People get rings like those of a tree (but ours are under our eyes).

Part of a larger work, I Used to be a Shark. Small musings.

People get rings like those of a tree (but ours are under our eyes).

Most of the times I begin something, it is with a spurt of creativity, and I want to write. It isn’t always so, such as now; but I do feel that, seeing as finding self-worth from marked progress would be a nay-sayer to the hopeful actuality, I cannot delay. People are tired. I am among them, and I sympathize; I would even if I wasn’t among them: how could someone with the wiles of today rest peacefully at the hope of tomorrow, when tomorrow is clad the same as today?

If I did not have to think, I would say that sometimes I might be happier. Still, for the times when thinking is the thing to do, the small solace it brings is worth that price… Which might be worth more? well— that is the question to answer.

A very wordy explanation might be due, but pray it might not be written where a shorter one would suffice. For my purposes, no answer would suffice. Now I am just rambling… Intelligence is ironic that it might be put to use in silence but seldom aloud. It is always said to be a shared thing, and for what it’s worth as a stupid thing, that’s odd. My discourse of course isn’t what makes something intelligent, but why we continue to slave as a collective people in this age. We are tired, and I, here among the “we,” show sympathy. I would even if I wasn’t among the “we.”

I began to think that, had not someone at some point sat down and thought of why he had decided to do what he just did, what was his reason for moving at all, much less to think about thinking of a reason, we would all arrive very differently to a conclusion of the purpose of life. I do not mean to say that people tire of purpose, regardless of what that purpose may be. I do say that they tire of the constant quest to maintain that purpose. Put simply, those things we must do that aren’t what we really are here to do, but are necessary to able to keep doing our purpose. A mild difference. I know. But from mild to miles between. Our trouble is with this maintenance. The space in between doing what matters that actually kind of does matter.

Absolutely we should not set ablaze a people as a forest. But if a tree, when cut open, displays a charred ring— I mean to say a fire that it survived in its youth or really at any point— and has grown, we might know that the non-thinkers can get through the toughest of times.

Without meaning to.

It’s the thinkers that have the trouble greatest of all.

Cleopatra’s Needle {ch. 5 – 7}

5. The Finding

I still haven’t been able to find my way around this marble, wooden, plastic place. And I don’t expect that the next time I see the nasty driver will be any better; she had given me a glance and spoken solemnly: “These is the floors— the top three— that is for the monsters and dee-mens and the others. Shouldn’t be going up there because if you do… death even more than before is awaiting you. Stay clearest?”

            I fill my time with trying to stay quiet and aware. After what I suppose is a day, I know the fourth floor, around the paintings exhibit. It’s a bright room with muted lighting, as if it’s eternally dawn. Most of the canvases are so faded or stained with blood that there is nothing reminiscent of their past pictures. There are two paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling; the larger one is in the center of the ceiling, and the other is near the back stairs. There is a large table, and, at the far end of the low-ceiling hall, several plush black chairs with pieces of smooth, opaque glass embedded into their edges.

            The ceiling plaster is etched with brilliant shapes. Italian, I think. I examine it while I lie on the floor when I am sure that I am alone. This both calms and causes a feeling of dread to pulse throughout my bloody body. I imagine the same knives which dicing my flesh being cleaned and softly worked into the soft moulds to create what I stare up at. This cannot be unreasonable; too much have I seen to think it might be.

            Suddenly, I hear a small noise; receding footsteps. I freeze, to be sure I am not mistaken. I hear steps, coming down, down, down. I run, toe to heel, as quietly as I may, to the half-helix stairwell. I hide behind the curve of the banister.

“Over here, sir!” a high voice whispers. I look around. Gray feet rush behind a silk shoji. The feet make no sound, and that makes me uneasy. My heart, were it possible, skips and thuds in my broken chest as I contemplate being sliced by the nasty driver or some other dismal creature she had described. Again:

            “Over here, sir!”

It sounds too much like the nasty driver. I turn further into the stairwell, planning to escape to floor five. Out of nowhere, hands grasp my shoulders. I freeze. Shake. Become rigid. Wish for death. A stuffy male voice warns me sternly to be careful. He pulls me back, into his chest.

            “If you’re going up, it’s prudent to look first— they jump.”

            I struggle surreptitiously. The voice doesn’t sound so off-putting that it might be a monster. I don’t care.

            I break away just as the grasped hands and arms let me go. I almost fall. Before me is a man. His visage is neat aside from his blue lips and pallid, sunken eyes and ashen skin. His jacket is modern, and it has blood in a small stream running from under his left arm to the middle of his chest. The flesh underneath is almost black. More people emerge from behind the shoji. The vines and cherry blossoms painted on it now seem like rosy wounds. I only stare.

“Who are you?” My voice is icy, eyes fiery.

            The stuffy man with the slit in his abdomen looks at me intently. He seems like a vulture. The face hungers for flesh, set in a grimace and crumbling with every breath. “Roald Kapthrow. 1906.”

            I turn my body away slightly. I don’t want to be near this ancient corpse. If the others do not introduce themselves, naturally I will assume that they have been here just as long. I back away, bumbling into the banister.

            Turning hastily around, so that my back is to the space of the room, I ask, “And you all? What are you doing here?” They, too, seem like vultures.

            The limp voice that reminded me of the nasty driver’s emerges from the bloody blue mouth of a young woman. “I came here in 1919. Lucindette Montë.” Her sunken eyes widen. The pupils are small dots, almost specs within the white globe under her heavy eyelids. I inspect her. Aside from bloody lips, I see no other clues to Lucindette Montë’s demise— met just two years ago.

The third man interjects his own introduction, dryly: “Fau-Li Pao. Mischief Night, 1919. They call me James.”

            He has flat, small features, I assume an Oriental. He is clad in a fashionable chestnut-coloured coat. He looks almost alive; his olive skin is only a bit matted from decay, his thin eyes only mildly tinted yellow. He removes his coat. His back has been split down the middle. Chunks of red, throbbing flesh hang grimly from his spine.

            “Re-killings are worse than the firsts,” Lucindette Montë sighs.

            Not keen on these sudden meetings, I step away, near a boat diorama made of burned matches. “Why have you all been together, but I’ve only just now heard from you?”

            Lucindette Montë closes her arms. Her pupils become stagnant. “We’ve only just reawakened. You’ll soon understand.” She stares into her palms, mouth pressed in a reserved and bitter line. She folds the backs of her hands into her sunken cheeks. Then she looks up:

“The last night, I dreamt of being put into a dark, small box— I’m very fearful of that sort of thing. It was tied shut, but I could see through it, like it were glass but not; on the outside were shadows, and people. I somehow saw that the shadows were evil, that they were the ones who had shut me in, and they were coming to get me. But the people simply stared, refused to help me. I don’t remember the rest for a bit, but I could see the soles of shoes, and then the box was on its side. The people began to jump, and I could hear the wood splintering from the strain, but I couldn’t move.

“I awoke cold and screaming, feeling the grip of death. It was just before the box gave in. I was entwined in the sheets. The window glass had a crack— the same as on the box in my dream. I went downstairs to sit awhile; thought I might be cozier to stay up until I’d calmed down.

            “A mistake of all eternity, that was! I heard a terrible breathy sound, creaks like footsteps. Startled me! And suddenly I was knocked over, and I saw a shiny axe, and—” She turns her slim figure in toward herself. Her face glowers away from my glance. It remains this way for almost too long. Eventually, she coughs to pardon the silence.

            “I have no opinion of getting here— and I suppose it’s best. Wandered here alone before I met the others: the same as you see us now. We devised a plan to escape, but that’s quite impossible!” Her eyelids flutter. She coughs.

            “Hasn’t been this clean in a while,” Roald Kapthrow remarks.

            Lucindette Montë continues, “The year I came here— that’s two years ago now— only two escaped on their own. The only time we were ever found was by the girl. Mister Kapthrow pushed her all the way off the seventh floor. I’ll never forget the thud. And then she got up, as if nothing happened at all!”

            “We nearly got to the edge of the fourth floor before we had to hide. I expect the monsters heard her fall. We saw them coming up, and we heard them coming down. We were close out of ideas; had to go by word of mouth that there were places to hide— and in the dark, no less! Scared out straight of our wits that we would be caught, we split out of our plans. Ruined it all. Needless to say, many were caught— most, in fact. The screams, the tears, the pleas. And worse yet, no time to mourn. We had to keep on.

“We loaded into the elevator. When it crept down, it creaked so slowly that I thought we never would reach the bottom ahead of those monsters. Either way, should they have pried to doors open, it was plain to see that the cell was gone; they knew who was inside of it and where we were destined. Terrible screeching chains. When it opened, it was lovely: not a trap. But we wasted time, staring at the doors out. Longing.

            “We stepped out slowly. Then the monsters came…” Lucindette Montë squeezes her eyes shut. Her voice is ragged.

            “Lye,” she whispers. “I could see two had escaped. As in my dream, I saw their shoes, but never their faces. And I was drowned in lye as they ran free. There was no one helping me.”

            She looks at me; her face is contorted into a nasty, cynical smile. Her eyes are despairing. “You have at least two more years here,” she says. “Even if you aren’t re-killed, you can’t leave. And you should be martyred for those of us who’ve been here longer. After the pain games, you’ll be buried in the graveyard. You have another year to sleep.”

            We return to the fourth floor upon hearing footsteps approaching. I shriek and jump back when I see a young girl laying on one of the tables. Her wrists have been slit up her entire forearm. The expressions of pain and terror are etched plainly on her morbid face.

            Dear God! What have I done to deserve this?! What have I done…

#

Later, more shadows arrive. Not all bear signs of death; James is the only one from my first meeting who has retained any injury. At any rate, I am more grateful for the new, less-damaged company.

The first is a woman, perhaps in her thirties. She has fair skin and large doe eyes, honey-coloured. Her black hair is knotted up on her head in two small buns. Her eyes are kind, but grieved. Her name is Muriel Abbott; despite how improper it is, she insists upon a nickname: Miri.

            An aging man, dressed only in a billowing white top and dark trousers calls himself Nigel Tunnigan. In life he was an artist. His accent is boggy and rounded.

            A beautiful girl with silvery hair and eyes and translucent skin appears next. It pains me to see such a dainty creature slit across the throat so badly, so savagely; she was killed the same night as I, but we never saw each other. “I have been here since the day I was killed. I’ve been about the top floors, and when I came here I never saw you, or any trace of anyone. How curiously vulgar, if they make it so that we can’t even see each other until they want us to.”

            I ask her for her name. I tell her mine.

            “I’m Annice Blackwell. I might not say it’s a pleasure,” and she tries to smile, but I see the tears forming bleakly in her eyes. I smile as slightly as I can, and nod away.

            I sigh and sink into one of the uncomfortable chairs. Awkwardly I say, “When do we escape?” It comes as more of a disparaging comment than a real question.

            “That question is moot. It all has to do wi’ their whims.” I look up to see Mister Tunnigan, who has joined me. He sighs and motions toward the others. “They told you about two years ago, a’ course. How the last ’et they got to see a’ their lives— nay, but you know what I mean— was right before their freedem. And you’ll as well, won’t ye?” His remarks roll off a bit gaily for the turpitude of our situation: he continues without much prompting.

“It was very hostile last year; so many paroxysms ’et you’d rather be killed before the games even star’id.”

“Er— how would that be?” I ask.

“Try and escape early,” he replies.

“Oh,” I say. I try again. “The girl on the— ”  I gesture and look over, then readily turn back and clear my throat. I clench my jaw.

“Her name is Katerin. She tried last night. They make a point of bringing the bodies to us, as a warning.”

“God in Heaven…” I shudder. I feel a pang of something; and not guilt, not pity. Something makes me leer towards her, to observe this girl’s fate. And although in life every force within me would have told me to look away, I feel as though it is my morbid right: to see what I am a part of.

He lowers his voice, leaning in to me. I study his face; it has not aged properly: his skin is waxy and unfaltering, but he has wrinkles—barely there, but enough to know that he once led a life of his own bidding. I dither.

“See, it happened to James last year. Quite that he’s bitter.” The old man leans back a bit, his secret remark over. “But then, I s’ppose we all are. Oh, but maybe not Miri.” He remarks to the air, “She’s been here too long. Really too bad, i’n’t it?”

            I nod. “And what else happened last year? To make it so terrible?” It is a stupid question; the bloodless faces around me, my own lifeless existence, the throbbing, aching in my otherwise numb bones; all of this, yet still I compel him to continue. I ask from perhaps some sick, vulgar desire to hear a demise worse than my own, that I might be spared in his tale if I could not be in real life. And in perfect resonance, he tells me.

            “A lot a’ children,” says he. “Five, I think; or six. Damns me to forget, but the longer you’re in the ground, waiting— things pass.” Mister Tunnigan points toward the stairs. “Every day, I would sit there and wait. I don’t s’ppose you’re well aware that monsters have names?”

            “Names, sir?” I shake my head as he continues, realizing too late that he did not require a response from me.

            “And as time went, the others came: healed by then—you’ll be healed ap a’right soon now. But where I was going was: I heard the monsters calling each other.” He softens his voice to a gruff whisper, imitating their voices: “‘Ives, come see this! Toullee, come here, Pilkington, over there, Moritiana, Thrasher!’

            “So anyways, the children all came lay’ur, and we found out they’d been orphans or working— you know, errand boys and such. But Miri saw ’em and did roight well to tell ’em stay out of the way. Just set ’em until there were a few who escaped. And then they joined us on our plot— or our execution— ha!

            “We were to follow th’ monsters and know where it was that they wint; now that I had their names straight after a lo’a listening, this job fell to me. We knew that usually after a good killing, they’d go back up t’ recount— well, i’n’t that I reckon to know what a monster does in his silly hours. Anyways, a group of three or four had left— we s’pposed that their demise would be our opportunity. Horrid, i’n’t it? But that’s the truth, it is.

“Mind, if a monster sees you up here, they’re not like to try an’ kill you. Scare the damned daylights out ev yeh! But most a’ the time, you won’t be seeing ’em until you’re almost out. If you see one an’ you get too close, they might, but if it’s across th’ room jest leave quickly and silently, even if et saw you.” Mister Tunnigan raises his chin smugly, gives me widened eyes, as if saving those last words for another story.

            This news, of possibly seeing a monster or another nasty creature stirs a new compunction. “B-but you said they were—they fancy to murder… why might they wait?”

            I know his answer, but I require affirmation, extrinsic, verbal. I must. He resumes a cavalier tone, lulling thumbs on temples. “Oh, I think that they like to wait in s’spense. Stopping an escape en it’s wake… Sick almost to deprive that. ’Nd don’t they live on such forces, ensorcelled by the delectation?” He tastes each syllable of his suave interjection.

            Heavenly Father, be with me… So close yet so far away. Then I say it out loud, tasting each virulent syllable for mine own.

            Mister Tunnigan sighs. He leans back slowly, but not comfortably, as if shifting his own body to the turn of phrase, so close yet so far away. “Something like that. And I don’t know if you know this, either, but they like knives the most. Well, I know you must.” He gives a cold stoic look about my crimson wreckage of a body. “Got chopped ap good that night, a’ all.” I do not act offended.

            “Miri and Lucindette, the chill’uns, and a few others with myself went downstairs. We were the only ones left. Six had died we presumed, so the monsters would’ve been back. Turned out, we arrived during the spree instead a’ after. We hid behind the fountains. Poor small ’uns star’id crying. Ah, it was tort’rous to watch a horrid event as to partake. Alas, we got out okay; those damnable imps of Satan were too drunk on their salubrious ravaging to take much notice. Prob’ly assumed we’d all been right afraid a’ the gruesome scene to come down.

“Miri shoved us into the elevator. It had been axed and wouldn’t work. So she starts trying to cover the littleuns’ eyes. Spare them that, I s’ppose, even though they’d been those bodies and seen ’em all round. Her perturbation caused them all to panic, and to cry a bit too loudly. Got them out a’ the box. Back through the bloody lobby to the main stairwell— that’s th’ only other way out all the way to the ground floor.

“We get there, and a monster is sleeping. Suddenly th’ railing banister falls an’ thuds hollowly. I think a child mus’ve leaned too far on it. And then he wakes.” Mister Tunnigan looks at me.

“She threw herself at ’im. He gauged out her eyes, went after everybody and they ran for the door. Everyone died. He ripped ’em limb from limb, staked them through their little sill hearts, slit their throats…” he gulps sickly. He closes his eyes, hangs his head; he looks at the thin edge of the table, a small steady stream of dark smooth scarlet running from Katerin’s wrist.

All of the sudden, Mister Tunnigan spits, “And I just stood there like a bloody coward! a coward! a coward! After I went upstairs, a demon broke my neck.

“The girl stepped in after and took their bodies outside. That I saw before I left. There are things in the world it is better to not know about; of course, those are the things that people want to know the most about…”

I close my eyes and wonder if Katerin is in peace for a while. And I wonder if there is a way I can join her before the pain games begin. I might lose my breath, if I had any. Mister Tunnigan tells me that soon I’ll be recounting my own tales, and that, “in time, ye’ll see that they eren’t quite as bad ’s before.”

Miri comes to tell me to stand. I obey, nimbly.

Annice Blackwell, that shy, odd beauty pines for refuge from a lonely purgatory. No one obliges. I wish to take the brim of my thumb along the fine ridges of Miss Blackwell’s snowy cheekbones and dry her tears before they become frost.

#

My body stiffens as more shadows join us; I gather only names now, which I know will be lost in a few minutes after gaining them.

            A lady in a fine lace shawl and matching hat bears herself beside me in a chair, a true unforeseen apparition. I prance up at once, then reseat myself, realizing my rudeness after it’s already too late. I grasp the chair’s arm and demand politely for the woman’s introduction.

            She faces me with a pinky face. Her nose is tipped at its base and curves slightly to the right. Her yellow hair is pinned away from her face in papillote sprigs. “Not that it’s your business, lovey,” she says haughtily. “I am Missus Adelaida Dezetersia. And of course you’ll call me Missus Dezetersia like a good chap, won’t you?” she scoffs and tosses a loose curl behind her shoulder.

            The worst part is, she is only the first of the evening. By the end of a few minutes the list totals thus:

a Missus Adelaida Dezetersia

a Missus Goldie Dustsceawung,

a couple, Hazel Pearl and Macklin Pribble,

a Mister Bradford Harlin,

a Mister Gilbert Holloway and his sister, Christana,

a Mister Leo Thieme,

a Mister Nicklaus Patke,

and children Evelyn Allis, Kimberly Spurlock, and Eunice Romack.

And maybe more will come. We could fill our own town cemetery. I doubt that anyone would visit.

 

 

6. Prepositions and Games

By the time that the other dismal creatures have arrived, the clan of focus here has been mad with plotting— new ways of re-killings, where to hide the bodies, how to change the floor plans for next year. Odd, it is, that all year they look toward the calendar to display the time of Mischief Night, yet when it arrives they hasten to thoughts of the coming year.

Kael, customarily, has been chosen to inform the corpses of the pain games. She is well aware of the bodies that know the rules; she thinks them stupid for having been acquitted so long. It really is pathetic for a few of them. Those young enough might escape without much trouble. The older ones could’ve by now escaped as well.

The dismal creatures care about torture, not squandering their time of murder on shrinking their captives. There are a few rules, which seldom changed announced; or, it was mostly by anonymous accord when harum-scarum came together anyways.

Kael widens her eyes. Hoisting herself by the arms over the slender wrought-iron balusters, the feet balance halfway on the remaining miniscule ledge facing the open stairwell. The sixth floor is the blown glass exhibit. Its chandeliers and gasoliers harbour crystal and precious stones amid pastel streaks; fine craftsmanship is this, not fit for such a knave spot. Nevertheless, the girl wades through a glass canopy on path to bear the grievous news. She bites the flesh on the inside of her upper lip; pinches her cheeks with her teeth. The mouth contorts into an inverted whistle shape before jumping from the ledge.

It is lucky that the ground she jumps from is one of the divots in the face of the stairwell. Her landing is graced by an additional foot of flooring, and so her small drop is made less careless. Now stands she amid those dead and damned, and free to give her remarks on the druthers:

The new corpses have not seen this girl (except Jasper recognizes her as the nasty driver): rampant compunction takes hold. The older cadavers jut into the exposed looks of those frightened.

 

Struggling against coughing: “Time comes,” says she, “for the games— ha! as if you’re be calling them like that. See, there’s us across the way, so don’t even be thinking of trying to get out early! aha-h-h-kuh!” And she coughs from even the light chuckle. Her maladie is so severe that even the lightest of advances from enjoyment turn pernicious. After the fit wanes, the girl wipes the moonstone droplets from the eyes. “And when the clock hand’s yonder, pointing to deuce, the the time.”

She gestures to a massive, handsome face mounted about impressive paneling above the stairs, between two slats of windows. The clock is drawn in Roman numerals and delicate vine details. The clock-hands look like spears. “So be back-k-h together be— ” and the ailment resumes in a protruding fashion. The corpses know their goal. Nonetheless, Kael is beside herself with wanting to affirm correctly the propositions of the games to them. “That’s when the games st-h-h-art then.”

With that sad amphiboly, Kael slaps her cold, bare feet on the saturnine tiles, over the railing. she stops for a pause: awkwardly fumbling her extremities over the banister and finding a footing to climb to the sixth floor once again.

When the spectacle ends, Roald Kapthrow scoffs. Jasper wonders aloud at Kael’s malevolent message.

“Er- Mister Kapthrow? What’s the warning of…” He already knows. It is one thing to hear about monsters but another entirely to meet them.

“Bah! We’re trying to escape. Did you reckon you’d like to stay here forever? That this was the afterlife?” he replies coolly. “The last time we almost made it. Should’ve made it but for those stupid… They exploited our deaths, and for what? Is it not proper for the young to service the old? We’d all’ve made it outside, had she listened.” With that, he turns and leaves. Nobody follows him.

 

 

7. Off Be the Hunt

            Fau-Li Pao decides to be the first to approach the others.

            “That girl,” he says, gesturing to Katerin’s ever-bloody wrists, “I don’t want to be here long enough to meet her. She was foolish for trying to escape— why, what else would she expect?!” He fumes more passionately. “A fool in right; a fool in right.”

            Mister Tunnigan clears his throat. Lucindette Montë blinks and leaves. These things are noted by Fau-Li Pao as he digresses; “Would you, anyone, be willing to— you know I haven’t got idea in the slightest of how it’s really done. But I mean to ask if we mean to help one another?”

            “Of course,” says Miri. “We all want to escape, but there’s not a sure way to go about, so we don’t do much in the way—”

            “The floors, if you ha’n’t noticed, change every year,” Mister Tunnigan interrupts. He comes close to Fau-Li Pao and squints his eyes, giving a smirk disguised as a kinder gesture. Lowly, he says, “Best not t’ get your hopes ap, lad. We’ve all of us been murdered b’fore, so t’ain’t like luck’s on our side.”

            Miri eyes him, then turns away, worried droplets in her eyes. “I’m sure that we’ll find it.” A smiles slightly, as if trying to comfort herself by the same words intended for another. A single tear escapes when she looks back to her lap.

#

I decide to speak to Mister Tunnigan about Mister Kapthrow.

            “’E jest walks off, i’n’t anythen to do about it. And if he doesn’t escape thes year— well, ‘e deserves to escape now. We all do.” It is a brief word.

            I press, “When will we know when the- the,” my voice is a whisper, “killing starts?”

            The aging artist widens his eyes, the bags of which have probably as many etchings as his sketchbooks did, and later, that his throat suffered. “Haven’t ye been paying mind to anythen that creepy girl’s been telling us? Ye’ll know. It’s the lights— they go out.”

I retreat and let my mind wander. For the first time since my arrival, I feel my eyelids smooth over and feel the pricks behind my forehead, the pricks of fatigue that consumed me every night when I was alive.

#

            Slowly and silently, I awake. Everything is dark, and I struggle to realize if I’ve properly opened my eyes. After a few moments, my eyes adjust; the light is cold, muted, bluish. In a silent effort, I move from the glass embedded chair. None of the others are here anymore. Kindly of them to awaken me, I think. As I stop next to Katerin’s body, bumps in my skin rise. Then I detect motion on the other side of the hall, near the encased stairs. I crouch and wedge myself as close to under the table as I can. The intricate claw moulding on the underside makes it difficult to fit anything other than my legs, but I pull the cloth down as far as I can manage under the dead girl’s weight. Her arm dangles beside me. A small, thick line of blood oozes from the gash. The reuptake it like a fountain, now that she’s already lost all the blood she might possess. Yet it still trickles…

            I hear it before I see a definite shape. Babyish gurgling. Gnashing, smacking lips and slobber. The mouth seems slimy with spit.

            I turn more directly towards the sound. A bony dog— no, human. I fight the urge to cry out, or at the very least to gasp audibly. I configure a few more inches of myself under the table.

            The snarling beast stops. Rises onto its hind legs, arms lowered into a rabbit shuffle. A mangled thing lying there, underneath it. I do gasp, so quietly that not even I hear it.

            Silence. The thing shuffles nearer. Towards the stairwell. Towards me. I am going to die.

            Her blood stops. Drips are audible now that there are breaks between them. It notices something.

            I dip a finger into the puddle. I slide it into the open chasm of her wrist. Trace my neck, my face, my lips.

            The monster stops. I shut my eyes.

            I open them enough to see a blur. Feet. Dog. Human. Both.

            It smacks its lips; it moans sickly. Blood splashes when it steps into the puddle. Squelching comes next; high pitched wheezing. It continues forever.

            Suddenly, silence. No more drips. I am going to die.

            I paralyze my face. Feel a paw on my cheek. A salivating mouth gnashes lightly. Gurgling. I feel it close to me; a grabbling of lips, snarling and spitting. A tender bite, then not so tender. Forceful air from a sneeze. Cold sharp claws maim my face. Not my eyes.

            Then nothing. The steps retreat. My thoughts pound harder than my un-beating heart ever would.

            I lay for eternity.

            The Pain Games have started.

#

The monsters have killed four already. Unlike human killers, unlike even sociopaths who remember the etchings of the faces whose lives they have taken, the dismal creatures are stingy year to year about those who they would like to kill most, and they never remember their faces. The demons have their own quarters separate from the monsters of the north. In the shadows of the underworld, near Death’s mansion balcony, those who still have wings torture the others.

#

When I am sure that death has left me— a peculiar stance now— I remove myself from under the table. I stand over the girl whose blood I took but didn’t spill; her veins are still a fountain of red, of thick molasses in a dwindling stream that always seems about empty but never is.

            Her eyes used to be closed. Now, raw, pulpy sockets remain, and the whitish fluid smears around her face with diluted blood, like dried strawberry milk. Her lips have been chewed off so that her gums show, like a smiling skeleton with flesh. Thank Christ for it to be her than me.

I walk over to where the other maiming occurred. I recognise the vacant appearance— the puffy dress, the limp papillote curls: Misses Adelaida Dezetersia.

Without her nose, she looks less of a snob. Her eyes have been impaled through the middles; they are open and frozen, but the pupils leak something frothy. They are olives, red middles and sickly green coloured about the iris.

Her skin everywhere is throbbing and pink, oozing and white with strips of fat and tendons. She is missing her ears, her cheeks, the majority of her dress in shambles; they are tossed about in a heap with the rest of her grated flesh. I see what appears to be a peeler.

Then I run to the stairwell, convinced I will jump off of it.

 

They don’t talk about that feeling, the feeling of release of death; it’s supposed to be tidy and law-abiding. Even the undertakers have a sort of respect for it all, that it’s a profession, with an invisible grieving undertone. Respectful suffering; that’s what the corpses have; that they may die in peace or die in some way that allows those living to not be too inconvenienced with emotion. But now that I am among the dead, I have never felt more inconvenienced by the living. It’s never been this way, that I’ve seen the people in the cemetery and felt sorry for them, but now I see myself there and I still don’t feel sorry, I feel cheated—cheated of morals, of emotion, and yes, quite possibly life and maybe the afterlife as well. Of course, the latter I am more than happy to be parting with, if this should be its true form. If not, then I feel all the more cheated at having lost even a drop of the better alternative to eternity.

#

By the time the Mistress even notices that Prince Berte and Harold have departed her, they have returned to Cleopatra’s Needle and four more people have died. The Mistress goes into her underworld, near her husband, but not to see him. She lashes out with her fire whip and cuts the wings off of the demons in her free time.

#

Before my feet can leave the spring of the cold, floating steps, Mister Kapthrow hawks, “No point there but to draw attention to yourself. Won’t work, even if you did it; all them’s magic and shit saves you.”

I turn to him. “Watch me escape without you, then. I’d rather awake and be killed before this all than try to win this impossible game.”

“You’re a damned fool, you are. There isn’t restful sleep in the time between. It’s in Hell, the only time to stay jammed, buried almost as if you were alive, but never suffocate. So bow down to that restful sleep of scum, of all the little beasties and insects crawling about your eyes, chewing your insides, where you pull your skin back from bones and find a few dozen centipedes and worms burrowing underneath!”

I decide not to jump, if only to heed what the others have told me about returning next year. I pity them, for probably never having tried to escape properly, that is, by not being murdered. Surely they had more fortunate circumstance that might lead them away from this place. But no, alas, here we all are, gathered together like a flock of sick pigeons awaiting stupid slaughter. I turn to my left and right, and finally climb the staircase.

“Hah!” Mister Kapthrow says, his back turned. “So you don’t really think you deserve to die then?”

I continue walking, but he echoes, “That’s what we all can think! That we don’t deserve this hell they’ve put us in. After all, chances saying that they don’t discriminate between us. You can say they’ve wasted you, but it’s not a candle to hold to what you’d’ve wasted yet.”

He pauses and draws something close to a breath. “Were you a good’un?”

I contort my face to an expression of disgust and thwart his question: “Your own misery isn’t good enough, is that it? That I might’ve been a good’un isn’t your bloody conscience’s affair, is it?”

He smiles coyly, then grabs me, pinning the arch of my back over the edge of the banister. “If you’ve got scores— we all do, everyone— you settle them here.” Without my prompting, he fades away from the now and descends into the mists of the past.

“You know I was a lawyer. I’ve got a way with words.” The way he says it to the air, so matter-of-factly as to a court, makes my spine tingle. I don’t care about this man, whom I never saw in life and never asked to see in death. His grip loosens and I fumble out of his locked shoulders. But I stand by him.

“And so good at that jargon that I locked up a man. For ten years he rotted while his betrothed left to another man and his shrine fell to the dogs. He became a drunk, better or not than a lunatic. I enjoyed my comfortable life. I never did marry, because I had committed to my work. When my bookkeeper sent out a message from the clerk, that the man was being freed, I recognized the name. I had sued or defended nearly everyone in the town, and I never forgot a case, especially those I lost. At the time of that case, I was rich and a philanthropist upon due retirement. Never took it, no. Maybe it’s better that for all that time I worked.

“I demanded the clerk what the grounds were, that the man had gotten a life sentence. He said faulty evidence. I choked. I ripped my catalogue from my shelf and turned to ] where I had entered everything about the case: robbery, and a murder. Witness, none. I scanned, looking for mistakes. Nothing, until the very last, where my client’s statement had been copied. But the one thing that caught my eye was the date on one of the pages. It was misdated to the week before; a simple number that changed everything about the alibi.

“I let go of the cover then. I held the page, and under the weight of the rest of the volume, it tore out. I was left holding the last damned piece of evidence that had sent an innocent man to the cage for a decade.

“I hadn’t copied it. It was mistaken, but by God, I had ruined his life!

“I vowed to make a meeting, to try to set things right. It plagued me. But the Monday before I saw him, I was killed and they brought me here. It’s my purgatory, to spend every one of the ten years here, and any other mistakes I’ve made, God only knows I’ll atone in time.”

I stare. “A mistake isn’t worth a life.”

“No,” he says. His eyes are colder than December midnights. “A mistake is worth a death.”

 

 

SO ENDETH PART ONE. because editing is a thing ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Cleopatra’s Needle {ch. 1 – 4}

  1. A Car Filled With Birds

On Mischief Night, not long before most will know of it, yet long after most that do know will have lost their belief, a raid will happen. There will be formidable stony figures with sabres waiting in the darkness of night. Death is their Lord. All hail him, they say, because Death has given them one night of glorious rampage, and not a moment will they waste to spread their evil and terror wherever they so find it absent. Death will raise his skeletons and they will dance to the sound of his lonely violin.

#

There are many monsters who awake only at this time. During the autumn rain showers, their ugly faces grabble the images of clouds and lightning. A few northern monsters will descend into the shadows of the lower towns and cities to parmi (this is simple, for monsters are shape-shifters, their beings definite as mist). Among themselves, they talk smack of the demons who only tryst on Mischief Night; those miserable louts of Hades are forbidden to cross into the light of day.

There is one particular group of monsters who gather here among the shadowy bare trees. All but one are clad with invisibility as they choose. Their laughter stains the air with blood. Often they charm themselves with greedy murders or throw stones at sitting pigeons. Sometimes they speak in front of passers-by, who questioningly glance over a shoulder, and, in seeing that no one is among them, shudder and quicken their pace.

Old Toullee, the tallest and most terrible monster of the group, takes a liking to giving himself three heads. He enjoys appearing behind windows and lurking in dimly lit rooms near neatly tucked china plates and old dining room chandeliers. Yes, Toullee has no real form, because he changes it so often. Still, all of the companions, should they be addressed as such, recognize his voice; his speech patterns are unmistakable.

Another fiend is called Scylla. As a winged demon, she bears no resemblance to her name: elegant and pearly she thinks it. She is the most treacherous of the bevy, and they think of her as nothing more than an empty killer. (“I cannet think there’s more to being a dee-men than not being able to change your shape,” Toullee retorts).

Repugnant. Like Abyezou. A gangling frame; gaping black mouth with shards of teeth and slimy strings of tar-coloured saliva; watery gray skin; empty, slanted slits for eyes; scarred, arched wings; spindling strands of something like hair on her head.

#

Now, it is important to be aware of the difference of interests of those pacts. There are something of ranks among the dismal creatures. Death’s own servants call themselves ghouls. Apart from giving news of those ill-fated, they stand watch and have games of Mao. They clean the blood that flows from the souls circling about in the pool in Death’s sinister mansion. But see, their inferior ranks come to enjoy this work; ghouls, in their laziness, dream of no better solution to their angst than to pass their work to other stupid little creatures.

After the ghouls, there are sparrow-men, tiny and invisible. They use their bows to combat Cupid’s cherubim. Many are fond of sending flying arrows into the moon-rays so people who look directly at the sky are cursed. Their arrows pierce one’s fortune, and they rest peaceful sleep upon people’s eyelids as they are raided (and so keep the raids a secret).

Lower still are faeries. They sing sweet lullabies to rob the sanity of those who are killed and have their lovers strangled in the next bedroom, poisoning sleeping people with thoughts of ungodly paranoia. In fact, Death’s wife had a particular liking for one of the faeries here by the name of Prince Berte. Alas, he was as haughty as she.

Yet, still none of these creatures of the underworld are as terrible as the demons. They carry the crimes in their hearts; to look them in the eye is suicide; to wish for Hellfire is more plausible than to rest knowing of their existence. Toullee is right that the demons cannot change shape, but they have much more than that:

Demons used to be the ones who collected the souls that Death had called from this world, but they did not go about this business placidly. Alas, demons have proven since their creation to be the most wretched things on any ethereal plane, and most of them have been forbidden to do this work anymore. Thoughts of murdering and torturing consume them. Rather than complacently steal the souls of those rightfully dead, they prematurely ended the life of anyone who crossed them. Howbeit, there is no punishment for demons who disobeyed Death; the only way to control the immortal imps was to promise them freedom each night to rollick mildly and to torture the dead souls. So Death struck them a deal.

Death is one being; did not choose his destiny, not really. All these dismal creatures are the real devil.

Monsters, then, are not of the underworld. They are their own race. No one has any ideas of where they come from. But they are not evil, not in the same sense as demons. They raid, but do not kill to survive. They condemn, but do not steal the souls.

So, see, these creatures are different.

There is one person, however, who is neither. She is a human girl, and she is rigid. She is not wary, because she is neither alive nor dead. She is a silhouette.

She is no one.

#

In that particular group, each creature is an outcast in its own rank. And they sat in a place where they plotted their crimes. Their conversation from earlier is thus:

“It cannot be taking place very far from here. If it is being too long, then surely the car we’ll get isn’t going to be driving well. Maybe not even at the river?” the girl, whose name is Kael, said.

Scylla quipped, “Prince has a plan for that.” She said Prince as if the word itself annoyed her. Prince huffed and swore.

In his high, nasally voice Prince jeered, “I has a plan for it, yea, Scylla. And so good a plan that Misses is finding it to Death himself. And that’s how good a plan it is, Scylla.

The demon thrashed her wings and glared. “Toullee has a better plan. He’s a plan so enthralled and absurd, why The Mistress might break her whip mid-air! Toullee, go at it. Toullee!”

Suddenly he was tense and he formed himself into a tall tree. His sapphire eyes glinted in the moonlight and he growled. The girl ran and jumped, dusty hands clinging to one of Toullee’s branches. Scylla crept behind the trunk, and Prince Berte flew overhead, then clung to a branch and became invisible.

Toullee pricked his ears to the soft footsteps coming. The sky was growing just dark, and a young couple crossed before the path.

Some call this place Cat Kitty.

The cold screams bellowed in the black. When the lovers opened their eyes, they were apart from each other, limbs dismantled in a fleshy heap, and no longer did they walk in the park. They were in the earth, as if the place they were walking in never saw their footsteps. They screamed, and Toullee cackled. He broke the sky, and somewhere a clock chimed:

 

Ten o’clock, time to stop

Ten and twenty, bodies drop.

Ten and forty, clean the ground

so evidence is never found.

 

They listened and took this rhyme to heart. That was why that group was there, at the place some call Cat Kitty.

Toullee wasn’t fond of the song. But he was fond of the night, and he had been watching a young man. So the cruel eyes searched for something to use for the crime he was planning in just under a week.

“Now, Toullee, explain that plan. That plan that I think cannet be better than if I was its owner,” Scylla pressed. She glared at Prince more than usual.

Their interruption was brief. Toullee’s throat growled and he became mist. Quiet footsteps came into the earshot. They found the source as a young toddler crawled in front of Prince Berte. He second-naturedly clasped his hand around the tiny mouth, until the wide, fearful eyes closed.

The purple bruises around the toddler’s mouth shifted as Prince moudled the face to appear peaceful. They resembled faded stains from jam or pudding.

When the toddler was recovered, only just, Toullee saw not far away an adult: a woman, perhaps thirty, shrouded in a dank brown peacoat. He muttered to Prince Berte, who performed his spell on the woman in the ratty coat.

She fell in the snow, not dead but asleep.

The child fell silent. Suddenly, he began to cry. Due to her rage for such a sound, the girl called Kael approached. She strangled the young child. Toullee tried to pry Kael’s fingers away, only halfheartedly; he enjoyed a good killing as well as any of the others. The child writhed and soon became stiff; the fat cheeks lost their rose. The small body was cast aside as Toullee struggled to control his rage.

He was unnerved, the only one in the group. But Kael’s grip was strong…

Scylla gestured for Toullee to continue as she preoccupied herself. She made the face peaceful once again, and the body was bundled as Kael’s expression of disgust heightened. And soon the shell of this toddler was enveloped among the knotted roots of the next bony, exposed autumn tree. It looked like a terrible accident, and when the old caretaker awoke, she wretched in angst. Kael, in her hatred, found somewhere the fear of Toullee’s wrath to convince herself not to murder the woman. She eyed Prince, who threw a terrible sleeping spell over the vomiting, vile body.

Toullee wrung his hands, then fought to not wring Kael’s and Prince’s necks. He hexed the woman, now recovered and in utter damnation, to forget and move along.

“Toullee!” Scylla jeered, irritated at the interruption. “Our Mischief Night plans await. Prince! Kael!”

And so Toullee raised his voice. When the large monster’s neck pulsed with its bulging veins and the lungs growled lowly, everyone turned, ignoring Scylla’s previous attempt to get their attention. Toullee spoke quickly and excitedly; he simply forgot the previous crimes that upset him so.

“The first one will be having a car, yea. I’s made sure of that, so we has a way to get Kael from city to city to collect the bodies. Unless I sees one of the others and drops it off to them, like Pilkington, say? Anyways, for the last murder… What we do is to get a car, and fill it with the Mistress’ pigeons, and cages and cages of them is in the car. So when Her games starts and then we has a car to get away in—” Toullee switched his form to some horrible doughy monster with four arms. He said games the way any murderer would say peace or love. He meant it ironically, because the pain games are not games. They are worse than any game that is fair and real. He did not pause to explain this pronunciation, of course. For long before now, the monsters knew what he meant. He continued: “And I will be being human-like and so Kael and I shall drive the cars. And I shall drive away from here and back to the Cleopatra’s Needle.”

Scylla brushed the filth from her wings with her claws. Her fingers had pinkish scars from where the skin had split against the sabres. Her wings had the same disfigurements, never crossing paths with the bulging veins. She screeched, “And Kael is taking that body back to Cleopatra’s Needle!” She laughs despite not having a reason.

Kael shifted uncomfortably on the branch. Her blueberry eyes widened at Scylla. She forced herself to join along. “A grandedest plan,” she said.

Prince Berte was making faces as he came in front of the group. Hands on hips, he said, “I’m not doing it. Not anything that makes me being dirty, driving a car and pigeons, nah! Toullee, your plan is stupid. And I can be coming up with a better one all new just right now.”

Scylla thrashed her wings at Prince.

Prince cowered and stuck out his tongue.

Toullee came to another form, a hairy matted thing. He lowered his head along with a quivering voice. “Oh dear, Your Majesty. I- I can arrange a special thing for you. Your- Your Majesty, it is being done for certain, I is promising you that.”

Prince Berte smirked at the monster humbled before him. The stony eyes turned snobbish and dismissed the suggestion as appropriate.

Mischief Night was a week away.

But what does the Lord of Death do with such an event as Mischief Night? The Mistress certainly doesn’t take it lightly.

#

Death’s wife does not go by any other name than the Mistress, except around Prince Berte. She refers to herself around him as Persephone. Even Death calls her pet names more often than her given one.

The Mistress Persephone is cruel. She is vain. She obsesses over vengeance and wrath. She parades around, lashing out curses in whatever direction she desires. She raises skeletons from their graves and watches them lean and sway in the bitter wind. She watches, tearing their bones and tossing bits of them into her living-room fire. And God, the fires that she set to the wings of demons— leaving them crippled, as the Mistress sees it, is merely a game: demons can feel no pain, rather feeding on the misery of others. But soon this torture runs its course: there are only so many wings until the whole lot becomes useless. And so the others— ghouls, even the small monsters when they are carelessly caught— receive the dire treatment. It is one of her favourite pass-times.

Perhaps it is due to this evil tendency that Death does not truly love the Mistress of the Night. He has had only one affair, if one could justify calling such a piqued matter that. He stole this other girl’s feelings with quite depraved means. (Of course, that is merely folklore to some, so no one knows of exactly the placement of the stars to cause such events). Death himself has a violin strung with the other girl’s hair; this is humiliating to the marriage, but Death refuses to change his strings until the Mistress heals the other girl whom she vexed out of jealousy.

See, the Mistress is not very beautiful to men, but Death stole her for her looks. Rest still, he was dismayed at her shape-shifting to the girl’s face. She spites him, he spites her.

Neither thinks highly of marriage.

 

This was a sort of beginning of Mischief Night, but unintentionally. It sparked the demons into thinking that, perhaps, if her Ladyship was fond of suffering, they could make a sort of game out of it. The Mistress is still gloatingly beautiful, but she gets nothing but a sly smile from Night; greedy thing, they say, trust not in her hearing range.

#

It is Mischeif Night on the morrow. The Mistress calls to her sinister spouse. “The Pain Games are day after next— or have you forgotten?”

“I’ve got my violin. What more do you want?” Death combats his snarky comments and, after clearing his throat, continues.

“This Mischief Night, sweet, I cannot count that many souls…” Death glances, bored, at his violin. It has not ever been dusty, because he plays it often. He casts his eyes to the closet where his music is stored. It is a grand closet, deeply embroidered and shined more than the Mistress’ sapphire and ruby eyes. He makes a start to select his music for the evening, passing over the sheet with the certain words. For that he uses but once a year, on Mischief Night.

 

DANSE MACABRE

FOR Misses. kP

The first letter after Misses. is crossed, but it resembles an L or a K. It now has a P. for the Mistress’ name. Death— out of some kind of respect, or lust, or love, or whatever he feels for the Mistress— has put in her initial, leaving K. And only he knows why.

He cannot practice the music, Danse Macabre, yet he knows it from memory. It has bold notes, a singing melody which entails chords not fit for a happy day. And he plays it with his soul, despite not having one; suppose he fakes it well.

“Have the servants count them, then,” says she in an icy retort. Under her breath she adds, “They do everything else for you. Might’ve married one of them. I see them more than you.” The Mistress Persephone’s teeth are sharp and whiter than the bleached hardened bones in the caskets. Her lips are drained and withered.

Death shakes his head, not hearing the most recent comment in a string against him. “You still have your pain games. And Cleopatra’s Needle.”

But wives are never happy…

 

2. Dead

The pallid skin splits easily as a horrid breathy voice entails the silver blade its task. The dismal creatures take turns with their own tools; Toullee choose knives with grinning edges; Prince utilises boxcutters; Syclla prefers her scythe; Kael is the last, with her axe.

Toullee has appointed the victim, a young man new to the city. The monster is aware that in this back corner, where the smog and cold fog are thick, few people go. Occasionally, people will cut through to avoid the bridge the next street over. The ice there is thick, the air cold enough to see one’s own breath, but it overlooks a prettier view than the buildings here. It is odd for a flat to be here, among offices long out of use. Unless of course the tenant thinks life itself just another business.

After several minutes of torture, there is far less bleeding, no more pulse, no more breath. All is crimson. All is still and silent. The muffled screaming can be heard no more. This is the group’s final murder. Others give them hell for how few things they kill, but trust every drop of blood, every scream, every jerking movement wrought from the purest pain imaginable, is cherished. They enjoy tortures that last a while, so that death is almost an afterthought.

The window is closed, and the lattice is shut very tightly, on account of the sepia wind… the window itself is unfaithful to latching; the lines on the pane are swollen, the glass slightly bruised and thinner on the ends than in the middle. The door hinges stick more often than they open, as if prodding the walls with splinters rather than smooth wood. Aside from being offensively unkempt about the exits, the flat is bare.

The young man was not so different.

 

Kael jumps from the balcony. She cannot feel the sprain in her wrist from a less-than-graceful landing. The body is tossed by Scylla through the window. It drops it like the dead meat it is on the cobblestones. The limbs become bent at unnatural angles. As the first car starts, Kael is left alone to conceal the carcass.

The car was a useful gains from another murder committed earlier that night. That body was taken back by another monster by the name of Pilkington, because Toullee had threatened him. The group made an attempt to kill someone (or multiple someones) from each major city in the whole of England. That never worked before Kael appeared; she was the one to take the last body back, the only way of paying her keep to a group that could not be less interested in anyone, even if they were useful.

She shoves the cadaver into a care filled with cages of pigeons. The cages are stacked haphazardly, making opening the doors almost impossible. The corpse is shoved between a row of birds and the torn up leather seats.

Pigeons squack indignantly and Kael uses profanities reserved usually for Prince Berte. She thinks she is finished, when she sighs at the sight of her work. The red blood is drying like new veins on the seats; it is beginning to turn black.

 

Her work is hard and underappreciated; she rearranges her modestly timed crime scene several times over. When she is finished, only a few specs of red are found on the pigeons’ wings; they have calmed down. She curses vehemently at Scylla, although she knows Scylla and the others don’t hear her:

“Damned monsters. Damned dee-mens. It’s not fair, this work. And those fucking monsters, the way they see me! I’m not so much as a burden to them. But you’re lucky; hell is being nicer.” She almost yells, but remembers her sinister duties. She makes a final jerk so the cages of birds form a nice line, covering the horrific mess lying underneath.

And once she is done, she says, “I am not being sorry.” She sighs heavily again. And again, and again, as if the escaping air is a nice sensation, yet it slips away when she cannot take any more of it from the brim of her lungs. She lets her breath out once more, slowly, and watches. It looks like smoke. Except it feels warm and damp against her frozen cheekbones. She begins coughing, but stops for her own sake. The girl slams the trunk quieter than she thought she could.

            Done, it is… she thinks.

Suddenly, Kael’s heart pounds as she hears footsteps approaching. She peeks from the alley. It is an aging couple. The girl thinks they look oddly familiar. The old gentleman is impressively dressed, despite the hour; Kael wonders for a moment whether he is some sort of businessman. But when she examines the navy velvet coat pocket, she finds a rose. In the old, graying eyes she finds a hollowing. His expression is pathetic. Even Kael knows they are not happy.

She feels something, just for a moment.

The rose looked alive, a hint of muted crimson against the sepia earth, the sepia people, the sepia air and clouds and cold and dark. She remembers roses. Soft to touch. It was her favourite flower in life. Alas, in death, it is nothing. Who would wish a petal against the cold palm to shrivel and follow such a suit?

The soul and feeling retreat, and the heart grows chilled once more. She wants murder. The smile is blatant. The eyes shimmer in the darkness. She makes a waving motion, preparing a brief hello.

            The man raises his hat. It is handsome, unfitting for his visage. Yet the man’s body is not meek. His aura is dark and sad, shuddering away from him like the cold, dead breath of the evening.

Kael nods briefly, draws her arms over her chest to hide what blood she may. She is not invisible like the others, but she is as stealthy as them. If she was caught, she would be in the asylum until Armageddon. When the two pass her at a decent distance, she decides to kill them. She steps forward again, again, foot in front of foot, until she is close enough to touch the train of the velvet coat—

 

A petal grazes the feet against the cobblestone earth, and Kael freezes. The petal takes a long while to stroke the top of her foot before blowing away. She watches it. Smiles a smile so small it looks as if she is merely preparing to speak. At any given moment, Kael has at least three plots on how to kill something. Suddenly, something comes over her… she decides to spare bruising their taut necks, or slashing them open, or bashing their skulls with the butt of her axe. She stumbles back towards the alley, looking behind her at the couple. The woman turns around, but Kael is gone by then. For monsters well have taught her to sense the impending glance of those alive.

But still she watches from the corner. The petal dances a few inches above the sepia earth. It floats away on the sepia sky, to the sepia zephyr and clouds, until its glimmer is untold, as before.

Kael blinks, but they have passed. She decides she does not know the faces.

She scampers around the car to the driver’s door. The shrill cracking of a pigeon’s throat draws her back. She stares. Dark car. Dark, like inside of it.

That’s all, before silence. She begins to cry slightly, and the red stains on the fair face become lighter and lighter until her clothing becomes dingy with blood. She whispers, barely audible to herself:

“I do what I must, unlike you is— I can’t be feeling sorry for you! No, you die and then it’s done. But not for me… it’s never done. And those people! Every time I see them, how they’s alive, I wish to kill them. But too easy for them. Foolish, damned mortals! To hell with them. But then I cannet be thinking that even that will make it better. Never does…”

She turns to the lifeless body underneath the pigeons. “For you, it is over. Even if you isn’t escaping, you has still got a year to sleep.” Alas, even with how much she despises those living, she cannot bring herself to kill them and live with it. She realizes that by taking life she does not give herself a death; nor by letting live will she gain the heartbeat of life. She knows she is nothing, and even at the darkest of times she cannot believe the lies she feels so strongly when she kills— that she will one day be among these people, either in Heaven or on Earth.

She resents this emotion and turns straight away her face to the road. It is the last time for seeing the house. Kael, without another glance, drives away into the night.

#

Dear god, to be dead. I awake to the sounds of birds, rattling, and tire vibrations. I look at myself, convinced that it was all only a dream. But then I examine the ravines carved into my arms, the stab wounds indenting everywhere on my chest. I touch them, run my fingers all over them. But I feel none of it, not so much as the pressure of my own body lying here on the floor. I remember quiescent sleep, and then horrid cuts, throbbing pain and the scent of rust. But that was a dream. Things like that don’t really happen. I pray to God in Heaven that I shall read his book and hold it truer than ever I did. Heavenly Father Father, not to Hell! Don’t send me to Hell!

But still I feel it now, being cramped underneath cages and cages of squawking pigeons in a very unkempt car. I push through the metal, and it makes a horrid screeching. My hands are shaking, my eyes are constricted, and my breaths— not ragged, it won’t come… I try to force it out, and my chest is a hollow thing! I finally slide on of the cages over, and its contents shriek as a bloody wing is clipped between bars. I notice the driver in the seat, but all that she does is hum breathily and cough. She takes no notice of the commotion among her passengers. I cannot feel, I cannot breathe, I cannot think, except that I should definitely not let her see that I am still alive.

The back drop is completely two-dimensional. It never changes, until we near a gate where a man in a black police uniform stops the car.

            The nasty driver curses as she pulls over. She motions hard with her hand to get down, and I oblige so that I can only see through a gap between the bottom of one of the cages and the window. He asks her for something, and she titters politely. The officer seems neutral and gestures foreword:

            “Madam, on your way. There isn’t much out here, but I do believe some while away there is a nice place…” I can’t hear him anymore, but his hopeful tone must be reflected in sparing eyes. I never see his face because it goes by in a blur.

            The car filled with birds is mad. Their tails are daubed with blood, their metal cages dripping. It looks like black sludge against the dingy seats. I shift the cages and sit upright again. This car would be better used as a hearse, and almost resembles one— except I can see the back of the nasty driver’s head. The hair is damp and matted in between pins and razors. It is stained red. The birds give a few flustered shrieks, and a trail of blood spins on from a pool behind my hand. The carpet reeks.

Suddenly, a shrill voice knocks the air: “Not much out here— he says there’s isn’t much out here! But Scylla and Prince Berte and Toullee know better. Because they is knowing about things others don’t know of. And they taught what all they know and told it to me. There’s much out here that happens— it’s where the monsters live— look out the window!”

            I assumed she thought I was dead and was speaking to the air. But I obey and see that our scenery has twisted into a comical graveyard. It is dawn. Soft light trickles through the boney trees onto mineral-tinged gravestones. Two people, who resemble very closely skeletons, are digging. I purse my lips, because I can’t draw breath in.

            “That’s at where you’ll be soon resting.” Her tone has fallen flat, as if being buried bores her. She coughs. “That’s where the old me’s resting for always. I didn’t always live with Scylla and Prince and Toullee like I do now. Not before. I wish I still was like that...

            I can’t stand for this madness anymore. Skeptically I ask, “Who are you?”

            She mustn’t have heard me. I want to know who Toullee and Scylla and this Prince are, but she sighs heavily, interrupting any further questions. She takes a few moments, I suppose to recollect. Coughing, she muses, almost tastefully, “On Mischief Night, I made a deal. To get one of the dead ones out.  Because… just because, see?

            I shake my head, taking all that’s within me to keep a good face. Where she can’t see underneath the pigeons, I wrings my hands. Because if what she says is true, that she might choose to void whatever is going to happen, I’d like not to spoil it. Perhaps if I make merry to her stories, I shall have a chance of getting out of here.

            The driver coughs. She must have  sort of illness. I suppose it’s the consumption, or a severe chill, but contagions are the least of my worries now. She turns without warning, and the pigeons squawk. I flinch as she grabs a particularly small bird by the neck; it has climbed right through the twisted bars of the cage. She is strangling it as she lifts it. Pulling a blade from her horrendous mat of braids, she slices the pigeon’s neck until it is nearly decapitated. It struggles and writhes and wheezes something high-pitched and terrified. Its eyes are wide and it screams

            Then it becomes limp.

            She tosses it aside. She laughs. “Look familiar?”

            Jerking the car back into the road, the nasty driver swears. The pigeons seem more agitated and they begin to peck at their feet, each other’s wings, and my fingers. The entire car shakes as a bitter and strong draft passes. A clouded sky is gray and spinning. The decapitated bird flies into the back seats, leaving a sticky mess. The gashes on my arms begin to sting, and then the holes in my chest and the slashes through my neck. It becomes like an unbearable vivisection as blood pours from my veins in death as it did in life. Globules form like tea drops flowering on paper; they join together and make a red sleeve. Before the edges touch each other, everything is turning like Armageddon is coming. We spin faster, until I cannot bear to keep my eyes open.

            When the pain ceases, we come to another otherworldly place. A few of my wounds heal, turning into white snow snakes on my skin, as if the flesh were pavement.

            The driver seems largely unaware of what happened. She coughs and says, “We has to get blood for the Mistress or she won’t be being happy. There’s a flask beside me here.”

She turns, coughs again, and the car sputters. I am trapped. Doomed  in this ungodly car with this monster. Wringing my hands, struggling to stop shaking, struggling to breathe breaths that won’t come, I lay and stare at the ceiling. I was incorrect about the future: there is no hope for escape. Intuitively I know this is only the beginning. This must be the Gates of Hell.

            “Not all bad is it; welcome to Cat Kitty. The real Cat Kitty. More people to kill here, for the pain games. And soon you’ll be meeting Toullee and Scylla and Prince Berte. Enjoy that while it’s now.”

 

3. The Drive

Toullee and Prince Berte arrive in one of the cars, pigeon free and quite well-rested. Of course, Prince is happier and rejuvenated more than Toullee, who was forced into listening to Prince. Eventually, Prince Berte resorts to colloquialism with the other faeries and sparrow-men. This is rare on account of his pretentiousness toward them, but the pain games are like a holiday. Besides, the fact that he’s stuck favour with the Mistress is enough to impress the tiny, silly imps. Prince leaves the car, flying through one of its broken windows. He complains of car sickness as soon as he sees Cleopatra’s Needle on the foggy horizon. Toullee does not mind being left alone; he is more than agitated after the drive. He hadn’t changed form to anything useful the whole trip; most of his energy was allotted to bearing Prince’s company, and so his creativity was a bit dry.

As he pulls up, Toullee becomes a massive snake. He hopes that the other monsters have made better time than he— of course, they do not have to deal among demons. Toullee’s consanguinity is farfetched, for until other creatures of the north arrive, he will romp all over the low halls of Cleopatra’s Needle, preparing for the pain games. However, Toullee is not as excited as Kael, who has taken her sweet time to return.

The way that these creatures come about in this limbo world can be different. As for Kael, she must drive through the country before she comes upon a portal set out by Death. She takes a while to find it every year. Alas, the girl has no choice in finding it, because she is a human, and she has to be in the dark world anyways to be with the clan of Cat Kitty.

The monsters did not have to drive back at all, but because Scylla makes for deadly company, Prince Berte and Toullee commit one last murder on the way to London to get another car. The monsters of the north come through in many ways. They are beings definite as mist, and can travel like the morning showers to wherever they wish. How nice it is, that perhaps the beautiful dew drops on a spider web might be a monster’s disguise— or perhaps he is the spider.

Scylla flies back in her own way. No one cares to follow demons so closely as to find their method of returning to the shadows, or at least no one curious enough would ever live to recount. Either way, to each his own. The dismal creatures all come down somehow to meet at the place so evil Hell would’ve spat it back out.

#

The girl called Kael is often seen speaking to herself; about anything; once the heartbeat goes, the breath goes, the blood goes, then, following suit, the mind goes as well. Currently, however, she speaks not to herself but to Scylla. There is a specific preposition she is annually enticed by, but it is difficult to come by— it’s the sort of thing that must be proposed or it would be uncanny to go about. Rest, Kael knows with remarkable clarity when it is the optimum time to ask for something.

Kael finds Scylla in her room, the same room they shared last year. The same room that they’ve shared since forever. It is a fine room: two four-poster beds are near touching, forming a narrow sliver near to the wall. It has a bay window. The curtains are black and crisp from being used as towels to catch blood. There is a very quaint cherry wood desk that Scylla sits on when she plots by herself. Years ago, she pulled the brass handles of the drawers off and arranged them in rings on the wall. She still uses this as a target for practicing throwing the knives. Kael likes this room. One other monster, Coulee, will join them. Not one monster has ever stayed through consecutive years.

Slowly, the girl enters the room. Raises she her eyes, batting the lashes in a sickly display to the demon:

“You are must looking forward to the games. And surestly I am doing that too!”

Scylla bears her abhorrent teeth. She sneers, “Of course. Now shut up! I know what you want! You ask me every fucking year…” she groans something awful, something low from within her disgusting chest. Finally, she says, “I know what it is you want. I suppose you think I’ll acquiesce, but I’ve got a price to pay for that unnatural behaviour…”

“Oh of course,” smirks Kael, mocking peevishly the sarcastic tone of her enemy.

Kael sits on the floor before the cherry wood desk. Draws up her knees to her chest and awaits the silver snakes of blades and blood to enclose her. Scylla enjoys nothing more than torture. She can only barely look at something without feeling the overwhelming urge to maim, to destroy, to murder. Having someone agree to play the part of a victim enthralls her. Kael is quite aware, and she readily allows the silver blade to carve her like a morbid statue of insanity.

Perhaps, even though the pain can no longer be felt, the mind’s eye of agony is present and only foreign thoughts calm it. The girl, be sure, does not fear, but rather plots. With wide eyes she imagines Scylla’s tactic being employed on the nerves of a shadow who can still feel the cutting sensation. It perks her; she delights that the corpses will see her as a horrid, nightmarish specter when she informs them of the start of the gain games.

This macabre imagery lasts only a fleck of a minute. For there are more important things at hand: this year, as with every other, Kael will decide a soul to save— even should they not escape on their own. Kael examines her options: where to hide, plot, make ready herself to capture the corpse, how to convince the body, and most importantly, how to prevent one of the others from stealing it. It is a lovely time, if one has as deranged a mind as hers. But if she sees saving a stranger as good fortune bade or merely a morals-aside challenge— only she knows.

This year, there are new bodies to consider. Kael occasionally will save a shadow who has only been at Cleopatra’s Needle for one round. Mostly, she will choose someone who has been re-killed time and time again. She doesn’t like old faces; finds them boring.

As Scylla finishes her torture, she begins panting. She screams and tears at her head, giving every morsel within her wretched being to stop herself and merely observe. “Burn in Hell,” she says. She shakes and her snake-pit eyes are a degree from unhinged.

Kael is not fazed by such a comment. Oh, no. She knows how to compose herself by now. She piques, “Priced for one feat it is! A cadaver. Every year, to that damned Mistress!” She knows that making rounds at the Mistress pleases Scylla. Scylla loathes everyone, but especially the Mistress, who confines her actions to the night, to the underworld. The way Scylla sees it, one night of glorious rampage does not do justice to any of the dismal creatures. She sees it almost a waste.

As such, the demon jerks a nod, knowingly. She cackles. “Take the old man—no fun to have a rotting body! Now. Get. Out.”

Kael has already vanished. By the time the last syllable left Scylla’s lips, Kael decided on her copse. Success.

#

Toullee sees the other monsters of the north only at this time. He does not view them as companions, only as beings definite as mist. The other monsters do not model his whims, being that he spends his time in a waste among the faeries and demons and the girl called Kael.

The other monsters romp about upstairs, and he joins them. The dismal creatures are in constant battle for who will take the penthouse; this year, monsters have won. They discuss their killings. One monster, called Ives, takes a likeness to Toullee that neither fully understands nor attempts to, and they find themselves cautious in amity.

Of the monsters, there are two distinct groups. Some are like Toullee. By that, it is implied that they do not like plot nor partake in life’s moot and dank tasks in solidarity. Hardly any are as bitter as when they are without camaraderie. Toullee is, as is well established by those monsters of the north, as unique in his choice of fellowship as his being is definite as mist—between the girl, and the faerie, and the dee-men. But so there it lies.

The other sort of monsters—and these two are equally distributed by the nasty creatures—are tremendously macabre. They enjoy their plotting alone. They enjoy their murders alone. Boasting is the one time that is not really essential but nonetheless enjoyable for these types to interact with the other dismal beings.

Ives is unmistakably part of the latter. He is the darkness of twilight, the fire of hell, the sickening dip in a startled heart, the throbbing, eerie silence of despair for all those unfortunate mortals whom he graces with his presence. Currently, Ives describes to the others in blistering detail the decapitation of four souls this year.

“There I is, a tree, and the girl, she come up to me in her daze. Making a pattering on the window. And she goes to slam her lattice, and now that I knew she’s up I followed on just like that. Well that damned girl, she just goes back to her mirror. So I went to her door, because in the mirror’s reflection she would’ve seen me coming…”

#

The young woman stood by her mirror. Her tired brain rambled with profanities because it was late in the evening, it was unfortunate in terms of weather outside, bitter and smoggy; but mostly because the young woman couldn’t find herself the head upon her shoulders to accept her beau’s recent rejection. That was when she heard the knock on her door downstairs, from up in the sterile environment of her chamber.

It was unfortunate, rest ask anyone, to disturb someone at such an hour. No one decent came about past sundown, especially not for this girl. Anyways, she decided to check the door chain, because she knew the imprudence of answering. From her stairs, she looked at the small foyer. The view outside the transom stayed depressingly vacant; at any other time, it would be her aunt, as friends were an absent occurrence. Had she had more incentive to look into it, she might have attested the transom had altogether disappeared…

#

“She comes downstairs after I’s tapping on her door. Daft for even going down, but that’s all of them, and that’s why it’s so fun to kill ’em!” He throws his ugly head back, a tremendous and shudder-inducing guffaw, horribly malice. “I poured myself through the fan window. Better off now; that big head of hers never did sit well on her shoulders, why I sliced it off, ha!

“I covered the face with me hand; just screaming up a storm, she was, and I told her she best let it out; she ain’t got much opportunity coming up, has she, once her neck’s in shambles! I took me axe and I showed the tart, real slow-like. Got the back of the blade and grabbed them hands o’ hers. Pinned ’em right up the small of her back, shoved ’em up the sockets to her shoulders. Popped right out, and the elbows bent all at sharp angles. Ah, the screamin’!” he trails off, almost drearily. Once he is recovered from such grotesque detail, he pauses no time to delay dismay.

“Hard to believe there’s that much blood in them mortals’ veins, ain’t it? And that mouth gaped open as it laid there, stupidly, ha!” Ives struggles out his sentences between gasping laughs. “Might’ve been a relief to have an open mouth and some silence, I’s sure of it!” The horrid creature breaks into another roaring cackle, storming all in his presence with a harsh, putrid wind and icy retort. Once this shameless display is made over with, Ives continues on, telling the murders as if they were no more significant than a passing storm. He cares not to repeat the same details every time; the syllables must remain fresh on his tongue to retain their splendour, after all.

After Ives gets a round of vulgar comments and applause from the nasty monsters, they begin to all recollect at once. A monster named Pilkington raises his voice above the rest:

“The fires were the best,” he gushes with a slobbering mouth. “I- I- I can hear the screams, the skin charring and peeling off layer by layer!” He snickers quietly, breaking into gasping breaths. “And then I poured the rest of the liquor on, turned it bright blue!”

Thrasher laughs excitedly, “You could’ve heard the boneses smashing down the rocks with mine, ha!” He takes a different approach in his killings— throwing people down stairs and off bridges, and smashing their skulls with rocks or his fists. He does this for three reasons: firstly, because Thrasher is embarrassingly incompetent at using a knife or other tools; secondly, because throwing requires almost no planning, which he is equally incompetent at; and thirdly, because he finds his joy in the slow sounds of cracking bones, each one having its own timbre leading to the skull.

“Quiet, you son of a bitch,” snaps Moritiana. “I’ve the best killings.”

“We all knows how ye pins them to the walls,” Toullee smirks and looks away. “Glossy kniveses and all that. Not much of a story if it’s being always told the same every year.” Suddenly, the chatter stops as his eyes return. Toullee is used to Scylla and tells her off as he pleases, but the monsters exist in quite different hierarchy.

Moritiana narrows her eyes. She breathes heavily and slowly. She becomes a massive three-headed dog, and shrieks with all the power she has, “And does that make it any less riveting, to consistently murder more than any of you? I’ve killed hundreds. And you, why you wait with those detestable outcasts. You forget your place. No matter how I’ve done it, rest if you say anything of my methods, I might be so inclined to employ them on you. There are worse things than purgatory, worse things than being among monsters. Remember that. So, perhaps, Toullee, if you believe that my stories hold no hand, you’d ought spend time in the lower wards with those more befitting of your miserable existence.”

The terrorist’s voice is somber. Dead shark eyes stare menacingly at the world, stone cold, merciless.

Toullee, embarrassed but not having any less faith in his comment, bows his head and turns to mist. He assumes a smaller form outside the door in the dim hallway, watching as the others continue to recount stabbings, crucifixions, burning, hangings… He notes how their laughter has changed to become more lively; part of him briefly wonders if it is more lighthearted due to his absence or due to Moritiana’s outburst.

“Toullee, how was your measly plot?” Coulie piques. “Toullee? Toullee?”

“Damn ’im. No’ a right monster anyway,” Ives muses. Eyes glinting, his comment tells the creatures that their stories are finished.

#

The nasty driver must be taking a while to turn, because the car seems to be falling to one side faster than anything that could happen to prevent an accident. I can feel the slits on my body now. But nothing matters to that pain— soon I imagine worse things will befall. I smell smoke and damp leaves. We are driving through a forest. Nothing about this circumstance would seem out of the ordinary had I witnessed a passing car just a few days ago. It sickens me.

 

4. Cleopatra’s Needle

“Scylla!” Prince Berte whines. “Scylla! None is better than me in finding that Toullee and I isn’t finding him in this building!”

Snarling in irritation, Scylla flies off into the stairwell. “Find him for yourself, you stupid imp; rest, you’re the most useless thing in this building. No wonder you can’t find him. He ought to hide from that voice of yours!” she retorts under her breath. It isn’t long before she melts into the dark stairwells and catches sight of a monster’s large and bloody footprints. She knows where the monsters are, and by extension, Toullee. In that case, she considers annoying Prince further by saying the prints were the monster from Cat Kitty’s.

Toullee is by himself, finding bits of dust and quite a lot of blood in the rooms where the best of the re-killings had happened. The blood is black now. Everything smells like rust. Toullee hadn’t take part in the actual killings here; he mostly stays quietly and attacks on the lower levels, not killing unless the corpses were just about to escape. Usually he bullies Pilkington into carrying the bodies from the whole building. When the corpses are all accounted for, the torture begins. If Moritiana is absent from the scene, which is next to never, Toullee can usually persuade Ives to let him have a few rounds. But mostly he melts into the shadows, watching as best as he can: never killing but nonetheless satisfied with the pleas and screams that echoed all over the hallway.

 

Perhaps it is good to get some idea of the places that these creatures are in. This place, Cleopatra’s Needle, is second from Hell. It reeks of smoke and blood and peeling paint and rubber; the veins in the walls have been painted by the blood inside the veins of those in the pain games, and no traveler would stay here. There are fifteen floors in all; the top three are reasonably nice despite the dismal creatures staying in them.

The space is airy, with no definite ceilings. Each floor has an arch of steps to the next level, upwards on the left, downward on the right, along the edge of the building. They form a scallop pattern. The dismal creatures often forego using the stairs at all, instead opting to jump all the way to the lobby. The back edges of the floors have concealed stairs, which the corpses prefer, so as to not be jumped on.

The edges of the floors alternate between protruding slightly and dinting back perhaps a half a foot: similar to a flattened edge of a steam cog’s teeth.

There are foam floors in the basement, and a run-down elevator. The third floor is the lobby, a grand hall with large gray tiles. An arching double stairway resembles arms set in an embrace. There are two fountains, sirens from the Greek myths. The lobby is faded a bit these days, of course. The tiles have become cracked and grow mildew. The remaining nine floors have well-maintained exhibits, save the blood and dust; but the mirrors have not been shattered, nor the exhibits maimed. Most of the re-killings happen in the hallways, anyways.

The exhibits have only small side rooms such as bathrooms that are apart from the common space. Other than that, they are occupied by ship dioramas made from burned matches, silk Chinese tapestries weaved with assiduity, several cabinets filled with crystal glasses, porcelain basins to hold running water, painted canvasses, fine carved wooden chairs, several delicate and broad statues of bronze and the like, majestic stone fireplaces, eccentric shoji, pulchritudinous porcelain teapots…

History bit awry—to say if it was created for this purpose or if the Mistress merely found it is moot. Either way, the creatures have had it for a very long time. It changes in architecture mildly every year—not that the third floor will not be the lobby, but the placement of the artifacts and such.

On any ordinary day, Death only receives those whom he has called. During the games, however, he repairs each corpse from their murder injuries. Those killed try their best to escape, or be put into the earth until next year. Although the raids happen for only a few hours, time stops completely until everyone is either freed or dead. Pray it be the former (but that would depend upon the side that one finds themselves cheering for).

#

“Well, darling, how is it?” Death says. He rounds the table at which his wife sits, making his arms a cold scarf about her shoulders. The Mistress turns her head from facing the table to the side opposite Death. She wants him to know that she is in no mood to speak with him. Of course, being so self-absorbed, he does not render any clue.

“You stupid imp,” sighs she, defeated. She retreats to her chamber, which is as glorious and beautiful as she is. There, she calls for a servant. He is a lackey, and perhaps the most arrogant and self-absorbed as anything ever could be, but because she is a highly esteemed one, he feels esteemed to be there, no matter what he is doing.

“Prince Berte! Prince, come at once. It is a dire circumstance, and only your company shall do.” The Mistress can speak with any of the underworld imps. Her voice can raid their minds, if her mind’s eye should draft up a picture of the creature whose thoughts she wishes to disturb.

In pretty good time, Prince Berte comes. He whines and sneers, for he had plans to do exactly what he will be doing now, only with fellow faeries. She looks over her shoulder as he enters, sighs. She lifts her arm and waves Prince passively over.

The Mistress’ chamber is made of glass, of wood and stone. She owns several fine artifacts: an ebony engraved couch, on which the Mistress lounges; gems like cold, hard sapphires, xanthous topaz, bright tourmalines; and crystal scrying balls, of different colours and diameters. With them she spies on the mortal world and the underworld. If ever she has the whim to wish for a picture of the world above, she merely chooses her memory, her place, and there she will see whatever it is that she wants to. These glass orbs were a gift from her husband.

“Here now, Prince.”

He obliges. “Whet is ye wanting Mistress?”

“He doesn’t understand…” she sighs. She rises from her seat, trailing her arm along the top edge of the wood. She slouches and scuffs her feet as she turns to a large mirror that encompasses the entire wall opposite her bedding— (that is a mountain of duvets, deceitfully nice: the covers underneath are cold. She prefers to look at it rather than sleep in it).

The Mistress Persephone pours out her heart to the languid, moony faerie called Prince Berte.

#

Once, no one exactly knows how long ago, but long enough to be faded from coeval memory, there was a girl. Dreadfully ill, she was. Consumption. Her speech was breathy and heavy with sickness, and her body ached, frozen like a slab of granite over a grave. The chills were the worst; how completely mad she felt as she laid there dying, unable to comprehend the nature of her curse of health.

The Mistress and Death were getting on quite well for their 240th anniversary. Quite young for a marriage of the supernatural kind, and it hadn’t had many quarrels. Of course, this could be taken to mean that in 240 years, Death mostly worked and left his wife abandoned, preferring to lavish her with gifts rather than his own company. Death has a head on his shoulders, even if they should be all bone).

There is something that the Mistress has always had a talent for. She has a vial of life essence, which she uniquely can create, and only she is to administer it. If another meddles with it, however much is left is all that will ever be; she can only compensate for the amount that remained untouched. Which brings us back to the ill girl, who was very much in need of an antidote.

The ill girl was beautiful, and she was sweet. Actually, it was a classic tragic case, that Death should rip out someone’s heart when they are young, green, and happy. Nothing could make this girl’s spirit fade whenever she was in good company. Sometimes she would sing. Bell-clear. It is well to see a beautiful person doing something beautiful. And then there was reading; sometimes she would read out loud, in funny accents and tones, because she was a very good impersonator and reading like that always made a good riddle a bit better. But then her voice withered one day. That  was when the coughing started. Just a little quiver in her voice was enough to get a good melody through or just one last reading. For a few weeks or so, that was the case. Then her voice left altogether. By the time her coughs turned red, she had been committed indoors.

Death decided that he ought to come and check how things were in that small city. The consumption was a very minor epidemic, and all of those infected were close enough to dying that the sickness wasn’t going to make another round until the next spring. Death remembered all of the awful plagues, how busy it had made him. How often he could use it as an excuse to be by himself, and away from a fretting wife. Things were running stale, and so rather than going as he usually did— that is, a spectre, he went as a young man. This young sir decided to be a local apothecary.

He saw that every ailing body would make good time to his door. Whenever he reached the girl’s bedside, she was in a dreadful state. As with the others, he promised that he had something to give her. He reached in a bag filled with vials of liquids, most happening to be water soaked with mint or mixed with herbs or brandy. He chose one of the least fermented saffron phials. This would do nothing, of course.

For the rest of his day, the young sir walked about the entire city. A thick ashy layer of smog hung like a spectral shawl in the worst parts of the place. It is well to know that even if he looked like a man, supernatural beings don’t feel fatigue. But they often feel boredom. And so, after he finished his tour of the very boring city, he went on to another one, and another one, until he had been to every major city in the world that he’d wanted to visit. By that time, it had only been a few seconds in the minds of mortals. All the while, he couldn’t stop ruminating; he had never felt anything toward the mortals whose souls he vanquished. And yet, he felt the tiniest of pangs concerning killing the girl. He began to rationalize that perhaps it was simple boredom. After all, that is why his boredom is the ailment that it is: how is one to fill an eternity, when a tour of the universe takes less than a day?

When the young sir returned home to the underworld, he became himself again. “Good evening, darling,” he said to Mistress Persephone. She looked at him longingly. How she wished that she, too, could wander wherever she pleased. But someone had mind the dismal creatures. She had, as it happened, met and taken a liking to one of the faeries, a certain Prince Berte.

“Yes, hello… dear.” But by the time her reply was made, he was already in his chamber, alone. As he had been doing for the past 240 years.

#

Death set the plans for returning to the world the next day. He would’ve waited out of concern for his anonymity a few more days, but he knew that she wouldn’t last that long. He emptied one of his vials of water. As it touched his hand, it vaporized. He threw the last droplets into the air, where they floated in a mist. His thoughts turned to killing the girl. Perhaps he could refurbish her, and then kill her?

The girl was surprised, as were her parents, to find the young man at their doorstep again. The master maintained that he had not sent for an apothecary, and he mustn’t be charged for it. If his daughter was dying, let God intervene. The mother begged that another look be taken at her child, lest they overlook something vital to cure her. In the end, the young sir once again saw the girl. Her visitor was handsome, and he wasn’t exactly a regular schlockmeister. Of course, the girl knew nothing of this.

He opened two flasks, one with water, and another with something remarkable. He took a bluish oily drop from the second and swirled it into the water. He ordered her to drink it. He assured her parents that she would be much better by morning. They were skeptical, yet hopeful. All anybody can expect from a humble apothecary and one who travels at that, is that he failed out of medical school or never aimed to become a doctor. And yet, with a simple wave of his hand, the master and mistress of the house had forgotten his visit the day before.

Once again, Death vowed that he would return the next time the girl grew sick, and he would kill her. But for now, he travelled the world once more, this time the exotic jungles and mountains. He thought of eternity. He thought of the girl. And then he went home.

Evening came, and morning followed: the third day.

The young apothecary’s visit came as a surprise again to the master and mistress of the house, and to the servants and their likes. He was pleased at the girl’s recovery; her spirits were lifted, as being able to breathe often tends to do. Unfortunately, the coughs were still red and quite painful. Just one miniscule drop of blue into the water flask. Rather than wait for her to rest, the young sir inquired about his patient. She supplied very conservative answers, saying her love of prose and how she used to sing. But not before breaking into a fit of coughing.

“Miss, that should go away with this elixir. Give a bit of time for the maladie.”

Amid trying to suppress another cough, the girl sat up and put her fist over her mouth. “Kuhuh-kuh— mmhmm- k-hm-k-hm,” she answered curtly. She wondered that her parents hadn’t been to see the visitor yet. She looked discreetly across the room out into the hallway. Upon seeing this reaction, the young sir cleared his throat.

“I’ll have a brief word with the master of the house about your recovery status. Mind, get a good doze in.” The girl was asleep at the wave of his hand.

Death—the young sir—stood up as the girl laid back down. He stood over her, his bony, atrocious hand on the brass knob of the bed headboard. After a few moments— mortal time— he brushed a finger, gently and smooth as a scythe, over her pallid cheek. It grew some colour, then faded. He bent over slightly, grabbed the air above her mouth, stopping its flow. After another mortal moment, he let go.

“Tomorrow,” he mused nonchalantly, “I shall kill you. At least your last moments would be healthful. And dearest mummy and pa won’t remember your name.”

As he returned home, Death barely remembered his wife. But then again, she expected no different. Death wandered the earth as a spectre. He played his violin, a gift that he had acquired from their marriage. She filled her endless days tormenting the demons. She spoke with Prince Berte, or rather at him. She made no note of her life essence vial growing steadily smaller.

 

Another blue drop, some more water. Rightfully, the girl was almost cured. She was reading whenever the young sir came in. This time, she hastened that he needn’t return on the morrow. This time, there was a skeptical edge in her voice. She demanded to know what the elixir was. And she called to her parents.

Her mother fluttered in. “Dearest? Everything alright?”

“Yes, it’s just that I think I’m cured enough now. And I’d like to sleep.” She gestured to Death. “His visits wake me.”

The mother clicked her tongue. “Why, this good young man is very nice to see you. He comes in good time, when you’re spared and feeling better. Hold your tongue to say that you’ve got to wake to see him. He’s got what’s good for you, I’m sure.”

“Yes. The last few days he’s given me an elixir. And I don’t think that I’m ill enough anymore for him to come every day.”

The mother furrowed her brow. Her protest was interrupted by the young sir.

“Every day, that is? Miss, I’ve only just come to see you today. Do you have a fever that makes your head fuzzy for dates?”

“Oh,” cooed the mother, “she must. “I’ll put on another kettle for tea then.” She kissed her daughter and left the room.

The young man looked eerily at the girl, who suddenly did not feel so recovered.

“If you come here again… They can’t remember when they’ve hired someone for five days straight… I want to see a proper doctor if I need one. No more of you.” She fitted her fingers toward the door, widening her eyes. “Now, if you please.”

“Of course, ma’am.” Death closed his medicine bag startlingly. He silently stood up, slowly like molasses. Raised his brow, turned his head in cruel acknowledgement. He closed the door by its handle, turning the knob so he could see it. She heard in the hallway the young sir say that she was asleep.

“Good day, Madam.”

The phial’s contents were dwindling.

Leave Me Alone!

Sonnet of Solitude
So often is the time when plans disturb
themselves to make some undue, drifting haste
and jealous remedies are often curbed,
and language of profanity not chaste.
The plans of mine are wholly secretive
if for no sake but for its comfort true.
And people stop to ask, “Who like such lives?”
but I reply with grammar quite unmoved.
And should one not oblige to stare the dank,
said subject muddled with such solitude,
then should one answer not, rather than frank-
or, if not, keep mind in such questioned moods?
those who are kept alone by will of mind,
in solitude creative allure find.

Aspen

The following is an excerpt of one of my novels, Aspen.
Two tribes exist on an island of black and white. One day, when a new hue is discovered, the tribes band together to explore the source of the colour and discover that they have not been alone when a girl from a third tribe agrees to help them on their journey.
Chapter One: Two Tribes
The Shécorité*
D’leto is our leader.
He has an exceedingly ugly nose that extends from his face past the brim of his hat. This long length is useful for prodding in other peoples’ business. He’s cavalier most of the time, brooding about how the Wilkes don’t have it as good with their leader, Weirs.
Technically, I should call him Mister Weirs, if out of nothing but pity and a hint of sarcastic respect.
D’leto has it running that he has a brutal capacity. It’s not entirely believable, nor fair: who would fight such a fiery, ugly man and expect to win? I’ve never tried. To be honest, I keep my hands soft for one reason…
But back to the Shécorité. They live on the edge of the forest, maybe on the verge of the middle to put things liberally. We have two villages. One of them is where D’leto is, and the other is where his idiot advisor, Mimco, resides. I may not be entirely eligible to make this observation, but is it not the point of the advisor to be near to the leader to aid in making decisions?
I don’t get it either.
We have things going quite well for us. To be Shécorité means to be part of a clan that is larger than its enemy; I like protection from a spectrum of what it could be as well as anyone else. It’s how things are here: you have the big chaps on the top, like D’leto and (regrettably) Mimco; then there are the fighters; then the people who do petty things like provide food and build things and run our festivities, like me.
What the Shécorité have missing, however, is the thing that D’leto’s hate for Weirs springs from: Weirs is intelligent. He’s cunning. He can plan big and get away with it. He makes his liberalness work for him in a way that D’leto can’t quite figure out. You see, D’leto’s got the strong arm and the land and the guts, which theoretically could be enough, but Weirs has the minds of his people. He makes them think like he does, call it manipulation. He has their best interests in mind, and he’s easy to hate from a distance.
Put that hate up close, and it shatters. He’s got a clan that bows when he sneezes. They will attack us.
D’leto’s people have a different kind of respect, a respect for a king.
Weirs has got the respect of a leader.
All hell breaks loose when the fine line of business turns to sabotage. Right now, hell looks to be well on its way to showing up.
Allow me to explain this hellish past:
A bit back, going on fifteen years, D’leto became our leader. At this point, Weirs’ father, Rafael, had just fallen ill from pneumonia and was on his death-bed, so Weirs was pretty much running things for the Wilkes. Anyways, the Wilkes had sent a pack of twelve men to the Misty Mountains, to see what was up there.
The center of our conflict: none of the men returned, but two were found pierced with arrows at the base of the peak.
When news of the expedition found D’leto, he was sure that the Wilkes were trying to expand past the boundary agreement, perhaps to overtake the Shécorité. He never trusted Weirs from that day, not fully, at least. Weirs assumed that D’leto had killed his men (which he never formally denied) and henceforth never completely trusted D’leto.
The things that happen when foolish leaders do foolish things….
Ever since that disastrous endeavor, D’leto has been trying to plot a trek up the mountains. Truth is, he never had anything to do with the death of the twelve, so he’s just as agitated as to what lives in the Misty Mountains. I cannot say I support his efforts, not that they’re making progress amongst the people whose opinions matter.
So there.
I suppose I should say a bit more about the present, the place where we live.
This island has four main parts: the Caspred Forest, where the Shécorité reside; the Sea of Karnalyte, home of the Wilkes; the dwelling cliffs, which no one has been to in ages but everyone is fairly certain still exist uninhabited; and the Misty Mountains, which no one has ventured to and come back alive. Those mountains have only about the first quarter kilometer exposed. After that, they are blanketed with a fog so thick, no one knows how far into the sky they climb. I’ve been to the spooky, other-worldly place where the fog begins to seep and swirl around the dense trees. I think it must be better further up, but I’m not so curious as to be killed to find out.
The sector of the forest isn’t snug against the Misty Mountains. It’s sort of awkwardly placed, actually. The Sea of Karnalyte is south-east of Coślak (my village). There’s a rock graveyard in between, which we like to call Paranem. After that is the beach, then Karnalyte Cove and an expansion into a vast gray-black plane of water. The mountains are north-west of our land, with maybe three of four kilometers of dank forest and pools in the middle. The Shécorité don’t usually venture out past the Brim, where the trees begin to get taller and the mist sits. Eventually you run into the green, mossy foothills, swirling with mist and daft to hike around.
Coślak is near Paranem; D’leto likes to be in close proximity to the Cove so he can “keep a prudent watch” on Weirs.
Yeah.
He really just is scared of the forest.
Coślak is a nice place to be, other than D’leto. Really, D’leto isn’t a problem. He gives out books when he’s feeling generous; I now have four. The books are about rituals and things, not fiction or history, but interesting, nonetheless. D’leto has set of our village prudently, all centered around his hut of council and a silver pool. It makes meetings convenient, but it’s hard on the ears when D’leto is in one of his fits (usually marked by a visit from his advisor staff). Supposedly, they’re boiling with information about the forest beyond the Brim. It sounds intense. If I get slotted, I’ll go.
We Coślaks keep in touch with our other major village, Wyngentia, which sits near the Brim. We have a running joke that Wyngentia should be Loose-gentia, because when Mimco is near, there is no winning. Mimco’s idiotic advising is the most interesting thing we have here. Aside, when we are not making fun of D’leto’s snoff or Mimco’s whiny, insistent voice, we hunt and read and trade with the Wilkes at the market.
I also happen to have made a Wilkes friend named Cobalt while I was at a market. (Our leaders may not get along, but the commoners can cross the border). On account of my comrade, I’ve picked up a lot on Wilkes life.
Cobalt is from Gorg, the major village on Jistoll Point, past the cove where Weirs lives. He is a fish merchant. He is also blind, though I have not verified this; Cobalt is different than anyone else I have met. He’s what D’leto might call a “White Wilkes.” My friend is honest. Plus, he hates Mimco, so there’s not much we disagree on.
The border rules are slippery: Technically, one could cross at any time, as many days as one pleases, but cross too often and for a “sketchy” reason (like visiting a friend) and you’ll be called a spy by the other tribe and a traitor by your own.
So Cobalt and I meet at Paranem every other day.
That’s my life.
I’ve said all there is about the Shécorité and Wilkes; there is only one thing left to say:
My name is Yamson.
It is nice to meet you.

The Wilkes-
We are the people of the sea, the Wilkes. There are three things to know about our clan:
We are bigger in numbers than the Shécorité, and if we wanted to, we could take them over. But we don’t want to.
Our leader, Weirs, is manipulative and ruthless, yet more intelligent than Mister D’leto.
We were the first clan to travel to the Misty Mountains.
The Wilkes clan is bigger because the Shécorité are a break-off. They still manage to break away with some credit of the things we Wilkes do, but that’s no problem compared to our feuding leaders.
D’leto is smart, sure. But he doesn’t know how to use his power. He thinks scaring people will get him what he wants?
We have the upper hand. Always have. Always will.
Now that things have been established, allow me to introduce myself. Call me Cobalt.
Don’t ask me why that’s my name. According to the Wilkes, I’m blind, and that’s how I intend to keep things. A few times, I made the mistake of forgetting I was supposed to be visually impaired, and I opened my mouth and exposed things that are difficult to explain. That was when I was Shécorité. Since then, I’ve clamored over the border to become a Wilkes.
That’s right. I didn’t feel like explaining things that ought not be known, so I ran away from my life. Deal with it. Sometimes, it’s just easier for everyone when things disappear.
Back to the Wilkes. Weirs is a young guy. Cunning, purposeful, charming. He’s not bad looking, either.
Neither of our villages is more important than the other. Wilkes people are all over equality. The village I hail from is Gorg. We are the traders. But I’m getting ahead of things, so I believe a tour of Wilkes land is in order.
There are two villages. As previously stated, Gorgs are traders. We take the stuff, we get rid of the extra, we get what Wilkes people need in return. Our coastline is an awful shape, ragged like a leaf after a hail storm. There are two parts we deal with directly, as Wilkes. Trapäz is the alternate village, where our axis of power shifts to Weirs. It is near a plane of rock we call Paranem, tucked by Karnalyte Cove. The cove has light gray water that ripples when we set spearing boats on it. The boats are stored on our half of Paranem, where the cove’s summer swelling can’t damage them.
I haven’t lived here for so long, but a friend of mine called Irish has taught me about “appreciating the scenery:”
“The point we live on is called Jistoll, because of it’s colour. I’ve always envied the view. We are lucky to live hear, to see the silver sunlight rise over the Stone-” (they call the sea the Stone because it’s smooth and looks like the black slate at Paranem).
From the air, I imagine the edge of the Point looking like a half-frown. Pebbles line the shore, so it’s rather unpleasant to walk on, but the edge of the bank makes tiny pools when the tides come in. Every time I go down, I bust my conscience for catching the miniature crabs that get trapped. But then I think, They’re crabs. They don’t know they’re going to die, and they probably won’t care. Out of mind, out of… mind. Yeah, that phrase doesn’t work here.
Moving on.
The foam ebbs up every once in a while, which makes a gross moldy line across part of the village. It looks like charcoal from a distance. Only when you accidentally step in charcoal, you think, Well, now my foot is black. I wish I hadn’t stepped in charcoal. When you step of the lead line, you think, I want to cut off my foot because the lead line is so disgusting it entices me to vomit. I wish I hadn’t stepped on the lead line.
I really hate the lead line.
A lot.
But despite the weird sea foam hold-up, Gorg truly is nice. The village is built in a spiral. At the heart is a large sun dial. Weirs’ council of advisors meets at the hut situated at nine-o-clock. That’s when the plaza must be cleared, to maintain privacy. Even though we’re all about trust.
Goodness, how contradicting, Weirs.
Alavat, upward from the meeting hut is a deep sea-cave, where we keep the goods. The cave juts out enough into the sea to make another smaller plaza. This is where the elite reside. It is on the verge of the unattended Shécorité land, so we sometimes steal the wood.
This is the border where we trade with the Shécorité, and the spot where I befriended Yamson, a stirling hut-maker. We bonded over a book, though I can’t read Shécorité.
Yamson made me remember living in Coślak.
There’s something I miss about living with the Shécorité- perhaps it was simply the land, maybe the air of solitude. I am an independent soul, after all. But maybe it was what is missing amongst the quiet Forest People… Trust here is a deity; it is automatic, “because we are a community,” according to Mister Weirs. Yet the Wilkes are not trustworthy: we are cheats, and we live for deception.
It is creepy, in a way, albeit for the sake of community. Superior people are not always so superior once their motives have been clarified, be it known what I mean. Always, I have maintained trust equals time (and it is ironic that Weirs disagrees, as he has instituted equality as a value).
However, lately, time has been of the essence… So perhaps I could see where the dismissal comes from. Still.
Yes, the Shécorité will never measure to the greatness that is the Wilkes clan. But if we have one downfall, it is our blindness.
(An unintentional pun…)