Heaven Didn’t Wait

What is on the other side? Throughout my investigations, I had been told many things. From utopia to dystopia. From everlasting peace to damnation. I had to see for myself and could not wait for the natural timeline of my life to play out before I discovered the true answer. I had to know now.

So, I stepped across the sacred bridge between life and death by my own hand. A brief moment of pain; no drama, just a feeling of panic as the life ebbed from my veins.

I awoke in darkness with the sound of trudging feet beside me. As I looked up I saw an immense line of the departed walking onwards along a barren path through dust and ash. I joined that line and followed the ranks of that march.

After an excruciatingly long trek, I saw a huge structure ahead of us. It appeared to be an archway with walls that stretched as far as the eye could see. We all quickened our pace, our final goal just another day or so away. Eventually, the line paused as we took in the sight that befell us.

Heavy gates lay impudent on the ground. If these were the pearly gates, they had lost their protective purpose as well as their sheen a long, long time ago. They were rusted and sat decaying in the dry dirt. The walls were scorched and crumbling. The towers were smashed and their stones lay in piles around their foundations.

All around me the shadows of the dead walked with no direction, desire or hope. They were now beaten and defeated souls. As I looked beyond the queue of the devastated dead, I saw hordes of millions, no, billions huddled and howling in the distance.

It was at that moment my predicament finally hit home, like a knife through the heart. The words in the holy book were only based on truth up until a certain point in time, and everything thereafter was a lie. The war in heaven had not been won. Neither side had been victorious. No heaven above, not even a hell below. The two sides had fought to the bitter end. If any had survived, they had long since fled. Either way, they had not been here for many an aeon. All the almighty could offer us was far from redemption, only the burnt remains of an epic battle – his last stand. And beyond our mortality, no last refuge, no final hope. There was, in fact, nothing but an eternity of existing amongst the ruins of Armageddon.

Ian Sputnik

© Copyright Ian Sputnik. All Rights Reserved.

Cold Hours

In the cold hours, among low fog, something walks. Despite image obscured by shadow, intent is clear with each stride. Unclear to low eyes over flicker of flame, it passes unnoticed in malice form. It stops short before what it seeks, its coat of shade swims in the wind. The thin skeleton of life before it raises both eyes—a meek figure in comparison. A picture shows not what it is, not what it could be, but all it allows itself to be witnessed as. This moving image of something unknown can’t be defined by the meager puppet it seeks. Eyes lock. Flesh knows death, no matter the form. Before a cry of desperation can be released, the dark figure penetrates a soft, defenseless body. Red fills the cracks of the stone street. The fresh corpse falls limp. That which cannot be understood moves on to find the next.

∼ Lee Andrew Forman

© Copyright Lee Andrew Forman. All Rights Reserved.

Lifetime Achievement Award Winner – Marge Simon!

HUGE CONGRATULATIONS to Marge Simon for receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers Association at this year’s 2021 StokerCon!

Marge Simon, Lifetime Achievement Award Winner

Marge Simon lives in Ocala, Florida with her husband, poet/writer Bruce Boston and the ghosts of two cats. She edits a column for the HWA Newsletter, “Blood & Spades: Poets of the Dark Side.” Marge’s poems and stories have appeared in Pedestal Magazine, Asimov’s, Crannog, Silver Blade, Bete Noire, New Myths, Daily Science Fiction. She attends the ICFA annually as a guest poet/writer and is on the board of the Speculative Literary Foundation. She has won the Rhysling, several Stoker’s and the Strange Horizons Reader’s Award. She is the second woman to be acknowledged by the SF &F Poetry Association with a Grand Master Award.

Marge has been a member of Pen of the Damned since June 2019. If you’d like to reach out to Marge, you can find her using the Facebook link below, and by all means, feel free to visit her Amazon author page so you too can experience why this distinguished poet and author is so incredible!

Facebook: Marge Simon
Amazon Author Page: Marge Simon


Cthulhumas

One week before Christmas, Todd noticed a mystery present under the tree. Purple paper wrapped it; no card was attached. It was paperback size. Todd figured his wife, Kelly, was behind it.

The present had grown the next day. And the next. Todd grinned. Kelly was imaginative. She enjoyed the occasional prank. The mystery entranced their seven-year-old, Hannah. She shook the growing present each evening; it made no sound.

Christmas morning. Boiling with excitement, Hannah hurried her parents to the living room. With amazing restraint, she passed out those presents with names on them. Then she studied the purple one. It was as big now as a wide-screen TV.

The present must be for Hannah but Todd couldn’t imagine its nature. He winked at Kelly, leaned to whisper: “Cool idea. Making it ‘grow.’ She loves it.”

“What?”

“Who gets the purple one?” Hannah interrupted.

“You open it,” Todd said. “Then we’ll know. Anything really cool is mine.”

“Dad!” Hannah protested. But she grinned.

Kelly whispered back to Todd: “I thought it was you.”

A terrible sludge of pressure filled Todd’s gut. As Hannah reached for the present, he shouted, “No!”

Hannah ripped back the paper on a glittering universe of cold stars pinned against a backdrop of one tremendous eye. A huge, mustard-colored tentacle reached from that universe and grabbed Hannah.

More tentacles lashed at Todd and Kelly as they lunged, screaming, for their daughter. All screaming stopped as the Old One shouldered out of his universe into ours.

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

Pilgrims

Before our people’s sun went nova, our parents jettisoned us into the stars. In effect, we were once larva on a stick of super fuel. Eventually we were borne to a new home on this beautiful blue planet.

So here we are, the pair of us – fortunately male and female. Our poor brothers and sisters are gone, fatally burned in the fall to earth. It is up to us to save our species from extinction. Care must be taken, for a female is fertile only once in a life-span. Once acclimated, we find an everglade sanctuary. We manage to survive the tumult of summer storms, the winter nights, rife with predators.

Come spring, our hatchlings nest within a stand of reeds while we keep watch. Today we are invaded by a visitor. Along the bank a native wades, a spear in her strong brown hand. She hums to herself as she approaches our nest:

“Some say Peter, an’ some say Paul,
but there ain’t but one God made us all
Wade in de water
Wade in de water, children
Wade in de water, wade, wade, wade …”

The woman’s voice fades suddenly. Even the dragonflies are stilled. Eyestalks at water level, we sink soundlessly into the brown marsh. A flash of movement is quickly followed by a shriek. In shock, we see a spurt of blue-white lifeblood as she rips our newborns from the stick. She stuffs them in her bag and splashes to the bank.

We begin our lamentation, knowing it will never end.

∼ Marge Simon

© Copyright Marge Simon. All Rights Reserved.

A Winter’s Night

I whispered, “When the winter snow falls, hide your eyes. When the winter wind blows, stay by the fire.”
The beginning of an ancient warding, one I prayed still held power, but in my heart I knew there would be no stopping her. I knew the moment I heard her roar tremble the trees, the wild winds bellow my name. I ran, chased by the frenzy of her storm.
I sealed my fate that moonlit evening in the forest.
There would be no escape, however long I might pray. I was hers. Even now I could hear her voice shrieking through the frigid squall howling around my hunting lodge.

I am the Bride of Winter. I am the Reaper of Night.
I stand on the edge of insanity, of cruelty, outside the deceptive warmth of the fire.
And I see you, Nikolai. You cannot hide.

I shouted in defiance, “I can try!”
She laughed.

I am the stilled heartbeat of the dead. I feel their remnants, their throbbing fury careening through the veins of the living. They sing to me. They scream to me. I answer with sweet whispers that swirl and fester in your subconscious thoughts.
Shiver in your terror, slumber in your fetid nightmares.
You have lost.

I slumped in my chair. Three nights now, three nights she stalked me inside the never ending storm. I threw the last log on the fire and murmured, “Keep away, oh, Winter Bride, your storm at bay against the fire. Stay away, stay away, Reaper of the Night, or you will burn with the flames.” The windows rattled within a fierce screech and a hail of ice slammed against the panes. Her wailing voice followed.

Fire is fleeting, its warmth an illusion.
It will die. Everything will die. Yet, I remain. Resurrected eternal to swallow the yowling nightmare shame and veniality. I will outlast the fire. I will outlast your words. My ice will steal along the edges of light, slithering frost to pierce your heart.
You will be mine.

I knew her words to be true, even as my mind swelled with inescapable bitterness.
I didn’t mean any of it. There was no thought, only madness. What is one girl’s death, after all? And such a low-born thing, seeking marriage, threatening to ruin me. I had better prospects for a wife than her. Why should I have settled? Who should blame me for acting rashly, violently? The girl should have known her place.
I stared into the wavering flames. “Perhaps I should have burned your bones, Katia, instead of burying them? Perhaps your spirit would have been quiet then and not called to her?”

It would not have mattered. Your fate sealed itself with the act of her death. Wronged bones rest uneasy in the grave. Innocent blood stains the ground in sacred trespass. The act itself calls to me, as restless spirits beg for vengeance. You cannot escape the blood spilled. You cannot run from your own nightmare.

At least I had that solace.
It was the only thing I had as I waited.
The hours passed as the wood burned until only a flicker of flame remained.
I sighed. “There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, if the fire dies.”
As the darkness came, I heard the creak of the door and the cold winter wind blew into my bones. I turned and welcomed my deadly Bride.

~ A. F. Stewart

© Copyright 2021 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

The Feast

There would be bodies. Her mother had already warned her about the smell, about the morbid pull of curiosity. You’ll want to look, she had said. But don’t. You’ll only spoil your appetite.

In her unease, Isa had no appetite left to spoil. She paddled through the darkness, having only old habits to guide her. There was nothing to see but blackness, nothing to hear but the whispering waters against her paddle. She tried to remember her mother’s words, the pieces of advice scattered like bread crumbs to lead her home.

They want you to believe you don’t belong here. They think your humanity will make you weak, but you can prove them wrong. You will show them you belong.

Belong. It was a strange word—one that never seemed to fit. Did she ever truly belong here among the shapeshifters and specters? Here where the river was dark with spirits and the sun was an unconvincing myth? Those whispers from the water echoed her doubts, but there among the murmurs was another voice, clearer in its familiarity.

They want you to doubt. They want your questions to shake you. They want you to believe you belong to a world you have never seen. But this is your home to claimif you want it.

Wanting was a luxury Isa had never known, though it had built her world. Wanting had driven her mother to the underrealm, driven her to eat their dark feast and trade sunlight for shadows. Isa had been born into these shadows, born of flesh fed by the underrealm. For a time, that had been enough to claim her place. But that time had passed with her mother. Her mother’s wanting had brought them here; her heart and passion had made it home. But Isa did not have her heart. Without its steady rhythm, could any place be home?

Faint torch light flickered far across the water. Isa paddled closer, drawn to the light like the many crawling, scuttling things of the deep. She could sense their movements in the cavern around her. As the light grew stronger, she could see the dark shapes moving along the walls and ceiling, their bodies long as her canoe, their legs, eyes, carapaces gleaming.

At last Isa drew up close to the rocky shore. She pulled her vessel safely up from the whispering waters, away from the paths of hurrying insects. They had cleared trails through the dirt, the torchlight drawing them to earthen tunnels that glowed with a still deeper light.

This was as far as Isa had ever come. Every other year she had sat with the canoe as her mother changed for the feast, disappearing among the swarm. She only knew the feast as a time of boredom and waiting. But not this year.

Isa followed the eager procession of insects, jostled by their long bodies through too-narrow tunnels, until at last they emerged into a wide cavern. Here, the polished stone walls gleamed in the glow of countless torches, illuminating a seething heap at the centre of the chamber that rose high above her. The insects hurried into this heap, hungry for the feast, the air above them filled with warm light and the stench of decay.

You came.

Isa looked up high to the top of the writhing heap. There, atop a tower of bones stripped bare by the frenzy, sat two great beetles. One, purple-black, was feeding on the maggots born of the heap. Beside him, his queen gleamed in emerald tones. She watched Isa, her gaze steady over twitching antennae.

“Yes, your Highness,” Isa said, quickly dropping into a low bow. “I have come to join the feast.”

Why?

Isa looked up into those emerald eyes. Under their gaze, her answers suddenly felt fragile, empty.

“This is my home,” she said at last. “I wish to stay.”

Why?

Isa’s tongue sat empty. She thought only of the whispering river, the voice that carried above all others, speaking in death with more heart and strength than Isa had ever felt in life.

“This is my home,” she said again. “This is the world my mother chose. I choose it, too.”

The emerald queen considered her in silence. Then as Isa watched, those insect features melted, twisted, shaped themselves into a new form. Isa looked up into a human face, beautiful and tragic.

“I know of the choice between worlds,” the queen said. “I know of the strength of mothers, too—how they can tie you to a world of their choosing. But what of your strength?”

Looking into the queen’s face, Isa thought of her mother’s features, her strength. Isa had inherited her eyes, her nose, when what she needed most was her heart.

“My strength is my choice,” Isa said. “I choose to stay.”

“Then eat.”

At the queen’s words, a path cleared through the heap’s frenzy. The bodies of countless dead creatures were exposed—raw and rotten—and despite her mother’s warning, Isa looked. There in the heap was a familiar form with eyes and nose much like her own, though bloated with death and decay.

You’ll only spoil your appetite.

Despite the grief and revulsion churning her stomach, Isa stepped forward. She climbed into the heap, the way wet and slippery with death, but she continued until she reached her mother’s body. Much of her torso had already been eaten away, but her ribcage was intact, its strength guarding her great treasure.

You will show them you belong.

Isa reached into her mother’s chest and pulled from it her heart. It filled her hand, heavy and still. Could this thing be the same heart that had brought her mother to this place, that had brought Isa to this moment?

She bit into it.

Isa’s mouth filled with a warm wetness, with the taste and smell of rot. But as she ate, her senses changed. Each bite became sweeter, more satisfying, tasting of pomegranates. That taste fed a deep hunger that had gone unnamed. It was an awakening—the answer to questions she had never thought to ask.

Fed by her mother’s flesh, a new strength flowed through her. It sprang  from her own heart, reaching out into the many limbs that stretched from her new-formed body. That strength surrounded her, joining her to the frenzy all around. Her senses fill with life, with connection, with the thrill of the feast.

She ate, savouring the sweetness of home.

~ Miriam H. Harrison

© Copyright Miriam H. Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

Signal to Noise

He regained consciousness in the hospital corridor, finding himself standing in the middle of a stream of people flickering past without pause.  He was dimly aware he couldn’t be seen.  The world he had emerged into was grey, faded and separated from the world he had just left.  It was also silent.  He reached out to touch a nearby nurse, but his hand, insubstantial, entered her arm and passed through without making contact.

As soon as the time of death was recorded most of the staff cleared the emergency room, moving onto the next crisis.  She stood over his shell, stunned, ignoring the nurses who fussed around him, tidying up the detritus of the failed attempt to save him.  She thought back to the accident; they had been walking across the road, moving from pub to pub, then boom, the taxi had hit him.  The next few minutes were a blur; a scream, bystanders arriving, the police, the wail of the ambulance, the emergency room and the medical staff.  Then this, the unnatural quiet.

He found himself floating down the corridor towards an unknown destination.  The world around him was moving faster and faster, the people mere blurs.  He was slowing down, fading from the mortal realm as his life energy dissipated.  He was moving between worlds.

She left him and stepped out of the triage room.  The policeman, who had diplomatically waited outside, agreed to meet her the following day to take a statement.  She signed the required documents and received unwanted, rushed condolences from the harassed admin staff.  It was the week before Christmas, the busiest time of the year for the emergency department.  Falls, fights, drunks and car accidents overwhelmed the staff.  With nowhere else to go she went home, getting back at about ten o’clock.  She left the house in darkness and slumped onto the sofa in the lounge.  An involuntary shudder shook her thin frame, memories returning.  The worst thing was she hadn’t had the chance to say farewell to him, he hadn’t regained consciousness and she knew her whispered goodbye as he lay dying hadn’t been heard.  That, above all, was unbearable.

He started to notice other shapes around him.  Diaphanous, smoke-like figures floated next to him.  The real world, the world of living people could still be seen, but it was blurred, as if observed through a film of ice.  His mortal energy was almost gone, but one thing kept him focussed on the world he had just left.  Her.  He didn’t know if he could, but he knew he had to try.  Concentrating, he steered himself towards his goal.

She tried to sleep, but found it impossible.  She rose and made some tea, watching the darkness out of the kitchen window.  She hadn’t cried yet, the emptiness she felt had driven out every other possible emotion.  She knew with the coming of the dawn she would have to start phoning.  It was then the emotion of the truth would overwhelm her.

He reached for the pay-phone praying he was still able to lift the receiver.  Around him, the shapes of his new companions whirled and danced, some grieving and some celebrating.  His companions were fading away, just as he was, but he had to do one last thing before he left the mortal world.  His fingers, through sheer willpower, made contact with the receiver and he managed to find the strength to lift it.  He had to reach her, had to say goodbye.  The shapes around him scattered in confusion at this merging of the two worlds. 

She finished her tea and rinsed the mug.  The early morning sun was streaking the eastern sky with reds and yellows.  She knew she would have to reach for the phone soon, to start the task of letting friends and family know the news.  Suddenly, shockingly the phone rang.  She lifted the receiver and placed it to her ear.  A crackle of white noise made her wince, but some hidden emotion kept her from hanging up.  She strained to listen.  A voice spoke, faint beneath the crackling.  The voice was achingly familiar and she gasped when she recognised it.  The voice spoke a simple message, over and over again.  All too soon it faded to nothing amongst the overwhelming white noise, but it had been enough.  He had said goodbye.  Tears flowed down her face.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

The Visionary

I stare at the first four words of the letter I’m writing.

I am a Visionary.

I put pen back to paper and continue.

The majority of my life has been spent watching others’ lives end. My body used as a signal to Death when it is time for someone to leave our world. The night of my eighteenth birthday I watched my two best friends die in a car accident. I didn’t know what I was then.

 I thought the tragedy with my friends was nothing more than a case of really fucked up deja vu until not long after it happened again. I was at my mother’s house when she said, “Honey, what’s wrong with your eyes? Go look in the mirror.”

An image of my mother on the kitchen floor clutching her chest flashed inside my head.

“Hey, are you okay?” she asked.

My vision of her blinked away. “Yeah, I’m fine, Mom. Let me go look.” Had I known then what was about to happen … not that I could’ve done anything about it.

My reflection in the bedroom mirror stared back, my pupils no longer round, but shaped like the ace of spades. The sound of my mother dropping a pot in the kitchen reverberated in the house. A moment later I stood transfixed as my eyes returned to normal. She was dead before I walked back in the kitchen, a massive heart attack the doctor told me later.

I knew I was different and began to piece it all together after a few more visions. My ace of spade eyes showed me a person in their last moments, then returning to normal when the deed is done. Sometimes Death doesn’t come for a couple of hours so I started carrying sunglasses to hide my spades. I learned to read the subtle changes in my body to know when my eyes were normal and my wait for the next person began.

I’ve never met another person like me, but there must be more of us. Right? I can’t be the only one of my kind, can I?

I lean back in the dining room chair, looking over the words I had written. The last two lines hanging there. Years of being alone living with this curse…the final part of the thought slips away from me. There is still so much more I want to say and explain, but I don’t think it’s going to be possible. I run my fingers through my hair, breathing deep. A sharp pain shoots through my still-raw throat, reminding me of the acidic bile that had filled the toilet in the airport bathroom. I couldn’t handle the visions, it was too much for me, too many people. Men, women, children, I watched them all boarding. My body was shaking as I tried to calmly walk out of the airport when all I wanted to do was run. I couldn’t speak to warn anyone, and even if I could, no one would have believed me.

When I got home I didn’t need to turn on the television to learn what happened. I felt the all-telling subtle shift within me. All of them are gone, and now …

I can barely keep my eyes open. Pushing the chair back, I get up from the table, leaving the letter sitting next to the empty pill bottle. I waver and put my hand on the wall to steady myself. My eye lids are heavy and it takes all my effort to make it the last few feet to the bathroom. Something about this feels very familiar. I slowly look up and see myself in the mirror.

The ace of spades stares back at me.

∼ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.

Heart of Stone – Guest Author Elaine Pascale

“She ruined you,” the voices hissed.

The voices were always there; their reptilian cadence was unavoidable. They were not made-up voices. They were not imaginary friends. Sthenno and Euryale could not escape the voices because they were connected to their heads.

There is something to be said for multiple slithering ids, writhing with the weight of a dozen demi-demons, tempting a Gorgon by cooing her darkest thoughts. The snakes were like Sirens, and they made the sisters want to bash their brains out with sharp rocks.

The snakes’ red eyes lit the night, making sleep elusive. Their warm bodies added a cumbersome burden to the days, forcing the former maidens into abject inertia. The captive Gorgons were defenseless to the heft of their slinky bodies and the gravitas of their suggestions.

She needs to be punished,” the snakes commanded, and Sthenno could not help but agree.

It had not always been this way. The girls had been beautiful, famous, and desirable. Their faces had appeared on vases and plates and parchment. Everyone had wanted to gaze at them and they had adored being the object of gazes.

Too soon they would find that infatuated regards were a thing of the past. “She cut you off from the world, from all that you love,” the snakes reminded them. “She is the betrayer.”

“The curse?” Euryale mouthed. Sthenno nodded, “If something were to happen to her, would the curse be lifted?”

The snakes sighed happily, as if tasting ambrosia in the air. “Let’s find out, shall we?”

#

Many moons before, the gods had blessed the girls with love and adoration. The sisters had fans and those fans craved viewing the three of them together. The people desired glimpses of the beautiful faces, and the special attributes that made the Gorgons seem better than everyone else. Euryale had a speaking voice that would shame any Siren. Sthenno had a magical left eye that could show her the past and predict the future. And Medusa had an extremely enviable, voluptuous figure.

The girls had been promised to Athena. Their public personas were of purity, and the sisters worked very hard to maintain that reputation. Sthenno, Euryale, and Medusa spent as much time at the temple as they did sleeping, bathing, and eating combined. At the temple, they performed their duties; they practiced to become priestesses. According to law, they cleaned at night, draped in cloth that was no more beguiling than the rags that wiped the stone and bronze clean. They sacrificed their time and many days of their youth, and they sacrificed the very purist as tributes to the Goddess. No one sacrificed more than Medusa, the mortal one.

No one sought to fill her limited days with delight more than the sole ephemeral Gorgon. At night, Medusa would sneak out, her long rows of braids trailing behind her in the moonlight. Sthenno would pretend not to notice. “Because we are immortal, we have all of eternity to salvage what she might do to our reputation,” Euryale would whisper, her voice like soft notes plucked on a lyre, “because she is mortal, we can outrun the damage she does.”

Euryale had been right, up to a point. She had not foreseen Medusa becoming involved with the Minotaur. She had not forecast that Medusa would bring the muscled and musty bull-man back to their home and flaunt him in their faces. Euryale had not predicted that Sthenno’s knack for sibling rivalry would lead her directly into the arms of Nessus, the Centaur. Even Sthenno’s oracular eye had not predicted that her game would backfire and that she would fall in love.

Love in the time of Athena meant secrecy and fear, yet it was worth the risk. Sthenno had the warmth of her centaur which was more than the equivalent of thousands of adoring fans. She had the lingering nibbled kisses from his bearded face to see her through her chores. She had him to confide in when she wanted to complain about Medusa; his very existence lessened her need for competition with her siblings. A complex maze, rivaling the one in Crete, metaphorically stood between Sthenno and Medusa; yet, she held no ill will for her mortal sister. Sthenno would love Medusa, as long as love loomed large in her heart.

Then, Medusa had to go and cross the line with Poseidon.

“He forced himself on me!” Medusa had cried and Sthenno had felt the need to protect her sister. Sthenno had believed Medusa, had wanted to believe in her fidelity to the extent of nearly ignoring her illuminating eye. But the eye won out. It showed a seductive Medusa, clinging to the sea rocks, weathering waves and ocean spray, for the opportunity to be with a god.

Crying rape, lying about rape was a sin. Medusa, cursed with a short life, had always been the most concerned with damage control. The gods did not look very kindly upon lying; Athena was even less sympathetic toward broken vows.

The temple witnessed an act of violence far worse than any swift sacrifice. Athena grabbed Medusa by her enviable braids and threw her to the ground. The sisters were forced to share the wrath of the goddess. Euryale’s voice was transformed into an ear-splitting shriek, and Sthenno’s prophetic eye was darkened. The following day, the Gorgons’ bruised and sore bodies told tales of assault. The wounds would heal; an extra violation had taken place that would impair them for all time. Euryale and Sthenno awoke with serpent crowns, sealed to their scalps. Medusa, also plagued with snakes, remained in a permanent sleep.

Euryale moaned and her voice was nearly deafening. Sthenno shushed her, keeping her raised finger out of reach of the snakes. All the while, Medusa slept on, blissfully unaware of their state.

Sthenno’s scalp was crawling, slithering, coiling and recoiling. Inside her head, she was screaming. Outside, the snakes had begun talking. “She ruined you,” they repeated: a mantra meant to incite hatred.

Sthenno would not hate until she knew the true condition of her love. She needed to find him. She needed to see if Nessus would still have her.

She found herself running, but she could not outrun the snakes. Their unreasonable weight was much less of a burden than their words. “He will reject you,” they warned. “And it is all her fault.”

Rejection would have been easier to bear than what transpired when Nessus laid eyes on his lover.

Being newly cursed, the Gorgons had not been warned about the result of their gazes. Nessus dropped to his knees, quivering in pain. Being part equine, he did not turn immediately to stone.

She stood over him. “Do you love me?” she gasped, praying to any god available for confirmation. His body twitched and his eyes rolled back in his head, but he did not answer. He also did not die.

Being a merciful Gorgon, Sthenno snatched the satchel that her lover had dropped. She pierced his heart with a poison arrow; breaking his heart so it now matched her own.

#

“The weight,” Euryale mouthed to Sthenno and rolled her eyes in the direction of the toiling scales that wound and entangled on top of her head. She mouthed her words, not to keep secrets from the snakes—they were reptilian mind-readers—but because her voice was so destructive.

For Sthenno, the weight was nothing in comparison to her murderous rage.

“There is a way,” the snakes whispered to Sthenno, “A king is seeking a challenge for a young man. He wants it to be deadly and dangerous. We will convince him that Medusa is awake. We will convince him to force this Perseus to return with her head.”

While she knew that Euryale would be devastated at the death of their sister, Sthenno felt no emotion at all.

The snakes were as smart as they were silky. They helped Sthenno to convince Euryale that she would have no blood on her hands. “She deserves it,” they hissed, “So focused on her fame, her figure, her lovers. And she sleeps through the worst days of your life! You can get rid of her, end it all, simply by doing nothing—

Euryale cut them off and addressed Sthenno, as if they were the only two within hearing distance. “We always knew we would have to live without her…at some point.”

Sthenno, made of stone, readily agreed, “It’s just sooner than we expected. That is all.”

#

The days crept as they always did when your days have no end, until the snakes began excitedly announcing that Perseus was near.

Sthenno crept to Euryale’s side and stroked her cheek. “Here,” she handed her a drink she had made. They would both sleep soundly. They would both be unable to hear Perseus’ approach; they would both be unable to help their mortal sister. Their consciences, if not their scalps, would be free of snakes.

They would rebuild their status: they had forever to salvage their reputations.

Sthenno drank her concoction and slept as if dead. When she and Euryale awoke, Medusa was gone. Precisely, Medusa’s head was gone.

And the snakes fell silent.

∼ Elaine Pascale

© Copyright Elaine Pascale. All Rights Reserved.