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July 2015 Discussion Post & Upcoming Writing Challenge Theme: Summer Ghost Stories

July 1, 2016 at 12:00 AM

This month’s discussion post has two purposes: one, it’s a normal discussion post. Clearly. Secondly, I’m using it as a way to give you guys a heads-up on the next writing challenge theme – and the topic for both discussion and challenge are one and the same, once again!

In the past, we’ve discussed the basic question of whether or not you all believe in ghosts. It’s summer for me, and as July/August are pretty traditional ghost story seasons for many parts of the world, I thought it might be fun to do a “summer ghost story” theme for both our monthly chat topic as well as the next Creepypasta writing contest!

Please use this post to share any fun, ghost-related experiences that you’ve had, especially if they happened in the summertime. Have you ever explored somewhere that’s said to be haunted? Have you ever seen a ghost? Do you use ouija boards, and if so, do you believe that they contact the spirits of the dead? Have you ever tried to play Hyaku-Monogatari? Feel free to answer these questions or any other related thoughts!

I’m also hoping that this post will help provide inspiration for our next writing challenge: writing a creepypasta related to the theme of summer ghost stories.

I want to make this clear: the dates for the upcoming contest are not yet set in stone – the contest submission form will go live at the same time as the normal submission form. I’m currently hoping to be ready to re-open submissions in mid to late July, extending both the contest and the open period until mid-August. Yes, it will be a short open period, so that I can (in theory, at least) process it quickly enough to comfortable re-open once again in October, just in time for Halloween. Knocking on wood, here!

More details about the contest will be released when I formally announce the dates, but I thought I’d give you guys the opportunity to start working on your entries now by sharing the theme. It will likely operate similarly – if not exactly – like the last Creepypasta writing challenge, so please check out that post if you’re curious. I can also reveal that the physical prize this time around will be a package that contains this Ghost Meter EMF Sensor and a paperback copy of The Ghost Hunter’s Survival Guide: Protection Techniques for Encounters With The Paranormal by Michelle Belanger.

Please save specific questions about the contest for the actual contest post, however – let’s keep this discussion post on the topic of ghost stories!

As always, have fun and I look forward to reading your responses!

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It’s There, in the Dark

July 2, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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You’re right to be scared of the dark.

You know that feeling you get when the covers are pulled up to your face? When you’re lying in the dark with your eyes open but too afraid to look? That feeling that makes you a child again, holding your breath while you say to yourself, If I don’t look, maybe it’ll go away?

If you muster your courage to stare back at the watcher in the dark, it’ll be gone…

…if you’re lucky.

I’m not.

Let me tell you about when my life fell apart.

It was 1982.

I was in the kitchen. Mom said that there were no such things as monsters. I can hear it, now, clear as day.

“You’re too old for that crap.” She spoke over her shoulder from the stove.

I’d been having nightmares and she couldn’t keep waking up in the middle of the night. Work started early and ended late.

“That’s kids’ stuff, Johnnie.” I saw the dark circles under her eyes and the way her face sagged with fatigue. She was working double shifts to make ends meet and it was wearing her thin as a coin passed through too many hands.

“I need to rest,” she said. She wasn’t telling me as much as she was pleading, and even as a kid I could hear the difference. That made my part in it worse.

The pan rattled across the burner and I could smell the sausages browning. It was Sunday, so breakfast was more than Wonder bread and peanut butter.

Gran-dad sat in the kitchen, too. He was drinking his coffee from an off-white mug with a chipped rim.

He had a cigarette in his other hand, and when he wasn’t taking a drag, his hand was on the table next to his GPCs like he was guarding them. Gran-dad called them Good People’s Cigarettes.

His nose was almost as red as the Marlboros he couldn’t afford once he’d been laid off. He coughed, his face blue with the effort. But as soon as he could breathe again, the cigarette was back in his mouth.

Mom dropped two links on my plate from the sizzling pan.

“When I was your age, I was already working odd jobs to help out.”

I didn’t know what to say so I kept my mouth shut.

“And I wasn’t keeping my folks up half the night.”

Gran-dad rescued me. “He knows, Tammy. Give it a rest.”

He looked at me, and I could see that he was asking for assurance. I was just a kid, but also somehow the fulcrum on which the family’s troubles pivoted. Maybe that’s not entirely true, but it seemed that way to me: I was a mouth to feed, a knot keeping the ends from meeting. Those dark circles, that tired sag that pulled at her mouth—one way or another, life was using Mom up. By stealing her sleep, I was tightening its grip.

Shame’s heavy, and it bent me just then.

Gran-dad noticed me sag in my chair. “Johnnie’s just shook up. He’ll be alright.”

He didn’t look so sure, but he gave me a nod anyway.

“Right?”

“Yeah.” I knew I was lying.

So did Mom, but she kept her peace and dropped two dollops of scrambled egg next to the links on my plate.

High-cotton. That’s what Gran-dad said about sausage and eggs. I didn’t feel it, though, not that morning.

He used a fork to cut the links into bits and to mix everything together. I usually liked mine separate and made sure no egg touched sausage, but I watched them meet in the middle as though they were best friends. I had lost my appetite somewhere so far off that even the smell of Jimmy Dean couldn’t call it back.

He watched me scooting my sausages around, took a long pull from his cigarette, and winked. His eyes were playful, conspiratorial even.

Mom joined us with a plate of her own.

“Shit!” she said suddenly. “I forgot the toast.”

In a moment, she was back with a small plate stacked with five or six slices of white bread, a bit more burnt than brown.

“Eat up,” she said. I did, one joyless bite at a time.

High cotton. That’s what Sunday morning meant.

Sunday afternoon was a lazy affair at my house and this one was no exception. Gran-dad leafed through old magazines, nodding off now and then. The pages were dog-eared and he’d read the stories before, but he didn’t mind. Mom washed her hair in the bathroom sink and took a long nap.

I went outside while Mom slept. It was sunny and hot and I decided to poke around in the shed. It was under an old maple and dappled with shade and sun in summer camouflage.

The shed was never locked because there was nothing worth stealing. I opened the door and stepped in. It smelled like rust and oil and old wood and the light that shone through its only window spotlighted the dance and swirl of the dust in the air.

I poked around a bit, looking for something—anything—that might take my mind off my Mom.

I had a file in one hand and I was wearing away at the head one of the bolts attaching a beat-up vice to the worktable. Each push gave a raspy sound and the glint of shiny new steel. One push carried my knuckles too far and I scraped them across the sharp edge of the vice. It peeled the skin back and the blood welled up under the curl.

I stuck my hand in my mouth and tasted the metallic tang. My knuckle stung and I winced as I ran my tongue over the flap of skin.

Then I saw it.

In the corner of my eye, I could just make out a shadow, blacker than the black against which it stood. Two long arms with long hands and long fingers that looked more like claws to me.

It was just my imagination.

No, it’s not, John. My father’s voice.

My eyes were on the workbench but I focused on the shadow without looking.

It grew, stretching in the dark, raising those long-fingered hands.

My breath caught. I dropped the file and it clunked on the wood floor. I forgot about my knuckle. The hair on my arms stood up and I could feel my heart skipping, starting, faster, pounding, trying to escape my chest. I was too scared to look at it directly. I thought about running for the door, but the shadow was right there, just beside it.

It had long arms. I’d never make it.

I edged into the light from the window, trying my best not to look.

I thought that maybe if I just ignored it, it’d go away.

But you tell yourself that, too, don’t you? Late at night?

Something in me knew better. Something in you does too, I bet.

It was moving, inching toward the mostly closed door.

I was pretending not to look, but I took another sideways step into the light. I could feel the sun on my skin. In the light, the darkness deepened.

I couldn’t make out the shadow anymore, but I knew it was there.

It’s there alright, Johnnie. Don’t you doubt it. Now the voice was Gran-dad’s.

The door closed with a thud.

My chest ached from the effort of keeping my breath in check.

I had to do something.

I grabbed a hammer—a big heavy one with a painted red wooden handle.

“You stay away from me!” I yelled. “I mean it! You just…”

My words died in my throat.

It was there. I could see it now, blacker than black, getting darker every second.

It was creeping closer, sliding like it was on rails.

My hands shook and I my lower lip begin to quiver. White-hot panic burned in my mind and every thought but RUN! was smoke in its wake. But I was frozen and my feet wouldn’t budge.

It stopped at the edge of the light.

It slid around the side, staying just beyond the patch of white on the floor.

It was close, really close. The light was small but it was everything.

Mom wasn’t much on church and she never taught me to pray. But I prayed my heart out that some passing cloud didn’t happen by, just then.

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I wasn’t holding my breath—I was trying to take one and it wouldn’t come.

We stood like that for a long time. The hammer got heavy and my arms ached, but I didn’t dare lower my guard.

It was trying to get behind me when the shed door opened.

“What the hell are you doing?” Mom asked.

She noticed the wet patch on my jeans.

“What the hell, John? I mean…”

I stood there, lip quivering, hammer held high, until she took me by the arm and dragged me out into the yard and the sunlight

Sunlight!

and into the house.

She was angry about my wet jeans but I didn’t care.

Mom was making dinner in the kitchen.

Gran-dad and I were in the living room. He was on the couch. I was on the floor, sitting Indian-style.

He turned off the TV. I wasn’t watching anyway.

“What’s wrong, Johnnie?” He took a long pull and breathed out through his nose. His face was wreathed in blue smoke.

I eyed the window. The sun was setting and it would be dark soon.

“Nothing,” I said, trying to guess how long the light would hold, watching the shadows grow across the front yard.

“Doesn’t look like nothing to me,” he said. “Come up here and talk, man to man.”

I joined him on the couch and he crushed the nub of his cigarette into the ashtray. It was brown glass, made to look like amber.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, tousling my hair.

“Nothing.”

He could see that it was something and the tousling stopped.

He caught my eye with a long, sideways look of one milky, brown eye.

“Some men think they should keep their troubles to themselves. Not me. A trouble shared is a trouble lessened, I say.”

He paused for a breath or two and I could hear how bad his lungs were.

“What’s your trouble, Johnnie?”

“In the shed…well…” It was too ridiculous to even say.

Kid’s stuff. It was Mom’s voice in my head. You’re too old for that crap.

“What about the shed?”

“Well, I…”

“You saw something, didn’t you?”

I nodded.

“I thought you might. The nightmares…” He coughed, one of the really bad ones that doubled him over and brought tears to his eyes.

“They’re not just nightmares, Johnnie.” He wiped his eyes and his voice was high and tight and wheezy. “Some folks are more…sensitive. The nightmares let you know when it’s around.”

That got my attention like a slap. “What’d you mean?”

He had recovered and his hand wandered over to the pack of GPCs. “Well, some folks see things other folk can’t or won’t.” He had my eye again and I could feel his intensity.

“You follow me?” He fished a cigarette out the pack and held it, unlit, rolling it in his fingers.

“I guess,” I said.

“You’re at that age, now, that age when either you stop seeing it, or start seeing it more than you’d like.”

The way he said it quickened the hair on the back of my neck. Every follicle was alive and tingling.

“The shadow…?” My voice was barely a whisper.

“Yeah,” he said.

I was stunned. It was like I’d known a secret that no one else can share and suddenly I found out that everyone already knows. Gran-dad knew. He’d seen it too. As real as the shadow had been, this was impossible to believe.

“You see it, too?” I asked.

He looked at the cigarette in his hand and then back at me.

“Yeah.”

“Really?” I asked.

He nodded, a slow-motion move of his head.

“You be careful, Johnnie,” he said. Some things lose their power when you say them aloud. I found out then that this wasn’t one of them. It was way worse after he had admitted that it was dangerous. Way worse.

I was about to ask more when Mom came in. She didn’t want to hear this and I knew it and I couldn’t bear to make it harder on her.

“Dinner,” she said.

“Later,” Gran-dad said. “We’ll talk about it later.”

Mom had a double-shift the next day and went to bed early.

Me and Gran-dad waited till we were sure she was asleep.

I watched the windows like a hawk. It was full dark and the hair on my arms was at attention.

He took one last glance at the hall. Then, his voice as low as a cricket’s belly, he said, “Johnnie, you got to watch out now.”

Hearing him say it gave me the shivers.

“Once it knows you can see it…”

“It’ll come for me, won’t it?” I asked, barely able to get the words out.

He was having the same trouble so he nodded.

Millions—hell, billions of parents tell their kids that there’s nothing in the dark that’s not there in the light. You’ve done it yourself, haven’t you? You repeat it until you believe it, or nearly so, and you hope your kids believe it too. But maybe it’s you who need to believe, maybe it’s you who need the consolation. Maybe because you know, deep down, that there are things that go bump in the night.

I knew it and so did Gran-dad.

“I’m gonna watch over you tonight. You’ll be safe as houses, I promise.”

That helped a little.

“But I’m not always going to be here.” I shook my head but he continued. “And when I’m not, you’ll need to keep watch yourself.”

“You hear me?”

“Yeah.” The word was more breath than speech.

“Good. When the nightmares come on heavy, that’s a sign it’s around.”

“Why does it…”

“I’m not sure. Maybe it feeds on us at night, stealing a little bit of you when you sleep…”

He lit a new cigarette from the old one and puffed it to life.

“I think it comes for those who can see it and maybe it ignores them that can’t, or won’t. You know what I mean.”

I did. Even if Mom saw it, she would convince herself that she hadn’t.

I said so and he nodded.

“Yeah.” His tone told me that he wanted to be a little more like Mom.

“But what can I do? I mean to stay safe?”

“The light, Johnnie. Stay in the light.”

Neither of us could bear to talk about it anymore. There are things you can say in the daylight that you won’t dare in the dark.

Instead, we watched Hogan’s Heroes and Sanford and Son with the volume down low so as not to wake Mom. Normally, we’d have been laughing, but that night we didn’t even crack a smile.

It was getting late and Gran-dad told me to get ready for bed.

I had the covers up like a shield.

The lamp was on and my room was fairly well lit. The overhead was busted, but it had always been busted and there was a problem with the wiring.

Gran-dad was in the corner in a battered fabric chair. He was wearing his red and black plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up and he had a big, silver Rayovac Sportsman with him, the kind that took two D-cell batteries. Something about the chrome reminded me of a knight’s a sword. I felt a lot better with him there.

“I’ll watch over you,” he said.

I tucked my head under the blankets. I didn’t want to see. I didn’t want to see it.

I was tired and scared but my eyes were heavy. At some point, I fell asleep.

I woke up suddenly. Gran-dad was still in the corner, but his flashlight was on and he was shining it under the bed.

I sat up and he saw that I was awake.

His face was pale as fresh paint and the Rayovac shook in his hand. I could hear the batteries rattle.

“Don’t get out of bed,” he said.

“Wha…? Why?” I rubbed my eyes. I was still groggy.

“It’s under the bed, Johnnie.”

I was wide awake then.

“Don’t get out the bed!” he repeated. He wasn’t asking.

I jumped to my feet, the saggy mattress bouncing slightly under my weight.

“What’d you mean?”

“It’s under the fucking bed! Don’t move!”

I was ten years old and I’d never heard Gran-dad so much as say “shit.” This was bad, real bad.

I couldn’t stay on the bed—no way, no how—so I ran the step or two the end of the mattress and jumped for all I was worth.

“No!” Gran-dad yelled.

I traveled too far and too fast and hit the window in mid-air, flattening the blinds and tangling in them, ripping them from the wall when I fell backward toward the bed.

Toward the bed.

Gran-dad was off the chair in an old man’s flash, but my hand was falling into the shadow even as I tried to stop it.

Upside-down on the floor, I could see it too, flat as a doormat in the shadow under the bed.

I snatched my hand to my chest as it reached for me and not even a hair’s breadth separated its fingers from mine. It was cold and misty, like my hand in the freezer to get ice.

“Jesus, Johnnie!”

“I’m OK! I’m OK!” I said, finding my feet. I hopped up and down like it was Christmas morning. “I’m OK! I’m OK! I’m OK!” I was yelling, but I didn’t know it. Gran-dad didn’t either, but we figured it out when Mom burst through the door.

“What the hell!” she yelled, her bathrobe trailing behind her like a cape. “John? Mack?”

“What the hell is going on?”

Her hands were on her hips and her face was as red as Gran-dad’s nose.

She pointed a finger at Gran-dad. If it had been a gun, he’d have been be dead.

“You! Out!”

He gave me one long, pitiful look that said, “What can I do?”

Mom stood her ground like a titan and he trudged into the hall past her, his head down, defeated, worried, afraid.

Then it was my turn.

“You! In the bed!”

“But…!”

“Now!”

What was I supposed to say? That there was a monster under the bed? That I needed Gran-dad to keep watch?

Haven’t your kids said the same thing?

I picked up the Rayovac and leapt into the bed. Not flounced, not jumped, leapt. Like Bruce Fucking Jenner in the Olympics.

“When I get home, John…” That threat needed no conclusion.

She turned and slammed the door.

But not before she switched off the lamp.

I sat with the flashlight on and I knew it wouldn’t be enough.

I was on the tracks tied to the rails and the train was coming and there was no hero waiting just off screen to run in and save the day.

It was really dark in there and there wasn’t even a light peeking under the door.

It was in its element.

I could hear Mom giving it to Gran-dad in the kitchen down the hall, but I couldn’t concentrate on the words. My heart was at least as loud as her cursing and my mouth felt like it’d never known a sip of water.

I had the Rayovac in one hand like a spear, and I was shining the light at the edges of the bed, moving frantically from this side to that, from the headboard to my feet and back again.

It was waiting, savoring my fear.

You know how it does that, don’t you?

That’s when Mom came in.

In the instant before the bulb blew up, she saw it and her mouth dropped open and her eyes grew just like the did on Saturday morning cartoons.

I heard her take a loud breath, the substance of a scream filling her lungs, but it was black now and there was a rush of air and she was gone.

She was gone.

Gone.

I was screaming, tearing at the doorknob, running down the hall toward the light. My socked feet slid on the kitchen floor and I smashed into the cabinets hard enough to send my head spinning. The Rayovac skittered across the tired, yellow linoleum.

Gran-dad overturned the table. He saw something, too, because it was few minutes before I could get him to see me or answer my frantic questions.

It had been right behind me in the hall all the way to the edge of the kitchen.

We waited there till morning.

That sounds crazy—I know it—but we did.

Even then, every light in the house was on as we searched my room for Mom.

Of course we never found her.

Folks think she ran out, just like Dad did. That the double-shifts and bills and me and Gran-dad were just too much in the end.

We knew better.

I knew better.

That was 1982. A long time ago.

Gran-dad and me had a hard time of it, and soon enough, I was working those odd jobs to make ends meet. They never really did. Not even close.

Gran-dad passed before too long and I got more help from the state and foster care. The Willis’ weren’t so bad, and Fred and Rita did as well by me as they could.

I sold the house when I turned 18.

I’ve got stacks of bulbs in the kitchen closet: 60 watts, 100 watts, fluorescents—you name it. My lights are all rigged to a master switch in each room, too. One flip and everything’s lit.

I won’t have it any other way.

When the nightmares come—and they do come—I keep the lights on all night. The Rayovac’s been replaced by a Maglite rechargeable, and I keep a Q-Beam by the bed, just in case. Every room has a few lamps and an overhead. The wiring’s like new.

I want you to know that when you get that terrible feeling, that feeling of being watched from the dark, you’re not alone. When you pull the blankets up like a shield and slide your head down and pull your feet up, I do too. When you feel it watching from the dark or pull back a cold hand dangling over the side of the bed, when you feel like a kid and try to tell yourself there’s nothing there but your imagination, even though you know there’s something there…

…there is.

Kids go missing all the time don’t they? And sometimes they die in their sleep even though there’s nothing wrong with them.

And sometimes parents just get up and go when they’ve had enough.

But maybe, just maybe, not all those kids ran away. And maybe, them that die see something before they do. And sometimes, just sometimes, those parents didn’t run off when times got hard.

And you’re right to be afraid of the dark and what’s in it.

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In The Darkness

July 1, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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The water seemed to breathe. That was how Marc thought of it, that faint suggestion of air from the depths. Now that the moment had arrived, Marc wasn’t sure he wanted to plunge into that still water. He adjusted his head lamp, checked his gear again.

Félicité never understood why he had to go creeping into abandoned buildings. Why he had to go there and ‘look into the dark’ as she put it.

“Why can’t you take pictures of things in the daylight, hmm?”

“Mon coeur, I have to do it. It’s my art, my life. And sometimes, sweet, the dark looks back.”

It was true. That feeling in utter darkness of a presence. Being watched when there was no one. It was his constant desire to capture it, to make the viewer feel it too, that drove him to those places.

He had an installation opening in a small gallery tomorrow. It was his Eastern European trip hung up and framed in quiet black plastic. Félicité wanted to know why he couldn’t make art in France, if he insisted on doing it. Truth be told, he hadn’t considered France to be that interesting. He’d always lived there and so, as people do, he’d stopped really looking at it. But as she talked, he became excited. There was one place he’d heard about, one place he’d always thought he’d like to see.

When Charles Garnier built the Paris Opera in 1861, it was discovered that they were digging the extraordinarily deep foundations into an underground lake. After attempts to drain it failed, Garnier instead constructed a huge subterranean cistern to contain it. This, of course, later inspired the famous Phantom of the Opera, but there had always been a mysteriousness associated with the idea that, while glittering gentleman and ladies laughed and savored the music, beneath their feet lay deep and silent water.

Proper permits were, of course, out of the question. For one thing, Marc’s persona was built in large part on the idea of a man outside the usual bounds of society. No trespassing signs didn’t apply to him. Permits were not his style. But mostly because they wouldn’t have given him one anyway.

Now-a-days the lake was used for training firemen to dive in the dark and it was never included on tours of the Opera. Marc had scoured the internet for information, but he’d actually found very little. So, finally, he’d simply thrown some basic diving gear in a duffle and bribed a shady janitor to let him in after midnight.

It was now or never. He breathed deep, preparing himself for the cold that would seep in regardless of his wet suit. And he took a moment to feel the weight of the massive old place, all those many, many levels piling on top of him, before he put his foot on the top rung of the ladder.

Oh, it was cold, alright. Bone chilling. But the visibility was better than he’d thought. Algae grew across the bottom and sides of the tunnel, giving the water a green cast. The tunnel was about ten feet wide and an indeterminate length, with a curved ceiling coming down to meet the water’s surface. The depth about eight feet or so.

Marc snapped a few pictures before biting down on his diving regulator, dipping under and swimming farther. At the end the passage branched to right and left, though the left hand way looked like a dead end. Before long, the water deepened, grew murkier. At the same time the tunnel widened out to become a kind of chamber ringed with a little dry walkway. Marc heaved himself out to examine the walls. There, sure enough, was graffiti scratched by a long dead builder.

Herbert Duguay, 1862.

Marc photographed it, and a few other scratches he was unable to make out, probably worn away by rising water. Back into the murk, through another opening into a central hub of arched niches. The room was apparently vast and pillared. Light from his headlamp barely reached the ceiling and failed entirely to penetrate to the farther walls, but after swimming all the way around, it became apparent that this was it. There was no outlet.

This was a disappointing end to his adventure. According to legend, there were miles of of winding passages. He’d expected vaults and caverns at least. This was…boring. No wonder they used it for diving exercises.

Well. There was no reason he had to dash back to the surface. He might as well examine the walls for more graffiti; make the night worthwhile.

After a twenty minute search there was nothing. Not a scratch that looked anything other than natural faults in the stone. He was on the verge of taking what he had and going back, when he saw something moving.

It was bobbing under the water, disturbed by his swimming; a woman’s dress caught on some sort of grate several feet below water level. This was what Marc had hoped for. Something interesting at last.

The weight of the waterlogged fabric threatened to drag him under, but, though he struggled, he was able to get a look at it clearly enough to realize it wasn’t a dress – it was a ballerina’s tutu, complete with beaded bodice.

That made sense – the building being an opera house – though how it got down here was a mystery. Must have been recent or the delicate fabric would have rotted away entirely. The process had already started. He let it drift a little, then got a quick picture. That grate was more intriguing.

Rust and algae coated the surface in thick sheets; this was obviously an original installation. Marc suspected one good kick would get him to the other side, but he didn’t know where it led. There could be an entire maze through there. Félicité would be screaming if she knew he was contemplating going through. It was reckless. He could get hopelessly lost.

But…

The dark on the other side called to him.

He kicked.

It was immediately deeper. How he knew wasn’t entirely clear, since he hadn’t been able to see the bottom for some time, but he knew it all the same. Breaking the surface, Marc realized he had swum into another single chamber, not a series of tunnels as he had hoped.

There was a bright spot, however. This pillared room was considerably smaller, but more carefully constructed. The tops of the columns had been rudimentarily carved, even connected up with arches. Swinging round, flashing his light in the darkness, he bumped hard against something in the water. Cursing the rough stone and nursing a scraped hand, he investigated.

It appeared to be a column, broken a few inches under the water, and piled haphazardly with heaps of detritus. Branches, scraps of things too moldy to tell what they’d been. There was probably some good stuff in there. The makings of a few creepy photographs at last. Marc clipped his diving regulator to his shoulder for easy access and, gingerly, mindful not to bring the whole thing tumbling down, hoisted himself up onto the top.

They weren’t branches.

His first clue was the unnatural whiteness. Second, was the skull staring blankly up at him out of its cradle of little fish bones and curving vertebrae.

They were all bones.

Marc froze, unable to decide if there was a reasonable explanation why the bones should be there. Maybe…maybe this underground lake was connected, somewhere deep, to the extensive catacombs that ran under Paris. Nobody had ever fully explored them. It was possible heavy rains and flooding could have washed bones down here. They’d piled up on this column because…because it was the only high ground.

It wasn’t the sturdiest of arguments, but the other explanation was that some person or animal had deliberately woven them together, and, as Marc was well aware, he was the only one here. That grate hadn’t been opened since the place was built, that was clear. When he’d kicked it it’d come out of its frame entirely and was now resting on the bottom. And there was no other way out. The tunnel led here, and only here.

Swallowing his distaste, Marc began poking around. Most of the bones were fish and rodent; their skulls made that obvious. Comparatively few were human. There was only the one skull, but he noted several long bones that were undoubtedly once legs and arms. Slowly, as he crouched there, he began to see a progression. Like strata on a rock formation, he could trace the age; bones still with flakes of scale or scraps of hair clinging to them, giving way to yellowed, mottled pieces, then down under the water, where, lowering himself so he could see, the bones were so old and damaged they’d fused to the stone. That didn’t look good for his theory.

Another odd thing. The more he looked, the less random the arrangement appeared. In fact, he thought he could see a depression in the center, surrounded by a uniform lip.

Like a nest.

A soft ripple of water, coupled with a suggestion of something pale at the edge of the light made him look round. He hadn’t noticed how silent it was until that moment. He froze, searching the water. Nothing. He realized, suddenly, that this room was unknown to anyone but himself. If he went missing, no one would look here.

It occurred to Marc that what he’d seen was only one of the white catfish said to live in the underground lake. The staff even claimed to feed them on occasion. He breathed a little easier.

This was ridiculous. He returned his attention to the bones. Something was shining deep in the tangle. He’d see if he could get it out, take a picture, and then maybe it would be better to leave, get back to the main cistern, if he was going to be so jumpy. Reaching in, elbow deep, Marc fished around, fingers scraping against slime. Whatever it was eluded his grasp. He turned his head, trying to avoid smelling any more of the musty, fishy scent than he had to, when he saw it.

A white hand, like a pale spider, resting on a leg bone. The rest of the body was hidden by the lip of the nest, but it was moving, rising, pulling itself up in one strong, accustomed movement.

The creature was sickly pale; a creamy gray color like the underbelly of a dead fish. Marc could see its ribs pushing against the skin, all its joints unnaturally prominent. It was human-shaped, but grotesque. Webbed fingers, and where legs should have been, a long, supple tail, thick as a man’s waist and covered in raspy skin like a shark. But the face…the face was the worst. Hollow cheeks, hairless, a wide, lipless mouth. Too wide, really, for a person. And the eyes… Huge and round, ringed in silvery bronze with an enormous black pupil.

Fish eyes.

It stared at him. Motionless.

Marc felt like screaming. He felt like running, tearing at the walls, throwing bones at the creature, clawing his way out onto the street. But he knew, in the way a man knows in the presence of a tiger, not to move. Slowly, millimeter by millimeter, he drew his arm up through the bones, reaching for his camera. If he could distract it…

It was hopeless. The distance of dead water between him and the grate opening was too large. And even if he made it, what was to prevent the creature following him through? There was no getting out. Marc knew that too.

A little piece of his brain broke off and ran, childlike, along a trail of curiosity. What was it? How was it here? Maybe Herbert Duguay knew. Maybe Herbert Duguay was in this pile of bones. Right at the bottom.

The other part of Marc’s brain could only think one thing, and the thinking of it terrified him.

Don’t eat me. Please don’t eat me. I don’t want to be eaten.

He said this over and over to himself as he inched toward his camera. A mantra to keep the beast at bay. It would hear him. It would understand.

It moved.

Mouth open, showing teeth, so many, many teeth jammed together every which way. White and sharp, they sank into his shoulder; cold fingers digging into his arm. He was dragged across the bones into the water and down, down.

The regulator was still clipped to his shoulder. If he could turn his head… His arm was going numb, and he could see the streams of blood from his punctured shoulder in the light from the headlamp, but at least he could breathe. As long as he had air, there was a chance. He’d fight the creature, swim for his life.

The water was deeper even than he’d thought. The bottom rose to meet them, covered in strange lumps and mounds that revealed themselves to be twisted metal rods too damaged to be recognizable, rotted chests, discarded waste of the opera above. All carefully piled up and hidden away.

Bodies, too. Complete this time. Arm and hand bones sprouted from the rock bed like bleached water lilies. Skulls, glued to their spines by all those flesh eating organisms that spread in the darkness. Marc began to struggle.

The thing turned on him – those eyes – biting and dragging him down, pinning him to the bottom, wedging him under something, he couldn’t tell what it was. He started to scream, the water and his diving regulator muffling the sound to barely more than a vibration in his chest.

No! No…

He thrashed, gashing his free arm on something sharp, blood clouding the water. It was storing him here, down in in its cool larder, keeping him fresh, waiting for him to die. Marc knew. He knew his struggle was hopeless. That every gasp drained his air tank. But he no longer had control; the animal part of him desperately craved life. He clawed at the stone and rotted wood and at his own body, trying to rip himself free.

There, at the edge of the light, the creature hovered, arms outstretched, relaxed; the blank fish’s eyes watching with almost human interest. Then it receded, but he could feel it, even as he felt the ache in his lungs, telling him his air was running out.

Marc stared into the dark that was so full now of something looking back, waiting for him to breath water. Waiting to feed.

Credit: Rosemary Hamend

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Do NOT Buy An RT!

June 30, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Hey, all. You don’t know me, but I’ve been in this group for about four years now, even if I never really said anything. I’m just not really the social network type of person – I’m one of those old-fashioned guys who prefer face to face contact to blog posts and messaging, so I never saw much appeal in engaging in an online discussion, even if I rather enjoyed reading your posts. Well, the time has come for me to make my first, and most likely only, post here. In all honesty, I’m expecting a swift and permanent ban from NetWeb after this, but I don’t really care. There’s something I need to tell everyone, and it’s going to sound crazy and nonsensical, but I assure you every word is true.

My message is simple – do NOT buy an RT!!! I can not stress this enough. Do not purchase an RT, a used one or especially a brand new one. Let the fad die off. Please. I know what you’re thinking – “But Trevor, RTs have the potential to change the world! If we use them right and monitor them properly we’re looking at an age of prosperity!” And yes, I do agree that the fantasy that IGT has been trying to pitch us for the last three years sounds pretty great, but in reality it’s disgusting, inhumane, and not to mention highly illegal. I have no concrete proof for any of my beliefs, so I’m not going to outline them in plain text. All I’m going to do is tell you the story leading up to the creation of this post and let you reach your own conclusions.

It’s important to note that I lost one of my legs to a soft tissue sarcoma last year. By the time we caught it, it had already spread to the rest of my body, but with proper treatment the doctors are expecting me to live for at least another 25 years, which, while not ideal, is way more than cancer patients with my condition lived for only half a century ago. Still, the treatments leave me in a lot of pain, and the aforementioned lack of one leg makes it pretty difficult to move about, even with my prosthesis. And since I’m both disabled AND terminally ill, I more than qualified for IGT’s charity which provided free RTs to people who really need them. When I received a message from one of their PR people asking me if I would like to get a free model to help out around the house, I was ecstatic! Sure, I knew that this was all in their best interest, not mine – their donations are tax-deductible, and they’re also getting free marketing through exposure to boot. Regardless, as someone who’s never had a proper girlfriend and got disowned by his parents years ago, I knew I could really use the help. And besides, who wouldn’t want the hottest, latest piece of technology for absolutely free? I was certainly not going to say no to that, even if I had to play the cancer card to get it.

For the next several weeks I was in negotiation with the PR guy (whose name I won’t disclose, because I sincerely doubt he knows anything about what’s going on), sending documents back and forth, familiarizing myself with the terms and conditions of their deal and that sort of thing. Yes, IGT really do run a charity with terms and conditions attached to their donations, because IGT. But anyway, I was told that I’d receive a 2060 “GRETA” model – not the latest, even at the time (the story happened in early ‘62), yet still pretty damn great, costing north of half a million. The package was delivered to me on a Monday, straight to my door, and after that I set about assembling the RT unit myself. The process was, admittedly, a lot easier than I expected – the body and head were already in place, so all I had to do was attach the limbs, which required just a little bit of unscrewing and soldering, and then activate the unit. Honestly, while RTs look super realistic in ads and on store shelves, in real life they fall a bit in the uncanny valley, especially upon closer inspection. You know that horrible artificial skin they use on the expensive prosthetics, the kind that really looks like skin, but feels like cheap plastic? My RT was covered in that, head to toe.

The assembly took about 25 minutes in total, which I know some people in this group will consider to be way too slow, but keep in mind that I’m not really the type of person who’s ever had to work with this kind of stuff. When I was a child I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the tools, which were the exclusive domain of my father and older brother, and during high school and beyond I only ever did some basic soldering, like the type they teach in shop class, so go easy on me. Anyway, soon enough my RT was ready to go. The GRETA model’s system software came pre-installed (no messy work required there), but the unit hadn’t been activated yet – I had to do that myself so that it could imprint. For the five of you unfamiliar with the process, imprinting is pretty much the most important part of the setup. The first person the RT sees upon its activation becomes its… well, for lack of a better word, its Master. That person will always receive top priority when it comes to issuing orders or being cared for, and the RT will never wander off when its Master is less than 500 meters away.

Upon turning the unit on for the first time, it… Well, I guess after activation it’s not really an “it” anymore, is it? Upon turning the unit on for the first time, she began the imprinting process, and to hide that fact recited a pre-recorded message, just your standard fare about the rules I’d have to take into account, such as feeding her once a day, letting her sleep for at least five hours, caring for her as if I’d been caring for a real person… Kind of ironic, considering the fact that she was supposed to care for me, but whatever. The instructions also stated rather sternly that I was not to penetrate the skin layer of the RT under any circumstances, and that upon malfunction I was to bring her to an IGT-certified repair shop only, or else I’d be voiding my warranty. I didn’t pay it much mind, though.

Once the instructions were complete, so was the imprinting, and my RT’s life, if you can call it that, began. That machine which uncannily resembled a young girl looked around, her artificial eyes flickering and moving just like real ones would. She finally introduced herself more informally, explaining that I had to do some basic tasks before she could be useful to me. It was fairly simple stuff, such as giving her my schedule, setting alarms, feeding her info like my social security number, that kind of thing. She also asked me to name her, which I really didn’t feel comfortable doing. I’m probably very weird in this regard, but I don’t believe in choosing somebody else’s name – it’s like you define part of them without their knowledge or consent, forever. But then again, maybe I’m just biased. After all, when I was born my parents named me Marissa, so suffice to say, that didn’t really stick for too long. Legally changing my name to something more fitting felt empowering, like I was finally in charge of defining who I was. So I told her she could pick her own name, when she felt ready. She suggested Greta, like her model name, but I disagreed – I wanted her to choose something that she, herself, would feel was right for her. It’s funny – even at that moment, I subconsciously knew that she was more than just a computer in a humanoid body, like IGT was advertising. But I didn’t get confirmation until she began dreaming.

According to my research, RTs dreaming during sleep is not uncommon at all. In fact, it happens roughly as frequently as it does in humans, and just like us, they dream of recent events, people they have met, the works. Their software is sorting through the data collected during the day, placing the most important bits on the HDD and deleting the rest, and that process may sometimes “glitch” into dreams. I’ve seen a lot of people in this group, and beyond, report being weirded out when their RTs woke up and began telling them about their dreams, but at least those could be easily explained by the information transfer process I described above. What’s less easy to comprehend is when an RT begins dreaming about things and people they’ve never seen before. After all, if that explanation is true, then how can RTs possibly dream of objects they don’t have a recorded memory of? It didn’t make any sense at all, it was like a camera having pictures on its memory card that you’ve never taken. My own RT, who by that point began going by the name Laura, started experiencing this phenomenon about a month after she imprinted.

It was always the exact same dream – a white house, with two floors looking like cubes stacked upon each other. The peculiar thing about them was that the upper “cube” was turned several degrees to the side, so that its corners protruded above the lower floor’s walls. It was an interesting architectural decision, one that I was positive I’d never seen or even glimpsed before. And yet Laura recalled it flawlessly, down to the finest detail. The first time she told me about this dream I dismissed her pretty casually, thinking it was just something she spotted while on a shopping trip. The second time caught my curiosity. Then the third, fourth, fifth and sixth times all convinced me that there was something very weird happening here. Worried that my RT might have a serious issue, I asked her to draw a sketch of the house, and then sent that to IGT’s customer support alongside an explanation of the problem. This is the response I received:

“Dear Mr. Kingsley,

I regret to hear about the issues you’re experiencing with your aRTificial. Our engineers here at IGT are working hard to troubleshoot every single unit we ship in order to assure that our customers receive only the highest quality product, but considering the demand and the limited time we have to spare on quality assurance for each unit, sometimes mistakes (known as glitches) in the unit’s memory occur. Your particular issue, while inconvenient, is not too uncommon, and we are pleased to inform you that it will cause no issues or long-term problems with your aRTificial’s function. It stems from the fact that, during QA, the engineers use stock photos to “flash” a unit’s short-term memory and make sure it’s functioning. The particular image you have sent me shows an uncanny resemblance to one of the stock images we use for the process, which I have attached to this e-mail. While the issue will fade away over time, if you would like you can bring your unit to an IGT-approved maintenance workshop so that its memory can be formatted. That will solve the issue once and for all.”

As always, I am keeping the IGT employees’ names out of this until I become certain of their involvement. Anyway, I downloaded the picture and, wouldn’t you know it, it was the exact same house that Laura had drawn, right down to the very last detail. Immediately, a lamp in my brain lit up and I was like “Conspiracy! They photoshopped this image to throw me off!”, but no, a reverse image search brought up plenty of sites hosting that particular stock photo, which was apparently uploaded quite a few years ago. Problem solved, right? The customer support guy’s story checked out right down to the very last detail, and more importantly, it made sense. So then why couldn’t I put it out of my mind? And I wasn’t alone – day after day, Laura would wake up and excitedly told me about the dream she’d had as she prepared breakfast for us. That dream was, of course, always about the house, in some way, shape or form. Sometimes she dreamed that she was very tiny and standing in front of the house, other times she was closer to her current height and walking up to it, and a few times she even dreamed that she was inside the house, facing the two pine trees just outside. When I asked how she knew this was the exact same house and not another, Laura told me that it just felt right. It became pretty obvious to me that she had a connection with that place, but I genuinely couldn’t understand what it was. So, like the good no-lifer that I am, I decided to spend my time doing research.

I discovered that the house was built by one Nigel Winston, an architect who also doubled as an artist. He’d built over a dozen houses during his career, each of which had some sort of quirk to it. The white one he called “House of Cards”, which, honestly, didn’t make much sense to me, but I’m sure it did to him, at least at the time. “House of Cards” was built in 2044, and for a time Winston himself lived in it alongside his family, but if the home’s listing in a real estate site was to be believed, he’d moved out about a year ago. An e-mail to the real estate company quickly got me his e-mail, and, interestingly, only his e-mail. While I did prefer something a bit more personal, such as a phone number, I was informed that Nigel Winston was a very private person and rarely, if ever, spoke to anyone. That led me to believe that my e-mail was going to be completely ignored if I revealed the truth about my research’s purpose, so instead I pretended to be someone interested in purchasing the house. I asked the standard questions – is it in a good neighborhood, are there stores or landmarks around, that kind of stuff. On top of it, I also asked more information about the house’s history, such as why it was built, how the stock photo came to be taken, and why he moved out and chose to sell one of his works of art. I am copy/pasting his response below, in full, and leaving the conclusions to you.

“Dear Mr. Kingsley,

I’m pleased to learn of your interest in purchasing the house my family and I called home for over 16 years. Despite its unique design, thus far you have been one of the very few people who expressed a genuine interest. As you can see, my House of Cards is in pristine condition, inside and out. There are multiple family-owned stores about five minutes away from it, as well as a MarGet roughly 15 minutes away. A school and a hospital are both within short driving distance away from the house, as a matter of fact, that’s the reason I chose that place in particular to build it. Its sole reason for existing was to give me and my family shelter, so I deliberately found a spot that would be great for raising a child. One drawback of the house is that it only has two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room, as well as a bathroom on each floor, so there’s no place to, say, set up an office or a storage room. You could, however, convert one of the bedrooms into that if you need it, or you could build an additional structure in the backyard. We used to have two pines growing there that my wife had a liking for, but when we decided to sell and move those were removed, leaving enough empty space to attach another room or even two. The neighborhood is quiet and calm, trust me on this. The reason we moved has nothing to do with the area, or with any external factors. The truth is, my youngest daughter disappeared roughly a year ago, and once the investigation was closed we found that the house just held too many memories. I would prefer it if we no longer dwell on this depressing matter, yet I would also appreciate it if you can keep my Laura in your prayers tonight. If you have any more questions, or would like to set up a meeting, feel free to respond to this e-mail.

With respect, Nigel Winston”

Credit To: RaidenDP1

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The Vampiress

June 29, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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The first account – it was in a warm September
A month still haunted by the saddening winter.
If well I remember, the winds still lashed
The village where, upon dusk, dogs barked
The place where, until dawn, no soul wandered.
That dame, I first saw her in a mere instant
When I uttered, abruptly, my fearful shout of horror:
Blue the irises of the visage whose lips in scarlet
Bled my own bare neck in a silent hot ardour.

The nights gelid were born with that silhouette
Only the naïve moonlight touched the parapet
When under the Victorian garb came that brunette.
It was a beautiful cadaver, of a hair so flourished
Of a woman whose beautiful face, though dead,
Whose vibrant death, almost plainly alive,
On my pulsing blood relentlessly fed.

The last night – it was a pure October of warmth.
Cloudy was my gaze, bohemian of those cold lips
That anaemic turned my heart that burned – of love.
And so the last kiss my lips profoundly touched
And she did not bring death – distinct was my fate.
The death, so vivid, came as a cursed blessing
Which I have, my dead God, accepted so straight.

Ever since then, damned and accursed I observe
The fine thread of the sin which is life post-death.
Even if from the shallow graves, quiet and inert
We surge – us both – after each passing sunset
And even if then death equally us embrace
If our diseased life only lives after twilight
Each October to the village we return for more.
Life more than enough to keep the flesh alive
And death always dead, but that dies no more.

Credit: Fernando N.

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The Last Man of Faith

June 28, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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It was a long time ago that I heard the tale. I was deep in the desert, with only myself and a man I had hired as a guide. We found a small oasis at the bottom of a valley and set up camp for the evening. Later that night, under a moonless sky we sat around the campfire. My guide was carving something from a piece of wood while I stared out into the desert.

“Do you know any good desert stories?” I asked. He looked at me from across the campfire for a moment with his bright blue eyes and then gazed into the fire. He nodded.

“There is one I know,” he said. “It is a very old story, and not one that many people know.”

“Well, let’s hear it then,” I said. “Preferably before the campfire goes out.” He smiled at me and began to tell his tale.

“Millennia ago, there stood in the desert the great and ancient city of Zatan’nataz, the oasis city, home to tens of thousands. It was beautiful in the sunlight, with its polished sandstone buildings shining brilliantly. It streets were full of life and color, with the merchants shouting at the pedestrians, the children running through the courtyards, and the priests and scribes going about their business. The buildings everywhere were adorned with garishly colored tapestries and murals, most including the Golden Frond, the symbol of the oasis city. Brightly painted statues stood guard at all gates and on the corners of the temples. Each of the city’s quarters held a massive fountain spraying water high into the air. At the center of all of the roads was the Tower of the Moon, rising into the sky above the city. At its base stood the Great Crypt, the sanctuary of the priesthood and the heart of Zatan’nataz. A high and impenetrable wall surrounded it all in a near perfect circle. But things were far from perfect in that ancient city.

Just before sunrise on the night of every new moon, a young hunter named Aser climbed onto his roof to view the monthly spectacle. As the first light of dawn came over the horizon, all activity in the city ceased. The streets were empty, the people in their homes stayed silent. And then came the sound of slaying from the Great Crypt. It was a faint sound, but unmistakable. Every citizen of Zatan’nataz claimed that they could hear it when it happened. And then the locked doors of the Great Crypt opened and four high priests carried out a large stone sarcophagus emblazoned with the Golden Frond and the Black Sun, the sign of the goddess. While all others hid in their homes for the duration of the ceremony, peeking out of their windows if they were brave, Aser crouched on his rooftop and watched them as they went from the center of the city to the southern gate.

For five years the ceremony had been carried out. An old, old legend had stated that the city was under the protection of a goddess. One day, it said, a demon would come to destroy the city. On that day, the goddess would come, banish the demon and usher in a golden age for Zatan’nataz. But the demon had come and the goddess had not. The high priests slew the demon using ancient and forbidden magic, but its heart refused to die. They ripped the organ from its body, but a new body began to slowly grow around the heart. They could not destroy it, nor could they dispose of it, so they placed it in the deepest shrine of the Great Crypt and sealed the doors. Then they returned, every month, when the demon was nearly regenerated, and cut its heart out once again. Then they placed the husk in the sarcophagus and carried it to the Pit of Zakas, which was said to be the entrance to the underworld, and threw the lifeless body into it, coffin and all. And thus the high priests claimed they protected the city until the goddess came to destroy the demon once and for all.

The people of Zatan’nataz claimed that this was their golden age. They claimed that the demon was defeated. Aser called that heresy. To all that would listen, he made his case. Aser was a man of faith that believed the prophecy must be followed precisely. Until the goddess destroyed the demon, he said, the golden age would not truly come. And for the goddess to appear, the demon must be let loose upon the world. His friends laughed at first. They tried to persuade him otherwise. Failing at that, they turned their backs on him at last. Aser called them blind. He said that their golden age was a farce. He had watched the city for many years and he had seen the rot beginning to set in over it.

It began with the high priests. Beneath the banner of the Black Sun, they claimed that they were above all others in the oasis city. They began to amass wealth, servants, and power beyond compare. He had heard rumors of them stealing from the city’s vaults and claiming it for the temple. He had seen them take young women from their families to fulfill their own desires. And he had seen any who stood against them disappear as if they had never existed. The city had fallen into ruin with its funds depleted. Violence, crime and corruption had taken hold. But the people claimed that the golden age was upon them because they did not want to believe what was directly in front of them.

At noon on the days of slaying, the doors of the Great Crypt stood open and the priests flaunted their power. For on display on the great altar for one hour was the heart that they had ripped out of the demon’s chest. It beat slowly as the bravest citizens viewed it. And at the end of the hour, the veins and arteries began to sprout once again and the people of the city were banished from the Crypt until the next day of slaying. Aser viewed it every time. He was drawn to it. At times he thought he could almost hear a voice in the air, pleading with him to free it from its torment. And one day, as the voice was clearer than it had ever been, Aser finally decided to take action. He would unleash the demon.

For one month he planned how he would do it. He could not merely stop the slaying. The doors of the Great Crypt had powerful seals upon them. And even if he could gain entry, how long would it be before the demon awoke? No, his course of action had to be more precise. He must rejoin the body and heart. He knew the course of the priests transporting the husk to the Pit of Zakas. Along the way there was a large boulder that had been there since before the first stone of Zatan’nataz was laid. It was there that he must wait. He readied his bow, which he had practiced with since he was a small child. His aim was near perfect. He laid out his arrows and performed certain rituals and blessings over them, saying that what blood they spilled would be for the greater good.

And so the next day of slaying came. Aser had hidden behind the great boulder a day before and camped there. He had no fear of being discovered, for none but the holy men with their load traveled toward the Pit of Zakas. Dawn came and the city went silent. And despite being a half-mile from the city gates, Aser heard the sound of slaying. Over the years he had come to know the exact timing and pace of the high priests travelling with the great stone sarcophagus. So he waited, knowing exactly when they would cross in front of the boulder. And exactly when he expected, he heard footfalls on the other side of his refuge. He circled the stone quietly, so that he came around to the road behind them. As he moved onto the road he saw them walking slowly ahead of him, with their backs turned. He drew his bow and aimed for the priest to the front and right, the farthest away from him. His years of training had served him well, for the arrow found its target in the back of the priest’s head. The other three staggered as one edge of the sarcophagus was no longer held aloft. Aser drew his next shot and fired at the priest on the back right. The arrow struck him in the back and he fell. With that, the sarcophagus tumbled to the right, its side slamming into the dirt path. Its heavy stone lid loosened and fell to the earth. Its contents struck the side with a dull thud.

By now the remaining priests had turned and seen him. They drew their ceremonial blades and charged. Before the nearest could reach him, Aser had buried an arrow in his throat. As the last ran at him, Aser drew and fired his fourth arrow. And then something happened that did not happen often. He missed. With the priest almost upon him, Aser panicked and quickly drew another arrow. He rushed the shot and fired wildly, missing the priest again. With that, the man was upon him, swinging the razor sharp blade toward his head. Aser raised his bow to block the strike. The blade cut effortlessly through the thick wood, but missed its mark and buried itself in Aser’s shoulder. He screamed in pain and watched as his blood began to soak the sand beneath him. For a moment he waited, expecting the strike that would cut his throat. But it did not come. He raised his head and saw that the priest was exhausted. It had been years since he had had to act so swiftly. Aser took his chance and knocked the sword from the man’s grasp. Acting on instinct, he pulled the man to the ground and leapt on top of him, his hands going to his throat. For what seemed like an eternity he choked him, until the man finally stopped moving.

Aser rose to his feet panicked and gasping for breath. His killing of the others was sanctified by the blessed arrows. This was cold blooded murder. His soul was now forfeit. After a minute of panic, he calmed himself by remembering his goal. Surely if he heralded in the true golden age he would be redeemed. He approached the fallen sarcophagus, its lid lying silently on the ground beside it. He prepared himself to gaze upon an abomination and looked inside the stone coffin. What was inside was not what he had expected. What was inside terrified him more than anything else on earth ever could. After many minutes of staring, he carefully gathered up the contents in a large burlap sack, painfully hefted it over his good shoulder, and ran back toward Zatan’nataz.

For hours he hid in a darkened alley with his prize. It seemed like an eternity. Finally he saw the sun rise directly above him and he knew it was time. The priests would not be suspicious at first, for Aser was always present at the displaying of the heart. His plan to retrieve the heart had been subtle and complex, but for all those hours of waiting, rage had festered inside his heart. He would not draw it out one second more than was necessary. It was then that he heard a loud crack and knew that the doors of the Great Crypt had been unsealed.

He threw his burden over his right shoulder once more and marched toward the Crypt. As he reached the doors he saw that a priest was slowly pulling each of the doors open. One of them smiled as he saw Aser, for they had seen him every new moon for years. His smile faded as he saw the bag draped over his shoulder. As Aser reached the doors, he shoved the left door as hard as he could. The door struck the priest and he fell onto his back clutching his face. When the priest on the right protested, Aser swung around, one end of the heavy sack on his shoulder striking the man in the face and sending him to the ground as well.

The ceiling of the Crypt towered high above him, the sunlight filtering in through a hundred small windows. He strode through the towering statues surrounding him toward the great altar in the center of the room. Two priests were present, one on each side of the altar. Upon hearing the noise at the entrance they had drawn their blades. Aser let the bag he carried fall to the floor with the sickening noise of dead flesh. The priests charged at him, but Aser was ready this time. He knew their aim would be poor, and that they had no strength to their blows. He grabbed the wrist of the first to reach him and wrenched it until the blade dropped from his grasp. He placed a hand on the man’s chest and shoved him into the second priest. They fell to the floor screaming. Aser saw red and knew that the second man’s blade must have cut one or both of them. He didn’t care.

Aser stepped around the two men on the floor and made his way to the great altar in the center of the room. The light from the windows above made the golden altar shine brilliantly, but what Aser wanted was the lump of dull flesh sitting on top of it. A shudder ran through him as he picked the heart up off of the altar. The beating was slow and faint, but there nonetheless. Aser closed his eyes and began to silently mouth a prayer. Before he could finish it, a hand roughly grabbed his wounded shoulder from behind. His arm exploded in pain as he was spun around. Opening his eyes, he saw a large man clad in leather armor towering above him. The dull leather was emblazoned with the symbol of the Black Sun. Aser had little time to react as a heavy fist struck him in the face and everything faded to black.

Aser awoke in a room the likes of which he had never seen before. He had been seated in a heavy wooden chair. He did not seem to be bound in any way. In front of him stood a tall central stand containing a dimly burning torch. The light cut through the darkness around him, casting strange shadows on the walls. This was unsettling as Aser could see nothing between the torch and walls that could be casting the shadows. The walls were covered in paintings that may have looked normal in the light, but underneath the dim light and shadows there was not one of them that did not look demonic. Graceful figures became twisted and scarred. Beneath him on the floor was a carpet made from the hides of animals he did not recognize.

Several seconds after he awoke, he heard a door open behind him. Soft footsteps approached his back and he heard a low voice.

“I presumed that my personal study might give us a bit more privacy than the cells in the dungeon,” the voice said. A tall man clad in the same branded armor walked to the front of him. He turned and stood directly between Aser and the torch, his figure silhouetted against the dim light at his back. Aser could make out nothing about his face except for a pair of flashing blue eyes that stared back at him.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” said the strange man. “I am Sukaz, head of the Guardians of the Priesthood. You won’t have heard of us, of course. We take great care to make sure of that. We find it makes our jobs easier.” As Aser’s head fully cleared, the rage returned, stronger than before.

“What have you done?” Aser said in a low growl.

“I have done nothing,” said Sukaz. “You, on the other hand, have committed several acts of murder, put the people of the city into a panic and almost ruined many years of hard work.”

“You know what I mean,” said Aser. “What was that?!” The rage was evident in his voice. He saw a flash of white as Sukaz grinned at him.

“Ah,” said Sukaz. “You mean what was in the sarcophagus. But you don’t need me to tell you that. You knew the moment you saw it, whether you want to believe it or not.” Aser thought back to hours before, when he gazed into the great stone coffin. There was a corpse inside, but it was no demon. It was the body of a woman. She was tall, beautiful and regal. He had seen the skin of the body shine faintly, bathing the inside of the sarcophagus with light. Aser said his next words slowly and deliberately, rage permeating every syllable.

“You have slaughtered a god.”

“Yes, repeatedly,” said Sukaz. Aser leapt from the chair he was seated in, his hands going for Sukaz’s throat. As soon as he had risen, the man’s fist crashed directly into his jaw. He fell back onto the chair painfully, tasting blood and feeling that two teeth were missing from the right side of his jaw. “Do not think that you can kill me as easily as a few pampered high priests, boy. Luck has been on your side thus far. It will not be again.” Aser drew himself back up in the chair, but remained seated. He glared back at the man in front of him, tears beginning to well up in his eyes.

“How in the name of all that is holy can you do such a thing?” asked Aser, his voice nearly breaking.

“To be fair,” said Sukaz with a maddening tone of superiority, “I have never killed her myself. You can credit your illustrious priesthood with that. As for why, they do it because of the one thing that drives all men.”

“And that is?”

“Fear,” said Sukaz. “Five years ago, the high priests began to descend into a state of arrogance and decadence. They began to amass power, created the Guardians, and robbed the city blind. And then she appeared; the very goddess these priests claimed to work on behalf of. And on that day, those men that once thought themselves righteous feared judgment more than any.” Sukaz laughed softly. “I am not sure who struck the blow, but before she could say one word to them, a priest drew his blade and impaled her through the heart. Then they saw the blood withdraw and the wound begin to heal. They had been afraid of judgment for their pride. They were now petrified of judgment for the murder of a deity. And so the cycle began.”

“Five years,” said Aser. “Five years! How many times has it been?? How many corpses have been thrown into the pit?! Why do they let this continue?!” He was sure that someone outside would hear his screams, but Sukaz just stood there and let him continue. When he finally stopped, the man laughed.

“Your people are cowards,” said Sukaz. “They cannot face what they see in front of them. Their city could be burning around them and they would not notice.”

“The city is burning!” screamed Aser. “And you know it! How do you let this happen day in and day out?”

“Because the world may be better off with it gone,” said Sukaz. “The oasis city is dead and rotting. It must be cut off like a gangrenous limb.” The man’s tone changed as he said those words. His voice echoed from the walls around them. Aser’s rage began to dim. Fear began to replace it.

“Who are you?” Aser asked, his voice lowered to a whisper. Sukaz crossed his arms and looked up toward the ceiling, as if trying to find the correct words to say. After a few seconds, he circled the torch in the center of the room, until he came to a stop on the side opposite Aser. Turning towards Aser, he could see Sukaz’s face at last. It seemed completely normal, with short dark hair and a thin pointed beard. Then Aser saw the shadow being cast behind him. Though Sukaz was only slightly taller than Aser, the shadow loomed high above them both. The shadow’s head appeared to have several horns jutting off of it at odd angles. Massive wings stretched to its sides, covering the entire wall with darkness. Sukaz saw Aser’s eyes go wide. He grinned and circled back around to the front of the torch.

“I am someone that is very much above the people of this city,” said Sukaz.

“You are the demon,” said Aser. “The demon of legend.” Sukaz chuckled, the sound ringing off the walls.

“Demon? No,” said Sukaz, shaking his head. “I prefer to see myself as more of an angel; one with a very specific purpose.”

“Destruction,” said Aser.

“Change,” said Sukaz. “Nothing lasts forever in this world. To try to do so is folly.” He moved closer to Aser, who cowered in his seat. “All men die, all cities fall to ruin, and all empires crumble. It is the natural order of things. Your city, your goddess, and your people try to work against nature itself.”

“It wasn’t all the priests, was it?” asked Aser, finding some small semblance of courage.

“That depends,” said Sukaz, the tone of superiority coming back into his voice. “I may have started their decline into corruption, I may have caused them to doubt their beliefs, and I may have implanted their fear of their goddess, but I did not draw that blade and I have not touched her.”

“You won’t get away with this,” said Aser, his voice finally confident once again. “I won’t let you do this. The goddess will live again!” Sukaz tilted his head to one side and looked silently at Aser, a questioning look in his eyes.

“Very well,” said Sukaz. “You are free to go.” Aser’s jaw dropped and a dumbfounded look came onto his face.

“Really?” said Aser. “You are not going to imprison me? Kill me?”

“Would you like me to?” asked Sukaz. Aser stared back silently. “No, my friend,” said Sukaz. “It is not my place to kill you. My purpose is to bring ruin. Perhaps yours is to bring ruin to me. Who am I to interfere with the machinations of fate? Go.” Still staring at the man in front of him, Aser slowly got up from the chair. With a great deal of fear he turned his back on the man and started toward the door behind him.

“However,” said Sukaz. “You may not want to go through with this.” Aser stopped in his tracks two steps from the door. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He did not want to listen to what the demon had to say, but something made him turn around.

“What do you mean by that?” asked Aser. Sukaz had moved back around to the other side of the torch in the center of the room. The massive shadow was visible once again on the far wall. Steeling himself, Aser walked to the torch, glaring at Sukaz from directly across.

“I just mean that should you follow this course of action, the results may be much worse than you anticipate. What may seem like the right thing to do may be anything but.”

“Do not try to fool me,” said Aser. “You cannot see the future.”

“Perhaps not,” said Sukaz. “But I have watched this world for longer than you can imagine and I have become quite adept at guessing the outcome of things. Would you like to see what the future has in store?” For the first time since he began his quest, doubt began to slip into Aser’s mind. He tried to remind himself that that was exactly what the demon was trying to do, but that slight twinge of doubt began to grow. Aser found himself unable to resist.

“Alright, demon,” said Aser. “What can you tell me of my quest?” Sukaz grinned more broadly than ever as the words left Aser’s lips.

“I prefer to show you,” said Sukaz. The man waved a hand over the torch in the center of the room and it was extinguished. Fear gripped Aser as the darkness enveloped him. Then, from above him, a light appeared. He looked up and saw that it was the moon, high overhead. Looking back to the floor, he saw a forest laid out before him. He heard Sukaz clearing his throat behind him and spun around. Aser found himself on the top of a high ridge, looking down on Zatan’nataz from miles away. Sukaz stood on the very precipice.

“What will happen when the goddess lives again?” asked Sukaz. “Is it not possible that her wrath will be great?” With that, a brilliant light appeared in the sky above the city. A massive glowing orb hung ominously over Zatan’nataz. “Is it not possible that the city will pay the price?” The orb descended in a split second, striking the center of the city. A flash of light struck Aser’s eyes and he had to cover them. Moments later, he felt a shockwave wash over him. Uncovering his eyes, he saw that a dozen more of the orbs had appeared above the city and were beginning to descend. Forcing himself to look into the light, he saw blast after blast tear the city apart. Houses were thrown high into the air. The great statues were blown to dust. He saw the Tower of the Moon shatter and fall.

“But why stop there?” asked Sukaz. “Will her wrath not be great enough to punish the world of men as a whole?” The entire sky was suddenly alight with the massive orbs. They began to move outward, travelling towards the far eastern cities and the coastal cities of the north. “Would you watch the world burn just for your hope?” The great orb nearest to them in the sky began to descend directly towards Aser. In seconds, the light had engulfed him and he could see nothing. Aser steeled himself, closed his eyes and tried to ignore the vision before him.

“That will never happen,” said Aser. “Our goddess is merciful and just. She would never punish those that have not wronged her.” His voice was confident, but in his mind the seed of doubt began to grow larger. After a moment, Sukaz spoke again through the light.

“Perhaps,” he said. “So let us assume you are right and that your goddess is not the wrathful sort. Let us assume that your beloved golden age does indeed come after my demise.” The light around Aser dimmed and began to flicker. He slowly opened his eyes and looked around him. He was in the battered husk of a city. Tall wooden houses burned around him. The air was heavy with smoke. Ash lined the streets. Sukaz still stood in front of him on the broken street.

“Where are we now?” asked Aser. Sukaz shrugged.

“One of the eastern cities,” he said. “Sted or Lasaria or Holm or one of the other ones I cannot remember.” Sukaz bent down and grabbed a handful of ash. As he spoke, he let it sift through his fingers and let it drift away in the searing wind. “Your golden age comes, but your city’s pride does not disappear. It only grows.” Sukaz turned and began to walk up the road, stepping over burning debris. Aser hurried after him. He felt his feet sink into the hot ash. He could not help but wonder where all of the people were. Perhaps the vision was not complete.

“They begin to see themselves as superior to those around them,” said Sukaz. “They are ruled over by a living deity and they feel they have the divine right to rule over these other pathetic cities. The armies of Zatan’nataz march on them all and burn them to the ground.” The two of them finally came to a great courtyard. Aser moved ahead of Sukaz and saw that the paved area had been ripped apart and that great pits had been dug into the earth. Moving towards one, he saw that it was not a pit, but a mass grave. A hundred charred skeletons filled the pit to its very brim. He saw movement and the center of the courtyard and his attention was torn away from the bodies. The smoke cleared and he could see a banner flying proudly. It was bloodied and torn, but the symbol of the Black Sun could still be seen emblazoned on it.

“What once inspired faith will now only instill fear,” said Sukaz. Aser felt rage begin to boil up inside him, but he could not tell what it was directed at. Was it at the men of this future? Sukaz? Himself?

“No!” screamed Aser. “The people of Zatan’nataz would never do this! I have lived there my entire life and I have never once doubted that they are good people.”

“You still believe that after knowing what has transpired there for five years?” asked Sukaz. “Your naivety is amusing if nothing else, I must say.”

“Even if our leaders have fallen to corruption, the people will not,” said Aser. Sukaz smirked and shook his head at Aser.

“So once again, let us assume you are right,” said Sukaz. “Your precious people are faultless and they spend their golden age doing wholesome, peaceful things.” Aser struggled to keep a calm façade in response to Sukaz’s mocking tone. “Do you trust the people of the surrounding cities just as much?” As he spoke the words, the city around them blurred and changed. The sound of the flames died down and was replaced with another sound: metal striking metal.

“The men of the surrounding cities see your great wealth and power,” said Sukaz. “And as always happens, they are filled with envy and fear. They will try to crush you.”

As the scene around him finally stopped shifting, Aser found him and Sukaz standing in the market quarter of Zatan’nataz, beneath one of the great fountains. The waters ran red. Around them, soldiers fought madly. The guards of Zatan’nataz were outnumbered and outmatched, but they struggled on, more falling each second. The soldiers attacking them had many different sigils on their armor.

“They will succeed,” said Sukaz. He motioned for Aser to look behind him. Aser did so and saw the body of the goddess once again. Her heart was removed and the body had been decapitated. Aser fell to his knees seeing the streets of the oasis city full of death. He closed his eyes and lowered his face into his hands. The noise around him fell silent. He looked up and found himself in Sukaz’s study once again, the torch shining dimly from its stand. Aser felt his head spinning. Sukaz stood over him, armed crossed, awaiting a response. Aser met his gaze, glaring back into the bright blue eyes. He rose to his feet and took a deep breath.

“So,” said Sukaz. “What is your course of action now?” It was almost a minute before Aser replied.

“I believe in the goddess,” said Aser. “I believe in the city of Zatan’nataz. And I believe in all people. I will see your downfall, demon, no matter the cost.” There was no trace of uncertainty in his voice. There was not even any rage. There was only a conviction that brought a look of shock to Sukaz’s face. Aser shoved Sukaz away from him and went for the door.

“Stop,” said Sukaz. Aser sighed and waited, keeping his back to Sukaz.

“Going to kill me now?” asked Aser. He heard Sukaz’s footsteps approach his back.

“No,” said Sukaz. “I’m not going to be that kind.”

“Then what do you want?” asked Aser. He felt Sukaz’s breath on the back of his neck.

“You have seen what could happen,” whispered Sukaz. “But now you must know what will happen.” Aser remained silent. “I gave you a chance. A chance to stop your fool’s crusade and live out your days in peace. The same way I gave your priests a chance to save themselves and repent. But they failed to take it, and now so have you.”

“I will not listen to more of your lies, demon.”

“Then listen to the truth!” said Sukaz, his voice raising. “You will go and tell the people of me and your high priests. And do you know what they will do? They will call you mad…and heretic. And they will take you and lock you away in the Tower of the Moon in a tiny cell with one tiny window. And every new moon you will look out that window and wonder if it is finally the day that the high priests break the cycle and release your precious goddess. And that day will never come.” Aser closed his eyes and focused his thoughts inward, ignoring Sukaz, whose voice rose with every word. “You will watch your city travel the road to destruction. You will live out your life in that cell waiting for the day to come! And on your deathbed, you will finally know that that day will never come!” Sukaz grabbed Aser by the shoulder and spun him around, screaming directly into his face. “Where will your faith be then?!” Sukaz finally fell silent. Aser reached up and removed his hand from his shoulder. He looked back into the demon’s eyes and smiled.

“The same place it has always been,” said Aser. Sukaz glared back and returned the smile.

“You think you will be rewarded in death as a martyr,” said Sukaz. “But you do not know the truth. She is not a goddess. She is Zatan’nataz, the very soul of the oasis city. With every day of slaying, the city decays, brick by brick. And when enough bodies have been cast into the pit, your precious city will collapse under the weight of its own pride. You’ll have no deity to put faith in.” Aser remained silent for a moment. When he spoke again, Sukaz heard something change. It was subtle, almost imperceptible, but it was there.

“I have learned something here today, Sukaz,” said Aser. “I thank you. I really do. Because if Zatan’nataz is only a city, then there is only one thing left to place my faith in. I believe in the people. And if this city does fall one day, the people will survive it, and you will know that you have failed. Where will your pride be then?” Sukaz said nothing as Aser turned and left the room at last. Sukaz thought quietly for a moment and then smirked.

“Good luck, man of faith,” he said. “You will need it.” The torch went out and the room descended back into darkness.”

My guide stopped talking and began carving once again. I waited a minute for him to resume before speaking.

“Well?” I asked. “What happened then?” He looked up at me and smiled.

“There are no records that still remain from that ancient city,” he said. I sighed and got up from the campfire. I grabbed a torch and stuck it into the fire. After lighting it, I walked toward the spring a short walk away from our camp. I kept talking as I walked away.

“So do you think the place even existed?” I asked.

“There are certain relics that have been found that supposedly come from the oasis city.” I reached the spring, planted the torch into the earth beside me, and drank a handful of water.

“And there are some that say that deep, deep in the desert on cold and moonless nights, a strange man appears,” said my guide. I was about to turn back to the campfire when I saw something out of place beneath the water.

“A strange man with flashing blue eyes.” I pulled the torch out of the earth and raised it higher.

“And they say that if you ask politely, he will tell you the tale.” A large slab of stone lay at the bottom of the spring.

“The tale of the last man of faith in the great, ancient, and forgotten city of Zatan’nataz.” On that stone slab beneath the clear waters I could make out two symbols: a shining golden frond and a large black sun. I turned back towards the campfire to call my guide over to see, but when I looked back I found that I was alone beneath that moonless night sky.

Credit: BackAlleyLegend

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