"Come on, you bastard. Move!"
Jarresh gripped one of the worn steps of the ruins, panting and cursing in the late afternoon heat. Dust coated his hands and face, and blood oozed from the tips of his fingers. The stone wasn't very large, less than a square foot across its surface, but he had already torn off two nails trying to pry it loose from its place. Still, the dancer wasn't about to give up. He needed what was under that stone. Grunting, he heaved at the stubborn slab with all his strength. Slowly, inch by agonizing inch, it slid free from the steps. He gave one final tug and the ancient stone went tumbling down the stairs, rolling over his toes as it went.
"Shit!" Jarresh collapsed on the steps, clutching at his mashed appendages. Bad enough he had a six-inch gash in the other leg. Now he would limp on both sides.
Thankfully though, he wasn't going anywhere for a while. It had taken the dancer five hours to travel the last few miles to the deserted temple, faltering through the searing hot sand, but he had arrived while the sun was still in the sky. By his estimate, there were still two hours of daylight left. All he had to do now was wait for Orziel to show.
Of course, it would be nice if he could eat something and tend to his injuries until then. Wiping tears of pain from his eyes, Jarresh peered down into the hole left by the stone block. "Thank the gods," he sighed. He reached into the cache and pulled out a leather bag. The leather was desiccated, almost brittle, but inside he knew he would find dried meat, flint and steel, and clean clothing just as Orziel had promised. The dancer slung the bag over his shoulder and struggled to his feet, using a blasted column for support. He hobbled back inside the ruins and made his way to an open courtyard where a deep pool of crystal water shimmered beneath a blighted tree. Jarresh staggered toward the twisted scrub and slumped beneath it, taking refuge in its scant shade.
After stripping off his boots to examine his swelling toes, he took a moment to survey his surroundings. Jarresh knew little about the temple, only that Orziel claimed to use the place as a sanctuary, though from what the demon never said. The ruins were ancient, perhaps as old as the desert itself. Most of the main building had long ago turned to dust. Only the steps leading up to the crumbling altar still survived. But the outer gate and enclosed courtyard remained intact, with the sparkling pool a testament to some mysterious god long forgotten by the world of men. As the angry sun glared down at him through the shriveled leaves of the sickly tree, Jarresh dipped his hands into the water for a drink. The courtyard felt like an oven with its cracked flagstones baking in the suffocating heat. The only real shade to be found was underneath the portico of sculpted columns that surrounded the open yard. By some miracle, part of its roof remained and Jarresh briefly considered taking refuge there. Then he decided against it. As tempting as the cool, dark shadows looked, he was simply too weary to move.
He closed his eyes for a moment and sighed. He wanted to sleep, but didn't dare. Since her initial attack in the desert, Myrrha had assailed his mind twice more. Each time he beat her back, but the efforts left him exhausted. He wondered when she would strike again, and how. If the sorceress managed to find some clothing and escape from the tavern, she would surely hunt him down. Jarresh shuddered at the thought of a face-to-face confrontation with the witch. He had very little in the way of weapons or defenses.
Still, he had one advantage. Twenty-five miles of harsh open desert stood between him and the sorceress. If Myrrha wanted him, she would have to travel very carefully. Otherwise, she would burn every step of the way. By the time Myrrha crossed the desert Orziel would be here, ready to take his body back. Reassured by that thought, Jarresh opened his eyes and grabbed the leather bag. He was digging out a piece of dried meat when he heard a hollow sound like a footfall on worn stone.
"Who's there?" The dancer dropped his food on the ground and sat up, instantly alert. He strained his ears to catch the sound again. The wind whispered through the stunted branches of the tree. His heart thudded in his chest. Shivering, Jarresh peered into the shadows of the portico but he saw nothing there.
"Just some loose stones," he told himself. "The whole damned place is falling apart."
He settled back against the tree. Keeping an eye on the growing shadows of the courtyard, he reached for the dried meat. When it hissed at him, he froze.
Not daring to move, Jarresh looked down. Where the meat had been, there was now a coiled black serpent. The creature's head rose up until it swayed scant inches from his outstretched hand. It hissed again, poison dripping from its yellow fangs.
Very slowly, Jarresh drew back his hand. The serpent weaved back and forth. Then without warning, it struck at him. With a scream, the dancer fell backwards and rolled away. He scrambled to his injured feet and staggered back as the scaly black worm slithered after him.
"Don't panic," he muttered. "Just stay out of its way..."
So intent was Jarresh on avoiding the serpent before him that he almost stepped on another behind him. He jerked as his foot touched the twisting body and spun away just in time to avoid being bitten.
"Aah!" He shrieked as a third serpent dropped out of the branches of the blighted tree and landed on his head. Flinging the ghastly thing away, he spotted two more diamond-shaped heads rising out of the depths of the pool. More serpents quickly followed, crawling out of every crack and crevice of the ruins until the entire courtyard became a writhing sea of hissing ebony coils.
"Ah, gods! No! No!"
Jarresh stumbled through the twisting turmoil, stepping on serpents as he went. They wrapped around his legs and dragged him to the ground, then coiled about his arms and neck. When one loathsome worm snaked its way inside his shirt, Jarresh went mad with terror. Wild-eyed and howling, he leapt to his feet and bolted toward the only haven in that roiling nightmare--the portico. He crossed the courtyard in three great bounds and was about to dive into the shadows beyond the pitted columns when he saw a nightmare even more horrifying than the vipers' nest behind him.
A pair of arms, burned black as any serpent, stretched out to ensnare him. Screaming, Jarresh backpedaled and fell into the undulating knot of glistening bodies. The serpents wrapped around him and he felt thousands of needle-sharp teeth sink into his flesh. As their corrosive poison flooded his veins, the dancer sank willingly into the sleep of death. Let the serpents kill him. He would rather die than fall back into the witch's hands...
From Demon By Day
I remember growing up, I used to watch a midnight movie show on Saturday nights. Dr. Madblood was the show to watch for thrills and chills, with and really bad B-movies interspliced with scenes of home-brewed comedy from the good doctor and his motley crew. I stayed up late so many Saturday nights, eyes glued to the tiny little TV set in my bedroom, the lights turned out and the sound on the tube turned down so low that even my mother with her super-sensative mom-ears couldn't hear a thing. Ya never wanted to wake my mom in the middle of the night. Trust me, if there was anything scarier than watching Dr. Madblood movies, it was seeing my mom show up in my room at 2 a.m., all ghastly and pale and sleep-deprived and screaming, "Turn that damned TV off right now and get to bed!"
I never developed a taste for the horror movies that showed in theaters while I was growing up. During my teen years it was all slasher flicks; no real kooky, creepy horror in that. I prefered older movies, the kind that starred Vincent Price and delivered the gore in glorious, livid technicolor. I still have a thing for those old shlock fests that show up on late night TV. In many ways, I think those movies formed my style of horror writing - lots of high drama with gothic settings and creepy characters all driven by out-of-this-world plot lines.
"My bleedin' time's always been as regular as the moon," Sarah whispered.
She stood on the porch, twisting her hands before the open door of the old house. Though the creaking boards beneath her feet were swept clean and the windows shone bright and clear in the moonlight, the place had an air of rot and neglect. The porch was as far as Sarah dared go. She wouldn't set foot through the front door, especially not at night.
"Regular, you say?" A voice as creaky as the wooden porch drifted back to her. "Like the moon that comes and goes each month. Only now it's stopped."
Old Hettie appeared in the doorway. Like the porch and the house, she seemed clean and neat, her homespun dress threadbare but well-kept. Yet she also carried a pungent air of decay, as though beneath her clothing and skin hid the corpse of a woman long since dead.
"Sometime last spring," Sarah replied, "I started missing months. I hoped I was pregnant, but..."
"But then you wake in the middle of the night, feeling like you're on fire and the Devil himself has carried you off to Hell." Old Hettie nodded. "Your bleedin' days are over, girl. You've grown old, like me."
Hettie gave a grin, and it was there in her black and broken teeth that Sarah saw a hint of the foulness the old woman kept hidden inside.
"I can't be old yet," Sarah pleaded. "I've only been married a few years."
"But you married late, and some women dry up sooner than others." Hettie cackled. "It happens, girl. What do you want me to do about it? Old Hettie is a midwife, a simple medicine woman. I can birth a baby, but I can't turn back the hands of time."
A tear spilled down Sarah's pallid cheek. "My Tom, he's gone astray. Ever since... ever since he found out, he's turned his attentions to another." She bowed her head, wrapped her brittle hands in her apron. "Some girl by the name of Lilly. Her family came here last year, looking for work in the mines. She must be half my age."
"Well your Tom's a young man," Hettie replied. "Younger than you and without any sons to speak of. It's only natural he seek out another woman."
"But he married me!" Sarah hissed. "And I love him. I **need** him!"
"Does he need you?"
Hettie stepped out onto the porch, and Sarah scurried back. She could smell it now, the scent of moldering leaves and rotting meat. The sickly sweet stench of death clung to the old woman and leaked out of her every pore.
"Accept it, girl," Old Hettie crooned. "There is a time of blood and a time of bone. The time of blood is the province of the young, and it runs hot and wild. But the time of bone is dead and dry as dust. You can't change the seasons. At least" she added slyly, "not without a sacrifice..."
For Halloween this year, the Hubster picked up a copy of Nightmare Before Christmas, in Blu-ray no less. My girls watched, enthralled with visions of dancing skeletons, singing vampires and clowns with tear-away faces. When I was there age, I used to take a flying leap into my bed at night to avoid being eaten by the monster underneath my bed. My girls are starting to do the same thing. I have a feeling they're going to grow up to be just like me, which means someday I'll be the hollow-eyed woman standing in the doorway, nightgown flapping and hair standing on end, screaming, "Turn of that TV and get to bed now!"
Now that's a scary thought!
Portrait of the writer as a young horror fiend.