Browsing Category 2020 Anthology

Hameln

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I watch carefully as it rests on my chaise lounge. Sat myself with hands sheathed to the elbows in claret, I have poured generously into his trembling glass, provided grapes with only slight hints of rough cutting. Its eyes settle somewhere between the top of my head and the oil painting of my parents. I have lived lonely in my castle for so long that the colour has all turned stale; the silk has turned to cobwebs. The velvet is so drenched with blood that we can no longer tell what is dye and what is death; how many gallons have been shed and soaked up. Sharp corners follow you always and catch echoes. There are a hundred long corridors fit for racing down, if one ever had a child or friend. Rocks have long shot out the ornate windows, and I have long ceased replacing the wood boards when they rot. Old visitors would complain of the dust and dim light, the china plates and furniture left to fall into ruin; the clock always oscillating between midday and midnight. The cracking paper, grown grotesque with points and curls that were once purple, shrinks from corners, like dewy lettuce leaves folding back. Remembering to smile with no teeth, my voice lilts to grow musical and warm – to soft-speak the shivering thing with tones of saffron into a haze of almost-sleep.

On moon days, when melancholy has held me in bed for weeks upon months, I rouse myself with force. I float along upturned soil, chin held up as though pulled by elastic threads and a heart that I batter with threats. At my best I need only the barest of weapons to convince my prey to come hither. Sometimes just a smile will do. You have never seen such unsettling perfection that will not age and derelict with her home: eyes and canines that bicker so silently over which will pierce you first. My hair rushes for the ground like cascades of worm silk; my face, so unfairly proportioned the religious villagers cursed me and would not look in my eyes.

And I have nothing to do these days but catch strays. Invite them in and serve cold duck; bewitch them rotten and take out each eye. These eyes, most nights, become ornament: crystalline bluebells for lonely corners, that whisper to the sparkling sea. I hang up their shirts to replace the curtains long nibbled at by moths, spend endless nights sewing pocket squares into bunting. And I butcher, and I ravage, and I sing myself to sleep.

Do not look in her eyes, do not look in her eyes, chant the old hags. Eyes are the mirror of your wanting: eyes are the black pits of lost light wherein flesh is soaked in and gobbled up.

Picking my claws and brittle teeth, I sit for days in front of my mirrors, tripping into ever so slightly distorted reflections till I cannot be sure who I am. I talk and pretend they talk back. Whole floors are filled with them, by now – huge and small things that reflect each other and myself. Of course, it is easy to get lost, in this maze of distillations. Sometimes they do all the work for me – disorientating the poor rabbit until days have gone by and you are just full of imploration to be eaten: to be devastated and annihilated by the most delicate set of ivory hands.

Raised to be appreciative of beautiful things, I display my prey as I have seen others do in huge mansions. I have stared many a decapitated fox in the glassy eye, conversing with its master over red wine and soft cheeses that were always poked through with little bulbs of garlic. They hoped to catch me out, I suppose, the superstitious people who were once my neighbours, and spat over their left shoulders whenever we talked of blood.

Revolted, however, by the thought of decapitation, I hang up my dead bodies by the neck. Marionette threads pass through small holes in each hand and foot, before my tall babies are suspended from the ceilings and walls. And they dance! Oh, do they dance – they jerk in beautiful harmony with me; spin and entangle themselves in their strings, so they can never be freed to run away. When I tangle in with them, stay pressed to the skin as it cools – oh, you have not known such loveliness. I rub my cheek against their chests, smiling at a stillness of heart alike my own. Mais je suis désolé, jeune fils –désolé, désolé – we ballet. I bewitch more men to help manage the strings, sometimes; when there are over twenty marionettes and I cannot coordinate the dance myself. They spiral, they pirouette – they flit like the velveteen bats blending impeccably into our sharp, melancholy-spangled nights of red and rich blue. Our days are only pale lavender for countable hours a year; they dissolve, clandestine, into dusk-ridden nights that sit witness to endless slaughter.

But not yet, not yet, my new-born men. First, I will cradle your infantine bodies. Depleted, you shall dance through cobwebs and pools of sinking vermillion, learning the most ancient of this family’s footsteps. Dust rouses, blushing chests splice open and deluge: cataclysms follow each other with no breathing space, in these withering turrets of derelict that home a once tender, young mellow of a girl. She comes back up for air, at brief moments, when I lower my cocoons into safe-spaces under the floorboards, to rest for long hours and recoup.

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The House At St. Joseph’s

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It was a hot late summer’s day, and as the sun’s rays were reflected on the glass of the estate agent’s window, it was difficult to see the houses they were advertising. James, a town guide who worked for the council, and Rosie, a newly qualified schoolteacher, were linking arms and looking at the descriptions. Their eyes suddenly latched on to one of the photographs.

The Old School House
Period property in need of modernisation. This is believed to date from the 16th Century, and was a former school.
Two bedrooms
Lounge / diner with large dormer window
Kitchen

Rosie gave James a squeeze. “Huns, this looks lovely. It’s just perfect. Can’t we go in now and make an offer? Please?”

James gave a nervous frown. “Look at the price. Can we afford it?”

“Darling, you’ve got a good job at the council. You could be a museum curator in ten years. By that time I could be a Head of Department. We can do it! Please say yes!”

Moments later they were through the door.

April 2019

Rosie stood in the centre of her new house. A fresh maroon carpet had been laid, a sofa nestled by the bay window, and many unpacked boxes littered the floor. She looked up.

“Don’t you love the smell of an old house? You can smell history, past loves, past conquests and romances and arguments!” James stood still. The smell reminded him of his time as a guide at Hatfield House, where he would take wide-eyed tourists to the room where the lives of kings were made and broken. “This is ours now”, he mused. “The panelling over the old beams will have to go though.

Rosie turned and smiled. “You know what? I’m knackered. We’ve still got all these boxes to unpack, but I just can’t face it right now. How about we get some fish and chips and get an early night?”

James gave her hand an affectionate squeeze. “Good idea! I’ll just pop down now. Have we unpacked the kitchen stuff yet?

“Yes – that’s one box I have done. See you in fifteen. I’ll be ready for you!” She gave him a broad smile.

It was just after Midnight when Rosie woke up with a start. She was sure she had heard something. She slipped on her kimono dressing gown and tiptoed down to investigate. A wine glass was lying shattered on the stone floor of the kitchen, its stem, still intact, pointing accusingly at her. She stood for a moment. She was sure she had unpacked all of the glasses, laid them in the cupboard above the sink in neat rows, and closed the door. She wasn’t so sure now. Maybe she had left the door open. Her memory was beginning to blur. She’d ask James in the morning. Determined to make no sound, she sidled gingerly up the stairs, opened the bedroom door, and very slowly and quietly eased it shut behind her.

The Easter Sun was streaming in through the bedroom window when James rolled over in bed and gave Rosie a kiss. “So how was your first night in our new bed?”

“Beautiful, slept like a baby”, Rosie lied

Maybe it was just a dream. Maybe it didn’t happen. Rosie slipped on her dressing gown again and crept downstairs. She always liked to have breakfast before she got dressed, something that often annoyed James, who stepped out of his side of the bed, slipped on a T shirt and shorts and followed her down, as Rosie turned towards him in the kitchen.

“Did you leave the cupboard door open last night?”

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The Day She Became The Storm

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Skylar Lawrence was a very quiet little girl. When she was a baby she lost her parents in a car accident and was raised by her grandmother in the small town in Vermont. Those few things she knew about her parents were mainly the memories she built from the photos and some of their belongings. She never actually missed them; she did not feel she was ever familiar with the people she saw on the photos.

She spent her childhood and youth years in that same town she left after having entered the college. That time she left, she left it forever except that week she came to her grandma’s funeral in the middle of spring term. That day has changed her, made her feel totally alone in the big brave world, made her hate her solitude, which lasted until she met Hayden Foster – the love of her life, her future husband that cured her from her superstitions, prejudice, preconceptions, paranoia and what’s the most important – loneliness. She was looking for him for a very long time before she found the person she pictured in her head as a perfect idea, like the shining star that would light up her way.

She was dreaming about someone, who would come to her life not to visit, but to stay; someone, who would love the chocolate cake and hate the olives, just like she did; someone, who would see, understand and accept the monsters she was holding in her drawers and her wardrobe, and let her keep them; someone, who would see the beauty and the ugliness in every single human being; someone, who would be able to see the world not the way it was, but in the way she saw it, so gorgeous and so monstrous, so innocent and so filthy, full of the amazing things that are easy to create and easy to destroy. Eventually she met that person, he came out of her. She met him long time after she was meant to, in the most uncomfortable time, but she met him. Moreover, she made him.

Skylar Lawrence was special. Everybody said that – her grandma, her teachers, her neighbors, her friends. But it turned out to be a problem, when she became too special. Her grandmother was taking a very good care of her, at times even being too strict. Skylar had dark blond hair always braided or scraped into the ponytail. Her clothes were always ironed and neat. Her manners were just fine, her posture was perfect and she never sat with her knees apart. She was not very social, but had several school friends, who immediately stopped talking to her after everybody discovered what she was capable of.

One of those days when she was a child, she was playing outside with her ball and it rolled into the neighbor’s rosebush. When she finally got it from there, having scratched her forearms to blood she saw two patent-leather shoes standing on the grass. She raised her gaze and stood up. ‘Who wears leather shoes in summer?’ she thought.
‘I do’, answered the boy standing opposite her. ‘These are my favorite shoes, I wear them every day’.

Skylar gasped, her eyes widened. ‘That was so rude. I did not want to say that aloud. Did I say that aloud?’ the thoughts were rapidly rushing in her confused mind.

‘No, you didn’t. You did not say that. But I heard it’, the boy was slightly smiling, ‘You don’t have to say it for me to hear it’.

‘Liar!’ said Skylar impatiently. She knew it was rude to say that word as well and she was not allowed to use it, but lying was also bad and having measured those using the scale of bad things she just invented in her head, she came to conclusion that pronouncing the word ‘Liar’ was not as bad as actually being a liar.

‘I am not lying’, said the boy shaking his head.

‘Yes, you are. Nobody can hear what I think if I don’t say it out loud.’

‘I can’ said the boy shrugging his shoulders.

‘I guess’ Skylar started ‘you can prove it, if you really can read my mind’. Then she tightly shut her eyes and covered her mouth with both hands.

‘Pizza, pony, twelve’, said the boy rolling his eyes up. ‘Anything else?’ he seemed upset because of Skylar checking him.

She peered out at him and tried to understand how he was doing that, but did not find any reasonable explanation.

‘I want to try again’, she said and rapidly closed her eyes and covered the mouth.

‘Hopscotch, Christmas tree, Barbie’, the boy seemed to get bored.

‘How are you doing that? Is that some magic trick?’ Skylar did not know how it was actually possible for a person to read someone else’s mind. It was that time when she did not yet figure out how far from being the person was that boy standing in front of her.

‘Kind of. I can do many things’, answered the boy. He could clearly see that Skylar was curious and not scared a bit, unlike the rest of the kids he was trying to make friends with. He liked her. She was different.

‘Many things?’ Skylar widened her eyes. ‘Like what?’

‘Like this’ said the boy touching Skylar’s forearm that got scratched when she was trying to release the ball from the rosebush. When he moved his hand away there was nothing else but smooth perfect skin with no marks. Skylar stood motionless with her mouth opened.

‘The priest was telling us about people like you, who can do miracles’, she finally constrained herself to speak.

There are only a few people who can do such things. So I can’t tell others about it. Only to those who can do something special too. Can you promise that you will keep this in secret?’ he asked.

‘I will. I promise’, said Skylar nodding her head ‘But why did you tell me? I can’t do anything like it’.

‘I think you can. You just need to recall it. You are very special, Skylar. I hope you will soon have the power to do amazing things just like I do. And if so we could make great things together.’

Skylar’s face widened in a smile. ‘Wow! Can you teach me how to do it?’ She was excited.

‘Sure. We can begin right away. I can show you more and you will learn something of what I can do’

‘Do you want to go to the park and show me more there? It’s just around the corner.’

‘Sounds like a good plan to me’, the boy smiled.

‘You didn’t tell me your name by the way’, said Skylar.

‘Dylan’ he answered and together they went along the road, deeper and deeper to what had to be hidden from Skylar and all the other living beings, having left the Mrs. Lowell’s rosebush behind.

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The Horror Within

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The shadows danced in the flickering torch light, my trembling hands pressing lightly against the smooth stone wall as I observed my surroundings coolly.

The cobbled hallway stretched on and the torches that were mounted every dozen feet or so did little to help my vision penetrate the dim light.

Every step I took was attempted with the utmost secrecy as I made my way in the direction of the college’s magical archives.

As I rounded the corner, the sounds of hushed voices fluttered in the air. Instinctively, I felt every muscle in my body tense. Standing stalk still, I forced myself to hide away into one of the hall’s many narrow classroom doorways.

“You must search for Malik! He cannot be allowed to perform the ritual!” A whispering voice spoke as an assortment of footsteps seemed to join it. “It’s your fault he can even accomplish this in the first place.” Another voice answered; this one sounded effeminate, angry and annoyed.

It could have been one of the many professors that lectured here but it was too difficult to tell at this distance. Tilting my head away from the whispers, I had to remind myself to not idly waste time. Pushing out from my dark shelter, I turned and double backed the way I came searching for a detour.

The voices and footsteps were echoing out from the far corner down the hall and they were all too close for comfort.
Years of preparation were in danger of being destroyed! I had spent so many days and nights secreting the materials in and out of the archives that were usually reserved for only the most accomplished of scholars.

Usually.

My eager and apparent innocent demeanor had earned me the title of the assistant to the curator and I had taken every advantage it afforded me to delve into the taboo secrets that were forbidden by law.

Blood rites, conjuration and divination into the outer planes were a few of the many subjects I had conspired to learn under my instructor’s complacent watch.

Reminding myself of the task at hand, I realized that the large wooden double doors of the archives had just come into view. I quietly padded down the last steps of the northern most stairway towards the doors.

It seemed no one had even searched down here yet in the archives themselves. My pursuers must have assumed that I would attempt the rituals away from the college grounds to avoid their interference.

‘They think too little of me.’ I thought to myself, a smug smile growing on my face as I reached for the wooden doors’ iron handles. My reach faltered as I realized my hands were trembling. It was difficult at this point to tell if it was from fear or excitement.

Shaking the thoughts away, I resumed pushing heavy oak doors open. They swung easily; the archives left unlocked by a ‘certain someone’ earlier in the evening when they watched the Curator leave for the night.

The doors were truly a testament of the craftsmen who balanced them delicately on their hinges in the year’s past. The very same hinges that squealed loudly in detest to their late-night use.

Surprise shot through me as I sharply turned to look over my shoulder at the staircase.

I forgot to grease the bloody hinges!

The yawning silence that followed went uninterrupted for a brief few moments. Relief flooded through my mind as I exhaled a breath that had somehow found itself stuck in my chest.

Grinding my teeth in frustration, the doors closed with similar argument as I shut them.

This time however, I swung them quickly to cut the noise down as I crossed into the threshold of the room. Hustling over to the nearest bookshelf by the door, I reached behind it into the tight space between the wall and the shelf.

The object I was searching for was still there. A hard beam made of yew that I had stashed away days previously. I had it cut by the village woodsman to a very specific size weeks ago. A size that with some clever positioning would work well as a barricade.

Awkwardly pushing the beam into the frame of the door, I grunted with exertion as I delivered some small applications of brute force to ensure it was thoroughly lodged across the entry way.

Satisfaction grew in my heart as I turned away to face the grandeur of the college’s archives.

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Eden

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She did all the right steps, a hand at the neck’s base with a sharp twist to the left, but the rabbit flailed its legs in a reprisal of desperation. Her left hand slipped and she dropped the rabbit to the snow. Panic set in, The Girl leapt atop the creature, cradling it in her arms. She snapped her holster open and slid her blade along the rabbit’s neck. The warm crimson ran down her wrist, and the creature lolled in her hand, its final moments spent in agony and terror. Its eyes had glassed, and the fear she had seen in its eyes faded, replaced with a dead, unmoving gaze.

The Girl eyed her work; the blade had cut a shaky line along the neck and over the shoulder, with dark streams of blood forging rivers in its fur. Each nick and graze on its flawed hide told her tale of inexperience, and the dark gash across the rabbit’s neck reached within her mind, pulling forth the frustration of an unsuccessful hunt.

She swore and swept a rope from her pack, which she then used to tie the rabbit to her belt. Cleaning her knife, she looked to the trail she had left in the snow. The path behind her held secrets of her missteps and tumbles. She kicked at the frost, scattering the path behind her with a fresh layer of snow.

The road home was long, and The Girl thought it wise to begin the journey. It ran through a jagged wood, the trees rearing their leaf-less limbs across the path. The bitter winds of the woodland were fierce, and each leg of her journey was met with piercing cold. The Girl made haste. She knew the dangers of the wood come gloaming and sought to be safe at home before night fell. Fast and afraid, she retraced the steps she had taken: beneath the low-hanging sections of the canopy, and over the rotting spires of an ancient pine. Her journey took her past the henge of her ancestors, and through the lair of the weeping Anashuuk. She had taken these steps for years, each hunt forging a newer, safer path through a pained and dying wood.

It took her some time to navigate the gnarled undergrowth and so the sun, weary from its work, lay its light to rest along the horizon. The Girl quickened her steps, the wicked eyes of the foliage lingered on each of them. She thought she heard shouting a few hundred metres away, but The Girl had learned better than to trust the ‘helpless wanderers’ of the wood; travellers’ cries were often an illusion, and it was never long before those who followed them vanished amidst cries of pain.

She chose a quicker route home, and the path lead her near a small clearing. The canopy bowed low at the edges of the space, the trees’ dead limbs knotting together in a ring, as if it were some unnatural stage. She’d have paid no mind to the place – after all, she had passed it many times – but the centre of the clearing caught her eye, as it was blackened at the base of a mound. She leant against a tree and studied the strangeness from a distance. The black – or deep crimson, as she now could observe it to be– had pooled around the corpse of a deer that lay in the snow. She had thought this strange, deer didn’t frequent this part of the wood, no grazing beasts at all were foolish enough to search for food in her dying lands. She made sure the way was clear before pushing through the snow toward the body. The sun’s light faded with each minute. Time was running out.

The Girl was eager to find the cause of death, and it didn’t take long. Two wooden arrows: one below the neck, and the other between the deer’s upper ribs. The fletching on both arrows were worn and well-used, the wood on both didn’t match, nor did the skill used to craft them. It looked as though the first arrow was of more careful craftwork than the other, and possessed the mark of a more experienced fletcher. She saw that the deer’s tracks led away from the west, meaning it had run from more nourished ground, likely to flee its pursuers. She cast her eye to the sky and saw the first stars gleaming, preparing for night. Her breath quickened, and she swept her gaze around the clearing.

She knew the wood did not care for those wandering after dark, yet she stayed all the same. She had thought a noise had come from behind her, but she kept her eyes forward. Looking too far into the woodland’s night will assure an unwelcome guest. The cruel and malicious gods of her homeland were not so above revealing themselves from their worshippers, and it was not uncommon for their impossible forms to prowl the woods at night, rustling their bones and performing old dances for pagan worship. She hurried and removed the knife from its holster before flaying the deer’s shoulder muscle.

She had managed a few strips of flesh and a sizable hunk of meat by the time she heard voices approaching from the west. The sun’s final, sickly hues highlighted a pair of men wading through the fresh snow toward the clearing. She snatched up her pack and flew to a nearby tree, along the way her chest was met with a hefty smack as a she was struck by a low-hanging branch. She gasped, and her vision danced and she watched the branch that struck her slither back toward the darkness and vanish. She darted forward and crouched amidst the shrubs. The men, now meters from the clearing, spoke in quiet voices.

‘What do you mean you didn’t hear it?’ said one, ‘Clear as day, someone’s in there, I hear ‘em breathing.’

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Kieran’s Jellyfish

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The gull stabbed at the bread with its beak. Kieran threw another slice. Then another.

A second gull landed and nudged its rival aside from the free lunch. The first bird lunged at the usurper and they exploded in a flurry of wings and feathers.

‘Kieran, don’t!’ his mother said.

‘Nothing but vermin, them creatures,’ his stepfather remarked from behind the daily paper.

Kieran turned from the gulls to the bright, shimmering shore. Scores of families had set up camp for the day. Everywhere he looked he saw overweight Mums and Dads, small children building sandcastles, dogs yapping. A nearby group of youths, a mix of lean boys and girls in undersized bikinis, were laughing aloud at some secret joke. There was no one Kieran’s age.

Kieran was eleven, a small dark-haired boy with eyes the colour of emeralds and a habit of squinting. His vision was perfect, but somehow the world seemed better through narrow eyelids.

The gulls ripped the bread to crumbs. They screeched in disappointment and flapped away. Kieran returned his attention to Mum and Archie.

He squinted at his mother. She looked a lot like him, except her locks were lighter and her eyes a dull brown. Archie, now in his third month as Kieran’s official stepfather, was a porky man with shiny bald pate, a greasy moustache and eyes as big as golf balls.

‘Feel free to wonder off, Kieran,’ Archie said, lowering his newspaper.

‘You’re so thoughtful, Archie,’ Mum added. “Kieran doesn’t want to hang around all day with crocks like us.’

Archie’s wide-eyed scowl burned into his stepson as if to say ‘clear off, I want your mother to myself, with no dumb kids in the way.’ Kieran retaliated with a frown, but his resolve melted faster than ice cream in the sun. He had to be careful. Archie’s temper was like a lurking crocodile. Kieran never knew when it would erupt from the depths and strike.

Kieran turned down his lower lip and threw his mother a look. She didn’t notice.

‘Yup, okay,’ he said at last, collecting his bucket and spade and stumbling off.

Kieran walked towards the far end of the beach, where jagged rocks broke through the sand like razors. As he came closer the sound of the holidaymakers faded.

The rocks were deserted.

‘Here there be monsters,’ he remarked in a glum voice.

He stopped at the first slab of basalt and rubbed the back of his hand across his lips. His flesh reeked of sunshine and sweat, summoning up a memory from last year.

Last year with Dad.

The two of them had explored this slanted world, charting rock pools, hunting crabs, inventing stories. Dad liked to pretend each sea-puddle was an uncharted lagoon teeming with bloodthirsty creatures. Everything was fun.

“Here there be monsters”, Dad used to say, over and over, grinning his cheeky grin and pushing back his wispy hair.

But Dad was gone now, Mum had seen to that. Mum and Archie.

Kieran sighed and inched nearer to his favourite rock pool. He knew from his explorations with Dad that this was the largest, the size of a paddling pool. A glassy underworld where fish and crustaceans lurked in seaweed jungles.

‘Here there be monsters,’ Kieran mumbled sadly, kneeling down on the stony rim.

He sat very quietly, as his father had taught him, and watched as the pool revealed its inhabitants. Small fish darted from side to side, searching for an escape back to the Atlantic. Shrimps glided over the sand like submarines. Limpets clung to the rock, hard as stones. Ruby red anemones trailed poisonous fronds in the water.

There! A slender, silvery young crab scuttled into the shadow of the rocks.

Kieran beat his chest in best King Kong fashion.

‘I am the giant of doom. Come to destroy-oh!’

A severed claw popped out.

‘Who’s snacking on you then?’ Kieran remarked to himself.

He waited. The minutes ticked away. Then, as he was about to give up and move on, something stirred. He almost missed it. A ripple in the sand, nothing more.

He hunched over the pool and lowered his head to the surface. A crescent of translucent skin had emerged from its hiding place, then halted. Perhaps it had seen him?

Kieran leaned back and froze every muscle in his body. More moments passed. The creature began slowly drifting out, across the sandy floor.

‘A jellyfish!’ he said. At least he thought it was a jellyfish. It reminded him of all the dead jellyfish scattered along the shoreline. Revolting blubber pancakes. This creature had a similar appearance. A circle of clear flesh, riddled with veins and dark spots.

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Solstice

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On the Winter Solstice, the wind whispered. It roared and blew across the world, and reached even the Heavens above. With it, the great cold of winter flooded across that higher plane, and the gods staggered. Slowly, they felt the golden dust of their divinity drift away from them. They heard the message of that wind clearly…

This Winter will never end so that the Earth will.

Many of the minor gods quickly fell ill and perished within years. The greatest of human civilizations fell into decline and collapsed. With the passing of half a century, only a few of the greater gods remained, and only two major human civilizations persisted: Arashi, an island nation in the East, and the once-great Kingdom of Volhynia in the West. Little hospitable land remained, and neither the gods nor the two civilizations could seek help from elsewhere. With unwavering optimism for the future of humanity, the gods collected together a portion of their diminishing divine power to form a bridge of ice between Arashi and Volhynia. In response, humanity sent two of their greatest swordsmen to investigate: Izagui Reinato from Arashi, and Aeso Mstislav from Volhynia.

“Return safe and bring back whatever spoils of conquest you may happen upon,” the Emperor told Reinato. “May the fires of Kagutsuchi burn within you, always.”

Reinato adjusted her scabbard and bowed deeply towards the Emperor. Of course though, she knew that Kagutsuchi, Arashi’s god of fire, was already dead like the many gods that perished before him. Indeed, it was Kagutsuchi’s sacrifice that made Arashi’s current existence possible. Had he not loved Arashi deeply, their nation would’ve been one of the first to fall before the Eternal Winter.

The thoughts fell upon Reinato harshly, and she clenched her teeth as well as the grip around her sword. Hiketsueki had been forged from Kagutsuchi’s corpse, and the remnants of his divinity formed within the blade. His smoldering heat lived on through Reinato’s sword, through Hiketsueki, for that was all that was left of him.

“Thank you very much,” she said in response. She kept her head down, feeling each snowflake fall on her with the weight of steel. Finally, the Emperor left, returning to his procession. She lifted her head as she felt a hand fall on her shoulder.

“Don’t die,” the man said. He stared at the Emperor’s back, then back to Reinato’s bright eyes, still filled with the optimism of youth. “Don’t die, Rei.”

She nodded, opening her mouth to speak, but found no words. He dropped his hand from her shoulder and walked away.

“I won’t,” Rei heard herself murmur. Then, louder, “I won’t die, Taki! I’ll travel to the other side of the world and find warmth and riches that history has never imagined! I’m nineteen years-old as of today, and I’ll be the one to undo a century of strife!” Taki had disappeared, faded into the snow. His footfalls grew fainter and fainter until it seemed to come from the Heavens instead. “I’ll undo it all…”

Behind her, the bridge of ice crackled amidst the howling of the storm that raged beyond it. Rei turned to it, the sleeves of her blood red silk dress fluttering beneath her thick wool coat. She was surprisingly scantily dressed given the weather, with her calves, hands, and neck completely exposed to the cold. When questioned about it, she claimed that the fire of Kagutsuchi kept her warm. Most simply accepted that she was insane and that she was making a mockery of the strife that humanity faced, a mockery of the Eternal Winter.

They’d forgotten that Rei was the head of the Kenjūsatsu Clan, and that it was her who had freed Arashi from the chains of the Roku Shogunate. They’d forgotten that the once great gods of Arashi had acknowledged her and allowed her to forge Hiketsueki into a divine blade.

She convinced herself that they’d all forgotten her great deeds, for why else would they scorn her so? Why else?

On the other side of the world, Aeso Mstislav shattered his last bottle of ale against the stone floors.

“More!” he demanded, slurring his words. There was no one left to quietly inform him that there was no more alcohol left. Aeso slumped in his throne, feeling the coldness of the pale stone pierce through him. The throne room was dark and empty, save for the sad and drunk ninth prince that mumbled to himself, “Aarhus is the northmost city. You can’t blame me. No one can blame me.”

He broke out into a laughter of drunken stupor.

It had been a week since Aarhus fell to starvation, being now the first of the Last Nine Cities of Volhynia to fall, far earlier than it was predicted to. It had been three days since his father, Tsar Mstislav, had informed him that he’d been chosen to investigate the bridge of ice that had formed on their coast. Aeso declared that he would only do so once the stores of Aarhus had run clean out of ale, and now that time had passed.

Aeso felt the pounding at his door, the responsibility that beckoned him forth. He ignored it with a dull feeling in his head, and with each passing moment it grew louder, stronger. Finally, the doors smashed open against the hostile tempest, sweeping through the grand stone hallways of Aeso’s castle until it reached him. The gust blew back his long blond locks of hair back, revealing his young and handsome features. The cold chilled him down to the bone.

“Fine!” he roared back. “I’ll do it! Damn!”

Aeso’s voice raced back across the skies, and the gods nodded with sad smiles. Aeso Mstislav, the greatest of the nine demi-gods of Volhynia,  the one granted with the greatest divinity, and with the greatest responsibility of protecting Aarhus. His failure changed nothing; the gods would send him to the bridge, granting him a chance for redemption. He was the strongest, there was no doubt, and there was no time left in the world to doubt.

Izagui Reinato and Aeso Mstislav both took their first steps onto the ice bridge at the same time. Opposite sides of the world connected in this one breath, and the bridge crackled with excitement.

Rei and Aeso marvelled at the bridge along their journey, remarking to themselves of the wonderful craftsmanship of the guardrails, of the curves and corners. It was both beautiful and spectral. An azure glow ran through every crystal of ice, emanating a pure divinity that could only come from the gods.

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In The Shadow Of The City

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Like any good-natured and truthfully contributing member of society, Francis Draft had always suffered from semi-frequent bouts of hallucinations.  These were not of the in-your-face, cartoon pink elephant montage, snapping demons on the subway variety.  They were much more subtle, and sometimes even appreciable, if Francis was in a good mood.  Passers-by giving strange, often frightening glances that were in truth imagined.  Perhaps a third eye appearing on their forehead or one of their cheeks, a live-action breathing Picasso.  Maybe he’d see pointed, glistening teeth in the beak of a cawing raven, or fiery demonic intelligence glittering behind the eyes of a rat.  The shadow of a UFO in the corner of his eye, or even just a flicker of odd-colored light.

In short, he was used to it.  The fantastic and confusing had become mundane and ordinary, and he thought he didn’t let it affect him beyond a certain colorful touch in his columns which would raise the occasional eyebrow.

With this acceptance of the grotesque, it seemed that it would take quite a bit to shock Francis Draft into his current state, that of a raving, bug-eyed lunatic, head wrapped in tinfoil, crouched behind an IKEA furniture barricade in a dusty apartment, double-barreled shotgun clutched in shaking hands.

When he was lucid enough to reflect on his degradation, usually squatting in the darkness, facefirst in a cup of half-cooked ramen, Francis could dimly decide that it had begun when he was shifted from his small-town newspaper – with such headlines as “Officer Martin Recommends that Citizens Cut Down Branches Obscuring Stop Signs” – to the big city, ostensibly a promotion.

“Good luck, Draft,” his old boss told him when he heard the news.  He chuckled, adding; “that city will eat you alive.”

Francis shuddered remembering that line, curling up in his haphazard, dark, whiskey-stained womb, the shotgun still clutched against his chest like a funeral bouquet.  He watched nervously as cockroaches scuttled about the tightly-closed shutters at the edge of his vision.

Yes, it had all begun when he’d been summoned to that litter-lined maze, the smoky and dense jungle of steel and concrete and transportation, buzzing lights and screaming horns.

He remembered the day he took the exit from the countryside highway, experiencing the initial shock at the abrupt shift of surroundings.  It seemed that there was a thin line crudely drawn between cornfields and this sudden, great looming grey thing, the twisted centipede of roads and highways.  Smoke billowed forth from smokestacks, ruinous poison breath from a cyclopean metal monster.  The highrises poked through this cacophony of smog and concrete, thick spiderlegs in the misty air.

Francis’ musings were not quite so fanciful at first sight, but there was a strange, unnerved sense that filled him as he approached the place.  His life had been a stream of suburban and rural living, with the city being where he went for the occasional concert, slinking away after the show like a trespassing spy on foreign shores.

Now the beast stood before him, and he was expected to live in its belly.  Taking one white hand off the wheel, he shoved a cigarette in his mouth.

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Melody And Harmony

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Any half-decent expert will tell you that there are numerous things you should never say to a gurzzle. They are unusually touchy animals and tend to respond to any form of offense—intended or otherwise—with quick, decisive and invariably violent action. If, for example, you were to criticize the shape and size of their ears, the particular shade of their fur, or the fact that they are the only animal known to science to have three limbs, they would probably feel inclined to shoot out their two, prehensile tongues, wrap them around you until you couldn’t move, and devour you in two or three bites of their very sharp teeth.

And they really wouldn’t care whether or not you were a princess.

Sym found this out the hard way. She and Pryor had been exploring Harold’s Wood, the large semi-enchanted forest on the edge of the kingdom, when they had heard the strange sound from which the animal gets its name:

“Gurrrrzzzzzle,” it said, sounding like a purr, a gargle and a low roar all at once.

“Is that…?” asked Pryor. But before he could finish his thought, Sym was away. She, too, had heard the sound and wanted to see a gurzzle firsthand. She had never seen one before, except for pictures in books.

It was sleeping when they found it. Sym and Pryor crouched behind some convenient rocks and saw it wrapped in its two great arms like it was giving itself a hug.

“It’s beautiful,” Sym breathed.

“Are we both looking at the same thing?” asked Pryor. All he saw was a mass of teeth and fur with a nasty reputation for killing and eating people.

“Hand me your lightbox,” said Sym.

Pryor’s eyes widened. “You want a picture of that thing?”

“Why else would I be asking for your lightbox?”

Knowing it was pointless to argue, Pryor reached into his bag, pulled out the wooden box with its various lenses and other components which he didn’t understand but which very clever men and women had concocted to create lifelike images on small slips of paper and handed it to Sym, who held it to her eye, unable to believe her luck.

“Hurry up,” Pryor insisted. “It could wake up at any second!”

“Wouldn’t that be bril? It’d make a much better picture if it was awake.”

“I’m being serious, Sym.”

“I need to get closer.”

Pryor simply could not believe his ears. “You…you what? Sym, that thing is dangerous!”

“It’s asleep.”

“Yeah, for now.”

“Just hush up! I’ll be right back.”

Deaf to Pryor’s protests, Sym inched closer to the sleeping gurzzle. Fortunately, her years of training had made her exceptionally light on her feet and she could move silently. By rather stark contrast, Pryor was having a great deal of trouble keeping quiet, even while holding perfectly still, as every fiber of his being wanted to yell out to Sym to stop doing the enormously stupid thing she was now doing.

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A Letter From The Grave

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Me

I remember how cold I was, how scared. My eyes opened slowly, heavy from whatever drugs you had poisoned
me with. Damp, dark and freezing; those are the words I used to describe the stone room I awoke in. You were
not there when I woke up, though, it was just me and my thoughts.

Relief poured through my tired body when I heard footsteps; I should have known they would be yours.

Before the first girl arrived, I was lonely and scared, in constant fear of what you would do when you came in next. You never spoke, just watched as I ate, as I drank, as I cried. You watched with a confused expression on your face as if you had never seen a real human before. It scared me.

The First Girl

You always picked the pretty ones. The first girl to arrive after me was Robyn, black hair swinging as she fought you; punching, kicking, scratching and scraping. Until you injected her with something, and she fell to the floor like a rag doll her head cracking painfully on the concrete.

I remember being mesmerised by her clear, pale skin; her black hair and plump lips. It made me feel worthless with my bruises and flat, brown hair.

She arose angry, cursing at you again and again until her voice cracked.

She wouldn’t speak to me though. She just sat and stared, analysing. It wasn’t until she saw the littering of bruises on my skin that she started to warm to me.

It was the next day that she finally conversed with me, her voice dry and cracked – yet she’d refuse to drink any water. “I’m not touching anything that that creep gives us,” She would say, determined, “I’d rather die.”

The next day she guzzled the whole bottle of water in one sitting.

The Second Girl

Abbey was next, her arrival like a kick to the throat. I remember looking at her school uniform and clenching my fists so hard that my nails broke the skin.

She was still drugged as you yanked her through the large metal door, murmuring nonsense into your empty chest. Robyn, who was much braver than me, lunged at you. You dropped the young girl on the floor to backhand Robyn around the face. This was the first time you ever hit one of us.

Abbey cried a lot that day, wet, incurable sobs that racked through her tiny frame. It felt good to comfort someone.

We didn’t eat until Robyn went to her knees to apologise.

The Third Girl

Lily was next. Beautiful of course, and scarred – jagged lines marking from wrist to elbow. Robyn didn’t fight this time; her punishment was still too vivid, the memory of you in her mouth too rich. Witnessing the limp woman, dropped like trash at her feet, made Abbey cry again.

You wrinkled your nose. “Don’t cry,” You said, “It’s ugly.”

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