August Snow

This is an experimental piece, banged out for another writingprompts contest, this one about NaNoWriMo, which I haven’t ever really participated in. Anyway, it’s looking a bit better than the other trash I’ve got saved, and it’s nice to get some work done.

Link to the contest and rules.

More Dark Souls stuff soon, I promise.

Chapter 1

On a muggy day in August, the sun hanging in the sky with all the benevolence and grace of a Real Housewife after the fifth round of cocktails, it began to snow. Big, fluffy flakes, like confetti, tumbled out of a blue sky just before noon, and that was still going on when my alarm beat me into consciousness an hour later.

I was attempting a very late breakfast, watching the blizzard through my window while slicing a banana, when my lucky socks began to itch out a warning. My phone was playing a message left the night before by my sister, who was rambling again about her daughter, who had run away again. I braced myself against whatever came next, but the message ended with an abrupt and anti-climactic, “if you see Laura, tell her to call me right away.”

Turns out, I braced the wrong way, because mere words weren’t enough for this. Snow during a heatwave granted me a knock at the door, and a slap in the face when I opened it.

“Morning, Sara,” I said from the side of my face that I could still feel. “Want a smoothie?”

“You’re a smug prick, Ian,” said Sara as she shouldered past me and stalked into the apartment, leaving a wake of fluttering white that sparkled in the thick light streaming through the kitchen window. If you didn’t know her, you might even think it was beautiful.

“Don’t track that shit all over my place,” I told her, trying to kick the snow away from my rug before it melted. It shouldn’t have worked, yet it did, and a moment later I bent to scoop a few flakes into my hands. “It’s not melting,” I said. I could feel it there, cold spots against the skin of my palms, like snow should be, but neither the warmth of the air, nor the warmth of my body, was enough to turn it into liquid water. All the flakes Sara had dragged in with her stayed where they fell, forming into little archipelagos as she shook out the rest of what clung to her hair and clothes.

“No, Ian,” said Sara, “it’s not melting.”

I picked up my smoothie and drank while looking out the window, craning my neck to see the street below. People were stomping through swirling whirlwinds of white. The snow was everywhere, yet the ground was bone dry.

“You realize what this means,” she said while she began to root through the old wooden chest in the far corner of the apartment.

“No snowmen,” I said.

“This isn’t a joke, Ian.”

“What are you looking for?” I asked her, setting my glass down on the counter before moving to stand over her. “And could you be a little careful with that stuff?”

She turned a glare on me like she was practising laser vision, then slammed the lid shut. “Where’s the compass?” she asked.

“What do you need that for?” I wanted to know, mostly because I was still waking up, and it was a lot to take in all at once.

Sara twitched at me, a full body movement that should have been another slap, because I wasn’t in a state to stop her, but she resisted. Even sharks don’t bite everything they come across. “Ian, listen to me,” she said, words spaced out with pointed annunciation. “It is snowing in the middle of August.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“The snow is not melting.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“This is not natural.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“As in, it’s fucking magic, you asshole.”

“Oh, right,” I said, then rushed to add, “but it’s not me.”

Walking through it was a surreal experience. There’s something about stumbling through a blizzard while it’s still hot enough to cook an egg on the pavement that doesn’t sit right. The snow had been falling for hours, without melting away or clumping, so that when the wind whipped through the canyons between buildings the effect was closer to a sandstorm than a mere snowfall. I’d found an old baseball cap to keep the worst of it out, and bent over the compass in an attempt to ignore the rest. Not that it would have made much difference if I’d been looking around, since there wasn’t much to see except a constant shifting blur of white that obscured everything further than a few paces away.

Traffic had ground to a halt. I didn’t own a car, but it had forced Sara to abandon her vehicle at the end of her block. So we stumbled through the streets on foot, the compass as our guide, until the needle stuck fast and we entered another mid-rise, pushing through a thick snowdrift to get into the ugly, brown outer lobby.

“You know you’re supposed to watch out for this sort of thing,” said Sara, crossing her arms. That familiar fighting pose, ire redirected at me now that we were out of the elements. “I don’t know how you can try making excuses after what happened last time.”

“That was different, Sara, and you know it,” I said. “Neither of us had a clue what we were doing.”

“People nearly died, Ian,” she said.

“But we’ve accounted for everything on your list,” I said. “I’m the only one with a magic book now, or a magic anything, as far as we know.”

“That’s the point. ‘As far as you know.’ And how far is that? When’s the last time you took the compass out and did anything more than beat up a few drug dealers?” Sara was pacing back and forth in the narrow lobby now, trying to work off her anxious energy.

I shrugged. Truth was, it had been a while since I’d done even that much. Sara began to buzz apartments, trying to get someone to open the inner door and let us inside.

“There’s something wrong with this,” I said as I scanned the names in the building’s directory. None of them stood out in particular, not to my eye, but a part of me knew I was missing something. The veil of sleep was slipping the last few centimetres, and I looked around the lobby again, at the patterns of the brown stains on the wilted eggshell wallpaper, the cracks in the vinyl tiles that spread in a lazy spiral of gaudy red and gold across the floor. Not the sort of thing that is readily forgotten.

Someone finally buzzed back, and Sara hopped over to the inner door, pulled it open, and shoved me inside. Without thinking, I turned left, down a short hall to a pair of old elevators. I pressed the button and received a sharp shock of static electricity. “Ow,” I said, and Sara smirked.

Moments later, there was a ding, and the middle elevator’s doors creaked open. The sound of music drifted from further down the hall, coming to me as an indistinct drone overtop a steady bass beat, and I could smell onions cooking.

I stepped into the elevator, not even looking at the compass, then turned and put my arm across the door, barring Sara from following. “Wait for me,” I said.

She looked ready to protest, but bit down on the outburst. Her eyes probed me, searching for a clue. I did my best to not look away, and to keep my face blank. “Are you sure?” she asked, not unkindly.

“I am,” I said, and she stepped back.

“I’ll call you when it’s safe,” I told her as the doors clanged together.

I am the not-so-proud owner of a magic book. Not the kind with card tricks and ways to saw blonde ladies in half, nor a book of spells, the sort full of voodoo and witchcraft, with prescriptions for burying things near the homes of people you don’t like. This thing is an actual magical book, in the literal sense. It’s suffused with the stuff, somehow. Sara bought it for me at an estate sale, wanting something that could be a conversation piece, as she put it, since I didn’t own a single piece of art. That was when she’d still intended to move in. Of course, she didn’t know it was magical at the time.

The book doesn’t have any classic Dungeons and Dragons incantations in it, either, as far as I know–which I admit isn’t saying much. Instead, it has instructions for making magical tools. I don’t understand most of it myself, as the words are often scribbles, and in languages I don’t recognize, but, over time, I’m figuring it out. Somehow. I mean, it’s magic.

One of the first things I made was the compass. I didn’t know why at the time, and still don’t know for sure what it’s all about. For the most part, it leads me to places where things are happening. The right place, hopefully at the right time. Or the wrong place, depending on your point of view. Which is a fancy way of saying it gets me into a lot of fights.

When the elevator stopped at the top floor, my feet were still itch-free, telling me that I was danger-free. A final consultation with the compass told me to make for the emergency exit at the far end of the hall, but I already knew that. I pushed it open and began the short climb up the stairs to the roof.

I’m not normally one for winter, for the quiet cold that seeps in through the cracks, or the skies of milky clouds that shut the sun away for days at a time. But divorced from that, the falling snow was undeniably pretty. Standing on the building’s flat, gravelled roof, that was my first thought. I stood at the centre of that whirling chaos, felt the soft tickle of the snowflakes against my face, and I realized that it wasn’t so bad. So a few people were late for work. What’s wrong with a snow day?

For an indeterminate amount of time, I was stuck in place, lost in my head as if the blizzard was an old screensaver. I could hear honking somewhere in the distance, I could see that there was someone else on the roof, a small figure huddled in blankets at the far edge, but it wasn’t until I noticed the column of smoke rising in the distance that I realized something was wrong.

That, and my feet felt like they were under attack from a full battalion of angry ants. It was the socks, and if there’s one thing I knew about this whole magic business, it was to never ignore my lucky socks.

Along with the compass, I ended up with an old, slightly-bent sewing needle. What does a modern man do with a sewing needle? Judging by the clothes I’ve seen them wearing, they probably make themselves a set of arm warmers. I don’t have the skills–or the beard–for that, but, with the aid of an online tutorial and plenty of pictures, I managed to darn a pair of old socks with the needle. The first time I wore them, I stopped on the street to scratch at some sudden itching around my ankle, and avoided being hit by a taxi that was speeding through an illegal U-turn. They’ve served me well ever since, so I pay attention when that telltale phantom ankle-biting starts up.

With an effort, I wrangled my wandering thoughts back into line, and started across the roof, toward girl in the pile of blankets. She was still, staring out across the buildings and streets, and I saw that the snow, which swirled around the building in lazy eddies, avoided her. Where it would come close, it instead slid to the side. It was about then that I realized she was crying, the soft sound coming with gentle shudders of her body.

I knew who it was. I’d known as soon as I recognized the dilapidated lobby of the building. “Laura,” I said, when I was close enough that I didn’t have to raise my voice.

There was no answer. No indication that she heard me at all. I took another step, and found that the wind was picking up. “Laura,” I said again, louder now. I could hear the wind begin to whistle, and the snow was coming at me sideways, the soft impacts against my face and neck coming faster and faster, forcing me head down, and my hand up to keep my hat in place. Another step and I had to turn around, away from the snow and a rush of wind that brought a genuine chill to my bones, as if I’d stepped into the flow of an industrial air conditioner.

I pivoted far enough to see her again. She was still sitting at the edge of the roof, apparently unaffected by the turn in the weather. I shouted as loud as I could. Her back stiffened, and she turned. Even with my vision blurred by the wind and snow, I could see the wet tear tracks on her cheeks, the lines standing out against her pale skin like scars. She was mouthing something, but she may as well have been on the other side of the city for all the good that did. The only sound in my ears was the wind, now a rising howl.

It wasn’t going to work, I decided, and I began to move back toward the door with my heels dug in to keep the wind from toppling me. If I could get inside, I could call her. Maybe I should have called her in the first place. As I put distance between myself and Laura, the wind died down, which was nice, but my feet were still tingling.

Maybe I’m not the best uncle going, but I’ve bought enough ice cream–or frozen yogourt, in recent years–to earn some consideration. And I’m not going to pretend I know a whole lot about teen-aged girls, even the ones I’m related to, but I do know that they’re can’t conjure snow out of a blue summer sky. I’d have picked up on that one.

I had the door open half-way when another gust of wind slammed into me like a fist, knocking me to my knees and finally taking my hat away. Laura was facing me now, and shouting something that I still couldn’t hear, her face contorted and reddening, the wind picking up her dark hair now so that, for a moment, it looked like she wore some sort of ceremonial headdress.

My hand found the doorknob, the cold steel now cold enough to freeze the sweat on my palm. I tried to turn it, but it wasn’t moving. “Well, shit,” I muttered. The wind had popped the automatic lock, stranding me.

I scuttled around behind cover of the doorway’s narrow walls, putting them between me and Laura, who seemed to be at the eye of the storm, and pulled my phone out. It was already ringing.

“Sara,” I said as I leaned against the wall. “Where are you?”

“I’m outside,” she said. “I found your hat.”

“I need you to get to the roof and unlock the door.”

“The roof? You found the source of the snow?”

I had to squeeze the words through gritted teeth. “It’s Laura.”

“What did you do?” screamed Sara. “Ian, you fucking idiot, what did you do to her?”

“Nothing,” I yelled back. “I didn’t do anything, really. Directly. That’s not important now anyway. Can you just get up here and open the door?”

The line clicked off, and I stared at the phone for a second, wondering if that was an affirmative. I then began to call Laura, when something in the corner of my eye caught my attention.

I wasn’t alone with Laura on the roof.

It didn’t appear. Not in any way that made sense to my eyes. It wasn’t invisible then visible, it didn’t pop in from somewhere else, Star Trek-style. It was more that I began to notice it, like my brain had been picking apart some camouflage pattern and zeroed in on an unusual silhouette. Which was unsettling, because I didn’t know how long it had been there, or why I was only seeing it now.

But I was definitely seeing it now. There was no avoiding that.

Through the driving snow it came, until it was directly in front of me. Like the most awkward interactions at a party, it had noticed me noticing it, and it wasn’t about to let that go.

It made a gurgling sound, a low, throaty noise somewhere between a moan and a rasp. “Look,” it said, the word sounding chewed on. “Look,” it said again.

So I looked.

There was a shape blocking out the sun, a heavy shadow that absorbed the snow, pulling it in like a gravity well. It must have been twice my height, and maybe as wide, though that was harder to tell. My eyes kept fixing, then sliding, like trying to watch stationary objects from the window of a speeding car. The shape was alternately a blur of disjointed limbs, then a sharp mound of segmented, vaguely humanoid angles. Only one part of it stayed true, a massive eye that bore down on me like a spotlight from what must have been its head. A round iris the colour of cold blood, and an outer sclera that was iridescent, shifting between deep, shimmering purples and greens, and at the centre was the pupil, a smaller black void that seemed to draw in the surrounding light until it was drawing me in as well. A shiver passed through me, and it had nothing to do with the wind. That eye was watching me, had been watching me, and there was some unfathomable intelligence at work behind it. I turned away.

“Nobody moves, nobody gets hurt,” said a familiar voice. I looked down and saw that my phone had dialed Laura. I raised raised raised it to my mouth and started to speak, but was interrupted by computerized voice telling me to leave a message after the beep.

“I’m going to help you, Laura,” I said, and ended the call. I could see the thing’s sharp, insectile movements at the edge of my vision, and my socks were about to spontaneously combust.

With my eyes forward but my attention on those furtive movements, I started to edge around the corner of the doorway, until I had a wall between me and it. “Hey, buddy,” I shouted into the wind. “Why don’t you leave my niece alone and pick one someone your own size?”

Suddenly, the eye was there, extended on a stalk-like neck, and its shadow loomed. I could feel its phantom weight above me, and knew it was on top of the doorway, bending down. Maybe it was incorporeal, I told myself. Maybe it just likes to watch.

“She is mine,” said that voice, each syllable thick and toneless.

I flinched away from the eye. My heart felt like it wanted to make a break for it, with or without me along for the ride, and I could feel the cold sweat on my back. I own a magic book, but that doesn’t make me a superhero. Still, I had to help Laura, and I had nowhere to go until that door unlocked.

What does one say to the first cosmic horror one encounters? Me, I like to keep it basic. “You got a name, ugly?”

“No name for you,” it said.

“Ugly it is, then.” The door handle was turning, and I took a step away from the wall, preparing to run through.

“You do not leave,” it said, and took a step down from its perch on the doorway, unfolding a long, spindly limb that crunched into the gravel. It was very definitely corporeal.

The door opened so fast that it banged against the hinges with a sharp crack, and coming onto the roof was not Sara. It was a man, a man that I had never seen before in my life. He wore sunglasses, and his face showed at least a week’s worth of beard growth, while his hair black look tangled and greasy with neglect. He had on one of those black shirts with a picture of a tuxedo and bow tie on the front, and generally looked like he’d just spent all night drinking at an ironic hipster bar.  But he was also carrying a spear, and I found that I was still capable of surprise even on a day like today, especially when I found its gleaming metal tip held steadily at my throat.

I put my hands up in surrender. “Are you here for the girl, or Ugly over there?” I asked, nodding my head in the direction of the creature, which was again moving with those anxious, skittering movements that had my teeth on edge.

“Where is it?” asked the man, his voice a little too eagre. Then he turned, and saw how close Ugly was.

As much as I didn’t want to leave Laura with that thing or the lunatic with the spear, I couldn’t help her without some preparation, and I had to trust that whatever power kept me away would do the same for anyone else. I hopped past the man, who was brandishing his weapon at the thing, and shouting something angry and deranged sounding, and grabbed for the door, which had begun to swing shut.

I never made it. If felt the tingling in my socks hit a new intensity, and looked up in time to see a blur moving in my direction. Then a bus hit me, and I was tumbling through the air. Before I could recover, there was a flash of light, and a sound like the scream of a bird of prey pumped through a stadium speaker with the distortion turned to max. The wind raged, increasing in strength until it felt as if I were standing at the edge of a hurricane. I reached out blindly, trying to grab onto something so I could steady myself, but there was nothing but the gravel that scraped and dug into my knees.

And then I was flying, taken up with the snowflakes, and left to fend for myself as the roof ended and all I had beneath me was the six story drop to the hard pavement below.

Questions, comments, and critiques are always welcome.

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