Through the door (part 4) w/o AI

[ Continued from here. Still no AI extension associated with this, though I threw in what AI suggested for a picture at the end. Generally speaking, I find AI art to be rather horrifying mockeries of what passes for art. But that’s just me. I wanted to get the storyline into an action scene to see what the AI will suggest. Stay tuned for that in the next post. ]

The column of villagers snaked out of the ruins of their homes and up the forested trail. As hours passed, the group paused periodically for short breaks. Yet, the pace was relentless as the group moved deeper into the forested landscape. Some villagers struggled to keep up despite the warnings, lingering behind the main body. They were mainly older men and women with few exceptions, and the few villagers burdened with small children.

At one of the stops, Arianna finally spoke to Rhinna. “What are you going to do about the stragglers?”

“They know the consequences. We can’t stop for anyone.”

“That’s not fair. Can’t we have some hunters stay behind to escort them to the falls?”

“No, I will not risk losing our few hunters over those who can’t keep up.”

“But some of them are women and children. They deserve a chance.”

Rhinna set her jaw. “I know it’s not fair, but helping them means risking everyone’s chances to reach safety.”

Biting back her disgust, Arianna chose to not argue the point. No reason anyone had to be sacrificed just to make it to the falls. “Can you tell me anything about the King or Freehold?”

“Freehold is simply where King Anthirian lives. He is a good man, though not as wise as he thinks he is.” She glanced at Magnus. “It’s fair to say that is not an uncommon issue with most men.”

“I certainly agree with that,” Arianna commented. “What can he do to help me return to my world?”

“He can help you capture Dathon and release the Aldewater magic that the man has stolen. That should allow you to use the book to open a portal back to your own world.” Rhinna leaned close to her. “I want you to promise you’ll leave the book before you go and take Dathon with you.”

Leaving behind the book would mean never returning to Aldewater, which was fine with her. Taking Dathon with her sounded ideal if he wanted to come. “What if he doesn’t want to leave?”

“It would be better for everyone if he did, but if he doesn’t willingly, there might be consequences,” Rhinna said, fingering the knife’s handle in her belt.

The meaning couldn’t be more apparent. “Understood.” He’d have to listen to reason, right? Still, why did he leave her and come here? What would she say and do when they met? It was so confusing. She’d finally come to terms with him being gone, only to find him here. Did she mean nothing to him? “Wait, what about this other woman you said looks like me and is with him. What do you make of that?”

“I have no idea. You look identical, but you’re not. This other ‘Arianna’ is vicious and cruel. I don’t know if she’s a corrupted reflection of you in some way or a manifestation of Dathon’s Aldewater magic. The King knows more about Aldewater magic than anyone.”

“Whoever or whatever she is,” Arianna replied, “I don’t know how she’ll react to me or let me near Dathon.”

“We’ll deal with her once we find Dathon,” Rhinna answered.

Magnus tugged on Rhinna’s arm. “We need to get going.” She nodded. “Let’s go,” Magnus shouted. A cascading series of shouts repeated the message up and down the column.

The sun traced a path across the sky until it sank below the treetops. Despite pauses in the march, at least a dozen villagers fell off the pace, drifting so far behind they could no longer be seen. Ahead of them, rushing water could be heard. The outline of ridgelines could be seen through gaps in the trees. The air also grew noticeably colder.

“The falls must be near,” Arianna commented.

“We’re still several miles away,” Rhinna replied. She glanced at the sharply slanting rays of sunlight and increasing shadows. “We should still make it before dark.”

Darkness continued to increase as the rays of sunlight faded. After a sharp turn in the path, rushing water sounds reached thunderous levels. A broad rocky outflow of water crossed the trail from a plunge pool, fed by a waterfall plunging off a rocky projection two hundred feet above them. Long vertical lines of water roared downward in a sinuous and relentless manner. Cool droplets of water filled the air.

Arianna had never seen anything like it before and stood staring. Rhinna and Magnus, on the other hand, began shouting. “Time’s wasting. Quickly, fill your water skins, and line up behind us.” The villagers did as they were told, and soon a long line formed behind the two leaders. Picking their way carefully through the large rocks surrounding the plunge pool, Rhinna and Magnus followed a narrow trail behind the waterfall.

Following the mass of villagers, Arianna wiped moisture out of her eyes. She stepped past the rushing water to discover a wide cave opening into the rock face. Rhinna stood on one side of the entrance and Magnus on the other. Together the two pulled each village into the cave. Darkness surrounded them until a torch flared to light at the feet of a villager who stood over it with a flint and stone. In rapid succession, other torches already mounted along the walls were soon lit, casting the cavern into view. The pinkish-yellow walls of the cave rose high and deep into the rockface and flowed into a large chamber. The villagers entered the open area and found places to sit next to the walls and stalagmites protruding from the floor.

As Arianna looked about at the wonders of the cave, shouts carried from the entrance. She turned to find Magnus pulling a few more villagers inside and yelling at them, “Hurry.” Screams followed villagers running further into the cave.

“Spear carriers come to the entrance,” Magnus bellowed.

Arianna started, remembering suddenly that she had such a weapon. Dropping her travel bag, she slipped the spear out and ran toward the entrance. A deep-throated growling greeted her as she approached. Just beyond the cave opening, reddish orbs floated in the darkness. It wasn’t until she stood next to Rhinna that she could determine what they were: reptilian-like eyes with very dark irises set into faces with hairy snouts.

“Night demons,” Rhinna said, thumbing her amulet.

Through the Door (part 3 — extended, w/o AI)

[ Continuation from Part 3 — AI extended edition. I did not use much of what the AI suggested, as it was largely summary, and ignored/bypassed details that will be important when conflict arises. So, instead, I concentrated on getting the villagers ready for the journey and will (in the next post) focus on the journey (as suggested by the AI) and have our hidden antagonists show their hairy (possibly fanged) faces. Enjoy. ]

Arianna hoisted a traveling bag over her shoulder and nodded at Rhinna. The older woman had been kind enough to supply traveling clothes and accouterments necessary to make the two-day trek to Freehold. All the other villagers hastened to grab their essentials as the sun was drifting low in the sky.

“How are we going to make it safely to Freehold without the protection of the Aldewater tree?”

Rhinna pointed toward a medallion hanging around her neck. “We each have one of these.” Opening it, inside was a golden seed. “These are seeds of the Aldewater tree. They provide some protection from the night demons.” Despite her saying this, her demeanor did not convey much confidence. The older woman dug into a bag and produced a medallion. She handed it to Arianna. “Take this and wear it. I hope it will do you more for you than it did my sister.”

Arianna took the medallion and hung it around her neck. “If you don’t mind, can you tell me what happened?”

“She wandered off two nights ago when her dog ran into the woods. We found her yesterday.”

“Did the night demons get her?”

Rhinna sniffed back a tear. “I don’t think so, but she was hanging from a tree.”

“Oh, how awful. But how do you know it wasn’t the demons.”

“Because she was hanging from the tree by her medallion. No demon could have come that close to her to have done it. She either killed herself, or someone else did it.”

Arianna ran her fingers over the medallion. “Did Dathon and his followers have medallions?”

“No,” Rhinna replied after a pause. “At least I didn’t see any.” She shouldered her travel bag. “We must get going to reach the Great Falls, the halfway point to Freehold.”

Magnus reappeared. “We’re ready to go, Rhinna.” The older woman nodded and then followed him into the village square. Arianna followed along as well. The huddled mass of villagers stood with bags over their shoulders and, in some cases holding children’s hands. All of whom looked terrified. The adults did not look much better, with long faces and nervous eyes.

“We must make it to Great Falls before dark. Do not wander off, and don’t fall behind. We can’t stop for stragglers. Fill your water skins. Magnus will hand out what weapons we have, so don’t lose them. There are not enough of them to go around, so only one per family. Line up by the tree.”

The villagers did as they were told, shuffling over to where Magnus stood. A pile of bows, arrows, staves, spears and short swords lay behind him. He began handing out a weapon to each group that approached. Slowly the line began to shorten, and Arianna moved to join it.

Rhinna pulled Arianna aside, “Have you ever handled a blade?”

“Only to cook with. I am pretty good with a bow, however. I placed second at regionals in college.”

“I don’t really understand. Does that mean you bow hunted before?”

“Uh, no, it was paper targets at a distance.”

Rhinna frowned. “We’re limiting the bows to experienced hunters.” She turned to Magnus, “Hand me a spear.” The man did so, and she handed it to Arianna.

Despite her best efforts, Arianna couldn’t suppress her disappointment. “I supposed I can handle a stick.”

“Don’t be like that. Spears are very important. All of these are made from Aldewater wood. A few of the arrows are as well.” She produced an arrow from a nearby quiver. “See the red fletching on this?” Arianna nodded. “This is an Aldewater arrow. If you find one of these, grab it. The heads are sharpened Aldewater wood. Useless for hunting but good against demons. But we only have a few, so they are precious.” Replacing the arrow, she pulled her blade. The six-inch blade gleamed in the sunlight. “See this symbol?” she said, pointing at the tree symbol on the pommel.

“Yes. I take it that has something to do with the Aldewater tree?”

“When the blades were forged, they are quenched in Aldewater oil, which makes them dangerous to demons.”

The last of the weapons were handed out. “Gather on the north trail,” Magnus shouted out. The mass of villagers moved through the village toward the northern outskirts. Magnus and Rhinna sorted them out. Experienced hunters, both men and women, stood on the group’s periphery. Caretakers for the children formed in the center.

Rhinna directed Arianna into the center of the column. “You stay here.”

Arianna leaned close to Rhinna.” What are our chances of making Great Falls before dark?”

The older woman noted the sun’s position, hovering just above the treetops. “We’ll be very blessed if we do, but the fact remains, we have no other option than to try.”

Magnus stood at the head of the column as Rhinna joined him. “March,” he called out. Together the crowd of humanity trudged up the trail as rays of sunlight lanced through the surrounding trees. Shadows cast by the trees crept slowly but relentlessly out of the underbrush.

[ Next post continues story here. ]

Just Desserts

Elmeara sat up as a scratching noise reached her ears. What could that be? She leaned forward and peered through the taffy curtains. Two hunched forms lurked near the porch. 

Rotten little vandals are ruining my beautiful sweet home! Her blood pressure peaked, and a swift rush of inspiration ran through her. Sadly, the feeling quickly drained away. The ax was dull, in the basement, and her knees weren’t what they used to be. Oh, to be young!

She heard them again, the uninvited shin kickers. From the sounds of it, they might be pulling the gutters off. 

Blast it all! The holy terrors would damage all her hard work if she didn’t stop them. With a thud, she dropped her carving knife and whetstone, slipped through the back door and around to the front yard. There they were – a boy and a girl, sitting on the stoop, gnawing like a pair of demented beavers. 

The boy squatted in baggy, low-riding pants as black as his Metallica T-shirt and greasy hair. She wasn’t sure what was more revolting, his underwear leering at her from his droopy drawers or his arms and clothes glistening with chocolate stains. He was positively drooling on himself. 

Elmeara rolled her eyes. Bah! No surprise, teenage boys do that naturally

The girl was marginally better, dressed in short shorts and a mid-riff baring shirt. Then she spied the Christmas tree collection bits and bobs that flashed and glittered from the girl’s navel, ears, eyebrows, and lips. 

Egads! The King of the trailer park must be missing a princess! A steady clicking noise came from the girl as she licked the candy cane downspouts. 

Newt eyeballs! This one had a tongue piercing. She was going to take forever to prepare.

They looked up at her, eye’s widening. No doubt they are more embarrassed at being caught than ashamed of the damage they’re causing. But, as her mum used to say, “When life hands you a stray chicken, get out the gravy.” 

So, with as much saccharine as she could muster, she asked, “What are you doing to my house?” As if they don’t know, but I might let them explain themselves. No need to appear too vindictive, yet.

“I’m hungry,” the girl whined. The slack-eyed boy stared while chewing with an open mouth. More chocolate dripped off his chin.

Elmeara shivered. Disgusting! “Why didn’t you just ring the bell,” she said, pointing toward the door, but blanched at the hole in her door frame. The teenage termites apparently ate that too. 

She struggled to keep her voice controlled. “Ahem, well, if you had bothered to ask, I would have given you something.” Seriously, you little pests! It takes real skill and time to bake a gingerbread two-by-four.

“We’re sorry,” they chimed, giving her puppy dog eyes. Nice try, you little manipulators, but I have jars of those in my basement.

She resisted a grimace. Phooey, they are baiting me. Still, I need to take the high road. “What are two beautiful, scrumptious children doing alone in the forest? Did you get lost?”

The girl answered with a flip of her long blond hair. “Like, our stepmother totally frizzed out when I asked for a ride to the mall. She told us to WALK! I couldn’t believe it. It’s like forever a mile away. So I said, like, you gots a minivan, sista, so why don’t you just take me there already! But the hag went all Tom Cruise and pushed me out the door.”

Ah yes, the old tired and overused “mean step-mom” routine. Elmeara shook her head. Some animals eat their young or should at least consider it. She studied the boy, and he stared back with one eye, the other hidden behind a clump of long hair. “Have you been victimized for the same reason?”

“Huh,” he said, dullness disappearing from his eyes. “Sort of – the step-witch pulled the plug on my X-box, and right in the middle of a wicked round of Grand Theft Auto, I’d just iced a cop and … “

“Poor thing,” Elmeara interjected. That unfortunate stepmother ought to be given a medal or at least a shovel and a shaded backyard.

“Well, my sweet things, why don’t you come in and make yourself comfortable.”

The boy perked up. “You got wifi?”

“No.”

He stared sullenly at the ground as another bit of railing dribbled down his chin.

“Oh no,” the girl whined, looking at the strange rectangular device in her hand. “I’ve got no bars.”

A smile crept across Elmeara’s face. Heh, heh. I do – in my basement. The girl noticed her staring. Uh oh, better play along. “Little young to be hanging out in bars, aren’t you?”

With a shake of her head, the girl rolled her eyes, “No, duh! I’m talking cell signal.” She held out the box and waved it at her. 

Like that is going to help you, hehe. “Sorry, no signal here. I receive a letter every now and then, but no phone calls.”

“Wow, how prehistoric!” the girl said incredulously.

Prehistoric, eh? I’ll outlast you, dearie. “How quaint, my dear. I’ve got some tasty lemonade inside. We can talk more there.”

“Okay. Come on, Hans, we’re going to chill with granny in her crib.” With a bang, she threw open the front door with such force a couple hard candies popped out of the door frame.

“Mmmmmppfhh,” Hans drooled, dropping the masticated porch railing with a plop on the ground. 

Elmeara darted for the door. Phooey! Drooling Dudley beat me to it. She hesitated before grabbing the glistening doorknob.

Ack! It would have been cleaner if he had licked the thing. So she dug into her robes, searching. Let’s see: ice pick, scalpel, a bottle of ether, gauze, bone separator – nope, no salad tongs. Guess I’ll risk it. With a grimace, she grabbed the knob, rotated the candy-coated mess enough to swing the door open, and followed her meals on heels to the kitchen.

When she caught up with her dumplings, they were already poking around the kitchen. The boy stuck his head into the refrigerator. “Wow, you don’t eat much, do you?”

“Well, I haven’t had victims …  um … made a trip to the store in quite a while.”

The girl pawed at the giant meat cleaver on the butcher’s block. “I take it you’re not a vegan?”

Elmeara managed a weak grin. “No, not exactly.”

The girl scrunched her face up in disgust. “I could never eat meat; it is so disgusting.” 

How disappointing. Vegans are always bony and tasteless – I’ll save her for last. 

The boy gave her a smirk. “Not me. I love a good steak, but not too raw; it can’t be mooing.”

Elmeara gave him a congratulatory grin. “Me too,” she said, resisting the urge to pinch his arm. “Pink and juicy for me.”

“OMG!” the girl shrieked. Elmeara’s heart skipped a beat. With concern, she followed where the girl pointed at an oven in the corner. The youngster exclaimed, “That is huge! You could cook a horse in there.”

Not a horse, my little dumpling, believe me. They tend to run off before you can properly season them. “I like to cook large animals. They tend to last longer.”

“Bleh,” the girl said with an exaggerated expression.

“Before we do anything else, could I have your names?” Not that it mattered, but it sure made labeling leftovers easier.

“My name is Gretel, and this is my brother Hans. What’s your name?”

“Elmeara.”

“That’s odd. How about we call you Elly?”

How about I call you dinner? Stupid children. These two were definitely not grade-A material. Let’s see, are the bitter ones sweet or the sweet ones bitter? Oh well, it didn’t matter. That’s what condiments are for, so on to business.

“How about some lemonade, my sweeties?”

Hans perked up. “You got any Red Bull? I need to get jazzed.”

That’s all I need; my dinner full of caffeine. “No honey, but the lemonade is sweet. Will that do?”

He rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Oh, I suppose so.” 

She pushed a glass toward him. That should make him drowsy. I just need to deal with the broccoli eater now.

“What can I do for you, my dear?” 

Gretel stared at the floor, hair shrouding her face. Slowly she started swaying, her hands clenched and her arms flaying. 

Elmeara scratched her head. Is the girl having a seizure?

“YEAH! Put a ring on it, uh-huh, put a ring on it,” the girl shrieked to the floor. 

A ring? What is she talking about? Elmeara jumped back to avoid Gretel’s dry heave dance moves. Thin white cords trailed up the girl’s sides and into her ears. That, combined with the glazed expression, made her look like she’d been freshly lobotomized. 

Elmeara waved a hand in front of Gretel’s face and yelled, “DO YOU WANT SOMETHING TO EAT?”

“Yeah, I’ll have a seat,” she answered, sashaying on a stool next to the butcher’s block.

Elmeara’s eyes widened. At this rate, I won’t be able to eat until after sundown, which always gives me indigestion. Plus, children seldom taste better the second time around.

She grabbed the girl by the shoulders and shoved her through the pantry door. “Search the top shelf. There should be a delicious can of peaches in there.” THUMP. The lock clicked into place.

Gretel’s voice drifted through the door. “Hey! There’s no light in here!”

“There’s a switch on the wall; keep looking for it.” Turning around, she found the boy, his head bopping and swaying, eyes glazed over. Ah, the lemonade was working. Now to the oven. She danced all around to him. “Come, my dear, you must be tired. Time for a nap.”

“Wwwwha ….” he stammered, spittle dripping on his shirt front. 

She grabbed his collar and pulled him toward the oven. With her other hand, she tugged open the heavy iron door.

“Uh oh,” he said.

Elmeara tensed. Had she made a mistake? Had the lemonade not taken effect?

“I’m gonna …”

Suddenly he bent double and sprayed the butcher’s block with predigested porch railing. Elmeara cringed. Blasted child! It took me weeks to clean from my last meal. His jerky movements threw her off balance, and she teetered too. His head thumped off the surface of the butcher’s block and recoiled toward her face.

Oh no! Too late. Stars filled her eyes as his knobby noggin dented her forehead. She rocketed backward as the world quickly faded to black. Somewhere in the distance, she heard the loud thump of the oven door slamming shut.

* * *

Hans woke up a few minutes later, only to find himself staring at the kitchen ceiling. As he sat up, pain pounded at his temples. “Oh man, I ain’t felt like this since … uh … last weekend.”

Thumps erupted from the pantry door. “Hey, let me out of here!”

He rolled his eyes and shambled to his feet. “Keep your panties on.”

Pulling the door open, Gretel glowered at him, a glowing iPhone in her hand. “Granny told me there was a light switch in here, but I couldn’t find it.”

“She probably forgot. You know how they always forget their teeth and pills.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

She attempted to brush past him. “Ewwww, you reek. What did you do?”

A quick sniff of his glass confirmed it. “I think granny gave me some loaded lemonade. You know how I can’t hold my Jack.”

“Why would she keep that in her fridge?”

“Maybe she’s a booze hag or uses it for arthritis. You know oldies can’t walk anywhere without screaming in pain.” His face lit up. “Oh man, I had a killer idea!”

“What?”

“You know how old people are always popping pain pills? I’ll bet she’s got some Vicodin or Percocet around here.”

“Sweet!” Gretel’s brow furrowed. “Wait, where is she? We don’t want her catching us.”

“Beats me. She probably fell asleep on the crapper.”

Gretel looked at the mess on the butcher’s block. “Then again, she probably went to find a mop, puke boy.”

So, they searched, but not finding Granny, they quickly crushed and huffed her prescription meds and emptied her liquor cabinet. 

* * *

Elmeara woke up in complete darkness. Where am I? Her fingertips brushed against cool metal with raised ridges. She tried to stand but bumped her head on the ceiling. Tracing the boundaries, she quickly tallied up the dimensions. If this is a closet, why isn’t there a door hand handle?

* * *

Hans sat on the kitchen counter. “We should head home before the step-witch sends the five-oh after us.”

“Oh, she wouldn’t do that.”

“Sure she would; she’d like nothing more than to put us in juvie.”

Gretel nodded. “Okay, let’s go. Strange we didn’t find granny.”

“Yeah,” Hans said, wiping pill dust off his upper lip. “I kinda feel bad about taking her stuff. Maybe we should do something nice for her.”

Gretel pointed at the butcher block. “How about cleaning up that mess you made?”

“Nah, too much work,” he said, yawning. His eyes drifted around the kitchen before settling on the oven. “I know what to do. Let’s go!”

With a shrug, Gretel whipped out her iPhone. “Hey, I got GPS,” she shouted, walking out the front door.

“Cool.” Hans stepped in front of the oven and searched the display. “Thanks, granny,” he said, punching the button marked “Auto-Clean.”

* * *

Light erupted from the walls, quickly turning from brown to red. As it increased, so did the heat. The realization came to Elmeara, like the sweat on her forehead. 

Oh, how I hate children!