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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

The Story
by Tim Gordon and Paul Gibbinson

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...Opening the creaky old door to the shop, I stepped inside, nose wrinkling from the slightly musty odour that welcomed me. Staring around the dim interior, no fawning shop staff here to entice me in, I walked up to the counter, cluttered and untidy, littered with odd items. Desiccated frogs legs, and puppy dog tails rested in stained old glass jars, small sachets of brightly coloured powder were strewn everywhere, and an old cash register lay slightly off-centre at one end of the tabletop. I turned and leaned against the counter and scanned the rest of the shop, its wooden walled shelving and display racks, all covered in a thin patina of dust.

Closer examination of the streaked and dirty glass of a nearby cabinet revealed the long-dead eyes of a human head staring back at me. From behind the tobacco-stained wall panels came the sound of scratching and scuttling as whatever dwelt there sought to escape the sudden rush of fresh air from the recently opened front door. My breath caught in my throat as I heard a floorboard creak behind me. I heard something dragging itself across the floor, slavering and grunting as it came ever closer. Not daring to turn around, I awaited the arrival of whoever - or whatever - lurked within the shadowy recesses of this bizarre place...

The perfume was somewhat familiar, a musky scent that reminded me of another place. I shifted my posture ever so slightly, aware and ready to act, reflexes sharpened, as I slowly twisted my upper body to view whatever the shuffling thing was.

Peering downwards, eyes widening in the half-light, I noticed the crouched bundle of sackcloth swaying at my feet had human proportions. A few lank lengths of long dark hair hung down from the cowl opening over its head, and crudely stitched in black darning cotton on the front of the sacking was the single word... 'Jaxx'... I reached forward with one hand, my other hand reaching into my pocket for the pen-torch. My fingers gingerly touched the hem of the hooding as the 'creature' slowly raised its head to meet my touch...

The material felt rough and, somehow, clammy. Within the shadows of the hood I saw the gleam of a single, malevolent red eye. The ragged breathing of the 'creature' was a wet, bubbling sound that brought to mind the last gasps of gas attack victims in World War I. I hesitated... no doubt, braver men than I had looked upon this countenance, yet I couldn't shake the feeling that none of them had left this place alive. I let my hand drop; was that a sigh of disappointment I heard from the lumpen thing before me? At that moment, I heard further movement in the shadows. I raised my pen-torch and played its beam around the room. From behind a display case at the very back of the room a second figure was emerging. The first creature cawed in what sounded like triumph as its companion lurched forward, holding what looked like a cardboard box out in front of it...

I stepped away from the counter and the hunched figure in front of me with a small driblet of saliva just coursing down its chest. The new entrant was a clear opposite of the first, for as she moved forward, a sunlight beam from the louvers above the door picked out her silhouette.

Tall and sleek, stepping purposely with an elegant poise, she slowly tip-toed towards me, the proffered box held in her black-gloved hands. Was this an item for me to view, was it an offering, or just simple food for the misshapen creature at the counter? Again I noticed the long dark hair framing a face of purest porcelain, like a priceless china doll. The long high-heeled boots clad around legs that seemed to go on forever - this indeed was a complete opposite of my first welcomer. I dipped the torch beam, almost in reverent respect, as she stopped and poised in the centre of the cluttered room. Her eyes shone with a sort of cheeky malevolence, burning bright with an air of mischief. Again the musky smell that I still couldn't place.

One hand moved from the box edge and took position, open-palmed on her hip just below the waist, accentuating the figure that stood before me. Intrigued, I stood there, watching her face as her lips parted to form speech, her chin raising slightly as she seemed prepared to address not just me, but an unknown unseen audience. The sackcloth being also sensed the moment and seemed to shuffle forward in anticipation, cloth-bound hands now visible, pushing back the hood, yet more dark hair falling from within. My inquisitive gaze returned to the central figure as I saw her chest rise and fall in shallow breathing, waiting for her to speak...

"For you," breathed the vision before me, in a voice like rough silk, as she proffered the cardboard box. With trembling hands I took it from her, feeling the movement from within as it passed from her hand to mine. Ignoring the tormented cry of "Staaaaaaaazzzziiiiiaaaaaa" that came from the huddled mass between us, the second figure continued to gaze upon some distant, unseen, horizon with eyes that burned with knowledge of forbidden things as I turned to place my acquisition on the counter behind me.

My mind was whirling... what devilry was afoot here? Was this some kind of trick? Was I about to discover that I was nothing but a pawn in the twisted games of these creatures? The box rattled and shook as whatever was inside tried to escape. Gingerly, I started to lift the flaps. I just had time to catch a glimpse of fur and a flash of teeth before I realised that the musky smell surrounding the sackclothed creature and its companion was getting stronger. I spun around and saw the first creature almost upon me, raising itself up as its elegant companion looked on with a mixture of amusement and... could it be? Greed. I fell back against the counter as what appeared to be a stream of saliva erupted forth from the darkness of the sackclothed hood. This foul liquid missed me by millimetres as I threw myself backwards over the counter, sending the box flying in the process.

In desperation, I looked for an avenue of escape. I heard the first creature trying to heave itself up over the counter above me. Frantically, I started to crawl towards one end of the counter, only to hear the sound of high heels tapping ever closer, like tiny metronomes marking off the remaining seconds of my life...

As I positioned myself close to the cash register, ready to vault off the counter and head for the door, the Tall One strode over, and grasping the sacking around what I could only presume was the neck, hauled the sacking heap away from the counter, and away from me.

"Bad Jaxx..." uttered, almost whispered as she rolled the formless bundle across the floor. As it slumped against the far wall, lined with small-framed cupboards with all manner of collectibles, I saw for the first time the face of the first creature, as its cowl slipped down to reveal its head.

To my surprise, no beastly face peered back at me, not a troll-like countenance but that of a young girl. The lower half of her face was covered in some black mask made of some unknown reptilian skin and as I watched the poor waif attempted to spit through the grill opening just over her mouth - with pitiful failure the saliva landed again on her sacking dress. Long uncombed dark hair fell around her shoulders. What I took for a hideous eye was indeed a mystical entrancing jewel-stone, shimmering in the half-light, set on the centre of a strap placed around her forehead. She growled at me as I gingerly stepped back down to the floor.

Deftly, the one that had been called Stazia shackled the poor unfortunate to a hook on the wall, a bright golden chain running out of sight into the sacking. I watched silently, not uttering a word, as her task finished, the tall Stazia turned and slowly stepped towards me, with a smile and the subtlest of winks. I was starting to wonder why I had taken up the invitation to visit after all...

At that moment, the contents of the cardboard box finally broke free, distracting both the tall Stazia and her shackled companion. I watched, amazed, as a kitten leapt from the fallen box and joyously hurled itself across the room, trailing a cloud of dust in its wake. Both Stazia and the young girl turned to follow the progress of the tiny feline, a look of open adoration upon both their faces. Sensing that this was my chance, I started to edge towards the door. As I moved, however, I crossed through the rays of light that illuminated the sculpted curves of Stazia, my shadow fell across her and, realising that her visitor was about to escape, she whirled and threw herself at the door, blocking my path.

The girl named Jaxx cheered as her companion barred my exit, a look of triumph upon her face. Stazia reached out and took my suddenly nerveless hand. Her skin was soft and smooth, yet her touch was cold, and her musky scent surrounded me as I allowed her to lead me over to one of the cabinets at the back of the room.

As I stood there, powerless before this divine, yet hellish, creature, Stazia took down a dust-covered bottle from one of the shelves. I could just make out the letters '..isky' through the grime-covered label. From another shelf, Stazia took two glasses, filling both with an amber liquid from the bottle.

"Drink," she commanded, offering me one of the glasses. Utterly beholden to her, I took a mouthful of the drink, feeling a strange warmth as the liquid ran down my throat. As I emptied the glass, Stazia's smile grew wider. She poured out another measure, again handing it to me with the command: "Drink!"

As I emptied this second glass, I realised, with a sense of dread, that Stazia had yet to touch hers. Her smile grew ever wider. Was that a pointed tooth that I could see between her ruby lips? The room began to swim. What WAS happening to me?

Despite the swimming thoughts in my head as the alcohol took hold of my senses, I struggled to refocus on my surroundings. Suppressing my concerns, and keeping a respectful distance from the Lady Stazia, I made my way over to the racks and cupboards on the opposite wall, part wanting to desperately find reality or even explanations, part of me still wary of the two shop staff.

Scanning this part of the room, and occasionally glancing, and smiling, back to Stazia, I noticed the rolls of parchment, the many tarot cards, the odd assortment of ribbons and threads, small gemstones, sealing wax sticks, and all manner of small glass flasks and vials showing a bewildering array of coloured liquids. Setting my drinks glass down on a shelf, I was naturally drawn to one bottle in particular, a small Egyptian-style vase, corked at the top with the deepest blue liquid I had ever seen.

I turned to face the room again, enthralled with my find, already keen to purchase, and pulled the slender cork from its neck. As the peppery aroma curled through my nostrils, I looked up and saw to my amazement, that Stazia, facing me and not more than 5 feet away, had frozen to the spot, eyes wide in alarm, one hand outstretched desperately clutching for the small flask and cork I held in my fingers. Silent, almost not even a whisper, Stazia was fixed in place, murmuring "please... please..."

"...don't hurt him." Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Jaxx rattling her chains in agitation... clearly I held something of value to both of them. Gently replacing the cork, and now holding the bottle out in front of me, I stepped forward. My head felt suddenly clear, and I watched with interest as Stazia retreated before me, her gaze never once leaving the bottle. As we drew level with Jaxx, she started to moan, rocking backwards and forwards, her hands clasped about her raised knees. Stazia remained transfixed by what I held in my hand, but seemed to have calmed a little, her movements once again liquid, her poise returning.

"Give it to me." Her voice was low, yet powerful. "I can give you anything you desire... but you must give what is ours back to us." I glanced at Stazia's face, her expression was open and inviting. My arm dropped a fraction, and Stazia smiled. Jaxx was suddenly silent. The only sounds to be heard were the gentle clink of her chains and my own laboured breathing. I felt myself being drawn inexorably towards the waiting Stazia. My will was not my own and I watched with growing horror as my arm raised itself towards her, the bottle resting in my outstretched palm...

It was difficult to fight the natural acceptance that this small vial should be handed back to Stazia. Offering it up in my fingers, my feet shuffled slowly along, muscles seemingly obeying someone else’s instruction. A part of my mind recoiled at this, indignant, annoyed, while the tamer side accepted it, allowed it to continue.

I blinked my eyes several times, cast a sideways look at the young girl kneeling to the side, returned my gaze back to Stazia. Fogged thoughts were already losing track of what had already been said... my memory was trying desperately to recall her recent words... and then I remembered... "I can give you anything you desire..."

Thoughts instantly went racing through my mind (did I see a look of sudden disappointment on Stazia’s face?). Surely if they wanted to keep this item, why put it on show with all the other shop goods, weird though they were? I glanced back at the shelves I’d taken it from, seeing no reserved signs or any indication that it and its little glass friends were not for sale.

I regret to say that now greed took over me. My scans of the surroundings, this dusty old shop, took in not a lot that was of high value. Interesting items, intriguing artefacts and plenty of them, but of what worth? Was I being too mercenary? As my thoughts meandered around like the dust in the air, my fingers idly swung the bottle around by its thin slender neck. The slight chinking of the other girl’s chains brought me back to that dimly lit room. I turned to face Stazia, gripping the glass vial in my fist not tightly but firmly, a slight smirk raising up one corner of my mouth.

"Anything I desire?" I replied back to my tall slender hostess. She looked upon me with a slight frown, tight-lipped, hesitant, but she nodded eventually in the affirmative. I have to confess that’s when I let out an unkind laugh, surprising myself as I sounded like some demented maniac. With my free arm I stretched out my hand, finger pointing at the cash register, but I swayed my shoulders around, the pointer sweeping a wide arc across the shop, taking in shelves and boxes, and the lovely Stazia herself, who warily eyed me as I hovered, pointing straight at her, but even then I didn’t stop. I halted my sweeping arc, with firm resolution, when my pointing finger directly indicated the young girl known only as Jaxx.

"That’s what I desire..." I said with a malevolent grin...

As I spoke, the room seemed to echo with my words. I felt as though the world had stopped and held its breath. Obviously, neither the lovely Stazia nor her wretched companion had expected this. As I waited for a reply, Stazia threw fleeting, anxious glances in the direction of her chained companion - clearly, she was torn between her desire to regain possession of the bottle and her desire to keep the girl.

As I waited, I continued to play with the bottle. Every now and then, Stazia’s eyes would track it as I swung it between my fingers and, once or twice, I thought she leant forward slightly, as if gauging her chances of reaching the bottle before I could react and damage it.

The silent minutes passed, and I began to wonder if I would ever receive an answer - or would the three of us remain frozen in this strange tableau forever?

As I thought this, Jaxx rose to her feet. When she spoke, it was as if her vocal chords were unused to speech; her voice was cracked but steady as she said: "I will go, Stazia."

Instantly, Stazia whirled to look at her directly. "You cannot go," she snapped. "You know as well as I what will happen!"

"But, Stazia," wailed Jaxx, "YOU know what will happen if I do not!"

Intriguing though this exchange was, I sensed victory, and decided to intervene.

"So are you telling me that you CANNOT give me whatever I desire?" I asked, idly throwing the bottle from hand to hand.

Stazia turned back to me, her eyes flashing in anger. "You do not know what you are asking of her," she said. "I will not let her go..."

"A deal’s a deal," I spoke harshly, feeling that it was time to stop messing around. "If YOU want THIS so badly, you’ll give ME what I want."

As I spoke, I tossed the bottle into the air, watching as Stazia’s eyes traced its arc through the air. "Or maybe," I added, "you’re not as all-powerful as you like to make out?"

At my words, Stazia recoiled as if slapped. She glared at me in undisguised hatred, and her hands clenched and unclenched as she fought to regain her composure. Finally, she turned and headed towards Jaxx, her deportment once again that of the elegant creature I’d encountered earlier. As she moved, she spoke, her voice barely above a whisper and almost seductive in its rhythm:

"If you believe that, then you are as foolish as all the others," she purred. "I had hoped that there was more to you than the base instincts and desires of the rest of your kind."

She finally stood before Jaxx, her hand gently resting on her companion’s shoulder. She turned her head to look at me over her shoulder.

"If you would truly know the truth of why I cannot give you what you ask, then I will tell you..."

Ignoring the voice in my head, which was reminding me about what curiosity did to the cat, I motioned for Stazia to go on.

Smiling, she turned to face me. "There are things beyond the whit and knowledge of you and your kind. For hundreds of years, your legends and stories have told of fantastic creatures that live in the shadows of what many consider to be the ‘real’ world. At the same time, mankind is both drawn to and repelled by those who claim to practise the art of magick, burning and persecuting in the name of a God who has remained silent for over two thousand years. Yet, in spite of all your efforts, the arcane survives, the demonic survives, the angelic survives and the mythical survives to this day, passing among you on an almost daily basis, hiding their true faces lest they be hunted down and destroyed like so many before them."

Here, Stazia paused, her eyes scanning my face. She took a deep breath, and continued: "Jaxx and I are, as far as I am aware, the last of our line. We are not related, and I will tell you how we both come to be here in this place in a moment. For now, it is important for you to know that you hold in your hands the spirit of our people - not a disembodied idea, nor an intangible feeling combining like-minded individuals, but the actual spirit of our people; a creature that has existed for millennia... he was there when a man called Judas kissed the man you know as Christ; he was there when the knives sank into Caesar’s flesh again and again; he was there when the last of the great Celtic kings returned to the Earth... he has seen things that have been long forgotten, he has seen things that are yet to pass... he existed before life drew its first breath upon this planet, and he will continue to exist long after you and your kind are gone... and he must not be released from that bottle."

She turned and gazed back at Jaxx. Without turning, she said: "Jaxx and I are charged with keeping him secure..." she turned back to me, smiling bitterly, "...and with keeping mankind safe..."

An eloquent speech, I was truly impressed by the words uttered by the slender graceful Stazia. The cowering wary Jaxx kept a transfixed stare on me and the bottle, all throughout Stazia’s explanation. I noticed through a fold in the sacking that the thin gold chain encircled Jaxx’s waist and a small dainty padlock kept it fixed there. I cupped the pretty bottle in the palm of my hand and placed it against my ear. Stazia looked curious, yet pretended to remain disinterested. As I pressed the glass surface close to my ear, the faint strains of sound I picked out made me smile.

"So you will not surrender your companion to me then?" I motioned back towards the counter, well placed to see the whole shop floor. The faint smell of Thyme and Basil wafted under my nostrils as I moved aside penny-packets and pots of herbs to clear a space on the counter top.

"No... no I’m not sure..." Stazia muttered, hesitant, caught between duty and loyalty. I levered myself onto the counter top to sit there, swinging my feet like an infant in a sweetshop - after all wasn’t this now ‘my’ sweetshop. She looked over Jaxx and stroked her hair, smoothing away strands of fine dark hair that had become entangled around the half-mask. The jewel shone again with a brilliance I found captivating. Maybe another memento, I considered.

"The safe-keeping of the bottle, of the contents of the bottle, has been entrusted to us, and I cannot fail in that duty..." Stazia was proclaiming it like saying it aloud carried its own additional weight of justification. Jaxx was upright now, tugging on the slender metal leash.

"I will go..." she mumbled again to Stazia, and did I detect for the first time a show of sadness suddenly drape itself over Stazia’s countenance? I allowed myself a slight grin.

"Jaxx, I can never give you up to another, you are mine," slender fingers began unfastening the threads that held the sacking around Jaxx. I had to confess I did find it all so touching, but I was committed to playing this on out, I hadn’t come here to leave empty-handed. The visit to this little place had been well worth it so far, and I knew I wasn’t coming away disappointed. The daylight bounced around the upper shelves, picking out the gaudier colours of the packaging and the labels it found there. I watched a startled moth flit tortuously until it found a new resting place on the pleat of a curtain by the shop window.

"This ‘being’ in the bottle then - what is he? A genie? Have I got Aladdin’s friend here? Do I get three wishes?" noticeably sarcastic in my tone, I heard the chain clink to the floor, and heard the buckle slide as it was undone on that peculiar face mask.

"No, it isn’t a pantomime... that is the Scourge of Mankind and needs to be kept contained, else he leads Mankind astray as he has done in the past," Stazia was quick with her reply.

"His power is endless, his origin unknown, his hatred for all things good is deep and dark and fathomless..." her eyes looked almost pitiful, and I felt a little moved. Throughout our brief encounter she had lost none of her grace and poise, and was indeed a fine elegant creature. I had been impressed all along, and now Jaxx stood unfettered and unmasked for the first time, and I saw here was a hidden delight. Coy, shy, a little unsure as she was entering a limbo between protector and pursuant, she radiated a charm of her own, and the yearning concerned countenance on Stazia’s face assured me that this was a treasure to behold. I was pleasantly amused by the whole scene.

With a sudden motion of her hands, Stazia suddenly made a bid for the bottle in my left hand, a powerful path of concentrated thought hitting me, tugging at the bottle in my grasp, desperately trying to wrench it free with a command of supernatural powers. Jaxx now beamed, almost maliciously, as she clapped her hands in encouragement. It was a struggle to keep my hold on the flask, but I was determined not to let it go. Some items around us, glass vials and jars, shook on their shelves, jolted around by invisible hands, and crashed to the floor. The lightbulb smashed, and the room darkened slightly but there was still enough to see the pair in silhouette. As suddenly as it had started the assault was over, and I watched as the tall form of Stazia collapsed to the floor, weakened and defeated. Jaxx stooped over her, offering solace. Grinning to myself, I still had the bottle.

"Hmm... well I can play like that too," I muttered, and with a wave of my hand and an incantation of a few words I’d learnt long ago, I bathed the room in soft yellow light reflected candle-like from every glass surface. The pair looked around bewildered - my first use of my magic left them a little afraid, a sense I detected almost instantly.

"I liked the ‘let’s play shopkeeper’ stuff, but I’m afraid ladies its my time to be elsewhere, my own duties call me, so much to do and so much to see..." and with that I held up the bottle and pulled out the stopper, to a desperate cry from both of the girls still kneeling on the floor.

At first nothing, and I must confess I was disappointed. I shook the fragile vessel.

"Wakey, wakey, time to get out," I said; the girls terror registered on their faces as they stared at me wide-eyed.

Slowly a faint wisp of grey smoke, almost like cigarette smoke, drifted from the neck of the bottle. It grew in strength and within seconds the wisps were thicker, almost snake-like as the ‘presence’ left the bottle and pooled on the floor around me. It slowly took form, a head, stretching from shoulders, arms forming downwards to place hands against the floor, the smoke forcing itself more upright as now it grew into a trunk, and then pillars beneath the trunk rose the whole entity up to an upright posture. Standing before me the features began to form, eyes, mouth, fingers, legs, feet, and long lank hair last of all. I gazed upon the man who stood before me, as Stazia and Jaxx clutched at each other, watching helplessly on.

"Hello son..." I looked upon someone I hadn’t seen for centuries.

"Father?" he replied.

There was an air of resignation on Stazia’s face when I turned to look back on her. Jaxx still looked terrified, still hiding slightly behind her friend and protector.

"Please, please... spare Jaxx from your wrath, she was just my familiar, my friend..." Stazia spoke bravely but with a waver of unconfidence. Surely now she knew the measure of my power, and knew her respect was the only resource left to her. I had always enjoyed a good pleading from those I had dealt with before.

"No, as I have an admiring taste for the beauty the pair of you show, I consider that taking you with me is a just and due reward for my time spent here amongst you." They stood now together, Stazia still shielding her ward. Holding both hands forward now, with a thin piece of cobweb between both pinched thumbs and forefingers, I invoked a small chant again, this time in their direction. Spider-like cord darted forth from my fingertips, wrapped and coiled around first Stazia and then Jaxx, pinioning them on the spot. As they shared a look of dismay between them, I encapsulated them with another incantation, as first they shrunk in stature, and then, midway through that, a wave of white mist plucked them from the floor and transported them towards me as I turned to retrieve a clear glass flask I had spied earlier and preserved. Still shrinking, the two girls flew with the mist into the open neck of the bottle. I held it up to see, as the mist disappeared, to see the pair of them now in glorious miniature, still bound and huddling together, Jaxx weeping into Stazia’s shoulder. With a stroke of my left forefinger on the glass, a wall inside the bottle started to grow from its base, parting the two friends, trapping each in their own small glass prison, only able to writhe and squirm, and always so tantalisingly close, always facing each other. I was immensely satisfied as I fixed in the stopper.

With my errant son I strode out of the shop and back out into this misguided world of mankind. The trip had been most enjoyable, definitely worthwhile, as I looked up at the hideous unsightly blue sky - a colour I had never enjoyed.

And what a delectable little trophy I had too.

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