This was the original fairytale that sparked the beginning of my "Neverway Chronicles," a collection of fairy tale-inspired stories that are spiritually allegorical but told in a style that is relevant to the modern age. Instead of fairies and dragons, my stories use creatures like creepers (the undead) and soul-suckers. There are no sparkling monsters here. The monsters are not glorified and twisted into something beautiful. They are terrible and heart breaking. My heroes are not perfect: they make bad choices and struggle with their flaws. The answers aren't always obvious, neither are they always pleasant.
After is loosely inspired by Cinderella and Repunsel. Eli, my hero, is one of those characters whose story you begin to tell, only to have him snatch the reins from your hands and completely take over. I think, in a lot of ways, he is a bit like me. Skeptical. Sensitive. Afraid of the unknown. However, he is very unlike me, too: Eli runs around in the dark chasing the Undead.
Me? I howl at the appearance of a spider. :)
Anyway, here is a sneak peak! I am hoping to publish a collection of these stories in the next year or two, so I welcome any feedback. For more on the Neverway Chronicles, check out my page on Wither, available in the Five Enchanted Roses collection, coming July 2015.
“But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish…
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shined.”
Prologue - I Hunt Creepers
Some people might say that there are worse fates than death. In some worlds, perhaps that may well be the case. But in mine, it would be a lie. There is no greater horror than that which comes after death.
The creeper dragged its feet across uneven cobblestones, a low, keening moan scraping up its throat as it put one rotting foot in front of the other, over and over again. It was human no more. It had no name, only fractured and tormented memories, just another of the thousands of night walkers that roamed the streets of the Black Quarter. My home. My watch. My streets.
I could have been something different. The life of a spook—a hunter—was not glorious. Paid a pittance. I could have followed my twin, Roman, and tried to get a marker and land myself a coveted place in the Pandorum. Or I could have become a chimney sweep like my stepfather. Earned a slightly larger pittance. Maybe I should have, but I hadn’t.
In the end, my decision wouldn’t really matter anyway.
We all died the same.
I watched the creeper, my fingers absently rubbing an ache that perpetually gnawed at my chest. Then, I tugged a soiled scarf over my nose and went to it. Whatever it was, living or dead or something in between, the thing was not welcome in the streets. I tapped a cattle prod against the ground, urging it onward, but cautiously. I didn’t want to rile it. It shuffled to the end of the alley, to the barred wagon pulled by two stamping black mares, their eyes wild, the single horns between their eyes as dark and smooth as obsidian.
It continued to moan. To rot. To endure.
My stepbrother, Victor, jumped down to open the door, a clothespin clamped over his nose. He was barely fifteen but did his part without complaint. I had promised my dying mother that the younger lads would never face the life that Roman and I had lived—fatherless, apprenticed to the chimney sweep who would one day become our stepfather, wedging our bodies up chimneys until we grew too large to fit into them.
It had cost me—bruises and bloody lips and such other costly things—but I had kept my word.
The creeper dragged itself up the wooden slat that served as ramp and Victor bolted the door behind it. It never once acknowledged our presence. “You’ve got a nose for them, Eli,” said the lad, admiring, as I stowed the plank. “That’s the third one already.”
“Any man with nostrils and a brain has got a nose for them,” I muttered, closing eyes that had already begun to ache from strain. I rubbed the left one with the back of my knuckles. “To the reins then. Off with you.”
“Ho!” he said as he jumped to obey. I climbed onto a small platform at the back and held on as the wagon lurched forward.
For a moment I watched the shadows swirl past us, the people no more than smudges against darker shadows that must be the buildings. Everything was gray and black, the only light coming from oil lamps flickering behind sooty windows.
Within the cage, the creeper loosed a particularly mournful sound, as if he knew where he was headed—to the Barrier, to the outside.
I sympathized with it.
In years, I was still a young man, no more than twenty and two, but my bones felt ancient. This world was kind to no one. We were both caged, it by bars and death, me by a growing certainty that I would soon join it. There is no escaping the inevitable destiny that haunts the living.
“Conrad,” I whispered. “My name is Conrad Ellis the Third.”
My name. I still breathed. Still had a name and, more importantly, still remembered it, but my fate was not my own.
Today, I hunted creepers.
Tomorrow, I could well be one.