Within his castle of dark hearts, the Devil seated himself on a rosewood throne. Two rotted angels entered, a Sinner clutched between them. They forced the Sinner to kneel, then stepped back and folded their tattered wings tightly across their faces so that they could neither see nor hear what passed.
Alone with the Sinner, the Devil took a deep breath. “Give me your plea,” he demanded.
“Guilty,” the Sinner replied.
The Devil nodded his head vigorously. “Yes! Guilty! As no one before you has ever been.”
The Sinner showed no movement, made no sound.
“And yet,” the Devil sighed after a long moment. “Perhaps there are circumstances that might explain your actions, that might…justify your sin. Tell me.”
“There are none,” the Sinner said.
The Devil’s teeth ground together. He leaned forward, taloned hands closing on the armrests of his chair, squeezing the wood so hard that it splintered and blood began to run from beneath his nails like black pearls. He spat words like sleet at the Sinner.
“Give me something, some reason to grant you mercy.”
“If there is a reason, it’s already inside of you.”
“I do not wish to punish you,” the Devil said. “Not you!”
For the first time, the Sinner looked up. Her eyes danced with the shine of bullets and sabers.
“What would you have me say?”
“Do you want a lie? Or the truth?”
“Are they any different?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not.”
“Give me one or the other. I must have something.”
The Sinner nodded. She rose to her feet, and did not look away from the Devil as she spoke.
“I hated you from the first moment I saw you. Your arrogance. And yes, your terrible beauty. But also, I sensed your weakness, your desire for me. I toyed with you. I manipulated you. How I laughed as you danced to my strings. The Devil. Such a grand fool!”
The Sinner shrugged then, before continuing. “But such games become tiring. My last bit of joy from you came when I pushed you away, to milk your confusion and hurt. Though, to see you now, so desperate to find a reason to forgive me, some reason to believe that I felt more than I did…well, that is perhaps worth a final and fatal chuckle.”
The Devil listened, and nodded. He leaned back and made a gesture. The rotted angels lowered their wings, took hold of the Sinner and pulled her from the room. The Devil remained alone in his fortress of broken souls, on a throne wet with blood and tears.
∼ Charles Gramlich
© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.
With a solemn lurch we go on. A fragrance only the dead know hangs over us, vapor over dust. No light of nature, no bright joy, only the motive to keep going. It tethers us, a walking tangle of thoughts and dreams no longer cherished. What lies at the end of the dried land we aren’t sure. We only know we must go there. Souls pull sagging flesh, drawn to whatever is beyond the expanse of lifeless soil. Swollen feet crack; they bleed a trail behind us. But evidence of our journey won’t last long against even the void’s subtle breath.
A violent tone bursts from somewhere beyond the horizon. A low-pitched blast, a beacon the planet itself could feel. Each time it fills the air our feet push a little harder. That nightmarish horn draws us like desperate, stray creatures. We struggle to it like infants in need of milk—weak, fragile, endangered by our own nature. Only we know not whether the milk will be sweet or sour. We don’t know if it will be there at all. We only hear the thunderous horn, the only thing in our world that isn’t us.
Our memories serve empty plates. That which came before the march has been forgotten. None know how long it has been. The only thing to feed on is the horn, the beckoning storm of sound, the not-so-silent savior of emptiness.
I once asked the man next to me where we came from. He only shrugged. When I try to think of how long we’ve been traveling my mind fogs over; words, phrases, meaning, they shadow themselves from insight. I can only focus for so long before my feet begin to slow; I’ve never reached a conclusion.
All I know is to follow the sound. Whether it be life or death holds no importance. To witness something other than all I’ve known would be Heaven.
∼ Lee Andrew Forman
© Copyright Lee Andrew Forman. All Rights Reserved.
She heard sound, an echoing thunder. She felt a hard damp surface beneath her. She saw dim shapes.
“Where am I?” The sound of her new voice startled her.
You are in a place called a cave, by a vast planetary body of water. Something named an ocean.
The voice echoed in the confines of the craggy tidal cave. Or possibly in her head. Either way, it didn’t matter. She felt safer. “You’re here. Good.”
Of course I am here.
She smiled. Then frowned. “The eternal darkness is gone.” She shivered. She’d miss it, the inky black chasm of home. A tear trickled down her cheek. another followed. She touched her hand to the moisture. “Oh. I’m leaking. Strange.”
They are called tears. An emotional reaction.
Her lip quivered and a teardrop trickled on its skin. She tasted the wet with her tongue. Salty. Food tasted that way sometimes. A breeze drifted along her skin and she shivered.
“I don’t like it here. This place is so different. Not like home. The Void is comforting, dark and cold. Silent.”
It is not your home anymore. Remember your task.
She closed her eyes, anger surging, and insisted, “The Void is home. I was born there. The real me. Not this fleshy thing I am now. I don’t like it. I want to leave. Why did you send me here?”
Because it is your time.
She sighed, fists clenched. She knew this. She mustn’t hesitate. She looked up, her new eyes blinded by a shaft of light flickering into the cave. She blinked and raised her hand to shield her vision. That surprised her.
“I have limbs. Odd.” She shook her arms, and then her legs. “Only four. A pity. You told me Father grew ten when he left the Void.”
A different place, a different world. Another dawning.
“True, but I would have liked more.”
We adapt to the species. These humans have four.
“Humans? An odd name. What are they like?”
They are violent; an admirable trait. Yet, they are soft and weak as well. They have strange beliefs such as compassion and mercy.
“Mercy.” She shuddered at the thought. “Truly, an inferior creature.”
Indeed. But they will serve the Void. As will you while you remain here.
“How long? How long must I stay?” Her voice betrayed her impatience and wistful longing.
As long as it takes. Do not be weak.
Disapproval echoed in the voice.
She sighed, well rebuked. “Of course.”
Go now. Walk this world. Do what you were born to do. Feed us, child, nourish us. The Elders have blessed you. Make us proud. Fulfill your purpose.
“Yes.” She straightened her new spine and smiled. “I will make you all proud.”
She stood on wobbly legs and walked slowly out of the cave. As she stumbled into the sunlight, water pools turned black and putrid and seaweed shrivelled to dust. She heard the voice instructing her.
Spread the Void. Char the ground in your wake, poison the waters, choke the air with our taint, pile this planet high with the corpses of humans so we may devour them.
She smiled, a dark glow in the soulless hollow of her essence. Ahead of her stretched a pristine beach waiting to be laid to ruin. In every footstep she heard the echo of the voice.
Leave only death and ash, child. Be the Destroyer.
~ A. F. Stewart
© Copyright 2019 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.
I’ve just reached for the bleach bottle, my fingers tight on the cap, when she closes her hand around my wrist.
“Hold up, baby girl. What’s this here?”
She shifts her grip to under my arms and pulls me upright. I’m myopic enough from my time bent over the half-butchered corpse in the bathtub that the blot on the floor wobbles in my vision for a second before it resolves, and I feel the press of her covered boots against the outsides of my own.
A single spot of blood between my feet, between hers. She takes the back of my neck and squeezes hard, forces my head down and holds me there. “Now, baby girl, we’ve talked about this.”
And we have, but never about the things I’ve done right: how small-caliber rounds rattle around in the skull and don’t come out; how to accommodate the way the carotids can hide when the head’s pulled back; how to unfold plastic sheeting so it doesn’t even crinkle. For Christ’s sake, I’m wearing three pairs of nitrile gloves right now.
No, it’s always the other things: the cut that isn’t deep enough, the noise that isn’t muffled properly, this single drop of blood on a bathroom floor.
I reach blindly for the bleach. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Honey, I don’t think you realize how serious this is.” She presses on my neck. “We don’t leave traces. You know what I say about mistakes.”
“Mistakes get you caught,” I mumble.
“Damn right. And how many is this?”
She shakes me like a dog shakes a stuffed toy. I can feel my own carotids pulsing as I try to think. “Two…no…three.”
“And one I can forgive. Maybe two. You’ve been learning,” she says. “But not this one, missy, oh no.”
She lets go of my neck and grabs my hair, plastic cap and all, and yanks me to full height, spinning me around. The movement is dizzying. My vision swims.
When it clears, I’m looking out the open bathroom doorway down the hall, toward the kitchen. Two drops. Three. Dozens. Maybe hundreds.
I’ve left a blood trail.
She rips the surgical mask from my face. The elastic snaps. I whimper.
“You do the crime, chickadee, you’re damn sure gonna do the cleanup. And this time, you’re doing it the hard way.”
When she shoves me, I fold, topple straight down on my knees. She plants the toe of one boot in my side. “I warned you how it would be. Now get started.”
Knees burning, eyes watering into my safety goggles, I bend my face to the floor and start to lick.
~Scarlett R. Algee
© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.
Sitting on the floor, with my back against the counter of Pauline’s Coffee Co., I look over my left shoulder at Emily’s body crumpled on the floor. The last frappe that she’d ever make spills over her, mixing with blood from the bullet wound just below her left shoulder and the gash in her head from where it slammed into the counter before she dropped.
Her coworker, Austin, has his legs pulled up to his chest, rocking, unharmed, while tucked in the corner where the wall and the register area meet.
“Sit tight,” I half yell to him. “It’s going to be okay.”
“It’s not going to be okay!” Jacob responds to my comment. Austin just trembles and whimpers. I’m not sure who Jacob has the gun pointed at since I can’t see him. I really hope it isn’t himself.
“Jacob, this isn’t you,” my partner says. “I know what’s going on. There’s a creature inside you telling you what to do. My name is Teris, and I have the power to help you.”
Teris has taken cover behind an overturned table off to my right and his attention is on a mother crouched in the corner shielding her crying toddler with her body.
For a brief second, the child hushes, and the only sound heard is the soft sobbing from a woman lying on the floor in front of the register.
I reposition myself so I’m on my knees and poke my head out enough to see Jacob and reassess the situation. Blood flows from the chest of the man who Jacob shot first. He slid down the condiment bar leaving a dark red trail of blood and I can’t tell if he is still breathing or not. His second shot took down Emily, and then his third left a lady sprawled over a table up against the front window of the shop.
There is a middle-aged man behind two tables flipped on their side forming a barricade, texting someone, probably telling his wife to call the cops, which is the last thing we need right now.
Jacob stands rock still, ready to fire, his gun pointed at the table Teris is behind. Over the course of the last few minutes he has gone from shaking with a quiver in his voice to strong and confident. Teris is spot on, Jacob isn’t in control of himself anymore, the Scourge has almost consumed him.
“Jacob, listen to me,” Teris starts talking again. “We can help you, I promise. There’s a monster inside you. It’s been tormenting you your whole life. I’ll bet it told you everything would be better if you did this.”
Jacob takes a step closer to Teris. “Shut up! Just shut up! What do you know?” Jacob’s words erupt in the room. I’m not sure if they’re meant for Teris or the entity inside him.
Teris continues, “I know quite a lot actually.” His steady, soothing voice breathes a calm in the air. “My partner, Nikias and I are two of thousands of angels on Earth fighting against the hordes of the underworld. One of their demons has infected you.”
As Jacob lowers his gun slightly and relaxes his body, I tense mine. If he would drop the weapon a little more, it would be safe to go for him.
The man Jacob left for dead at the condiment counter wheezes, shattering the calm. Jacob straightens up, points his gun at him, then fires without breaking eye contact with Teris. The bullet rips into the man’s face, shattering his cheek and eye socket before lodging in his brain, bits of flesh smatter the table shielding the texting man.
The woman by the register screams and pushes herself up, knocking over the coffee display as she bolts for the door. Jacob spins on his heel and fires off two quick shots. The deafening retorts linger in the air mixed with the crash of display shelves as the woman is propelled into them. She falls to the ground as bags of coffee tumble down around her dead body.
I catch Teris’ eye. With a flick of my head, I motion behind the counter and he nods in return. We not only have to get the gun away from Jacob so he can’t kill any more innocent people, but also so he can’t turn it on himself. Then get him out of here before …
“The police are on the way,” the texting man announces as if on cue.
Jacob takes a measured step beyond the table barrier, his eyes give away that he is gone, the Scourge has dominion over him. Jacob sneers, firing off another round at close range.
The bullet explodes the texting man’s chest, pushing his body tight to the table. His phone clatters across the tile floor. Jacob smiles, blood christening his body. He puts the barrel of the gun near the man’s temple and pulls the trigger. Bone and mucus-like bits of brain cover the area, resembling a demented Jackson Pollock painting.
Austin starts crying and Jacob snaps his head around, focused on the sound. Before he can move, I rise and take a step, giving myself a clear path to him.
“Jacob, enough of this,” I command, in an attempt to draw his attention.
Teris follows my lead and stands. “Jacob, I know you’re still in there,” he says, as sirens call out in the distance.
We stand a few body lengths apart facing Jacob. He points the gun at Teris, then at me, his attention focused on us. His eyes are inky black and wild. If there’s any chance that he’s still in there, we have to do something fast. We’re losing him.
The sirens get louder.
“Jacob, come back to me,” coaxes Teris as he steps from behind the table. “I can see you, a sliver of you. Put the gun down. We can help. The beast is inside you and it’s going to get out. We know how to cure you.”
Jacob tilts his head. “What? What’s inside?” he questions.
Teris inches closer. “A Scourge. A creature that lives in a human, feeding off the pain of life until it grows too powerful. It needs to destroy your body to reproduce.”
Jacob shudders and blinks, a bit of white appears at the edge of his sclera, and his eyes are tame. The sirens wail and I see flashing lights in the street.
“Put the gun down and come with us,” Teris says.
The police cars screech to a halt in the parking lot. Jacob glances over his shoulder, his body going taut.
“Shit,” I bark, and lunge toward him.
He turns and looks at us, his eyes midnight ebony. Bringing the gun up to his mouth, he pulls the trigger. His head snaps back as I tackle him, droplets of warm, sticky blood splatter my face and an explosion of blood gray mist that was once Jacob fills the air. We tumble to the ground and his body goes slack.
Two lithe humanoid footlong creatures with taloned hands and feet burst from his chest leaving otherworldy wounds only Teris and I can see. They sink their clawed feet into me and I scream feeling an acidic burn before they push off.
Visible only to us, we watch as they pass through the window in search of new hosts. I wince, looking down at the claw marks through my torn shirt. It doesn’t take long for the poison to react to my angelic blood, the edges of the wounds are already an ugly shade of green and thick puss begins to drip from them.
“We need to get you to Michael,” Teris says, and hooks his arm around me. I close my eyes and my body lurches inside as Teris shifts us from the mortal world where our presence will be dismissed as trauma-induced hallucinations.
∼ Mark Steinwachs
© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.
He supposed that some would consider him a saint. An intelligent, good-looking man, collecting the lonely and tossed and scavenged girls he found on the side of the road. He wore them on a chain around his neck. A chain of conquests. A chain of romances. A chain of broken loves and broken dreams and horrifically broken people.
It isn’t difficult for a lonely girl to love a tender man. He says, “I understand” and her eyes grow starry. Dewy. They light up from the inside like embers. He says, “Why has nobody appreciated you?” and she swoons. He tells her, “Nobody will ever love you like I love you. I belong to you like no man has ever belonged to a woman,” and she will give him everything.
There is so very much a lonely girl can give.
The first girl became his wife. She lasted longer than she should have, perhaps, but not as long as he originally expected. She became tired and tattered, and her eyes lost their shine. The next was a friend who became something more, until she abruptly became something less. The third was a broken little thing, all hair and eyes and fairly begging to be cherished. The fourth was a woman older than time, and perhaps a villain in this life or the next.
The others weren’t even memorable. But their finger joints and molars and locks of hair were treasures. Shiny, golden treasures. He held them, wept into them. Wrapped them in pieces of fabric torn from their dresses and work uniforms and kitchen aprons. He stuffed the fabric into a box and kept it at the foot of his bed.
One of his lonely girls eventually turned these scraps of fabric into a warm quilt. She had bent over her sewing machine, running the scraps under the needle with a tenderness that bound, bound, bound. He wrapped this blanket of trophies around himself at night. He thanked his girl with his mouth and his tongue and his blade. She had been useful and thoughtful until the end, and then she just became used.
He ate them. He ate their souls. He devoured their desires and dreams. He held their wants and their screams and trust in his mouth, in his lungs, and when he breathed out, he breathed out their sorrow. But he wanted more. More and more and more. Hungry boys love lonely girls. Love them to pieces. Love them to bits, and bits, and even smaller bits.
∼ Mercedes M. Yardley
© Copyright Mercedes M. Yardley. All Rights Reserved.
I wish to say I do not remember clearly, because I am an old man and more than thirty years have passed. But it is sin to lie and I cannot forget, so I will say: I remember, though the memory slay me.
When we saw the flare of light we were in the hills above Bethlehem, Micah and Ishmael and I; it was early autumn, the air just becoming crisp, and the ewes we tended were fat and tempting. Micah had killed a wolf with a stone from his sling; I stood watch while he and Ishmael skinned it.
And the sky caught fire.
I can call it nothing else. A great curtain of green light, bright as the sun, licked up from horizon to zenith in an instant; and in the same instant it coalesced to a single point, sickly and flickering, hovering over the mouth of a cave. We stared, bloody wolf forgotten. Ishmael was young then, and trembled. I trembled; I will not lie.
Then we heard the wings.
There were hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, lanky black things with great tattered bat-like wings that blotted out the stars and the strange green light. They hovered over us, and spoke; and their speech was not the speech of men, but a low evil buzz that twisted up words in my mind.
The one you were promised has come. Come. See. We take you.
One of the creatures snatched me up in thin cold hands; it had claws that pierced my robe and pricked my flesh. Then I was lifted; and if others seized Micah and Ishmael I did not see. I saw the ground rush under me, and closed my eyes against the nausea of movement, against the sight of my bearer’s shallow, featureless face.
Then I was set down.
I opened my eyes. I was at the mouth of the cave. The pale green light streamed down, hanging over the opening like a door, made my skin appear leprous in its wake. Then the creature shoved my shoulder with one clawed freezing hand and pushed me through.
Passing through that green glow was like passing through stagnant water: I gagged and retched at its stinking viscosity, and stumbled beyond feeling coated with contagion. Inside was dark except for a far dimmer light; my eyes took a long moment to adjust to the simple oil lamps. I smelled copper, sweat, decay.
And I saw the woman and her child.
She was a young thing, at a closer look, and panting still; the straw between her feet was clotted with copious blood, as though her labor had been precipitous and difficult. An older man, perhaps her husband or father, stood well back from her and raised wild eyes to me, his chin dripping saliva beneath his slack, working mouth. She had the glazed look of the exhausted unto death, and in the whiteness of her face I saw the clean stark lines of the skull beneath, yet through some strength she held the child to her.
Then the woman took the child and laid it in the manger: but the stone trough was lined with raw meat instead of clean straw, and flies buzzed over a butchered lamb in an empty stall. I saw then that the skin of her breast was flayed into fine strands, showing glistening red flesh underneath, and the liquid that dripped from her suckled nipple was not milk but blood.
She spoke in a croaky, breathless whisper: “Behold the son of God.”
Then the child moved: and for the first time I saw its slick black skin, tiny claw-tipped limbs, thin bat wings beginning to unfurl and fan. It gurgled, and its infant mouth showed needle teeth, ringed with tendrils like the barbels of a catfish. They spread out, twisting, tasting the air, perhaps sensing me, and I knew this was not my promised one.
Someone else came into the cave then, slipping effortlessly through the barrier of sick green light and wearing the shape of a man, if a man could be soot black and spider-thin. He was arrayed in tawny silks and bedecked in gold, his face covered below onyx eyes, and he trailed the fragrance of myrrh from the tips of long writhing fingers. He knelt: and as he knelt, his yellow silk veil slipped, and when I saw what lay beneath I ran from the cave screaming.
I screamed until I reached the top of the hill, and there I fell, breathing the sweet cool air, clutching fistfuls of long wholesome grass. Only when I came to myself did I see that the flock had scattered, and that of Ishmael and Micah and the dead wolf there was no sign, save a few tufts of gray fur and a patch of sticky crimson across the grass.
I left the hill country that night, and have not returned. In the thirty years since I have heard that the peculiar babe grew to manhood of a sort, gathered followers and wandered the countryside, preaching a new kingdom and performing strange miracles: giving the lame to walk on ropy tentacle legs, restoring sight to the blind to show them things no man should bear, raising men from the grave to show them crueler forms of death.
I was glad when I heard he had been crucified in Jerusalem. Such a blasphemy should only be put to death. But then I heard the tomb had been found empty three days later, its Roman guards devoured, and I could not be glad for that.
Those who followed him walk still, and they are much changed from men. One I met yesterday, on the road to Beersheba: he said his master had gone to his kingdom, under stone, under sea, to dream a new world and wait for stars to turn. The madman said his king will return to bring his glory.
May it be a glory I do not live to see.
~ Scarlett R. Algee
© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.
The chittering awakens me and I open my eyes. My body is prone on the comfortable bed, one of few luxuries I am afforded. I wince when the first set of tiny hands touch me, sharp claws testing the flesh of my legs. Laying here, waiting for it to begin.
Each of us live this, session after session. It’s not the physical anguish that will break us, it’s the emotional torment. Feeling the tingling in our bodies as the connection builds. The unseen part of us that stretches through the chasm to them as our gift begins to merge with theirs—knowing we will soon be back for another round. There is nothing we can do to stop it. It is our life. Our life to complete theirs.
We are the Muse.
A sharp burst of pain shoots through me, my body arching as synapses explode inside. I slam back on the bed, the room disappears and a glowing white screen surrounds me. A cursor blinks, then it begins. Letters becoming words becoming sentences. Tiny nails dig into my flesh. More words flow as blood trickles down my legs. My face twitches with each pin prick from the small claws. The letters in black, forming on the screen in front of me. Every muscle fights the slow grinding ache as viscous red seeps from me. I give myself to him, so he may become great.
The creatures move up my legs, nipping my torso and arms. I don’t need to see the sightless ones, the Deliverers, as dark as the night itself with pointed teeth that click and tick as they speak to each other in a language only they and Oizys know. She controls them and they feed her from our sessions. We are pawns, Muse and Deliverers, in the games the gods play.
A flash of golden light blinds me, pulling me from my thoughts. I wince but never close my eyes. If I look away, or even blink, the connection will break. I can’t read the words but I know they are perfect. Only perfection can be this intense and with it brings … I bite my bottom lip as a talon slashes my calf, reopening my barely healed wound from last night. A moan escapes me, tears stream down my face. I want it to be over. With each word he types my eyes are assaulted. That, mixed with the physical attacks, overwhelms me. I begin to blink but I can’t let myself, I won’t. He is on fire and I am his victim.
The words flow from him. I don’t know how long it lasts, my time and his never mix. I am becoming weaker as blood continues to seep from the cuts all over me. My body is begging me to end the session, to close my eyes and rest before there is no coming back. I groan through clenched teeth, spasms wrack my body. I feel a Deliverer on my chest. Suddenly all the others stop but the words continue. My body involuntarily tenses, unknowing, the pause in their attack confusing me. Agonizing seconds tick by until another sentence crosses my vision.
Vivid colors erupt in front of my eyes, unlike anything I have ever seen before. A sharp claw pierces my flesh and bores into me. Its talon extends deep inside me and punctures my heart, filling itself straight from me. I scream in anguish and close my eyes. The colors vanish and my world is an abyss.
My breath is shallow and ragged. The claw in my heart retracts and the Deliverers start to slip away. My body struggles to repair itself, starting with the most serious injuries. After those, the hundreds of little nicks mark my flesh, scars of another round of torment. The room is quiet and I am at peace. I made it through once more. I begin to drift off to sleep, my last thoughts always the same.
I am a Muse. I must suffer for my artist.
∼ Mark Steinwachs
© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.