Malgam

November 12, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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There are things in the dark and ancient corners of this world that nature should never have allowed to exist. In spite of the decay of millennia they live on, the last remnants of the world that should have been forgotten. There was much that I sacrificed to learn that firsthand. Every day for the last ten years I wish that I had never heard the word. All I can do now is try to keep others from having that same regret.

I was studying ancient archeological sites in Egypt at the time, trying desperately to make a name for myself by making some important discovery. After two years of digging through the sand with nothing to show for it, I became somewhat reckless. I had several instances of ‘differences in philosophy’ with our dig leader that found me working alone from that point on.

Now unrestricted, I used every resource at my disposal to dig into the darker corners of Egypt. I bought several relics off the black market and paid a great sum of money to dealers in the back alleys of Cairo in this pursuit, but I finally found something worth finding. It was evidence of a cult that seemed to predate Egyptian mythology. It did not appear often, but it was always accompanied by a picture of four skulls in a diamond pattern; a picture that seemed very different from any previously seen Egyptian art. I enjoyed a modest celebrity status for bringing this cult to the attention of the academic community, but I had much higher aspirations.

At least two sets of hieroglyphs mentioned something about a tomb in the desert. This place was talked about with such reverence that it had to be the center of this cult. One set included a word that translated as ‘Malgam’. I thought that this was surely the name of the site or perhaps even the name of the cult itself. I put out a bounty on any piece of information that could lead me to this tomb. It was only three days before I received a call that directed me to a newly opened tomb outside of the Siwa Oasis. My contacts said they would make sure I was the first researcher to enter the tomb.

As I entered the ancient structure, there were two things that stood out. Firstly, that it was a very large space, denoting that a very important person had been entombed there. Secondly, the room had been completely looted. I thought that my contact had cheated me until I saw that one thing remained. On a pedestal against the far wall, there was a single tablet. As I approached, I knew it was exactly what I was looking for. In bold relief at the very top of the tablet was the emblem of the four skulls. Below it was the word: Malgam. Whatever looters had ransacked the tomb had not thought it was valuable enough to take. Or perhaps they were afraid of it. I took several pictures of the tablet and then smashed it. No one was going to know about it but me. It told me the exact location of the tomb. It was dead in the center of the Libyan Sahara.
It took me a few weeks to gather supplies and hire a guide willing to go that deep into the desert. The journey went more smoothly than I had any right to anticipate. A day away from the tomb’s location we met a Bedouin caravan. Taking a chance, I asked them about ancient myths. They laughed and told me all sorts of mad rumors and legends. They talked about gods, demons, sand monsters, sea monsters, and ancient cities like Lasaria, Holm, and Zatan’nataz. But I noticed that in all of these stories, they never mentioned the tomb I knew was so close at hand. I finally just asked about it. The laughing and storytelling stopped instantly. After a lengthy silence, I heard a voice from behind me say the word I had wanted to hear. I turned to see an old man staring at me. He told me that it was a place of sorrow and death; a mistake of the ancient world. The Bedouin went no closer to it than we were now. I told him I would not be dissuaded. He believed me. Before we set off the next day, he tried to warn me one more time.

“The ancient places of this world have spirits,” the old man said. “Some are benevolent. Others are not. You will feel which one lays beneath the desert tomb.”

My guide and I reached the rock formation the tablet had spoken of late the next evening. It looked like a landslide at the foot of a large cliff face, but I knew there was an entrance beneath it. My assistant and I began to clear the rocks away as the sun set over the horizon. Half an hour after nightfall, the entrance to the tomb laid exposed: a six foot high tunnel leading down into the abyss. We made camp and planned to enter the tomb the following morning. That would have happened, except that late that night, probably around midnight, I awoke to a sound emanating from the tunnel.

I quickly got up and ran to the tunnel. The sound of crumbling stone came from below me. At that moment, I was terrified that shifting the rocks at the entrance had caused some form of collapse inside the tomb. Without waking my guide, I grabbed a flashlight and headed for the entrance, if only to see what damage had been done by our clumsy excavation. It would have been better if the tunnel actually had collapsed.

As I approached the entrance, I no longer heard the sound of shifting rocks. Every moment seemed like an hour as I sat and waited for what might as well be my dreams crumbling. I don’t know how long I stood there, but I finally decided it must have been a single rock or perhaps my imagination. As I turned to head back to camp, I heard another sound, more subtle than the first. It was the sound of the wind. I almost ignored it, but then I realized that the wind was at my back. It was coming from the tunnel. I spun around and shined my light onto the entrance. I walked very slowly back towards it, until I was absolutely sure about the wind’s source. I remember wondering whether I should wait until morning or if I should wake my assistant. None of those thoughts won out. I could almost hear the wind from the tomb whispering to me, calling me to find it. I could not bear to decline that invitation.

The passageway descended at a gentle slope into the earth. The ground was littered with rocks and debris, forcing me to move slowly. I had been moving down the tunnel for about ten minutes when the ceiling abruptly rose above me, opening into a large chamber. I shone my light above me, trying to determine the size of the chamber. The ceiling rose at least 30 feet into the rock above. As I looked up, my foot struck something on the ground in front of me that felt like metal. I moved the light down and saw a ruined chandelier at my feet. It appeared to be wrought iron made to look like a mass of conjoined bones. A number of skulls along the circumference had cavities for burning substances. I could still smell a trace of whatever rank oil had once burned in them.

Carefully stepping around the ancient fixture, my gaze came to rest on the wall opposite the entrance. A plainly carved doorway opened into the next room. On all sides of the door was writing etched into the stone. Although it was not aesthetically impressive, I was awestruck by what it implied. The carvings said what I assume was the same phrase in varied languages and scripts. In that moment I felt as though the Rosetta Stone paled in comparison with what I had found. Among the writing I counted Egyptian hieroglyphics, ancient Greek, Sanskrit, Chinese characters, classical Latin, and even some form of cuneiform! The only ones I could decipher were the Egyptian and the Latin. They stated, and I presume the rest did as well, that ‘they live eternally’. Upon closer inspection, I noticed something that sent a chill down my spine. Someone had scrawled out the ‘live’ in the Latin text and replaced it with ‘patiantur’. They suffer eternally.

I scanned the room carefully for what might have made the noise I had heard above ground. The layers of dust on the chandelier implied that it was not the culprit and I could see no substantial debris on the ground. I thought briefly about turning back, but the tomb breeze still whispered to me, calling me deeper into the darkness. I walked through the doorway and into a forgotten age.

I’m not sure how the room was lit, but it was. The closest I can come to comprehending it is moonlight being reflected through the ceiling. After the fact, I found that odd seeing as I remember there being no moon that night. The light, however, was the farthest thing from my mind at that moment.

In front of me laid a panorama of an ancient world. The opposite wall was concave and completely covered in a vast work composed of silver and black onyx, every bit of it shining in the dim light. After the initial awe at the work faded, I realized that the wall was in fact a vast map. I knew this only because of the coastlines because the map itself did not represent cities of any kind that I knew. There were rivers and forests depicted where none had existed for several thousand years at least. Strange symbols covered much of the wall, as well as many depictions of creatures I had no recollection of in history or mythology. And, of course, at the exact point where I stood on the map was the emblem of the four skulls. I walked forward to inspect the work more closely, stepping around a ruined pedestal in the center of the room. I was an inch from placing a hand on one of the emblems when I noticed that it appeared to be tarnished. Turning my flashlight towards the wall, I realized that it was not tarnished. It was stained red. Looking at the rest of the map, I saw that a full two thirds of the symbols had similar residue. The anxiety I had felt was replaced by dread. I ripped my eyes away from the map and scanned the rest of the room at last. There was nothing else except for the stone pedestal in the center of the room and a door at the side leading deeper into the crypt. I wanted to go through the doorway back to the entrance. I wanted nothing more. But the voice in the wind came to me again.

I left the light of the map room and entered the new passage. I had been walking for barely a minute when I came upon two alcoves to either side of me. Turning my light into them, I finally found the first graves. But something was severely wrong with them. The coffins were thick stone carved from the very rock beneath them. At one point, heavy stone lids had laid on top of the graves. Those lids had been thrown off and were lying on the ground beside them, one in several pieces. Investigating the intact lid, I found a large sun design crafted out of black onyx embedded into the stone. I paused for a long while before turning my light to the inside of the open tomb. I finally took a deep breath and looked inside. There was no body. In its place was a large reddish-brown crust that reminded me immediately of the stains on the map. Whoever had been placed in this tomb had still been bleeding. I made my way across the corridor to the other alcove. I picked up a piece of the shattered lid and saw that it had a design of waves made out of sapphire. Flipping the piece of stone over, I saw what could only be half of a bloody handprint on the underside of the lid. I dropped the shard to the ground, where it shattered in two. As I looked at the floor I saw something else. There were marks on the floor. Drag marks. They led from the stone coffin to the corridor and beyond. I didn’t want to follow those scars in the stone, but I had no choice.

As I walked through that ruined necropolis I passed grave after grave, hoping that at long last I would finally find my reason for being here. Scientific curiosity had left me long ago. Academic and financial reward had no meaning to me anymore. I just wanted the whispering to stop. I wanted the wind to stop blowing. And then I came to it; the last doorway, where all the marks on the ground led. It was a large stone archway with no decoration, save for a single word hewn into the keystone. I don’t believe I need to tell you what that word was.

I stepped through the door and came to the final chamber. I knew as soon as I entered that this was what it was all for. All the stone, silver, and blood were for whatever was in this room. The floor continued for twenty feet in front of me before ending at the edge of a massive pit. I cannot say how wide or how deep it was, but I will say that in that darkness, it seemed to have no end. Time stood still as I stared at its edge, waiting for some purpose to reveal itself without having to look into the depths. The breeze that had taunted me for so long took on an acrid, putrid stench as it emanated from the pit. It was almost like my feet moved by themselves to the very edge. I did the only thing that I could to bring this night to an end. I raised my light and directed it into the abyss.

I saw four skulls in the dim light. Four normal human skulls facing up out of the darkness. I almost breathed a sigh of relief. Then the wind stopped blowing. Whatever magic the voices in the wind had worked on me dissipated. I was a moment away from turning and running when the skulls began to move. More skulls came into view beside the four. As they shifted in the darkness, the light revealed more than I could count. I swung the light away from the pit, but as the light moved, the eyes began to glow with their own. I gazed down at dozens of sockets glaring at me with a dull blue light.

I felt the entire tomb shake. A cacophony of clattering bone came from the abyss as I stumbled backwards, my legs no longer seeming to function. As the rattling bones became louder, a colossal hand reached up and clung to the edge of the pit. Its fingers were arm bones bending at more joints than I wanted to count. There were eight digits, each ending with a skeletal human hand grasping sightlessly at the rock beneath its tip. As I watched in horror, another hand gripped the edge. The rattling was deafening as the creature pulled itself out of its lair. Before the mass of watching skulls could break the surface, another arm, stretching impossibly long, reached out of the pit towards me, impacting only feet away. I fell to the ground in shock, landing a foot from the mass of skeletal hands. The arm behind it was a ramshackle nightmare of femurs and spines with ribs jutting like spikes. I climbed to my feet and ran before I had to see the eyes once more.

The graves flashed by me as I ran. Now I knew exactly where the bodies had gone. I knew what they had been fed to. This was no tomb. This was no holy place. This was a pit of sacrifice for madmen worshipping a monstrosity. I saw the light of the map room ahead of me. Surely the thing could not make it through the corridors beyond its pit. I was at the graves nearest the map room when it happened. I felt my arm grabbed from behind and I fell sideways into an alcove, slamming into the stone coffin within. I looked up frantically, trying to see what had grabbed me. I saw only crypt air behind me. I began to get up when I felt it; my arm being pulled of its own accord. No, not my arm…the bones. The next pull sent me sprawling onto my stomach. Pain began to wrack my hand as the bones inside attempted to burst through the skin and tendon. I was slowly being dragged back to the pit. I looked around in a panic and saw the piece of stone lid I had broken earlier. The shattered edge looked sharp. I grabbed it. I used it. It took six strikes, but I was freed of its grasp. I turned and ran. I ran through the map room, through the room that promised they would live eternally, and, finally, through the tunnel that led to the surface.

My guide awoke ten minutes before sunrise to the sound of me screaming and trying to roll rocks back onto the entrance to the tomb with one hand and a bloody stump. I don’t remember much of the next week, but thanks to my guide and the Bedouins we had met the day before, I made it back to civilization in time for treatment. I asked my guide how he managed to find them and he answered me that he did not. The old man that had warned me away from the tomb before had convinced them to follow us in case we required aid. He was miles away when I finally regained my senses. I never had the chance to thank him.

I paid dearly to learn a lesson that day. To learn that there are indeed spirits in ancient places and that they are best left alone. That lesson cost me my hand. Although I cannot truly say that I lost it. I know exactly where it is. I still feel it. I feel the decay in the air, the wind of the crypt, and the rattle of countless bones. My hand will live eternally; it will suffer eternally; attached to the arm of the Malgam.

Credit: Alex Taylor

The Blaganschlor

October 7, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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This pasta was the second place winner of our Ghost Stories Creepypasta Writing Challenge. Congratulations!

The first place winner will go live tomorrow. You can read the third place story here.

“Have you seen the Blaganschlor
Hung by rope composed of gore
Who says his name and nothing more
His true name lost in days of yore?
At the gray and barren meadow
Where ancient rivers used to flow
The dying light of summer’s glow
Will call him from the dark below.

Those are the first two stanzas of ‘The Blaganschlor’,” said Susan Ferris. “They describe Arbormill’s most famous ghost and how to find him. Supposedly, if you go into the gray meadow in the woods east of town on the hottest day of the year, you will see the Blaganschlor at sunset. It appears as a man being strangled by his own intestines. His name comes from the stories that the only sounds he can make while being strangled sound like blagh and schloooor.” Susan attempted to get a laugh from the class in front of her by mimicking the rough zombie-like sounds. It didn’t work. Most of the people in Mr. Edwards’ class looked bored, including Mr. Edwards.

“No one knows who he was or why he haunts the woods, but local tradition states that if you see the Blaganschlor and survive, you get to write a new stanza for the poem describing your encounter. The entire poem is kept at the public library. To date, at least four people have never come back from their hunt for the Blaganschlor, but it’s widely assumed that they just wanted to get out of Arbormill.” That one got a couple of laughs. She was about to conclude the report when the bell rung, signaling the end of the day and the school year. The majority of the class jumped out of their seats and sprinted for the hallway. Susan grabbed her books off of her desk and was about to head for the hallway when Edwards cleared his throat and beckoned her over to him. Susan tried not to groan too loudly.

“Well,” asked Susan, putting on a fake smile. “What did you think?” Edwards’ expression made the answer relatively obvious.

“For starters, I think you half-assed that presentation the same way you’ve been half-assing this class all year.”

“And what makes you think that?” asked Susan, in a tone of disbelief that didn’t seem entirely genuine.

“Susan, this assignment might seem easy, but it’s supposed to sum up the class,” said Edwards. “I ask kids to go out and write about a local ghost story. This is Arbormill. We have about ten thousand of them. I always hope that kids will bring in something close to home, personal even. I like students knowing that the history around them affects them.”

“And I totally understand that,” said Susan. “Can I go now?” She took a step towards the door. Edwards kept talking.

“You picked the Blaganschlor,” he said. “It’s an old story that everyone in town over the age of five knows. You didn’t say anything that the kids in here haven’t heard. It wasn’t anything personal; you just picked something you didn’t have to do work for.”

“I know at least two of the other students made up their stories completely,” said Susan.

“At least they put in the effort,” said Edwards. “Spoken like a true Ferris, though. Blame everybody else.” Susan winced. Her family was not held in the highest regard in Arbormill. ‘Not a one worth a damn’ the older residents would say.

“Yeah,” said Susan. “So what? It’s not like this class matters. This is just the easiest elective I could take this year. ‘Local History’ is not a class that’s going to go on my college resume.” Edwards leaned back in his chair and smirked briefly.

“Probably not,” he said. “But getting an ‘F’ in such a worthless class would look pretty bad on a transcript.”

“You can’t fail me,” said Susan. She crossed her arms and stood straighter, trying to be intimidating. Edwards wasn’t buying it.

“Final grades go out in a week,” he said, smiling. “If you don’t make this up in that time, I most certainly can.” Susan’s demeanor changed abruptly. She brushed her hair back and leaned towards her teacher.

“You’re sure you we can’t just move past this?” she asked, smiling innocently. Edwards rolled his eyes.

“I’ve been teaching a long time, Miss Ferris. Don’t even try.” Susan reverted back to being pissed off instantly.

“So what the hell do you want then??”

“You’re going to redo this report on the Blaganschlor.” Susan raised an eyebrow.

“I thought you said you didn’t like me doing the Blaganschlor.”

“I have a challenge for you,” said Edwards. “If you can bring me five facts about the Blaganschlor that I’ve never heard, I’ll give you your ‘A’.”

“That is BS!” said Susan. “Everybody already knows everything about that stupid ghost!”

“You’ve got six days, Miss Ferris,” said Edwards. “The public library closes at 7:30, so I suggest you get down there while you can.” Susan started to protest, but stopped herself short. She started to storm out of the room, but Edwards spoke up again, this time in a softer tone. “I’m sorry about the family remark, Susan. But you’re the only Ferris I can remember that might actually do something with their life. I want you to appreciate that.” Susan didn’t reply as she left the room. She thought again about changing her name.

An hour later, Susan Ferris found herself in the Arbormill Public Library. She had contemplated asking the librarian for help, but the glare she had gotten when she walked in had soured her on that plan. Susan thought that if she didn’t know better, she’d think the librarian preferred being the only one in the building. God knew there wasn’t anyone else in there.

As Susan approached the large shelf labeled ‘Local Legends’ near the back of the library, Susan saw the framed Blaganschlor poem on the wall. Twenty two verses of made up stories. For as many ghost stories as Arbormill had, Susan had never believed in any of them. She usually assumed it was for the tourists that came to see the most haunted town in the Midwest. It was possibly the most interesting thing in Iowa besides corn. Quickly scanning the poem, she saw the final four lines were by Chris Sanders, who had gone out to the woods on a dare after graduating last year.

Out in the woods I saw the ghost
It looked really gross
It went back in the trees
Because it didn’t want to mess with me

Chris wasn’t the best poet in the world. Susan turned her attention to the shelf full of books. There were dozens of books that might have information on the Blaganschlor. She decided to start with one titled ‘Legends of Arbormill’. It was the newest book, written by some lady named Laura Smoldt. Susan vaguely remembered her going around town last year dragging up every little story she could. She opened up the book and quickly found the entry about the Blaganschlor. It said pretty much everything she’d said in her presentation with one added detail. It said the last person said to be taken by the ghost was John Tracy, who disappeared on June 21st of 2013. Susan only knew him from vague rumors around town. From all accounts, he was a drugged up freeloader. The story went that he was bet a large sum of money to stay out in the woods all night. When he disappeared, the general consensus was that he’d taken the money and gotten out of town.

Susan looked through three more books with little to show for it other than a doodle of a stick figure Blaganschlor she had begun drawing on one of the tables. The fifth book she grabbed was titled ‘Ghosts of the Heartland’ and was from 1991. The Blaganschlor was one of three ghosts from Arbormill detailed in the book. She scanned the article, not hoping for much, when something she saw sent a chill down her spine. It talked about the three people that disappeared before Tracy. It said they had vanished in 1910, 1949, and the last was a man named Jeff Olson on June 21st of 1980.

Susan knew she had found something that no one else knew. 33 years apart, people had vanished in the woods on the exact same date. And now she knew the years of the other two’s disappearances. Susan began ripping books off the shelves, flipping through the pages and stuffing them back on if they didn’t have any dates in the entry. Two hours later, at 6:30, she was amazed to realize she had been through the entire shelf of books without finding another clue. Susan collapsed into a nearby chair in disbelief. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the poem on the wall. It almost felt like it was taunting her. She was about ready to go smash the frame when an idea occurred to her. She sprang to her feet and made her way across the library, hurrying past the librarian’s desk, to find herself at the newspaper archive.

The entire section was filled with massive binders with old copies of the Arbormill Post stored in plastic sleeves. A sign on the wall informed her that she was not allowed to take the binders out of the library. Scanning the older section of binders, she found the collection from 1949. She laid it on a table and began flipping through the sleeves of yellowed pages. She paused at June 21st, hoping she was wrong and right at the same time. Flipping the page, she saw what she had expected.

On June 22nd of 1949, Matt Slater was reported missing. The article was very brief and set in the bottom right corner of the page. All it said was his parents’ names, his age, and that he was last seen heading into the woods. Susan slammed the binder shut and went back to see if the papers went all the way back to 1910.

“Yes!” she screamed, as she saw the year she was looking for.

“Quiet!” came the reply from the front desk.

She didn’t pause as she flipped through the pages this time. Susan knew what she was going to find. Brenda Baker had disappeared into the woods on June 21st of 1910. The article was much more informative, but also very strange.

“Some say that the disappearance is the work of the ghost dubbed the Blaganschlor, first sighted nine years ago in the Malone Woods,” read Susan. She had never heard the woods called the Malone Woods. Nowadays they were just the east woods. “Thought to have something to do with certain events taking place in 1890, the ghost is rarely seen due to the shunned nature of the forest. A reward will be given for any information regarding the disappearance. Residents are advised to avoid Malone Woods in the meantime.”

Susan sat down and stared at the page. Something happened in 1890 that had made the town shun the forest for 19 years. Something that the writer would not even give a name to. Something that had been covered up.

Susan felt anxious as she walked towards the oldest section of the archive. When she found the binder labeled ‘1890’, she had the urge to flee the room and take the F. Something drove her on, however. It was a notion that had finally taken hold that there was something out there in the woods. She was a believer for the first time ever.

Susan slowly turned the pages of the binder, not knowing exactly what she was going to find. Everything was normal for the first few months. Around the beginning of May a drought had set in on the county. That was all the Post talked about for weeks. On June 17th of 1890, everything changed.

The headline read ‘A Butcher Among Us’. It detailed the police discovering the body of a young woman that had been strangled and mutilated. Two days later, another girl was found dead. The exact method they were killed by was absent from the article, but the second mentioned massive wounds to the torso. One day after the second body was found, a young man was found dead with similar wounds. As Susan turned the page, she expected the string of bodies to continue. However, the next page’s headline was a different kind of frightening. Massive plumes of smoke were seen early in the morning over the woods east of Arbormill. With the severe drought, it was a possibility that the entire forest and town with it might go up in flames. Susan quickly flipped to the next page to see how they stopped the fire. It turned out that they didn’t. A massive rainstorm moved in overnight and drowned the flames. It had been the first rain in two months. When Susan read the first paragraph of the story from June 22nd, she knew that page was what she had been waiting for. Looking at her watch, she knew the librarian would be kicking her out shortly. She needed to look this over carefully and she needed it that night. Keeping one eye on the doorway, Susan opened the latch on the binder and took out the page. Seeing more of the same story in the next day’s edition, she took that one out as well. She could hear the librarian getting up from her chair and she rolled up the pages and stuffed them into her book bag. A moment later, she was smiling innocently at the librarian as she yelled at Susan to get out.

Later, in her room, Susan pulled out the pages and unrolled them on her bed. Rolling them up had damaged them a bit, but they was still legible. It detailed the events of the day, beginning with the pillar of smoke mysteriously disappearing. When police and firemen entered the woods they found three things. First, a large area of the forest had been reduced to ash. The burned woods were at the intersection of two dry riverbeds. Secondly, they found two dead bodies burned down to the bone. Lastly, they found a young woman in hysterics a short ways outside the burned area. After they got her calmed down a bit, she claimed that one man had kidnapped her and was going to kill her out in the woods. The other man had witnessed the kidnapping, followed them and saved her. She was unaware of how the fire started. The two bodies were identified soon after. The kidnapper’s name was Silas Malone, a man that had moved back to Arbormill after spending most of his life in the deep south. The picture of the man in the paper was unnerving. He had pale, staring eyes, a scar across one cheek, and part of an ear missing. The man who had stopped his was identified as Daniel Ferris. Susan stopped reading and just stared at the page as her family’s name stared back at her. She didn’t recognize the picture next to the name, but even in the black and white, she could tell that Daniel had the bright green eyes that were so common in her family.

She quickly turned to the paper from June 23rd. The police conducted a search of Malone’s property in the woods and found a charnel house. Several parts missing from the three human victims were found, as well as a number of dead animals. As far as they could tell, the oldest parts were from at least a month prior, the same time that Malone cut himself off from what few friends and family members he had. Reports said that he had become obsessed with the idea of mortality. After all was said and done, Daniel Ferris was a hero. Malone’s estranged family denied any inheritance and gifted all of his assets and property to Ferris’s widow and child.

Susan suspected two things from the reports. First, she knew that the incident had to have been covered up by the town. Malone and Ferris’s names had been stricken from the records. Even the name of the woods had eventually been forgotten. Secondly, she no longer thought the hottest day of summer was a factor. It was the date that it all ended: June 21st, which just happened to be tomorrow. She just had to talk to one person to be sure.

The next day, Susan headed down to the mall at ten to find Chris Sanders, the last person to go out into the woods. She remembered that he had gone out on the 21st because it was the day after school had ended. He came back with a wild story and added his lines to the Blaganschlor poem. She found him almost immediately, hanging out with his buddies outside the main door into the mall. He smiled broadly as Susan approached him.

“Hey there, babe,” said Chris. “Heard Edwards chewed you out good yesterday. Want to tell us how you got out of that one? In graphic detail?”

“Actually, I have a question for you,” said Susan. Chris and his cronies laughed.

“I’m free tonight, if that’s what you want to know,” said Chris with a smirk.

“Good, then you can come out to the east woods with me tonight,” said Susan. “You went out there last year, right?” The blood drained out of Chris’s face as his smirk faltered.

“Of course I did,” he said. “And I saw that stupid ghost. I wasn’t scared at all.” Susan stared him down.

“I know you didn’t go out to the gray meadow, Chris,” said Susan. “Because I know what happened to the people that really did on the 21st. They’re the ones that didn’t come back.” Chris’s face went from pale to gray.

“You’re saying that if I’d actually gone-“

“You’d have done the world a service, Chris. Nice talking to you.” As Susan walked away, she could hear all of his buddies starting to yell at him. She knew what she had to do now. She had to go out to the ashen meadow, where the dry rivers met, and prove all of it once and for all. She’d keep people out of those woods and save her family’s name at the same time.

Everyone said that the burnt meadow was easy to find. You just had to find one of the dry riverbeds running through the woods. Susan arrived at the edge of the woods around 8 o’ clock, with the sun still shining. That gave her about an hour to get to the meadow. She set her phone to go off five minutes before sunset so she could have her camera at the ready. Ten feet away from the tree line, she almost gave up and turned back. She had enough to give Edwards at this point anyways. Then she remembered Daniel Ferris’s eyes. That was her family’s legacy. He was a hero that nobody remembered. She had left a note in her room with everything in it in case she didn’t come back…just like Daniel. Susan stepped into the Malone Woods.

The woods weren’t overly dense, but the oppressive heat still made them seem claustrophobic. There was absolutely no breeze inside the trees. Susan couldn’t see a single branch or leaf moving. She couldn’t hear any birds or animals. It was like time had stopped inside the forest. She could imagine the woods having been exactly the same for a thousand years. Until Silas Malone decided to make them his own.

Susan had been hiking for almost twenty minutes when she finally heard the first noise other than herself. It sounded like footsteps behind her. She quickly spun around, hoping to see an animal of some sort. There was nothing. She waited for a minute, hoping the sound would happen again. It didn’t. She turned and began walking again. As soon as her back was turned, more footsteps echoed through the woods. She spun around again, more quickly this time, hoping to catch someone behind her. Again there was nothing. She walked back the way she had come, checking behind trees as she went. She searched the entire area the sound seemed to come from and could not find the source. Checking her phone again, she saw that she only had half an hour to find the meadow. She began walking very quickly into the woods. And, once again, as her back turned, the footsteps came from behind her. Directly behind her. Within five feet. Susan ran.

As she sprinted through the woods, the footsteps ran with her, never losing or gaining ground. Susan dodged trees left and right, trying to lose her pursuer in the more dense foliage. At one point, the feet behind gained on her and pulled to her right. Susan resisted the desire to look back and darted left, trying to run faster. A stitch in her side told her that she couldn’t keep the pace up much longer. As the trees around her began to blur, a strange thought occurred to her. She felt like she was being steered; directed towards a specific point. As soon as the thought materialized, the ground beneath her feet fell away at an incline. She instantly lost her footing and fell headfirst down the slope. As she fell, she finally looked behind her and saw only trees.

Susan woke up to the sound of her phone’s alarm going off. It was the alarm that meant five minutes until sunset. She sat upright and looked around her. Red light shone through the treetops as the sun began to set. She didn’t have much time. She looked back at the slope she had fallen down. Her eyes followed it down into the woods. Looking behind her, she saw another slope on the other side. Susan realized she had found one of the dead rivers. She rose groggily to her feet, rubbing the sore spot on her head. After a moment’s consideration, she faced the path of the riverbed away from the setting sun and ran as fast as she could.

The sun was still barely over the horizon when she reached the ashen meadow. She climbed up the side of the riverbed and into a large round area directly between the two valleys. It was a patch of gray dirt about 200 feet wide. There were some sickly looking weeds, but the only evidence that anything substantial had ever grown there were two charred tree trunks that were mostly rotted. The fading red light had an ominous effect on the ground. The gray and red combined to make the ground look as though there were fires still burning. Susan was almost grateful when the light finally faded and dusk set in.

Susan wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but it was going to happen on tape. She pulled out her phone and a flashlight and started recording the area around her. So far there wasn’t much to see; just trees and scorched earth. After scanning the trees for five minutes with nothing to show for it, Susan decided to turn off the camera to conserve the battery. She had just put the phone back in her pocket when she heard it from behind her. A low and haunting sound.

Blaaaaaaaagh.

Her blood ran cold. It sounded just like she’d imagined. Words being stifled by a crushed throat. Susan turned her light behind her. Out of the woods came the Blaganschlor. It was exactly as she expected and far, far worse at the same time. It was a vaguely transparent young man that came stumbling out of the trees. Out of a massive hole in his abdomen came a distended mass of entrails that reached up and around his throat. Translucent blood dripped off of every wound and left a shining trail behind him. It was the eyes that she found the worse though. They were two bloodshot masses of pain, suffering, sorrow, and rage.

Susan began to back up slowly, not wanting the thing to reach her. As she studied the phantom, she realized that the ghost was neither Silas Malone nor Daniel Ferris. She actually recognized him as the third body discovered during Malone’s killing spree. Still backing up towards the riverbed, Susan pulled out her phone and tried to get the camera working again. She looked at the screen only to see the words ‘low battery’ before the screen went black.

Schloooooooor.

The new moan came from behind her. Susan turned to see another transparent figure climbing up the embankment. This one was a young man in the same condition as the other figure. From what remained of his clothing, he had to have been from a much more recent time period than 1890. As this revelation came to her, moans came from the woods in every direction. Susan flashed the light all around the meadow and saw six more lurching phantasms coming out of the forest around her. A monstrous chorus of agonized groans filled the air. Susan looked around her for a way out, but the ghosts seemed to be everywhere she looked, pain and rage shining in their eyes.

Susan had almost given up hope when she heard a loud noise in the woods to her right. A figure that was definitely not a ghost leapt out of the woods and motioned for her to follow.

“This way! Hurry!” Susan recognized Chris’s voice. Somehow the asshole had summoned up the courage to come out here. Susan wondered if he wasn’t that bad after all before running to him. The new arrival had thrown the ghosts into disarray. Susan ran by them and into the woods as they were staring at Chris. As she hit the woods, he ran behind her. About a minute into the woods, Susan had to stop and lean against a tree. She doubted the ghosts were quick enough to follow them and all of the running from earlier had taken its toll on her body. She was amazed she was still capable of keeping upright. Chris walked by her and looked deeper into the woods. She shined the light on him as he faced away from her. She still couldn’t believe he’d followed her.

“They probably won’t follow us for long,” he said. “They don’t like straying too far out of the gray meadow.” Even in her exhausted state, there was something about his voice that sounded off to Susan. Chris had no accent, but she noticed a distinct drawl in the last sentence. She looked more closely at the figure in front of her. Susan’s eyes trailed up his body, becoming more concerned with every inch. At last, she saw the side of his head. A piece of the figure’s ear was missing. And she had seen that wound before.

“Silas Malone,” she said in a whisper. The figure in front of her jerked at the sound of the name. There was a long pause, and then the laughter began. It was a loud, hysterical laugh that sounded like he had just heard the funniest joke in the world.

“I haven’t heard that name in so long, missy,” said the figure. Whatever he had done to mimic Chris’s voice was completely gone now. Malone’s voice was low and hoarse. “So we got us a historian here.”

Malone turned and Susan saw the face from the newspaper. The pale blue eyes and the scar stood out on a face that was otherwise blackened by ash. There was a maniacal grin on his face full of jagged, smoke-stained teeth.

“What are you?” she asked, staring in horror. Malone approached her slowly, knowing she wasn’t going anywhere.

“Well, I ain’t no pansy-ass ghost,” said Malone. “That’s for damn sure. I’m what you’d call a revenant, caught between the dead and the living. I’m here for some very specific unfinished business.” He put one hand on the tree above her head and leaned down, his face inches from Susan’s. “So what brings you to these parts talking about ol’ Silas?” She steeled herself and looked him square in his pale eyes.

“I’m Susan Ferris.” Realization dawned on the dead man’s face. There was a hint of rage in his eyes before a wide smile broke onto his face again.

“Well don’t that beat all?” he asked. Malone suddenly grabbed Susan by the throat and threw her to the ground. He began to squeeze. “You’re gonna wish you’d kept that little tidbit of information to your damn self.” He let go of her throat and Susan gulped in a deep breath of air. She felt Malone grab one of her feet and begin to drag her. He was headed back to the meadow.

“Now, I usually like doing my work out here,” said Malone. “I like doing it right when people have that feeling of hope. Right when they think they’re getting out alive. But you, Miss Ferris, you’re going to have an audience. And I hate to inform you, but you’re gonna suffer a lot more than them.”

In her light summer clothes, Susan could feel every rock and twig on the ground scraping against her body. She attempted to kick her leg free of Malone, but his cold hand had a death grip. He wasn’t letting go and she didn’t have the ability to fight.

“You see, little girl, I had an arrangement with certain parties I can’t place a name to. The price for what I wanted was five souls sent downtown. Three were easy. Then your great-great-grand-daddy decided to be a hero and try to save number four. I knew he was following me the entire way. These are my woods, you see.” Susan looked ahead groggily and saw the moonlight in the clearing ahead.

“The dipshit thought he was being sneaky. He hung back a ways and kept lighting matches to see his way. Must have thought they’d be harder to see. So he comes up on my clearing, right? And I’m waving my knife around in front of that girl’s pretty little stomach and he can’t take it. Did exactly what I expected him to and tried to get the drop on me. I’m kind of proud to say that I had him gutted in under thirty seconds. Some hero he was.”

“He still killed you,” said Susan, still clinging onto some semblance of lucidity. Malone dropped her briefly and turned to her with rage in his eyes.

“That dumb son of a bitch couldn’t kill me in a thousand years!” he shouted. “He dropped one of his god damn lit matches on the grass as I was gutting him. It was so damn dry it lit up right under my feet. And what a sick, god damn joke it was. Last thing I felt was the rain hitting my face.” Malone cracked up at that and started to laugh like a maniac again. He grabbed her leg again and continued. “But I got myself a loophole. I was the fifth soul owed, you see. So I get a second chance. I needed five more to add to the pyre.”

Malone dragged Susan out of the tree line and into the ashen meadow again. The full moon had risen and the clearing was fully visible. Susan could count eight ghosts moaning in the darkness, all of them backing away from Malone.

“These dead heads get the whole week to spook people here,” said Malone. “But I get all of one night a year to do my work. Do you realize how many years it has taken for five people to come out here on exactly the 21st of June?” He dropped Susan’s leg and left her rolling on the ground in agony. Her leg felt like it had almost been dislocated and her back was torn up.

“Since 1891?” she asked, barely coherent.

“Oh, you ain’t lying,” said Malone, turning towards her. “And guess what? You’re number five. So I think they all need to see this. You think the summer’s hot up here, little girl? Wait ‘til you feel the heat down below. I can tell you, it feels a lot like burning to death. I’ve done both, you see.”

Susan struggled to get to her feet, but her body didn’t want to cooperate. The night had taken an awful toll.

“And what do you get out of it?” she asked, her eyes meeting Malone’s.

“I wanted to live forever,” he said. “And now I get to do it outside of this sorry little excuse for a forest. Although I might actually miss it, you know? That’s why this all works, you see. Because these are my woods, in life and in death. I control what goes on here.” What he said stirred something in Susan’s mind; something she read in a newspaper.

“No,” she said, rising onto one knee with a great effort. “They’re not.” Malone stared her down.

“What do you mean by that?”

“After you died, your family didn’t want anything you owned,” said Susan. “They gave all of your property to Daniel Ferris’s widow; everything including your land. These woods belong to my family.” Malone began to chuckle. He seemed to be forcing his laugh this time.

“You think anything a damn piece of paper says changes anything?” asked Malone. “These are my woods and my souls.” The transparent figures surrounding Malone took their eyes off of him and looked at each other. Susan gathered every ounce of strength she had left and rose shakily to her feet.

“I say that all of these souls are free,” she said. “And you, Silas? You can go join yours down in Hell.” Malone must have felt a change because he suddenly had a look of panic on his face. He looked at the souls around him. They were looking at each other more urgently now, their moans becoming louder. With a mighty effort, one of the ghosts yanked on the bowels around his neck. They let loose.

“No,” said Malone. “You belong to me. You can’t disobey me! Put that back around your neck!” Another ghost took the intestines from their neck; then another; then another. Malone turned back to Susan with a look of rage and horror. “Let’s see how much power you have here when you’re soul number five!”

Malone pulled a blackened knife from his belt and ran at Susan. She saw the blade seconds away from her. Then, as he began to thrust it into her, something caught his arm. It was a loop of intestine. Malone jerked backwards, caught in the loop. He reached out for Susan with his other arm, but two inches from her face, another loop of entrails ensnared his other hand. They yanked backwards and pulled Malone to his knees. Susan looked around in shock as she saw the ghosts gathering behind him, two of their intestines stretching impossibly long to latch onto Malone. Another stepped forward and its bowels shot forward, snaring Malone around the neck. He began to choke out muffled curses.

“No…she’s…mine.” Malone grabbed the noose around his neck and pulled it away briefly. “SHE IS MIIIIIIIIIIINE!!” After that deafening howl, the snares around him yanked back with a huge force. Malone reached down with a mighty effort and dug into the ground, his fingers leaving a smoldering trail of scorched earth as he slid back towards the vengeful crowd of phantoms. His pale eyes were filled with a fear more visceral than any of the ghosts’. More and more of the ghosts grabbed onto Malone and lifted him into the air in the center of the mob. Susan saw the ground beneath him light on fire. The smell of sulfur filled the air. Before she could see what happened, a ghost walked directly in front of her and looked into her eyes. She recognized the bright green eyes of Daniel Ferris. He raised a hand and wordlessly pointed into the ravine, telling her to go. She could not refuse. As she stumbled through the dead riverbed, she heard an inhuman scream filling the air around her.

“No! I am a myth! I am a legend! I am immort-“ The last word was cut off in a flash. That was the last thing she heard from the ashen meadow.

It was three in the morning when Mr. Edwards was awoken by his doorbell. Thinking it had to be an emergency, he jumped out of bed and ran to the door still in his pajamas. He was shocked when he opened the door and found Susan Ferris, disheveled and exhausted with bloodstains on much of her clothing.

“I’ve got those five things you asked for, Edwards,” she said in the most deadpan voice he’d ever heard. “I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed getting them.” Edwards had no idea what to think.

“What the hell happened?? Who did this to you??” he asked. He opened the door wider, inviting her to come in out of the sweltering night, but she just stood on the doorstep, eyes a million miles away.

“It doesn’t really matter,” she said. “I really just want to give my report and go home.”

“Alright,” said Edwards, grabbing a phone and starting to call for an ambulance. “Go right ahead.”

“The Blaganschlor was first sighted on 1901. That was ten years after a man named Silas Malone killed three people in Arbormill. He would have killed another, but a man named Daniel Ferris stopped him.”

“Jesus,” said Edwards, recognizing her family’s name. He took the phone from his ear as an operator picked up. “What else?”

“You won’t hear any more accounts of people seeing the Blaganschlor. If you do, they’re bullshit.” She paused a moment while she grabbed something out of her pocket. “Lastly, the poem’s finished. I wrote the last four lines myself. Give this to the lady at the library tomorrow morning.” She handed the piece of bloodstained paper to Edwards. He quickly read it and looked back at her.

“What in God’s name happened out there, Susan?” For just a moment her eyes watered, but she quickly wiped them with her hand.

“I already told you five things, Mr. Edwards. I’m going home now. Have a nice summer.” She turned and walked off into the night. Edwards reluctantly hung up the phone and read the verses she had given him one more time.

I too once sought the Blaganschlor,
As many others have before.
I found the barren river’s shore,
The trees, the ash, and nothing more.

Credit: Alex Taylor

Dead Man’s Rights

September 11, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Mr. Cadson had been sitting up at the bar for some time. The lights and the music were both very low, casting a sort of malaise over the entire half-empty room. A group of men in the corner were watching a baseball game on the television on the wall. A few small groups of people murmured among themselves at the tables. Cadson had been staring into several glasses of bourbon for the past two hours, the room around him slowly fading into a dull blur of colors and sounds. The girl tending bar just replaced his glass when it ran dry and the cycle continued. It was around midnight when the stranger approached him.

Cadson turned to see a middle aged man sitting in the stool to the left of him. The man seemed to be the only thing in the room not covered in the haze of inebriation. He didn’t wave to the bartender, nor did the bartender seem to see him. He merely turned and looked directly into Cadson’s eyes. The stranger was nondescript for the most part, except for the eyes. They were bright gold, shining in the dim light. Cadson had never seen anything quite like them. When the man talked, his voice was low and smooth, like a storm in the distance.

“Hello, Mr. Cadson,” said the man. “I’m Death.” Cadson believed him. No amount of liquor led him to that belief. It was more of an instinct, that a man should know Death when it stood before him.

“Pleasure to meet you,” said Cadson, deciding that being polite was the correct option. “Can I buy you a round?” Death laughed. It was a fake laugh, although a very good one. It sounded like someone that has already heard every joke in the world a thousand times, but is still trying to be polite.

“I don’t drink, I’m afraid,” said Death. “I’m just here to tell you that you’ll be throwing in the towel somewhat earlier that you would expect.”

“And why do I get the head’s up?” asked Cadson. He grabbed several nuts out of a bowl in front of him. They had been the only things he’d eaten in half a day. Death leaned up onto the bar, folding his hands under his chin. Death sighed deeply, as if he didn’t want to hear that question.

“Because, Mr. Cadson,” said Death. “I’ve begun doing contract work.”

“Successful guy like you?” asked Cadson. “Didn’t think you’d need the extra cash.” He looked over at Death, only to find the seat empty. He considered for the first time that he was merely hallucinating. Someone to his right coughed lightly. Cadson turned to find an old woman looking at him with the same pair of gold eyes.

“I merely take a small something from the people that require my services,” said the more elderly Death. “Although I can’t say it’s all for that. What do I need with a memory or a sliver of a man’s soul? After sticking to the script for millions of years, it’s mainly about the thrill. And I enjoy the conversation.” Death smiled, showing a mouthful of yellowed dentures.

“You still didn’t really answer the question,” said Cadson. Death stopped smiling quite so broadly.

“Very perceptive for someone on their sixth drink,” said Death. “Which makes this all the more fun.” Death disappeared from the seat. Cadson swung around to find an athletic looking young man to his left. The gold eyes seemed to pierce him even deeper. “A question is an amazing thing, Mr. Cadson. The first thing a mortal does upon being born is wonder. Upon waking up, entering a room, meeting someone, or even looking up into the sky, the first thing you do is wonder. Immortals don’t wonder. They know.” The longing in Death’s voice was half heartbreaking and half terrifying.

“If you’re going off the script, they don’t know, do they?” asked Cadson. His head was beginning to clear, as adrenaline and fear began to sweep away the haze. Death chuckled.

“No, they don’t,” said Death. “And that terrifies them.”

“Who’s ‘them’?”

“That’s something I can’t answer,” said Death. “There are rules, you see. I can do this as long as everyone follows the rules. The rules you have to worry about say that dead men have certain rights. Most come by them naturally, but when I take a more active role, I’m required to tell you those rights. Hence, my presence here.” Death gestured back at the darkened, half-empty bar.

“What rights do I have?” Death vanished again and reappeared as a young boy on the other side of Cadson. The eon-old eyes were much more disturbing on a ten year old face.

“The first is the right of knowledge,” said Death in a high pitched voice. “All men are entitled to know the manner of their death prior to its occurrence.”

“You’re saying everyone knows how they’re going to die?”

“If anyone pays close enough attention to their life,” said Death. “They’ll know. Slow and painful or short and violent, they can all see it coming if they try. I’ve never seen anyone really try though. You though, Mr. Cadson, are going to die choking on one of those peanuts you’ve been eating.” Cadson stopped his hand as he was about to put another nut into his mouth. He placed it back into the bowl and pushed it away. “That won’t change anything, but if it makes you feel better, I suppose.”

“And why do you have to tell me?”

“Rules,” said Death. “If someone isn’t given full rights, shit happens.” Cadson almost laughed hearing the kid version of Death say that, but stifled it. “Which brings us to your second right. The right of choice. There are many, many things that can happen after you die. And people always choose for themselves what happens to them. They don’t even know they’re doing it, but they do it.”

“And I get to choose?” asked Cadson. “Do I get to know what the choices are?”

“Believe me, Mr. Cadson.” The child disappeared. Cadson turned to see a beautiful woman to his left. In fact, she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. He hoped Death would stay that way for a while. “My job would be so much simpler if I could tell people the options. But don’t worry. You’ll choose before you die. Which brings me to your last right, and the main reason I’m here: the right of experience.”

“I’ve got plenty of experience,” said Cadson, taking another swig of bourbon. “Believe me.”

“But not enough,” said Death. The woman’s voice was light and sensual, with a hint of an unknown accent. Cadson tried to keep from looking at Death while it spoke. He worried that he might get distracted. “A mortal’s experiences are why it knows its death and why it makes its choices. Without those experiences, the system falls apart. So I’m here to impart knowledge to make up for what you’re going to lose.”

“We having a Q and A session now?” asked Cadson.

“More or less,” said Death. “Starting now, you will have four questions. I will have to tell you the complete truth about anything you ask, but there are certain things I can’t talk about. If you ask about those, you forfeit one question.”

“And what are those?” asked Cadson. It took him less than a second to realize what he had done. He looked up into Death’s eyes and saw a slight triumph there.

“One question down,” said Death. “Don’t feel bad. They all do that. I had one man that used all four in about ten seconds, so you’re still ahead of the game. In any case, you can’t ask about what happens after you die, anything that will happen in the future, or how to live forever. That’s it.” Cadson realized something that he hadn’t up until this point. This was a game to Death. A game that it very thoroughly enjoyed. That was its payout. “So I assume you’ll be thinking more carefully about the next three.” Death gave him a coy look that would have made any man fall in love. He realized exactly why it had waited until that point to take that form. But any alcohol in his system had been dissolved by pure fear at that point. These were perhaps his final chances to do anything with his pathetic life.

“Who sent you to kill me?” asked Cadson, slowly and deliberately. Death smiled.

“Mr. Holland, your business partner,” said Death. Cadson began to ask ‘why’, but slapped a hand over his mouth before the sound came out. Death laughed.

“You know what?” it asked. “You caught that so well, I’m going to tell you why just for the hell of it. He found those certain files you didn’t want him to. The ones about the offshore accounts and the shady practices. He was most interested in the files you were planning to frame and blackmail him with.” Cadson stared down into his glass, but said nothing. “People don’t actually hire me consciously. It’s more a matter of mindset. How much they want someone dead and how much they’re willing to sacrifice. Mr. Holland, for instance, can no longer remember 1991, the happiest year of his life. That’s the year he got his master’s degree, met his wife, and had the best steak he’d ever eaten. To you it may not seem like much, but trust me, if he knew, he would not have agreed. So what next?”

Several thoughts went through Cadson’s head at that moment. He wondered where his life went wrong. He wondered if there was any chance at all he was getting into any sort of heaven. He wondered if he really had known it was going to end this way.

“I know this is important, Mr. Cadson, but I have places to be.” There was a hint of impatience in Death’s voice that made a single thought arise in Cadson’s head. It was almost like Death was worried. Cadson thought about it a bit more, making sure his question was perfect, and praying that he was right. Death stared in rapt attention as he opened his lips.

“You have places to be. I have rights.”

“Is…that a question?” asked Death, a look of confusion appearing on its face. Hope surged into Cadson.

“Not at all,” he said. “If I don’t ask you the last question and my rights are not fulfilled, that means you can’t kill me early because shit happens. Right?”

Death cocked its head to the side, a calculating expression on its face. Its golden eyes stared right through Cadson as it sat there in thought. Finally, a wide grin spread over Death’s face. It let out the lightest, most wonderful laugh that Cadson had ever heard.

“That is correct, Mr. Cadson,” said Death, leaning in close. “But have you weighed the possibilities? You may be scheduled to die tomorrow. Isn’t there some answer you would be willing to give up one day for? Can you live knowing that you traded away the chance?” Death paused a moment. “And won’t Mr. Holland be very much trouble for you shortly?”

“I’ll deal with it,” said Cadson. He turned away from Death and went back to sipping his bourbon. “Good night, Miss.” Death sighed and got up from the bar stool. It laid one hand on Cadson’s shoulder and lowered its lips to his ear, despite Cadson’s suspicion that no one else could hear it.

“Not many have made it this far into the game, Mr. Cadson. Congratulations. But I want you to know that I always get my man. I’ve gotten every one of them in human history in fact. I’ll see you soon.”

Death smiled once more and walked towards the door. As Cadson watched from the corner of his eye, the figure disappeared halfway across the room. He made a silent toast and drained the remainder of his glass. As he slammed it back onto the bar top, the bartender walked over to him.

“Can I get another bourbon?” asked Cadson. The bartender looked at his watch.

“I think you’ve got time for one more,” said the bartender. While the bartender poured the drink, Cadson looked back at the room and wondered if the people knew what had just happened, if it had, in fact, happened. The bartender put the drink down in front of him.

“On the house, in fact,” he said with a smile before walking away.

“Thank you,” muttered Cadson, his mind elsewhere. As he took the first sip of his drink, he absentmindedly reached for the bowl of nuts.

Credit: Alex Taylor

The Last Man of Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have slaughtered a god.”

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

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

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

“And that is?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Destruction,” said Aser.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: BackAlleyLegend

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