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The Lost Chord

July 22, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Cora ran home from school that day with a knapsack full of half-nibbled biscuits and more questions than her mother had answers. It had started with a music lesson- she took piano from Mrs. Morris, twice weekly and once on Sundays after church. Old lady Morris was given to flights of fancy and known to tell tales, but this- oh, this! This topped them all.

The young girl straightened her uniform before sitting at the kitchen table and plopping down her school bag. “Mrs. Morris,” she said breathlessly as her mother approached with an unsure eye, “has told me something amazing!”

“Is that so,” was Mother’s disinterested reply. She opened up the strings of the knapsack and examined the barely-touched tin of biscuits with dismay. “Why haven’t you eaten? I thought these were your favourite.”

“Couldn’t,” Cora said, her blue eyes big and dramatic. “Just couldn’t concentrate on ANYTHING else today. Oh, do you have time? Let me tell you! Or maybe you’ve heard! PLEASE!”

Mother was bemused at the child’s impatience. “Calm yourself, Cora.” She took a seat across from her daughter. “What story did Mrs. Morris tell you?”

“It’s a fantastic mystery!” The girl could hardly contain herself, but her stomach growled as if to say with Mother’s voice in her head, ‘People are hungry all over, you know.’ And so she bit her lip and resigned herself to eat at least one biscuit before beginning. Once finished she started, “It’s about a Kingdom. A big, grand Kingdom- like the ones from the storybooks.”

Mother read one each night before returning it to the well-worn cupboard and sending her off to dreamland, not knowing how Cora’s brain raced a thousand kilometers an hour before she could even CONSIDER sleep. With this it would be the same- the woman smiled and playfully entertained her daughter’s enthusiastic re-telling.

“This Kingdom had everything, really, I mean, a prince and a princess and all of that. And there were many people in it.”

Mother smiled. “I’d imagine so.”

“But then one day, well…” Cora screwed her face up into a frown. “I’m not sure. I think it was a girl that did it, a young girl. Yes- that’s what Mrs. Morris said. A little girl like me!”

“And what did she do?” Even Mother was intrigued now.

“She didn’t mean to, but she- she made the entire Kingdom vanish, just like that!”
The girl waved her hands emphatically as though onstage making a rabbit disappear. “It was the CHORD. The lost chord. And if you find it- and, and you play it, you see, on the piano- then it would bring the Kingdom BACK.”

Mother leaned back onto her elbows, a bit impressed. The old bird still had some new ones in her yet- she’d never heard of that story. “I didn’t know,” she told Cora slowly. But this didn’t quiet the girl’s mind at all. No, it only served to feed it more ideas that bounced around like whirling dervishes in her mind.

“You… you haven’t heard of this Kingdom?”

“No, not at all, I’m afraid,” Mother replied with a smile. “And anyway, it sounds like a fairy-tale. Or maybe an instruction for you to practice your chords more.”

Yes- yes, that was it! If anyone could bring the kingdom back in all of England, Cora knew SHE could. And she WOULD find the chord, she’d just have to. And she wouldn’t rest until she did. And maybe the Kingdom would welcome her, sit her down on a gilded throne and celebrate her. Maybe it was like the Kingdom of Heaven where Father was, and all the people in it were happy, like the angels that flew on high in the hymns every Sunday.

So Cora considered all the possibilities- and then her work began. She needed more information from Mrs. Morris, but alas, there was little to be had. (It was much the same with Mother- she hadn’t even HEARD of the Kingdom!) Were they here before the war, Cora wanted to know? Mrs. Morris only shrugged her slight, bony shoulders in relative indifference and instructed her back to her melodies. But still the girl’s interrogations continued.

Not here before World War II, the one that claimed Father and most of Uncle Paul’s bad arm. No, then perhaps before the first war, then? The one Granddad fought. She played her heart out at school, she played even more frenetically the keys at home, but still she persisted in wondering the grand scale and time period of this assuredly glorious Kingdom. SURELY they were here in the time of the Renaissance, of knights of old and fair maidens.

But STILL no, Mrs. Morris insisted, and sit up straight, young lady. And not one other soul seemed to have heard of it- no Kingdom like that had ever disappeared, in fact, at least according to every last history book Cora could find in the children’s library, or even the adult’s library. No vanishing Kingdoms. Not in Cora’s 11 years, now nearly 12, nor her mother’s 34, not even her great-nan’s 92 or all of them COMBINED. Her mind raced with endless numbers, endless possibilities. A Kingdom before time was even recorded, she thought. And all that was needed- was this very special, very unknown ‘lost chord.’ To the little old piano in the parlor, then.

Days turned to weeks as Cora dutifully recorded every possible permutation of those yellowed little keys, and in turn crossed out each one with a big X of her felt pen and a disappointed sigh. Mrs. Morris kept on in her steadfast refusal to dole out more insight. Could it be a one-handed chord, or would she need to use both? And how many notes- three, four, five, six even? Cora was splendid in maths, and that meant that the possibilities could now be in the THOUSANDS. But schoolwork was slow, and she was quick to finish it.

Even Mother found herself surprised at the constant clinks and jangles of the piano echoing out of the small parlor room each day when she went to the kitchen to put on the soup or dust the fine china. Cora played until her fingers ached. Then she would take a break, only to scribble down more groupings of notes, more possible solutions. The sides of her hands blackened with ink, the pads of her fingers calloused over, and still she played.

Cora was tired, but her mind simply would not rest. She was onto lower notes now; any higher chords had been proven false, and she wanted to see the Kingdom. She NEEDED to. It was a Saturday, and afternoon light streamed between the heavy plush curtains, but it would not beckon her out to play. The royal family surely missed the sun, the world outside. She brought her buckled shoes down to the dusty bronze pedals- only now had she thought to start using THOSE. Perhaps that was the secret to the lost chord, after all.

The girl brushed her hair aside and began to play, chord after chord, depressing the pedal with a slow methodic THUNK every time she did so. The sun grew higher in the sky. Her fingers stretched to reach the keys- five in total. She pressed them down firmly, and the pedal as well. All at once there was a shaking of the floor beneath her feet- she had done it! At last!

Cora took her foot from the pedal and stood up from the little wood bench, but at the sound of further trembling, of the whole earth moving and shifting all around her, her triumph was short-lived. Suddenly the parlor, then the whole house, the whole neighbourhood in fact, was bathed in blinding light. Mother was folding laundry in the upstairs, and dropped to the carpet, fearing a bomb- yet it was something worse, something she could never in all her life have imagined. Cora was knocked to the floor by the shaking, but quickly scrambled to her feet. The foretold Kingdom had returned, and its awful sight gripped her child’s heart.

Something terrible had come to Marcy Street, and only now as her mouth fell open did Cora realize the one thing she had failed to consider all her weeks at the little piano. Once it had vanished, where had the Kingdom BEEN? For how long? And its citizens… gone was any pretense of a fairy-tale, of beautiful nobles cloaked in silk with beaming crowns to welcome her.

Cora stumbled back to the doorway of the parlor, then back further, right up against the wall, jostling her mother’s china cabinet and not even noticing. She could no longer tell if the shrill cries in the air were from her own throat or those of the- CREATURES that now came before her. They screamed without mouths, wept without eyes, and with a tangle of fused limbs and distorted claws shambled haltingly into the world.

Credit: The Jinx

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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.

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Overmorrow

June 19, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Overmorrow

The old woman had said that nothing was beyond the reach of the Overmorrow. She had said that if you earned its favor, you would be handsomely rewarded.

All you had to do was bring it gifts. But Kaylee didn’t have any money, and, besides, it was hard enough to know what anybody would like as a present, let alone a … something … that lived in a swamp. Kind of a swamp. More like a pond. A wet, swampy pond out in the woods, down a long path that Indians used to use, and now only deer did.

Luckily the old woman, old Nan, she was called, had told Kaylee what to bring, and when. At the rise of the full moon, she must bring, first, a thing of BEAUTY. Then, at the next full moon, something PRECIOUS. The next, and final time, she must bring a thing of INNOCENCE.

Kaylee didn’t like this idea. The whole reason she was doing this, talking to a creepy old lady who hadn’t left her house since the TVs were black and white, was to GET things she wanted, not give them away!

So she compromised, and for its first gift, brought things that were essentially worthless, but that a thing that lived in a pond might find beautiful. A bag full of carefully cleaned jelly jars, which where quite pretty, in their way. Their labels were, anyway, and the clean glass was sparkly. She was supposed to have taken them to the recycling, but she took them to the woods, instead. Wrapped in a plastic bag and thrown in the swamp, ploosh! She said the words she was taught as they sank:

“Overmorrow, Overmorrow, all Knowing and Generous Power! The Breath of the Wind, the Giver of Life; Fire, Water, Day, Night! Be my Guide, accept my Gift. My heart, my soul, for this my Wish!”

Then she was supposed to list the things she was asking for. Which were, essentially, to be rid of everything she hated, and to have all the things she loved. To live in a mansion! That was first. To own treasures, and not have to share. And, above all, to never, ever have to see her parents again. All they ever did was try to make her feel guilty and unappreciative. Stand around and look at her with disappointed faces … she was sick of it. She couldn’t help it if she liked nice things. Was that such a crime?

The second gift was somewhat harder. It had to be something “precious”. She wasn’t sure what that meant. So she looked it up:

precious [pre-shes]
adjective
1. costly, or of high monetary value.

Kaylee was disgusted. If she had anything of “high monetary value”, she wouldn’t be trudging out to the woods to ask the magical swamp monster for more, would she? She kept reading:

2. beloved, dear:
Memories of my grandmother are very precious to me.

Kaylee thought for a long time about what she might have that fit that second definition. She did have some things that were very dear to her, mostly from when she was little. Stuffed animals, dolls, other toys. But one, in particular. A pink, plastic pony toy, with a purple mane and tail that shimmered like silk. It had come with a comb set. How many hours had she spent combing its hair until it glowed … she had lost count. Peggy, she had named the toy.

The night of the second full moon, Peggy was taken to the woods and tossed into the pond. Tears flowing down her cheeks, Kaylee watched it hit the surface of the black water, but it didn’t sink. It bobbed back up, her gentle smile still intact on her delicate pony muzzle. The glitter stickers Kaylee had decorated her rump with winked like crystals in the moonlight. The toy rotated lazily, like a leaf, on the surface, and Kaylee didn’t know what to do. Was the Overmorrow rejecting it? Should it have been something that fit the first definition? Like her cell phone (NOT a smart phone!), or her new sneakers? Just as she started to worry that she had made a mistake, the water found some way into the sealed plastic shape, maybe from the hair follicles of the mane and tail, and it began to fill, and sink.

Kaylee watched while the toy slipped gradually beneath the surface, and she imagined it sadly biding her adieu, but understanding, all the same, with the terrible, patient understanding of toys. You’re selfish and you’re mean, Kaylee, Peggy was saying, as the film of muck closed her blue eye forever, but I love you. I’ll always love you.

The third gift was even harder than the second. Innocence. What did that mean? She knew what the word meant, of course; she didn’t have to look it up. But what was a THING of innocence? She had a month to think about it, and as it got closer and closer to the next full moon, Kaylee still had no clue what to bring the Overmorrow. She knew, Old Nan had told her, that if she didn’t get the gift there in time, her first two gifts would be forfeit; the whole process would have to start all over again.

Kaylee didn’t think she could go through with that again. She had seen Peggy, sinking away, into the slime, every night since it happened … no, she absolutely could not go through that again.

So when she happened to notice the neighbor’s little boy, Hunter, playing in the yard behind his house, she realized what the thing of innocence could be. Hunter was eight, just a few years younger than she. Because of that age difference, she’d never paid any attention to him. But now … but HOW to do it? He was a chubby kid, whose mother was always pushing him to play outside. Get some sunshine, she’d say …

It was easy to make friends with him; all she’d had to do was offer him candy. Once, she even gave him a fudg-sicle. The best part of it was, he wasn’t supposed to have treats, because of his weight, so they had made a pact not to tell their mothers, or anyone, about their clandestine junk food binges behind his back yard shed.

Talking him into sneaking out at night was a little tougher. The moon was full again at last, hanging in the sky like a bloated bullfrog’s belly. The woods were still, the black branches of the trees were grasping, twisted fingers; a light mist hanging just above the ground. Hoots, cries, and sudden scurryings of night creatures sounded all around them as they made their careful way.

“Jeez, Kaylee, what’re you thinking, hiding candy down in a place like this?” Hunter complained, following along behind her, kicking at things, coming in and out of the blue-black shadows.

“I had to,” Kaylee said, in a quick whisper. “I don’t know about YOUR mom, but mine finds EVERYTHING I try to hide. I really wouldn’t be surprised if she’s found THIS, either,” she added darkly, for good measure.

Hunter said: “I hope not. I don’t wanna have come all the way out here for nothing. This place gives me the creeps. Are we there yet?”

“Almost,” answered Kaylee.

The trees cleared ahead of them, and the moon, bright enough to read by, shown on them like a spotlight. They walked down to the edge of the pond, strong, earthy smells, mossy smells, emanating from it. There was a short, rotting, wooden dock, who knows how old, that jutted into the water. Kaylee lead him out onto it.

She started the incantation. The boy interrupted her. “What are you doing?”

“Shh!” she ordered. “This is how I always do it.”

“Oh,” he said, glumly, and was silent.

She said:

“Overmorrow, Overmorrow, all Knowing and Generous Power! The Breath of the Wind, the Giver of Life; Fire, Water, Day, Night! Be my Guide, accept my Gift. My heart, my soul, for this my Wish!”

She repeated her wishes, and then turned to face Hunter. He was scratching his elbow, looking around, frowning impatiently.

“Okay, Hunter, come here.”

He walked to her, and she pointed at the end of the dock.

“It’s all there, tied under the dock. It’s sealed up in Ziploc bags,” she said, when he looked skeptical.

“Geez, you sure are serious about hiding stuff,” he said, and went down to the creaking edge. Kneeling, he felt around underneath the boards.

“I’m not finding anything. It’s really gross under here. Are you sure this is where …?”

But he didn’t get to finish, because Kaylee had picked up the biggest rock she could lift, and brought it down on his head.

The rock bounced off the pier and plunked into the water. It had been heavy, and hard for her to handle, and she had lost her grip on it just as she hit him, but it had done what she’d hoped.

His body slumped against the planks, his head hanging out of view. She went to him and pushed, but he was solid, weighing the same as she did even though she was nearly a foot taller. He didn’t budge.

She sighed, blew a loose strand of hair out of her eyes, and got down on all fours to get more leverage. She planted her hands against his side, and she saw his face now; blood was running down the side of it. She saw it drip steadily into the murky water in heavy drops.

What could she do? How could she get him into the pond?

It was then she saw a black, thin shape, some sort of vine, shiny with water and ooze, uncoiling itself over the edge of the dock. It crept nearer and nearer, closer to Hunter, reaching out for him … The Overmorrow, she thought. The Overmorrow had come to claim its last gift, and reward her for her faith …

“Just hold still, Hunter,” she said quietly to his inert form, watching the snake-like thing in fascination as it slid toward him, as though seeing him, as though it had eyes …

To her surprise, the vine passed the boy and twisted around her own ankle. She tugged her leg, but it held fast. A shadow fell over her and she looked up quickly. Up, and up, at the shape that blotted out the moon.

At first she thought it was a tree, but, squinting at it, she saw it was only the general shape of a tree. A huge, vertical, black shape, that, instead of being one solid hulk, was actually a collection of branches, webbed with moss, and spackled with a patchwork of dead leaves. Water streamed down off its sides in a spraying, cascading waterfall, and she realized it was rising out of the pond.

Peering at it, she saw things trapped in the spidery grip of its boughs—things not found in nature. The bent front wheel and rusty handlebars of a bicycle, an old carpenter’s saw, a bit of tread from a huge tractor tire, the faded chrome of an antique car bumper. Many of the things were very old. Some she recognized, like a Victrola, complete with horn, and the remains of a Revolutionary War era musket, but other things, she didn’t. Moonlight glinted off smaller items, too, carried aloft and nestled in the spirals of branches and gnarled roots. A child’s doll, plastic body smeared with muck; a toy fire truck with a ladder. A silver tea pot, now mottled with lichen. A pair of ladies pumps from a by-gone era, their in-soles curling up and water spilling out …

She could only stare, wanting to scream, needing to, but her throat had closed on itself, and nothing could be forced out.

“Kaay-leee .., ” came a voice, saying her name slowly and deliberately. Her eyes jerked up, to the top of the Thing that waved with moss-covered twigs. “Kay-lee … we are pleeeeased with your gifts … ”

She could not speak, could only stare into the slick black faceless clump.

“We are pleeeeased and wish to give you all that you desiiiire … ”

Kaylee felt the thing around her ankle tighten, and begin to pull. She looked down—the vine had wrapped itself around her leg, up to her knee, like ivy around a pole. It was pulling her toward the pond …

“Let me go! It’s him you want!” she screamed at the thing, trying to free herself. It just clutched tighter.

“You’ve won your reward, Kaay-leee,” The voice was deeper now, wet sounding, like an old man with a mouth full of spittle. The vine pulled and pulled, steadily, unhurriedly, forcing Kaylee nearer. “You asssked for riches and comforts … As you see, we have riches—all the precious things anyone could want!”

The Thing wagged itself, horribly, to show off all those items which had once seemed so precious, but which were now only so much sodden trash.

“But I—”

“And our mansion,” It interrupted. “ … has many, many rooms, all the luxury you would ever neeed!”

“What ‘mansion?’” Kaylee demanded shrilly, with fear and revulsion. “Where?”

“Down … there … ” said the Overmorrow, pointing toward the surface of the water with a squiggly root. “All you could ever want is down there, Kaay-leee … and we promise, you’ll never, ever have to seee your parents again. Never … ever … ”

“Wait!” the girl screamed, as the vine dragged her over the ancient planks. Her feet were in the water now—it was cold and cloying. She felt it filling her shoe … “Wait! I don’t want it anymore, do you hear me? I don’t want—ANY of it! Let me go—!”

“Of course you want it, Kaay-leee,” said the horrible voice, in its slow, horrible way. “You wanted it so much, you offered us an innocent’s blood … No one ever went that far before, Kaay-leee. No one had your will, your … desire … Truly, you belong with usss, Kaay-leee … Come down with us. Come down … ”

She screamed and she fought, but it didn’t stop the vine from dragging her into the water up to her knees, then to her hips, then to her waist. She held onto the dock as long as she could with a desperate grip. She was completely in the water now, which was shockingly cold, and slimy against her skin. Her arms flailed as she slid all the way in, splashing, panicked; terrified. She could feel other things coiling around her limbs. Some of them felt like more raspy vines, but others felt like slithering things, scaly, even tentacled, things …

……………………..

Hunter woke up slowly, a sharp pain in his head. He rubbed it, and his hand came away wet, with something dark smeared on it. Then he remembered—Kaylee. Kaylee and her dirty tricks. She had hit him with something when his back was turned. Told him to dig around for the candy and then, pow! He sat up and looked around. There was nothing but the moon, lower now, settling into the crowns of the black trees, casting its slightly wobbling brightness on the surface of the pond. He called out for the girl, but there was only the steady chirp of crickets in answer.

His head ached. She was probably home right now, having a good laugh at him, he thought angrily. Probably never had any candy anyway. What a dirty trick.

Hunter picked himself up, holding his head, and started back through the trees.

THE END

Credit: J.Faunch

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Tell Them Increase!

June 10, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Honorable C.S.H.M:

I was there when it started four years ago to the day.

I, the baker and Mathias, my friend the farrier. We walked the quaint cobblestone streets of our town that night as we did most, houses unshuttered,
the trees at ease,
the glow of a far-off lantern or two modest sentry.

The cooler weather we thought better for Mathias’s poor health,
and I myself liked to pick mushrooms along the path.

“Feeling much stronger,” grumbled Mathias.
“Stronger still tomorrow,” I replied, pocketing some fleshy caps while patting him on the back. As he grunted a response I looked up and into the swarthy sky.

This night felt most different.
The usual character it assumed of a silent third companion,
an impish magician who disappeared the day
and could transform its mundanities into newfound mysteries
suggested by the teasing wink of stars at play,
had been vacated. In its place slid a hollow impostor
reflecting feeble constellations.

By the end of our stroll all things had seemed to cease:
The barking of dogs, the roll of the clouds,
the gentle clopping of unseen shoes over the streets,
our very hearts’ pounding.
This night the air loomed pregnant with frozen expectation.

Its delivery was marked by great flocks of Silverbeaks from the south;
Streaking arrows through the moon, they broke a wall of night-mist with unified, alien purpose.

Never do they fly from the south this time of year.

The noise of their passing overhead, jarring though it be, was soon surpassed in alarming effect by another, quieter sound:
That of uneven padding somewhere in the fog.

We stopped, listened, spun, and listened.
Pitter-patter, pitter-patter.
To the left for a spell…then straight ahead.
Pitter-patter, pitter-patter.

The fog spit forth a ghost.

It was a terrific fright the way he came at us,
a mirage emerging from spectral sand,
equal parts crazed and craven,
clothes tattered, boots ribboned, and
dripping with perspiration and fear.

Mathias anchored both hands on the poor bastard’s shoulders trying to keep him still. The man was thin, gaunt, hairy I think; too blurry in his squirming to remember certain details with clarity. He repeated a single phrase,

“Tell them Increase! Increase Mather!”
as he struggled against us.

He spoke in a sonorous, watery accent that sparkled through ears like bells
yet seemed chased across the rolling hills and dells of its rhythmic cadence by Death itself.
The peculiar lilt identified him as one from the villages to the south, a friendly people not yet touched by higher arts
with whom we sometimes traded.
Our eyes locked for a moment, his spelling brief acknowledgement as they scanned each tic of my own.
I wonder what he read in them before I looked away.

And then again from his trembling mouth spilt the words:

“Tell them Increase! Increase Mather!”
before he broke our grip and ran off;

back into the night he faded.

We were left with naught but feeble thought to guess a lofty mystery.
I turned that name in my head over and over — Increase Mather, Increase Mather — being rewarded with precious little. Across seas of lost recognition its syllables might churn —
Few were the juttings of rocky remembrance at beacon’s foot.
Vaguely familiar, the name conjured half-cogent memories of schoolroom lessons,
nigh-mythic tales of town founders and historic deeds
instilled, with luck, in adolescents’ minds
that they should grow as seeds of exemplar morality.

The beacon flared in a trice and was gone.

I so wish I could remain on that spot, content to forever turn that riddle of a name like a fine wine, drinking partner yet at my side!

For what came next was far worse than perplexity until now benign.

You see, it’s a funny thing from the right angle,
that we might consider such puzzling moments to be a mild if persistent gnawing at our being,
when only with retrospection is it seen
that we were, in fact, full ensnared in dragon’s jaws.

Musings be damned — now came the true cause of the Silverbeak exodus:
First the beat of drums, slow and steady,
a throbbing heart waking in darkness,
then the smashing of clashing cymbals,
my dragon’s hissing tongue one instant,
its gnashing teeth the next.

And finally out of the fog spilled a medley of white shapes, hazy edges congealing as if molded from the stuff like clay.
Silhouettes, boxes — closer they came — people now, marching, cages in tow, movement within — closer they came —

Beating, clapping, hissing, ringing, closer they came, this unruly procession of untold numbers…

Bestial dancing animated the spaces separating bars, but human were they —
just barely. We saw how they crouched and squirmed, and shook their jails,
or flailed their arms or beat their heads and breasts — for they were all of them women displayed in cages,
a vulgar mockery of the floats in the annual harvest parade.
We could only stare at these frail, wispy things with eyes of coal that refused all light,
viscous globs dropping from misshapen heads — flesh or hair, impossible to tell —
naked, emaciated bodies caked in filth, surely leprous,
a horrible sight.

We stepped aside to make room for the macabre column. Cage after cage rolled past, flanked by steady streams of marchers, and each of these clad in violet monastic habit with drooping cowl and golden sash,
some with their drums and cymbals, others holding torches,
all assuming stony scowl.

We were ignored at first, which gave us ample time to gape, until three broke off from the line
with the swiftness of a spider’s twitch
to confront us
face to solemn face.
One kept eyes locked upon mine, while two presented open palms to Mathias and asked,

“From whom do we come?”

“Who the devil are you?” he retorted, batting down their hands. “What is this vile pageantry?”

The palms rose again to open with surreal calmness. “From whom do we come?”

Mathias wiped his brow and shook his head. “How the devil should I know? Tell me man, what is this?” He made another, half-hearted attempt at the hands.

“From whom do we come?”

He spat at their feet. “I do not care to know! You stink of piss and lies anyhow!”

The sweat beaded at his eyes. I lowered my own, heart sinking to match.

It happened in the span of a blink: a confused blur of hands and fabric, followed by a sharp crack. Mathias stumbled backward, and were it not for the red trickle at his temple, I’d have never known he’d been struck.
But now I saw the blunted clubs as my friend hobbled,
saw all too well as he raised his arms to check their attacks,
but they beat them down,
then beat his head,
then beat his body to a lifeless pulp, crumpling,
and watched his oozing blood fill the spaces between the cold cobbles
with disturbing fascination.

They returned the clubs to their robes, then leveled attention on me.

“From whom do we come?”

Their hands opened, revealing a queer brand of interlocking snakes and crosses rising from the surface of each seared palm.

My head reeled. The scene did not register. How could it?

“From whom do we come?”

In the flicker of fire the snakes appeared to writhe beneath the skin.
Echoes of the southerner’s voice bubbled through my mind:

Tell them Increase! Increase Mather!

So I did.

A pause. “Excellent,” they responded at last in lavish, sibilant tones. “It is good.” The hands lowered, their veins continuing to pulse with quiet fervor. “We are the new intendants of this town and its people,” intoned the nearest figure. “We bring with us witches, powerful witches, and seek others of their kind.”
The second chimed in, hushed: “The wicked shall perish. The ignorant shall perish. God alone prevails. You have nowhere to go, so stay.”
Then the third: “We are the intendants of this town now, and it is good that you do as we say.”
They clasped their hands and melted back into the procession. The cages rolled on. The clamor dimmed to a low buzz as I felt something in my hand —
the forgotten mushrooms I’d picked, squeezed to a mash in clenched fist, and I thought of
but could not turn
to Mathias’s body.
I let them drop.

There were others like me — thank providence, thank the southern crier, the schoolman’s lessons, sheer dumb luck — who carried on as best we could. Undeniably though, a pall had been thrown across the land,
a cloak of fear and doubt in the wake of tyrannical cleansing.
No one could resist the intendants’ strange influence, cast as it was on long lines through our streets and our homes,
invisible strands to hook our minds and keep us near.
“One more day,” we repeated in vain. “Just one more day.”

The days added up, and they were colder from then on. The wind blew harder, ripping right through us, biting skin and rattling every bone as it went. Owing not entirely to the elements however, we felt a coldness that seemed to radiate beneath our very feet wherever we stepped,
a coldness that seeped into our clothes
and slept with us under the blankets,
sapping the will to resist in ways I can neither describe nor understand.
Cries of protest faded faster than the clouds on our breath,
replaced by faces of hardened indifference.

The new masters made good on their vow of retribution
with terrible industry.

The witches were hung from the trees that lined our cobblestone streets,
swaying softly in the autumn breeze.
But they were not dead,
for they were powerful witches.

They lifted drooping heads on crushed necks as I walked the main avenue,
pointing and laughing and spitting curses in my direction.
I kept my own head down, hands stuffed in pockets,
feet
moving
brisk

to set greater distance from them. But it mattered little, for their cackling traveled far, farther than was wholesome, and stung about my ears like gnats.

By night their bodies were doused in kerosene and set ablaze so as to hasten their passing, and to act as torches for our benefit. The evil of devilry makes for potent fuel, our intendants told us. Truly they burned well,
their dark cores thrashing about within halos of righteous brilliance.
But they did not die,
for they were powerful witches.

By morning the charred remains, still smoldering, would stir and snicker at my passing. Accusatory fingers would be raised,
black and white with ash and bone.
From them came noxious fumes to chase after me down the road, wriggling through the air like vaporous snakes.

How I detested such unnatural fruit our once-beautiful trees had borne! But time’s touch, if overdue, proved merciful:

They blew away in the wind, even as they blinked. Their wretched ashes spread across the bark of their gallows, thereafter causing the branches to grow to gross proportion and in contorted directions,
forms suggesting the ossified corpses of monstrous ogres.

These trees were forever cursed. It soon became apparent they were the only things our intendants feared. They leered at them from afar,
seared palms turned heavenward as cryptic prayer escaped their lips.
Well-attested rumors spread
that to touch the wood of a witch-tree spelt certain death
for any member of Increase Mather’s secret sect.

Where now was their special brand of faith? Where indeed had resounded but into the unbounded aether that once-galvanizing cry, “I will not fear; what can a Satan do unto me?” Among the Devil’s mille nocendi artes, surely one at least had manifested in souls weaker than mine!

Our intendants gave us axes that we may chop them down.
They did not instruct us toward the method of disposal, so we devised plans of our own.

We’d grown stronger.
We waited patient,
ever so patient,
cutting,
shaping,
hoarding,
waiting.

And then we built.

The masters gladdened at the sight of the houses. “Good,” said they. “It is good that you stay productive. Take root, children.” We smiled, grew cordial. Why should we not? Time and familiarity ought to soften chains,
blunt throat-held blades,
slacken line between pole and fish,
ought they not?

We invited them into our homes.

They seized the opportunity for closer scrutiny and walked about the rooms with all the pomp befitting a foreign dignitary. They clustered in the corners to whisper and titter at our insipid presence, right in front of us. We smiled.

And they soon began to wither. One by one they grew ill;
sores speckled their leathered flesh,
joints popped and festered,
thick secretions of viridescent pus oozed from their pores,
and hair came out in fat chunks:
At last from chaff had true sin been threshed!

Still they prayed for salvation,
tried to govern according to their god’s will,
but too few were they
and left as quick as they’d come
on charnel winds,
their sickness weighting the air with starless promise.

Likewise did the tainted housing rot, and with it the final vestiges of our intendants’ collected witches. As you well know,
honorable young Mather,
I tried to invite you to our town, to the last of the witch-wood houses. Most were content to begin anew and forget the past, but I could not.

I could not forget Mathias and countless others who suffered at the hands of so misguided a lineage as yours,
its corrosive scope yet growing through forking lines of odious descent.
I could not forget the million tears that sowed our lands with endless grief,
nor the blank expressions worn by those too numb to favor hope,
not in light of things I learned over the course of those insufferable years.

For I know what truths stay hid from history books, to turn a man from crook to myth.
I know how he can steer the wheel of time, who charts the course with grim design.

How fortunate then that I —
I! —
traced you through the ages, found your name betrayed by a simple book of genealogies.
How fortunate I was able to write you.

But you politely turned my invitation down in courtly correspondence, scorn peeking furtive from your every cursive word,
complicit in your denial.
This you know.

Let me tell you what you do not know.

The last of the witch-wood houses is no more. It collapsed in a great cloud of fungal dust. I retrieved some of the timber, enough for my purposes.
I pulped it, pressed it, laid it on a frame,
rolled it, squeezed it,
and cut it such that it became paper
onto which I have written this letter you presently hold.
So you see, young Mather, since you would not come to the witch-wood,
the witch-wood has come to you,
and you shall know it,
for they were powerful witches.

Reflect well on what you have read
so long as you breathe.
Know that your kind shall abate. Know that I still walk these quaint cobbles at night,
alone,
to pick mushrooms by the moon’s white light,
and with each cry of Silverbeak,
grieve.

With warmest regards,

A humble baker,
Taker of vengeance,
“God” forsaker.

Credit: alapanamo

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The Blood Keeper

April 11, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Hello, readers. My name is unimportant. I am here to share a story of mine that I’ve kept bottled up for quite some time. I’m a believer in the uncanny and weird, as long as it is within the boundaries of reason. Even so, I can always explain the day’s events to myself, and understand them – no matter how odd. My mind craves logic and order, but the following events have none. I can’t explain them away at the end of the day, and I’m not even sure of what actually happened. I’m left with a bunch of “what if’s”. I can say with some certainty that it may have been a vivid hallucination, or a very clever deception. Either way, I feel a need to disclose my tale if for no other reason than to ‘get it off my chest’. The following occurred in the autumn of 2010. That’s as specific as I will be.

I live in a small, but lively town in Massachusetts. The winters are cold and the summers are hot, but fall, to me, feels just right. Being just shy of the proper drinking age, and never having interest in such things anyhow, I found other activities to occupy my weekends (and weekdays, for that matter). I’ve always had a passion for the paranormal. It fascinates me, even to this day. With nothing better to do with my raging case of insomnia, I spent some of my nights investigating the local cemeteries with my friends. You could call me a paranormal investigator of sorts, but I saw it as more of a hobby.

Half the time, my friends and I would goof off anyway. The only times that we became dramatically serious was when there was a lot of paranormal activity taking place. This didn’t happen all that often, but when it did, we transformed from friends, hanging out and having a good time, to instant professional ghost hunters. I might have even pursued it as some sort of career choice, had the following not taken place. I can tell you for certain that I won’t investigate a cemetery again for as long as I live.

It was a night like any other for myself. I was bored, I couldn’t sleep, and I felt a need to do something outdoors. I called a few of my friends and asked if they wanted to investigate one of the local cemeteries that tended to have more activity than others. I was able to convince two to come with me. The others whom I called were angry that I’d woken them up. I didn’t realize that it was already midnight. Anyways, the two friends that I did rope in, met me at the cemetery. It took us each roughly half an hour to walk there, even though we all lived on opposites sides of the town. The cemetery was smack dab in the center of town, making the location convenient for all of us, considering we were without transportation.

After only an hour of investigating and goofing off, my friends left. There was little to no activity. The place was dead – no pun intended (okay, maybe it was intended a little bit). I stayed behind. I figured that I would take a walk through the cemetery a few times in an attempt to become tired before heading home. I started walking about when I noticed something. Before I go into detail, I must describe to you the layout of the cemetery. It was quite large, overall. There were two sides, divided by a small street right off of the main road. Each side had a stone wall that ran along the entire length of the graveyard. It came up to my waist, and only broke up where the two main entrances were – one for each side.

On one side was nothing but graves. The other side, the one that I was walking on, had graves, a stone tomb, and a small wooden shack. This shack was where the grave digger kept his shovels and other tools of the trade. What I had noticed, while walking towards it, was a light illuminating the inside. I didn’t even know that there was any electricity that ran to the shack. I guessed that the grave digger was working late tonight, it being around 2am at this point. I looked around, and I could make out a freshly made, six-foot deep hole near the shack, big enough for a coffin. This was nothing odd to me – this graveyard was a popular one, with at least 5 new headstones added each month. Every time the cemetery became full, some town workers would cut down some trees and extend it.

The only thing that struck me as strange was the hour. I had only seen the grave digger work during the day – after all, a huge, gaping hole in the ground is a dangerous thing to come across in the middle of the night. This was enough to arouse my curiosity, so I decided to see what the old man was up to.

I crept over quietly, making my way to a cracked window located on the side of the shack, this way I could hear what was going on inside. I knew about the window because I was the one who cracked it a year previous on one of my investigations. My friends and I were throwing rocks up in the air, trying to repeat the results of an urban legend that was passed around town (it was our town‘s equivalent of “Bloody Mary”). It was said that if you throw rocks straight up in the air, and stand completely still, you could hear the screams of a woman by the name of Emalia before the rocks hit the ground (Emalia was a resident in the town during the 1940s).

She died when strolling down this very street, during the newer side of the cemetery’s construction. A gravestone fell on her head while being moved to its proper location by a small crane. The gravestone was of her late husband, whom she allegedly murdered just three weeks before her death). Instead of hearing a scream, I heard the shatter of glass a few yards away. I had broken the window on the side of the shack. Looking back now, I don’t know why I believed in that urban legend anyhow. I think it was fabricated to fool kids into hurting themselves. In any case, I approached the window and peered in. The grave digger was not there. However, void of life the shack was not.

Inside the shack, to my surprise, were nine men. Nine men, sitting at a long wooden table, wearing tattered, blue shrouds. The light I had seen was not a light at all, but what looked like several oil lamps. The men were eating what appeared to be a reddish stew. It looked gross. Every man cringed when eating it, except for the tall man sitting at the end of the table, and the two sitting on either side of him. I was deeply confused. What was this – some sort of town meeting? I crouched down and listened as the tall man began to speak.

“Hello, young newcomers. Are you ready to start your trials?” He spoke with a firm voice. It resonated throughout the shack, and beckoned even myself to listen.

“Yes!”, the six men sitting around the table shouted in unison. Trials? What trials? The tall man spoke again.

“Good. Bloodlight Kalas will explain the rules.”

I could only presume that the man to his right was Kalas, as he explained everything. My memory has always served me well, so I was able to recollect everything he said, as unnerving as it was. It seemed that the men in the shack were part of a cult called the “Bloodlights”, though they never referred to it as a cult. That’s just what I gathered from what I had heard. The ‘trials’ were more of a game consisting of two teams that would disperse to either side of the cemetery. The tall man was the leader of the Bloodlights, and this ‘game’ was his way of initiating new members. The ‘winners’ would be accepted as full-fledged Bloodlights.

At this point I couldn’t really believe what I was hearing, but I kept listening. Whether it was out of curiosity, or fear of the men hearing me if I attempted to leave, I was immobile. Kalas continued explaining the rules.

Each team consisted of four members; three “blood runners” and one “blood baron”. It seemed that the ‘newcomers’ would be the runners, and the two men standing at the end of the table with the taller man would be the barons. There was one more participant to be discussed. The tall man – the one that was leading the trials. He was the “blood keeper”. He was not on either team, but was the most important part of the game. He kept, and guarded what was referred to as “the blood”. I thought that maybe this referred to the red amulet that hung from the tall man’s neck, because with every mention of the word blood, he would firmly clasp the amulet between his fingers and close his eyes, almost as if partaking in a silent prayer. The job of the runners was to retrieve the blood from the blood keeper. The barons acted as coaches that would strategize with the runners. It actually sounded like a fun game that I would partake in myself. So far, everything seemed simple, until the blood keeper spoke again.

“With every wound, there is blood. With every drop of blood, there is light. Without death, there can be no light.” I had no idea what any of what he said meant, but it was captivating – in a morbid kind of way.

The blood keeper stepped over to a tall cupboard at the back of the shack that I hadn’t noticed before. He opened it. Inside was a young woman, bound and gagged, with eyes wide open – futilely attempting to scream for help. My heart sank. This was far beyond your normal, run-of-the-mill cult ritual. I needed to find help, but what if they heard me? I was frozen with fear, and I could not take my eyes away. The blood keeper spoke again.

“Repeat after me; The light of blood can only be seen in death.”

The recruits chanted; “The light of blood can only be seen in death.”

Just then, the blood keeper took a large, red dagger from out of his cloak, and grabbed the woman. All I could think was that this couldn’t really be happening – could it?

He pierced the knife deep into her gut. The others repeated; “The light of blood can only be seen in death.”

The blood keeper stabbed her again. “The light of blood can only be seen in death.” I could see the life leaving the woman’s face, as she tried to yell once more with such an ashen, and broken expression.

The blood keeper thrust the knife deeper into the woman’s stomach. “The light of blood can only be seen in death.” Right before she lost consciousness, she turned and looked directly at me. She looked indescribably hurt, both physically and mentally, as tears began to soak her face. At that moment, I can’t even explain to you how knotted my stomach was. I immediately threw up right next to the shack. Luckily no one heard me.

The blood keeper made one final blow into the already dead girl’s neck. The others uttered one last time, “The light of blood can only be seen in death.” If I had anything left in my stomach to vomit, I would have done so again. What scared me the most was the conviction with which he stabbed her. I could see it in his face. It was almost as if there was reason behind each wound he dealt – or at least to him there was. I stood there, paralyzed with fear, and watched the killer get up, and reach into a brown satchel that he was wearing over his shoulder. He pulled out three empty vials. He then continued to fill the vials with the blood that was dripping from his dagger. I now realized that “the blood” in the game was not his amulet, but indeed actual human blood. The blood keeper finished explaining the rules to the newcomers.

“There are three vials. This gives, at most, three of you the opportunity to be accepted as Bloodlights.” I noticed Kalas laugh under his breath, as if three being accepted was unheard of.

“If you see a runner from the opposite team, what do you do?”

The newcomers answered together, “Kill!”

“If you see a civilian, what do you do?”

They answered once more, “Kill!” I dry heaved for a solid twenty seconds, trying to vomit. If I wasn‘t in danger before, I now was. I should have never come here. “God, if you even exist, please get me the hell away from here!”, I thought to myself. The blood keeper spoke one last time.

“You must stop at nothing to attain one of these vials. All others will be sacrificed. Your thirst for blood must be as strong as your will to live.”

Just then, the nine men walked towards the shack door to leave and begin the games. I ran as fast as I could for the wooded part of the cemetery and hid behind the largest tree I could find. I did not want to wind up like that girl in there. I thought to myself as I caught my breath, “Pull yourself together! You just need to find a good opportunity to escape without being noticed. It shouldn’t take much.” I gathered my nerves and peeked out from behind the tree. Standing right there, not ten feet away, were three of the runners and Kalas, facing me!

I darted my head back behind the tree. Did they notice me? I peeked again, and noticed that their eyes were shut, and they were standing eerily still. They must have to do this before the game starts to let the blood keeper hide himself from their immediate view. I was lucky. Maybe this was my chance to make a run for it. I spoke – well, I thought, too soon. I heard Kalas shout, “Let the trials begin!” My heart was racing faster than you could even imagine. My fate was in the hands of the game now.

I could see Kalas and the three blood runners in the reflection of a small puddle near my hiding tree (It had rained the previous night). They seemed to be strategizing. My heart was pounding out of my chest, so much so that I was actually afraid they might hear it. I stood there behind my tree, becoming exponentially nervous with each and every beat. I listened to their nearly inaudible whispers as the men conspired. Then, when I couldn’t take another second of torture, silence cut through the brisk, night air, much like the blood keeper’s dagger through that poor woman’s neck. It sent the coldest chill down my spine.

Why couldn’t I hear them? Did they leave? I was too frightened to glance around the corner and see. I looked at the puddle. I didn’t see their reflection. What do I do now? I was not going to run through the woods – not only would the loud crunch of autumn leaves compromise my location, but I had seen too many horror movies to know that it wouldn’t be a good idea. I also couldn’t run through the cemetery – what if a blood runner spotted me, or a baron? Even worse, what if the blood keeper saw me? I didn’t want to think about it.

I calmed down as much as I could, given my current situation, and mustered up enough courage to peer around the tree. They were gone – or at least nowhere to be seen. I looked around and weighed out my options. To the left of the cemetery, after seemingly endless rows of headstones, was more woods, and a lot of briers. This was not a viable possibility. Straight ahead were more headstones and the shack. There was no way I was going to hide in the bloodlights’ den with the dead girl, even if I could make it over there. To the right was even more headstones, but not as many.

I squinted as I looked off in the distance. Oh yeah! There was a tomb off to the right of the graves. It was maybe 100 yards away. I wouldn’t be able to waltz over there without being noticed, but maybe, just maybe, I could jump from tree to tree until I made it there. The woods did wrap around the whole cemetery, right up to the back side of the tomb. Should I risk it? Or should I stay behind this tree, cowering in fear until it’s all over? The latter option was looking pretty good, but I knew if I stayed here long enough, one of them would find me. My mom was right. She always told me to stay away from the cemetery at night – “Do you know the kind of people that hang out there?” She didn’t know the half of it.

I took a deep breath and braced myself. Without so much as a second thought, I dashed in the direction of the tomb, and hid behind the closest tree I could find. I gathered my wits and looked around the graveyard. There was still no one to be seen. I sprinted to the next tree. I took another quick glimpse of my surroundings. The coast was still clear. Before I could prepare myself to run to the next tree, I felt myself being lifted off of the ground. In that moment, my body went numb with utter panic.

The next thing I knew, before I could even think about what was happening, I was atop a tree branch, looking directly at a blood runner. I didn’t scream, and I didn’t try to get away. My blood ran cold, and I sat still in terror, accepting what was happening. I exhaled what I thought would be my last breath, but just as I did, the blood runner spoke.

“What’s your name?” I was too in shock to say a word.

“Come on now – what is your name?” He spoke more firmly this time, and I noticed that he had an English accent. His voice also sounded deep and brash, like one’s voice might sound after many years of drinking hard liquor and smoking cigarettes. I still couldn’t find it in me to answer him.

“Look, I noticed you at the window over there, eavesdropping. If I wanted you dead, I could have pointed you out then. I want you to help me.”

“Help…you?” is all I could say.

“Yes. I am going to use you to my advantage. I take it you know what we’re doing here, and you know the rules of the game?”

I nodded slowly, still in shock.

“Good. With you, I may be able to turn the tables and get the upper hand.” My mind was racing, but I listened intently on what he was saying.

“See that tomb over there?” He pointed at the tomb I had been on my way to before I was lifted off of my feet into a tree. I nodded once more.

“That’s where the blood keeper is.” My stomach turned. To think, this guy may have just saved my life.

“Here, take my cloak.” He handed me his blue shroud. I didn’t know what he wanted me to do with it.

“Go ahead, put it on! Or do you want me to gut you where you sit?” I quickly threw on the cloak.

“Go over to the tomb, and open the door slowly. The blood keeper will surely take a swing at you.” I gulped, but continued to listen.

“Just as he’s about to end your life with that dagger of his, I’ll swoop in and end his.”

“Why? That’s not part of the game.” His eyes darted at me, then he gave a menacing smile. I just realized that I had constructed a full sentence for the first time in his presence.

“Right you are. Maybe I don’t want to be a Bloodlight. Maybe I’m not here to play this ritualistic sport of theirs. Maybe what I’m truly after is vengeance.” He looked over at the tomb, then looked around the cemetery, probably to make sure no one was listening.

“Many years ago, the man in that tomb, the one you know as the blood keeper, stole something from me. Something I will never get back. That woman in that shack over there was not the Bloodlights’ first sacrifice, not by far. The man in that tomb murdered my wife and took her blood for the sake of this ‘game’. It took me years to find him. It took me even longer to be accepted into their ranks, even as a lowly disciple.” He stared off into the distance for a moment. I could see the pain in his eyes.

“But, tonight is the night. The blood keeper must die in his own game, and spill blood like so many of his victims before him.” Even though his actions were admirable, I still wanted no part in any of this. My life was still in danger.

“If you so much as take one step in the opposite direction and deviate from the plan, I will come over and kill you myself! Now get going.” It seems I had no choice in the matter. His motives were blinding him from any sort of moral logic – just like in the shack when he stood by and watched the blood keeper kill that poor girl. He of all people should have made an effort to stop him. But no, the only thing on his mind was revenge, and now I was tangled in an even larger mess than I was before.

I did as I was told. I used the same method that I did before, jumping from tree to tree – only now I didn’t even bother being stealthy. The blue shroud protected my identity, and I had a feeling I might die tonight, anyhow. What a waste of a life.

I made it to the side of the tomb. I stood there, with my back to the cold, aged stone. My heart began racing again. I was about to come face to face with the blood keeper – a cold-hearted monster. I crept along the side of the tomb, until I could finally see the front of it. I took a quick glance and noticed that the tomb door was shut. I could see the blood runner I’d met waiting behind one of the trees near the tomb. I didn’t hear him move even once, so it was hard for my mind to wrap itself around the idea of him getting from the tree branch we sat on, to just a few yards away from me. His covertness was impressive. He just might be able to pull this off. My newfound confidence in the runner in no way lessened my fear of the blood keeper. I crouched over to the tomb door and stared at it. I guess it was now or never.

I reached for the old, rusted handle, slowly, so as not to tip off the blood keeper that I was there. I also may have been stalling just a bit. After all, I was opening the door to what very well could be my death. Just as I was about to actually open the tomb, the door swung open and hit me straight in the head. I fell backwards onto the ground. I must have suffered a concussion, because everything seemed a little blurry, and I could feel myself losing consciousness.

I looked up before I passed out. I could see the blood keeper standing before me in the moonlight. I was staring at a blurry vision of death, here to kill me, and take the blood out of my racing heart. I blinked, and saw another figure. In my fuzzy state, I couldn’t make out who was who, but one of them was thrusting his dagger into the other, over and over again. The prey in this scuffle fell to his knees, and then landed face first into the cold, cemetery soil. The victor kept stabbing him. With each swing of his dagger, he seemed to become more and more furious, because I could hear the piercing sound of metal through flesh grow louder. I prayed that it was the blood keeper being torn apart, otherwise I was done for. I closed my eyes once again and passed out.

“Are you alright there?” I heard an old man’s voice say as I gradually began to open my eyes.

“Are you okay?” I opened my eyes fully and looked at the voice speaking to me. It was the grave digger! But how?

“What!? How? Where did they go…” is all I could manage to say. He looked puzzled.

“Where did who go?” I couldn’t wrap my head around any of this. What was going on?

“…I…I should be dead…” The grave digger stared at me for a second, and then changed his expression from confusion to sympathy.

“Come on. You’ll catch cold out here.” He invited me into the shack. Before I walked in, I noticed something. The newly dug grave I had seen near the shack was gone! I really didn’t know what to believe at this point, but I walked into the shack anyhow.

The grave digger, whose name I now know to be Pete, fed me and gave me a jacket to wear. In a frazzled state, I couldn’t help but tell him everything that I had seen. He didn’t look surprised at all. I didn’t even think to describe the men by their given titles (blood runner, baron, etc.), but Pete responded with, “It sounds like you had a run-in with the blood keeper.”

“That’s him! How do you know about the blood keeper?” My jaw dropped in disbelief.

“His spirit has been haunting this place for… over 100 years now I suppose.” I just glared at Pete, waiting for an explanation. He could tell I was still fatigued and confused, so he took the time to elaborate. He must’ve talked, non-stop for over an hour. I could tell I struck a nerve with this story.

In a nutshell, the Bloodlights were a sadistic cult that formed in the late 1800’s, and started terrorizing the local community, binging on a heavy lust for blood. With each Bloodlight initiation brought more deaths. They would only use various cemeteries in the area as a field for their ‘sport’, digging a six foot hole each time, throwing the casualties/sacrifices in before they covered it back up. Who would look for dead bodies in a graveyard, right? They racked up a death toll of over fifty victims before their ‘games’ were brought to a halt. Things, however, went horribly wrong for the Bloodlights during what turned out to be their final ‘game’. An Englishman infiltrated their ranks and killed the blood keeper that night, with the help of a young man (Did I help him kill the blood keeper?). The young man was never identified. The local authorities were able to round up the rest of the Bloodlights soon after. The death of the blood keeper left them leaderless and unorganized.

After Pete explained everything, I couldn’t help but sit there in awe. Did I relive what that ‘young man’ went through that night… or even wilder – was I that young man? Did I time travel? My logical mind immediately rejected the theory. I believe in the paranormal, but time travel is too far-fetched for me. In fact, until now, I’ve tried to forget about that night. I could never wrap my head around it, and I still can’t. Maybe by writing this, I can finally put this experience, much like the blood keeper, to rest. The only thing that kept haunting me after I left the shack that night, were the fuzzy images left in my mind before I had passed out.

Though I couldn’t fully differentiate who was who, I was almost certain that it was the blood keeper who was stabbing the man I was helping (albeit against my will). What if nothing supernatural happened here at all, and the grave digger lied to me so I wouldn’t divulge my story to anyone else without sounding completely and utterly crazy? What if he was a Bloodlight too? I also could have sworn I saw a shovel on the ground right where the six foot deep hole used to be. What if… no, it can’t be. They certainly would have killed me rather than construct an elaborate ruse to keep me quiet… right? I’m just paranoid. One thing is for sure, though; I will never venture to any cemetery, at night, ever again – whether or not the blood keeper is dead, or still out there, making his rounds.

Credit: Christopher Maxim

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The Moon, Landing

April 6, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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The Moon. Quite a spectacle if you ask me. It never ceases to enthrall my nocturnal, star-gazing eyes. I look at it each and every night with a very large sense of wonder, mixed with just a pinch of awestricken euphoria. It captivates and compels my curious nature, but as of late it has also deemed me uncontrollably and utterly paralyzed, with an ever-lingering sense of fear. You see, while the moon may greet me with a feeling of elation while I’m awake, it does quite the opposite when I rest. The moon is the main focus of a twisted narrative in my dreams. A nightmarish story is played out in my fear-ridden sleep for me to defenselessly watch almost every night. I say almost every night because sometimes I just can’t find it in me to sleep at all, knowing what awaits me when I close my eyes. It wasn’t always this way mind you; it has only been happening for the past few months. I don’t know why or how, as I am not one who often has nightmares. I can barely recall my normal dreams. However, I can describe to you the dream in question in great detail. It will forever be embedded within the deep confines of my memory.

Have you ever had a dream in which you are not present? What I mean is, have you ever watched your dream play out in front of you like a movie as if you are part of the audience rather than a character? That is how my nightmare is. I have no control whatsoever. I cannot interact with a damn thing. I am only left to watch as the pandemonium ensues. This is not only frustrating, but terrifying as well. What’s worse is that I do not realize that it is a dream until I wake up. Imagine my confusion, anxiety, and terror as I watch the plot unfold. Well, how can you? I’ve yet to explain the details of the nightmare itself. Maybe I’m just stalling. Well, in any case, I shall now divulge to you the inner workings of my recurring nightmare.

It always starts out in the woods. Forests themselves are unsettling, but what really gets me is that I’ve never been in one. It’s not that I wouldn’t venture out into the wilderness every now and again to go on a nature-filled walk or something, it’s just that I don’t live near the woods; never have. So why then would I dream of them? On top of that, why is everything in my self-made forest so detailed? These are the kinds of things that boggle my mind and freak me out when I wake up in a cold sweat, mid-scream. I’m sorry; it’s just so aggravating and worrisome. It’s difficult for me not to relive each moment and dwell on the details. Back to the dream.

I’m left just looking at trees and an empty night sky for quite some time. It adds to the uneasiness. After a while, I can hear something. It can’t be made out right away, but as it gets louder I realize that it is howling. Must be a coyote I think to myself. It is at that point that my perspective changes. It is abrupt and worrying. I am now left looking up from the woods, at a no longer empty night sky. The howling continues and gets louder. Through the forest canopy I can see the moon. It is a vibrant yellow color and for whatever reason looks…off. I can’t quite put into words what I mean by that. The howling does not let up. I can now hear several coyotes howling and getting closer, as their volume is increasing. My perspective changes once more. I am now viewing the moon from atop the forest, almost as if I am standing on the very top of one of the trees. It looks larger in size, but still for the most part normal. I hear the sound of coyotes howling peak in volume as I stare at the sky. My ears may have actually hurt had I been awake. As the obnoxious sound of coyotes continues, the moon becomes larger. I can now tell that it is coming closer to the earth with every passing second. My heart begins to race. Something that usually comforts me is now creating within me a sense of dread. After a few more moments of inner turmoil, the howling ceases. The moon is now dangerously close to the earth and I can hear it moving. After a few more moments, it almost fills the night sky. I catch one final glimpse before impact, seeing every single detail on its surface; each and every crater and formation. It is breathtaking, but not in a good way. The moon then picks up speed, much like the beating of my heart, and in an instant I wake up.

It might not seem like much, but I can honestly say I’ve never been more scared in my entire life. I have to experience this every single time I fall asleep. Upon waking I always jump out of bed and run to my window, my eyes scanning the night sky for signs of an abnormal moon. I always find the moon exactly where it should be, looking as normal as ever, and a wave of relief overcomes me. I just don’t get it. Why has such an odd nightmare made its way into my sleeping brain? Why does it occur every time I dream? Why me? Why now?

Any answers I thought could be found led me to disappointment instead. When discussing it with friends, they simply laughed or just found it downright peculiar. I asked my doctor about it and he simply said, “Maybe it was something you ate.” I even contacted a therapist that I found online who specialized in the field of dreaming. After speaking with her on the phone, I determined that she was incapable of offering me any sort of insight on the matter. She told me that the moon represented my past catching up to me, and the coyotes were my inner child trying to communicate and get my attention. A load of crap, if you ask me. It seemed that answers were not within my reach. On one day, however, my luck changed.

The day started off normal, as most days do. I woke up in fear and looked out the window. Instead of finding the moon, I found the sun. I became relieved, and began my daily routine. Upon making breakfast, I turned the TV on to watch some news before heading off to work, as I usually did. Nothing really interested me until about halfway through the program when they featured a segment about tidal waves. The piece interested me because I live near a large beach and had recently thought about taking surfing lessons. Everything was normal until the segment was over and one of the anchors turned to the other and said “Monday night’s super moon just might make those waves a little bit taller.” What? Super moon? I had never heard of such a thing. Monday night? That was just three nights away. I immediately shut off my TV, stopped eating my breakfast, and ran to my computer to do some research. I didn’t know if or how it could be connected to my dreams, but it was the only lead I had.

After doing some extensive research, I became aware that super moon is a term used to describe the moon when it is new/full as well as when it is closest to the earth during its elliptical orbit. This results in the moon looking larger than normal, hence the term. In just three days, a full moon is scheduled to occur, and it will also be a super moon. This one in particular will be very interesting as the moon will be closer to the earth than it ever has been before, during any of its orbits. It was going to be a “true spectacle” to behold. I was thinking just the opposite. My fears were now becoming a reality, and there was nothing I could do about it.

Nothing I read or researched could ease my anxiety. There was no way that this “super moon” was just an eerie coincidence. To me, my dream wasn’t a dream, but instead was a premonition of things to come. In just three days the moon would collide with the earth and destroy the very fabric of humanity.

To break the monotony of self torture, I continued to educate myself on the moon. I sat in a defunct state endlessly reading and clicking on educational videos pertaining to that great ball of death that lived in the night sky. I don’t know why I did this, as it just made the feeling of dread within me grow exponentially. Even so, I kept staring at my computer screen, reading and watching. I would occasionally glance over at my phone, noticing my countless missed calls. It must have been my boss trying to get a hold of me as I had failed to go to work that morning in light of the god-forsaken mess I had found myself in. There’s no point in going to work when the world is ending, right?

After several hours of tedious learning, I finally grew weary. My eyelids were beginning to droop as the tiredness within me took hold. In an effort to not fall asleep, I kept researching. This backfired as it only made me more tired. Before I knew it, I had fallen asleep right there in front of my computer screen. What happened next was inevitable.

My nightmare began the way it usually did. I was in a forest, left looking at numerous trees and an empty night sky. I waited for my perspective to change. I waited to look up and see that which frightened me the most. After a few moments, nothing happened. This was about the time my dream’s lackluster plot would kick in, so I was a little confused. Even so, I continued to wait. Nothing happened. I was still in the forest looking at trees and a moonless sky. What was happening? Why must this nightmare torture me so? I was now getting anxious. Just then, something did happen. Howling. I could hear howling. This perplexed me deeply. By this point I should most certainly be looking at the moon. Something was off; very off. I took a deep breath and gathered my thoughts. That is when it hit me. I just took a deep breath. I could feel my chest muscles expand as I did this. Never before did I even have this control in my sleep. I was actually there. I attempted to walk, and to my delight it actually worked. This was so strange. I was never a character in this dream before. I always watched the deadly events unfold.

With my newfound ability, I ran. I ran to my heart’s content through my nightmare’s forest. I had movement. I had freedom. I had control. Just then, the coyotes howled in unison off in the distance. I knew exactly what that meant. I thought of that last word again, “control”. What exactly did I have control of? My body? What good would that do me if I still could not control my outcome? I turned around and looked up at the night sky. There it was. The moon in all of its wondrous and gruesome glory. I could see nothing but trees and moonlight in my field of vision. An ever-familiar feeling of shock found its way back into the pit of my stomach. I took that feeling and ran with all my might towards the moon. Towards the howling. It was all I could think to do. Quickly after I began sprinting, the howling ceased.

“NO!!!”

I screamed at the top of my lungs as I watched the moon connect with the earth. The thunderous clap it made jolted me awake.

I quickly jumped up from my computer and looked out the window. The moon was visible, but it was normal sized. Normally this would grant me relief, but I don’t think I was all that scared this time. My dreams were changing, and so was my outlook on the situation. I felt like I could stop this from happening – somehow.

I went back to my computer and continued my research, only this time I included the words “dream” and “premonition” along with the usual lunar terms. I continued to read, watch videos, and speak with others on forums. After an hour or so I was still empty handed in my hunt for a solution. I pressed on.

As my search continued, I found myself growing sleepy once more. I needed to stay awake and look for answers, but my brain wouldn’t allow it. After all, I didn’t get that much rest the first time I fell asleep. I was at a loss. I had no coffee or any other means of staying awake. The only thing I did have was the vague will to find a way out of this mess. That only lasted so long, and once again my eyes won in their battle to close themselves. I became unconscious.

My dream started yet again. I was immediately greeted with lucidity and took a look at my surroundings. I was in the same forest and I could see the moon behind me, looming overhead. I stared at it for a moment, almost begging it not to fall. In doing this, I quickly looked away. The moon and all of its features appeared to me as the personification of malice. This was more than likely due to my mind and the way it had constructed the setting, but it still kept me from staring at the moon any further. I needed to invest all of my energy into doing something productive anyhow. Once the howling began, I decided to pursue it once more.

I ran towards the sound of what I assumed were coyotes, knowing that I didn’t have much time left. It had come to my attention the last time I dreamt that I had never actually seen them before; I had only heard their unsettling cries. They were the only characters present in this world other than myself. Maybe finding them would provide me with insight. It was a long shot, but anything was worth trying at this point.

I kept running towards the sound, noticing the moonlight getting brighter on the forest floor and trees. I still refused to look up at it and kept myself focused on the task at hand. I was slightly afraid; not only of the moon, but of what I might find when I did reach the coyotes. This was still less fear than I was usually accustomed to in this nightmare, so it in no way disrupted my concentration. What I saw next, however, did.

Before making it to my destination, I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I immediately stopped running and turned to look at it. It appeared to be the dark figure of a man. Even the now brighter moonlight could not reveal to me his features. After staring at him for a moment, he began to speak.

“You’re wasting your time.”

His voice sounded old and brash, but worldly at the same time. I was confused by his statement, not to mention his existence.

“What exactly do you mean?” I asked.

“This is only one possible outcome. You’ve yet to change anything. You need to wake up.”

“Wake up? But -”

I was cut off mid-sentence by a familiar explosive sound – the sound of two planetary bodies colliding. The man remained still as the moonlight washed out my field of vision. I then woke up at my computer, just like before, only this time I didn’t jump up to look out my window. I instead thought of the man and what he had said to me. The entire ordeal was bizarre and surreal, but for some reason I felt as if I had some sort of chance. Whoever this man was, he seemed to have a better grasp of the situation than I did. Perhaps finding him once more will ultimately bring me the answers I seek.

I noticed sunlight begin to cover the desk where I was sitting. I looked over at my window, but quickly regretted it as the sun was just coming up over the horizon and was an abrasive sight for my baggy eyes. The sun was indeed up and it was time to start my day. What that would entail, I could not be certain. It was not as if I would be going to work in my current predicament. I could always do more research, but that didn’t really get me anywhere last time. The obvious solution would be to try and fall asleep again and find that man, but I no longer felt tired, and to be completely honest, I needed a break.

I sat there for a good long while before coming up with an idea. Meditation. I could attempt to meditate and see where that leads me. It may not help at all, but it was certainly worth a try.

Having never meditated before, I went online to look at various how-to guides on the subject. After learning the basics, I decided to give it a go. I was anxious, but I tried to remain calm as any worrisome emotions would prove to be counterproductive when attempting to meditate. I sat down on the floor, closed my eyes, took a few deep breaths, and away I went.

At first, clearing my mind was a challenge. All I could picture was the malicious sight of the moon coming towards me. It freaked me out at first, but I then used it to my advantage. Before the moon could reach me, I pictured it going in the opposite direction. I was able to loosen up when doing this, and I let myself focus on nothing but the moon as it grew smaller and smaller. It kept floating away until it was only a single point in the night sky. I continued to focus on it. Eventually I was breathing at a much slower rate. My body felt lighter. I almost felt as though I too were floating into the night sky. I preceded to actually drift upwards, towards the moon. It then grew larger as the distance between us became smaller. Within moments the moon reverted to its original abnormally large size and I felt myself descend to the ground below. The meditation must have worked.

I looked around and realized that I was in the forest; the same setting from my dream. I looked up at the moon and noticed that even though it was incredibly close to the earth, it was still. Come to think of it, everything seemed still, as if time had stopped. Granted there was nothing around me but trees, but it felt like I was residing within a single instant – one frame on the reel of my private nightmare. I say nightmare, but it no longer felt as such. Given that the moon was no longer moving, I now felt calm and relaxed. Hopefully this would provide me with a greater focus while I searched for either the man or the coyotes. Anything would suffice so long as it gave me even a slight answer.

I decided to walk along the same path I took in my previous dream. I no longer had the sound of coyotes to guide me, but I did have the moon. I remember it being in the center of the sky when heading towards the howls. As such, I positioned myself accordingly and headed off.

Now that I found myself walking rather than running, and now that I was void of the fear that had previously tormented me in this setting, I noticed the odd details of the pseudo-world around me. There was a strange symbol perfectly etched into each and every tree I passed. I did not recognize the marking. Not only this, but I now noticed an old wooden hatch on the ground that bared the same symbol. I attempted to open it, but the damned thing wouldn’t budge. In any event, I continued my impromptu hike through the forest.

After a few more moments, I stopped dead in my tracks. Standing by one of the trees was none other than the man from my previous nightly adventure. I did not know whether to approach him or not. I couldn’t tell if he was frozen like the rest of the forest. I simply stood there in a partial state of shock waiting for something to happen. Luckily the man was not frozen and he began to speak.

“Why are you here again?”

I wasn’t sure what he meant.

“Why am I here again? Well, I’m here for answers.”

He chuckled a bit when I said this.

“You don’t need answers. You simply need to do what is necessary.”

He noticed the confused look on my face and spoke again.

“Fine. If you want answers so badly, then follow me.”

The man turned and started walking towards the moon; the very direction I had already been walking in. I subsequently followed, having little choice in the matter.

As we walked, I was considerably closer to the mysterious man than I had ever been previously. You would think that maybe I could finally make out at least some of his features, but this was not the case. He was still covered in a thin layer of darkness. It seemed to follow him wherever he went. I couldn’t explain this, but then again this was just a dream. An odd premonitory dream at that, but still a dream nonetheless.

The man remained silent until we reached our destination.

“Here you have it; the answer to the dark and looming riddle overhead.”

He looked at the moon when he said this. I was still confused to say the least, but I took a look around before demanding further explanation.

We were in a small clearing in the forest. In said clearing was a formation of not coyotes, but wolves. They were frozen still, as was to be expected. They were in a circular pattern around what looked to be a person; a person wearing some sort of red shroud. The man then spoke, noticing that I was still oblivious to what was going on.

“Take a closer look.”

I did so without hesitation, curious as to what I would find upon closer inspection.

I walked right past the wolves and into the circle to take a look at the person in the red cloak. It was a woman. She had her arms outstretched towards the moon. In front of her sat a chalice of some sort, filled with a reddish liquid. I still had no clue what was taking place here. Luckily, the man noticed this.

“This is the last surviving member of the Clan of the Red Wolf.”

“Clan of the Red Wolf?”

I had no idea what the Clan of the Red Wolf was, so I let the man explain further.

“The Clan has existed for many years. They worship a deity known as the Red Wolf, and their doctrine is simple. They intend to seek divinity in nature and protect the earth’s wildlife to the best of their abilities.”

I still didn’t completely grasp why this meant the moon had to fall.

“You see, as of late, the Clan has misinterpreted the foundation of their teachings. Because of this, they now think they need to destroy all life on earth and allow it to begin anew. The woman you see before you is the daughter of one of the Clan’s old members – one whom met with a terrible fate years ago.”

I noticed him stop to collect his thoughts before he continued to speak.

“She too tried to “end the world” so to speak, but she was stopped. Her daughter, deemed too powerful at an early age, was hidden from the rest of the clan. In the wake of her mother’s failure, she came out of hiding and vowed that she would continue her mother’s work. She would find a way to put an end to this earth.”

I was left speechless. This was most certainly a lot to process. How could this clan exist? How did they have this power? Why was I involved? I had so many questions now, and still no solution to my original problem. The man spoke once more as I continued to bathe in the confusion of what I had heard.

“You have been chosen to stop this. Otherwise you would not be having these dreams. As such, you must do just that. You cannot do it from here, however. This is an illusion. I am an illusion. The only way you can truly prevent this is to travel to this location when you awaken.”

I still had so many questions. Who was he in the first place? Why exactly was I “chosen”? Before I could voice any of these questions, the man vanished. He disappeared before my very eyes and revealed something etched into the tree behind him. I looked at it more closely and realized that they were coordinates. My eyes widened. I was now afraid again. I would have to actually confront this red cloaked woman if I wanted to save everything. If this wasn’t bad enough, I heard a loud howling behind me. The dream was no longer on pause. Within an instant I saw the moon crash into me with a force greater than I had ever seen in one of my nightmares. The brightness, the sound – everything was magnified. It was because I was at the epicenter of the event. I can tell you honestly that that right there was the most frightening thing I have ever witnessed. Much like the times before, I then woke up.

I opened my eyes slowly and gathered my thoughts. I then quickly jumped up and grabbed a piece of paper. I wrote down the coordinates I had seen etched into the bark of the tree. I then caught a glimpse of the moon from out of the corner of my eye. I looked over at the window and to my surprise it was nighttime. How long had I been meditating? I looked at the clock on my bedside table and realized that it was 5am, Sunday morning. I had been meditating for almost a whole day. This was a bit shocking, but I didn’t let it get to me. Besides, I had a task to complete.

I typed the coordinates into my computer to see exactly where they were. To my satisfaction it was within the country. Unfortunately however, it was many miles away. If I drove there, I wouldn’t get to the outskirts of the woods until Monday afternoon, and then I would still have to hike. The super moon is on Monday night, so that would be cutting it close. The nearest airport to these coordinates was 237 miles away, meaning I would have to figure out another form of transportation once I got there. I weighed my options for a moment, but then decided to take a different approach. Maybe there was a train station nearby.

After several minutes of searching for multiple trains that would lead me to this forest, I had finally found my means of transportation. There just happened to be a train station just twelve miles from the coordinates I had typed in. Apparently the forest was an old-growth forest protected by the government and it garnered occasional tourism, hence the train stop. I determined that after taking multiple trains and buses to get there, I would arrive at 2:15pm on Monday. That would give me just enough time to reach the coordinates and potentially stop this catastrophe from occurring.

I took off in haste as not to give myself enough time to rethink my plan. I knew if I dwelled on what I was doing, I might change my mind and convince myself that I was crazy and everything I had experienced was nothing more than a strange dream. If I did stop now, I would drown in my own regret, and panic come Monday night. Even if I was crazy, at least I was putting the question to rest myself instead of waiting for an answer to come along.

After numerous modes of travel, I was finally on the final train; the one that would arrive near my coordinates. I managed to stay awake the entire time, running off of anxiety and the fear of experiencing my nightmare one more time. As the train departed, however, I felt more tired than I had the entire trip there. I could not stay awake for one more second. I willingly shut my eyes and fell asleep there in my seat, knowing what I would dream about when I did.

Once again, I found myself in the forest at nighttime with nothing but several trees to gaze at. That, and the gigantic moon behind me. I decided to run again, but this time in the opposite direction. I wanted to be as far away from the moon as possible, so as to possibly limit its terrifying properties.

With an ever-familiar feeling of dread, I ran as fast as my dream body would allow, into the depths of the woods. I had never headed in this direction before and was somewhat curious as to what I might find during my run. My curiosity vanished soon after as I saw nothing but more trees. Not a big surprise there, I suppose.

I kept running, without even glancing back once at the moon. After a while, I noticed that something wasn’t right. The wolves should have howled by now. Nothing was frozen like the last dream; I could see the trees blowing in the wind. Maybe I was too far away to hear them, but even still something felt weird. I decided to look back at the moon. It was suspended in the night sky, as was to be expected, but it was not overly large like before. It was of a normal size and normal position near the stars. How peculiar.

I shrugged off the oddities in my dream and kept running in the direction I was headed. I would have become more anxious had I stayed still, and I was still hoping to find something out there – maybe one last bit of help in the form of something – anything, before I came face to face with the red cloaked woman.

I ran and ran for what seemed like a very long time. All the while there were nothing but trees and discomfort to keep me company. I was beginning to grow tired within my own dream, if that was even possible. Eventually, I came upon something other than a tree. I stopped running when I saw it. It was a railroad, running right through the forest. I examined the tracks for a moment, and then stood on them, looking either way for a train. Nothing. I continued to stand there, at odds with the damned thing. That is, until the very loud sound of a train directly behind me immediately triggered my adrenaline and fear. I turned to look and saw the train right as it struck my body. I jolted awake at impact.

The train had come to a stop. I was at the forest. I pulled myself together and stumbled off in a clumsy fashion, still trying to fully awaken and process my dream’s meaning at the same time. The train then took off at high speed and left me to take a look at my surroundings in isolation. So this is what it looks like during the day, huh? The forest looked identical to the one in my dreams, but then again, how could it not? It was just a simple assortment of old trees. The only difference now was that I was awake, and I had sunlight to guide my trek as opposed to moonlight. I just wasn’t sure how long that sunlight would last, especially in the depths of the forest.

I set off in haste, making sure to maximize my energy. I didn’t run and instead power-walked, keeping a steady pace as I went. Twelve miles wouldn’t be all that bad had it been on a paved road, but this was an old woodland. I could not guarantee when I would arrive at the location, nor could I guarantee what the terrain would be like in some parts of the forest. I had a compass and map to guide me, knowing that my phone/GPS probably wouldn’t get a reliable signal out here, but a map will only reveal so much about where you’re going. I could only hope that I would make it there in time to make a difference. I could only hope that I would even make it there in one piece.

Lucky for me, half of my hike was relatively easy. I was able to remain quick and agile most of the way, but after an hour or so, the ground became steeper and I found myself almost climbing rather than walking. I stupidly attempted to keep the same pace uphill as I did on the flat ground. This was a mistake. I ended up tripping over the root of a tree that was jutting out of the ground. I fell face first onto the dirt, and a nearby rock dug into my skin, leaving a large gash along the side of one of my legs. The sharp pain that followed was unbearable. I released a blood-curdling scream from the deepest recesses of my lungs and hurt even my ears. It didn’t appear as though I would be saving anything. My fate was now in the hands of the forest.

Unable to move, I simply laid there, waiting for nightfall to come; waiting for the moon to loom overhead and laugh in my dirt-covered face. It had won. My leg was injured, as well as my will to press on. Even if I could move, I didn’t want to anymore. The whole ordeal was mentally and physically taxing. I just wanted it all to end.

As I watched the sky change while the sun was setting, something else came into view. It was a man’s face. I couldn’t make out any features, but as he spoke, I recognized the voice.

“You have to keep going. It is almost time.”

It was the man from my dream. How was this possible? Then again, how was any of this possible? I decided not to question it. I had given up, after all. What was the point in trying to understand that which was beyond my comprehension? The world would be ending soon anyhow.

“No. I’m done. I cannot move, nor do I want to.”

He remained silent for a few moments, causing me to wonder if I was actually seeing things or not. He then offered a response.

“Are you really so selfish? You will let this entire planet suffer because you ‘don’t want to’?”

I thought about what he was implying, but before I could respond he spoke again.

“How dare you. How dare you hold the fate of this world in your hands and cast it aside with such arrogance, just like that. A broken leg is nothing compared to what is really at stake here. Neither is your insatiable need for answers. You need not know what is happening, only what you must do. You should stop at nothing to complete your task.”

I was surprised by the ferocity with which the man spoke. He was genuinely disappointed in me. Not only that, but what he said was true. I was being selfish. How could I let the moon crash into the earth after I had come so far? What in the world was I thinking?

With newfound motivation, I found it within me to stand upright again. I didn’t require the man’s help, nor did I ask for it. I don’t think he would have given it to me anyways. I still wasn’t even sure if he was really there. For all I knew he could have been a figment of my imagination. Figment or not, he was right. I had to keep going and see this through. I had no other choice in the matter.

As I limped through the woods, the man followed. He kept his distance, but I knew he was there. I would glance over every now and again and he would give me a perturbed look, one that begged me to stop staring and hurry up already. Somehow I felt as though his presence helped. It reassured me that I might actually be able to do this; whatever “this” might be. Either way, I was at ease for the time being.

I limped for a very long time, using only the moon as my guide. It was very large, but not quite as large as I remembered it being in my dreams. Even so, my surroundings now had a familiar aura about them. I must have been getting close. The man surprised me and spoke, confirming my suspicions.

“Just a little further.”

For the first time on our hike, the man walked in front of me and began to lead the way. As he did this, I noticed a clearing up ahead. This was it. My showdown with the red cloaked woman was about to begin and I was not ready in the slightest. Despite this, I followed the man and walked into the clearing.

Upon entering, I saw just what I expected to see. There in the center of the clearing was a circular formation of wolves containing the red cloaked woman. Even though I knew it would be there, I was still shocked. This was no longer a dream. Whatever happened now would have actual repercussions.

I stared at the woman, but she didn’t look as though she was conscious. She just stood there with her head down, as still as ever. The man turned over to me with a smile and spoke.

“Humans are so easily fooled.”

He then transformed, for lack of a better word, into a black wolf and ran over to the woman. He passed right through her and vanished. She then awoke instantaneously and looked over at me with that same smile. I was stunned.

“Nice of you to join us. We’ve been waiting for such a long time.”

The wolves howled in unison, as if they only acted upon her command. I remained silent.

“What’s the matter? Are you scared? Are you confused? Or are you just plain ignorant?”

I was offended by just the tone of her voice. I don’t know what possessed me to do so, but I took a step forward. The wolves began to growl when I did this.

“Why the rush? Don’t you want those answers you came here for in the first place? Don’t you want to know why all of this is happening? I know you do.”

An alluring yet sinister smile crept across her face. I nodded. I did want to know why. I wanted to know everything.

“Very well. As you know, I am the last surviving member of the Clan of the Red Wolf. My mother attempted to destroy this world years ago, but failed. She was stopped by a savior. She was stopped by the one the Red Wolf spoke of in his teachings. The one that was to save our world. You could say that the savior succeeded, in a way. I see it differently, much like my mother did. In order to save nature itself, the world must begin anew. The savior failed.”

I understood what she was telling me, but I knew there was more to it than that. She continued to speak.

“The savior’s blood was needed to complete the ritual of destruction that my mother had performed. That same blood is needed now to complete my ritual. You, my friend, are the offspring of the savior.”

What? How could this be? One of my parents was this savior she spoke of? Why didn’t I know of this? Questions filled my mind that no amount of answers could solve, but one glaring truth bubbled to the surface. I needed to get out of there.

I attempted to run, but the woman reached her arm out towards me, and I found myself paralyzed. I could not move at all. She was in complete control.

“I sent a specter into your dreams to bring you here. It was so much easier than I had originally anticipated. Foolishness is a trait I find to be quite common among humans. I will never understand it.”

The man was just a spirit. It was her all along, guiding me here so she could complete her ritual. I spent all my effort in trying to get here to prevent the earth’s destruction when I was in fact the key to its demise the whole time. I should never have come here.

She clenched her fingers together and I felt my body move on its own. I closed the gap between me and her within seconds.

“You may now witness that which has tormented you in your dreams for so long. Then you may finally rest.”

She said this as if it was some sort of consolation. I watched as she reached into her cloak and pulled out a dagger. Etched into the blade was the same symbol I had seen on the trees. It must have been the symbol of the Clan. She then grabbed the chalice from behind her and sliced my arm open, allowing my blood to fill the cup. I wanted to scream, but could not, as she had complete control over my body’s actions. I could not think of a more terrible situation to be in.

With a flick of her wrist she tossed my body aside, having already received what she needed. She then turned towards the moon and reached out towards it, much like I had seen in my nightmare. Between my injured leg and the cut on my arm, I could not move to stop her. I looked up at the moon as it came closer to the earth and waited for the inevitable collision. I heard the wolves howl loudly, but their howls were soon drowned out by the sound of the moon picking up speed. The moonlight that covered the forest was brilliant, and it allowed me the most vivid depiction of the destruction of the earth. After a few more moments, the moon broke through the atmosphere and filled the night sky. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep one last time. My dream could no longer haunt me. It was over. Everything was over.

Credit: Christopher Maxim

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