Grudges Come Back to Haunt Us

This is for last week’s prompt to the 52 week writing challenge, “a story about justice being done.” I’d struggled with this at first because I felt like justice was such a loaded and complicated term, but I think I captured that feeling pretty well here. Warning: there is profanity and violence in this story. Proceed with caution!

Kieran sat on the hard bench, stifled by the collar of his button up shirt and stiff blazer. Neither of those things compared to the cuffs around his wrists though. The cold metal chafed his vulnerable skin, and the raw red welts made him see the blood on his hands from that night.

***

            He hadn’t meant for things to get out of hand. He just wanted an explanation for why the man he’d considered his best friend for so long would betray him that way. It’d been five years since the night Kieran caught him with the woman he loved, but it still grated him to see their pictures online, happy together, smiling, taunting him.

He should have let it go. It was done and over. Nothing left to do or say from any of them. But he didn’t let go. He held onto the pain and anger and let it fester away at his soul, fueling that rage with endless bottles of Jack and Jim. Holding grudges was always Kieran’s specialty, and that night it overwhelmed him.

With breath reeking of alcohol, and a staggering step, he arrived at his former best friend’s house, banging a fist so hard against the door he splintered the area around the knocker. Kieran heard grumbling from the other side as a light went on in the dark house. They’d already been asleep. People do that at two in the morning.

The door opened and for the first time in five years, Kieran stood face to face with the man who’d stolen his girlfriend from him. “Kieran, what the hell are you doing?”

“You never told me why, Lucius. Why’d you do it?” Kieran slurred his words.

Lucius sighed. “Kieran, you’re drunk. Let me get you a cab home.”

Kieran reached out. “No, you’re gonna answer my question.” His voice rose in volume. “Why did you take her from me?”

“Kieran, please. It’s late and you’re gonna wake the neighbors.”

“Then fucking answer me,” Kieran bellowed.

Lucius put a hand out, pleading for him to quiet down. “Okay, okay, let’s talk. Come around this way.” He led Kieran to the shed on the side of the house.

“You were my best friend.” Kieran got quiet now. “And I loved her.”

“Kieran, I’m sorry. It just happened.”

“Bullshit.” Yelling again.

Lucius put a hand up again. “Look, Kieran, the truth is, you have a problem. And Mary, she couldn’t take it anymore. We tried to get you help, but look at you now. You refuse to face your problems head on.”

Kieran’s nostrils flared. “I had it under control. Until you went and took her from me.”

Lucius shook his head. “She came to me, looking for a friend to help. And I tried. But we couldn’t help you. And in the process…” He looked down, guilty.

“Yeah, in the process of wanting to help me, you abandoned me. Ran off into the sunset together.” Kieran was wobbling now, getting in close to Lucius.

Lucius reached a hand out to Kieran’s shoulder, but Kieran knocked it away. “I don’t want your pity. I don’t want anything from you.” Spit flew from his mouth now.

“Kieran, please. Calm down.” Lucius’s voice shook. “You’re gonna cause a scene and I don’t want someone to call the police on you.” He reached a hand out again, but this time Kieran grabbed it and knocked Lucius back.

Lucius stumbled against the table, but still tried to settle his comrade’s rage. “Please, Kieran. Look at yourself. You’re a mess right now. Don’t do this.”

Kieran stepped forward and grabbed his former friend’s shirt front. “You took everything from me.” His other hand came forward in a fist, full force. Bone cracked against bone, but Kieran felt nothing.

Lucius tried to cry out, but Kieran kept going, not letting the man who’d taken his life take a single breath. By the time he realized what he’d done, Lucius lay still in his arms. Kieran shook him but received no response. “Lucius? Lucius?” Nothing.

Kieran’s eyes teared up and his breath hitched. “Oh god, no. What did I do? Fuck. Shit. Fuck.”

“Lucius what’s going—?” The sleepy voice behind him stopped short. Mary stepped forward into the light. “Kieran? Where’s—?” That’s when she saw him and her hands shot up to her face. “Oh my god, Kieran. What happened? What did you do?”

Kieran let go of Lucius’s limp body, watching in horror as his former friend fell to the floor, unmoving. “Mary, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to. It just happened.”

She knelt down, hands shaking as she reached for her husband’s neck to check his pulse. She pulled them back instantly like she’d been bitten by a snake. Kieran ran out, not looking back at the damage he’d done.

***

            Now, he waited for his name to be called. Waited for judgment. Waited to be forced to look Mary in the eye one last time before he was found guilty of first degree murder.

“Kieran Nieto.” This was it. He took a deep breath and got up on his feet. It felt strange to stumble forward without alcohol in his system.

As he walked down the aisle to the front of the court room, he managed to catch Mary’s eye and found her gazing back, stone-faced with eyes cold and hard as ice. She had every right to hate him. He’d gone too far. Past the point of no return.

The judge’s gavel came down and Kieran swallowed down the lump in his throat. This would be quick and easy. He already knew what he wanted to do. When the moment of confession came, for the first time in his life, he did the right thing. “In the case of…” He hardly heard the rest. He was ready with his answer. “Guilty.” The word fell from his lips like a broken promise.

The next hour or so went in a flurry as he was propelled from the room to his next destination. Handled from one officer to another, he finally made his way to a secure vehicle, only to find himself alone at the end.

Kieran looked around, confused at this breach in protocol. A sinking feeling hit the pit of his stomach, and then just as suddenly, a sharp, cold pain shot into his spine.

“There’s no saving you, Kieran. You’ve been dead a long time.” He’d never heard Mary’s voice that way before. Soulless. Frozen. Venomous.

“Mary.” He gurgled as his knees buckled beneath him. “Please.”

She came around to face him. “This is your justice, Kieran.”

No, he thought as it all faded away. It’s your ghost.

Christmas Lights in the Middle of August

Almost done catching up on the 52 week writing challenge. This one’s for the prompt “a story set in a strange small town.” Inspired by the season. Enjoy!

The sunbaked clay road seemed to go on forever, but finally I found civilization. At least, I thought I had. The small town had a few scattered houses as I made my way in to its center, and every single one had Christmas lights and decorations still up. Or up too early. It’s all about perspective.

I didn’t see any kids running around the park I passed. No neighbors sitting out on the front porches. Who’d be out in this heat, though? Still, the air seemed to stand still around me, like not a living soul dwelled in the area to breathe it in.

For a second I thought I’d stumbled upon an old, abandoned Christmas village. Like Santa’s Enchanted Hell Forest. Then, a jingling doorbell caught my ear just off to the side. I turned my head and saw a sweet, smiling elderly woman with snow white hair. Mrs. Claus. I smiled back.

“Hello dear. Are you lost?” Her voice sounded like a lifelong smoker’s. Didn’t match the rosy cheeks and bright eyes at all.

“I’m afraid so. My car broke down a few miles outside of town. Was looking for some help.” I brought a hand up to shield my eyes from the bright rays of sunlight hitting me directly in the face.

She beckoned me forward. “Come in, dear. We have food, water and a phone. Let’s see what we can do.”

I obeyed and followed her inside. It looked like a little mom and pop hardware store. A tall, robust around the waist old man sat behind the counter, a full white beard and head of hair to match. I was really starting to think this was the famous Claus duo from stories.

“Afternoon, son. What can we do for you?” His gruff voice expelled bursts of air, like it was hard for him to breathe.

“His car broke down, dear. Is there someone we can call?” his wife asked.

He waved a hand. “Nonsense. I’ll take a look.”

She shook her head. “Oh, Nick. There you go again. Thinking yourself a mechanic.”

“Every vehicle’s the same inside, Ilsa. Don’t matter it’s outside,” he insisted.

“Oh, I don’t want to trouble you. If I could just use your phone, I’ll gladly call Triple A,” I said.

Old Nick chuckled. “Won’t get a service car out here. We’re not even on a map.”

I frowned. “How do you get mail then?”

“We don’t. Mail doesn’t come here. Only comes to our other house.”

He pulled a utility belt around his big belly and pulled a tool kit from behind the counter. “C’mon, son. Let’s take a look at her.”

“Well, it’s a few miles outside of town. I don’t wanna make you walk so far.”

He waved a hand again. “We’ll the take the wagon then.”

Ilsa bustled forward with cold glasses of water in hand. “Dear, please, take something to drink first. You’ll faint from dehydration.”

I licked my lips at the sight of the water. I’d forgotten how parched I was. “Thank you.” I grabbed for the water and brought the sweet, cool elixir to my lips. Without stopping for breath I drank it all the way down to the last drop.

I looked around as I wiped my mouth. “Where is everyone else around this town, anyway? I didn’t see them as I walked in.”

“Oh, they’re around.” Ilsa smiled, a twinkle in her eye. “They’re just shy around strangers.”

“Guess you don’t get many visitors out here, huh?”

Nick laughed. “You got that right.”

“And what about all the Christmas décor? It’s the middle of August.”

“It makes us feel at home,” Ilsa answered. “So far from the north, we get lonesome sometimes.”

“This is our summer home,” Nick explained. “A place to get away and regroup for the coming year’s work load.”

“It certainly is isolated.” Why would anyone vacation here?

“Ready, son? Let’s get going on that car.”

Nick led me out to a shed where he unveiled a bright red convertible that looked brand new. “I though you said it was a wagon?”

He gave another rumbly laugh. “I only call it the wagon. It’s actually a Corvette.”

“I can see that.” I smiled like an idiot. Santa Claus drives a convertible when he’s away at his summer home.

We made our way to my car, Nick taking the convertible to its max speed and me grinning like a kid on Christmas. We arrived in no time to find my abandoned car still sitting in the sun, hood up and a sign I’d left in the grime-ridden window that read “PLEASE DON’T STEAL ME!”

Nick waddled over to look at the engine and went to work with his tools. I stood by, watching his nimble fingers run back and forth like he was casting a charm and within minutes, I don’t know how, but the dead engine roared to life and my car was back in commission.

“That’s amazing. How’d you do it?” I gaped.

Nick winked. “Got the magic touch.”

He got in his convertible and called back, “Follow me back in so we can get you on your way.”

Back in the weird, seemingly empty Christmas town, I saw something strange as I drove in. A few tiny kids playing on the jungle gym and swings in the park I’d seen empty before scattered as I drove by. Real skittish, these townsfolk.

Like shadows that disappeared just out of the corner of my eye, I saw more and more of the people in the houses. Everyone seemed so small, and elf-like, but I couldn’t get a good look to tell who they were.

Inside the hardware store again I looked closer and noticed the shelves were not full of tools and things to buy, but rather projects, half finished, complete and just started. Objects that looked like toys and machines and gadgets. I scratched my head and finally blurted out, “Okay, I know this is gonna sound ridiculous, but who are you guys?”

“Just ol’ Nick and Ilsa, dear. With our closest friends.” She smiled as she handed me a plate of cookies.

“Uh huh,” I muttered as I took a bite.

Nick laughed. “No need to worry about us, son. We’re just a couple old farts getting by out of the way of society. City’s too noisy and these old bones need a break from the cold from time to time.”

I decided not to press the matter. Besides, a grown ass man shouldn’t be thinking that Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus and their elves would build a whole town in the middle of nowhere for their summer vacation. Or that they’d exist altogether.

Nick pulled out a map and set it on the table, marking the route to take out of town. “Now when you come up at this crossroads, take the road right. It’ll take you straight to the highway and that should get you back on track.”

I nodded as I packed away the snacks and water bottles Ilsa had given me. “Thank you both so much. It really was nice of you to do so much for a total stranger.”

“Nonsense. We’re not strangers. We’re old friends.” Nick laughed.

I couldn’t help but laugh along with him. It really did feel like I’d known them my whole life.

Outside, I got back in my car, turned the key and put my hand on the gear. “Thanks again, Nick.”

“No problem, Jack.” He patted my shoulder, his grip warm and firm.

At that moment I realized I’d never given either of them my name. “Hey, how did you—?”

Nick winked. “Mind the snow on the roads as you get close to home. Old man Frost likes to play tricks sometimes.”

I shook my head, unable to believe what I was hearing. I decided to just accept it and go on. As I drove out of town, I caught a better glimpse of the residents as they turned the lights on for the coming night. Behind me, in the rearview mirror, sparkling flashes of color flickered, the whole town lit up like a Christmas tree.

I smiled. Santa’s Enchanted Summer Getaway.

But I’m Only Human

Still playing catch up on my 52 week writing challenge, and seeing as the year is quickly coming to an end, I need to get on that. Here’s a story I wrote for the prompt “a story about anger.” I do warn there is violence and references to abuse in this story, so proceed at your own risk.

Franny picked up the pencil and set the number 2 lead point to the coarse, beige paper again. Grey smudges dotted the side of her hand and made some appearances on her nose. Her brows furrowed and she breathed hard through her nose, shallow breaths that held back the tears.

They don’t know me. They don’t matter. They’re not worth my time.

Without realizing what her fingers had formed with the pencil on paper, she drew out figures familiar in size and shape, and they started to dance. She gasped. Not again.

She threw the pencil at the wall like it had bitten her. The unshaded, faceless figures shimmied and swayed, waiting for her maestro fingers to tell them which way to go and what to do. No, no I’m not like that. I’m human. I’m only human.

The figures danced and beckoned, their nonexistent faces leering with sharp teeth in her mind’s eye, taking on the sneers of her classmates. The gaping, laughing maws of her teachers. We could teach them. Show them just what freaks we really are.

Franny’s fingers ran over the paper, searching for the invisible wires making her figures move of their own accord, and felt a jolt of electricity. It sparked the memory of the sting of the boys’ hits against her bare skin when they chased her naked out of the girls’ locker room showers, out in the open cold, in front of everyone.

Her breathing quickened and she picked up another pencil, shading in the details, giving each face the eyes, nose and mouths of all the kids and teachers who’d abused her over the past two years. With each burning memory of pain and humiliation she pressed the lead harder until the figures took on grotesque forms of real-life people. No, not people. Monsters.

We are human. They are not. Humans don’t do the things they do. Humans don’t snarl and cackle and taunt. Monsters do.

Franny started slow, curling her fingers back and forth to watch the two dimensional figures flurry back and forth. Then, she made them collide into one another. They laughed when she laughed. BAM BAM BAM. She made them smash one after another. And all the while the figures laughed. They laughed at their own pain. They laughed at their self-destruction as Franny bid them with her invisible, electric strings.

Soon, blooming roses of red paint spread across the paper, dripping from the figures’ grotesque, smiling mouths, and Franny laughed. Now who’re the freaks?

Outside, a commotion caught her attention. In the courtyard a crowd of people gathered, some crying, some screaming, calling for help, others reached out their hands trying to grab at something at the center of the mass of bodies.

Franny dropped her fingers and the figures on her paper went limp. She got up, afraid to see what was out there. She made her way to the window of the art room, pressed a hand to the glass and stood on tip toes. Someone ran in, frantic, startling Franny out of her reverie.

“What’s going on out there?” she asked the student.

“Where’s the phone?” She didn’t answer Franny’s question.

Franny pointed toward the teacher’s desk. The other student made for the phone and tried to dial, but her hands were shaking. Franny recognized this girl. It was one of the kids who hung around the others—the ones who tormented her.

“You’re one of them,” she said out loud, picking up the pencil she’d thrown earlier and walking back toward the desk where she’d left her art work.

“What?” The girl waved her off as she got a response from the other line. “Yes, please send an ambulance. Two kids are hurt. Bleeding so much.”

She paused as she listened to the other voice on the line and didn’t notice Franny return to her seat. The quiet girl put her pencil to paper again and began gliding the lead point, curving and sketching, scratching marks into the surface.

“I don’t know. They just started running at each other. Like wild animals. Wouldn’t stop. Heads crashed over and over. Please, they’re bleeding so much.” The girl on the phone sobbed.

Franny didn’t look up from her paper. “You’re one of them. You don’t say mean things. You don’t hit me. But you stand there and watch as they do.”

The girl looked to Franny again, impatient. “What are you saying?”

Franny stopped now, dropped her pencil, and stared the girl in the eye, her own glowing with rage. “You’re just as monstrous as they are!”

With that, Franny brought a finger down to the paper in front of her, slicing her nail through the thin surface, and before her eyes, the girl on the phone began to gurgle. A wide, gaping wound appeared in her neck and scarlet liquid dribbled out slow at first and then gushed out like a faucet open all the way.

The phone fell from her hand and Franny could vaguely hear the other voice talking, trying to get the girl’s attention. She calmly walked over, put the phone back on the receiver and knelt down by the girl. “You could have avoided this if you’d just told them to stop.”

The girl reached out a trembling hand, her eyes pleading for mercy. Franny had none. She walked out of the classroom and past the crowd. “I’m only human,” she kept whispering to herself over and over again.

Chaos continued behind her. Chaos she knew she’d caused. And now that she knew her power, she’d find her revenge elsewhere. It was time to go home.

Wild Ride

So for this prompt from my 52 week writing challenge, a story about a near death experience, I decided to go with an incident that actually happened to me about a month ago. Enjoy!

Driving down the 95 is hell on a good day, but at night in a sports car with terrible blind spots and a passenger who’s head blocks most of the right-hand visual? Recipe for disaster. That’s why I didn’t even know something was happening until my mom started screaming and reaching her arm out to me.

Before I knew it, in slow motion, like a movie or a dream, an all-black car, faded paint and no headlights, skidded up my right against the barricade, spun across all four lanes heading south bound to the other side, stopped only by the left-hand barricade.

Meanwhile, my sweaty hands stayed on the wheel, gripping the rubber cover so tight my knuckles were numb. My arms mechanically swiveled the wheel side to side, but I barely felt my car weave with the movement within my lane.

My mom kept screaming something. I don’t know what she said. Just words. My dad screamed in the back seat too, but it was all warbled noise, like that one teacher from the Peanuts cartoons.

I may have stopped breathing. My heart may have stopped beating. Hard to tell when all you see is a car spinning out of control like something out of a James Bond movie and you’re smack in the middle of it. The weirdest part though? On a Florida road at night going 70 miles an hour, every car around and behind me somehow managed to make an arcing pathway for the car losing control.

Like Moses parted the red sea, my red Pontiac G5 was the dividing line that all the other cars managed to follow and avoid crashing into one another like a carnival bumper car ride.

A huge crash and sudden stop in front of me brought the world’s volume back up full blast. I slammed on the brakes and barely stopped in time. The mini SUV in front had been hit by the car that lost control and so I stopped too, without a scratch or even a dent.

If the both of us had been driving just a little faster, that would’ve been my car that took the hit, and my car could not survive that crash. Too small to take the impact.

A miracle. Serendipity. A guardian angel. Call it what you will, but it was freakin’ insane. And the real kicker? My life did not flash before my eyes. Nothing flashed.

The world stood still while I watched that car skid, swerve and slide its way across a highway and narrowly miss my car. Fast and slow. Still and in motion. Like time and space had converged at that one point and the universe had caved in and recreated itself to unfold right then and there.

No, my life did not flash before my eyes. It just stopped and went on.

Day of Birth

For this 52 week writing challenge prompt, “a story that takes place the year you were born,” I decided to tell the story I’ve heard so many times from my mom about the day I was born, in my own words and how I heard the story. Happy Thanksgiving reading!

“GET! ME! TO! THE! HOS.PIT.AAAAAALLLL!” she screamed like a banshee.

“I’m trying!” he hadn’t meant to shout. It was stressful trying to navigate Miami traffic with a woman giving labor in the backseat though.

“Just hang in there, Sony.” Her brother-in-law’s already high pitched voice sounded squeakier and more anxious than usual.

She gritted her teeth and tried to keep the screams down, but it was hard. After nearly 10 months of being pregnant, the same day a C-section is scheduled, the damn baby decided to be born mere hours before she was supposed to be at the hospital.

Her husband ran red light after red light, honking viciously at other drivers to move out of his way. “Damn it, where’s a cop when you need one?” He was trying to get a police officer’s attention to get him an escort to clear the way to the hospital. No such luck this day, though.

As he approached a railway in the path, he didn’t slow down, but instead sped up and flew over the tracks. The motion set another screaming wave from the back seat. “Watch it, you idiot. The baby just almost flew out of here.”

He muttered curses under his breath in Spanish. It shouldn’t have taken this long to get to the hospital, but that’s Miami for you. A simple three-mile route turned into a zig zagging journey through back streets and side roads avoiding traffic and took three times as long to get to your destination.

When they finally got there, her brother-in-law jumped out of the car and ran for help. She got lucky and was put directly on a gurney and transferred to the elevator to get her to a room. The baby was stubborn though, and started crowning in the cramped space shared with strangers. Her worst fear had come true. Her legs spread and her business open to the public, giving birth. She screamed more in frustration and embarrassment than from pain.

The doctor barely had time to get in the room. None of the usual prep for a birthing was done. No time to stand on ceremony. The baby came on her own time, disregarding her parents’ careful plans and strategies.

Nearly an hour later, they held the baby in their arms, the mother sweating and eyes closed, the father’s hands shaking, and the brother-in-law dozing off in the waiting room.

Taking It Back

Here’s a short story for my 52 week writing challenge for the prompt “a retelling of a recent Hollywood movie.” I used a very loose base from this movie my friends and I saw in theaters to create this story. I wonder who can figure out what it is 😛

Val needed help, and fast. But no one was crazy or brave enough to take down the Wendigo’s clan. He ruled through fear, and rightly so. If his orders were disobeyed or someone insulted him in any way, that person became enemy number one, and things ended in the worst way for them. They called him the Wendigo for a reason.

The latest victim of the Wendigo’s tyrannical rule: Val’s brother Xavier. Xavier had been a soldier in the Wendigo’s army, and not by choice. Every day he was tasked with abhorrent orders, the kind that gave him nightmares and kept him fitful as he lay under the dark sky in the hut him and Val shared. Yesterday, it was the last straw. Xavier couldn’t take it anymore.

***

“You, soldier,” the Wendigo said to Val’s brother. “This young woman denies me what is mine. Let me deny her what is hers. Gather her children and slaughter them for the gods.” Everyone in the ranks stood in stunned silence.

Xavier had stepped forward and walked toward the shaking and terrified young woman. He made as if to act on his leader’s orders, but then turned and made everyone gasp. “No.”

The Wendigo rose from his throne and crossed his arms over his chest. “What?”

“I won’t kill innocent lives for your insatiable blood lust, you monster.” Xavier stood in front of the young woman like a shield.

Val tried to run forward to stop his brother from making a mistake, but someone’s arms wrapped around him and a voice whispered, “Don’t, you idiot. Or you’ll end up like him.” He still struggled, but to no avail.

The Wendigo’s booming, sinister laugh filled the hall. “Very well. Guards, take this insolent boy and his wench he champions so passionately to the keep. They’ll make a fine meal for the coming feast.”

And just like that, Val’s brother had been sentenced to satiate the clan leader’s hunger. It’s easy to rule the land when you’re a cannibal.

***

That was over a day ago. Now, Val rode his horse as fast as it could go, dashing through bramble, over cold, hard ground and jumping over fallen trees. He knew where he had to go to find saviors that would take on someone as insane as the Wendigo.

In just under 48 hours, he’d made it to the Isle of Exile, where all those who’d made minor transgressions against the Wendigo were sent to live out the rest of their lives, cut off from the clan. Even a cannibal couldn’t eat everyone. Things like petty theft or accidentally spilling his evening wine on him weren’t met with a death sentence. They just got kicked out of their family’s homelands for as long as they lived.

Val arrived in the Isle just before that night’s sun set. He’d known the way because Xavier had taken him along for his assignments several times. His brother was the one that escorted the exiles to their new residence. Val had a huge task to get their help now.

He stepped down off his horse a few feet out from the makeshift camp’s entrance and walked the rest of the way in. There were no guards blocking his way like back at his village. Getting around them to leave in the dead of night had been a chore.

It appeared he’d arrived just in time for dinner. The people he’d once known as his neighbors and friends and peers stared back at him now with hollow cheeks, scraggly hair and bent figures. Life outside of the clan was a hard one. They eyed him suspiciously as he made his way to the main hut on the other side of the camp.

Val’s palms began to sweat as he approached the hut. Before he could gather the courage to step inside, a tall, dark man came out first. He looked down at Val, surprised to see the little brother of a clansmen standing at his feet.

“Hi, Yomi. Long time no see.” Val gave a pathetic, nervous chuckle.

Yomi rolled his eyes and huffed. “What’re you doing here?” He looked beyond Val, eyes scanning the scene. “And without Xavier.”

“We need to talk.” Val meant business now.

“We,” he made a show of indicating his fellow exiles, “don’t owe you anything. You turned your back on us.”

“And I’m sorry about that. We were scared. But I’m here now, and I know it’s asking a lot, but I need your help.”

Yomi threw his head back in laughter. “Hear that, everyone? Val of house Zoraida is asking for our help.”

Several former clansmen hanging around laughed alongside their informal leader. “Kid, you got a lot of nerve.”

“Listen, Yomi. You know Xavier was only following orders. You know what the Wendigo is capable of.”

“I know damn well what he’s capable of,” Yomi snarled while pointing at the empty socket where his eye once was.

Val swallowed hard but forged on. “Well, Xavier did something stupid. He defied orders, and as a soldier of the Wendigo’s army, you know what that means.”

Yomi stepped back and raised his eyebrows. “Did he now? Well, hope the Wendigo likes his meat tough, ’cause that soldier isn’t going down easy.” He let out a loud guffaw and his peers followed suit.

“C’mon Yomi. We can’t just let him become the Wendigo’s dinner.”

“We aren’t your clansmen anymore, remember?”

“You were once.” Val stood his ground and never broke eye contact.

Yomi stared him down. “Why take the risk now? We got off easy. We’re safe.”

“No one will ever be safe as long as the Wendigo is in charge and you know that.”

“Not my problem anymore.” Yomi turned to walk away from Val, but Val put a hand out to stop him.

“You once told me family can be called on any time. I’m calling on you now.” His uncle stood at least a foot taller than him, but Val would not be intimidated.

Yomi furrowed his brows. “I called on you when I was exiled. Where were you and your brother then?”

Val dropped his head and whispered, “Scared kids trying not to die.”

They were at a standstill now. Val looked up at his uncle again. “Look, I know we let you down. And I’m the last person you ever wanted to see again. I get that saving Xavier means saving the man who brought you into exile in the first place. But that’s the point. This cycle never ends as long as the Wendigo rules. It was house Zoraida first. Then it’ll be another house. Another brother betraying his brother for safety. Don’t you get it? The system will keep going until it’s cut off.”

“And we’re the ones to cut it off, huh?” Yomi shook his head. “Even if I could get some of the guys here to rally, the Wendigo’s got an army. An army your brother was part of. How would we even overcome that force?”

“We probably don’t. We’ll likely die before saving Xavier. But aren’t you the one who said it’s better to die in stupid bravery than live in smart cowardice?”

Yomi gave his nephew a grin a mile wide. “So, Valiant finally lives up to his name. Why the sudden change of heart?”

“He’s got Xavier, uncle.”

“No. No, it’s more than that. What else has the Wendigo got?”

Val hesitated but decided to tell the whole truth. “Xavier refused to kill a woman’s children for the Wendigo. He took my brother and the woman as his prisoners to prepare them for his festival feast.”

“And who’s the woman and children?”

“My wife, Esther, and my kids. My family.”

“So the Wendigo’s got your wife and brother and wanted to kill your progeny. Yeah, that’ll change any man’s heart.”

“So, when do we start?” Val waited for his uncle to process the news.

“Give me tonight to gather our fighters and supplies. We’ll leave at dawn just you and me if we have to.”

Val nodded. “Thank you, uncle.”

Yomi patted his nephew’s shoulder. “We’re in for a long shot, kid.”

“It’s the only shot. We take what we get.”

***

Val barely slept or ate that night. He gave up on rest as the first rays of dawn broke and got up to get his horse ready to leave. It looked like it was just going to be him and his uncle Yomi.

As he gulped down some bland oats and water, Yomi approached with a band of the roughest looking clansmen he’d ever seen. “Well, here’s your army, Val. The men and women who will take on your suicidal mission.”

Val pulled his pack onto his back and ran a hand through his hair. “Seven guys.”

Two of the group cleared their throats and glared at him. “Five guys and two women,” Val amended. “Yep, we’re gonna die.”

“Now hold on,” Yomi said, “don’t be so quick to dismiss them. These clansmen were once your people too. And you remember the twins of house Balgar.”

Two identical men stepped forward and smiled at him. “How’s it going, Prince Valiant?”

Val rolled his eyes. “Yeah I remember they used to follow me home after school and beat me up.”

“Exactly.” Yomi clapped his hands together. “You know we’ve got brute strength in them. And there’s Calista. She’s always been an expert marksman—excuse me, markswoman. And we can’t go wrong with our resident pyromaniac, Dumar.”

His uncle went around reintroducing each face Val had once known when he was a child. These weren’t exactly the clansmen he was hoping to get on his side. They’d all been criminals and bullies even before the Wendigo came to town. Maybe it took bad guys to fight against a really, really bad guy.

“Hey, you said it yourself. We take what we get.” Yomi shrugged.

Val sighed. “Okay, let’s go team.”

They gathered in a circle and went over the plan of attack, Yomi making diagrams in the dirt and in turn making sure each team member knew their role. Val’s role was simple: the idiot brother calling out the Wendigo in defense of his family.

As they approached the guarded gates of the village, Val gave his uncle a stiff nod. He charged forward and made sure the guards caught him. “Come out, you fat coward. Come out and fight me if you’re a real clan chief.”

He struggled against the guards as they dragged him to the prison where his brother and wife resided. At least, he hoped they were still there.

Val’s plan was not in vain. He saw his family in the cells as the guards brought him in. Xavier ran forward and hissed, “Val you idiot, what’re you doing here?”

“Don’t worry, Xavier, I’m gonna save you,” he whispered back.

Xavier gave him a puzzled look.

“Just wait. You’ll see.”

His brother shook his head and muttered curses in their native tongue under his breath. Val ignored them and turned to his wife. “Esther, my love, are you alright?”

She nodded. “Val how could you be so foolish? Our children.” Esther’s voice gave out in anguish.

“Don’t worry, my love. They’ll be fine. I promise. We’re going to make things right.”

His two fellow prisoners said in unison, “We?”

Val nodded. He made sure the guards weren’t listening. “Uncle Yomi,” he said softly to his brother.

Xavier’s eyes widened and then blurred with tears. “Is he–? I mean, does he still–?”

“He’s family,” Val broke in to his brother’s confounded rambling. “We can always call on family.”

“So how are you helping if you’re in here?”

Before Val could answer, a commotion took place outside and the guards ran to find the source. “Show time,” he said to his brother and wife. “Stay down.”

They did as he told them and before they knew it the temperature in the prison seemed to rise. Overhead, light began to break through the ceiling shafts. A fire was burning through the roof.

A hole big enough to fit a person appeared and Dumar poked his head in. “Time to go.” He threw down a rope before Xavier and Esther could ask questions. They took it one at a time, Esther first, then Xavier and then Val.

They stood in confusion on the roof of the slow burning prison. “Dumar?” Esther was incredulous.

He winked at her. “Long time no see, eh, sweetheart?”

Val raised an eyebrow in question to his wife. She only blushed and looked down.

“We better get going. This roof won’t hold our weight for much longer,” Dumar broke in.

The group scrambled to find their footing and shimmy down another rope hanging over the north wall. Before Xavier and Esther could ask more questions, Val put up a hand to halt them. “Look, my first concern right now is getting you to safety.”

“I know you don’t mean me,” his brother interjected. “I’m gonna fight. Where’s the army’s position?”

Val made a face. “No army, brother. Just a bunch of rogues willing to die for a fight.”

“Good enough. I’m in.” Xavier crossed his arms over his chest the way he always did to indicate the end of an argument.

Val rolled his eyes. “Fine. But Esther, I’m going to take you to the children.”

She nodded. “Yes, please. I need to make sure they’re alright.”

Dumar took Xavier with him to the rendezvous point while Val led Esther away from the fray, into a secluded spot in the woods. There, they found their three kids huddled together around a village elder. “Thank the gods,” Esther cried.

“Okay, my love. I’ll leave you in good hands. I’ll be back when it’s over.”

She grabbed her husband’s hand. “Valiant, don’t go. Please. You’ll die.”

He tried to make light of it. “You have such little faith in me?”

“Val, you know what the Wendigo is capable of. What if you fail? What will become of us?”

“I’ve already arranged for an escape for you and the children if we don’t win this fight.”

“An escape for us, you mean.” She trembled.

Val shook his head. “No, my love. If we lose, I will die. I have no delusions of that.”

“Then why fight?”

“For all of you. For us. It’s time to fight for our right to live free from fear, even if it means death.”

“I can’t do this, Val. I can’t watch you go.”

“You must, my love. I’ll do my best to get back to you, but if I don’t, tell the children how much I love them. Always remember that.”

With that, he kissed her forehead and ran off into battle. Val wasn’t a soldier like his brother, but he was clever. He set traps that would slow down the enemy and help his team make headway to getting to the real threat: The Wendigo.

The fight seemed to go on forever, and somehow his rag tag group of miscreants managed to survive and take out a good chunk of the Wendigo’s soldiers. When a path was finally cleared, Xavier and Val made their way to the chief’s hall.

As expected he was well guarded, but Val had devised a plan to distract them. He nodded to Xavier and vanished to a shadowed corner while Xavier slowly made his way through the hall into the throne room.

In a few minutes, he heard a huge clang and saw the guards rush to the noise. Of course, one guard remained behind to protect the Wendigo, but Xavier wasn’t worried about him. He was a skilled enough soldier to take down one guard.

The Wendigo sat comfortably in his throne, his face placid but his eyes feverish and scanning the room back and forth. Like a panther in the jungle, Xavier jumped from atop a column he’d been hiding on and hit the guard directly on the back of the head with the hilt of his blade.

The guard went down in one stroke and the Wendigo rushed toward Xavier. The Wendigo tackled him to the ground and pinned him with the sheer weight of his body. Xavier struggled, losing air, but managed to hit his adversary just below the ribs, giving him a chance to escape and regain ground.

“So, you managed to escape. Had friends to help too, I see.” The Wendigo taunted Xavier.

“Guess I’m not the only one sick of you.” Xavier lunged forward and thrust his blade out but the Wendigo sidestepped him.

He didn’t get thrown off balance though. The Wendigo only got the chance of that once, and he already took it. Instead, Xavier bided his time, parrying and thrusting, getting a feel for the Wendigo’s movements and thought patterns.

“This game grows tiresome,” boomed the Wendigo’s voice.

“Then let’s end it,” snarled Xavier.

At that moment, Val came rushing in with his band of bad guys ready to ambush the Wendigo. Dumar and Calista double teamed to send flaming arrows at the Wendigo’s head, but even for such a large man, he moved swiftly, and escaped the attempts.

In came the Balgar twins pitting their size and strength against the Wendigo’s. The move was a minor success, as it made the cannibal stumble, teeter and totter. They pummeled him with their big, meaty fists and forced the Wendigo to retreat. Meanwhile, Xavier launched another sword attack, but the Wendigo regained his stance.

He knocked the twins off him and blocked Xavier’s sword with a metal staff he’d grabbed from a nearby post. With it he knocked Xavier back with a blow to the stomach. He brought the rod high over his head, angled down and ready to thrust it into Xavier’s back.

“Stop!” An unexpected cry from the hall’s doorway rang clear and made everyone halt in their tracks. Esther walked in, steady, hands up in surrender. “This is madness. You’ll never win. You’ll only die. Just give up.”

Val stared, mouth agape. Esther passed right next to him and gave him a look of deep sorrow. “I’m sorry, Valiant. I can’t let you die.” She stepped forward in front of Xavier, right in the path of the Wendigo’s rod. Val stood rooted to the spot, unable to believe what he was seeing.

She bent down on both knees, head bowed and began muttering an old prayer of forgiveness, as if she worshipped the Wendigo as a god. “Please, have mercy. Forgive them. Forgive us.”

The Wendigo lowered his arms and put the rod at his side, a sneer on his face. “Your woman pleads on your behalf. How Valiant can you be?”

As the Wendigo looked away from Esther, she raised her head and hands and threw a powder into his face, then dove to the side yelling, “Now!”

The Wendigo stumbled back, his hands clawing at his face. Calista knocked an arrow, drew the string back, and let her weapon loose. It soared in an arc in slow motion as it found its mark true, straight into the Wendigo’s chest.

Suddenly the substance on his face was of no concern. He dropped his hands, looking out at the rogues who’d defied him, eyes wide. A bubble of blood burst from his lips, and with that he fell to his knees, his hands searching for the wound on his chest. It was a fatal hit, straight to the heart. He keeled forward, face first into the ground, and not a single muscle stirred.

The weight of the Wendigo’s girth falling to the earth caused a rumble that everyone felt. The fighting din outside dulled and slowed until it stopped all at once. Dozens of soldiers flooded in to see what had happened and found their leader dead.

Some fell to their knees, their arms raised in praise for their freedom. Others immediately fled the scene, knowing well what their fellow clansmen would do to the Wendigo’s sympathizers. Val stepped toward Esther who was still laying across the floor on her side. He reached down and helped her to her feet. “How did you–?”

“You’re not the only hero in the family, Valiant.” She smirked.

Val grinned back and pulled her into a tight embrace. “My love, you were brilliant.”

“Did you have such little faith in me?”

“Never for a second.”

“Liar.”

He laughed and kissed her.

Celebration ensued for the rest of that night and well into the next day. All exiles were welcomed back and given the chance to start anew under the rule of a council made up of the leaders of the rogues who had saved the clan. The unlikely heroes of the day were named official protectors of the village and honored with an annual feast day from then on out.