stifling bar and away from all these goddamn eyes staring at him like he was some kind of freak, away from the bleeding tumour on the floor, away from the stench of booze and sweat, and most of all, away from the images that kept flashing before his eyes. Curtains in the dying sunlight. A blanket, pulled halfway off the bed. Strings of blood seeping through the cracks in the floorboards.

Papa, Papa! I want to hear this one!

Spickerflick again? Aren’t you tired of this one yet?

Nuh-uh! Do the voices, Papa! Do the voices, okay? Do the voices, Papa! Papa!

Papa.


John turned on his heel and began to walk, traversing the wavy pathways between the tables. No one tried to talk to him. No one tried to call out or whoop or holler. The only time they even acknowledged his presence was when one of them scooted his chair out of the way, allowing him more room to pass.

He spotted an unopened bottle of whiskey on the table and grabbed it. Just something for the road. “You can add this one to my tab, too.”

“That’s fine, John,” Bob said, but what he was actually saying was: ‘Get the fuck out of my tavern. Now.’

John yanked the door open and stepped out into the final minutes of twilight, the sound of the bell above his head reverberating through his ears, his knuckles bloody and one last bottle of whisky hanging by his side, thinking that he would go home and sleep the night away, thinking that this was just another bender in a long line of benders, one he probably wouldn’t even recall come morning.

But he was wrong.

John did not know it yet, but this night would be different from all those that had come before. It would be a night filled with blood and death beyond measure. A night of pain and fear and terrible loneliness, with only a single point of warmth to act as a counterweight in an otherwise freezing hell.

A single point of warmth, like a dying flame in the night.

After this, John’s life would never be the same again.
Read my novel here: Ander
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