Vengeance that cannot be delegated

(The Swedish version can be found here)

”How the fuck could the cars be empty? Our guy in Ventspils checked and sealed every fucking thing before the ferry left the har–“

“I don’t know”, he snapped. He glanced at Maks from the corner of his eye before his attention returned to the road.

He was in the fast lane and speeding so goddamned fast that the surrounding lights turned into long neon lines in the periphery. Why the hell did you have to fucking drive all the way down to the Kungsholmen island to get from the Värtahamnen harbor to Tomteboda?

“This whole thing is gonna go to hell, straight to fucking hell”, he heard Yousef mumbling from the backseat. His foot was drumming nervously against the floor, and the panic in his voice could not be mistaken or anything else. “What’s gonna happen now? What did he say? Why did he want to meet–“

“Shut the fuck up, I just told you I don’t know.” He shot Yousef a sharp look through the rear-view mirror.

His eyes then moved to the cellphone in his lap, to the message on the screen: Meet me in the usual place. Now. The number was new of course, but there were no doubts about the identity of the sender.

“I’m sure Lambert just wants to talk”, he heard himself say as the car left the Northern Link tunnel and emerged in the open beneath the light polluted night sky. “We’re gonna figure this out. We’ll just pull some strings, cash in some favors. Compensate him for the shit that’s gone missing. We’ll figure this out.”

His voice, as usual, was deceptively composed and calm, but on the inside he wanted nothing more than to scream and slam the wheel until his hands were numb. This was so fucking bad.

Wares for hundreds of thousands of kronor were gone without a trace, and no matter how this could have happen, it was his fault and the entire blame would fall upon him. The. Entire. Fucking. Blame.

The knot in his stomach continued to grow as he steered the car through Stadshagen, over the Ekelunds Bridge and up towards Solna.

“He just wants to talk”, he repeated, but so quietly this time that the others might not even have heard him. The words, however, sounded empty even in his own ears, and after that no one spoke until the car turned into the desolate industrial area.

Two cars were already parked in front of the dark warehouse. He wondered who – probably more than one person – that Lambert had brought to the meeting.

Normally, it would have been himself, Maks and Yousef, but this was not normally. Not by a long stretch. 

“Are… all of us going in?”, Yousef asked hesitantly as the car came to a standstill in the empty parking lot in front of the building.

“Of course”, Maks snapped. “There’s three of us in this shit, and no one is gonna face the consequences alone.”

He then opened the passenger door and stepped out into the darkness, as if to prove a point – thus missing the tired, grateful look afforded him from the driver’s seat. 

Yousef nodded quietly, maybe ashamedly, and exited the car himself. He walked around to the driver’s seat and opened the door.

“I’m sorry”, he said. “I didn’t mean… what that sounded like. Of course I’m not gonna leave you in the lurch here.”

“It’s okay”, he said, patted his friend’s shoulder and stepped out of the car. “We’re just going in there to talk. Out within ten. Then we’re going for a pizza.”

He leant back into the car to retrieve his gun from the center console, but then changed his mind mid-motion. Bringing a gun to this meeting would just send the wrong kind of signals.

The knife sheath, however, he let remain on his belt beneath the hoodie. A gift from dad. Old habits. Fuck the knife legislation and all that jazz.

Maks was sitting on the hood, smoking a cigarette that he instantly flicked away when the other two approached.

“Well then”, he said tensely. “Let’s get this thing over with.”

Without another word – there really wasn’t all that much left to say – they then started walking across the parking lot, towards the towering warehouse and the thin strip of light that hinted at a backlit door in the façade.

He saw Maks reaching for the door handle, and grabbed his arm to stop him. 

“No”, he said and shook his head. “This is my fuckup. I’m going in first.”

He then opened the door and stepped inside, before Maks had a chance to argue.

The light in the large warehouse was dim, but that didn’t stop him from instantly recognizing the figure waiting for them in the central isle between the lines of covered up crates and barrels. Lambert Ferek looked at him coldly and slowly shook his head.

“Jacob, Jacob, Jacob… I must say I’m very disappointed in you.”

Jacob’s throat tightened, and before it even struck him how strange it was that Lambert was alone, he heard Yousef cry out behind him. He quickly turned around – and froze.

Maks and Yousef, who had entered behind him, had been grappled by two other figures and now stood there with guns pointed at their heads. When Jacob realized who the assailants were, a burning rage hammered through his spine like a heated nail. 

“Christoffer, you fucking asshole”, he growled at the man holding Maks. “I should–“

“Relax, captain”, the man smiled mockingly. “Me and Danne here are just taking these gentlefolk out for a little walk, so that you and the boss can talk without distractions. From what I’ve heard there seem to be some things to… straighten out.”

“Let them fucking go, I–“

“It’s okay, Jacob”, Maks said tightly. “We keep it chill. It’ll be alright.”

“That’s right, listen to your little lieutenant”, laughed Danne, who had never even dared to raise his voice to Jacob before. “We’re just going out for some fresh air. You won’t even have time to notice they’re gone.” He laughed again, as if he had just said something unusually funny. 

Even Christoffer laughed at the joke, while Jacob was forced to powerlessly watch his two friends being escorted back out into the night. He met their gazes before they disappeared through the door. In Maks’ eyes he saw murder – in Yousef’s nothing but pure, unmasked horror.

“So”, Lambert Ferek said when the door had slammed shut. “I understand that you have lost me some serious money tonight, Jacob Hellström.”

Jacob slowly, reluctantly turned to face him, and shivered at the realization that the man was now so close that all that separated them were three meager yards of concrete floor.

“I… I don’t know what happened”, he said, fighting to keep his voice from breaking. “We… I… had checked everything, all the details, contacts, stages… The same people, the same methods as always. It has never–“

“No, but now it did”, the man interrupted him. “And from what I’ve heard, I think that you know more about this than you pretend to do, Jacob. Is there really not something that you want to tell me?”

Jacob stared uncomprehendingly at the man in front of him – at his pale face, abyssal predator’s eyes and eerily motionless posture – and felt his entire body begin to shake as the words sank in. Shocked, he took a step backwards and raised his hands. 

“No. No, no! I don’t know anything, I promise”, he stammered.

He had known that Ferek would be pissed about this, that he himself would probably be in trouble for botching such a big transaction. But now it suddenly sounded like he stood accused of something…

“I don’t know what you’ve heard”, he said, struggling to regain the calm tone of voice that had saved him from so many fucked up situations in the past, “but I have no idea what happened tonight, or why. I will do everything in my power to find that out, and to compensate you for the losses. If you just let me­–“

He silenced when Lambert started laughing. A powdery dry, joyless laugh that didn’t entirely seem to come all the way down from his lungs.

“But Jacob”, he said coldly. His smile was nothing but an impassive mimicry, not even halfway reaching his pitch black eyes. “After this little faux pas, my trust in you has been entirely depleted. Didn’t you realize that?” He laughed again.

“Or did you think that I would let you walk out of here and potentially cause even more damage? If the things I have heard are even remotely true… Well, I’m almost impressed by how recklessly bold you must be to attempt such a double cross. Too bad you didn’t choose to invest that quality better – you could probably have gone far within the organization. But as things have turned out… A shame, as I said. A real goddamned shame.”

“But, no, I don’t know what you’re talking about! Who told you this? Tell me what you’ve heard so I can–“

All the air was pressed out of him when Lambert Ferek’s long fingers suddenly closed around his neck. Jacob hadn’t even seen him move. He felt his feet leave the ground as the man who wasn’t really a man tightened his grip on his throat and lifted him from the concrete floor.

He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t make a sound. The blood thundered in his ears and his vision started to black out.

“It doesn’t matter who my sources are, just that they’re convincing”, Ferek said while Jacob struggled for air in his grip.

“They contacted me last night, with information about you and your two friends planning to… misappropriate this delivery. I decided not to act prematurely, but instead to test you. To see if the warning had any truth to it. And, as it turned out, it had – the cargo actually disappeared. So as you can see, Jacob – you have been exposed. You have all been exposed. I didn’t bring you here tonight to receive a status report or to issue reprimands. I brought you here because betrayal like this demands the kind of vengeance that cannot be delegated.”

Jacob’s thoughts raced wildly side by side with the panic in his mind. He kicked with his legs, struggled to loosen Ferek’s grip with his own increasingly nerveless hands. He needed time, he needed air to his brain in order to figure out what all this meant. Someone had sold him out, backstabbed him, made it look like…

“A… setup”, he pressed forth with the little air he had left in his lungs. Every word tore like glass paper against his compressed vocal cords. “It’s a fucking setup, can’t you see that?”

But Lambert Ferek just looked at him where he hung, regarded him like an art appraiser might regard an especially difficult painting. This time the smile reached his eyes, but this did nothing to lessen the discomfort of the beholder – rather the contrary.

“I’m sorry, Jacob”, Ferek said with a voice that actually hinted at some kind of perverted sympathy. “But the game’s over. Your friends are already dead, and now you’re going to join them. Think of it as an act of goodwill that I’ll at least let your blood live on through me – that, at least, is a respect I can pay you after all these years of service.”

Jacob didn’t even have time to process everything that Ferek had said, before the man pulled him in and sank his teeth deep in his carotid artery. Blood begun gushing out of him with a force that made his ears roar like crashing waves. His vision went black, and all the nerves in his body started going numb.

But at the same time as his life flooded out of him, another kind of cold started spreading in his veins. Your friends are already dead. That’s what Ferek had said. Your friends are already dead. 

In his mind he replayed the sight of Maks and Yousef being led out of the warehouse, over and over again. The rage in Maks’ eyes, the fear in Yousef’s. And then Danne’s words: You won’t even have time to notice that they’re gone. He had known. They had known.

When they took his friends away, it was to kill them – that’s what Danne’s joke had inferred. That fucker knew, and he joked about it. As if it were… And now… Your friends are already dead.

And at once Jacob knew who Ferek’s sources were. Who had “warned” him about Jacob’s fabricated betrayal, and then themselves sabotaged the delivery from Latvia. And who would now probably be promoted to leading positions, be given power over all the things that Jacob, Maks and Yousef had been part in building. Take their places…

The heated nail of rage from before suddenly ignited inside him again, deep within the buried, sore part of him that still breathed, felt, struggled. The part of him that still hadn’t given up. And from somewhere he got the strength to move, to make one last, desperate lunge.

He barely felt it when his hand closed around the knife’s handle, didn’t know if the arm moved for real or just in his desperate thoughts, until his fist hit Lambert Ferek’s jawbone with a muted thud and he realized that the knife’s blade sat deeply buried up through the man’s head. 

Next thing he knew, he was plunging towards the ground as Ferek’s cramping hand lost its grip on his throat. He both felt and heard things break on the inside as he hit the hard floor and landed in a helpless pile.

Ferek remained standing for a few more seconds, before his legs gave way under him and his entire frame collapsed on the concrete right in front of Jacob. Blood immediately began to form a dark puddle under the man’s head – a puddle that quickly bridged the distance between them and soon warmed the right side of Jacob’s ruined face.

He met Ferek’s gaze as they lay there on the floor, and he could read both shock and hatred in those night black eyes. For a moment his dying brain experienced an emotional spike of victory, of successful revenge.

Then he suddenly remembered Christoffer and Danne, and the emotion instantly gushed out of him together with the lifeblood that still pumped from his neck to mix with Ferek’s blood on the floor. He just could not let them get away with this. Would not. Must not…

His quickly fading mind grasped desperately for straws, threads, anything that might save him. And suddenly it got hold of something. He didn’t know what Ferek and his kind was, but had seen enough bad movies and tv-series to venture a qualified guess.

They were pale. They didn’t breathe. They drank blood. Jacob was working for fucking vampires, for fuck sake – even though he had always avoided using that particular term. It was just too unbelievable. Too weird. Too… mental.

But now, as he lay there feeling his life slowly drain from his veins, it suddenly didn’t seem as mental anymore. Maybe it was due to the majority of his brain having already shut down, or to desperate wishful thinking in the face of death, but either way he thought that this just might be his chance of salvation.

He had no idea how much of the movie mythos was actually true, how creatures like Ferek were actually created, but… But what if…

The other man’s eyes widened in horror as Jacob used his very last strength to crawl closer through the blood. Grabbed his neck. Pulled him as close as possible… And put his mouth to the bleeding crater in his upper throat.

Ferek struggled to get away, but Jacob’s fingers had stiffened in the final iron grip of the dying and there was no getting away.

Jacob knew that he only had mere seconds before the last spark of life would trickle out of him, and he drank desperately from the gushing blood. Swallowed mouthful after mouthful while all sound slowly silenced and his vision faded into a black nothing, right up until the moment when even the muscles in his own throat started shutting down as his body slowly died. 

He didn’t register when Lambert Ferek finally stopped struggling, when the blood from the man’s neck slowly dwindled into a weak trickle against his lips or when the body beneath his hands little by little started dissolving into a fine-grained powder.

Towards the end Jacob just lay there and lapped weakly at the dusty puddle of blood on the floor, lacking the strength even to move or draw sufficient breaths. He couldn’t see anymore, heard no sounds. All that was left for him was the blood. The blood that maybe, maybe, maybe could save him. That maybe could give him some kind of retribution for what he and his friends had been subjected to.

And then his breathing, heartbeat and thoughts finally stopped, together with the last spasmic movements of his body. And Jacob Hellström was dead.

He opened his eyes and drew in a deep, desperate breath. His eyes, mouth and nose were instantly filled with cold, thick dirt. Panic gripped him and he started coughing uncontrollably. Flailed wildly to get away from the weight that pressed down on his arms and legs.

But the weight was everywhere, and he realized that he was beneath the ground. They had buried him alive, left him to slowly choke to death under the mud and soil.

The panic increased and he knew that he didn’t have many seconds to reach the surface. Desperately, he started pulling his arms in, struggled with all his might to get them closer to his body so that he could start digging.

He clawed upwards with sore fingers, kicked downwards with aching legs, did his best to hold his breath, to make the last oxygen last long enough to–

Skin. His hand struck against cold skin – not his own, somebody else’s. A body. Now he lost control completely, flailed wildly in all directions, felt bones breaking inside his body as he mindlessly pressed himself against the heavy, densely packed dirt.

He struggled for breath and felt his mouth and lungs fill with moisture, earth and roots. His hands struck against more and more skin. Damp fabric. A face. Panic was everything now, nothing else existed. This was a fucking grave, and he was not alone inside it. 

At first he barely noticed when his right hand broke the surface, but when he did he felt a pang of new hope. With renewed strength he braced his legs and pressed himself upwards. Ignored the cracking noises in his skull, the creaking of the small bones in his shoulders, the unbearable pain in his entire body.

His head exploded up through the surface and into the cold night air. Like a drowning man he threw his arms up onto the ground and held on for dear life, as if fearing that the ground would suddenly change its mind and start sucking him back down again.

He lay there for a long time, feeling the cold grass against the side of his face while he drew deep, even breaths and listened to the distant sounds of traffic.

Memories nudged persistently at his still slightly offline brain, but he didn’t want to acknowledge them. Not yet.

Then he suddenly remembered the bodies, and instantly forgot to draw his next breath. On shaking arms, he heaved himself out of the pit, crouched down and started digging.

He dug with a frenzy born out of memories he still didn’t want to let back in, dug until his fingers bled and he had almost managed to forget why he was even digging in the first place. He dug until his hand struck something that was not dirt, and then he stopped.

He didn’t want this. Didn’t want to know. He knew that if he continued digging now, he would find something that he would not be able to reclaim the ignorance of. Something that would force him to remember things. Realize things.

He hesitated. Felt sick. Wanted nothing more than to just get up and walk away. But he didn’t.

Instead he carefully leant down and brushed away the last layers of dirt from that which he had unearthed. Brushed away more and more, until he had uncovered a face.

First uncomprehendingly, then with increasing panic, he met Maks’ stiff, flat stare. The rage in the blue eyes was gone now, and only emptiness and silence remained.

For a surreal moment, Jacob thought that his friend was alive, that he was looking back at him from down there in the dirt. But only a defaulted heartbeat later the truth sank in: Maks was dead. Dead. Dead. 

Christoffer and Danne killed him, he thought with a strange cold. And they didn’t even bother to close his eyes.

The cold inside him spread like poison in his veins while he slowly continued digging. He dug now with a pragmatism that he knew wasn’t really his, but which he had pulled over himself like a cold, wet blanket in order to get through this at all. Because he needed to see. He needed to know.

And then he found Yousef as well. At least his eyes are closed, he thought as he carefully caressed a moist, dirty strand of hair from his friend’s pale face.

They had both been killed by gunshots to the head, he registered. Up close, slightly from above. Pure executions. He stared down at his two best friends, thought that it was only moments ago that he had heard their voices, the sound of their footsteps behind him in the desolate parking lot… 

And that’s when the memories finally returned. He remembered the drive, the industrial area, the warehouse, Lambert Ferek, Christoffer and Danne… And he remembered the setup. The realization. The anger. The blood… 

And he suddenly realized that he hadn’t breathed for several minutes, that the air in his lungs was the same as that he had drawn in when he’d first found Maks.

And then came the feelings.

He fell down on hands and knees, screamed his lungs out, felt tears start streaming down his face and when he looked down, he realized that they were tears of blood.

He collapsed on the ground, pulled his knees up to his chin and cried without restraint until there were no tears left, until he had screamed his throat raw, until his brain couldn’t process this horrid reality anymore. The reality of what had happened to his friends, what had happened to him, what all this meant…

Then he just lay in the grass, feeling the cold blades against his face and just staring straight ahead along the ground.

The moon shone down upon him, upon the copse in which he lay, upon the piles of dirt in front of him and the hole from where the dirt had come.

He thought that he wanted to crawl back into that hole, lie down next to Maks and Yousef and hope never to wake up again. Maybe the earth would take him back, let him rest in its dreamless oblivion once again…

But it was impossible, he knew that. There was no place for him there. 

He didn’t see the bodies, not from that angle, but he knew they were there. Knew that they lay there, dead and immobile, waiting for him to do something with them. To dig them up or bury them back down. To call the cops or let alone. To make sure their families were given closure, or to let them wonder forever.

He didn’t know what the right answer was, what he should do.

What he knew by then, however, was that he didn’t have any pulse. That he could cut out the breathing if he wanted to. That his broken bones were already healing beneath his skin.

That he had made it through – but not survived. That he was dead. 

And he realized that it didn’t matter what he did with the bodies. That wasn’t the reason for him being here, for him having clawed himself back up from the cold earth, where all sound reason dictated that he should still remain.

He wasn’t here to honor his dead friends, to give closure to their families or really even to administer justice.

He was here to mete out punishment, to exact revenge. It was as Lambert Ferek himself had said: 

Betrayal like this demands the kind of vengeance that cannot be delegated.

He rose on unsteady legs. Noted that his fingers weren’t bleeding anymore, and that the crushed and broken bones were no longer hurting.

He approached the edge of the hole again, looked down at the dead bodies of his friends one last time. They lay there in the moonlight, pale and silent like emptied containers.

He thought about a line from the children’s novel The Brothers Lionheart. “That’s only their husks laying there”. 

Yes, he thought silently. That’s how it is. They’re not here anymore, those are just empty husks. 

Then he knelt down and started scooping the dirt back into the hole. Shoveled it back over the lifeless bodies until they were gone, stomped the ground until all that could be seen was a slightly more agitated area in the underbrush. 

He felt sorry for the families who would suffer in a state of unknowing limbo for the rest of their lives, but the bodies could never be found – at least not until he was done.

If they were unearthed, Christoffer and Danne would start wondering where his own body had gone – and in the worst-case scenario that would cause them to realize that he was still in possession of some semblance of life.

The fact that they thought him obviated was his strongest trump card against them, and he wanted to save it for the moment when it would do the uttermost damage to them and everything they stood for.

He had clung on to life with tooth and nail, had kicked and clawed his way back from the silent embrace of the underworld, to kill those who had done this to him and his friends.

To put fire to their world and watch it burn until nothing remained but grey ashes and twisted, scorched corpses. To then salt the earth where they had trod and obliterate their memory.

Then, and only then, when all this was accomplished, he would be done. Only then would he allow himself to sink back down into the cold, quiet depths of the earth and let darkness and oblivion finally take him.

But that time was not now.

With dirt smeared hands and a heavy heart, he turned his back to the hidden forest grave and started walking towards the city.

The harsh, lone call of a solitary crow echoed in the distance, and he silently wondered how much of Stockholm would have to burn before this was over.

Seven Deadly Sins VI: Acedia

This poem was originally published as a Twitter thread. The previous poem, “Seven Deadly Sins V: Gula”, can be found here.


While dragging myself onward
my nerves just barely checked
I reached by noon a city
not sure what to expect

I entered, it was quiet
and nothing moved or stirred
The silence was imposing and
I dared not say a word

But then I came upon them
the people of this town
They lay around despondent,
all grey and beaten down

They lacked even the strength to
take care to eat or drink
The whole town was so hopeless
I knew not what to think

Then suddenly I saw him
enthroned upon a chair
The semblance of an old man
with shaggy, whitened hair

But he was yelling curses in
a foul, unworldly voice
And told the heartsick people they were
worthless with no choice

I realized that this was
indeed the one I sought
That this old man was Belphegor,
demonic prince of Sloth

That he indeed was feeding
on this encumbered crowd
By telling them all’s pointless
until he had them cowed

An anger grew inside then
caused by what I did see
And I just drew my staff when
he turned his eyes on me

And suddenly his words were
resounding in my head
Reminding me of horrors of
abuse and of the dead

The memories played before me
off all I had been through
And insight struck me failure follows
all I say and do

I found myself in shock then
tears streaming down my face
I’d hurt so many people
while focused on my chase

I sat down on the pavement
just staring straight ahead
Eyes empty, spirit dying
limbs heavier than lead

And Belphegor came closer
chair gliding on its wheels
He taunted me and laughed that
I’d failed all my ideals

I knew that he was right then
and that I wouldn’t fight
the demon when he killed me as
it would just serve me right

But suddenly a burning
began to sear my skin
The crystal in my pocket
was waking me from sin

And I blinked my eyes open
at last able to see
That Belphegor had used my plight
to take control of me

I stared into his eyes then
all suddenly awake
And saw his hands were halfway
stretched out my neck to break

With newfound strength and anger
the crystal forth I thrust
And Belphegor gave up a roar
in terror and disgust

When everything was over
I sat there on the ground
While people rose around me
awed at the strength they’d found

I sat there still at twilight
awatching as the town
Was inch by inch recovering from
the time it had been down

And somewhere deep inside me
a thought was taking form
That though I’d failed some others lived
and this fact made me warm

I rose just as the townsfolk
approached to me invite
Cause though I’d love to stay I had
more lives to save tonight

I heard them call behind me
but strayed not from my path
I would soon face the seventh sin
and he would face my wrath.


This poem was written in response to a hashtag game series by Marc Tizura/@areyouingrenin. The theme was “The Seven Deadly Sins”, and this day’s particular prompt was Sloth – Belphegor. The Twitter hashtag is  – go find more flash fiction there!

The next and final part of the series, “Seven Deadly Sins VII: Ira”, can be found here.

Seven Deadly Sins V: Gula

This poem was originally published as a Twitter thread. The previous poem, “Seven Deadly Sins IV: Invidia”, can be found here.


Flies swarmed above the rooftops
each cranny and each nook
Their buzzing close to deafening
I couldn’t bear to look

And worse yet was the odor
that rose up from the town
I felt my stomach turning and
could barely keep it down

Still this was almost nothing
to what I soon would see;
The state inside the city
became too much for me

Each surface cloaked in mucus
both putrid and decayed
And people rolled around here
and ate and drank and played

I almost turned around then,
unable to withstand
The scene that played before me
too gross to understand

Then everything suspended
when somewhere further down
the street was heard a calling
to all the folks in town

And just like that the orgy
was cut without ado
And all the soddy people
walked off as if on cue

I followed at a distance
to where they all were bound
And when I saw what called them
I threw up on the ground

For what had called these people
with such a throaty roar:
A bulbous, monstrous creature
phlegm oozing from each pore

And all these fallen people
were gathering for a feast
To feed upon the liquids
that leaked out from the beast

Now nauseous and trembling
I fought a fainting spell
Aware the swollen demon
would take me if I fell

And that’s when I was spotted
and all the eating ceased
As drooling people closed in
as for another feast

The seconds felt like lifetimes
as I ransacked my brain
In search for the solution
to save me from this bane

And when the answer struck me
I shrank back in disgust
But lacking other options
I still did what I must

I grabbed the closest person
and bit into this boy
While putting up the act this was
a culinary joy

And this confused the people
and soon they looked around
And realized their kinsmen were
a feast of flesh abound

A massacre ensued then,
a gluttonous battue
And there amidst the carnage
I stealthily withdrew

The demon lay there waiting
as I drew close to it
He searched for words to sway me
but glut had cloyed his wit

“It’s you who’ve killed these people”
I said and pointed back
“Your gluttonous infection
has led them down this track”

And Beelzebub struck out then
but glut had made him slow
I parried with the crystal
and trapped him with its glow

The flash lit up the city,
reflected in its gore
And when the light subsided
the demon was no more

But all the fated people
lay sprawling in the dirt
Some dead and other dying
and none of them unhurt

I desperately wanted
to aid them in their plight
But duty called me elsewhere and
I slipped into the night

Five demons in the crystal
another two still free
Would I succeed ‘fore madness
could claim the rest of me?


This poem was written in response to a hashtag game series by Marc Tizura/@areyouingrenin. The theme was “The Seven Deadly Sins”, and this day’s particular prompt was Gluttony – Beelzebub. The Twitter hashtag is  – go find more flash fiction there! The next part of the series, “Seven Deadly Sins VI: Acedia”, can be found here.

Seven Deadly Sins IV: Invidia

This poem was originally published as a Twitter thread. The previous poem, “Seven Deadly Sins III: Luxuria”, can be found here.


The sea was crashing madly
towards the empty shore
And lightning lit the heavens
along with thunder’s roar

The port town seemed abandoned as
I entered in the rain
But looks can be deceiving when
you deal with the profane

Thus I resumed with caution
and soon I reached the sea
And well there I discovered what
fate had in store for me

For there amongst the surges a
monstrosity emerged
A serpent from the depths of Hell
repulsive and unpurged

And as I watched it slither
there rose up from the waves
the people of the village
turned into green eyed slaves

Undead they came towards me
a hunger in their eyes
And moaning accusations
filled with the demon’s lies

They hungered for my life force
they hungered for my quest
Denying me in envy
those things and all the rest

Aversely I conceded
that these people were lost
I could not bring them back from
the line that they had crossed

So I brandished my weapon,
the magic staff of myth
That angels once did grant me
to banish darkness with

The glowing staff before me
I fought my way ahead
Attempting to convince myself
they were already dead

When finally I stood there
right at the water’s brim
The demon pierced me with his gaze;
I stared right back at him

“So this is what it comes to”
the snake hissed with a grin
“You’ve come to meet Invida,
the fourth and mightiest sin?”

I nodded then in silence
and suddenly I knew
That all the power he possessed
was actually my due

For after all my triumphs
why should not also I
Be blessed with all the powers
befalling those up high?

A sudden rage did fill me;
I was worth more than so
And thus I raised my staff again
and fell upon my foe

And I struck out in anger
to take back what was mine
But somewhy the staff failed me and
the snake did me entwine

I fought with all my strength but
the demon only laughed
“Your puny tools can’t harm me when
you’ve fallen for my craft”

With that he bared his fangs and
my will began to shake
For suddenly I realized
my fatal, grave mistake

I’d fallen for his envy
and let it cloud my mind
And now the snake would kill me –
how had I been so blind?

But as fangs closed around me
I struck a final blow
And my relief was endless when
the staff began to glow

The snake screamed out in terror as
I pierced right through its eye
It slithered back in panic but
it still refused to die

The sea parted around me when
I walked to where it lay
And brought forth now the crystal
to catch my fourth big prey

The snake called Leviathan
tried both to beg and bribe
But I had learned the hard way not to
listen to his tribe

The crystal’s light burst forth then,
outshone the thundering sky
And when the flash subsided
alone stood only I

Despite another triumph
a sadness filled my soul
For so many had died here
for me to reach my goal

In silence I retreated,
without turning around
Not looking at the bodies
still lying on the ground

A fourth sin was defeated
but at a heavy cost
And as I journeyed on I knew
that innocence was lost.


This poem was written in response to a hashtag game series by Marc Tizura/@areyouingrenin. The theme was “The Seven Deadly Sins”, and this day’s particular prompt was Envy – Leviathan. The Twitter hashtag is  – go find more flash fiction there! The next poem in the series, “Seven Deadly Sins V: Gula”, can be found here.

Seven Deadly Sins III: Luxuria

This poem was originally published as a Twitter thread. The previous poem, “Seven Deadly Sins II: Avaritia”, can be found here. The next one, “Invida”, can be found here.


Night found me in a city
so normal from without
With market, church and houses
but then I heard a shout

I hurried to the rescue but
imagine my surprise
when insight struck me there was
deep pleasure in those cries

See, underneath the streetlights
in homes and every court
There took place fornication
and orgies of each sort

I found myself so dumbstruck
that I could only stare
Entirely did I forget
to watch and to beware

And punishment came quickly
as from I know not where
I felt hands wrap around me
and tangle in my hair

Before my scream escaped me
there stepped before my gaze
A being oh so perfect
my mind was wrapped in haze

Its body was perfection
no thread obscured its skin
And as it touched my face I burned
with fires from within

My quest now all forgotten
I let the crystal fall
It hit the ground and just like that
I was a helpless thrall

I don’t know what’s the number
of hours, nights and days
I let drift by in mist before
I woke up from this daze

But wake I did in horror
of what I had let pass
In panic and unclothed I scrambled,
searching in the grass

Relief was otherworldly
when suddenly I found
The prison crystal lying there
untouched upon the ground

But barely did I grab it
when somewhere close behind
Seductive words addressed me:
“Oh look, what did you find?”

I turned and faced the demon
for with the crystal back
I saw as clear as day my foe
as masks began to crack

Where once I saw perfection
a monster now prevailed
Three heads and wings and bird’s feet,
completed by a tail

And yet the helpless townsfolk
persisted in their vice
Like they still could not see the fiend
before their very eyes

I had found Asmodeus,
the avatar of Lust
That he had touched me filled me with
both anger and disgust

I hid the gem behind me when
the demon drew in close
“Let you and I lay down here”
and I did not oppose

But as the lustful angel
embraced me for a kiss
I struck him with the crystal
and he let out a hiss

A flash of light, then nothing
the angel was no more
And I stood naked and alone
and shaken to the core

The city also silenced
as all its folk came to
And realized that they were
as used and naked too

As people fled to safety
and hid behind locked doors
I searched and found my clothes and
then walked into the moors

With three sins bound and captured
just four of them remained
Not til it was all over would
I grieve the scars I’d gained.


This poem was written in response to a hashtag game series by Marc Tizura/@areyouingrenin. The theme was “The Seven Deadly Sins”, and this day’s particular prompt was Lust – Asmodeus. The Twitter hashtag is  – go find more flash fiction there! The next poem in the series, “Seven Deadly Sins IV: Invidia”, can be found here.

That Man From Singapore

She had meddled in the lore
of forbidden texts of yore
Thus to even out the score
with a man from Singapore

From the circle on the floor
now arose a marble door
And the markings that it bore
had her shaken to the core

She had seen that strange decor
in a nightmare long before
And she knew that this was more
than what she had bargained for

Panic battled to the fore
and she dared not to explore
What this portal had in store
for her retributive war

So she grabbed the charm she wore
to command and to implore
Forces to return this hoar
gateway to its darkened shore

With a sudden fiendish roar
sparks to dust the gateway tore
while the circle spun times four
and the portal was no more

And in solemn words she swore
then to burn those texts of yore
And to meddle nevermore
with that man from Singapore.


This was my contest entry for The Fourth Singapore Poetry Contest. It was fun to write it, and finding all these rhyme words for “Singapore” was a real challenge. It did not win, but I’m still happy about how it turned out – and thus I decided to post it here. 

Somebody’s Nightmare

The world is full of daylight places that remain the same irrespective of what time or state you visit them in. However, there are also places that thrive in the shadows and on the edges of reason, and that you can only ever find in the darkest corners of night. The Bazaar is one of those places.

“Nightmare Outlet”, the sign read. Its rusty relief letters provided less information than they raised questions, and he wasn’t really sure what had even lead him to this lonely storage building in the middle of the night. He only knew that he was here now, and that he had come to the right place. This was the night when his life-long nocturnal torments would finally end.

The guard at the entrance eyed the newcomer suspiciously before letting him through, and once he was inside he understood the precaution. The vast space between the tall walls was cluttered with tables, stands and small tents. It looked like one of those places where people came together to sell old stuff they’d dug forth from the darkest corner of their garages, and this impression was not entirely wrong. Only this garage sale had a more sinister alignment.

This was a dark market, but not your everyday such. No, this was the darkest market, because the currency of the Bazaar was fears and night terrors.

It was hard to see very far into the hall, both because of the dense crowd but also because it was very dark. Still, many of the traders had decorated their stands with small lanterns in a wide variety of colours, lighting the darkness afire with dim sparks of eerie red, spectral blue and ghostly purple. The murmuring backdrop of the mysterious scene suggested that the newcomer was far from the only visitor tonight, but the gloom prevented him from seeing more than three or four yards in front of him.

The stand closest to the entrance was occupied by a small, grey man who eyed him up and down before shooting him a sinister smile.

“Are yah sellin’ or buyin’?”, he croaked.

“I’m… just looking around”, he replied nervously.

The little relic of a man nodded and raised his wrinkled hand to wave the newcomer along, but then seemed to change his mind.

“Say, lad, are ye havin’ nightmares ye can’t get rid of?” His mouth stretched into a grin that did not make him look any more friendly at all.

“Well… Yeah, I guess”, he answered after a moment of hesitation. “I guess I have”.

The man nodded knowingly. “A pain they are, those little buggers. Indeed…”

He chewed his worn pipe and seemed to consult with himself for a moment. Then he continued, in the manner of the experienced haggler: “Would ye be interested in ridding yourself of those, for a small price?” His smile widened and seemed suddenly to cover more space than his face should possibly be able to allow for.

The newcomer didn’t like the look of this smile, and excused himself as politely but hastily as he could. As he fled deeper into the building the little man shrank back into his shadows, shaking his head sullenly.

Having left the salesman by the entrance behind, unsettled by him in ways he could not explain, the newcomer strolled along one of the paths between the stands and witnessed wonders he had never imagined in his waking state. Salesmen whispered or yelled from the darkness beyond the light of their colorful lanterns, trying to draw attention to their unusual wares. The things up for sale were contained in jars, bottles or other transparent containers, and varied in color as much as the various lanterns that illuminated them.

He stopped at a stand where many people seemed to have gathered. He could not see what had drawn everyone’s attention; to him these particular flasks and cans looked no more or less mysterious than all the others had done that he had seen so far. Nevertheless, the path that led past this particular stand was clogged almost completely – to the obvious irritation of the salesmen on either side, who vainly tried to catch the attention of the curious congregation.

A radio played a steady but quiet rhythm of drums and sleepy flutes. As the newcomer stretched to see what was so special about this stand, he saw its serious looking owner holding forth a large, corked bottle containing dark, rippling smoke.

“…and this is a night spook springing directly from the mind of the man who brought us the tales about the sleeping Old God himself”, the salesman exclaimed gravely as he held the bottle up for all to see. “You will not get this one cheaply, but it is well worth every single one of the cars you’d have to sell. And better yet, it is one of the inexhaustible ones. You can dream it every night for years, and still it will not dry out. Of course you’d have to be incredibly lucky not to walk gibberingly mad away from such a repeated use of it, but” – the last word was a loud cry that made the first row of people jump – “you should not let that deter you from the deal of your lifetime, ladies and gentlemen! Do I have an offer on this fabulous nightmare? The bidding starts at…”

The newcomer was no longer listening, but had begun pushing through the crowd to reach the less cluttered space beyond this seemingly very popular stand. Once he had broken free he jogged a couple of steps to avoid getting sucked or pushed back into the assembly again.

“Not interested in archaic, eldritch horrors, are we?”, a voice laughed right next to him.

He jumped and turned. To his right, not two steps away, there loomed a narrow but tall stand, occupied by a hunched, robed figure whose face could only be glimpsed beneath the hem of a deep hood. The stranger had a low, rasping voice that managed to be ominous and humorous at the same time. On the table in front of him stood several empty decanters and a few curved bottles filled with a pale pink liquid that bubbled like soda.

The newcomer eyed the figure and decided that he was harmless. “No, sir. I’m tired of such things. Quite to the opposite, I’m actually looking for a way to rid myself of a few.” He put his hands in his pockets and regarded the man tryingly, anxiously waiting for the answer.

The figure chuckled and raised his head so that two piercing, white eyes met the ones of his customer. “First timer, eh?” He showed off some too-sharp teeth in a wide smile and rubbed his hands together. “Very well then. Let’s cut to the chase then, shall we?”

He then produced several bottles from beneath his table, all of them filled with dark liquids moving around like smoke inside their containers. His customer regarded the collection nervously, secretly preparing to run away at the very first sign of this being some kind of sinister trick.

The salesman noted this. “Be not afraid, lad. The corks are in and the contents are sleeping safely right now.” His customer flinched slightly as a bottle of swirling dark liquid was pressed into his hands. “Now look at it closely!”

And the newcomer did. The darkness inside was swimming around sluggishly, forming and reforming in cloudy shapes that sometimes seemed to resemble terrible things just outside the reach of his imagination. Suddenly a small, red eye blinked sleepily open and regarded him menacingly from the other side of the glass, only to then slowly close again and disappear into the smoke. He hastily returned the bottle to the salesman, deep horror stirring at the back of his mind. “Very… very nice”, he stammered unconvincingly.

The salesman regarded him with an amused expression. “Do you know what it is?”, he asked as he put the bottle back on the table. The customer shook his head and the salesman nodded knowingly. “I didn’t think so. These, lad”, he said and made a gesture comprising both the dark bottles and the pink ones, “are dreams. The darker they are, the more horrible.” He grabbed one of the light bottles and held it up so that the glow from his yellow lantern shone through it, revealing the soft shapes moving around inside. No evil eyes in this one.

“The light ones are good, nice dreams. The kind that your average sane person would want to have at night. The best ones are white, or even silver. I once heard of a one that was golden, but that kind is very rare.”

As he spoke he grabbed one of the empty bottles and shook it, revealing it not to be empty at all but filled with what seemed to be plain water. “This is not water, you know”, he continued in a low voice, as if having just read his customer’s mind.

“No?”, the other managed to squeeze out. “What is it then?” But he suspected he already knew the answer.

“It is a no-dream, that’s what it is. Ever had one of those nights when you don’t seem to have had any dream at all? Well, this is one of those nights, all bottled up and ready. Of course, the no-dreams are one use only, since there is nothing to save about them. They just are. Some dreams are more durable, and others still are inexhaustible – even though that is a very rare quality in a dream. People and minds change, you know.”

The newcomer nodded, even though he was far from sure he had understood half of what had been said. “So… Are you saying I could get one of those good-dreamy-thingies, and not have to have nightmares anymore?” He stopped, suddenly realising how childish he had just sounded. “I mean, not that nightmares bother me, you know. I am not afraid of the dark or anything… It’s just that–”

He was interrupted by a burst of amused laughter that stopped as abruptly as it had sprung up. The salesman eyed him smilingly. “Son, there are nightmares, and then there are nightmares. Anyone with their sanity in the right place would go jumping and screaming from one night with yonder cosmic vistas of uttermost horror.” He laughed and nodded towards the crowded stand a few paces away, where the other salesman was still yelling his lungs out about his dark and inexhaustible dream. “I don’t judge anyone, I just trade.”

The other did not answer, but only looked longingly at the lighter bottles on the table. The salesman saw this, and continued without waiting for an answer.

“I see that you are in need of a change of environment, as far as dreaming goes. Very well. I do not buy and I do not sell, money and earthly favours interest me little. So you’ll have to trade with me, son. What do you have to offer? The darker the dream, the higher the value of it. The black ones are the best, of course”, he added with a sarcastic laugh.

The newcomer answered with nothing but a confused look.

“Ah, you really are a first-timer”, the salesman mused. “See, this is how it is done: you describe your dreams to me, and I try to evaluate them as far as trade value goes. Then I make an offer based on that evaluation, and you chose whether to accept or to continue bargaining. It’s as simple as that. How the… transaction is done, well, that part is simple, which you’ll see for yourself when or if it comes to that.”

He eyed the customer curiously and made a beckoning gesture. “Well, what’re you waiting for? Describe your dreams to me!”

The newcomer hesitated. Then he said, with nothing but pure defeated honesty in his voice: “I don’t think I can… When I wake up the dreams are always clear in my memory, but then they fade. The only thing I know is that they scare me out of my wits and that I wake up screaming more often than not.” He looked again at the light bottles on the table, but his hope of ever owning any of them was fading by the second. “I’m sorry, but this kind of trade is probably not for me”, he said and prepared to leave.

But the salesman just chuckled. “Boy, you don’t have to leave empty-handed. Some people just can’t remember dreams, that’s natural. We have certain other methods for tackling that. Come here!”

He produced a thin tube from somewhere beneath the table, and held it out toward his customer. The latter, in turn, eyed it wonderingly. It was attached to a hand-held mirror with small levers and regulators fitted all along its metallic handle and frame.

“This is a hypno-gauge – an instrument that measures dreams. It works best when the subject is asleep, of course, but will do the trick in situations such as these as well.”

The customer accepted the end of the tube and looked at it in confusion. “So how does it work? What do I do?”

“You just breathe into your end of it, and my end will show me what I need to know. And don’t worry, I change mouth pieces between every use so it’s perfectly hygienic.”

The newcomer hesitated only for a moment before following the salesman’s instructions. Then, as soon as he started blowing air into the tube, the entire instrument started hissing and buzzing mechanically.

“Just keep it up, son, I’m getting a picture here”, the salesman muttered. Then his eyes grew wide. “What the… No, no don’t stop!” He waved his free hand frantically as he stared at the mirror’s surface.

His customer was starting to become really freaked out, however, and let go of the tube. “What is it? What did you see?”

The salesman kept staring at the now dark glass pane for a couple of seconds before putting the instrument down on the table. When he looked up again there was something new in his eyes. Fear? Reverence?

“Boy”, he said slowly, “it’s been a long time since I saw something that dark in the mind of someone alive and breathing. Bottled up, sure, but never directly from the mind that dreamt it up. If I were a lesser man, I would probably scam you for those dreams, but I’m not. I’ll tell it as it is, son. You’re sitting on a treasure trove with those nightmares of yours.”

“A… treasure trove?” He eyed the little man sceptically. “I’m sorry, but I’m finding it really difficult to believe that anyone would be prepared to pay anything for the terrors I endure every night. I for myself would give anything to get rid of them.”

But the salesman only shook his head. “No, you don’t understand. You see, ordinary nightmares are cheap, anyone can have those. But real darkness such as this, well, that’s a poison reserved for truly open, sharp and poetic minds. Many of them go mad, of course, but on the road to that fate they more often than not produce wonderful art, thoughts and poetry. Incredibly dark such, of course, but wonderful nonetheless. That’s why some people would pay dearly to acquire such nightmares; to make themselves better artists.”

“So you’re saying…?”

“I’m saying that many of the people in this building, customers and traders alike, would definitely be prepared to sacrifice their left and right hands both to secure the dream you have just shown me. Hell, I would sacrifice my hands for it, and my left ear. Selling it forward would make me rich beyond compare.”

“So… Why don’t you just take it? I don’t want it, so I guess you’d be doing us both a favour by relieving me of it.”

The salesman looked tempted, but still only shook his head again. “No, that would not be fair. Not to anyone. You see, taking on someone else’s nightmare, especially one as potently dark as yours, is a dangerous thing to do. The mind that originally dreamt it up has often developed an immunity of sorts to its more maddening effects, but another mind has never had a chance to do that. So selling it on to someone else would do them more harm than good. And I’m not that kind of vendor that puts my customers in danger for my own gain”, he said and continued:

“Besides, I also suspect that it would not help you overly much even if I took this one dream from you. A mind capable of summoning up something like this once would most likely not have the least bit of a problem doing it again. The dark dreams would probably only grow right back. On the other hand, I’d like to think that you’d be able to make great use of your dreams yourself, if you so wished.”

“What do you mean?”

“What I mean is this: That stand you passed earlier, where the dreams of that famous author were up for sale? Well, this nightmare you have here is definitely in league with his. And though that man went crazy in the end, he created fabulous worlds and stories that inspire awe and jealousy in readers and writers even today. If you just let them, your dreams could well lead you to create art just as great as his – art that would in turn inspire awe and jealousy in readers and writers during your own lifetime, and long after you yourself are dead and gone. You could become immortal, in a way. You have a gift in these dreams, and I would hate to see you throw it away due to something as childish as a fear of the dark. I will not be accessory to that, in any case.”

“So you will not help me?”

The salesman sighed. “I will not take the nightmare from you, but I can offer you a good night’s sleep free from it. One night.”

He grabbed one of the lighter bottles and held it forth. “This is a good dream, a happy and positive one. Just as so many of its kind, however, it is also nondescript and weak – and as such, it will deplete after one use. Take it, dream it, and get some rest from your darkness. But then I would advise you to dare that same darkness and let it guide you. Write. Paint. Make music. Do whatever it tells you to do, but for gods’ sake don’t remain silent – you have a rare gift, son, but it will kill you from inside if you don’t find a vent for it.”

The customer accepted the light bottle and turned it in his grip. “But I’m not a writer, a painter or a musician”, he said. “I’m just a guy with bad dreams. I don’t know how to do any of those things.”

“Then learn”, the salesman said. “It’s either that, or you’ll go mad well before your time. Your choice. But now, I’m afraid, the morrow approaches. If you want to have any calm rest tonight, I suggest you drink that light dream right away.”

“Drink it, just like that?”

“Yes, open the bottle and drink. Don’t spill any of it, or you will have very confused and incoherent dreams.”

“But, shouldn’t I pay you?”

“As I said, I don’t buy or sell. I’m a trader, and what I want from you in this trade is remembrance. If you actually decide to create something, weave a piece of me into it. A mention or a quote. Creatures such as I cannot die unless forgotten, and being remembered in great art could well grant us immortality. Do this small thing for me, and we’re even.”

The darkness of the room, the sweet incense on the air and the salesman’s low, melodic voice created a surreal atmosphere that made it hard to think straight. The newcomer was confused. I came here to get rid of my nightmares, and now this man is telling me to use them. Is it possible that he is right – could I really create great art? He found himself nodding slowly to the other man’s words, and before he knew it he had made a decision.

“I will”, he said, and uncorked the bottle with the light liquid inside. He made sure not to spill the smallest drop as he downed its contents in a single, long draught.

The salesman nodded approvingly and rubbed his hands together. “Good”, he said. “And if you’re ever in lack of inspiration, don’t hesitate to come back here. I’ll gladly provide you with whatever kind of dreams you could possibly find yourself in need of.”

He might have said something more, but in that case his customer didn’t hear him. Because the edges of the scene had begun to blur, its colours to fade and its noises to warp into a single drone without any sense or rhyme. And then the bazaar and all its traders and customers were suddenly gone, replaced instead by good, happy and very, very nondescript dreams.

***

He didn’t wake up screaming the next morning. In fact, he awoke feeling more rested and awake than he had done for longer than he could remember. The memories from his happy, light dream faded as soon as he opened his eyes, but the feeling from it lingered with him the entire morning.

Still he knew deep down that what he was feeling was only a loan; this was somebody else’s happy dream, and however calm and restful, dreams such as this were not for him. He did not know how he knew this, or why he associated the knowledge with some half-forgotten memory of a bazaar he was sure he’d never actually visited. Maybe this was a memory from another dream.

This one peaceful night, however, had given him a respite from his prevailing sleep deprived despair, and suddenly he knew exactly what he had to do.

He made himself a cup of tea and booted up his computer. He was not a writer, a painter or a musician, just a guy with bad dreams that were slowly driving him insane. He hadn’t created a meaningful thing in his life, but somehow he now felt that this was a good day to start. It was almost as if someone had told him so in a dream, but that was of course impossible.

“The world is full of daylight places that remain the same irrespective of what time or state you visit them in”, he wrote.

It just felt like a good beginning.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-03-17

This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elevated Remains

Janice leaned across the desk and called after him as he got out of the elevator.

“Tom, your wife called earlier. And a man who said he would rather call back than to leave a message. It sounded important.”

Ex-wife, he wanted to correct her, but didn’t. “What was his name?”, he asked instead as he continued towards his office. When she didn’t answer him immediately he stopped with his hand on the door handle and turned around to shoot her a questioning look.

Janice was biting her lip and seemed genuinely embarrassed. “I… Well, I’m sure he told me, and I was just about to write it down. But as soon as I had hung up the phone… Well, it just slipped my mind. I’m sorry, Tom. But he said that he would call again later.”

He sighed and shook his head. “Let’s hope he does then”, he muttered and disappeared into his office.

Thomas Smith was a very practical man, and as such he also had very practical dreams. He put all his waking time – and all his money – into building his business and making it grow. And it did. In a relatively short time he had managed to secure himself quite a prestigious office in a central part of the city, and a handful of equally prestigious clients.

Now he just waited for the business press and the secret fraternal organizations to discover him as well. To this end, missing out on important calls was definitely not one of his favourite pastimes.

He was sitting behind his desk inside the spacious and expensively furnished office when his phone started ringing. He had developed a routine for how he handled such events, so as not to come on as too eager or too available. He waited until right before the fourth signal was about to sound, then cleared his throat and answered the phone in a sober voice devoid of all emotion or expectation.

“Smith and Smithson, you’re talking to Thomas Smith”, he said. There actually was no Smithson involved in the firm. There was just him, but a double cognomen company name sounded more serious and memorable.

“Ah, finally I get ahold of you. I had the privilege of talking to your lovely assistant earlier, but you were not yet in by then.” The man’s voice was dry but jovial, with a slight British accent.

“Ah, yes. Janice mentioned your previous call.” Thomas straightened up in his chair. This was the guy who had called before. Had he said his name now? Thomas wasn’t sure, and didn’t dare to ask in case he’d come across as inattentive. “How can I help you?”

“Janice, yes that was her name. Remember now. Lovely voice, that one. A delight to talk to. Well, anyways. I’m calling on behalf of an organization that I represent, to invite you to a dinner party later this evening.”

Thomas’ heart skipped a beat. An organization. A dinner party. This sounded like just the kind of attention he’d been eagerly waiting for. He swallowed and fought hard to keep the excitement out of his voice. “Oh, is that so? And what kind of organization is that?”

The voice on the other end chuckled. “Oh, I’m sorry if I misspoke. Not an organization, Mr. Smith. The Organization. Not anyone attracts their attention, sir, and you’ve been hand-picked. Our by-laws prevent me from giving out any additional information about us before you are dedicated, but I can assure you that this dinner will be a real game changer for your state of life.”

Thomas had gotten up from his chair now and was pacing back and forth in front of the large windows. His composure was slipping between his fingers like sand. “This… This definitely sounds interesting, Mr…?”

“Ah, excellent. Then I’ll arrange for a car to pick you up at your office by eight. Formal dress code is observed.”

“Oh, eh, thank you. I’m… Looking forward to it. And I’m hoping to speak more to you later as well.”

“Yeah, there’ll probably be some time for that too. Well, I’ll see you tonight th–”

“Wait! Ehrm, what did you say your name was again?”

Now there was a smile in the entire voice. “Ah, I am Vincent. See you tonight, Thomas.”

And then the call was ended.

***

Thomas didn’t get any more work done that afternoon. As soon as he had put down the phone he picked it up again, called Janice and asked her to get him a really nice tuxedo. Then he booted up his computer and started researching Freemason etiquette, intellectual conversation subjects and a thousand other important things he suddenly realized that he didn’t have the slightest clue about. Mildly put, he panicked there for a while.

Then Janice knocked on his door and entered with his evening attire in a fancy package.

“What did the man say? Where is it you’re going?”, she asked as she put the clothes down on his desk.

Thomas shook his head without looking up from his computer. “I can’t tell you, Janice. It’s part of a secret rite of initiation.”

Janice pressed her lips together and stifled an irritated sigh. “Well then”, she said and crossed her arms across her chest. “I guess I’ll leave you to your secrets then, Mr. Smith. And you’re welcome.” Then she marched out of the office and slammed the door shut behind her.

He didn’t even notice that she had left until thirty minutes later.

He got dressed and ready well before time, and when the clock neared eight he was already pacing nervously on the sidewalk outside the office building. This was his chance to really become something, to prove himself and to make the right kind of connections. He had to pull this off and make a good impression.

Then a black Mercedes pulled up in front of him, and he instantly stopped pacing. He hoped that the driver hadn’t seen him doing it, but knew that such an instance of luck was highly unlikely. Before he had decided whether he should jump into the car on his own accord or not, the driver’s door opened and a man stepped out.

His leather coat and pompadour hairstyle went entirely in black, and stood in stark contrast to the pallor of his skin. He tilted his head to the side and regarded Thomas over the top of the car.

“You’re shorter than I imagined, but I guess that’s okay”, he said. Thomas recognized the voice. “Jump in, mate. I’m your driver tonight.”

“But you’re… You’re the one I spoke to on the phone, right?” Thomas was really confused now, and not just by the casual insult.

“Very observant of you. Yeah, I’m Vincent. But I’m also your driver.”

“I thought you said–”

“Come on now, we can talk on the way. Nice tux, by the way.”

Then Vincent returned to the driver’s seat. After a moment’s hesitation, Thomas seated himself in the back. This was not what he had expected, but then again, this was also the first time he was ever in contact with an esoteric secret society. Maybe this was just their eccentric way of things. I’ll hopefully be given the opportunity to get used to it, he thought.

“So, how come I was hand-picked?”, he said as the car started moving.

Vincent met his gaze through the rear view mirror. “Ah, yeah that’s a good question. Well. You see, I was tasked with scouting for a dinner guest, based on a list of very strict criteria. The aspirant would, amongst other things, have to be raised in the city, be between twenty eight and thirty three years old, an up and coming businessman, and of average height.

You turned out to be a promising candidate – except for the height, it turns out. But I’ll blame your misleading profile pictures for that. Anyways, mate, don’t fret. They’re going to love you.”

***

The house was old and classic, with tall windows overlooking the busy street from half a dozen expensive floors. When they arrived, Vincent actually got out of the car and hurried around it to open Thomas’ door for him. The latter was positively surprised by this, the former having shown very little of this kind of courteousness during the drive. This might actually turn out to be something fancy after all, Tom mused.

Vincent kept up the gallantry by holding up the entrance door for him as well, and then proceeded to calling down the elevator for them. The stairwell was classy and impressive, with real art on the walls and such shine in its marble floor slabs that it was almost possible to use them as an enormous rose mirror. As they got into the elevator, the impression of unblushing wealth was only strengthened; there was a small chandelier hanging from the ceiling, and on the small floor was a Persian carpet.

“Wow, this place is… really something”, Tom said as he admired the intricate patterns on the brass key set panel.

“Yeah, I guess”, Vincent replied, but didn’t sound all too excited himself. He pressed one of the shiny elevator buttons, and they rose smoothly upwards to the soft notes of Cello Suite no. 1 in G major playing from cleverly hidden speakers.

They arrived on the sixth floor, and as the elevator doors opened before him Thomas suddenly wished that he had put much more effort into his clothing. The music from the elevator, he realized, was the same as was playing in the grand parlour that the doors opened upon. There was a party going on here, alright. Catering personnel moved skilfully amongst the smartly dressed attendants who were mingling, drinking and eating canapés from silver plates all across the room.

As Tom stepped out of the elevator, trying to adopt as confident and stately an air as possible despite almost panicking on the inside, many of the eyes in the room were turned towards him. Vincent hurried across the room to say something to a plump man in a ceremonial uniform, consequently leaving Thomas all to his own, terrified self. He thus gratefully accepted the drink offered to him by one of the well-dressed servers, and took a deep sip as a quick fix to his revolting nerves.

“Are you the dinner guest?”

He almost choked on the champagne. The woman was beautiful, dressed in green silk and suddenly standing next to him. Her eyes seemed to be boring into his, and he could not for the life of him have looked away – even if he had wanted to.

“Ehm, yes”, he managed to reply as he fought desperately against the impulse to cough up the liquid he had just accidentally inhaled.

“I expected you to be taller”, she said and smiled dangerously. “But I’m sure you have other delicious qualities that I can’t wait to explore.”

He didn’t know what to say, but immediately decided that he really, really wanted this new acquaintance to explore him. Thoroughly.

“Ah, there you are”, Vincent said. “The dinner’s about to begin any minute, they were just waiting for you. Come.” He ushered Tom across the room, away from the woman in green.

“See you at the table then”, she called after him with a sly smile. He really, really hoped so.

“Oh, and don’t drink that shit”, Vincent said and snatched the champagne glass from his hand. He snapped his fingers and a waiter left his post by the nearby wall and hurried over with a silver plate with a single glass on it. “Here. This is the real deal”, Vincent said and unceremoniously handed Tom the glass from the plate.

Tom accepted the glass and sipped from it as they walked across the large room. “Who are all these people?”, he whispered to Vincent. “Is this the Organization?”

Vincent shrugged. “Parts of it. Some of them. The ones attending the separate dinner are. The rest of them are just… people, I guess. They don’t know anything.”

“Oh”, Thomas said, unsure what that even meant. “What should I do? I mean, what’s expected of me?”

Vincent smiled and patted his shoulder. “Don’t you worry about that, mate. You’ve done your part just by coming here. Just relax and drink your wine, and the rest will take care of itself, sort of.”

They entered a separate dining hall where a long table had already been arranged with beautiful china, iron candlesticks and several sets of gleaming silver cutlery. One end of the room was taken up by a low stage, and Thomas realized that this was where the music was coming from; it was not a recording at all, but a live performance being delivered by a sextet of highly skilled musicians.

The room and the table was already filling up with beautiful people in beautiful dresses and uniforms. Waiters moved around the table, offering up different kinds of wine and other types of alcohol. Thomas just stood there beside Vincent and admired the almost surreal wealth and class on display before him. Oddly enough, he didn’t feel the panic anymore. In fact, he felt strangely relaxed despite being so obviously misplaced amidst this distinguished company. He took another sip of his wine.

Before long, everyone was seated except for the two of them. Tom’s eyes wandered in search for an empty chair, but to his bemusement there didn’t seem to be one. Then the music silenced.

“Welcome, brothers and sisters”, a deep voice spoke up. Tom realized that it belonged to the same man that Vincent had been talking to previously. “I am tremendously pleased that you could all join us here tonight, and I am also very pleased to introduce you to this evening’s special guest – Mr. Thomas Frederick Smith.”

At this, the entire table exploded in a thundering round of applause. Tom nodded, smiled awkwardly and again didn’t know what to say. He suddenly locked eyes with the woman from before and could have sworn she was licking her lips as she looked at him.

“Thank you, Vincent, for bringing him in – though I would like a word with you later about your definition of the words ‘average height’.” Large portions of the table burst out laughing at this, but were quickly silenced again by a gesture from the man in the uniform.

Vincent muttered something that Thomas couldn’t quite make out, despite standing right next to him. In fact, he was suddenly having trouble making words out at all. Or faces. Or thoughts. Oh my god, did I drink too much already? Am I really that drunk? Will people notice? Have I fucked everything up now?

People were looking at him. Had someone asked him something? He wasn’t sure. He grabbed the backrest of a chair and hoped that nobody would notice how difficult he was finding it suddenly to remain standing on his own two feet. “Vincent”, he whispered, “I think that I…”

“Relax, mate”, Vincent said and put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all as it should.”

Somewhere people were laughing. A woman in green was staring hungrily at him. A waiter entered the room with a gleaming slicer on a plate. The entire room was spinning.

“No, I… I blew it. The party. The dinner. I was invited to eat dinner with…”

His limbs wouldn’t obey him anymore. The glass slipped from his hand and shattered against the marble. He didn’t even hear the sound. His legs gave way beneath him and he sank to the floor.

Vincent, his hand still on Tom’s shoulder, appeared within his shrinking field of vision. “Oh, darn. I’m sorry if I misspoke. Not to eat dinner, Mr. Smith. To be the dinner.” He smiled widely. “Not anyone attracts the attention of the Organization, sir, and you’ve been hand-picked based on a list of very strict criteria. These people have very particular tastes, you see.”

Tom shook his head, or at least he tried to. Everything was spinning colours now, and he realized that he had slumped over on the floor. He was lying on the cold rose marble, watching helplessly as the man in the uniform approached him with the gleaming slicer.

“Let’s dig in then, shall we?”, the man in said. Thomas tried to scream, to fight, to crawl away, but could do none of these things. The thought struck him that he had been poisoned, that nobody – not even Janice – knew where he was, and that these people were going to kill and eat him.

And then the very last shred of consciousness left him, and he never thought anything ever again.

***

Vincent shook his head as he re-entered the dining hall in the grey hours of morning. The party was over, the guests gone since long. While the lonely, bold and beautiful people had grandiosely and ravenously satisfied their hunger for vitalem with the flesh and blood of poor Thomas Smith, Vincent himself had prowled the streets and back alleys of the city for much less glamorous contentment of his undead thirst.

There were times when he didn’t mind this degradation, or the less moral, pleasant and decent parts of his job. But then again, there were also times when he did. But such was his lot in life – and lonely unlife, for that matter – and there was nothing to be done about it.

He was the fixer of needs, the dealer of goods and the solver of problems – and as such he was only welcome in the grand parlours to deliver wares before the feasts, and to take out the glorified, elevated remains when they were over.

After this particular feast, those said remains had certainly been elevated indeed. All over the place.

Vincent sighed. “You’re welcome”, he said to the empty room as he started unwinding a roll of black garbage disposal bags. Then he got about his grizzly task with the routine of someone who has done the same thing many times before, humming Eleanor Rigby all the while. It seemed only fitting.

Where did they all come from, after all?

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-03-05

This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

It is also highly inspired by a dark urban folklore/RPG setting created by my good friend Stellawainwright. Check out his site, will yah?

I have, by the way, previously written three other short stories set in the same universe. If you want to read them as well, they are called The Sound of Silence, The Forest and Substitution.

 

 

Substitution

[23:47] <J0hnDo3> ”We're all nothing but the sum of our own lies.”
[23:47] <J0hnDo3> That was the last thing she said to me before she died. 
[23:47] <J0hnDo3> I don't know what she meant, but none of that matters anymore. 
[23:47] <J0hnDo3> Nothing does.

Her electric eyes in the dark. Four feet dangling from the familiar bridge.
Two bottles glittering in the synthetic lights of the city below.
”I can’t do this anymore.”

[23:48] <J0hnDo3> This room is dark and silent. The darkness is not something new, but the silence is. 
[23:48] <J0hnDo3> She was the talker, the player of music and games. 
[23:48] <J0hnDo3> Now there's just me, and I was always the quiet one. The thinker, the brooder. 
[23:48] <J0hnDo3> And nothing of that has changed, although everything else has.
[23:48] <J0hnDo3> I'm not sure if I'm drinking to honor her memory or to forget.

Give me your hand.”
A knife suddenly, without a smile, without a joke.
Something real, something since long weighing heavy
on solitary shoulders.
My confused hand in hers.
”Remember how we mixed blood as children?”

[23:49] <J0hnDo3> My computer is my only window to the outside world now, the only thing that grants importance to my days. 
[23:49] <J0hnDo3> She was always the outgoing one, the force that sometimes made me leave the virtual world for the physical. 
[23:49] <J0hnDo3> That force is gone now, and I have none of my own. Even less so now than before, actually.

Pain. The neon reflections in the blade, in the crimson liquid emerging from the paleness of my hand.
”See, your blood’s still red.”
Another scar, another wound. Glittering darkness like velvet quicksilver.
Little stars twinkling from the midnight oil in her cupped hand.
”Mine is not anymore.”

[23:51] <J0hnDo3> She always told me that we were going to change the world, one circuit at a time. We were going to salvage what was worth saving and tear down that which was not. 
[23:51] <J0hnDo3> Then we were going to stand by the crater and watch it all burn. 
[23:51] <J0hnDo3> She was on a crusade to steal it all back from the world's rightless powers and to uncover all their lies. 
[23:51] <J0hnDo3> I always followed, because as far as crusades go, she was mine.

I found something, Jonathan, and I went too deep. Now it is changing me.”
Eyes usually brave, defiant, now filled with fear – and something else not readily apparent without looking dangerously closely;
twinkling, twinkling little stars draped in mercury midnight oil.

[23:53] <J0hnDo3> I don't know where she got the gun, or why I still have it. It is a sick thing to have, right, and an even sicker thing to keep. 
[23:53] <J0hnDo3> I made a half-hearted attempt to clean it, but it still has specks of her burnt, dark blood all around the muzzle. It just won't come off. 
[23:53] <J0hnDo3> Well, it doesn't matter to me. It will do it's job again just as well anyway.

I can’t explain it. I’ve tried to understand what is happening, but I can’t.
I think I’m going mad.”
Three deep breaths, barely held back tears and panic.
”I can’t feel things like I used to, and I know things I shouldn’t know.
Like it’s someone else’s knowledge that I don’t know how I have.
And I have stopped sleeping, Jonathan.
I just lie there in the darkness, like in standby mode.
And the itching… I think there is something under my skin.
Something… not organic.”

[23:54] <J0hnDo3> When she met me on the bridge that night it was the first I saw of her in several days. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> I want to remember her as she was, not for the fear and panic and absence of her last three weeks. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> After she found that shit on the Tor dark web, that is. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> She never told me what it was, if it was tools or drugs or information. Perhaps all three of them. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> But whatever it was, it drove her mad and killed her. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> And one could say that indirectly it's now killing me too.

The knife is gone, and now there’s a gun.
Chrome surface reflecting the cityscape just as well as
eyes and bottles and blood ever did.
Panic in my mind suddenly.
”What are you doing with that? Put it away!”
I grab her hand tightly, feel pulsing red and black blood
intermingling between our palms.

[23:56] <J0hnDo3> I cannot stand this silence and darkness anymore. I cannot stand being on a crusade that means nothing to me now that she is gone. 
[23:56] <J0hnDo3> The world is so empty and pointless without her, not even worth burning or tearing down. 
[23:57] <J0hnDo3> I've realized that even if I didn't understand it at the time, this is why I kept the gun. Why I picked it up and hid it when the sirens approached. Why I lied about it when the police came by. 
[23:57] <J0hnDo3> Why I'm typing this with its chrome surface reflecting the blinking prompt on my screen.

I’m sorry, Jonathan. I can’t do this anymore. There’s a voice in my head, and it’s telling me things I don’t understand.
Things about me, about the world, about… About everything.
It’s never quiet, Johanthan – it’s never quiet!”
Words from my mouth, gestures of my hands, but they do not reach her.
I do not reach her.
Panic. Pleading. Tears. All mine now.
”Amanda, don’t do this. Please.”

She looks at me, stars twinkling clearly now in mercury midnight oil.
Some kind of calm suddenly.
”It’s all a lie, Jonathan. We’re all nothing but the sum of our own lies.”

And then the world explodes.

[23:58] <J0hnDo3> I don't know what she wanted to tell me, and I don't know why those last words plagued my dreams every night after that until I stopped sleeping and feeling altogether. 
[23:58] <J0hnDo3> My hand hasn't healed well either – did she infect me with something? I keep hearing her voice inside my head and I think I'm going mad as well. 
[23:59] <J0hnDo3> But none of that matters anymore. Nothing does. I feel like a mangled hard drive that's slowly being written over, and I actually don't care.
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> I'm not even sure why I'm writing this. I guess I just wanted to leave a piece of me somewhere out there, before there are pieces of me everywhere so to speak. Perhaps someone will hear the shot and find me before things get too nasty. Or perhaps not. 
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> And perhaps nobody will ever even enter this old channel and read this crap anyway. 
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> But if you do, well, consider this my letter of resignation. To the crusade, to life, to everything. 
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> Goodbye, World.
[00:00] <Am&_A> Don't.
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> ???
[00:01] <J0hnDo3> Wtf who is this? This is not funny.
[00:02] <Am&_A> Just don't, Jonathan. You'll regret it. I know.
[00:02] <J0hnDo3> Amanda? Is that really you?
[00:02] <J0hnDo3> How? You died. I saw you die.
[00:02] <J0hnDo3> Amanda??
[00:04] <Am&_A> There's still so much that you don't understand, and it will get worse. I'm sorry.
[00:04] <J0hnDo3> What? For what? Amanda, where are you??
[00:05] <J0hnDo3> ????
[00:06] <Am&_A> Here. Or, I don't know. I'm not sure. Everywhere.
[00:06] <J0hnDo3> What the hell's that supposed to mean???
[00:07] <J0hnDo3> ???
[00:09] <Am&_A> I hear it has started for you too. It's my fault. I didn't know.
[00:09] <J0hnDo3> KNOW WHAT?? Amanda, please!
[00:10] <Am&_A> There's a place downtown called Cellar Door. 
[00:10] <Am&_A> It's a bar. Don't ask me how I know this. 
[00:10] <Am&_A> Go there. Ask for Vincent. 
[00:10] <Am&_A> He will explain everything.
[00:10] <J0hnDo3> What is this, the fucking Matrix??
[00:10] <J0hnDo3> Hello?
[00:11] <J0hnDo3> Amanda??
[00:13] <J0hnDo3> Amanda, please don't leave me again.
[00:14] <J0hnDo3> Please
[00:21] <J0hnDo3> Amanda?
[00:33] <J0hnDo3> Ok then. Fine. Fuck it. I'll go there.

[04:47] == J0hnDo3 has quit [Ping timeout: 264 seconds]

We’re all nothing but the sum of our own lies.

That was the last thing she said to me before she was gone.
Gone, not dead. Because that’s not how the world works anymore.
Perhaps it never really worked that way, but I was too blind to see it.
Well, I don’t want to be blind anymore.

And if we’re all the sum of our own lies,
I want to know what those lies are.
Because my blood’s not red anymore either, and the voices…
the voices are never quiet.

Twinkle, twinkle, more and more
let’s go down that Cellar Door.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-02-16

This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

It is also highly inspired by a dark urban folklore/RPG setting created by my good friend Stellawainwright. Check out his site, will yah?

I have, by the way, previously written two other short stories set in the same universe. If you want to read them as well, they are called The Sound of Silence and The Forest.


 

The Forest

”Have you ever been to the Forest before?”

She struggled through the underbrush as she tried to fight off the dizziness and the haze that prevented her from seeing anything but dark, blurry shapes in the murk around her.

”Which one?” She didn’t know who she was talking to, or even where she was.

The voice in front of her – something not quite human – laughed quietly. ”Oh, but there only ever was one”, it said.

”What? No, I’ve been to several–”

”They are all connected, child”, the voice interrupted her. ”All the forests of the world, connected. There’s only one Forest, and you’re in it now.”

”How did… I don’t remember getting here. Who are you? Did you bring me here?”

”You don’t even have the sense to be afraid, do you?” That soft, purring laughter again. ”Well, good. Then you might be ready for what I’m going to tell you.”

She tried to walk faster, to catch up with whoever was walking before her, but her whole body felt strange and slow.

”Something’s wrong with me”, she said. ”It hurts.”

”Yes, I know it hurts”, the voice said. ”That’s part of the beauty of it.”

”The beauty of wha–”

”Don’t speak now, just listen. What you think you know about the world, yourself and reality is a lie. A carefully constructed lie, composed long ago by creatures far wittier than you and I, but a lie nonetheless. It is a lie that tells little children what they need to hear in order to remain sane and alive. A lie that holds human society together, and a lie that protects that which needs to dwell in darkness from the merciless light of day. It is a lie that I myself dread see exposed. But tonight I shall still dare whisper secret truths to you, truths that you shall then help me protect.”

”Me? Help you? I’m sorry, but should I know you?” The trees around her glowed silver and the air smelled of darkness and glass.

”No, but you will. In fact, let me begin by telling you my story”, the voice said – and begun.

”There was a time when I, too, believed in the lie that had been fed to me. This was a long time ago, however, and I have learned my lessons well since then. I was always alone, but I preferred it that way. I never understood other humans, and they did not understand me. I would have been happy to leave it at that, but they were not. For reasons that are more relevant to my own sentimental memory than to this story, they turned on me and I was broken.”

”They… attacked you?” She felt a sudden anger rising up, seemingly from nowhere. The surprising surge of emotion scared her.

”Yes. But as I said, that was long ago and none of them are alive anymore. I have seen to that.”

”You’re not saying–”

”Yes I am. But be quiet now and listen. I was broken and hurting and they left me in the forest for the animals to do their part. But as I lay there, half adream and half awake, I could feel something changing. Slowly, slowly, my mind and body melded with something dark that might have been part of me all along – and suddenly I was not broken anymore. I was not hurting.”

”And what did you–”

”No, this is my story. No more questions. But yes, I killed them. All of them. Grown ups and children just the same. Oh, it was glorious.”

There was such mirth in the voice at this that she didn’t dare inquire further.

”Silence, good”, the voice chuckled. ”But as I said, that’s not part of the story I’m trying to tell you. What is, however, is that I have been living in the Forest ever since, observing, protecting and sometimes hunting. ‘Hunting what?’, I sense you want to ask. Well, sometimes I hunt animals and sometimes I hunt other things. There are other things out here, and the deeper you get into the Forest, the darker and sharper grows the prey. But enough about that.”

The creature cleared its throat with a deep, growling sound, but never slowed down the pace.

”A big part of the lie that humans tell themselves is that the world is simple and logical. There is logic to it, sure, but the logic is not theirs. They limit themselves to seeing only part of reality; build themselves into a confining box, if you will. That box is what the Night Children call Zenith –the world under the sun.”

”Night Children? Zenith? Wait, I don’t–”

The creature growled, and she silenced. ”You have to stop doing that. Asking… Questions. I don’t like it. Zenith is what you perceive as the real world, but it’s not. Reality consists of many worlds, and Zenith is just one of them. But humans cannot handle the thought of this, and they cannot handle the thought of there being truths and creatures and realities outside their own limited perception. And that’s why most often they refuse to see them – and us. Especially those of us who do not blend in well with their narrow scope of the world. We simply become invisible to them.”

”And who are ‘we’?”

”Oh, that’s a good question finally. Maybe the only one that truly matters. We, my dear cub, are the Night Children I mentioned. Those who once were, or at least thought we were, humans – but who fate has proven wrong. We are cursed to live outside the lie and to protect it, thereby protecting ourselves. There are many types of curses that can befall those unlucky enough, but they all end us up outside the box. And outside the box, outside Zenith, is only the darkness of Midnight where few dare tread.

Or that’s not entirely true. Between the two realms is the crossroads twilight of Dusk, and that’s where we are now. It’s the shadow of reality’s hidden nooks and crannies, including forgotten parts of cities and the true parts of the Forest. These places tie all the sunlit woods, towns and corners together. There are doorways here, and pathways and thresholds, that tie secret parts of Zenith together with Midnight. From here you can go anywhere in the sunlit world, but you can also end up terribly, irrevocably lost.”

”And… Am I lost?” There was some kind of fear inside her, but not one that she could easily place and recognize as her own.

The creature laughed again. ”No, dear, you are not lost. I would not have that. It was I who brought you here, and I know these parts inside and out.”

”But… Why? Why did you bring me here? Why are you telling me all of this? I know your story, sure, but I don’t know you.”

”No, that is true. But I, on the other hand, know you rather well. I have been watching you for many moons now, sensed the change in you as soon as it started. You have felt it too, have you not?”

”No, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She knew this was a lie, but could not clearly remember why.

”You sure? So the increased growing of your nails and teeth, the sudden surges of emotion and the inescapable hunger for raw meat did not strike you as anything outside of the ordinary?”

She remembered something like that, but it felt like it had happened to somebody else, sometime very long ago. ”Well, I guess it did, but I just thought…”

”That you were going mad? Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. But you don’t have to hide the change anymore now, it is done. Finished. You are what you are now, and your little stunt there couldn’t stop it.”

”Stunt?” The memories were starting to come back, but very, very slowly.

”You tried to do something really stupid to yourself, but I stopped you. I told you I have been watching you, didn’t I? Well, I was waiting for something conclusive to happen to you, like it once did to me. And then I stepped in. Lifted you out of that bathtub and carried you here.”

She stopped walking. ”Wait, what? You were in my apartment? You… lifted me out of the bathtub? No. No, this is too much. Sorry, but I have to go. I’ll just, I have to go home now.”

She started turning around, but stopped and jumped as the voice spoke up again – right beside her this time.

”You could do that”, it said. ”But I would not recommend it.”

”Why not?”

”Because we are here now.”

And just in that instant the moon far above them left its nest in the clouds and cast its cold, merciless light down upon the forest. Suddenly she could see the world around herself clearly – including the still surface of the lake right in front of her feet. The water was so dark and quiet that it flawlessly mirrored the forest, the moonlit sky – and the two creatures standing by the water’s edge.

Creatures, not people, because their skin was clad in grizzly fur, their eyes glowing and their pupils little more than horizontal slits. Their hands and feet were adorned with big, monstrous claws and gleaming fangs protruded from their too-wide mouths.

She just stared, too shocked to scream or run or even say anything. The creature to her right, the one who had been walking in front of her this whole time, calmly met her eyes through the reflection in the water.

”You could go back”, it said in a low voice. ”But it would not be the same. I do not know why you have been blessed or cursed with Night, but life as you knew it is over, gone.”

She looked at her own reflection, at the face that she did not recognize but which still reminded her of something she might deep down have known for a long, long time. She shook her head. ”So this is what I am now? A… a monster?”

”Not a monster, dear. You have been blessed with the Wilder heart, cursed with the beast’s mark. This is your true form, yes, but you can still blend in, regain your past form for a while.”

Relief surged through her strange body. ”I can?”

”For a limited time, yes. But it comes with a sacrifice.”

”How?” She turned to face the creature for the first time, grabbed its ragged shoulders and stared into its terrible eyes. ”Just tell me, I’ll do anything!”

The creature met her gaze in silence for several heartbeats. ”The price is beyond ‘anything’ to many whose humanity is still intact”, it said. ”And that is also part of the curse’s irony. To retain the appearance of humanity, you have to commit monstrous acts and ingest what we call vitalem – human flesh and blood.”

She started to say something, but stopped as the meaning of the words suddenly sank in.

The creature nodded solemnly. ”Yes, that is the sacrifice. To give up your inner humanity in order to keep up the semblance of your outer such.”

”But you, you…”

”Yes, I stooped to it initially. I killed those who had wronged and hurt me, and that act kept me human – for a time. But then the realization of what I had done drove me back into the Forest, and for shame and guilt I have seldom left it since. I have been so very alone, but now I am not alone anymore.”

She let go of the creature’s shoulders and backed away a few steps. ”What, so you mean that this is it now? That I am to stay here with you, looking like this, feeling like this, for the rest of my life? Until I die?”

”You will not die. Not in the sense that you appreciate the word, anyhow.”

She let out a frustrated scream that resounded off the surface of the lake and far beyond the slowly dancing treetops. ”No”, she then said as she continued backing away. ”No, I can’t do this. I’m sorry, but I can’t. I can’t be like this, I can’t live here and I definitely can’t stay here with you.”

”You’re not thinking clearly”, the creature said. ”You haven’t thought this through. I told you about the alternative, and I’m sure–”

She laughed manically and shook her head, still slowly walking backwards. ”You don’t know me”, she said. ”You don’t know what I’m capable of. This isn’t fair, this shouldn’t be happening to me. None of it. I’ll have my life back, even if it means drinking blood or whatever. I–”

”You don’t know what you’re saying”, the creature growled. ”I have suffered through the consequences of that road, and I can tell you that it changes you. It makes you into something that–”

”So let it!”, she screamed with a wide gesture of her arms. ”Let it change me. As long as it also changes me back. This isn’t me! Fuck this thing, fuck Dusk and fuck you. I’m going home and you can’t stop me.” She backed a few more steps, then turned around and disappeared between the trees.

The creature remained by the water’s edge, a melancholy glint in its glowing eyes. As the sound of running steps abated and finally silenced altogether, a black bird landed on its right shoulder.

”You’re not very good at this, are you now, Ira? You’ve just lost us another one”, it croaked.

”Virdis, please don’t”, the creature said lowly. ”I did what I could, but she just wouldn’t listen.”

”Well”, the bird called Virdis cawed mockingly, ”Let’s just hope that she’ll at least calm down and listen to her own reason before she kills anyone in Zenith, or worse.”

”Hopefully the Organization will get to her before that. But they will not be happy about it”, Ira sighed, staring into the woods where the other had disappeared.

”I’m sure they won’t mind”, Virdis mused, but the bird’s sly eyes said otherwise. ”Well, I’d better be off then. Gotta let Vincent know that there’s another one coming. Can’t wait to see his reaction. Seeyah.”

And with that the black bird left Ira’s shoulder with a strong beat of its huge wings. It quickly soared into the air and was soon gone into the night, off to whatever strange places crows and ravens use to cross between worlds.

Ira remained alone by the lake, staring at the reflection in the water and wishing, not for the first time, that the world were indeed as simple as the lies from a far away childhood had once made it out to be.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-02-15

This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

It is also highly inspired by a dark urban folklore/RPG setting created by my good friend Stellawainwright. Check out his site, will yah?

I have, by the way, previously written another short story set in the same universe. It is called The Sound of Silence, and you can find it here.