Sunday, August 28, 2016

Visions and Voices in a Dark Wood


This story was written for a prompt called 'Dream Catchers'. It works as a stand alone story but is also a follow-up to a previous story published on this page called "The Grandmother's Pendant". I haven't decided if I am going to try to turn these into a longer book, although I do like the style of dialogue that the stories are built around.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the story and I look forward to any feedback!



Visions and Voices in a Dark Wood
by James J Meadows III

                I cannot begin to guess how long I drifted in the strange white mists before the world finally swam back into focus. When it did, I found myself in a scene very different from the large mowed lawns and wide grassy expanses of my grandmother’s estate. Though I was still standing inside a fairy ring, one identical in every detail to the one I was cajoled into entering as I ran-away from home following my grandmother's funeral, the similarities ended there.

                The beams of morning sunlight had vanished, replaced by an eerie black gloom which settled over the surrounding woods, whose thick black trees formed a canopy so impenetrable all strands of light became swallowed by the hungry leaves coating their twisted limbs. I shuttered involuntarily. Dangling by strings from almost every branch, like some sort of demented Christmas ornaments, hung hundreds, perhaps thousands, of little hoops adorned with feathers, strings and what looked like small beads carved into the shape of skulls.

                The strange ornaments possessed glittering blue sapphires in the center of the loops. These gems provided the only light in the clearing, emitting an odd violet glow which enhanced my already growing unease. There was no movement, no wind, and no noise of any kind to break the stillness.

                Everything about the strange location unnerved me, reminding me forcibly of the various sinister woods my grandmother often wrote about in fantasy stories, stories she started composing after her mysterious disappearance, and equally mysterious reappearance, when she was my age. 

                “Hello!” I called.

    My frightened voice sounded strange in my ears. I stared around, hardly daring to move, making a point not to step outside the fairy ring. The round line of mushrooms glistened in the blue glow like fortress walls, making me feel safe even if I couldn’t tell you why.

                “Hello,” a voice replied.

    It came so suddenly I almost screamed. The voice was strange, possessing an unnaturally high pitch, which was difficult to describe. It cast images into my mind of a small playful little girl while simultaneously giving the sensation of speaking to a wise old man. What was more, it sounded quite close. Yet when I looked around I could see no one.

                “Where are you?” I asked.

                “I am here,” the voice responded. “You are too. Although I must admit I don’t know why. No one ever comes into these woods, except for us when we are doing our ritual of adulthood.”

                “Who are you?” I asked, still glancing around wildly, not seeing anyone.

                “I am me,” the voice responded. “Who are you?”

                “I am Annie."

                “Hmm, I’m not familiar with that term,” the voice said. “What is an Annie?”

                “I’m Annie,” I replied. “Annie is a name - my name.”

                “So you are a name?” the voice replied, sounding almost as confused as me.

                “No,” I replied. I felt slightly exasperated. I was, after all, in a strange, frightening land and this dialogue wasn’t helping me get any information.

                “But you said you are Annie, and Annie is a name,” the voice replied. “Doesn’t that mean you are a name?”

                “Look, can we just talk about something else?” I said.

                “Sure, what do you want to talk about?” the voice answered.

                Looking down, I saw the circle of mushrooms at my feet. While I felt protected inside the circle, I also knew I couldn’t stay here forever. I raised my foot to take a step, then hesitated, glancing around at the dark forest and its eerie, foreboding shadows.

                “Is it safe for me to step out?” I asked.

                “Why wouldn’t it be?” the voice asked. “Do you have difficulty taking steps? Does your race perhaps suffer injuries from walking and this is why you are standing still?”

                “No,” I replied, annoyed. “I am perfectly capable of taking a step without injuring myself!”

                “Then I would suppose it is safe for you to take a step,” the voice replied.

                “That was not my…grrr,” I growled, “Nevermind!”

                Driven by frustration, resigned to the inevitability of acting, and taking some solace in the fact that I could jump back into the circle if I needed to, I stepped out from the ring. I instantly regretted the decision. The sensation of safety vanished; the mushrooms vanished; the ring vanished.

                I found myself standing in the middle of a dark forest, where my breathe rose like smoke in the icy air. Apparently the fairy ring also protected me from the cold, providing a false sense of warmth, which I missed greatly now that I no longer had it. I took another step forward, the bottom of the low-hanging ornaments brushing the top of my hair.

                “I wonder what these are,” I marveled aloud, staring at their unique and masterful, if frightening, designs.

                “They are dream catchers,” the now familiar voice replied. “They are there to catch your dreams. Better be careful, though.”

                I looked around for the source of the voice again, wondering if I might be able to see it now that I was no longer inside the ring. I couldn’t; but my eyes did catch sight of a piece of moonlight streaming through some nearby bushes. They were tall, though thankfully not thick, and I was able to push my way through them rather easily.

                On the other side, I beheld a beautiful lake, its clear waters and smooth glassy surface sparkling in the moonlight. It stood out like a beacon of peace within the otherwise dark forest. Nearby, a series of rocks formed a sort of pier, extending into the middle of the lake. Alongside it, standing up to his waist in the smooth water, his clothes piled neatly on the rocks beside him, was a young man of about my own age.

                My jaw dropped as I stared at him. He had long smooth hair, clear clean skin, a six pack that most men would die for, and the muscles sculpting his body formed just the perfect balance of firm and strong without being bulky. As I stood marveling at him, he turned and looked at me.

                At first, he took a quick step back, as though startled by my appearance, then I saw his face relax.

                “You scared me,” he said. “I was just taking a bath. I’m not used to meeting other people out here, especially young ladies as pretty as yourself.”

                I blushed slightly, my gaze transfixed on his blue eyes, which stared up at me with a fascination and wonder almost as great as the wonder I felt looking at him. I brushed my hair behind my ear with an almost instinctual gesture and took a step forward.

                “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you,” I said. “It’s just, I’m kind of lost right now and I don’t know where I am.”

                “You didn’t frighten me,” the young man replied. “I’m actually happy for the company. It gets pretty lonely out here sometimes. Why don’t you come and sit down? If you’re lost, maybe I can help you.”

                He gestured toward the stone pier stretching out beside him, where his clothes rested. I started toward it when the now familiar voice from earlier broke the serenity.

                “I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” it called quietly.

                It seemed to be coming from behind me.

                “Why not?” I demanded, turning around to face the speaker, only to discover I was staring at open air.

                I gave an irritated huff and turned back around. A scream burst from my lips. The beautiful lake had vanished, replaced by a swirling black quagmire of dead plants and slime. In the middle of it, where the man stood just a moment ago, hovered a creature composed of transparent silky robes wrapped around a luminous turquoise skeleton. Glowing green orbs shone from inside the sockets of the skeletal face while clawed arms, drifting in their bizarre robes stretched toward me.

                Still screaming, I stumbled backward, falling onto my butt before turning and dashing back through the bushes, where I tripped over a tree root. With a nasty thud, I crashed to the earth, sprawling across the ground.

                “Are you alright?” asked the mysterious voice.

                “What was that thing?” I asked in a terrified whisper.

                “That was a dream spirit,” the voice replied. “They use the dreams captured by their dream catchers to lure victims into their grasp, where they can feast upon their life force.”

                “What?” I replied, still trying to catch my breath. “Feast upon their life force? You told me it was safe out here?”

                “No I didn’t,” the voice replied. “I told you it was safe to take a step out. And it was. Taking a step out didn’t hurt you at all.”

                “That isn’t what I meant and you know it!” I fumed.

                “Actually, he doesn’t,” came a soft voice to my right.

                I recognized the voice at once. Turning, I found myself, to my breathless amazement, staring up into the face of the one woman who meant the most to me in the world.

                “Grandma?” I said, staring at her with disbelief. “How? I mean, you’re dead.”

                “Time works differently here in this world than in our world,” she said. “There are many things which will be a mystery to you, like your friend.”

                “What is he?” I asked.

                “He is a pseudodragon.”

                “A dragon?” I asked looking around. “Why can’t I see him?”

                “No, not a dragon, a pseudodragon,” she replied. “They are very similar in appearance but very different in nature. You can’t see him because he is naturally invisible. He has to make an effort to be seen, just as you would have to make an effort to walk on one leg.”

                “What do you mean when you say, ‘he doesn’t know what I meant’?” I asked.

                She gave a small laugh.

                “Psuedodragons are very complex and wondrous creatures,” she replied. “Yet, they are also very simple minded. They understand everything from a very literal perspective. They aren’t like us.”

                I stared at her for a moment, pondering this. As I watched, she gave me a small smile.

                “I always knew you would find this place, just like I did,” she said. “You always had the right spirit and sense of adventure. How I wish your mother was the same way but I could never get her to straighten her life. You, you were the one I knew had the spirit to follow in my footsteps.”

                A smile spread across my face as I stared into her loving eyes.

                “Grandma,” I said. “What am I supposed to do here? I’m confused.”

                “Come with me,” she said. “I’ll show you.”

                She extended a hand to help me up. I reached for it. Just as my fingers came within inches of her own, a burst of bright light shot between us. Streams of crackling lightning split the air, causing me to fall back down, shielding my eyes. My grandmother retreated backward.

                With a bound, I saw a creature leap into the space between us. It was small, only about two feet tall, with a pair of tiny wings, no bigger than a butterfly’s, resting atop its back. The skin was a strange hue of multiple colors, all sparkling, as though the body was composed of tiny gems. In every other way, it looked like a dragon, with a long neck, black eyes, and fierce claws, except all of these features were shrunk into the size of a puppy dog.

                At the same moment, the image of my grandmother disappeared, replaced by another glowing skeleton, floating off the ground in its transparent white robes. I gasped as it let out a horrifying shriek, reaching forward as though attempting to grab me. The dragon opened its mouth, shooting another fierce bolt of electricity at the creature. The monster dodged the attack easily, yet made no effort to continue its assault. Instead, with an angry shriek, it retreated, fading into the darkness.

                The tiny creature turned toward me, seemingly studying me with its deep black eyes.

                “The image you saw?” it asked. “Was that your grandmother?”

                The voice was the same one I spoke with earlier, there was no doubt about that.

                “Yes,” I answered.

                “You are the granddaughter of The Great Light?” it asked.

                “The what?” I replied.

                “Nevermind,” it said. “If the woman you saw in that image was your grandmother, then we must get you out of these woods fast. The creatures here will not take kindly to you. Follow me.”

                It spun around and headed away from me, hurrying through the woods. I climbed onto my feet, chasing after it.

                “Wait,” I called. “How do I know you’re not another dream or illusion from the dream catchers?”

                It turned around, staring at me with a quizzical expression.

                “Have you ever dreamed or longed for a pint-sized dragon to save you from the heart of an evil forest?”

                “,” I replied, taken aback.

                “Then, you are probably safe,” it said, in a matter-of-fact manner. 

                Without another word, it spun around and hurried away. I hurried after it. My other questions could wait. For now, I just wanted out.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Choice in the Maze

Greetings Everyone,

While I write a lot of different things, one thing I don't write in "Fan Fiction". Nothing against those who do, that just isn't my forte. So, when the short story prompt for my group turned out to be "Game of Thrones", I tried to come up with a different direction for my story.

This story is called "The Choice in the Maze". I would be intrigued to receive any feedback on how the story flows and if it works!

Hope all of you are enjoying the last weeks of Summer!


The Choice in the Maze
by James J Meadows III

                It was a day I knew would change my world forever. Though, truth be told, even as I stood there, resolving myself to carry out the plan I had placed into motion, I still couldn’t foresee the results of my actions. Not that it mattered. I had made my decision and there was no turning back now. Whatever the consequences, my mind was made up.

                “Are you okay?” Kim asked. “You seem nervous.”

                Kim, my girlfriend of two years, stood next to me, looking ravishing in her Daenerys costume, as we waited to enter the Renaissance Fair. She didn’t know what I was about to do. She thought this was just another trip to the festival, an opportunity to enjoy ourselves and spend time together. She couldn’t know the true reason we had come here today.

                “I’m fine,” I lied, “Just excited.”

                My eyes fell on the security guards, standing at attention outside the gates. Their eyes swept over the crowd looking for any suspicious faces. The one at the front of our line kept looking at me, over and over again. His eyes made me nervous and I shuffled several times. Why did he keep looking at me? Why couldn’t he look somewhere else?

                “You look really good in your costume,” Kim ventured, apparently trying break the tension. “I swear you look just like him.”

                I smiled, thanked her for the compliment and squeezed her hand in a reassuring way. My costume for the day was Jon Snow, one of the protagonists of the Game of Thrones series. It went well with her costume. More importantly, the collection of thick garments provided ample room for concealment, a convenience I needed if I was going to succeed in my plan.

                Pressing my free hand non-chalantly against the side of my costume, I felt my pocket. The feel of a small bulky object told me it was still there. My eyes rose back to the security guards. There were no metal detectors, scanners or any other equipment for checking bags and possessions. There was nothing to stop me from walking right through the door without anyone ever knowing what I carried in my pocket.

                We reached the front of the line, handed the man our tickets and were just about to pass through when the security guard grabbed me by the arm. I froze for a moment, uncertain what to do as I turned toward him. He gazed into my face for a second, a second wherein the world seemed to freeze. Then he smiled, saying, “Nice costume! You look just like him.”

                My heart, which had momentarily stopped beating, resumed its rhythm as I returned his smile with a simple, “Thanks.”

                He released me and I headed inside. For the next several hours, Kim and I wandered the park, visiting shops, catching shows, and otherwise doing what we always did when we visited. Yet, whenever she wasn’t looking, I found myself checking my watch and my hand drifted toward the pocket, whose interior concealed the true reason for our visit.

Over the preceding weeks, I had planned the exact time and the exact place. Still, as the minutes passed, I found it strange how each second seemed longer than the last.

As the time drew closer, I put my plan into place. Casually, in as nonchalant a manner as I could manage, I steered our shopping and walking in the direction of the main jousting arena, where I knew hundreds of people were gathered watching the various shows. She went along with me, not suspecting anything as she laughed and looked at all the sights there were to see.

The minutes ticked closer. The arena was only a few stores down. Everything was going according to plan. Then, it happened.

“Hello, my lady,” a man’s voice broke in upon our conversation. “Would you like to visit the Dark Maze?”

The man was dressed in black armor with frills on his shoulder blades. His costume was almost identical to mine, although his clean shaven face and short hair meant he looked far less convincing. He smiled as us, pointing to a large multi-story building painted all grey with a thick fence around it, clearly designed to look like a small castle. 

“What is it?” Kim asked, her eyes taking in the man and the fake keep.

“It is a pair of identical mazes, one on each side. You have to go through each room, answering trivia questions about Game of Thrones, Princess Bride, Harry Potter, and other classic movies and stories. You race against another group of people going along the opposite side. The team that gets out first is the winner.”

“Sounds like fun,” Kim declared. “Wanna go?”                                                   

She looked at me, excitement and adventure sparkling in her eyes.

“Well, uh, I mean, it, uh, sounds like fun,” I stammered, uncertain what to do.

I checked my watch and glanced at the arena. I could hear the cheers and shouts coming from the stadium as the people celebrated the announcement of the knights entering the ring.

“Oh, come on!” She pleaded. “It’ll be fun.”

“I know,” I replied. “I think it’ll be great. I’m just not sure, you know, if this is quite the right time. Maybe we could wait and do it in a little bit.”

Kim was about to reply when I felt a hand land on my shoulder.

“Hey, stranger,” a female voice said into my right ear.
            Kim gave a shout of excitement and I turned to find myself looking into the faces of Justin and Marie Kardo. Marie was Kim’s best friend from middle school. The two were practically inseparable, even going to the same college. In many ways, dating Kim meant dating them also, and we spent large amounts of time hanging out together as a couple. 
            “Oh, hey,” I replied, my response rather flat compared to the excited squeal Kim gave as she leapt forward, throwing her arms around Marie.

            “What are you doing here?” Kim shouted.

            “We were given free passes for the day, so we decided to take advantage of them,” Marie replied. “We just finished watching a show at the arena. What are you doing?”

            “We were just about to play the castle thing,” Kim said, pointing back at the structure. She quickly told them all about the maze and the game.

            “Sounds fun,” Justin said. “Wanna race? I bet we can beat it faster than you.”

            “Oh no you won’t, cause we’re gonna kick your butts!” Kim laughed, putting on her ‘tough act’. “What do you think?”
            Three pairs of bright excited eyes turned toward me, waiting for my response. Clearly, this was going to happen, for better or worse. There was no way out of it now.

            “Sure,” I replied. “Let’s go for it.”

            The four of us got into line. Though there were not many people in front of us, it seemed to take forever. With each passing moment, I became increasingly anxious. By the time I paid the man the money to enter, my hands were almost shaking.

            “Are you sure you’re alright?” Kim asked again, clearly beginning to sense my tension.

            “You do look awful pale,” Justin noted. “Scared of being beaten by us?”

            “As if,” I replied, trying to put on an air of cockiness, and hide my growing agitation.

            Once inside the maze, I tried to remain calm, an emotion which contrasted sharply with Kim, who was all but bouncing off the walls in her eagerness to answer questions and beat the maze before her friend. Yet, despite my attempt to maintain a calm demeanor, I felt completely out of sorts, my mind so focused on other thoughts that I badly missed several questions which I knew.

            For what seemed like an eternity, we moved onward, answering questions and solving puzzles. I could feel my pocket growing heavier, as though weights were being added to it every second. By the time we reached the last room, my pocket felt like a hundred pound dumbbell, weighing me down with each step.

            Half-a-dozen cloaked figures stood around us as we entered. The leader addressed us.

            “You have reached the final room in the maze. On the other side of this door lies freedom along with the revelation of either victory or defeat! To see it, you must answer this question. In the Song of Fire and Ice novels, what are the words for the House Lonmouth?”

            I knew Kim would know this one. She virtually had the books memorized. Sure enough, right on cue, she spouted the answer, “The choice is yours.”

            “That is correct,” the leader declared.

            If it wasn’t for the fact that my nerves were so on edge, I might have sighed with relief. The maze was over. At last, I could carry out the plan which had brought me here, the act which I had waited for all day, the final conclusion of all my plots, schemes, and actions. The wait was over.

            Kim laughed and hurried toward the door, pulling me behind her. Just when it seemed we were about to be released, however, the figures suddenly raised their swords, blocking her way and moving toward us.

            “What is going on?” Kim asked, stepping back. “I answered the question.”

            “You did,” the leader said. “But you have not answered the last question. There is one more question you must answer. And, ‘the choice is yours’. You must choose!”

            “Choose?” Kim said, stepping backward as the figures advanced toward us. “Choose, what? I don’t understand. What am I choosing? What is the question?”

            “The question is,” I said. “Will you marry me?”

            I pulled a large plastic case from my pocket and knelt before her, flipping it open to reveal a ring. At the same moment, two of the cloaked figures dropped their hoods, displaying the grinning faces of Justin and Marie, their eyes sparkling in the darkness of the room. Other figures dropped their hoods too, revealing various other family and friends, all collected by me over the past weeks, all arranged to be here at the exact time and moment, which I’d planned from the very beginning of the day, though the part of meeting Justin and Marie at the arena had gone slightly awry.

            Kim’s hands shot to her mouth. For one long second, I remained kneeling on the ground, my nerves screaming as I awaited her answer. Then, at last, a smile broke across her face.

            “Yes,” she said, lifting me up and giving me a kiss.

            It was a day that would change my world, forever.