These stories are the three spookiest entries in a series inspired by Dungeons & Dragons. Each piece's word count is exactly 210 (the sum of the numbers 1 through 20).
Attempting to Sense the Motive of a Stranger, You Roll a 3
On the road you see a cloaked and hooded figure. You are traveling north, he south. He hails you before you can pass. You believe lonesome travelers should keep their eyes to the ground and ignore other lonesome travelers. They ought to respect solitude. But other men believe lonesome travelers should see one another, engage one another, and feel camaraderie with one another.
In the noontime sun, you would rather die alone than talk with another lonesome traveler. You wave and press onward, but the stranger sees an invitation and walks beside you. He is an elf of indeterminate age. If he is armed he conceals it well. He introduces himself and speaks rapidly. He asks whither you’re heading, whence you’re coming, your name, your birthplace, your business. You answer honestly but curtly. He says no more of himself and shows no sign of turning around.
You stop and stare into his eyes, trying to glean traces of benevolence or malice. His eyes present the blankness of new parchment. He might as well be a tree. You bid him farewell, but he snatches your arm. He opens his mouth, his teeth sharper than natural. You wrestle free and flee. He does not pursue you, but that doesn’t stop your flight.
Attempting to Swing a Sword at an Ogre Zombie, You Roll a 17
Your longsword chops clean through rotting flesh. Your strike cleaves the zombie’s forearm. Its hand hits the ground with a crunch of bones and a squelch of coagulated blood. To your horror, you see that the severed limb still has some life left in it. Upon reflection you will realize that “life” must not be the correct word. In fact the undead appendage still has a spark of animation in it. Even chopped off, the arm and disfigured hand hold a faint connection to the dark magic that created this monstrosity. The ogre zombie does not cry out, and you wonder if it feels any pain. It looks down and appears to notice the amputation. It regards its own twitching hand as if it were a large spider or a pile of dung, something unpleasant yet harmless. With its still-attached arm it swings its flail at your head, undeterred by your moment of triumph. As you dodge, your foot stomps the detached hand, breaking its brittle bones in many places. The sound, like a crackling campfire, turns your stomach. For months you will hear the echo of those splinters every time you step on a twig, and in this way the ogre zombie haunts you long after its second death.
Attempting to Fire an Arrow at an Imp, You Roll a 19
The four imps in flight move like bats, their wings frantic and menacing. They swoop at your face, claws close to your eyeballs. They giggle with glee and shout to each other in the infernal language of demons, a sound you feel in your guts. You grab an arrow from your quiver and pull back the bowstring. With one eye shut, you aim into the air above your head. The tricky part is leading your shot, firing into the space where your target will appear next despite their erratic movements. Under the threat of suffering another scratch, you can hesitate no longer. Your hand releases.
Hit. The arrowhead plunges into the skull of the largest imp. Its head, thrown back in maniacal laughter, is tilted at precisely the right angle to receive the silver-tipped arrow through the roof of its mouth and into its brain. Its leathery body lands with simultaneous snap, slam, and squish. Its companions are stunned silent—a secondary victory—before they flee. Storing your bow, you examine your kill. You couldn’t have guessed the imp would eat your arrow like it did, it was too quick. So what did you do really? A moving target put itself in the path of death, luck did the rest.
William Hoffacker is the Co-Editor-in-Chief of Cartridge Lit, an online literary journal dedicated to poetry and prose inspired by video games. His work has appeared in NANO Fiction, The Matador Review, Fixional, and others. More information is available at williamhoffacker.com.
Photo by Killian Czuba.