Category Archives: Enjoy a Great Story

On Amazon Tomorrow! ~ Sharing My Friend Lucky Noma’s Latest Thrilling Story! ~ A Little Horror Anyone??

African Horror Story by Lucky Noma

99 Pennies on Amazon!

Lucky was kind enough to be one of my first guests when I started my Writer’s Life Q&A Project, and we chat about our writing every chance we get.

You Can Catch Our Conversation Here.

Death and blood, a gruesome pair. One brings an end to life’s despair,
the other feeds our lifeless souls. Death takes us from this mortal coil, and
blood is left behind. It stains the ground, a dark and oily foil. But death and
blood are not to be feared. They are a natural part of life. For without them,
we could not be here… shrieking, and singing, though we are dead. So let
us embrace the darkness and the red, and rejoice in the unknown. Death
and blood are not to be dreaded, aye, like Aniku’s dreads. They are the guiding stars.”

From African Horror Story by Lucky Noma
African Horror Story by Lucky Noma

Change With Me, My Love – A Dystopian Fantasy Love Story

A lonely man in a dying world seizes a chance at happiness with a mythical being. Grab a cup of tea and settle in with your favorite snuggly blanket for an eight minute story that feels like getting lost in a novel. While you’re there, I would love to know what you think.

Click on the photo above to go to my Vocal Media story and feel free to comment and like. I would greatly appreciate it.

Excerpt

The outside world was unknown to her, but she could see a glimpse of it through the window in his room. The view from this high place included a blue sky interrupted by puffy white clouds tipped in pink from the rising sun, and their shadows moved swiftly over a patch of turbulent sea. That spot was the focus of her longing.

It was the vast land flowing away from the sea that comprised the unknown, the part of this world she had never experienced until now, the part that required a pair of feet to traverse it. She looked at her toes in wonder, curling them just to ensure it was her will operating the strange appendages.

***

Escape into a Solstice Lore Fantasy During a Dark Winter

Enjoy a fantasy short story set in a parallel realm during the winter solstice. Meet Ray Jensen, husband, father and physicist, who disappears into an experiment and ends up in a place where his ideas about science and logic are turned upside down. Despite the fantastical world, the questions piquing his scientific curiosity, and his new friends, his only desire is to get home. Journey with him and Tsealie of the Sapphire Gnomes while he figures it out.

Excerpt

Ray Jensen pounded through the trees, then leapt with blind faith into the hole as an arrow whizzed past his ear. The opening sealed over his head like it never existed, as he dropped thirty feet.

Experience taught him the precise point at which to fold his tall body for the landing, and he hit the ground, rolled over the floor covered in thick straw, and came to a breathless halt against a boulder.

He coughed and spat out a mouthful of dirt. Just once, he would like to enter the realm of the Sapphire Gnomes without coming close to breaking his neck.

His eyes landed on a pair of Antlered Hare boots and the bottom of a crooked staff. The voice above them said, “You’re quite good at that. And I can see it was necessary.”

***

Click on the photo below to go to my story on Vocal Media. A like would be so appreciated, and comments are welcome.

Vintage Holiday Greeting Card

A Leap Through the Elder Oak is also available in four installments in My Stories.

Have you Ever Worked Furiously on a Short Story Submission, and Nearly Missed the Deadline?

Still, I managed it with fifteen minutes to spare! And I hadn’t even figured out the title yet. Yikes! My closest call yet. I had the deadline wrong. I’m typing away and thought I should check the submission requirements again. Due in Two Hours! What!! The story that resulted still has me reeling. I love it so much, I don’t even care if it doesn’t get a win. It is dear to my heart, and that is all that matters.

The prompt was to write a dystopian tale using the first sentence, “The outside world was unknown to her, but she could see a glimpse of it through the window in his room.” I couldn’t resist this one! It’s short. Eight minutes to read. I’d love to know if it captures your imagination, too, only if you have a few minutes to spare, and need a dose of magic. If you do, click the photo.

A lonely man in a dying world seizes a chance at happiness with a mythical being.

The outside world was unknown to her, but she could see a glimpse of it through the window in his room. The view from this high place included a blue sky interrupted by puffy white clouds tipped in pink from the rising sun, and their shadows moved swiftly over a patch of turbulent sea. That spot was the focus of her longing.

It was the vast land flowing away from the sea that comprised the unknown, the part of this world she had never experienced until now, the part that required a pair of feet to traverse it. She looked at her toes in wonder, curling them just to ensure it was her will operating the strange appendages.

A Little Cannibal Comedy, Anyone?

I dare you to ride along with the masked passengers and their eerie pilot in this story that came from a random prompt in a genre you don’t get …

A Little Cannibal Comedy, Anyone?

Browsing Vocal Media for Engaging Short Stories?

I’m there. I would love you to stop by and check out my growing and eclectic set of short stories. Fantasy fiction, an adult fairy tale, a romance triangle with a twist, a pair of aquarium fish who witness murdering mayhem, a historical fiction tale of a pioneering aeronaut, and even a cannibal comedy with an ending that will raise your brows, await you. If you enjoy them, like and comment while you’re there. Thank you!

Click on image to visit my profile and stories.

A Leap Through the Elder Oak, The Conclusion

  • Click here for Part One
  • Click here for Part Two
  • Click here for Part Three

A Leap Through the Elder Oak, Conclusion

Once again, Ray found himself dodging arrows as he leapt over fallen trees and ducked behind live ones. Tsealie would say it was a miracle he hadn’t been poked full of holes long before now. The elves were lethal with their uncanny aim and inhuman strength that sent the arrows flying so close, his skin prickled where they passed.

Another missile whipped by his face, splitting a small birch tree in two ahead of him, right where he’d been about to turn. He spun on his heels and changed direction as he cursed his hair that glowed like a silver beacon in the growing darkness of the shortest day of the year. He’d set out wearing a gnome hat Tsealie’s daughter had modified for him. The conical hat was absurd on such a tall man, but it disguised his humanness and used magical camouflage to make him disappear into nature.

It worked until the cap was snatched by a branch about a half mile back as he traversed a dangerous patch of woods. Not long after, the elf prince and his guard picked up his trail. Thwack! Another arrow lodged in a tree, this time taking a piece of him first. Ray reached behind his neck and felt the wetness of his blood. Another inch and the force would have taken his head.

Before this fateful jaunt into the bizarre, Ray had wished for more excitement in his life. Dropping into the realm of a supernatural race who did not welcome the intrusion wasn’t what he had in mind. Was leaving here too much to ask? He considered throwing himself on the mercy of the elf king. He’d meant what he said when he told Tsealie this was the last time he would risk the gnomes.

If he hadn’t broken so many laws when he first arrived, Tsealie might have managed to negotiate a sponsorship with King Seabrin, which might have gotten him home at the start of this venture. But laws were very different here, and the elves had little tolerance for law breakers, even if they were unwitting ones. Attempting negotiations was too dangerous a prospect for the lesser gnome kingdom to undertake. Once Ray learned about his situation, he refused to let Tsealie try.

He stumbled through a patch of thorny brush and almost fell on his face. He’d lost more blood than he realized, and his vision blurred. He didn’t even let himself dwell on the pain. Too many other worries crowded his mind, like making it to the portal before he passed out. He should try to staunch the blood. The elves had gone silent, which meant he had no idea how close they were, but he needed to rest a minute and bind his wound.

An opening between a spot of thick brush and a boulder provided cover while he crouched on the pungent forest floor and listened for signs of his pursuers. An owl hooted. Something skittered through his hiding spot, followed by another skitter. Twigs snapped under heavier steps. The prince was closer than he thought. As he listened, his vision cleared enough to make out his surroundings in the fading light. His heart thumped at what he saw.

He’d made it back to the Forest of the Fire Maidens and was in the middle of the ancient copse of yews Tsealie described. Ray knew what he must search for next, but he stayed hidden a little longer to drink his fill of water from the gourd on his belt. He used some to wash the blood from his hands, listened again, then pushed on in a direction away from the elves.

He only had to go another hundred yards before he spotted the mound of granite towering over a moonlit meadow, his last marker. An ethereal voice echoed between the trees. “If you don’t halt and turn yourself in, human, it will go worse for you.”

Of course, he kept going. He was so close; the sound of his wife’s laughter rang in his head. She was always ready to laugh, and it was the sweetest sound on earth. It beckoned him and hope gave him strength and stealth, so when he sprinted the last few yards, he made no sound.

He leapt over a log and vaulted around the monolithic rock, then stumbled to a halt. Ray had hashed out every detail of the epic solstice battle with Tsealie the past few days, but it hadn’t prepared him for the sight that met his eyes. Two trees, so tall they blocked the deepening starlight, swung their branches at each other as if they were swords. Their clashes thundered across the clearing, and electricity made its own noise as it crackled between them, growing in intensity.

He couldn’t make out faces because there weren’t any, but he imagined their expressions all the same, and it was clear the giant trees engaged in a fierce competition. One minute, they seemed rooted to the ground, the next, they would raise a gnarled root and step forward with another jab.

Movement caught his eye. It was an opening in the hollow of one of the warring trees, the Elder Oak, and it shimmered in an out of existence. His theory was correct. The portal wasn’t fixed in one spot, it moved around to meet certain conditions. And he watched those conditions unfold in a traditional clash that heralded winter. He calculated the war would end in about twenty minutes.

Before he could make his move, a beam of light blinded him, obscuring the snorting creature rearing up and blocking his path. A stag. He had to leap out of the way and barely managed to stay on his feet.

On the stag’s back was a fierce-looking blue-haired elf with a crown on his head that appeared to be made of water. The glowing being spoke in a deep voice. “Where do you think you are going, human? Do you really believe we would let you return without making you pay for your crimes?”

“My only crime is believing I was smart enough to know what I was doing with the portal. I admit conducting my experiment was the worst decision of my life. I only want to return to my family. I haven’t caused any harm here. Please let me go back.”

“It is the harm you might cause when you return that we are concerned with, and none of this is for you to decide. It is up to the king.” His brows drew together. “There is one possibility that might earn you your freedom.”

“What do you mean?”

“The human who seems set on discovering his way here must be stopped. The king will send you home after you help us with this problem.” 

“I’ve already been missing for six years. Longer is unthinkable.”

“It is either this or be locked away and never go home again.” Ray decided he had another choice and searched for his opportunity to make a run for the ancient oak.

Then, he got help when a familiar sapphire prism pierced the darkness, and snow began to fall. It fell so heavy it soon covered every surface, piling high. The blanketing quiet brought to the fore the sounds of clashing branches. Only a few feet separated Ray from his family.

An owl flew at the prince, flapping its wings around the stag’s head. The stag reared up, this time in defense, nearly unseating the prince. More owls swooped over the guards.

Ray recognized the cues given to him by a wizened old gnome to point him towards another leap of faith. In the winged chaos, he made a zigzag dash, then dove headfirst at the shimmering hollow while the king of the oak trees dueled with the Holly King, both giants oblivious to the drama playing out beneath them.

As he tumbled through a denser darkness than the one now shrouding Undine on the winter solstice, he sent his heartfelt gratitude to a tiny being who had turned out to be the best friend he ever had.

  • Click here for Part One
  • Click here for Part Two
  • Click here for Part Three

A Leap Through the Elder Oak, Part Three

  • Click here for Part One
  • Click here for Part Two
  • Click here for Part Four

A Leap Through the Elder Oak, Part Three

The six-foot four human had given up applying science to the phenomenon of his two-foot-high companion covering distances faster than him, while appearing to stroll. His efforts these days went to keeping pace with the being who barely topped his knee. He was used to the strangeness now, so he was able to listen as they walked and Tsealie explained.

“It will be a process because as kings, the giant trees can move among their subjects. However, there are only so many locations that will accommodate their size, and as you pointed out, the locations are part of the tradition.”

His dark eyes glittered. “I am hopeful we can get you to the right one in time. I will alert the network at once. Then, you, my friend, will need to be ready to dodge the elves and make it there in one piece.” 

When Ray’s face filled with determination, Tsealie said, “Did I ever tell you that you could pass for an Ice Elf with that platinum hair? Especially when your eyes turn steely.”

“You mentioned it a time or two. And if I were to stay longer in this world, I would like to meet the race whose history my ancestors in Scandinavia might very well share, if my theory is correct.”

The two of them continued on, rounding yet another bend in the tunnel, and the yeasty fumes of mushroom ale invaded Ray’s nostrils. He rolled his shoulders and relaxed, inhaling deeper. His favorite soup was on the menu this afternoon. Leek and lentil. Prior to living with these diminutive beings of nature, Ray had been steadfast in his belief he wouldn’t survive on greenery and legumes, though his wife often tried to convince him to go vegetarian with her. It turned out he thrived on the savory concoctions the gnomes liberally dished out.

Tsealie’s smile thinned out his wrinkles. You know I will miss your stories and our games. But I wish this for you as hard as you wish it for yourself.”

“I know you do, Tsealie. And I have a feeling once I’m home, it won’t be long before I will want to come back for a visit, though I can’t see how that might happen. Do you?”

“Before you stumbled unwittingly through a Fae portal and wandered into the fern gardens to trample over my herd of snails, I would have thought not. But with you Raymond Jensen, anything is possible.”

Ray blanched at his words, even as he accepted the humor in them. “I still feel awful about the snails. At least you stopped me before my carelessness grew to unforgivable proportions.”

At last, they arrived at a set of double doors carved out of thick elm. A pair of gnomes, even shorter than their elder, and dignified in their sapphire livery complete with tall, conical caps, made way for them, then stood at attention. Guards were not a requirement in this peaceful realm deep under the earth. The little sentinels made themselves available in this fashion, seeming to appear from thin air, out of respect for Tsealie, who was the oldest among them.

But Tsealie’s age was another logic-bending mystery Ray decided long ago not to spend time puzzling over, so he pushed that last thought aside and bent in half to enter the Great Hall Under the Elm. Thanks to the hollow in the giant tree widening out to unbelievable proportions below ground, he could rise to his full height after squeezing through the door.

Since learning today about the symbiotic relationship between the trees and the gnomes, Ray took time to glance around the natural architecture with new eyes. He let the raucous noise fade away and listened to the sounds of the earth. A trick Tsealie taught him. An array of burls had been turned into small windows that staggered up the great height of the tree, and the dust moted beams of light bathed his face.

Part of him had been aware of the aura glowing off the surfaces of the underground kingdom, but now he could feel the rhythm of life that encompassed more than the tiny people.

Tsealie waited, as if he understood Ray’s need to absorb this new perspective of his surroundings. Then, the elder’s stomach rumbled loud enough to break the spell, and the hall turned lively once again.

Ray smiled and said, “I could use a meal, too. But even more urgent is the need to indulge in at least three pints, and a board game or two to calm me down. You’ve given me my first real hope today.”

“Your clever scientific investigations did that,” Tsealie said as they headed through the throng of citizens, all wearing the signature pointed hat, whether male or female. “Now let’s eat, so we can get to our next round of Lanard. You promised to leave me with a strategy memorable enough to be chronicled in the archives.”

Just then, a sentinel appeared as if out of thin air. His cap was askew, and his eyes were round as he said, “Prince Jonpril’s men are investigating much too close to our entrance, Tsealie. Linton is bolstering the shields.”

Tsealie laid a hand on his guard’s shoulder. “Thank you, Peddrie. You best go back and help him.” It appeared as if the miniature person turned and walked away, but he was simply no longer there. Ray blinked. He still wasn’t used to that.

Ray said, “The winter solstice cannot come soon enough this year for the Sapphire Gnomes. If I don’t make it, Tsealie, I will turn myself in.”

To be continued… stay tuned for the conclusion tomorrow! December 24, 2022.

  • Click here for Part One
  • Click here for Part Two
  • Click here for Part Four

A Little Cannibal Comedy, Anyone?

I dare you to ride along with the masked passengers and their eerie pilot in this story that came from a random prompt in a genre you don’t get assigned often in a challenge.

The Ferryman guided the gondola along a watery path only he knew the secrets to as it transported a half dozen specially chosen masked passengers to an exclusive event. Though each eyed him with suspicion, they still appeared confident he would get them to their destination. They had to believe that because he was their only means of travel.

This sort would never admit they were at his mercy. They would talk instead as if the opposite were true. After all, they were in the business of terror. But he saw the questions in their eyes. He always saw the questions mirrored in each set of eyes exactly thirty minutes in. That was when the narrow boat passed the last shack squatting in the shadows of the densely wooded shore, casting its grudging light from tiny windows.

The rickety dwelling belonged to Old Maeve, and even if one of his passengers suddenly had a revelation and begged to be let off here, they would find no help, only the same hospitality that waited for them at the end of the line. But no passenger ever had a clue this early, which was why the Ferryman’s job never ceased to be entertaining.

It was always the moment when Maeve’s lights winked out and the dense canopy of moss-laden cypress shrouded the stars like a falling curtain that a dawning realization there was no way to get back on their own sank into each one. They would stare at the lantern full of lightning bugs hanging from the bow and search for the slim comfort of the crescent moon just before the nervous chatter started.

The Ferryman could guess with precision who would be the first to speak, and on cue it was the chubby face under a fox mask who aimed a question at the skinny humpty dumpty. “I heard we had to have no less than twenty victims dead and buried in well-hidden places to get an invitation to this shindig. I’ve surpassed that. How about you?”

He wondered if the two noticed the mix-up in masks, a typical trick his employer played on a couple passengers each journey. It added to the drama and more importantly, served to break up the monotony for the Ferryman. An employment perk, one might call it.

Instead of answering, Humpty Dumpty, whose oval mask was too big for his pointy face, lifted his bony butt from the seat and swung around to sit on the other side of the gondola. Exactly the response the Ferryman predicted. He enjoyed his perks, but it would be nice if his passengers surprised him on occasion.

It was the lone female with a cat mask who answered the fat fox. “I’ve heard lots of things about these parties. The final feast is said to be unsurpassed for its sumptuousness. But that’s not why I came. There’s a rumor one of you is the famous Crescent Moon Vampire. I wonder if you will be able to control your urges this weekend,” and she parted her collar and stretched her pale neck like an offering. No one took her up on it, or even flinched a muscle.

After a brief silence, the fox let out a nervous snort, and the too narrow mask that exposed more of the doughy face than anyone needed to see fluttered, so that he had to grab it and adjust the strings.

The passenger in the snake mask who’d been keeping to the shadows rumbled in a deep voice, “You’re a brave one to travel with men who if they’re like me, love to hate women in creative and painful ways. But you must have doled out your own hate to be here. Still, sticking your neck out is a bit risky, don’t you think?”

“You pretty reptile, there’s no hate involved. I love to love men. It’s not my fault when they fail to survive it.

This was the first masked party in the Ferryman’s long memory in which twins were invited. One of the two identical gray-haired demons spoke now. “If she is who we think she is, watch your backs gentlemen, or more to the point, your willies.” The cat’s eyes gleamed, and the fox snorted again before he could stop himself.

He shrugged when the other masked faces turned towards him, then said as if to divert attention, “What’s with the Ferryman? That crow mask looks real. And how about those robes? Doesn’t he know it’s sweltering in this bog? And shouldn’t he have a sickle?”

The Ferryman produced his sickle with a swoosh of his robes and a ringing of steel, timing it so the crescent moon peeked through the canopy and glinted off the curved blade. He settled the staff at his feet and grinned to himself as stifled gasps rippled along the gondola. Achieving the maximum affect with his masterful reveal was another perk.

“We’re all overdressed. It’s a requirement, is it not?” The twin demon said, ignoring the dire implications and returning to the party discussion. He held up embossed paper to the feeble light. “It says, ‘To be allowed onto Isla la Sombra, you must be in possession of your invitation. You should be clothed in formal attire, wearing the masks provided to you, and prepared to be stuffed full of fine foods and wine and finally, to be wowed by the tricks of the trade and the experts in your field. Should you succeed through every challenge, you will partake in a special feast.’” He lowered the paper and said, “It is a strange mix of formality and mystery, to be sure.”

His brother chimed in, “The words on their own would not give me pause. But now that we’re deep in this watery maze, traveling in a gondola that seems out of place and time and operated by a silent, robed figure who should be plying the River Styx, I’m looking at the invitation with new eyes.”

Cat woman said, “Like any good party, it is merely the host tantalizing us with the amenities. After all, types like us go to great lengths to avoid exposure. But I for one couldn’t turn down the offer to immerse myself in the ‘tricks of the trade’ and meet the most notorious guest speakers from our ranks. Isn’t the underground chatter why you all ventured out of your nests?”

A bumpy outline rippled through the duckweed, and the Ferryman waited. The sounds of fear that followed could have been cues in a movie script as each passenger spotted Douglas.

“Shit! Look at the size of that alligator! Um… Ferryman. May I call you Ferryman? I’m going to take your silence as a sign we won’t be attacked. I’m sure our hosts don’t want us eaten.” That misguided assumption was from the pudgy fox. He voiced another concern that never failed to come up. “I wonder how far there is to go. For all we know, we could circle these shrouded waters forever if our pilot is as immortal as he looks.”

That comment had all eyes turning to the Ferryman, and each passenger flinched when he spoke in his best sepulchral voice. “Arrival is in thirty minutes. And Douglas will leave you intact, so long as you keep your limbs in the boat.”

Eyes wide behind the mask, the fox snorted, “Got it.” Then, under his breath. “A lot can happen in thirty minutes.” He lightened things up. “I’m sure it’s no surprise I came for the promise of excellent food. They say the finale will make you think you’ve died and gone to heaven, not that I have any expectation of going there.”

The snake said, “Hmmm. That makes me wonder whether you might be the Cafeteria Killer, the one who likes to add special ingredients to the school menu. They say he’s rotund with the guileless face of a child. It’s astonishing how many kids disappear before the killer must move on. I bet the littlest tots were a tender addition to the tuna casserole.” He paused, then said, “So, what foods do you think might be offered at a banquet in honor of the best in the business?”

Petulant now, the fox said, “We’re not supposed to guess which legends we’re traveling with.” He tapped his mask. “It says so in the fine print. Didn’t you read it? And how would I know what an island at the ass end of nowhere has to offer? But it will be spectacular if our host lives up to his promise because like you said, we’re the best.”

“I wouldn’t think too highly of yourself, Fox Boy,” said twin number one in his cultured voice. “The host might have special plans for you. Didn’t you notice the fun being poked at you with that mask meant for the humpty dumpty wearer? Still, I wonder. Maybe it was assigned to you on purpose. Foxes are hunted. Your plump body would make a great main course. Fitting for the Cafeteria Killer.”

The fox retorted, “You all are making a lot of assumptions. If my mask means something, so do yours.”

Cat Woman burst out like she couldn’t help herself. “The details about these masked parties never have a source. They show up on the message boards, but I’ve never seen anything other than generic usernames attached to them.”

Snake Man said, “What do you mean?”

“There’s nothing to show they came from actual attendees. I wonder why that never occurred to me before?”

A twin demon offered a reasonable option. “It could simply mean the authors of the chats want to be anonymous. That’s not unusual for criminals of the most wanted variety.”

“I suppose you’re right. This eerie voyage is making me paranoid. But what if it’s all a ruse? Where does that leave us?” She seemed to be easily sidetracked and her eyes turned heated. “I think I know who you two are. There are not many twins these days who murder together. I’ve never had twins.” She ran her tongue over her teeth. “You both have fine mouths below those intriguing red masks, and lovely grey hair.”

“We’re flattered. But you couldn’t handle even one of us, my dear.” Two identical sets of perfectly white teeth flashed in the gloom. The Ferryman wondered if anyone noticed the extra-long canines.

Apparently, the chubby-cheeked fox had spent this time mulling over the idea he might be prey for a hunt, and he piped back in. “What if we were all invited to be nothing more than the main course? Who would ever know we went missing?”

The aloof humpty dumpty spoke for the first time, and his gravelly voice was ominous. “The messenger who sent my invitation went by Jeffrey Hannibal.”

“So did mine. So what?” Said the snake.

Cat Woman’s eyes squinted in a frown, then her brows rose along with her voice. “Mine was Lector Dahmer.”

Each of them began to sit straighter, and the Ferryman could almost see light bulbs clicking on over their heads. This inevitable perk was his favorite before the culmination of another successful charter, and he savored it.

The twin who read it before held the embossed paper to the light again. “This is signed, ‘Cordially, your host, Lector Dahmer.’”

There was a pregnant pause, then they all stood so fast the rocking boat flung them back into their seats.

The Ferryman said in the slow, deliberate voice of doom, “Settle down, passengers. You don’t want to fall in. Have you forgotten about Douglas?”

Each passenger gaped at him from under their masks as the gondola glided into a lagoon. Off in the distance, a steady drumbeat sounded, and savory smells wafted to them through the ghostly trunks of cypress.

The fox leapt up faster than anyone might imagine a pudgy serial killer could move and shoved the Ferryman over the side. His fellow passengers cried out in shock, then mouths widened into grins as they spotted the bumpy outline closing in on dark robes sinking beneath the duckweed.

Enjoy this story I was delighted to write under a tough challenge. The requirements were a 2000-word maximum (though I took liberties and went over that for this version), a new for me genre, Cannibal Comedy, an assigned character, Ferryman, and subject, a Masked Party.

It all happened in the Writing Battle Autumn 2022 Short Story Contest. I recommend participating for the fabulous feedback from peers, and the professionals… if you make it through the duels.

Artwork by me using the Photoleap A.I. generator and Canva.

A Message in the Clouds – a Short Story

A pioneering aeronaut takes on an unlikely passenger and reflects on life and loss as he floats above a gasworks to test his latest invention.

I floated a thousand feet over the Point Breeze Gas Works. From this vantage, one could imagine it was a gothic cathedral, complete with crenelated turrets, sprawling majestically along the Schuylkill River. The industry below, illustrated by billowing towers of black smoke, was muted in absolute silence from this height, adding to the impression of divine tranquility.

Even the Monarch butterfly that stowed away when I fueled our ride with hydrogen appeared to appreciate the stillness as it fluttered in random arcs around the ropes, landing intermittently on the lip of the basket. The slow beating of its wings seemed to speak to me in its need for companionship on our isolated journey among the clouds.

Today’s flight was meant to test my invention, but I welcomed the opportunity to escape up here, relishing the freedom and solitude to mourn the life ended too soon of an extraordinary woman.

My wife would have been proud of my latest patent involving a water gas process that increased the production of hydrogen, ever fascinated when my ideas resulted in record-breaking efficiencies and conveniences for modern living. The smile that would light her face when I shared my ideas was so clear in my mind, she could be standing in this basket with me.

Fluttering movement caught my eye. The more I watched the hypnotic orange wings, the easier it was to believe we were the only beings existing on or above the Earth. Not even a bird disturbed us. The crowds bustling along the streets of Philadelphia might not even be imagined, let alone the 485 men directly below us engaged in shoveling coal relentlessly into hellish, hungry boilers, just one task among many equally laborious ones that resulted in lighting an entire city.

I had to admit my inventions might make things easier for the average city dweller, but not for these men. Still, each of them, called by a piercing whistle, gathered for a break from their labors to watch me take flight today, and each grimy, sweaty face wore a look of pride as the gas they helped produce filled my balloon.

The absence of sound let me reflect on these rhythms of life; the men shoveling, the butterfly’s wings beating, my wife at my side celebrating each milestone of my career, then my pumping heart emptying of all that gave life meaning when she took her last breath.

I began to feel closer to my small, winged stowaway, having arrived myself at the end of a cycle of birth, growth, and metamorphosis. Though the cycle now seemed too brief, I marveled that I would have ceased to exist well before this day of testing another achievement if not for the bravery of my life’s chosen companion during a dramatic period in our lives, the lives of the whole country for that matter.

Absorbing the profound silence let me cast my mind back twenty years and the glimmering river, billowing gasworks, and even the surrounding clouds faded away, replaced by a vivid memory of being stranded on the wrong side of enemy lines.

Two decades ago, President Lincoln appointed me Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps, and I was proud to operate the first telegraph aerial station for the purposes of reporting on the enemy’s position. My maiden assignment was the Battle of Bull Run under General Irvin McDowell. It went well, but balloons do not always cooperate when they come down.

Exiting my basket in a hurry, so I could finish stowing away what had become a beacon pointing to a spy in the rebels’ midst, I took a wrong step and sprained my ankle. Fortunately, I landed the balloon near a thicket, which allowed me to stay out of sight while I hoped for rescue. My fortune persisted when a Union troop came upon me, but I couldn’t walk with them owing to my injury, and they reluctantly left me behind. Still, my luck continued because they reported my position after arriving at Fort Corcoran. But it wasn’t the army who came for me.

The days and nights that followed, worrying over who might appear next in my little clearing, filled me with a case of nerves worse than anything I’d yet experienced when flying an object fueled by a volatile gas. Then, sounds I both dreaded and wished for made my heart thud as they drew closer to my hiding spot. I braved peeking over a fallen tree where I crouched in the shadows and took in the unlikely sight of an old woman driving a horse and buckboard stacked with canvas covers.

The traveler wore a pendant and at its glint, a jolt shot straight to my heart. I knew that topaz butterfly, and I looked closer at the face set above shoulders hunched beneath a matronly shawl. The blue eyes peering out from the bonnet were those dearest to my soul. I stood and raised my arm in a greeting.

The familiar dulcet tones sounding anything but old whispered across the clearing. “Do you need a ride, brave aeronaut?”

“No one who has ever set foot on this battlefield is braver than you, my dear.”

Orange caught my eye and my mind returned to the silent sky and a world devoid of the soul who had been my partner in every way.

It was time to descend.

Butterfly wings beat in time with the hiss of venting hydrogen, and the giant gasworks loomed closer, its booming, wheezing, and banging sounds displacing our peace.

I peered closer at the tiny creature, then at its topaz encrusted likeness that I pulled from my vest pocket. Maybe this lofty place was not so empty after all, and suddenly, neither was my heart.

This short story is one in a collection I have published in a sweet book called Priss Starwillow & the Wolf and Other Short Stories you can find on Amazon. In addition to being available in a 99-cent e-book, you can find my stories on Vocal.Media.

Thank you for reading. All comments are welcome.

Note: Story inspired by the real-life story of Thaddeus S. C. Lowe.

Preview of The Starlight Chronicles, an epic, three-part fantasy novel

Selena Aires is fine with her nine-to-five life in the city, using her spare time to create art instead of making friends or finding love. Her mentor begins to insist she’s on the wrong path. 

When he dies, her grief and faith in his convictions prompts her to move to a small town in the lofty Sierra Nevada Mountains. But more is waiting for her in Quincy than the invigorating pine-scented air, endless trails, and the perfect artist bungalow. What Selena didn’t expect was an encounter with an astonishing man whose barely restrained power calls to something buried in her she had no idea was there.

The alpha of the North Star Pack thought he’d faced every challenge until he laid eyes on the new human in his territory, a beautiful artist with the heart of a warrior. Andras Johns knows instantly his life will never be the same.

The two of them must find a way to merge their opposing worlds while Selena grapples with her feelings for a man with a mystery beneath the surface and faces a destiny that’s expanded beyond her wildest imagination, a destiny fraught with peril in a world that just keeps getting stranger.

Prologue

Zigan – 1988 AD

It was a stormy night when I materialized in my mist on the second-floor landing of the small house that sat hunched within its aged timbers in the middle of blowing alfalfa fields. Thunder shook the floor beneath my feet as I surveyed the hallway. It was uncluttered with a colorful runner, the only object to break up the expanse of walls. It smelled like damp wood, and ozone was sharp in my nostrils from the persistent lightning strikes.

Other than the intermittent flashes, only the light of a half-moon penetrated, showing three doors to choose from. But I could sense the tiny human I was to bind my soul with for the rest of my life. 

Certain now the room at the end was the one to avoid, I moved quietly along the plank floor to stop at the first door, then paused at the threshold to savor the moment. For half the life allotted to me, I had trained with the Order of Hala preparing for this bonding and the challenges it would bring. The time had come to meet up again with the precious soul who’d returned to this world, choosing this infant in this remote county in northern California. 

I put my hand to the brass knob and turned it, relieved the door didn’t creak as it swung open to reveal two children sleeping despite the rolling thunder and lightning flashing close to the house, and the rain pounding against the panes of the only window. The pulsating light illuminated the large space containing the crib, a small bed, an open cabinet stuffed with toys, and a rocking chair in the corner. 

Electricity of my own vibrated over the pulse of my wrist as I drew near the crib, which drew the attention of the infant girl who woke as soon as I leaned over her. The heart-shaped face framed by a halo of dark hair watched me in silent fascination, her arms waving and legs wiggling in reaction to the magic that surrounded us. 

A faint moan had me inspecting the bed in the opposite corner where her four-year old brother dreamed, nestled beneath a Spiderman cover with his own mop of dark hair peeking out, oblivious to the magic and the storm. 

So, I did what I came to do. When I pressed my wrist to her minuscule left shoulder, an obscure image of a half-moon and my wind symbol tucked next to it formed on her delicate skin. Her brilliant eyes sparkled as she watched my smiling face, making no sound as our souls connected. “Grow well, my precious one, and we’ll meet again soon.”

She has been named Selena. I will reveal myself to her when she is grown and finds her mate, and our journey will begin. For now, I gathered my mist to take me far away.

Manuscript in the works…

An End at Barfleur – A Short Story

This 1,650-word story is a journal entry in Book One, Ursus Borealis, in The Starlight Chronicles series. I found it rather fun to write a story …

An End at Barfleur – A Short Story

An End at Barfleur – A Short Story

This story is a single journal entry in Book One, Ursus Borealis, in The Starlight Chronicles series. I found it rather fun to write a story within a story within a story. It nestles in a chapter featuring Kuliana Hada, a character that appears throughout the series, who is an Anurashin Captain of the Guard. Cynthia is her ancestress.

Cynthia’s story is incorporated into an actual historical account about the White Ship that sailed in 1120 as described. Its sinking changed history.

An End at Barfleur

I am Cynthia, a marked maiden, a human born with a destiny entwined with a race from another world. I was trained to fight alongside my mate Aldric and his pack with the guidance of my magus Zigan Meshara of the Order of Hala against three rebellious princes who were banished from the planet Anurash.

This sounds impossible, I know. But you will just have to take my word. That is, if you are from the realms apart from this hidden place beneath a volcano, and this missive makes its way to you as I hope.

My life started on a farm in the county of Anjou. Then it changed forever when I met a bear from Normandy.

After immersing myself in the astonishing world of my mate and the kingdoms of the shifters, learning there was life beyond this Earth and before reaching the heavens took only a few extra pints to swallow it down. That, and meeting Zigan. It turns out Zigan and I are old souls and have done this dance before.

How my soul was chosen for this repeated Earth-bound destiny is a mystery, but my magus spent much time over wine in our chateau sharing what he knew of our history or rather, the history of the prophecy of the marked maidens.

As for Zigan, up till we met… in this time, he had spent his life training with the Order, which included studying the records in the extensive archives and all forms of alchemy, in addition to being honed into a warrior. Even more astonishing, he could transform into a stunning feline I learned was called a tiger.

For eight years I experienced what it was to be part of the Pack, to be soulmates with its alpha, to be one piece of a wondrous whole, and we were successful in our purpose, keeping the machinations of the princes from the human population, and mitigating the damages.

This is the part at the end of our story and writing it down is agony because it chronicles the event that halted our purpose violently, tore me from those I loved, and marked the beginning of my slow and lonely death. Still, it must be told.

It takes place starting mid-morning of the 25th day of the month of November in the year 1120. We arrived at Barfleur near the coast of Normandy, after confirming the location of the current scheme of Aviel Enair, the oldest and most formidable of the three sibling princes. We lacked the details, but we knew his scheme would involve the sailing vessel known as the White Ship, renowned for its speed and beauty, and now carrying the only legitimate heir to King Henry I across to England.

~~~

Frustration gripped me, and I wrapped my arm around myself, trying to catch my breath after having run the length of the docks. I called out to my mate behind me, “It is just as we feared, Aldric. The ship has almost reached the Quilleboeuf!”

There were three hundred souls sailing away as I spoke, other nobles as well as the heir, and the loss would be catastrophic to the burgeoning English monarchy. When we learned the king’s seventeen-year-old son, William Adelin, desired to sail on this elegant vessel while his father sailed ahead of him, and that Aviel had set his sights on it, we considered the hazards the Anurashin prince might exploit.

The ship had a good reputation and so did its captain, Thomas FitzStephen, whose father had taken the prince’s grandfather, William the Conqueror, across the same sea. The only evident risk was sailing past Gatteville, where hidden rocks like the Quilleboeuf lay waiting for careless sailors. But FitzStephen was surely used to navigating such hazards.

I breathed in the salty air to sharpen my mind while I considered our options. The raucous calls of seagulls ebbed overhead as they congregated, fought, then flew off with morsels of fish as their prize. Despite the size and piercing eyes of the warrior next to me, we stood unnoticed among the throng of bodies rushing towards their duties on the bustling docks.

“You must call Zigan, my love,” Aldric said, drawing me to his side and offering his warmth as I shivered from the urgency of our task and the breeze cooling the sweat of my exertion.

Though we were French, our purpose as part of this prophetic trio was to protect the balance of power fated for this world. When the princes interfered, it fared badly for the indigenous populations, according to Zigan’s archives.

That meant we trained to take risks, and we discovered this scheme by becoming captives of the princes while each enjoyed inflicting painful retribution on us for our past successes. But Aviel allowed his brothers’ torment to go only so far, which we’d learned to count on, though we didn’t understand it, and our plan included an escape.

It went perfectly, until we ran into a trap and had to leave our pack behind to fight, which also delayed our arrival, and a worry was taking hold in me that the last eight years of joy and strife might culminate on these docks. Still, I pushed on.

After placing the insides of my wrists together, my tiger appeared, first as an image on my skin, then as a man stepping out of a gray mist, calmly taking us in with fathomless dark eyes. His markings glowed bright gold against his bronzed arms, and his silky black hair waved in the breeze.

“We need to get aboard that ship, Zigan.” I pointed to the sails disappearing north along the coast to Gatteville. “Can you haze us there?”

“I can, but I may not have enough energy to get you back.”

Aldric said, “Let me go with him. If the ship were to sink and Zigan cannot return us both…” He let that thought trail off as he looked at me in that fierce way that melted my heart.

The powerful love I had for this man, this larger-than-life Norman-born warrior who shared the spirit of a mighty brown bear, still overwhelmed me after all these years. We had not taken one moment of our time for granted, knowing the dangers inherent in my destiny.

Clutching his hand, I said, “But I must be the one on that ship, Aldric. We have no idea what is planned, and we need my instincts as a marked maiden.”

“You will be noticed. I can blend in and discern the situation. We must go now, as they approach the rocks.”

I stood on my toes and brought his face to mine, peering into his brown eyes to see his bear gleaming at me, a magnificent beast he could transform into at will. Our lips came together for a precious moment before I stepped back.

Zigan gripped my mate, nodded to me reassuringly, then they disappeared. I took shelter and waited. In less than thirty minutes they were back.

Aldric and I stepped towards each other as he gave his report. “Nearly everyone on board was drunk on wine and betting on a race to beat the king to England. The ship sailed fast, pushing its limits. Not more than ten minutes after we arrived, it hit the rocks and foundered.” I gasped in dismay, but he assured me the king’s son made it to a lifeboat.

Suddenly, warriors in the garb of another time appeared in a heavy mist that seemed to have blown in from the sea. They surrounded us. Zigan and Aldric drew their swords, and I followed with mine.

The sound of steel rang out, and we held our own against a dozen, until my sword was knocked from my hand. Strong arms grabbed me from behind. Aldric’s roar shook the planks beneath our feet. But the Anurashin warrior held me fast and kept me from my mate’s reach, letting the others leap in between us, forcing Aldric to slice his way to me.

The warrior said in my ear, “The prince has his sights on you, maiden. Did you not think he would find you?”

“He may have found me, but he’ll not have me!”

Springing my knife from my sleeve, I lunged back, shoving it between his ribs, and twisting it. The warrior grunted in pain, but his grip did not loosen. Aldric dodged blades, slammed his fist into faces, and rammed bodies, while I tried to pull free.

Zigan moved so fast arcs of blood hovered in the air where he last appeared. But when he hazed close and tried to grab me away, the warrior jerked us back and two others lunged for him. To my utter horror, they took his head.

My knees gave out as unbearable agony ripped through my heart, then my entire being, when his soul was wrenched brutally from mine. This couldn’t be real. Never had I imagined our bond could be so viciously severed, or that the warrior magus was anything but invincible.

A sickening realization plummeted like a stone in my belly. This was Aviel’s plan. Why he let us escape before. These moves had been orchestrated for this purpose. To kill my magus. To take me. To destroy the Pack de Normande.

What was left of my heart was crushed to pulp when Aldric stepped into the path of a blade not bothering with the pain, to reach for me, desperate to save me as he felt the agony of my loss, and our loss to come.

The mist I dreaded grew thick, and I sensed I was breaking into tiny pieces. This couldn’t be happening.

I locked gazes with the bleak eyes of my mate who was coming to the same conclusions as I faded into bits, so close to him our fingers nearly touched.

My heart and soul poured into my words. “I will love you forever!”

The sound that followed was the mighty roar of a wounded bear.