To make up for my recent laziness in posting on here recently, I’m going to do something different to celebrate this grand holiday. Still lazy, but a different kind of lazy.
As those of you who follow regularly (yes, both of you) know, I’ve been at full-stop on most of my longer projects this year. Part of it is my desire to work on more short stories to gain some publishing credits before I tackle the vexing task of finding an agent to represent my work. The other, and perhaps bigger, part is my inability to focus on my longer works enough to capture the detail I’m accustomed to in my writing. Normally, I can find the focus to see what’s happening in the story almost as though I’m recording an actual event rather than creating something in my head. This past year–with new stresses at work, old stresses at home, cancer, and the death of my mother–has dropped a veil over my once-pristine vision. I can’t see what’s going on or maintain enough concentration to really do what I consider good writing.
Still, it’s getting better. It’s hard, harder now than before, but anything worth doing is.
So, for the sake of progress and because I really like the Halloween-y feel to it, I’m posting the first chapter from one of my works-in-progress–Wielder of the Soul. In this story, a Knight with a magical sword forged from his own soul battles demons in modern-day Nashville and finds himself willing to risk everything for a women custom-made to bring him down.
And so, unedited and probably pretty rough, Chapter One of Wielder of the Soul:
The blue Toyota turned into the alley and stopped. Its headlights shone ahead, illuminating the dumpsters spaced out like chess pieces, the piles of debris, the gritty brick walls to either side and, at the far end, the plain steel door.
The engine died, the headlights winked out, and the driver’s door opened.
Emerging from the car, the Knight studied the alley ahead of him. Nothing moved save for a few bits of newspaper, yellowed corners flapping in the wind. Shadows dominated the open spaces. Even with the breeze coming from behind him, he could smell the stench of the dumpsters and the urine marking the place as a frequent pit stop for the homeless that congregated to this part of the city. He could hear hurried scratchy footsteps receding from him, probably a rat startled by the appearance of the car.
The Knight drew his sword anyway.
Shutting the door to the Toyota, he walked forward. His eyes remained fixed on the steel door at the far end, now a barely discernible block of darkness against the greater darkness surrounding it. All his other senses, though, were alert for any threat. He heard the rat again as he approached it, scrabbling, scrabbling, scrabbling, then stopping when he was close enough to it. Only when he was a few yards past it did he hear it move again, this time hurrying back toward the mouth of the alley.
Wise move, the Knight thought.
The reek of the garbage this far in, sheltered from the wind, was enormous. The Knight knew that most men would turn back at this point just from the smell. No men, at least none that he knew, would continue on and do what he was about to do.
He stood before the door, a dented and rusting portal set into a matching frame. No handle or knob stuck out from its pock-marked surface, but this did not trouble the Knight. Reaching forward with his free hand, he placed his palm on the cold metal and concentrated. A silvery glow radiated from beneath his touch and crawled along the door’s surface until it reached the locking mechanism. From somewhere inside, he could hear latches freeing themselves and tiny metal pins snapping.
The door swung open. The darkness in the room beyond the door was absolute; not even the minimal light leaching into the alley penetrated beyond the dented threshold. The Knight stared into the darkness, gaining a sense of immense space beyond, but nothing else. He took a deep breath and passed through the door.
The darkness engulfed him like water. All light and sound from outside were snuffed out in a moment and the Knight used all his senses, searching for some way to find his bearings. He took another tentative step forward and was rewarded by the sound of the door slamming shut behind him.
So it begins.
The room erupted in light and sound. Brilliant white strobe lights brought the space into view in lightning-flash glimpses and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blared from hidden speakers, giving the Knight his first view of what he was up against. Long rows of shelves aligned themselves to either side of him like those in a library. These shelves held no books, however. Instead, a gruesome assortment of items–shrunken heads, severed hands and feet, other decaying parts the Knight couldn’t quite identify–sat in boxes or hung suspended by string on long hooks. He took a glance along a couple of the other rows and saw more of the same.
The Knight knew two things at once. The first was that he was in a place he had only heard of in rumors and whispers in the Nashville demon scene as the “Body Shop”. According to local lore, the place was the prime shopping location for all sorts of denizens of the city’s underbelly. Any practicioner of black magic could get that hard-to-find spell component here and anyone looking for a particularly macabre novelty item need look no further. The place did a roaring business, it was said, during Halloween. Also, any demon looking for a quick snack could find it, and more, at the Body Shop.
The second thing the Knight knew was that he was being watched.
Picking an aisle, the Knight walked further into the room. The ceilings were high and lost in darkness; the place had been a warehouse before its grizzly conversion. Dark stains dotted the floor as he walked and a few fresh pools of thick liquid, black in the harsh light, puddled under some of the merchandise. Drops still clung to one pair of severed hands to his left, their rhythmic pattering lost in roaring music.
The sense of being watched grew stronger. Now, he knew the eyes upon him were not only watching, but were interested, keenly aware of who he was and why he was there. The Knight’s left hand crept down to his left hip where his .45 automatic sat in its holster. He doubted he would need the gun or that it would do any good against whatever was watching him, but he liked to know it was there.
“Enter Sandman” ended gave way to something by Marylin Manson the Knight didn’t know. In the moment between the songs, though, he had heard something out of place, even as his ears rang from the extreme volume. A buzzing was growing louder from behind him and now, even above the cacophony, he could hear it growing, drawing nearer.
The Knight spun and saw his attacker at once. Vaguely female in form, she dove for him out of the darkness above him, her arms outstretched, a terrible wail issuing from beneath her glowing red eyes.
The Knight dove to the side, crashing into the shelves to his left as the figure dropped toward him. He recovered quickly and jumped back forward, his sword flashing in the intermittent light. The blade sliced cleanly through the figure and sent its two halves spinning in opposite directions.
“What the hell?” the Knight asked.
He moved over to one of the halves of the thing he had just bissected and knelt down beside it. Beneath the gauzy material that made up the thing’s dress and the stringy black hair on what was left of its head, cleanly sliced pieces of plastic and small electronic compenents reflected the flashing strobes. As he picked up the half a head, he could faintly hear the thing trying to continue its electronic wail, now only a weak warble as the thing died. Running his hand through the hair, he felt where the zip line was attached to the internal pulley, giving the toy its swooping motion.
The Knight squeezed the toy with his hand until the plastic split and then cast the thing back down the aisle. Then he stood and moved on, mad at himself for being so easily duped. He was nearly to the end of the counter when he heard another noise from behind him, unidentifiable beneath the guitars and screamed lyrics. Only as Manson gave way to Nine Inch Nails, allowing a second of pause between, did he hear it clearly, the metallic scrabbling that sent a cold chill down his spine.
He spun again, this time bringing his sword up before him like a shield, while his left hand darted down to the empty holster at his hip. The .45 roared as his eyes settled on the pair of severed hands holding the weapon and the bullet crashed into the wall behind him, making a hole in the concrete wall the size of his head.
The Knight dove for cover at the end of the aisle, rolling around the corner of one of the counters just as another shot rang out, this one ricocheting off one of the shelves and just past his left ear.
Out of the way for the moment, the Knight strained to hear the metallic scraping again, the sound of the hands dragging the gun toward him on the floor, but could hear nothing but the electronic pulsating music and Trent Reznor’s voice. He knew they were coming, though, could sense their approach, and knew he had to act quickly.
Looking to his right, he could see a doorway at the far end of the room. The door was closed, but bright, steady light streamed from around its edges. He knew he needed to get to that room, but to do so he would have to cross in front of the gunslinging hands, now at a closer range than before, and he doubted his luck would keep him safe from a third shot.
Sometimes, he thought, a man has to make his own luck.
The Knight stood up and rounded the corner into the next aisle. Row upon row of shrunken heads stared at him, a wide-eyed audience of the dead. He swept his hand over a shelf of them, sending them rolling into the floor, and pushed against the shelf. He knew the one he had collided with, the one where the thieving hands hand stolen his gun, was sturdy enough for what he intended to do, but he wanted to make sure this one was as well. He pushed hard and the counter held.
The Knight then reached down and plucked one of the shrunken heads from the floor, a blonde female with long hair like corn silk. Holding the head by the hair, he gave it a few experimental twirls and, satisfied that it would serve his purpose, backed up against the counter behind which the hands waited. In one quick motion, the Knight ran, planted his foot on a shelf halfway up the other counter, and jumped, flinging the shrunken head out toward the end of the aisle into the firing range of the .45. Sword in hand, he vaulted over the counter toward the hands just as the gun roared again, drawn by the rolling head.
The severed hands held the gun just as a live person might–one palm up beneath holding the weapon steady while the other wrapped itself around the handle, one finger on the trigger. The Knight brought the sword down point first as he landed in a crouched position behind the hands, the tip impaling the hand supporting the gun and driving a few inches into the concrete floor. The skin around the blade sizzled and caught fire, twitching itself free of the gun as it burned and writhed.
The second hand tried to turn the gun around, but without the other hand to support it, the heavy weapon fell over sideways. Still, the hand tried to spin it around to face the Knight, who kicked it away toward the wall. The hand still would not give up and crawled like Thing from the Addam’s Family toward his booted foot. The Knight let it climb on, then kicked upward, popping it upward before him. Another quick slash with his sword sent it spiraling away in two flaming pieces.
The Knight rounded the corner and studied the doorway at the end of the room. White light continued to stream around its edges. Keeping his sword ready, he walked toward it and, just as he reached the rusted metal portal, all light and sound behind him died again, leaving him again in blackness except for what illumination trickled around the closed door. He put his ear to the cold steel and heard an atonal humming from somewhere beyond and the occasional rasping of metal on metal.
The Knight stepped back and kicked the door open.
The light washed over in a flood of fluorescence, temporarily blinding him. He could see through his squinted eyes that the room was long and well lit from one end to the other with harsh overhead bulbs. Two rows of what he quickly identified as metal autopsy tables ran along the side walls–some empty, some bearing shrouded figures, some bearing human bodies in various states of decay. He also saw movement from halfway down the far row of tables, but only when his eyes adjusted to the sudden light did he see what was causing it.
A large demon, nearly as wide as the Knight was tall, stood over what was left of a young man on one of the autopsy tables. He wore nothing over his reddish skin other than a blood-soaked apron which he held to his mouth and licked with a wide black tongue. In the demon’s meaty hand, a huge cleaver, its blade roughly the same length and width as a small car hood, dripped blood onto the tile floor.
At first, the demon seemed surprised to see the Knight, then recognition twisted his piggish face into a glare of pure hatred. He let out a feral roar and charged toward the door, his bulk knocking aside tables as he built up speed.
The Knight charged forward as well, knowing that one blow from the huge cleaver would cut him in two. He was nearly to the demon, could see the massive blade swing back to strike, when he dropped to the floor and slid feet first through the demon’s tree trunk legs. As he slid, he felt the cleaver slice the air just above him, missing him by inches. He stabbed out with his own blade, cutting a deep gash in the beast’s knee. The skin around the wound sizzled at once, but did not catch fire as the hands had. This demon was far too strong to be dispatched so easily.
The Knight was up immediately and pitched forward into a roll just in time to avoid another sweeping arc of the cleaver that pared large pieces of metal off two tables. The demon rushed forward, bringing his weapon in a backhanded swipe, but the Knight was again quicker. He stepped just out of range, so close that he could feel the sharp wind of the cleaver’s passing against his abdomen and had to glance down to make sure his intestines were not about to spill onto his feet.
The demon kept the momentum from his backhand attack and spun with remarkable grace to haul his blade in an overhead arc that caught the Knight by surprise. The Knight dove to the floor and felt the blade crash down where he had just been, pulverizing the tile and the concrete beyond.
Acting now on pure instinct, the Knight rolled to the side and heard the grinding noise of the cleaver being pulled free of the floor. He looked up just in time to see the huge blade rising above him like that of a guillotine over a condemned man.
The Knight felt, rather than saw, the table next to him. Reaching out with his foot, he pulled hard on it just as the demon’s huge arm muscles flexed to bring the cleaver down. The blade bit sawed cleanly through the top layer of the table, but stuck in a lower shelf just inches above the Knight’s body, so close that he could smell the stench of old blood on the metal.
Placing his sword on his chest, he grabbed the underside of the table and pulled hard, sliding himself under the demon and beyond. He hoped the cleaver would stay buried in the metal table for a bit so he could get some space between himself and his opponent, but his hope died as he stood up and heard the high scraping of the blade being freed.
The Knight had just enough time to thrust his sword down behind him and brace the flat of the blade with his foot before the great cleaver struck him. Instead of cutting him in half, the demon connected a solid blow with the sword that sent the Knight flying against the concrete wall. His vision darkened for a moment, the unconsciousness fought back only by the Knight’s will to survive and the adrenalin coursing through his body. He looked up, head swimming, and saw the demon coming for him again, this time to finish the job. The hulking creature lumbered forward, preparing the cleaver for a sidearm attack meant to bissect the Knight.
The Knight was quicker. Planting one foot against the wall, he pushed off into the air, his right hand holding his sword aloft. The demon’s eyes grew wide before the bold move and he brought the cleaver up before him in a defensive gesture that cut short his attack. The two blades were about to collide when the Knight’s sword disappeared from his right hand and reappeared in his left, now beneath the demon’s defenses. The smaller weapon struck home into the demon’s side and the blade bit deep into its body.
Fire blasted from the demon’s wound, expelling the sword and the Knight holding it with such force that they tumbled over a nearby table. From where he lay breathless upon the floor, the Knight could hear a high whistling noise that grew in volume until he was forced to cover his ears. He dared a glance through the table at the demon, now fully engulfed in flames. Great gouts of fire shot out in all directions from the burning body until, with a deafening boom, the creature exploded like a gory supernova. Nearby tables flew outward from the blast, including the one the Knight lay huddled behind, spilling their horrific contents across the room. Fluorescent tube lights overhead shattered and sprayed glass across a wide arc of sudden darkness beneath. Hurling himself to the floor, the Knight covered his face with his arms as a wave of heat rolled over him, catching the fabric of his clothing on fire in a few places.
The Knight rolled a few times to extinguish the flames and, when all grew quiet around him except for the ringing now present in his ears, stood up to survey the damage.
Over half of the two dozen or so tables in the room were now either overturned or barely recognizable hunks of partially melted steel. The bodies lay in complete disarray across the floor, some of which burned like camp fires. A portion of the wall nearest to where the demon had exploded was in ruins, the hole obscured by a thick cloud of white dust and black smoke.
The Knight could sense no more threat inside the building. If any more demons were present, they were keeping their distance and, he suspected, wanted no part of him after what he had just done. He held out the sword, sure that he would not need it again tonight, and willed it into his body. Just as it had done in his final attack on the butcher demon, the blade disappeared, but this time it did not return to his opposite hand. Instead, the Knight felt the burning sensation in the skin over his torso that told him the sword, crafted from his own soul and deadly against the minions of Hell, had returned to its proper home.
Smoke was filling the air and stinging the Knight’s eyes. He crouched low and looked at the hole in the wall. Debris outside had ignited and now that way out was blocked by flames pouring more black smoke into the room.
He looked to the opposite side from where he entered and saw another metal door that matched the one he had kicked open. He scuttled toward it, leaning lower and lower to the floor to avoid the choking air above him. He was just about to push the portal open when he heard a sound from a nearby corner.
Something moved atop one of the few tables left standing. Shrouded in a white sheet–white except for the splattered stains of blood–the figure shifted and let out a soft moan.
The Knight almost ignored the sound and the movement. Half the room was burning and he could hear approaching sirens from outside the door. Whatever it was beneath the sheet, it would either burn or be found by the firefighters on the scene. He put his hand on the door, meaning to pass through, but he found his feet would not move. A moment later he was standing over the table, not sure of how he got there. He reached down and pulled the sheet back.
A woman lay on the table, a woman of such beauty that the Knight’s breath, what he could draw through the smoke-filled air, caught in his throat. Her fair skin was unmarked anywhere he could see and, thanks to the tank top and shorts she was wearing, he could see a great deal of it. Her face seemed carved from some flawless marble, a masterpiece of delicacy and femininity. Perfect rosebud lips rested below a slightly upturned nose. Her eyes were closed, but the Knight could see rapid movement behind the lids. Dreaming, he thought. Above her brow, drawn tight as though in deep concentration, her black hair cascaded off the end of the metal table like inverted smoke.
She moaned again, this time arching her back and twisting a little in the process. The Knight took a step back, torn between his desire to leave before she woke up and his desire to touch her.
Her eyes opened and she looked at him.
Too late, he thought.
She looked away from him and took a quick glance around the room. “Where am I?” her voice was high and melodic.
Part of the Knight wanted to run then, to spin on his heel and leave through the door without looking back. Another part, larger than the first, made him answer her.
“You’re in a dangerous place and I have to get you out of here.”
She attempted to sit up and the Knight marveled at the lines of her body as she did so. She rose to her elbows, then to a sitting position before clutching her head and falling back upon the table.
The Knight reached out and touched her. She recoiled at first, then relaxed as he slid his arms under her shoulders and knees. Lifting her without effort, he coughed from the smoke and made for the door, kicking it open and carrying the woman into the night.