“Things That Crawled from the Shadows” is a Weird Luck short story by my esteemed Weird Luck co-creator Andrew M. Reichart. The narrator is none other than Max, the guy Agent Sojac fights on the rooftop in Chapter 1 of the webcomic. This story may or may not shed some light on certain mysterious plot elements in the Weird Luck novel Insurgent Otherworld.
See you next Wednesday,
Things That Crawled from the Shadows
Meanwhile, it’s 3am. Azak and Zaka strain at their leashes, long furry dragonet bodies poised like spears pointing into the shadows. I wonder if it’s a skunk. Another little rustle in the dark bushes. The two little dragon-dogs pulse again in their intensity of focus, yanking so hard I take a step.
Trusting them to cover whatever it is, I check up and down the street. Nobody. So many shadows: houses, bushes, trees, telephone poles, the occasional remaining car. Overhead a shattered shell of low cloud scrolls past on its way northward. A waning quarter moon casts its wide oblong glow across the far face of the atmosphere, gently luminous through the billows of cloudstuff but stark as a bare lightbulb when it shines between the cracks. From those fissures thick bands of light descend to dapple the already-eerie landscape in ways unseen back on Earth, the sky much lower, the moon much nearer. Strokes of brightness traverse the surfaces of roof and sidewalk like ripples of light in a pool, draping across the city northward like endless light-embroidered hems of otherwise-invisible giants marching to some unknown destination beyond the edge of the plateau. Let’s hope not actually invisible giants. I have met invisible giants before.
I stare up again at the moon and sky. Hypnotic patterns of movement and light threaten to draw me into a trance. I start to ascend, expand into the sky, and beyond, deeper than sky…. Best not to. I redirect my attention to the skunk or whatever. Zaka and Azak remain poised, unmoving, leashes as geometrically taut as Euclid’s Second Postulate. Those bushes against our neighbor’s house leave the critter no escape without stepping into the light at some point. I wonder how it must feel to be that skunk, certain these two could outrun me, almost certain they’d beat me in a fight and presumably eat me, digging in before even I am quite dead. Crouching there frozen, would I hope against hope for them to simply get bored and split? Praying to the skunk-gods that their failure to lunge yet means their intent is something other than lethal? I tug the god-dogs’ leashes. Nothing. I tug again, “C’mon,” gesturing with my head. They proceed down the driveway side by side without complaint in a tiny parade of two. Three counting me.
Back the other way scampers a humanoid shadow a foot or two in height, its limbs flailing elastically as it clambers across the pavement into the little moonlit courtyard between the buildings. It turns to face us, stretching its limbs in four directions to look as intimidating as possible, spindly arms gesturing menacingly overhead. It’s pretty scary, truth be told. I’ve encountered some badass itty bitty beings over the years. I brace myself for possible magics. Azak and Zaka sniff at the lawn, oblivious. The shadow-person winds up and flings something at me, poor sap. I don’t really get a good glimpse as it flies at my head – an acorn? a quarter? – and then back whence it came. The shadow-person recoils, yipes a little “Ow!” as the projectile clatters to the pavement. Sounds like a rock.
“Dude,” I say, trying to sound sympathetic. “Don’t throw shit at us.” It scuttles off.
Zaka curls like an inchworm and shits on the lawn while Azak sniffs the bushes across the front of the house. I pick up her shit with an everted plastic bag. Azak lifts a leg and pisses on the bushes while Zaka, body straight and long, almost imperceptibly squats her short-legged hindquarters to piss. I coil the bag around a finger. “I wish you’d just shit in the bushes,” I remind them. Zaka looks up at me and shrugs.
In my head I continue my would-be explanation to the wee shadow-minion: Surely you recognize now that I am blessed with the Sovereign Shield, which reverts weapons cast upon me in the Newtonian Plane. Beware, though, this is no mere ultra-tech gizmo, but a true Blessing, bestowed upon me by the god-dogs Azak and Zaka, who are cognate with Great Akaz himself. Nah, too flowery. Hard not to be on the topic, but ugh. How about just resuming where I left off – because it’s just gonna hit you instead, obviously.
As if on cue, the minion reappears, having cut back around the house. Flinging another stone, evidently not having absorbed the partial explanation I’d managed to mutter as it fled moments ago, unloading this time at Azak with another would-be rock to the head, now from point blank range. Its “Ow!” alerts me in time to tug on Azak’s leash, pulling him an inch off target as he spits a baseball-sized ball of fire at the miniature shadow-man. The fireball soars over to the yard next door and bursts, mercifully missing the bushes. Annoyed, Azak spits another fireball at me, which whooshes back and forth between us for a second then flashes into a puff of smoke. Meanwhile, Zaka has set the little creature on fire. It runs screeching down the sidewalk, skinny little burning limbs snapping off as it goes, tumbling soon into what looks like a pile of smoldering twigs and tire shreds. What’s done is done, I guess, and the god-dogs may know best, but that fellow seemed worth talking to as far as I could tell. “What was that about?” I ask them, some edge creeping into my voice.
“Bored,” says Azak.
“Setting fires in this neighborhood,” I remind them, “may lead to questions we don’t want.”
“Whatever,” says Zaka.
“If you want to burn something,” I say, flinging the poo bag in her general direction. She blasts it to ashes midair. A band of light from a break in the clouds passes over us like a titan’s searchlight while I grind the little corpse-limbs underfoot. It’s mostly ash. Parts of its charred body stick to my boot. I scrape it off in the grass as best I can, check out the hole in what’s-his-name’s yard from the little exploding fireball. Not too bad. Hope he doesn’t ask me about it.
• • •
The next night the sky is clear and black and crowded with stars. The fat waning crescent moon again casts stark shadows in every crevice of the neighborhood’s topography. Azak sniffs the scorched divot in what’s-his-name’s lawn while Zaka, pulling at me in the opposite direction, sniffs a spot of sidewalk still blackened with ash from the tiny corpse. I look up and down the street for signs of movement, listening in all directions. Quiet. The dogs pee on their respective sites of olfactory inquiry. Down the block, at the far corner of the intersection, I see a flicker of amber light. I think it’s a fire, but then it’s gone. Maybe it was the glow of someone in the shadows lighting a cigarette? No, there it is again, or another just like it, halfway down the block closer to us, an unmistakable humanoid form of pale yellow firelight stepping out from a vertical line in space. It stands there flickering for a second before it vanishes again with a sideways step out of this reality. Uh-oh. These assholes.
I admit I tend towards the cavalier in circumstances of potential danger, for reasons of varying legitimacy. A single member of the Ember Folk is small threat to me, even if it does manage to blink up alongside and apply its numbing touch. It takes more than one of them to paralyze an adult in decent health, and it’s pretty easy to just swat one out of this plane of existence before it can suck out your life force. More than one, though, might very well be lurking in the vicinity. Or, rather, adjacent to it.
I tug on Azak and Zaka’s leashes to alert them. “Ember Men,” I tell them. They look around, see nothing, resume sniffing. Straining at their leashes they draw my arms out to their maximum extent until I am standing cruciform in ideal Emberman-bait pose. Great.
Instead of going for me, though, two Ember Men emerge from their mysterious whatever-realm to attack Zaka and Azak, thinking them easier targets. Incorrect. The god-dogs snatch both beings of light in impossibly-expanding black jaws, wolfing them down whole in a series of convulsive gulps, then sucking the lingering sparks out of the air.
Then another dozen Ember Men appear around us.
The god-dogs grow into enormous black wolves with fires for eyes, temporarily able to reassume something closer to their true forms, having fed on these souls from some weird beyond. The god-dogs’ collars stretch to accommodate their increase in size, though these leashes aren’t much. Let’s hope things stay chill.
The Ember Men surrounding us clearly didn’t expect to be greeted by hellhounds in this part of town. Though they have no faces, surprise and alarm is easy to read in their posture and gesture. They vanish, depriving me of the opportunity to observe them further. Azak and Zaka shrink back into dragonets, the soul-force spent.
“Yummy,” says Zaka, a last lick of flame curling from her lip.
“Totes,” says Azak. He shimmies, ears flapping. Zaka follows suit.
On the way back up the driveway there’s another rustling in the bushes. Zaka chases it out. A skunk. Azak cuts it off. The poor critter turns and sprays, only to be doused by its own repellant musk. It waddles off, meeping in dismay. We oughta have a warning label.
“C’mon,” I tell the dogs, heading through the cloud of skunk-aroma and up the steps, hoping nobody saw them balloon briefly into dire wolves. Don’t need people asking those sorta questions.