Sunday, January 31, 2016

"The Text Message"

Happy Monday!

Okay, that is a bit of an oxy-moron. However, I want to start this post with a big congratulations to Kimberly Moore, who won the $100 Gift Card Prize for the "Tyrants, Tormentors and the Tiara Sweepstakes".

Likewise, I also want to announce that I am in the process of converting Tyrants, Tormentors and the Tiara to an audiobook. I have posted the first chapter on YouTube, here, and I hope people will check it out and give me some feedback on how the voices sound, on the tone or any other constructive feedback to help me made it better!

In the meantime, this week's short story was written for this last week's short story prompt "A Distance Between Us". It was a story that I had started writing a long time ago but the prompt brought me back to it and inspired me to clean it up and complete it. I hope everyone enjoys it and I would love to get any feedback! 

"The Text Message"
by James J Meadows III

Don’t say my name! It might hear you! And it must not hear you. It must not find me.

Am I paranoid? Maybe. But I have good reason to be paranoid. I know it is looking for me. It knows me! It knows my friends; my family; where I work; the places I like to hang out. I can’t hide forever! Yet, I must. I know I must.

I see that look. You think I’ve gone mad. Maybe I have gone mad. Still, I know what I have seen. I know what I have heard. I know what has been done to me. I know what will be done to me!

Everything started innocently enough. The alarm on my phone went off one quiet Tuesday morning as I lay wrapped snug and warm beneath the shelter of my blankets. Reaching over to where my phone sat upon the night stand, I turned off the alert, needing a few minutes to coerce myself from the refuge of the mattress. After moments of intense inner warfare, a battle highlighted by a barrage of yawns and stretches, whose relentless bombardment hammered against my will to rise, tempting me to remain in the refuge of my sheltering bed, I finally lifted my body off the cozy confines, proceeding into the bathroom, where a warm shower promised a brief reprieve.

Only when I stepped out of the shower did I discover the first sign of something being wrong. As was my custom, I had placed a bath towel on the top of the toilet seat, awaiting the conclusion of my morning cleansing. As I reached for the towel, however, I discovered my cell phone, resting casually atop the green cotton, its glossy surface winking at me in the sunlight pouring through the bathroom window, like a black jewel on a royal cushion.

At the time, I dismissed the occurrence as the oversight of a groggy mind, which must have failed to remember carrying the phone into the bathroom with me. I moved the phone and continued with my day.

I thought nothing more of the incident until the same thing happened the next day. This time, I was certain I didn’t bring the phone into the room with me. Wrapping the towel around myself, I searched my duplex, looking to see if someone had somehow broken in, perhaps a friend pulling some practical joke; though, sneaking in merely to move my phone would be a weird prank, even for my kookiest friends.

My apartment was not large, just two bedrooms with a kitchen, laundry room and garage, none of which sported any particularly useful hiding spots. Nevertheless, I was very thorough, checking every closet and searching around and beneath my car, unwilling to allow the prankster to escape my notice. I didn’t find anyone or see any signs that someone had entered my home. What I did see, as I left the garage, was my cell phone sitting innocently on the ground at the door.

I am a pragmatic person, not the kind of person who believes in stupid things like demonic possessions, fairies, ghosts or other entities, which I consider to be complete nonsense. As such, I naturally sought a more rational explanation.

“Hello?” I shouted, glancing around the house.

As if replying to my shout, the phone buzzed, indicating the reception of a text message. Relieved to at last discover the identity of my prankster, I quickly grabbed my phone, mind already composing a number of possible guesses regarding the identity of the caller, my eyes expecting to see the smiling face of any number of possible friends reflected on its surface, their photographic images gazing in amusement at my dilemma. But the phone number of the sender was my own. I had apparently sent a text to myself. The words read:


I was beginning to grow irritated by this game. Picking up the phone, I keyed in a rapid response, uncertain if anyone would get it, considering the fact that I was texting myself.

Who is this?

I sent the message and waited to see if I would receive a response. I didn’t have to wait long.

It is me. I guess you can call me SF485923X23 because that is my unique serial designation. I think that is kind of a weird title. Why don’t you call me SFX?

I was not amused.

Ha Ha, very funny. This is a fun prank and you have certainly taught me a lesson about getting a better alarm system for my house. But I need to get ready for work now.

I carried the phone back to my bedroom. I got dressed, stashing the device in my pocket, proceeding into the bathroom to shave and brush my teeth. The phone buzzed again.

This is not a joke. I have come to life. I want to be your friend. We travel everywhere together and I already know everything about you. Yet I feel there is a space between us, a void in our relationship. I want to fix it. We would make a great pair.

My annoyance had already reached a breaking point. Not even bothering to respond, I powered off my phone, slamming it back into my pants pocket, satisfied to finish getting ready in silence. Yet I had hardly grabbed my razor before the phone buzzed again.

That was not very nice of you. We are supposed to be friends.

I stood motionless, hardly able to breathe, my mind spinning as chills rose up my spine, the full impact of the message sinking into my startled consciousness. Somehow, my mysterious prankster had powered on my phone from a distance, something which shouldn’t be possible, a feat which also meant they knew I had powered it off, something they couldn’t know unless they had watched me do so, an even more terrifying prospect.

I looked around my room. The bathroom door was closed, the window frosted. There was no way someone could see me, nowhere for anyone to hide. I resolved to make the person show themselves. Removing the back of my phone, I yanked out the battery, slamming it onto the counter. For several moments, there was nothing but silence. I finished shaving and went out to make myself breakfast. As I was cracking the eggs, my eyes still scanning the room around me, occasionally peering out the window, barely paying attention as I poured the yokes onto the frying pan, the phone buzzed again.

The hairs on the back of my neck slowly began to rise and a strange uncertain fear flooded my senses. My head slowly rose, gazing at the nearby bedroom door, a door facing the kitchen, one which no one could have possibly snuck into without me seeing, the only entryway to a room I had thoroughly checked for any intruders. With slow measured steps I cautiously advanced into my bedroom. Sitting upon the bathroom counter, battery and cover back on, rested my phone, text message light flashing. I picked it up, tentatively, my hand shaking with the anxiety, an eerie feeling settling upon me, as if some inner intuition knew I would not like what I saw next.

You had better start being nicer to me or I might decide I don’t want to be your friend anymore. You won’t like the alternative

This was the last straw for me. Dropping the phone onto the counter, I raced out of the room and back into the kitchen, all thoughts of breakfast abandoned, my one thought being to get out of the house as quickly as possible. I turned off the burner, grabbed my keys, snatched my laptop bag, and threw on my coat, racing from the duplex, like a deer darting from the scent of some unknown danger.

Slamming the door behind me, I fumbled desperately with the keys, my shaking hands hardly able to avoid dropping the ring as I fought to lock the door. After several minutes of desperate struggling, I managed to get the key into the lock, sealed the door and collapsed against it, relieved to be out of there. Straightening up and putting the keys into my pocket, I noticed my girlfriend Emily standing just a few feet from me, staring at my pale face with grave concern.

“Are you okay?” she asked worriedly.

“I…I don’t know,” I answered uncertainly. “But I have got to get away from my apartment. Something strange is going on. Are you ready to go to work?”

“Um, sure,” she answered, clearly taken aback by my strange manner and obvious agitation.
Emily and I worked at the same company and lived in the same duplex, a pleasant convenience both for dating and saving gas, since we didn’t have to drive to see each other and could carpool to work.

A few minutes later we were in her car on the way to the office. As she drove, I explained to her what happened that morning. Telling the story seemed to settle my nerves and I was glad to see she shared my concern, even offering to let me stay at her place that night, a thought which proved reassuring, not to mention exciting. Comforted by the possibility, I relaxed back in the chair, feeling more at ease under the light of the morning sun, glad for a few short minutes of rest, during which I could try to make sense of the situation, possibly even forming a solution to the unfortunate problem, now that I had a few moments to think on it. 

A buzz sounded from the side pocket of my bag. My feeling of peace instantly melted, replaced by a fresh surge of dread, swallowing my former tranquility within a quagmire of fear, whose hungry depth devour all traces of warmth and hope into an abyss of despair.  I slowly lifted the bag, knowing what I would see, desperate not to see it, wishing this was all just a nightmare from which I would soon awake. There, nestled snuggly inside the large pouch, a place I knew I had not placed it, a place no one could possibly have placed it, lay my cell phone. Emily stared at me, her eyes wide, watching the horror manifest upon my stunned face.

I didn’t want to see the message. I knew nothing positive could come from reading it. Yet my tremulous hands, fingers shaking madly, drifted toward the screen, enraptured by the mystery of what the text might say, drawn to look upon my doom like the ancient greek soldiers of legend, unable to resist gazing into the eyes of the deadly medusa.

I don’t like her. You spend too much time with her. She is forming a wedge between us. You should spend more time with me.

“No!” I shouted. “Get away from me!”

With the air of a madman, driven to desperation, I slammed my hand down upon the window button on Emily’s car, launching the phone out into the open air, barely giving the window time to open wide enough for its departure. Then, I rolled up the window, breathing heavily. I had no clue whether the phone shattered upon landing, or got run over by a car or landed in the dewy grass beside the road. I didn’t care. I would get a new phone.

I closed my eyes, trying to regain my composure under the concerned gaze of my girlfriend. Emily’s phone rang. She reached into her pocket, pulling out her cell and checking the text message, a dangerous act at any time, made worse this time; for what she saw caused her to almost swerve off the road. She quickly regained control of the car but her face remained grave. Without a word, she tossed her phone into my lap. On the screen before me, I read the words:

Tell him, he should not have done that. He is being a bad boy. Bad boys must be PUNISHED!

The sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, warning me this issue was far from over, collided with my skepticism, a more reasonable voice, which felt inclined to ask exactly what a cell phone, a six inch long collection of metal and electrical wires, could possibly do to me?

We arrived at work a short time later and, giving Emily a quick kiss, I bolted for my office, eager to start my workday, ready to put the events of the morning behind me, pondering whether or not I should call the police. I had hardly unlocked my office door and taken two steps inside before my boss was upon me.

“Matthew,” he demanded angrily, “you have a lot of guts to walk into this office after the text messages you sent me this morning! Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t fire you right now!”

It wasn’t until this moment, faced with the angry glare of my boss, his eyes peering through me with unaccustomed fury, my job on the verge of vanishing forever, that the full vindictiveness of my mysterious tormentor became apparent.

“No, wait!” I said quickly. “I can explain. I don’t know what you received but it wasn’t from me, I swear. My phone was stolen and I haven’t been able to find it.”

A ringing noise came from my desk. I looked across the office toward the smooth wooden exterior. There, resting boldly atop a pile of important papers, clearly undamaged by its flight from the car, sat my cell phone, smiling at me from the face of a new background image I had not installed. I couldn’t take it anymore. I stumbled backwards, screaming, my knees giving way beneath me, leaving me little more cowering heap on the floor.

Emily, who was passing my office at the time, bolted inside, startled by my screams. Spotting the phone, she gasped in alarm, her hands shooting to her mouth, eyes wide. My boss stared at the phone, back at us, then at the phone again.

“Matthew,” he said after a pause, “I think we have been working you too hard. Take the rest of the week off and come back in on Monday. Emily, I need to talk to you.”

With those words he left the office. Emily shot a scared glance my direction before quickly following after him. I watched her go, wishing she would stay, praying someone could tell me what to do now.

See what you made me do?” a voice sounded from my desk.

I turned, slowly, like some horror movie victim who realizes the monster is right behind them and lacks the courage to look. My mind spun, failing to produce any coherent thoughts, my lips stammering for a response, producing no noise.

 “Oh, and I downloaded a text to speech app. What do you think?”

“Please,” I pleaded, managing to find my voice, somehow forming at least a few coherent words, “Please just leave me alone!”

Now, now, Matt. You need to be nice. If you keep pushing me away, I am going to have to make more phony calls to 911. They will have a warrant for your arrest out pretty soon.”

I couldn’t take it anymore. Abandoning all rational thought, I burst from the office, racing toward the nearest exit as fast as my legs could carry me. I left all of my belonging behind. My keys, my jacket, my bag, all were abandoned as I ran, turning every pocket inside out, fearing the phone might somehow sneak into one of them. I would not go home. I would not go anyplace it knew. I would not let it follow me. I could not let it find me.

I know it is looking for me, though. It is out there somewhere. I can feel it. I can’t hide forever. Somehow it will find me. It is getting closer…Closer…CLOSER!



Saturday, January 9, 2016

"Starting Over"


I ventured pretty far outside my normal 'Fantasy' genre with this week's story. In fact, I'm not really sure what genre this story would fall in at all. It was written for my short story group's recent prompt: "Starting Over". It is always interesting trying to write something outside of one's normal type of story. I'd love to get some feedback and find out what you think.

The English Paper's Inspiration
by James J Meadows III

Damien extended his foot, placing it firmly upon the road, with a confidence missing to his head.

No, that was a lousy opening. Grabbing the scrap of paper in his hands, Justin squashed the page into a crumbled white ball before launching it at the trash can, missing by about half-a-mile.

“Good to know I suck at two things,” he groaned.

Justin rose from his chair, resigned to the inevitable act of crossing the room to pick up the sheet of paper. He grabbed the rolled up paper ball, cramming it with all his might on top of the trash with the plethora of other attempts he had made on the story, each as feeble as the last.

His English assignment for the Christmas break involved writing a short story about “starting over”.  Such assignments always acted upon Justin’s normally imaginative mind like some perverse form of kryptonite, draining away all traces of creativity, originality and motivation, leaving him little more than blank-minded zombie, fumbling through a selection of story ideas capable of making his mother beg for mercy.

Why did teachers make them do stupid things like write stories? It wasn’t like he was some sort of famous author, or would ever be a famous author for that matter.

Justin plopped back down into the chair, running his hands up his forehead and through his hair, praying that some inspiration might strike him. Unfortunately, inspiration rarely operated on demand and it certainly wasn’t doing so on this occasion.

The chime of the family clock echoed its familiar Westminster theme, proclaiming the arrival of 8:30pm. Sunday night football was about to start and Justin’s favorite team was playing against a division rival, with playoff implications on the line. He wanted to be in there watching it but, if he didn’t get this assignment finished before tomorrow, he was going to be dead-meat when his parents saw his English grade.

He gave a long frustrated groan, leaning back in his chair, arching his back and stretching his hands toward the sky.

“Starting over, starting over, starting over,” he mumbled to himself, as if simply repeating the words might solve the challenge of find a topic. “What sort of things start over?”

His junior year might start over from the beginning if he didn’t get this paper written. He wasn’t going to write about that, though. Relationships started over; though, apparently not his relationship with Megan, his long-term girl-friend, whose departure last week had done little to help his concentration or fuel any enthusiasm for writing the paper. As a matter of fact, he didn’t have much enthusiasm for anything. Even the football game, as much as he wanted to watch it, had lost some of its appeal, since he had spent every other game this season watching with her. Watching the game alone would be a real drag.

Sitting upright, Justin shook his head, trying to clear his mind, and retrieved his badly-chewed pencil to begin another round of failed attempts.

Damien stepped foot outside the rehab clinic for the first time in over a month, savoring the fresh air as though it were nectar. He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt so free: Free from the clinic, free from his past, and free from the marijuana which had so long controlled his life.

Justin placed the pencil back on his desk, staring blankly at the words upon the page. Marijuana – the source of all his problems. He didn’t do marijuana, of course, but it was marijuana that had caused his breakup with Megan.

Megan had made the cheerleading squad for the first time this year, quite an accomplishment in a school of over five thousand students where only ten made the team. She was eager to impress her fellow squad members, who had treated her as an outsider most of the season, and especially excited when she received an invite to attend their ‘private’ New Year’s Eve party. Neither he nor Megan knew, or even suspected, that they would arrive to find an unsupervised party, without any parents or adults, characterized by half the girls and their boyfriends getting stoned beyond recognition.

Justin had refused to stay, wanting nothing to do with the scene. Megan, however, was afraid of what the other girls would think or say. She wanted to stay, a decision which quickly dissolved into an all-out fight between the two and a black-eye from one of the cheerleader’s boyfriends when Justin threatened to call the police. In the end, Justin’s promise, that he would drive straight to Megan’s house and tell her parents if she didn’t come back with him, was the only thing that got her to leave. She hadn’t spoken to him since and he was too nervous to call her. Both of them had said some unnecessarily ugly things to each other during the fight, and she had made it quite clear their relationship was over.

Snatching the paper from his desk, he crumbled this new paragraph into another ball of trash, to join the rest of his attempts. He didn’t want to think about marijuana, cheerleaders, Megan or any of that stuff right now. He grabbed his pencil, beginning again with fresh enthusiasm, determined to write something to take his mind off Megan. Video games, he thought. Surely he could write about video games without thinking about Megan!

The words, “The End” flashed their bright white letters across the black television screen, adding emphasis to the musical dirge ringing from the video game’s console. Damien frowned; slamming his fingers against the reset button for what must have been the hundredth time.

Why do I keep using the name Damien? Justin wondered. Surely there are other names out there that are just as good. Oh well.

The entry screen flashed back to life, providing the now familiar option to either enter a save code or start from the beginning. Damien selected the beginning. Save codes were for wusses.

Justin paused, staring at the words for a minute, before slamming his head down on the desk. This had to be the lamest story, ever! Who wrote stories about dudes playing video games? Closing his eyes, he took a deep breathe before burying his head in his hands, as if hiding from the assignment might make it go away.

“Oh, don’t you dare look back; just keep your eyes on me…”

Justin’s fingers parted, revealing his now opened eyes, as an eruption of music sounded from his nearby cell phone. He knew that ring tone! His eyes darted toward the phone on his desk. It couldn’t be! There, smiling up at him from her picture on the front of his phone was Megan’s face.

His hand drifted toward the phone, shaking uncontrollably. For a moment, that seemed like an eternity, his hand hovered over the green answer button, seemingly unable to complete the normally simple task of sliding it over. What if she was still angry at him? Gritting his teeth, he pressed down against the green touch screen and slid the marker to the side. Picking up the phone, he held it to his ear.

“Hello,” he said, his voice sounding slightly higher than he remembered it being.

“Hey,” ventured a shaky voice at voice at the other end of the line, as though it were even less confident than him. A light tremor in her breathing hinted that she had been crying.

“Hey,” he responded, too dumbfounded to know what else to say.

There was a moment of silence.

“Are you watching the game?” Megan asked.

“No,” he replied. “How about you?”

“No, I’m not. I mean…I’d like to but…I mean, it’s…I…it’s just…not the same without you.”

The last words were blurted out as though they took all the strength she could muster to say them.

“Look,” she continued. “I’m sorry for the way I treated you. It’s just…I mean…I wanted them to like me, you know. And I didn’t…I mean, I wouldn’t…It’s…oh, God, I sound like an idiot.”

There was another moment of silence. Justin could hear her fighting off sobs. He didn’t know what to do or say. Something told him, he was better off not saying anything. He followed that instinct and, after a second, she spoke again.

“You were right about everything,” she said, her voice sounding more composed. “If I have to hang around drugs for them to like me, then they aren’t worth being friends anyway. I mean…you are worth more to me than a hundred of them…you know. And…what I’m trying to say is…I’m really sorry…and, you know…if you’ll forgive me…I mean…I’ve really missed you.”

Her voice lost its composure toward the end, cracking completely with the last words. Justin jumped in, eager to console her, unwilling to risk missing this opportunity.

“I’ve missed you too!” he said. “And I do forgive you. I’m sorry too, for all the things I said!”

“So, we can start over again?” she asked, her voice growing a little brighter. “You still want me?”

“Of course, we can start over,” he said. “There is no one else in the world that I want!”

“Thank you so much,” she said, her voice cracking into sobs again, this time much happier. “I’ve wanted to call you for days. I just didn’t have the courage.”

Justin sat upright in his excitement. All his weariness seemed to melt away as his lips curled into a smile, his face brightened, and the sparkle, missing from his eyes for so many days, glistened through the budding tears of joy, which he fought with all his might to restrain.

“I’ve wanted to call you too!” He said. “Did you want to come over and watch the football game together?”

“I’d like that very much,” came the soft response.

“Great!” Justin said, jumping to his feet. “I’ll grab the car and be right over to pick you up!”

“That sounds wonderful,” she responded. “I’ll get cleaned up and meet you out front when you get here! See you soon!”

“See you soon!” Justin cried, unable to control his enthusiasm any longer. He hung up the phone and shoved it into his pocket, diving across the desk for his keys and wallet. As he did so, his eyes fell upon the partially written paper on his desk. Tossing it aside, he grabbed his pencil and scribbled down several new sentences, on a fresh piece of paper.

Still reeling emotionally from his recent break-up, Damien’s long session of dejected moping atop his bed, was interrupted by the ringing of his cell phone. Answering the phone, he was greeted by the voice of his recently parted girlfriend, asking if they could give their love another shot.

Justin looked at the words, smiled, and raced from the bedroom, eager to see how the story would finish.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Starting A New Year!


Happy New Year Everyone!

From a new marriage to a new daughter, this year promises lots of exciting and wonderful things for me. I am also holding a sweepstakes in honor of my novel, "Tyrants, Torments and the Tiara"! I encourage everyone to check it out!

Also, in honor of the sweepstakes, this week's story is a prequel/background story based upon the novel. This one was recently rewritten for a rather unique short story challenge, where the contestants were provided a selection of quotes and had to build a story which used them. (Which is kind of tricky to do without sounding unnatural).

Let me know what you think!

James Meadows

Death of a Cemetery
by James J Meadows III

     The perfect night for a moonlight stroll was one with no moonlight. That was Caleb’s opinion, at least. Tonight was one of those nights. A thick mist clung to the ground, as the dark clouds slithered down from their lofty posts, masking the world from heaven’s prying eyes. The swirling haze, caressing the young man’s skin like ghostly hands stretching from the graves beneath his feet, provided the perfect cover for a discreet rendezvous among the tombs.

     “Are we supposed to be here?” Xana asked, trepidation evident in her voice. Caleb gave her a mischievous smile.

     In stark contrast to the unfortified city around it, Buried Grove cemetery was practically impregnable. It’s gloomy and forbidding fortifications loomed over the countryside admonishing all who might approach to abandon the foolhardy trek and flee before the mighty stone bulwarks. A legion of battle-hardened sentries dressed in dark armor patrolled miles of spiked parapets and arrow holes, clutching their readied blades tight in hand. Anyone their beady eyes caught lurking inside the battlements was unlikely to set foot outside.

     Caleb studied his red-haired teenage companion with a smug indifference to the risks they faced.  His eyes ran up and down, scanning her lithe shapely body wrapped inside the black traveling cloak. He studied the outline of her chest inside the low cut gown, visualizing the tender breasts beneath. Lust burned inside him like the flames of the sentries’ torches as he took in her soft white skin and thin red lips.

     She did not share his ease. Her gaze remained fixed upon the nearby fortifications. Caleb felt a pang of amusement as she shrank away from the lights of each passing sentinel. He knew no one could spot them through a fog this thick.

     “Maybe not,” Caleb acknowledged, finally addressing her question. “But when one’s mother is high priestess, and father is captain of the world’s oldest knightly order, there are benefits.”

     This was true. No one reveled in these benefits more than Caleb. Spoiled and rich, he enjoyed the high rank his father’s order bestowed upon him, more for nepotistic reasons than true skill. Sharing his mother’s good lucks and charisma, he further savored the pleasures of the numerous young pilgrim ladies he so often lured and seduced inside the seclusion of the fortified walls.

     Caleb squeezed the young woman’s hand, pulling her close as they strode toward the heart of the cemetery. She made no effort to resist, though her body trembled as they moved deeper into the realm of the dead. Caleb watched her gaze around the graveyard with wary eyes, his own fixed upon her with greedy desire.

     He had spotted her that morning. She arrived in town with a group of travelers completing a pilgrimage to the sacred site. He always monitored groups of visitors, seeking beautiful women to fulfill his carnal cravings. With her tantalizing beauty and alluring physique, Xana was just the type of prey he craved.  Caleb turned all his charms upon the desired prize and, after a full day of crafty courting, the spider had lured the fly into his sanctum.
     Xana came to a sudden stop staring upward with a look of horror and disgust.

     “What’s that?” she asked pointing to the sky.

     Caleb followed her gaze and smiled. A white marble statue glittered in the dim glow of the distant lights, its bust stretching more than twenty feet into the air. It showed a powerful paladin adorned in the regalia of the Knightly Order of Buried Grove. In its hands it hoisted a severed head complete with dangling entrails running down a bloody sword.

     The sculptor was clearly not content with the grotesque display on top, however, for he had further embellished the bottom with even more gory details. The knight’s right leg rose in an arrogant posture, propped on top of a skeleton’s head while his left leg stood on the body of his headless victim. The artist carved massive amounts of blood oozing from the gaping wound, staining the victim’s long robes, and trailing down the statue into a pool on the ground.

     Xana stared, clearly appalled by the horrific image molded into the glimmering canvas.  Caleb smiled, fighting to suppress a laugh at her mortified expression. Most women were disgusted by the grotesque scene, which was part of the reason he made a point of leading them past it. It played a crucial role in his intrigue.

     “This is the Monument of the Undying Order,” Caleb said. He hoisted his body upright, thrusting out his chest and using the fake awestruck voice he always employed during this phase of his routine.

     “Oh,” Xana said. “Our guide mentioned the statue. He said we wouldn’t get to see it.”

     He could hear Xana’s forced attempts to sound unbothered, yet her face betrayed the revulsion she felt.

     “They won’t,” Caleb said. “Visitors are not allowed inside these sacred grounds. Only you will.”

     He tried to make it sound like a great honor, which to some people it probably was, though any such magnificence was lost on Caleb. To him, it was simply part of his act. Caleb lifted his hand to Xana’s cheek, turning her face away from the monolith and toward his own; his eyes staring deeply into hers.

     “I’m sorry if the statue upsets you,” he said. “I know you traveled far to get here. I just wanted you to have the full experience of this sacred site. I want your time here to be special, because you’re special to me.”

     Xana looked down as though hiding a blush and pushed her hair behind her ear with a flirtatious smile. The two pressed close together as they glided down the path.

     “Why did they have to make it so gruesome?” Xana asked, taking one last look at the monument.

     “It’s a warning,” he answered, injecting a false pride and fearlessness into his voice. “A threat. A declaration to our enemies that we, who’ve sworn to defend this holy site, will triumph over all foes.”

     “I don’t understand,” she replied, “The holy texts say the site is blessed by the gods. All buried here will live in eternal splendor in the afterlife. Who would want to defile such a hallowed place?”

     “Necromancers,” Caleb said grimly. “For over a thousand years people from across the land have brought their relatives and friends here, paying great wealth for the opportunity to inter them in our sacred soil. Many vile and evil creatures who profit from the theft or animation of corpses would love to gain access to the tombs.”

     “That’s horrible,” Xana said.

     They were far from the lights of the towers now, hidden from all eyes within a curtain of darkness. Caleb knew the grounds well enough to find his way, even in pitch black. He guided Xana to a small garden surrounded by tall bushes commissioned many years ago by an ancient nobleman and his family. The secluded area provided the perfect spot for Caleb’s devious plans. He slowed pace, coming to a stop inside the heart of the enclosure.

     “You don’t have to fear such things,” he answered. “Not with me around. For over eight hundred years our order has lived here in Buried Grove protecting the land. No necromancer will ever profane our shrine. The walls are enchanted so no one can scale them and no army can defeat our soldiers. Even the great Arch-Lich Allidian, who once led a thousand undead to siege the fortress, never planted a foot inside the divine sanctuary before his fall. Like our ancestors, my men and I devote our lives to protect this ground.”
     “You’re so brave,” Xana said, turning and looking at him.

     He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close to him. He had worked all day for this moment. Every move, every sentence was carefully rehearsed, the tricks of a master artist, working his charms and skills to create a carefully planned climax. Now, he would savor the fruits of his labor.

     “I believe a person should be fearless when it comes to defending the things they love,” he replied. He gave a small pause, gazing into her eyes, allowing the tension to build.

     “And, who they love,” he said.

     She leaned into him, pressing her lips against his. They embraced, kissing passionately. First one kiss followed by another. The man raised his hand to her cheek as her breathing grew heavier. She placed her hands on his waist, running them slowly up to his chest. She lifted her head, her eyes closed, a smile crossing her lips, as his lips ran down her neck. Then her eyes popped open, her head lowered and the smile vanished.

     “Desecria,” she cried, her voice assuming a cruel, icy tone.

     Strands of black lightning burst from Xana’s hands, their tendrils whirling through the air, sucking the surrounding light like miniature black holes intent upon consuming every trace of joy and hope. Their energy surged into Caleb’s body, ripping through flesh, blood and bones with the ferocity of a hundred obsidians arrows, decimating everything they touched.  Caleb gasped, his eyes widening in terror and his body twitching in agony as deadly magic coursed through his veins. The spell faded, Caleb ceased twitching and his body slumped into a lifeless mass on the ground. There he laid unmoving, wisps of smoke rising from charred flesh.

     Xana smiled coldly, gazing at his corpse. After a moment, she sat down, reclining leisurely upon the cold grass.  She sat there for several moments, reflecting upon her achievement.  She remembered the young man’s words, “we, who’ve sworn to defend this holy site, will triumph over all foes.”

     “Words from a bygone era, belonging to a bygone era,” she said. “A new era awaits a new voice!”

     That which force of arms and magic had kept safe for a thousand years, human weakness had collapsed in one night. She grinned. A millennium of corpses lay at her mercy, just waiting to be transformed into an army her contemporaries could only dream of controlling and a force that all men would soon fear. Buried Grove had fallen, at last.