A Brittle Tuxedo

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The night air was fresh. She was returning from a jog, one of the many activities she tried and failed to integrate into her daily routine. Slowing to a walk, she crossed the street, stepping on the pavement she crossed every weekday to make the bus when she was young. She walked up the steps to her home and was about to enter when she recognized the pristine silence surrounding her. She paused, doorknob in hand. Her memories of life here were marked by the vibrant sounds of the community: laughing children, barking dogs, and occasional sirens in the distance.

Tonight, however, the silence was suffocating. She felt as if she were living in a ghost town, a cul-de-sac of empty homes and lost souls. She heard a faint rustling behind her. Removing her hand from the doorknob, she turned around to face the street.

The moon shed a soft light on the streetlamps, homes, and mailboxes around her, smoothing their edges. But there was something, something in the center of the street, that was not illuminated. She had no sense of what it was, other than that it reflected no light. She began walking back down the steps. As she moved closer, the object began to reveal itself in greater detail, seemingly growing outward, slowly morphing into a human form. Her jaw tensed.

Continuing forward, she stepped up to the edge of the sidewalk. Now only a few feet in front of her, it was clear that it was a man. She tilted her head to the right and squinted. A tall man, dressed in a tuxedo.

She wanted to say something, but couldn’t.

The silence persisted. She extended her leg to step down onto the street. When the ball of her foot made contact with the road, the man became visible to her. The light on his upper body and face had no origin, but it shone upwards, sharpening the edges of his figure. Startled, she removed her foot from the street. The light dissipated, but the tall man remained. She wanted to look around, to see if anyone else was here, but she didn’t want to take her eyes away from the man.

She cautiously placed her foot back down onto the road, and the light returned. She looked at him carefully. His arms rested at his sides and his upper body curved, like someone had a hold on his chin and was pulling down. She noticed slight tremors in his head. It was trembling from side to side. He was looking at her, but she couldn’t bring herself to meet his stare. The corners of his mouth were bent, forming a smile.

She knew this man, or at least sensed a vague recollection when examining his body and face. She could recall a warm sensation in her chest, the result of downing a shot of vodka. She went on a date with this man once. She learned of him through a mutual friend, and they met up at a bar. He went out of his way to meet her, as he lived far away. She remembered the face he made when he saw her expression when he entered the bar wearing a tuxedo. That night, from what she remembered, was uneventful. She went home afterwards and fell asleep. She woke up the next morning to a phone call from her friend telling her that he was murdered later that night in a home invasion. Her friend was crying too much to hear her when she asked if his home was the one invaded, or if he was one of the invaders.

He blinked, looking down at her. She was puzzled, inspecting him. She had seen pictures of his funeral online. Few attended it. She said his name. He remained motionless. Her first thought was to call someone. Maybe this was a misunderstanding, an insensitive prank of some sort. She reached out to touch his arm. His suit was brittle and cracked at her fingertips. She pulled her fingers back.

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14th April 1992

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The clock struck four. It was 14th April 1992; the day my first child, Jessica was born.

My husband was away for a medical emergency in Naypyidaw, and would not be back home for three more days. I laid in bed with extreme discomfort in a blue plastic gown, with IV drips painfully piercing through both my hands.

Out of the blue, a loud scream perforated through my ears. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and my heart skipped a beat. I sat up in my bed and confusingly looked at the other patients in my ward. Over the next few seconds, the screams got even louder; it felt as if someone was yelling into the speakers. My eardrums started hurting and being the nosy person that I was, I got up from my bed to investigate the noise.

Following the sounds of the screams, I landed outside Room 103. I took a peek inside and saw a young woman screaming at the top of her lungs like a baby and vomiting out unrecognisable words in a deep manly voice. Her legs were vigorously kicking the air as swift as lightning, but her upper body was completely paralysed.

“Wh-wh-what is ha-happening?” I muttered to myself, under my breath.

“O-oh-m-my God! It-it-iiss t-tr-true..” a voice shockingly whispered into my right ear. I turned around and saw May, another patient from my ward. May’s hands were trembling from fear and her face was as pale as ghost.

“What? What are you talking about May?” I asked, curiously.

“Sister, y-you-re-rea-really don’t kn-know?” May asked, wearing a shocked look on her face.

“No, I don’t. Come on, tell me.” I said, tugging on May’s left sleeves.

“L-look in front. Y-you will k-know..” May said, avoiding eye contact.

I took another look into the room and shivers went down my spine. Five nurses were holding down a young woman, who was so strong like an ox that she kicked a nurse away. I looked closer at the woman’s facial expression and was extremely disturbed; one moment she was smiling innocently like a child and the next, her face became distorted.

I stood rooted to the ground, with my mouth agape from shock. My heart dropped and I too, started trembling.

“Y-yo-you g-get it?” May asked, placing her hands on my shoulders.

“This is not n-nor-normal…” I said, “Is she poss…”

Before I could finish my sentence, May leaned close to my ear and whispered, “They died. The nurse and the ward boy…” before pointing towards an elevator, with tears welling up in her eyes.

“Why-what?” I asked, “Wh-why are you…”

Just then, I was interrupted by a team of doctors and Head Nurse Thu running towards Room 103 while shouting, “ALL OF YOU, PLEASE GO BACK TO YOUR WARDS!”

The crowd immediately dispersed. May hastily walked towards Nurse Li, hugged her tightly and started balling her eyes out. Nurse Li slowly caressed May’s hair and whispered in her ear. I wanted to comfort May, but a nurse tugged me back to my ward as it was time for my surgery.

My beautiful baby, Jessica, was born at 4.30 am and I spent the whole day attending to her alone. I was so exhausted that it seemed I had forgotten everything about Room 103. At 11pm, one of the nurses took my baby to the nursery and I prepared to tuck myself in for bed.

My back was aching horribly as though someone was punching me profusely. I tossed and turned in bed, adjusting myself for the perfect position. As I laid on my right, a sudden loud “BANG” on the walls scared me out of my wits.

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The Door, The Quiz, The Fire

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The Door

If I could only make it to the door, then the corridor would be sure to follow and, soon after the staircase and the street beyond. But once on the street I would be forced to pick a direction and this decision would bring with it a destination and oh so many other things besides that. And, once a destination has been decided, the whole affair becomes rather a foregone conclusion and the journey back becomes as inevitable as the journey there. So much so that it hardly seems worth the effort to go there at all, as what else would I be doing other than simply going through the motions until, eventually, my feet brought me right back to where I started? And, knowing all this, how can I possibly make it out of bed, let alone all the way to the door?

The Quiz

The quiz is really quite a simple affair, but there are some difficult questions regardless. The simple questions are hardly worth answering, for it is almost a certainty that everyone else will already know the answers too. Nonetheless, we all flounder and scramble to be the first to answer them and, despite our best efforts, it is almost always the same person who manages to get there first. With a flourish, they callously grab the pen, from the member of our group who has delegated himself as scribe, and begin to scrawl the answer. This makes all of the rest of us feel small and slightly stupid and, although we know the answer too, we can never be confident in the success of our efforts to demonstrate this knowledge to the rest of the party. We jointly lean in, watching the movements of the pen and nod with vigorous approval as it spells out the answer that is within all of our minds. At the same time, we eye each other suspiciously, wondering if some of these nods are mere pretences at knowledge.

The would be scribe, usually the owner of the pen, or, at least, the one who managed to to solicit the pen off of the host before the quiz began, takes back said pen off of the envied answerer and we all poise for the next question. This process repeats itself many times throughout the evening, but, in rare interludes, its recurrence is interrupted.

A more difficult question is asked and we all look from one to the other, searching for assurance that this is not, simply, just an easy question whose answer we alone are ignorant of. If the usual answerer quickly grabs the pen and begins to write without hesitation we are left almost completely unsure of whether the question was really difficult or not. We all pretend to double check their answer and nod as if we are offering our approval, but it is impossible to tell if everyone else is faking it too, or if it is us, alone, who are ignorant.

Occasionally, one of us will nod with extra vigour, as if to acknowledge, both that it was a hard question, and that, despite this, they really knew the answer. Even more seldom, someone will admit that they hadn’t a clue and the cheeks of those pretending will turn red to reveal their trickery. Ordinarily, however, we are all just left wondering.

Part of us would like to entertain the idea that the frequent answerer is just the smartest of the group, as that would allow us to believe that, even on the questions that we find easy, most of the group are pretending. However, despite the comfort that this would provide us with when we, too, are ignorant, we cannot do this, for secretly we entertain the notion that we are the cleverest person at the table and the frequent answerer is simply just swifter of hand, or less hard of ear, or slightly sharper, in his reaction, but lacking the same depth of knowledge as that which we, alone, possess. As such, every time that we are forced to nod along in pretence, averting our eyes from our associates rather than using them to scrutinise their every move, we become slightly more tense.

As the quiz progresses, this tenseness gradually increases. Perhaps a more difficult question is even answered by one of our associates other than the frequent answerer. This makes us feel all the more stupid as, although the difficulty of the question is more pre-evident, the fact remains that more and more of the colleagues, who we would like to dismiss as less intelligent than ourselves, have succeeded in answering a question, whereas we have not. We can attempt to soothe ourselves with the knowledge that even the frequent answerer did not know that answer, but there is no hiding the fact that we are only deluding ourselves here. The frequent answerer has nothing to prove and, even if he did, we wish to dismiss him too and are still a long way away from being able to even pretend to do that.

Now, we are forced to make a decision: do we sit back and tensely try to relax, dismissing either the quiz, or ourselves, as stupid or a joke? Or, do we press on and hope against hope that some difficult questions arise that are in our speciality areas, or, even better, in someone else’s, but, through some twist of fate, we are the only ones who know the answer? Sure, in the past we have taken the first option, leaning on drink or comedy as an excuse for our inadequacy, but today we cannot do that, we do not wish to do that, for what if our fortunes were to change, but we were too distracted to take advantage?

We press on, becoming tenser and tenser, growing increasingly more suspicious of each other’s nods, even considering the possibility that the frequent answerer is cheating in some way. Things begin to look hopeless, until, out of nowhere, the perfect question arises. We know that no one else will know the answer, but we still scramble desperately to make sure we are the first to give it. We do not even grab the pen, for to make to do so would be to admit our ignorance in so many of the proceeding questions. Instead, we shout the answer, with regrettable volume, across the table and across the bar and, in unison, all of our associates turn their heads towards us and scowl. ‘Shhhhh!’ They say, silently remembering how discrete they had been when it was their turn to answer. We shrink into our seats and try to laugh it off, but it is too late, even, to play the clown.

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Dark Blood – 2020 Vol 3

Dark Blood – 2020 Vol 3, September 2020 publication, a new collection of Horror short stories, is fresh, sharp, witty, full of mystery, wonder, torture, blood and totally unpredictable.

The collection includes:

“Jury Duty” by Chad Lehrmann, a writer from Texas, US

“Hazel” by Tatum Ozment, a writer from Buford, Georgia, US

“A Brittle Tuxedo” by Jacob Rothman, a writer from Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, US

“Tick” by Ella Dean, a writer from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, US

“The Day She Became The Storm” by Yuliia Vereta, a writer from Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine

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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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From The Earth

( No Rating Yet )

They were everywhere. Each corner Leanne turned, her stomach lurched at the sight of another friend screaming in agony as hordes of the undead pulled and chewed at flesh and bathed in blood. For Leanne, it had stopped being about winning a long time ago. Now, all she wanted to do was survive long enough to see the light of day again. To see her family again. But as each second passed, salvation receded further and further out of reach. Soon enough, hope was a distant memory and the only thing left to keep her going was adrenaline, and it was running out, fast. As if sensing the end, Leann’s body started giving out, legs twanged and snapped with each step and every breath became more laboured than the last.

Finally, too bloody and bruised to carry on, Leanne slowed from a panicked sprint to a defeated stumbling. With almost all options exhausted, she gave into darkening dread and dropped to her knees at the mercy of one of the surrounding cameras and begged until she could cry no more. But all the camera did was look down at Leanne in pity, and the omniscient voice that once droned in the ear like a bee, was as quiet as a tomb. Leanne’s fate had been sealed. It was over. It was all over. Almost on que, waves of the undead began pouring in from both sides of the hallway, trapping Leanne in the middle like a sitting duck. Against the crescendo of Leanne’s beating heart, the undead inched closer and closer until all she could see was bared teeth and soulless eyes.

Her scream was like a gunshot.

*

As Leanne was torn limb from limb, Marcus and Ali clapped and cheered triumphally – the bitch was dead. As Marcus switched from camera to camera to ensure not a single spurt of blood went unseen in glorious high definition, Ali scrolled through and read each and every comment beneath the live stream on the website. Laughs and giggles laced his every word.

BiggWolf69: The bitch had it coming…

BritishBullDog11: Gutted. I had money on Leanne to make it out.

Long’n’Juicy:  Best show on the internet!

BuggzBunne: That’s it, I’m applying for the next season. I could out survive these spoilt rich kids, easy…

DonaldTopTrumps: @BuggzBunne, No, you couldn’t. Leanne kicked ass!

I really think she could have made it out, she just gave up too early.  

BuggzBunne: @DonaldTopTrumps, You don’t know what I’m capable of.

I’m ex-marine, bitch.

DonaldTopTrumps: @BuggzBunne, Ex-marine? Right… and I am the real Donald Trump.

JohnDoe88: I wish we still had dead heads in Britain! We killed the last of ours too quickly.

We could have had fun shit like this if we hadn’t. #BringBackTheDead   

Biscuit00001: @JohnDoe88, Fun shit? Watching the undead get exploited and butchered for mere entertainment is ‘fun shit’? You are fucked up.   

BiggWolf69: @Biscuit00001, Looks like we have a DeadLib p*ssy in our ranks, boys.

RealNi88er: @Bisucit0001, Get the F*ck out of here. They are dead, we can do

what we want to them. And the ‘human beings’ signed up for this…

As Ali continued to read through the comments section, Xanadu found himself increasingly feeling feint and lightheaded. He even had to close his eyes to help stop his head from spinning, which did not go unnoticed around the room.

Usually, it was Xanadu reading the comments aloud with macabre glee. However, in the last couple of weeks, he had been struggling to rustle up anything approaching enthusiasm for the bloodbaths. Some days, when it really got bad, Xanadu had to flee the room to avoid vomiting right there and then. Once in the hall, he would stay there until the survivors escaped or the last body had been devoured.

Because of his sudden, and stark, aversion to the violence of the game show, Xanadu had become a pariah in the control room and office. So much so that, unless it was absolutely necessary, no one spoke to him or even looked in his direction. And, when he wasn’t in the room, his colleagues often joked about knocking him out cold and locking him in the House of Horrors to fend for himself. But, as much as everyone had grown to hate him, there was nothing that could be done – Xanadu was the boss.

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The Storyteller

( No Rating Yet )

She reached out. He was nestled under the duvet but, if she wriggled her fingers enough, she could just about touch his back – a small spot beneath his right shoulder blade. Awareness of her sudden daring thickened her breathing. There, she’d done it. The warmth of another human being emanated from the sleeping skin just under her fingertips, in turn filling her with borrowed heat.

Holding her own breath she felt the pulse of his. She exhaled, trying to match her rhythm to that of her sleeping husband.

Softly, pioneering fingers were joined by the heel of her hand. She realised that it now occupied a spot she couldn’t remember ever having touched before. She must have done so at some point of course; after all, they had been married for over thirty years. Somehow though, the touching had stopped. Try as she might, she couldn’t remember when.

His breathing changed and he moved. She withdrew as if scalded. Now they were separated again, she didn’t know why she had felt such a strong need to reach out in the first place. Casting her mind back a short while, she seemed to remember being stuck in a grey, featureless Broadstairs High Street. It was a place she knew well but, in the here and now of her dreamscape, the familiar setting had been stripped of all colour.

As her mind started filling in more of the details, a memory of extreme thirst slammed into her. She seemed to recall desperately trying to reach the multitudes of colourful bottles and other goodies on display in the shop windows. Enticed by wares that were sparkling like jewels she had tried to get into one shop and then the next. But, it was the same everywhere; doors were closed and windows barred. The High Street had turned into an arid place of wandering, with nowhere to assuage her thirst.

Then, she remembered suddenly catching a glimpse of brilliant red out of the corner of her eye. It had come while she was unsuccessfully wrestling with the door on Crusties the bakers. And, although she hadn’t been sure, it had seemed as though a figure, clad in top to toe vermillion, was turning the corner into the town’s other main thoroughfare, Queen’s Road. In the expanse of monochrome dullness, the flash of warmth it afforded was heartening; something that both was and wasn’t but, at the same time, offering the promise of something real. So, girding metaphorical loins, she followed.

Shortly afterwards, she found herself back in bed again; the need to touch her husband; to feel that there was life beyond herself, overwhelming in its intensity.

He had started snoring now. Worried that his loud, rattling breaths would wake the neighbours she tentatively reached out again, bringing her hand to rest on the soft flesh at the top of his arm. Leaving it there this time, she must have sunk into a deep sleep as, when as she opened her eyes next, the first rays of a spring sun were pushing their way through the slatted venetian blinds of the shared bedroom.

Reluctantly her gaze was drawn to the corner of the room where a desk, situated just in front of one of the Victorian sash windows, was slowly being infused with the golden glow of the morning. It had only been yesterday evening that another ‘ever-so polite’ agent Email had popped up on her screen – informing her that her novel was being rejected for the thirtieth time. Deciding then and there that she wanted to match this landmark occasion with some kind of action on her part, she had conceived of the plan to replace her writing space with a dressing table.

She remembered re-reading the damning Email for the umpteenth time while wistfully fingering the dreamcatcher hanging from the bookshelf – kept for books she thought would inspire her best ideas.  Having returned with her from a visit to Vancouver, the flat, woven disk with its trailing feathers paid homage to a First Nation cultural heritage. Over time she had come to believe that it inspired and directed her writing.

Propping herself up on her pillows, she looked over at it again; supposing as she did so that, she ought to put it away somewhere also. After all, once the furniture was rearranged, there was no need for it to be there anymore. Anticipating that, in order to complete the removal, she would need all the strength her, decidedly flaky, fifty-five-year self could muster, she turned to get some more sleep. Oddly though, the dreamcatcher seemed to demand her attention, the soft light of its red beads insinuating itself behind her eyelids, even as she was trying to close them.

Finally, driven out of bed to peer at it more closely, she noticed that the colour of the beading in fact, matched the red she had followed in her dreams. Even the webbed pattern of the leather tugged at that half-memory. A sudden wave of emotion robbed her of strength, and she found herself needing to lean on her desk for support. After a few moments in this vaguely supplicant position, she couldn’t help but run regretful fingers over the closed laptop in front of her. It was here that keystrokes had infused her characters and places with life and purpose – while keeping her own hopes and dreams safe within its silver confines also.

She glanced down at the bongo drums she had used to frame some of the narrative and actions of Martha, the middle-aged failure whose transformation her book had been built around. Oddly, the drumming that had started as research had ended up bringing a greater sense of direction to the book as a whole. Not that she had ever dared play them when anyone else was in the house, of course!

Well, she was used to endings. And, at least, she had done what she set out to do. Her book was finished and if it wasn’t possible to get to market, so be it. In the same way that she had dealt with the bereavement of her two children leaving home, yesterday she had closed the lid on her life as a storyteller.

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53 Melville Square

( 5 stars · 21 reviews )

The Devine house was old. All the houses in that part of Belfast were – old buildings, old families, old money. They were big too, big and cold. They had fireplaces in every room, though few that worked – they just let the wind whistle through and kept the rooms in a frozen stasis. In my experience, wealthy people don’t mind the cold. It’s as if they use it to measure your endurance and character. That home was freezing, but it was furnished with the most modern of furniture and appliances – stereos and TVs controlled by voice command, intercom’s in every room and cameras that blinked red in every corner. No expense had been spared on the place, and yet it was bitterly cold.

I was their housekeeper, a vague title with constantly changing responsibilities. They’d inherited me from an uncle – a mean man who’d died the way he’d lived, in misery, moaning and groaning and cursing me and anyone else who cared to listen. The young Mr Devine was a barrister. Mrs Devine worked in finance. They were young and ambitious – all appearance, status and money. They were quiet and detached and made no small talk. They allowed me to work on my own initiative – which I was more than capable of doing.

And that is how it went, until last week, when Mrs Devine came home early, red-eyed and wet-cheeked. She threw herself onto the settee and sobbed. A miscarriage. Her fifth. I could think of no words to soothe her, so I simply stood there, watching mutely. The next day Mr Devine took her to their holiday cottage in Wexford. That left me on house sitting duty. And that is how I found myself alone, standing in the doorway, watching them drive away, uneasy at the thought of being by myself in that house.

I cleaned for a while, although my heart was not in it. But I needed some time, doing what I always did, before I could settle into my new role as a house-sitter. As the darkness inched its way across the sky, I opened a bottle of wine, but still I could not settle. With a desire to hear a familiar voice, I phoned my sister, but she did not answer. I finished my glass and had another, then I ran myself a bath. I had always loved that bath – a big cast-iron thing with a curved end and feet that made it look indulgent. I sank in and let the warm water calm my thoughts.

The buzz of the intercom made me jump.

Then the front door slammed shut.

Panic hit me like a firework.

I bolted upright and scrambled out of the bath, grasping for a towel. I felt like an intruder as I raced through the bathroom door.

Wet-footed and shivering in the hall, I called out a stuttering, “Hello!”

No answer.

The light sensor activated, illuminating the stairs.

I peered over the balustrade.

No one was there.

I checked every room, creeping hesitantly through each door, calling softly to announce my presence.

I was alone.

I checked the doors again. They were all locked. I thought that my mind was playing tricks on me, that the creepy old house and the wine had combined to unnerve me. I cursed myself for being so foolish.

I decided to settle myself with the rest of the wine and watch some TV in the sitting room. I must have fallen asleep, as I woke there, shivering to my bones with the TV still on. Checking my phone, I saw that it was three minutes after midnight. I was half asleep, but I felt … strange, as if I was not alone. The house was silent. There was no sound from the TV. Had I done that? Had I turned it down? But it was more than the TV. There was no sound anywhere. It was like being in a vacuum. My ears searched for the familiar, but there was nothing. No clocks ticked. No taps dripped. In such an old house there were no floorboards creaking, no pipes whining – even the whistling fireplaces had fallen silent.

My breath froze before me, hanging in the air.

And then came the noise.

A banging and crashing, as if an anvil had been thrown down the stairs.

The hairs on my arms stood to attention. Adrenaline raced through my limbs, and my body tensed expectantly, readying itself for what was to come.

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