The Laughing Man

 

A bright peal of laughter announced his arrival, a bright herald washing over the dingy tavern.  Perhaps the bouncer at the door had told a joke, or he had seen something across the room that struck him as funny.  Or perhaps nothing had happened at all.  He usually didn’t need a reason to laugh.

He made his way to his usual table, joking with the patrons as he passed.  Fredrick at the bar brought over a single tankard of beer, as he did every night.  The man would drink that and no more.  He wouldn’t ask for another but would make the cup last for his entire stay.  The regulars knew him, and many pressed around his table, eager to speak with him.  He had enough laughter to share, and he did so readily.

He had come in every night for the past three years with the same smile, and yet nobody knew a thing about him.  Not even the regulars had a name to call him by.  He talked willingly, but never about himself.  Once, I had asked him if he lived nearby, and had been answered only by a soft smile and a slow shake of his head.

 

 

Craig sank deeper into his drink as the night wore on, submerged in the dark brown liquid.  Beneath the surface, he didn’t have to listen to the screams.  There was only a muted numbness that sound couldn’t penetrate—dullness overwhelming.

There were brief moments when his cup was empty, and the noise broke through.  He scrambled for coin then, throwing the money across the bar without a word.  Frederick knew what he wanted, and the cup would soon be full again.

But once, in the moment before Frederick spotted the coins, something broke through the haze in his mind: laughter.  It made him recoil.  More hateful because he wasn’t sharing in it, the laughter tore through the numbness that he had submerged himself in.

Standing on his second try, Craig found the source of the laughter.  Though most of the tavern shared in the revelry, a single man was it’s source, and Craig stumbled through the crowd towards him, anger rising in his foggy mind.  A target presented itself, a bright smile unwavering in his swimming vision.  That smile taunted him, flaunting the happiness that Craig couldn’t have.

Craig’s fist, balled and hardened by grief and drink, smashed into that smile.

“Shut up,” he growled.

 

Laughter turned quickly to anger.  The crowd surged forward as Craig stood over the laughing man.  They shoved him back, matching his anger with their own outrage.  He struggled, flailing wildly with heavy fists, but the weight of the crowd pushed him back against the bar and pinned him down.

As shouts rang from the bar, I followed another sound.  It was soft against the raucous yelling across the room, but it was unmistakable—a quiet chuckling.

The laughing man lay on his back staring straight up at the dark ceiling.  His smile was shattered—his front teeth broken—and blood ran from the corner of his mouth and pooled on the floor beneath him.  But still the laughter came, sputtering through the blood that lay so thick in his mouth.

Eager to look away from his mangled maw, I raised my eyes and noticed something I never had before.  His eyes were dead.  The laughter never reached them.  I had always been too distracted by his smile to notice, but there was pain there.  Not pain from Craig’s fist, but a deeper pain that outweighed anything physical.  And still he laughed.

 

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Flood

A sharp crack shattered the strained silence, echoing though the mid-morning fog.  Other noises followed, but they were quieter—more apprehensive.  A boot scraped the dirt.  Hands tightened on the hafts of spears, and armor clanked as the soldiers shifted from foot to foot.

Twenty strong they stood, sweaty even in the biting cold, surrounded by silence.  To their rear, the town was deserted.  Open doors revealed cold hearths, and the streets were strewn with belongings dropped during the fleeing.  That had been days ago, and the still air smelled of rotting food.

Twenty strong they stood, the only ones who stayed.  Twenty out of ten thousand, they stood at the end of the valley, facing the end of the world.  For before them stood the Last Wall, a god-built monolith of black marble that rose to the heavens and stretched from mountain to mountain.  And it was breaking.  Through the fog, the soldiers could see a web of glowing red cracks snaking across the wall—fissures large enough for two men to enter standing abreast.  Before their bleary eyes, another crack appeared like crimson lightning.  Its thunder shook the valley.

The face of the wall mas now more red than black, so covered with cracks as it was.  Midmorning was made to look like midday by the angry glow.  Another crack shook the valley, and the soldiers stood like ants before a mountain, alone at the End of All Things.

Help had never come, not that the soldiers could blame anyone.  Who wanted to face Death, certain it was coming, but uncertain of its form?  Everyone had heard the stories of what lay beyond the wall.  In that unknown hellscape the skies rained flame, and monsters roamed.  Some said they were beings of fire, with ever changing forms that could not be harmed.  Others were said to be armored in black chitin, with razor claws and suns for eyes.  Others still were nothing but shadows that stole life in silence.  Whatever lay Beyond, the soldiers meant to fight them.

A final crack sounded, louder and more violent than all the rest.  Sensing the end, the soldiers stepped forward and lowered their spears, glad to finally be moving.  At long last, Death was coming.

The cracks began to pulse, and there was a sound like an underwater explosion.  The wall didn’t fall, but seemed to dissolve into the crimson light, which grew more intense and began to rush towards the soldiers.  In the End, there were no monsters, only a cleansing fire that flooded the valley.  There was no fighting Death.

Corruption

I’m a walking stiff

A zombie moving

With frozen flesh like a corpse after death

Vacant eyes and a soul so bereft

Inside lie all the prizes of theft

Stolen time behind a golden façade

A gilded throne that was hewn from a log

Half submerged in a bog

Decaying flesh now a feast for the frogs

 

With small steps I keep shambling on

Rambling song as I’m trying to move

Feeling like the woman trapped in the Louvre

Desperate to prove that I’ve healed

But past the face is not a beautiful field

It’s a wall that’s reluctant to yield

A shield meant to hide

A rotting man with corruption inside

Dreams of Death

A Flash Fiction Challenge from the blog of Chuck Wendig.  The prompt: “A necromancer believes it is her destiny to poison dreaming.”

 

The idea came to Zytheria in a dream, borne on the rotting lips of an undead phantom.  The realm of dreams, a celestial haven from the horrors of nighttime, could no longer exist as a refuge for the tortured.  Zytheria knew that a necromancer of her abilities would be able to poison dreams, and make people’s sleeping hours as terrible as their waking ones.

“Have you had any dreams lately?”  Zytheria asked Janet over coffee.

Janet looked up from her drink, confused.  She and Zytheria had just come from a yoga class, so they both wore workout clothes.  Zytheria’s blonde friend was dressed in short neon yellow shorts and a bright pink sports bra.  Zytheria herself wore long black yoga pants and a black dry-fit shirt.  They weren’t her dark, billowing necromancer robes, but they would have to do.

“Weird that you would ask,” Janet said.  “I had one just last night.”

“About what?” Zytheria kept herself from leaning forward and rubbing her hands together, but couldn’t hide the excitement in her voice.

“Don’t get too excited, you weirdo.”  Janet sipped at her coffee before explaining her visions.  “It was just a weird dream about skeletons.  They were dancing in tuxedos.  What is this for anyways; one of your divination classes again?  Are you still keeping a dream journal?”

Zytheria nodded, not wanting to admit to her dark designs.  Magic users were frowned upon in Seattle—necromancers most of all.  “My teacher told me that our auras interact with those of our friends, so there is knowledge to be divined from their dreams as well.”

“If you can divine anything from dancing skeletons, be my guest.”

Zytheria set aside her still-full beverage.  “Speaking of guests, are Sarah and Josh still staying with you.”

“Yeah, they are,” Janet said.  “Sorry, I guess that means we can’t go to that midnight barbeque tonight.  Sarah is a pretty militant vegan, and I wouldn’t want them to ruin it.”

“That’s fine,” Zytheria said.  “Be a good host.  I’ll find something to entertain myself.”  In reality, she was glad that Janet had cancelled their plans.  She now had the entire night to perfect her dream-poisoning ritual.  The skeletons in Janet’s dream meant that it had partially worked, but the undead should not have been dancing.

Hours later, while Janet was dining on tofu and asparagus with her friends, Zytheria was weaving a web of spells around her room.  She had arranged candles around her in a dodecahedron, and a black crystal hovered above each stick of wax.  Energy from the crystals darkened the flickering flames, and a low thrumming could be heard as she chanted.  Zytheria didn’t stop chanting until the candles were depleted and the crystals dropped into the quickly-hardening wax.  When she was satisfied that dreams had been poisoned, she lowered herself into her silken sheets and cursed the lights out.

That night, she dreamed, finding herself on a barren plain beneath purple storming skies, surrounded by a horde of skeletons.  Rotting flesh still hung from their bleached white bones, and their frames rattled with movement.  At the sight of them, Zytheria began to cackle.  Her ritual had worked.

“Go forth, my undead army,” she cried.  “Invade all dreams and destroy that which is peaceful.  Replace contentment with strife, and bring hell to sleep.”

At Zytheria’s command, the army began to move, but not into other dreams.  The corpses began to shamble towards her, grasping sharpened ribs in their bony hands.

“What are you doing,” Zytheria screamed as they closed in.  “Go the other way!”  But for once in her life, the undead were not at her command.

When the first skeleton reached her, it grabbed her shoulder and stabbed her with its own rib.  When Zytheria tried to pull away, the corpse pulled her closer, further impaling her.  All around her, she felt more bones pierce her body, but she couldn’t see them, for her vision was obscured by the first skeleton.

Its gaping maw yawned before her, jaw barely hanging on.  Death and decay, normally such pleasant aromas, stank on its graveyard breath.  Out of control, Zytheria was falling from power.  Death was no fun when you couldn’t control it.

Screaming, she shot up in bed, sweating ice.

Pyre

I laid her gently down on the rough straw mattress—placed her arms at her sides and closed her eyes.  Seeing her like this, I could almost imagine that I was having another sleepless night; that I had woken to find her sleeping reassuringly by my side.

Moonlight streamed through the open window of our two-room cabin, the bright beam settling on my wife, illuminating her with a ghostly glow.

I had built the house and everything in it.  The hearth that had kept us warm during the merciless winter.  The table that we had sat around—sometimes we ate, other times we talked, and others still we just enjoyed each other’s presence.  And the bed that she now lay lifeless upon.  Here I had built a family and a future.  I had built all that I could.  Sometimes, the only thing left to build is a fire.

The kindling beneath the bed caught quickly.  The flames flickered bright, but I knew they would soon be a pile of smoldering embers.  I planted a final kiss on her cold forehead.  I closed the door for the final time.

My plan had been to walk away, but with each step my resolve faltered.  It would be selfish to abandon her just to spare myself the pain.  She deserved more.  Stopping at the crest of the hill, I looked down into the little valley where her pyre reached for the heavens.  Fully committed, there was nothing to do but wait.

And wait I would, until the final flame had faded to dull ash.

Tears streaked by cheeks as I watched my life burn.  My eyes were moths, drawn to the bright little cabin.  It was full of love and hope and hate and heartbreak, and it was aflame.