· Welcome to Schlock! the new webzine for science fiction, fantasy and horror.
Vol 2, Issue 29
27 May 2012
Schlock! is an exciting weekly webzine dedicated to short stories, flash fiction, serialised novels and novellas within the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror. We publish new and old works of pulp sword and sorcery, urban fantasy, dark fantasy and gothic horror. If you want to read quality works of schlock fantasy, science fiction or horror, Schlock! is the webzine for you!
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Schlock! Webzine is always willing to consider new science fiction, fantasy and horror short stories, serials, graphic novels and comic strips, reviews and art. Feel free to submit fiction, articles, art or links to your own site to email@example.com.
We will also review published and self-published novels, in both print and digital editions. Please contact the editor at the above email address for further details.
The stories, articles and illustrations contained on this website are copyright © to the respective authors and illustrators, unless in the public domain.
This week’s cover illustration is “Winter Shadows” by Angus. Graphic design by C Priest Brumley
Editorial by Gavin Chappell
Lovecraftiana: The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath - Part Six by HP Lovecraft - They were not any birds or bats known elsewhere on earth or in dreamland, for they were larger than elephants and had heads like a horse’s… FANTASY
Afrika Corpses by Sergio Palumbo (Ed. Michele Dutcher) - “You found the Tomb of Forever…?” “Ja, you’re right, Englishman!” HORROR
The Stolen Other – Part Five by C Priest Brumley - “He’s a thirty-eight year old white male, overweight at last medical check-in. Registered ephebophile.” I was nonplussed. “What’s that?” SCIENCE FICTION
The Old Man’s Opus by Zak Dawson - The end is nigh…! POETRY
Shadows by Dawn Napier - The thumping continued, a terrified pounding. “Help me, please! Someone help me, it’s after me!” The woman was weeping... HORROR
Ayame’s Love – Part Seventeen by Thomas C Hewitt – Ayame watches the gardener… EPIC POEM
Cacti Patch by Rob Bliss - Satan bathed in an azure pool… HORROR
That Gnawing Feeling – Part Two by Michael Bray - I got the idea from the Discovery Channel. There was a documentary on about zombies… HORROR
The Blood Eagle – Part Three by Gavin Chappell - The Abbess shook her head. ‘Give up this bloody life,’ she urged her. ‘Forgive your enemies. Join us here; become a nun… SWORD AND SORCERY
Varney the Vampyre ascribed to Thomas Preskett Prest - The Admiral’s story of the beautiful Belinda… GOTHIC HORROR
After London – Part Ten by Richard Jefferies – The Feast… SCIENCE FICTION
This week, Randolph Carter and his yak encounter the dreaded Shantak-bird.
We also have the return of Sergio Palumbo (edited as ever by the indefatigable Michele Dutcher) with Afrika Corpses, which involves World War Two, Ancient Egypt… and things even more sinister. There’s also the conclusion to C Priest Brumley’s The Stolen Other; an apocalyptic poem by Zak Dawson; a short tale of tenebrous horror by Dawn Napier; the continuation of Ayame’s Love; an angelic romance from Rob Bliss; the second part of Michael Bray’s That Gnawing Feeling; the concluding part of The Blood Eagle; and the continuation of Varney and After London.
Tune in next week for the last issue of Volume 2, and the details of a competition, whose winners will see their work published in the upcoming Schlock! Anthology II: Timeless Worlds.
THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH by HP Lovecraft
After two more quarries the inhabited part of Inquanok seemed to end, and the road narrowed to a steeply rising yak-path among forbidding black cliffs. Always on the right towered the gaunt and distant peaks, and as Carter climbed farther and farther into this untraversed realm he found it grew darker and colder. Soon he perceived that there were no prints of feet or hooves on the black path beneath, and realised that he was indeed come into strange and deserted ways of elder time. Once in a while a raven would croak far overhead, and now and then a flapping behind some vast rock would make him think uncomfortably of the rumoured Shantak-bird. But in the main he was alone with his shaggy steed, and it troubled him to observe that this excellent yak became more and more reluctant to advance, and more and more disposed to snort affrightedly at any small noise along the route.
The path now contracted between sable and glistening walls, and began to display an even greater steepness than before. It was a bad footing, and the yak often slipped on the stony fragments strewn thickly about. In two hours Carter saw ahead a definite crest, beyond which was nothing but dull grey sky, and blessed the prospect of a level or downward course. To reach this crest, however, was no easy task; for the way had grown nearly perpendicular, and was perilous with loose black gravel and small stones. Eventually Carter dismounted and led his dubious yak; pulling very hard when the animal balked or stumbled, and keeping his own footing as best he might. Then suddenly he came to the top and saw beyond, and gasped at what he saw.
The path indeed led straight ahead and slightly down, with the same lines of high natural walls as before; but on the left hand there opened out a monstrous space, vast acres in extent, where some archaic power had riven and rent the native cliffs of onyx in the form of a giant’s quarry. Far back into the solid precipice ran that cyclopean gouge, and deep down within earth’s bowels its lower delvings yawned. It was no quarry of man, and the concave sides were scarred with great squares, yards wide, which told of the size of the blocks once hewn by nameless hands and chisels. High over its jagged rim huge ravens flapped and croaked, and vague whirrings in the unseen depths told of bats or urhags or less mentionable presences haunting the endless blackness. There Carter stood in the narrow way amidst the twilight with the rocky path sloping down before him; tall onyx cliffs on his right that led on as far as he could see and tall cliffs on the left chopped off just ahead to make that terrible and unearthly quarry.
All at once the yak uttered a cry and burst from his control, leaping past him and darting on in a panic till it vanished down the narrow slope toward the north. Stones kicked by its flying hooves fell over the brink of the quarry and lost themselves in the dark without any sound of striking bottom; but Carter ignored the perils of that scanty path as he raced breathlessly after the flying steed. Soon the left-behind cliffs resumed their course, making the way once more a narrow lane; and still the traveller leaped on after the yak whose great wide prints told of its desperate flight.
Once he thought he heard the hoofbeats of the frightened beast, and doubled his speed from this encouragement. He was covering miles, and little by little the way was broadening in front till he knew he must soon emerge on the cold and dreaded desert to the north. The gaunt grey flanks of the distant impassable peaks were again visible above the right-hand crags, and ahead were the rocks and boulders of an open space which was clearly a foretaste of the dark arid limitless plain. And once more those hoofbeats sounded in his ears, plainer than before, but this time giving terror instead of encouragement because he realised that they were not the frightened hoofbeats of his fleeing yak. The beats were ruthless and purposeful, and they were behind him.
Carter’s pursuit of the yak became now a flight from an unseen thing, for though he dared not glance over his shoulder he felt that the presence behind him could be nothing wholesome or mentionable. His yak must have heard or felt it first, and he did not like to ask himself whether it had followed him from the haunts of men or had floundered up out of that black quarry pit. Meanwhile the cliffs had been left behind, so that the oncoming night fell over a great waste of sand and spectral rocks wherein all paths were lost. He could not see the hoofprints of his yak, but always from behind him there came that detestable clopping; mingled now and then with what he fancied were titanic flappings and whirrings. That he was losing ground seemed unhappily clear to him, and he knew he was hopelessly lost in this broken and blasted desert of meaningless rocks and untravelled sands. Only those remote and impassable peaks on the right gave him any sense of direction, and even they were less clear as the grey twilight waned and the sickly phosphorescence of the clouds took its place.
Then dim and misty in the darkling north before him he glimpsed a terrible thing. He had thought it for some moments a range of black mountains, but now he saw it was something more. The phosphorescence of the brooding clouds shewed it plainly, and even silhouetted parts of it as vapours glowed behind. How distant it was he could not tell, but it must have been very far. It was thousands of feet high, stretching in a great concave arc from the grey impassable peaks to the unimagined westward spaces, and had once indeed been a ridge of mighty onyx hills. But now these hills were hills no more, for some hand greater than man’s had touched them. Silent they squatted there atop the world like wolves or ghouls, crowned with clouds and mists and guarding the secrets of the north forever. All in a great half circle they squatted, those dog-like mountains carven into monstrous watching statues, and their right hands were raised in menace against mankind.
It was only the flickering light of the clouds that made their mitred double heads seem to move, but as Carter stumbled on he saw arise from their shadowy caps great forms whose motions were no delusion. Winged and whirring, those forms grew larger each moment, and the traveller knew his stumbling was at an end. They were not any birds or bats known elsewhere on earth or in dreamland, for they were larger than elephants and had heads like a horse’s. Carter knew that they must be the Shantak-birds of ill rumour, and wondered no more what evil guardians and nameless sentinels made men avoid the boreal rock desert. And as he stopped in final resignation he dared at last to look behind him, where indeed was trotting the squat slant-eyed trader of evil legend, grinning astride a lean yak and leading on a noxious horde of leering Shantaks to whose wings still clung the rime and nitre of the nether pits.
Trapped though he was by fabulous and hippocephalic winged nightmares that pressed around in great unholy circles, Randolph Carter did not lose consciousness. Lofty and horrible those titan gargoyles towered above him, while the slant-eyed merchant leaped down from his yak and stood grinning before the captive. Then the man motioned Carter to mount one of the repugnant Shantaks, helping him up as his judgement struggled with his loathing. It was hard work ascending, for the Shantak-bird has scales instead of feathers, and those scales are very slippery. Once he was seated, the slant-eyed man hopped up behind him, leaving the lean yak to be led away northward toward the ring of carven mountains by one of the incredible bird colossi.
There now followed a hideous whirl through frigid space, endlessly up and eastward toward the gaunt grey flanks of those impassable mountains beyond which Leng was said to be. Far above the clouds they flew, till at last there lay beneath them those fabled summits which the folk of Inquanok have never seen, and which lie always in high vortices of gleaming mist. Carter beheld them very plainly as they passed below, and saw upon their topmost peaks strange caves which made him think of those on Ngranek; but he did not question his captor about these things when he noticed that both the man and the horse-headed Shantak appeared oddly fearful of them, hurrying past nervously and shewing great tension until they were left far in the rear.
The Shantak now flew lower, revealing beneath the canopy of cloud a grey barren plain whereon at great distances shone little feeble fires. As they descended there appeared at intervals lone huts of granite and bleak stone villages whose tiny windows glowed with pallid light. And there came from those huts and villages a shrill droning of pipes and a nauseous rattle of crotala which proved at once that Inquanok’s people are right in their geographic rumours. For travellers have heard such sounds before, and know that they float only from the cold desert plateau which healthy folk never visit; that haunted place of evil and mystery which is Leng.
Around the feeble fires dark forms were dancing, and Carter was curious as to what manner of beings they might be; for no healthy folk have ever been to Leng, and the place is known only by its fires and stone huts as seen from afar. Very slowly and awkwardly did those forms leap, and with an insane twisting and bending not good to behold; so that Carter did not wonder at the monstrous evil imputed to them by vague legend, or the fear in which all dreamland holds their abhorrent frozen plateau. As the Shantak flew lower, the repulsiveness of the dancers became tinged with a certain hellish familiarity; and the prisoner kept straining his eyes and racking his memory for clues to where he had seen such creatures before.
They leaped as though they had hooves instead of feet, and seemed to wear a sort of wig or headpiece with small horns. Of other clothing they had none, but most of them were quite furry. Behind they had dwarfish tails, and when they glanced upward he saw the excessive width of their mouths. Then he knew what they were, and that they did not wear any wigs or headpieces after all. For the cryptic folk of Leng were of one race with the uncomfortable merchants of the black galleys that traded rubies at Dylath-Leen; those not quite human merchants who are the slaves of the monstrous moon-things! They were indeed the same dark folk who had shanghaied Carter on their noisome galley so long ago, and whose kith he had seen driven in herds about the unclean wharves of that accursed lunar city, with the leaner ones toiling and the fatter ones taken away in crates for other needs of their polypous and amorphous masters. Now he saw where such ambiguous creatures came from, and shuddered at the thought that Leng must be known to these formless abominations from the moon.
But the Shantak flew on past the fires and the stone huts and the less than human dancers, and soared over sterile hills of grey granite and dim wastes of rock and ice and snow. Day came, and the phosphorescence of low clouds gave place to the misty twilight of that northern world, and still the vile bird winged meaningly through the cold and silence. At times the slant-eyed man talked with his steed in a hateful and guttural language, and the Shantak would answer with tittering tones that rasped like the scratching of ground glass. All this while the land was getting higher, and finally they came to a wind-swept table-land which seemed the very roof of a blasted and tenantless world. There, all alone in the hush and the dusk and the cold, rose the uncouth stones of a squat windowless building, around which a circle of crude monoliths stood. In all this arrangement there was nothing human, and Carter surmised from old tales that he was indeed come to that most dreadful and legendary of all places, the remote and prehistoric monastery wherein dwells uncompanioned the High-Priest Not To Be Described, which wears a yellow silken mask over its face and prays to the Other Gods and their crawling chaos Nyarlathotep.
The loathsome bird now settled to the ground, and the slant-eyed man hopped down and helped his captive alight. Of the purpose of his seizure Carter now felt very sure; for clearly the slant-eyed merchant was an agent of the darker powers, eager to drag before his masters a mortal whose presumption had aimed at the finding of unknown Kadath and the saying of a prayer before the faces of the Great Ones in their onyx castle. It seemed likely that this merchant had caused his former capture by the slaves of the moon-things in Dylath-Leen, and that he now meant to do what the rescuing cats had baffled; taking the victim to some dread rendezvous with monstrous Nyarlathotep and telling with what boldness the seeking of unknown Kadath had been tried. Leng and the cold waste north of Inquanok must be close to the Other Gods, and there the passes to Kadath are well guarded.
The slant-eyed man was small, but the great hippocephalic bird was there to see he was obeyed; so Carter followed where he led, and passed within the circle of standing rocks and into the low arched doorway of that windowless stone monastery. There were no lights inside, but the evil merchant lit a small clay lamp bearing morbid bas-reliefs and prodded his prisoner on through mazes of narrow winding corridors. On the walls of the corridors were printed frightful scenes older than history, and in a style unknown to the archaeologists of earth. After countless aeons their pigments were brilliant still, for the cold and dryness of hideous Leng keep alive many primal things. Carter saw them fleetingly in the rays of that dim and moving lamp, and shuddered at the tale they told.
Through those archaic frescoes Leng’s annals stalked; and the horned, hooved, and wide-mouthed almost-humans danced evilly amidst forgotten cities. There were scenes of old wars, wherein Leng’s almost-humans fought with the bloated purple spiders of the neighbouring vales; and there were scenes also of the coming of the black galleys from the moon, and of the submission of Leng’s people to the polypous and amorphous blasphemies that hopped and floundered and wriggled out of them. Those slippery greyish-white blasphemies they worshipped as gods, nor ever complained when scores of their best and fatted males were taken away in the black galleys. The monstrous moon-beasts made their camp on a jagged isle in the sea, and Carter could tell from the frescoes that this was none other than the lone nameless rock he had seen when sailing to Inquanok; that grey accursed rock which Inquanok’s seamen shun, and from which vile howlings reverberate all through the night.
And in those frescoes was shewn the great seaport and capital of the almost-humans; proud and pillared betwixt the cliffs and the basalt wharves, and wondrous with high fanes and carven places. Great gardens and columned streets led from the cliffs and from each of the six sphinx-crowned gates to a vast central plaza, and in that plaza was a pair of winged colossal lions guarding the top of a subterrene staircase. Again and again were those huge winged lions shewn, their mighty flanks of diarite glistening in the grey twilight of the day and the cloudy phosphorescence of the night. And as Carter stumbled past their frequent and repeated pictures it came to him at last what indeed they were, and what city it was that the almost-humans had ruled so anciently before the coming of the black galleys. There could be no mistake, for the legends of dreamland are generous and profuse. Indubitably that primal city was no less a place than storied Sarkomand, whose ruins had bleached for a million years before the first true human saw the light, and whose twin titan lions guard eternally the steps that lead down from dreamland to the Great Abyss.
Other views shewed the gaunt grey peaks dividing Leng from Inquanok, and the monstrous Shantak-birds that build nests on the ledges half way up. And they shewed likewise the curious caves near the very topmost pinnacles, and how even the boldest of the Shantaks fly screaming away from them. Carter had seen those caves when he passed over them, and had noticed their likeness to the caves on Ngranek. Now he knew that the likeness was more than a chance one, for in these pictures were shewn their fearsome denizens; and those bat-wings, curving horns, barbed tails, prehensile paws and rubbery bodies were not strange to him. He had met those silent, flitting and clutching creatures before; those mindless guardians of the Great Abyss whom even the Great Ones fear, and who own not Nyarlathotep but hoary Nodens as their lord. For they were the dreaded night-gaunts, who never laugh or smile because they have no faces, and who flop unendingly in the dark betwixt the Vale of Pnath and the passes to the outer world.
The slant-eyed merchant had now prodded Carter into a great domed space whose walls were carved in shocking bas-reliefs, and whose centre held a gaping circular pit surrounded by six malignly stained stone altars in a ring. There was no light in this vast evil-smelling crypt, and the small lamp of the sinister merchant shone so feebly that one could grasp details only little by little. At the farther end was a high stone dais reached by five steps; and there on a golden throne sat a lumpish figure robed in yellow silk figured with red and having a yellow silken mask over its face. To this being the slant-eyed man made certain signs with his hands, and the lurker in the dark replied by raising a disgustingly carven flute of ivory in silk-covered paws and blowing certain loathsome sounds from beneath its flowing yellow mask. This colloquy went on for some time, and to Carter there was something sickeningly familiar in the sound of that flute and the stench of the malodorous place. It made him think of a frightful red-litten city and of the revolting procession that once filed through it; of that, and of an awful climb through lunar countryside beyond, before the rescuing rush of earth’s friendly cats. He knew that the creature on the dais was without doubt the High-Priest Not To Be Described, of which legend whispers such fiendish and abnormal possibilities, but he feared to think just what that abhorred High-Priest might be.
Then the figured silk slipped a trifle from one of the greyish-white paws, and Carter knew what the noisome High-Priest was. And in that hideous second, stark fear drove him to something his reason would never have dared to attempt, for in all his shaken consciousness there was room only for one frantic will to escape from what squatted on that golden throne. He knew that hopeless labyrinths of stone lay betwixt him and the cold table-land outside, and that even on that table-land the noxious Shantak still waited; yet in spite of all this there was in his mind only the instant need to get away from that wriggling, silk-robed monstrosity.
The slant-eyed man had set the curious lamp upon one of the high and wickedly stained altar-stones by the pit, and had moved forward somewhat to talk to the High-Priest with his hands. Carter, hitherto wholly passive, now gave that man a terrific push with all the wild strength of fear, so that the victim toppled at once into that gaping well which rumour holds to reach down to the hellish Vaults of Zin where Gugs hunt ghasts in the dark. In almost the same second he seized the lamp from the altar and darted out into the frescoed labyrinths, racing this way and that as chance determined and trying not to think of the stealthy padding of shapeless paws on the stones behind him, or of the silent wrigglings and crawlings which must be going on back there in lightless corridors.
After a few moments he regretted his thoughtless haste, and wished he had tried to follow backward the frescoes he had passed on the way in. True, they were so confused and duplicated that they could not have done him much good, but he wished none the less he had made the attempt. Those he now saw were even more horrible than those he had seen then, and he knew he was not in the corridors leading outside. In time he became quite sure he was not followed, and slackened his pace somewhat; but scarce had he breathed in half relief when a new peril beset him. His lamp was waning, and he would soon be in pitch blackness with no means of sight or guidance.
When the light was all gone he groped slowly in the dark, and prayed to the Great Ones for such help as they might afford. At times he felt the stone floor sloping up or down, and once he stumbled over a step for which no reason seemed to exist. The farther he went the damper it seemed to be, and when he was able to feel a junction or the mouth of a side passage he always chose the way which sloped downward the least. He believed, though, that his general course was down; and the vault-like smell and incrustations on the greasy walls and floor alike warned him he was burrowing deep in Leng’s unwholesome table-land. But there was not any warning of the thing which came at last; only the thing itself with its terror and shock and breath-taking chaos. One moment he was groping slowly over the slippery floor of an almost level place, and the next he was shooting dizzily downward in the dark through a burrow which must have been well-nigh vertical.
Of the length of that hideous sliding he could never be sure, but it seemed to take hours of delirious nausea and ecstatic frenzy. Then he realized he was still, with the phosphorescent clouds of a northern night shining sickly above him. All around were crumbling walls and broken columns, and the pavement on which he lay was pierced by straggling grass and wrenched asunder by frequent shrubs and roots. Behind him a basalt cliff rose topless and perpendicular; its dark side sculptured into repellent scenes, and pierced by an arched and carven entrance to the inner blacknesses out of which he had come. Ahead stretched double rows of pillars, and the fragments and pedestals of pillars, that spoke of a broad and bygone street; and from the urns and basins along the way he knew it had been a great street of gardens. Far off at its end the pillars spread to mark a vast round plaza, and in that open circle there loomed gigantic under the lurid night clouds a pair of monstrous things. Huge winged lions of diarite they were, with blackness and shadow between them. Full twenty feet they reared their grotesque and unbroken heads, and snarled derisive on the ruins around them. And Carter knew right well what they must be, for legend tells of only one such twain. They were the changeless guardians of the Great Abyss, and these dark ruins were in truth primordial Sarkomand.
Carter’s first act was to close and barricade the archway in the cliff with fallen blocks and odd debris that lay around. He wished no follower from Leng’s hateful monastery, for along the way ahead would lurk enough of other dangers. Of how to get from Sarkomand to the peopled parts of dreamland he knew nothing at all; nor could he gain much by descending to the grottoes of the ghouls, since he knew they were no better informed than he. The three ghouls which had helped him through the city of Gugs to the outer world had not known how to reach Sarkomand in their journey back, but had planned to ask old traders in Dylath-Leen. He did not like to think of going again to the subterrene world of Gugs and risking once more that hellish tower of Koth with its Cyclopean steps leading to the enchanted wood, yet he felt he might have to try this course if all else failed. Over Leng’s plateau past the lone monastery he dared not go unaided; for the High-Priest’s emissaries must be many, while at the journey’s end there would no doubt be the Shantaks and perhaps other things to deal with. If he could get a boat he might sail back to Inquanok past the jagged and hideous rock in the sea, for the primal frescoes in the monastery labyrinth had shewn that this frightful place lies not far from Sarkomand’s basalt quays. But to find a boat in this aeon-deserted city was no probable thing, and it did not appear likely that he could ever make one.
Such were the thoughts of Randolph Carter when a new impression began beating upon his mind. All this while there had stretched before him the great corpse-like width of fabled Sarkomand with its black broken pillars and crumbling sphinx-crowned gates and titan stones and monstrous winged lions against the sickly glow of those luminous night clouds. Now he saw far ahead and on the right a glow that no clouds could account for, and knew he was not alone in the silence of that dead city. The glow rose and fell fitfully, flickering with a greenish tinge which did not reassure the watcher. And when he crept closer, down the littered street and through some narrow gaps between tumbled walls, he perceived that it was a campfire near the wharves with many vague forms clustered darkly around it; and a lethal odour hanging heavily over all. Beyond was the oily lapping of the harbour water with a great ship riding at anchor, and Carter paused in stark terror when he saw that the ship was indeed one of the dreaded black galleys from the moon.
Then, just as he was about to creep back from that detestable flame, he saw a stirring among the vague dark forms and heard a peculiar and unmistakable sound. It was the frightened meeping of a ghoul, and in a moment it had swelled to a veritable chorus of anguish. Secure as he was in the shadow of monstrous ruins, Carter allowed his curiosity to conquer his fear, and crept forward again instead of retreating. Once in crossing an open street he wriggled worm-like on his stomach, and in another place he had to rise to his feet to avoid making a noise among heaps of fallen marble. But always he succeeded in avoiding discovery, so that in a short time he had found a spot behind a titan pillar where he could watch the whole green-litten scene of action. There around a hideous fire fed by the obnoxious stems of lunar fungi, there squatted a stinking circle of the toadlike moonbeasts and their almost-human slaves. Some of these slaves were heating curious iron spears in the leaping flames, and at intervals applying their white-hot points to three tightly trussed prisoners that lay writhing before the leaders of the party. From the motions of their tentacles Carter could see that the blunt-snouted moonbeasts were enjoying the spectacle hugely, and vast was his horror when he suddenly recognised the frantic meeping and knew that the tortured ghouls were none other than the faithful trio which had guided him safely from the abyss, and had thereafter set out from the enchanted wood to find Sarkomand and the gate to their native deeps.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
AFRIKA CORPSES by Sergio “ente per ente” Palumbo. Edited by Michele Dutcher
As soon as Professor Matthew Bordhin arrived in Egypt, accompanied by his young attendant Brad Dobson, he found that Cairo during WWII had all the fantasy and appeal that years of European occupation could bring it. The town’s streets were filled with military vehicles and soldiers from the British Isles: Englishmen of course, but also Scotsmen, Welshmen and Irishmen. If you looked sideways, you could spot some ancient coffee shops down a few narrow alleys, some beautiful architecture and peculiar buildings, smells of chickens in a walnut sauce and other culinary delights, coming from all corners of the city. In a way it was like stepping back in time.
Well dressed, in a classic buttoned-down shirt of muted hues, Bordhin was fifty-five years old, with a dark complexion, two vivid chestnut eyes - a tall man of tasteful bearing whose appearance looked in plain contrast with the figure of Dobson. His attendant was twenty-six, wore spectacles, was of average height, and was fair-haired. He clearly lacked elegance in his light outfit, because he obviously wasn’t used to the warm climate.
The British had two headquarters in Cairo in 1941: British Troops in Egypt (BTE), which was set up in an hotel along the river, and General Headquarters Middle East, which was made up of many commandeered flats in Garden City. That one was their first destination this morning.
At the beginning of May, 1941, the Western Desert Campaign against the German troops was proceeding as usual, as this war looked like a continuous back-and-forth struggle. For now, the British Army had regained almost the entire territory that had been held before by their enemies, but who knew what might happen within the next few days, during a Desert War like this one. Professor Bordhin and his attendant were expected. A car (according to Dobson’s later memory, a Humber Heavy Utility Staff Car) took them to General Headquarters Middle East.
Once there, while Bordhin was wiping the sweat from his bald head, there were only a few pleasantries while the middle-aged General Officer Commanding-in-Chief welcomed them. They had a little chat about the good old British weather back in the U.K., asking for some recent news about London, especially about the civilians and life in the countryside - since he was already full of reports about the military operations and the war in his homeland. Then he seemed to be interested in Bordhin’s job as an experienced, international archaeologist, but many of the things the Professor told the middle-aged military man were not fully understood, most likely because there were too many historical references. In the end, they were dismissed and assigned a driver for the next few days, a Major - an Officer commanding a company, as Professor Bordhin was told - named Alexander Frobisher, who was temporarily relieved from his duties on the battlefield in order to accompany the pair to their destination.
Once they were out of the building, the Major, a disheveled bulky man of about forty, asked the Professor, “You’re here to deal with the Afrika Corpses, down there in Qabr el Shubak, aren’t you?”
“Afrika Corpses?” the confused archaeologist asked Dobson, his attendant.
“Oh, Professor, it’s an old joke among the British soldiers here. It’s a word pun about the German term Korps and corpses.”
“You mean it, right…?” Frobisher continued.
“Oh, yeah, just as you said,” Bordhin replied.
“Is this mission you’ve been assigned so important?”
“Yes, it is, of course, but it’s nothing we can speak about, as you obviously have worked out.”
“Indeed…” the military driver said.
“The Germans are retreating by now, after the attack of our troops. In April we recaptured all the territory on the western border, with the exception of Sollum.”
“That’s further north than our destination,” the attendant said.
“Well, it’s almost 500 miles across the desert, so the trip is going to be warm and long. I’ll try to make it easier for you, but don’t expect me to make the trip easy for you.”
“You don’t need to…we know it’s a war zone, but all of this can’t be helped.”
“So your mission must be really important, I suppose, after all.”
“Yes, you are absolutely correct in coming to that conclusion.”
After spending a night in a suite inside Headquarters, all of them woke up early the next morning and left. Before heading into the desert, Bordhin and his young attendant met “Tilly” for the first time - the small utility truck which was meant to carry the group to their destination. Such a vehicle - a typical British wartime improvisation in the face of adversity - was the color of the desert sand. They knew they had better get used to it quickly if they wanted to get to the tomb without a hitch.
They moved away from the busy streets of the town – which were crawling with bustle and untidiness - and rapidly got to the sand dunes just outside the city: this was the first opportunity the pair had had to enjoy the silence and mystical beauty of the desert plateau, southwest of Cairo. If you had to walk on your own over such a landscape in the extreme heat outside, you would have been lucky to go on for just an hour before becoming exhausted.
“What is it like, this ancient tomb you are looking for? The Tomb of Forever, isn’t that what it’s called?” the driver asked the Professor during the drive.
“Well, I don’t know exactly, since not a soul has seen it over the last five thousand years.”
“So, how do you plan to find it?” The soldier was a bit easy-going, and it was clear he was skeptical of these historical exhibitions.
“Actually, there are descriptions of it, tomes and books depicting it. But simply put, no one has seen it recently, at least not from almost the beginning of Mankind’s history.”
“But it’s not a huge object, is it, like the pyramids or other structures from the past that emerge from the ground here and there in Egypt, some even near downtown? If it were like that, somebody would have already found it.”
“We think it’s buried under the sands nowadays, and that’s probably why no one has discovered it so far.”
“Why should a long lost tomb, hidden under the ground, be of such importance to the British government?” the Major insisted.
“Because somebody has finally found it.”
“The Germans… or so we think, anyway.”
“I see…” Frobisher finally said, having a sort of nasty taste in his mouth. “Afrika Corpses…I knew it was them!” And then he began to swear soundly.
After this conversation, the trio traveled mostly in silence, over the course of that day.
When they reached the first stop along the road it was already dusk. The overnight stay was meant to occur in a small village not on the map. The Major had proved his abilities in finding that village and driving them there, so the town turned out to exist after all.
The morning after, they once again began their travels very early. Better to make the most of the cooler temperatures in the early hours and go as far as they possibly could. After a 4-hour drive, about at 10 A.M., the red-hot climate was already oppressive, but there was nothing they could do but get used to it.
The white rock formations seemed to go on forever. There were few words exchanged among the people onboard for most of the morning. By the afternoon it was too hot even to think of saying something. The desert looked like a quiet place - after all, that empty, boundless area was far away from the zone of military operations and from the war itself. At least, for now.
In the evening, the Professor knew they were near the right spot. The brown stone he had attached to his belt brightened and seemed to sparkle.
“What’s that?” Frobisher asked, giving it a look-over.
“It’s an old artifact, something that will hopefully help us find the spot we’re looking for.”
“And it lights up by itself…Great,” the military driver exclaimed. “I suspect there’s something you aren’t telling me about all this, but I suppose it’s because of your mission here. Anyway, you fellows really are a little weird.”
Dobson, the attendant, couldn’t prevent himself from smiling at the Major, but didn’t say anything.
The village they finally came to was very small, made up only of a few houses. There were several dwellings abandoned here and there and it seemed that those were slowly disintegrating with the passing of the years. The group decided to stay there for the night.
The two main streets in the middle of the village were practically vacant, and all the people passing by looked like retiring presences or silent recluses who quickly disappeared into their houses or hurried around the corner.
They chose a building and asked its elderly owners for their hospitality. There were no problems as it was the Major who asked them on behalf of the British Army. They couldn’t have refused it, anyway.
But everything happened that night.
While still asleep in the common room in the left wing of the house, they heard some noises coming from the entrance. The Major was the first to stand up, his firearm in hand. He just looked like the kind who was used to sleeping with one eye open, wearing his uniform and always being on the alert. Maybe it was the war that had made him so, or he might have been this way by nature.
The wooden door suddenly opened and one of the elderly owners, an old man with a lamp, appeared at once, greeting the group of guests and claiming there was somebody in the village who wanted to speak with them immediately.
The Professor, while getting up with difficulty and staring at the man, noticed that his look was strange: the face was motionless, and eyes seemed preoccupied and distracted. At this point the Major lowered his weapon, keeping it on his right side, looking cautiously forward, while Bordhin and his attendant were collecting themselves.
But all of Frobisher’s precautions were of no use, because everything happened too fast to avert it effectively. As soon as the old man moved aside, four individuals charged in. They wore long black ankle length pieces of clothing - similar to the thawb, the traditional Arabic gown – and these covered almost their entire bodies, allowing Frobisher’s group to glimpse only their faces: they looked like westerners, blonde hair, tall and slender…were they Germans?
Before anyone in the group could do anything, the Major was shot and killed by means of a Pistol M 37 that - incredibly fast - came out of the sleeve of one of the newcomers. Immediately after, another shot silenced forever the Professor’s attendant who was desperately trying to hide in back of the bed. At that point the bloodshed ended, and the four men stopped and stared at Bordhin.
“Who are you?” the Professor asked them, amazed at the incredible speed of the unexpected assault.
“Look at the stone he has at his belt! The same design we saw in the buried chamber down there,” said the man with the Pistol M 37 at hand, without paying attention to his words.
“Ja, that’s it, to be sure. So the villagers told us the truth after all,” the one to his left replied.
“You found the Tomb of Forever, didn’t you?” Bordhin interjected.
“Ja, you’re right, Englishman!”
“Maybe he can give us some answers.”
“While you discuss, may I…?” a voice coming from the third one exclaimed.
The first one, probably the leader of all of them, turned and stated, “Ja, go on…”
So, with an unexpected burst, the other came forward and forcefully threw himself on the dead body of Frobisher, who then started bleeding him eagerly using his extended canines. The fourth fellow next to him did the same and was pitiless against the corpse of Dobson, his poor attendant.
Finally everything became clear. The Professor looked at the paleness of the attackers’ faces, their skin was clearer than usual, even for some Germans, and they all had a weird leanness. The man who stood directly in front of him wore identity tags around his neck…but he wasn’t a man, not anymore.
“You know about the tomb?” the German asked the Bordhin.
“Yes, I know about it,” Matthew replied. “How did you figure out the exact location?”
“Well, we’ll tell you…as you are going to die anyway, Englishman.” Their English was not very good, but he was able to comprehend what they were saying anyway.
“Actually, we are specially-trained soldiers from an Afrika Korps unit and were sent to this zone in order to retrieve some powerful artifacts from the past on behalf of our beloved country. There are similar teams working in many areas of the world now, like Asia and France…” The German paused. “There are legends telling us many things about such objects which could be of help during this war, they could prove capable of become incredible instruments in our hands: everything we collect might turn out to be important.”
“So, we found the tomb using some ancient maps of the area which helped us find our way through the desert,” the one next to him went on.
“I thought so…”
“But when we found the ancient Egyptian tomb, under the sand, and entered that, we discovered a stony box in the burial chamber. We tried to open it, although it was very difficult.”
“We were looking for the remains of the first Vampire the world had ever known. Many thought of him as only a legendary figure, but it turned out to be true.” The vampire who had recently been a man continued: “Anyway, the paintings that lay around deep inside the tomb, lit up by our lamps, revealed the story of how the Egyptians were once enslaved by such a powerful undead being who ruled them all for several centuries, and how they finally got rid of him, thanks to an old mage. This shaman rebelled against the vampire and created a spelled stony box decorated with intricate carvings which allowed them to drain all of the loathsome blood out of the undead’s body over the course of one day, while he was asleep. That way, they were able to destroy his putrid and weak body, but not his immortal blood that appeared to be indestructible. So they contained and sealed it inside that powerful box forever, then closed the tomb and left it hidden inside.”
“But you found it,” the Professor said.
“Yes, we did, but as soon as we discovered such a thing and got near the box, the one among us who opened it was invaded by its blood, which made him become something different, depriving him of his humanity, turning the man into a Vampire…” He paused again. “That man was me!”
“And then, what happened to all the other men with you down there?”
“Actually, I felt stronger, faster and more powerful than ever, but I needed fresh blood. So I fed upon the ones next to me, the ones who had been my fellow soldiers only a minute before. This way I made three vampires like myself, I mean my fellows you see here. We easily killed all the other people inside the tomb, all the men in our unit, made up of twenty experienced people, because of our hunger.”
“Our hunger seemed to be all consuming, it was devouring us,” the individual next to him confirmed.
“Why didn’t you go to your superiors and report this find?”
“Well, simply because we were not able to do it. We are trapped here! There are not special vehicles suited to transport us safely during daylight across those sunny lands…”
“…and daylight is deadly for all of us.”
“Legends about vampires say that such beings can turn themselves into bats or flying creatures, but that’s not real. We are not allowed to walk under the sun or to leave this place before sunset. We can only go around at night in order to feed ourselves, as we did in this village.”
“We asked for assistance but the military unit sent to reach us…”
“…was killed by some British soldiers,” Bordhin added. “They were our troops. We heard your message and they acted in time to destroy your reinforcements in the area. Then I was sent here…”
“You were sent here, you say. For what? - to die maybe? Or because of that stone? What’s the meaning of it?”
“Not for that. Actually, may I introduce myself to you?”
“What are you saying? You don’t look like a typical Englishman.”
“I am not an Englishman. I am a member of an ancient religious order that helped the ancient Egyptian mage to drain all the blood out of that being and put it into the tomb, inside that spelled box, all those centuries ago. We knew that it would never be destroyed by anyone - as it was immortal blood, the true essence of an undead, older than mankind itself. So we were forced to promise that we would control such a place forever, since we weren’t capable of destroying it once and for all. We didn’t want anybody else to be harmed by it again.” The Professor stared at the four vampires around him. “Then, over the course of history, Egypt was invaded by the Arabs and our religion, our beliefs and all the stories about those heroic deeds and past events were lost.”
“But our Order survived throughout all the centuries, even though many of us went abroad to stay and live, anyway. My family got to England in 1400 A.D. but never forgot what they had to do - it was their duty handed down from one generation to another since the time of their ancestors of course.” Bordhin paused briefly. “We kept watching even though the tomb looked lost but we knew that the immortal blood was still living somewhere.”
“And what do you plan to do now …?” the perplexed German asked him. The other two vampires who were feeding on the corpses in the room stopped, at that point.
“This spelled stone led me here, there’s a link between it and the place where the blood was hidden at that time.”
“So what?” the vampire right in front of him exclaimed.
“Now I’m here to have it sealed again, hopefully forever this time…”
And, saying that, the man took the brilliant stone and raised his left hand. Each of the four vampires in the room began suddenly writhing in pain, all of them crying out and despairing while the cursed blood running inside their bodies started gushing out of their undead eyes, mouths and skin in order to be collected into a box which had been hidden inside the Professor’s travel bag, near the bed.
The red liquid rivulets met on the floor, mixing and merging, flowing as a sort of stream across the room. Then all was completed, finally, again.
Bordhin had a look at the two poor fellows who had died because of his important mission. They were good men - the Major really had been a brave soldier and Dobson was too young to die, too. Unfortunately, that was a war which was fought not only among military armies on the battlefields worldwide, but also between the mages of Good and the followers of Evil, all involved in a continuous search for lost, ancient magical objects, endowed with special powers, capable of changing the course of history and the destiny of the whole Mankind. And every war had its casualties of course.
Later, Bordhin would notice that there was no sign of the elderly man inside the house – which coincided with the moment the blood had abandoned the vampires’ bodies. The old couple was now free from the vampire’s influence - most likely he had taken his aged wife with him and both of them were escaping from that place even now.
The Professor knew that in the morning he would go and ask the remaining villagers to help bury his dead fellows on the site. Then he would pick up all the things he had to and leave. Very soon that big evil would be placed in a safe location, somewhere else. All of this would be done because Bordhin was aware that no one else needed to possess such a great power and walk among the living as an undead again.
The sunrise silhouetting the desert rock formations in a soft red luminescence truly looked like a miraculous sight outside. A long road lay ahead of him on the way back…
THE STOLEN OTHER by C Priest Brumley
The sights flying by the windows of Hector’s sports car were no longer registering on my conscious mind. The man’s name, Jerry Tuttle, given to me moments ago, wound itself deep in the crevices of my brain, refusing to break its hold.
“You got any details on this guy, sir?”
“A few, but it’s pretty well guarded. He’s a thirty-eight year old white male, overweight at last medical check-in. Registered ephebophile.”
I was nonplussed. “What’s that?”
He spared me a glance as he drove, then looked forward once more. “Means he’s a sex offender that likes girls not quite of legal age.”
“Like a pedophile?”
“Not quite, but close. Pedophiles like pre-pubescents. Ephebophiles like them after puberty hits, but still too young to be legal, most of the time between twelve and eighteen years old.”
My stomach lurched, both from hunger and from the sickening information being given to me. “So he got caught molesting underage girls? When?”
“Get this, Hadley: The guy turned himself in about five years ago, in hopes that the psych unit people could ‘cure’ his paraphilia. Didn’t take. Guy got caught a month later by police monitors staring at girls outside of Woodlawn Parks Secondary School. They took him on misdemeanor, he posted bail, went right off the grid.”
“And we never caught him?”
Hector glanced past me to the right side of the road, slowed down, and pulled in to a drive-through restaurant I hadn’t noticed before and parked the car. “That’s right. Good reason for it, too. Got himself a job behind firewalls at the Department of Social Identity. The fucker’s clever, Hadley.”
“Department of Social Identity. Why is that-- Oh!” More pieces fell together, the puzzle board in my head filling up faster than I knew what to do with. The drugs that had only minutes before been keeping me from my full cognitive reasoning power began to falter, lifting the veil from my fuchsia eyes, and allowing the details, at long last, to fit together. “So, he uses the firewalling protection of his job to his advantage to spy on and molest little girls. Got it. But what the hell does he want my former identity for?”
“That’s the big question. First, though, we have to get some food in you. You’re getting freakishly thin, Hadley. When was the last time you ate?”
“What time is it now?” Hector pressed a button, lighting up a display panel on the dashboard directly in front of me. A glance at the clock told me all I needed to know. “It’s eight now, so almost twenty-four hours ago. Has it been that long already?”
“Seems to be. Come on, I’m paying.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Thirty minutes later and we’re back on our way. Which reminds me...
“So where exactly are we headed, sir?”
“Well, now that you’re fed and watered, we’re en route to Tuttle’s last known address.”
I sputtered. “Why the fuck didn’t you tell me this at first, sir? Jesus, we could have gotten this asshole already!”
Hector’s tired sigh struck a note and calmed me down in an instant. “Because we don’t even know if he’s there, Hadley. Guy lives his life as guarded as possible, what with the firewalls and who knows what else. More than likely he moved as soon as he could to prevent a situation.”
“So why are we still going, then, sir?”
“Way I see it, if he’s not there, we can at least gather some leads and start tracking the bastard down. If he is, well--”
“The worse for him,” I finished out loud. My veins coursed with unabated hatred as the faceless form of Jerry Tuttle swam before me in silent mockery, a hatred born of all the pain I’ve felt and seen since yesterday, of almost being arrested twice, of having to publicly acknowledge who I once was...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The apartment complex loomed large in front of me, ten stories tall of imposing, dark brickwork and balcony-less windows, taunting me with its size and the knowledge of what lies inside. Hector and I both adjusted our guns and strode forward, anticipation flavoring the air I breathed, the penny-copper taste of adrenaline tainting the back of my tongue, the doors were directly ahead of us--
“Hadley, look at me.” I turned my head to the left to see Hector, consternation on his face, staring me down. “Whatever the fuck happens in there, I need you to keep your head, okay? This isn’t a child’s game today. I know you don’t have too much experience in the field, so now’s the time for you to drop that green on your shoulder and get your feet wet, okay?” I nodded in reply. “Good. And if you’re hurt, just drop and hit the deck. Might re-injure your ribs, but we can take care of that later if need be.” I nodded again. “Let’s do this. Apartment Seven-H, here we come.”
Hector pushed the front doors open, revealing an entry hall the size of my palatial bathroom, with elevators lining the wall to the left. Hector walked forward and pressed a button, a gesture that was responded by the doors of the elevator to our immediate right opening a moment later. We both clamored in, and since I was the nearest, I had the honour of pressing the lit button marked “7.” The doors closed, and with a jerk of the enclosed box, we were on our way.
Seconds later, the doors opened with a ‘ding’, expelling Hector and I out in to a cramped hallway, doors lining the walls around us, increasing the sense of claustrophobia that seemed to kick in after first footfall. Hector took off to the right, counting the doors, looking for the right one, while I went left, hoping to get there first.
I was the victor.
“Over here.” It was all I could manage through the dry spell that had suddenly engulfed my throat, and within moments Hector was by my side, loosing the release on his holster, nudging me to do the same, and I did so, the snap on the leather throng coming undone with a slight pop, and the gun felt heavy on my hip, I’d never worn it before now, never needed to, and Hector was knocking on the door with the bottom of his fist, and no one responded, so he knocked again, and the world was blurring around me, and all I can see is the door, and now, he’s stepping back--
Hector’s boot connected with the door right under the handle, splintering the doorframe, sending shards of cheap plywood flying around us in a chaotic pattern. My tunnel vision followed several pieces on their trajectory, watching their slow descent to the carpet below us. Hector kicked again, and this time succeeded in breaking the door around the lock. He pulled his gun and kept the muzzle depressed, nodding at me to do the same. I did so and fell in to line behind him as he entered the apartment, shouldering the door out of the way.
At the far end of the room was Kyra, a gun pointed at her head. Holding the gun was a man, middle-aged, his hair a chaotic mess that showed of being unkempt, his skin covered in grease and pimples from not bathing and adult acne, his clothing rumpled from too much wear. He peered at us over the top of his glasses, malevolence inherent in his stare.
“Finally. I’ve been waiting for this.”
“Let her go, Tuttle. What’d she do to you?”
Tuttle pressed the gun in to Kyra’s hair, and started shouting in our direction. “IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A WARNING, YOU IMBECILES!”
My anger started to boil. Fuck him. Fuck him and everything he’s done to me! “Why? Why me? What the fuck did I do to you? All the hell you’ve put me through? WHY ME?” I raised my gun and pulled the trigger, hearing the loud ‘bang’ of the gunshot as the bullet flew at Jerry Tuttle’s startled form, hitting his shoulder, watching him drop the gun and hit the ground in that same exaggerated hyper-real slow-motion, the edges of my vision blurred and all I could focus on was the blood pooling up under his body, and he was whimpering like a baby, and he wasn’t hurting enough.
I walked forward and turned the gun around in my hand so that I was holding the warm muzzle, and I knelt over him, hurting my ribs more but I didn’t care. “Do you realize what you put me through, Tuttle?” I slammed the side of his face with the handle of the gun, eliciting another cry of pain.
“Who are you?” His tears choked the words. He tried to cough, spitting out a couple of teeth in the process.
“You don’t know? YOU DON’T KNOW WHO I AM?” My rage broke once more, and I hit him across the face with the gun again, and again, breaking more teeth in the process. I went to swing again, but felt my arm caught by Hector’s wiry strength.
“He’s done, Hadley. I don’t think he actually knows who you are. He’s done.” He helped pull me back up to my feet from my kneeling position, where I reholstered my gun and took a step back. Tuttle coughed again, expelling more teeth in the process, and turned his head to stare at me.
“But who are you?”
“My name was Anjelica Sutton.”
His eyes grew wide, the fear that had been kept at bay from the pain now in full control. “I’m sorry... I’m so sorry...” he chanted over and over, trying to crawl away from me with his left arm, smearing the pool of blood underneath him as he went.
“What did you do to Kyra?” Hector’s cold voice came across my right shoulder as he stepped forward, gun drawn and pointed at Jerry Tuttle’s head.
“Mister... Mister Winky...” Tuttle coughed out more teeth with a splatter of bright blood, looking at us with the fading look of a man in decline. “Virus... rewrites the programming of her implant and firewalls... on my command... it short-circuits... drains bio-electricity....” He gasped between breaths, and coughed again, expelling another spray of blood, the thick liquid now coating the front of his stained shirt.
“So how do we remove the virus?” I spoke this time before Hector could, stepping forward to loom over his prone form, increasing the intimidation. The tunnel vision had mercifully ceased, leaving my head clear and my vision focused. Tuttle tried to scuttle back once more, only to hit a wall with his head, eliciting another moan of pain in the process.
“You... You can’t. I have a... kill switch... programmed in my implant.”
“So turn the virus off.” Hector still had his gun pointed at Tuttle’s head. Tuttle whimpered and slapped his hand on his bullet wound, crying out from pain.
“Why? So... so you can kill me? Have a happy ending? You’re going to have to kill--” BANG. “FUCK!” The bullet entered Tuttle’s other shoulder, splattering more blood against the wall. Hector lowered his gun, the wisp of smoke from his muzzle visible in the low light. “Alright! Christ, I’ll do it, just let me live, huh?”
“Maybe. Hadley, cuff him and hit his button.” I did as I was told, jerking Tuttle’s arms behind his back as I applied the cuffs. His V.I. Button went in willingly, and thirty seconds later, we heard the stirring from the couch nearby that meant Kyra was waking. I pressed the button again before Tuttle could do anything else, then walked over to where she lay and watched as her eyes opened, blinking away the effects of the virus. She had lost weight, I could tell, probably from the bio-electricity draining having taken her body’s stores. She smiled at me, a gesture I would never get used to yet never forget. I smiled back and kissed her, passion making me forget our surroundings, the pain and shame of the last twenty-four hours melting away as we did.
“AHHHHHH!” Tuttle had managed to get to his feet and charged Kyra and myself, screaming at the top of his lungs as he ran across the room, flecks of blood flying in his wake. I pulled my gun and aimed, but was beat to the punch.
Hector’s semi-automatic pistol lowered to his side as he turned back to us, the dead body of Jerry Tuttle falling to the ground in the background. “I love seeing you two together, I really do, but can we hold this off until we get out of here?”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The Department of Social Identity reinstated my communications privileges the next day, after Tuttle’s body had been collected and his implant scanned over for proof of tampering and Neural Net hacking. It was only afterwards that we received word from Slicer H-Q of Tuttle’s true transgressions: He had been a serial rapist, using the virus to firewall off young females, virtually rape them to insanity, and letting the bio-electricity drain kill them off when he was done. The police weren’t entirely sure, but based on a cross-reference of similar cases, they estimated his victim count at approximately twenty-two, all blonde and between the ages of thirteen and twenty. The news brought a renewed bout of nausea whenever it entered my mind, followed by a sense of pride that it was Hector and I what brought him down.
Kyra turned out fine. Tuttle never activated the draining portion of the virus, leaving her merely in a state of malnutrition when we found her. He hadn’t even raped her, since she was, as he had put it to her, “too fucking old.” My own recovery took a few weeks, all covered by hazard pay (Hector made sure to point out the praise he had for me in his report, including his request for the requisite pay). Kyra and I even officially became a couple after my hospital stay, and to be honest, I’ve never been happier. Well, I still have to get rid of Dumbass, but one thing at a time, right?
THE OLD MAN’S OPUS by Zak Dawson
“The end is nigh! The end is nigh!”
The old man crows, “The end is nigh!”
I walk atop the mountain high,
Preparing for the last goodbye
with promenading wistful strides.
The end is nigh! The end is nigh!
‘Tis been three score and thirteen years
And finally, my work is done.
I’ve walked amongst their earthen ranks;
I’ve seen they don’t deserve the gates;
I’ve listened to their Godless rants
of how they think it all will end.
Ne’er bleeding god or nephili,
The end is nigh the end is nigh!”
No, they will learn to call his name
Each bathed in holy purging flame.
Watch them weep and cry and quiver
As their blood blooms into rivers.
They’ll call up high with all their might
But ‘tis too late to stop their plight.
The end is nigh! The end is nigh!
I thank you, God! The end is nigh!
Been taught what kind of pressure takes
to rend the Earth within the plates
I’ve done the deed my God commands.
The trigger rests in anxious hands
And now I wait on mountain high
Preparing for the great goodbye.”
The old man crows with smile and sigh,
“The end is nigh! The end is nigh!”
SHADOWS by Dawn Napier
Jeff hunkered down in the tiny space between the sink and the toilet. He was a pretty big guy, and he was certain that his ass was stuck. But that didn’t bother him now. It might bother him later—if later ever came—but right now he couldn’t think past that horrible thing he’d seen outside, in the dark. The shadowy thing with shining claws and teeth. Jeff shivered and rubbed his gooseflesh-pebbled arms.
The cold porcelain against his hip was comforting. I’m a cornered rat, he though, and nothing is fiercer than a cornered rat. It may come for me, but it won’t sneak up on me. He was scared, scared as hell, but underneath was frightened determination. He would survive. He would see the sun come up. Jeff’s grip tightened on the pistol in his hand.
The door was locked, he was armed, and all there was to do now was wait for daylight. Daylight usually drove the dark things away. Usually.
Jeff shuddered and tried to pull himself even tighter inward when he thought about the thing he’d seen. It was a shadow; that much was sure. But it was a wrong shadow, a bad shadow, a nasty black thing that moved by itself and hunted and killed with shining teeth and claws. Jeff had seen it just outside his front window. It had caught the neighbor’s cat. The cat had screamed, screamed like a woman. Jeff moaned a little, remembering that desperate, dying scream.
All the lights in the house were on, and the curtains were drawn tight. He sat hunkered down in his stark white bathroom, surrounded by harsh, eye-killing light. The light glared at him. Jeff didn’t mind. Better this than the uncertainty of shadows.
There was a frantic bang at the front door and a high-pitched cry. “Help!” A woman’s voice.
Jeff shifted a little, unsure. Was it a woman in trouble out there, or was the dark thing laying a trap for him? It wanted him to open the door so it could come in and get him. Jeff waggled the pistol back and forth in his hands, debating with himself.
The thumping continued, a terrified pounding. “Help me, please! Someone help me, it’s after me!” The woman was weeping.
Jeff shifted again and tried to rise. His ass was truly stuck, his hips lodged painfully, and he could not move.
He heard a faint rattle, and then the front door opening. Had he seriously left it unlocked, after all his work to make it safe in here? Jeff was an idiot, and he was going to die like one. He wriggled his hips, and the pain made him curse.
The front door blew open, and Jeff heard the muffled thump of the doorknob burying itself into cheap drywall. There was the sound of someone falling, a slam against his coffee table. “Oh help me, please!” she screamed, and with a mighty twist and a flare of pain, Jeff wrenched himself free of his porcelain prison. He put a hand on the door, meaning to unlock it. Then he reconsidered.
The woman was crying, scrambling across the living room floor. There was a growl, like a jungle cat preparing to pounce. It was deep and ugly, and Jeff could feel it vibrating in the floor.
Jeff took his hand away from the doorknob. Could he hope to fight off a monster that sounded like that? He looked at the revolver in his hand. It looked puny and impotent in his hand.
The woman let out a final scream, a horrible, dying scream that sounded like a cat. Jeff fell back against the bathroom sink with a moan. The woman thrashed around, Jeff heard his living room lamp fall over with a crash, and then there was silence.
Panting, heart racing, Jeff was aware that he had pissed himself. The woman was dead; she had to be. Was the body still out there? Was the thing still there? It was silent as death out there now; no growl, no movement, no sounds of feeding. Just dead, shadowy silence.
Once more Jeff reached for the doorknob. He turned it—pop. The door was unlocked. Jeff held the knob in his hand but could not turn. He needed to see what was out there. He was afraid to see. He needed to see.
The doorknob twisted in his hand. The door flew open, shoving Jeff clear across the bathroom and into the tub. He made an ugly little “Aack!” as he fell. The revolver skittered across the floor.
A woman stood in the doorway. Her face was pale as bloodless death. Her eyes were empty sockets, pits of eternal black. Jeff could not look away from her eyes. They were the eyes of a shadow.
“You fucking coward,” she whispered.
And she came for him.
AYAME’S LOVE by Thomas C Hewitt
The day had been watching the gardener.
She had finished her draft of Anton’s tale
and all she had to do was to wander,
taking in the beauty of autumn’s wane
and so she had come across him at work,
returning to watch him for three straight days.
He had a tranquillity she could share,
watching him from a short distance away,
despite his ignorance that she was there,
amidst the trees with a curious stare.
It was his stillness that caught her interest;
her interest that inspired her stillness.
She was awed by the beauty of the man
that came from the carefulness of his hands.
As his fingers plucked at the soil there was
throughout his body an echo of that
rippled around his shoulders so that fast
small movements seemed large and deliberate
as small green blades combine when wind moves grass
and broad fluid patterns the movement makes
even in change as the movements had passed
and the end of the movements becomes a change.
So it was with the gardener’s movements.
over ground like a passive storm he went,
barely moving but always in motion,
in time with the movements of the garden.
More visible though less intrusive
than the subtle adjustments of the wind.
The gardener had uprooted a tree,
gently removing a stone from its roots.
He had planted it closer to the stream
and not a solitary branch did it lose,
standing sturdy as it ever had been.
The tree had looked much better for the move.
Its willowy branches were bare of leaves,
its paper pale bark was brittle and smooth,
but the ground in which the tree sat was now
moistened and fertile and lusciously brown.
The gardener piled up rocks like towers.
The garden shaped gradually through long hours
and more slowly there grew in Ayame
a need for her to always share its peace.
Ayame’s life was not so tranquil
and only the garden had eased her mind.
The motions she’d made were so far from still
and so far away from a man so kind
that the energy that he cared to spill
he used on nurturing and quiet time,
and he felt no need to compare his skill
through fierce competition and show of might.
He just was and his being was enough
and those things he altered he did not shove
but gently he lifted and softly placed
and in his manner there was not one trace
of misjudged paths that he’d taken in haste
or hard taken actions with harsh sour taste.
Previous experience remembered
company found in the isolation
and poverty that Loughscroft first offered.
He was more compassionate than handsome
though he offered compassion so to share
empathy in his own situation,
the same situation he shared with her;
a similar mixture of need and want.
His voice was baritone even in tears;
his tears came more often than did his needs
and he cried so often to Ayame
that kindness became his only appeal.
Taylor had two years over Ayame
in age and time in Loughscroft’s gutters.
He got his water from the library.
a good deal of her life was altered there,
even before she gained work from sleep.
He stood out because he was nice to her
and laughed at himself and others with ease,
making it hard for her to see his hurts.
Within three months, their days had grown separate;
words of frustration grew to words of hate,
words of sorrow were met by her anger
which was then met with anger in its turn.
She had not given Taylor a fair trade
in return for the affection he gave.
She had too many problems without him
to then adopt his problems as her own.
The resentment she felt at not being
content with him was harder to bemoan
than the lack of her in his feelings
and in the passionate rants he droned.
Their parting had not been an easy thing.
All of the affection Taylor had shown
for her had not gone unnoticed by her
and he was not the only one who hurt
as she departed from what they had been.
She had done so out of survival’s need;
hunger is not a state for the generous
and is far more suited to selfishness.
Ayame took no pride in her leaving
and often worried for Taylor’s safety.
Since they had parted, she had not seen him
consuming his fill at the library.
This man who spent his time on gardening,
she doubted he would choose care beneath need
and would never smile upon such acting
in which she herself could see no beauty.
He was a terrifying thought to think
and not one to interrupt with talking.
Any past that he had at all was not
nearly so abrasive as hers, she thought,
and the thought only interested her more
in speculation that arrived from naught.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
CACTI PATCH by Rob Bliss
Satan bathed in an azure pool.
Water shone like starlight down his slender, many-breasted torso. Two rows of sandbag, conical teats hung from his pectorals, each sagging dewlap of flesh tipped by plum-coloured aureoles and black nipples. He lifted each teat to ensure a frothy lather washed under the folds of skin. He lovingly sponged his thin, girlish shoulders, each of which held a spattering of black freckles. Metallic-blue locks cascaded down his cat’s-eye-knobby spine, following a treasure trail of fine black hairs, pooling in the water at the upper curve of his plump buttocks.
He knew he was beautiful. If only others could see him as he saw himself.
In the air – a finch. On shore, leaning its back against a hieroglyphic stone (depicting the brazen onslaught of the Mongol hordes against the eastern limit of the Roman Empire – priceless), a small Lhasa Apso pulled its hind foot up with its teeth, trying to gnaw off its hair. Its other foot was chewed bald to the purple and grey skin. The dog had been too often left alone, ignored by the family that had taken it in and called it a pet. It was never beaten. That would at least instill it with canine fight, returning it to its blissfully godless feral nature. Instead, the dog suffered a human disease: a psychosis. (Which was comparable to a depressed fourteen-year-old girl who cut her inner thighs with her father’s straight razor because no one loved her, no matter how pretty or slutty she made herself in the girl’s bathroom while having her first cigarette of the school day.) Perched on a chrysanthemum – a butterfly. With eyes dyed on its wings.
Tucked amid a cabal of flowering cacti sat Satan’s voyeur.
Like all voyeurs and other sexual deviants yet to be prosecuted within the full extent of holy law, Saint Peter sat surrounded by cacti for both masochistic and defensive reasons. (The masochism will be made evident as it becomes necessary, since all masochism is necessary to the homo sapiens sapiens.) He needed the cacti to defend him because he had too often been discovered. In such an in flagrante delicto position, sitting cross-legged with his robe hiked to his waist, his spit-wettened phallus still squeezed in his fist, webs of saliva cornering his mouth, he lustfully glared at the intrusive wandering shepherdian witness towering above him, but held back by the cacti spines.
“Do with me what ye will!” he would bellow, a cranial vein worming his crimson forehead. “If ye can pull me from this thorny haven!” he challenged. “Away wi’ ye!” he would lastly ejaculate, his accent returning to his native homeland, sending his potential captor off to fight crimes less slathered in body effluvia.
Peter peered at Satan through the thorns. His mouth quavered to form an oyster shell in disgust at what he watched. Palms with yellow calluses rubbed against his knees, the robe taut across his lap. Beard surrounding his mouth, stained with opium smoke, teeth black. A dew of snot glittered in his moustache. He began to sweat.
“Hideous gorgon!” he uttered, eyes wide, pinprick pupils, as he ogled Satan. “What foul, sighted Tiresias – this sack of hag’s flesh – stains a turquoise pool with its scabrous meat?”
Luckily, Satan was too far away and too distracted by his own cherubic humming to hear the saint’s insults. Kicking their finless, tooth-white bodies as they sank to the silty bottom of the pool, a hive of maggots, trespassers in the capsular vehicle that was Satan’s navel. Ribosome asexually multiplied in the downy cups of Satan’s seashell, petite ears. Only half of his boyishly feminine body had been cleansed. He needed shallower water to finish off his toilet.
He slipped through the water, a slipstream vortexing against the small of his back. Slender, small toes, perfectly manicured, gripped the sandy bed of the pool as it ascended to shore. Satan stretched his dancer’s legs out of the water to find purchase with the balls of his feet on surf-smoothed stones. He bent at the knees to reach his hand into a holly bush, fingers tickling out a new sea sponge for his nether regions.
Satan’s penis hung to mid-thigh, as thick as a baby’s wobbly neck. The penile head perpetually engorged with blue blood gave it the same plum tint as his haloing aureoles. His testicles were a shaven sack of billiard 8s.
He rubbed a soap cake of pig fat and lye, scented with sprigs of myrrh and mint and honeysuckle, against the sponge. Delicately, he soaped his male genitalia, wiping unseen grime and bacteria from the root down to the head, so as not to re-contaminate his sensitive organ.
Among the cacti, Peter had freed his phallus from beneath his robe. Fingertips lightly tickled his chafed shaft, with the long nail of his index finger picking at the skin forming the urethra slit. Peter needed pain. A fingernail scratching the inner pearl-shine flesh of the penile mouth wasn’t enough. He had sat in the cactus patch many times. Fingers had plucked many spines from the thick cacti bodies, but not all. Thorns always grew, replenishing their defense. He snapped off a bud of thorns and, with a surgeon’s precision, sank them into the tube of his urethra while holding open the slit with his free hand.
Pain surged to burn his ears and sear haloes around his eyes. His chest swelled with oxygen, nostrils bull-flared, sweat crowned his bald pate. He bit his tongue with his little black teeth, as small as a baby’s. He whispered a prayer.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not fuck, he maketh me to lie down in deep waters...”
Peter pinched the tip of his penis to hold in the cactus spines. With his free hand, he plucked off another bud of six spines, pulled his penis to the left to expose the right testicle, and sunk the thorny barbs into the soft flesh.
“…he fucketh my soul…,” Peter choked out between clenched teeth, a delta of veins mapping his temples, sweat pearls curling under and into his nostrils.
“Who’s there?” Satan piped through the pan flute of his larynx as he covered his genitalia and nipples.
Peter froze in the tension of lust. A few spines in either hand snapped off, blooming from the scrotal skin, with one lodged in the urethra, jutting out like a stylus ready to write a decree of blasphemy. His jowls blanched the colour of jaundiced jawbone, and shook like turkey wattles. Eyes bulging, threaded with blood, he watched Satan, who peered through the cacti.
But Peter was in his habitat. The familiar shock of fear at his discovering would wane, even as his witness approached to discover that the beast among the cacti was no dog licking its talus bone, no young girl slicing hatred into her femur. He was a saint: his actions holy.
“Were you watching me?” Satan asked, stepping up to the cacti, peering through the spines.
“What filthy beast are ye?” Peter queried, his penis still clutched.
“I’m just as God made me, good sir,” Satan said, trying to cover as many teats as he could with one arm.
“No god fashioned ye. A demon in Hades is your unholy smithy.”
“How dare you!” cried the light red – with patches of pink – Prince of Darkness. “I have half a mind to report you to the authorities for spying on me as I was seeing to my toilet. Pervert!”
Peter rose, let his robe drop, his penis as erect as an exclamation mark. He stroked a hand along the barbs of a cactus as he gazed the length of Satan’s body.
“Ye knew I was here all along,” spake the saint. “Ye showed yourself to me. Wanting me to watch ye lather up yer hideous hide.”
“I did no such thing!” cried the antithesis of a god. “I am innocent. You, sir, are guilty of crimes unspeakable, damnable, concupiscent. You are the beast of humanity.”
“Ye are nothing human,” Peter said as he squeezed a leg between cacti, letting the spines cut combs of blood across his calves. He lifted his robe above the waist as he edged sideways to push the rest of his body through the flora gauntlet. As the cactus scratched striations of blood along his penile shaft, Peter gazed at the face of Satan, measuring the obscene horror on the devil’s face.
“Oh my goodness gracious!” Satan stared, meshing a hand across his mouth. “Doesn’t that hurt?”
Peter slid his body out of the cacti patch and stood, arms akimbo, facing Satan. He let his robe drop, his phallus tenting the coarse fabric, blood spots soaking into Rorschach visages.
“Ye watched,” Peter hissed, a bolus of saliva rolling from a corner of his mouth. “Ye like to watch. Ye like to pretend no one sees. But everyone sees ye.” He stepped closer to Satan, pushing his cloaked penis against the taller devil’s abdomen. “Yer asking for it. Like all teasing virgin sluts.”
Satan stepped back, warily using a hand to push away the jutting penis, the corners of his mouth turned down in disgust.
“I most certainly am not asking for it!”
Peter shot out a hand, like snatching a finch from the air, to grab the hanging meat between Satan’s legs, reeling him closer.
“Then maybe I’m asking for it,” Peter said, eyes close to Satan’s mouth, looking between the devil’s lips to see his teeth. “Shaw me y’teeth,” Peter drawled, his accent emerging.
Satan cringed, displaying a perfect set of straight ivories. “Why do you want to see my teeth?”
“None of them crooked, broken, twisted?” Peter asked despondently, peering into the devil’s mouth.
“No. I have excellent dental hygiene, I’ll have you know.” Satan spat away an errant curlicue of hair.
Peter inhaled, head pulled back, chest puffed, snot sucked back into his sinuses. “I can work with that.”
Confused and forgetting that Peter had a grasp on both his and the devil’s penises, Satan tried to push the saint away. But resistance only excited the holy man more.
“What the heck are you –” Satan ejaculated.
Peter grabbed Satan’s silky mane and mashed his mouth against the devil’s maw. Lips cracked to bleeding, a thick fog of garlic and semen breath swelling inside Satan’s minty orifice.
Satan pushed back, but Peter twisted the devil’s locks around a fist and whipped Satan down into the cacti patch. Weeping, Satan held his hands and arms away from his body, his palms splayed to see the hundred tiny cuts throbbing, burning red.
Peter slipped through the spines, body numb, and stood over his quarry, a foot on either side of the demon’s slender, girlish hips. A size 3.
The saint gazed down, head a-wobble on a loose neck, scratching himself, hands slowly edging his robe back to above waist-height.
“Why are you doing this to me?” Satan cried, holding up his hands to futilely block the oncoming assault. “I’ve never done anything to you.”
Peter tied his robe in a knot at his hip, cock swinging like a baton.
“No demon shall ye suffer to live, either in this world or in the next.” Peter squatted down, shoving Satan’s knees apart. “I obey the will of God. I cast thee back to Hell, thou foul and accursed spawn of Satan.”
Satan’s sobs calmed as he stared into the rolling shark eyes of Peter. “But I am Satan!”
Peter stopped where he was, hand on each of Satan’s knees, about to push them toward his torso of teats, the saint’s penis bloated and aimed.
“You are Satan?”
“Yes. Please let me go. I’ll give you anything. Wealth, kingdoms, women, men, little boys, livestock – the world!”
Peter had heard stories. The real Satan, a being comprised of many beings, was not whom the saint wanted to rape to teach a lesson. Just a simple demon would do.
He pushed Satan’s knees back, lifted up the purple serpent lying half-coiled like a question mark between the devil’s legs, and saw a horror.
Beneath Satan’s testicles, in absence of an anus, the Dark Lord had a vagina.
Bile rose into the back of Peter’s throat. He swallowed what he could, and spit the rest onto a cactus.
“Gorgon!” he spat again. “Just a hollow curse, but with ye it’s true. My gran-pappy warned me!” He threw Satan’s knees to one side and stood, looming now over the hermaphrodite devil with true disgust instead of hidden lust. “Ye tricked me! Deceiver! Father of Lies!”
He spat a yellow gob, which landed on Satan’s third teat down, left side. Peter flicked two fingers against the phallus that was now under the tent of robe. “What the hell am I supposed to do with this? Tempter!”
He squeezed through the cacti, looking back. Satan lay on his side, foetal curled, his entire body quivering with cold fear, eyes on the dust, terrified to look elsewhere.
“Now I have to put my neck on the line!” Peter, the great Roman Catholic saint, shot back at the devil. “Bugger a street urchin or two. See what you’re forcing me to do? This is your fault! Hope you’re goddamn happy!”
Peter punched a cactus, barely felt the spines stab into his knuckles. His dusty steps wandered down the path he had well-worn over years, spitting a fresh layer of curses onto his beard, vowing he could never, and would never, trust anyone ever again.
Satan wept pearls. He was in love.
THAT GNAWING FEELING by Michael Bray
White light. Awareness crept back towards him and he realized first that he was no longer in pain. Was this it? Was this death? He thought not. His instincts told him that he was still alive. He wanted to close his eyes against the harshness of the light, which was painfully bright, but he couldn’t. As feeling came back to him, he could feel that he was still whole. He could feel the floor beneath him. He wondered if perhaps he had been saved after all, and was now in the hospital recovering. But no. As he became more aware, he realized that the bright light that he thought might be the great ever after was actually the bulb from the ceiling lamp in the lounge. As he regained focus, he was able to recognize the maroon lampshade, which surrounded it. He thought that he must have passed out and they had brought him in here to wait for the ambulance to arrive. Relief overcame him. He was no longer in pain, but the artificial light burning into his eyes was maddening. He tried to lift his head or at least turn it to the side, but found that he couldn’t move. He tried to close his eyes, to blink away the discomfort, but even that small gesture - which takes only a tenth of a second to go from brain to eyelid - was beyond him. Although he was fully aware of his surroundings, he was completely incapacitated.
Terror raced through him as he systematically tried to move any part of his body but found to his horror that he could not manage even a tic, a flicker of the finger, a curl of the toes. A fresh wave of panic overcame him and he had to force himself to think rationally. He considered the possibility that he might be dead after all.
Could this be it? Could this be what death is? Trapped in a body that no longer functions?
No, it couldn’t be. He could still think. He could sense what was around him. He could feel the plush carpet below his body, its fibers tickling his neck. He could feel the dull ache in his left knee where it hit the kitchen counter as he fell to the ground. He could even feel the light breeze coming in from the open kitchen window, cool against his skin. He could feel himself breathing…couldn’t he?
He listened, somehow able to suppress the urge to panic. He forced himself to focus, concentrate on one task at a time. He listened, tried to feel and sense what his body was doing. Horrified, he couldn’t feel his chest moving, yet he WAS breathing, he must be. He was conscious and aware, he just couldn’t move.
Ok, if not death, then what. Paralysis? Some kind of incredibly vivid dream situation?
Whatever it was he knew that he wasn’t ready to die yet, not at just twenty-seven and with a promising life ahead of him. A life he had perhaps taken for granted in the past but now desperately wanted to live. The next question was one that had been bothering him since he woke, and one that he had perhaps been putting off asking because he feared the answer.
Where are Jim and Sarah?
It was a good question. They should have been here waiting with him, making sure that he remained stable until help arrived. He had known Jim for four years. They had been paired up together in medical school and found that even though they were fundamentally different as people (Jim was more of an extrovert type who liked to party just as much as he liked to study) they had found that they had a similar work ethic and had quickly become friends. Jim always looked more suited for sports than medicine. He was tall and broad at the shoulders, and because he chose to unwind from the pressures of study by working out, he was put together like a Sherman tank. He was one of those friends that it would easy to be jealous of, naturally good looking and popular with the opposite sex. Danny had met Sarah through a mutual friend of jims a couple of years before, and although she wasn’t the type of girl he usually went for ( he preferred brunettes) they were introduced to each other and found that their conversation wasn’t awkward or forced as Danny had feared, and had found themselves seeing more and more of each other. Jim used to tease Danny, telling him to go for it.
“Why don’t you make your move, Danny? It’s obvious that the two of you are into each other,” Jim would say over a beer, following up with the half grin that he used so effectively in his constant pursuit of the fairer sex. Danny would always shrug and say that he would when the time was right, but inside he was terrified. He desperately wanted to take things forward, but he was afraid to ruin the relationship that they already had. He eventually plucked up the courage to approach the subject at Jim’s twenty fifth-birthday party, and had asked her to meet him outside. It was a cool night in October, and as he looked at her in the soft glow of the lights from the house, he almost didn’t go through with it. She was wearing a pink shirt with the sleeves rolled up and her blonde hair was tucked under a beret, which she wore stylishly on the side of her head. He was intimidated by how naturally beautiful she looked in the diffused glow of the house lights and his head was screaming at him not to go through with it and risk ruining everything. The silence was awkward, and Sarah was looking at him curiously, her face difficult to read. Her breath was pluming in the cool air and deciding that it was a case of now or never, he had taken her hands and told her that he thought of her as more than a friend, and wanted to take things further. She didn’t answer at first, only looked at him, searching his eyes with her own. He was about to try to recover, perhaps play it off as a joke when she kissed him. It was hard and passionate and when they pulled back, she simply pulled herself close and rested her head on his chest. “What took you so long?” she asked softly as she wrapped her arms around him. He held her back, relieved and happy, as happy as he thought he could ever be. That was two years ago, and the pair had been together since. He realized as he lay there on the floor that he had a lot to live for and was determined to survive.
He pushed aside thoughts of the past, knowing that they would do no good, and would only hinder him as he attempted to work out what was happening to him. He sat up, or at least in his mind he did. In reality, his body remained still and he felt a hopeless frustration that made him want to scream out.
He had read about this kind of thing before, of amputees who insisted they could feel a maddening itch on their toes days after having the entire leg removed. The human brain was certainly a complex thing.
He supposed the obvious question was the one that he had been avoiding the most. It was giving him that feeling in his stomach, the gnawing churning feeling of knowing something isn’t right, a troubled anxiety. It was the reaction of his friends. The look on their face when they found him it was as if… as if they had expected to find him there. There was no surprise on their faces, no shock. Sarah had even smiled as she took the phone from him and held it to her ear before putting it down unused. Why would she smile? Why did she check the phone? Was she checking to see if he had managed to call an ambulance or…
His stomach churned again as he thought of the alternative.
Or was she checking to make sure that he hadn’t?
And then there was Jim. Why would Jim just stand and watch as his best friend had a heart attack? He knew what to do, what he should have done. He knew that swift action would be needed but he had been unrushed, standing there with his hands in his pockets and watching indifferently. None of it made sense unless…
And just like that, the penny dropped.
If they weren’t surprised, then perhaps…perhaps they knew it was going to happen.
He balked at the thought as soon as it had processed. The idea was preposterous. After all, how could you plan for someone to have a heart attack? He knew of course that you could predict the type of person more prone to have one. The obese. The heavy smokers. The couch festering inactive slobs. They were in the high-risk category. But he wasn’t. He didn’t smoke, he wasn’t overweight, he ate well, hell he was still young. And yet…here he was.
He heard the door open, and turned his head towards the sound, or at least in his brain he did. His body again stubbornly stayed in situ, his eyes still fixed on the maroon lampshade. He heard voices as the door opened. It was them! Jim and Sarah! Of course, they had gone downstairs to let the ambulance crew in! He chastised himself for allowing his mind to run away with him they were surely just - He froze mid thought. He heard the door close, and the lock slide into place. No paramedics. No hurried conversations. No footsteps racing to his aid. He could hear hushed voices outside the door, but there was no rescue, no attempt to help. He got that feeling again, deep in his stomach, that horrible, gnawing feeling. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, the closed door muffled the words but he could tell that they were in intense conversation.
He desperately tried to move, to turn his head or roll his eyeballs towards the door. Do anything. But his body was still uncooperative, ignoring his desperate requests. The door to the sitting room opened, and he could see their shadowy figures on the edge of his peripheral vision. Sarah spoke, and with those seven words, his world and everything that he knew to be normal crashed down around him.
“My god, he really does look dead.”
There was coldness in her voice, which both saddened him and filled him with anger. She came into view, leaning over him and looking down with a neutral expression on her face. Her blonde hair hung over her narrow face as she looked at him, blue eyes scanning his features as her lips curled into a cruel smile.
“It really is remarkable, Jim. Are you sure he isn’t actually dead? You didn’t give him too much, did you?”
Too much? What did they do? What have they done to me?
Jim then came into view; black hair slicked back, his eyes peering expressionlessly down his hooked nose. He was standing behind Sarah, massaging her shoulders. He bent forward and kissed her neck.
“I know what I’m doing. He’s alive. I gave him enough to put him out for a few hours. Plenty of time to get everything done.”
“But what if he dies?”
“Isn’t that the entire point? You got what you wanted. Look at him. Besides, does it really matter if he is dead? You still win, Sarah.”
“I don’t want him to get off so easy, Jimmy. I want him to suffer.”
“You really are a cold bitch.”
“You still love me though, don’t you, Jim?”
She turned now and kissed him passionately, watching Danny out of the corner of her eye. The show was obviously for his benefit, and although his abject terror was still the first and foremost thing on his mind, he still felt sickly jealous as he watched them, literally unable to avert his gaze. She turned then, looking at him and still wearing that smug smile. There was no love, no sorrow, no remorse in that smile, just hate. Hate for him. He couldn’t fathom why.
“Do you think he can hear us, or see us?”
“You know perfectly well that he can. Damn, Sarah! He was my best friend; this isn’t as easy for me. I can’t be as… cold as you can”
Jim walked away, leaving Sarah and Danny alone.
Ah, the happy couple
She knelt beside him filling his field of vision. He could smell her perfume mingled with a slight undercurrent of sweat. Her hair hung over her face now, tickling his face and yet he was unable to do something as simple as reach up and itch it or push it away, push her away. Still he stared. She whispered in his ear, her hot breath in his ear reviving memories of passionate nights spent entwined together.
“I suppose you deserve at least an explanation,” she began as she pushed her hair back, finally removing the maddening tickle. He could see as she leaned back that she was still smiling that hateful, spiteful, self-amused smile.
“I’m sorry it had to come to this Danny, but let’s be honest you and I had been growing apart for a while. This is actually your own fault, you know. I was going to leave you, I even had a suitcase packed on that day when you called and told me about the damn inheritance.”
The money. Of course.
“We could have had a great life, Danny, we could have gone to live overseas, travelled the world, but instead you banked it. Who the hell banks two million in cash and keeps going to work for a living? It’s a fucking joke!”
She shook her head, the smile melting away from her face.
“It’s ok for you, you’re a doctor, and you have some respect. But what about me? Did you ever think about me? I was out there day and night working myself into the ground. It’s hard on the wards Danny. You could have taken care of me, taken care of us but you didn’t. So as usual I had to take care of it myself.”
Her hand came into view and he thought at first that she was going to hit him, and although he couldn’t move, he mentally recoiled. It was then that he realized that she was holding something out to him. It was a small vial containing a yellow liquid.
“I got the idea from the Discovery Channel. There was a documentary on about zombies, about how in Haiti they believe in all that stuff. Not like TV zombies, not shit like Dawn of the Dead, I’m talking about the real deal. The Haitian sorcerer or Bokor as their tribes know them claimed that their resurrection powers came from their ability to capture a fragment of their intended victim’s Ti bon ange, or soul to you and me. The Bokor however didn’t have actual supernatural powers; of course. I’m sure you already suspected that.”
She smiled at him then, and there was a vacancy to her that made him wonder just when she had lost her mind. She continued.
“Instead they used this. We gave you the liquid form obviously but the traditional method was used a powder. The Bokor would mix it together from a mixture of ground plants and animals. It comes down to neurotoxins, Danny. See, the powdered version was created to break and irritate the skin to allow the neurotoxin to enter the bloodstream. Of course, for this purpose that would be of no use. And so you got the more direct, and more potent liquid version. I’m sure you suspect it already, but you are in a state of complete paralysis. In Haitian folklore, the victim would be then buried and then later when the effects wore off, they would rise and believe themselves to be reincarnated from the dead.”
She leaned close and whispered and he could smell the coffee laced minty smell of her breath.
“Of course, only the first part will apply to you.”
She moved the vial closer to his eyes revolving it slowly. It reminded him for a split second of one of those late night shopping TV channels that air when nobody is awake to watch. Selling the kind of stuff that nobody really needs or wants.
GOT THAT GNAWING FEELING? THEN GET THIS EXCLUSIVE ZOMBIE SERUM!! TIRED OF THE WELL MEANING HARD WORKING BOYFRIEND? INJECT HIM WITH THIS AND VOODOO ALL YOUR TROUBLES AWAY!
ORDER NOW AND WE WILL THROW IN THE BEST FRIEND TO HELP YOU WITH YOUR WICKED SCHEME! ORDER NOW FOR JUST TWO MILLION U.S DOLLARS!! HURRY! ONLY SEVEN LEFT IN STOCK!
He was losing it, and tried desperately to regain control of his mind. It was the only thing left that he had left, and he intended to at least keep himself on the right side of sanity until he could figure out a way to get out of this mess. He watched Sarah as she put the vial back in her purse.
“It causes complete paralysis, slows the heart and respiratory system down to almost a complete stop. It’s similar to the chemical reaction in animals that hibernate, but far more potent. For all intents and purposes, you are dead. But here’s the best part. Tonight, Jim and I are going to a special place in the woods. I sent Jim out there this morning to dig a hole. That’s where you will live out your final hours, in the dark. You will eventually regain control of your body. This state isn’t permanent, but by then it won’t matter. How calm do you think you can keep yourself? How long can you make the air last? How will it feel to know that you are surrounded by dirt on all sides with no way out? It’s interesting actually. I half wish I could be there to see how you will cope. I think even someone as weak and spineless as you might even surprise yourself. For a while at least.”
Panic raced through him, but he was still frustratingly trapped, a prisoner in his own body. How could he not have realized how unhappy she was, to go to such extremes, to use his fears. She knew that premature burial was the one thing that scared him, his one nightmare. He remembered how she used to tease him, how he used to laugh it off as banter between a young couple in love. But now, as he looked into the monstrous eyes of his former partner, he wondered when the idea had begun to form in her mind, how long had she at on it, mulling it over. When had she realized that she would need Jim’s help? He supposed the real question was what price on a human life?
“I know it seems cruel and you are probably wondering why. Well the truth is, I don’t have an answer that would give you the reasoning that you are looking for, so just believe me when I tell you it’s a combination of a need and a desire to see you suffer. Most of all it’s the need to finally be free of you.”
The matter of fact tone in her voice astonished him, the way she was so conversational, despite her plans to kill another human being.
“They will look for you, I suppose; you may even make the news. I’ll play the grieving girlfriend supported by the best friend. We will say how it is uncharacteristic of you, and how you are usually so responsible. No, you have no enemies, nor do we know anyone that meant you harm. Soon enough there will be some other news, a terrorist attack or a squabble in some backwards little country which will take center stage and you will be forgotten. When you are declared dead the money you are holding back will come to me.”
Danny realized then that she was insane. It was a combination of things, the tone of her voice, the wild-eyed stare as she rambled on at him, pointing at him all the time. And the way she was wearing that smile, that awful smile….
“I know what you must be thinking. That I have no rights to that cash if you die, right? Well, think again. Jim made sure that the right papers with your signature on found the right people. I get everything. That’s always been your problem. You never saw me as an equal. Oh, she’s just a nurse, content to read her celebrity magazines and watch her soap operas. Well look at me now. Making a life for myself. For me and Jim and I…I hope you suffer a long and painful death you son of a bitch.”
“That’s enough!” came Jim’s voice from somewhere to Danny’s right side.
Probably from his favorite chair by the window.
“Go down and check the car, make sure we have everything that we need. I want to get this over and done with before I lose my nerve.”
Jim drifted into Danny’s field of view and handed the keys to Sarah, who stood and walked away. He listened as she went down the hall and the door opened and closed. Once again, his vision was filled with the maroon lampshade. Who the hell had decided on maroon anyway? He hated that fucking lampshade. He promised himself then that he would tear that fucker down, obliterate it, destroy it, but first he had to live. He had to survive. Jim pulled up a chair from the dining table and sat beside Danny. Unlike Sarah, he looked like hell. He was pale and looked exhausted.
Good. Fuck him.
He hadn’t shaved and Danny wondered how long he had lived with the burden of what he had intended to do. He lit a cigarette with shaking hands, exhaling a long plume of blue smoke.
“Hey pal. I uh... Just wanted to talk to you in private one last time.”
Forgive me if I don’t answer, Jimbo but I’m a little dead here. But I think you will understand. You go ahead and talk whilst I keep staring at this damn lampshade. Whose idea was it to buy that thing anyway? It’s fucking horrific! Not as horrific as this little situation though, oh no, not by a long shot.
“Look, me and Sarah, I - You have to believe me that I tried to resist her, ok? I mean I really tried but the three of us living together it just – Well, she always gets what she wants doesn’t she? I mean we have joked about it before right?”
We have, Jim, but there is a hell of a difference between getting control over the TV remote control and killing off your partner to get your hands on his inheritance.
“I mean, I have always been there for you, haven’t I? In the past, I mean. I even kinda got the two of you together in the first place didn’t I?”
Danny could see him becoming unhinged; he was starting to babble, his eyes shifting nervously about the room. He was a man trying to convince himself of his actions.
“And hey at least you will be dead soon right? I mean I have to live with this, with this guilt for the rest of my life, so you see how it is Danny, surely you do.”
Forgive me for not being too fucking sympathetic to your plight, Jim, but your feelings of guilt don’t really concern me too much, after all I’m the one who’s dead here Ha-ha!
Jim leaned forward and whispered, his eyes darting nervously from the door to Danny and back again.
“You have to believe me that if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do this, wouldn’t do any of it, but damn that woman Danny she has a knack of manipulating people, of getting her own way. If I had another shot…I wouldn’t do any of this.”
In his head, Danny yelled out in frustration. He knew that if he could do something small, even just a blink or twitch of the finger it would be enough to make Jim see sense. He concentrated hard, willing his eyelid to move, knowing that it was the most important moment of his life, and that he had to succeed. He willed the muscle to respond to his command, but it was useless. He screamed again in his head, as he watched Jim dry his eyes.
“Look, Danny, I’m too far in this now to back out, she made sure of that. I’m implicated and we both know that she wouldn’t hesitate to drop me in the shit if I didn’t go ahead.”
I know what you are saying, Jim, but think about this, no harm no foul. Help me survive this and even though you took my girlfriend, money and almost killed me, I’ll put it down to a prank gone wrong. Please Jim; I need you to help me!
“I will do something for you though, Danny. For old times’ sake. I want that money, or my share of it and I won’t deny that, not to you, old pal. You could always tell when I was lying anyway but I don’t want you to suffer. She might but I don’t okay? So I’m going to make it easy for you.”
Stop referring to me in past tense. I’m still here you asshole!
Jim pulled out a hunting knife housed in a leather scabbard.
“Remember when you got me this a few years back? Remember, for when I went on that African safari? Well I’m giving it back to you now. I sharpened it, and I’m going to slip it in the waistband of your jeans. When you come around from the serum, use it to slit your wrists. Nobody deserves to suffer the way Sarah intends for you to. This is my way of giving you an easy option, and she will never have to know.”
Danny felt the cold of leather on his skin as Jim tucked the knife into his jeans, and internally flinched as the metal of the hilt tip pressed into his side.
“There. I know this won’t make it right, but it might make it easier for me to look myself in the mirror without feeling sick. It might even let me sleep again. Damn it, Danny, I haven’t slept for months. I truly am sorry, you really don’t deserve this.”
So that’s how long this had been in the works for. He wondered how he could have been so stupid, how could he not have known? He remembered watching a documentary about the wife of a notorious serial killer who over the course of twenty-two years murdered over seventy prostitutes. When he was finally caught, the killer’s wife claimed to have never had a clue about his secret life, which Danny had always thought to be impossible but now he could believe it. Nothing had alerted him, nothing had seemed suspect or out of place, he never had that suspicion, that gnawing feeling. He had it now all right. He had it bad. Jim finished his cigarette and walked out of Danny’s field of vision. The door opened and he spoke again.
“Remember to slit down the vein, Danny, not across it. You should bleed out pretty fast. I know it doesn’t really seem like a way out but it’s better than the alternative.” He left, and closed the door gently.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
THE BLOOD EAGLE by Gavin Chappell
3: The Eagle Flies
As the sun began to descend over the island that evening, Varg the Black called his men to him.
‘Time we went to see if the abbess has been sensible,’ he told them. They nodded their assent but Kormak the Godless looked curiously at him.
‘And what if she hasn’t, Varg dear?’ he asked.
Varg shrugged. ‘We torch the place, rape them all, kill them - take our revenge. Then we take our loot.’
‘What about their magic?’ Kormak asked. ‘What if they curse us?’
‘They’re followers of the pallid White Christ,’ Varg the Black sneered. ‘They could never have the power to make a curse stick. There’s nothing to worry about. If they’re sensible, we’ll be able just to take the gold and leave it at that.’
Kormak looked on uneasily as the berserkers began to howl like wolves and growl like bears and to champ at their rawhide shield rims, working themselves up into the age-old frenzy. Soon they were all berserk, except Kormak.
They crossed the windswept ridge and began to head down the valley that led to the nunnery. In the gathering dusk, the huts lay before them looking like hives. Light glimmered weakly in the doorways, but Kormak could see no sign of the nuns. As they approached, he noticed that a silence lay over the whole place. Had they gone? Were they hiding?
Varg looked at Kormak. ‘We’ll smoke them out,’ he mumbled unsteadily and they walked towards the circle of huts.
They found an untended bonfire at the edge of the scrubby fields that surrounded the huts and a few of the berserkers tore out some burning brands, amusing themselves by thrusting the flaming wood in and out of their mouths. Varg came to a halt in the middle of the huts and looked around him. Kormak and the berserkers held blazing torches, baying like hounds. Varg raised his voice.
‘We made an arrangement,’ he shouted. His words echoed hollowly in the silence. ‘Give us the gold, or we’ll burn the nunnery round your heads. Understand? We’ve lost our patience and if you don’t do what you’re told, believe me, you’ll regret it - briefly. This is the last time we’re going to tell you.’
A woman stepped out of the main hut, her hands behind her back.
‘You’re right there, pig face!’ she snarled.
It was Ingunn. Behind her, from the gloom, came about twenty warriors, all with their hands behind their backs.
Varg shrugged shortly and leered at the shieldmaiden. ‘Don’t get in our way again,’ he purred. ‘Remember what happened? Your weapons won’t harm us.’
Ingunn smiled. ‘Is that so?’ she asked lightly. ‘Is that so?’
‘Of course,’ the berserker replied arrogantly. ‘Get out of our way. Even if a slip of a girl like you could ever be a warrior, you couldn’t stop me. Just like your father.’
Ingunn’s smile faded a little, but it returned. ‘The laws of honour say that I should kill you. I have vowed to carve the blood-eagle on your back, Varg the Black.’ She sighed regretfully. ‘But since I’m just a weak woman and you are a mighty, invincible warrior, it seems that I’ll have to let you kill, rape and plunder regardless. I’m helpless. I wish I could fight you; so do my men.’
She laughed bitterly and looked with apparent despair at the berserker, whose face had cracked open into a savage smile of triumph on hearing her words. ‘But that would be futile,’ she added, sighing again. ‘Even if you weren’t berserkers, my men and I are so poorly armed we’d be hard pressed to beat a fellow Viking, let alone a berserker in his frenzy. Look!’ she said. And at that, she and her warriors revealed what they had behind their backs.
‘Clubs!’ she said with a pale laugh. ‘Pathetic, aren’t they? That’s all we’ve got to stop you.’
The berserker’s smile froze on his face. He stood silent, rooted to the spot. Ingunn laughed again, but this time with real conviction. She grinned harshly at her father’s killer. Her mother’s brother.
‘Aye!’ she hissed venomously, her playfulness gone in an instant. ‘Clubs! Fire and iron won’t harm you - but we can beat you to death! We can’t cut through your skin, but we can beat you until your entrails rupture; until you’re a set of walking haemorrhages! Until you die!’
She drew a breath, then howled like a wolf, scornful imitating the berserkers’ war cries. As its echoes died away, she spat at the ground before the chief berserker’s feet. He was still smiling madly, but his eyes were beginning to glimmer with an unaccustomed fear.
‘Animals, that’s all you are,’ she snarled, ‘and we’ll treat you as such. Not as wild wolves, to strike fear into the heart of men, or savage, unbeatable bears - but as docile cattle, to fall beneath our simple clubs!’
She raised the club above her head and brought it down savagely on the unresisting berserker’s skull.
Around her, Ingunn’s men surged forward to attack the rest of the berserkers, who were all as amazed as their leader. Varg the Black, almost incapable of comprehending this reversal of his fortunes, continued to smile stupidly even as the blows rained down upon his body. He sank to his knees in a daze.
Ingunn looked up from her bloody work to see the Abbess. She laughed harshly. ‘Enough? This bastard killed my father! He plundered your church and took away your sacred relics!’
The Abbess shook her head sorrowfully. ‘I am concerned…’ she began. ‘Concerned about you, Ingunn the Red. Concerned for your soul.’
Ingunn allowed her uncle’s unconscious body to slump to the ground, his face locked in a rictus grin. She dropped her blood-spattered club and looked at Aillinn in puzzlement.
‘What is there to be concerned about?’ she asked, placing her booted foot on Varg’s chest. ‘I am a conqueror, a victor. I have triumphed and I shall do so whenever I go to war until the All Father calls me to his hall.’
The Abbess shook her head. ‘Give up this bloody life,’ she urged her. ‘Forgive your enemies. Join us here; become a nun. Retreat from the world. Spend your days in contemplation and prayer. Only then can you be certain that you will go to Heaven.’
Ingunn looked at the Abbess in bafflement. It dawned upon her: this woman was convinced that she was doomed. Perhaps she was right. This never-ending cycle of bloodshed. She considered what Varg had told her; that her own father had killed his father. That he was himself her kin. Where did vengeance get them, in the end?
She shook her head. Gently, she said, ‘Your life is not for me, abbess. Mine is the Viking’s path, the whale road. Not for me the life of contemplation.’
The Abbess looked at her in sorrow. She looked down at her uncle’s unmoving form. ‘How did you defeat him armed only with clubs?’
Ingunn smiled. ‘I have a berserker among my own crew,’ she said. ‘He’s a suspicious minded fellow, and it took me some time before I could prize out of him the berserkers’ secret; the only thing to which they are not invulnerable.’
‘When they burnt down our chapel, I saw this man walk unscathed through the fire,’ the Abbess said in awe.
‘Berserkers are immune to fire and iron,’ Ingunn replied. ‘But blunt objects, like clubs, can kill them. Gunnholm, my berserker, would only tell me when I threatened to banish him from my crew. He fears this becoming common knowledge.’
‘Why is that?’
Ingunn laughed. ‘He thinks it would mean the end of our way of life,’ she told her. ‘But what I am doing is necessary.’
‘Are you determined to avenge your father?’
Ingunn looked away to where her men stood over the bodies of Brak Wryneck and his comrades, now beaten into bloody pulp.
‘Varg told me that he had a bloodfeud with my father,’ she said. ‘My father killed his father. He killed my father. I killed him. He said that he was my uncle, that my father abducted my mother from his family… And my own brother betrayed me.’
‘Your brother?’ the Abbess said.
‘Aye. My brother deserted me,’ she said, ‘stole my fleet and deserted me. He was too afraid to fulfil his vow, the vow we had both made. The oath that he broke, yet which I will fulfil. To avenge our father. I’ve sworn to do it and so I shall. But no more will I concern myself with family loyalties.’ She indicated her men. ‘It is with them that my loyalties lie.’
‘Then you do not intend to avenge your father?’ the Abbess asked hopefully.
Ingunn looked at her scornfully. ‘I swore an oath,’ she said.
‘What was that?’ the Abbess asked.
‘To carve the blood eagle upon Varg’s back,’ Ingunn said simply. She took out a knife.
And a rictus grin remained on Varg’s face as Ingunn the Red thrust her blade into the unconscious berserker’s back.
VARNEY THE VAMPYRE ascribed to Thomas Preskett Prest
THE ADMIRAL’S STORY OF THE BEAUTIFUL BELINDA.
Just at this moment Flora Bannerworth stole into the room from whence she had departed a short time since; but when she saw that old Admiral Bell was looking so exceedingly serious, and apparently about to address Henry upon some very important subject, she would have retired, but he turned towards her, and said,—
“My story, my dear, I’ve no objection to your hearing, and, like all women folks, a love story never comes amiss to you; so you may as well stay and hear it.”—”A love story,” said Flora; “you tell a love story, sir?”
“Yes, my dear, and not only tell it, but be the hero of it, likewise; ain’t you astonished?”—”I am, indeed.”
“Well, you’ll be more astonished then before I’ve done; so just listen. As Jack Pringle says, it was the matter of about somewhere forty years ago, that I was in command of the Victory frigate, which was placed upon the West Indian station, during a war then raging, for the protection of our ports and harbours in that vicinity. We’d not a strong force in that quarter, therefore, I had to cut about from place to place, and do the best I could. After a time, though, I rather think that we frightened off the enemy, during which time I chiefly anchored off the island of Antigua, and was hospitably received at the house of a planter, of the name of Marchant, who, in fact, made his house my home, and introduced me to all the elite of the society of the island. Ah! Miss Flora, you’ve no idea, to look at me now, what I was then; I held a captain’s commission, and was nearly the youngest man in the service, with such a rank. I was as slender, ay, as a dancing master. These withered and bleached locks were black as the raven’s plume. Ay, ay, but no matter: the planter had a daughter.”
“And you loved her?” said Flora—”Loved her,” said the old man, and the flush of youthful animation come to his countenance; “loved her, do you say! I adored her; I worshipped her; she was to me—but what a d——d old fool, I am; we’ll skip that if you please.”
“Nay, nay,” said Flora; “that is what I want to hear.”—”I haven’t the least doubt of that, in the world; but that’s just what you won’t hear; none of your nonsense, Miss Flora; the old man may be a fool, but he isn’t quite an idiot.”
“He’s neither,” said Flora; “true feelings can never disgrace any one.”—”Perhaps not; but, however, to make a long story short, somehow or other, one day, Belinda was sitting alone, and I rudely pounced upon her; I rather think then I must have said something that I oughtn’t to have said, for it took her so aback; I was forced, somehow or other, to hold her up, and then I—I—yes; I’m sure I kissed her; and so, I told her I loved her; and then, what do you think she said?”
“Why,” said Flora, “that she reciprocated the passion.”—”D—n my rags,” said Jack, who at the moment came into the room, “I suppose that’s the name of some shell or other.”
“You here, you villain!” said the admiral; “I thought you were gone.”—”So I was,” said Jack, “but I came back for my hat, you see.”
Away he went again, and the admiral resumed his story.
“Well, Miss Flora,” he said, “you haven’t made a good guess, as she didn’t say anything at all, she only clung to me like some wild bird to its mother’s breast, and cried as if her heart would break.”—”Indeed!”
“Yes; I didn’t know the cause of her emotion, but at last I got it out of her.”—”What was it?”
“Oh, a mere trifle; she was already married to somebody else, that’s all; some d——d fellow, who had gone trading about the islands, a fellow she didn’t care a straw about, that was old enough to be her father.”
“And you left her?”—”No, I didn’t. Guess again. I was a mad-headed youngster. I only felt—I didn’t think. I persuaded her to come away with me. I took her aboard my ship, and set sail with her. A few weeks flew like hours; but one day we were hailed by a vessel, and when we neared her, she manned a boat and brought a letter on board, addressed to Belinda. It was from her father, written in his last moments. It began with a curse and ended with a blessing. There was a postscript in another hand, to say the old man died of grief. She read it by my side on the quarter-deck. It dropped from her grasp, and she plunged into the sea. Jack Pringle went after her; but I never saw her again.”
“Gracious Heavens! what a tragedy!”—”Yes, tolerable,” said the old man.
He arose and took his hat and placed it on his head. He gave the crown of it a blow that sent it nearly over his eyes. He thrust his hands deep into his breeches pockets, clenched his teeth, and muttered something inaudible as he strode from the apartment.
“Who would have thought, Henry,” said Flora, “that such a man as Admiral Bell had been the hero of such an adventure?”—”Ay, who indeed; but it shows that we never can judge from appearances, Flora; and that those who seem to us the most heart-whole may have experienced the wildest vicissitudes of passion.”
“And we must remember, likewise, that this was forty years ago, Henry, which makes a material difference in the state of the case as regards Admiral Bell.”
“It does indeed—more than half a lifetime; and yet how evident it was that his old feelings clung to him. I can well imagine the many hours of bitter regret which the memory of this his lost love must have given him.”
“True—true. I can feel something for him; for have I not lost one who loved me—a worse loss, too, than that which Admiral Bell relates; for am I not a prey to all the horrors of uncertainty? Whereas he knew the worst, and that, at all events, death had claimed its victim, leaving nothing to conjecture in the shape of suffering, so that the mind had nothing to do but to recover slowly, but surely, as it would from the shock which it had received.”
“That is worse than you, Flora; but rather would I have you cherish hope of soon beholding Charles Holland, probably alive and well, than fancy any great disaster has come over him.”
“I will endeavour to do so,” replied Flora.
“I long to hear what has become of Dr. Chillingworth. His disappearance is most singular; for I fully suspected that he had some particular object in view in getting possession for a short time of Bannerworth Hall; but now, from Jack Pringle’s account, he appears not to be in it, and, in fact, to have disappeared completely from the sight of all who knew him.”
“Yes,” said Flora; “but he may have done that, brother, still in furtherance of his object.”
“It may be so, and I will hope that it is so. Keep yourself close, sister, and see no one, while I proceed to his house to inquire if they have heard anything of him. I will return soon, be assured; and, in the meantime, should you see my brother, tell him I shall be at home in an hour or so, and not to leave the cottage; for it is more than likely that the admiral has gone to Bannerworth Hall, so that you may not see anything of him for some time.”
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
AFTER LONDON by Richard Jefferies
Chapter X: The Feast
At ten in the morning next day the feast began with a drama from Sophocles, which was performed in the open air. The theatre was in the gardens between the wall and the inner stockade; the spectators sat on the slope, tier above tier; the actors appeared upon a green terrace below, issuing from an arbour and passing off behind a thick box-hedge on the other side of the terrace. There was no scenery whatever.
Aurora had selected the Antigone. There were not many dramatists from whom to choose, for so many English writers, once famous, had dropped out of knowledge and disappeared. Yet some of the far more ancient Greek and Roman classics remained because they contained depth and originality of ideas in small compass. They had been copied in manuscripts by thoughtful men from the old printed books before they mouldered away, and their manuscripts being copied again, these works were handed down. The books which came into existence with printing had never been copied by the pen, and had consequently nearly disappeared. Extremely long and diffuse, it was found, too, that so many of them were but enlargements of ideas or sentiments which had been expressed in a few words by the classics. It is so much easier to copy an epigram of two lines than a printed book of hundreds of pages, and hence it was that Sophocles had survived while much more recent writers had been lost.
From a translation Aurora had arranged several of his dramas. Antigone was her favourite, and she wished Felix to see it. In some indefinable manner the spirit of the ancient Greeks seemed to her in accord with the times, for men had or appeared to have so little control over their own lives that they might well imagine themselves overruled by destiny. Communication between one place and another was difficult, the division of society into castes, and the iron tyranny of arms, prevented the individual from making any progress in lifting himself out of the groove in which he was born, except by the rarest opportunity, unless specially favoured by fortune. As men were born so they lived; they could not advance, and when this is the case the idea of Fate is always predominant. The workings of destiny, the Irresistible overpowering both the good and the evil-disposed, such as were traced in the Greek drama, were paralleled in the lives of many a miserable slave at that day. They were forced to endure, for there was no possibility of effort.
Aurora saw this and felt it deeply; ever anxious as she was for the good of all, she saw the sadness that reigned even in the midst of the fresh foliage of spring and among the flowers. It was Fate; it was Sophocles.
She took the part of the heroine herself, clad in Greek costume; Felix listened and watched, absorbed in his love. Never had that ancient drama appeared so beautiful as then, in the sunlight; the actors stepped upon the daisied sward, and the song of birds was all their music.
While the play was still proceeding, those who were to form the usual procession had already been assembling in the court before the castle, and just after noon, to the sound of the trumpet, the Baron, with his youngest son beside him (the eldest was at Court), left the porch, wearing his fur-lined short mantle, his collar, and golden spurs, and the decoration won so many years before; all the insignia of his rank. He walked; his war-horse, fully caparisoned, with axe at the saddle-bow, was led at his right side, and upon the other came a knight carrying the banneret of the house.
The gentlemen of the house followed closely, duly marshalled in ranks, and wearing the gayest dress; the leading retainers fully armed, brought up the rear. Immediately upon issuing from the gate of the wall, the procession was met and surrounded by the crowd, carrying large branches of may in bloom, flowers, and green willow boughs. The flowers they flung before him on the ground; the branches they bore with them, chanting old verses in honour of the family. The route was through the town, where the Baron stopped at the door of the Court House, and proclaimed a free pardon to all serfs (who were released within a few minutes) not guilty of the heavier crimes.
Thence he went to the pasture just beyond, carefully mown close and swept for the purpose, where the May-pole stood, wreathed with flowers and green branches. Beneath it he deposited a bag of money for distribution upon a carved butt placed there, the signal that the games were open. Instantly the fiddles began to play, and the feast really commenced. At the inns ale was served out freely (at the Baron’s charge), carts, too, came down from the castle laden with ale and cooked provisions. Wishing them joy, the Baron returned by the same road to the castle, where dinner was already served in the hall and the sheds that had been erected to enlarge the accommodation.
In the afternoon there were foot-races, horse-races, and leaping competitions, and the dances about the May-pole were prolonged far into the night. The second day, early in the morning, the barriers were opened, and trials of skill with the blunt sword, jousting with the blunt lance at the quintain, and wrestling began, and continued almost till sunset. Tournament with sharpened lance or sword, when the combatants fight with risk of serious wounds, can take place only in the presence of the Prince or his deputy. But in these conflicts sufficiently severe blows were given to disable the competitors.
On the third day there was a set battle in the morning between fifteen men on each side, armed with the usual buckler or small shield, and stout single-sticks instead of swords. This combat excited more interest than all the duels that had preceded it; the crowd almost broke down the barriers, and the cheering and cries of encouragement could be heard upon the hills. Thrice the combatants rested from the engagement, and thrice at the trumpet call started again to meet each other, at least those who had sustained the first onslaught.
Blood, indeed, was not shed (for the iron morions saved their skulls), but nearly half of the number required assistance to reach the tents pitched for their use. Then came more feasting, the final dinner prolonged till six in the evening, when the company, constantly rising from their seats, cheered the Baron, and drank to the prosperity of the house. After the horn blew at six, the guests who had come from a distance rapidly dispersed (their horses were already waiting), for they were anxious to pass the fifteen miles of forest before nightfall. Those on foot, and those ladies who had come in covered waggons, stayed till next morning, as they could not travel so speedily. By seven or eight the castle courtyard was comparatively empty, and the Baron, weary from the mere bodily efforts of saying farewell to so many, had flung himself at full length on a couch in the drawing-room.
During the whole of this time Felix had not obtained a single moment with Aurora; her time, when not occupied in attending to the guests, was always claimed by Lord Durand. Felix, after the short-lived but pure pleasure he had enjoyed in watching her upon the grass-grown stage, had endured three days of misery. He was among the crowd, he was in the castle itself, he sat at table with the most honoured visitors, yet he was distinct from all. There was no sympathy between them and him. The games, the dancing, the feasting and laughter, the ceaseless singing and shouting, and jovial jostling, jarred upon him.
The boundless interest the people took in the combats, and especially that of the thirty, seemed to him a strange and inexplicable phenomenon. It did not excite him in the least; he could turn his back upon it without hesitation. He would, indeed, have left the crowd, and spent the day in the forest, or on the hills, but he could not leave Aurora. He must be near her; he must see her, though he was miserable. Now he feared that the last moment would come, and that he should not exchange a word with her.
He could not, with any show of pretext, prolong his stay beyond the sunset; all were already gone, with the exceptions mentioned. It would be against etiquette to remain longer, unless specially invited, and he was not specially invited. Yet he lingered, and lingered. His horse was ready below; the groom, weary of holding the bridle, had thrown it over an iron hook in the yard, and gone about other business. The sun perceptibly declined, and the shadow of the beeches of the forest began to descend the grassy slope. Still he stayed, restlessly moving, now in the dining chamber, now in the hall, now at the foot of the staircase, with an unpleasant feeling that the servants looked at him curiously, and were watching him.
Oliver had gone long since, riding with his new friend Lord Durand; they must by now be half-way through the forest. Forced by the inexorable flight of time, he put his foot upon the staircase to go up to the drawing-room and bid farewell to the Baroness. He ascended it, step by step, as a condemned person goes to his doom. He stayed to look out of the open windows as he went by; anything to excuse delay to himself. He reached the landing at last, and had taken two steps towards the door, when Aurora’s maid, who had been waiting there an hour or more for the opportunity, brushed past him, and whispered, “The Rose arbour.”
Without a word he turned, hastened down the stairs, ran through the castle yard, out at the gate, and, entering the gardens between the wall and the inner stockade, made for the arbour on the terrace where the drama had been enacted. Aurora was not there; but as he looked round, disappointed, she came from the Filbert walk, and, taking his arm, led him to the arbour. They sat down without a word. In a moment she placed her head upon his shoulder; he did not respond. She put her arm (how warm it felt!) about his neck; he yielded stiffly and ungraciously to the pressure; she drew down his head, and kissed him. His lips touched but did not press hers; they met, but did not join. In his sullen and angry silence he would not look. She drew still nearer, and whispered his name.
Then he broke out: he pushed her away; his petty jealousy and injured self-esteem poured out upon her.
“I am not the heir to an earldom,” he said; “I do not ride with a score of gentlemen at my back. They have some wonderful diamonds, have they not—Countess?”
“It is no use. Yes, your voice is sweet, I know. But you, all of you, despise me. I am nothing, no one!”
“You are all, everything, to me.”
“You were with—with Durand the whole time.”
“I could not help myself.”
“Not help yourself! Do you think I believe that?”
“Felix, dear. I tell you I could not help myself; I could not, indeed. You do not know all—”
“No, probably not. I do not know the terms of the marriage contract.”
“Felix, there is no such thing. Why, what has come to you? How pale you look! Sit down!” for he had risen.
“I cannot, Aurora, dear; I cannot! Oh, what shall I do? I love you so!”
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK