This seems to be becoming a trend, so I figure why not take advantage of inexplicably random flashes of inspiration? You may have noticed a new list of links in the sidebar titled Here There Be Monsters. Every link there is a short story posted on this blog. I’m predominantly a novelist, but every once in a while I get a story idea that isn’t quite enough for such a high word count, but it’s still itching to be told. Lately, those ideas seem to be interrelated in one way or another, so I decided to put them all in one section.
By now you know the drill: first, unedited draft fresh from the twisted labyrinth of my inner mind, I give you…
Into The Fire
Mr. Gallagher’s Carnival and Freak Show had many tents, cages, and stalls, but only one solid structure. It was an octagonal wooden house with a pointed roof, its blue walls painted with shimmering white snowflakes. Flanked by Jacques the Savage on one side, and the Chinaman manager’s wagon on the other, it stood out like a diamond in the rough, and was guarded day and night accordingly. That house was Rorik’s beacon, his one shining sliver of hope.
“Mum! Look at his horns!”
The mother crossed herself and dragged her curious brat away in all haste. No matter. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. There were plenty more brats about to gape at him. Rorik was one of the main attractions: The Demon. Born in the depths of Hell itself, his placard read, son of the Devil, corrupter of souls. Meet not his fiery gaze, lest give up all hope for Eternal Salvation! At the bottom, another warning: No feeding allowed. Keep behind the rope.
Filthy Christian scum. Whatever they didn’t understand, they vilified.
Humans are all the same, Voice whispered in his ear. Their hate burns brighter even than ours. Fear fuels it from the moment they wake to the moment they fall asleep, and then it opens the door for us.
Rorik shook his head so hard a hank of pitch black hair fell over his face. When he snorted a breath to puff it away, a group of visitors shrieked and ran to the other side of the carnival grounds.
See how they fear you. You are the thing that haunts them from the shadows of their minds.
“No!” he growled, turning his head so the humans wouldn’t see him bare his teeth.
Rorik rammed his horn into the metal bars, ground it there until black dust rained down onto the wooden floor of his cage. I will not listen!
It’s your destiny. Feel it burning inside of you.
A flame sparked deep in his chest, spreading up and out into his arms. His muscles tensed and bulged. If he didn’t bank it, his skin would begin to show the fire markings. Remember who you are! he reminded himself. Destiny is a myth. No matter what humans believed, evil was as much of a choice as good. God had made his angels out of goodness and light, yet at least one had turned on Him and fallen from His grace. Why should the Devil’s fire folk be any different. I can be that one. The one who would turn his back on Hell.
You think it’s that easy? Look at yourself!
Like a puppet on strings, Rorik’s head dropped away from the cage bar, his gaze drawn to his own chest. His skin was brown in the light of day, but in the dark of night, it turned black, and fire swirled in intricate designs across its surface like cracks in a cold lava field. He saw the faint lines begin to rise, though the sun had yet to set.
No! Rorik hunched his shoulders, curled up in the corner, out of easy sight and sought his hope to tether him in light. The same group of humans who’d run from him now stood at the door of the ice house, speaking to the Chinaman manager. Coins glittered as they changed hands, then the Chinaman bowed and turned to door, and Rorik held his breath, his eyes wide so he wouldn’t miss a single glimpse.
The padlock came off. The door opened. A cold blast of arctic air struck him even from so far away, banking the fire in him at once. No one else noticed, but Rorik did. Elementals always sensed each other. As the Chinaman stepped aside to let the patrons through, Rorik looked beyond them to the sheen of polished glass, the outline of a pair of pale hands pressed to it from the other side, and the face that was dearer to him than that of his own dam.
But all too soon, that door closed again, and he was alone with Voice once more.
Pathetic, it sneered. One of Diabhal’s favored sons, caged like an animal! Pining for the ice maiden. She is nothing! You think to pretend to be an elemental? You are not! You were made for so much more!
She was everything. No matter that Rorik was doomed to forever love her from afar. That very love sustained him, even when he was starved of proper food; even when they paraded him in front of filthy humans for entertainment. He lived only for her.
Yet you let her suffer, Voice accused with insidious venom. You say you love her, but there she is, trapped inside that golden sphere, weeping and begging for her freedom. Softer, like a soothing whisper, it told him, You could free her.
“Son of the Devil, and corrupter of souls,” a man read, a mocking smile contorting his too-perfect face. “Well, come on then, Demon, let’s have a look at you.”
Rorik ignored him. The group in the ice house would be emerging soon; the Chinaman didn’t let anyone stay in there too long.
A cane rang against the bars. “Oi! Get up, I said!”
You hate him. Admit it, there’s no shame in hate–it’s what we’re made of.
The Chinaman went to the door to get the visitors out. Any moment now.
“Get up! Get up!”
Think of how easily he’d break. One quick snap! and he’d have eyes at the back of his head. Do iiiiiiiiit…
Suddenly the man appeared in front of him, blocking his view of the ice house. His walking cane raised, then came down on Rorik’s head once, twice, three times. “Get up, you filthy beast! I paid good money to see the son of the Devil!”
“Here now, stop this instant!” Mr. Elder caught the cane and shoved, sending the man tripping over the rope he’d crossed to fall into the mud on the other side. “Hard of seein’ are you?” he demanded. “Sign says keep behind the rope!”
“How dare you!”
Mr. Elder raised his fist in warning. “I’ll dare a lot more if you don’t make yourself scarce. Out with you!”
The man looked fit to be tied, but he collected his top hat and cane, and made a quick retreat.
“Spoiled rich bastard,” Mr. Elder muttered. “Are you hurt, Rorik? Shall I fetch the sawbones?”
Rorik shook his head. Staring hard at the blue door, already closed and padlocked. He’d missed her.
Mr. Elder followed his gaze. “She ain’t well,” he said softly, for Rorik’s ears alone. “One of then vandals shattered her globe the other day, nigh killed the girl then and there.”
Fire raged to life inside him. That must have been the night Mr. Gallagher had had him beaten unconscious for burning his favorite mare. He hadn’t heard a thing.
“Mr. Gallagher put her back in it in time. Fed the vandals to Jacques. Reckon that’s the best meal the poor lad’s had in years.” He glanced at the ice house, then back at Rorik. “Well, I’d best be getting back to my mirror. P’raps I’ll take the long way past the ice house. Anything I should say to the fair one?”
Rorik stoked the fire inside him, made it puff out of his chest in a heart-shaped cloud that hovered in the air a moment before fading into nothing.
Mr. Elder nodded. “I’ll tell her.”
Left to his own devices, Rorik turned around to face the front gate. The carnival closed at sunset, and most of the crowds were already ambling out, back to their pretty homes, and their pretty lives, eager to tell stories of the monsters they’d seen here today. The caretakers came in the other direction, carrying brooms, rakes, and pails to clean the grounds and feed the imprisoned creatures. They drew straws to determine which one would have to clean Rorik’s cage. The unlucky loser always took a knee and prayed to God for his soul before he approached. They feared him more than the cannibal Jacques.
If only they knew, Voice said. If only they knew their souls already belong to us. They belong to you! And you let them cage you!
The unlucky caretaker, a Rom, reeked of fear. His eyes were wide and he shook from head to toe so hard he dropped his broom. Rorik reached through the bars, picked up the broom, and handed it back to the man. His thanks was a whimper, and a frantic, mumbled Romany prayer. Rorik sighed and turned his back on him. He’d expected better. The Roma were more welcoming of elementals than the average Christian; he’d even visited a tribe once in the past, had broken bread with them and danced with them around their camp fire.
He is unworthy of his tribe, Voice spat. You should gut him for his insolence!
Because his blood is your due!
Rorik looked out at the ice house. Had Mr. Elder delivered his message?
A lone figure stood at the door, a tall, elegant man in a top hat, a familiar cane under his arm.
Rorik sat up, clutched the bars. What was he doing there?
The man looked to one side, then the other. He took something shiny out of his pocket, then fiddled with the padlock until it snapped open. With another look around, the man opened the door just enough to slip inside.
Rorik’s skin flamed, his horns crackling with dark heat. The cage bars began to warm in his hold, turning as red as the dying sun. He watched for the man to come back out. Prayed to the light god and the dark that the man look his fill of the ice maiden and leave.
No one answered him. Even Voice remained silent.
Then the sound of breaking glass heralded a reedy cry from the ice house.
He roared and fire flared all around him, burning the wooden floor and roof of his cage to ash that rained down around him. Metal bars melted into puddles on the ground. He stepped through them, his cloven hooves scorching the ground. People screamed and ran, for everywhere Rorik looked, fires erupted, devouring tents and and humans alike. He let them burn, stoked the flames higher, hungrier, let them leap and dance across corpses, and brighten the air as they turned the ground as black as the night itself.
He charged the ice house door with all his might, exploding a hole into the building large enough for even the maiden’s glass globe to pass through.
But there was no need.
The globe was shattered, the maiden lying on the ground, gasping in the heat of the world so alien to her own, while the man leered at her. His thoughts were as transparent to Rorik as his own. He saw the maiden’s pale flesh pinken, and thought she looked even more beautiful as she died. He savored the pain on her face, the icy puffs of breath she gasped at his feet. He’d heard Rorik blast his way inside; felt the heat of Rorik’s fire on his skin, but he didn’t care, thoroughly mesmerized by the maiden’s agony. He thought himself safe, protected by the privilege of his noble birth.
Rorik snarled, caught him by the throat and held him aloft, watching his pathetic human eyes bulge as his flesh seared to bloody cinders. Banking the flames just enough, Rorik paid the man in kind, cooking him alive in his own skin so slowly, savoring each gargling breath, each bloody tear running down that much-too-perfect face. When his prey stopped struggling, when its soul sank from its mortal shell deep into the ground, Rorik let the charred remains crumble.
The rush of power, of meaning, and belonging overwhelmed him. He shuddered, shouting to the black sky at the rightness of what he’d wrought.
A soft waft of cold brushed against him, brought his gaze back to earth, and the creature lying helpless, dying mere steps away from him. Her beautiful pale face was red, her eyes welling with tears that would not freeze. She gazed up at him, her lips moving with a silent plea.
Rorik sank to his knees beside her, banked his own flames until they hid just beneath the surface of his skin, but they would no longer shrink farther.
Freeee heeeerrrr, Voice whispered.
Kill. Me, she mouthed.
Rorik wailed in denial. From the corner of his eye, he spotted movement, tore his gaze away from the ice maiden to see a shadow peering in from behind the broken wall. It snuffled, huffed, then loped off into the night. Jacques had escaped. He’d survived the fire raging outside–that meant others had, too. He could get help! If he could just find Mr. Gallagher, the proprietor could restore her globe and save her!
“Please,” she whispered brokenly. “If…you love…me. Kill me…”
There would be no fetching Mr. Gallagher. She was already too far gone, her body fading, turning translucent like the ice she’d been created from.
Rorik raked his claws across the dirt, gouging deep grooves into it.
She suffers. If you love her, free her. This time, it wasn’t Voice. It was him. Rorik couldn’t save his beloved, but he could spare her more pain.
Molten metal welled in the glowing grooves of his skin, weeping like living wounds as he gathered her frail form into his arms. She cried out, her flesh hissing, burning where they touched. In turn, Rorik bit back a shout of pain at the ice freezing his skin, making it hard and brittle. He welcomed it, shared her agony for however brief a time as he clutched her to his aching chest. Her dying scream was cut short, her soft flesh becoming cold, hard ice that shattered in his arms.
His agonized wail echoed far and wide. The fires outside flared three stories high in answer, then withered down to nothing, leaving Rorik in the dark.
The ground turned soft beneath him, enveloping his legs, his hips, his body up to his chest. Rorik turned his face up to the sky, took his final glimpse of the waning moon with him as he sank deeper and deeper, through layers of soft earth and hard rock, down to the very place he’d fought so hard to escape.
Welcome, Voice crooned when heat and golden light bloomed around him once more. Welcome back to the fire.