Righteous

by Gale Acuff

I don’t want to die but I don’t want to  

live, neither, so what’s left I ask my Sun 

-day School teacher but she just folds her arms 

and shakes her head and frowns as she looks down 

on me, which she has to do anyway 

because she’s 25 to my 10 but 

now she’s looking even down-er and I 

feel even smaller so then I tell her 

that I’ll pray about it and next week when 

I’m back in Sunday School my attitude 

will be changed and she’ll be happy again 

but then she starts to cry–that should be me 

shedding tears and I’d tell her so but she’d 

say that tears are like Christ’s blood. I can’t win.

 

Mr. Acuff’s work has appeared in Ascent, Chiron Review, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Poem, Adirondack Review, Maryland Poetry Review, Florida Review, Slant, Nebo, Arkansas Review, South Dakota Review, and many other journals. He has authored three books of poetry, all from BrickHouse Press: Buffalo NickelThe Weight of the World, and The Story of My Lives.

Pihoqahiak

A loquacious waltz droned phantasmically throughout the spacious foyer of Partridge Manor. Charles Jauther found the music simultaneously entrancing and unnerving. He paused beside the U-shaped double stairway which let up to the second floor landing and loosened his tie, eyes roaming aimlessly over peculiar marble statues and framed monochrome illustrations, and ornate synth-spun tapestries, looking for an exit from the oppressive opalescence.

“What is it, Charlie?”

Charles turned to his elegantly garbed wife and forced a smile.

“Nothing, nothing. Just nervous is all. I’ve never been to a showing this ritzy.”

“Whats there to worry about?”

The couple were met at the base of the left foyer staircase by a pale, middle-aged woman dressed all in black. Charles found her outfit curiously antiquated and her lynxish gaze disturbing.

“Mr. and Mrs. Jauther. So pleased you could both make it. I’m Ariadne Campbell.”

“Oh yes, we spoke briefly on the phone,” Catherine Jauther replied with a warm smile, “You’re Mr. Partridge’s secretary, right?”

“Yes. He speaks highly of your husband’s work. I’m sure he’s keen to meet him. This way.”

The couple followed the woman up the left stairway and then left again down a long corridor, lined with simply framed photographs of various people and places. Always there would be a portrait and a construct, a building, a painting, a line of code, directly across from it.

Charles gestured to the photographs.

“Who are all these people?”

Ariadne replied without turning or pausing.

“Mr. Partridge’s students—and their work.”

“There’s… so many… he must be quiet a busy man.”

“Industriousness is one of the few qualities you and he share.”

He felt that the words were meant as a subtle insult and wondered if it was the quality of his work she took issue with, or the philosophy that motivated it, or both. He decided against addressing the issue for the sake of his wife and continued following the icy hostess.

The hall of portraits let out into a massive ballroom where the bulk of the host of the stately manse had gathered. The buzzing throng huddled around a singular figure, pale and elegant, garbed in long white coat, tipped at the collar with similarly albescent fur, appearing more as one of the marble statues that lined the manor’s halls than a man.

Ariadne stopped before the pristine figure and turned towards the two new arrivals.

“Mr. and Ms. Jauther, allow me to introduce you to Mr. Partridge.”

The albescent man turned to greet the couple, revealing a sharp, bloodless face and keen, azure eyes.

“Salutations. So pleased you could make it.”

Catherine smiled and curtsied as Charles extended his hand and shook Lynder’s black-gloved own.

“We appreciated the invitation.”

Lynder nodded and then beckoned a young servant, who approached bearing a platter filled with drinks.

“Wine?”

“Oh yes, sounds lovely. Thank you.”

“What kind is it,” Catherine inquired.

“Scharzhof riesling,” Lydner replied as he gingerly removed two glasses from the servants silver plate and handed them to his guests.

“That’s quite expensive, isn’t it?” Catherine cooed as she eagerly, but cordially, took a glass.

Lynder nodded, “Indeed, but, as the saying goes, one gets what one pays for.”

“Fraid I don’t know much about wine.” Charles declared flatly as he stared down at his glass indecisively.

Lynder raised his vessel to the light, gently swirling the topaz liquid within.

“The drink of choice of the ancient Mediterraneans.”

“Didn’t know they had Scharzhof riesling back then.”

Lynder turned to Charles with a faint smile gracing his bloodless face and then gestured for the man to follow him.

“I hear you’re planning a trip to Nunavut to record the wildlife.”

“Yes. I’ve recorded damn near every land-animal on the continent, but never a polar bear. Besides my wife has always wanted to see the north. So its a win-win.”

“Taking anyone else along?”

“Wasn’t planning to. Why do you ask?”

“Its dangerous up there.”

“Its dangerous everywhere.”

“Yes, but, on my island, for example, you stand little chance of being vivisected by a polar bear.”

“Equipment is sensitive. Won’t be getting too close; that is, if I’m even able to find any.”

“You will at least take a gun with you?”

“Don’t own any. Wouldn’t take one even if I did. Cat hates guns.”

“So do polar bears. Did you know that a man was eaten by one last year. On Sentry Island, up by Nunavut.”

“I know of the place, but I hadn’t heard. What happened?”

“Man named Ridley Garrick had taken his children – a son and daughter, both very young – up for a fishing trip. The isle is a popular fishing spot. While Garrick was distracted, a bear attacked the children-”

“Oh god…”

“However, Garrick was able to intervene before it could reach them and fought it – unfortunately, for him, he was unarmed, and thus, swiftly killed.”

“Did the kids get away?”

“Yes. RCMP was notified and found the bear eating Mr. Garrick’s remains. They shot it in the face – twice – and that was the end of it.”

“What an unfortunate affair.”

“One which could have been easily avoided through the addition of a lightly armed detachment.”

“Do you write for the gun lobby or something?”

Partridge smiled with amusement and took a sip of wine before replying.

“If I were a lobbyist, you’d have long ago returned to your wife out of boredom.”

“Ha, well, its just… you seem like you don’t like animals.”

“We are animals, Mr. Jauther. I’m speaking specifically about the bears. It is not a question of liking or disliking them, but of understanding their nature.”

“Its only because of our disruption that they attack.”

“I’ll not insult your intelligence by suggesting you truly believe that.”

“Condescend all you like, but we press into their territory. Disturb the natural balance.”

“The ‘natural balance?'”

“Yes. Natural harmony.”

“Mr. Jauther, there is no harmony.”

“Butterflies and pollination – that isn’t harmonious?”

Lynder downed the last of his wine and turned the sanguine dregs in the light.

“Even butterflies drink blood.”

 


 

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When Blood Wants Blood

     There is nothing like the smell of Santeria. It is a distinct smell that jolts me into my body the second I find myself enveloped in it: one that suggests cleanliness—in every respect—but with a little magic mixed in. Not easily reproduced, you won’t find it anywhere but homes or other places, such as my botanica—a Santeria supply store—where regular orisha worship happens. It is the intoxicating blend of lavender-scented Fabuloso All-Purpose Cleaner, stale cigar smoke (used for various offerings to our dead and these African gods), burning candle wax, and subtle, earthy hints of animal sacrifice from the past, offered for the sake of continued prosperity, spiritual protection, and other vital blessings from the divine. You won’t find it anywhere else. No, it is not common fare, much like the smell of ozone immediately after a lightning strike: it is a right time, right place kind of thing. But why wax nostalgic (besides the fact that my own home hasn’t smelled like that for a long time)? It will be Dia de Los Muertos tomorrow and there is much work to do. 

     My boveda or spiritual ancestor shrine has gone neglected for months now, squatting in my cramped dining room, cold and lifeless like the spirits it was erected to appease. A thick layer of dust has powdered the picture frames of my dearly departed, making their rectangular glasses dulled and cloudy. I look at the faces of my maternal and paternal grandparents and find that details that were once fine have phased into each other, as if viewed through a thin curtain of gauze: I can’t clearly see them and they—likely—can hardly see me. That is how it feels, anyway. The white tablecloth on top of the table is dingy, looking yellowed and stained from months of occasional sprinklings of agua de florida cologne and errant flakes of cigar ash. The water glasses (nine of them to be exact—one large brandy snifter and four pairs of others in decreasing sizes) seem almost opaque, now, with their contents having long evaporated, leaving behind striated bands of hard mineral and chlorine, plus the occasional dead fly, who’s selfless sacrifice was likely not met with much appreciation by my dead Aunt Minne or PopoEstringel, my mother’s father. Various religious statues call for immediate attention with frozen countenances that glare, annoyed that my Swiffer hasn’t seen the light of day for some weeks, now. Then there is the funky, asymmetrical glass jar on the back right-corner that I use to collect their change. The dead love money (especially mine). This fact has always suggested to me that hunger—in all shapes and forms—lingers, even after the final curtain closes. Makes sense, if you think about it. We gorge ourselves on life, cleave to it when we feel it slip away, and then after we die we

     The statues—mostly Catholic saints—each have their own specific meaning and purpose on my boveda. St. Lazarus provides protection from illness. St. Teresa keeps death at bay. St. Michael and The Sacred Heart of Jesus, which are significantly larger than the other figures, are prominent, flanking either side of the spiritual table, drawing in—and out—energies of protection and—at the same time—mercy; the two things I find myself increasingly in need of these days. At the back of the table, there is a repurposed hutch from an old secretary desk with eight cubbies of varying sizes, where nine silver, metallic ceramic skulls reside that represent my dead, who have passed on (the number nine is the number of the dead in Santeria). They usually shine, quite brightly, in the warm, yellow glow of the dining room’s hanging light fixture, but they look tarnished, as of late, save the eye sockets, which seem to plead for attention, glistening, as if wet with tears. A large resin crucifix rests in the half-full, murky water-glass (the largest one) that rests in the center of the altar. It sounds sacrilegious, but it isn’t, as placing it so calls upon heavenly power to help control the spirits that are attracted (or attached) to the shrine, allowing positive ones to do what they need to do for my well-being, while keeping the negative ones tightly on a leash. Some smaller, but equally as important, fetishes also haunt the altar space, representing spirit guides of mine: African warriors and wise women, a golden bust of an Egyptian sarcophagus, a Native American boy playing a drum, and four steel Hands of Fatima that recently made their way into the mix after a rather nasty spirit settled into my house last year—for a month or so—and created all kinds of chaos and havoc, tormenting me with nightmares—not to mention a ton of bad luck—and my dogs with physical attacks, ultimately resulting in one of them, Argyle, being inexplicably and permanently crippled (but that is another story). Various accents, which I have collected over the years, also add to the ache (power) of the boveda; a multi-colored beaded offering bowl, strands of similarly patterned Czech glass beads, a brass censer atop a wooden base for incenses, a pentacle and athame (from my Wicca days), a deck of Rider-Waite tarot cards in a green velvet pouch with a silver dollar kept inside, and a giant rosary—more appropriate to hang on a wall, actually—made of large wooden beads, dyed red and rose-scented. Looking at all of it in its diminished grandeur, I am reminded of how much I have asked my egun (ancestors) for over the years and can’t help but feel a little ashamed of my non-committal, reactive (not proactive) attitude in terms of their veneration, as well as their regular care and feeding.   

     This year’s Dia will be different. It has to be. It’s going to take more than a refreshed boveda and fresh flowers to fix what is going wrong in my life right now; a bowl of fruit and some seven-day candles just won’t cut it. Business at the botanica is slow, money is tight—beyond tight—and all my plans seem to fall apart before they can even get started. The nightmares have come back—a couple of times, anyway—and the dogs grow more and more anxious every day, ready to jump out of their skins at the slightest startle, such as the scratching and scuffling from the large cardboard box that’s tucked away in the garage. My madrina, an old Cuban woman well into her 70s that brought me into the religion and orisha priesthood, told me last night that we all have a spiritual army at our disposal that desperately wants to help us in times of need; meaning our ancestors. She said, with enough faith, one could command legions of them to do one’s bidding, using as little as a few puffs of cigar smoke and a glass of water. While a powerful statement, that isn’t how things roll for me. Her prescription for what ails me was far from that simple. “This year, your muertos need to eat and eat well! They need strength to help you and you need a lot of it. When they are happy, you will be happy. When they are not, you won’t,” she advised, searching my eyes for an anticipated twinge of panic, and they didn’t fail her. I knew—right then and there—what she meant, making my stomach feel as if it had dropped straight down into my Jockey underwear. That feeling may have very well dissuaded me from going through with tonight’s festivities if things were so dire at present. Eyebale is a messy business, regardless of how smooth one is with their knife (blood sacrifice always is, which is why I have always had such a distaste for it. Thank God I only do birds). Regardless of that fact, my egun eat tonight at midnight. I give thanks to my egun tonight at midnight. I—hopefully—change things around tonight at midnight. What else can you do when blood wants blood?                     


Originally published at Digging in the Dirt.

A Siring

By Dan Klefstad


“I was starving, I couldn’t help it.” Camilla wipes blood from her chin and points. “He’s in the car.”

“How could you be starving?” I put my stump in one jacket sleeve while my left arm hurriedly finds the other hole. “You had at least six pints before you left the house.”

“Okay, then, he was delicious. What’s wrong with enjoying a meal?”

A Corvette convertible sits at the edge of the park, red finish partially lit by a perfect half-moon. I lower my voice. “Front or back seat?”

“I put him in the trunk.”

“Please say the interior isn’t white.”

“Okay. It’s some other color.”

“Don’t play with me.”

“You’re the one who’s playing.” Her bare feet make no sound on the grass. In contrast, my loafers seem to find every leaf that gave up the ghost during the recent drought. I shine a light on the driver’s seat. “It’s like Jackson Pollack was here. Fiona was never this messy.”

“You don’t work for her anymore.” She folds her arms. “And I like Jackson Pollack.”

“Did you forget our agreement? I raise money to buy blood and you don’t kill people. We don’t need police sniffing around.” I open the trunk and see a man in a polo shirt and plaid shorts. He looks 35, maybe 40.

Camilla leans against the fiberglass body and runs her hands over it. “I want this car.”

“We have to ditch it.” I reach into the man’s back pocket and take out his wallet.

“Oooh.” She sidles up. “Make it look like we robbed him. Clever.”

Camilla’s been watching a new police show. Maybe it’s an old one, those procedurals are all the same. One minute in, someone finds a body. After the first commercial detectives arrive, and five minutes later something threatens to derail the investigation which leads to the climax. A quick, pithy observation follows, and it ends at 22 minutes. The wallet opens and my thumb lands on metal. Oh God, no. Please, no. I put the flashlight between my teeth. “Fuck me.”

“That’s not in our agreement,” Camilla snaps back. Then she groans as her hands encircle her belly. “I’m too full anyway.”

“You killed a cop.”

“Okay.”

I stare at her, flashlight dangling from my teeth. Finally, I remove it. “Cops never stop looking when one of their own… Oh, Jesus Christ.” I slam the trunk and turn away, gathering my thoughts. Camilla is only six months old, but Fiona warned me she’d never learn caution. I can’t believe I signed up for four years of this.

“Is that what I think it is? Cool.”

It’s best if I hide the body several miles from the car, but I haven’t used a shovel since losing my arm. And Camilla? She’s allergic to manual labor. But, just now, I remember a secluded lake about a mile from here. Perhaps we could find weights to keep him down…

BANG

“What the fuck?” I whip around to see smoke curling up from a pistol. Camilla can’t stop laughing at the hole in her left hand. “I shot myself.” Her excited eyes meet mine. “Coppers back home don’t carry these.”

“Give it to me.”

“No, I’m gonna keep it.”

“You have no need for a gun.”

“We’re in America now.” She waves it in front of me. “Everyone needs a gun.”

“Camilla, I need you to give that to me.”

Her face moves right up to mine. “You’re not the boss.” I feel the barrel against my ribs. “I am, remember?”

“If you kill me, you’re on your own.” I stare back. “Think you can survive by yourself?”

Our standoff lasts several seconds. Finally, she grins. “You’re right.” She turns and walks away. “You’re always right.” She tosses the gun in the bushes. “Good luck with this mess.”

***

It’s after seven when I get home. Camilla’s been asleep since 5:30. Everyone else on our street is scurrying to work, or wherever normal people go in the morning. In the kitchen, I pour myself a scotch, then remember the final item on my list before waking at eleven to check our investments. I walk down the corridor and turn the handle to Camilla’s room to make sure it’s secure. I always order the bolt installed on the inside to protect my employer when they’re most vulnerable. To her credit, Camilla always locks it. So, there’s hope. When I return to the kitchen, I see a letter from Rome on thick, faded stationery.

Dear Daniel,

How’s life back in the States? Is Camilla behaving herself? Despite her wild ways, I have every confidence you’ll guide and protect my progeny during these difficult early years. I just hope she’s paying you enough. Speaking of money, please find the enclosed check which should help with surprise expenses. I do hope we work together again someday. My current guardian isn’t even close to your level.

All the best,

Fiona

 

The check is for $10,000, not much in our world. Still, it would be enough if I were to buy a one-way ticket to the Equator where the sun shines twelve hours every day. No doubt, a spurned Camilla would die pursuing her revenge. Fiona, ever more cautious, would send human assassins, but most working today have less experience than me. I could stay hidden for years thanks to secret deposit boxes filled with cash, false passports, and gold. I’m still calculating the exact number of years when I hear her voice:

“Hey.”

I turn and see her door slightly open. My eyes immediately go to the window shades to make sure they’re down. “Yeah?”

“Can you come here for a second?”

I walk to the entrance and see a teary eye staring out. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“For being… difficult.”

“I’ll forgive you. Just give me a day or two.”

She sniffles. “It’s just that I feel so unprepared.” Her eyes roll. “That’s probably really obvious to you. But I’m finding it hard to adjust to… this.”

“I understand. Fiona said it took her a couple decades. Try to get some sleep.”

“I can’t.”

This is new; Fiona always slept through the day. “Want some B positive?”

“No. What are you drinking?”

“Whisky. You wouldn’t like it.”

“Can you sleep with me – just for a little while?”

“Umm…”

“I know it’s not part of our agreement.”

“I’ve never slept with…”

“A vampire?”

“Yeah.”

“I just need someone to hold me.” An icy hand takes mine. “Please?”

I follow her in and lock the door. We face each other for a few seconds — she in silk pajamas, me in slacks and a button-down shirt – before she lifts the covers and slides in. I remove my shoes and lay down next to her.

“Spoon me?”

The last time I did this, I had two arms and one grew numb. For the first time, I learn one arm can be a benefit. I press my chest against her back and immediately feel her relax.

“Please don’t leave.”

“You mean, stay all day with you?”

“No, you can go once I’m asleep. Just don’t take off permanently. I don’t know what I’d do on my own.” Both her hands press mine against her chest. “God, I hate being so dependent.”

“Everyone depends on someone.”

“Who do you depend on?”

“I left myself open for that. Touché.”

She turns to face me, eyes searching mine. “You know I’m here for you. I just need to know what you need.”

***

The next evening, I’m reading the news, swiping at my tablet, when something catches my eye: a story about a body, drained of blood, in an alley. Enraged, I push open her door and hold up the tablet. “You did it again.”

She’s in her closet, topless, sifting through dresses. “Hello, that door still means something. What do you want?”

I step in. “Someone sucked a body dry last night. It’s all over the news – we’re exposed.”

“I didn’t do that.”

“Then who did?”

She’s smiling when she faces me. “Congratulations!” She kisses my cheek. “We’re parents.”

“What?”

“It’s a miracle.” Still smiling, both of her hands take mine. “Remember that cop from two nights ago?”

“The one you killed, and I dumped in the lake?”

“I’m calling him Austin – hope you like the name. He’s alive and living nearby.”

My breathing becomes shallow as I extract my hand and grab her upper right arm. “Are you saying you sired that cop?”

“We sired him. We had sex and I gave Austin some of my blood…”

“His name was Officer Jared Brown and we had sex after you killed him.”

“I don’t remember the order — I don’t know how this works — but aren’t you happy? We have a son.” She tries to move, looks at my hand gripping her arm, and fixes her gaze on mine. “Let go of me.”

“Walk me through it. You were alone with him in the car, and you drained him. When did you give him your blood?”

“I can’t REMEMBER.” She yanks herself free. “Really, I thought you’d be happy – at least for me. I didn’t think I could sire someone.”

“Camilla, listen: You brought a being into this world that we can’t protect…”

We brought him into this world.”

“…and once the police catch him, they’ll start looking for others…”

“But you can teach him to survive – like you’re teaching me.”

“STOP ACTING LIKE I’M HIS FATHER.”

Blood pools in her eyes as her body shakes. She points toward the door. “Get. Out.”

I point at her before I leave. “We will talk about this tonight.”

“GET OUT OF THIS HOUSE.”

***

Finally, an order I agree with. Fiona’s check is still on the kitchen table. I pocket that and grab my tablet. Before leaving, I open my go-bag and feel all the way to the bottom. I pull out a pistol, a trophy from a battle that now seems ages ago. The magazine contains regular bullets. Reaching back inside, I find the other mag containing wood-tipped rounds. One through the heart is all that’s needed.

A moment later, I’m driving to the neighborhood where the latest body was found. I’m testing that TV trope that says a criminal always returns to the scene of his crime. It takes several minutes to find the alley, which still has pieces of yellow tape on the ground. I get out, put the gun behind my belt, and begin walking, occasionally looking through a thermal imager. It takes ten minutes to find him. He’s still wearing the polo and plaid shorts, although this time he’s 28 degrees and walking several paces behind a woman registering 98.6. He glances back once, briefly making eye contact. He knows I’m there for him. Still, inexperienced and consumed by hunger, the two-day-old continues his pursuit.

I quicken my pace, already thinking beyond the ultimate crime of rendering mortal what was supposed to be immortal. No doubt, Camilla will come after me for killing “our” child – for shattering the illusion that this creature would bind us forever. She’ll disregard her own safety, and the universe will act accordingly; there’s a reason most vampires die before their first year. Still, a longing has settled in, one that threatens to haunt me for the rest of my life. She certainly got to me with that fire in her eyes, and the smell of her hair. How each breast felt when I held it. How she tasted.

This is all my fault. I broke the first rule of guardianship, and the consequences couldn’t be clearer for all involved – including me. But perhaps I’ve been wrong all along. I’ve made a career out of helping others cheat death. Now, for the first time, I see mortality as a gift. It forgives, wipes the slate clean, and allows you to forget difficult memories. For this, Officer Jared or Austin or whatever you call yourself — You are welcome. Just stay dead.

###


You can find Mr. Klefstad’s novel, Shepherd & The Professor, online, here.

 

Hauptsturmführer Fillenius (1944)

By Dan Klefstad


The Russians knew they had no chance; we surrounded them. They also knew we’d have no mercy, but they surrendered anyway. They gave up their weapons and helmets, hoping for cigarettes which we no longer had. Were they buying time? Somewhere across the drifting snow, their swine-kin prepared another attack, but we didn’t know when, or how many. So we tried beating the details out, smashing their fingers and noses with rifles. After burning precious calories, we huddled in our so-called “winter outfits” and stamped our feet to get the blood moving. Then we tried to strip their coats which covered neck-to-ankle with thick, coarse wool. I knew very little Russian but it was clear we’d have to shoot them first. That sealed their fate. I ordered my last surviving officer to line them up and empty our German guns into them; the captured ones work better when frozen, and we’d need those for the next assault.

A corporal limps toward me and salutes. “Herr Hauptsturmführer, shall we aim for the head? The coats would be intact then.”

“If you want pig brains on your collar, that’s your business.” I yank the magazine from my pistol and count the remaining ice-covered rounds. “I’ll take the three on the right.”

Up to now, I thought Der Führer might introduce a Super Weapon that would stop the Red Army from entering Germany, but when half our guns failed to perform a simple mass execution, I knew it was over. The war would go on for another fifteen months but this moment in Estonia is where the end began – for Germany and these mongrel fucks who surrendered everything but their coats. At least their weapons worked; my men were thrilled. I, however, counted every one of the eleven bullets they spent.

“Hauptsturmführer Fillenius!” Major Haas motions from a staff-car that must’ve arrived while we were firing. I walk quickly and salute, expecting a reprimand for wasting ammunition.

Haas ignores the bodies. “I’m going to Tallinn to prepare defenses there. Need I remind you of Der Führer’s directive?”

“Stand and fight. No retreat, no surrender.”

His driver, a lieutenant, salutes. “We know you’ll give your all for the Fatherland.”

I ignore him. “Can you send some food, cigarettes, bandages – anything?”

“I’ll assess the situation and let you know.” Haas motions to his driver who shifts into First. “Don’t let us down, Søren.”

His use of my Christian name is another sign that the “thousand-year Reich” will last little more than a decade. I salute once more as he drives toward the final sunset I expect to see. I try to savor it, but someone yells “Deckung!” and I jump into the nearest trench.

§

I’ve seen men hallucinate before they die, so I’m not surprised by the woman wearing a low-cut peasant-style dress. This moonlit vision is a lovely distraction from the gurgling in my throat and lungs. A sucking chest wound gets priority in any triage, but there’s no one left to plug the holes. Suffocating, I try to relax and enjoy this little film about an underdressed beauty walking toward me through white and crimson snow.

“You don’t look Russian,” I wheeze. “Estonian?”

She gathers the long fabric as she kneels, and I see blue veins in her large white breasts. Long fingernails like shell splinters descend toward me, and I wonder if she’ll gouge my eyes out. I close them as she brushes aside a stray forelock.

“Please.” My eyes reopen. “Just stay with me.”

“What a pity.” She says in English. “You look like an angel.” She fingers a pin on my uniform. “SS Nordland.” Then she frowns and grabs a handful of hair, lifting my face toward hers. “I could have used those prisoners you killed.”

I focus on her accent which is different from that of my language tutor in Copenhagen. “American?”

Her grip tightens. “You wasted them!”

Wasted. What did that mean? This was more than a war. It was a crusade against Slavs and other sub-humans, and Jewish bolshevism – a crusade I joined four years ago to help the Nazis take over my native Denmark. The fact that the Aryans failed means nothing matters anymore – nichts. Nearly defeated, I spend one of my remaining breaths on a question. “What do you want?”

“What do you want, Søren?”

Definitely a dream; even my dog-tags use an initial for my first name. But I consider her words. “Leave the war. Leave this fucking continent.”

Her eyes narrow as if preparing to divulge a secret. “I’m going to America.”

“Take me with you.”

Her fist tightens against my skull, eyes glow red, and lips part revealing two long canines. “You’re a monster,” she hisses. “Only a fellow hunter can go with me.”

“I… Who… What are you?”

Her mouth closes but her glowing eyes remain fixed on mine. Of all the things I expected to see while dying, I never imagined a seductive hellish creature calling me a monster. What does that make her? My frozen lips barely move: “Vampyr?”

She scowls. For a moment, she appears uncertain about what to do. Finally: “You’re useless now, nearly bloodless, but I can change you.” Her face is so close, our noses almost touch. “First, I’m going to give you something I never had: a choice.”

“Make me one of you.”

“You haven’t heard the terms.”

“I don’t want to die.”

“If I save you, the sun will be your mortal enemy. And your thirst will never end.”

“Please… ” I cough a final time as my lungs collapse.

Both her hands support my neck as she moves behind me. Then she rests my head in her lap and holds her right hand above my face. A nail slices her wrist and my head instinctively turns as blood rains down.

“Open.” Her fingers squeeze my jaw. The drops cover my face as I struggle for my last breath.

“Be still.”

§

When I awake, I hear a heart beating and know immediately who it belongs to. I sit up and hear his panicked breathing, but pause to take in the surroundings of a command bunker I visited once, now abandoned. Fiona relaxes in the Field Marshal’s former wing-chair, sipping from a glass of red liquid that I already know – I can smell it. And I want it.

“You can relax.” Fiona swallows. “It’s safe here.”

“Safe for whom?” He yells from across the room. “Hauptsturmführer Fillenius! Untie me and arrest this woman!”

“Sturmbannführer Haas,” I rise, noting the major’s civilian clothes. “Where did you go after you left our position?”

“To Tallinn – like I told you!”

“He’s lying.” Fiona examines her nails. “I found him at the Loksa Shipyard, arranging passage to neutral territory. He and his lieutenant – who’s delicious, by the way – had Swedish passports.”

I glare at him, sitting in a wooden chair, arms and legs bound. “Stand and fight, you said.” Then I see the passports on a nearby table, plus a dozen gold coins. “My men were killed – all of them – covering your rear.”

“Oh, I think Lieutenant Baumann covered his rear just fine, wouldn’t you say Major?” Fiona smiles as she takes another sip.

“Søren, listen.” Haas fixes his eyes on me. “She kidnapped us in Tallinn, planted that stuff on us, and killed Fritzi.”

“Don’t call me ‘Søren’ – I do not consort with cowards!”

Haas’s face wrinkles with disgust as he looks at Fiona. “Then, like an animal, she bit his neck and drank his blood.”

I inhale deeply, suddenly aware that my teeth are longer. Haas’s skin reveals a spider web of throbbing vessels, but I know which one to attack first. I glance at Fiona. “Can I take him now?”

Fiona looks amused as she leans back in the Field Marshal’s chair. “Permission granted, Hauptsturmführer.”

§

The Stockholm Palace looks stunning at night, yellow lights reflecting off the sandstone exterior. But the fact that a King lives there – plus the surrounding architecture, music, and fashions – reminds me that we’re still in Europe. I look at Fiona’s hands which rest on the wrought iron balcony, and place my right on her left. “I hear the war will be over soon.”

“Yes.”

“It should be safe to travel, no?”

“It’s never safe.” She looks at me. “The first leg, to England, is a small risk. We could take two or three passengers, but we’d have to share them. The second leg, though…”  She looks at the night sky. “That would be seven or eight – again, shared – so we’d still be starving. If we’re alive when we get to New York, the police will know something’s wrong and board the ship. All they need is a little luck and they’ll find our trunk.”

“Why not have separate trunks?”

“That doubles the chances they’ll find one. If they discover you or me, they’ll keep looking.”

“Remind me. Why are we doing this?”

She points west. “Because that’s where we’ll get dinner every night.” She waves toward the city. “They just had two devastating wars, and God knows if the Russians are finished marching. There aren’t enough people to hide behind while we make the others disappear.”

I gaze at the rising moon and imagine how it looks from New York, Boston, or Chicago. Then I lift my glass. “To America. May we thrive among her teeming multitudes.”

“To whoever controls the universe,” Fiona raises hers. “May she still need us enough to grant safe passage.”

###

Film Review: The Bone Snatcher (2002)

*** SPOILERS


Having read the deplorably cheezy tagline: It will scare you out of your skull. and being a SyFy original, my expectations for The Bone Snatcher were quite low. I was pleasantly surprised.


Directed by Jason Wulfsohn, written by Malcolm Kohll and Gordon Render and starring Warrick Grier and a bunch of people I had never seen nor heard of, The Bone Snatcher follows the exploits of a talented but mousey systems analyst, Dr. Zach Straker (Scott Bairstow) who is tasked with moving from Canada to the South African Namib Desert to aid a geological survey team after several members of their crew go missing. There he meets the imposing and steely Karl (Warrick Grier), the beautiful and headstrong, Mikki (Rachel Shelley), the superstitious and perpetually ponderous Titus (Patrick Shai), a mouthy driver and a guy who is apparently only in the film to be the first on-screen person to be bonesntached. Once Karl discovers the corpses of his colleagues he is enraged and vows to find their killers. It soon becomes apparent that what killed them is not human when Karl spies a hideous being stalking through the desert. He shoots it and it vanishes, as if into the very air. Shortly, the creature begins picking off the team one by one, forcing Straker, Mikki, Karl and Titus to put aside their differences and formulate a plan to kill it before it steals their bones…

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Straker.
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Mikki.
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Karl.
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Karl discovers the remains of his team, stripped of flesh.
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Karl scopes the bone snatcher but guns prove ineffectual for dealing with the monstrosity.
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Nooo! Character whose name I don’t remember got bonesnatched!
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The Bone Snatcher.

Impressions & Overview

Though critically panned (it used to be the hip thing for the movie literati to bash Scifi original movies, regardless of their content or quality) I found The Bone Snatcher to be quite enjoyable and far more substantive than I thought it would be. One of the benefits of any survival horror movie is the raising of the question: What would you do in such a situation? Would you act as the meek and attemptedly calculating Straker? The even-keel Mikki? The doomsaying Titus? The by-the-book driver Magda? Or would you strike out for revenge like Karl? Furthermore, the scenery is often quite breathtaking (the film was shot in Cape Town and the deserts of Namibia. Though the film is never scary (which it should have been since it billed itself as a “horror” film) it is very atmospheric and tense with a decent soundtrack and some moments of surprisingly good acting (especially from Warrick Grier who I hope, in the future, to see receiving considerably more starring roles).

The Acting, Characters & Dialogue

The acting is uniformly solid. One of the main problems that some viewers may run into, however, is the strong Afrikaans accents, which may warrant the utilization of subtitles (especially in the introduction to the main geological team members, there was so much mumbling and accent it was like they were speaking a completely different language).

The protagonist of the film, Straker, is boring and tepid and does almost nothing of importance throughout the entire film, yet, it is these very qualities that make him believable and help markedly to ground the fantastical elements of the film, namely the bone-snatching creature itself, in reality. Early on in the film after the first attack by the creature, Straker losses his cool, he’s almost perpetually terrified throughout, even as he tries to focus and craft a logical plan of action.

The standout of the entire film, for me, was Warrick Grier as the hotblooded and fearsome team leader, Karl.  He, together with Straker, have the best moment in the entire film when Karl erupts, “There are no bears in Africa!” and Straker responds, “I know that, Kaaaaarl!” It would be impossible to replicate the tone of the scene so I suggest you watch the film for the full effect, it had me rolling with laughter.

Central Themes

The central theme of the film is teamwork, as none of the members of the crew being stalked by the bone snatcher seem able to agree upon anything, later, after one of them is killed there is a sequence whereupon various characters keep drawing guns upon each other and shouting about how so-and-so is going too far or losing it. All of the characters who bicker and refuse to work in tandem end up dead which I read as the scriptwriters declaring, “If you behaved this aberrantly when a giant bug-bone monster was trying to kill you, you’d end up dead. Form up, or fall down.” And they’re right.

The Creature

Being a creature-feature, we would be remiss if we did not specifically remark upon the titular Bone Snatcher itself. The ant-bone amalgamation is, whilst in no-wise scary (at least it wasn’t to me) a fantastic looking creation (and yes, the “creature” is just a bunch of ants, if you hadn’t guessed from the promo poster for the film, which, though cool, is rather too plot-revealing!). Some of the shots of The Snatcher itself are not CGI but rather a man in a suit (Brian Claxton Payne) and these, in my opinion, are the best in the film (the CGI in the film was very uncanny valley and at times looked like stop-motion which was distracting). The reveal that the creature was an amalgam of prehistoric killer ants was obvious but inventive. What I kept wondering, however, was, how were the ants aided by forming a humanoid mass? Straker says they do it for “survival” but how, precisely? We never really find out and that’s disappointing.

Summation

If you enjoy survival horror action films like Pitch Black (which TBS strongly reminded me of) that are more concerned with atmosphere and character than they are with guts, gore or superfluous jump scares, you might well enjoy The Bone Snatcher.

INTERVAL ONE | THE SEVERING

IN MY DREAM | I lay upon a bed, hard and uncomfortable, unable to sleep, swaddled in darkness. After a single heart’s beating the wall to my abode exploded in tandem with a furious howl that left a dreadful ringing to hover ghastly upon the air. A strange, dim, reddish light flooded the room. Stunned, I rose and slid off the bed, feeling something sticky, something wet.

Blood.

Aghast I fled out of the hole in the ruined tenement but emerged only into a yet larger pool of blood. So shocked was I at the heinous fluid that I neglected immediacy and surroundings both and when I took in what lay before me, horror subsumed all.

A hundred thousand bodies, in various states of undress, hung from great sheets of barbed wire that stretched for miles in either direction, so thick that the grisly conglomeration blotted out the horizon; their blood spooling out from pierced and maggot-ridden flesh like huge, undulating worms. Approaching the closest column of twisted steel I reached out my hand to touch one of the corpses thereupon. Before my hand could clasp its decaying and sanguine flesh it hissed and squirmed and reached out towards me.

Screaming. Screaming. Screaming.

Breath caught in throat, heart thundered in chest, eyes bulged and hairs stood on end. I left off out the scene and tore across the seemingly endless field of blood as the grey and wasted clouds parted from the sky, revealing a black sphere, like a tiny imploded sun, which oozed with a black and viscous substance that drizzled out over the ruptured skin of the world. Miles upon miles of seething black liquid scorching all.

Suddenly a howl erupted from behind me. Low, furious and vaguely human.

I turned to behold a man, wrapt all in bloody bandages, wadding through the life waters with single minded purpose, his movements ferine and jittering; the creature’s eyes nothing more than pools of void, lightless as the star-rent welkin and his mouth sewn shut with strands of its own hair. Behind him he dragged a thick and wooden club to which was affixed a sharp and heavy stone. Another howl and the crude ax sliced through the left side of my abdomen. I leapt aback and cried out for aid. Cried out in vain, splashing through the blood and rheum and suddenly then the chittering of teeth as eyes and hands and tongues and distended chest cavities filled over with multiplying strands of heaving hair rose up from out of the ruddy filth and slithered about my chassis as the ululatious axman brought his cudgel down into my skull.

Then, nothing.

Cannot Cry But Only Shrink

What have I put upon myself. This is me, this is my mind disorganized, drenched in its diverted self, there is nothing but me all over me. Lift me up me. Me help me!! Where is my fucking card, fuck fuck. “I’m outside.” “I’ll be there in a minute, give me a second.”

Can’t he get his shit together spending his time looking through shit, he lives in trash, why? Do I want to be around a person like this, fucking loser. Every minute that goes by I feel it, wasting my gas, I should just go leave.

Where the fuck fuck is it, fuck fuck fuck. “In for a min, got to go sorr- …ol, I’ll see you lat-”

What the fuck is wrong with me? I can’t be like that, I don’t want to be like that, nothing but friction is myselves. I feel so hot. So hot. It is in my face. He’s not busy, he’s tired of my shit, probablyprobably, I’ll… just… The papers, the cartons, the packages, me; it’s going. In moments.

Have to find my lighter first, ha, I guess I saved myself. Can’t find shit. Instinctively grabs for his cigarettes.

 

I want to fog this out the facial heat, turmoil, but there it is agai..heat up in..just lit a cigarette..ha I found it… I did find it.

I’m never going to fix this, the damage is done, this is the right thing to do, the strong thing to do. I am a drag on everyone, I’m toxic. I pick up some magazine and light it with my cigarette. I walk it up the stairs, red projected on the walls and ashes drop to the ground; I shake he shakes. To his room he brings the amber light and throws it on the bed that rides on a sea of trash. And I’m crying and he’s crying.

This fire spreads slowly spidering through the different materials, and this heart is rattling and another him alongside me the immobile frightened one. I, he, is puppeted to the bathroom and dumps out the trash can, spilling the shit rags on to the gross floor and in the act the cigarette, that whimpering mad man stamps out by accident “ow” with a bare foot. Carrying himself in his own sobbing arms. He turns on the shower and fills the scummy trash can with water. The smoke he can smell, the plastic burning, the smoke outgassing from his bedroom.

Fuck bellowing fuck bellowing bellowing “fuck” tears down his face from those harsh chemical, flames, fear and failure. He throws the filled trash can’s water into the room engulfed in flames. Fuck. Call the pol..et more wat..e fire exst..let it burn. All the different sides of I and him and that man converge into none having been three parts of a converse, quiet inside. Out he goes and imagining a cold wind, a cold wind leading him at the back from is bedroom door to the front yard. Where he lights another.

The fire is burning.

His room is burning.

Ha! at least I left my room today… ha!

He remembered that he had tears on his face. That it was all his fault and that somehow he just made it worse, he made himself worse, he couldn’t even erase his life, to weak to die.

Calls his mother.

“Hey mom.”

“What, Tim, are you alright?”

“Ha!..yeah, I’m fine.”

“I’m just calling to see how you are… I guess,”  he walks further away from his house in ruining.

“Are you alright?”

“I’m doing fine actually.. actually have to go.”

“Alright? Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I just got a job.. so I got to go.”

“Ok… love you.”

Bands of color and patterns that don’t exists, the sidewalk shifts the squares get big then small then big, the ground is just a skin that covers an ocean, Tim falls over unable to keep his balance, the rising side walk tide tosses him into the street and a car stops the tires screech the engine still hauling stillness gone to noises, it doesn’t full the wheels accelerate the breaks grating, the tires spinning,burning . The car door opens. Out steps a beautiful muscular man. Tim looks into his eyes and the face changes and shifts, but still holds its symmetry, Tim he’s picked up, grabbed by his collar and he shrinks to half his size at the grasp. This Satan picks him up without effort without the forces of nature upon his decisions and the car that he was in grows, it exceeds the limits of street and overflows partially submerging under the ground. The man carries him into the arch way a former car window, three fours of the car under the asphalt. Tim cannot cry but only shrink; he shrinks and shrinks and he is just a pebble in his hand. This Satanic hand when it’s heart does not beat it is icy cold and when the pressure is driven against the blood he is iron white hot. they walk into the car that is now the size of a cathedral Tim runs screaming panicking in circles and so he shrinks he shrinks he is a molecule, Satan’s face is projected on to every misty matter sphere and Tim shrinks and shrinks and shrinks and shrinks.

Tim laid in the street.

“Get the fuck off the ground, what the fuck is wrong with you, get up, you can’t lay in the street hello! Hello!”

Tim puts his hand gently on the angry man’s wrist, “I’m sorry,” he walks himself to the curb and sits down.

“You’re lucky I didn’t run you over, you’re lucky I didn’t call the cops, get up.. you’re a loon” he slams the car door and car drives away.

Tim sees Bryan’s copper car in the distance.

He pulls into his driveway, he gets out

“What.. you don’t look right… why is your… lets go… inside.”

Tim follows Bryan inside his own house.

“Lets clean this… do you have trash bags.”

“No…”

“Fucking-a.”

“Actually I think have bags in my room, I think.. actually.. um don’t go.”

Bryan walks in to Tim’s room that has been destroyed by fire.

“TIM WHAT FUCK”

“Oh.. I couldn’t find my card when you came.”

Apostasy (Part 3)

Previous chapter

Suryn looked on the still-terrified guards who said they had encountered the escaped Demonic servant, Dask. One of them had been killed by a being she knew must be the remains of the first young man who had been burnt at the stake. He had been reduced to a Hate elemental now. She loathed the thought of those foul things and memories rushed back to when she was a retainer in the Divine Army fighting in massed silver ranks as whole howling swarms of the vile things rushed them. She had watched friends die horribly in those battles that had raged across blighted planes that lay upon the celestial fault-lines of Light and Dark.

Two more of the guards had grotesquely swollen faces dominated with dark shadows of bruise, one with a shattered jaw, the other who’d had the bony bridge of his nose all but flattened. The servant, Dask, was just a freshly made lesser imp, but he was already too powerful for most mortal men to handle.

She had been awakened from her sleep the night Dask escaped as she felt something intrude within the keep even though she had warded the whole place. She had immediately sent the guards down to Dask’s cell only to discover he was somehow missing. This Demon’s ability to get past her defenses unsettled her; the wards should have worked even against powerful foes. Could it mean there was some weakness in herself?

Meanwhile, the hunt had gone on. Since the first heretic had been burnt, there had been others, this time with no interventions as they wriggled and screamed within the blaze. She would deny the Demon access to power no matter what it took and find and break the sources that let him lurk here. She had never taken on a Demon by herself but she had hunted down many lesser creatures. If she could take down Demons, then the ascent to the angelic orders might one day be bestowed on her. She would be more than human. She would never again feel the base needs of the flesh. Every time she had touched herself, she had been filled with self-loathing afterwards over her weakness. The advance of years did very little to her anymore, but that only gave her more time to contemplate the frailties of her imperfect frame. As much as she hated Hate, she despised herself and longed for that final, blindingly alabaster death in perfection, for her limbs, no longer soft, to be sculpted as if in divine marble. It had been nearly a week now since she had slept and her sad body yearned for repose. She thought again of the Demon and forged on with her Work.

*

“There is nothing left of him now but his fury,” explained the Dark Man. “He was unwilling to pledge himself until his higher mind was stripped away by trauma and only the lower functions were left to decide. His natural meekness buried the seed deep and she unearthed it.”

“So the guy he was really is dead?”

“That final flash of rage against the whole world is all that’s left. He is just a simple hate elemental now.”

“Just? I watched him beat a whole squad of armed men!”

“He has strength and instinct but nothing of intellect or restraint. He is useless without guidance. You gave him that.”

Dask felt a pang of sadness for the young man who had been transformed into the grotesque horror that now accompanied him.

“I wish he’d done it sooner.”

“I reached out to him. But only the flames could burn away his inborn tenderness.”

Dask looked to the burnt man and the creature tilted its head in response to being given attention.

The Demon was barely able to sit up. He only just managed to position his back against the rock wall.  Beneath his robe, a soft light still sometimes shone through. Dask told him everything that had happened and the master listened, motionless.

“I know my old self is dead now.” concluded Dask

“You turned away from the Light and have just begun to understand what that means.  You now have plenty of time for that.” the Demon replied.

“What do you mean?”

“Get the chisel.”

Dask grabbed the chilly, glassy sharp object from the pile of blankets he had awakened in and brought it to the Demon.

“Why have you not been using this?”

“I didn’t think about it.”

“That’s a physical form taken by the power of your pact. Keep it with you.”

“Why?”

“Go and find out.”

He went back to his chamber, sat on his bedroll and began to turn over the chisel in his hand.  It was like a jagged shard of obsidian yet with the dim vision he had in complete darkness he could see no light reflect from it. It was a slice of abyss, impenetrable even to his supernatural senses. It was always cold but tingled somehow when he grasped it more tightly. Out of curiosity, he tried scratching the wall with it. The tip did seem to leave a mark. He started slashing and left gashes in the stone no normal weapon would easily cause. He thrust and a chunk of stone chipped off the wall. Impressive, thought Dask, but nothing to compare with the night he had escaped from his cell. What more was there to know? He wandered through the catacombs until he was under the city and impulsively stabbed a cockroach. To his astonishment, there was a wriggling sensation that worked its way up his wrist and into his arm, then his shoulder. It was a strange feeling that sickened him and it didn’t go away. He writhed, squirmed, and scratched, but the feeling was just under his skin. He even pricked himself with the tip of the chisel but it did nothing to him. The same object that had scored a stone wall didn’t even break his skin. Whatever this was he wanted it out of him! He clenched himself and willed for the bothersome feeling to go away. To his surprise, there was a feeling kind of like a popping pimple or a loose baby tooth on the back of his shoulder. A long thin black spike barely thicker than a thread thrust through his skin and tumbled from his shirt sleeve to the floor. The straight spike became fluid and started squirming like a jet black tapeworm. After a short while it stopped and grew rigid in its final, twisted pose and evaporated into a mist of shadow. Dask just stared at the spot for the longest time his gut roiling with disgust. It took him hours to get the courage to stab a rat and this time he immediately wanted to vomit as a scurrying and scratching feeling bounced all around inside of him. He only just managed to keep from panicking as the feeling skittered down his backbone. He finally focused enough on expelling it from him. He heaved as if to vomit but small black spikes erupted along his spine. Soon they fell out onto the ground and also evaporated into that unholy material. Dask could not help but be fascinated with this discovery no matter how unpleasant it felt. He thought of how he had been through much worse before he had finally turned his back on the Light. He was thinking about what he should try next when he heard a shuffling. He looked up and saw the Burnt Man. It tilted its head back toward the direction of their lair. Dask followed.

*

“Go through the Doorway when I make it,” instructed the Demon. “There is someone in need of consultation.”

With visible exertion, the weakened Demon reached out, a pale hand emerging from its sleeve, and a whirling vortex of grey and pale green light opened in the middle of the floor. Dask looked to the Burnt Man, but it, of course, had nothing to say. He somehow overcame his fear now that he had nothing to lose and dropped into the yawning hole. His gut wrenched as he expected to fall into a whirlwind but instead he immediately found himself standing in a luxurious bedchamber. There was no one in bed, though someone had clearly used the bedsheets. Then he looked to the starlit balcony and saw a female figure there. She was crouched in despair, clutching a silvery knife. Her robe was open and she shook as she stared at the blade.

“Don’t.” rasped Dask.

She immediately fell over in surprise and fumbled to conceal her weapon underneath her.

He walked from the darkness of the suite toward the balcony.  “It’s ok. Where am I?”

She didn’t say anything as she looked up in terror at his approaching shadow. Dask strode out onto the balcony and he was looking out on a walled garden. It was the Duke’s palace!

“Please, don’t hurt yourself.”

She continued to tremble on the ground, the knife concealed underneath her.

Dask cleared his throat. “I’ve been sent to talk to you tonight. He wouldn’t have sent me unless you were having doubts.”

“My children.” she whispered.

“What do you mean, um, Ma’am?” Despite the urgent duress he had begun to notice her open nightrobe, her dark flowing hair and eyes that were luminous by the light of the stars.

“He took them from me.”

“Who?”

“Him! He sent them away and now I’m bearing one of his!”

“The Duke!” Dask blurted out.

She collapsed to the ground trembling.

“There’s another way,” he said.

“I wanted to kill him. Tonight. He was here.”

“Then why did you want to kill yourself?!”

“I enjoyed it so much.”

“Don’t do it. Pledge yourself. That’s the other way out. Not repentance. Apostasy.”

There was a feeling of rushing energies in the air and Dask turned around and saw the swirling doorway. He turned away.

*

Suryn finally descended into sleep but it was into a realm of nightmare. She woke up and felt the breach opening as she had during Dask’s escape. She rushed down flights of steps but there was an eerie wailing as small hands and arms reached up through the stairs and grabbed at her ankles. They almost brought her to a stop on the floor beneath her room but she broke free, made her way to the dungeon and opened the cell door. There was a yawning chasm into Darkness looking straight into her soul. She turned around and a marble statue of an angel she remembered from church as a child was flying at her, drifting through the air without a sound, its form simple, its facial features a nondescript pitiless mask. She took a step back and began to tumble backwards into the void.

She awoke on the cold floor of her chamber, trembling within a tangle of blankets. At first, all she felt was terror and relief. Then she thought back on friends who had fallen in battle. She squeezed a blanket, feeling a hand’s last clasp on hers before it fell slack in repose. Slowly the sense of purpose redawned in her and she donned her robe to begin a new day in pursuit, still hours before dawn. Then she realized why she had awakened. There was something wrong again. She grabbed her sword from her bedside and did not even bother to alert the guards this time. She flew down the staircase outside her room with her divine blade out of its sheath. She continued to fly down the stairwell towards the source of the disturbance. She stormed into a wing of the palace she’d never been to before, sprinted down a wide hallway with doors on either side and then felt the source to her left side. She was a woman of ordinary stature yet she effortlessly kicked in the heavy wooden door with a bare foot. She saw the Demonic portal closing just as she ran through. Too late. There was a woman on the balcony shrieking at the sudden incursion into her chamber. Suryn lowered her sword and went to her. The woman looked up and her face was pale and streaked with tears. “What happened?” Suryn looked into the woman and saw the taint of darkness battling, not with the Light exactly, something else. Then she looked at her. She had unmistakably beguiling features, large dark eyes, flowing dark hair, and long elegant legs revealed by an opening in her nightrobe. In spite of herself, Suryn felt a visceral dislike rising up in her.

“Who came through that doorway?”

“I don’t know.” cried the woman.

After some time of sobbing that further aroused the Paladin’s ire and then a labored description in between sobs she realized that Dask had been the visitor.

“What did he say to you?”

“He, he wanted to take me away. I was trying to stop him!”

The woman revealed a knife that lay underneath her.

“I’ve dealt with their kind enough, I know that’s not why he was really here. You put yourself in peril.”

The woman threw herself at Suryn’s feet and begged for mercy protesting that she had told the dark servant to go away. But the Paladin could see the taint struggling to grasp hold of her clearly enough. It was not surprising this woman had attracted the attention of the Dark Powers. Her or someone like her had allowed the Demon into the palace to release the servant, Dask, right from under her watch. This grim thought gave her very little sympathy for this harlot who had already tried to lie and manipulate.

“I will have you detained until you reconsider your story.”

“Noo! I’ve done nothing wrong!”

“Then you have nothing to fear.”

The Duke rushed into the chamber. Suryn turned toward him in astonishment. She had somehow thought him incapable of being flustered. “Alarya!” he cried. He reached out, startled by the knife in her hands. “Where did you get that?”

“I had it just in case, my lord. It saved my life tonight!”

The Duke frowned, but the woman abruptly dropped the knife and ran into the Duke’s arms where she buried her head in his chest and sobbed. As the Duke’s hand ran tenderly through Alarya’s lustrous hair, Suryn felt a wave of acid heat and physical anguish rise up through her heart and into her head as never before. Then, doors further down the hallway began to open up and there were several female voices. A group of young women rushed in and flocked to the Duke. They too were clad in luxurious nightrobes and every one of them was conspicuously alluring.

“Everything is alright ladies! He is gone. The Paladin is here.” The Duke looked at Suryn and saw at once she was dumbstruck. His eyes met hers for a moment and his gaze was hard and appraising, gauging her reaction. His eyes flicked deftly away. “Ladies, all is well now.”

Suryn had never seen the Duke with another woman, had never asked, had never wanted to know. Now she had been driven at last beyond the realm of feeling. Past the threshold of rage, something again had quietly snapped and now she felt nothing at all. All emotion had been as noise and now there was silence in her. She lay to sleep through the night without concern.  She woke in the morning calmly. Held a morning meeting with officials, with the Duke present, but she did not even look at him. She headed out to do her duty in the name of Heaven. She tried to figure out what might motivate Dask next. He wasn’t the first young imp she had dealt with. Her own irrational pain that she had buried told her how she would find him.

*

“You cannot go back to that life. You almost died trying it.” the Demon admonished.

“She had been taken from someone else so she could pleasure the Duke! Where are my wife and my son?!” demanded Dask

“Yours!? You are no more. You must learn who you are now.”

“Fuck you! I’m going back.”

“Don’t try it.”  The Demon’s tone was strangely resigned. This made Dask hesitate more than any infernal rage. The Demon was sitting up more strongly now but still weak; the glowing of its wound seemed to be gone.

“We all must let go,” he sighed.

“Come with me,” Dask commanded the Burnt Man. It eagerly followed him from the cave, beginning to bay in solemn tones as it already began to scent the Hatefulness of mankind.

Dask charged with the Burnt Man through the underground passageways, smelling out heresy and the hunters of heretics alike, just barely dodging their surprise maneuvers, even in the smallest hours of the night. He asked their stories and, finally, one man said the name “Slandriv.”

“Judge Slandriv?” hissed Dask.

“Yes, he’s the one. Does whatever the Duke wants.”

Dask felt a vein throbbing in his temple as he thought back on the note on his door, the guards, the brief hearing in a court room. Judge Slandriv! “I will help you with this!” he snarled through clenched teeth.

That very night, he began murdering the judge’s private guards with the Burnt Man at his side and burst into the mansion without the slightest ceremony.  In his night clothes, the judge cowered on the ground before them.  “I have only enacted the law! If you strike me you get nothing and just make it worse for yourself!”

Then, Dask heard a female sigh from the judge’s bed. There was the contour of a sleeping human beneath golden, silken bedsheets. Without a word, Dask approached the sheets and abruptly pulled them back. He nearly collapsed as he saw his wife there, curled up blissfully. In a blood-rage, Dask thrust his hand through the judge’s chest, lifted his body in the air, and crushed his heart. A gout of blood spurted from the man’s gasping mouth and then his head lolled forward limply. Dask contemptuously tossed the corpse aside. He then approached the woman who had betrayed him. “Kamilya, why did you do this?” he rasped. She came awake, recognized his voice and looked up at him in utter terror.

“Where is our son!?” he rasped insistently. She backed away from his silhouette in what to her was near-darkness and shook her head emphatically. “Where is heee!” Dask shrieked now, and, as he closed in, the Burnt Man was content to watch, sensing somehow he was unneeded.

*

When Dask and the Burnt Man stumbled blood-spattered from the mansion, they were blinded for a moment at the blaze of torches that surrounded them. Before them, hundreds of guards stood in a great ring.  “Masterrr!” cried Dask.

“He can’t help you now.” said a steely voice. Suryn strode from the crowd of guards, smaller than any of them yet anyone could feel a power and strength radiating from her, belied by her plain, angular features.

Dask nearly fell to his knees as he recalled his tortures in the keep. The Burnt Man, though, did not hesitate to attack. “Nooo!” cried Dask. Suryn waited motionless and at the last moment, with a single swipe of her sword, almost casually sliced the charging hate elemental in half. Its two halves tried to continue the assault, but she buried her sword in each of them for a few moments until they smoldered into lifeless ash.

Dask collapsed in weary despair as the guards closed in on him. This time, they seized him without a struggle and swiftly clapped his limbs into thick, heavy manacles that seemed more suited to an ox than a man. Then in a covered wagon with a sack over his head, he was hauled ignominiously back to the palace dungeon he had given everything to escape from.

Next chapter

Watchers

by Joel Hyduke

It takes little more than well placed blame
to bring guilty blood to a rapid boil
And heroes are those who expose their foes
when flame licked brethren oft recoil

Retreating to that crowded place
where timid souls content to rot
forsake the one whose binding grace
serves to defend their paltry plot

Where bitter crops are all that grow
so planted for ill-mannered taste
And tillers feign a puffed-up pose
to hide the strain upon their face.

They’re waiting for the next to come
who’ll pluck the harp strings of their heart
cathartic songs they’ll softly hum
to watch but never play the part…