Afterimage

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When Bonnie went missing, we did all the usual things parents do. I called 911; we filed the reports, cooperated with the police. We helped with the search. Late at night now, I sit in the rocking chair in her room and rewatch old footage on my phone. My face is illuminated with blue and white light as I stare at old photos, crime sketches, and news conferences I have memorized.

Mike and I were the parents on TV asking if you’d seen our child. “Ten-year-old female, brown hair, green eyes, last seen wearing a purple shirt and red shorts,” the sheriff said. Posters with her picture went up, and Amber Alerts simultaneously brightened hundreds of thousands of phone screens.

After a while, John Walsh’s group came to help find her. I remember hearing someone commenting on how odd I didn’t cry much, especially on camera. Once spoken aloud, the suggestion caught fire. Others agreed; things got ugly. Sticky sweet gossip clung to us; people stopped looking, convinced I knew more than I was saying.

They were right; I did.

I remembered the dreams. Hindsight accumulated memories into thick shadows that showed on my face and haunted my eyes. I’ve seen the same expression on the faces of other parents whose children have gone missing. There’s a look in the eyes as they scan crowds, searching for a flash of recognition. A hard swallow. A hidden secret that, if ever confided, would confirm insanity.

Folks eventually moved on. More urgent situations took over, and the police moved Bonnie’s picture to a billboard. The side of milk cartons is the old joke, but it’s not like that anymore. Every once a while, the local news station would send a team out to do an interview. The first time it was the main news anchor, then a procession of interns wearing too much lipstick and a plastered look of concern. “Kate, how does it feel to know your child is missing?”

“It’s not something you get over,” Mike would answer for me, voice cracking. “We wait for her every day.”

That’s the truth. Her room is the same as she left it; I haven’t changed a thing. Well, I made her bed. But I didn’t wash any of her laundry until she’d been gone for a full year. That day I sobbed, in private at the washer, loading the last few items of clothing that still smelled like her. I cried as I measured a cup of detergent and thumped the lid shut. What kind of mother washes away the scent of her child?

But when she gets back, I don’t want her to see a pile of rotting clothes. She won’t fit in them, of course. But she’ll be back, I reminded myself; she’s always come back before.

The other times weren’t this long. So, on that day, I thought she’d back in a few minutes. Then, a few hours.

That’s why I waited to call the police, which was the first thing I couldn’t explain. Delays imply foul play, and it wasn’t long before they asked if I was willing to take a lie detector. But I could hardly tell them the truth; they’d have hauled me away in a straight jacket.

Even Mike had a hard time at first, and he’d lived it all alongside me. Mike knows this trial from the first dream to the stab of seeing our little girl’s age progression photo high above us on I-4. It’s been a long twelve years.

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The Moon And The Magic

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The wars ate the 14-year-olds. Such were the days, when young boys wielded swords and died in these dusts. Politicians drunk in the revelry of power and greed, sent more and more elderly and the young to join the army to fight senseless battles in the name of the King. Unbeknownst to whose wars they fought, these soldiers were the perfect cannon fodder, some many moons ago under the hot suns and rising sands of the desert Gulaag. Made up of rippled sand dunes and sporadic barrel cacti, this was ideal land for battles. At a time like this, a baby boy was born. His name was Hajji. His mother named him alone because his father was taken by the imperial force long before his birth. He grew up with his mother without much opulence or opportunity. This small town, in eastern Gulaag, where they lived, was on the border between two warring kingdoms. The wars far from over, the godforsaken Gulaag couldn’​t be appeased any time soon. Royal armies fed on the vulnerable, as did their sinful paymasters. This ever-hungry beast; no number of humans, camels, or horses was enough to satisfy the bottomless gut of this stunning desert.

Hajji and his mother’s fate were tied up with the Gulaag. She lived in constant fear like every other mother on the land, afraid that the army would come after their sons. Hajji had just turned twelve. Jainab surveilled him around the clock and kept him close. Occasionally, she’​d send him out on errands to tend the sheep, far into the desert.

Today, in the pale light of the first morning sun, Hajji took off. He took his flock from the shed at the back of their mud house and headed towards the Gulaag. The army slept at these hours. He walked nearly a quarter of a mile into the desert when he saw a great number of tents strewn across. Soldiers rested in those tents from a long night’​s war-cries, the Gulaag at their feet lay like a sleeping giant. Hajji walked over the placid sands ahead of his herd. Then he heard a small cry beyond one of the rippled dunes. Hajji stopped. It was a feeble cry, almost a whimper. It didn’​t sound like a human voice. He began to follow the sound. It was a human voice. There was a boy here about his age, crawling over sand slides. He appeared wounded and famished. Many cuts and bruises beset his little body. Hajji ran over and sat down by his side.

“​Are you hurt?” Hajji asked.

The boy looked at him wide-eyed and nodded.

“​Who did this to you?” Hajji asked again.

“​Enemy,” he said. “​Water, water, may I have some?”

Hajji looked around. Through serendipity, he found some prickly pears by the dunes. Under and over the sand he searched for something sharp. He found one; a flat pebble.

“​Hang in there, okay?”

Hajji cut some pulp with the sharp edge of the pebble. Then he took the prickles out carefully. He pouched the pulp into the corner of his long shirt; he asked the wounded boy to open his mouth. Hajji squeezed the pulp. Droplets filtered straight through into his mouth.

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The Village That Burned

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It was cold, not the bitter and biting cold, but the still calm cold that follows after a peaceful snowfall. The kind of cold where you could lay in it until the snow melts. To a passerby that’s exactly what she was doing, spending her free time laying in the snow. It wasn’t until you got closer and realized she was covered only in tattered clothing and warm sticky blood that you realised the truth.

The village of Gable was spread out, each neighbor trying to be as far away from the other as they could possibly be. It was a loveless village, built to withstand the cruelty of those around them. The Dwarves resided in the center, their houses were once stacked together as a community but the empty rooms and buildings left crevasses where families once lived. They made up the smallest of the population, for the very reason that they were the bravest species ever to walk the continent.

The Orcs took up the space closest to the forest, their brutish nature keeping most other creatures at bay. Their watch towers spaced apart to watch the most amount of ground possible, serving as everything to them. If not for their weapons, the watchtowers would be the orcs prize possessions.

The Fae’s or Fairies (depending on your take of the entirety of the race) took the inner west side of Gable. They could be found farming or looking for anything else alive that they could make use of. Not typical actions for the magical creatures. But, after all, Gable wasn’t exactly natural in itself.

Lastly, there was ‘The East’ as it was called. The East was empty, it had been for centuries and would remain that way for eternity. The legends say humans once inhabited the land, but that leaves little room for logic and little explanation for the dark magic that hovers over the area.

It was mid rotation the day it was found, freshly fallen snow covered the village and the smell of smoke was on the horizons, making the orcs ever on edge.

“My dad says the snow is a sign of death.” Dergu said, kicking it with his military boots. orc teenagers were known for their short temper and constant need for altercations. His face was already littered with marks. Rusty red scars contrasting to the dark armour they all had to wear.

“You’d think your kind would appreciate it.” Neglorum grunted. “Being that you hide easier in it.” Ah there it is, the grumpiness and bluntness of the dwarf. Already so clearly ingrained in Neglorum’s personality.

“Some of us, like warm weather and fresh air Neg.” Dergu spat. “We don’t all have our heads affected by metal you know.” If not for their usual banter, one might think the two young adults hated each other. An onlooker would assume so, pale orc skin verses the darkness of a dwarfs. But for these two it was business as usual. (Heavens forbid they actually utilize the word friendship.)

“Insufferable.” A fleeting voice said from behind them. But before either boy could turn around the owner of the voice was in front of them. Ail Stone-Shade, or Stone, to people who knew him better than most, wasn’t as short as Neg or as tall as Dergu but his Big black eyes and pointy ears gave him away.

“Would it kill you not to sneak everywhere you go?” Neglorum asked brushing past him to continue on their way. It was the end of the month, and that means all three boys have been sent by their families to tend to the biggest tree on the edge of the forest. If the species could agree on one thing it was that this tree was precious and the most talented of their young should be tasked with its upkeep.

“Just because you insist on trampling around doesn’t mean I do.” Ail said, his light voice coming out as a song in the winds.

“What’s wrong, Stone? Scared the donkeys on your farm will notice you?” Dergu chuckled, slinging his broadsword over his shoulder. Having removed it in a startle when the Fae had first arrived.

“Trust me,” Ail said. “I’ve been noticed by the two biggest donkeys here already.” he said with a signature smirk. And It wasn’t long before the other two were chasing him down looking to push him into the ground for such a joke. But not as friends would of course, because in Gable friendships just aren’t allowed.

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The Spiritual

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Raised from the desert dust five centuries before, the Hall of Might filled even the mightiest of men with trepidation. The High-Spiritual of Altrisia was no exception. He vomited his last meal over the steps before entering within, despite his best intentions. The brooding guards clutching spears and military standards threw cold shadows across his heart as he walked the angular corridors, his footfalls echoing away to the roof. He noticed things he usually missed: a defaced bust of Vuzar the Terrible; a guard with a great hound on a chain; a dried bloodstain marking the stone floor.

Whose blood?

At last Gazaric passed under the Arch of Might, above which the standards of Ictriz, Vorlon, Methwin and Lothwan were carved in sombre splendour. His heartbeat quickened as he saw the High-Speaker on his distant throne, the mightiest man on earth. What remained of Gazaric’s confidence diminished with each advancing step, as if unseen demons devoured his spirit.

Five axes hung high on the wall behind Lord Zircal, their great blades interlocked on a roundel of lacquered cedarwood. The tyrant Vuzar had made the five tribes of Altrisia present these weapons after the third revolt against his rule, as proofs of eternal fealty.

Zircal wore a black leather jerkin and black breeches secured with a broad belt studded with polished garnets. He gripped the Thyrsus of Dawn in his gloved right hand. A thin gold circlet enclosed his cropped black hair and a jewelled elk – ancient symbol of the Irsun tribe – glittered over his heart. For all his pomp, an aura of despond hung about him. He raised his eyes, hard and sharp as knapped flint.

‘All night I dreamt of my skin rotting as I lay dead in the earth,’ he said. ‘I dreamt of maggots devouring my eyes. I dreamt of my bones crumbling to dust. I dreamt of mountains piling high on my resting place, erasing all trace of my existence. And though it was only a dream, it was also truth; for death awaits us all.’

Gazaric said nothing.

Zircal’s keen grey eyes transfixed him like spears. ‘What of your duel with Death, High-Spiritual? I feel his shadow on me.’

Gazaric paled, his neck muscles stiffening with sudden stress. ‘The Halls of Fire grow daily,’ he said glumly. ‘Yet still the Death Shock intervenes, shattering the Mind-Web when our bodies die.’

Zircal shook his head. ‘That is no good to me, High-Spiritual. The rasp of Death’s black zalcar troubles my every moment. His long cold laugh torments my dreams. He is the one foe I cannot defeat. You must do that for me.’

‘We are trying, High-Speaker.’

‘Try harder.’

Gazaric frowned. If some individual could be found whose identity endured the Death Shock, that trait might be bred into future generations. But nothing in these days could save Zircal from death, or any other man. Oblivion or the Endless Forest awaited everyone, as the gods had decreed.

‘There is one coming that might be of help,’ he stammered.

Zircal shifted on his throne, eyes kindling with excitement. ‘Who is this person?’

‘A Sirval, Lord.’

‘They come from the Sirval tribe? The renegades who dwell beyond the Great Water?’

‘The same, lord. They have strange gifts, too.’

The High-Speaker stroked his chin with gloved fingers. ‘Such as?’

‘Some have trained their minds to endure the Death Shock, lord. Temporary death is part of their star-gazing ritual. They are my great hope.’

‘I see,’ said Zircal. ‘Be about it, High-Spiritual.’

***

Zerala had already forgotten her perilous journey across the Great Water. The Five Tribes had never departed these lands between Dark Sea and the Waters of Peace and their capital Alzara was the nexus of Altrisian power on the Earth. And she was the first of her people to travel here in centuries.

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A Long Walk Alone

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His toes are starting to burn, but burning is better than no feeling at all. He wraps his scarf tighter against his nose and mouth, his hot breath beading sweat onto his brow. His nerves are shot – stretched out too thin like strings of a violin ready to be plucked. To play the melody that will be the soundtrack of his death. His swan song. He laughs bitterly as he continues to trudge through the ankle-deep snow.

The snow stretches for miles, untouched and glistening. In the very centre of the beautiful blank canvas stands a lone tree. It is huge and hulking and magnificent. The branches are outstretched and drooping with the weight of the thick cover of packed snow. It looks like a canopy – like a shelter created by nature. A haven in this dismal time.

His fur-lined boots crunch through the snow. His progression is slow and weighty and it makes his heart hammer harder and harder. His pack is slowing him down even more but he can’t risk leaving it behind. His crossbow is his only chance of survival.

He feels exposed in this huge expanse of whiteness. He looks back at his progression, seeing the churned-up trail behind him and he hopes that the thing isn’t smart enough to follow footprints. Tears well in his eyes at the emptiness behind him. He still half expects to see his little daughter struggling to keep up. Her arms flailing as the packed snow refuses to let her pass. Her little chubby face red from the harsh wind. But it’s just him now, and he wonders how long he’ll last.

He reaches the tree and pushes the willowing branches aside. A small avalanche of snow assaults him. Some of it goes down the back of his coat and he grits his teeth in frustration. He goes under the shelter and brushes himself off – his gloved hands slapping away the stuff from his coat and pants. He’s walking backwards towards the trunk, focusing more on getting himself clean than where he is going. The snow is a lot thinner under here and so he stamps his boots to free them of the stuff. The top of his head brushes against something and he assumes it’s a low branch. He turns, and almost chokes on his own shock. He stumbles back, trips on his feet and sprawls out on his back amongst the crisp snow and twigs.

Hanging above him is a body. It’s swinging on a frozen rope. The body itself is blue with frost and missing its legs. Beneath it, the thin layer of snow is red with old blood. Bile rises in his throat and he has to press his fist against his mouth to keep it down.

So much for a haven.

But the snow had looked so neat and crisp. The thing must have at least stayed away since the last snowfall, which was in the night. Knowing there is no other place to rest, he uses his last ounce of energy to climb up the tree as high as he can.

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The Last Pair

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The rumble of the Dwarf Probe detaching from the HavenCraft shook the station so hard that Piper fell to her knees and thought that the walls and floor would crumble from the force. With the tremor ended, however, she got to her feet and felt a simultaneous sense of relief and terror with the weight of what she just did.

She had walked around, exploring the newly empty corners of the quarters her comrades had left behind. They had only taken the essentials with them, fuel, the navigation equipment, all but one of their molecular synthesis tools, and nearly all their tools to capture energy from the next star they’d find, to gather enough energy before returning to the Craft to get all the supplies to make this new star their new Haven.

Piper poked her head into one of the rest chambers. She blinked in surprise, once, twice.

The Captain’s quarters…

Piper opened the door and peeked inside, eyes straight ahead.

Even with her absence, the room carried an aura of brilliance and steadiness that reflected The Captain’s character. Her bed was neatly made, the blanket barely wrinkled, the pillow placed dead center of the head of the bed, as if calculated to the nearest half-millimeter. Her spare coveralls were neatly hung in her standard, small closet, and her spare boots were placed with the same precision as her pillow. Even being secondhand, thirdhand even, her coveralls were neat and only lightly discolored. Only one pair of her boots had a single scuff on them. The Captain never said anything about it, but Piper suspected that she held herself to such a high and disciplined standard, not to gain the confidence of the fellow residents, but to gain the confidence of her own self.

Confidence was hard to come by, these days.

Piper swiveled her eyes to the left and found exactly what she was looking for.

The books.

She stepped inside the room and knelt in front of the bookshelf. Very few at Haven had enough books to fill a shelf, if at all. Piper had a few related to various chemistry disciplines. She had been privileged, studying to assist the Chief Synthesizer in putting together all the bonds and molecules needed to build what the population needed. A noble, but mostly wasted effort, and the past few decades had been nearly solely devoted to creating fuel for the Dwarf Probe.

But the Captain had rows and rows of books, maybe forty total. Most were nearly falling apart at the seams, some were almost unreadable with the yellowing of the pages, but they were there. And they all now belonged to Piper.

She gathered seven into her arms, not even looking at the titles, and held them close to her chest. She felt a wave of exhaustion hit as she lifted them, and realized that she needed to return to the Great Window.

She walked down the wide hallway she’d taken on the way to the quarters, passing more rest chambers as she did. More treasure chests to loot.

She approached the Window area, the great expanse where all would enter several times a day. There were small benches set up, but all but the weakest either stood or sat on the ground. The great red light streamed in, warm, inviting, therapeutic.

She entered and screamed, dropping her books. One of their spines, a dry husk of its younger self, cracked and fell apart, a small spurt of dust kicking up.

It was a man.

But all the others had gone on the Dwarf Probe, and Piper searched in vain for a reason that one would have stayed behind. She herself had argued with her comrades, and eventually the Captain herself for months, everyone trying to convince her that she was crazy for staying.

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The Haze

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There was a haze in the distance, down in the valley.

That’s not unusual, at that time of day, at that time of year. The temperature falls quickly in the afternoon and gossamer threads of mist form lower down.

Sure enough, as I descended past bare rock ribs and winter-brown clumps of bracken, I entered that haze, a Pernod of thickening fog. As I continued, broad, squat shapes emerged, great tumbled boulders that at some point had detached themselves from the crags above and careered down the slopes. Trees began to appear, shades and shadows on the edge of vision, barely noticed on the edge of the gloaming.

By the time I reached the thicker woodland of the valley floor and wet fallen leaves were clinging to my boots, it felt very cold. My head-torch was switched on but it was only of value if I pointed it directly before my feet.  Aimed straight ahead or to either side, it just illuminated milky-white mist.

Finally, the track reached the road. It was dark as well as foggy, now. The last bus of the afternoon had long gone so I turned left and padded steadily along the tarmac. I tried to think of the last person I’d met, or the last person I’d even seen. Probably the tiny stick figures I’d seen on top of Helvellyn from the frosty sunshine of my own peak.

On this early winter night there were no cars from which to beg a lift but it was only two miles to the hotel. I was approaching the first lights of the straggling village, perhaps 25 minutes after joining the road, when the haze finally cleared, suddenly, like a cinema special effect. Then I was walking through a sharp, clear winter’s evening with the first glintings of frost on the tarmac. I could see the village lights reflected on the lake, without a ripple anywhere. In the heart of the village I reached the great, gaunt oblong of the Victorian hotel, not as grand as it once was, perhaps, but still an imposing presence.

I’m more of a youth hostel kind of guy but there had been a deal on and I was glad I’d booked in for dinner. I scraped my feet on the step (always respect the carpet) and birled in through the revolving door. I nodded to the girl at reception and received what I thought was a rather frosty look; surprising, as she was the one who had checked me in the day before. Had a day on the hills made me look so wild, so different?

I took the lift up to the second floor, walked towards my room and fished in my pockets for my key. It was one of those things like credit cards that you wave in front of an electronic pad.

I couldn’t find it.

I rifled through my wallet, emptied it, ransacked my rucksack, pulled everything out of the pockets in my jacket and my trousers. There was no sign of it.

I took the lift back down to reception. There was a mirror in the lift and I practised looking contrite, appropriate to having lost a key. Back on the ground floor I approached the girl, the person who had been a smiling picture of welcome the night before. She was a stern presence tonight. ‘I’m Mr McCall, from Room 241,’ I said. ‘You checked me in last night. I’m afraid I’m just back from the hills and I seem to have lost my key.’

She clattered her purple-sculpted fingernails on the keyboard. ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have a record of a Mr McCall on the system. And Room 241 is occupied by… someone else.’

‘What? But you checked me in last night! Like I said. Just after six. It was you. You must remember?’

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We Are Here

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The armies of the Mediterranean countries arrived first. They had found and surrounded me within hours. Shortly after came the super powers, Britain, America, Russia. These were the largest of the armies and pushed the smaller ones aside as they jostled for a position at the front. For a position with the best view of me. They soon had to contend with the mob of media who buzzed as thick as flies around the hastily erected perimeter of the armies camp.

I can still see in my mind’s eye what this world looked like in my time. With its forests expanding over the horizon and its fauna fighting their constant battles of life and death. How trivial all that seems to me now, how trivial it has seemed to me for quite sometime. But there was a time that such matters, that such skirmishes were not only between beast and beast but between beast and man. Such times seemed ages ago. I allow myself a smile, such times were ages ago. How long has it been since I walked among the trees, the beasts, the people of this earth? A millennia? Two? The thought threatened to overwhelm my senses, until I forced it down with a grimace. It matters not, I say to myself. Humanity saw my people put down, forced to flee from their homes, their families their identities. Humanity saw to it that I would never see my wife and daughter again, but there will come a day when humanity will pay for all that they’ve done, and that day will soon be upon them. But first I must summon my people, or what’s left of them that have gone into hiding and to do that I need to raise the city.

For a moment, panic clouded my thoughts. What if the great dam has fallen into disrepair in its protective slumber? What if it won’t raise at my calling? I quickly pushed these thoughts aside. Of course, it will rise and of course it will work, the Calderon’s assured us of that.

I still remember when they first arrived, The Twelve. I still remember how the king wanted to attack at once to bring that monstrosity down, and if not for me I have no doubt my people would have died, then and there they would have ceased to exist. Then The Twelve would have moved on, perhaps they would have chosen another people to bestow their gifts upon perhaps not. But as they exited their vessel and approached the crowd of awe struck, dumbfounded people, my people. Their leader Askan gestured for me to step forward. The Twelve never spoke as such but more they projected their voices into the heads of their listeners. They did this then. They thanked me for staying the hand of my king and his army and promised that in return they would make my people the most powerful civilisation this earth has ever or will ever see, and I they promised would be the one to lead my people into this new era, this new age. That day my people were baptized, the power that was bestowed upon us was incredible to behold. They ability to sprout the wings of a spirit and fly through the air, the power of incredible, strength, agility and intellectual prowess. Also, the ability and knowledge to build fantastically advanced structures, weapons and armour to name but a few. Those who refused were turned to ash instantly by our new-found gods. All The Twelve asked in return was to be protected as they rested, that they have travelled far and wide in search of a people who they could trust with these gifts and this sacred duty. They never told us why they needed rest and we never asked, we simply built them a city of epic proportions, a city made entirely out of white gold and jewels. The top of every pillar, every facet of every wall, from the largest statue to the smallest cobblestone, the entire city was built as a monument to the gods. And what a monument it was!

I will see it soon enough I think to myself as I begin the calling ritual.

For hours now besides the constant beat of my wings I have remained still. At my sudden movement I could sense frantic motion begin in the army camp and as a consequence within the mass mob of the media.

As I began the ritual I could sense the invisible ties protecting the dam give way. Their spectral seals unable to withstand the power of my psychic abilities. The entrance strait to the Mediterranean Sea is 13 kilometres wide at its narrowest point. From what I have learned from the minds of the humans I have come in contact with since my awakening, no human structure has come close to the colossal construct that’s about to raise from the depths of the Mediterranean. As the waters on the surface started to foam and trash, i could see the people of below start to run and panic. Try as hard as they might they could not escape the sight before them. As the Dam started to rise the ships in the water below started to be lifted and upended back into the water as the dam rose beneath them.

13 kilometres long and 3 kilometres high the Dam was a sight to behold its turbines and jets allowing enough water through to fill the Mediterranean Basin while also powering and resurrecting the lost city of Atlantis.

In the very in the very centre of the Mediterranean basin rose a City like no other a city that shone in the sunlight and all who beheld it could not help but fall to their knees in adoration as the lost capital of the world rose in brilliance once more.

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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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Hazel

( 5 stars · 2 reviews )

The eyes were staring at me through the window, colder than the breeze that caresses a lake in the winter.

They were intimidating, but they didn’t scare me. In fact, they were interesting. Something within them was enough to whet the appetite of anyone that peered into them, and it was the only thing that was present in them. No feeling, no liveliness. Just the incomprehensible, captivating, tempting…

The year was 1985, and I was standing outside the front window of Schroeder’s Antiques, a quaint, unimpeachable store that stood on the edge of the street of Maple Lane. It was surrounded by a handful of other businesses and stores, so it was typically overlooked. Not by me, though. I had always loved that store. The smell of the old wood filling my nostrils always relaxed me, eased my nerves. Besides, it was a nice distraction from all of hullabaloo rummaging through the town.

It wasn’t everyday that something like this happened in a small town like mine. Four children murdered in a span of three weeks? It was almost too much to handle. The town was still trying to wrap its head around it, but I didn’t want to. I just tried to ignore it. I had to ignore it. Dark things had no business being in such a bright place. And I guess you could surmise that my mind was on the list of bright places. You know what thoughts like that could do to you.

But I couldn’t ignore the doll in the window. Those eyes. The way it stood in the window like he was waving at everyone on the other side. He had been there since the first murder. I could remember him so vividly, yet I don’t remember why. I had never stood outside the window of the store before, I had always gone in. But yet it still lingered in my mind that I had seen this particular doll before, felt it before. And though I couldn’t recall every exact detail of it, it appeared to me like garden variety on that day on Maple Lane. Some part of me could only place one singular plastic balloon in his hand when I had first seen him, but somehow he had four as I watched him that day.

The eyes that were gazing at me were queerly human-like. Mere yellow orbs with their own life inside of them, like they each had their own heart. And though they were plastic you could almost see the breath rising behind them. I knew it wasn’t the case, though. There was no way that a doll could be even remotely human-like. That was stuff that only happened in movies.

Even if the doll was a clown, and it resembled something so alive, like it did there in the front display of the store.

In the reflection on the window in front of the clown’s face, I could see Jax. My son with chocolate brown hair like mine whose eyes would light up when the sun glinted against them just right. My pride and joy, the one that made it seem like everything that was good in the world was thriving inside of him like glorious caged heat. Jax was seven-years-old, and he had the liveliest attitude I had ever seen. How thrilled would he be to see a doll like the clown in the window.

One of Jax’s favorite things was to go see the circus with his father whenever it came to town. I never came along — the circus had always creeped me out — but Jax would always come home cheering of all the remarkable things he had seen. The music, the acrobats, the animals. But he had always loved the clowns; those seemed to be his favorite.

So of course, when his dad left and never returned, it was hard to see something like that stolen from him. To Jax, the clowns were his father, and when his was father was gone, so were the memories. The saying goes to let the dead dog lie, but when the dog was something that Jax needed, then I couldn’t just turn my head and walk away. It was medicine that he lurched for.

I scrutinized the doll a little closer. His demeanor seemed to send chills backflipping down my spine. His skin was a pallid, porcelain white, a scarlet painted-on smile hung over his face like Christmas lights. Those eyes that were staring so intently at me were a bright hazel, narrowed almost to slits, like a cat’s. He was dressed in a rainbow jumpsuit, with red pom-poms running down his front, finished with oversized, orange shoes. Tufts of vivid, sunset-orange hair protruded from his hairline, rays of the sun circling his head.

With my hair tickling the nape of my neck, tugging my sweater closer around my body, I made a decision. Swinging the door open to the store, I strolled in, the familiar smell of the ancient oak overwhelming my senses, giving me a similar feeling of strong vellichor. It seemed like I was the only customer. There was only one other person in the store besides me: a short, stout man with a thick mass of curly, brown hair on his head, dressed in a red floral Hawaiian shirt tucked into worn jeans. He was standing behind the counter of the checkout desk, and he flashed me an amiable smile upon entering. Anything to keep a customer, I guess. Any other reason couldn’t service the forced smile on his face, and it wasn’t like this place was Disneyworld.

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