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Somnambulant

June 11, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Awake. This time I know where I am, the familiar hum of the bathroom extractor fan brings me back to the world of the living. My shirt is soaked, with sweat? Blood? Water. The tap is running… Looks like I got thirsty.

After participating in this latest sleep study, following years of adventuring in my sleep, I was told it could help to write my experiences down, anything I can remember as soon as I wake up. This has turned into ‘as soon as I work out what’s going on’, initially all I feel when I awake is a burst of sharp, intangible fear. Writing this down is the first step towards getting my brain to accept I am truly conscious and aware of my actions, apparently.

I don’t know how it started, this has just always been with me. My first memory of sleepwalking was when I was on holiday with my parents when I was about four, I woke up in the hotel service lift, cuddled in my duvet with a blistered burn on my arm. I had absolutely no idea where I was, the first face I saw was that of my panic stricken mother; she had, along with police and anyone she could find, been searching for me all night, expecting the worst… I feel what I now think of as dread whenever I think about that day. Dread isn’t a feeling you really know as a child, you live day to day, moment to moment, looking forward to things, but never really looking back.

This isn’t meant to be a diary, I suppose I’m just providing context. The clinicians said they didn’t want to read this, it’s just for me. I’m so unconvinced that anything can work at this stage that I feel I just want my cynicism duly noted.

When you live a life where your partner has to move rooms, then eventually move out with your son and disappear from your life because they cannot live with “the sleeping you”, anything is worth a try.

Awake. This time it took much longer to work out where I was, sitting outside my childhood school a 10 minute walk from my house. Dread, fear, freezing. I’ve started sleeping fully clothed following an episode where I woke up half naked in a railway station. Little consolation when it’s mid-December. That dream everyone has where they’re stood in public having forgotten their clothes; yep, I’ve lived it. I need to think of a new way to keep myself from unlocking the front door, the thought of walking about the streets at night, completely unaware of my actions, even in this quiet town is frankly, terrifying. Maybe a combination lock? Would it really be possible for my unconscious mind to remember a combination? If I can find the key, despite hiding it from myself; maybe it is possible. Anyway, note to self; In hindsight, the cutlery drawer was a terrible place to hide the key, my hands are riddled with fine cuts, like I’ve been raking through thorny undergrowth, or losing a fight to a pit of tiny nails.

Awake. On the sofa! It has been so long since I’ve woken up anywhere without feeling intense pain in some part of my body, cramped up on a bench, maybe having stood for 8 hours straight, huddled in the shower under cold water, feeling and looking like I have wrestled bears. The fear eased so much more quickly today, I even remember part of a dream; the pills they give me are supposed to make me dream more; taking me away from the deep sleep in which sleepwalking occurs. This dream wasn’t pleasant, The floor was made of writhing, cavernous masses and I felt like I was being drawn down towards them, I could hear faint, childlike whispering, which stopped as soon as I became aware of it. Strangely, I felt calm… I knew it was just a dream and that meant I wasn’t sleepwalking.

When I went to get dressed, though, I found that my shoes are caked in dark mud. Maybe I did go out.

Awake. It has been three days since I’ve been fully conscious. At least; sure enough that I am awake to write anything here. Something has changed, the dread won’t leave, I think something terrible has happened. I’ve suffocated, I can’t have done what I think I have. I’ve stopped taking the pills, the dreams aren’t helping. I can’t stop likening this feeling back to the one in the hotel lift, the panicked look that only a mother can have when they feel they have lost their child and I felt like an onlooker, felt like I didn’t understand her pain, her fear, all I could feel was my own.

….That whispering, crying. I followed it last night, not for the first time. It drew me further and further down a rugged pathway in the woods behind the house. The still darkness surrounded me so completely, every step I took echoed with the crush of brittle corpses of twigs and crisp leaves. A cabin. I knew this place. This is my place. I couldn’t help but feel that if I looked inside I would never be able to leave, am I conscious? I know all of this is real… I unlocked what feels like bolt after bolt, lock after lock, 1562, 1908, 2016. Click. Click. Click.

Slowly I shifted the heavy wooden door, shuffling, rats? A dank miasma of disturbed air filled my lungs.

The weathered, hollow face looking back at me is that same face. That same look, that four year old child in the lift. Older now. “Please, I want to go home” Dread. Incapacitating fear. This is where I kept it.

I know now, they’re not trying to stop my sleepwalking, they’re trying to make me remember.

Awake?

Credit: Anonymous

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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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Construction Site Entity

June 9, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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To this day, I have no idea what I saw.

People I tell seem to not believe me, but I swear this is true.

A little background before I get into it.

I am a 29 year old construction worker. Been doing it since high school. Metal framing and sheetrock mostly. I’m in decent shape, no history of mental disorders in my family. Only problem I have developed over the years is a mild case of tinnitus from being stubborn and refusing to wear ear protection. It comes during times of silence, like when I’m trying to sleep. So I try to keep the TV or a fan on to cancel out the ringing.

Work was getting very slow where I lived, so I decided to move to Virginia. I was staying with a friend who got me a sweet gig with a local construction company on Norfolk Naval Base. Huge job. Five story building, complete buildout from the ground up, good pay, not exactly close to where we were staying, but the drive wasn’t bad as long as I made it in before morning traffic. Only thing wrong with the job was the foreman was a complete asshole; always talking down to us workers in that sort of passive-aggressive tone that made me want to punch him in his face. But as long as we stayed busy, he didn’t bother with us for long. It was a huge job, and he had a lot of people to bug.
About 4 months into the job, I injured my right hand. Sliced my middle finger on a piece of metal. It didn’t hurt at all. The doctor stitching me up said it was because I cut so deep, it severed the nerves.

The next day, I had to file an injury report and everything. My boss said he was going to put me on light duty, and that I didn’t have to do anything except sweep until my hand healed. I was all for it. Same pay for easy work. For the first week, things were alright. But then it started getting boring. I mean, really boring. The days dragged on, and I wondered why they didn’t just pay me to stay home. So, naturally, I started wandering the job to kill time. Checking out all the hallways, and there were plenty of hallways. Really long and gloomy looking when they were just grey brick all around. Some at the very top didn’t even have temporary lighting, and would have been pitch black if it weren’t for the huge window cutouts on each end letting in sunlight. I stayed away from those hallways. They creeped me out.

One day, I was feeling bored, so I decided to go walking around the fourth floor. Most of the work had been finished, and there weren’t any other trades doing work there at the time, so I had it all to myself. It was around that time I noticed my tinnitus was acting up worse than usual. I figured someone must have had a generator running or something, so I started moving towards the other end of the hallway. About three-quarters of the way, my ears start painfully ringing. I tried sticking my fingers in my ears and humming, which usually does the trick, but the ringing was so intense. I started feeling nauseous, and I fell over on my hands and knees. I was slapping my ears, trying to make the ringing stop. My eyes started watering at one point because I was slapping my head so hard. I got up on my knees, still covering my ears, trying to get to my feet so I could make it to the stairwell, but the ringing was so intense, every move I made sent my head spinning. Moving slow helped, but not much.

As I turned around, I noticed someone standing at the other end of the hallway near one of the window cutouts. The sun behind him was so bright, all I could see was a silhouette. I started yelling “Help! Help!” as loud as I could, but the guy didn’t move. I thought maybe he had ear plugs in and couldn’t hear me, so I started moving towards him, slowly so my head wouldn’t spin. As I got closer, I started noticing things I hadn’t before. First, this guy was huge. Like, impossibly huge. His head was small in proportion to his body and near the top of the window. His shoulders were really wide and high, almost like he was shrugging.

His arms were long, hanging down past his waist, with really long fingers on each hand. I still couldn’t make out any facial features because of the bright sun behind him, but as I started realizing this person wasn’t normal, I slowly backed away. He just stood there, looking right at me.

I was almost to the stairs when this thing slowly cocks its head to the side, like a dog does when it’s confused, and the ringing in my ears just goes crazy. It was extremely painful. At the time, I thought my ears were bleeding. I was pressing my hands into my ears and yelling, but it was so loud, I couldn’t even hear myself yell. I dropped back on my hands and knees and threw up on the floor until I was puking air.

I looked up to see if this thing was coming after me, but I caught a last glimpse of it as it walked into a nearby room. The instant it disappeared around the corner, the ringing in my ears just stopped. Like someone hit the mute button. Needless to say, I ran the fuck out of there and didn’t look back.

I stayed away from the fourth floor for the next couple months. I told a few people what I saw, but they only pretended to be interested. It was about five months after it happened when I decided to go back up there.
I checked every room. If there were any signs of this thing, they were long gone. I went to the window where it was standing and took a measurement. The top of the window was ten foot nine inches.

I still have tinnitus. There have been a few times when I’m laying in bed at night, and the ringing gets painful, and I freak out and check every room in my apartment.

But it never gets as bad as it was that day. I really hope it never does.

Credit: OJ

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Triumphus de Immaculata

June 8, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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“Shit” I said to myself, as I poured out the last bit of water in my three liter Poland Spring jug into the pot above my portable gas range. I tossed the empty tube of plastic aside and it clattered against a mess of garbage in a corner, making a hell of a racket when it hit the floor. The amount of water filled the pot barely over a quarter of the way, very much under the least amount necessary to cook most things. I opened the cabinets of my recently new home’s kitchen in desperate search for food, finding only the empty wrappers and boxes of morsels previously ingested in the dusty compartments.

Buried among old plastic cracker sleeves and rat shit was a box of pasta. I feverishly pulled it to me and embraced it as if it were my own child. I returned to my pot, only to see that there was still almost no water in it. I dejectedly put the box of pasta next to the pot’s lid on the kitchen counter, and sighed deeply; staring at me from the floor where I threw it upon first moving into this home, that wasn’t my own, was a can of old dog food, the label scratched off over the months or years it’s been in this home before I. Feeling the pangs of hunger in my gut, I took my hunting knife and cleaved the can in twain, voraciously yet reluctantly eating the contents to get something in my stomach.

After finishing my impromptu meal, I curled up in a ball on the floor. I looked up at the front door just a few feet in front of me, still boarded up to hell and back as I left it, and began to let my mind wander. ‘You’ll have to go out there sometime’ I told myself. I shuddered at the thought, letting my own case of sudden agoraphobia prevent me from once again entering the Outside World. Since the world was engulfed in the flames of nuclear war, I found myself inside the home of a no-doubt doomed family that was on vacation when the bombs fell. The terrified screams of mothers clutching their children as the bombs falling in the distance grew ever closer bolstered a nail in my psyche and a nail in the door of this home, to prevent me from going Outside ever again. There was nothing out there for me. But now, against all of the notions I believe in, there was- survival.

Before the bombs, I lived for many years as a drifter, knowing how to survive by rendering garbage and the little I found into sustainable nourishment to keep my twenty seven year old body going. But now that the world has ended, finding what was once everywhere would be nearly impossible. Markets and small stores would have been cleared out by my fellow tribesmen in a desperate attempt to cling to existence. Worse yet, I fear that those that survived and are now, like myself, without food have turned to a… different, form of sustenance. The slim prospect of survival has driven others in better situations than I to the forbidden territory of human flesh, so I fear who, or what I suppose, may lay Out in the world beyond my door.

But as my stomach growled, not sated by the lackluster meal of various processed animals meats pressed into a can, I knew that I soon would have to leave my comfort zone. While being homeless for a long time has made me quite resilient, I am nothing more than a skeleton without proper nutrition. I worried that I would bumble into a much stronger survivor and be easy prey, or perhaps worse yet, have someone break into my sanctuary whilst I am away. ‘You can do without what lies on the other side’ I said aloud to myself, clutching my stomach, now in knots. I can do it. I can. I must.

These positive thoughts were cut short when the bile in my gut manifested as a pile of putrid regurgitation on the wood floor. Now completely empty and slightly dehydrated, I had no choice. I dug through my satchel next to the range for my hammer, and started yanking out nails, one by one, from the boards pounded against the door.

All of my love, all of my kissin’
You don’t know what you’ve been missin’, oh boy
When you’re with me, oh boy.

The song I had heard many years ago escaped my lips as I toiled to get the door open. The name of the singer faded from my memory, all I remember were the glasses. I get the last nail off the last plank in the door, and stack them next to the entrance, now only inches of wood shielding me from the Outside. I took a deep breath, and opened the door. The hazy sky was a dark green, ash and small debris dancing in the wind. The temperature was both warm and cold at the same time, and I was immediately sick to my stomach. Clenching my teeth and my fists, I stepped out, eyes shuttered intensely as I lurched forward, one very deliberate step at a time.

I moved forward until I hit the street, and I slowly opened my eyes. Not another soul in sight as far as the eye could see. I gradually opened my eyes until they were fully revealed. The house I was in sat right in front of the remnants of the Grand Central Parkway- or was it the Jackie Robinson? Below on the roadway were dozens of immobilized, abandoned cars, rusted and depressing. I stared down at them for a long moment, leaning on the chainlink fence that kept me from plunging over, before my growling stomach prodded me to keep going. The hellish sky was a baroque nightmare; no gods or angels, as the dark air was the perfect embodiment of harm and evil itself. I clutched my hunting knife in my waistband as I moved forward, the world feeling as if it were a thick sheet enveloping and suffocating me as I strolled. In the distance, I saw what looked like a crashed car. Intrigued, I began moving slightly faster toward it, hoping someone else’s tragic loss was my tragic gain.

All of my life, I’ve been a-waitin’
Tonight there’ll be no, hesitatin’ oh boy,
when you’re with me, oh boy.

Upon reaching it, I could see the fender of the sedan wrapped partway around a light pole, the partially decayed corpse of the unfortunate driver wrapped in a deflated air bag, the trunk popped slightly open from the sheer force of the impact. I looked at the deceased motorist for a moment before I opened the trunk, hoping to find something good, or, at the very least, something. As it had been stuck in this position for an unknown period of time, the boot took some effort to open. Upon doing so, I squealed with glee: the back was filled with bags of food and water, almost all of the former in bags and cans. I took my satchel and emptied all I had in it: my favorite book, a baseball cap, a pair of sunglasses, and an old locket my mother had given me when I was but a child. I began stuffing my now empty bag with as much as I could stuff into it, which was about 60% of what was there in the trunk. I put the satchel back on, and carried the rest in the plastic bags they came in back to my new home. I stepped on the book as I turned, smudging the second word in the title with dirt and grime, leaving only ‘Dante’s’ visible as I began my walk back.

Stars appear and shadows a-falling
You can hear my heart a-calling.
A little bit a-lovin’ makes everything right,
And I’m gonna see my baby tonight.

I slowed my singing to a hum as I opened my door, closing it behind me. I piled the wood up in front of it, to board it back up after I had ate. I unpacked everything, and a few Poland Spring bottles among the groceries, that I used to fill the pot up the rest of the way for the pasta. I happily tapped the top of the box of rigatoni as I passed it, organizing the food into a corner. Finishing that, I turned the range on to let the water boil, pulling my knife from my waist and laying it across the top of the pot, an old trick I learned to avoid water boiling over. I went upstairs to the bedroom to put on a robe I found in the closet, gleefully eating a chocolate bar as I did so. When I got the comfortable garment on, I finished my bar and crumpled the wrapper in my hand. I heard a noise from downstairs, and thought the knife slipped off and into the pot, because I didn’t properly position it.

I went down the stairs and entered the kitchen, to see the knife gone, but nowhere to be found, much less in the pot. But, it turned out, the noise I had heard before was actually the pot lid from earlier, spinning on its handle gently against the hard plastic countertop, combined with the sound of a slight breeze coming in from the wide open door.

Credit: Elias D. Tavarez

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Roadrunner Energy Drink Study: Our Bizarre Outlier

June 7, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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I am a researcher for a small team, and now, I’m facing a moral dilemma.

Over the past year, one of our main projects has been the development of a healthier, more energy efficient drink named Roadrunner. Upon completion of Roadrunner’s formula and design, we contacted a local university and requested to use 100 of their freshmen as subjects in a study. The purpose of our study was to compare the alertness of the freshmen and determine if our energy drink positively benefited their college experience. The 100 freshmen were randomly divided into two groups. Group 1 received Roadrunner and were requested to drink one bottle per day. Group 2 was allowed to drink anything except Roadrunner. We specifically selected freshmen due to the stresses involved in the first year of college. To contribute to the subjects’ stress levels, we assigned all of them a journal project about adjusting to college. They were required to write one entry per day for a total of 14 entries. Our study commenced on August 11, 2015, and concluded on August 25, 2015.

I will not delve into the intricacies of our data collection and its analysis. For this explanation, I will be straightforward.

The benefits of Roadrunner were unanimous. Subjects in Group 1 were significantly more attentive in class, and collectively, their journal entries contained a more optimistic tone. The journal entries were one of the many methods of data collection, but I’m emphasizing them for one reason.

We hit a minor roadblock due to a subject in Group 1. Across the board, he was an outlier, and needless to say, he halted our project for several months.

The situation is difficult to describe. For that reason, I want to share some of his journal entries. The content of the entries have not been altered. This how they begin:

I have never seen my roommate’s face, and it makes me believe that he doesn’t have one. Benny, he’s a real sick fuck.

Let me start when I arrived on campus. They were swarming. There were people everywhere. Students, parents, friends, they were rushing all over the place and carrying massive amounts of furniture, suitcases, tacky decorations, you name it! I was standing amid the chaos and struggling to find my residence hall on a school map when a group of guys nearly trampled me. These people were out of their goddamn minds.

It took me three trips to my car and back to gather all of my belongings. Everything had calmed down by then, and when I reached my dorm room, I was ready to pass out. I dropped two backpacks onto my bed and laid down on the mattress. My gaze drifted to the vacant bed on the opposite side of the room. Benny still hadn’t arrived. Maybe, he was late.

I tried staying awake for him, but I fell asleep. I woke from the nap a few hours later and glanced over to the empty side of the room. Still not here? The sun was beginning to set. That’s really weird that he wouldn’t arrive sooner.

I spent the evening putting my room together. I hung my clothes in the bureau and claimed two drawers from the dresser. I decorated my half of the room with posters. I left my textbooks and student paperwork on the desk. Lastly, I hung a calendar above my bed and turned around, expecting my roommate to have arrived. It was dark outside now. Where the hell was he?

I booted up my laptop and connected it with the school wifi. Before I could do anything else, I had to leave for my first hall meeting. We were lectured about rules for half an hour. When the meeting finished, all of the guys left in pairs. I supposed that Benny would be arriving later. I just hated for him to be moving in on the first day.

I returned to my room and got ready for bed. I was anxious, beyond anxious for my first day of college. It felt like Christmas Eve. I couldn’t sleep if I tried. When the hallway grew quiet, I finally began to doze off. Half-asleep, I felt a light tap against the back of my head, and I jerked up so suddenly that I smacked my forehead against the headboard. I cursed and felt my head beginning to throb. I slid out of bed and shoved the mattress closer to the top of the bed frame. My head must have dipped past the pillow and tapped against the wood. When I felt it, it was one of those knee jerk reactions. My head ached all night long.

By morning, Benny still wasn’t there. I didn’t have time to worry about him though.

I was rushing around and getting ready for class. I slept a little late and didn’t have time to grab breakfast. I just took a Roadrunner drink instead. It was a weird surprise that I had been selected to participate in this study. I mean, I didn’t mind. It was free smoothies and a cash supplement to my college fund. Who wouldn’t love that?

I was so busy my first day that I returned to my dorm after dinner. I set down my backpack, shrugged off my shoes, and realized something odd. I was still alone. Benny was nowhere to be found. His side of the room was as empty as before.

What was this guy’s deal?

I ignored the situation, did my homework, and went straight to bed.

As soon as started falling asleep, I felt a sharp pat on the top of my head, followed by the shifting of my pillow. I sat upright immediately. Something had touched me. I yanked the pillows back and noticed a dark gap between the mattress and the headboard, the same gap that I had closed last night. I stared into the gap but could see nothing. It was as dark as pitch in my room. My eyes weren’t adjusting to the darkness. I was too tired for this. I shifted my pillows further down the bed and went back to sleep.

By the next morning, I was met with a disturbing surprise. Like yesterday, Benny’s side of the room was still empty. However, one of my notebooks was shredded as if a rabid animal had torn it apart. The pages were scattered everywhere. There were only a few pages intact, and they had a message scrawled across them.

Don’t look.

I almost sprinted out of my room in only my underwear. I glanced back to my bed, and within a few moments, I brushed the whole thing off. This had to be hazing. There were upperclassmen living in my hall. That’s what it was. I collected the ruined notebook and dumped it into the trash. Then, I went about my day without anymore surprises.

When I returned that evening, I had seemingly forgotten about the incident. My mind was too preoccupied with schoolwork. I sat on my bed, did my homework, and crawled under the covers. Just before I fell asleep, I felt the pat again. This pat was longer though. This one lingered. It was a hand.

I shot away from my pillows and scooted to the other side of the bed breathing heavily. I was petrified.

There was something under my fucking bed! A part of me wanted to check while the other wanted to dash out the door. Neither of those sides won. I passed out.

The next night, I convinced myself that it had been a nightmare. Even with that sentiment in mind, I placed my pillows at the foot of the bed. I fell asleep without the pat, but I was awoken by a massive, painful jerk. It was a sharp tug, grasping my hair and pulling me downward.

I woke up in the hallway. I don’t remember moving there.

I skipped class, went straight to housing, and demanded a room change. I hadn’t been sleeping well at all, so I was a bit unreasonable. The woman tried explaining to me multiple times that all the rooms were filled. There was nowhere for me to go. After that, I demanded to know where Benny was.

She insisted that we were roommates. That really pissed me off. It got to the point where she had Benny pulled out of class. Benny was on campus. He had been here the whole fucking time.

There had been a discrepancy. Benny’s actual roommate had my first name too, so Benny accidentally got assigned to both of us. Technically, I had no roommate.

I returned to my room and sat on the bed, the bed that should have been Benny’s bed. I laid there all day, staring at the gap between the tiled floor and the bed frame. I could only remember the note now – don’t look. My door has been locked every night. Nobody else had the key but me.

I slept on “Benny’s” bed that night without blankets or pillows. I closed my eyes and started to doze off. Before I could though, I felt the pat on the back of my head. It was sharp but not as angry as the night before. I cried silently. I didn’t remember falling asleep.

It took me a few nights, but I’ve learned Benny’s rules. He liked my bed, so that’s where I slept. It was a routine, and I kept breaking it. Just before I fell asleep, I’d feel him reach up and tap my head to make sure I was there. Benny never made any noise. By following his rules, keeping a gap between the bed frame and the mattress, he was silent. It was just me and Benny.

When I behaved, he was very gentle. He had to wish me goodnight before I could fall asleep. Sometimes, Benny would take his time, but that was okay with me. I’d wait all night if I had to.

This is where I’m ending the subject’s journal. The last few entries are completely incoherent, and I think I should mention that these were typed entries. In particular, the 13th and 14th entries are complete gibberish as if he violently slapped the keyboard over and over.

To some degree, we thought that we were being pranked, but this was no prank.

Due to the nature of the entries, we wanted to immediately do a follow-up study. This might sound unprofessional, but the subject resembled the before and after pictures of meth addiction. His skin was sallow. He was sickly, bony even. He lost an exceptional amount of weight as if he stopped eating. His face was gaunt with pronounced cheekbones, skin clinging to his skull. There were dark rings around his eyes. He was dazed, staring off into space. Somehow, he still functioned, but he was only going through the motions.

He didn’t respond well when we asked if he was sleeping alright. It alarmed him, distressed him, and nearly sent him into a panic attack. We hardly needed to ask. He hadn’t been sleeping. Anyone with eyes could tell you that.

Not even a week later, he completely snapped and threw himself from the roof. Nobody knew how he got up there or what was going through his mind. A professor found his crumpled body that morning, and then, the authorities were all over the case. It was a mess. We were able to see his dorm room before our team was shut out of the investigation. Our subject didn’t leave a suicide note. No, he left an entire wall filled with frenzied messages. The predominant message was he’s always watching, all of the messages overlapping each other, all disjointed thoughts.

After nearly being sued, my team is fed up with the matter. They threw out the subject’s data and blamed confounding variables for the extreme response. Regardless, he was an outlier. In the grand scheme of things, an outlier is not representative of the whole. For that reason, Roadrunner is preceding with its production and will be released for public consumption within the month.

Credit: Ariel Lowe

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Neverscape

June 6, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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“We’re going down!” Captain Raul Santana yelled over the intercom. “Everybody, brace for impact!”

Hazard lights blinked a pulsing symphony of angry red while alarms bleated in terror. The plane’s nose tore through the final layer of thin white clouds as the island rushed up to catch the doomed airliner. The 747 shook violently. Screams from the passengers strapped into the cabin pierced Santana’s ears. A buried image of his final tour in Afghanistan erupted before his eyes. He winced, shoving the burning intrusion back into its shadowy box, and wrestled with the yoke. Santana’s co-pilot desperately fought for the radio controls as turbulence tossed him against his seat restraints.

The island’s golden beach taunted him as it swelled in front of the cockpit’s forward windows. Santana let his body go slack: stiffening up on impact was a guaranteed way to break bones. He turned to offer the same advice to Jenkins.

The plane slammed into the earth with a deafening boom of crunching metal. Its wings sheared cleanly from the fuselage, peeling back metal skin like a banana, throwing free the broken bodies of those too slow to buckle in. The jet’s carcass carved a path of fiery ember across the pristine beach. A flock of birds nestled in the palm trees at the sand’s edge panicked and took to flight in a flurry of flapping wings.

Get your head out of your ass, Marine. We are leaving!

Santana’s eyes popped open at the sound of his old sergeant’s voice and a gigantic breath burned into his lungs. His temples pounded like an angry war god beating a drum. The cockpit swirled as he cut through the cobwebs in his mind. He coughed a few times. With shaking hands he fumbled for the restraints’ release mechanism.

“Fucking Christ, we’re still here.”

The shoulder belts snapped free with a liberating click. Santana massaged the back of his neck and turned to Jenkins. “You still with–”

Jenkins lay slumped over the co-pilot’s yoke. The control column had splintered during the crash and impaled the young pilot through the heart. Jenkins’s hollow eyes stared back at Santana, arms dangling lifelessly. Santana reached over and closed his partner’s eyes with a gentle hand. He thought of Jenkins’s wife and their unborn daughter that would never know her father.

“I’m sorry, brother.” He wrapped his fist around the gold cross hanging from his neck and muttered a quick prayer. Santana clutched Jenkins’s shoulder as he made for the cockpit door. “I’ll check in on them.”

The cabin reeked of sudden terror and suffering. Oxygen masks hung limply beneath broken overhead compartments that had vomited their contents into the aisles. Bodies, bloodied and battered and broken, sat strapped into their death thrones, heads lolling. Some wore masks of eternal surprise. A fortunate few found their faces frozen in peaceful resignation. Santana slumped against the cockpit doorway.

“Mother of God.”

Santana’s stomach soured. He pressed the back of his hand against his mouth to fight back the retch aching to free itself. The scent of salt water wafted in from a gaping hole in the plane’s side. Santana picked his way down the aisle towards the slanted column of moonlight marking the new exit. In a seat halfway down the aisle, the body of a man in his thirties leaned over the chair to his right. The still body of a boy rested beneath his father’s sheltering arms.

Santana fought back the lump in his throat and straightened the boy’s Red Sox hat. He patted the sleeping angel’s head, repeated his prayer, and stepped outside.

Sterling moonlight painted the landscape. He squinted and panned around the crash scene. Wreckage from the plane and discarded luggage littered the beach. Fire crackled from two dozen burning piles left in the plane’s wake. Waves gently breaking against rocks sounded from a nearby crag. It’s all a joke, he thought, or a dream.

Any minute now and I’ll wake up at home.

Santana squeezed his eyes shut tight and held his breath for a moment. A shrill bird call pierced the air. He opened his eyes and looked out over the endless dark ocean blue.

“No such luck, I’m afraid,” a man’s voice, accented in heavy French, called from alongside the plane.

Santana tracked to the new voice, squinting against the glare of one of the larger fires. The man had dark skin and was dressed as though he were due to deliver a keynote speech at the U.N. And tall. Ridiculously tall. “What’s that?” Santana said.

The man loosened a bold red necktie and the top two buttons of his tailored shirt. “We all had the same feeling once we got outside. That this was all a dream.” He shrugged off his suitcoat. “My name’s LaSalle. And, sadly, I can assure you that this is no dream.”

Several sets of footprints headed away from the hole in plane’s side. “How many survivors we got down there?”

Lasalle’s head sunk. A moment passed before the Frenchman answered. “Only myself and two others.”

Four.

Only four souls out of 113 had lived to share the misery of being stranded. The weight of the perished poured concrete into Santana’s lungs. He had seen friends, more than he could count, cut down in combat. Indeed, Lawson’s final screams had haunted his nightmares right up until last night. He had lost his father one breathless gasp at a time to lung cancer. But the deaths of so many at once…

Marine, we are leaving!

Santana shook the memory of his old co-pilot’s voice free. He nodded back at the cabin. “I’m gonna check the emergency supplies. God only knows how long we’re gonna be stuck here.”

“No need. We have already salvaged all we could.”

“There’s a few other things I gotta check,” Santana replied.

He worked his way back towards the cockpit, stepping over the sprawled remains of a woman whose neck was twisted obscenely backwards. Inside the cockpit, he tapped a few buttons on the main control panel. Hidden computers whirred and a warbling beep groaned before dying. The lights on the emergency locator beacon dimmed. “You’ve got to be shitting me,” Santana said. He picked up his headset and punched a few buttons on the radio, drawing nothing but static. He checked his wristwatch, then wrestled his cellphone from his pocket. Both faces showed no signs of damage. Neither responded to his frustrated tapping.

“Wonderful.”

God only knew how long it would take for the flight to be declared overdue. He entered the five digit passcode into the keypad mounted on the captain’s locker. After a satisfying click, he opened the door, and retrieved the old Marine Corp sidearm. He stuffed the Glock-19 into the back of his waistband, taking comfort in the cool, familiar presence.

Moments later, LaSalle lead Santana a short distance from the fuselage wreckage to the survivors who had taken refuge in the shade of a wide palm tree. Santana didn’t like the look of the supremely fair-skinned man who introduced himself simply as ‘White’. Probably the shifty eyes, Santana thought. White’s neck craned upwards to Santana’s lean silhouette. The intricately tattooed swastika covering his throat smiled back at the pilot.

Santana extended a hand but White only smirked. Santana tried again with the heavyset woman seated to White’s left. Purple streaks flashed through her jet black hair. She sat with her arms folded and her chin resting against her chest. “I’m Santana.”

The woman took his hand and gave it a weak shake, before jerking her hand safely back. “I’m Melody.” Sweat glistened at Santana’s temples. He swiped at salty beads with the back of his wrist. “Nice to meet you Melody. Try and relax, everything is gonna be just fine.”

White chuckled and rolled his eyes. “Why is it every time something bad happens you G.I. Joe types are always telling people that everything will be alright?” He pinched a smooth stone between his fingers, letting it roll across each digit like a poker chip. “You know that sounds like total bullshit, right?.”

“We say it because it turns out people don’t really like hearing things like ‘Holy shit we’re all gonna burn’,” Santana replied. “And whether or not it’s true, people who believe everything will be ok can focus and be useful.”

LaSalle moved beside Santana. “He’s right. We all have to stay focused if we want to survive. Captain, how long before we can expect a rescue?”

“Tough to say, but this far out to sea standard procedure when a plane falls off of the ATC grid is to scramble a pair of Navy interceptors– F-18’s to do a fast pass of the last known location. Trouble is…”

“Go on,” LaSalle replied.

Santana sighed. “The trouble is I don’t think they’ll have any idea where to look.”

White scoffed. “Look I’m not the brightest bulb in the box, but didn’t you just say they’ll just fly on out to the last place the plane was on the GPS or whatever you call it? Look at this flaming pile of shit. The smoke has to be a mile high at least. Even Mr. Fucking Magoo could see it, especially from the air.”

“Normally I’d agree with you. But since this island isn’t supposed to be here I’d say we’re looking at some pretty out of the ordinary bullshit coming our way.”

LaSalle touched Santana’s shoulder. “What do you mean it’s not supposed to be here? How can an island just appear from nowhere?”

“Yeah, professor. How does an entire island just pop up?” White added.

Santana threw White a frigid glance. The muscles tensed in his shoulders, but he resisted the urge to ball his fists and go to work. “I have no idea. But what I do know is that I’ve made this flight a thousand times and it’s never fucking been here.”

A bird cackled from within the dense jungle. White mimicked the laugh and raised his hands in mock defense. “Hey, take it easy soldier boy. If you say it’s never been here then that’s perfectly fine by me. But I think I’m speaking for me, Beanpole and Chunky over here when I say then what the fuck are we supposed to do?”

Santana didn’t see the point in holding back the truth. They were all in the same boat. They were all facing the same longshot odds. They deserved to know exactly how long. “I don’t know. And the radio’s down… along with our locator beacon.”

Sand flew as White scrambled to his feet, throwing up his arms in exasperation. “Wait a minute. You mean to tell me that not only are we stuck on a island that doesn’t exist, but there’s no way we can call for help?” White kicked over a stack of cases of bottled water. “Well isn’t that just the icing on the fucking cake.”

LaSalle stepped forward to calm White’s outburst, but the pale-skinned man swatted the gesture away without a second glance. He marched a few steps towards the doomed flight’s captain. Santana let his right hand drift to his waistband, letting it rest just shy of his concealed sidearm.

“Well what’s the plan, Captain America? It’s your fault we’re all stuck out here on this little slice of paradise. What’s our play?” White stabbed at the air in front of Santana’s chest but wisely avoided contact.

A voice cried out from the back of Santana’s buried subconscious. Lawson. Screaming. Burning. I should have done something. He shook the memory off. “Take it easy. We’ll figure something out.”

LaSalle nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, yes. We will find–”

The arrow tore its way through LaSalle’s throat, spraying a mist of warm blood over White’s face. The tall man staggered back, clutching at the wound. His breath came in ragged wheezes and gurgles. He sank to his knees in the soft sand. Surprise swelled in his eyes as he looked to Santana for explanation, but the pilot’s own wide eyes were little more than a reflection of terror.

Before Santana could react, a second arrow exploded through the back of LaSalle’s skull, spearing an eye free of its socket, momentum plowing the dying man into a face plant. Santana snatched his pistol from his waistband and took aim at the wall of emerald jungle. “Everybody move! Now!”

“Where the fuck did that come from?” White shouted, pointing at the gun.

“Go!” Santana yelled back at the other man. An arrow sailed by his cheek, missing by inches. Santana dropped to a crouch and squeezed off two shots. A cluster of wide fronds rustled but no screams retorted..

Melody struggled to her feet, sandals flapping, nearly tumbling forward onto LaSalle’s twitching body. Her arms waved frantically for balance as she stumbled. She grabbed for White, but he knocked her desperate hands aside and bolted back for the wounded plane.

“Asshole!” Melody shouted after the fleeing man. The coarse sands scattered as her heavy footsteps plodded in pursuit. An arrow whistled from the canopy. The razor sharp stone head tore through her calf, shooting a steak of searing agony up her leg. She collapsed with a scream. “Help me!”

Two more arrows thunked into the sand by Melody’s outstretched hands. White ducked an arrow of his own, diving behind a hulking piece of wing debris. He peeked around the torn metal. “Sorry, sweetheart. Seems like we got a ‘survival of the fittest’ thing going on here. And you don’t look all that fit.”

White quickly scanned the treeline and then bolted the last twenty feet to the makeshift entrance torn out of the plane’s side. As he breached the jagged threshold, an electrifying jolt surged through his system, throwing him aside like a discarded toy. Steam wafted from his chest while the world swirled in front of his eyes.

Santana kept the pistol raised as he reached down and pulled Melody to her feet. Icy shivers swept over her in violent waves. Her lower lip quivered as her eyes darted back and forth over the trees. He grabbed her by the chin and locked his eyes with the woman’s. “I’ve got you. We’re gonna be fine. But we gotta move now. I can’t do it alone. I need your help.”

Melody gave an unconvincing nod. Santana returned the gesture and pointed to the trees. “We need to get out of sight. And by the looks of it, that racist asshole twitching on the ground proved the plane isn’t an option. On two we’re gonna run to that break in the trees. Looks like there’s a path there.” Santana took a deep breath.

“Ready. On two. One–”

The arrow sliced through his shirt, nicking the skin just beneath his underarm. He jerked away from the sudden sting and yelled. “Go now!”

Melody hobbled for the trees, wincing with each step at the burning in her calf. Foliage crunched under unseen footsteps hidden behind the trees. Santana took aim and fired once, freezing the hidden assailant. “Keep moving!”

Fighting his better judgment, Santana raced across the beach. White had already begun to stir by the time the pilot hovered over him, pistol swinging back and forth over the treeline. “I’ll probably live to regret it, but I’ve decided I’ve lost enough people on this flight.” He reached and pulled White to his feet by a handful of T-shirt. “Even a piece of shit coward like you. Now move.”

They caught up to Melody a few minutes later. She cowered behind a wide palm tree at the side of a sandy path a hundred yards from the beach. She had gnawed the nails on her left hand down to bloody nubs. Dark eye liner traced streaks from the corners of her eyes down her cheeks. She glared at White, her eyes thinning to slits.

“Asshole.”

“Yeah, yeah. I heard you the first time,” White replied.

“Shut up, both of you,” Santana said, scanning the surroundings, “If we have a prayer of getting out of this you need to stay calm and stay quiet.”

White scoffed. “Easy for you to say, captain. You’re the one rocking the piece.”

Santana ignored the barb. There was no movement behind the trees. No more arrows. The jungle had grown deathly still; quiet as though it were holding its breath. Santana was suddenly aware of the ache in his shoulder from having kept the Glock at the ready.

“I think we’re ok.”

Melody raised a trembling hand. “Uh, arrow in the leg. Definitely not ok.”

Blood trickled down her meaty calf. Inklike streaks crawled away from the wound. Santana crouched beside her, inspecting the injury. He had seen more than enough gore from improvised anti-personnel traps in Afghanistan. “Holy hell.”

“Is it bad?” Melody stammered.

It broke his heart to lie to the doomed girl, but Santana knew the telltale signs of a neurotoxin at work. “You’ll be dancing again in no time.” He reached for the arrow, then paused.

“This is going to hurt.”

Melody bit her lower lip. “Just do it.”

Santana didn’t hesitate. He snapped the arrow’s shaft and pulled it free. Melody winced but managed to will most of the pain into silence. Santana tore a sleeve of his shirt free and quickly cinched a tourniquet. He forced a smile. “You did just fine. Last time I tied one of those the guy cried for an hour.”

White pressed a hand to his chest in mock sentiment. “How moving. But seriously, what the hell are we supposed to do? We got a bunch of assholes out there shooting arrows at us, something threw some serious smackdown on my face when I tried to take cover on the plane–”

“You mean when you ran like a coward and abandoned me?” Melody said.

A derisive grin spread over White’s lips before he continued. “And no one knows we’re here.” He gestured with a sweep of an arm. “Wherever the Hell this is.”

He hated it, but Santana knew that White was correct. He nodded. “That about sums it up.”
Melody winced. The burning in her leg unleashed a hot barb that sent her hands reaching for the injury. Tears stung her eyes, but there was an ember of fierce determination slowly being stoked behind the misty veil. “Well then what do we do? I don’t want to die here.”

“Hang on a second,” Santana said. There was a faint roar of water coming from the trail leading towards the island’s jungle heart. He was suddenly aware of the rough, scratching sensation in the back of his throat. He knew that if they were to survive long enough to escape they would need fresh water sooner than later. “We need water. We’re gonna head deeper inland, maybe find somewhere to hold up until we can figure out our next play.”

The trail wound away from the smoking wreckage and gentle lap of the ocean tide. Santana took point, head on a swivel, weapon snapping to any rustle or snapping of foliage that sounded larger than a small animal. Melody hobbled close behind, slowing every now and then to check her saturated bandage. White trailed a short distance at the rear, shirking from shadows that the cool breeze scattered over the path.

Walls of steam-soaked plant life enclosed the path, threatening to collapse on it like an emerald avalanche. The non-stop flitter of birdsong and chattering animals was overpowered by the constant buzz of unseen insects. Santana tugged a couple of shirt buttons open. He hadn’t sweltered like this since his last trip to the sandbox.

“I don’t know how much longer I can go,” Melody panted between breaths.

Santana caught a quick glimpse of her leg. The bandage was saturated with blood and a trickle of thick pus oozed down her calf. She fell, catching herself against a tree trunk. He threw her arm over his shoulder and helped her back upright. “Look,” he said, pointing, “there’s water just ahead. We’ll get you cleaned up best we can and take a rest.”

The waterfall’s cascading flow glistened in the moonlight like a million diamonds washing away from the cliff above. It crashed into an oval-shaped lagoon painted a similar glistening coat of sapphire. Together, Santana and Melody worked their way down the hill towards the promise of freshwater. White ran past them without a second glance, falling to his knees at the lagoon’s bank. His hands were a blur as he frantically scooped water onto his face and into his mouth.

Santana eased Melody down to the golden sand and turned back to the jungle, scanning it before setting to work on the woman’s dressing. “It was stupid to run down here like that. There could have been more of them waiting.”

White flipped a final handful of water onto his head and massaged the back of his neck with the cool fluid. “Chance I was willing to take, boss. What else could go wrong?”

“You have no idea,” Santana replied, taking a drink of his own. His eyes followed the edge of the lagoon’s perimeter. Halfway around it appeared to vanish into the rocky cliff face. Santana tore his remaining sleeve free. He gave Melody a warning not to look and then quickly peeled off the old bandage. A moment and a pair of tears later, Melody’s leg, swollen and purple, was clean and ready.

A deep sound like a rhino’s bellow shook the trees behind the survivors. Their heads twisted in unison.

“The hell was that?” White asked, quickly springing to his feet, ready to bolt.

Santana’s Glock stared down the sudden, deafening intrusion as the pilot dragged Melody once more to her feet. Puffy bags had appeared under eyes, stretching her makeup into distorted shapes that streamed down her face. “Christ if I know. But we’re moving. And we’re moving now. Go!”

Fifty yards to their rear, the lush tropical vegetation feverishly rustled. A group of muscular figures clad in animal skins, carrying primitive bows emerged from the trees. Crude brands and ugly scars marred the skin of their faces and chests. Their eyes were hollow sockets of leathery skin. Melody screamed and hobbled faster, dragging her wounded leg with Santana’s assistance.

A hulking figure emerged from the growing horde. He was dressed in similar filthy pelts and scars. A necklace of sharp fangs dangled from his tree trunk neck. His left arm ended at a mottled stump below the elbow. A three-foot long length of shark jaw had been driven through the bruised flesh. Serrated teeth clung to the jaw fragment, eager to feed.

White stumbled a few steps. He leveled a shaky finger at the nightmarish figure and the horde massing at his back. “I’ll say it again. What the hell is that?”

“Don’t know, don’t care. And unless you wanna ask him why he’s missing half a limb I suggest you move,” Santana called back over his shoulder.

Santana trotted as quickly as he could, Melody’s arm draped over his neck, finger resting on the Glock’s trigger guard. The picturesque lagoon disappeared into the rocky cliff face, the moon casting a long throw of shadows over the sparkling water. A smooth path dared the survivors to enter at the edge of the golden sands.

“You can’t be serious. We’re really going in there?” Melody asked, looking ahead at the gloomy darkness.

A chorus of war cries reverberated in the night air, boring its way into Santana’s skull. He winced at the chilling sound. “I know you’re scared. But it’s either the cave,” Santana said before nodding back at the pursuing horde, “or them.”

“To hell with Fatty, here. I’m heading in,” White said as he pushed his way by.

Santana’s fist tightened around the pistol’s grip. Melody eased him off with a nervous smile. “Don’t worry. I’m used to it. Price you pay for being a chocoholic.” The bloodcurdling sound of the mob closed. Melody’s chin bobbed in the affirmative. “Cave. Now.”

The path leading into the cave looked like the maw of a lamprey: circular and with rocky crags for fangs that looked as though they’d be happy to clamp shut the moment prey drew close enough. It was dark beyond the entrance but the straining moonlight revealed a narrow passageway winding off into the shadows.

White disappeared inside first, anxious to put as much space between himself and the creatures hunting them. Santana and Melody followed, limping along as best they could manage. A moment later White’s voice echoed from around the bend.

“You guys are definitely going to want to see this.”

As they rounded the final bend, they found White staring slack-jawed at the far side of the voluminous cavern that was easily the size of a football stadium. A collective gasp escaped their lips. But it wasn’t the size of the enormous space that stole their breath.

“Jesus Christ,” Santana whispered, awestruck.

Towering above the embankment on the far side of the lagoon was a stepped pyramid that nearly touched the cavern’s ceiling. Several slanted spears of silvery light gleamed on the pyramid’s glossy obsidian facade. A long rope bridge stretched from the survivors’ promontory, reaching all the way to the steep stairs climbing to the pyramid’s entrance.

Santana recovered from the bewilderment first. “Come on. We have to keep moving.”

“Where?” White replied. “Do you honestly want to cross this rickety ass bridge and investigate the temple of doom over there? Are you insane?”

Santana shifted his weight, but did not let Melody down to the ground. He had no intention of waiting around for committee votes to be tallied. Inaction is what gets Marines killed. He knew it better than most. He had seen it happen before all too many times.

Move to live, Marine!

“Look, you can stay here and meet the locals if you want. But we’re moving. We’re gonna reach the temple, lock down what we can, and hopefully live long enough to regret asking you to come with us.”

The sounds of the hunters grew louder. It would be only moments before they surged around the bend. Santana tested the first plank of the bridge with his foot. The board groaned but held fast. He nodded to White. “You go first. I’ll send Melody next and cover the rear.”

White opened his mouth to protest his role as guinea pig but the steely glare in Santana’s eye convinced him otherwise. “You’re the boss, boss.” The pale-skinned man took a handful of the rope rail and took his first tentative steps onto the bridge. He flashed a gap-filled grin. “See you on the other side.”

Santana covered the cavern’s entrance while White made his way across. He was just about to guide Melody onto the bridge when long shadow wrapped around the corner of the passage. The Glock roared and a shower of bright sparks burst from the passage wall freezing shadow in place. Murmurs of a hushed language Santana didn’t understand seeped around the bend. He turned back to Melody whose knuckles had blanched from squeezing the bridge’s rope handrail.

“That won’t hold them forever. You gotta go. Now!”

Melody inched her way across the first two planks. Santana dropped to a crouch, taking aim at the lone entrance. Beads of frigid sweat trickled down the back of his shaved scalp. He reigned in his focus and began a tentative retreat to the bridge.

White reached the opposite side, collapsing to the ground as though he’d just run a marathon. He rolled to his knees and wildly swung his arms. “Hurry! The bridge isn’t as solid on this side.”

“Oh God,” Melody squealed, strangled the rope, her progress grinding to a halt.

The support cables of the bridge swayed. Santana’s hand flew on its own to the guide rope. Stabilized, he shouted for Melody to move. Instead she screamed.

Mako breached the entryway flanked by his band of hunters. Silence smothered the cavern. And then came the wretched groan of bows being drawn. Santana fired into the killbox framed by the narrow passage. Blood exploded from the chests of two hunters. One fell to the ground; the other slumped and fell from the promontory. The body splashed into the lagoon below, shattering its serene surface.

The body floated face down in a cloud of crimson. A moment later dozens of tooth-filled jaws tugged at the hair and flesh of the fallen man. Santana’s stomach lurched as the piranha ripped the hunter’s arm free to the sound of tearing meat. The captain recovered quickly. He had seen more than his fill of dismemberment and had learned long ago how to bury the ugliness of the world. Santana backed his way further down the bridge, firing a shot every few paces to ward off the hunters’ arrows. They seemed happy to remain safely away from the bridge. All but Mako.

Mako’s jaw stretched unnaturally as though it had come undone at the hinges. The gaping maw revealed row after row of serrated teeth that matched the fearsome weapon impaling his arm. He threw his head back and thrust his chest out, unleashing a roar that chilled the very air.

“Hey, I’m no expert, but I’m thinking maybe your next seven or eight shots should probably hit the asshole with the fucked up arm,” White shouted.

Santana leveled his sidearm in agreement. “Grab Melody and head for the temple or whatever the hell that is.”

White found the courage to venture five steps out onto the bridge to meet the limping woman. As she reached for his hand a crunching exploded into a snap. Melody’s uninjured leg drove through a rotten plank. She flailed for White’s hand, but he had already retreated to solid ground. She plunged through the jagged splinters of broken planks just managing to grab a fistfull of the bridge’s lower rope. Shrieking, she dangled above the piranha filled lagoon.

Santana quickly panned to the endangered woman. “Melody! Hang on.”

Mako’s demonic maw shortened to tooth-filled grin that stretched ear to ear. He dashed over the promontory, rushing for the bridge and the promise of prey. Santana darted across the rattling planks as though it were a perfectly level piece of race track. A step from Melody, he spun on a heel, took aim and fired. The bullets stung Mako’s chest and shoulders like a swarm of angry yellow jackets. The giant staggered to a halt, shielding his face with his arm’s lethal prosthesis. Santana clamped down on Melody’s wrist and began pulling the woman up. White re-appeared at the bridge’s end. Holding a long survival knife.

“Sorry, boss. Can’t take any chances.” White set to work, sawing at the bridge’s anchoring ropes.

Santana’s eyes widened to saucers. “No! What the hell are you doing?”

White ignored Santana’s desperate plea and let the serrated blade work itself through the rope. The first line snapped, causing the bridge to lurch wildly as it dropped. Santana fell through the planks, grabbing a length of rope with one hand, clamping down on Melody’s wrist with the other. The Glock tumbled from his hand, seemed to freeze in mid-air for an agonizing second, then disappeared into the crystal-blue waters. Arrows sailed over the bridge, shooting for the opposite promontory. White shrieked in pain. He cursed at the hunters before his footsteps faded into the distance.

Melody’s lips quivered as she dangled twenty feet above the dark waters. “Please.”

Every muscle in Santana’s body twitched. Veins popped in his temples and neck. The rope tore into the skin of his fingers. His jaw clenched and he pulled at Melody’s wrist with everything he had. Her soft skin slid through his vice-like grip until he held her by little more than a handshake. Santana’s face burned a hot red. “I’m sorry…”

Melody’s scream rattled the massive cavern, rousing bats from slumber amongst the stalactites, and drawing a round of guttural cheers from the hunters. Mako roared his approval and pumped the serrated teeth of his handless arm into the air.

She splashed into the lagoon with Santana’s eyes locked onto the doomed woman the whole way down. A moment later bits and pieces of rent flesh and fabric floated to the surface amidst a plume of red.

Santana sealed his eyes shut. The rope cut deep into his hand and for a moment he considered letting go. He had lost so much when the plane crashed; lost even more in the sandbox. He had watched men die before, had seen the child-like look of innocent terror of not knowing what would follow the dimming light. But Melody was different. Melody hadn’t signed on the dotted line. She hadn’t boarded a transport plane into some third world shit hole that time had forgotten. She was just a kid flying home.

Something sparked in the back of Santana’s head: A tiny voice demanding justice. It clawed its ways through his mind until only a singular, laser-focused thought remained.

White must die…

Santana ignored the plinking of arrows deflecting on the promontory and slung his free hand up to the rope. He pulled himself onto the tattered bridge and maneuvered over the final swaying planks. Behind him, Mako held his position at the bridge’s halfway point. Blood seeped from his bullet wounds.

“I’ll be back for you later,” Santana said as he trotted off, following White’s footsteps, “but first I have to deal with a more pressing pile of shit.”

The climb up the obsidian pyramid’s front stairs set Santana’s legs and lungs on fire. They terminated two stories beneath its the peak, leaving him facing the blackened maw of a twelve-foot entrance. The crackling of fire snapped from within.

Santana slowly let the darkness swallow him. Leading with his hand sliding along the smooth, glass-like wall he slowly advanced, using the snap and pop of the fire as a guide. He rounded a bend and was greeted by the faint light of a lone torch flickering on the wall. He pulled it free of its brazier when it hit him: why would White have left a trail?

The torch swooshed as Santana swung it ahead into the dark. Dancing shadows on the walls revealed the tight corridor advanced in a subtle circular fashion while the telltale burn in his calves indicated a gentle incline. Rodents squeaked and scurried somewhere in the blanket of blackness. Scenes from old mummy movies ran through Santana’s head. “Better not be any snakes.” He looked up at the sky that wasn’t there. “At least give me that.”

The passage finally emptied into a dome-shaped room one-hundred feet across. A ring of burning braziers circled the chamber, bathing the walls in a fluid, amber glow. Santana’s eyes fell immediately on the room’s centerpiece. Four columns of strange greenish stone stood watch, towering nearly two stories over the floor. Angular symbols that looked as though they’d been crudely carved with nothing sharper than primitive tools of rock decorated the tall stoneworks. Reflecting pools of still water rested beneath each column.

Santana approached, eyebrows raised at the amazing sculpture before him. The hair on the back of his hand stood on end as he reached for the nearest column. A shriek echoed along the fire-dressed walls. White bolted into the chamber from a darkened entrance at the opposite end, screaming as though he’d looked into the Abyss itself. Santana raised his fists and dropped into his stance, focusing his breath. “Come on, you fucker,” he muttered.

The screaming man blew right by Santana without even acknowledging he was there. He barrelled into the wall face-first by the chamber’s main entrance. White’s nose gave a sickening crunch and the pale-skinned man tottered and collapsed. Blood bubbled from his ruined face, pooling behind his head.

Santana hesitated, then approached. White’s alabaster fingers were wrapped tightly around the survival knife’s handle. Santana stepped on his wrist, securing the limb to the ground. He pressed his fingers into the side of White’s throat. Dead. Santana tilted White’s broken face to the side. “What the hell happened to you?”

Scarlet track marks lanced White’s features from the top of his skull, over the swastika tattoo at his neck and over his heart. The Marine reached to touch one. An abscess welled up beneath a large inflamed line and raced from White’s cheek down into his neck like something crawling just beneath his skin had been startled.

“What the–” Santana said.

A second abscess erupted in the middle of White’s forehead. Santana glanced at the door, then White’s weapon. He pried at White’s fingers but the stubby digits may as well have been set in concrete. “Come on, goddammit.”

Several more roving abscesses raced from White’s skull and disappeared into the side of his neck. Santana stood hastily from the writing mess and drove the heavy heel of his shoe into White’s wrist. On the third stomp, bone snapped and White’s ghostly fingers snapped open. Santana snatched up the knife and then retreated to his dropped torch. White’s body twitched. Santana’s eyes all but burst as White pushed his way back to his feet. Abscesses at his face and arms ruptured to the grotesque sound of sucking mud, spilling an oily green mucus onto the ground.

“Nope. Nope. Not happening,” Santana said. He scooped up the torch and held it towards White’s shambling corpse as though it were a sword. White advanced, feet shuffling, moaning. His neck rippled as though something were trying to claw its way free. There was a tearing sound–

“To hell with this.” Santana flung the torch at White’s bloated feet. The fire roared as it surged up White’s pants, greedily consuming his rotten torso in seconds. A high-pitched death wail came from the unseen terror dying within White’s throat. Charred skin peeled back over burning flesh until finally White collapsed in pile of burning rot.

“Impressive. Most people forget about the torch.”

Heart still pounding, Santana spun to the voice, knife at the ready. His jaw slackened when he located the source of the heavy French accent. “I saw you die.”

LaSalle smiled, flashing a mouth full of gleaming, oversized porcelain. He stroked the length of the arrow spearing his throat. “Oh this?” he said, casually pulling the arrow free. “Not to worry. I’ve had worse..”

The sandy floor crunched as Santana subtly shifted to a more defensive stance. “Last time? What are you talking about, last time? This temple, this whole damn island isn’t even supposed to exist.”

LaSalle’s laugh echoed through the chamber. The well-dressed man adjusted his tie, cinching it tightly in place. “And yet here we both are.” His voice dropped to a mock whisper as he regarded the stone columns. He shielded his mouth with the back of his hand. “I’ll let you in on a little secret… they’ve been bringing people here for years.”

“Who?” Santana replied. His hand instinctively reached to the back of his waist where the Glock should have been.

“You know, I’ve never actually met one of them in person. One of the Others, that is. They come in my dreams. They let me know when they hunger. They tell me which plane to get on and before I know– boom! Here I am again.”

Sweat trickled down Santana’s temple. “Those eyeless fuckers outside? The ugly bastard with the mutilated arm? How the Hell could they bring a plane down?”

Again LaSalle laughed. “No, no, no. Of course not. They’re just the sorry shits who lived here when the Others first arrived.” LaSalle closed his eyes and tilted his head back as though he were basking in the glow of a tropical sun. “They can do things you couldn’t dream of.”

“Like crash planes full of innocent people? And then you do what? Make sure any survivors find their way here? That seems like a really stupid method to secure dinner. What if no one survived the crash?”

“Christ be merciful, they were right. Humans are dense. They know who will survive. The Others aren’t after meat. Hell, they’re not even after our blood despite the centuries of urban legends about bloodthirsty monsters creeping in the shadows,” LaSalle replied, wiggling his fingers as though he were telling a ghost story.

“What then? Can’t be our brain power according to you.” Santana’s hand balled into a fist around the survival knife as the Marine advanced. “What else is there?”

LaSalle snapped his fingers and pointed excitedly at Santana. “Ah, there it is. The Others thrive on consuming the urge for conflict in other beings. That part of the soul that consumes the warrior’s heart when battle is near. The Others drink it up like fine wine. It’s powerful stuff, believe me I know. It’s extended my own lifetime decades beyond what it should have been. It stretches theirs into immortality. They can sense that spirit in certain humans. They use me as an anchor that they may draw them in.” The dark-skinned man paused a moment before continuing. “But there is a price to be paid.”

“A price of what?” Santana asked, barely controlling the rising fury in his voice.

“Why blood for life of course.” LaSalle said, smirking.

Santana assumed a fighting stance. “I’ll see that I get plenty of yours then. Melody’s blood, the blood of the whole flight and God knows how many others, is on your hands. And I’m going to make sure you understand that as you die, you son of a bitch.”

“Ah, my dear Captain Santana, I won’t be doing any fighting today.” LaSalle nodded to an entry way at the chamber’s far side. Mako emerged from the shadowed entrance, striding forward, chest puffed out. Thick, dark blood dripped from the teeth protruding from the length of shark jaw spearing his arm. The bullet wounds at his chest had healed and shrunken to minor scars.

“Sure. Why not? I figured something like this would happen,” Santana said, shrugging his shoulders loose.

LaSalle stepped aside, freeing the floor for the combatants. “The rules are simple, captain. You both fight. One of you dies. The other lives if he survives his injuries. But I want to be clear on a single, most important point: The Others are watching. If they feel as though you’ve not fought to your fullest, they will simply force you to repeat the ordeal.” LaSalle looked down his thin nose for emphasis. “From the plane crash onward.”

Santana considered the entrance to his rear but something told him there was little point in retreating. Nothing about this strange island made any sense. It was as if he were living a nightmare for someone’s viewing pleasure. In that moment, Santana decided to give them their money’s worth.

Mako moved to the center of the space framed by the quartet of runic columns. In the brazier light, blood from the shark’s jaw molded through his arm spattered onto the floor. His lips curled into something resembling a ghoulish smile.

The sight of the demon chilled Santana’s blood. A shiver climbed his spine as though Lady Death herself had softly blown on his skin. He gave up an easy sixty pounds and at least two feet of reach. To win meant getting in close. And striking with brutal efficiency. He would let the beast come to him and then carve out his heart.

Mako circled left, then, with a burst of speed alien to most beings his size, slashed his arm at Santana’s throat. The Marine was well-prepared. Santana ducked the blow and thrust the knife at what should have been a soft spot between Mako’s ribs. The knife deflected harmlessly, nearly throwing Santana off balance. Mako hardly seemed to notice the scratch.

“What the Hell are you?” Santana shouted at Mako. LaSalle’s disembodied voice answered.

“He is the instrument of the Others’ will. Nothing more. Persevere, my good captain, and I assure you you will emerge victorious.”

Santana barely heard LaSalle’s cryptic reply. Instead he changed tactics. He rushed Mako, feinted another slash at his belly, and then sliced at the demon’s eyes. The blade bit into the soft flesh. His roar echoed through the chamber and the knife came away sheathed in blood.

“So you do bleed. Good to know,” Santana said, smiling. He advanced again, dodging a furious backhand and then a savage overhead slash, before cutting into the thick muscles and tendons behind Mako’s left knee. The demon staggered to one knee with a howl. Santana moved in for the kill, but Mako’s deadly arm sliced across the Marine’s abdomen. Santana cried out and teetered backwards. He pressed his free hand to the stinging gash stretching across his stomach as the demon fell.

Santana held his bloodied hand in front of his face. It blurred around the edges, then seemed to separate into three images. An invisible hand squeezed his throat. It took a moment to cut through the panic, but eventually he understood. Poison. The knife clattered on the floor as he clutched at his constricting windpipe.

The room spun and Santana’s legs felt like rubber. The braziers’ light muddied into rings of filthy yellow that raced through his vision like warped halos. He pressed his fists into his eyes.

A man’s voice, heavy with sorrow, whispered. “You left me there. How could you just leave me?”

Santana stumbled, nearly toppling into one of the reflecting pools at the base of a column. “No. It can’t… You can’t… be here. You’re dead.”

When Santana finally pulled his hands away, stinging tears burned his eyes. But he saw him clear as day. Lawson stood not more than five feet away. Still burning. The spectre’s skin was a grotesque mixture of mottled and singed. Its voice deepened into the accusatory as a furious finger was raised. “You sorry piece of shit. You said you would always have my back.”

“This isn’t real,” Santana muttered. Lawson’s once strong features were gone, melted away by the blast of the anti-aircraft missile that tore his UH-1Y Venom from the sky. Lawson had been the only crew member not able to rescued from the wreckage before the auxiliary tank had ruptured.

“You left me in the fire! You left me to burn!”

A chorus of moans rose into a hellish symphony of screams. The acrid scent of the helicopter’s burning bones poured a bitter taste into Santana’s mouth. He jammed his hands over his ears like a child who refused to hear his parents. He shouted at the top of his lungs. “You’re not real!”

The chamber went suddenly still. The ghost of Santana’s deceased crew member and the collage of horrible details of that fateful memory had vanished. Santana’s heart pounded and his lungs ached for breath. Mako’s heavy breathing hissed at Santana’s back, his shadow falling on the Marine like a storm cloud. Santana spun on a heel and drove the survival knife deep into the soft flesh beneath the creature’s jaw, burying it to the hilt. Mako gurgled oily blood through the corners of his sealed mouth, teetered as he clutched at the blade and fell face first into a reflecting pool. His lifeblood stained the pool, clouding the fire-lighted water.

A flash of emerald surged at the center of the four columns, then arced into the quartet like lightning. Applause came from nowhere. “Nicely done, Captain. It has been years, decades probably, since a Mako was felled. You have earned the appreciation and gratitude of the Others. You may rest assured that they will be slumbering easy for some time and that your services will not be required again in the immediate future.”

Santana spun in the chamber, panning for LaSalle. “What do you mean immediate future? You said if I survived than I was free.”

LaSalle’s haunting laugh echoed through the chamber. “My dear, dear captain. I said that if you survived than you would live. We made no such deal regarding your freedom.”

Nausea welled in the pit of Santana’s stomach. He squeezed his hands into fists, ready and willing to pound LaSalle’s skull into sand. “Why don’t you come out so we can make a new deal.”

“Ah, but I’ve already told you captain. I won’t be doing any fighting today,” LaSalle replied.

Pain flared through Santana’s left arm, starting at the fingertips and scorching its way through his elbow. He screamed in agony as inch by inch the layers of skin and meat and bone crumbled to ash and fell away. He fell to his knees, cradling the grievous wound, only vaguely aware of the sound of footsteps behind him.

Several of the hunters entered the chamber and pulled Mako reverently from the reflecting pool. They rolled the creature onto his back and quickly set about preparing the body for the ritual burial. Santana turned and watched in horror as one of the hunters ran a crude stone knife through Mako’s mutilated arm, freeing the shark’s jaw. The eyeless man held the severed limb over his head like a prized trophy. He regarded Santana with a nod.

Realization crushed the breath from Santana’s lungs as the hunters circled him. A pair of muscular brutes held him down while the man with the jawbone impaled the flesh of Santana’s stump with his replacement arm. The Marine struggled against his captors, hurling curses and screaming in anger and pain as the weaponized limb was attached.

A tiny spark of euphoria took hold. Santana thought at first he was going into shock. He fought to block out the searing pain in his arm and keep track of his mind. His name. His home. His final flight. Minutes later the details suddenly seemed less important and he felt the memories floating away. He had a new mission now.

Santana didn’t even flinch as the hunter took the stone knife to his eyes.

Credit: Ghost of Seven Echoes

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