Return of the Drummer – Part One by Jodi Jensen

“How old’re you, boy?”

Ren gulped. “Eighteen, sir.”

The captain gave him a hard stare. “Try again.”

“Sixt—er, fifteen.” Heart thudding, Ren held the officer’s gaze. “I’m fifteen, sir.”

“And your parents? Where’re they?”

“Dead, sir.”

Nodding, the captain motioned for him to sit, then picked up a pen and held it poised over a piece of paper on his battered desk. “What’s your name, boy?”

Ren perched on the edge of a wobbly chair. “Renzo Marbach, sir. Ren to my friends.”

“Captain Leo Krynick.” The officer’s gaze flickered to Ren. “Kryn to you, and we’re not friends.”

“Yes, sir.”

Kryn frowned. “We don’t use sir or captain or any other identifying form of name. We sure as shit don’t want the enemy to know who’s in charge around here.”

“I understand, sir—er—Kryn.”

“Best get used to it, kid.” The captain went back to scribbling on the paper. “Most of the enlisted don’t live long enough to make friends. Now, what’re you most skilled with? Guns or knives?”

Ren stared at the captain. “Umm, neither.”

Setting the pen down with an exasperated sigh, Kryn ran a hand over his shaved head. “Why’re you here, wasting my time?”

“I have an idea—”

“An idea?” Kryn echoed. An incredulous laugh burst from his mouth. “Hey, Simms,” he yelled, “get in here.”

Ren squirmed in his seat. He needed the captain to hear him out. “Sir, if you’ll just—”

Kryn shot Renzo a hard glare. “I told you, don’t call me that. Unless you wanna get me killed?”

“No, si— Kryn, I mean, that’s not—”

“Shut up,” the captain barked. He pushed away from his desk and stood. “Simms!”

The door flew open and a tall man with pock-marked cheeks appeared, his left hand gripping the arm of a much older, white-haired gentleman.

“Mr Hurley!” Ren jumped up, knocking his chair over.

“You,” Kryn roared, pointing at Ren, “stay!” His furious gaze flew to the men in the doorway. “What the hell is the meaning of this?”

“I found him skulking in the hallway.” Simms shoved the older man into the room, then took up a rigid stance behind him.

Ren cleared his throat. “Kryn, if you’ll let me—”

“Thought I told you to shut it, kid.” The captain’s eyes never left the older man. “Hurley, huh? What the fuck are you doing in my camp, Hurley?”

The old man didn’t so much as flinch. “I—we…”—his gaze darted to Ren, then returned to Kryn—“came to help you turn the tide in this war.”

“Is that right?” Kryn strolled away from the bulky desk, hands clasped behind his back. “And how, exactly, do you plan to do that?”

“With dr—”

“Think before you speak, Hurley.” Kryn whipped out a knife and held it to the old man’s throat. “Under my authority, traitors and rebels are executed on the spot.”

Ren gasped, but Mr. Hurley glanced at him and gave a single, sharp shake of his head, then turned his attention back to the captain.

“As I was about to say, with drummers.”

Kryn lowered the knife a fraction, and an eyebrow popped up. “Drummers? Explain.”

Hurley motioned to Ren’s overturned chair. “May I?”

Keeping his eyes glued to the old man, Kryn shrugged. “By all means.”

At Hurley’s nod, Ren hurried to right the chair. “Careful, it’s rickety.”

Once Hurley was seated, Kryn glanced at Simms. One look from the captain and the tall man rested his hands on the old man’s shoulders.

Ren frowned at the tension thrumming through the room. He didn’t like the way that Simms guy was looming over Hurley.

“Any day now,” Kryn snapped. “Or would you like a cup of tea, too?”

Hurley snorted in amusement. “Though I wouldn’t turn it down, I’ll get right to the point—”

“About damn time,” Simms muttered.

“I was a history professor, back in the day,” Hurley began. “I specialized in the American Revolutionary and Civil wars.”

Kryn leaned against his desk, arms folded across his chest. “Go on.”

“In those wars, drummers were used to rally troops and relay commands through rudiments or beats,” Hurley said, stroking his white beard. “I propose using drummers to send coded messages between squadrons—messages the enemy can’t decode.”

“Interesting.” Kryn glanced at Ren. “And you? You’re a drummer?”

“Yes—that and more.”

“More?” Kryn arched an eyebrow.

Ren grinned, his excitement building. “I’m the second part of the plan.”


For most of Renzo’s life, war had consumed the world. He’d been luckier than most, born to educated parents and living in one of the last pockets of civilization, until a year ago. For the majority of his childhood, he’d watched the bombings on broadscreens positioned throughout the city. He’d seen the systematic destruction of other cities, districts, and countries all over the world. By the time he was ten, the final bits of technology had either been destroyed or fallen into disrepair, and the broadscreens had all gone dark.

Last year, his hometown had come under attack. The few remaining troops had arrived too late, and the city had fallen. They had killed most of the adults and boys and taken the young girls captive for breeding by a mutant race of humanoids from O’qwedia, a species whose planet had died, forcing them to seek a new home.

As a child, he’d learned of O’qwedia’s history, of the fleeing citizens known as Qweds, and how their ships had crossed through a toxic wormhole in their quest for a safe harbor in a different solar system. By the time the Qweds reached Earth, the toxins from space had damaged their bodies and degenerated their minds.

The scientists on Earth had uncovered their tragedy from recovered data on their ships and tried to help the ill-fated travelers, only to realize that once begun, the mutations could not be stopped. Eventually, all logic and reason had vanished from the minds of the Qweds, and the attacks had started.

With their mutated bodies far bigger and stronger, and no moral compass in their decaying minds to guide them, the alien race was on the verge of winning the war against Earth.

After Ren’s parents had been killed, his father’s longtime friend, Edward Hurley, had looked after Ren. Together they’d hatched a plan to give the remaining troops a much-needed advantage. A ‘Hail-Mary’, Hurley had called it.

Now, as Ren lay on his cot in a shared tent near the frontline, he couldn’t wrap his mind around how bad things really were. It was one thing to learn about the war through filtered information; quite another to see it firsthand.

He turned on his side and saw Hurley was still awake too, and staring at the brown canvas ceiling. “You think it’ll work?”

“I do. Why else would we be here?” Hurley’s gaze shifted to Ren. “You sure you’re up for this?”

“Yep, as long as you’re the one doing the programming. I trust you.”

Hurley swung his legs over the side of his cot. “Let’s get to work.”

For the next few hours, Ren helped unpack and set up the decades-old network of computers. “I’ve never seen anything like this.” He stepped back to survey the row of laptops. “They’re so… big and bulky.” His mom’d had a computer for work, but it was nothing like these. Hers had been a pair of glasses, and when she put them on, they projected a 3D image in front of her that she interacted with using vocal commands and responses. “You even know how to use these things?”

“Back in the day, these were cutting edge.” Hurley grinned as he tapped away on an outdated keyboard. “I had one exactly like this, used it for everything: lesson plans, research, and even had a dating app.”

“A dating app?” Curious, Ren raised an eyebrow as he leaned in for a closer look at one of the machines. “What’s a dating app?”

Hurley laughed. “Never you mind. We don’t have time for that, anyway. Hand me that case over there, would you? The metal one.”

Following Hurley’s gaze, Ren retrieved a sturdy silver case. “What’s in here?”

“The chips, I hope.” Hurley fiddled with the latch but couldn’t get it open.

“Want me to try?” Ren offered.

“Knock yourself out.” Getting out of his seat, Hurley pointed to a small metal piece. “It’s supposed to slide to the left.”

“It’s locked, kid. You need a key.”

Startled by the intrusion, Ren looked up from the case and eyed Kryn, standing half-in and half-out of the tent. “You have it?”

The captain strode closer, key in hand. But instead of handing it over, he unlocked the case, then stuffed the key back in his pocket. “Careful with those, they’re all that’s left.”

Ren’s gaze slid to the contents. Two rows of gleaming metal syringes lined the inside cover while half a dozen clear square containers held what looked like colored rice. He picked one up and opened it. “These are chips?”

Picking up a second container, Hurley grinned. “They’re the injectable kind.”

“And these’ll work for us?” Ren eyed Kryn.

“Don’t look at me,” the captain motioned to Hurley, “he’s the one who’s got to modify them.”

“I’m not modifying the chip, per se, more like the information on it. When scanned, the microchip emits a radio frequency, and the scanner reads the code.” Hurley glanced at Kryn with a raised eyebrow. “You’ve got a scanner?”

“Six of them,” Kryn replied. “We store those separately.”

“Good, good. I’m going to need those right away.” Hurley picked up one of the tiny chips and held it between his fingers. “What I’m planning to do is modify the scanner to input and read new codes. We’ll be able to use those codes to instruct the drummers which rudiment to play and translate messages between squadrons.”

Ren scratched his head as he studied the container in his hand. “But how do the chips get the codes?”

“Ah.” Hurley grinned. “These little babies pick up vibrations. That’s why we’re implanting them into the arm of each drummer.”

“You two have twenty-four hours to reprogram the scanners.” Kryn glanced at his watch. “Make that twenty-three. Squadron leaders and drummers report here at fourteen hundred hours tomorrow for briefing and implantation.”

“We’ll be ready,” Hurley assured the captain.

Kryn gave a sharp nod. “You better be. I’ll have Simms drop off the scanners.” With that, he ducked out of the tent.

Turning to the row of old laptops, Ren rubbed the back of his neck, then gave Hurley a sidelong glance. “I hope this works.”


“Will it hurt?” Renzo eyed the injector as Hurley loaded it with the chip. The wicked looking needle was several inches long with an angled, sharpened tip.

Hurley shrugged, his focus on readying everything for implantation. “You see the size of this thing? Of course, it’s going to hurt. But you’ll be making history…if that makes you feel any better?”

Despite his best efforts to appear tough, Ren shuddered. “No, it doesn’t.” He rolled up his sleeve, then squeezed his eyes shut. “Just get it over wi— Ouch!”

Hurley chuckled. “Done.”

Scowling, Ren rubbed his arm. “That’s it though, right? It’s not going to hurt now it’s in?”

“Not at all,” Hurley assured him. “In fact, you’ll likely forget it’s even there. Grab your drum, let’s test this thing out.”

Ren unpacked his snare drum, harnessed it to his chest, and picked up his drumsticks. At Hurley’s nod, he played a simple single stroke roll.

Scanner in hand, Hurley’s face lit up in a victorious grin. “It’s working! It picks up the vibration just fine. Now all we have to do is input each of our rudiments, along with the corresponding commands.”

“What can I do to help?” Ren moved to peek at the row of laptops as Hurley began tapping away on the first one.

“I’ll have you play each rudiment,” Hurley said without looking up. “I’m setting this to record.” He touched the screen, then glanced at Ren. “Ready?”

Stepping back, Ren nodded. “Ready.”

Jodi Jensen

Jodi Jensen

Jodi Jensen grew up moving from California, to Massachusetts, and a few other places in between, before finally settling in Utah at the ripe old age of nine. The nomadic life fed her sense of adventure as a child and the wanderlust continues to this day. With a passion for old cemeteries, historical buildings and sweeping sagas of days gone by, it was only natural she’d dream of time traveling to all the places that sparked her imagination.

Insanity Ignites by Jasiah Witkofsky

The Jesuits were vicious in their pursuit of any they decreed heathens or heretical—especially witches. When a victim was determined to be guilty of paganism or satanic underminings of the Church, they were abducted by the ecclesiastical division and tortured inhumanely until a confession was procured, or they perished from their tribulations. The form their execution took was typically live incineration while tied to a stake, and the blame, more often than not, fell upon the women. This horrific death was displayed to the general populace for two reasons: to entertain the masses while simultaneously warning the public what could befall anyone who transgressed religiously against the powers that be.

This night, an alchemist, an epileptic woman, and a young monk caught inside a nunnery were dragged before a raucous audience of townsfolk, eager for this week’s highlighted festivity. As the trio of offenders were tied to individual pine posts, each of the sentenced enacted specific reactions for their grievances against the Church. The monk, charged with possession by an incubus, wept and pleaded with his captors, his confessions and promises to do better in life fell upon deaf ears. The elderly scientist, resigned to his fate, stood with stoic acceptance as he was bound in place before the jeering spectators. The hapless woman shrieked into the night, spitting curses at all involved, beneath her wild hair, struggling futilely to escape the ropes that held her secure.

Laborers stacked dried hay, brambles, and tinder about the feet of the transgressors before a hooded man bearing a torch passed down the row, lighting each pyre. Foul, resinous smoke tore at the lungs of the incapacitated and wafted into the eyes of the onlookers, some of whom were already shedding tears of grief.

As small jets of fire began to lick their way upward, sister flames started to creep forth from neighboring bits of flammable materials, joining into an ever-larger series of blazes. Before the flickering yellow and red illumination contacted its victims, the radiant heat began to force horrific screams from the three tortured souls, boiling their blood from the bottom up.

Larger rounds of wood continued to be stacked at the bases, creating outright infernos. The linear trinity of growing flames erupted a frenzy from the crowd, who chanted “Burn! Burn! Burn!” On cue, the clothing, oils, and body fat of the living candles sizzled into volatile bursts; wood and flesh made one by the obscene heat, and the lapping flames arising to seek further air and fuel. The stink of burnt humanity cloyed the atmosphere—not the savory aromas of a well-seasoned barbeque, but the odious reek of singed hair and soured gristle. Skin boiled, peeled, and bubbled, revealing the blackening skeletal structure and oozing the toxic contents of the organs as the bodies became ashes that drifted upon the heads of the dusted viewers.

Dolores Llorenc, cowled in a night-purple cloak, turned away from the gruesome scene, clutching her rosary tight as her partner, Jerome, raised a cloth over his large beak of a nose and watched the proceedings with narrowed eyes. Well removed from the gawkers and fanatics, the two roguish figures—the Pistollera and saber-wielding Cinquedea—moved along after watching some of the most atrocious acts mankind enacted upon each other.

After several turns down the avenues of the Florentine sister-city, Dolores’s knees became shaky and she crumpled upon the street, overwhelmed by the death sentences she’d just witnessed. Rushing to her side, Jerome lifted the small, athletic woman to her feet, worried about her sudden moment of weakness.

“Madame Pistollera! Be you well? What ails one of such fortitude and stamina?”

“Why, Jerome, why? The son of God would never set another upon the pyre.” She shuddered from the core of her being, unleashing the torment of her soul to her trusted confidante.

“Bah. This is why I do not align with any institution, save my loyal band of Cinquedeas, ragazza. They’ve all become corrupted with time by the insidious efforts of weak and greedy men.” Jerome spat upon the ground, sneering.

Dolores stared wide-eyed at her friend. “Jerome, such speech will get you thrown upon the fire yourself. You best watch what you say here.”

Jerome guffawed. “I have survived well enough thus far. Now let us go get a drink and dwell not on what we can’t fix, Madame.”


Dolores Llorenc strolled through the pleasant Tuscan markets, separated from Jerome and his Crimson Cinquedea gang, who were off engaging in their own individual affairs. Comparing the prices and exotic wares with the market values of her hometown of Genoa was an interest for the woman born in Barcelona, for trade and economics made up a sizable portion of her odd jobs, missions, and illicit endeavors. Purchasing a bread loaf and a fine vintage from a local winery, Dolores sauntered back to the temporary residence she inhabited with the Cinquedeas.

Along the return journey, Dolores was interrupted midstride by her name being called from a nearby side street.

“Dolores! Is that really you? I thought I beheld you some nights previous.”

Turning to the sound of the familiar, but unnamed voice, the Pistollera brought her hand beneath her cape to cup the pommel of her thin poignard, having left her namesake firearm in the care of Jerome. Looking down the corridor, she spotted the figure of a robed woman slowly lowering her hood.

“Juliette DiBruno? I pray my eyes do not deceive me. It has been an age. How are you my sister of another faith.” Dolores spread her arms, welcoming into her embraces this wonderfully unexpected visitor from the past.

Juliette shook her honey-brown tresses free from the confines of her thick robe and held Dolores with the serious gaze of her jade-green eyes. “I wish I could say all is well, but that would be far from the truth. Here, follow me, if you can spare the time, and I will carry your basket for you.”

The coarse robed woman led the Pistollera down the alleyways as she relayed the recent events that troubled her so grievously. “I wish I brought tidings of more fortuitous words that match this beautiful day…but alas, the Gods have darker portents.

“One of my colleagues, Sister Narcissus, was summoned some days past to ease the birthing of a merchant prince’s daughters. The babe breached sideways, and his life never started, but our Sister was able to save the mother. This service was found unsatisfactory by the birther’s father, wishing to have his lineage carried on by a strong litter of his progeny, hence, he accused the midwife of foul play with the Devil’s aid, and our invaluable congregant was taken into custody by the authorities.”

Juliette drew a shuddering breath, bracing herself to continue her tale of woe. “Our fellow Sister has been deemed guilty of idolatry and heathenry by the Church, and is sentenced to burn at the end of the week. The limited resources and lack of influence within this township renders our best interests ineffective against the authorities who hold sway over the law and popular opinion. Despite the endless centuries of our collected wisdom, my coven finds itself at a loss as to how to free our cherished comrade from the clutches of those who claim her goodwill and altruism as a mark of evil. That is why I seek your advice and assistance, Dolores. You once asked the same of myself, and maybe it seems uncouth or underhanded that I do likewise, but I ask, not for my sake, but that of another.”

Dolores brewed over the predicament, and how best to handle the situation in a land unfamiliar and unknown. Swiftly maneuvering the twists and turns of the Tuscan streets, Dolores led the Strega practitioner back to her place of residence. Turning to her friend, Dolores addressed the pagan.

“This is where I dwell for the time being, would you join me? You are most welcome to stay.”

Juliette handed the breadbasket over to the Pistollera. “Grazie, but I have good reason not to trust this town, and so I will shelter with my Sisters in the nearby woods.”

“Then meet me here on Thursday night,” Dolores implored. “I shall gather my ranks and help to free your comrade. I have seen what happens during these brutal executions, and I will do whatever I can to make sure this does not happen to an undeserving soul.”


A rapid series of knocks upon the apartment’s door brought a dark and dour figure to unlatch the entrance. With a knowing nod, Jerome ushered the Strega inside and led her into a dining hall filled with conspirators in crimson. Men toying with knifes, polishing gun barrels, sharpening blades, and finagling with contraptions completely beyond the conceptual range of Juliette, follower of the old ways.

Most of the men nodded a greeting toward the priestess, the more cultured arose from their seats to bow and politely introduce themselves to the Strega. Some of the faces were familiar to the woman, men who assisted her in a previous time, so she felt comfortable amidst the rowdy band of coarse and crass brigands, eschewing their inclinations towards pranks and mischief to commit their talents and skills to a greater cause, as was apparent by the current diligence of their efforts.

From the balcony, Dolores rushed inside to enthusiastically embrace Juliette, kissing her friend firmly upon the lips to the perked guffaws of the gathered menfolk. Pulling the Sister Strega back out to the balcony, she waved Jerome and one other over to seat themselves at a vantage that overlooks the city.

“Juliette, you already know Jerome.” She gestured to the dark, ugly man swathed in a plethora of scarves and sashes, packing his pipe with tobacco. Dolores turned to the other figure to continue her introductions. “This, is Joseffo Granagio—the alchemist and black powder expert who will be instrumental in the rescue of your Sister.”

The tall man acknowledged Juliette with a polite tilt of his head before turning his attention back to Dolores, the de facto organizer of this rescue mission. The man’s long hair, pulled tight at the nape of his neck, was streaked with the colors of his many experimentations with chemicals and explosives. His brows were irregular, and his fingers stained dark through his constant meddling with volatile substances. Ever serious about his line of work, he relayed to the Pistollera the current state of his endeavors.

“I regret to inform you, Madame, that I will only be able to create two of the ballistae we discussed by tomorrow. There is just not enough time, nor resources to realistically expect anything else. Not to mention the unreliability of said contraptions”

Tiny Dolores flashed her beautiful smile at the explosive’s expert. “You performed better than my wildest expectations, Josef. And now that Juliette is here, I have a slight change of plans…”


The burnings took place at the deep end of dusk, for the flames blazed brightest at night, yet it was not too late to keep the citizenry from continuing about their duties upon the following sunrise.

Three pyres had been prepared, though only one victim was to burn—a show of extravagance and unmistakable power. Whomever controls the flame, the fuel, the fire of a society makes caste and status possible. Those hired worked diligently to set up for the night’s event, as if the brutal torching of a human being was a festival equivalent to the roasting of a Christmas ham.

Nightfall drew ever nearer, and as the streetlights were lit, the guards escorted their prisoner through the wide streets of the main thoroughfare. The midwife, deemed guilty of the unnatural death of a newborn child, walked between the armed men with her shoulders set, but her head gazing solemnly down at the ground before her feet—a paradoxical figure, both humble and proud, as befits the Sisterhood of the Strega.

Upon sight of the heralded witch, the crowds grew thick, drawing forth from the woodworks and stone crevices like vultures to the kill, rats to the bait, moths to the light. Leers and cheers erupted from the gathering audience as Sister Narcissus was strapped to the pillar of the central woodpile. Dozens turned to hundreds. Then more. With the increase in numbers the frenzied state of the mob grew bolder, and members of the crowd raced forward to pelt the witch with refuse and rotten vegetables.

Guardsmen with halberds were forced to put a damper on the people’s antagonism, forcing the audience back from the site of the execution. Two escorts roughly tugged the robed woman’s arms behind her to the wooden pole that would hold her helpless and immobile. When finished binding her in place, the guards descended to form a barrier line dividing the gathered viewers from the prosecuted, as a Jesuit preacher took his place on high to speak as the mouth of God.

“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live! That is why we gather here today, to fulfil this holy decree. A Luciferian taint that has sadly infiltrated every level of our society. It is up to us, the true and ever faithful, to purge the marks of Hell from the pathways of the innocent and the halls of our sanctimonious domains.

“Thus, we all congregate here to witness the righteous wrath of God upon those decrepit souls who seek to torment us and drag the unsuspecting into the clutches of the demonic forces,” the tonsured priest shouted fervently. “So, we fight Hellfire with the Holy Flame of our Lord and Savior!”

The fire and brimstone preacher continued with a litany of Latin prayers and biblical denunciations as a black-hooded torchbearer stalked ominously behind the row of brush piles, igniting unoccupied heaps to the left and right of the focal point. Arcing a half-circle before the bundles of twigs and tinder, tar and timber, the masked death-dealer set alite the central pyre pedestaling the bound Strega.

What appeared to be a rustic Franciscan nun managed to wedge her way through the packed mass of thrashing humanity. Breaching the swarm, the green eyes of the holy woman turned upon the onlookers as she loudly pleaded for their attention.

“Pray! Pray all ye for her soul! All sins can be forgiven, so send your prayers out to one who was once innocent as were we all. One final chance to repent before crossing over the threshold!”

Since the middle conflagration was the last to be ignited, the appendage fires engulfed more swiftly, and when the calico flames reached the heart of the stacked kindling, sparks began to pop into the sky as the smoke billowed thick and blue. With a startling expulsion, a sizzling discharge of sparkling cinders launched into the crowd from the rightmost bonfire. This was shortly followed by a whistling shot delivered towards the viewers from the opposite pyre.

The rough-hewn nun did not even flinch as the incendiaries jetted forth from either side of her, unlike the crammed audience whose rabid state transformed into a disarray of panic and wide-eyed terror. The two offset projectiles tore through the density of the townsfolk and began to erupt into a smaller array of sparklers, which the superstitious citizenry envisioned burst forth from the bowels of Hell as vengeance for their persecution of one of Satan’s own. Driven to fear-based survivalism, the mob strove to escape the scenario at all costs, throwing their neighbors out of the way and trampling children under foot.

During this chaotic interruption, Dolores Llorenc extracted herself from the backside of the clutch of brambles and branches of the midway jumble, clothing heavily soaked to hinder the onslaught of heat and flames from charbroiling her living flesh. Ascending the stack of smoldering lumber, the stealthy little rogue unsheathed her stiletto to sever the cords that bound the accused witch.

With the townsfolk running amok and the authorities failing to maintain order, Dolores took full advantage of the distraction to lead the freed prisoner away from the miasma of the shattered veneer of civilization and human restraint. Through a wafting haze of dense smoke and deafening screams, the two shadowy figures made their departure to territories less hostile.


Dual factions met in the tranquility of the woodlands, the bustling city barely visible through the undergrowth shaded by the towering foliage of the copse of evergreen and deciduous trees. From the depths of the forest, a conglomerate of dun-robed women emerged, austere and otherworldly in bearing. From the carved path leading back to the urban squalor, a ragged band of crimson-sashed miscreants were heralded by the diminutive woman garbed in purple and black. In tow of the party, two Sisters of the Strega, overjoyed to return to the fold.

The senior priestess stepped forward to embrace Sisters Salvia and Narcissus before addressing the rescuers. “We are most grateful for your miraculous extraction of an irreplaceable member of our order. If it be within our means, we will provide our utmost to see that you are all well served.”

The blushing Pistollera responded with a rather mannish bow. “Truth be told, I owe Ju— Sister Salvia my life. This is the least we could perform. No repayment be necessary. I take solace knowing I helped the Church lower their death toll.”

“We always pay back our debts threefold,” the matron countered. “When the time comes, be sure to know who you can call upon.”

Joseffo approached Juliette. “Your expertise with barks and herbs is nothing less than impressive. The turquoise hue to the smoke was truly a nice touch. Magnifico!” He kissed and fanned his fingers as a show of gratuitous respect. “I will surely utilize that lore in my future creations.”

The Strega‘s sense of humility caused her to gaze down and shift her feet furtively. “Knowledge reflects our surroundings. I seek to master the way of the woods as you master gun-smoke and alchemy.” She raised her aethereal, jade-green eyes to the tall man. “We may not be able to master life, but you helped me save one today; one very dear to us. So, you will have a place in our Order’s collective hearts. It seems the Fates of the Crimson Cinquedeas are intertwined with our own, which is most fortuitous.”

The farewells were kept brief, for the previous night’s thwarted immolation had the constabulary stirred like a fallen hornet’s nest.

Tuscany’s border town was just a stop along their journey, and they had already spent far too long there on their trip to the heart of Italy. So, mounting their faithful steeds, the Crimson Cinquedeas and the Purple Pistollera made start with a hard gallop across the gently lapping hills. An initial burst of speed sent the wind through their locks and created greater distance as they skipped town.

Jasiah Witkofsky

Jasiah Witkofsky

Jasiah Witkofsky is a philosopher-gardener who spends his off-hours penning dark speculative fiction and swashbuckling tales of daring and adventure. He resides at the foothill base of the magical Sierra Nevadas of Northern California with his merry band of rascals and rapscallions. His works can be found in more than ten publishers, magazines, and journal companies from all over the English-speaking world.

Competing for Roses by Lawrence Dagstine

“That man wants the world. But one part of it he didn’t get today was Delilah.”

“You know?”

“I’m not a fool, Nurse. He’s in love, and he doesn’t know how to deal with it.”


A sense of weariness came over Delilah on the return trip to France. She was tired of the gossip. There weren’t many unmarried women to compete for roses. Besides, honeymooning was too difficult in wartime. She looked at the men around her, and she knew the dread and hopelessness they were feeling. Travel was hard. Plain and simple.

On the dock at Calais, she saw a battalion of American troops disembarking. She saw the fresh young faces, the clean, well-fed air they exuded. They had had no time yet for disillusion. And she saw the gantries swinging huge loads of material onto the dock. In that, as much as in these fresh young men, was the hope. She had heard that the Germans were actually starving, due to the British blockade. Would it finally come to that? No victory won, just two weary giants fighting to a senseless standstill over a nonexistent victory line?

That winter it was everywhere about them, the sense that the war must end soon. But it was May before the U.S. 2nd and 3rd divisions, together with the French, stopped the German attack. The U.S. Marines captured and held the timberland from three sides; the beaches were another story. The big whirling guns still shook the ground under their feet, and overhead, increasingly, they witnessed the battle in the sky.

“Seems so clean up there, don’t it, Nurse,” one corporal said while Delilah changed his dressing. “None of this muck and filth we’ve got down ’ere. They tell me the best job is a mechanic with the flying blokes. I’m going to study to be a mechanic, if I ever get back home. You just wait.”

“You will,” Delilah said. It was an automatic response.

“Miss Cotton, are you dreaming?” The staff nurse’s voice beside her was chilly with reproach.

“Ah, no, Nurse. Just chatting, we was,” the corporal said cheerfully.

The nurse’s tone was icy. “Miss Cotton, finish the dressing and see that the corporal is comfortable. Then you may go to the mess hut. You have a visitor.”

Delilah spun around. “A visitor?”

“Finish the dressing, Miss Cotton.”

The corporal winked at Delilah when the nurse had left. “Go on, luv. Yer brother or yer boyfriend, is it?”

Delilah deliberately slowed her pace. She finished the dressing, straightened the bedclothes, and plumped up the pillows. She placed a tall pitcher of water and a bedpan on the table beside him.

“Go on, luv,” he urged again. “Yer dyin’ to get away. Fond of ’im, whoever he is?”

She nodded. “Yes. Very fond of him.”

It was an American staff car waiting outside the mess hut, and a general-to-be, Payton Fegmire, who bent to kiss her cheek. She tried to keep the disappointment from her voice. “You? In France?”

“Well, I decided I couldn’t go back to the U.S. of A. without seeing this side of the Channel. Could be handy, you know. Geography impresses people.”

“Payton, you’re an impossible cynic. And what’s all that?”

He was unloading a box full of tins of peaches, soap, butter, jam, biscuits, chocolate, and real coffee. “Spread it around among the girls.”

“Payton, I can’t take all that.”

“You might think of the other nurses. Will they love you for nobly handing it back?” A brief pause. “Speaking of which, how is Sara?”

Delilah shook her head. “You never change, Payton. Whether it’s—”

“How’s Missy?” he said abruptly, cutting her short. “I’ve lost touch since I’ve been in France. Used to see her quite a bit in London. She didn’t seem to be settling into the role of married woman too well. The guys don’t flock around the way they used to. Scared of compromising her.”

“I haven’t heard from Missy in a few days. I think she’s probably a little bored.”

“And you, Delilah? What about you?”

“I just get through the day, fall into bed, and sleep, then get up and begin all over again. Payton, when will it end?”

His face grew serious. “Delilah, honey, just try to remember that gradually we’re pulling ahead of the Germans in this blockade business. The level of the tonnage of shipping we’re producing is passing that of tonnage they sink. Their alliances are a mess. And they’re hungry. That will do it in the end.”

“But they keep mounting offensives.”

He touched her hand. “Delilah, I’ve got four hours. I’d rather talk of other things than war. I told your head nurse I was here at the request of your father. She’s given you time off, and I’ve lined up a little dinner at a place down the road. So be a good girl and come to the feast.”

They dined at a village almost untouched by the shelling. Delilah looked around carefully and saw that the majority of the diners were American officers.

“Now, Delilah,” Payton told her, “don’t ask for a menu, because there isn’t one. But there’s pâté, and duck, and Madame has just picked some strawberries.”

“Last time I had strawberries—”

“Last time you had strawberries, you were a fat little deb, and I hear you gobbled everything in sight. But the young men always wanted to talk to you because you were the brightest girl around. And Missy was the most beautiful.” He nodded as the waiter brought a bottle of wine to the table. “It’s vin ordinaire, of course. But we used to call it Pouilly Fume.”

The late May sunlight streamed through the long windows, which gave a view of the garden. Beyond the roses on the trellis, Delilah guessed, would be the kitchen garden, where the strawberries and other red delicacies grew. The bread on the table was white and fresh, the table linen starched. Were there really such oases as these left? From the road, the house had seemed modest, and there was no sign to indicate it was a restaurant.

“Delilah, if you’re going to sit there and look guilty, I’m taking you straight back. Enjoy yourself! What difference will one meal make? You can’t take it to them in the trenches.”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t spoil—”

“No, you shouldn’t! Missy wouldn’t. She’s enjoying every minute, and she’d let every man who laid eyes on her know it. They’re looking at you now, Delilah. Enjoy it! You’re not a fat little deb anymore. You’re a very desirable woman, and like Missy once did, you’re competing for roses.”

“Blood roses?” Delilah put down her fork. “Are you making a pass at me?”

“No, I’m not. I’m just telling you what’s what.”

“These roses grow around here. In great numbers.”

“War pollen, I say.” Payton was straightforward.

They ate and talked, and time sped by. Delilah tried not to keep bringing names into the conversation. The sun was declining as they sipped their coffee and cognac. Soon they must start back, though Payton had not said what his destination was that night. She realized how circumspect he was; there was still no real war background to Payton Fegmire.

Perhaps it was the wine and cognac that made her say, “You still think a lot about Missy, don’t you, Payton? You were best man at her wedding, but you still don’t quite believe she’s gone. Maybe you’re in denial. But you’ve lost her, Payton.”

“Yes, I stood there at the wedding. That was all. And afterward I saw a woman in London who didn’t realize she’d been married.” His face seemed blank as he spoke. “We’ll have to be on our way soon, Delilah. I’ve a long way to travel tonight.” He was slightly intoxicated.

The waiter brought another bottle of wine and glasses, then said quietly, “I’m sorry, sir. We have to go to the basement. There are zeppelins reported overhead.”

Payton rose immediately. “Then please be so good as to bring us another bottle of cognac.”

Sitting in the basement, the diners drank to each other. “Delilah, I wish this could have been something else. That night…I can’t ever forget it.”

“Payton, no more. Reunions, no farewells. And fill the glasses, you idiot, now you’ve spent all this money.”

When they were allowed to go, Payton found a taxi somehow and went with her back to the hospital. She made him stop the cab a long way down the street from the nurses’ quarters. “We’re not supposed to be alone with men, you know.”

His lips were on hers. She did not draw back from his kiss. Then he helped her out of the cab, and she tottered a little as she went down the street. It was as well, she thought, that she didn’t have night duty.

Payton jumped out. “Wait!”

At the hospital gate, it was she who brushed Payton’s lips with a kiss. “I really did enjoy it. Thank you for the company. Lately, I’ve been turning into a sourpuss. I’ll enjoy every single thing that comes my way in the future.”

“Cotton, it’s lights-out in five minutes,” one of the other VADs called out. “Better forget what’s-his-face. He probably won’t make it back.”

Payton waved. The taxi backed up and roared away into the misty spring night.

Afterward, Delilah always thought of that dinner as a turning point. It wasn’t in any sense a turning point as history would remember, but it marked for her the rekindling of a spark of hope in the awful weariness of the bloody stalemate.

One afternoon, Payton telephoned her at the hospital, incurring the head nurse’s wrath. Delilah was permitted to speak to him for only two minutes on the ward telephone, just long enough to agree to go to dinner.

He took her to the Ritz, where he was well known because he stayed there. Delilah looked around at the dining room in all its splendor, the fashionably dressed people, and said simply, “Why me?”

Payton looked up from the menu. “Why not? I was told by a fellow corporal that you’re slaving over in that hospital, and the food is uneatable. So…”

Delilah found she was laughing. “I wish I looked as if I were starving, Payton.”

He smiled briefly. “You’re a good sort, Delilah.”

“I often wish I weren’t.”

“What would you be if you weren’t?”

“Me?” She waited until he had tasted the wine, which had just been poured. “I’d be slightly wicked, to start with, not good-natured at all. I’d be beautiful, slim, and golden-haired. I’d have golden eyes, like a cat’s—” She broke off, hoping he hadn’t noticed that she had very nearly described Missy.

They dined at a leisurely pace, Payton questioning her about what she expected when she was posted overseas. He said very little about what he was doing in England. She had the impression that he crossed the Atlantic frequently, no small act of courage, especially when so many ships were being torpedoed by German submarines. But with Payton Fegmire it seemed that any risks he had to run were part of the game. The rewards were for the quick and the daring. And he liked the rewards very much, Delilah knew.


Dawn came early in the high summer. Delilah listened to the boom of the great guns. They had expected an attack on one particular Monday. It was seven thirty, and the nurses were at breakfast when the first gigantic explosion came, signaling the start of a new battle. They learned later, from the wounded men they tended, that there had been six huge land mines buried under the German lines. But the Germans had dug shelters deep in the chalky earth, and they had come through the great artillery barrage almost unscathed. Delilah also heard that the British infantry had been ordered to advance out of the trenches at the ceremonial step of one yard per second, burdened with equipment about one third of their own weight. It was as if the generals were playing obscene war games, Delilah thought.

It was also here in these mud pits that the infamous blood rose blossomed. Nobody really understood why these flowers grew in times of war. Sometimes, a dying soldier would pick one from a trench wall and, before succumbing to his wounds, pass it on to a fellow soldier, so that if he survived, he could pass it on to a certain special lady to profess his love. But the stream of casualties from the front, with a rose in hand or pocket, was unending. Delilah worried about how she would stand up under it. What mattered was simply to clip the rosebud from the soldier’s rigor mortised fingers and remain on her feet. The doctors never seemed to leave their operating rooms either; medical orderlies ran with the stretchers. Delilah saw the hospital chaplain, totally unqualified, administering anesthetics, to have the patient ready when a table became free. She found herself treating the less desperate cases. She learned quickly, by experience, and she was aware that it was often at the expense of the men she was tending.

Through August, the battle went on. Delilah seemed to lose track of time. There were long hours on duty, then a few hours of exhausted sleep. She began to be convinced that they would all die. The sickening stench of death pervaded everything. Her uniforms, her underwear, even her cap was soaked in it. She scrubbed her hands and nails cruelly, but still they smelled of death.

And rose petals.

Her body, aching for rest, was becoming the battered stick it had been when Payton had picked her up. Now the worst terror was sleep itself, the nightly return to the dark place she had known before Payton brought her to light and warmth.

The awful smell touched the food, and she choked on it. She knew she had to eat, but even so, she pushed it aside.

“Hey, ain’t you goin’ to eat that?” Sara demanded. Her bright spark of energy did not burn low, and Delilah relied on it. Sara fussed and clucked, and somehow found time to take tucks in Delilah’s uniforms, which were now trailing in the dirt. “No need to go around lookin’ a disgrace.”

Delilah drank a lot of tea and began smoking cigarettes. She and Sara were constantly being moved about, this time to Le Havre for a few days’ rest, but the brief leave did her no good. She continued to dread sleep because of her dreams and the return to the dark place. And she missed Payton terribly.

She barely noticed when summer passed. It rained and grew cold. That was the only way Delilah knew the seasons had changed. Yet the blood roses always retained their erect bloom and ominous color. She had a note from Payton. His battalion had been sent back to rest. “I miss you. I miss your smile. There’s hardly a soul of the original battalion left. I don’t know what went wrong. They’re sending us raw recruits who’ll last only a few days.”

Sometimes Delilah would wake from sleep, her heart pounding. All she could think of as she performed the tasks that were now routine was that Payton had fought in two of the last battles. Finally a general, he was regularly being returned to the front lines. It seemed too much to hope that he could survive to the end.

The American forces made their mark at Chateau-Thierry, and then fortune swung toward them, the fresh young men and their superior arms and equipment. Ten American divisions were committed to the battle, and they forced the Germans back across the Marne. The French retook Soissons. Delilah sensed the excitement in the wards when news came of the battle of Amiens. The British hurled four hundred and fifty tanks into the struggle and gained eight miles on the first day—eight miles in a wilderness of scorched trees and barbed wire, where thousands of men had died to gain a few feet.

By autumn, the old, death-ridden landmarks had been retaken—Roye, Bapaume, Noyon, and Peronne. Things were looking up. The Germans fell back to the Hindenburg Line, and it was rumored that the German and Austro-Hungarian governments had appealed to President Wilson for an armistice.

During October, the British and Americans continued their advance, while the Germans withdrew rapidly. In November, mutiny broke out in the German fleet. Then revolution erupted in Munich. Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated soon after, and the Germans eventually accepted the Allied demands.

The great guns of the western front fell silent. There was a dazed sense of disbelief before the hysteria of joy broke. Delilah found herself comforting a sobbing soldier, a seventeen-year-old who had lied about his age in order to get recruited, and who had borne his wounds with stoic bravery. “I made it, Nurse.” He clasped her hand so tightly it hurt, tears streaming down his face. “By God, I made it! I’m alive!”

Payton, Delilah thought. There had been no news of Payton for two weeks. Men had died in the very last hours. Was Payton alive?

The days passed, and she purposely put her mind at ease. She could wait now, she told herself, and she went the round of her duties. It was painful to see those who survived the war but did not inherit the peace. Many still died, the vast majority with blood rose in hand. Hardest to see were those who came in from the trenches delirious with what had been named Spanish influenza. These cases they tried to isolate, but whole wards caught the infection. Delilah stood by one day as a doctor wrote out a death certificate.

“It’s the worst epidemic since the fourteenth century,” he said. “The Black Death, they called it. In fact, they say the death figures may be worse than all the casualties we’ve suffered in the war. Try to see that you get enough rest.”

That night, the call came. Delilah was washing up for bed when another VAD came rushing in. “Delilah! It’s your boyfriend!”

Payton’s voice sounded faded and distant. “I’m at Dunkirk. I caught one—second to last day. Nothing much. Just in the hand. There’s also something contagious going around. But they’re sending me home, regardless.”

“Thank God! You’ll be safe. That’s all that matters.”

“Will you do something for me, Delilah?”

“Anything,” she answered.

“Get down on your knees and beg for a leave to see me. The regiment is providing transport. I want to be your husband.”

Sweat broke out on her palms. “A wedding?”

“Ours—yours and mine. Unless you have someone else in mind.” A brief silence. “Delilah? Are you there?”

“Yes…yes, I’m here.”

“You don’t sound very enthusiastic. Is there going to be a marriage?” He chuckled. “I’ve got the padre lined up.”

“Payton, you’re sure about this? You don’t have to—”

“I know what I want, Delilah. I have to be sure about you. I always wondered if you didn’t just feel sorry for me. You know, the stubborn general headed back to the trenches, lost opportunity with Missy, might be his last time, that sort of thing. Was that it?”

“No, it wasn’t that. I wasn’t sorry for you.” The line crackled with static. “Oh, Payton, it’s impossible to talk about this, shouting through a telephone. A dozen people can hear me.”

“Me, too. But it only needs an answer. Will you say yes?”

“Yes! I’ll get there somehow. Even if I have to just walk out.”

“Good girl.” His voice sounded thin and tense across the wire. “Be outside the abbey before midnight this Wednesday. I have a convoy of trucks coming through. The officer in charge has been told to look out for you. Can I tell him you’ll be there?”

“Yes! Of course!”

“I love you, Delilah Cotton.”

Abruptly, the line went dead.

She paced the cloisters in the cold darkness. There it was, just a telephone call, but the hope of her life had been answered. And if she didn’t have Payton’s whole heart now, she would win it. She would be waiting outside the hospital come Wednesday, and let the future settle itself.


The woman stood half-naked in a trancelike state. With a gesture that evaded Missy’s swift response, the woman gathered up the rose. Then she hurled the flower into the fire. “Here’s an end to it all—now!” the psychotic woman cried.

Missy’s voice broke through to Delilah’s consciousness. Suddenly, without uttering a sound, she was free of Missy’s arms and racing to the fire. A gasp burst from the crowd as Delilah thrust her hands into the flames, reaching for the burning, shriveled-up petals. They heard a cry of exultation as she grasped the seared stem and turned back. With a shock, Missy saw the scorch marks running down Delilah’s arms. There was a cry of pain. “Missy, I hurt!”

Now shirts came from a half a dozen soldiers, and feverishly Payton wrapped the burned hands. Then he caught Delilah up and tossed her across his shoulders to make the long run through the sand to the hospital ward.

Despairingly, Missy cried, “Delilah, darling, I didn’t mean to bring it up. Payton, please wait for me.” Fegmire did not turn back.

For a time, Delilah whimpered in pain, until the morphine began to work. Then she drifted into an uneasy sleep. Her hands and arms were bandaged by the doctor and laid over the light sheet that covered her, but in her sleep she plucked fitfully at them. The doctor shook his head. “A pity. She’ll be badly scarred, and it’s going to be painful. Let’s hope we can prevent infection.” He sighed as he gathered up his equipment. “How she must have loved that rose. She literally went through fire for it.”

“She had been in a catatonic state for some time,” Payton assured the doctor.

“You’re saying she wasn’t herself?”

“That’s correct.”

“The corporal?” the doctor asked.

“Yes. The one from the French hospital,” Missy said.

The doctor nodded. “She must have really loved him.”

Missy wiped her eyes. “Corporal Vicks was to be her husband. He died on the last day, fighting beside my Payton on the front lines. Lovely bloke. He took one through the neck, pierced his artery. He was in the trenches, somehow mustered enough strength in his final moments to pick that flower before bleeding to death. My husband brought him back, carried him over his shoulder to the barrack. When we first learned of it, we didn’t know how to break it to her. I’d heard that when they performed the medical examination, they had to actually pry the rose from his hand.”

“Well, they don’t call it the blood rose for nothing,” the doctor said. “Shame. In times of war, seems like every woman is competing for one. And Delilah’s attachments are no different. You could say they’re fiercer than a normal woman’s. So any failure on the part of those she loves is a calamity to her.”

“We’re aware of that,” Payton said.

“I’m sure you are. You must all try to be very gentle with her. She seems deeply sorry for what she did, and still mourning the loss in her own way.”

“We know she is,” Missy said. “And we will be gentle with her.”

The doctor added, “I’ll send a nurse first thing this afternoon.”

“I’ll stay,” Payton offered. “I wouldn’t want her to wake up alone.”

When he was gone, Payton wandered to the window. A pale slip of light was growing in the east. A murmur from Delilah made him turn. Only one shaded light burned, and it fell softly on that beautiful face.

“I’m swimming,” she muttered, half-dazedly.

“Swimming?” Payton said.

She felt the waves of love suck and pull, and she went down in a nightmare of choking water. She tried to free herself from the horror of this imaginary undertow. She slammed against something human, grasped a limb, and rose to the surface to see the haunting image of the corporal handing her a flower.

Lawrence Dagstine

Lawrence Dagstine

Lawrence Dagstine is a native New Yorker and speculative fiction writer of 25+ years. He has placed around 450 to 500 stories in online and print periodicals during that two-decade plus span. His latest collection, The Nightmare Cycle is out from Dark Owl Publishing

Love/Fear by Harris Kauffman



Male Subject Y entered the Collection Chamber for the fifth time, naked underneath his white robe per usual. He saw Female Subject X enter from across the chamber and didn’t recognize her. She was different then. As they met eyes, Y could see in X’s uncomfortable, averted gaze that she too had been here before and knew what was expected of them, of what they needed to do if they wished to receive their compensation and continue participating in the study. So far Y felt there had been very little to complain about, two hundred dollars in an envelope waiting for him on the other side of each encounter. And it was for “science” after all.

X approached Y and brought a hand to his cheek. Y, realizing then that X was not as sheepish as first impressions had led him to believe. She looked up and gave an elegant little expression, lips pursed and eyelashes fluttering in a manner that seemed to ask, “Is this okay?” Y was moved by her ability to speak without words and by the expectation of what was to come. His own look must have been one of consent as they met each other halfway, kissing, disrobing, and then falling back into the flowing white sheets of the bed; the chamber’s sole furnishing.

The Collection Chamber was always basked in hard fluorescent light, leaving the room so seamlessly white it was almost impossible to tell where the floors ended and the walls began. But it was a small room whose cramped, ethereal geography gave an impression of cloistered infinitude. Yes, perhaps that was the intent of the design: a feeling of suspension, of untethered intimacy. Even the bed was almost impossible to discern, its flowing white sheets camouflaged against the walls’ white paint, and melting into the white tile floor. These were the sensations impressed upon Y when he’d entered the room for the first, second, and third time, but now he had a familiarity with the floor plan that allowed him to move confidently, which only in turn brought about a more immersive experience.

There remained peculiarities to the experiment, vagaries that might never gain definition, yet in his fifth go-around, Y relinquished all curiosity and gave himself to the moment. He realized then, for however fleeting, that he was not having sex for “science” but was making legitimate, impassioned love as if no one was watching.

What was there he could do about those strange three-legged stainless steel stands flanking either side of the bed? Each bore a sponge-like apparatus that would be difficult to describe without pointing out its vaginal appearance, like little Georgia O’Keeffe orchids given three-dimensionality. Would he ever know their purpose, or the purpose of the needle flickering madly right below them? Or what was that stuff clinging to the apparatuses like pink dew on its fleshy receptors? Y did not know; he couldn’t know. And so he closed his eyes and forgot where he was.




The Researcher stood on the Observation Deck on the other side of the two-way glass, glancing between the fornicating test subjects and the machinery on the table before her. The Doctor had built the Distiller, but few knew how to operate its nuanced instrumentation as well as she did. She wondered how many walked the earth who could make sense of the Distiller’s curling tubes and cold traps and vaporizers and condensers as well as she. She wondered at times if she should demand more of the Doctor—more money, more ownership of the data, of the proprietary hardware she’d worked to perfect. But truthfully, she doubted that she could make any more than she already was by pocketing and selling Love on the black market. Emotional Distillation was a new process; a bit of a “wild west” of an industry as the venture capitalists of VXC Holdings liked to say in their meetings. The Researcher didn’t know the capitalists; all she knew was the tools of her trade, and maybe that was enough for now.

At present, this 34-year-old Male Subject Y was finding his footing within the Collection Chamber, and the Researcher was happy to see the connectivity Y forged with this particular Female Subject X, just as she’d anticipated. The aesthetics of the Collection Chamber, the matchmaking of the test subjects—these were nuances of the Researcher’s job that, though beyond scientific measure, brought about very quantifiable results in the form of the bright pink liquid drip-drip-dripping into the Distiller’s collection flask.

Witnessing the impressive output of distilled Love, the Researcher signaled to the Doctor with concealed pride. The Doctor looked from the unfurling sex to the collection flask. If he was pleased, he did not show it. That is his nature, thought the Researcher. You can’t expect more from someone than what they are capable of giving; don’t expect any adulation from this stoic, overbearing person. The Doctor’s gaze remained on the lovemaking, the sex, the writhing bodies and amorphous flesh, while the Researcher thought of what she would do later. She would take the collection flask and siphon the day’s product into their two-milliliter glass vials and then cart the one hundred vial tray holder to the cold storage refrigeration unit. There, she would do as she’d done in the past: pocket one vial of pink liquid and replace it with another of pink dyed water. Then, once the adrenaline of the crime and the satisfaction of having ripped off her superior waned, she’d slide an envelope of cash through the slots in the doors leading to Male Subject Y’s and Female Subject X’s respective holding rooms.




The Dealer rarely left his loft on the seventh floor of the elevatorless building, and his skin had consequently begun to lose its pigmentation. So pallid had he become, the blue blood pumping in his veins showed through as a sinuous web. Say what you’d like about the Dealer’s morals, he possessed an unmatchable work ethic. He was raised poor, knew real hunger, and so he had brashly chased the first scent of success. Yet by abusing his own product, the Dealer had done irreparable damage within the delicate cosmos of his neural networks. Tireless work had at first been a Band-Aid to distract from his own undeniable, inevitable self-destruction. He kept friends close, not for companionship but for fear of being alone with his haywire thoughts. Yet eventually, so blunted were the receptors, he no longer toiled to distract himself but kept on at the same pace because his physical frame now operated on its own volition, like those brooms possessed by the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, dancing away until some more powerful force might bring about a fiery, ceremonious end.

Knock, knock. Someone was at the door.

On the other side of the loft, the Dealer’s friend was on his sixth hour of mixing loud, monotonous techno on a pair of ratty CDJs; despite the music, the Dealer could hear the presence like a blind snake detecting shifts in the cold earth’s vibrations. The Dealer sprang from his work at the pill press with vitality and made for the door, nodding his head to the groove. He peered out the peephole and saw a familiar face. The Dealer opened the bolt latch and allowed the Researcher entry.

“What’s it today, doc?” said the Dealer

“Love,” said the Researcher, brandishing a vial of pink liquid.

“Mo’ Love, mo’ money,” said the Dealer. He took the vial from the Researcher and scrutinized the liquid’s opacity. “Pink looks a little on the white side, no? You’re not watering this shit down, are you?”

The Researcher fell back into the old couch with indifference. “Fuck off,” she said.

“I’m serious,” said the Dealer.

“Hey, I heard weak sex can make weak Love, that true?” asked the Dealer’s friend from his post at the CDJs.

“Who told you that?” said the Researcher.

“What, you think you’re the only Love plug in town?” said the Dealer.

The Researcher stared silently at the Dealer. How many others like her were there? She had some knowledge of the Love flooding the black market, but there were only so many stills in circulation and so many labs in the county. The lineup of researchers turned drug suppliers was not unexhaustive.

“The quality of the sex,” began the Researcher with an authoritative air, “can affect the potency of the Love. But not this. This is clean, unadulterated, phenomenal sex. I saw it with my own eyes.”

“You’re kinda kinky, aren’t you?” said the Dealer’s friend.

“I’m not kinky. I’m a chemist.”

“Supplier is what you are,” said the Dealer. “Don’t get it twisted.”

Another knock-knock at the door. The Researcher looked toward it uneasily. “I gotta go anyway,” she finally announced.

“What, you don’t wanna be seen with your friends?” said the Dealer.

“I got shit to do,” said the Researcher, rising from the couch. “You paying, or?”

The Dealer gave the Researcher a brimming envelope. The Researcher glanced at the cash within and quickly pocketed it. She made toward the door but then paused, wondering if her next words might tip her over some unfathomable precipice.

“Hey, I know I’m not the only chemist in town,” she began, “but have you ever tried Fear?”

The Dealer and his keyed-up friend couldn’t help but exchange a glance.

“Fear’s a myth,” said the Dealer’s friend.

The Researcher couldn’t help but smile. “Someone’s gotta be first to market,” she said. “I’ll make you my first stop, but you have to be ready to pay.”

The Dealer studied the Researcher, trying to read some bluff. Again, a knock at the door, gentle but imploring. The Dealer rose and once more made for his door, once more looked through the peephole. He unlatched the bolt and allowed entry to his next visitor.

“What’s good, man?” said the Dealer.

“Chillin’,” said Male Subject Y, shaking the Dealer’s hand as he entered the room. The Researcher of course immediately recognized Y but made no show of it. Instead, she made swiftly for the door, attempting to squeeze past without notice, even if there was no way Y would recognize her.

“Yo,” said the Dealer.

The Researcher turned and found the Dealer and Y both staring at her. She raised her eyebrows. Yes?

“You come through with real Fear, I’ll get you paid,” said the Dealer.

The Researcher upheld her facade of inconspicuousness, sneaking a subtle glance at Y, and then leaving the Dealer with a subtle nod, an affirmation. A deal.

“What you lookin’ for?” the Dealer asked Y once the door had closed behind the Researcher.

“Whatever it was you sold me last weekend,” said Y.

“We fresh outta them but I got something I think you’ll vibe,” said the Dealer. “You got a sec?”

Y shrugged. The Dealer brandished his newly acquired vial of pink liquid Love.

“Fresh catch, fish of the day,” said the Dealer. “But I need ta cook it up.”

“I got nowhere to be,” said Y.

The Dealer went to work in his characteristic, feverish manner, while Y passed the time with the Dealer’s keyed-up friend, trading off at the ratty CDJs. First, the liquid Love was dripped into a pot of water and sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda. Lab grade Love was strong; one drop went a long way. Bringing the Love, water, and sodium bicarbonate to a rolling boil, the mixture eventually cooked down into a solid substance, a pink rock which was then crushed into a pink powder. Typically the Dealer added pink food coloring to give the powder a richer shade of pink, but he’d wait for Male Subject Y to leave his loft before that step. For now, he lodged the powder straight into the single press tablet puncher and began punching powder into pink press pills bearing his insignia: a skull and crossbones. Both Y and the Dealer lost track of time, Y lost in the techno’s rhythm, the Dealer lost in his work, but at some point they reconvened to exchange cash for a baggie of four pressed pills of Love. Before Y left, the Dealer crushed a Love onto the decrepit coffee table, cut it into a neat line, and offered the test subject a complimentary gift.




What did Male Subject Y remember of the weekend? Details were hazy, impressions indistinct. For all the fun he’d had in the moment, all that remained now was an ungodly hangover and vague memories of a state of bliss unachievable without little pink pills with skulls and crossbones on them. When he closed his eyes, Y could still see the flashing pink lights, mere traces of the intense visuals he’d experienced at the rave. At the rave, it was like walking through a CVS’ Valentine’s Day section on acid. Approaching the warehouse where the study was being held, it was only these mere traces. He’d danced, of course, alone, for hours, lost track of his friends, and ended up at an afterparty the next morning at the home of an unknown club kid. He’d known no one but was welcomed. They were coming down from the usual culprits: MDMA, MDA, 2C-B, LSD, Ketamine, what-have-you. They became tantalized by the discovery that Y was riding out the comedown of a press pill of Love. Love, they’d heard, was like the distillation of love—because it was. But they did not know where to get it. Y had to remain careful not to reveal his plug, lest the Dealer cut him off for spreading the word without permission, or worse…

Y entered the nondescript building with a key card he’d been given at the intake facility several weeks ago. At the testing site, all business was carried out without Y ever seeing another soul besides the Female Subject X with whom he was meant to fornicate. The key card granted him access to a long, sterile hall that eventually arrived at his holding room. There, he passed the time before and after the tests. Before, he changed out of his clothes into the obligatory white robe; after, he changed back and awaited his envelope of cash. Entering the holding room today with his swelling hangover, Y casted aside his messenger bag and commenced the quotidian undressing and donning of the white robe. He then knocked on the door to the next room, as he’d done on all previous occasions, per instruction, and awaited an answer to his “all ready” signal. Y sat there, rubbing his temples, but nothing happened. The door did not open automatically as it typically did, granting him entry to the next sterile hall that led to the Collection Chamber. Y once more rose and knocked. It was only upon rising a third time to knock that the door flung open with such force that it sent Y backtracking against the opposite wall. A balaclava-clad person stormed in, leveling a pistol at Y.

“Sit down, sit the fuck down!” said the person. “Sit down, now!”

Y sat, terrified and opened his mouth to speak. Y blubbered and the pistol-wielding person screamed back, “Shut the fuck up! Not a fucking word!”

Male Subject Y tried not to cry while the person taped his mouth shut, tied his hands behind his back, and then finally tied his body to the chair. The final measure: a knapsack thrusted over his head. Darkness.

There was dragging, the screeching of metal being pulled across tile; the sensation of being tipped and then tugged. Waves of nausea hit him, but Y refrained from vomiting, fearing asphyxiation. Then, there was stillness.

When the knapsack was finally removed, Male Subject Y found himself inside the Collection Chamber. The seamless white of the chamber was blinding but as Y adjusted, he found himself bound-and-gagged across from Female Subject X, bound-and-gagged in an identical predicament, a similar horror in her wide eyes. Female Subject X made a muffled plea, and Y made a muffled plea in response. Tears welled in both of their eyes. They were too frightened to pay any attention to the room’s sponge-like apparatuses now collecting a black liquid which slow-formed on its fleshy membranes, clinging, collecting, needle flickering madly.


On the Observation Deck, the Distiller now vaporized and condensed and drip-drip-dripped a dark, stormy gray liquid into the collection flask. The Researcher stared in at the flask’s contents. When the Doctor saw the results, he gave her a disapproving, prodding look. The Researcher didn’t need any further explanation, as she and the Doctor had already arrived at a mutually understood protocol. The Researcher grabbed the balaclava and pulled it back over her head before departing for the Collection Chamber.

The Doctor stood before the glass and watched and waited. A moment passed before the Researcher, now disguised as a knife-wielder, stormed into the chamber. The Researcher began to verbally assault the tied-up subjects, berating them, wielding her knife. The Doctor flipped off the microphones so he would not have to listen. He looked toward the Distiller and only saw a grayish black liquid materializing. It wasn’t enough. The Researcher within the chamber stole a glance in his direction; she could not see him and yet she knew by his silence, his absence of signal that there was still more that needed to be done. She needed to go further. The Doctor watched as the Researcher turned her knife on Male Subject Y, pricking his cheek. Y whimpered and cried and bled. Another prick, another stream of blood. The Doctor looked back toward the Distiller and was content to see a jet-black liquid solution now forming in the collection flask. He’d soon give the Researcher her signal.




The Researcher carted a tray of vials, each vial filled with two milliliters of black liquid, toward the cold storage refrigeration unit. There, she did as she’d done in the past, pocketing a vial of black liquid and replacing it with another of water dyed black with food coloring. As the Researcher turned, content with her sleight of hand, she found herself across from the Doctor, standing coolly on the other side of the room. The Doctor studied her. The Researcher forced herself to remain phlegmatic. Did he know? He always looked rigid and inscrutable; it was impossible to say at the moment.

“That must have been quite difficult,” the Doctor finally said.

“It was fine,” the Researcher murmured. She wanted nothing more than to be away from under the Doctor’s unwavering scrutiny.

“Have you ever tried Love?” he asked.



“No. Never—”

“Really? I hear it’s very popular. In certain social circles and at clubs.”

“I’ve seen it, but…” the Researcher began. “I’ve never tried it. It’s too novel. No one knows what it does.”

The Doctor smiled. The Researcher wondered if it was the first time she’d ever seen him emote. “Two years ago,” said the Doctor, “the first prototype for an Emotional Distiller was unveiled, and we’ve now already found a way to abuse it. To channel it through our bloodstream. We don’t need pharmaceutical companies to package it for us. We’re too inventive and too impatient a species for that. That’s what we are at the end of the day, isn’t it? Insatiable consumers. Not in a Marxist sense, but in…well, in an Anthropocenic sense, I suppose. We consume without any mind paid to recourse or repercussion and we’ll just go on consuming until there’s nothing left.”

The Researcher stared back dumbly at the Doctor, wishing something, anything would come to her with which to fill this silent void. “I have more charting to do,” she finally said, and made for the exit.

“VXC Holdings doesn’t want us distilling fear,” said the Doctor, suspending the Researcher mid-exit. “They tell me an unauthorized lab in Mountain View has administered Fear to its subjects intravenously. It’s impossible to know whether any data collection or scientific analysis was intended or if it was pure recreation for both researchers and participants, because they’re all dead. All dead except for one. It’s an FBI matter now. Very hush-hush. More regulatory scrutiny is on the horizon, they want to see how it all shakes out, yadda-yadda.”

The Researcher blinked, wishing she didn’t have a vial of Fear in her pocket.

“Do you know what the sole survivor had to say for herself?” said the Doctor. “She said…” the Doctor paused to fish out his cellphone, to read the sole survivor’s recorded statement verbatim: “I quote, ‘There is a place unseen that exists alongside our own. There, the specters have always lived, waiting for this moment. Fear has provided that opportunity: to tear a hole in the fabric that separates us from them. I have been to the place where the specters dwell, the labyrinth that is transposed over our own reality. It is a grid, a maze, a trap. They are aware of us, but we are only just now becoming aware of them. These, I believe, are the forces that have echoed across scriptures for eternity. Moloch, Samsara, Mahakala, Satan—the forces spoken of by prophets who understood fear at a time when we, humankind, were not blinded by a hardwired sense of invincibility. The specters are excited to meet us.’” The Doctor lowered his phone in conclusion of his quotation.

“Why are you telling me all this?” the Researcher asked, her voice cracking. The Doctor stared back at her peculiarly.

“Well, because I thought you’d find it interesting,” he said. “Do you not find it interesting?”


Male Subject Y climbed the staircase to the Dealer’s loft. He was traumatized by the day’s proceedings and thought of only one reliable cure. As he took the stairs two at a time, another person passed in the opposite direction. A quick glance, and Y recognized the person—the woman who had been in the Dealer’s loft the last time he was there to score. This time, however, having shared an ephemeral glance, something else caught Y’s attention, not the familiar face but a familiar pair of black leather boots. The knife-wielding, balaclava-clad woman’s black leather boots, that is. Y paused and thought of the prick of the knife-wielder’s blade, pulling at his skin, leaving behind one of those many little contusions he now saw in his reflection. He stood in the staircase wondering if it was possible, until the building’s doors opened and closed with a clanging echo several stories below him, bringing him back to his senses. No, it was impossible. He continued his ascent.

At the Dealer’s door, Y knocked and awaited the familiar sound of the bolt unlatching, the door opening, the monotonous techno blaring from within. Y followed the Dealer inside and took stock, wondering briefly if the Dealer had eaten, slept, or done anything but exactly what he was doing the last time he saw him, feverishly pressing pills, nodding his head to the techno’s rhythm.

“Got somethin’ very special for you tonight, mate,” said the Dealer. “Very special.”

Y joined the Dealer’s friend at the CDJs, while the Dealer went to the stove, turning drops of black liquid into black rock, crushing black rock into black powder, and pressing black powder into black pills complete with a newly designed insignia: a heart. The Dealer gave Y his baggie of pills and his complementary line and then Y went on his way.

To the rave Y went, but saw no vibrant hues. The dark swirls of an impressionist painter’s stormy sky enveloped Male Subject Y and then, it seemed, began to deteriorate the very walls of the infrastructure of his reality. The curtains of existence were yanked from their rod, and the world then pulsed with the sun’s hottest whites flashing interchangeably with the deep black of the human pupil. On the other side of those curtains, between the flashes of white and black, Male Subject Y saw the specters. They were grinning back excitedly.

Harris Kauffman

Harris Kauffman

Harris Kauffman is a writer and screenwriter-producer of film & TV. He is a partner at the production company Storyboard Entertainment. Harris wrote the screenplay for and produced the upcoming family adventure film, “Treasure Trackers”. He was a 2020 Sundance Creative Producing Fellow, and his short story, “A Retirement” was the winner of the 2021 Launch Pad Prose Competition. Harris is presently at work on his inaugural short story collection, “Landlocked Sushi in the Dead Camel Mountains & Other Stories”, which blends his love of horror, sci-fi, crime, and the bizarre in prose. He studied English Literature at UC Berkeley.

The 9th Circle – Part One by Frederick Pangbourne

“Seth, we have a basement!”

“Who is this?” a voice responded.

I pulled the phone receiver away from my head and grimaced at it in disbelief before putting it back against the side of my head. “It’s Chase! Chase Pimental! Good lord, man. Don’t you recognize my voice?”

“Oh, yes, yes. I’m sorry, Chase. We were just sitting down for dinner,” Seth Meehan said apologetically. “What did you say again?” 

“A basement. Our home has a basement,” I repeated with fading elation.

“A basement?” Seth’s voice was even less interested.

“Yes. Can you believe that? After all this time, we never knew we had a basement. There was a hidden door under the stairs. It looked like a part of the wall, but it was actually—”

“Yeah,” Seth cut in. The winds of enthusiasm had been blatantly taken from his sail. “Listen, Chase, Carol made a meatloaf, and the kids are already at the table. How about we continue this discussion tomorrow? I’d be more than happy to—”

“I believe there are dead bodies being stored in it,” I interjected as calmly as I could.

“Dead bodies? Did— Did you just say dead bodies?” His sails again filled with intrigue.

“Yes. There may be several.” 

“I’ll be right over.”

Hanging up the phone, I turned to my wife, Gina. She stood behind me in the kitchen, nervously wringing her hands. Her face a worrisome mask. “Is he coming over?”

I forced a weak smile as I held her trembling hands. “He’s on his way. Seth will know what to do.” As I held her tightly, trying to transfer my self-control into her shaking body, I looked over her shoulder and down the hall to the open section of wall beneath the staircase.

Seth will know what to do, I mentally reassured myself. 

Seth and I had attended the local high school here in town and even attended the same Ohio community college. He’d married a local girl as I had done, a year after me on the same month. Now in our mid-forties, he resided in a respectable area of town filled with cookie-cutter homes and freshly manicured green lawns, while Gina and I chose to live in an old two-story colonial home on the outskirts of town. Gina’s father had passed away four years ago and left her with a sizable inheritance, of which we put a portion of into buying and repairing the aged abode. 

Now, while I am by no means a simpleton, I had chosen to call upon Seth because…well, simply because Seth loved to read. The man would go through books, regardless of their genre, faster than an elephant through peanuts. He was a vast cornucopia of knowledge—mostly useless knowledge that one would never really have any significant use for—but nevertheless, knowledge. If anyone was to be called before involving the police, it was Seth. He would know what to do. 

Eighteen minutes had passed since I had hung up the phone when there came a knocking on the front door.

“Now, what’s all this talk about dead bodies?” Seth grunted as he entered and began removing his trench coat. Spotting Gina standing at the end of the hall, he politely nodded in her direction. “Good evening, Gina.”

“I’m sorry for pulling you away from Carol’s meatloaf, Seth, but I didn’t know who else to call. We wanted an intelligent opinion before bringing the law into this,” I said as I took his coat and hung it near the door.

“That’s fine. Now, without going into a long-winded speech, give me a quick run-down before I actually have to see anything.”

“Well,” I began, “this morning I was walking down the hall to the kitchen and tripped on the hall rug.” I gestured to the long Persian style rug which ran the length of the hall from the foyer, past the staircase and to the kitchen’s threshold. “I keep telling Gina that we need a heavier rug. This cheap imitation is too thin and easily bunches up, making it a literal death trap when walking across.”

 “Perhaps if you’d lifted your feet when you walked and not drag them like some condemned man going to the gallows, the rug wouldn’t bunch up,” Gina quickly added from the end of the hall.

“Who drags their feet? That has nothing to do with it. If the rug was heavier it—”

“Okay, okay,” Seth cut in. “Enough about the rug. What happened next?”

“Well, as I was saying before I was rudely interrupted,” I continued, “I tripped over the rug and fell against the wall beneath the stairs. When I did, I guess I caused some hidden mechanism to activate because a section of the wall came loose and opened.” I pointed to the section of wall that was partially open under the staircase. “Behind it, there’s a passageway leading down into the basement. There is even a light switch on the wall before you go down.”

Seth slowly slid past me and down the hall to the hidden doorway. “And you say you found dead bodies down there?”

“Grotesque things,” Gina muttered, remaining at the hall’s end.

Seth stood just before the hidden portal and was examining the entrance way down. I crept up behind him. “You see. Just like I said.”

Without a word, Seth carefully ducked his head and entered the area beneath the stairs. He stood looking down the wooden stairs that descended into the newly discovered basement for a second before he moved down them. His hand was guided by a pine handrail. As he made his way down, I warily followed close behind, with Gina inching her way from the kitchen in tow.

The walls leading down below the house were of large heavy stones and ancient mortar that undoubtedly constructed the home’s foundation. I had left the single light switch on after leaving the cellar’s confines, providing us with a convenient source of illumination as we proceeded lower. Almost instantly, the surrounding air seemed colder as we left the house above us and moved deeper below. As we stepped from the final stair and onto the hardened earthen floor, the three of us paused as Seth took in the unfamiliar surroundings. 

The cellar was a room of perhaps thirty by thirty feet. The heavy wooden beams laid across the stone foundation were high enough above us so that we did not need to stoop or bend. The room, by all accounts, was bare. At the bottom of the stairs, if one was to look to their left, they would see six 55-gallon plastic drums of a blue color lined against the stone wall. Hanging above the barrels, fixed deep into the mortar, was an odd yet fascinating symbolic design of a dull black metal. The circular symbol was perhaps three feet in diameter and forged with crude curves and sharp points. To one’s right was a pile of wooden crates and various discarded furniture stacked high. This and only this existed in the otherwise empty basement, all revealed by a half dozen poorly lit light bulbs wired above us.

“It’s exceptionally cold down here,” Seth remarked as he rubbed his arms.

We said nothing in reply, as we were both already aware of the drastic change in temperature from our initial findings of the room.

“Where are these bodies you spoke of, Chance? This place looks empty to me.”

“Over here,” I replied as I pointed to the plastic barrels before walking toward them.

Once we had reached the row of blue drums, I again pointed. “There are small windows of clear plastic built into the barrels. The others are obscured by a dark liquid, but this one, at the end, reveals its contents.”

I stepped back, allowing Seth to take a knee in front of the suggested drum. His head turned to and fro as he squinted, trying to decipher the shape within the brownish fluid. Only when his eyes recognized what he was peering at did he fall back away from the congealed, rotted face of the cadaver inside.

“Good lord!” he exclaimed as he scrambled to his feet. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

“Neither were we,” Gina quietly added.

Seth exhaled heavily as he regained his composure and studied the barrels from a distance. 

“Above the windows”—his hand pointed to each drum—“there are dates drawn on each one. They seem to be in six-month intervals.”

 Only now did I notice the dates above each window, drawn in a black magic marker. The one containing the visible corpse being the most recent with a date of 6/7/19.

“Who owned this home before you?” Seth suddenly asked as he turned to face me.

“You know Kristine Graham, right? Well, her grandparents lived here. Once her grandfather passed, the bank put the house up for sale. So, I guess the answer is…the Grahams,” I said after some thought.

Seth nodded and looked around the room some more. “What the hell were they up to? This makes no sense.”

“It makes all the sense in the world,” Gina chimed in. “They were murderers. Isn’t that obvious?”

I shrugged at her comment, as I had no sensible rebuttal. “Who would have ever thought? I wonder if Kristine even had some faint inclination something was going on down here?” 

“Whatever secret the Grahams were hiding, I’m guessing it died with them,” Seth replied as he continued to study the room. “Like this design on the wall here. What’s this all about? Apparently, it has some significance.” He then turned to the stack of crates and furniture behind us. “And why is this down here? There’s no rhyme or reason for…”

His voice trailed off as he took notice of something within the heap of furnishings and moved toward it.

“What is it?” I asked as I followed.

Without answering, Seth paused at the pile. “There’s a chest freezer buried underneath all this junk.”


He moved to the side, allowing me to view the large, filthy gray freezer. “Why is there a padlocked hasp bolted into it? What’s inside that’s not meant to be seen?”

Sure enough, someone had screwed a hasp of newly polished metal and a heavy padlock into the old chest, preventing the lid from opening without the consent of a key.

“You don’t think that there may be more bodies in there, do you?” I asked.

Seth only glanced at me. His expression louder than any words. I nodded. “Gina, would you do me a favor, please, and go upstairs and get a hammer and the biggest screwdriver you can find from under the kitchen sink?”

After some reluctancy, Gina made her way back up the basement stairs to the house. In the meantime, Seth and I began removing the clutter from atop the freezer. Once the last object was cleared away, I leaned against it, catching my breath. My hand instantly retracted from the freezer as if I had placed my hand on a burning stove top. 

“It’s freezing!” I exclaimed, rubbing the cold from my hand. “The freezer. It’s cold to the touch!”

“That’s impossible. It’s not even plugged in or working,” Seth remarked.

“Feel it.”

Hesitating, he reached out and gently placed his opened hand atop the chest, then withdrew it quickly. “You’re right. It is cold.”

From the stairs, we could hear Gina descending, a hammer and a thick-gauged standard screwdriver clutched in her hands. “I hope these will do?”

“They’ll do just fine. Thank you,” Seth said as he took the tools from her.

I moved to Gina’s side as he began working on removing the padlock. It took five good strikes of the hammer upon the handle end of the screwdriver to pop the lock open, breaking the body from its shackle. It fell to the floor in pieces. Exhaling from his labor, he set the tools at his feet, then looked at me as if asking permission to proceed. I nodded and stepped closer, preparing to see for myself what the freezer held. Gina remained near the stairs.

Gripping the lid, Seth flipped it open in one quick movement, the lid falling back against the cellar wall, allowing us visual access to its interior. What we saw was something neither of us would have guessed in a hundred years. Before we could peer into the chest, a frigid blast of air rushed up, washing over us, followed by swirling flakes of snow. We immediately shielded our faces from the cold blow, and, after the initial rush of air, a chilled wind continued to flow from the chest. Leaning slightly forward, Seth and I gazed into the freezer, only to see the chest held no additional dead bodies.

Nor did it have a bottom.

A plunging shaft dropped into nothingness. The walls of the chest’s interior, as well as the descending shaft, were caked with thick ice. Together, we leaned back and glanced at each other before looking back inside again.

“Impossible,” Seth muttered.

“How can this be?” I added.

“What is it?” Gina inquired as she moved to my side and peered down into the chasm in silent awe.

“This is physically impossible,” Seth repeated.

It was then that my wandering eyes caught sight of the opened lid. I straightened up and saw blackened lettering had been burnt into the inside of the lid.


I had to tap Seth several times to divert his attention from the deep icy shaft, pointing to the writing.

“What’s this about?” I asked.

“I haven’t the faintest idea. It appears to be Latin, but I couldn’t tell you what it says.”

It was now Gina who spoke as she leaned inside the freezer, despite the frigid air that blew from the pit like a powerful air conditioner. “Listen!”

We ceased speaking and did just that.

“I don’t hear anything,” I commented.

“Shhhh! Listen!”

At first, I heard nothing but the howling wind pouring forth with its whirling snow. Then it came to me like a distant train drawing closer. It was the faint wailing cries of what sounded like hundreds of people. Their agonizing moans and sobs riding upward on the wintery winds from the unknown depths below.

“It sounds like—” I began.

“Damnation,” Seth finished as he promptly closed the lid with a slam, almost catching Gina’s head.

“Damnation,” I repeated in a dead tone.

“Damnation?” Gina inquired, not quite grasping the concept.

“Help me move this, Chance,” Seth said as he positioned himself at one end of the freezer.

“What are you going to do?” I asked, moving to the opposite end.

“Help me slide this away from the wall. I want to see something.”

Without further questions, we put our weight against the chest and, with some effort, slid it half a foot away from the wall. Where there physically should have been the shaft below us, there was only the dirt flooring.

“How is that possible?” I heard Gina ask from behind me.

“It’s not,” Seth replied.

“This just can’t be,” I muttered. “How can the pit only exist inside the freezer?” 

Despite the chilled temperature, beads of sweat had accumulated on Seth’s forehead. His face was twisted in deep thought before he spoke and moved to the stairs. “I need to make a phone call.”

“A phone call?” I asked, following him, with Gina bringing up the rear. “You mean like the police?”

“Hardly. This is beyond anything they can undertake.” He was making his way quickly up the stairs. “I know a man who has knowledge of these matters.”

I turned to Gina behind me. “I told you Seth would know what to do.”

Frederick Pangbourne

Frederick Pangbourne

Frederick Pangbourne is a short story horror author with 5 anthologies in publication with a 6th coming out soon. He has had numerous stories featured in various magazines, audio podcasts and other anthologies.

Opti-Vision 4000 by Dale Parnell

Thank you for choosing Opti-Vision 4000 robotic ocular implants.

Possible side effects –

  • 1 in 10 patients may suffer ocular tenderness following implantation. Headaches, nausea and dizzy spells are expected.

  • 1 in 25 patients may experience vision blackouts, lasting no more than seventy-two hours. Common temporary conditions also include; color blindness, flashing lights, multiple blind spots, over productive tear ducts, and aggressive blinking.

  • 1 in 100 patients reported seeing spirits of the recently deceased within twenty-four to forty-eight hours of implantation. Should this occur, remain calm. The dead are parasitical and will feed on the psychic energy of those who perceive them.

  • 1 in 500 patients may find their lives have become a waking nightmare, plagued by ceaseless visions of the inevitable, violent end of all known life in the universe. A dark, yawning chasm that sits at the centre of reality, consuming all light and matter. A sentient malevolence that seeks to destroy the last vestiges of hope and love in the universe until it alone is the sum total of all time and space.
    In this event, patients are advised to take two paracetamol and seek immediate medical attention.

For post-op aftercare advice, technical support, and 24-hour exorcisms, dial 0800-OPTI4000 to speak with one of our trained Customer Support operatives.

Opti-Vision Inc.

Giving you tomorrow’s eyesight, today.

Dale Parnell

Dale Parnell

Dale Parnell lives in Staffordshire, England, with his wife and their imaginary dog, Moriarty. He writes fiction, mainly fantasy, science-fiction and horror, and is featured in over forty excellent anthologies from a variety of independent publishers. Dale has self-published three collections of short stories, and his debut novel PYR, a science-fiction space opera, is available now. He is currently working on a follow-up to PYR, and his strangest wish is to find a copy of one his books for sale in a second-hand bookshop.

Breathe by Nick Young

It was odd, curious. He was in the master bedroom working on an outlet when he noticed it. As he put a new faceplate into place, he sensed a slight tugging on his fingers from inside the fixture, a barely detectable sigh of air. But it was enough to startle him, causing him to draw back and immediately call his perception into question.

Old house, he thought. Must be a draft. Once he left the room for other chores, the incident slipped from his mind.

Ted Winston and his family had been in their Valley View house only a week. A move out of the city to a quiet small town had been just what the doctor ordered. No more high-pressure ad agency bullshit. No more noisy streets clogged with traffic and harried people in a perpetual state of annoyance. The house (Charming Old Colonial in a Perfect Sylvan Setting) had popped up on the website of Abbadon Realty at the beginning of June. Once Ted’s wife Amanda set eyes on the place, she was sold. She adored the wood floors, exposed beams, and fireplaces in every room. Daughter Andi was a tougher sell. On the cusp of adolescence, she was resentful of being uprooted.

“I just don’t get it,” she complained. “You’re forcing me to move to the sticks!”

“You’ll start high school in the fall, make new friends,” her dad had said, trying to soothe her. “And look, it’s not like we’ve moved to another planet. We’re only an hour away from Chicago, so you’ll still be able to see the old crowd. Easy-peasy.”

Meeting with the realtor had sealed the deal. She was older, with a froth of iron-gray hair, her demeanor rather taciturn. In other circumstances that might have been off-putting had the sale terms not been so attractive.

“You needn’t worry about a thing,” the agent had said with a tight smile. “Your loan is pre-approved, and you seem such a fine family that we are prepared to waive all the closing costs.”

Ted and Amanda couldn’t have signed the contract quickly enough.

In those first few days, there were things to do to make the old house what they wanted it to be. Ted puttered inside and out—small projects like reinforcing the stone wall that fronted the property and trimming back the hedges. Amanda busied herself scouring antique shops in the area, looking for pieces to supplement furniture that had been shipped from the city. Andi occupied the time sulking in her room with TikTok and texting.

Life settled into a routine for the Winstons as the lazy summer days played out and nudged their way past September. Ted had connected with several new clients happy to pay the consultant’s fee for his expertise in marketing and website optimization. Amanda continued decorating the house and volunteering with a women’s group at the Methodist church they had joined. Even Andi had to grudgingly admit life in the sticks wasn’t so bad after all. She was pretty and had become a popular freshman at the local high school, with a certain cachet as the girl from the city.

As Halloween approached, when the first frost descended and the harvest moon appeared, it began.

“I had a strange experience last night,” Amanda said over coffee with Ted one morning. “At first, I thought it was a dream; but I know I was awake. I guess I was startled. It felt like something passing over me, touching me.”

“Like a breeze?”

“Well, yes and no. There was a different quality to it. I don’t quite know how to put it, but it felt as if it were pulling at me. It was very gentle, but that’s what it was like.”

“I didn’t feel a thing.”

“You?” Amanda replied with mock surprise. “You’d sleep through a hurricane. Anyway, at the same time, there was a sound that I’m sure was coming from the wall behind the bed.”

“A noise?”

“Not a noise. It’s hard to describe and doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

“Why not?”

“Because it was more like a…breath?”

Ted’s eyes narrowed. “You sure it wasn’t scratching? Mice in the ceiling?”

“No, no, not that at all. No, like an inhalation.

“An inhalation?” Now Ted was clearly skeptical. “And how long did this go on?”

“Oh, it was very brief, a matter of a few seconds.

And you’re sure you weren’t dreaming?”

“Come on, Theodore, give me some credit here.”

“Okay. Yes, I do, but maybe I should have someone check for little creatures, anyway.”

“Well, you’ll be wasting his time and our money.”

As the day unfolded and Ted got caught up working with an especially demanding client, calling an exterminator slipped from his mind. But at one point in the late afternoon, when he flipped a light switch in his office, the memory of the sensation he had felt changing the faceplate that first week in the house came back to him.

Two nights later, as he was reading in the study, he was interrupted by his daughter.

“Hey, it’s almost midnight. Shouldn’t you be asleep?”

“There’s something weird going on with my closet,” Andi said.

“Let me guess,” Ted replied. “It’s so stuffed with clothes you can’t get any more in.”

“Dad, be serious.”

“Alright. Sorry. Tell me.”

“You’re probably going to think I’ve been smoking weed or something, but I think maybe someone’s in the closet.”

Ted looked at the girl for a long moment. It was clear she wasn’t joking. “Well,” he began slowly, “you know that doesn’t make sense.”

“I know, but I can’t help it. That’s what it feels like. Will you at least come look?”

“Of course.” He followed Andi upstairs to her room and stood for a moment, facing the closed closet door. “You think you heard someone inside, moving around?”

“Not exactly moving. More like breathing and, I don’t know, kind of whispering maybe? I know it’s weird,” she said, growing more agitated.

“Okay, stay calm. Let me have a look.”

Ted opened the door slowly, reaching for the light switch at the same time.

“Bulb’s burned out,” Andi said. The closet was large enough for a person to step into, but Ted made little headway as he pawed through tightly bunched hangers. He managed to part them in several places, peering high and low. It was clear there was no one inside.

“See?” he said. “You going to be alright now?”

“I guess so,” Andi replied, looking down at the floor, embarrassed. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to throw you into panic mode, it’s just that…well, I don’t know…”

“No worries, I’m good,” he said, putting his arm around his daughter. “Now get some sleep.”

He sounded reassuring enough for the benefit of his daughter, but as he left the room and made his way back downstairs, Ted couldn’t shake his feelings of disquiet.

What is going on? Amanda with that business in the wall…now Andi and her closet? And what about his own episode? He was a rational guy, not given to flights of the fantastic, so he still believed they were nothing more than the quirks of an old house.


Halloween afternoon. Amanda had been on the move all day—errands, lunch with a friend from the church group, an hour at the gym. By the time she returned to the house, her batteries were running low.

“I know just what I need,” she said. Ted was in the city entertaining a client; he wouldn’t be home until late. Andi was getting together with a couple of girlfriends for an early-evening Halloween party. With no dinner obligations, Amanda made her first stop in the kitchen for a glass and a chilled bottle of chardonnay. Upstairs, she drew a warm bath.

After an hour luxuriating, sipping wine and listening to Enya, she was properly relaxed, so she wrapped up in a plush terry robe, reclined on her bed, and dozed off.

As dusk deepened, it commenced—a soft sigh, followed by more rhythmic breathing…in and out, in and out. It came from behind the headboard…in and out…more insistent, the breath caressing the length of Amanda’s body. She awoke to its touch, slowly coming out of her drowsiness as a slight thrill coursed through her. Relishing the pleasure, she did not open her eyes immediately. But as her awareness grew, she realized that what she was experiencing in the darkened room was the same sensation as several nights before. Allowing her eyes to flicker open, she felt herself drawn backwards with the intake of the breath which now seemed to envelop the room. From behind her came a groan, low, deep, filled with a hunger, tinged with infinite malevolence. And when Amanda dared to cast a glance back over her head, she saw what her brain told her was impossible. The exposed brickwork was moving, shifting, opening. She was seized by terror, desperate to cry for help, yet unable to utter a sound. When she attempted to rise, she was gripped by profound paralysis. Time seemed to pass with agonizing slowness as she was pulled toward what had become a gaping mouth formed by bricks and mortar. Her eyes darted wildly, but there was no escape from the force working its will on her, pulling her deeper and deeper into the hideous maw until she disappeared and the wall, with a prolonged exhalation, returned its benign face to the room.


It was just after ten when Andi was driven home by the father of her best friend, Sheila. Her party had been fun, with the girls giggling at video clips and texting with a couple of cute boys in their class who tried to scare them with lurid Halloween slasher tales.

The house was quiet when she entered and seeing the door to the master bedroom closed, with no thin line of light beneath, she assumed her mother had turned in for the night. That was fine with Andi. Mom would be full of questions about the party, and she would rather tell her all about it in the morning.

In her room, Andi dropped her cellphone on the bed. Even though she was tired, before falling asleep, she and Sheila would go through their late-night ritual of texting back and forth for a half-hour or so. Shedding her shoes and clothes, she padded to the closet for her favorite nightshirt. When she opened the door, she was immediately gripped by dread. Just as she had on that previous night, Andi sensed a presence within the closet. A shiver rippled through her, but she did her best to resist.

Oh, come on!

Hadn’t her dad investigated and found nothing? It was just her overheated imagination.

Chill! It’s Halloween, girl!


Tentatively, she reached in among the thicket of clothes, shoving hangers aside as she searched for her nightshirt. At that moment, there was a deep, sharp intake of breath as the entire closet seemed to come alive and began pulling her in. Her eyes went wide, and she opened her mouth to shout for help, but the words choked in her throat. And then, in an instant, the clothes parted, and she was sucked into the depths of the closet. The door slammed shut behind her.


The last commuter train out of the city dropped Ted at the Valley View station a few minutes before midnight. Schmoozing was not his favorite way to spend an evening, but in his business, it was a necessary evil. He was grateful he only had to drive a little over a mile to get home because, against his better judgment, he’d allowed his new client to buy a last round at the bar, and he was feeling it.

He parked his car in the driveway and entered through a side door that led into the kitchen. The house was dark, except for the illumination of two small pendant lights above a center island. As quietly as he could, he laid down his keys and started for the stairway upstairs. But within a couple of steps, he was brought up short.

What was that?

He felt a current of air brush by—brush through—him.

That smell—musty, heavy. At the same time, he sensed an aliveness to the room itself. Disoriented, he turned and put his hands back on the island.

“That’s the last goddamned time I let anyone talk me into one more for the road,” he muttered.

As he stood regaining his equilibrium, from below came a deep rumbling as if the bricks and mortar and wooden joists of the old house themselves were slowly heaving and groaning.


He shook his head, trying to clear it. “No way this can just be one too many drinks.”

It was apparent the sound was coming from the basement, so he opened one of the cabinet doors and found a flashlight, snapped it on, and started down the stairway off the far side of the kitchen.

The going was treacherous. The stairs were ancient, the treads narrow and worn. It was dark, except for the beam of his flashlight, and he hadn’t shaken the effects of the alcohol. At the bottom of the stairs, he paused to collect himself and get his bearings. The room was divided into two, with one area containing a cluttered wooden workbench and shelving; the other was a larger space with a stained enamel slop sink, water heater, and furnace. And it was there, behind the furnace, where the sound originated. Ted played the flashlight beam before him. The air had grown rank, causing him to cough and raise the back of his hand to his nose.

As he crept closer, the sound—what could only be described as the respirations of a living thing—grew louder and mixed with muffled human cries of anguish.

My God in heaven!

The flashlight flickered and dimmed as he cast the beam into the gloom between the furnace and the brick foundation. The floor seethed and buckled, separating from where it joined the wall and cracking into a hideous maw.

“What in hell!” Ted watched the monstrous chasm widen to reveal in its black depths a writhing mass of human figures, his wife and daughter among them, their eyes wide with terror, their gaping mouths shrieking for his help. “Amanda! Andi!” he cried out. The flashlight fell from his quivering hand and disappeared into the awful void just as there was a loud moan and sharp intake of breath from the pit. He flung his arms wide to resist the force, but it was too great. He was pulled inexorably toward the lip of the pit and then in, swiftly entombed, the wall and floor closing above, giving no hint to the indescribable horrors within.


It was odd, curious. In the quiet exurb of Valley View, hardly anything at all was made of the sudden absence of the Winstons. “If you don’t want the answer, best not ask the question,” so the old saying went. After some time passed since the family had last been seen by their neighbors, a listing popped up on the website of Abbadon Realty. “Charming Old Colonial in a Perfect Sylvan Setting.”

Nick Young

Nick Young

Nick Young is a retired award-winning CBS News Correspondent. His writing has appeared in more than two dozen publications including the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, The Garland Lake Review, The Remington Review, The San Antonio Review, The Best of CaféLit 11 and Vols. I and II of the Writer Shed Stories anthologies. He lives outside Chicago.

Walker – Part One by Glynn Owen Barrass

Shannon’s fascination with the spirit world stemmed from a childhood incident, though there could have been earlier occurrences she didn’t recall. Currently chatting with a friend on Facebook Messenger, she typed: 

I would have been around five, something like that. We lived in a terraced house on Longford Street, here in Middlesbrough. It being a Sunday morning, everyone else in my family was still in bed. I was used to getting up early for school though. I got dressed, went to run downstairs, and froze. At the foot of the stairs…well, how to describe it. A robed figure with a hood stood there. It wore some kind of mask with two eyeholes. It also stood behind a spinning wheel. The figure and the wheel were transparent, and sepia in colour. Scared out of my wits, I ran back to my bedroom. When I built up the courage to return downstairs, it had disappeared.

Shannon reread what she’d typed, tapped the Enter key.

She’d met her correspondent, Rainey, during a local ghost hunt. That event had proven a bust, but they always did. The trio of men who’d organized it had escorted them through a derelict theatre, spoken of apparitions witnessed and historic deaths. Newbies to this kind of event got scared and psyched up. They thought they heard noises, took photographs and recordings, hoping for EVP.

Shannon, a veteran, could tell the hosts were purposefully trying to wind people up. Good for business, she guessed.

Rainey was typing; a few moments later, his return message appeared.

Did you tell anyone? And did anything else happen in the house?

She thought for a few moments, then began her reply.

At the time, no. I didn’t tell anyone. I wish I had. My dad loved the supernatural and had lots of books on ghosts, with photographs. I sometimes wonder whether those books affected my imagination. Though I was wide awake when I saw the apparition. I should mention—I didn’t know what a spinning wheel was back then—I found out later.

A couple of things happened, though I could have imagined them. Once I awoke to find myself unable to open my eyes. A few other times, I woke and found I’d turned around, facing the other end of the bed. Could be unconnected. I dunno.

She sent the message. Rainey seemed a nice guy, level-headed and intelligent. He held a degree of skepticism she thought necessary for someone interested in the spirit world: he didn’t jump at every sound at a gathering and didn’t believe every speck of dust caught in a photograph was an orb.

While awaiting his reply, she examined the bookcase behind her monitor.

Years’ worth of collecting, from the time she was a teenager with a blossoming interest in the supernatural.

The titles included: A Dictionary of Ghosts, The Mammoth Book of True Hauntings, Ghosts: The Illustrated History, The Phantom World, Horrifying & Hideous Hauntings, On The Edge of the Etheric, The Law of Psychic Phenomena… and many more. Some were paperback, well-read with cracked spines, while others were hardcovers. Some of the latter dated back over a century, faded gilt lettering visible on their aged spines.

Many accounts described the witness waking to see a figure in their room. The phantom would quickly disappear or step through a door or wall. Shannon put these sightings down to hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations. This solved many hauntings in one fell swoop.

The books before her held Grey Ladies, White Ladies, and Brown Ladies: wandering figures witnessed at night by people hoping to see a ghost anyway.

Imagination went a long way in explaining most hauntings: imagination, night terrors, hallucinations, and lies.

Rainey’s message arrived.

Sorry, got distracted. Your incident gave me a chill, to be honest, and it’s far more believable than most I’ve read about. I feel the weirder the incident, the more plausible it is. Counterintuitive, I know. But so many so-called hauntings are very similar.

So we’re on the same wavelength, Shannon thought. She went to reply, but another paragraph appeared.

I’ve been thinking of collating events that have a weirdness to them. Nothing like the usual reports where someone finds a spirit at the foot of the bed etc. Maybe we could do this together? No headless monks or ghostly nuns. Just the truly odd. What do you think?

Shannon smiled. She’d been thinking on the exact same lines. Again she went to reply, and again, Rainey beat her to the punch.

I’ve wanted to do some real investigating. None of that ghost hunt bull, but somewhere where one of these weird incidents occurred. That’s if the place still exists and is accessible. What do you think?

Shannon thought about it. Compared to some expeditions she’d been on, this would be great.

This sounds amazing. How about we start researching and compare notes in a couple of days?

A growing thrill brought a tingling sensation to her chest. This was a good plan—a grand idea.

Rainey was typing; then:

Fantastic! Somewhere we can reach by car or bus would be ideal, but let’s see what we find?

Shannon typed, Perfect! then pressed Enter. She continued with:

You know I don’t even know your full name. Is Rainey your first name or last?


My last name is Walker, he replied.


She spent the following morning searching through books. Rainey’s idea of finding a true haunting fascinated her. After two hours of reading, however, she only had three likely candidates.

Many incidents bearing similar themes were screened out.

Various Grey, White and sometimes, Blue Ladies: nope.

The ones that read a little too much like fiction, she treated as such.

Many intriguing encounters were either in foreign countries or witnessed during medieval times or earlier.

Still, three was better than none. Using her handwritten notes, she started typing them into a Word document.

In 1908, two men in Galway took a shortcut across train tracks. The pair encountered what they described as “a nine-foot-tall apparition, stalking across the tracks. It was completely black and featureless, with arms so long, its hands swayed near its knees.” The men ran when it turned to them.

NOTE: Nine feet tall! This monstrous being certainly fits our bill. Galway is in the west of Ireland. The station’s construction dates back to 1851. It’s a possibility, but hardly a controlled environment for a visit. Locals and/or station staff could be approached to see if they know of this or any other legends. I found this incident in three different books, but I believe two might have plagiarized it.

1944. A nightwatchman, working at an east London library, did his rounds at around 3 a.m. He paused on the second floor after hearing a strange buzzing sound. Upon heading towards the area it came from, he encountered a naked man, bisected right down the middle. The watchman could see the inner workings of the apparition—the pumping heart and a bellowing lung. The figure appeared to be examining a bookcase. The watchman screamed, and with movements that suggested his missing half was merely invisible, the apparition stepped through the bookcase and disappeared.

NOTE: Half a man? Interacting with the bookcases? This incident made my imagination soar. What kind of being could this be? An interdimensional traveler? A time traveler? If so, the camouflage he used obviously wasn’t working. But I get ahead of myself. According to Google, there are nineteen libraries in east London. I can easily narrow it down by discovering when they were built. Of course, the library in question may not exist anymore. If I can find likely candidates, questioning the staff may yield results. I couldn’t cross-reference this encounter in any other books, but perhaps you can?

Shannon smiled. The two incidents were good, and at least within traveling distance. She transcribed the third incident.

1898. A station porter in Kirkstall, Leeds, pacing the platform at midnight, encountered a glowing cube floating in mid-air on the opposite platform. Frightened but curious, he crossed the tracks to gain a closer look. As he reached the platform, the cube started rotating quickly before disappearing. He noted the spot it vacated felt icy cold and remained such for some time.

NOTE: Another train station, right? And another place tricky to conduct an investigation in. Still, it’s an interesting one, close to the realms of the outré we’re both interested in. Kirkstall isn’t too far away either. I checked online, and there’s one station there, the Kirkstall Forge Station. It must be the one.

Shannon reread everything and closed the document. She felt satisfied, but wished she’d found more viable locations. After opening up Facebook and Messenger, she opened her chat with Rainey. She attached and sent the document, which she had titled: Spookystuff.

She typed:

Okay, so I’ve found a couple of decent spots that bear possible investigation. How did you do?

…and pressed Enter.

I wonder when he’ll reply, she thought, and turned to examine the stack of books she had yet to search.

Glynn Owen Barrass

Glynn Owen Barrass

Glynn Owen Barrass lives in the North East of England and has been writing since late 2006. He has written over two hundred short stories, novellas, and role-playing game supplements, the majority of which have been published in France, Germany, Japan, Poland, Portugal, the UK, and the USA. To date he has edited and co-edited ten anthologies: Anno Klarkash-Ton, Atomic Age Cthulhu, The Children of Gla’aki, Eldritch Chrome, In the Court of the Yellow King, Murder Mystery Madness and Mythos, Steampunk Cthulhu, The Summer of Lovecraft, Through a Mythos Darkly, and World War Cthulhu. He has been the co-recipient of two Ennies awards for his gaming work.

Uncle Gregory by Roly Andrews

He had come to cut me down.

I watched him approach. Weighed down by more than the chain saw he shouldered, his force evaporated space in front of him. Yet, I could see gravity taking its toll, grinding him closer to the ground, the sky pressing, squeezing, flattening him.

I saw tears in his eyes, anger in his cheeks. Early morning vapor exploded from his lungs, flumes of expelled air as vigorous as dragons’ breath, as powerful as a training horse. This man was on a mission, and I knew what it was.

He had come to cut me down.

Unafraid, I welcomed him. With a subtle cold breeze blowing, I beckoned him closer, sympathetically throwing golden leaves before him, laying a soft autumnal path. As usual, there were no birds to frighten into the skies. Superstitious; they had not rested, roosted, nor nested anywhere near me for many years. Wary, fear of guilt by association, they stayed away.

He stood before me. Tears flooding his eyes, their fall to my roots broken by taut, ruddy cheeks. The man’s trousers and shoes soaked by the splaying early morning dew lying low, dead weight on bending grass.

“You killed my son,” the man screamed at me. “You killed my son!”

Without Pīwakawaka, Mātātā, or Tui resting on my thinning foliage, nothing could hear him in the valley, which was empty except for my feckless companion the river. That stupid river, who, regardless of the mood or day, chuckled and gurgled on its way toward town. Idiot.

“Why? Oh God, why?” the man pleaded.

I wish I could have answered him. I wish I could have told him, but my function isn’t to speak. Mine is pure and simple: elemental conversion, particle transfer. I take carbon people expel, replace it with oxygen so they can breathe. So, to accuse me of killing anyone is ridiculous; if it weren’t for me, well, there would be no one alive to kill!

The man was angry and in pain; I understood that. What the man didn’t know was that I was mad and in agony as well.

Even before the first suicide, I’d lived a lonely life. Cursed; birds have always stayed away, except occasional Moho Pererūs flying by to laugh and gloat at my misery. Insects and possums, too, steer well clear. So, I live an almost companionless existence. My only company, the laughing river, the warming sun, and passing selfish clouds, all out of reach and only ever focused upon themselves.

Occasionally, an ambling angler tracing the river, or young lovers making out in the country, picnickers indulging under the shade of my arbor, kept me company, but not often. Since the farmer cleared the glade, there was little reason to visit a solitary elm four hundred meters from the roadside and miles from town.

But this week, I’ve had lots of visitors: the man’s son Jessie, a hiker who found him hanging in my limbs, lots of police, a priest, and a Kaumatua. All of them coming to see Jessie! And now the father was here to see me.

Here to cut me down.

“Jessie, oh Jessie,” the man spluttered, now kneeling before me. “Why?”

I felt for the man. I wanted to wrap my limbs and roots around him. Reach out—touch him, hold him as I was once held, touched. Alleviate his pain. While the laws of nature and physics restrict my interventions, the law of Divine Oneness applies to every single living entity in the universe. At the most basic level, this man and I were the same, connected, a combination of atoms, that’s all—pure carbon! Just as I had been to Jessie. I wanted the man to understand that.

‘Elm hateth man and waiteth.’

I could have concentrated, dropped a limb off my trunk, given him a sign and a fright. Just as I had done before when trying to save others. People who wanted to abuse my stature or stain my reputation. But what was the point in trying to save myself? He had come to cut me down. There was nothing I could physically do to stop that. So, I had to try to reach him emotionally.

Looking inward, I traced the rings of the seasons and years. I searched my whakapapa, my mana. I searched for something we had in common, something I could use to connect with the man. Then, almost immediately, I found it. It happened a long time ago, but it appeared before me as if it were yesterday.

Love and death. Everything was connected. Love and death, the guilt that follows; the banes of existence.


The day was bright and hot. It was summer, late afternoon. I looked around and saw my brothers and sisters. We were standing together; we were one, a glade of leafy trees connected by more than geography. Birdsong filled the air. It had been hot for a while because I remember the soil feeling cool. Its gritty texture telling my parched roots it hadn’t rained for a while. They stretched, reaching out like a languid cat on a mat. It felt good.

A group of young farm lads ran toward us, about six of them, rough-and-tumble with scabby knees and nitty hair. They were joking, laughing, their din threatening to drown out the birds, who simply chirped and sang louder. They were in no danger, and they knew it, perching on the highest branches, gossiping amongst themselves, eagerly waiting to see what developed. Some boys were carrying planks of wood, another a hammer. Another one must have brought some nails. As they reached the glade, the planks were discarded to the ground. The boys, hands on hips, surveyed the trees.

Pick me, pick me, I thought, please pick me. I didn’t know what they were going to do, but whatever it was, it was likely to be fun. The boys were so excited. It was contagious.

“What about this one?” a short boy with fair hair called out after looking me up and down.

“Nah,” his mates called back. “It’s too short, too squat; its branches go out, not up. Not high enough to build a decent hut. We want a really tall one!”

They selected one of my brothers. I couldn’t hide my jealousy, my branches waving in the breeze in envy, my drying leaves loudly chattering displeasure.

Such was his excitement that my brother didn’t seem to mind when the nails pierced his trunk. He stood straight and tall as ever, his branches reaching for the sky. I took a sideways glance at mine, reaching and swaying sideways like lonely Greek dancers. The sky smiled, the river giggled, the clouds ignored me, and I felt short and silly.

That afternoon, the boys built their hut: a ramshackle multi-level mess, piled and latched onto my brother like a cluster of reishi mushrooms. Oh, my goodness, the boys had fun! “No girls or grown-ups allowed!” they yelled.

All summer, they laughed, joked, tried smoking cigarettes. Once, one lad even brought a bottle of warm beer. They came, played war, cops and robbers, Olympics, cowboys and Indians; you name it—they played it. They played all summer, returning at all hours, sometimes in the early mornings before dawn. They even slept out, camping in their hut, staying up all night, toasting marshmallows, frying pancakes on an upturned baking soda tin, and guzzling raspberry pop. Fun days that ended in late January when the school bus came and took them all away.

Over the next few years, they still came, but far less frequently. They grew up, rugby, school, their fathers’ farms, then girls all stealing time and attention. Their young brothers didn’t share the same joy in their hut, and of course, girls weren’t allowed! The glade wasn’t the same without the boys; now, the birds sang quietly, whistling stunted mutterings under their beaks. The summers didn’t seem quite as hot. The sound of the capricious river took over.

My brother became sick. His bark grew lesions, spots appearing on his foliage, such was his melancholy, his limbs drooped. My family and I tried to jolly him, but sadness overtook him. Once the tallest of our family, his previously erect posture became bendy and stooped, while his limbs became brittle and hard. It was hard to watch; we could do nothing to stop his decline.


Many seasons later, a young girl came running into the glade. I didn’t know who she was or where she came from. Barefoot and crying, she was hanging onto her cloth dolly as if her life depended on it.

“We must hide,” she said. “He mustn’t find us, Clara!”

I couldn’t see anyone else, so I presumed she was talking to her doll. I watched her grasping in vain, trying to reach the lonely fraying rope the boys used to climb up into their hut. Despite valiant attempts, she was too short. She looked around, eventually deciding I offered the best alternative for hiding.

“This good tree will protect us, won’t he,” she said, walking around my base, patting my trunk, before sitting down behind me, hidden from the paddock, from where she came.

“We’ll have to be quiet, Clara, no more crying, alright? Father will be very cranky, and Mother will be beside herself. I’m sure Mother has already sent Father out for us. But you don’t need to worry. I won’t let her put you in the washing machine!”

Thirty minutes later, a man’s voice boomed across the paddock, “Jocelyn, where are you? Come on, it’s nearly teatime! Joss, come on. Joss—Mummy said she won’t wash Clarabelle. She promises. She said if you wanted, the two of you could have a bath together instead.”

“Shush, Clara.” She raised her index finger to Clara’s lips. “Try not to make a sound. Daddy might go away if he doesn’t see or hear us.”

Her father walked closer. He examined my dead brother, pulled himself up, looking into the empty hut.

“Jocelyn,” he yelled again, half cupping his hands into a primitive megaphone. “Joss, where are you?”

“Shush,” Jocelyn whispered again.

Jocelyn’s father strolled amongst the glade, initially walking away from me.

Jocelyn giggled. “Silly,” she said.

At the end of the glade, he turned back, walking toward me. That’s when he spotted her.

“Oh, Joss, I’ve been calling you. Did you not hear me?”

Realizing the game was up, she stood, brushed off the dust, and laughed. “We were hiding from you!”

Her father laughed. “Yes, I was a right silly billy and you a mischievous little ratbag!”

“It was Clara. She wanted to run away. She hates being washed, and she’s so scared of the wringer.”

“Well, she’s worse than you, but do you and Clara want a piggyback home? Mummy’s making googie eggs and soldiers for tea.”


“Come on then, jump on. This horsey wants to take you home.”

Within a few minutes, Jocelyn was gone. I felt sad. I was a good tree, and I had protected her. She patted me. I felt important; connected. I was part of her world. I hoped but never thought I would see her again. I was wrong.

She and Clara visited me often, sitting under my canopy, throwing tea parties, drawing, singing, dancing. I think I grew six feet that year!

“You can call me Joss,” she said to me once. “Everyone else does. And I’m going to call you Uncle Gregory. I’ve always wanted an Uncle Gregory! And you are the best Uncle Gregory in the world.”

My leaves turned a vivid green, my bark crinkled, and I stood up straighter. Hundreds of birds flew to my branches, all wanting in on the attention and love Joss was unselfishly dishing out. The best thing of all was she didn’t even know she was doing it. She was young. She was as innocent, sweet, and warm as the first scented breeze of spring.

Joss grew too, although, unlike the boys, she kept returning. Over time, the graying and raggedy Clara was replaced by a diary, tea parties evolved into picnics, and pigtails grew into a long-braided ponytail. How I loved her company. How I loved how she read to me from the books she borrowed from the town library. My favorites were The Chronicles of Narnia, Joss acting out various scenes. Peering into the glade, ensuring she could still glimpse the open doorway of the wardrobe back to the empty imagination-free room from where she had set out.

Yes, the glade glowed when Joss visited. It was full of sound and movement, light dancing between the leaves, levity floating in the air. Even if she was simply lying under my canopy staring into the sky, making fun of the stupid clouds, she emitted grace and life.

“Uncle Gregory, I need to tell you something. I hope you don’t mind, but you are such a good listener…”

I must have heard her say it a thousand times. Joss sharing secrets she knew I would never spill. Telling me of her hopes, fears, and infatuations. We shared an intimacy I never thought possible. She would hug me, tie ribbons to me, sit hard against me, her back resting on my trunk while she read or thought. She sang songs for me. “Don’t Let the Stars Get in your Eyes” was her favorite. I should have listened to Perry Como. Frankie Laine sang, “I Believe,” and I did. I was a silly tree; I felt special when I had no right to. I was a foolish tree; I started to crave the company of humans. Not all, just one. A young woman named Jocelyn.

My brothers and sisters accused me of being smug, and in return, I cursed their jealousy. They were wrong; they were unenlightened on the relationship between man and tree, or in this case, girl and tree.

One day Joss told me about symbiosis after a science lesson.

“Symbiosis means a mutualistic relationship,” she said.

Symbiosis came from Greek and meant “to live together.”

And, while she never said it, I was sure she was referring to us! I told my brothers and sisters. They laughed, turning their backs on me, calling me haughty and arrogant. After that, I became possessive and angry, telling the clouds off when they blocked the sun and stopped Joss from visiting me, shaking my limbs if the birds dared to come too close. After a while, they stopped coming. I don’t think Joss ever noticed the birdsong filling the glade was coming from around—not above her.

One day, I noticed a “For Sale” sign on the road. The glade, the paddock, and surrounding fields were being sold. Not long afterwards, two men came walking toward the glade. Both were carrying something I’d never seen before. They had purpose in their stride, cradling a demon in their hands.

“The farmer wants these trees taken down, Bruce. All but one to provide shelter for the horses he’s going to run.”

The men looked around.

“This one here will make the best shelter—it’s gotta wider canopy; more shade.”

I didn’t know what they were going to do until they started doing it. My beautiful brothers and sisters were cut down one by one; there was nothing I could do to save them. My bark wept, my branches tensing and grimacing as the men used their mechanical swords to turn my family into logs, chips, and dust.

Stop it—stop it! I tried to scream. But I could only stand by and watch as my family was cut down then decapitated. Split into fire-size chunks. I wailed my respects and farewell.


Ashes to ashes, dust to dust

From carbon, we grew 

And return, we must


Man killed the fuel

That he fed to the fire

Matter to gas, via a ravenous pyre


Goodbye to the earth

Return to the sky

Recycle our atoms; say our goodbyes.


My family had been cut down!

The birds fled, never to return. I grew bitter, my leaves curling over in hatred, all the while the river laughed. I cursed. The clouds danced, and I cursed again. I cursed so much even the insects deserted me.

Jocelyn visited me the following week. The day was gray, clouds blocking the sun, making a dull day feel like forever.

“Oh, Uncle Gregory,” she cried, “what have they done? All the beautiful trees, all gone—why, oh why?”

I could hear sobs, I could see tears, I could feel her pain. I was sure she could feel mine. She hugged me sympathetically, wrapping her arms around my trunk, pressing her face and body hard against me.

“You poor tree,” she whispered, “you are the last one left. I am so sorry; I can’t believe it.”

I am the last one left; her words resonated deep within me.

I was the last one left; I am the last one!

The boys, the farmer, the men with the mechanical swords, I detested them all.


The following winter, I hardly saw Joss. The season had been a wet one, clouds and the river gathering forces to mock and frustrate me. When the clouds covered the sun, the river roared with delight in response to the rain. Twice jumping out of its banks to tease me, soak my base. It was becoming bold.

The spring brought the return of the sun, and thankfully Joss. Although this season, Joss returned with a young man she called Gary, her so-called boyfriend. I didn’t know what she saw in him. He was tall and gangly. He had pimples and spots and seemed awkward in her company. Like a wilding pine, he seemed to pop up without notice and invitation. He had the stride of a praying mantis and the presence of a woodlouse, his spindly limbs springing from baggy shorts and tight shirts. He gave me the shits!

Joss gave him coddles and cuddles.

What are you doing here? Who invited you?

I wanted to attack him, let him know I stood the tallest in the empty glade. I knew Joss more than he did!

As spring rolled into summer, the two of them shared sickening picnics, scoffing sandwiches, lying together in the sun. His white legs protruding foolishly from hand-me-down khaki shorts, his warty hands holding hers. They lay there for hours, looking up at the sky, playing guessing games with flippant clouds. They whispered secrets, shared gossip, and spoke in cutesy-wootsy, a dialect for the deliriously deranged.

Then one day in January, right in front of me, they kissed!

Stop, stop. I wanted to scream. You can’t kiss; stop it!

But of course, I couldn’t, and of course, they didn’t. Instead, they kissed some more, then more again. They kissed so much I worried their faces would merge. Then I saw Joss quickly pull away; Gary was trying to unbutton her blouse.

“No,” she commanded, “no, Gary, please.”

He ignored her, his hands paring away her defenses.

“No, Gary, I don’t want to. I’m not like that. I’m not ready for this.”

Still, he ignored her.

I tried shaking my limbs, I tried dropping leaves, I called on the absent wind to blow, the fickle clouds to rain. I wanted to help her.

“No,” she screamed again, slapping his face then kneeing his groin. Tears streamed down her face.

“Why Gary?” she asked. “I liked you; you just had to wait. I just wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready.”

He responded with a groan.

“I never want to see you again, and I’m going to tell my father.” She turned and ran across the paddock past the horses, her long locks trailing behind her. I didn’t know it then, but that was the last time I ever saw her.

It was dusk on the same day when Gary unexpectedly returned. He looked worse for wear, limping toward me; I could see there was swelling around both eyes, the skin around them turning black. His lips were fat; there was speckled blood caked on the corner of his nostrils. His head hung low, his shoulders curled forward.

He was carrying a rope.

I wondered if he would make a hut, as the boys had used a rope when they built a hut on my brother. Suddenly, Gary went up in my estimation! Perhaps he wasn’t so bad after all. He climbed up on a lower limb and threw a length of rope over a higher one. Tying one end of the rope to the limb he was standing on, he made a noose with the other. Then, without fuss, he placed the noose over his head, tightened it, and jumped.

He hadn’t said a word. He hadn’t cried out or even contemplated. There was no hesitation. One minute he was climbing me. The next minute, he was hanging from me—dead. I honestly didn’t know what he was about to do. What species of living things sets out to deliberately kill themselves?

I felt sick. I felt dirty. I didn’t like him, that was true, but I did not wish him dead. My primary function is elemental conversion. I keep people alive by transferring carbon into oxygen. This was all wrong.

The lazy and recalcitrant wind now appeared, swaying Gary to and fro, rocking him, cradling him in its wispy fingers. The wind was too late and careless. The clouds parted, allowing the moon to stare down in soft light and sympathy. I looked at this young man, full of pimples and promise, his essence expunged by hormones and an underdeveloped frontal lobe.

What was achieved?

I thought of my dead brothers and sisters.

What was the point?

How do you make sense of the nonsensical?

I wanted Gary out of me. His dead body made me feel sick. With the help of the wind, I shook him, but he would not fall; the rope would not snap. He simply hung, slowly swinging. He stayed there until he was spotted mid-afternoon the next day. By then, his face was bloated and discolored. The people who collected him hardly said a word. Gary’s body was given more respect than he had probably ever received while he lived. He was taken away.

I waited for Joss. I wanted to comfort her, tell her it was not my fault, that I never wished for this to happen. I waited for days. Then weeks. Seasons came and went. But she never returned. I was truly alone.


The man beneath me sobbed loudly. I knew that pain. The agony of losing someone you love through no fault of your own. This is what we shared. I shed more leaves, tried to touch him. The leaves falling softly to the ground like the tears he spilled.

After Gary, there were others. Three others!

The first was an old man, sad and lonely. He used his belt to strangle himself, wrapping it around my lowest branch and slumping forward on his knees. I wanted to autotomy whatever limb it took to save him. But then he spoke to me, telling me he had lost his wife to cancer and now wanted to join her. He missed her and couldn’t carry on without her. I knew his pain; I believed I could feel it. So, I helped him on his way by gently pulling back my branch as he slumped forward. He passed quickly, without fear or struggle.

The next was another young man. He was angry. He cried how life was unfair, how he didn’t want to be gay. I didn’t understand what he meant, but I understood his pain. The young man procrastinated. It seemed he was unsure whether he wanted to die. I concentrated, I focused on my lowest branch, willing it to drop. I did not want to be part of the death of someone who did not want to die. It duly fell, crashing to the ground, landing on top of the young man. Dazed, he slowly got up and cried. After ten minutes, he ran toward the road, and I never saw him again.

Jessie came. Just last week. He was young, handsome. He didn’t appear depressed; he didn’t appear angry. I imagined he was the type who was good in class, drove the coolest car, had the prettiest girl. A winner. He was well dressed and carried himself with confidence—his demeanor at odds with the rope he held. I knew what was coming. I wanted to stop him but knew dropping limbs would not achieve this, so I concentrated.

I asked the wind to intervene, to blow a gale, create a maelstrom. It ignored me. I begged the clouds to help, to throw lightning down, hail, anything. They looked the other way. River, river, I cried out, do something! It pretended not to hear. We were on our own, the lad and I. Love and death!

Elm loveth man and saveth.

Please help, I pleaded to no one. I felt helpless; there was no one there to hear. Jessie and I were connected. We became one. I took on his pain—stole it from him and gave him my love in return. I urged him to stop, begged. When it was clear I could do no more, I wept for him. I embraced him and made sure he did not suffer. Poor Jessie.

Now, it started to rain, coming down in sheer sheets of starched bitterness. The man stood, pulled his collar around his neck, zipped his jacket. He picked up his mechanical sword, pulled the cord.

It roared to life; it was a sound I remembered well. It was the sound of my family’s demise, and now it was my turn. I looked skyward, waiting for the first cut.

I heard a woman’s voice call faintly above the din.

“Hey there. Hello—you! Good morning—are you the farmer? What are you doing?”

The raucous stutter of the sword, his focus on his task, meant he didn’t hear.

The woman started running toward him.

“I say, hello—can you hear me? Good morning.”

The man looked up in surprise, switched off the rotating blade.

The woman was old. She wore a pink hooded padded coat and woolly mittens. She was wrapped up against the weather like a marshmallow I had watched the boys eat years ago.

Years ago, yes, years ago. A bell was ringing in the damp silence. I looked more closely. It couldn’t be, I thought. It looked like Joss, but she was old; she was much smaller.

“Are you the farmer?” she asked.

“What’s it to you?” the man asked, bristling at the intrusion.

“This is an old tree, but it is still healthy. Why would you cut it down?

“Because it kills people. And anyway, it’s none of your business.”

“What do you mean, it kills people?”

“My son.” The man’s eyes welled up. “My son hanged himself in this tree. And I know he was not the first either. This tree is cursed.”

“Oh, I am so sorry to hear that,” Joss replied. “Yes, I know your son was not the first. My first boyfriend also hanged himself here. That was over sixty years ago!”

“So, you know then,” the man cried. “We have to stop it from happening again.”

“Yes,” Joss sympathized. “But cutting it down will mean people will just go elsewhere—it won’t end their suffering. Unfortunately, I am sorry to say people will go somewhere else.”

The man fell to his knees, dropped the sword. “What can I do?” he wailed.

Joss moved closer, also fell to her knees. She hugged the man.

“I am so sorry—so sorry. I do not know what it is like for you. I can only imagine your heart feeling like lead; that’s what I felt. Only you will know the depth of your agony; it’s an indescribable grief, a gnawing. It is a journey only you can take. Others may guide you, give you advice, but you travel alone. I am sorry. Love and death, then guilt, can tear you apart.

“This is the first time I have returned to this place—the spot where my boyfriend chose to end his life. Up until now, I’ve tried to block this place out of my mind. I’ve spent many years, my entire life, trying to rationalize the irrational. How my father’s hiding, how denial of a quick summer grope could result in death. It doesn’t make sense, it never made any sense, yet it happened. But none of it—I say none of it—was the tree’s fault.”

“What am I to do?” the man cried.

Two days later, Joss returned. She was on her own.

She smiled. “It’s nice to see you, Uncle Gregory. It’s been too long. Do you remember me?”

I bent toward her as she patted my trunk.

“We have had sad lives, you and I. And mine will be over soon enough. I am old now, and I’ve stayed away far too long, my friend. I’m sorry. You were such a good friend to me, and I have never forgotten.

“I want you to know, I have purchased this land. I intend to return it to a wetland like it was before you were here. I want the birds to return, the river to come closer, I want people to come. It will be called Gary and Jessie’s Reserve.

“And when my time comes, I want my ashes to be laid amongst your roots. Will that be okay?”

How I wanted to talk, how I wanted to touch her, but my function isn’t to speak or touch; mine is pure and simple: elemental conversion, particle transfer.

That will be fine, I thought.

Joss continued to visit and help with the planting of reeds and natives. Jessie’s father helped too.

Two years later, I heard the booming call of a Matuku, telling me Joss had passed.

We would soon be one.

Roly Andrews

Roly Andrews

Roly Andrews lives in Nelson, NZ, in his spare time he enjoys tramping. After many years of practising, he is still trying to learn to play the trombone! A champion for everyone, he has mentored rough sleepers and supported people affected by suicide. He advocates for the rights of people living with disabilities.

The Harvest Wheel – Part Three by Barend Nieuwstraten III

Months went by and the first batch of carrots were ready, then potatoes about a month later, followed by the wheat that grew far healthier than that which had been growing when Uldry first came to the village. The cabbage was ready around the same time. While the berry bushes grew, it would be a year or two before they bore fruit and the young apple plants a dozen more before they became trees.

The important thing to most was that the village was saved and now had a future again. The children too young to leave would not do so, now that they were inheriting a legacy of bountiful agriculture. It would be a few years before they were ready to see trade routes restored, but they’d soon have enough to send their own carts out to sell their produce to nearby towns.

Any cynicism for Uldry had long been washed away. He was a celebrated mayor and a savior. He took a young bride with her parents’ blessing and married her in the chapel before the whole village. It became a Solday evening tradition that Brother Lemruld join them for dinner in the mayor’s hall along with Belendra and Gurnen.

“It has been some months, and all has grown well,” the abbion said, on one such night. He tore his bread to dab in his stew of potato, carrot, cabbage, and onion. “Yet the seventh harvest has yet to sprout.”

Gurnen nodded. “Nor does the soil, if you could call it that, spread far. It makes only a moist dirt that stains fingers red like beetroot.”

Uldry interlocked his fingers in contemplation. “Are there not root vegetables that grow only underground?”

“Not without leaves to catch the sun,” Belendra said.

“What of truffles?” Brother Lemruld asked. “Perhaps something like that was planted.”

There was an exchange of looks as each pondered the possibility.

“Though I don’t know how long they take to be ready,” Uldry said. “The original planting under the harvest wheel should not be touched. All else, once sprouted, lets us know when they are ready by following the rules of those plants. Without a sign of some kind, I’m not inclined to go digging. But I suppose there’s little choice. It has been some months.”

Gurnen nodded. “As I say, the soil has not spread very far. Perhaps we should look at one in the morning.”


The next day, Gurnen, Belendra, and Uldry met and together went to inspect one of the mysterious small patches of the seventh harvest. Gurnen dropped to his knees and began digging the soil out with his hands. His fingers reddened, and when he scooped the soil out, it revealed a cone-shaped hole with an elongated slit that went deeper. From it, wiry roots reached up and some threaded into the surrounding earth.

“This ground is quite hard,” Gurnen said, trying to widen the hole with his hands. “No, firm would be the word. There’s give, but it resists.” He struggled with it. “I think I need a spade.”

“Pull at the roots,” Belendra suggested.

Gurnen shrugged and gathered what he could in his fingers. He made to pull upward, but again struggled. “It’s barely enough to grab, but there’s definitely something at the other end. Something I think rooted in more than one direction.”

“What have they planted?” Belendra asked. She turned to Uldry. “Should we dig it up?”

Uldry stroked his now cropped and tidy beard. “I don’t know. I’m still hesitant to interfere with what the harvest wheel has provided. I cannot say for sure, but I fear that such defiance may undo all other good that has come.”

Gurnen looked up. “I think so too. It may be best left alone for now. We have five things growing scattered in abundance. We have two sorts of fruit baring trees on their way. Whatever this is, it can wait.” He pushed the muddy red soil back into the hole and patted it down.


More months passed and more of each harvest grew. With healthy fertile soil spreading, folk from Huskwood went to other towns and brought back seedlings and saplings to plant. Transferring the contents of their pots and clay boxes to the now healthy earth, they instead grew herbs about their homes to season what now grew plentiful.

It had been nearly a year since Uldry first came to the village with his harvest wheel. Though all had been done, it had become a tradition to turn the Harvest Wheel every eve. Gurnen was always the one to aid their mayor in the duty and Belendra always attended. Uldry brought the tool, enchanted by some ancient craft, but while he had been the most knowledgeable of it, he admittedly did not know every detail. No one ever pressed him on how he came to be in possession of it or where he obtained it. All prayers had been answered and no one really wanted to tempt fate by pushing beyond.

As prayers were concerned, however, Brother Lemruld sent word to the Citadel of Light, to have men from his order inspect the harvest wheel. There were questions to be answered as far as his order was concerned and he wanted men of the faith to make some determination. A small wagon arrived in Huskwood, bringing a priest, a monk, and a warden, who were offered the inn in which to stay by Mayor Uldry.

The mayor allowed them to examine it as long as they didn’t interfere with it or disturb the earth beneath it. The priest, Father Andlen, and the monk studied it for days while the warden stood watch, protecting them. The only man in the village in armor and carrying a sword, he was an imposing presence that bothered the mayor. He never took his eyes off them during Solday mass, Belendra noticed.

That evening, when Brother Lemruld joined the mayor with Gurnen and Belendra for their weekly dinner together, Uldry kept probing the abbion with questions.

“So, has this Father Andlen made any determinations about the harvest wheel so far?” Uldry asked, slowly stirring his stew.

“They don’t believe it to be the work of witchcraft,” the abbion said earnestly. “So, that’s encouraging. They believe it might even be a lost artifact. One devoted to the Twelve. Specifically, Hamlur.”

Uldry slowly tightened his eyes into a squint as he continued to stir his dinner without purpose.

“That is encouraging,” Belendra said. “If it is, then it means our prayers were answered most directly.”

“If it is, or if they at least decide it is, what then?” Uldry asked the abbion. “Does Huskwood await the approval of this priest for the vessel of its salvation? Or does the order mean to declare it a sacred relic and abscond with it to their high mountainous city, to add it to their collection, where it will serve no one?”

“Surely, they would not,” Belendra said. “Not while it is aiding us so.”

Gurnen put his spoon down as he looked at the chapel’s caretaker and village confidant. “I should hope that all they have come to do then, is to set our minds at ease that the wheel is indeed something made in the light of the Twelve, and to make our abbion a priest, once and for all.”

“I would be honored, of course, if that were the outcome of their visit,” Brother Lemruld said. “But I must concede to whatever determination Father Andlen makes. I would not have them take away what has—”

“It is not theirs to take,” Uldry said, agitated. “I brought the harvest wheel to this place. It was in my possession. No voice guided me here. No apparition or celestial being presented themselves to me and gave instruction. I heard of a place that was suffering and chose to put what I had to use to benefit the village. Yes, I claimed a price or two. Two empty buildings. One to live in and the title that comes with it, and the other to make coin when life returned, which I have given these visitors full access to as shelter. They would be poor guests indeed if they meant to rob me.”

“We all greatly appreciate what you have done, of course,” Brother Lemruld said. “But to speak of robbery at the hands of a priest of the order, whilst serving as mayor of a village of the faithful is territory I’m not sure I’m comfortable with.”

“The thought brings me no peace, I can assure you,” Uldry said. “I’m merely guessing at their intentions, and while I’m sure they’ll be chosen with pious intent, the result would vary little from my…interpretation.”

“It is true,” Gurnen said. “We are a faithful people. For all we’ve suffered and watched wane, our faith never faltered. But I imagine no warm reception to even the order itself, removing the one thing that has restored our village and hope to us.”

Belendra tightened her grip on her spoon as she grew concerned at the events yet to unravel. If the order wished to take the harvest wheel, there would be little the village could do to dissuade them. Even if they chose a confronting manner and successfully deterred them, those visiting would merely come back with far more than one warden to carry out the duty they deemed necessary.


Father Andlen and his companions stayed within Huskwood for some days, having his monk companion take down notes and draw detailed pictures of the harvest wheel to take back to the citadel. They examined the plants and took some of the grown soil and put it in a small box. Uldry’s fears were at least subdued when they announced their last night in Huskwood, taking only their findings back with them and not the wheel itself. Though Uldry and Gurnen had raised sufficient suspicion between them and a few others, assembling many to see them off the morning they were due to leave.

While the warden and monk were packing their things into the back of their wagon, one of the villagers called out.

“Come,” he said. “Look.”

Those nearest gathered about him, and soon all followed. When Belendra found a gap in the small gathering, she saw a red gaping hole in the ground where one of the unsprouted patches of the seventh harvest had been. Inside, the hole was empty and though the soil from above had fallen inside, the interior of the hole was not that of dirt but a strange red lining, almost like a giant cabbage leaf, but thick and still moist. Someone reached in to feel it and withdrew their hand covered in what looked like blood.

The visiting priest, monk, and warden pulled people away to gain a better look. They furrowed their brows in concern as Belendra’s gaze followed a red trail in the dirt of drag marks in the surrounding ground. Marks that led northwest. Curious, Belendra followed them, and the others followed her.

From the group, others branched off from time to time, pointing out other holes in the ground where the seventh harvest had manifested. All the same, open and strange, with the same markings leading in the same direction. The further they traveled, the fewer places the trails could be leading.

“Deneld and Melina’s home,” Belendra realized. She took a few steps more before her husband grabbed her arm, halting her, as the rest of the group overtook them. He shook his head when she looked at him for an explanation.

“Melina,” he said, gathering his thoughts.

Uldry stopped also, not understanding why the pair had stopped. “What is it? Are you not curious?”

Gurnen shook his head. “I know now what was sewn on the seventh cycle. Grief and madness. What that has yielded, I fear to seek.”

“What are you talking about?” Uldry asked.

“All this renewal that has blessed our baron land, making it fertile again and growing things. Word traveled fast when the potatoes, the carrots, the wheat, and onions sprouted. Reclusive as she is, word must have reached Melina. A woman whose womb has failed on six occasions to deliver life to six children.”

“Her sixth buried just before you arrived,” Belendra said, supplementing her husband’s explanation.

Uldry looked to the small crowd, leaving them behind in pursuit of a curiosity that had plagued the back of their minds. One that had been buried under far too much rejoicing to elsewise occupy their attention for long. Realization blanched his face. “Gods no.” He looked back to the place where the harvest wheel sat, no longer in view of where they stood. “No, but surely that would yield no result,” he said, practically pleading with reason as he shuddered at the thought. “What madness would conceive of such a notion? What kind of mind—”

“One overburdened by grief,” Gurnen said.

“Deep maternal grief,” Belendra added.

“But that shouldn’t have yielded anything,” Uldry said defiantly, as he looked upon the nearest hole. An earthy bloody womb in the ground.

“Something has clearly been taken from each of them,” Belendra said.

“Or crawled out,” Gurnen suggested.

This time, it was Belendra who shuddered. “I do not wish to see what lies ahead, but I must. She is our friend. She and Deneld.”

The three briskly resumed walking, catching up to the others shortly before the small crowd reached the house. Upon the ground were six tiny graves marked by six posts. One had been dug up some time ago and left open. Deneld walked out of the house, looking upon his sparse neighbors with a face that had seen too much. His eyes went quickly to the order’s representatives as Belendra quickly went to him.

“What has happened, Deneld?” she asked him, while Gurnen came also to his side. Together, they led him away from the house.

“She…” was all he managed to say, shaking his head before looking back at the house. His chest and shoulders rose and fell as he stood, breathing deeply.

“What?” Belendra asked.

“By the Twelve, man,” Gurnen shook him. “What’s in there?”

The bewildered man’s eyes darted about, making Gurnen release him and turn for the house.

“Don’t,” Deneld warned. “Don’t go in there.”

While Gurnen stopped and looked back at his friend, Father Andlen urged his companions forward, allowing the warden to take the lead as the monk followed behind. The three entered the house, while the locals hesitated. Uldry stood ahead of the small crowd with Brother Lemruld waiting to see what happened next.

Soon after entering, the monk accompanying the priest backed quickly out of the house, almost tripping on his own robes as he turned to flee. Belendra could take no more mystery and ran to the house as both her husband and Deneld called for her.

Inside, the priest and warden were both backed into walls as they looked upon the site before them. Melina sat on the floor, surrounded by, and covered in, dozens of small figures. Little more than a foot in height, they were gaunt infants. Small skeletons, barely covered in bloody gray flesh, with wiry roots growing from earthy folds in their anaemic skin. They were somewhere between dead infants and a mandrake-like root, only animate. Some clung to her, smearing blood upon her clothes with their tiny hands as she smiled through tears, while others crawled and waddled awkwardly about her. They looked at her with hollow eyes as she patted and caressed their small bloody heads.

“Look, Belendra,” she said, proudly. “See my children. All and more. They have returned to me.”

Belendra staggered back to the door, her mouth agape in horror. A litter of stillbirths returned in madness and some ancient magic. She slid backwards through the door, hearing the priest name them, “Abominations,” in a fearful whisper.

The warden drew his sword, but Belendra did not stay to witness whatever dark duty followed.


Barend Nieuwstraten

Barend Nieuwstraten

Barend Nieuwstraten III grew up and lives in Sydney, Australia, where he was born to Dutch and Indian immigrants. He has worked in film, short film, television, music, and online comics. He is now primarily working on a collection of stories set within a high fantasy world, a science fiction alternate future, often dipping his toes in horror in the process. With fifty stories published in anthologies, he continues to work on short stories, stand-alone novels, and an epic series. A discovery writer not knowing what will happen when he begins typing, he endeavours to drag his readers on the same unknown journey through the fog of his subconscious.