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Barter

September 15, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Rating: 9.3/10 (209 votes cast)

Marjorie had been lingering outside the nondescript metal door for nearly two hours, appearing to study the door and the faded sign above it. The Deli, it read in dusty script. Her coat was wrapped as tightly around her as the fraying fabric allowed, but still the winter air dug through it. The cold was not enough, however, to drive her out of the elements and through the door. Once or twice she approached it, hand shaking as it neared the handle, only to draw back at the last second as if the handle were a snake.

It should have been easier to enter the door the longer she waited, but it seemed to only grow immeasurably more difficult. It did not help that in her entire time waiting no one had entered or left the building. Had someone sallied up, opened the door, and safely entered into a cloud of inviting warmth, it may have lured her in. Similarly, the safe exit of any sort of person would have given her the assurance that one could brave whatever lay beyond. But the road was empty, and the door sat unmoving.

A particularly sharp gust of wind whistled down the abandoned alley, tugging at her coat and sending her tangled hair into a maelstrom. Her eyes watered at the cold, and she inched closer to the wall, hoping it would afford some protection. It was silly, she chided herself, spending all this time out in the elements. This was what had to be done. She was out of options, and her only hope lay beyond that door.

Yet Marjorie wondered if perhaps it was better to be hopeless than pay whatever price this hope would cost.

The streetlight flickered on overhead. Soon it would be dark, and then she would have to make a decision or risk staying on the unsafe streets at night. Being here in the middle of the day was dangerous enough—she would not be caught outside after dark.

That was the final shove she needed to overcome her inertia. With sudden resolve, she gripped the door handle. It flew open in her hands almost reflexively, for which she was glad. The metal was bitterly cold, seeming almost to burn her with its chill. Had the door not stood open, she would have again released it and likely vanished back to her home.

Inside was a nondescript, concrete hallway. A lonely yellow light filled the inside, leading to another door. This door was made of a dark wood and had a heavy brass knocker affixed to the middle. Marjorie’s steps echoed in the concrete chamber, coming to a sudden stop when the metal door groaned to a loud close. The weak, evening light was now gone, leaving her alone with only the single bulb. She had not realized how comforting it was to have that little bit of the outside world with her. With the door closed, even the distant sounds of traffic were cut-off.

Panic wrapped its claws around her throat. She felt her chest tighten with its serpentine grip; her heart thundered against her ribs. In that moment, instincts took over and she reverted to her most primitive response. Flee.

The echoes of her steps were a maddening flurry around her as she sprinted the fifteen feet back to the metal door. Her hands scrambled for purchase on the handle, only to find nothing but smooth metal. No handle on this side. The thunder of thousands of years of evolution continued to push her towards flight, and her fingers clawed around the metal door frame, hoping to find some crevice to pry open the door. Only there was again nothing. In the dim light afforded by the bulb, she could not make out a single seam. It was almost as if the door had sealed as soon as she entered. Her breaths now came in ragged gasps that did little to help her or calm her. Instead, the world seemed to swim before her. A mocking door, concrete walls. It was almost as if the walls were inching closer, activated on some cruel timer to pin her here forever.

All that she could hear was the flood of blood pulsing through her veins, the rapid fluttering of her heart frantically trying to escape, and the jarring sound of air ripping from her lungs before being shoved back inside. The walls acted as an echo chamber, reflecting her own terrified symphony back at her.

Deep breaths, she reminded herself. Just like those nights spent in the closet, deep breaths. She had to slow herself down if she was going to survive this. Slowing her breathing to a measured pace was akin to stopping a car with no brakes. She felt her lungs fight against the control, trying to maintain their breakneck pace despite her insistence. Overtime, however, she won out. The breaths were shaky, but calm, and her heart took its cue to return to its typical state of frenzy. The walls returned to their assigned places and stopped their dizzying journey.

Carefully, Marjorie ran her hands along the wall where the door stood, confirming that there was no seam that she could grip. It was a well-constructed door; there was not even a glimmer of dying afternoon light slipping through the bottom. If she could not back out now, she must go forward.

The hallway was not long, but she felt like a member of a funeral procession as she somberly made her way towards the door. Up close, she could see twisting, abstract shapes carved all over the door. They meant nothing to her, but she felt her breaths begin to hiccup again in her chest. Deep breaths, she repeated her only mantra.

Her hand was shaking as she placed it on the brass knocker. Unlike the door handle, this one was pleasantly warm to the touch. Inviting, almost. With a groan of rusted metal, she lifted it and rapped it quickly against the door. One, two, three. The door began to swing smoothly on its hinges after the third knock, opening onto a room filled with the murmur of quieted voices and wisps of strange smelling smoke. She stepped gingerly inside, feeling immediately out of place.

There were tables and booths scattered around the room. Marjorie did her best not to make eye contact or even look at them, keeping her eyes trained to the worn wood floor. She heard a few snickers, saw a couple hands point her out from their shadowy seats. Even as the large frames filled her periphery, she walked steadfastly towards the counter at the far end of the room.

Everyone in the room recognized immediately how out of place she was. While they were each bedecked in protective charms and talismans—some hanging from their necks, others etched into the scar tissue of their bodies—all she had was the flimsy barrier of her coat, still pulled tight around her against the now suffocating heat of the small room. She waked gingerly across the creaking floorboards, barely daring to breathe. They grinned and watched.

Marjorie approached the counter and lifted her eyes to see the attendant slouched on a stool behind the domed glass structure. Halfway to his face, her eyes froze on the contents of the display case. She assumed the rotted lumps inside had once been some sort of meat, though they were now covered in flies and maggots. Pooled, congealed blood covered the bottom surface, even seeping out and down to the floor. She followed the trail to see the red-stained, warped wood along the floor boards. Mouth agape and eyes wide, she was certain she saw a few eyeballs and fingers mixed in amongst the decay, but she tried to put it out of her mind.

“Want to try a sample?” came the mocking, gravelly voice of the attendant as he pulled open the door to the case. Immediately, a wave of putrescence poured out and enveloped Marjorie. She did her best to escape it, stumbling backwards and tripping over a warped floorboard. There was a low chuckle from those gathered around her, growing more and more quickly into a round of bawdy laughter.

She gagged, her stomach trying to force up the breakfast and lunch she had not eaten. It burned her eyes, starting them watering again. Her stomach having only been successful in ejecting a small amount of water she had nervously sipped at outside, her lungs took to coughing. Anything to get that stench away from her and out of her body.

There was the sound of a lock snapping into place as the attendant continued to laugh. She studied him briefly from her place on the floor behind watery eyes. He was filthy, covered in a layer of grime that made it impossible to tell his age. A tangled mess of dirt and wispy hair sat atop his head, falling into his beady eyes as he rocked back and forth with laughter at her predicament. His hands—stained and caked with muck—gripped the counter as long, yellowed nails scraped across the glass in time to his chuckling.

Marjorie did her best to pull herself together, rising from the floor and straightening her clothes as if that would restore her dignity. The smell had faded, now only a slight whiff of decay rather than the malodorous assault. That or her nose could no longer register the scent having burned out that sense for good. She threw her head back, eyes meeting the dark, glassy eyes of the man behind the counter.

“I’m here to speak with the owner,” she said in what she hoped was a confident voice. It did not help that it trembled and broke as she spoke. But at her words, a begrudging silence spread through the room.

The attendant snorted, a thick mucusy sound. For a moment she was afraid he was preparing to spit on her. Instead, he jerked one dirty finger to a paper ticket dispenser. “Take a number, then.”

With that, the attention on her seemed to fade. The low, grumble of conversation returned and she heard chairs scraping across the wood as the denizen’s returned to their intrigue. She walked over and gripped the dusty piece of paper delicately, as if afraid it might crumble to dust in her fingers. Perhaps this was another trick. Instead, the machine groaned and dispensed with a tiny slip. Number 43. She looked around for some sign that told her where she was. She had not seen anyone enter or leave today, so perhaps the line was long. But there was no such indicator.

“Excuse me,” she cautiously questioned the attendant, “how do I know what number is up?”

One eye turned to face her, the other stared out over the bar. “Take a seat and you’ll be called.” His eye flicked back to whatever it was between the counter and door that so raptly held his attention.

Marjorie gingerly picked her way over to an unoccupied table, acutely aware that her back was exposed to whatever kind of people liked to congregate in a place like this. She was certain that she could feel each individual eye raking over her back, sense spider-like appendages trace up and down her spine. Her hands were balled into knots, resting bloodlessly on her lap.

The minutes trickled by, marked only by the rise and fall of bawdy laughter. Marjorie kept her eyes focused on the table in front of her, trying to pick out patterns and shapes in the wooden surface. Trying to keep her mind from wandering too far from the task at hand. Somehow she knew that she could snap if forced to take in the reality of where she was and what she was doing. Instead, she focused on the next step. Meeting the owner and making her request.

The crack of a metal mug slamming onto the wooden table brought her eyes up, open wide like an animal caught in a snare. A woman stood across from her, tall and broad-shouldered. She had one bright green eye that studied Marjorie up and down. In place of her other eyes was a nasty incision, weeping a slight bit of pus, that bulged with dark stitches. Without being invited, the woman settled into the seat across from Marjorie.

“Me oh my, you don’t belong here, pretty thing,” she said in a hushed tone. Her eye was hungry. Marjorie sat silent as the woman studied her with a slight smile on her dry, swollen lips. “No, you aren’t meant to be here at all. What brings a little bird like you into a place like this?”

Marjorie focused her eyes back on the table. There was nothing she could say here that would keep her safe, and she knew that. She just needed to meet with the owner and make her request.

“A quiet one. Not going to sing for Lucy, eh? Come now, tell me what you need and I can help you get out of this place.” Marjorie’s silence prevailed. “We both know this is not a safe place for the likes of you. I’ve got a soft-spot for women, knowing how hard it is to be among this rabble myself. Just let me help you, dearie.”

Almost unbidden, Marjorie’s eyes lifted from the table and met the woman’s unnatural green one. It was beautiful, truly, even if it was nested within a hideous face. The green reminded Marjorie of the view from her bedroom window as a child on Easter morning. There was a small tree that grew just outside that always seemed to be absolutely covered in new leafs that shone with that bright, spring green. That was the color of the eyes. And it shone and sparkled like sunlight reflecting off water.

“There now, I’m sure we can work something out. I just know I can help you with whatever you need.” Lucy’s voice was a soft singsong, not the harsh growl of a dedicated chain smoker like before. “I even make sure my prices are fair, especially for a fair young thing like yourself.” Marjorie felt a hand on her knee, gently stroking. “Them pretty eyes of yours—they look like they’ve seen a world of heartache, eh? I could take care of those for you. You’d like that, yes?”

Eye fixated, Marjorie felt her head begin to bob slightly. To not see the horrors she had in her time, well, that would be nice.

“I see you like the idea,” Lucy’s face cracked open into a wide grin. “I thought you might. I’m good as seeing what people really need from me. I just need you to say it. Say you’ll give me those awful eyes of yours, and I’ll make sure you never have to see something so terrible again.”

Marjorie’s mouth opened, the very words on her lips, when a strong hand settled onto her shoulder. It smelled of leather and blood and gripped her shoulder hard enough to break the trance.

“Not going to let you have all the fun, Ol’ Luce. It’s not every day we get something so lovely in this dingy place.”

Marjorie felt dizzy and confused, as if time were moving at double again its normal pace. Her mind was slow in catching up to what was happening—what had almost happened—leaving her feeling as if she were lagging behind the rest of the world. Now Lucy was standing, measuring up to a formidable height, with anger in that lone green eye.

“I’ll not have you meddling, Thomas. She and I were nearly to a deal.”

“A deal you tricked her into, no less. Where’s the fun in that? Just weave your little spell, and she’ll say whatever you want. You’ve gone soft, Luce. I need to make you work for it.” His voice was soft, but firm. It seemed to cut through the background din like a razor, until it was the only thing she could hear. As Marjorie’s mind caught up with what had just nearly happened, she felt her heart begin to race. And then there was the hand on her shoulder, the firm grip beginning to hurt with its intensity.

The man bent over her shoulder, smiling. A long, black beard tickled against the skin of her neck, and she could smell the whiskey on his breath. “I’m afraid we have not been introduced, and I’ve already gone and saved your life. It’s a bad habit, I admit. My name is Thomas.” He extended his other hand towards her, the one on her shoulder growing tighter as she refused to shake. “Oh, we must be polite in an uncivil place as this, yes? What’s your name?”

Marjorie whimpered at the pain in her shoulder but fixed her eyes back on the table. She had to talk to the owner. She had to make her request.

“Back off and let her be, Thomas. I saw her; I made the first move. There’ll be others for you,” barked Lucy’s voice.

“Yes, but you didn’t close on the sale, now did you?” His eyes flicked away from Marjorie for just a moment, fixing Lucy with a cold gaze before returning with more warmth to Marjorie’s face. “You’ll find I’m much more direct. No need for silly games.” The hand moved smoothly from her shoulder, along the back of her neck. Suddenly, his fingers were wrapped through her hair, yanking her head back and exposing her throat. She felt something cold and sharp there, and barely dare to breathe. His smiling face leaned over hers, “How many years would you give me to keep this pretty little neck of yours attached?”

Marjorie heard a short laugh to her right, saw a slender man standing to the side. He stood just within her periphery, far enough back that she could only make out the vague shape of him. “Thomas, do be careful. There is plenty of her to go around if we just act with a little tact. I bet you could make some even better deals if you thought this through.”

“Oh no, you aren’t going to trip me up with that again. You swindled me out of everything last time.”

“You are right, it was a bit of a dirty trick. But surely you and Luce could work out some sort of a deal. You don’t need her eyes after all.”

Marjorie noticed the shadow of Luce appeared to turn and nod towards the man to the side, and she heard a very soft chuckle from him.

Thomas’ hands gripped her hair even more tightly. “You’re just mad that I got to her first, and this time I’m cutting you out!”

“Well, fine, but I fear it’s not just me you’ll be fighting against, Tom. A lot of us would like a piece of her.”

Thomas leaned back down by her ear, his words coming in a whispered frenzy. “Well, dear, looks like they’ll be taking you piece by piece. What do you say then? Give Ol’ Thomas whatever years you’ve got left? At least they’ll go to some sort of use, yeah?”

Marjorie heard grumbling in the room, the sound of chairs scraping along the wood, and a chorus of various metals meeting metal. There was a new tension in the uncomfortably warm room, a weight that pressed down all around her.

“Come on, times ticking, do we have a deal? You look like an altruistic soul. Help me out.” Footsteps coming close, a few short barks of anger. The intensity increased in his voice and he shook her head sharply. “They’ll cut out your tongue soon, so you best tell me now!”

Marjorie felt tears falling down her cheeks, a steady stream now pouring from her eyes. She had to speak to the owner. She had to make her request. Only she was not so sure she’d even get that chance.

Someone grabbed Thomas and the knife nicked her, drawing a thin line of blood far less lethal than it could have been. Marjorie dove under the table, trying to evade the arms that grabbed at her. There was the smell of blood in the room, and all the inhabitants had been suitably whipped into a frenzy. She was the lone fish drifting amongst the sharks.

A mug struck her temple, thick hands gripped and tugged at her arms, leaving angry red bruises that began to darken almost instantly. The rough floor scraped along her knees and arms as she crawled, filling her skin with tiny needling splinters. As she scrambled, kicked, and bit at any appendage that came her way, she noticed the tempo of the fray beginning to increase. No longer was she the main prize, but the fighters had turned on one another, vying for the chance to claim this lovely reward. They knew, of course, that she had nowhere to run. Finally, she found a corner to hide in, burying her head in her arms and trying to drown out the sound of the chaos around here. She needed to speak to the owner.

After what felt like hours of combat, the sounds of an opening door cut through the din. A sudden silence filled the room, minus the groaning of the incapacitated, and Marjorie began to sob. This was it. A victor had been named, and she was now the trophy to be parceled as he or she saw fit. She could not even lift her eyes to see which of the horrors in the room she would be left with.

However, something else broke the silence. “Number 43?” asked the calm voice of a young girl. Marjorie dared to barely lift her head, seeing the tiny figure standing in a doorway that had not existed moments before.

“Number 43?”

She scrambled to her feet, holding aloft the ticket she had somehow held onto during the fray. None of the remaining combatants—the war had obviously not been won quite yet—dared to touch her as she walked forward, towards the child in the doorway. Still, she shuddered and spooked as they milled about in the shadows. The girl motioned into the bright rectangle cut into the formerly intact wall, and Marjorie walked forward.

The door closed behind her, a parlor trick she was now used to. It took a few moments for her eyes to adjust from the gloom of the waiting room to the warm light of this new area. It was a well-furnished office, completed with a large wooden desk and an assortment of alluring leather chairs. The scent of cedar mixed with the smell of the crackling fireplace in a way that reminded Marjorie of weekend trips to her grandad’s cabin. Silently, the young girl stepped against the wall behind Marjorie, next to what had been the doorway, but now was nothing more than another section of oak paneling.

The man behind the desk did not look up at first. He was busy tallying and writing in a thick ledger, seemingly uninterested in the bruised and bloody woman before him. After a few moments, he looked up with a friendly smile and closed the book firmly.

“Marjorie, pleasure to meet you finally. I see you got the traditional welcome from our guests? And not a one of them was able to make a deal with you! You must be made of some tough stuff.”

She nodded mutely, uncertain now of how to proceed. He simply smiled at her and gave her the time she needed to study him. His teeth were bright white—the only clean thing she had seen since entering the deli. His eyes were as dark as his teeth were white, but they appeared to be friendly. As he waited for her to speak, he knitted his fingers together in front of him, rolling his shoulder to straighten out the drape of his crisp suit coat. Every bit of him seemed to be polished and neat—a stark contrast to the room before.

“Are you the Devil?” she finally managed to squeak out, eyes wide.

He laughed, throwing his head back and letting the sound ripple around the room. It was a friendly, amused sound that put her at ease. “Oh no, nothing so boring as that.”

“But you can give people whatever they want.”

He composed himself, that same broad smile still on his face. “Well, of course I can. But there is much more to this world than your simple understanding of gods and devils. Don’t worry, Marjorie, this is no deal with the Devil. But do tell me, what is it you want?”

“I—I came here to—“ The words would not come. She had thought and thought about how she would tell her story, how she would describe the years of abuse, threats, and evil. She considered taking off her coat and showing him the pale yellow stains of old bruises, but they were now marred by fresh ones from the fray. She felt for the death certificate in her pocket, the name of her first son written on it. And now the words would not come.

He watched patiently, no hint of irritation at her pause. When she began to sob, he offered her the handkerchief from his front pocket.

“He told everyone I was drunk. That was how I fell down the stairs. That was why Mikey died.” The tears were coming more in earnest now, and she dabbed at her eyes with the handkerchief. “They all looked at me like a terrible mother, that I would be drinking while pregnant. They blamed me—if I had been sober, I wouldn’t have fallen and Mikey would have at least had a chance. No one believed me.”

“I don’t bring people back from the dead, Marjorie. Even I don’t meddle in things like that,” his voice was soft, almost as if moved by her tearful story.

She took that moment to compose herself, sniffing and wiping away the tears. “I know. That’s not why I’m here. I want you to kill my husband.” The words were out, blunt and dirty, before she realized what she was saying. This was not how the discussion was supposed to have gone.

His face brightened. “Oh, is that all you need? Well, that should be a relatively easy matter”

“You don’t understand. He’s a monster. It won’t be easy to kill him, but you have to. You have to kill him, because he’s a very bad person.”

“Marjorie, I don’t care who he is. He could be Hitler or the Pope reincarnate. All I care about is that you want him dead. And I can make that happen, no matter how ‘monstrous’ he might be.” He reached over and pulled an ornate ink pen from his desk. “I will need some details, like his name, address, distinguishing physical features. Also, would you like proof of death?”

Marjorie’s stomach churned at the thought of what she was doing. It was the only way, though. He had to pay for his crimes, and no one else was willing to do it. “No, I won’t need that. Everyone says you follow through on your deals.”

“Word of mouth is certainly the best advertisement for services such as mine,” he smiled that disarming smile again.

“Um, well, his name is David Bergen and his address is 1394 Windhaven Rd, Apt 1722. It’s in Topeka.” He continued writing and nodding. “He’s about six foot tall, a big bulky guy. Blond hair, brown eyes. He has some sort of tribal tattoo on the back of his neck, one of a skull on his right bicep. Is that enough?”

“Oh, that’s lovely. A wonderful description. I’ll dispatch someone right away,” he said, nodding to the small girl. Marjorie heard the door swing open behind her, then close quietly. “But, now that your terms are set, let us discuss what I shall get in return. A few rules. I don’t trade in souls—it is simply too much of a hassle to deal with, and the return is rather poor. I also don’t accept first born children,” at this, he nodded his head towards the spot the girl had been moment before. “I’ve done it once, but I’ve found children are not particularly useful.” There was a sudden cruel glint to his smile, “Besides, someone has already taken yours.”

Marjorie was silent, her fingers worrying over the hem of her jacket as if that would provide some solace in this moment. Her heart was pounding again, and she wondered if perhaps she was going to suffocate here in this office. The scents and furnishing that had seemed so lavish now felt oppressive. “But I can give you anything else, right?”

He paused to consider her comments. “I reserve the right to refuse any substandard trade. I won’t, for instance, take your pocket lint.” He chuckled appreciatively at his own joke. “But I accept most fair trades.” His demeanor turned more serious, perhaps even taking on a sinister air. He leaned forward over the desk, shadows growing across his face as he did so. “Think carefully now about what you’ll give me for this. Whatever you decide, you will think it is something you would never want back no matter how long you live. But once it’s gone, you’ll find you cannot live without it. You’ll yearn for it. You’ll do anything to replace it. You’ll take it. But it will never be enough, will always be shrouded in the filth of something borrowed. So make a wise choice, but know there is no wisdom that will save you. What will you give me?”

She thought long and hard, but she had spent days thinking about it already. She was almost certain she had thought of something that in no way could harm her, no matter what. In fact, she reminded herself, it would be a relief. She would be strong and brave then, not the timid girl that had entered. “My pain,” she finally answered.

He smiled eagerly, a response that made her suddenly uncertain. “Oh, yes, we have a deal! Pain is one of my favorites. And don’t come back here saying I didn’t warn you.” With that he clamped her hand in his and shook once. Marjorie felt as his grip began as an excruciating vice, then dwindled until she could barely even notice it. The aches and pains of her various cuts and bruises also dimmed before disappearing altogether.

As promised, with it gone, she also felt that absence acutely. It was a kind of nostalgia now, a prickling sense of something missing and a longing to return. This wasn’t so bad, she thought. Uncomfortable, certainly, but it must have been the right choice.

He still smiled. “You think it’s going to be easy. But that’s just the first taste. Give it time.”

“But,” there was a crackle in her voice. Sacrificing pain did not remove fear. “I can take away others’ pain now, right?”

His eyes simmered with glee, as if her altruism was a delicious appetizer. “Of course, my dear. And you most certainly will. Again and again, you’ll valiantly step in and take every ache from their bodies, dry the tears from their eyes. And someday that won’t be enough. You’ll hunger for more. So you’ll give them a little pain, only to take it away. Until that isn’t enough either. I told you, it will never be enough. You can try to drown yourself in the pain and agony of millions and never be satisfied.” His grin finally split into a restrained laugh, and he quickly reassembled his face into a look of mild amusement. The excitement glimmered in his eyes.

Lost in his eyes, in the long future stretching before her, in the half-perceived glimpse of the monster she would become, Marjorie barely noticed as the room faded from around her. The last thing to disappear were his eyes, and she blinked. She felt dazed, as if waking from a dream, as she stood the sidewalk and in the light of early dawn. Impossibly, she was standing in front of a nondescript brick building on the other side of town.

“Remember,” she heard his voice on the breeze, “the Deli is always open. I’m guessing you’ll have a table all your own soon enough.”

Credit: Katherine C

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The Lost Chord

July 22, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Rating: 7.1/10 (200 votes cast)

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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