Ruin

The rising sun cast an eerie orange pall over the smoldering ruins of Kibbet, the smoke so great that it changed the color of the sky itself. A team of armed scouts from neighboring Manilla wandered the ruins, covering their faces, appearing as six-foot moles, the masks sporting black pupil less voids where eyes should be.

“Stay wary,” one of them chattered over the radio. “It’s been a week since we’ve lost communication, and three days since we saw the smoke. Whatever did this could still be here.”

“You mean the dragon,” one of them said.

They all told him to keep his damn mouth shut.

The team ran in formation, keeping their eyes on all corners of the town. All around them were petrified civilians, frozen in place as pure ash.

One of them broke off from the group, distracted by one of the ashen statues.

“My God,” he said quietly. “What have you wrought upon this city?”

“Ferria,” one of them called. “What have you found?”

“Grandmaster Migemous,” Ferria said quietly, sadly. “One of our own.”

Migemous was standing there, clad in his wizard’s hat and the charred remains of his suit, his hand outstretched, staff in hand.

He was entirely burned, except for the staff.

Ferria touched the staff in wonder, and cried out in terror and sadness as this one motion reduced the corpse of Migemous to dust.

“Ferria, knock it off,” one of them called.

Ferria nodded and fell in line, staff in hand. Anything not burnt was something miraculous.

“Commander,” a woman’s voice came over the radio, “we’ve found a survivor.”

Together they rushed to Temple Grounds, to find a boy covered in ashes, sitting at the temple gates.

“Son, what’s your name?” the woman said.

“I came back to look for my mother,” the boy said. “My name is Leon. Leon Iudex. Have you seen my mother?”

“We can help you best,” the woman said, “if you tell us everything you know about what happened.”

“I don’t know,” the boy said. “A week ago I fell off this mountain, but my belief kept me alive. Just like Saligamus said. He’s the mayor of the town you know. Anyway, it took me all this time to get back up here, because my belief wasn’t strong enough to float me back up here.”

“You said Saligamus was the mayor of the town?” the woman said.

“Yes ma’am,” Leon said. “He killed the dragon.”

“After it did this?” she said.

“Oh no, ma’am,” Leon said.   “Everything was fine when I left. I don’t know what caused this. But I don’t think it was the dragon. Saligamus killed him.”

The team looked at each other.
Finally: “That’s impossible,” one of them said.

“Anything is possible,” the child said. “You just have to believe.”

He looked around. “Maybe everyone was having trouble believing.”

“He’s in shock,” one of them said. “We should get him some food and fluid.”

“We’re going to take care of you, Mister Iudex,” the woman said. “Then tell us everything you know.”

“Like I said,” Leon said, frustrated, “You should ask Mayor Saligamus. I saw him walking through the town when I first came back. I actually came here to find him. I’m sure he knows what happened.”

“This Saligamus,” Ferria said, “is he still at large?”

“I sure hope so,” Leon said. “One day, I hope to be just like him. By the way, careful with that staff. That staff wields the power of God Himself.”

Ferria laughed good-naturedly.

“The dragon is dead,” Leon said, his eyes growing distant. “Maybe this whole city is dead. But Saligamus walks the earth.”

Leon took the staff, and walked towards the scout’s camp. Ferria watched him, greatly disturbed.

“What the hell happened here?” the soldier whispered to the dust.

+++

One Month Prior

+++

Everyone was very excited that Saligamus had slain the dragon.

They couldn’t stop talking about it.

Who could blame them? Hadn’t the dragon nearly destroyed all of them?

“Mother,” a child asked, still uncertain, “What is a dragon?”

“A dragon is a creature that is both living and spirit, like a ghost. Because of this twin nature, a dragon is able to change the world around it, and do horrible, horrible things. But we mustn’t be afraid of the dragon, because fear is where it gets its power. Like electricity. So if you take away the fear that feeds it, the dragon loses all of its electricity.”

“So the dragon can’t hurt me if I’m not afraid of it?”

“No. There’s nothing it can do to you.”

This was a lie parents had told their kids in the past weeks to make them feel at peace if the dragon were to incinerate them. It had happened several times, but the dragon was indeed feeding off of their fear, visiting town in patterns that were just outside the realm of predictability, always claiming fewer lives than it seemed, always claiming them in ways that pushed the limits of what any grown person would want to imagine was in the realms of possible horror. Senex, Saligamus’ son, had considered this phenomenon when thinking back to a happier time, when he had watched a horror movie with his friends, about a man who kidnapped teenagers and tortured them in his cabin. He would do horrible, horrible things, like cut tongues, slice ankle tendons, and worse–but Senex always laughed, because no one would ever do that, right?

It was rumored there was a man–Ecclesius, the mad monk–helping the dragon, a man with pale face, sunken, hollow eyes, which were rumored to be yellow like the dragon’s. Often he would let his captives go, so that they could tell the tale.

After one of Senex’s friends told him of what he had seen Ecclesius do to their grandfather before killing him, Senex didn’t laugh at those movies much anymore.

Senex didn’t laugh at much of anything anymore.

For a while, no one did.

Except there was laughter again–cautious laughter, for certain–but there was a return to an attitude of joy.

And Senex couldn’t help but beam with just a little bit of pride that his own father was to thank.

Saligamus was an economics professor–genteel, kind, certainly appreciated by those he knew, but unremarkable beyond that. Senex had always been proud of his father; even if he didn’t much care about the discipline that his father had dedicated himself to.

But now, his father had–with just a wooden staff–killed a dragon that was bigger than the entire town square.

 

It was evening, two days into the workweek. Saligamus had emerged from the mountains above, smoke rising from his tunic, his hairs singed but his face noticeably unharmed. In one hand was a staff, and in the other hand was a black dragon scale.

One of the guards, armed to the teeth in light of recent events, stared at the man like he was looking at a ghost.

“It is finished,” Saligamus said. “Gather the town. Now.”

He was a different man than the one that had been sent to kill the dragon: Taller, broader, and more imposing. In fact, the guard–a simple man named Lucas–noted that he had almost shot at Saligamus at first, because he looked more terrifying, more imposing, than even the mad monk Ecclesius.

This did remind the guard: “What of the dragon’s keeper?”

“I shall explain all when all are gathered,” Saligamus said. “But we are safe.”

The guard nodded, and dialed a number on the phone next to him that was marked as DO NOT DIAL.

He picked up the phone.

“People of Kibbet,” he said, and voice was in every home, on every television, on every item that could convey speech, there it was. “The dragon, and its keeper, are no longer a threat to your city. Saligamus Repertum has returned. Please report for an assembly.”

Lucas looked at Saligamus and sighed.

“They’ll have my head for this if it’s anything less than what you say it is.”

“I tell you the truth,” Saligamus said, “It is so much more.”

>>>

A harsh spotlight shone on Saligamus, who stood on the wall above the town, and there was some complaining from those who stood by it that the motor of the generator that powered it would be too loud to hear him.

They screamed in terror when his voice came across to everyone loudly and clearly, as though he was whispering in his ear.

The light made it clear he was doing this through his staff.

“You have questions,” he said. “That is understandable. What we have experienced these past months, these months that have felt like years, is untenable, unspeakable. We have experienced Fear in a form that was visceral, that could touch us, that could hurt us. We tried diplomacy, but we were too naïve. We tried science, but we were not unified enough. We even tried faith, but our faith was dead.”

There was some stirring in the crowds, and Saligamus held up his hand.

“My master, Migemous, in his infinite wisdom, started an order centuries ago, the order we all know as the rather eccentric group of men and women who call themselves the Fides. Even now, through the power that they spoke of, my voice is reaching all of you, even those of you who were not well enough to be here tonight. You see, this staff–”

And here he held the staff high for all to see.

“–Wields the power of God.”

Everybody gasped.

One person laughed.

Saligamus face became sad.

“One of you does not believe,” he said. “Funny that it should be your Director of Defense.”

With a scowl on his face, Saligamus gently tapped the ground with his staff, shouting “BY THE POWER OF GOD!”

As if taken hold by unseen hands, a man was lifted out of the crowd, a man they all knew, Valentin Ventralis, the man who had almost kept the dragon out of the city with his force shield made of pure energy. He was a handsome man, with a jolly nose, dark tanned skin, and bushy hair, with glasses that were thick but stylish. They slid off as he hung in the air, upside down.

“I will have to make an example of you, Doctor Ventralis,” Saligamus said. “You laugh because you do not believe. You never believed. That is why the shield failed. We will not allow such a calamity to happen again.”

“I smell a fish!” Ventralis shouted, terrified. “I knew you, Saligamus! Your wife was my best technician! This isn’t who you are! Whatever you did up there in the mountains, it’s gone to your–”

“Enough,” Saligamus said. “You’re one to talk of deceit. You’re not even a human.”

Now everyone was confused.

“Demons live among us,” Saligamus explained. “Sent by Satan himself to ensure our fear would be efficiently harnessed. Such an entity was Ecclesius; in fact, he and the dragon were one and the same.”

Everybody gasped, and then all eyes turned to Ventralis.

“By the power of God,” Saligamus said, “this man’s true nature will be revealed.”

Immediately Ventralis screamed. His face grew and contorted, taking on a beastly appearance. His body grew far past that of a man’s frame, looking almost like that of a dog.   Antlers began to grow out of his head, as hair shot out of his whole body.

“The dragon has many cohorts,” Saligamus said. “Many of them demons. One of them, a Wendigo to be exact, disguised himself as a man, and you made that man your Director of Defense.”

Everybody screamed in terror.

“Kill him!” someone said. “Drive a stake through his heart.”

“Silence,” Saligamus said. “I shall deal with him as I dealt with the dragon, but I will need all of your help. For it is you, each and every one of you, who is most powerful among us. But you must believe this to make it so. Do you believe we can cast this demon out?”

Don’t hurt me! Ventralis screamed, his voice inhuman and nasally. We were only trying to he–

“We believe!” the people jeered. “We believe we can do anything!”

“That is the spirit,” Saligamus said, “and with that spirit we shall move mountains…and cast out demons. Spirit, give me your name.”

I don’t know! The spirit screamed.

A stone nicked his head, and he screamed in pain.

“Now, now,” Saligamus said. “Do not act out in anger…Lucius.”

A light now shone upon a young man who had thrown the stone, a light with no source.

“I’m sorry,” Lucius said, gasping when his voice echoed throughout the square as though through a microphone, “I just thought–”

“You didn’t believe either,” Saligamus said. “You’re no better than this demon.”

He tapped the ground with his staff and Ventralis disappeared, howling and screaming, leaving a sound almost like anguished weeping in his wake.

“Now Lucius,” Saligamus said. “Who do you say I am?”

“You are Saligamus,” Lucius said. “You are the dragonslayer, feared amongst demons, the one chosen by God.”

“Do you think this is true?” Saligamus said to the crowd.

Unanimously, they cheered.

If this pleased Saligamus or disturbed him, he did not show it either way.

He was distracted by his wife, Iarene, who was approaching now with their son, Senex. And while he hugged Senex for all he was worth and was filled with some joy at being reunited with his son, he was greatly saddened at the thoughts he had been empowered to hear in his wife’s head.

Not that he would have needed to read her mind; it was all there, written on her face.

<<<

“Tell us about the dragon again!” the children shouted to Saligamus, following him as he walked to city hall.

“Mister Repertum,” an aide said, “you will be late to your meeting.”

“Silence,” Saligamus said. “The children have a right to hear my words. They believe more than anyone.”

“Was he scary?” one child asked.

“How did you defeat him?”

“It’s this staff,” Saligamus said. “I ask God to do things, and because I believe He can, it happens.”

“Make me a sundae!” one kid, Leon Iudex, shouted, and Saligamus laughed.

“Sundaes…are bad for you!” he chortled, and they giggled. “But tell you what, Mister Iudex, see that mountain?”

The kids nodded.

“You can move that mountain,” Saligamus said. “You can do anything. The things people say are real are not. Here, Mister Iudex, take my staff–you give it a try.”

Iudex pointed the staff at the mountain.

“What do I say?” Leon said nervously.

“You say, ‘By the Power of God.’ Then you tap the ground. Don’t hit it–you’re not entitled to this, God’s not some vending machine. Just a tap. It’s a focal point.”

“What’s a focal point?”

“It’s a big grown-up concept. You know how there’s time, but there’s also places, like on a map? Well, a focal point is when you put them together. Like if time was a piece of paper, and you thumbtacked the map over it. The tack is a focal point. Now give it a try!”

“B-by the power of God!” Leon said, and hit the ground.

Nothing happened.

Saligamus took back the staff and chuckled. “Guess you don’t believe, son.”

“I can learn to believe though, can’t I?” Leon said.

“Sure you can,” Saligamus said, but he didn’t sound so sure. “Hey, my friend, I have to go. Wouldn’t want to be late! They’re going to make me the mayor of the town.”

All the kids cheered and waved Saligamus goodbye. Except for Leon. He sat there, sadly. He looked at his hands and began to cry.

“I do believe,” he said to himself. “I know I do.”

As Saligamus made his way into the Temple of Kibbet for his coronation, he felt a hand grab his shoulder.

He turned to see Grandmaster Migemous, Migemous of Manilla, distant ancestor of Iarene and Saligamus’ teacher, leader of the Order of the Fides, a man of ambiguous years, wizened brown skin, and fiery brown eyes. He was man of both infinite gentleness and limitless terror, for there were stories of him performing even greater feats than the one Saligamus was now celebrated for. Yet was there any ever a greater friend to the people of Kibbet, even if his eccentric self-started religion defied the limits of credibility.

“My student,” Migemous said, in his quiet Manillan voice. “We have much to speak of.”

“Can it wait, Grandmaster?” Saligamus said, noting with irony that Migemous bore the title of grandmaster over what had dwindled from a religion into a tiny cult of two, those two being Migemous and Saligamus.

Migemous now put his other hand on Saligamus’ shoulder and stared at him intensely. He had done this twice before: Once, when Saligamus’ father had died, and in his grief he had come to Migemous and said, “I want to wield the power my father knew,” and then a second time, after which Migemous had said, with great sadness, “You will kill the dragon, or you will die trying. This is your final lesson, one that is beyond my teaching.”
Now he was doing it again, and this time Saligamus found it irksome.

“God help you,” Migemous whispered. “What did you see up there? Please, my student…”

“I am no longer your student,” Saligamus said. “Poor is the student who does not surpass his master. Poorer still is the master that is too fool to see it.”

He shoved Migemous aside and continued into the temple.

>>>

There is a song the children sang in those days that has been lost, though some wonder if it has been lost or erased. Humans in their ignorance often worry at the suggestibility of song, that the devil may be whispering to them between the melodies. Truth be told, if that were the case, those songs would be swiftly and utterly spirited away from existence. Some things should simply not exist. Such was the case with the Song of Saligamus, which the children would sing as they played in the streets. It has been erased, and while you might be permitted to see its words, who could even begin to recall its tune? And what horrible guardian of truth and goodness might steal away their memories in the night if they attempted to?           

            See, Saligamus, the Mighty
            Child of God and Friend of Man
            Who hunted down and slayed the dragon
            The dragon named Ecclesius 

            Saligamus can tell his story
            For he lived where others died
            He found the dragon’s cave of shadow
            And the wretched beast inside

            The dragon laughed and tried to taunt him
            For fear was where its power lie
            We pray now for those enslaved
            Within the dragon’s yellow eyes

            There was no fear for our song’s hero
            He who slayed the dragon with his staff
            With just a word Saligamus
            Opened hell and sent it back

            Now we strive to be like him
            And believe in what we cannot see
            Saligamus has shown the way
            To be all that we will to be. 

<<<

Many looked back on that time as one of great prosperity, for Saligamus used his power to unify the seven mountains of Ilgano, some which can still be found today, though now that area is mostly flooded by immense ocean. A few, though, remember the tragedy.

Shortly after Saligamus’ coronation, Leon Iudex went missing.

His mother wasted no time; she knew no law enforcement would find her son with the kind of efficiency that Saligamus could.

“My Lord,” she said, running into the temple court. “My son is missing!”

The court glared at her.

“Woman,” one of the men said, “can’t you see we are busy?”

Kibbet had, until recently, been a very cosmopolitan place, where men and women held equal positions of power; differences in gender and race were acknowledged and celebrated, as diversity, the adage was, pointed to the collective of Man being a mirror image to the singularity of God. Manillans and Kibbetians had very different skin tones and cultures, yet Kibbet had become a melting pot, embracing mixed race and culture, again with the adage in mind.

Recently, though, a noted undercurrent of hostility had begun to be expressed between genders; indeed, anyone not like the “original Kibbetians” were seen as inferior. It was very sudden and no one was quite sure why.

Leon’s mother, Alene, was not to be bothered with this resurgence in sexism.

“Lord Saligamus,” she shouted. “I believe you can find my son.”

Saligamus nodded, and held up a hand, causing the security team that had arrived to back off.

“We’ll get better locks,” one of them said.

“Not necessary,” Saligamus said. “With the power I wield, locks aren’t necessary.”

“Where is he?” Alene said, tears in her eyes.

“You must tell me,” Saligamus said. “This is your battle to fight. Believing in me is one thing, but do you believe in yourself?”

“I…I don’t care. I want to find my son.”

“You must believe, Alene.”

“I believe you can find my son. Or that if you show where he is, I can find him myself.”

“I want to tell you a story,” Saligamus said.

“I don’t have time for stories,” Alene said, growing frustrated.

Saligamus’ face darkened. “Alene, my daughter…who do you say I am?”

“Sorry?”
“It’s a question a wise man once asked, and that a wise man will ask. It is a question that God asks of us daily, and we answer daily in our actions. Who do you say I am, Alene? And what will you do to make your belief real?”

“You are the Voice of God.”

Saligamus went silent.

“That is quite an honor to bestow,” he said.

“I know,” Alene said, her eyes furrowed.

Saligamus studied her a moment, then leaned forward. “Very well, woman. Your faith will show you the fate of your son.
Her face fell.

“You don’t mean?” she said.

“See for yourself,” Saligamus said, tapping the ground with his staff. “See what it is you will to see.”

A flicker of light darted across Alene’s eyes, and for a moment she thought it was merely the reflection of Saligamus’ wedding ring. She began to realize, though, that it was in fact, an object made entirely of reflective material, an orb made of mirrors, not a true sphere, but an object with so many polygonal surfaces that to the human eyes it appeared spherical.

In these godless times, one might liken it to a disco ball.

The orb floated in Saligamus’ hand, and each time it spun a new reflection of light hit Alene’s eyes, and began to spin faster and faster, until the reflections formed frames of a moving picture.

This was how Alene witnessed her son’s fate.

After being told he did not believe, Leon had decided that his unbelief was caused by fear, and that it was his job to prove to Fear that it had no power over him. He considered what he feared most–great heights, and the mountain that he had tried to move.

Perhaps Leon could not move a mountain, but maybe he could fly to it.

He took a running start; he could have no room for uncertainty, and took the longest leap one could take off of a mile-high mountain.

And he plummeted, his eyes squinted shut, refusing to scream, for fear that it would make his fear manifest.

He continued to plummet until he hit the ground far below, dying instantly as his bones shattered at the impact. He had landed with his feet, driving his bones into his stomach, shattering his spine.

Her son was gone, vaporized by his own belief.

When the orb stopped spinning, all the room was silent. It was unclear who had seen what Alene had seen; it was entirely unclear what the orb was or how it functioned, or even why Saligamus had conceived of it.

“What did you see?” Alene said quietly.

“You tell me,” Saligamus said. “Only you can tell me what you saw.”
“My boy is dead,” she said quietly. “He tried to fly.”
“And he couldn’t?”

She glared. “Of course not. People can’t fly.”

“There are those who said the dragon did not exist,” Saligamus said. “There are those who said I could not kill him.   He existed, and I did the impossible. And I want you to understand: One day, people will fly.”

“Out with her!” a guard shouted. “Cast her out of the city!”

“Do what you will do,” Saligamus said to his court. “But only do what you believe is just.   Only serve me if I am right.”

“We believe in you to the end!” they shouted in unison. “And we reject those who do not believe!”

“Unbelief is kindling!” one of the court shouted.

“Such is the fate of the unbeliever!” another shouted.

“Burn her!” they shouted together. “Burn her at the stake! Let her taste the reality of fear, so that we do not forget what we could have lost!”

She screamed as they dragged her out of the court, and they sang the song of the children to drown out the sound.

>>>

Iarene Repertum, Saligamus’ wife, was now Kibbet’s director of defense.

She considered the ironies the week had presented her as she left the bathroom for what had to be a fourth time since she had arrived that morning.

“Doctor Repertum, are you all right?” her assistant asked when she returned to her office.

“I’m fine, Julius,” she said. “Must have been something I ate.”
“You’ve been feeling nasty all week,” he said. “Sure you don’t want to go home?”

“Oh, that’s not necessary,” she said. “I’m fine, really.”

“We can handle one day without your brilliance,” he said with a flattering smile. “At least, I hope we can. I’ll call you if we can’t. You deserve some rest.”

She sighed. “All right.

She had been avoiding her home ever since her husband had returned. She had missed him dearly, but something felt incredibly wrong ever since his return. He seemed different, or rather aspects of his personality that were not the man she married seemed magnified. He was distorted, as distorted as the sky that the dragon flew through.

Still, she had to learn to live with this new husband, didn’t she? And surely he too was overwhelmed with what he had seen, what had happened.

She came home to find Senex practicing a song.

“Hello, Sen,” she said, “what song is this?”

“One I wrote, Mom,” he said. “It’s a song of better times.”

“Better times,” she said. “I like that. Don’t know how a couple of eggheads like me and your father made such a sensitive, artsy son, but keep it up. It makes me happy.”

She noticed his forehead was sweaty, and rubbed it with her thumb.

Makeup stuck to her thumb, revealing a bruise on Senex’s forehead.

“Who hit you?” She said.

His face went pale. “No one,” he said. “I tripped on my way home.”

“Why did you cover it?” she said.

“Because it is ugly,” he said, his voice sharp.

She backed down.

“Are you glad your father is back?” she said, his reaction at the mention confirming her fears.

“Yes,” Senex said, though his eyes watered. “I am very proud of him.”

She sighed, some fear in her lungs.

“Yeah,” she said. “Me too. Hey, sorry for getting on your case. Can you sing me your song?”
Senex nodded.

As the sun began to set, he sung of better times, and his mother listened.

<<<

Iarene went to sleep early; she truly did feel sick. Nothing about the week had added up. Valentin Ventralis was not a demon in disguise; he was the family’s closest friend. Alene Iudex wasn’t some spiritual traitor, she was a concerned mom. Yet the whole city, once an ivory tower, a pinnacle of education, was convinced…

These thoughts coalesced and swirled into a dream.

She was inside of an enormous cavern, pitch black and devoid of any life–no bat, no rat, nothing, just a flow of water from an unseen spring.

She heard a thunderous laugh from below.

Her journey towards the noise’s source seemed to last for a very, very long time. She knew it must have been ten minutes, but with no light to reflect progress, and seemingly no beginning nor end to the cave, it could have been just about any time.

She felt her fear mounting as she went lower and lower. She wondered if this could be the cave that…

She gasped when she saw the silhouette of a man in the darkness, his back to her. She would have collided with him, had he not been illuminated by two yellow lights.

The lights of the dragon’s eyes.

“There is a food chain,” the man in front of her said, and she recognized her husband’s voice.

“And it is time for me to eat.”

The dragon, though horrifying beyond belief, looked confused.

“By the power of God!” the man shouted, and slammed the ground with his staff, causing all to go white.

Suddenly she was sitting in a white room; the ground made of glass and lit with white light underneath.

A man who looked like her husband sat across from her, a cup of tea on a white table in front of him.

“The drink is exquisite,” he said to her. “It tastes like Chai, but that is merely my preference. The truth is that the drink tastes different for everyone.”

He took a sip of tea.

His hands began to shake.

“Say yes to yourself,” he said. “Drink what you will drink. Then we can be happy together.”

She stared down at her own drink.

It was crimson red.

Her husband held up his hand. “Do not drink of this world,” he said.

“I wasn’t going to,” she said.

He smiled. “I know. You already knew, didn’t you?  You knew what is in that cup.”

“I don’t know what it is, but I know that if I drink it, the same thing will happen to me that happened to you.”

“The dragon is dead,” her husband said.

“But it took you with it,” she said.

“No…” he said quietly. “The Great are often misunderstood.  I walk the earth, now.”

He looked up at her, his eyes sorrowful, and he put his hand on hers.

“The essence of the soul of man is blacker than anything we could comprehend. I cannot ask you to forgive me. I knew what I was doing. And there is so much more to fear of what we know that we know than what we fear we might know.”
“What the hell are you even trying to say?” Iarene said, tears in her eyes.

“I am saying that I do not regret what I have become, but I regret what I was. You will wake soon, and see a much younger man. A man who has yet to…”

He held up a finger, leaned to the side, and began to vomit profusely.

And with that, she awoke.

>>>

She awoke to hear the music of a piano, from downstairs.

Her descent reminded her of her nightmare journey to the dragon’s lair, and each creak of the stairs as she made her way to the house’s parlor filled her with greater uncertainty and dread.

Sitting there, behind the piano, was her husband.

“I miss this instrument,” he said. “Truly a massage of the mind and of the hands. Not as much as I missed you.”

“I miss you,” she said quietly.

He stood, and shut the keyboard with a horrifying firmness.

“Why have you been avoiding me?” he said.

“You have changed,” she said.

“Not changed,” he said. “Become. I have chosen…I have chosen to love something.”
“You loved me,” she said.

“What good is my love for you if it is greater than my love for God?” he said, affecting an accent that was a bit too dramatic to be his own.

She changed the subject: “What was all that with Valentin? What happened to him when he, uh, disappeared?”

“I sent him somewhere,” Saligamus said. “Somewhere where he can’t hurt anybody.”

“He wasn’t hurting anybody,” she said. “He was our friend.”

“He was a demon, a very clever disguise,” Saligamus said. “With my actions, demons will now tremble at my name.” He paused, then added: “Because my name has become equated to that of God. The God that is greater than me.”

“You’ve been talking in word salad ever since you returned,” Iarene said. “What did you see up there?”

He shook his head.

“Still you don’t trust me,” he said. “Faithlessness is not something I readily invite into this household.”

“I don’t trust you because since you’ve returned, people have been dying faster than when we were under attack by the dragon!”

“The dragon wanted you alive,” he said. “So he could feed on your fear.”
“So you want us all dead, and I’m supposed to like that?”
“You are not a Fide, so I wouldn’t expect you to understand,” he said. “But when you see the Power of God…you want to do anything you can to promote that power. You want all of humanity to express that. So if humans are not expressing the power you have seen, are they really children of God?”

“This sounds nothing like what your teacher would say,” she replied, thinking of Migemous.

“Migemous was paralyzed by his own wisdom,” Saligamus said. “He looked at faith like an absolute, something elemental, something you fostered in people. That is only half true. The larger truth is that faith is an economy, and the people of the world have grown poor.”

“Wait,” Iarene said. “What do you mean Migemous was?”

Saligamus ignored this question, and continued: “I tell you this–there was a time when men believed in things, ideas that could change the world. These men would perform feats that others thought were impossible, and indeed these men were seen as insane, but in the end great things because they there to be done. And yet even these undying ideologies passed away, and these men passed away, because only they believed. Through me, all will believe. I will enrich all around me, but I will dare to do even more, because I am the child of these Men of Old, and I will give birth to a race of heroes, of men who will show the world that it doesn’t have to suffer, that it doesn’t have to die. A world…where everything is perfect.”

“I agree,” Iarene said, “that all of that sounds good, but I have an issue with–”

“An issue with what?” Saligamus said. “Do you understand that I dare to do what others do not?”

Iarene was silent. Annoyed. This was stupid.

“I…no. I guess I don’t.”

“I have begun to beat our son, since our return,” Saligamus said, and it sent a chill to her very core. “I beat our son because he is weak. I beat him to teach him strength. He has so much potential, but he doesn’t use it. He has song, but not vision. If I were him, I would work TIRELESSLY to shape the world around me. So I light a fire…under that boy’s ass….so that one day he will be who he is meant to be!”

“You’re….my God, you’re a monster.” She said. “I didn’t marry the man you have become.”

“Love is not ‘because of,’” he said, patronizingly. “It is ‘in spite of’. I don’t know how to help you, if you can’t find it within you to love me.”

“You beat our son, you just said so.”

“If you loved me, you wouldn’t believe me,” he said. “If someone had shown me pictures of you, for instance, sleeping with Valentin Ventralis, I wouldn’t believe them. I’d tell them to go hang themselves, for altering photos of my wife like that. And my best friend!”

“So that’s what this was about,” she said. “Your jealousy.”

He laughed, as though he was dealing with an idiot.
“No…” he said. “There are those who will see such things, and misunderstand me. No no no. The great are so often misunderstood. Whatever you did with that man was merely the influence of Satan, nothing for me to take personally or to hold against you. No. I’m talking about the greater reality. The one that even now I wish for you to see. The one where everything…is perfect.”

She realized he was rolling back his sleeve as he walked towards her.

“No one appreciates you more than me,” he said.

“Get away from me,” she said.

“I want you to understand,” he said: “I am doing this because of my great passion for you. Because I love you…in spite of your unbelief. He who spares the rod…”

He raised his fist.

She knocked over the kitchen table, and it landed on his foot before he could hurt her.

He howled in pain, and she laughed in spite of herself.

“Such a powerful man,” she said, “and still you hurt when you stub your toe.”

He looked up at her with an animalistic expression of rage, then calmed himself, saying aloud:

“I mustn’t be angry.”

“You’re insane,” she said. “I’d sooner die than allow you to distort this family in the same way that whatever you saw in that cave distorted you.”

“All dragons can be destroyed,” he said, holding up his hands, palms open. “That is what I saw. I saw a good thing, Iarene.”

“Then why are you being so evil?”

He stood there, looking at a loss.

“I hate feeling like this, you know,” he said. “Feeling so…defeated. It is not in my nature.”

“What does that even mean?” she said. “You’re a college professor.”

This gave him an idea.

“When I love someone who does not believe,” he said, “I give them a sign. I will show you a sign.”

He began to walk to the kitchen. Towards the knife rack.

She picked up the dining room chair and charged him. She’d sooner die than let him hurt Senex again.

He turned and laughed, holding out a hand and shattering the chair into a million splinters, causing her to fall on the ground.

“Want to gaze upon the face of God?” he said.

He took out the sharpest of the knifes, held it to his temple and began a horizontal slicing motion, cutting off the front of his own face as if it were a loaf of bread.

This done, he peeled off his face, as though it were a mask.

Iarene was too horrified to scream.

Staring back at her was not a bleeding mass, but a cleanly burnt layer of muscle, long dried from whatever trauma it had seen. His eyes, too, were changed–where once there had been pupils, now there were only pale, angry circles.

To Iarene’s horror, there were also two tiny horns atop his head, previously hidden by his scalp.

Staring back at her was the face of the Devil himself.

+++

Samuel Cullado
3 March 2017

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Fiona, Who Lives Alone

“Why do white men always write stories about themselves?” the customer said as she browsed through scrubs. “There’s so much pressure to tell the man’s side of the story, and then we get the same story over and over again. It’s like there’s someone out there, subtly pulling strings to keep the rest of us from telling our stories, you know?”

“Sure,” Fiona Skye said from her position behind the register. “It’s definitely prevalent. Find everything you’re looking for?”

“Yeah,” the customer muttered, holding two different scrub tops up to herself, looking in the mirror. “I’m trying to decide if I want to have sort of a fun and fresh look or a ‘zesty-but-professional.”

“Which hospital do you work at?” Fiona said. “Is there a specific kind they ask you to get?”

“Oh, hon, I don’t work at a hospital,” the customer said, giggling. “I work at the weed clinic on Colfax. They let you wear whatever, so long as you’re scrubbed while handling the product. Gives us more credibility.”
“How much do they pay you?” Fiona said.

“I volunteer, but they cover expenses like this.”

“Somebody must get paid there.”

“Sure, the guy who runs the place. He’s young enough to be my son, get this. He talks about what he’s doing like it’s some sort of charity. A world where people can get the right bud for an affordable price. Betcha he’s just some rich kid trying to get paid to blaze.”

“Still,” Fiona said, “he’s doing what he loves.”

The customer snorted. She reminded Fiona of Octavia Spencer, but Fiona worried she was just making that comparison because she’d done a double feature night with her friend of Hidden Figures and The Help.

“Tell me one thing that makes him different than a manager at Five Guys.”

“He’s rich?”

The customer snapped her finger and nodded.

“Exactly.   ‘He does what he loves’ might as well be keyword for ‘he doesn’t have to do something someone else didn’t want to. I mean–and hey, no offense–do you really love being a clerk at a uniform shop?”

“I love seeing people in uniform,” Fiona said wryly, and they both laughed.

“What’s your job, then, if I may ask,” Fiona said.

“Me? I run a yoga studio. Also on Colfax. I love it. But I used to be a manager at Five Guys.”

Fiona took her card, and saw her name was Sharon Levinson.

“Have a good day, Sharon,” Fiona said.

“Hey, you too,” Sharon said. “And come visit me at the studio sometime. I’ll give you a ‘Sharon likes you’ discount.”

“Sounds good,” Fiona said with a smile. “Got any plans for Valentine’s Day?”

“Do I?” Sharon said. “No, but hopefully my man has something planned. His name is Bristol, like that Palin girl who got pregnant. I gave him such a hard time about it that I think I gaslighted him into loving me. Gaslighted…gas–lit? Neither sounds right. What about you, got a gentleman caller?”

“Something like that,” Fiona said. “How’s this? His name is Alister, he wears an opera coat, and in a previous life we were husband and wife, and we fought hate together. But then I got infected with it, and he kissed it, and now his face is all deformed from it, so he only visits me at night when it’s dark.   And we talk about all kinds of things.”

Sharon gave her a slightly peeved look.

“So you’re one of those people who calls it ‘Singles Awareness Day.’ Well, you have made me very aware of your singleness. That is probably the most elaborate ‘no’ I’ve ever heard. And one time a guy who stood me up claimed his mother had died. She had. But still.”

“Oh, it’s nothing like that,” Fiona said. “I mean, yeah, I will be spending Valentine’s Day alone. But I like to write stories. I know it sounds crazy, but you feel a lot less alone when you have so many images of so many different people in your head. It feels like you have this whole…coterie of friends you once knew, and might know again. And you’re so happy you know them.”

Sharon looked like she had a quip ready, but conceded: “That’s a cool way to look at it. It’s like role play, but with yourself.” Her lips twitched into a smile. “And that is something I have said aloud in my life.”

Fiona laughed. “I have some friends who get together for a Galentine’s Day. Sometimes we play games, other times we watch movies. There was one time we marathoned the whole Sleepaway Camp series. It’s good fun. It’s not like we’re disinterested in having a date for Valentines, it’s just that we’re often busy for one reason or another. And when you get around to February, you just want to be with people you care about.”

“I get that,” Sharon said. “Hey, sorry if I’m keeping you from doing other things, I don’t know what your duties are here, but you’ve got me curious about your writing. Do you keep a blog or something?”

“Nah,” Fiona said. “I write it for me. Feels more real. Like this secret adventure I only know about.”

“You’re telling me, is it still secret?”

“Sure, because there’s no proof I wrote any of it down.”

“True. Well, I better go. Weed waits for no one, but it makes waiting a hell of a lot easier.”

With Sharon gone, the shop was completely empty. A Muzak version of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was playing for what had been the seventh time that day, which meant Fiona had one hour left in her shift.

She walked up to one uniform in particular that always fascinated her. It was a mail delivery uniform, but it looked military in its dark green color, oddly familiar. She liked to imagine her character and Alister had worn this while on the deck of some spaceship, bound for Jupiter’s moon of Io–or maybe Europa.

She confessed to herself that she felt a little funny about the whole fictional gentleman caller thing. She hoped Sharon had seen it as a joke; she was trying to make it sound like that.

Well, it did sound funny, didn’t it?

She shrugged, dismissing her worry, and closed up the shop.

<<<

Fiona arrived at her apartment in Valley Village around 6 pm, and microwaved a frozen Mediterranean wrap she had found at Ralph’s that she knew couldn’t possibly taste as good as she was fantasizing it would. She sat at her couch, which she’d had since college and had made the trek with her all the way from Indiana to California, and watched reruns of The Wonder Years on Netflix for a while.

After a couple episodes, she stood, stretched, then shut the blinds and practiced twerking. She didn’t have much to shake, but the odd sensation of having any part of your body move that fast and rhythmically was endlessly entertaining to her. She knew twerking was kind of going out, but at the same time, she wasn’t really doing it for anyone. For good measure she played some dubstep as she gave it a try.   She didn’t worry about bothering her upstairs neighbors, they were currently yelling loudly at each other and, from the sound of it, tossing things about. In this manner, she was relatively quiet as a mouse.

After she twerked to exhaustion, she boiled some water and made hot cocoa, then did a crossword as she listened to a podcast. It was a night like most other nights, and the familiarity and liberty of it made her feel glad.

Then she went to sleep.

The dream always began with a gentle beat, like the plucking of distant piano strings, the singing of distant violins. She would see darkness, and then drops of blood hitting the ground, roses growing with each drop.

Alister Rhodes was nearby.

She was awoken into the dream gently by hand on her shoulder.

She could never quite make out the owner’s face; he seemed to be hiding in the shadows.

Slowly, blood dripped from his sleeves, red flowers growing out of the puddles it left. It was all at once grotesque and romantic.

“Hello, Alister,” she said quietly.

“Good evening, Fiona,” Alister said. “I’ve missed you.”

“How long has it been?” she said.

“Thirty years,” he said quietly.

She widened her eyes. “It’s been a single day for me.”

“One day can change everything,” he said meekly.

“What have you been doing? Those thirty years?” she said.

“Wandering,” he said. “Looking for a cure. A cure for this horrible affliction, that makes me too ashamed to even show my face.”

“That’s a long time to want to hide from me,” she said, quietly. She sighed. “Alister…I know you’ve been visiting me ever since I’ve moved out here…and for you, it’s been so much longer. But I don’t think you should come anymore.”

“If that is your wish,” he said quietly.

“I need to live my life,” Fiona said. “Meeting you has brought me great joy, but I’ve found this conviction to truly embrace my identity as one who loves who they are, and is fine living alone. And, if I do ever meet someone that I wish to spend my life with, I don’t want them to have to share me.”

“Of course,” Alister said, hurriedly. “If that is the case, then, could I stay with you until night’s end?”

“Only if I can see your face,” Fiona said.

“Yes, at night’s end,” Alister said. “You will see it.”

“Won’t you tell me any more of why you have the deformity?”

“I’m afraid that if I tell you too much, it will spread to your reality. And here, you are safe,” he said. “I think it’s safest to say it is an infection of pure hate, and it spread to my face.”

“You don’t seem hateful,” she said.

“I have learned to fight it for many years,” he said. “To live with it. And I thought if I lived with it, maybe I could find a way that others wouldn’t have to. That is–as they say–the long and the short of my life.”

“I still work at the uniform store,” she said. “There’s an outfit there that reminds me of yours. I made a friend today. She runs a yoga studio. I think I might visit.”

“How go your own dreams?” Alister said, sitting at the foot of her bed.

“Owning a bookstore?” she said, laughing. “I can’t think of anything more fanciful. I don’t even mention it to people anymore. It seems a bit frivolous. I mean, if you look at the world all around us, there’s these two extremes: one is this icky, almost hypermodernist push to be ‘extraordinary’ in ways that are actually just greed by another name. Then there’s this other push to be extraordinary as a woman or as a minority, because the hypermodernist greed mongers are going to do everything they can to take all of your personal liberties away. But the thing is, if you fight them, will you miss out on the joy of just being you? I don’t know. I have dreams, passions, and aspirations. But I’m so damned comfortable the way things are. Why does everything have to be a fight?”

Alister listened in silence, and she imagined he was smiling.

“You make me happy,” he said finally.

“Well, I’m glad. I hope I make me happy too,” she said with a laugh.

“Living well is difficult,” Alister said. “In my search for a cure, I met a boy once who wanted to be a great real estate executive. But he was so obsessed with making things hard for himself, and overcoming obstacles, that he didn’t go very far. And he was even aspiring to be one of those greedmongers you speak of.”

“Maybe I’ll get to be a greedmonger then,” she said with a laugh. “Did you know that one percent of Fionas hold ninety-nine percent of all the wealth?”

Alister laughed. “I will miss talking to you,” he said.

“Is there…is there anything I can do for you, before you go?” Fiona said.

“You could dance with me,” he said.

“I’m not very good at dancing,” she said. “I’m pretty good at twerking, though. Wanna see?”

He laughed. “Sure.”

She tried to give him a demonstration, but it was dark and she tripped when her foot slipped on one of her shirts, that she had left on the vinyl floor of her bedroom. He knelt to catch her, and the moonlight caught his face.

She gasped in astonishment at his physiognomy; his head was swollen and black, forming a swirl that blocked his eyes, and twisted his lips. She was amazed that he was so softly and gently spoken, for gentle movements of the lips must have been impossible. His face was almost like a spiral, two tiny eyes peaking between the upper folds.

A gasp came from within him, though his mouth did not move.

“It’s okay,” she said quietly. “I wish I could have seen you sooner. You are beautiful, Alister.”

“Hate is not beautiful.”
“Maybe what you are is something different…” she touched his face, feeling the hardened skin, which reminded her of obsidian lava floes. “Maybe love and hate, when living together….twist each other…until they are something new. Like a work of art.”

She pulled him close, and kissed him, and he was unable to kiss her back.

“No, don’t…” he whispered. “You’ll catch it.”

“You’re just a dream,” she said quietly. “If I were to catch this disease, then the flowers that grow from your blood would be littered about my room, more and more each morning. You would not have to wander for decades between our meetings. And I could tell people, without disguising it as a joke, that I was in love with a man named Alister Rhodes.”

“You do love me?” he said quietly.

“I loved you ever since I drew a picture of you as a little girl,” Fiona said. “Ever since I knew there were no men in Muncie like Alister Rhodes, my fictional hero. That I would have to travel very far to meet someone like him.”

“Why must I leave, then?” he said quietly. “Why not try to fight the illusion, make dream and reality one?”

Her eyes grew wet, and he became out of focus, but still she stared at him, this hideous, beautiful monster.

“That’s exactly what I’m doing, Alister. If you are not real, then we are both free. And maybe you will find a cure. It would be more selfish for me to hold onto you, in this half reality. It’s not sustainable for either of us. But if I let you go, maybe one day I will write of you, or maybe I’ll own that book store, or maybe I’ll do any little thing my heart desires. And I can think of you with a fondness; your memory can be like kindling for the flame of my own self-fulfillment, and so too will I kindle yours.”

“It feels like I’ve been doing that very thing, though…” Alister said. “The time between our visits is long for me.”

“What if you were unable to find a cure for fear that it would keep you from seeing me again?” Fiona said, quietly.

Alister was quiet.

“I’ve seen so many people,” Fiona said. “They were so afraid of being alone that they quietly abused the fact that their friends would take them in. And it made them less of a person, despite being very wealthy in friendship. Or love, or what have you. And I’ve been thinking about it, I think my own sense of inertia in my life is a way of rebelling against the static nature of our relationship. All these rules–you can’t be real, I can’t see your face. I don’t want to be harsh. But I need to start making my own rules, so I can figure out which ones I truly believe in.”

“I’ll always love you, Fiona,” Alister said. “But I don’t worry that you’ll be terrific out there.”

“I like that you’ve always said ‘terrific,’” Fiona said. “It’s so much less apocalyptic than ‘great’ and less ironic than ‘wonderful.’”

“At the end of the day, terrific is the best anyone can hope to be,” Alister said. “And I’ve realized I think just about everyone is terrific.”

“Dance with me,” Fiona said.

Few enjoy the sensation that Fiona had, as she and Alister danced to “Hello Stranger” by Barbara Lewis, which Fiona purchased from iTunes the night she had realized the man visiting her in her sleep was the same man she had imagined as a child. It was this sensation of knowing you were living in the present a memory that you would never want to forget the rest of your life. She wondered if this was what ancient religions were really trying to talk about when they said heaven was forever. She found the spiral of Alister’s face dizzying, and the way his blood dripped in circles as they moved in circles, and flowers in turn sprung up in circles, dozens upon dozens of roses that she knew would be missing upon waking, but smelled sweeter than the finest florist.

And she knew she would see Alister Rhodes again, but it would be many many years for both of them, and it would be after they had forgotten the names Alister and Fiona, but before they had forgotten the sense of wistfulness and nostalgia they felt whenever their souls were near each other.

“Good bye, Fiona,” Alister whispered as the sun began to peak through the blinds. “Good bye, my friend, my love, my inspiration.”

“Until we meet again, Alister,” she said, “a friend the likes of which I had never dreamt.”

They stood still as the sun stormed the window, filling the room with a blinding golden light. She wanted that moment to last forever, and stare at him a little while longer, and in a way her longing for this made it so.

>>>

Even still, she awoke, alone, in her bed, refreshed.

She looked at her clock.

9 AM. Saturday. She could do anything.

She dug through the pile of clothes on her floor for some yoga pants, and this one T-shirt she liked with a hand on it and an eye.

She applied sunscreen; she didn’t want to take her chances with the blinding rays today, even if she’d be spending it in a yoga studio and on a bus.

And she found she was excited for who she would meet there, and she found she hoped that Sharon might become a friend, and she laughed as she imagined sharing a joint after yoga.

It was a new morning in so many ways.

“What a full life I have lived,” Fiona said. “What a full life I am living. What a full life I have yet to live.”

+++

Samuel Cullado
14 February 2017

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Merman

Rothrick knew his death was imminent when he felt the clammy hands of the merman clasp around his flailing ankles, panic opening the literal floodgate that was his windpipe, the salt of the ocean water grating against his throat and filling him with a state of nausea that seemed comparably inferior to the nothingness of death. Death, in fact, seemed a gladder and gladder prospect as Rothrick felt the grasp of the merman pull him deeper and deeper, the ocean becoming more solid overhead, a curtain of saltine moisture that pushed down upon him even as the merman pulled. Death was preferable to this state of not-living, this in-between-ness, for at least in death there would be nothing, and in death he could forget the horrors of what led him to this abrupt burial at sea.

Ciaralyn was her name, and it sounded soothingly like the bodies of water Rothrick had previously so often called his home­–Baltic Ciaralyn, Caspian Ciaralyn–a woman whose name had the sound of the sea itself within. Ciaralyn Driscoll, a fair woman with hair so golden it was almost white. Ciaralyn, whom the embrace of death might mean he’d see again, if there was anything beyond death besides Nothing and Forgetting.

Forgetting would rid Rothrick of a character that some demiurgical bard in a mad flight of fancy had thrust upon the tale that was his life, that pompous squire named Garman Bohn, who fancied that Ciaralyn’s fairness was his and his alone–her fairness and her virtue. Garman Bohn, to whom Rothrick had experienced the misfortune of becoming apprentice. Garman Bohn, whose will overpowered all that he knew, will beyond benevolence or munificence; indeed, Squire Bohn’s highest ethic as far as all could tell was that of will, and he would regularly mock the priests after mass in public sight, declaring the words of the Deceiver: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” The powerlessness of the church to silence such talk was evident one Sunday when he made this declaration aloud following a sermon on Christ’s rescinding of His own will in the garden of Gethsemane. The parishioners sweat and gnashed their teeth, but all knew that Squire Bohn gave the majority of the church’s income, and thus all were silent to oppose him. The church was nominally Roman Catholic, but in law it was the Church of Bohn.

Despite his longing to forget, Rothrick, even as he felt the slippery fingers of the Merman tighten around his ankle, remembered that Sunday, 22rd June of the Year of Our Lord 1794, in his hometown of Somerset more clearly than he had first experienced it.

Rothrick had been sulking, as he was wont to do ever since he had first heard that Bohn and Ciaralyn were to be married, an announcement that had been made the week prior. The wedding was to happen in October, after the Squire returned from a voyage he had scheduled to Oslo, a voyage where Rothrick would be working as a deck hand. Though Rothrick was of noble birth himself, his parents had seen fit to have him learn a practical trade, and he had complied, with dreams of sailing the seven seas and perhaps working as a privateer or lawyer for Ronocom Trading company. Easily distracted, Rothrick’s ambition had given way to passion for the Squire’s ward, the fair Ciaralyn. She had no love for the Squire, a man in his middling ages, and indeed he had taken her into his care more as a daughter than as a lover when her parents had mysteriously died in a fire.

“Oh, Rothrick,” Ciaralyn said after mass, “It pains me to see you in such wretched spirits.”

“It pains me,” Rothrick said, “to see you in such wretched company.”

“Do not harp upon it,” Ciaralyn said. “Let what is done be done. It is not an easy thing for me to stomach, even with your support.”

“Then steal away!” Rothrick said. “Steal away with me! I am a man of the sea, we could commandeer a ship, and go somewhere the squire would never think to look!”
“I wish that were so easy,” Ciaralyn said, casting a furtive glance before she took his chin in her hand. “It is not a moral solution I suggest, but perhaps, the squire could have my hand, and you could still have my love?”

He felt an intense pain at her words, and shook his head.

“I could not,” he said. “Not for morality, but for sanity.”

She nodded. “If he were to ever catch us, the consequences would be dire.”

“We wouldn’t be punished for anything we hadn’t already done before he had asked for your hand,” Rothrick whispered. “Perhaps…perhaps this is punishment from on high for our sin.”

“Nonsense,” Ciaralyn said, “if God were to see fit to punish for petty misdeeds, the squire would have already burned alive where he stood.”

“Even the demons know–and tremble,” Rothrick muttered, but the words comforted him not. He looked at Ciaralyn longingly. “Perhaps we could enjoy each other’s company but one more time?”

Ciaralyn nodded. “We must be discreet.”

“Of course.”

She took him by the hand and they stole away to an alcove of the church’s bell tower, where no one dared to go, to make love a final time. Rothrick felt his heart sink as he noticed the Emrick, Vicar of Somerset, in the shadows, watching them steal away, a horrible grin on his face. He considered telling Ciaralyn that they had been spotted, but realized their fate was sealed either way.

There were horrible, horrible rumors about what went on within the stone walls of Bohn cathedral. By day, the Vicar, Emrick, would warn the townsfolk to beware of the Sanctus Umbra cult, rumored worshippers of Satan himself.

“Wander fearless by day,” the vicar would say, “but come nightfall, hasten to your homes, lest the hands of shadow touch you.”

In any other town, the certainty of the priest’s words might have been suspect, given that the town regularly had young people go missing, always at nightfall. But to question the vicar was to question the Squire. Indeed, the vicar was, like the squire, not a man whose company was pleasant to share. He strode about with a cane and a priest’s collar, and a hat upon which was embroidered a giant red star, a hexagram. None of the townsfolk were educated enough to question why a star was upon his head and not a cross, and most passersby were too polite to ask. Rothrick knew, from his days of apprenticeship upon the squire’s ship, The Afturganga, that the Squire and the Vicar’s friendship predated the former’s nobility and the latter’s piety. He surmised the two had made a pact to jointly rule their corner of Somerset in both a clerical and political sense. He had suggested this to Ciaralyn once, and she had said, simply: “The Church is so big, its shadows make for the best of hiding places for salamanders.

Therefore it was no surprise when Rothrick returned to his room at the Inn that Squire Bohn was waiting for him, sitting in the corner, illuminated only by the dim glow of candle light.

“Something further to discuss before we set sail?” Rothrick said, his tone moderate.

The Squire stood silently, and strode across the room, firmly putting his hands on Rothrick’s shoulders. He began to sniff the young sailor, like a bloodhound.

He stepped back, his brows furrowing.

“So the Vicar speaks the truth, then?”

“About what?” Rothrick said.

“Don’t be insolent, boy. I can smell her on you. He says you saw him, even. You could have stopped; I don’t trust the Vicar for his every word. I’ve been waiting for him to cross me and I even thought it might be like this.”

He put his hand on Rothrick’s chin, as Ciaralyn had, but his grip was iron.

“Little did I know it was not the Vicar’s loyalty I had to question.”

He squeezed as though with intent to wrench off Rothrick’s jaw.

He released, and stared.

Rothrick stared back, and the Squire chuckled.

“Still you do not confess. Perhaps God is mocking me,” he said.

“Do you not wish for me to sail with you, Squire?” Rothrick said, coldly.

“I will not waste the hours I have spent training you,” the Squire said. “And if you are not on that ship, you will be hunted from here to Cardiff for the murder of my precious Ciaralyn.

This sent Rothrick into a fit.

“You bastard!” he shouted, lunging for the Squire’s throat, even as the Squire knocked him back with a well-timed butt of his head.

“Silly boy,” he said. “I have done no such thing. But I will if you don’t show.”

Rothrick sat down, reeling.

“Now that you are calmed,” the Squire said, “it seems a reasonable time to tell you she shan’t be bearing a son within the year. In fact, if she does have a child, I will personally hand it over to the Vicar. He has been needing…well, he has been needing something so pure as a baby.”

“Truly, you are a monster,” Rothrick muttered, clutching his temple.

“I am not the man making a cuckold of another man. Think about that when the woman you love mysteriously miscarries. Or perhaps when she mysteriously dies by allegedly your hand. The choice is yours, but I expect to see you on deck tomorrow. Don’t be late.”

And with that, he was off.

Rothrick did not sleep that night; instead, he devised his revenge. And he arrived at The Afturganga an hour and a half early.

>>>

Rothrick was more obedient than the most trained of hounds on the voyage to Oslo. He made no friends on deck, for he did not question the Squire when he beat sailors for slacking, and eventually Rothrick was made to perpetrate the corporal punishments himself. Rothrick was the first mate of the ship, the Squire serving as a De Facto captain. The lawful captain was a certain Gottheld, who had garnered the ignominious title of The Round Knight, for his tendencies towards drunkenness and sloth. The Vicar too was on board the ship, but thankfully reclusive. The Squire claimed Emrick was “studying up” for their journey, for they were sailing to Oslo for “religious reasons.” The captain himself was unaware of the reason for their voyage; he was barely aware of which day it was or what time of the day they were at.

In this manner, Rothrick had full run of the ship, under the Squire.

“Thou art love,” the Squire said to Rothrick one night after joining the captain in drink and song. “And I am will.” He grinned and lifted hand, dainty with drunkenness to point at Rothrick. “Love is the law. Love under will.”

And so it was. Rothrick’s discipline and sternness made for a smooth sail through the ever-cooling waters of the North Sea. Rothrick kept his interactions with the Squire to a minimum during these times, thinking his revenge would best be enacted at a point where the Squire was convinced Rothrick was merely indifferent to him. In truth, Rothrick’s hate burned more brightly than ever, and he was thankful for the spray of the sea to soothe his smoldering heart.

Rothrick had no friends on deck, but Fate and gratitude made him a fast friend of the physician onboard, a young man who had just left university at Cambridge and planned to open hospitals in The New World.

“I hope you are better at your craft than I am,” Rothrick said to him one night two weeks in as the doctor set his leg following an incident involving heavy winds, the mast, and a rope that Rothrick had improperly secured due to preoccupation with the slacking of the crew.

“I hope so too,” the doctor said, “I have ambitions for my studies that surpass healing.”

“Lucrative ambitions?” Rothrick said.

“Aye–and here, bite this ladle, the procedure will hurt whether I am a good physician or a poor one.”

Rothrick could feel the pain travel from the stick through his teeth and to his brain, and was thankful that it was there to distract, even in part, from the wrenching, awful sensation of the doctor forcing his bones back where they belonged. He tried to ignore that he could feel bone scraping bone, or the erratic loosening and tightening of his muscles by his tibia, where it had happened. Even so, he screamed through the wooden ladle.

“You handled that well,” the doctor said, wiping his brow with his arm. “I reckon you’ve earned yourself some whiskey, the captain certainly doesn’t seem to be keeping very good track of the ration, I’m sure he won’t mind.”

Rothrick drank freely of the bottle as the doctor secured his leg into a splint.
“Unfortunately,” the doctor said, “you won’t be able to be on deck for a while. Fortunately, we’ve almost arrived. This should heal during the return journey; you may even be able to stand on deck near the end.”
“Who do I have to thank?” Rothrick said.

“Name’s Theophanus; Theophanus Ultrencht. Hopefully you’ll see my name on a hospital one day,” the doctor said.

“If I’m not thrown overboard,” Rothrick said to himself.

The Squire was less displeased with the debilitation than Rothrick had feared.

“You were overworking them anyway,” Rothrick said. “Not that I hold that against you. I can’t forgive you for your indiscretions on land, but at sea you are as worthy as they come. Rest up, and join me and the vicar when we reach the shore.”

“Whatever for?” Rothrick said. “I thought I was indiscreet on land.”

“A chance to prove you are discreet on land,” the Squire said. “Look, your debt is more than paid, and a man who lives by his will is a man who will appreciate what we have found. Or are you not my apprentice?”

“Aye, I am your apprentice,” Rothrick said.

<<<

They called him a Noaide, which the Squire explained was a sort of Norse Shaman. The Shaman, Øyvind, lived in a hut near the fish market. The smell of freshly caught fish on the air mixed with the salt of the nearby ocean burned Rothrick’s nose, but he maintained a stone face as he followed the Vicar and the Squire, the men he hated most in the world.

The Noaide was blind, his eyes milky, his cheeks rosy in a way that was more alcoholic than mirthful. He had a crooked nose, and a beard that traveled to his waist. He remained seated as the men entered, and Rothrick sensed this quietly offended the Squire.

“Velkomen,” the Noaide said. “Who is the boy?” His voice was low and sallow, almost beastly, and when he spoke, his lips smacked.

“My apprentice,” said the Squire. “A witness.”

“The priest would have been enough,” the Noaide said.

Rothrick was unnerved that the Noaide seemed to be fully aware of his surroundings despite his blindness, but knew it was not his place to ask how this was accomplished.

“You have the book?” the Squire said.

The Noaide nodded.

“Where is it?” the Vicar hissed.

The Noaide held up his hand.

“I have taken great care to procure this manuscript. I poisoned its last caretaker, a Mad Roman who lived with it in the Aventine Hill of Rome for a hundred years. In his dying words I coaxed from him its origin, though he did not know for certain–he claimed it dated back before the Great Flood.”

“That seems highly unlikely,” the Vicar said, and the Squire shot him a look. The Noaide, however, did not take offense.

“Agreed. It is much more likely that he meant to say its words dated from before then, but the writing itself was most likely dictated by an…unknown speaker.”

“So there is someone else in this world who possesses this information?”

“I do not believe that to be true,” the Noaide said. “Perhaps, once; but whomever dictated the words to the Mad Roman seemed so wary of their power that he vanished shortly after, leaving the Roman as the sole keeper of the secret. He seemed relieved to have died. The words of this book…they linger with you, and they had stayed with him for many years. His villa was well kept, but its shadows were full of menace. Which is why I returned to my native Oslo, where the elements would be more unkind to supernatural pursuers.”

Rothrick was unnerved by the implications of this conversation, but tried to remain calm as he scanned the shadows that the Noaide’s fire cast.

He almost yelped as he felt the Squire nudge him.

“Boy,” the Squire said. “This man is no ordinary man. Perhaps you have noticed he has sight, in spite of his blindness. Indeed, he can see further than almost any man alive, for living within him is an ancient spirit. The man it lives within has died long ago. If you are to be my apprentice, if you are to appreciate the power of will, then you will embrace and understand such things.”

Rothrick nodded, a tremulous sense of numbness setting in.

“Well, boy, do not squander this opportunity!” the Squire said briskly. “Ask the spirit a question, as I once did at your age, long ago.”

Rothrick inhaled deeply, to avoid a stutter, then asked: “What is the name of this forgotten volume, the only of its kind, a book that even you, an undying spirit living within the body of a man, have murdered to obtain?”

The Noaide smiled, revealing rotten, black teeth.

“The book…it is known in forbidden legends as the Codex Impius ex Saligamus. It tells many stories…some that could inspire, others that could drive normal men mad. It speaks of a man who became a god, when he came to an understanding about the nature of faith itself…and then he dared to usurp all measures of power, and ways of living. In this manner, this is a book about books themselves, for while an author may write of the story of an other, seldom do heroes write their own stories out of air.”

“This man–was he a hero?”

“Saligamus,” the Noaide hissed, even as he trembled at the name, “is the father of all heroes.”

“Then why does he sound so evil?” Rothrick said, nervously.
“We all fear what we don’t understand,” the Noaide said. “I used to live in fear of God. Then I was taught to fear Saligamus instead, for Saligamus understood God, but not I him.”

Rothrick was learned in many things–be it Latin, sailing, horticulture, and even a game of polo if it suited him. He was not, however, much learned in the ways of religion, of the nature of good and the nature of evil.

Even he knew that these parting words of the spirit that lived in the body of the man who called himself the Noaide were the most evil words he had ever heard drip from a man’s mouth.

The Noaide stood abruptly, not as a man’s legs carry him, but as though some unseen puppeteer had yanked him up by the midsection of his spine, and set him upon his feet–perhaps even against his will. In this manner he slowly, uncannily limped to a mirror that was perched upon a wooden table. The Noaide flipped the mirror to reveal a drawer hidden on the mirror’s backside. The drawer was locked by a medallion with various locks, which he flipped until they made a hexagram. Then the drawer popped open, and he procured the book, itself little more than a bound leather journal.

“Guard this with your souls,” he muttered. “And let no triflers read the words of the book aloud, for they have great power.”

He was about to hand the book to the Vicar, but then is brow furrowed and he handed it to the Squire. The Squire in turn handed the book to Rothrick, shooting him a threatening look.

They turned to leave, and as they did, they heard the Noaide laughing.   The Squire and the Vicar did not pause, but Rothrick cast one final glance as he closed the door to the hut.

There lie the body of the Noaide, draped over the chair in which he had been sitting, a black ink floating heavenward from his eyes, even as flies descended upon what must have been a very old corpse.

>>>

The first night of the journey back to Somerset, Rothrick found a note left beneath his pillow:

My quarters. Sundown. Bring the Book.

-Emrick

The Vicar was wasting no time. Rothrick himself had been entrusted with the care of the book, with the understanding that it was part of his debt to the Squire. If no harm came to the book, no harm came to Ciaralyn. A fair trade, the Squire claimed, if only Rothrick had any understanding of what lay between the leather bindings.

Rothrick had already snuck a glance at the book, albeit furtively. It was all written in Latin, and while he had studied Latin, he was not fluent to the point of reading it prior to translation. The actual work of translating and understanding the text would take him time and privacy, neither of which he had. Rothrick had, however, begun transcribing what he could of the book, documenting what it was and what it meant. He thought, perhaps, that if he could prove sufficiently that the Vicar and the Squire were in possession of this text, he could prosecute them for witchcraft in a court of law. The book certainly seemed to be one of witchcraft, as he recognized odd occult symbols that seemed to allow for the summoning of evil spirits, such as the one who had been living in the Noaide.

The Vicar, though: he knew Latin intimately. Any translation of the work would better help Rothrick know if he had a case against the men or not. Perhaps it was a trap, but then, Rothrick was afloat in the midst of an enormous trap, was he not? Forced into the service of a man he hated, for fear of losing the woman he loved. If treachery was his fate, Rothrick decided to meet it boldly.

He made for the Vicar’s quarters, come sundown, a dagger hidden in his belt.

The Vicar was furiously writing by candlelight, at a desk by a porthole overlooking the sea.

“Shut the door behind you,” he said. “Does anyone know you’re coming?”

“No,” Rothrick said. “I assumed it was private.”

“Bohn doesn’t know?
“No.”

“Good.” The Vicar sighed and removed his spectacles.   “The Squire and I have known each other for a very long time. We have ascended the ranks of power together, but always our alliance has been an uneasy one.” He gave Rothrick a doleful look. “I am sorry about that business at the church. I cannot begin to imagine the frustration you feel at seeing such a fair woman with such a foul man. Truth be told, I did what I did to get you on board this ship. You see, I want the Squire dead before we reach Somerset. And I need a confidant to intercede for me if I am suspect.”

“And to take the fall?”

“Only long enough for suspicion to pass, and then I would pardon you. In the absence of the Squire, the town would be mine.”

“Why does the Squire want me on this ship, then? He must know I hate him.”

“You can trust a man whose loathing of you is certain, in an odd sense. He and I both knew we couldn’t trust each other, and you have become something of a mediator. That is why you have the book. For one thing, you couldn’t hope to understand its power, but it was our hope that in coming ashore with us, you would at least fathom its value.”

“This is the only one, is it not?” Rothrick said. “Explain to me then what its ‘power’ is, what stories it holds.”

“The stories it holds…they are not stories people like to hear,” the Vicar said. “Not a story a man of the cloth would typically tell at any rate. But its power goes beyond stories. It can be used to replicate the power of Saligamus, who walked the earth in our stead–and some say eve walks the earth now. He dared to take control of evil, that he might be the ultimate good. To domesticate evil the way that one domesticates a bull. And I happen to know we are sailing over a sea of Untold Terrors, just waiting for our command.”

“I suppose you’re going to tell me there’s a slumbering sea monster beneath us?” Rothrick said derisively. “A Kraken, maybe? Or a demon with the face of a squid?”

The Vicar laughed, but he was clearly unnerved by the thought.

“Hand me the book, and we’ll see if I’m right,” he said. “Tell me, boy, can you read Latin?”

“I can, but it takes me a while to translate. I haven’t had a chance to give this book a good shot.”

The Vicar nodded, putting on his spectacles once more, flipping through the pages with his bony fingers.

He stopped, three quarters of the way through, and grinned.

Mari Hominum,” he said. “Sea men. Or we might call them Mermen.”

“Are we going to summon an army of sirens, to seduce the Squire into the sea?” Rothrick said with a snort.”

“No…” The Vicar said, then breathed deeply before continuing. “What I am about to do, no man should do, yet I am greater than all men, for I dare what no men would dare to do.”

He looked at Rothrick.

“Get ready,” he said. “I am about to curse the Squire.”

“How good is your Latin?” Rothrick said.
“Good enough,” the Vicar said.

This gave Rothrick pause.

“I would think you would want to be very sure of your Latin,” Rothrick said quietly, but the Vicar glared daggers at him.

“It is good enough,” the Vicar said again, annoyed. “Now seat yourself. Be ready. We shall be attacked by ocean men when my fingers have lifted from this manuscript. Defend the ship, but let them devour the Squire. I will preserve myself in the spell.”

“What about me?” Rothrick said.

“It will be best if the ship’s defender is neither safe from or directly affected by the spell,” the Vicar said. “So as not to arouse suspicion.”

Rothrick rolled his eyes, but at the same time was somewhat relieved not to be mentioned in the Vicar’s incantation.

It was an unsettling poem of pure, malicious Latin, bearing all the piety and stiffness of a mass, with a hateful scorn. Rothrick did not understand all of the Latin, but was a bit confused when he heard the Vicar say what sounded to be “I will be sealed with the mermen, myself one of their number.” Rothrick knew it was to protect the Squire, but it sounded almost as if…

The Squire lifted his finger from the book, the summoning complete.

They heard scraping at the hull almost immediately.

“It’s working,” Rothrick said, then looked at the Vicar.

The Vicar looked quite ill.

“Are you all right, sir?” Rothrick said.

“I feel unwell,” the Vicar said. “The power of the book…perhaps it was too much for me.”

“At least you’re safe from the Mermen, sir.” He said, as he heard shouting above. “Shall I go defend the ship?”

The Vicar waved his hand. “No, stay with me, I am…I am…not feeling…”

The Vicar began to vomit a substance that looked like black tar. He looked at Rothrick in terror, and then vomited more. He fell to his hands and knees, vomiting what seemed like his own organs, though Rothrick doubted that was possible. He noticed the Vicar’s lips began to stretch, his jawline pulling back into his own neck. His beard seemed to fall off of his face, and upon his cheeks, the skin was stretching and separating.

Rothrick heard a groan outside the door of the quarters.

“Don’t…leave…” the Vicar wheezed, before vomiting again.

Rothrick peaked through the keyhole of the door, to see who was outside.

He could not see much, but what he could apprehend did not look human.

The smell of the Squire’s vomit was becoming unbearable, it reminded Rothrick of the fish market. He knew he couldn’t open the door to the quarters, but all the same he ran to the porthole, to let any fresh air in.

Too late, he realized there was a creature trying to climb inside. It had a body in the shape of a man, but with skin like a salamander, and frills like that of a fish on a reef. Its eyes, though, were the worst, bearing the same inkiness that had come across the Noaide in his final moments.

Without hesitation, Rothrick reached out with his dagger and stabbed the creature in the head, through its gills.

It let out a howl that was reminiscent of the cry of a horse in a burning barn, filled with terror and inhuman confusion. The wound was mortal enough that the creature let go, and as it fell Rothrick noticed the same black ink shot forth from its neck that the Vicar was currently vomiting. Unfortunately, the creature took with it Rothrick’s knife.

He looked at the Vicar once more, who had finally stopped vomiting, but his body was prone on the ground. At first Rothrick feared the man was dead, but noticed with an odd sense of relief that he was breathing.

“I’ll be back, Vicar, first I need to claim this ship.”

“Don’t…leave…” the Vicar wheezed.

Rothrick slammed the door of the cabin open, knocking down the Merman outside, and took advantage of its loss of footing to try to garrote it with a length of rope. The Merman’s skin was thick, and it had sharp claws and sharper teeth that were all of concern to Rothrick. The creature picked him up and tossed him down the hall, with the strength of three men. In terror, Rothrick scuttled away, in search of a scabbard.

When he arrived on deck, battle-ready, Rothrick counted seven of the creatures, and while they were outnumbered, they were quickly making short work of his men. The mermen had rough hands, which seemed to be able to catch a sword without injury.

“Aim for their gills!” Rothrick shouted.

With disgust, a man nearest him grazed a merman’s gills, creating an awful sound, sending the creature reeling in pain. With a kick, the man shoved the creature off of the deck.

“We need to kill them if we can,” Rothrick said. “The sea is home to these things, and if any survives, they will surely bring more of their kind.”

“We should return for Oslo,” a deckhand said.

“Until the captain dismisses us, we hold our position.”

“Gawain is dead, sir. Too drunk to defend himself. You are the captain.”

Rothrick nodded, and ran up the deck to the starboard, where a merman feasted upon the remains of the captain. With a swift thrust of his sword, Rothrick ran it through the creature’s head at the gills.

“All right, men, we will reset our course for Oslo!”

The deckhands still alive who were not currently fighting mermen scaled the masts and opened the sails. The wind was in their favor if they returned to Oslo, and it was Rothrick’s hope that when he returned, it would be without the Vicar and the Squire. Perhaps from there he could send a letter to Ciaralyn, to join him in Norway.

“You there, boy!” he shouted to a deckhand as the ship changed course. “Maintain the starboard as I check on our passengers.”

“What if they come back?” the boy said nervously.

“Pray they don’t,” Rothrick said, and handed him his sword before making his way into the hold.

Rothrick descended into the ship’s hold, lantern in hand, listening for any sounds of shouting or altercation.

Instead, he heard the voices of the Squire and the physician, Ultrencht.

“Truly, it is a marvel, sir. I have never seen anything like it.”

They were in the Squire’s quarters. Rothrick knocked on the door.
“Come in,” the Squire said.

Rothrick opened a door to find a merman on the Squire’s table, his stomach cut open, the physician examining it.

“Fascinating,” the physician said, “it seems to have most of the organs one would find recurring in a human, except it also has an air bladder and a gill system for breathing. We simply must save this specimen.”

The Squire glowered at Rothrick, his expression telling.

“This thing tried to kill me,” he said nonchalantly.

“It tried to kill me too!” Rothrick said, perhaps too earnestly. “Or at least, one of its brothers did. There was one in the hall that I faced, unarmed, before securing the deck. Is this the same?”

The Squire raised his brow. “Where’s the book?”

“The book, of course!” Rothrick said. “I, eh, left it in my room when I heard the commotion on the deck.”

“Grab it!” The Squire hissed. “And check on the Vicar.”

Rothrick nodded, leaving for the Vicar’s quarters.

He knocked on the door.
“Vicar, are you all right? The Squire is…suspicious, for sure.”

No response. Rothrick wrenched the door open, the smell filling him with nausea.

The Vicar was on all fours, surrounded by black liquid. He still had his hair, but his skin was greying, matching the color of the mermen onboard. His chin had pulled back into his neck, surrounded by flaps of skin. His fingers were long, their nails longer.

He raised his head to meet Rothrick’s gaze, and his mouth was filled with rows upon rows of sharp teeth, like an anglerfish, his eyes empty and black.

He was one of them.

Behind him, lying precariously on the desk, just above the black ink, was the Codex Impius.

Rothrick knew the Squire would kill him if he didn’t return with that book.

Making the best usage of the tools at his disposal, Rothrick frantically swung the lantern at the Vicar, who screamed ferally.

Rothrick couldn’t bear to run through the black pool, so he ran around it, sweeping up the book with one hand while intimidating the creature that was once the Vicar with the other.

Then he made haste out of the room, closing the door behind him.

Upon returning to the Squire’s quarters, he handed over the book, wanting nothing more to do with it.

“Good boy,” the Squire said. “Now tell me, what caused this? Your Latin is not this advanced.”
“It was the doing of the Vicar,” Rothrick said. “He intended to double-cross you.”

“And you didn’t stop him?”

“See for yourself,” Rothrick said. “He is becoming one of them.”

“If I might…” Ultrencht said, leaving, “I’d like to have a look at that.”

“Leave us at your own risk, but feel free to do so,” the Squire said.

Ultrencht nodded, and left.

“You lied to me,” the Squire said. “You tried to usurp us both, the Vicar and I, didn’t you.”

“Not true at all,” Rothrick said.

“Boy, you are lucky this book is intact, or I would kill you myself. However, all actions have consequences. When we return to shore, to prove your loyalty to me, I will make you kill Ciaralyn yourself.”

The suggestion was so absurd that Rothrick said nothing, only staring at the Squire, confused, as the Squire paged through the book.

“I would sooner die,” Rothrick said.

“I know,” the Squire said, “and that is cowardice, and my punishment for cowardice is harsh. By the words of this book, I shall kill you and resurrect you and kill you and resurrect you once more, until you kill your beloved as man who has died a thousand deaths.”

He drew his sword.

“Prepare for your first.”
Rothrick threw the lantern at the squire, which shattered and began to burn the man alive, engulfing the book as well. The book cracked and popped, like a bonfire, until combusting in a brilliant explosion, impossible for a small book of that size to make. The blast sounded like an ear-piercing scream, and it blew out the wall of the Squire’s ship, letting water flow in freely. Rothrick thought he saw something leaving the book as it burned, a wisp that almost looked like a violet line drawn in the air, squirming its way into the ether like a lost leech.

Rothrick ran ran for the door, opening it to find Ultrencht.

“I couldn’t find the Vicar, he seemed to have–oh God.”

“Yes indeed,” Rothrick said. “We need to make haste to the deck.”

The two ran to the deck to find all of the deckhands, including the boy at the wheel, dead.

“We’re the only ones left,” Rothrick said quietly.

“Are there any rafts?” Ultrencht asked nervously.

“Yes,” Rothrick said. “Mount this one while I cut you free.”

Rothrick ran up to the Starboard and retrieved the fallen deckhand’s scabbard.

The ship was beginning to sink fast.

He turned to find more Mermen.

“Hurry!” Ultrencht shouted.

Rothrick kicked one off of the deck and stabbed the other in the gills. Then he began about the business of releasing the boarding raft. He noticed a jar in the doctor’s hands as he cut at the ropes.

“What is that, doctor?”

“Some strange, black liquid I found on the floor of the Vicar’s room. I want to bring it ashore and test it for healing properties.”

“I’ll have you know that was vomited up,” Rothrick said. “I doubt it heals.”

The doctor shrugged. “The ways of science are very strange indeed.”

“Yes they are,” Rothrick said. “I hope we live to discuss that further.”

He cut the other rope, and pushed the raft off of the deck and into the water. He thought of jumping into the raft, but did not want to risk capsizing it.

He jumped, feet first, into the water, and opened his eyes as he prepared to swim up.

He was surrounded by teems upon teems of mermen.

Their soulless, black eyes glowed in the water.

Frantically, he tried to pull himself up, but panicked as he felt a hand firmly grip his boot. After some struggling, he pulled his foot out, hope briefly returning.

He resurfaced and shouted to Ultrencht.

“They are upon me! Please, hold out your row!”

But the doctor was already frantically rowing away.

“I will tell of your story!” the doctor said. “I will erect monuments to you in my hospitals! Sailors will sing of your bravery!”

“God damn you!” Rothrick shouted, as he felt a hand grasp the other boot, and pull him under once more.

Again, Rothrick was able to kick the boot free, but he knew his death was imminent when he felt the clammy hands of the merman clasp around his flailing ankles, and begin to drag him deeper and deeper. His eyes stung from the salt and he could already feel the water filling his lungs the way it had filled the ship. With hatred and disappointment at the prospect of his life ending so ignominiously, he used his last bit of will to look below him, that he might gaze upon the face of the creature that refused to let him live.

It was the Vicar, his transformation nearly complete, his hair human and his clerical clothes still upon the amphibious body.

Together, the two entered the abyss, one dead man dragging another.

+++

Samuel Cullado
12 February 2017

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Wendigo

 It was with great sadness that Achak watched as his friend Kitchi was overtaken with the affliction.

Many tribes from the Massachusett to the Ojibwe had whispered of the monstrous man-eater, the demon affliction that hungered relentlessly for human flesh when it had run out of all other fleshes to eat: this creature that stood like a man but had antlers like a stag, and snarling long face like a rabid coyote, this creature that stood naked but was clothed in hair like that of a bear, this creature called the Wendigo.

Achak and Kitchi had been hunting for game for their clans, Achak for his family and Kitchi for his own. All clans within their travelling Algonquin suffered from great hunger, as was often the case this winter season. Illness had kept hunters from achieving their usual success, often binding them to their tents. Kitchi and Achak initially had good fortune with their hunts, but when supplies ran scarce, and there were too many young mouths to feed that were not at hunting age, the hunters themselves were the first to go without food. It had actually been Kitchi’s idea, son of his clan’s chief, as he wanted to sacrifice all he could for his family’s comfort. He invited Achak, who was of a different clan and not as closely related to his own clan’s chief, to have his portions of the meat first. Kitchi seemed to flourish in the first few days.

Then the storm came, and, worse, it came at their furthest point away from the village.

They created shelters but were low on provisions. Achak offered his portions to Kitchi during this time, but Kitchi refused, perhaps out of nobility or pride.

And Kitchi began to go mad.

On the third day of the storm, as it was beginning to settle, Achak awoke to find Kitchi had left their shelter.

He was able to track his friend with ease, but did not like what he found. He saw the frantic dance of does slain not out of a hunter’s necessity, but an animal’s will. The blood was covered by snow, but all the same Kitchi’s footprints danced around the prints of the doe, and his footprints seemed to grow. By the time he had found Kitchi, who was knelt amongst a nest of deer, whom he had all ruthlessly slain with his bare hands, the footprints resembled that of a bear.

Where the deer had made their dwelling of leaves and branches, Kitchi had made a carpet of blood.

At first, Achak did not even recognize that a man knelt amongst the deer corpses, for Kitchi’s antlers had already begun to form, his lips already stretched beyond the normal length of a man’s, and he had already shed his clothes in favor of a long black mane and thick, brown fur.

“Kitchi!” Achak cried out in anguish, “My friend and brother to my allies, my cherished companion through the thickest of winters, what has become of you?”

Kitchi was unable to respond, letting out instead a howl.

Achak made two important assessments of that moment. The first was that Kitchi would surely try to feed upon him as he had fed upon the deer, and if that happened, Achak ran the risk of becoming a Wendigo as well.

Achak’s second assessment was that he could not kill his friend, so long as there was hope that his friend lived within the beastly vessel.

“Kitchi! Beloved amongst hunters, I shall prove my worth as a hunter now, and trap this demon that has overtaken you!”

The Wendigo laughed and snarled, pawing at the ground, and then with a scream that sounded like a thousand screams, it bounded over a felled corpse. Now, despite its insatiable hunger and constant feeding, a Wendigo is an emaciated beast, cursed to eternal slightness. Achak affixed a rope hewn of dogbane (which he had anchored to a tree by his shelter should he become lost in the storm) to an arrow on his bow, and shot Kitchi’s body clean through the chest as the Wendigo tried to attack. Achak then rolled beneath the creature’s legs and began restraining the beast. The Wendigo shrieked and fought with all its might, but Achak was able to move deftly, and hold back its swipes with the rope. He grabbed a piece of deer meat that it had not yet eaten, and held it before the bound creature’s face. It became transfixed, and through this Achak was able to lure it back to the shelter.
There, Achak fed the Wendigo the meat, which allotted him time to strengthen his bonds on the creature, before binding its mouth as well. He used what hides he had collected to reinforce the rope bindings, and tied the Wendigo to a tree. The creature glared at him through its muzzle, but could not move.

Achak’s plan was to let the blizzard take his friend, for he could not.

This accomplished, Achak passed into a deep sleep.

>>>

Achak stood in the ruins of a tremendous city, a city so large he did not have proper words by which to describe it. Man-made towers of rock so smooth it shone stood to the sky, abandoned. In a manner most uncanny, he understood these were called skyscrapers. The streets were littered with large burning carriages, their windows cracked, devoid of passengers. In the same uncanny manner he knew these were called cars.

He wandered the pavement of the city streets, barefoot, bow at the ready, though in his heart he knew his bow was no match for the horrors this city held.

He rounded a corner and saw standing, atop a pile of wrecked cars, his friend, Kitchi, arms outstretched, bathing in a ray of light that had broken through the clouded sky.

“Kitchi,” he whispered.

Kitchi heard this, even so far away and turned to see him, fear in his eyes.

“I live even still,” Kitchi said, his voice clearer than a rushing river. “Even now I wrestle with the monster. And so will you.”

The shadows around the ray of light began to move.

“The Hate will one day destroy all things,” Kitchi said. “But you, my friend, my most trusted companion, you can keep it at bay.”

Kitchi set his weapon down.

“Kitchi, they are coming for you!” Achak shouted.

Large monsters, with dirty black fur and arms like the legs of a spider, began to crawl up the pile of cars.

“The Wendigo is a creature of greed,” Kitchi said, serenely, assuming a posture of prayer. “But Greed looks to unlock the hate in all men, which leads to indifference.”

The creatures drew closer to Kitchi, single-minded.

“Kitchi, get out of there!” Achak said. “Join me and we can return to the village!”

“I am already gone. If you love me, Achak, you will care for this creature,” Kitchi said. “Even if no one else in the village understands.”

The spiders convened at a spot just above Kitchi, their numbers slowly forming a tent around him.

“I will always love you, my brother, son of the Great Spirit,” Kitchi called from within.

And with that, he disappeared.

Standing before Achak was an enormous black creature, shaped like a cone, its skin composed of thousands of eyes, looking upon him with hatred.

“By the power of the Great Spirit, I shall slay even this creature,” Achak said. “Perhaps then I shall be a hunter among men.”

The last thing he saw before he woke was his arm drawing a single arrow to face the horde of The Hate.

<<<

It was not yet morning when Achak awoke, and he did so with a panic.

He could hear the howls of the Wendigo, in pain against the storm.
The creature was dying; the winds were doing their work.

Achak frantically assembled a leash out of hides, as well as a hood and coat to warm the creature and himself.

Then he ran into the snow, and against every instinct in his body, he cut the creature loose, clothed it, leashed it, and with spear in one hand and a leash in the other, began the journey back to the village.

Achak planned to return in the morning, sneaking into one of the tents and keeping the creature in a cage used for their dogs. He would then begin preserving the meats they had found. He didn’t think they were contaminated with the affliction. Some thought it was a sickness, the Wendigo, but from Achak could tell, it was a spirit.

I hunger, the creature murmured behind him.

It would soon eat itself if he didn’t feed it. Achak would have to hunt for his village and for this Wendigo. He prayed the Great Spirit’s forgiveness and guidance for the extra life he would take. But was it not the Great Spirit itself who had shown him that Achak was still alive?

This resolve a source of warmth in his heart, Achak pressed onward.

Your friend is dead, a whisper came from behind him.

It was impossible that the Wendigo was speaking; its mouth was firmly tied shut.

All the same, Achak knew the voice’s owner was this creature he carried in tow. He would not entertain it with a response.

I ate him, the creature continued. He was my first meal in this new vessel. I ate him from within. Your friend is dead.

“You are my friend,” Achak said quietly.

Fool, the beast chuckled. If you could have only seen how he suffered.

Achak was hungry, and it was making him irritable. He wondered absently if he was becoming afflicted with the Wendigo, if it was gnawing at his soul.

In his mind’s eye, he saw his friend laying down his spear, atop the pile of…what were they again? It mattered not.

His friend was eternal.

I see your thoughts, The Wendigo said, If your friend were eternal, he would still be feeding me, would he not?

“Maybe you eat quicker than he can keep up,” Achak said. “Maybe that is why I must feed you.”

Are you going to surrender yourself? the Wendigo said. Are you going to untie me and let me end it for you here?

“No,” Achak said. “I am taking you to my village.”

Good, The Wendigo said, More food when I kill you.

“I will hold you prisoner,” Achak said. “But you will be fed.”

No one will help you, the Wendigo said.

“I know,” Achak said. “But I will feed you, and protect them from you. The Great Spirit will guide me.”

There is no Great Spirit, the Wendigo said. There are only monsters and men.

Achak went silent. He was reticent to concede any ground to his creature. But the fact was, he did not disagree. Would the Great Spirit allow Wendigo to walk the earth? Would they take his wife, Oota Dabun, from him? Would they take Kitchi from him, leaving this thing in its stead?

And yet, he had seen Kitchi, standing in the sun, unafraid as he was consumed by The Hate.

Achak knew there was nothing. But even his dream of something gave a purpose to the bite in the wind, and the numbness in his feet. His dreams of something gave his absurd care of this demonic beast meaning. Oddly, his need to feed the Wendigo was what was keeping him going. He realized that, had Kitchi not told him to care for this creature, Achak might have lacked the resolve needed to make it home.

Home was upwind, and he could smell it: The campfires, the meat cooking, the pleasant musk of people living together, the hides and the glow of the air within their shelters. He could hear the singing of his clansmen, their prayers entwined in song and poetry, rising into the air like the smoke from the bonfire at their village center.

Achak breathed in, exhausted. He would have to find a way to hide the monster. And he would have to do that before seeking medicine.

Fortunately, he lived in a dwelling on the edge of the village.
He wondered if the Wendigo would give away their location, then realized it wanted to be hidden as well; it probably planned to escape and feed on residents one by one. He realized, his exhaustion growing, that if he could hide the creature in a way that made it believe it had the upper hand, he would be most successful.

He threw a hide over the creature, and snuck around his tent under the cover of the storm. He could tell a guard had spotted him; he would have to be quick. With relief he noted that the livestock cages had been moved into the dwellings for protection from the storm. Most likely they had used his dwelling in his absence.

He climbed into his dwelling finding a fire lit and a single watcher present: Kitchi’s wife, Nadie.

He thought of distracting her, but couldn’t bear to withhold the truth any longer than he needed to. Had not Kitchi told him of Oota’s passing immediately, even when Achak’s own clan thought it wiser to withhold? Was not Nadie every bit as strong?

“Nadie, I have returned.”

Nadie turned, quietly, looking at the hidden figure next to Achak.

“You have returned?” she said. “Is that not Kitchi?”

She already knew, he could tell. If not about the Wendigo, then of her husband’s death.

“It is not,” he said.

My Wise One, my friend, The Wendigo hissed at Nadie, Do you not recognize your husband’s voice? Achak is but playing a horrible trick, he thinks it is funny to worry you! Now throw aside this cloth, and give your husband a kiss.

She stared at it, blankly; even without the beast visible she knew. The voice was an absurd joke, meant to torment her. She ran out of the tent, and Achak could hear her retching. He had done the same, when he had tied up his friend.

Achak opened one of the cages, in which they kept a boar, and forced the Wendigo inside.

This is too small for me, the Wendigo said. I can neither stand nor move.

“It is just the right size,” Achak said, and shoved him in. “You exist to feed, do you not? You will feed in here. With you is your first meal.

Achak began to seal the cage with various hides, both to obscure its inhabitant and to keep it from reaching out. The creature complied, believing that Achak would feed it enough for it to become strong enough to escape.

Achak planned to feed it just enough. To keep it somewhere between starvation and survival. Wendigo were powerful indeed. Even malnourished, the creature would not lose the will to live unless cut off from food completely. At least, Achak assumed this would be the case.

Nadie, clutching her stomach, came back into the tent.

“Where is he?” she said.

“It is in that cage. It murdered Kitchi. I intend to–”

“I will help you,” Nadie said. “A night ago, I dreamt of my husband, standing on the river by which he asked me to be his wife. He told me…” she went quiet. “We shared a farewell. This monster is my responsibility too.”

“I would think you would have no obligation.”

“Our marriage has ended,” she said quietly. “But our friendship…I honor him for what I love in him. I will not live my life with this creature. But I will help you, and one day, I will marry another man. But I will care for this thing. I will do it in remembrance of what was, and hope for what could be.”

She lifted the hide, and already the creature had its hands at the bars, its eyes reflecting the dancing flames of the fire within the shelter.

Hello, my pretty, the creature mocked. Come closer, so that Kitchi might have a look.

“My husband is dead,” she said.

Won’t you feed me? The Wendigo hissed. This man says he will, but he lies! He wants to watch me starve.

“Let him, then,” Nadie said, quietly. “You will starve either way, for all Wendigo do.”

We wouldn’t have to, if you fed us

“We would run out of food,” Nadie said. “Though I don’t have to tell you. This is why your kind is abominable.”

Why make the exception?

“The medicine man does not explain his rituals, he only heals,” Nadie said coldly, and then re-affixed the hide to the cage’s bottom. She looked at Achak. “I wish you well,” she said. “And I will not tell a soul.”

“Can you keep watch?” Achak said. “I need to sleep.”

Nadie nodded. “I doubt I shall sleep a while either way.”

>>>

Achak hoped for a dreamless sleep, but this request was not fulfilled. Instead he was standing in the center of his village, the dwellings burned, and bodies stacked upon the ground.

Ahead of him was a wooden table, with an open chair facing him next to him.

Upon the table was a cup.

On the right of the table was a mirror, and a man stood, facing it.

Achak tried desperately to wake himself from the dream; he tossed, he turned, but nothing he did seemed to break the trance. In fact, his struggle drew him ever closer to the table.

“Welcome,” the man said to the mirror, and Achak realized that the reflection of the man was facing him.

“Who are you?” Achak said, nervously.

“You know who I am,” the man said, a Stranger to Achak, his skin olive, his eyes a pleasant green. He had black, wavy hair, a goatee, and an obsidian breastplate. Achak noticed his chest was scarred under his beard, and he wondered if this pleasant face was some kind of mask. The man had a tattoo on his arm, that read Saligamus, Qui Ambulat in Mundus, and the words twisted like a spiral, bearing the head and rattling tale of a snake.

“I understand you have taken a Wendigo into your care, the man in the reflection said. That this same creature murdered your friend, Kitchi.”

Achak did not trust this man, but then, everything this man was saying was true.

“I have,” Achak said.

The man did not turn from the mirror, merely kept his focus on Achak, calmly. “Very noble of you. But I am concerned for your safety. It is one thing to love those who have done evil to you, another to enable them to do evil to others. Your behavior will inspire men to write stories and maybe even songs one day. But here, but now, you are endangering your entire village. Is this wise, friend Achak? Is this goodness? Does not this Wendigo deserve to die, as it will inevitably do anyway?”

“The Great Spirit does not concern itself with deserving,” Achak said. “And neither do I.”

“Now,” the Stranger said, “That’s not true and you know it. You only spared the creature’s life because it became sentimental to you. I wonder if that same sentiment will be as valuable when it kills your chieftain’s son.”

“I won’t let it,” Achak said.

“That’s not within your control,” the Stranger said. “This creature isn’t within your control. It is, however, within mine, and I order you to starve it.”

“Show me your face,” Achak said.

“You’re looking at it,” the Stranger said.

“Face me,” Achak said, his resolve strengthening.

“Very well,” the Stranger said, and he turned.

Achak felt immediately sick. The Stranger’s face was completely missing skin and eyes; all that was left was musculature and bone.

His voice was now rough, like stone grinding against stone.

“This will be the face of every man, woman, and child when the Wendigo has had its fill.”

“Perhaps,” Achak said quietly, “it might only be my own.”

The Stranger laughed. “That can certainly be accomplished. I’d ask you to come drink of the cup on my table, as your friend did in his last moments, but I can see you’re already a lost cause. No matter, then. You’ll be one like him soon enough. Wake up, Achak.

He clapped his hands, and the sound of them was deafening and horrifying.

Achak sat up, feeling sick, and was thankful for the light of the fire, and Nadie nearby.

“Just a nightmare,” she said. “I am keeping watch.”

What did Master tell you? the Wendigo whispered in its cage.

<<<

“Today we mourn the death of Chief Keme’s son,” Chief Askuwheateau said. “We are thankful for the service of Achak, my clansman and Kitchi’s friend, for giving him a proper burial before braving the blizzard with food and supplies. Let us hope that Kitchi is well met by the ancestors and the good spirits that traverse the heavens.”

Nadie sang at the funeral. It was the saddest thing Achak had ever heard. Her song at times was like a wail, and in moments defied conventions of tone and language. She was singing something beyond words, beautiful, sad, terrified.

Achak wondered what the beast had said to her while he slept.

He looked at the sun, hiding behind the grey sky. It was almost time to feed.

Chief Keme approached him, his eyes watered, but his composure strong.

“I would like to know,” Keme said, “what my son’s last words were.”

Achak swallowed a moment, trying to remember if Kitchi had said anything coherent in the moments before the Wendigo overtook him. All thought he simply perished in the cold, peacefully.

Then Achak remembered the dream.

“He said, ‘I will always love you, my brother, son of the Great Spirit.’”

Keme trembled and nodded. “Indeed, you are the brother of my son, and that makes you my son. In time, if you wish, I will give you my son’s wife in marriage.”

Achak watched Nadie, still singing.

“I will care for your son’s wife,” he said. “But I will leave our relation up to her.”

Keme was a little confused, but nodded: “Indeed, she must mourn.”

The chief of Achak’s clan, Askuwheateau, joined in the conversation, putting a hand on Achak’s shoulder.

“You have done well, both as a friend and as a member of our clan and this village. Even in death, your friendship with Kitchi has further unified us. Come, let us feast together. The blizzard is passing soon, and the hunt will be easier.”

Indeed, the blizzard did pass, and hunting did grow easier. For a time the village prospered greatly, and many were equal parts astonished by Achak’s dedication to the hunt and his reclusiveness. There were reports that he would hunt more than what was needed, but this was dismissed as a rumor as he grew noticeably thinner. Nadie spent more time with him than ever, and rumors also began to flourish of the two growing close in the absence of Achak’s wife and Kitchi.

In truth, the two saw each other as no more than friends, and while they ate plenty, the stress of caring for the Wendigo was draining. The creature had some insight into their thoughts and would mock them for the pressure they faced from the village to marry. He would call out tribesmen he had not met by name and predict days on which he would eat them. The first was a month into the Wendigo’s stay at the village. An old man, Anakausuen, was planning to surprise Achak with a gift of livestock, and unwittingly brought an extra meal for the Wendigo. Fortunately, the old man did not unlock the Wendigo’s cage; he was merely grabbed from inside of it. Achak and Nadie furtively cleaned up his remains, and then proceeded to forge a note in his name saying he had wandered off into the woods to find his wife’s spirit. His disappearance went unquestioned. The off-schedule feeding, though, also meant that the Wendigo was a bit stronger than usual. Kitchi bound the hide that covered his cage in rope, so that the Wendigo could not reach out and open its prison.

The strengthened stomach of the Wendigo meant more horrific nightmares. He would torment Achak in his sleep with visions of Oota, who would run to Achak for an embrace and then become a beast, like a wolf, and mock him, drowning him in the river. Nadie reported similar visions, though the creature seemed unable to conjure Kitchi in her mind, and this comforted her. Instead she would be chased by enormous monsters that looked like spiders with human eyes.

The people of the village began to notice the evidence of their physical and emotional strain.

Chief Keme worried not about it, knowing the two had seen their share of hardship. Chief Askuwheteau, however, was concerned there was unrest within Achak and Nadie’s relationship, and that it would threaten the unity of the village. He took aside his son, Ahanu, one morning and shared his concern.

“Ahanu, my only son,” he said. “I am worried that there may be discord between Achak and Nadie. One day you will be chief, and you will learn that as a leader you will have to do things in secret that may seem wrong, but will allow for you to better care for your people. I am asking you to do such a thing now. Ahanu, my son, will you hide in the couple’s dwelling and spy upon them tonight, and report back to me what you find?”

Ahanu nodded: “I will, father.”

>>>

Achak returned from the hunt that night, relieved to have beaten an impending storm. His elation was mitigated the unsettling silence in his dwelling. Nadie was supposed to be keeping watch.

“Nadie?”

Silence.

“Creature?” he called out to the Wendigo.

It was silent as well, though that didn’t surprise him. He decided he ought to check its corner of the room, to make sure that it hadn’t escaped.

Then he remembered it was the day the Wendigo had predicted it would kill the chief’s son.

And Nadie had promised to stay behind and keep watch.

He could hear a dripping sound, a wet noise that made him sick.

He lit a torch and cried out in horror.

Chief Askuwheteau’s son, Ahanu, was standing over Nadie’s lifeless body, eating her face.

Ahanu looked at Achak, the small boy bearing the same eyeless visage that Achak had seen in his dream of the stranger. The boy screamed and lunged at Achak, and Achak tossed him out of his dwelling–but with him, he also tossed the torch.

The dwelling went up in flames, as the boy began to charge throughout the village, leaping upon those who came to put out the fire and eating them. Achak could see antlers beginning to sprout from the boy’s head.

Standing beyond the boy was Askuwheteau, and he had his spear prepared, tears in his eyes.

Silently, he drove his spear through the boy’s neck as he ate one of the villagers, killing the child instantly.

Askuwheteau looked at Achak, rage in his eyes.

“Where is it?” Askuwheteau said. “The Wendigo.”

Before Achak could answer, he heard a mighty roar, and he fell to the ground as the beast charged from behind him, dragging the flaming cage with it, spreading the fire throughout the village. It leapt upon the chief, devouring him instantly. The chief’s men boldly ran at the creature, and Achak, his will becoming singular in the absence of all family, began to fight them off, defending the beast.

“Are you insane?” One of them shouted. “This thing will destroy the village.”

“Then flee,” Achak said. “But spare it, or kill me first.”

They looked at him, astonished. The creature laughed at him, in the midst of eating Askuwheteau, and said:

This man fancies himself my protector. You’ll have an easier time getting through me than him.

Then he continued eating.

“Is this true?” they said.

Achak nodded. “This creature often lies, but today it has spoken the truth. I am its friend.”

Their eyes widened. “Our chief would have us execute you,” they said.

“Keme is your chief now,” Achak said quietly.

They nodded. The one in the middle said, “We will not kill the son of chief Keme. Even if he is a fool. But you must be gone, and bring that thing with you.”

He’ll die out there, The Wendigo said. I smell a horrible storm on the horizon.

“We’ll go,” Achak said, gripping the Wendigo’s restraints, muzzling its mouth once more. “You may tell the others what you may.”

They watched in silence, as he tugged the hungry creature away from the camp, towards the harrowing snowstorm, which had already begun to rush over the village.

<<<

By nightfall, they had made their way back into the woods where the Wendigo had first transformed.

The child tried to climb into my cage, The Wendigo said. So I made him like me. His body will reawaken soon, reanimated by the demon within. That is, if it hasn’t begun to eat the boy’s body already.

“We will need to make a shelter,” Achak said. “Or this storm will kill us.”

If you unbind me, I will eat you.

Achak nodded. “You wouldn’t be able to make a shelter first?”

Would believe me if I said yes?

Achak sighed. “You’re right. I will have to make it first.”

But you will unbind me?

“Yes,” Achak said. “I will not survive this storm. But your will is strong. If you have shelter and food, you might just make it.”

You do not have the strength to hunt.

“I do not,” Achak said. “But one man is plenty of food for two days. You’ve gone on much less.”

The creature looked at him, confused.

“Who can say if what I have done has any goodness within it,” Achak said. “I see now that I have allowed great suffering to come about by keeping you alive. But I have seen your Master, and I know how he would treat you.”

The creature shivered.

“Yes,” Achak said. “You will have to return to him if you die, will you not?”

The creature lay down, like a dog, curling up, and went silent.

Achak said nothing, and began making shelter in the storm. He even ventured out to gather firewood, and at moments the creature worried he might not return––to undo its bindings, of course.

Achak did return, though the cold was fast killing him.

“You can start a fire when the wind dies down. If only I could have found a cave…”

I cannot go back, the Wendigo said quietly. He is horrible to me.

Achak had grown accustomed to assuming all of the Wendigo’s words were treachery, but still, he was surprised by the creature’s tone.

“I know,” Achak said quietly, as he untied the creature’s bonds.

Do you not fear what is beyond? The creature said, as Achak lay down and began to drift off, his extremities feeling pleasantly warm despite his body freezing to death.

“I assume I will see Oota again,” Achak said. “And if not her, then I will be reunited with The Great Spirit.”

There is no Great Spirit, the creature said quietly.

“I know,” Achak said.

He was on the threshold, his vision blurring, the edge of his sight going grey. He crawled over to the creature.

“I am dying of cold,” he said, “but if you need warmth, you can use my body before you eat it. My last gift to you, creature, is all of me.”

He saw nothing now, only heard echoes of the wind, and what he thought was the voice of the creature, full of sadness, whispering, Thank you, my brother, son of the Great Spirit. He assumed it was delirium, but smiled that his dying mind thought it possible.

The last thing he felt was the warm tongue of the creature, licking his face, and he was unsure if it was beginning to taste him or trying to keep him awake through the night.

+++

Samuel Cullado
24 January 2017

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Thanderians

 “The devil’s agents may be of flesh and blood, may they not?”
― Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

The recent sale of Gilbert Keith’s television was, officially, the cause of his unsavory behavior. Of course, being a Peeping Tom suggested a disturbed state that must have begun some years prior, if not all the way into early childhood.   So often is the case that people are seen but not charged, or go for years without being punished, due to this loophole or that, and especially due to fear of retribution.

What made Gilbert Keith strange was that he had turned himself in. He told the Oakland Police Department that this woman was a resident of a neighboring high rise, whose name he did not know, but whom inquiries soon revealed to be a certain Mallory Blum. By all accounts, Blum and Keith had never met, beyond Keith’s self-accusations.

Detective Roger Wilde remembered the night Keith turned himself in well.

Wilde had been in his office, writing up his report on a previous incident, when he had gotten the call. At the time it had seemed like an irksome amount of paperwork and red tape. It paled in comparison to the long, sleepless nights he faced now.

He hadn’t seen Keith enter the department, but he later watched the security footage. Wilde found all security footage unnerving; it made him feel powerless in the most uncanny way. On one hand, he had the perspective of a ghost or even God in the room, but on the other hand he was deaf to the actual noise of events, and powerless to change them.

So in Wilde’s mind, despite stories of Keith’s entry that night, that January 3rd of 1994, being loud and abrupt, he imagined utter silence as the doors flew open.

Keith stormed up to the booth, and demanded he be taken in, reports said. When asked the reason, he said that he spied on his female neighbor and that he had invaded her privacy. Keith was informed this crime was a misdemeanor, something he would be fined for but not an imprisonable offense. At this point Keith changed his story and explained he didn’t feel safe in his own home. He requested custody and when that was denied claimed he was a danger to himself and others. Strangely he requested a full search of his apartment, and stranger still he seemed willing to admit to any crime that had him behind bars.

Detective Wilde decided to search Keith’s apartment twice–once before questioning him to do his homework and see if there was even any evidence of illegal surveillance, and then a second visit with Keith’s testimony in mind.

Wilde decided to go alone. He had a partner, assigned by the department, but he didn’t much care for him. He couldn’t even remember the guy’s last name; there was something just sort of bland about him. Kevin was his first name, Wilde remembered that. Kevin got to do Wilde’s paperwork during office hours.

With Keith’s keys, which he had given to the police, in hand, Wilde strode into the empty apartment. There was a strange reverse paranoia the detective felt about searching other people’s living spaces, he tried not to imagine how it felt for the person living there to know someone had definitely gone through their stuff.   Plus, each apartment and home felt like a graveyard to the person’s everyday life. Wilde’s line of work rarely had him searching nice houses. Usually he was looking through the living spaces of people who were neither rich nor smart enough to keep him out.

The natural light that would normally illuminate such a windowed space was diminished thanks to the neighboring high rise. It was a very sunny day, and this created in the apartment’s lighting an intense divide between light and shadow, the well-lit areas shining a dusty, naked white, the shadowed areas seeming extra ominous and occupied.

Wilde had been in creepier spaces, he told himself. Surely he had, and yet whatever thickness the air in this apartment had gave it a sinister feeling that began to form motive in Wilde’s mind for Keith’s mania. The man had found a way to get cabin fever in Oakland.

Wilde didn’t have to look long to find the camcorder. It was on a tripod, with a fabric shield that one might use to divide a desk in a non cubicle office blocking it from the window. It was eerie seeing the lengths Keith had gone to camouflage himself. There was even an ergonomic stool he had set up. The whole setup was in a corner a television might usually be found in; in fact an empty TV stand was being used for a makeshift desk.

Wilde put on some gloves to have a look at the desk’s contents.

Notably there was a journal. He flipped through the pages and found detailed sketches of the woman’s apartment, with certain areas on the edge of the drawing circled, with the words “where they live?” or “hiding place?” or “how does it fit?” written by the circles.

Wilde put this into a plastic bag for evidence.

He then took a few Polaroids before ejecting the V/H/S from its holder in the camcorder.

Wilde thought it strange that Keith had gone to the trouble of recording his neighbor when he had no television.
Wilde had a look through the viewfinder.

It was still zoomed in, far enough that it was plenty clear which apartment Keith had been spying on. It was at a lower level, and the camera was tilted to have a slight bird’s eye view. Even now, without the apartment lit, Wilde could clearly see a small metal kitchen table with a yellow-checkered cloth over it, as well as a few magnets on the fridge, holding up what seemed to be postcards. A cat slept on the kitchen table, its expression the typical nonplussed feline glare.

This was all sufficient, at least, to ratify Keith’s claims that he was a Peeping Tom. Though it didn’t explain his desire to be in police custody.

Wilde returned to the station, and turned in the V/H/S.

“Have one of the eggheads look at this, would you?” he said to the Evidence clerk. “See if there’s anything strange.”

“You can probably have a look at it yourself, if you wish,” she said.

“That’s all right,” Wilde muttered. “These things can hold up to three hours. I’d rather use the time to give our person of interest a talking to.

The clerk shrugged and put the V/H/S into a plastic baggie, logging it and setting it aside for examination.

After grabbing some coffee, Wilde had a look at Keith through the window of the interrogation room. Keith had bloodshot, blue eyes, a physically unfit but thin build, and matted, dishwater blonde hair. Wilde considered that whomever was looking at the V/H/S would also be looking over a tape of his interrogation of Keith. Wilde realized he took some comfort in knowing who was looking over the tapes, or perhaps more accurately he felt a slight chill when he considered there were tapes of moments or memories that were recorded but never viewed. Theoretically no one looked at them, but surely someone did. Wilde wondered absently if so many people would videotape their child getting a bath if they considered the elevated likelihood that a stranger might happen upon it one day.

He sipped his coffee and walked inside.

“Afternoon,” he said, pulling out a chair. “My name’s Roger Wilde. I’m the detective assigned to your case. Mind stating your name for the record.”

“Sure,” Keith said nervously. “Gilbert Keith.”

“How old are you, Gilbert?”

“Twenty-nine, sir.”

“Twenty-nine. How long you lived in Oakland?”

“Four years, sir. Moved out here from Bakersfield.”

“Mmm. What do you do for a living?”

“I, uh, work mornings at Ronocom Shipyard. Drive a forklift.”

Wilde nodded. “That what you want to do with your life?”

“Don’t really know what I want to do with my life, sir. Don’t know that I’ll have much of an option after this.”

Wilde sighed. “Look, son, I paid your apartment a visit. I found the camcorder. Mind explaining to me why you have a camcorder pointed at your neighbor’s window?”

“D-did you watch the tape?” Keith said almost excitedly.

“Nah, letting the eggheads in evidence do that for me.”

Keith’s eyes widened. He looked almost angry.

“You shouldn’t have let that tape out of your sight,” Keith said.

“Why’s that?”

“They’ll try to destroy it,” Keith replied. “They might have destroyed it already.”

“Son, we have a pretty stringent policy on the handling of evidence. Trust me, there are things in that vault dating back to the 70’s. But are you trying to say you left that tape for us?”

Keith nodded. “I won’t pretend to be normal guy, detective. I’ve been interested in creating video performance art and needed a camcorder, so I sold my TV. But I also don’t have many friends, and not much to do on nights. She would always have her lights on and her blinds open, so I’d watch. I felt less lonely when I did.”

“You do it to get off?” Wilde muttered, a bit disgusted.

“Well, yeah, sometimes,” Keith said. “Again, I can’t defend it. And I felt awful gross about it. But there was no one to tell me to stop. And then one day I knew I shouldn’t stop.”

“Now what do you mean by that?”

“Well, I’m pretty sure she lived alone. Sure seemed like it. Didn’t have any roommates, just a cat, that seemed pretty affectionate towards her. But when she went to bed–and I never allowed myself to watch her bedroom, that was too creepy for even me–I would notice…people…in her apartment. And her cat hated them.”

“What do you mean by people?”

“Well, they sure looked like people, but they didn’t act like people at all.  They were dressed all nice, like businessmen. And they seemed to just step out from the shadows. Like they had been there all along, but she hadn’t noticed them. The cat would often hiss at them. One time it got so angry that she came back and collected it. But when she went back into the kitchen they’d step out of view.”

Wilde stared at him a moment. This had to be a lie, yet the sequence of events followed as such that Occam’s Razor actually worked in favor of Keith telling the truth.

And Keith had that look in his eyes as though he had seen something that had shaken him pretty deeply.

“So you saw some… ‘people,’” Wilde said. “But what’s got you so shaken? Maybe she has very eccentric roommates.”

Keith shook his head. “No, sir…they…if they’re her roommates, they killed her all the same.”

Wilde looked at him, confused. “Now, son, why wouldn’t you have opened with that when you came to the police station? Surely we could have gotten this investigation going better if you had said ‘I have to report a murder,’ or even better yet, called 9/11.”

Again, Keith shook his head. “I couldn’t be sure I would have reached you if I had called 9/11. And at any rate, the minute you went to her house, you wouldn’t have believed me.”

“Why’s that?”

“She’s one of them now. On that tape, it shows it…she goes to bring her cat back into her bedroom, and they surround her…I couldn’t see what exactly it was that they did, but whatever it was, when they backed away, she was lying on the floor, dead. A pool of blood surrounding her like a halo…but it all came from her nose.”

He shivered.

“Then they began to clean it, took the body to her room. I broke my rule and panned the camera to see what I could. The angle isn’t as good there, but I saw them cutting…they…”

Wilde knew what was coming, but it was bad protocol to finish a POI’s sentence for them in an interrogation. Instead he slid Keith a cup of water.

“If you need it,” Wilde said. “Now, what did you see?”

“One of them, a bald man, began to cut her skin off. Then a skinny, purplish creature with tentacles on its head that almost looked like hair…slid out of the bald man’s skin…stood over her body…put it on…and I don’t know what they did, this thing was way taller than her, she’s pretty short and this thing looked like seven feet tall…it wore her skin, and when they’d finished the, eh, operation, it looked just like her.”

Wilde stared at Keith, trying to hold in a laugh. The son of a bitch was pranking him. Well, two could play that game. Wilde had seen The X-Files.

“I see,” Wilde said, adopting a somber tone. “Well, son, you know…not everyone at the department will be as open to…extreme possibilities.”

“You don’t believe me,” Keith said.

“Oh, I want to,” Wilde said, failing to stifle a snicker. “Look, what did you expect? You’d turn yourself in, we’d eat up your story, and say, ‘you know, we actually have a whole dossier of unexplainable incidents in the Bay area, turns out the Golden Gate Bridge is actually an antenna for little green men to get TV reception from home.’ And the whole thing with the V/H/S tape? You knew I’d find that before talking to you, there’s probably nothing on it, or like you recorded the super bowl on it, then you’ll say ‘they’ messed up the footage.”

“I didn’t know,” Keith said. “I thought I’d give my testimony before you investigated my apartment.”

“Should have thought of that before you authorized us to look,” Wilde said.

Keith went pale.

“I didn’t,” he said. “I mean, I’m sure that’s on record. But I have no memory of that.”

“I’m done here,” Wilde said.

>>>

Wilde arrived home in a bad mood. Keith’s little stunt had added to his workload and wasted his time.

“Hey, Jackie,” he said, hanging his coat next to the door. “Got anything ready for dinner?”

“I don’t,” his wife said, muting the television. “You never told me when you were coming home, so I didn’t know when to get supper started.”
He gave her a look.

“We don’t have the money to be eating out every night,” he said.

“All the more reason you need to communicate with me,” she said.

“For god’s sakes, if it gets cold I can microwave it.”

Her eyes widened. “Okay. Guess I’ll have some stuff ready next time. Thanks for your patience.”

There was some silence, during which he sat down at stared at the muted evening news, Ted Koppel giving the most sincere stare that a well-dressed man could give as he read news that was lost on Wilde’s ears. It reminded him of the security footage he had watched, which in turn reminded him…

“I got pranked today,” he said. “This kid came running into the station first saying he was a peeping Tom, then saying he’d witnessed a murder, then saying aliens were wearing people’s bodies as clothes, and of course when I checked in with evidence his “tell-all” tape was just some adult film that he’d removed the label fro–”

“So where are we going to eat?” Jackie said. “I’m pretty hungry, and I wanted to wait to eat with you.”

He didn’t like that she’d cut him off, but all the same, he put his arm around her. “I’m sorry. That’s really sweet. Let’s see…is Chinese okay?”

“That’s fine,” she said.

There was a cheap dim sum place near their townhouse that they would often go to on such nights as these. It held some nostalgia for them, as it had been one of their first dates. Wilde had convinced Jackie, his then girlfriend, to try the chicken feet.

“These are…much spicier than I had expected,” she’d said, trying and failing to rip the chewy meat off one of the toes.

“Here, let me help you,” he had said, and bit the other toe, and their tug o’war had resulted in a mess that they found very funny and their waiter did not appreciate one bit.

That same waiter greeted them with a smile now. Jackie and Roger sometimes wondered if they kept the place in business.

“I got a promotion,” she said after they’d ordered. “I hadn’t cooked because I’d wanted to celebrate.”

“That’s fantastic,” he said. “Where did they move you to?”

“They made me staff accountant,” she said. “They’re bumping hourly pay up to $20 per hour.”

“So we can afford to eat out now,” he said, grinning sheepishly.

“Yeah,” she said. “And it’s like, I handle finances for a division of a Fortune 500 company. I don’t know that I appreciate a vote of no confidence in how I handle home finance.”

“I was stressed,” he said. “I got, uh, pranked.”

“My own Philip Marlowe,” she said with a grin. “Ol’ Sam Philip Spade Marlowe getting pranked.”

“I’m getting sick of it,” he said. “I knew that it wasn’t going to be the gumshoeing that you read about, but I didn’t realize how much of a rudimentary desk job it is.”

“Get a new one,” she said. “There’s a lot you do at that desk job that could get you at least a better paying desk job.”

“Yeah,” he said. “You’re right. I keep hoping if I stay in it they’ll promote me to a more administrative position.”

“Still doesn’t pay as much as it could,” she said.

“I didn’t want it to be all about money,” he said.

“We moved to the Bay,” she said. “This is the most expensive place in the US. It will be all about money for a while.”

“I’m too romantic,” he said. “When I was single I could just slum it.”

“Was that ever a great way to live, though?”

“It was manageable,” he said.

“I don’t know if I agree with that.”

Wilde didn’t really know what to say back, and they continued their dinner in silence.

<<<

The next day, wishing to take out his frustration, Wilde checked on Keith’s case.

“Please tell me you fined his ass,” he said to the clerk of courts over the phone.

“Obviously we did,” the clerk said. “We even considered incarceration, but went against it. We don’t need this joker adding to our prison population.”

“So he’s back at his apartment?” Wilde said. “Has anyone notified the woman he claimed to be spying on?”

“Not my department.”

Wilde paged through the case file.

“Guess that’s my job,” he muttered.

>>>

A strange sense of déjà vu accompanied Wilde’s visit to Blum’s apartment. He even parked at the same meter as he had when visiting Keith’s place. He eyed Keith’s tower apartment now, trying to guess which window was his. He also felt vaguely annoyed with how unsafe he, a police officer, felt in Oakland. Surely he should have seen enough action that he was jaded to the city streets by now. The fact of the matter was, he was cooped up in the office most of the time. And as much as he hated that, he hated even more that he was secretly glad to be in such a safe place most of the time.

But he’d been in worse places than this, hadn’t he? He had to have been. And anyway, this was just a normal woman, not a Peeping Tom and certainly not an alien, he thought as the elevator rattled up to the eighth floor.

Blum’s apartment was 867. Wilde again felt annoyed by his anxieties, the emptiness of the halls leading to her space, the vague yellow glow of the hall lights, and the way the flickered. An old building, even if it was an expensive building, he reminded himself.

He knocked on Blum’s door.

“Oakland police.”

Silence, followed by gentle footsteps.

Why was he bracing himself to see something horrible? The story was a prank.

The door opened, revealing an astonishingly beautiful woman.

She had long black hair, blue eyes, and cream-colored skin, and was about five foot two. Not nearly tall enough to be some sort of vessel for an eight foot alien.

“It was a very skinny alien,” Keith had protested.

“Hello, officer,” she said. “Can I help you?”

Wilde sort of wished he had a hat to take off, like they did in the movies. Instead he just ran his hands through his wavy, light brown hair, and it looked silly.

“Are you Mallory Blum, miss?” he said.

“I am,” she said.

“Well, hate to disturb you or cause you alarm, but a man came into our station claiming to have spied on your apartment. Now, we’re pretty sure he’s a prankster, but all the same we did find camera equipment pointing directly at your place.”

“Oh my gosh!” she said, laughing. “Guess I’m not alone after all! Was he in that building, across the way?”

“Yeah, that one.”

“What apartment, if I can ask?”

“Well, not sure I’m at liberty to reveal that.”
She gave him a warm smile. “I just want to know so I can angle my shades away from that window.”

“Yeah, that’s fair enough. You know, if you don’t mind me stepping in for a moment, I can point it out to you. That way I won’t have told you his address, but you’ll feel safer. We in the precinct call that a loophole.”

“I know what a loophole is, officer. But yeah, I’d appreciate that.”

Gosh, he was smoother than ex-lax right now.

“Right,” he muttered, running his hands through his hair again.

He stepped into the kitchen, and again felt a sense of déjà vu, upon seeing the table and refrigerator magnets, which he could now make out as magnets in the shape of various states. One of course, was California, the other Vermont. They held up small postcards that read “Visit Glacier National Park!” and another that said “Mon Amie, Paris” with the Eiffel Tower on it and a little Made in Taiwan printed at the bottom left hand corner.

He wondered if Keith could see him in here.

“You from Vermont?” he said.

“No,” she said, “I’m actually from Nevada. Just always wanted to see the East Coast. I hear it’s lovely in the spring.”

He nodded. “That’s why I came out here. I’m from Iowa, actually. Got sick of seeing endless land.”

He pointed out Keith’s apartment.

“It’s that one. Been there myself. He had the camera set up in the middle window. Claims he never spied on your bedroom, but also seems like part of your bedroom might be visible from there. Didn’t really check myself, and the video in his camera didn’t have anything recorded on it. Seems like an odd prank, probably just wants attention, but seemed like it’d be negligent to not at least warn you.”

“Yeah, I appreciate that,” she said, taking a Polaroid of where Wilde had pointed. “Hopefully I never have to meet this guy.”

“He didn’t seem dangerous,” Wilde said. “Just a bit too into aliens and all.”

“How do you mean?” she said.

“Well, for starters,” Wilde said, “he claimed he saw aliens cut off your skin and put it on as their own.”

He decided to leave out the detail about the sketches. Anyway, he wasn’t giving Keith his journal back anytime soon.

“What a weirdo!” she said, giggling. “Well, just to be safe, you should, uh, take me to your leader!” She made the Vulcan gesture. “Too corny?”

They both laughed.
“Honestly,” Wilde said, “I wouldn’t mind if the humans took me to their leader too. I’d ask for a better job.”

A shrill hissing noise came from her bedroom that took him so aback that he hoped it wasn’t obvious how horribly startled he was.

“Oh, sorry,” she said. “That’s just my cat, Ripley. She doesn’t like strangers.”

The cat didn’t seem to notice Wilde at all. She was glaring at Blum, her eyes squinted, hissing so frantically that her mouth looked impossibly wide, like the Cheshire of Wonderland.

“Come now, Ripley,” Blum said. “No way to treat strangers! Back to your room!”

She went over to fetch the cat, but it arched its back and swiped at her hand, leaving a nasty scratch, before running back into her bedroom.

“Sorry about that,” she said.

“Hey, not to worry,” he said, dampening a paper towel. “I’ll help you clean the wound, put my police training to some good use.”

“‘The wound,’” she muttered and laughed. “For an officer in Oakland, you haven’t gotten out much, have you?”

“I’ve seen a thing or two,” he said, and she laughed even harder.

“Hey, maybe this is forward,” she said, but would you like to get dinner? There’s this kind of dreamy diner that’s not far away.”

He sighed, turning off the faucet.
“Miss Blum, I would really, really like to. I wish I had met you earlier. But I’m married. It wouldn’t be right.”

“Oh, of course,” she said. “Gosh, I feel so stupid. The nice people always get taken first, don’t they!”

He smiled, squeezing the excess water out of the towel. “I guess they do.”

He knelt down next to her and grabbed her hand, looking for the wound.

He couldn’t find it.

“You heal quickly,” he said.

“It wasn’t that bad of a scratch,” she replied.

She took out her wallet, and pulled out a business card.

“I’m a singer,” she said. “If you…and your wife can come too…ever want to see me perform, I work at Chicor’s jazz club. It’s on Phaeton Drive…guess it says that on the card, though.”

He couldn’t help but notice her number was also on the card.

“Thanks,” he said, putting her card in his wallet. “We’ll have to check it out. And hey, this Keith guy seems harmless, but if you’re ever feeling unsafe, here’s my card. I’m not there most evenings, but you can tell my buddies you know me and they’ll have a look, 9/11 charges be damned.”

He stood and added, “I better get going, I’m behind on non-prank case files that are unfortunately much less interesting. Lots of stolen bikes.”

“Hopefully see you around, Detective.”

As he left the apartment he took a glance towards the end of the hall. A bald man in a suit stood at its end, watching him. It was so lacking in subtlety that it was jarring.

“Can I help you?” he said.

The suited man turned silently towards the exit stairs and walked away.

Wilde considered following, but then what was the point? He felt, in a way, that to act at all like Keith might have been telling the truth would be to admit fault, and even moreso to admit that Mallory was potentially inhuman. Which was stupid.

Wilde took the elevator.

<<<

Back at the station, Wilde was logging the serial numbers on stolen vehicles in the area when boredom turned to curiosity. He picked up the office phone and called evidence.

“Hey, don’t judge me, but do you still have that skin flick Keith was watching?”

“Rough day?” the evidence clerk said.

“Rough couple of days.”

“Come on over, and clear this stuff out while you’re at it. We need room here for other things.”

Wilde collected the bankers box with Keith’s evidence in it–the box seemed a bit excessive seeing as it was just a tape and a journal, but protocol was protocol.

He closed the blinds in his office and slipped the tape into the player.

The tape had clearly been heavily watched, it was missing a few audio tracks, but then these things weren’t exactly prized for their writing.

Wilde decided it would be poor practice to beat it in his office, so he pulled out Keith’s diary instead, and began to page through it absently.

A couple entries stood out to him.

14 December, 1993
Sold television today. Haven’t been productive enough. Hoping sale of TV and purchase of camera will kill two birds w/ one stone. Using TV stand as a desk. Like view of city, even if it is blocked by another high-rise. Perhaps will test camera on what little of horizon I can see. Hope no one gets wrong idea. Maybe can hide camera for test.

Interesting, so he really did have good intentions at the beginning. What happened?

16 December, 1993
No luck, late nights + no friends = no crew or subject for filming. Fascinated by high-rise neighbors. Probably illegal but replaces TV. One in particular very pretty. Won’t creep on bedroom but she often reads in the kitchen alone with her cat. Wish I could meet her correctly and we both could be less lonely.

Boring. Wilde scanned, looking for the aliens to start showing up. Surprisingly, it was Christmas Eve.

24 December, 1993
Wanted to spend Christmas Eve with Raven [that was his name for her], but could swear I saw some intruders in her house. She wasn’t having a party. Need to sleep.

25 December, 1993
They’re back again. She doesn’t know they’re there. Now really glad my viewing spot is well-hidden. Feels like Rear Window. Maybe I can keep her safe. Want to find her apartment but don’t know which one it is. Don’t want them to know I am watching. They seem to always be there.

27 December, 1993
Talked to Dale at the library about stories where men snuck into a house without using door or window. Dale suggested paranormal or extraterrestrial. Told me about a book written in 1922 by a man who simply identified himself as “Kestrel.” Theorized Kestrel was FBI agent, as implied by his book, Imposters as Adam Clad. In the book Kestrel recounts staying in a hotel where he witnessed behavior of residents slowly begin to change; irritable residents becoming oddly pacified overnight, quarreling couples reconciling after a night of sleep, often to the other’s astonishment. Kestrel seems a bit like me, he was familiar with the hotel and knew of a passageway between rooms that allowed him to spy on residents. This was the way he saw the aliens, which he called Thanderians, not sure why, seemed to have some prior knowledge before writing? Dale couldn’t remember. But Kestrel saw large purple creature that looked like a dog and a silverfish and spider crawl into human body after shedding a temporary skin that they proceeded to burn. Kestrel wrote that the aliens often disguise themselves as musclemen, officers, or guards. Theorized human body was like exoskeleton to them.

Exactly like what I’m seeing here. Too weird to believe. Will keep watching.

Following this were many pages of drawings, where Keith had drawn the men, one of which looked a lot like the one Wilde had seen in Blum’s high rise.

These were the drawings Wilde had seen when searching the apartment.

1 January, 1994
New Years. Thanderians still visit. Don’t know what their plan is, but need to help Raven. Might be misunderstood but will videotape her apartment. Rather be charged with spying than let someone die. Can’t explain without tape. Not sure who to trust anyway, if Thanderians can take on human form. Will film tomorrow or night after if I can find good tape.

2 January, 1994
Turns out camera doesn’t come with tape. Seems like a scam. Could have sworn I had one. Went to Circuit City but tapes were more expensive than I can afford. Might just use Busty Brigade tape my buddy leant me if I can’t find anything else. Will peel label off so police don’t think I’m pranking them.

3 January, 1994
Oh god, it’s all real.

Wilde realized he hadn’t even been paying attention to the porno, and he looked up to see that Busty Brigade was no longer onscreen, but instead he was looking at a home recording of an apartment window.

Blum’s apartment.

Wilde felt the hairs on his neck stand on end.

He watched in horror as Blum went to bed, leaving a single lamp above the sink to illuminate the room.

He watched as bald men in suits materialized from beyond the corners of the window. Like Keith, Wilde wondered where they had been hiding. There were five of them, and they were very broad-shouldered.

They stood in the low light of the apartment kitchen, seemingly motionless, seemingly silent, at different points around the table.

Wilde wondered absently if they were in a star formation. Perhaps because they came from the stars?   He wasn’t sure which direction their star was supposed to be angled at. He had seen a horror movie during the Satanic Panic of the 80’s and knew that a lot of cults drew an upside down star to, like, summon demons or something. He wasn’t sure about that, they didn’t look to be summoning anything. Could have just been the easiest way for them to all fit in that room.

Blum’s cat ran in, just as Keith had said, and hissed at the men, the way it had hissed at Blum when Wilde visited.

He watched, powerless, as Blum ran into the dining room to collect her cat, only to be overtaken by these men, kicking, screaming, doubtlessly fighting with every breath.

He watched as she became hidden by the figures, which seemed to have knocked her out and set her on the table.

The camera panned, following one of them as it lifted her onto its shoulders and carried her to the bedroom.

The angle was indeed obscured, but it was clear a slit was made in her skin, looked like it was in her hairline, where a cut wouldn’t be visible. Keith had not mentioned that the man had used some device to remove organs such as her brain, and perhaps spinal fluid as well? He appeared to be hollowing out her body in a specific way­–it was hard to tell, and Wilde was somewhat relieved he didn’t have to know.

Then the most awful image came, as a purple creature slithered out of the man’s mouth, the skin and suit going limp around it as it “undressed.” It had a head that looked like a ring, with no discernable face, and tentacles around that head that looked like hair, but also a bit like the tentacles of a cuttlefish or anemone. It had frame like a dog, its double-jointed legs curved backwards, giving it a countenance that was both arachnoid and lupine. From its side jutted projections that looked like ribs, or maybe vestigial limbs? These were flexible, and it folded them, as well as its long arms and claws, to an almost impossible degree as it climbed into the slit in Blum’s hairline.

Blum was motionless for a moment, then violently twitched as she opened her eyes. She stood, picked up the disposed suit and skin, rolled it up, and brought it back into the kitchen.

The figures turned, looking out the window, and while they didn’t make eye contact with the camera, they closed the blinds all the same.

The tape stopped shortly after, though he could hear Keith muttering “oh god” behind the microphone.

“You and me both, buddy,” Wilde said quietly.

That reminded him.

They had sent Keith home.

And he had shown Blum where Keith lived.

He picked up the phone, and then cursed his disorganization.

If he had Keith’s number, he didn’t know where. And he wasn’t about to ask anyone in the department for it.

Better to haul ass and find Keith himself.

He called his wife, but got the answering machine.

“Hey, honey, I’m going to be a little late for dinner. Don’t worry about making supper, we’ll get takeout or something.” He thought about warning her to call for help if he didn’t come back soon, but then he wasn’t sure who might be at his townhouse, or who even his wife could ask for help.

“Love you. Bye.”

He hung up, threw on his coat, and ran.

>>>

It was an eerily calm night in Oakland. There were few sirens, few arguments on the street, and not a single junky out raving to themselves. Just Roger Wilde, parking at the same meter he had parked at before, dashing frantically into Keith’s building, trying to stay out of view of Blum’s apartment.

He wasn’t sure whether to take the stairs or the escalator, but opted for the stairs despite the fear in his body rendering his legs like jelly. He wanted to put himself in a position where he could easily escape, and while the concrete stairs were creepier they also provided more options.

He ran up nine flights of stair to Keith’s apartment, and was out of breath when he got there. He could feel his fear creeping up his spine frantically, checking his peripherals for one of the men in suits.

He knocked on Keith’s door.

“Gil, it’s me, Detective Wilde. I saw your video. I’m not a Thanderian.”

He had no clue what a Thanderian wouldn’t say, but he assumed their biggest agenda was to not have a name in the first place.

At first there was silence, and he could feel his fear mounting even further.

What if he was too late?

He felt some relief as he heard footsteps coming to the door.

But then his heart dropped as he realized:

How would he know if he was too late?

Keith opened the door, looking a little worse for wear but not dramatically different than Wilde had left him. He was in a t-shirt, boxers, and slippers.

“Detective,” he said with a smile. “Thank God. So you read my diary?”

“Yeah, and I saw the tape,” he said. “We need to get you out of here. Before I believed you I went to her house and told her where you lived.”

“Oh god,” Keith said. “Yes, definitely. I’ll get dressed right away. Please tell me you didn’t tell anyone you were coming.”

“No,” Wilde said. “I didn’t know who to tell.”

“Good,” Keith said, “Then we should have a few minutes. Come inside, I don’t want you standing out there and something happening while I’m getting dressed.”

“Thanks,” Wilde said, “I don’t want to be alone.”

He walked in and locked the door as Keith made his way into his bedroom.

“Do you have any idea where I’ll be going?” Keith said. “I don’t know where to hide from these things. This Kestrel guy seemed to be able to do it, which is probably good seeing as the FBI discredited his book.”

“Don’t know,” Wilde said, “but I’m going with you, and I’m taking my wife.”

“Hey,” Keith said, “close the window, just to be safe, if they see us together we’ll have much less margin.”

“Good thinking.”

Wilde went to the window and as he closed it, looked at Blum’s apartment.

His heart rose to his mouth.

Staring from the window, directly at him, was one of the bald men.

“Hey, Gil?” Wilde said, closing the shades with a panic.

“Yeah?” he heard Keith say behind him.

Wilde turned and screamed.

Standing in front of him was Blum, Keith, and two of the bald men.

Wilde continued screaming, but it was too late.

The last thing he saw was Blum silently charging at him, her hands outstretched.

<<<

It was almost 9:00 PM when Wilde came home.

“Hey,” Jackie said, “Thanks for calling me.”

“No problem,” he said. “I missed you.”

He ran up to her and gave her a kiss, holding her in a way he hadn’t done in years.

“Are you hungry?” he said.

“I went ahead and had dinner on my own,” she said. “I hope that’s okay.”

“That’s totally fine,” he said. “I actually just ate too. But I would like to have a night out. My friend told me about this jazz club called Chicor’s that’s in Oakland. I know it’s a Wednesday, but I can drive you to work tomorrow, if you’d like.

She put his arms around him, curiosity and hopes for a new chapter in their relationship in her eyes.

“Who are you and what have you done with my husband?” she said.

“I killed him,” Wilde replied. “I thought I could do better than him, so I slipped into his skin.”

“Don’t be gross!” she said, laughing. “I guess you’re still the man I married.”

Wilde tried to hide how funny he thought that was, and succeeded.

+++

Samuel Cullado
9 January 2017

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The Drink

The billboard screamed at me every morning on my commute. “ChiaKombucha! Drink it with breakfast! ChiaKombucha! Drink it with lunch! ChiaKombucha! Drink it with dinner! Throw away the soda, supplement the water! ChiaKombucha! Say yes to you, even when life says no!”

And, of course, the grinning Aryan girl at the bottom right corner, arms folded, a dialogue bubble–with small font that was fatal to read if you were driving–spewing from her mouth:

“I was diagnosed with early onset rheumatoid arthritis. Doctors told me that this was my new life. I drank ChiaKombucha with every meal, and now I’m a MARATHON RUNNER!” Harder to see was the even tinier text that said: “Do not drink ChiaKombucha before swimming or in inclement weather,” and anyway, it never rained in Los Angeles.

Maybe the billboard took on a voice in my mind because I’d seen the ads. They’d begin with a generic musical stinger, which you might find under “world music” on the Garage Band soundboard. Cue a shot of a woman running, a subtle expression of normality that you rarely see in the real world: the woman with the “perfect jogger’s body. Perhaps she and the Aryan girl from the billboard were in the same Eat Pray Love book club. She also provided a gentle voiceover:

“I was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of fourteen. It was…” and here they cut to her, sitting in a sterile library, text revealing her name was “Sarah.” She was trying to refrain from becoming emotional, as the cameraman gave her tissues. “It was…very rough. Oh, thank you. You get used to saying no to plans, to friends, to family, to life, to yourself. And every time you try to say ‘I can do this,’ then, you know, your leukemia, it says ‘no…no, you can’t.’ And your doctors advise you to take it easy, even though you know that were meant for something better.” She then sniffed and shook her head, as a calm smile grew on her face.

“My friend told me about ChiaKombucha. You know, I was skeptical at first, but I’d just had a really bad hiking accident, and I was, I was kinda willing to try anything, you know? And with just one cup at every meal, within a month I began to bleed less. I began to get less dizzy. I started daring myself to do more. I, you’d never believe this–“ here it cut to her scaling a cliffside– “I’m a mountain climber now!”

It then cut to an Asian woman in a white lab coat, text revealing she was “Sarah’s Doctor.”

“I was baffled,” Sarah’s Doctor said.   “I’d never seen anything like it.”

From nowhere, she procured her own glass of ChiaKombucha, which was pale green, with a milky texture, and filled with seeds.

“Now I drink ChiaKombucha every day,” Sarah’s Doctor said, taking a sip.

“Even though ChiaKombucha isn’t FDA regulated,” said a narrator whose voice would have been right at home in a 90’s animated Disney home video advertisement, “it is doctor approved. Just listen to all the professionals raving about the life changing effects of ChiaKombucha!”

A montage followed of vaguely “medical-looking” people, clad in scrubs, hair nets, and masks around their necks, all raising a glass and declaring, “Say ‘yes’ to you!”

“Do not drink ChiaKombucha on rainy nights or before swimming. In such cases positive results cannot be guaranteed,” the narrator said, then added much more boldly: “ChiaKombucha! Say ‘yes’ to you!”

The magic of advertising had given the billboard a synaptic shortcut to the entirety of the television ad in my brain, as I drove to my work in Beverly Hills. ChiaKombucha had recently become a major fad in Los Angeles, on account of the fact that for one, everyone in LA was constantly looking at everyone else in LA and wondering if their best life was one health cleanse away. Plus, it hardly ever rained, so no one paid much mind to the warning labels. There was a rumor that some people had even moved to more arid parts of the nation just to have more nonstop access to the drink.

I pulled off of the 405 and onto Wilshire, flipping through my iPod to find anything catchy enough to purge the ChiaKombucha music from my brain before work.

Working in Beverly Hills was the sort of thing that you talked up to your Midwestern friends when they asked how you were doing and you didn’t have any actual progress on working in the film industry to report. The conversation would go, roughly, “Oh, I work at a video store in Beverly Hills, a lot of rich people and celebrities visit!”

“Y’all ever see Steven Spielberg?”

“Well, no, but Stephen Merchant was there once.”

“Who?”

“Oh, uh, he was in Extras… really funny British actor.” At this point I’d pause and add: “Sometimes Christopher Nolan comes too.”

Then said Midwest friend would explain to me how either The Prestige or Interstellar was their favorite movie. Sometimes to mess with them I’d ask if they’d seen Insomnia. To be fair, neither had I. But at least, you know, I’d heard of it. I’ve been meaning to watch it. It was on my Netflix cue, before it expired. I’ll get around to it.

This was especially problematic given the fact that I did indeed work at an enormous video store, recently built on the corner of Rodeo and Wilshire, after the Boutique market had fallen on, surprisingly, hard times. The store itself, which was called “Hubbard’s,” was enormous, with a large showroom floor, and a mezzanine level that featured soundtracks and listening booths.   The conceit of the shop was combining high-end settings such as the Blaclight Theater in Hollywood with the size and scope of Paramecium Records, which had recently moved from Hollywood to Downtown.

“Got any plans for the holiday weekend?” my friend Donnie said to me as we stocked DVDs on the floor.

“I’m going to visit my grandparents’ place in Calabasas.”

Donnie gave me a look, an incredulous grin.

“You have grandparents in Calabasas? Are they like super rich?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I mean, not like Kardashian rich, but, like, middle of the line Calabasas rich.”

“So pretty rich,” Donnie said.

“They’ve got a nice ranch house,” I said, “and it’s in this really nice neighborhood. Lots of mansions. Great place to go Trick or Treating.”

“Yeah, yeah, Trick or Treating would be fun out there. Lots of Christmas lights now, I’d imagine.”

“Looks horrible in the sun, looks like downtown Branson at night,” I said.

“Branson? I don’t understand.”

“Oh, uh, Branson, Missouri. The Vegas of the Midwest. Looks kind of like Pleasure Island, but with more Hardee’s.”

“That’s right, I know Branson,” Donnie said. “I grew up near Springfield. Just didn’t have the context.”

“My little sister’s coming too,” I said.

“I didn’t know you had a sister.”

“She’s a lot younger than me, so I don’t have as many stories.”

“What’s her name?”

“Amber. She’s fifteen.”

“So like, what, ten years younger?”

“Nine years, yeah. We fought a lot when I was younger, but she’s pretty cool now. My Mom always gets me involved when there’s a conflict because Amber thinks I’m a lot cooler than either of our parents, so, you know, she listens to me.”

“Yeah, my brother was always like that,” Donnie said. “I think that’s why I care too much. Like when we’re working on the floor and everything. I’ve always felt pressure to be the good example.”

“I know what you mean,” I said, and for some reason the ChiaKombucha jingle ran through my head again.

“You hear about this energy drink?” I said. “ChiaKombucha?”

“No,” Donnie said. “Wait, yeah, I have, don’t tell me–it’s that homeopathic thing, right? Miracle fruit?”

“Basically,” I said. “I can’t get the jingle out of my head.”

“I read this study saying people your age are especially susceptible to marketing,” said Donnie, who was only about six years older than me.

“Yeah, except I’m pretty sure my generation’s the one trying to die younger, instead of desperately clinging onto what life we have left.”

“I dunno,” Donnie said. “Feel like, you gotta respect the life you have, and then, like, be ready to let it go.”

“Gonna give a TED talk on that?” I said.

“Screw you,” Donnie said, laughing. “And hey, happy holidays.”

“Yeah, happy holidays, man.” I said.

>>>

For those who have experienced LA in the winter, you know within the same day it can either be 78 degrees or 54 degrees, and both feel much more extreme than they actually are. I laughed as I pulled up to where Amber was waiting by the Arrivals gate at LAX, shivering in shorts and a tank top.

“Do you have any warm clothes with you?”

“I have one sweater and one pair of capris,” she said, a little embarrassed.

“I got some overtime this week,” I said, “I’ll buy you some warm clothes before we get to Grandma and Grandpa’s.”

“Thanks,” she said with a smile, as I helped her with her luggage.

“How’s school?” I said.

“Good, other than Mom and Dad constantly asking if I’ve met any boys. I have, and they’re all either grass-fed bros or anime fans.”

“Careful, Mighty Number Nine lost a whole audience over an insult to anime fans.”

“What’s that?”

“A failed product. But back to school: What’s the best thing about it?”

“I like my teachers,” she said. “I like Miss Epstein, our health teacher. She actually gives a crap about the class and goes into great detail about what wellness and health are.”

“You’re in LA now, you can say ‘shit.’ I won’t tell Mom and Dad,” I said.

“Sure that’s wise?” Amber said. “We’re about to be spending a weekend with the G’s.”

“Oh, darn,” I said, in a Minnesotan accent. “Oh lands sakes, no cursing in Calabasas unless someone runs a four way stop!”

We laughed as we pulled away from the gate.

“But you like your health class? That’s so unusual,” I said.

“I don’t know, I guess I found it inspiring. So many people back home either live very unhealthy lives, or are about health only in terms of how it can make you look, or what it can get you. But I’d really like to feel better.”

“That’s awesome,” I said. “Honestly I look forward to the day I can be intentional about health. Right now I just count all my running around at work as exercise.”

“I count eating healthy food as exercise,” Amber said with a laugh.

We chatted more as we drove to pick up a beanie and some other cold weather wear. Grandma and Grandpa refused to turn on the heat in their house, and for that reason it was always cold as ice. Best to be prepared, I explained.

<<<

Dinner was ready by the time we arrived. Grandma Westinghouse was setting the table, and Grandpa was off in the study, studying a deposition. Law wasn’t my thing, but Grandpa’s understanding of the legalities of the film industry was a nice boon out here.

“They’re all sharks,” Grandpa had said one time, “beasts on the inside, these other lawyers. And you have to keep the beast within you at bay, even as you fight the beast they’ve given in to. At the end of day, it’s about how much of the board you see, and how quickly you can put that knowledge into practice.”

“Anything I can help you with, Grandma?” Amber said.

“Yes,” Grandma said, “actually I have a very special task for you, dear. Would you mind fetching the ChiaKombucha?”

I shot Grandma a look. “Not you too,” I said.

“Oh, come on, now, that isn’t fair,” Grandma said. “You really must try it!”

We were pulling up our chairs at this moment, and while it was a familiar moment, even a normally warm moment–we joined hands and said grace, Grandpa cooed an “ah-men” at the end in that way that made you feel warm and safe and fuzzy–I felt an sense of dread.

It centered on the drink that was being poured at the table.

Don’t drink the ChiaKombucha, my mind’s voice, that part of the brain we attribute to conscience and intuition, said with a horrific firmness.

Amber tilted the bottle to pour it into my cup.

“Hey, this stuff’s expensive,” I said, “and I’m actually allergic to it. Mind pouring me a Diet Coke instead?”

“That stuff’ll kill you,” Grandpa said.

“Water, then,” I said nervously.

We sat down, our meal before us, a roast chicken that Grandma had prepared.

“Amber, dear, how do you like it?”

“Oh, this chicken is delicious, Grandma!”

“That’s nice,” Grandma said, looking impatient, “but how is the ChiaKombucha? Your mom told us you’ve gotten to be quite the health guru!”

“Oh,” Amber said, “I, uh, yeah, I’m not so much into homeopathic remedies.”

“This isn’t homeopathic, that’s the great thing,” Grandpa said. “This doctor I go to church with drinks it every night. He says it cured his nephew’s tonsillitis.”

“Good for him,” I said with an ambiguity that I hope they didn’t attribute correctly as sassiness.

“So give it a try,” Grandpa said.

“You sure that’s wise?” I said. “I hear it’s going to rain tonight, and there’s some sort of warning about having it on a rainy night.”

“Limits liability,” Grandpa said. “Besides, it never rains out here. It’s only if you step into the rain. My understanding is you get a bit of a rash, maybe some excitability.”

“Excitability?” I said. “Like, it affects your mood?”

“Harmless.” Grandpa said. “Give it a try!”

“Only if you want,” I said quietly to Amber.

Amber looked at me, shrugged, and took a sip.

She winced.

“It’s a little milky,” she said.

“You have to get used to it, for sure,” Grandma said. “But trust me, it really grows on you! It’s like sushi.”

It was nothing like sushi. Sushi was FDA regulated.

“Hey, uh, so, what’s been new in you guys’ lives?” I asked, desperately wanting to hear of anything other than the drink.

“Wonderful–heavenly,” Grandpa said, putting his hand on Grandma’s. “We’ve been hiking every day, even take our bikes out for a spin every now and then.”

“That’s awesome,” I said, happy that they were staying active.

“For a while we were worried our age would keep us from doing what we wanted to do,” Grandma said. “You know, when you get to be this age, there’s always a risk that each fall will make your life exponentially harder.”

“Then a friend from church mentioned ChiaKombucha at golf one day,” Grandpa added. “Now we’re living our seventies the way we should have lived our teens.”

I took out my phone.

“You young people,” Grandma said, “always on your devices. What, does it do something Grandma doesn’t?”

I texted Amber:

My god, it’s like a walking commercial.

With all the ribbing I was getting, though, Amber was too nervous to check her phone.

“I’m getting pretty tired,” I said. “Will I be sleeping in the living room?”

“Oh, um,” Grandma said, shooting Grandpa a look. “Actually, do you mind sharing a room with your sister?”

I was quiet a moment, confused.

Finally: “Why?” I said.

“We’ll be having cleaners come in tomorrow, to shampoo the floor, all of that. You can sleep in if you’re in a room. There’s two twin beds, so it won’t be too awkward.”

“All right,” I said, looking at Amber. “If you’re fine with that.”

“Sure,” Amber said, shrugging, trying another sip of the drink.

>>>

I woke up in the middle of the night to a palpable chill. There’s a coldness you can wrap yourself in sheets to escape and then there is a coldness that seems to sneak in under your sheets and crawl into your clothes, like some shapeless, evil force that wants to remind you that you’re helpless. I hated this feeling now because it reminded me of the nightmares I would have as a child, where I would wake up, in what should be the safety of my room, but I could feel a coldness in the corner, watching, staring.

The problem with feeling that as an adult was that I had to take it much more seriously now.

I looked at Amber’s bed, and saw that she was awake, staring at the door, too terrified to say anything.

I could hear snarling, like a restless dog, coming distantly from the other end of the house. It was a ranch, but one that was quite large, with different sets of hallways around a central living room and dining room.

Joints ticklish with fear, I slowly crawled off of the bed and joined Amber in hers.

What is that noise? She whispered.

I don’t know, I whispered back, but let’s pretend we don’t notice it, and hope it goes away. Follow my lead, but don’t look out from the blanket.

Amber had a large, thin, pink blanket that she used to cover her bed. Fortunately it was big enough to throw over us, like a little tent. We both sat upright and cross-legged underneath it, crouching to keep a low silhouette. Despite being occupied by two bodies, the thin blanket did nothing to block out the cold, creeping air.

And then we heard the snarls growing, steps coming towards us.

I quietly put my hand over Amber’s mouth.

Swishing, almost like the trot of paws, came over the hardwood floor. But unlike the paws of a dog, there was palpable weight to the steps.

I heard a giggle come from the direction of the snarls.

Grandma.

I knew now that whatever was happening, we needed to get out of there. But I also knew we’d have to wait for the best moment.

I could hear Grandma and Grandpa whispering back and forth, panting as they did so. I could tell they thought we didn’t know they were there. They were going to try to sneak up on us.

Amber looked at me, her eyes screaming.

I could make out their forms through the sheerness of the blanket. They were hunched, tall, and hairy, but with the brightness of the moon outside the window, even through the parting clouds, I couldn’t make out much more.

I waited, hoping they would simply sniff our sheets and leave.

I realized, then, that they were both standing at the foot of the bed, ready to pounce.

With a loud growl, Grandma tore the blanket from us.

“NOW!” I shouted, not taking a second more to see what fate had befallen my grandparents. With the strength only adrenaline can give, I yanked my sister’s hand and charged out of the room, into the darkness of the hallway, through the living room, and after a panicked fumble with the front door, tumbled onto the front lawn, running until we reached the center of my grandparents’ cul-de-sac.

I felt making a scene was our best friend here.

“Help!” I shouted. “Something is wrong with Grandma and Grandpa!”

I began hitting cars as loud as I could. The ground was shining and slippery–it must have rained earlier. With some relief I saw people stirring in their houses, and began to make my way towards them, still gripping Amber’s arm like a vice.

“What do you think…what was that? Why were Grandma and Grandpa all hairy?” Amber said, in a panic beyond tears. “What happened to them?”

I felt raindrops hit my arm.

I felt Amber wrench her arm out of mine.

The rain picked up, and I wished I wasn’t sure of what it brought with it.

Before my eyes, my sister’s eyes turned yellow and feral, thick, mangy hair grew out of her arms and hands, covering her face, which took on a horrid snoutlike appearance, wrinkled and angry. She began to snarl as her teeth grew longer and sharper, and her ears traveled to form two triangles atop her head. Her feet began to curve like a dog’s hind legs.

I dropped to the ground and grabbed onto her hind leg for all it was worth as she began to run away.

With a howl, she turned and began clawing at my arm. Whether adrenaline or shock, I watched without feeling as my flesh was clawed off of my arm, little by little. I was determined not to let go, but it was raining so heavily that my fingers were too wet to have any real grip, and she yanked free, howling and yelping as she ran into the woods.

I stood up, only to slip and fall back on the wet pavement, skinning my knee.

Clumsily I stood up again, and charged after her, barging through brush to find a large McMansion at the top of the hill beyond, lights on, the bass of music emanating from within. Some hope returned, I ran as fast as I could, even as I nursed my bleeding arm.

The backside of the mansion was mostly glass, a sunroom sitting room, a golden glow in the midst of the dark blue void of the rainy night. I stumbled into the party, drenched and in pain, trying to flag down the partygoers.

A man in a suit stood near the windows, glass in hand, noticed me and motioned to the DJ, who pulled the arm off of the record that was blasting the music.

“Guys, guys,” the DJ said through his mic as he pointed at me, “who the hell is this?”

“Please help,” I gasped, “my sister, something’s wrong with her, she ran this way…”

“Young man,” the suited man in the corner said, in a refined voice that almost sounded British, “nothing to worry about, your sister will be fine.”

“She had ChiaKombucha and got into the rain.”

“Ah,” the suited man said, taking a sip of his own drink, and I noticed with a mounting dread that this too was not wine, but a pale green cocktail of some kind. “Some of us live for that sort of thrill, you know.”

I scanned the room.

They were all drinking the ChiaKombucha.

A crack of thunder, and the DJ set the needle back down, stereos blasting a combination of pipe organ and screamo, as the partygoers laughed and drank, their faces growing snouts and their eyes becoming reflective of the lights.

The suited man himself transformed, his suit becoming too tight for his emaciated, beastly frame. Still he smiled and sipped, or perhaps the smile was just an illusion brought upon by his snout.

The partygoers who were less accustomed to the drink began to pounce upon each other, ripping each other’s throats out, covering the sunroom walls in blood.

Still, no one screamed, only laughter, raucous and rapturous laughter.

I heard the DJ snarl as he climbed over the booth and prepared to pounce. Some adrenaline left within me, I stumbled under him as he leapt. I prepared to defend myself, but another engorged partygoer quickly picked a fight with him, and I watched in horror as the two began to eat each other alive.

The suited man had quite the chuckle at this, and raised a glass towards me, his face now completely lupine.

“A toast!” he shouted, and those who were still somewhat lucid howled back with a “here here!”

Glass held in the air, as other partygoers began their predatory dance of death, the suited man shouted: “To ChiaKombucha! To saying yes to the beast within! All hail the drink! All hail ChiaKombucha!”

“All hail ChiaKombucha!” the partiers screamed.

They downed their glasses to final gulp, and tossed them aside, filling the room with a sound like hail, as the glasses shattered. They all howled, releasing themselves to the beast within, and they were upon each other, each equal parts predator and prey.

Only the suited man remained, and he eyed me with great mirth.

“Sorry about your sister,” he said cheerily, “but worry not, I’m sure she’ll turn up!”

He tore his suit to reveal a hairy chest, with ribs sticking out, and howled with glee.

<<<

“How was your weekend?” Donnie asked, as we stocked DVDs the next way.

I winced a bit, as I shelved An American Werewolf in London.

“Uh,” I said, “my sister went missing. Reacted poorly to the Chia…to that drink. Tore up my arm pretty bad.” I held up my cast.

“You call the police about it?” Donnie said.

“Oh, definitely. They’re looking.”

“What are you doing here, then?” he said.

“Well, I have to work. What else was I going to do?”
“Fair enough,” Donnie said.

We continued stocking for a while in silence.

Donnie cleared his throat.

“So, uh, do those side effects always happen?”

“Just when it rains,” I said. “But never drink the stuff. It, you wouldn’t believe it, something about the drink, it turns people into giant angry dogs, like werewolves almost, but more lucid, less predictable. I saw my sister transform before my eyes, become something less human, soulless almost. All she wanted was blood, and what else I don’t know, but it took her away from me. And my grandparents too.” I laughed, looking for anything to relieve the horror of all I had seen in the past day. “Can you even believe that?”

“Honestly, Sam,” Donnie said, not missing a beat, “nothing really surprises me anymore.”

And with that, the conversation was over.

+++

Samuel Cullado
24 December 2016

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Cerebrum

The swarthy, smartly dressed young woman stood out against the sterile corridors of Building M of Ultrencht Health’s Research and Development compound. Her task, as she had just learned in a briefing with her lawyer the night before, was to synthesize human imagination. Delores Daring, her nametag read, though truthfully she preferred the name Lola, and anyway either name was preferable to her unwanted high school nickname of Double Dee. She was a graduate student, pursuing a career in neurosciences, and while money was certainly a factor, Lola Daring was in it for the discovery. She took a sort of winsome pride in the fact that her name sounded like a Carmen San Diego knock-off, because she felt that she was, like her heroes Picard, Kirk before him, and Nemo before all of them, exploring the unknown frontiers of existence. The final frontier, in Lola’s mind, however, was the human brain. In studying it, she was reminded of Crichton’s The Lost World in the sense that it was almost impossible to truly know the brain in an unbiased manner. Was there anything more reflexive than using one’s mind to study the brain? And if brains could communicate, as some theorized, did one brain considering another affect said brain?

These were the sorts of questions Lola avoided asking at parties, especially medical events. Her fellow students weren’t there to theorize, they were there to schmooze, and more to schmooze they were there to show off what they knew. She recalled Ultrencht’s annual Emerald Gala, where she was subjected to an hour and a half of mutual masturbation in the name of medicine but mostly money. After getting bored of downing champagne, Lola stole away to the corridors of Gambol Central hospital itself, on the pretense of exploring.

It was amidst the fluorescent shadows of the hospital and the echoed slaps of her heels against the linoleum floor that reflected them that she came across Dr. Hollarghast.

“Not much one for parties, are you?” Hollarghast said, sitting on a lounge chair that overlooked the Gambol Campus.

His voice, which was scratchy like a burlap bag, caused Lola to start.

“Sorry if I scared you, Miss Daring,” Hollarghast said. “It’s just that I rarely find good company during these yearly festivals to Mammon.”

He held out his hand to the lounge chair next to him.

“Have a seat,” he said. “It hasn’t yet been tainted by the uninsured, I promise.”

Hollarghast was, by all accounts, a cynical–and depending on whom you asked, odious–man. But he was also universally praised for his talent and innovation. There was a running joke that he basically lived at the hospital these days–after all, he had to prove his worth to them beyond innovation, and he performed this through what most was an addiction to healing surgery. In truth, it was a calculated maintenance of his ReveRevue’s–Ultrencht’s way of monitoring employee value to the company. The Revue’s, as they were called for short, were a measure of how much money every doctor was bringing in for the hospital. You operate on a lot of patients who have cheaply treated disorders, lower revenue. But if you take a handful of bizarre cases…

In this manner, Hollarghast had achieved value both to the company and to himself. It had given him enough sway to whip the boards that made these sorts of decisions to open a research and development unit. The idea, of course, was to innovate more expensive treatments. This was Hollarghast’s gambit, at least. Everyone knew, though, that the man was reincarnation of the Nazi scientist complex, though he was without a morally void Reich, instead opting to work within a morally null company.

Lola considered all of this as she observed Hollarghast now, staring out the windows at the cold, navy blue and orange sunset that only the American North could provide, sucking on all things a lolli from the basket they left for patients in Family Practice.

“What flavor?” Lola said.

“Green Apple,” Hollarghast muttered. “Delightfully sour. I’d have grabbed one if I’d believed myself that you’d come.”

Hollarghast looked like he was a very lively 100 years old, with the physical presence of Eustace from Courage the Cowardly Dog and the darkness and mystery of Keith Richards. Like the former, he wore Transition lenses that seemed to completely obscure his eyes, even indoors with the lights on. His eyes themselves were blue, but so pallid that they almost looked grey.

“If you believed yourself?” Lola said. “I’ve heard legends, Dr. H, but you don’t control fate.”

She wished to assert herself. Notions of gender were changing, but people, especially the older amongst them, still saw the Other as lesser and something to be pushed around. Not Lola Daring, though; she’d make sure of that.

“You are a gifted student,” Hollarghast said. “And I sense you’re looking to test the limits of the brain. Oh, don’t get me wrong, you’re looking to make money, make a name for yourself, save the image of the Brain Surgeon from the flimsy hands of Ben Carson. And you can do that, and you will do that. But, here’s the thing about great minds–they collaborate.”

He took off his glasses, folded them, and put them into the lapel of his white lab coat. Hollarghast had not dressed for the party. He was, ostensibly, on call.

“I read your report on imagination,” Hollarghast continued, pulling up his phone and tapping on the PDF app.

“Specifically it was about the brain’s ability to make manifest certain realities–“

“It was about imagination. Don’t misunderstand me as saying you’re not saying anything new. It’s just that you’ll find greater credibility in the dumbed down macro concept, not the mystifying jargon. Nothing terrifies your competition more than when they can understand everything you’re saying without grasping the whole.”

“So you read my report,” Lola said.

“Yes…” Hollarghast said, “and I wanted to extend a job offer to you.”

“Oh?” Lola said.

“It would require you to work when you’re not on your fellowship. And I can only guarantee twelve dollars an hour, maybe more if you’re resourceful. But I know your studies aren’t cheap. I know your parents can only help you so much.”

“I’m well cared for,” Lola bluffed.

“Mhmm,” Hollarghast said. “Look, I won’t insult you with money. I’ll admit, it’s a title too that’s below your stature. You would be my assistant.”

“You really know how to make a hard sell,” Lola muttered.

“I’m not a salesman, Miss Daring. I’m a scientist who moonlights as a surgeon. And with my recommendation, you can do the same on your terms, and even experience something that will give your passion something to feast on in the meantime.”

“What are you doing that you need an assistant for.”

“Regardless of whether or not you take the job,” Hollarghast said, “I’ll need you to sign an NDA before I can tell you…Ultrencht’s rules, not mine. Probably for the best, even in my bitter, cynical state, if I wasn’t legally obliged to keep my mouth shut about this, I’d probably be telling all of your underperforming classmates that we are synthesizing the very thing they lack.”

He gave her a look, as though this was ample information, mixed with concern that she might still not be picking up on his drift.

“And they don’t lack skill,” he added.

Lola laughed. “All right, Dr. Hollarghast, I am intrigued. I will not be signing anything tonight, but might I meet you in your office sometime soon to discuss terms?”

“Yes,” Hollarghast said, almost growling with glee. “In fact, any time tomorrow afternoon–my office hours are 3 to 5– if that is not too early.”

“If I decide upon it, I will be arriving during the four o’clock hour,” Lola said.

“Don’t keep me waiting, Miss Daring,” Dr. Hollarghast said.

“Don’t tell me what I will do,” Lola said with a smile, and walked away.

She thought she heard him mutter, “I don’t have to,” as she left, but she hoped she was imagining that. She had, in her mind, already made up her mind in the negative. She would sooner work at Sandwich Station than work for Benjamin Hollarghast.

>>>

That night, Lola had a nightmare.

The nightmare began, if she could recall properly, on her bed, but she was stunned to find her bed was in the midst of the cosmos, all around was blackness, but there was a nebula in the distance, purple and wispy. The bed itself was swinging around a single, white planet, rapidly. As her bed spun around to face the planet, she discovered it was in fact a giant eye, green like hers. She screamed as her bed sped into the eye itself, enveloped in the black pupil.

Lola awoke to find herself in her room, and in retrospect chided herself for not noticing the geometry was all wrong. She stood out of her bed and stumbled to her bathroom. Now, in real life, she lived in a 1-bedroom apartment, with a bathroom adjacent to her bedroom. But this journey to the bathroom entailed a long corridor, decked out with purple wallpaper, with a strange featherlike design from floor to ceiling. She remembered wondering who designed this house to have a long hallway with a bathroom at the end. It didn’t seem practical.

Still, she finally made it, opened the bathroom door, and hastily turned on the lights.

She was startled by the immediacy of how bright the lights were, but she was even more startled by her reflection in the mirror.

Her bangs were breathing.

She parted them to find her forehead itself was expanding, then watched with astonishment as her skull itself opened, revealing not a brain, but an endless deluge of eyes, all kinds of colours this time, floating to the ceiling and popping like bubbles, leaving a grayish pink stain on the ceiling each time they popped. Each stain looked like human in an old medieval relief, complete with grotesque, pained expression.

She screamed and woke up.

<<<

To her own surprise, Lola found herself at Dr. Hollarghast’s office the next day, at 4pm.

She was less surprised to find Hollarghast was out.

“He’ll be back soon,” his office manager, Gilles, said, frustrated. “I’ve texted him. And he’s not fully scrubbed in, but he’s consulting on a surgery. Just have a seat in his office in the meantime.”

“Will he be okay with that?”

“Yeah, he told me to make an exception with you.”

“Hey, I’m gonna be working pretty closely with this guy, if I agree to his offer,” Lola said. “You’re his office manager. What’s it like working with the guy?”

Gilles rubbed his hands, almost as though he was washing them of the matter, and said, “It’s great experience. A year of this and I can go anywhere.”

“Right, but what’s he like as–”

“It’s hospital work,” Gilles said abruptly. “Your work follows you home and you can either handle it or you can’t. A lot of people can’t handle Dr. H. But if you can, then he’ll respect you. And that counts for something. But if you think I’m going to stand here and waste my time telling you why not to work for him, then you really are quite foolish. He works for Ultrencht, I work for Ultrencht, and in a way it’s my job to rat on him to them. Not to you. And trust me, we’re watching you as much as him. Now have a seat, won’t you?”

Lola nodded, a bit dumbfounded, and made her way into the office, checking the reflection of one of Hollarghast’s awards to make sure Gilles was leaving. Almost out of principle, she did not have a seat.

Instead, she dug through Hollarghast’s bookshelf, which was extensive. Various volumes stood out to her. Of course, there were old standbys, books on surgery that he was more likely to possess because he’d had them as a student himself in the days before EBay, textbooks that could not be sold anyway because they were out of date a mere month after publication. Then there were more colorful volumes, such as Anton Szandor LaVey, as well as an odd-looking book labeled “Codex Gigas.” There were also more recognizable and less esoteric volumes, such as Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and a book called The Six Dares of Saligamus. Dr. Yvonne Drummond’s book, The Corridors of the Subconscious, stood out to her. She wondered if there might be any interpretation of her dream, then considered that Drummond had gone mysteriously missing following a quickly-hushed scandal at the college she taught at, so perhaps not the most credible source.

“Curiosity!” she heard Hollarghast hiss behind her.   “The catalyst of the creator’s mind.”

She was startled, but she hid it. She slid Drummond’s book back into its place.

“Love your books, Doctor,” she said, and indicated A Wrinkle in Time. “See yourself in Charles Wallace?”

Hollarghast chuckled.

“Miss Daring, I don’t see myself in anything I read. Helps me stay objective.   I do, however, see much of myself in you. To the point where whenever I see, you, I get the first two lines of ‘I am the Walrus’ stuck on my head in a loop.”

He took a seat at his desk, which was surrounded by various chachkis. Notably there was a picture of a woman, but it was old, and Lola was unsure if it was a lover or a relative. Everything else seemed designed to suggest Hollarghast spent his time going to various exotic locals and purchasing souvenirs that looked “authentic.” Whatever that meant.

“I considered your offer,” Lola said. “And I’ve decided to accept.”

“Excellent,” Hollarghast said, “I have the papers right here–“

“However,” Lola continued, “I accept on the condition that every question I ask, you must answer. Even if you think it’s a stupid question. Even if it’s ‘classified.’ I am your assistant; I can do my work best if I know. And if we really are innovating, there’s a lot I’ll be asking about.”

Hollarghast stared at her, the corner of his mouth curling ever so slightly.

“Yes, Miss Daring, absolutely. That won’t be a problem whatsoever.”

“Good.”

“So you are ready to sign, then?” he said.

“Not yet,” Daring said. “I want to have my lawyer look over this paperwork first.”

Hollarghast nodded.

“Of course,” he said. “We couldn’t possibly have you working in an abusive condition.”

“Finally,” Lola said, feeling some anger mounting within her chest, “you will not speak to me in that way. You will speak to me as an equal.”

Hollarghast narrowed his eyes.

“I cannot agree to that,” he said. “For I see none as my equal.”

“Fair enough,” Lola said. “On some abstract level I do respect that. Doesn’t make you a good person.”

“I’m not,” Hollarghast said, as she began to leave. “Don’t ever see me as one who claims to be.”

She nodded. “If everything looks good to my lawyer, when do I start?” she said.

“Monday,” Hollarghast said, checking his copy of The Corridors of the Subconscious, as if she might have left something in it. “9 AM. Arrive at 8 so that you have time for decontamination.” He sighed, snapped the book shut, and set it on his desk. “Miss Daring, I can never promise any good intent, I cannot promise that I appreciate or care for morality, I cannot claim any fealty to ethics. But know that I am speaking in earnest when I say whatever work you choose to do will be most appreciated.”

She nodded, and left. But she found it oddly endearing.

 

EXPERIMENT 1

 

It was this series of events that led to the swarthy, smartly dressed young woman finding herself within the sterile corridors of Building M of Ultrencht Health’s Research and Development compound. From the exterior it had looked almost like a crate one might find on a barge, but its interior led to a stairway guarded by a lone security guard, his tag reading “Francisco J.” Francisco looked at Lola’s badge, nodded, and pressed a button unlocking a vault door at the foot of the stairway.

Upon entering the compound Lola was reminded of another Crichton book, The Andromeda Strain. Facility M was similarly labyrinthine, and “samey” as one might say. The only thing delineating one hallway from another was lettering and numbering. For instance, the exit stairway led to ring A1 of the facility. Lola assumed that this was the largest ring and she would be working further inward as she gained more clearance, but without a map it was hard to be sure. This was certainly a building designed for the left-brained, and Lola was glad to have become so adept at masquerading as one who was left-brained, living within the trance created by another.

The compound, Lola soon learned, did indeed work further inwards, and was in fact in the shape of a spiral, with “spokes;” that is, hallways connecting each layer. Her freedom to roam was limited, as if you went too far in, bland-looking men with sunglasses were quick to kindly ask you to turn around.

“Well, thank goodness this isn’t a test of problem solving skills,” Hollarghast said, when Lola finally arrived, ten minutes late, and everyone laughed. There were five test subjects sitting in a circle with him, and he had an empty seat open for Lola.

“Now, we’ve all signed our NDA’s, and my assistant finally figured out how to navigate a spiral,” Hollarghast said. “Let’s get down to the meat and potatoes of why we are here. Ultrencht Health Systems has found a way to synthesize imagination, and is looking to test its effects. We hypothesize that the potential for imagination may be much greater than simply looking at the world in a different way. Maybe the reason we cannot study a system without affecting it is because our minds are constantly changing the world.”

He looked around, and with a condescending grin simplified his statement:

“By that I mean, our imaginations don’t just adjust reality, they create it.”

Hollarghast pulled out a remote and pressed a button, lowering a projection board over one of the observation windows.

“Everyone, meet Cerebrum, our own synthetic imagination program. Now, don’t be alarmed, I’ve engaged in a little bit of theatrics, but I can assure you this is not what the machine actually looks like.

He opened a PowerPoint presentation and flipped to a slide showing a brain with two eyes attached.

Everyone laughed, except for Lola, who felt unexplainably ill. It was not the same as the image that she had seen in her dream, and yet the eyes, particularly fullness of the ones attached to this brain, reminded her so much of the ones that had floated out of her head. Moreso, the eyes in her dream…well, there had been no brain there, had there been? The absence made it all more ominous, if the brain was not in her head, where had it been in the dream? What was her mind trying to show her?

She brushed these questions off, as she didn’t want to miss Hollarghast’s explanation of the program.

“Now,” Hollarghast said, “Your purpose in this experiment is twofold. A, we just want to see how the layman handles an SI–Synthetic Imagination. AI was already taken, naturally. Secondly, though, you all get to give input. You are all “creatives”–one a musician, one a comedian, one a photographer, one a dancer, one a painter, one a…no, I guess that’s everyone. My point, anyway, is that you each represent pillars of the right-brained community. Of course, we’ve given Cerebrum a functioning left-brain as well, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to control it, but it’s a normal processor, like any other computer. That’s the control of our experiment. The right brain of Cerebrum is the variable. And you all get to be a part of the experiment to test it. Any questions before we move on?”

The photographer, nametag reading “Jordan,” raised his hand.

“Yes, Mister Zaphon?”

“What’s the right brain of Cerebrum made of?”

“Organic stem cells,” Hollarghast said. “A miracle of science, to be sure. Not to be taken lightly.”

Zaphon nodded, satisfied with the answer.
“All right, then,” Hollarghast said, and he handed a clipboard with a thick stack of papers on it to Lola, “without further ado, it’s time for Experiment 1.”

Experiment 1 lasted for a week, and would turn out to be everyone’s favorite experiment, though Lola would soon discover this might not be saying much. However, the experience itself was a marvel nonetheless.

The subjects were given a cap of sorts that was connected to Cerebrum. The first experiment had screens placed over their eyes that showed first person footage of another test subject doing something they were proficient at. So, for instance, the sketch artist experienced the violinist playing Paganini Caprice number 1, and the violinist experienced the sketch artist drawing a detailed ink portrait of a bittersweet child on a rainy day.

The catch was that after they experienced these events, these talents that were outside of their field, cerebrum enabled them to accomplish them on their own. It was exactly imagination, per se, more talent, but Hollarghast felt that this was a very functional finding, something to tell shareholders about. The findings were exciting and bizarre; the dancer did a standup routine­–and killed. The comedian, man in decent shape, but nothing muscular, performed Ballet en Pointe and was able to do most of a move set from Swan Lake’s “Dance of the Cygnets.” However, physicality was a limitation, something Hollarghast and Lola made note of [later experiment alters comedian’s physiology]. Still, everyone applauded, despite the comedian nearly breaking his ankle and being absolutely out of breath.   They had never seen anything quite like that.

This went on for a week each business day focusing on the results of each individual.

Lola herself played with Cerebrum’s talent programming, and was astonished to find herself drawing not only the picture the artist had drawn, but a rendering of her own nightmare. It wasn’t quite as good as the artist might have drawn it, but it was much better than Lola had ever drawn.

On the third day, Lola pulled Hollarghast aside after the day’s session had ended.

“Dr. Hollarghast,” Lola said, “You’d mentioned Cerebrum was made of stem cells…”

“Yes,” Hollarghast said, and then added sarcastically, “only the best stem cells.”

“Well, I was wondering if I could have a look at it. The Cerebrum Right Brain processor.”

She was expecting him to say no, which is why she asked so early in the experiments, with hopes of persuading him near by the end.

“Yes,” Hollarghast said, “But later, if that’s all right, Miss Daring.”

He was surprisingly polite.

“Yeah,” Lola said, “Just as long as I get to.”

“You most assuredly will,” Hollarghast said. “Good night, Miss Daring, and thank you for your help.”

<<<

That night, Lola dreamt she was in Gambol hospital. It was confusing because she was both a doctor and a patient–two people, two different perspectives, both experienced simultaneously from a first-person point of view. She felt powerless as the patient, confined to her view of the hallway from her gurney. This powerlessness registered in the dream as this awful, ticklish sensation, somewhere around her armpits.   As the doctor she felt this wickedness, this ill intent coursing through her, which registered as chills around her neck. Overall it was a highly discomforting feeling, and because she was both victim and perpetrator she was unable to stop herself from the eventuality that her gurney seemed to be barreling towards at full speed, as pushed by herself.

And that was also disturbing. She couldn’t see her “doctor” face as the patient, and as the doctor she could only see the double door at the end of the hallway that she was intently pushing the bed towards. But she could read the nametag on the white hospital coat of the doctor.

Hello! My name is:

DARIN LOLAN

It was dream brain; that sort of way that your subconscious can never quite form a coherent written word, but it was no matter: it definitely signified her name.

“Stop,” she tried to whisper, but became frustrated when it came out of the doctor’s mouth and not the patient’s, as a loud scream.

As the doctor she took out a surgical mask and tied it around her mouth, but not before taking a large wad of tissue and shoving it into her own mouth, keeping herself, the doctor, from speaking. All of this was seemingly performed without the gurney slowing its journey down the hall. If anything, it was speeding up.

The two red double-doors, blackness behind the windows, grew closer and closer, faster and faster, until they were upon them.

The blackness of the windows gave way to two eyes.

Lola’s eyes.

The dream screamed, all around. The eyes screamed, the walls screamed, the hall screamed, Lola screamed as a patient, finding with horror that her tongue was somehow bound, and Lola screamed as a doctor, choking on her own gag.

And Lola woke up.

 

EXPERIMENT 2

 

“Gloves are off, kiddos,” Hollarghast said. “Not gonna be fun this week. But we’re paying, and we’re paying good.”

They were. The subjects were receiving two thousand dollars per day. It had led to an overwhelmingly chipper attitude the week before, after their initial qualms about what on earth would have a company paying them this much for testing had passed. Now those qualms were resurfacing.

“What exactly are we doing?” the painter, Jordan Zaphon, said.

Hollarghast did not acknowledge him but proceeded to answer. “Who here likes haunted houses?”

The photographer, Aria, held up her hand slowly, grinning, but she looked nervous.

“You can go first, then,” Hollarghast said, “it’s kind of like a haunted house. But much safer. It’s just in your head. And we’ll be all around you to make sure you’re safe. We’ll even have a team of doctors standing by to monitor your vitals, your comfort, etcetera.” Hollarghast motioned to the windows of the room they were in, which of course were mirrored, so it was hard to know how many if any doctors were actually present. “Unfortunately they can’t meet you. Not that they’re too good for you, they just don’t want to interfere with the results of the experiment. Like Crichton’s Lost World.”

“Sick reference,” Lola muttered, in spite of herself.

“What a moment, everyone,” Hollarghast said, “Doctor Daring wants you all to know she caught my reference. Let’s all give her a round of applause.”

Everybody laughed nervously, and clapped, except for the comedian, who looked visibly uncomfortable.

Lola looked at Hollarghast, and mouthed Doctor?

Hollarghast shrugged, and smiled ever so slightly.

Aria was hooked up to cerebrum, and reclined on gurney that Lola told herself looked nothing like the one in last night’s dream.

“All right, Miss Ciela,” Hollarghast said to Aria, “Are you comfortable?”

Aria smiled and gave a thumbs up, her eyes obscured by Cerebrum’s blinders.

“All right, then,” Hollarghast said, “I think it’s time we took you on a tour of frights. My colleagues say I sound a bit like Vincent Price, so in a way I’m the most qualified.”

Everyone laughed again. Hollarghast was acting more genial than usual, and Lola sensed this was not because he was more comfortable with the test subjects. She had met doctors who had worked with the man for almost a decade who still felt a palpable chill when the man was in the room. In a way, his friendliness, which Lola was beginning to suspect was an act, made him all the more unsettling today.

Aria jolted a moment, and everyone shrieked.

Aria giggled, “What’re you guys freaked out about?”

“You just had us going there a moment,” the comedian said.

“The body jolts when cerebrum amplifies its ability to imagine. Essentially the computer has tricked it into dreaming, so the body thinks that it is asleep.

“I feel so funny! It’s a bit like being high,” Aria said, then added: “So my friend tells me.”

Everybody laughed.

“Can you tell us where you are?” Hollarghast said.

“I’m on the shores of an ocean. It’s nighttime. It’s beautiful,” Aria said.

“Go into the water,” Hollarghast said, more quietly.

“How deep?” Aria said.

“Just get your hands wet, hold them in the water, maybe,” Hollarghast said, and then motioned for everyone to join him at the sides of Aria’s gurney.

“Oh, it’s cold!” Aria said.

“Sorry, but keep them there a moment. How does the air feel?”

“Better than in here,” Aria said. “It’s fresh and it’s delightful.”

Everyone gasped.

Aria’s fingers were becoming pruny. They weren’t wet, but they were reacting to being in the water all the same.

“What’s everyone gasping about?” Aria said.

“Your hands are reacting to the water in the dream, the way they would if you got your fingers wet in real life. Your body is bridging the gap between imagination and reality. This moment may be the first observed moment of the human brain creating reality from nothing.”

“What, uh, what else can it do?” Aria said nervously.

“What would you like it to do?” Hollarghast said.

“Um…” Aria clearly had something on her mind, but Hollarghast cut her off.
“I know!” he said, “you should eat some food in the dream and see if it nourishes your body. Imagine the applications.”

“Yeah,” Aria said, “which way is a restaurant?”

“This will be a bit of a jolt,” Hollarghast said, “I’m going to seat you now.”

“Okay,” Aria said, “I’m ready.”

She didn’t sound ready.

Hollarghast turned a dial and Aria screamed, which made everyone else except for the doctor gasp.

“Are you all right, Miss Ciela?” the doctor said.

Aria nodded. “Sorry, just not used to experiencing dream transitions so vividly. I’m at a Rio Bravo Steakhouse.”

“Nice,” one of the other subjects said.

“Feel free to order, I’ve programed servers into this,” Hollarghast said.

He stood up and went to get coffee, and Lola followed.

“Doctor,” Lola said to Hollarghast, “What exactly are we doing today?”

“We’re testing Cerebrum’s ability to communicate with the amygdala,” Hollarghast said, “as well as the prefrontal cortex. You know the phrase ‘perception is reality?’ Of course you do, who doesn’t–” Here he poured himself some more coffee. “–We’ve always taken this to mean people see the world in the way that they imagine it. But what if human perception is powerful enough to alter reality itself? The possibilities would be endless. We could circumvent invasive treatments, cure diseases, save money, abolish money even, or make our own new standard of money. We could do whatever we wanted. Ultrencht hasn’t even considered the full scope of this, mind you. A corporation does not want to fund something that could abolish the notion of funding. They want to fund something that gives them power. But the power of imagination is so raw…it makes the very concept of power seem petty.”

He took a sip, wincing from the heat.

“Anyway, we better get back.”

He heard a scream from the test room.

“Uh oh,” he said, casually.

His attitude could not have been any more different than the scene they were about to discover.

>>>

If one were to look at the documents that explained the events that led to Aria Ciela’s death, one would be surprised not only by the amount of detail they contained, but how little they actually revealed. There were four witnesses, a full vitals monitor, and even a live feed of the input from the Cerebrum program. The case itself was open and shut; she had a pulmonary embolism that led to an unexpected and almost instantaneous death, unrelated to what she was experiencing in the dream.

However, witnesses claimed to have witnessed Miss Ciela struggle with her breathing in her final moments, as well as complaining of an unnerving figure watching her through the windows of the restaurant in the Cerebrum dream, eventually letting itself in through a shadowy emergency exit near the restaurants’ lavatories. Furthermore, this figure matched Ciela’s memory of a home invader she had mentioned during test pre-screenings. She had caught him in her apartment in the weeks prior to the tests, rifling through her things. He had clearly been a robber, but she confessed the notion of home invasion had become a recent fear and obsession of hers. After all, the only valuables he had stolen were her photographs, suggesting he was some sort of obsessed fan with premeditated and prior knowledge of where she lived. Her home, she explained, had always been her haven–or was it heaven? It was hard to catch through the grainy recording of the interview now. But either way that heaven had been violated.

All other test subjects had been quarantined for questioning and mental evaluation followed the events of the test. As the death seemed to have been caused by external factors, the study would continue.

<<<

Lola, like everyone else who had been present for the incident, had to sleep in housing provided by Ultrencht. It was a simple, windowless room, with a squeaky bed, a small side table, and a tube TV in the top corner. Hollarghast explained he had pulled some strings to set Lola up in a call room, which he promised was nicer than the quarters the other test subjects had been given.

Lola could only imagine what their space was like, as she killed a cockroach that had scuttled out from the bedside table. She turned on the TV to a rerun of this old early 1960’s sitcom, Delores and Louise, and fell asleep.

Lola dreamt she was in a tunnel, which looked as though it was made of rusted rock, and the rock was breathing, and the tunnel was breathing. It became more and more narrow, the contractions of the tunnel making it more and more claustrophobic. She was alarmed to find that though the walls contracted like muscle, they were still every bit as hard as the rock of a normal cave. She crawled on all fours, to avoid getting crushed, and quickly made her way through the narrowest part of the tunnel towards a pale light, doing her best not to get crushed.

She thought the cave had the best of her when she popped her head out of its entrance, but was able to successfully slide out before the final contraction. The air was clammy, cool, and misty, and the moon lit the breezy knoll on which she stood.

She looked out over the knoll to behold the bay of a large, glistening lake.

The lake from Aria’s dream.

She was terrified, but knew not where to go, so she headed towards the lake itself, until she was in up to her ankles. It was cold, but not shockingly so, and on any other night the gentle lapping of the waters would have soothed her, but tonight its gentle rhythm took on a much eerier tone, as though it was the calm before some horrid storm.

She heard a deep groan, like the cry of a whale, deep beneath the waters of the bay.

An eye floated to the surface, floating ever so briefly, staring at her before popping in a red mist, like a bubble.

Then another eye.
Then another.

Soon thousands of eyes began to carbonate the surface of the lake, suggesting there was something much bigger in the water, floating to the surface.

She saw a veiny, pink membrane break the water’s surface, right in the center of the moon’s reflection.

And there, an enormous brain, the size of a small yacht, floated to the surface, two eyes attached beneath its frontal lobe.

Lola’s eyes.

Lola blinked, and the eyes blinked as well.

Lola felt dirty concrete beneath her hands.

She had been watching the whole dream up until then on the screen of a tube television, like the one in the call room. She appeared to be in some sort of basement, with no light except that of the television and some external hard drives connected to it, pulsating lights on their posteriors. The television itself was propped on an old wooden dresser with two drawers, the topmost drawer open, revealing a black box with a cord that led to the hat on Lola’s head.

She was connected to cerebrum, or something like it. It wasn’t nearly as state of the art; that was clear, but it was working every bit as functionally. It was around this time in the dream that she realized she was a man, in a man’s body, somehow restrained in this dark basement. Lola lifted her male hands, to discover they were anemically pale. Even the act of lifting them was far too much.

She heard movement in the shadows of the basement, from beneath what looked like the faint outline of a staircase. She could sense there was someone else down here with her, and they were headed towards the television.

The noise, like the swoosh of sweatpants, or maybe slippers on concrete floor, stopped once it had reached the dresser, and went silent for a moment, which was punctuated by the faintest sound of breathing.

The TV cut to a black screen, with flashing white text:

Time to wake up, Lolan.

A shadow of an arm moved in front of the tube TV, switching it off.

And Lola was surrounded by blackness.

She realized her feet still felt wet from the dream of the shore, as she woke up.

She was back in the call room. It was 7:00 AM, and the room was lit by the fluorescent lights of the laboratory halls from underneath the bedroom door.

Her feet were pruny from the lake.

And the television was off.

Lola hastily made for the bedside light, trying to get the twist switch to work, before realizing she needed to turn it towards her.

The room, lit, revealed she was alone.

She looked at the television, and turned it on.

Still reruns.

Must have been a sleep timer, Lola thought to herself, and indeed when she found Doctor Hollarghast, he confirmed this was the case, apologizing for not warning her.

 

EXPERIMENT 3

 

It took a few minutes of sitting for Lola to realize no one else was coming to today’s session.

“Is it just us?” Lola said.

“Apparently,” Hollarghast muttered, wincing at his coffee.

“What do you mean, ‘apparently?’ I thought everyone was pretty much held here against their will at this point. Not really something you can flake out of.”

Hollarghast shrugged. “Should we check on them?”

“Yes,” Lola said, annoyed.

Hollarghast motioned for her to follow him.

“Sleeping all right?” Hollarghast said.

“Just fine,” Lola replied.

Hollarghast nodded. “You don’t have to tell me about it. Just wanted to know. If you do experience nightmares after yesterday’s incident, there’s no shame in consulting therapy.”

“I, uh….yeah, I agree.”

Hollarghast made his way past Quarters 2, the musician’s door, to Quarters 1, where the dancer was staying. They could hear Paganini’s variations playing furiously within, immaculately.

“Didn’t know he was a violinist,” Lola said.

Hollarghast knocked on the door of the first quarters.

“Miss Celeste?”

Silence.

He opened the door to find the quarters completely empty.

“It’s gone,” he said quietly.
“You mean ‘she’?” Lola said. “Also, these are barely big enough to be practice rooms, let alone sleeping quarters.”

Hollarghast made his way to Quarters 2, where the music was coming from.

“Mister Ali, are you all right in there?”

The music stopped.

“Mister Ali, mind if we come in?”

The music began playing again.

“Take that as a ‘yes,’” Hollarghast muttered, procuring a key and opening the door.

Inside was something that mildly resembled the musician. It had legs like a human, it was seated, and it had a torso like a human, a head like a human, and arms like a human.

Notably, though, his neck was open.   It was not gory; there was not a lot of blood. But his vocal chords were visibly exposed, and red from how much activity they had experienced. He had discovered a way to run air through them in a way that simulated the music of a violin.

Attached to his head was Cerebrum.

“My, Mister Ali, what innovations you’ve discovered!” Hollarghast said. “Truly the human voice is the greatest instrument!”

“Does that…does that hurt?” Lola said, quietly.

The musician looked at her and nodded, tears running out of his eyes.

“We’ll leave you to it,” Hollarghast said.

They went to the next room, Lola too dumbfounded to say anything. Anything she might have said was lost upon reaching the comedian’s room.

“Coming in!” Hollarghast said.

They heard a groan of pain.

“Better hurry,” Hollarghast said calmly, opening the door up.

Inside was the comedian, his legs unnaturally muscular, balancing his entire body in a pirouette. He was shirtless, and his vertebrae were notably jutting out.

“Hey guys,” the comedian said, “I had become frustrated with my bad physical shape, so I thought I’d give the ol’ machine a try and see what it could do for me.”

“Should have consulted with us first,” Hollarghast said.

“You can fix this, right?” the comedian said, pointing to his feet, where his toes had fused together.

“Yes!” Hollarghast said, clapping his hands, “and Cerebrum is the key! Have fun.”

“All right, man, but you will fix it, right? This really hurts–”

Hollarghast shut the door.

“Onward!”

Hollarghast didn’t even bother knocking on Quarters 4, and opened it to find the painter sitting in front of a canvas, looking dumbfounded.

“Oh, there it is,” Hollarghast said, pointing to the Cerebrum unit atop the canvas.

Within the canvas was Aubrey Celeste, the dancer, practicing her newly learned standup routine, to the cheers and laughter of a painted audience.

“It’s a new reality,” Zaphon, the painter, said. “I made a new reality. But I don’t know how to get her out. I think she is the new reality. It’s acrylic,” he said blankly. “Saligamus wanted oil. I see him looking through me.”

“Who’s Saligamus?” Lola said, but Hollarghast spoke over her.

“Miss Celeste, can you hear us?” he shouted into the painting.

The dancer looked at them through the canvas, and waved.

“Hey!” the painter said, angrily. “Don’t break the illusion.”

The dancer, looked at him, frightened, and then went back to her routine, and the audience laughed even harder than before. The image was lit like Lautrec’s vision of the Moulin Rouge, and there was something ghoulish about it all.

“Wow,” Hollarghast said, with enthusiasm that was excessive by a half, “this is so cool.”

He walked out and slammed the door shut.

“They’ll be fine,” he said. “They don’t need us anymore.”

Lola was not entirely clear what spell Cerebrum had the subjects under, but she knew she had to destroy it.

“Doctor,” she said, “this is a marvel. Did you build this?”

“In a way,” Hollarghast said.

“Mind if I see it?” Lola said. “I want to admire your creation.”

“Our creation,” Hollarghast said. “Follow me.”

They made their way deeper into the spiral of the research facility.

“What do you mean our,” Lola said.

“Miss Daring, Cerebrum is not yet complete. We come to this little realization every time, and each time you are held back by your fear.”

“Each time?”

Hollarghast continued: “You and I are very much alike, but the primary difference between you and I is what we are willing to live with. It has made me the much smarter of the two of us, despite the larger potential of your own mind. You look at those subjects and see people in pain. I look at them and see notches on the wall between humanity and the cosmos. At the end of the day, though, it’s your perception that makes reality.”

They had reached the spiral’s center.

Hollarghast opened the door with his keycard, and somehow, impossibly, the door opened to reveal a sterile medical hall, with two red double doors and darkness at the end.

“It’s in that room at the end.” Hollarghast said.

“What is it?” Lola said, nervously.

“Humanity is a celestial creature, Miss Daring,” Hollarghast said. “This is why the devil always is so obsessed with them in literature. God was so consumed in self-importance that he created proof of his own obsolescence. Greeks believed Prometheus stole fire from the gods, but the Judeo-Christians and the Satanists know the truth: God snuck the fire to man before he even existed, and he made man forget so he wouldn’t get any wild ideas. And as long as man is man, he will remain ignorant. But if he were to become more…”

Hollarghast paused, and grinned. “Lola Daring. It sounds like bad fiction. It’s so perfect.”

“Can you go with me?” Lola said, nervously.
“I’ve already gone,” Hollarghast said. “This is your journey to make.”

He shut the door between himself and her.

Lola looked at the end of the hall, and against all better will, began her journey down the hall. To record the thoughts that flitted through her head as she made a journey that must have been about five minutes but felt like an hour would fill an entire volume.

Finally, though, she reached red double doors at the end of the hall.

Silence, broken by the whine of the hinges as she trepidatiously entered the darkness.

It was a room different from all others in the compound; dry and dirty, like a well-guarded cellar, concrete all around and presumably no paint.

The only light was a television, a cathode ray tube from the 90’s, perched atop a small wooden dresser. Lola could hear shuffling in the corner and knew she was not alone. It terrified her, but she sensed that to investigate would be madness.

Instead, she opened the top drawer.

Inside was a Cerebrum console, with the name Lolan Darin written on it, over white tape.

Lola put it on.

She watched the screen in horror, as it showed her own brain being removed from her head, connected to the eyes of each of the test subjects, and stored in a jar. The jar, in turn, was connected to a processor, that remotely controlled each of the Cerebrum units.

Cerebrum was her brain.

It had been the whole time.

And whatever had transpired, perhaps even Lola’s entire lifetime, had all happened inside of that brain.

She heard the shuffling growing closer.

Staring at her own brain, inside of a jar inside of a screen, Lola felt all at once helpless and like a god.

She was in a prison of her own mind, with no idea of how to escape.

She watched in horror as countless experiments were performed on infinite test subjects. Sometimes the sessions would last a few weeks, as her memory events had gone, other times they would last for years.

The screen flashed: Text, followed by images of Cerebrum experiments.

Dare 1.

She saw men scream in terror as they spoke all languages at once.

Dare 2.

She saw women whose eyes showed the immensity of how it felt to be powerful and powerless as they used telekinesis to build prisons around themselves with rocks and concrete that they were not strong enough to break free from.

The screen flashed:

Dare 3.

A boy, no older than nine, was able to use Cerebrum to breathe blue fire, incinerating a mouse that had snuck in.

Dare 4.

The mouse, outfitted with a tiny version of Cerebrum, enslaved all of humanity.

The screen flashed once more:

Dare 5.

The cellar again, this time the man from Lola’s dream surrounded by at least twenty duplicates of Lola, each staring at him lovingly.

Dare 6.

The lake once more, but out of the waters surfaced the world, and Lola fell in. All around her were monuments, statues, even currency, with her face on it, and within her face, if you held the currency up to the sun, you could see Cerebrum, the brain in a jar, its twelve eyes staring back at her.

The screen flashed a final time.

Time to wake up, Darin.

The shadowy figure reached out and turned the dial, and all went black.

 

END EXPERIMENTS. RESULTS PENDING.

+++

Samuel Cullado
12 December 2016

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