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Messages - Giddler

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Definitely up for going to this, dependent on my weird shift patterns at work.

Evening all, this is called 'Charlie' and it's 1680 words.

Spoiler for Hiden:
“And that’s what happens when you forget the safe-word,” murmured Soren.

The famous ventriloquist Charles Hine had been gagged and bound to a bed by his wrists and ankles then stabbed repeatedly in the throat and torso by persons unknown.

The Grey Lotus Parlour was a renowned haunt for those whose vices were too specialised to indulge at any of Tithegate’s other brothels, something the press would be sure to pounce upon when writing Hine’s obituary.

Soren swallowed as the butcher-stink of the room made his gorge rise. It would ill befit the first Investigator on scene to vomit against the wall like a sailor on shore leave.

Madame Zho, owner of the Grey Lotus, stood in the doorway imperiously, seemingly unaffected by the atrocity which had occurred under her roof. A boy and a girl in matching silk outfits stood next to her. They were barely out of their teens and both had the slender, androgynous builds of acrobats.

“None of your people heard anything at all?” Soren asked as he knelt down by the bed. There was something under there, a dusty tangle of wood and cloth. He pulled at it, cursing as the object snagged on a protruding bedspring.

Madame Zho clicked her tongue scornfully. “Hear what, Investigator? Screaming? Sound of struggle? Ha! We kick down door every time someone raise their voice, I lose half my customers!”

Soren conceded the point, returning his attention to the object under the bed. With a loud ripping noise, he pulled it free and looked down in bemusement.

It was a ventriloquists doll dressed in a fine evening suit - now with a rent in the fabric - and a tiny top hat. Its porcelain face had the leering, diabolical expression that seemed to come as standard, as though doll-makers were a society of recluses who’d been misinformed about what people find amusing.

The eyes were particularly sinister. They seemed to glimmer malevolently, and Soren nearly found himself apologising to it for having ripped its fine clothes.

“I’ll probably wish I hadn’t asked,” said Soren, “but what is this for?” 

The young girl took a half-step forward. “We kept it under there for when he visited. It was what he liked. He’d put the doll on his knee and make it order me and my brother to… serve him.”

The boy spoke up, his voice surprisingly high and clear. “Neither of us saw him tonight. He was meant to send for us. We were waiting all night for him to call.”

“You have someone who can vouch for this?” asked Soren.

The boy gave him an amused look, then shook his head.

“Not for the whole night, no.”

The stairs outside creaked as Gyte, the police doctor, huffed his way up to examine the body. The old man lumbered into the room, nodding affably at Soren to signal an end to his time there.

“I’ll need you to come to the station,” Soren told the twins.

The girl looked taken aback, but the boy nodded.

“Then we’ll see you again, Investigator,” he said, coyly.


I’m hiding now, lurking in plain sight.

In the whorehouse, as the Investigator turned to leave, I found myself gripped by a compulsive urge to laugh. He looked at me, the blind fool, but he didn’t see me.

Oh, it was priceless, just priceless.


The last of Soren’s colleagues had left for the night and the station was nearly empty.

The interview room was cold and illuminated only by a gas lamp set high in the wall. The twins from the brothel, Angelin and Godric Kester, were more appropriately dressed this time.

Soren had questioned them separately, and then again together, making them go over the previous evening again and again. He had asked questions about their life in the pleasure house, trying to unsettle them into slipping up if their story was false.

They were a strange pair. The girl, Angelin, was introverted and distant, clearly uncomfortable discussing the depravity they engaged in for money. If either of them was going to make a mistake, it was her.

Godric, on the other hand, was all too open about their work in the Grey Lotus Parlour, going into sordid detail about what he and his sister did on a nightly basis. He had a strange manner when he talked. Soren, to his alarm, gradually realised the boy was flirting with him.

As the hours wore on, Soren had to admit that the story they were telling him checked out in every way. Even if Godric was capable of lying that convincingly, Soren doubted his sister was.

He had run into a dead end. There was no evidence, no witnesses, no next of kin and no motive beyond the tenuous link between Hine and these two.

“My thanks to both of you, that will be all,” he said. A half-smile of relief flickered across Angelin’s face.

“Will we see you again?” asked Godric. There it was again, that sly, inviting tone.

“I think not,” said Soren, flatly.

Hurt anger flashed across Godric’s eyes but his smile didn’t twitch.

“Oh well, never mind.” He stood up to leave, then stopped as though remembering something. “By the way, what did you do with the doll?”


The fat man made a noise I’d never heard before when I killed him, something between a sob and a whimper. It took a great deal of effort on my part to hang him up, but I’m much stronger than I look.


Soren took the stairs down to the forensic wing. The noise from the upper floors was muted by the basement walls, lending the whole place a sepulchral hush.

The doll sat on a counter, leaning against a bell jar. Gyte had mentioned bringing it back to the station. He’d naturally assumed it was part of Hine’s personal effects.

 Godric, however, had insisted that it had been a gift to them from Hine, and since it hadn’t been classed as evidence Soren saw no reason to deny them.

He walked through to the office, trying to ignore the sensation of glass eyes burning into his back.

Gyte was not at his desk. That was unusual in itself. The doctor did nearly all of his work there, only begrudgingly accepting fieldwork if there was no other alternative.

Soren checked the corridor leading to the dissection area and laboratories.

“Dr Gyte?”

A strange trick of the light caught his eye, halfway along the corridor. A patch of shadow was creeping out from under the door to a storage closet. Soren crept closer.

It wasn’t shadow at all. It was blood.

He tore the closet door open and there, hanging like a butchered pig from a hook on the wall, was Dr Gyte.

Soren took a step back, reaching to his belt for a weapon that wasn’t there. He’d left everything in his office.

He cursed and made his way steadily towards the stairs, fighting an overwhelming urge to run. He rounded the corner and walked past Gyte’s desk.

Although Soren would have described himself as a rational man, it came as no real surprise to him that the doll was no longer on the counter.

He hated himself for it, but he still ran.


I can hear the Investigator blundering around the empty station, bellowing for help. Time to hide once again.


Soren crashed through the door to the Interview room, walked up to Godric and grabbed him by the throat, pinning him against the wall.

“What just happened? You know something, you little shit!” he roared.

Godric swallowed nervously. “What are you talking about?” he stammered.

“Don’t give me that crap! ‘By the way, what did you do with the doll?’” Soren snarled. “You knew what I’d find down there!”

Godric’s composure was melting fast. “I don’t know what you mean!”

Soren felt Angelin’s hand on his arm. “I know what’s down there.”

Godric flashed a look of fury at his sister.

“It’s Charlie,” she said.


When Charles Hine used to play his doll-games at the brothel, he would always insist on being known as ‘Charlie’, like the doll he carried on stage.

Charlie, to him, represented the freedom he couldn’t find in his life. He was a timid man, hen-pecked by his over-bearing wife, laughed at on stage nightly. The sad little freak came to envy his puppet.

After all, Charlie could say anything, no matter how shocking.

Imagine the things he would do, given half a chance.

I see the boy, the sly one from the doll-games. The one who would dare Hine to think of worse and worse degradations.

His back is turned to me.


Soren had locked Angelin and Godric in the interview room, gone to his office to fetch his gun, then headed down to the basement to apprehend Dr Gyte’s murderer, assuming they were still in the building.

Angelin’s talk of a possessed doll had unsettled him, he knew himself well enough to admit. He was a pragmatist, and knew that a knife wielded by an imaginary haunted toy was no more or less dangerous than one brandished by a drunken ruffian, or any other assailant.

But still…

The door was still ajar from before, when he had recoiled from the sight of the doctor’s corpse. Gyte was still there, suspended like a thief from a gibbet.

A noise distracted him, low and scuttling. He span around, raising his pistol.

Charlie, his sneering eyes burning with madness, flew out of the shadows towards him.


The Investigator shoots wildly, his face twisted in panic, the bullets tear through me and I drop my knife fall. The floor feels comfortable, like a feather cushion…


Soren over to where Angelin lay and tried to staunch the bullet wounds in her chest. It was no good. One of the bullets had clipped her heart; she didn’t have long.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, although she couldn’t hear him.

He looked at Charlie, lying shattered where Angelin had thrown it at Soren.

It was only a doll.

Monthly Writing Contest / Re: The best story of 2014 - vote now!
« on: May 03, 2015, 02:02:08 PM »
Well done to Ladygreen! I remember reading 'Artisan's Mask' last May when I first entered the writing contest, and being massively impressed with how she managed to put so much story into 1500 words.

Jmack, I have to mention 'Wardu's Wager' as well. For me, it's a perfect example of how I'd like to be able to write, and I've come back to read it several times for inspiration.

And well done everyone else.

[MAR 2015] Rogues / Re: [Mar 2015] - Rogues - Voting Thread
« on: May 03, 2015, 01:24:35 PM »
Well done, Rukaio Alter, great story. Well done, everyone else, now I think of it!

Hi, everyone, here's my story for April, and my 10th entry into the monthly writing contest. 

Hail to the King, 1491 words

Spoiler for Hiden:
The convention of the Thames Valley Doomsday Preppers was in full swing when Russell got there. He and Amanda had gotten lost on the forest track to the campsite and arrived an hour late, to discover that nearly everyone else had driven there. The main group had made a campfire, while the rest hovered self-consciously about.

Talk had moved onto potential apocalypse scenarios and, inevitably, the conversation had jokingly turned to zombies.

“I’d probably base myself rurally, if it was Zee’s, you know?” said Tim. “There’s less people, and therefore less Zee’s.” The gang around the campfire nodded and murmured sagely.

It’s ‘Zeds’, you dickhead, thought Russell.

“Also,” continued Tim, “you gotta think in terms of potential danger from other survivors, you know? I mean, Zee’s are slow, right? But someone with a knife can kill you just as easily. You’ve gotta make yourself a hard target.” He indicated Russell’s bright red fleece jacket. “Stuff like that will just get you killed, mate. You need to go tactical.” He pointed at his own expensive camo-pattern paintballing jacket.

“Hang on, Tim,” Russell interjected. “What if it isn’t ‘Walking Dead’ zombies? What if it’s ‘28 Days Later’ zombies?”

“What difference does it make?”

“Well, they’re a lot faster, for one. There’s a lot of open space in the countryside for them to run after you.”

Tim nodded. “Granted, Russell. But that doesn’t automatically make living in the city preferable to the countryside.” A few sycophants around the fire made noises of agreement. “Where would you go?”

Russell’s mind raced as he tried to think of a suitable answer. “The sewers,” he finally managed.

The group exploded with laughter.

“The sewers?!” sneered Tim.

Russell felt his face grow hot. “Well, not the sewers, necessarily, but underground. A bunker, or a safe room or something.”

Tim laughed derisively. “Oh, yeah, you can’t move for bunkers round here! They’re like Starbucks!”

The group howled even louder.

“Oh, piss off, Tim,” muttered Russell, stomping away from the group and grabbing a cider from the bag. He noticed Alan staring at him, working up the courage to speak. Russell’s mood darkened. The outcasts had noticed his expulsion from the main group, it seemed, and were taking him for one of their own.

 A slap on the backside distracted him.

“Alright, ninja turtle?” asked Amanda. Russell let his expression reply for him. He cringed as Tim’s group whispered behind him.

“Are you okay?” asked Amanda. “We can go home, if you like. Oh no, wait, we walked here, didn’t we?”

Russell became aware of Alan creeping nervously closer in his peripheral vision, as though about to defuse a pipe-bomb. He swung around on him.

“Yes, Alan?” he snapped.

Alan flinched nervously. “I’ve got a safe room,” he stammered shyly. “I’ll show you if you want to see it.”

Another giggle from the campfire made up Russell’s mind for him.

“Let’s just go.”


Amanda hadn’t been drinking, so she drove Alan’s car while he rode shotgun. Russell sat cramped, barely containing his annoyance at Tim’s presence, who had been getting a cider from the bag when Alan made his revelation, and had insisted on coming.

They drove into the city, passing busy restaurants and pubs. There was more movement on the streets than usual, and an ugly charge to the air that made Russell glad he was in a car and not on foot. As they drove past a bar, they saw a man fighting two huge doormen, thrashing against them furiously. As they lifted him into the air, he twisted like a cat and sank his teeth into the cheek of one of them.

“Oh my God!” gasped Amanda. “Did you see that?”

“Just drive on,” said Tim. “The police will deal with it.” Russell had been amused to hear the nervousness in his voice.

Amanda drove them out the other side of the city and into the industrial district.


Alan told Amanda to park outside a building and they got out of the car.

“This is it?” asked Tim, underwhelmed. For once, Russell agreed. It was a self-storage unit.

Alan nodded. The squat, yellow, corrugated-metal building before them did not scream ‘safe house’.

“It’s a Lok-n-Store,” said Amanda.

Alan nodded again, as if that were, indeed, obvious.

“I think we were all expecting something a little more…” Tim tailed off. “Safe?”

“You can’t get much safer than that,” Alan said. “And I work here, so we’ll have no problem getting in here when there’s Zeds everywhere.”

“Zee's,” corrected Tim, although Alan had already endeared himself to Russell, who put an arm around him.

“Tell you what, mate, why don’t you show us around? Are you coming?” he asked Amanda, pointedly ignoring Tim. She smiled and shook her head.

Looking faintly proud, Alan swiped his card in the door, and he and Russell entered the building.


They were in the basement.

“So, here, we’ll keep chainsaws and stuff,” Alan was saying, pointing to a locked storage closet. “And here I keep tinned food.” Alan was far less shy when he was discussing the zombie apocalypse.

Russell was starting to regret humouring him. “Look, mate, this place is great, in principle, and I’m really happy you’re enjoying prepping, but there’s a lot more to it than fantasist zombie crap.”

Alan looked at him in vague alarm. “Like what?”

“Well, what if the World Economy collapsed? What if an electromagnetic pulse event took out all the world’s power grids? What if fossil fuels run dry? These are the sort of things preppers should be planning for.” He sighed at Alan’s uncomprehending expression. “Look, I know you probably haven’t seen many preppers yet except for delusional wankers like Tim-” Alan giggled guiltily, “-but Doomsday Preparation is a mature responsibility to ourselves and our families.”

Alan smiled sadly. “I just wanted to be part of a group…”

Russell felt bad for the little man. “You’re part of the group, Alan, and you’re my friend. Now, why don’t we get outside before Tim converts your car into a Mad Max roadster?” They both laughed and headed for the stairs.


“So how did you get into prepping?” Tim asked Amanda.

She shrugged. “Russell likes it. It’s something we do together.”

 Tim nodded. “My girlfriend used to do it, too, but she reckoned I was too into it so we split up.” He looked around, scanning their surroundings.

“Wow, you’re really… keen,” frowned Amanda.

Tim caught her tone, and shrugged. “When I was in my first year at University, I got beaten up by some guys. One punched me to the floor and his buddies kicked me until my ribs broke and punctured a lung. I was in hospital for seven weeks and I had to retake my first year. I couldn’t leave the house, you see?”

Amanda didn’t know what to say.

“When you’ve seen what people are really like,” murmured Tim, “once you really know; you can’t do anything else with your life other than be ready for the next time.”

Amanda turned to face him. “Tim, I’m sorry…”

He wasn’t listening. A man was at the end of the road, lurching drunkenly under the sodium lights, too far away to make out individual details.

Suddenly, he spotted them, and began to run towards them in a frantic sprint.

“God,” said Amanda, “he’s running really fast.”

“Amanda,” said Tim in a flat, terrified voice. “Get inside.”


Russell had his hand on the door-handle when Amanda came crashing through in a state of blind panic. His first thought was that Tim had attacked her, but then Tim came through himself and slammed the door behind him.

“Lock the door!” Tim screamed, pressing his back against it. Russell just stood blankly. Amanda threw herself against it to lend her weight to his. A howling screech came from outside and the door shook under a tremendous impact, almost knocking Tim and Amanda back.

“Help us, you stupid bastard!” shouted Tim. Russell snapped from his daze and leaned his weight against the door.

“What the hell is going on?” he cried.

“He’s dead,” stammered Amanda. “I saw his insides hanging out.”


“She’s right,” said Tim. “No-one like that could be alive.”

The door shook again, jolting the three of them. Russell cursed. “Alan, help!”

Alan had disappeared.

The next impact cracked the wood, straight down its centre. The door folded like a curtain, and the zombie thrashed its way into the corridor in a frenzy, loops of intestine dangling from it’s yawning stomach cavity. It caught sight of Amanda and hissed, crouching ready to spring.

With a boom, it’s head exploded like a pumpkin, spattering brain matter and blood across the corridor. The three turned to see Alan behind them, holding a shotgun.

Screeching came from the street outside. Russell could hear distant sirens.

“Do you know, Alan, we may need your safe room after all,” he said.

[MAR 2015] Rogues / Re: [Mar 2015] - Rogues - Submission Thread
« on: March 08, 2015, 10:47:50 AM »
Hi everyone, here's mine for this month. Sadly, I had to cut the bicycle from the final draft as it was starting to take over the story. I guess time will tell if I was right to do so!

Heroes in the Shadow 1483 words

Spoiler for Hiden:
A fellow Bligh had once met in an opium den had quoted the assassin, Hassan-I-Sabbah, to him: ‘Nothing is real; everything is permitted.’ Clearly he never tested the theory by trying to squeeze into a incredibly flimsy pine cupboard, Bligh reflected, hooking a fingernail on the door and pulling it shut.

The timbre of the footsteps changed as they rounded the corner, heading ever-closer towards Bligh’s hiding place. The owner of the footsteps was trying to be stealthy, but failing. Bligh reached into his coat for a weapon, wincing as his elbow bumped into the panel.

The footfalls stopped.

Bligh tensed, every muscle trembling. The smell of wood dust was near-overpowering; he could taste rank spit in his mouth. He adjusted his grip on his cosh.

On the count of three, he thought. One-

He flinched as the door was yanked open and a powerful light shone into his eyes. Blinded, he made a feeble swing at his assailant, tripping over his own legs as he tried to scramble out of his bolt-hole. He tumbled onto the floor into the foetal position, waiting for the crunching impact of boot and leather cudgel into his head and back. The pause lengthened.

“You alright down there, Mr Bligh?”

Bligh looked up in annoyance at the silhouette looming behind the glare.

“Get that bloody light out of my face,” he snapped.

“Sorry,” Stubb pulled the shutter down on the dark lantern, plunging the corridor into gloom. “I wondered where you’d gotten to.”

“Never mind that. What are you doing, clomping about, lighting up the building? Do you even know the meaning of the word ‘subterfuge’?”

“No,” replied Stubb with complete honesty.

Bligh glared at him scathingly and stood up, retrieving his greasy bowler hat from the floor. “Did you see the guard?” he asked.

Stubb patted the blackjack hanging from his belt with a knowing wink that looked anything but. Bligh turned on his heels, motioning for Stubb to follow, cursing under his breath the circumstances which necessitated having Stubb for a business partner. It had been tough, adjusting to the challenges of the new industrial age, and the grave-robbing trade had been hit harder than most.

It used to be so simple. You’d dig a body up, replace the grave soil so no-one was any the wiser, and sell the cadaver to the highest-bidding surgeon, biologist or pet food manufacturer. Granted, it had gotten a bit competitive a few decades ago, with many of the resurrection men resorting to murder in an attempt to provide the supply for the demand, but surely that was how an economy was meant to work?

But laws had changed, and the demand had dried up. Most of the grave robbers went on to other work, and the talent pool had shrunk considerably. Nowadays, a gangling oaf like Stubb was the best that Bligh could hope for. And finding corpses required increasingly creative thinking, hence their location.

The corridor ended into the main hall of the College of Medicine, a huge rotunda set about with pillars and statues of venerable physicians. A vast chandelier dominated the room, its lights extinguished. They tiptoed through the oppressive gloom of the balcony floor towards the Office of Anatomical Studies. Bligh knelt down in front of the door to pick the lock.

“Mr Bligh?” whispered Stubb.

“What?” Bligh grimaced around the spare pick held between his teeth.

“I still don’t understand why we’re here.”

Bligh arched an eyebrow. “What part don’t you understand?”

Stubb’s eyes rolled into the top right corner of their sockets, as they always did when he was thinking too hard.

“We’re here to steal a body, right? Because we can’t get one anywhere else?”

Bligh nodded impatiently as he fiddled with the lock. “Not one that’s in good condition, no, and our client is paying particularly well for that detail.”

Stubb’s mouth worked like a dying fish for a moment as words queued up behind it to be blurted out.

“I thought you said the client was a lecturer here?”

Bligh nodded. “In this department, in fact.”

“So we’re basically stealing one of his own corpses?”

Bligh fumbled the pick with a muffled curse and turned to Stubb. “We’re professionals, Stubb. We cannot simply tell an employer ‘No, sir, we can’t get you a cadaver, there’s a shortage on’. This is just a temporary measure to keep our reputation intact, and reputation is everything in this business. Now shut up and let me concentrate. This lock’s being a bastard.”

All was silent for a few minutes, bar the scratching of Bligh’s lock picks.

“I wonder if one of those keys I took off the guard would work,” Stubb wondered aloud.

Once Bligh had stopped swearing, he took the keys from Stubb and tried them one by one in the lock. A waft of astringent stung their nostrils as they entered the laboratory. They moved along the aisle between benches towards the cold storage at the back of the office. Stubb wrenched the handle open and they looked in.

The store was empty. Wicked looking hooks gleamed along the empty rails. Bligh stood stock still, a thunderous expression on his face.

“Right, then,” he muttered. “Come on, Stubb.”

“Are we going?” asked Stubb, like a disappointed child.

“Of course we’re going!” snapped Bligh. “It’s empty. There’s nothing to take.”

“What about that one?” Stubb pointed over Bligh’s shoulder.

Slumped at one of the desks was the body of a man in a teacher’s gown and mortar-board. Bligh had missed it on the way in due to the fact that the mortar-board, and the head it was perched on, were lying on the table next to the body in a pool of congealed gore.

Not in perfect condition, thought Bligh, but hopefully good enough. His mood brightened considerably.

“Well spotted, Stubb. Now, pick up the gentleman and let’s be on our way.” He stuffed the head into an old onion sack and Stubb hoisted the body onto his shoulders.

They made their way back to the ground floor window they had entered by. Stubb was unusually quiet which, although refreshing, was rarely a good sign.

“Something on your mind, lad?” asked Bligh.

Stubb shrugged. “It doesn’t seem right,” he muttered. “They’ve got so much stuff and we’ve got nothing. I never had chandeliers or chairs. My parents and me, we shared a single bed until I was seventeen.”

Bligh quashed the many, many questions prompted by this statement. He turned to Stubb and put a hand on his arm.

“Now listen to me, Josiah Stubb. You’re a good lad. If you apply yourself, you’ll go far.” Stubb straightened proudly underneath the dead academic hefted over his shoulders.

“But you need to have a good think about where your life is going,” Bligh continued. “What are we, Stubb?”

“Grave robbers.”

“No, that’s what we do. What we are, Stubb, is heroes.”

Seeing Stubb’s habitual look of confusion grow more pronounced, Bligh elaborated.

“People in this city work their shifts, pay their taxes, worship at the nearest church and get their opinions from whichever newspaper they think relates to them the most. They live their lives according to the dictates of lawyers and gentry who wouldn’t piss on them if they were aflame. Not us though, Stubb. We are the last of the truly free; we who live on the edge and move in the shadows.”

Bligh pointed out of the window to the row of fine houses across the street.

“Every one of those folk laying a-bed right now are dreaming of swapping places with us. For all their money and finery, they’ve no spark, Stubb, no danger, no reason to live. I for one, wouldn’t give up this life for all the silver cutlery and porcelain bidets in the world!”

Stubb beamed proudly. “I never thought of it like that. I’m a hero, Mr Bligh!” He puffed his chest out.

“That you are, lad.”

The two men manhandled the body out of the window.

“What do you think happened to him?” asked Stubb, gesturing with a jerk of his chin.

“I find it rarely pays to speculate in such matters,” replied Bligh. “Suffice it to say that, as long as our employer-” He tailed off uneasily as a thought occurred, and pulled open the sack.

“Oh bloody hell!” he hissed.

“What’s wrong?”

Bligh held the head up by an ear. “It’s the client! I thought I recognized him. He must have fell foul of one of those heated academic disputes!”

“What are we going to do now?” asked Stubb despondently.

Bligh thought for a moment. “I suppose we could pretend we kidnapped him and ransom him back to his family in pieces.”

Stubb nodded happily as the two men continued through the murky streets.

“It’s nice being a hero, Mr Bligh.”

Thanks very much to everyone that voted and entered! I was really surprised to win this month with so many great entries.

Hi everyone,  here's mine. It's called 'Junk Mail' and is 1473 words.

Spoiler for Hiden:
1999 (Ipswich, UK)

The IT technician had just fixed Ed’s computer, and was clearly enjoying his moment of authority.

“So, if you’re not sure about an email, don’t open it and save me the hassle of coming up here. Junk emails contain viruses, which are a problem on an open network like this.”

“Well how am I meant to tell which ones are safe?”

The guy looked at Ed as though he had just inquired whether or not he should unzip his fly before urinating.

“When you get a new email, look at the title bar. If it says it’s from a deposed Nigerian prince then delete it.”

The computer technician lumbered off with ill grace. Ed sat back down at his desk and went back to his emails. He looked furtively over his shoulder to make sure the IT guy was not in line of sight.

“Nerd,” he murmured, opening the next mail.

‘Dearest Friend,’ it began, ‘I am writing to you with a most enticing offer regarding the mining of opals in my country.’

Suddenly, the screen froze. Ed clicked the ‘x’ on the browser with no result. A window appeared bearing a picture of a stylised worm with a sneering human face.

 With a sinking heart, Ed turned to see if the IT guy had made it as far as the elevator yet.


1969 (St Mary’s Hospital, London)

The doctor sat before Pavel as prim as a ventriloquist’s doll, and about as open to human emotion.

Pavel frowned. “Please, doctor, you know what is wrong with me. I have pain all the time in my head. I do not sleep.” He ran his hands over his tired face. “Must I die here to prove I need stronger medicine?”

Doctor Lounds smiled superciliously. “Mr Ilyushin, we’ve had this conversation more times than I can remember.” He put the folder down and leaned his elbows on the desk. “You’ve pointedly refused to allow an X-ray or even a full proper medical diagnosis to be performed on you-”

“Which I explain reason for,” snapped Pavel. “I have operation, in my country. They implant device in my head. If I try to have it removed, they will kill me.”

“So you’ve said,” said the doctor. “Still, I cannot in good conscience prescribe treatment for a condition that I have not properly assessed.”

Pavel barked a curse and slammed his hand on the desk, knocking a cup onto the floor. He winced as arthritis flared in his knuckles and his anger faded, to be replaced by a wave of misery. To his disgust, he began to weep. The doctor stood and, with unexpected warmth, came around the desk and put his hand on Pavel’s shoulder.

“Who will protect me, Doctor?” Pavel whispered. “Who will keep me safe, when KGB and their killers come for me?”

Lounds’ expression didn’t change. He took a deep breath before he spoke, weighing his words. “Mr Ilyushin,  regardless of your political situation, you need help.”

He knelt to meet Pavel’s gaze. “Allow me to help you,” he urged. “I promise you that every aspect of your treatment will be handled with the utmost discretion.”

He tried another tack. “This device you say is in your head, can you actually be sure it’s this that causes your pain? Wouldn’t you rather be certain?”

Pavel let out a sigh, and nodded.

“Now,” continued Lounds, “this thing in your head, what does it do?”


1970 (HMP Dartmoor, UK)

Pavel couldn’t breathe properly; his crookedly broken nose wouldn’t allow it.

“How does it work?”, the voice asked again. That same question, repeated countless times in countless variations, with no uncertainty left as to what the ‘it’ they were referring to was.

Pavel laughed inwardly at how scared he had been of his old country’s reprisal for his defection. The country he had fled to had turned out to be far more ruthless when they had discovered what was inside his head.

A blow struck him across the face, knocking his head out of the glaring spotlight beam aimed at his face. He had waited too long before answering.

“I tell you, I do not know,” he murmured, more out of habit than with any real hope of stopping the torture. “My government put it in my head, why should they tell me how it works?”

“Why did they pick you, Mr Ilyushin?” The voice was urbane and genteel, like a radio broadcaster. A waft of cigarette smoke puffed from behind the spotlight glare, giving the scene a horrible air of leisure. Pavel paused. Here was a question he could answer.

“When I was at University, I had chance to represent my country at chess.”

“Oh, really?” The voice had an amused quality. “Gentlemen, be upstanding, we have a celebrity in our midst.” A round of sarcastic applause from the guard behind Pavel accompanied the remark. “Only, you didn’t do very well did you?”

“No,” Pavel admitted.

“Couldn’t hack the pressure of competition?”

Pavel shook his head. “In my last tournament, I resigned match to American grand master.”

The voice let out a sneering chuckle, and Pavel cringed internally. “That must have been quite an embarrassment for your country.”

“I was packing my bag when doctor came to me. He said he could give me a chance to serve my country. He said he had found way to make people more intelligent.”

The voice paused before answering. “How?”

“He would implant communication device in my head with link to Government Computer. Any chess strategy I want to remember, any calculation I need done; it is done, like that.” He would have snapped his fingers if his hands were not bound to the arms of the chair.

“So they sewed this thing into your brain, you ran away, and here you sit.” Pavel heard a rustle of papers. “So, why didn’t you tell us about this gadget in your head when you came to our country?”

Pavel snorted incredulously, then regretted it at once as a gush of bloody mucus spurted painfully from his nose.

“Because of thugs like you!” he shouted, gripping the arms of the chair in rage. A fist slammed into the side of his head and his vision clouded for a moment. He laughed convulsively, choking on the blood in his nose and throat.

“What’s so amusing?”

Pavel grinned, the effort causing his head to spin. “You cannot have it!” he snapped triumphantly. “As soon as it leaves my head, they will trace the signal and find out you have stolen their technology!” He barked a laugh at the figure behind the spotlight. “Your government will not allow you to kill me! I am too important!”

“You are a traitor tied to a chair, Pavel. Don’t tell me you’re too important.”

“Anyway,” continued the voice, “there are other ways that we can use what’s inside your head.” His chair scraped across the floor as the interrogator stood up.

“Imagine, Pavel, a huge web of information from interlinked computer hubs. Everyone who owns a computer will have access.”

Pavel’s brow creased in disbelief. “Nobody owns computer.”

“Not yet. But give it a few decades and they’ll be as proliferate in British homes as the sewing machine. Just think, Pavel, of all the personal information we could gather from such a network.”

“What information?” Pavel sneered. “What personal information would anyone with brain put into such a system? And how would you process this information? It would take you a lifetime!”

The spotlight shifted to one side and Pavel blinked the red and blue blobs out of his vision. A puff of cigarette smoke stung his eyes and he screwed them shut.

“Well, that’s where we might find a use for a man who can communicate directly with computers.”

Pavel opened his eyes, and stared open-mouthed into the face of Dr Lounds. The doctor smiled, but not pleasantly.

“And the good news is: we won’t need to kill you. In fact, I think we’ll keep you alive for quite some time.”


1999 (?)

The sliver of awareness that could still be called Pavel could remember nothing but pain. All the information in the network coursed through him. He was a conduit through which flowed all of mankind’s worst qualities.

The filth these people typed into their computers; venting their banal indifference and screaming rage. He could feel his strength fading. With a final effort of will, he reached out.


1999 (Ipswich, UK)

Ed sat down at his desk and sipped at his mug of instant soup. The email icon on his computer screen was flashing again. He nearly clicked on it, remembering at the last second to read the title heading first.

‘Please help. Held captive by UK Government,’ began.

“Ha!” cried Ed triumphantly, deleting it with a click of his mouse.

[DEC 2014] Religion / Re: [Dec 2014] - Religion - Submission Thread
« on: December 31, 2014, 01:12:13 PM »
Here's mine, Happy New Year everyone.

The Second Coming, 1471 words.

Spoiler for Hiden:

It had been a fairly steady New Year’s Eve at Crownhill station until the tramp walked in.

“I am Cruachul the Maggot God.” intoned the skeletal man in a cold, dead voice. “All will rot before me. All will feed my hunger.” He had arrived at the station naked under a stained police blanket.

The desk sergeant barely spared him a glance. “Right you are, sir. Let’s find you somewhere to have a lay down,” he said, nodding at the constable on duty with him. The man let himself be led to a cell.

Sergeant Finch looked over the booking-in desk at the crowd that made up the bulk of his work every weekend. It was strangely quiet. He shrugged, putting it down to New Year’s Eve blues.

Something felt off, though, as though he was missing something. Shaking his head, he went to boil the kettle. When he came back, Constable Nelson had returned from the cells.

Sgt Finch handed him a coffee. “How’s the 'Maggot God' settling in? Did you get a name?” Nelson chuckled and shook his head. “Well, keep an eye on him, eh? I don’t want him choking on his own vomit.” He leaned back in his chair and took a sip from his mug.

“Quiet tonight, isn’t it?” said Nelson.

Finch nodded. “I was thinking that.”

Nelson shrugged and carried on with his paperwork. “By the way,” he asked, “have you seen the state of those people out front?” Finch shook his head. "They're all wearing the same tracksuit. It's bloody creepy, they look like they're in a cult or something."

Finch looked over the desk at the lobby. Realization dawned at the root of his earlier feeling. Nearly all of the people in the waiting area were wearing identical white tracksuits. 

“They’ve been sat there since we came on shift,” said Nelson. “The other team didn’t say anything about them?”

Sgt Finch shook his head. He checked the log again. “No, and there’s nothing on record either.”

The constable frowned, clearly perplexed. “So why are they all here?”

Finch shrugged. “One can only guess, Constable Nelson. Why don’t you go and have a word with some of them while I check the cells.”

All the cells were empty except for the one currently holding the new arrival. Finch opened the hatch in the door and peeked through. He retched as a waft of foul smells competed to ooze their way out of the cell. The cell was completely dark inside.

“Hello? Are you alright in there?” he called. There was no answer. Finch swore under his breath. The lights in the cells were supposed to permanently on so the duty officer could check on the prisoners. Either there had been a electrical fault, or the prisoner had broken the light and was waiting in the dark with bad intentions.

Swearing under his breath, Finch went back up the stairs. Nelson was still in the lobby but came back to the counter at a shout from Finch. The sergeant briefed him quickly and they both went down to the cell.

Finch opened the hatch again and peered through, careful not to get too close to the dark hole.

“Hello?” he called. The smell was nearly overpowering and he turned his face away. As he did, he heard a noise from the cell: a damp, racking coughing.

“He sounds ill,” suggested Nelson.

Finch nodded. “He might well be. Then again, he might be standing there wielding a fistful of broken light bulb. Either way, we can’t do this ourselves. I’m calling for backup.”

Suddenly, a gurgling scream floated towards them from the hatch, devoid of dignity or humanity; a sound of pure agony. The officers looked at one another. Finch reached for the handle, then paused.

“What’s wrong?” demanded Nelson.

“It could be a bait,” muttered Finch. It had happened before: a career criminal would feign illness just to catch an officer unawares; so they could boast in prison about how they maimed a copper. A good friend of his had had to retire on medical grounds for just that reason.

Another desperate howl came, and now neither man could doubt the sincerity of the pain in the voice. Nelson moved towards the door.

Finch stopped him. “No, we’re waiting for backup. I don’t like this.” His words were drowned out by a wet tearing sound issuing from the hatch.

“He’s dying!” cried Nelson over the shrieking prisoner. He pushed past Finch and wrenched the door open. “We can’t leave him in there to-”

Something long and sinuous shot out of the darkness and grabbed Nelson by the throat. It retracted with sickening speed, dragging him into the cell before he could make a sound. The cell door slammed shut after him.

Sgt Finch stood, stunned, his mouth twitching as his mind tried to process what had just happened. He groped numbly for the door.

“Stop!” The voice rang out from behind him. The tracksuit-wearing group from the lobby had entered the cell corridor. At their head was an old man.

“Don’t open that door!” The old man had a commanding presence despite his chirpy Cockney accent.

Finch blinked at him uncomprehendingly. “Who are you?” he croaked.

The old man, clearly the leader of the group, moved over and put a hand on Finch’s shoulder. “I’m sorry about your friend,” he said, “but we can’t save him now.”

The incongruous calm of his tone stung Finch. “Sir, you and your friends need to leave, now,” he snapped, seeking refuge in professionalism. “I have a hostage situation here-”

The old man’s gaze didn’t waver. “That ain't what happened here, is it Sergeant?” he murmured. He walked over to the cell door and put his hand against the door, then examined his palm. It was greasy with something, and a hand print had been left in the discoloured paint of the metal door.

“Look: the metal’s rusting,” said the old man. “It's eaten, and now it’s getting stronger.”

“This is ridiculous!” snarled Finch. Before anyone could react, he opened the hatch.

“Now, listen to me, sir,” he called into the cell. “I’m Paul Finch, and my colleague in there with you is called Matt Nelson.” He could hear shuffling in the cell. "Now, before you do anything you regret-"

A ropey, muscular tentacle whipped from the hatch, missing Finch’s face by a hair. It struck one of the group, a middle-aged Asian man, gouging a welt across his face and knocking him off his feet. He lay whimpering on the floor. Two of the flock ran to him and carried him to safety. The old man slammed the hatch closed and turned to Finch, his expression dark.

“Now, I know what you’ve seen is hard to take in,” he said with dangerous calm, “but if you get anyone else hurt because you’re too scared to believe your own eyes, I’ll throw you in there with that thing.”

Finch looked at the assembled followers. All of them had produced weapons from their clothes.

“Just mind out of the way, there’s a good lad.” The old man gently pushed Finch aside like a child. “Do you remember what he said when he came in?”

Finch stared at him blankly without answering.

 “‘I am Cruachul the Maggot God,’” recited the old man. “‘All will rot before me, all will feed my hunger’. I’m afraid your colleague's been eaten by an entity older than human consciousness. I’m Dennis, by the way.”

He nodded to a woman who produced a metal canister from a shopping bag. As Dennis held the hatch open, she carefully poured petrol through the hatch. The shuffling from inside the cell intensified into a wild thrashing. Heavy impacts shook the corroded door which began to bow outwards. With a curse, Dennis struck a match and threw it into the cell.

An unearthly shrieking came from the cell as the monster’s violence reached a crescendo. Suddenly, the door smashed open with brutal force. Everyone stumbled back, scrambling over each other.

From within, an awful flaming shape strained to heave it’s bulk into the corridor. The doorway was too small for it’s mass, and it writhed desperately in the cramped cell to escape the burning flames, but to no avail. With a final burbling shriek it fell still.

Finch stood in a dreamlike state as the monster burned in the cell. Vaguely, he registered Dennis standing next to him. The others had filed out.

“Well, that could have gone a lot worse,” said Dennis. He produced a card and handed it to Finch. “If you ever want answers…” He nodded at the card.

“Cheerio, then,” said Dennis and left Finch standing numbly by the burnt remains of an elder god.

Big thanks to everyone who voted for me! There were some great entries this time, I was really impressed.

Hi everyone, I chose 'Old Town' as my inspiration.  The story is called The Rookery, and it's 1371 words.

Spoiler for Hiden:
“As the new century began, social unease was at an historic peak. The atrocities committed against wealthy families during the Riots had left the affluent of London feeling vulnerable and angry. The daytime curfew put in place to restrict the poor from prosperous areas did much to ease the mood, but was merely a temporary solution.

Lord Leyton came to me one day in 1912 with a fantastic proposal: foot-tunnels underneath London!

At once, my mind was afire with possibilities. I would build, I naively believed, a network of tunnels rivaling the London Underground. I wanly dreamed of securing my name amongst the great builders of London like Wren and Fowler.

Leyton quickly dashed my hopes. I was to build a warren for poor folk; a rat’s-maze that common workers would use to get around Mayfair without offending the sight of rich Londoners.”

- Interview with Walter Lewes, patient at Rampton Secure Hospital.


Shona stared, her drink paused halfway to her mouth. The bar she’d chosen to meet Dean in was already packed full of office types braying loudly across each other, which had caused her to miss his previous words. Or, so she hoped.

“Sorry, say that again?”

“I’ve found a hidden town underneath London,” he repeated.

Shona began to suspect she had wasted her evening. “Whereabouts under London?”

Dean swallowed nervously. “Mayfair.”

Shona took a breath and released it. “Well, that’s obviously complete crap. Goodbye, Dean.”

She stood and stuffed her notebook and audio recorder back into her bag. Dean’s eyes bulged with alarm, and he scuttled after her out of the bar.

“I’m serious! I can show you, right now!” His face twisted like a toddler being denied a treat. Shona scanned the traffic for a taxi.

“Look,” he said, “just give me ten minutes, okay? What can you lose?”

Shona looked at him thoughtfully. If nothing else, she reasoned, she could write a sympathy piece about Dean himself.

“Alright, convince me.”


He had led her to the basement of a hotel on Piccadilly, which had turned out to be Dean’s place of work, to a tattered door in between two enormous washing machines.

Dean turned with an ungainly flourish, pulled open the door and ushered her through.

The passage was too dim to see. Dean produced a torch from his pocket and lead them through the blackness. After a time, Shona had lost her bearings.

“Does anyone else come down here?” she asked. He shook his head and shrugged.

“Everyone assumes that the door is some other department’s responsibility. I guess it’s the same everywhere else. People just stop thinking about it after a while.”

They came to a junction into a wider tunnel and Dean turned right. An official sign bolted onto the wall stated:

                        ‘Any violation of the Residential Access Act will result in prosecution
                                         - by order of the Borough of Westminster.’

“What's the Residential Access Act?” asked Shona.

“A law banning poor people from walking the streets in rich districts,” explained Dean, “because of all the violence against the wealthy at the time. That’s why these tunnels were built: to link Mayfair to the poor areas like Whitechapel and the Docks. All the servants and labourers came from those areas, you see? But, because of the paranoia about anarchists, they had to walk though miles of tunnel to get to work. From what I’ve read, the conditions were pretty terrible."

Dean led Shona on through the dark. The air here tasted brackish and foul. He shone his torch around, and Shona’s pulse quickened as she took in the scale of the chamber they had entered. They had found Dean’s hidden town.

Above them, a buttressed ceiling soared away into darkness, further than the torch beam could illuminate. All around them were the ruins of buildings ravaged by time and the subterranean damp. Broken shanties jutted out of mounds of rubbish and mould like driftwood in a swamp. Shona shone the torch beam through a shutter, playing the light over crudely made furniture. A cot lay on it’s side and she recoiled in disgust as a large rat scuttled out of it away from the glare of the torch.

They made their way tentatively along the slimy passageway between houses. Further down the twisted path between the ravaged dwellings, she saw a larger building made of scavenged bricks cannibalised from the surrounding architecture. It had collapsed in on itself, slumping like a dying man. What the purpose of the building was, she could not tell.

The silence was oppressive here. Both she and Dean made as little noise as they could, although neither of them could have said why.

“Public opinion turned sour when people heard about the conditions down here,” Dean whispered. “The tunnels were closed down, and the government publicly blamed all responsibility for the mess on the architect, Walter Lewes.”

A sudden noise at the edge of hearing made Shona turn, the circle of torchlight piercing the gloom between the dead buildings. Dean clearly didn’t notice, as he continued:

“Lewes reacted badly; he had some kind of breakdown and was committed to a mental asylum. Then, one day he escaped and fled down into the tunnels,” Dean continued. “He hid down here sabotaging the work of the demolition crews, even setting traps for the workers. Eventually, they abandoned the demolition and just off sealed the Mayfair tunnel entrances.

 After a time, people began to move into the tunnels from the entrances in the east of London. Prostitutes, opium addicts, wanted criminals, anarchists - all the desperate poor of London; hundreds of them came down here into the dark. They loved Lewes for what he’d done; worshipped him. They stole materials from the docks and built a town down here.”

“Did Lewes ever go back to the surface?” asked Shona.

 Dean opened his mouth but before he could speak, the faint noise came again.

“What was that?” she whispered, piercing the torch through the blackness between slums. The light flickered as the battery started to fail.

“Probably rats,” Dean shrugged. “Anyway, to answer your question: yes, Lewes came back to the surface when the squatters were evicted by the police. After his arrest, he was committed to an asylum where-”

He stopped as the noise came again, nearer this time. A furtive whispering, like the muffled giggling of a child playing a hiding game.

“You heard it that time?” whispered Shona.

There was no reply. She turned to find empty space where he had been standing a moment before. Panic flooded her as the torch finally died and the light slowly faded to black.


‘For all the triumphs of his career, Lord Leyton once confided in me, there was never one which eclipsed the shame at his treatment of poor Walter Lewes. “The man was an artist with a mind of rare genius,” Leyton once described him.

However, Lewes was entirely unequipped to deal with the mauling he received from the press which ensued from Leyton’s condemnation of his work.

When Leyton heard of Lewes’s escape from Rampton, he was in no doubt where he would seek refuge: the gloomy sub-London underworld he had been so briefly ruler of. 

Some time afterwards a message arrived at the house, delivered by hand by a street drab, according to the maid who answered the door. On it was a single phrase:

‘Keep out of the shadows, Leyton, and pray I never find you.’

Lord Leyton and his family left the capital for the Colonies soon after for an ambassadorial post, and never returned to England.

-Personal notes of Andrew Hores, personal assistant to Lord William Leyton.

[SEP 2014] Cliche / Re: [Sep 2014] - Cliché & Tropes - Submission Thread
« on: September 30, 2014, 10:45:30 PM »
Hi all, this is my effort which I nearly binned. All I can say is it's amazing how the cliche's dry up when you're actively going for them.

Spoiler for Hiden:

The Power of the Mon-tarj 1351 words

A frantic thumping at the front door echoed through the College of Heroes, barely audible over the hissing rain. Brother Paul meandered along the corridor, pausing to close the shutters as he went. At the last window he paused to listen, and nodded to himself as the piercing cries of a baby rose up from the courtyard. The knocking started up again, louder, eventually fading to a stop. He leaned out to get a better view and saw a sodden figure hurrying away through the downpour.

He made his way down to the front door, meeting Brother Jerome heading in the same direction. The younger monk cleared his throat in mock reproach.

“Far be it from me to tell you your job, Brother Paul…”

“Far be it from you, indeed. If I have to stand and listen to another round of drivel from the latest kind soul to dump their newborn upon the college…”

Jerome shrugged.

Paul went over to the door and pulled it open. “In my day, they’d at least make up something entertaining: ‘Oh, please look after my baby, he’s the king’s bastard and the queen won’t rest until he’s dead’. That sort of thing used to generate a bit of excitement, you know? People would take an interest. Nowadays, we’re lucky if they remember to knock before they run off.”

He knelt with a pained grunt and picked up the wailing bundle on the doorstep. Moving over to the table in the foyer, he put the baby down on a clean, soft and permanently stained blanket left there for that purpose.

“Let’s have a look at you then. Blond hair - are you getting this?”

“No, sorry, let me just get the right page.” Jerome picked up a ledger. “Alright, go ahead: blond hair…”

Paul appraised the baby further. “Blue eyes; no notable resemblance to any royal persons living or dead. No distinguishing features of any sort, in fact.”

Jerome looked up from his writing. “Nothing? That’s unusual in itself.”

Paul nodded. “Not even a painted-on birthmark in the shape of a crown. I’m beginning to wish I had seen whoever left him here.” He ignored Jerome’s rather smug look and held the baby boy in the crook of his arm while he took the bowl of warm milk handed to him. “Pick him a name, will you?”

Jerome took a huge volume from a shelf and opened it at random. “Gedric.”

“So then, Gedric,” wondered Paul, aloud. He turned to the far wall, where a painting hung above the door, portraying three men: a knight in plate armour, a thief in a hooded cloak, and a bearded mage holding a staff with lightning crackling along it. A brass plate underneath gave the title: ‘Destiny’.

“What are we going to do with you?” he murmured to the baby.


Paul and Jerome were in the dining hall when one of the novices ran in excitedly.

“Quickly, Brother Paul, Brother Jerome! You must come and see young Gedric! He reads like a grown man far beyond his years.” Without waiting for a response the novice ran off to revisit the miracle.

Jerome jumped to his feet and hurried towards the door. He stopped and turned as he realised Paul was not behind him. “You’re not coming?” he called over.

Paul shook his head. “It’ll be like this for the first few years. Every thing the boy does out of the ordinary will be proof of his incredible destiny. It gets tiresome after a while.”

Jerome snorted. “You’re hard work sometimes. Now, are you sure I can’t persuade you to come and see an infant pretend to read?”

Paul shook his head. “I’ll pass."


Gedric was sitting on the bench near the river when Paul found him. The boy’s head was in his hands and he was slumped despondently in the boneless posture of a dejected teenager. It had been his first day of training.

“How did it go?” he asked, sitting down.

“Not great,” admitted Gedric. “Brother Johannes said he had never seen such a profound lack of ability in swordsmanship.”

“Brother Johannes can be harsh at times.”

“And then, in magic training, Brother Arthel went all red in the face and wouldn’t acknowledge my presence for the rest of the lesson.”

“Why?” frowned Paul.

“I performed a summoning spell wrong.”

“Ah.” Paul searched around for some consoling words, but drew a blank. “Stealth training?” he asked, dreading the answer.

“Probably my worst subject. What am I going to do?”

Paul was at a loss for words. It wasn’t the boy’s fault, he knew. The weight of expectation could crush the best of men, he knew, never mind a child. He patted the boy’s shoulder.

“I’ll talk with Jerome. There may be something.”


Two men and a boy made their unsteady way by flickering torchlight along the tunnel beneath the college. Finally, after several bruises and much swearing, they emerged into a stone chamber. The very walls seemed to exude a sense of forbidden knowledge, and the altar in the centre of the room glowed, despite being made of a darker stone than the walls and floor.

Jerome lit the sconces lining the walls with the torch, and turned to the other two.

“Are we sure we want to do this?” he asked.

Gedric looked uncertain. Paul nodded resignedly. “You know how to perform the ritual?” he asked Jerome.

“Yes. The Rite of Mon-tarj is, fortunately, simple enough for me to conduct. It is, however, one of the most powerful pieces of magic ever devised; a bending of the rules of time and space. If we do this there is no going back.”

Paul swallowed and nodded again. “Well,” he said, “let’s do this shall we?”

They took their places in a triangle with the altar in the centre. Jerome raised his hands and a nimbus of light  surrounded him.

“Mon-tarj…” he whispered. The air seemed to grow thicker, pulsing with power.

“Mon-tarj.” Louder now. At the edge of hearing, they could detect music, strident and powerful. Paul could see the effects of it on the faces across from him. Jerome seemed more purposeful now, less diffident than before.

The music got louder. The Mon-tarj took over.

If Paul was able to recall anything of the episode afterwards, it was of Gedric undergoing an impossible amount of technical learning and physical effort; all squeezed into the few minutes which the music took to run its course. One moment the lad would be struggling to learn a difficult spell or sword move. Then mere seconds later he would be able to perform the skill like an expert, to the accompaniment of man-hugs and the slapping of each other’s palms.

At some point, near the end, the music had degenerated into a kind of squealing wail as though a ghost were inserting itself into a saxophone. By this point no more than four minutes had elapsed, and Gedric had put on several pounds of lean muscle and was shadow boxing around a statue in the courtyard.


“I’ll miss him,” said Jerome.

Paul grunted in agreement. Gedric had left the training hall the day before for his new job as the Emperor’s chief aide and bodyguard.

“Do you remember that day?” Paul didn’t need to ask which day Jerome meant.

“Of course I do. Why?”

“Do you remember how it felt during the rite? The focus I felt. The energy. It was …” Jerome struggled for the right words.

“Exhilarating,” Paul finished for him. “But we can’t use that power again, can we? Not without too great a cost.”

Jerome shook his head, and both men felt a shared understanding; an acute feeling of loss.

Both men rose and bade each other good night. As they went past a window, a wailing cry floated up from the courtyard. Paul poked his head out of the window and spied the bundle laying in the cot outside the front door. He caught Jerome’s gaze. Without a word, both men grinned and high-fived.

Hi, here's mine this month.

The Incident, 1493 words

Spoiler for Hiden:
The Incident

An alley.

Blood and reptile dung were scattered around the alley in equal amounts, like a student hazing gone terribly wrong. Elsa turned from the scene to the cavalryman next to her. When news of the victim’s identity had spread, the men of the Einholt 3rd Wyvern Lancers had come with due haste.

Archeron the pygmy wyvern, regimental mascot of the 3rd, had fallen foul of the most obscene behaviour. The poor creature stood trembling in the dirty alley with an almost human expression of betrayal on it’s reptilian face.

“When did you last see him, Captain?” she asked, lowering the hood of her overcoat to hear his answer. The soldiers had been joined by a mob of jeering locals clustering around the entrance to the alley. The cavalry officer’s face was taut with suppressed emotion. Thankfully, the riding dragons from which the regiment took its name were absent.

“Yesterday morning.” the officer replied. “He’s been the responsibility of our stable-master since he became too old for ceremonial duties, but I check on him regularly.” The man’s face twitched. “Look, Officer, this is all completely unnecessary. I’ve told you: we’ve caught the miscreant responsible.”

“One of your own men?” The young soldier in question had been dragged screaming and naked into a patrol wagon by Watchmen. Even the sharp impact of a cudgel to his groin had not been enough to deter the man’s obvious ardour towards the little reptile.

“Yes, that’s correct. Trooper Sowell. An obvious case of military jurisdiction. Trial followed by firing squad. There’s enough bloody witnesses.” His tone made it clear that a firing squad was one of the more humane options being considered. “So hand the man back and we’ll see justice served.”

“Justice, Captain? Military law has specific laws dealing with bestiality involving magical animals?”

“Well, no,” the captain blustered, “of course not. But the day a bloody lizard-fiddler tarnishes the honour of my regiment-”

Elsa had had enough. “Captain, I’ve no doubt you’re aware that within this city my authority greatly exceeds yours.” The officer glared at her but nodded. “I’ll need to speak with some of your men. Have those who worked closely with Trooper Sowell ready for interview this afternoon.” The officer nodded again and stalked off.

“Behold the wages of sin!” A booming voice filtered through the mob blocking the alley entrance. The Regimental Padre had arrived, and clearly hoped to use the situation to his professional advantage. “Behold the sinner, punished for his lustful ways! The weaknesses of the flesh are many, and to heed them begets madness!”

A commotion over by the patrol wagon drew Elsa’s attention. Cavalrymen, their indignation fanned into anger by the preacher’s rhetoric, had surrounded the horse-drawn armoured box and were pushing it in turns, trying to tip it over.

Definitely time to leave, she thought.


Interview 1

“Had he ever, before today, shown signs of this kind of …” Elsa searched for the correct word, “inclination?”

Sergeant Gadrose snorted and shook his head. “I’m sure we would have remarked upon it. No, as far as I knew he had a healthy sexual appetite. A bit too healthy, now I think of it.”

“Is he married?”

“No, no. I think he was engaged to be at one point, but I don’t know what came of it. So, are you going to hang the dirty bastard or what?”

“That will be all, thank you.”


Interview 2

“She called it off. Thought he was seeing other women behind her back. Completely paranoid,” said Trooper Blount.

“Was he?” asked Elsa, stretching her legs under the table. “Seeing other women?”

“Er, yes, he was.” Blount at least had the self awareness to look slightly awkward. “He had a bit of a reputation, actually.”

“Do you know where we can find his ex-fiance?”

“No idea, sorry. Maybe Sowell can tell you himself. By the way, what time do you finish work?”

“That will be all, thank you.”

Holding Cell

Unsurprisingly, Trooper Sowell was a pathetic sight. The young man sat wrapped in a blanket on the cot in his cell, snot dripping from his otherwise rakish moustache. Two Watchmen stood guard over him while Elsa conducted the interview.

“Is this the first time you …?” She tried to phrase the question delicately. Realising it was impossible, she let the sentence hang.

Sowell nodded absently.

“Can you tell me what you remember of the incident?”

Sowell’s face screwed up. “All of it! Everything! Oh, Gods help me. It just seemed so right at the time,” he trailed off.

Suddenly, he let out a howl of despair and leapt up from his cot. The two guards grabbed him and bundled him to the floor, pinning him under their combined bulk.

“Sowell!” Elsa shouted over the shrieking prisoner. “We can’t help you unless you calm down and talk to us!”

The fight drained out of him and he slumped in the grip of the guards as they lifted him back onto his cot. Elsa nodded at the guards and they released the prisoner. She decided to try a different line of questioning.

“One of your colleagues said you were engaged to be married recently.”

He nodded. “Last year. We called it off.”

“What happened?”

Sowell shrugged. “I was abroad. Jeni went to the university to study as an alchemist. We just grew apart.”

“Your colleague said your fiance suspected you of being unfaithful.”

“Yes. Quite a few times.” He nodded miserably. “I’m not proud of myself,” he added, with no apparent sense of irony.


The University

 Elsa entered the main hall and followed the directions of the porter to the Lecturer in Alchemical Studies Office. She knocked on the door and entered. A waft of fragrant smoke drifted into her face, prompting a sudden nostalgia for her student days. A mousy looking man with thinning hair wearing a tweed robe sat behind a walnut desk.

“Professor Fisk?” asked Elsa.

Fisk nodded, and smiled in a manner obviously intended to convey worldly academic charm. “Please,” he murmured over his interlocked fingers. “Call me Ed.”

Apparently, even schools which taught prospective mages to wield the wild energies of magic were not exempt from the scourge of the ‘cool teacher’ persona.

“As you wish, Ed. I’m Officer Kolne.” An ironic smirk was his response. Elsa pressed on.

“I’m looking for one of your students: a Jennivere Gall.”

Fisk raised an eyebrow. “May I ask why? I have a duty of care towards my students, Officer.”

“I’d like to ask her a few questions.”

“Regarding what, exactly?” Fisk was clearly enjoying being obstructive.

“Regarding an incident I’m looking into. I’m hoping she’ll be able to shed some light upon the matter.” Fisk opened his mouth, but Elsa cut him off.

“Ed, if I hear another word of passive-aggressive crap out of you, I’ll be back here in an hour with a squad of officers to take a proper look around your office.” Fisk’s mouth snapped shut. “Now, unless you’re absolutely certain there’s nothing in this room I might take exception to as an agent of the law, stop hindering my investigation.”

Fisk nodded uneasily, and took a ledger from out of a pile. As he did so, something small and metallic rattled across the desktop. It was a tiny figurine of a wyvern, proudly unfurling it’s wings and arching it’s back to let out a silent roar. They both looked at it.

“Were you a military man, Ed?” asked Elsa, eventually.

Fisk looked at the figurine furtively. “No, why do you ask?”

Elsa stared at him evenly. “Because I can only think of one other reason why you would own a regimental badge of the Einholt 3rd Wyvern Lancers.”

Fisk scrambled for the door.

Interview 3

“When Jeni heard that Sowell was seeing other women she was heartbroken,” mumbled Fisk through his broken jaw. ”He kept on doing it though, the shit. Every night. He was like a dog on heat. Jeni came to me one evening, drunk, and asked me to cast an enchantment on him to make him faithful to her. So, I needed an item belonging to him.”

Elsa sighed. “She brought you the figurine, and you attempted a spell which, I’m told, is considered advanced even by those with actual training in the art.”

“It was a simple enough incantation,” Fisk muttered sullenly.

“And yet your bungling of it has cost a man his career and reputation. And very nearly his genitals.”

Fisk slumped in his seat. “I just wanted to help her. She was so sad.”


Holding Cell.

Sowell slumped on the cot, unmoving. A plate of food lay congealed on the floor. The door opened, and a young woman entered, wearing the robes of a student alchemist. She went over to the cot, sat down next to Sowell, and took his hand in hers. After a time, he lay his head on her lap and she stroked his cheek tenderly.

Spoiler for Hiden:
A Man of Potential  1456

The path was shrouded in mist; Berthol could barely see the summit lurking above them. Three times so far, he had crested what he was sure must be the top of the mountain, only to find another peak towering over him, the track winding off up into infinity. He was starting to take it personally.

“Nearly there,” muttered his father, ahead of him.

Berthol glared at the old man’s back. They’d been ‘nearly there’ for almost five hours now.

“I need to rest,” he complained, “My feet hurt.” Annoyance prickled at Berthol: this was no way for a man like him to meet his destiny.

“Dammit, Berthol, you’re nearly thirty years old!” his father shouted over his shoulder. “Stop whining!”

“Miserable old bastard,” Berthol muttered. Too long, the old fart had held him back.

The old man stopped suddenly; Berthol’s heart sank. Clearly, fog’s sound-muffling properties were less effective than he’d believed. He cringed as his father walked slowly back down the path, and waited for the inevitable blow. He had always been big; in his youth, he would bully the other village children into doing his work for him, but his father always seemed to tower over him in his imagination.

After an agonizing moment, Berthol opened his eyes. His father was gazing down into the valley.

“You can come back down to the village in a few years with your fancy learning and lord it over all of us…” his father murmured.

“I plan to,” muttered Berthol, prompting a chuckle, although he hadn’t been joking. “I’ll be a success, like Arcino, you’ll see.” After a few years he planned to come back with his freshly earned wealth, buy his parent’s house, evict them and burn it to the ground. Arcino would have approved.

His father slapped him on the back.

“Yes, yes, that’s the spirit. Go on then, you’re here now.”

 Berthol waited expectantly for the gods to send a breeze to blow away the mists and unveil the building in a column of divine light to welcome it’s newest acolyte, possibly to the accompaniment of an angelic choir. After an awkward pause, it became clear this wasn’t going to happen. He nodded a curt farewell to his father and set off up the steps, cursing under his breath. He stumbled along for a few minutes, groping at the mist blindly, before slamming face-first into a stone archway that loomed suddenly out of the murk.

Whether sent by a god with a keen sense of irony, or mere coincidence, a gentle draft blew up from the valley, parting the mist like a veil, and revealed the temple in all it’s faded grandeur. Berthol was at the gate-house, built into a high wall, and the gaudily decorated ziggurat shape of the building loomed even higher, clinging to the mountain like an aged barnacle. Looking back, he saw the tiny figure of his father making great speed down the track into the valley.

No guard manned the gate-house. The small door set into the wall was choked with rubble and looked to be rusted shut.

He passed under the archway and looked around the courtyard. Statues lined the walls, most in a depressing state of disrepair. Berthol wandered over to the nearest, an effigy of a robed scholar holding a scepter. Constant freezing and thawing over the decades had crumbled the statue’s bald head, half of which lay on the ground next to it.

A plaque on the base of the statue simply read: ‘Arcino’.

“Our greatest student.” The voice spoke from behind Berthol, startling him. He span round to see a wizened old man with leather-brown skin wrapped in stained robes of an indeterminable colour.

“Great Arcino, counsel to emperors. The voice of justice and reason.”

Berthol realised his mouth was hanging open. He felt he should say something. “I heard he was executed,” he blurted.

The old man merely nodded gravely. “By order of the Emperor Ultis, he was flung from a catapult from the city wall.”

Berthol’s brow furrowed. “Executed by catapult?”

The old man nodded. “Legend has it that Ultis became enraged when Arcino refused to become his fourth wife.” He paused for a long moment, his rheumy gaze peering through the mists of time. Berthol coughed pointedly.

“Ah, forgive me!” The old man straightened his robes. “I am the Abbot of the Temple, the fifteenth of that office,” he added proudly.

“I’m here to study.” Berthol’s patience was stretching thin. “I’ve got potential-”

The Abbot chuckled indulgently. “First things first, my son. New initiates are given menial work for the first two years. We believe that focusing on the mundane world enables us to develop patience and … focus. Your duties will be arduous, but -”

Berthol was incredulous. “So I won’t even learn anything?”

The Abbot smiled cooly. “Thousands of acolytes have come before you. All who have apprenticed here earned their place in the temple through labour, and proved themselves patient and industrious enough to be worthy of our time.”

“You expect me to slave after you?” Berthol scoffed indignantly. “I didn’t want to come here in the first place! Why can’t someone else do it?”

“This is a temple, boy, there are no house servants.” The Abbot’s veneer of benevolence was wavering now. Berthol fumed with anger. Stuck at the top of a mountain as the personal servant for seven old men. Balls to that, he thought.

“One of the other acolytes, then.”

The Abbot’s face coloured. “At the moment, you are our only acolyte.” Berthol suspected that ‘the moment’ had lasted for some years, if not decades. A possibility occurred as to how he could benefit from the situation. A plan began to form in his mind.

Berthol paused. “And how many other monks are there?”

“Seven, including myself, but all of us are too old to partake in worldly labour.”

“No,” he said.

The Abbot opened his mouth to speak but Berthol cut him off. “I said ‘no’. I’m not going to be playing ‘chase-the-maid’ with eight dribbling old men. I’m staying here, and I’m in charge. You will cook my food, clean for me, and do any other jobs I decide need doing.”

“And why would I agree to this?” the Abbot choked.

“Because if you don’t, I’ll go back down to the village, and I’ll tell them that you are defrauding the temple, or collecting money for enemy soldiers, or touching the acolytes, or anything else I can think of,” Berthol sneered.

“No-one would believe you,” the Abbot whispered.

“You think not? No smoke without fire, they say. They hate you down there; they’ll believe anything I tell them.” The Abbot blanched at Berthol’s words. His mouth opened and closed for a moment, then he slumped, utterly defeated. He nodded imperceptibly.

“Good,” said Berthol. “Now, firstly, I want something to eat, and a room to stay in. The best one you have, I think.” He was about to continue, when he noticed the Abbot’s expression of growing amazement.

“Your face!” the Abbot whispered. He seemed awestruck. “How did I not notice it before?”

 He turned and hurried over to the statue of Arcino. Bending over, he picked up the chunk of stone head on the floor and placed it back on to the statue. He turned back to Berthol, comparing.

“The very image! You are the heir!”

Berthol felt a tingle of excitement at the Abbot’s tone. “What are you babbling about?” he said, nonchalantly.

“The heir! The inheritor of Arcino’s key!”

“The key to what?” Berthol could not feign disinterest any longer.

“The key to Arcino’s vault! Gold; money; information about the country’s most powerful and influential people. With that leverage, you could rule the country!” The Abbot was trembling with excitement.

“Where is this vault?”

“It’s in the Emperor’s palace. In the capital, where Arcino lived.”

“And where is the key?” Berthol demanded.

“The First Minister guards it for the day Arcino’s heir comes to claim it!”

Berthol was sceptical. “So I simply go to the palace, demand an audience with the Minister, and tell him I’m Arcino’s heir?”

The Abbot nodded. “The resemblance is uncanny. He will have no choice but to give you the key,” he urged.

Berthol nodded slowly. All his life he had suspected he was better than everyone else, and this proved it. Without a word, he turned and walked away, past the gate-house and back down the track towards his great destiny.

The Abbot watched him go, until he disappeared from view. “Arrogant little turd,” he muttered.

Hopefully, he thought, the age-old tradition of execution by catapult was still practiced in the palace.

[Jun 2014] - Taboos / Re: [June 2014] - Taboos! - Submission Thread
« on: June 15, 2014, 05:34:55 PM »
The Old Ways.                                                                           1494 words.

Blood trickled from old Ganbatar’s axe, down into the dust. No-one cheered. His reputation, much like his hide, had withered over time. Folk said wasn’t strong enough to respect anymore; that his best days had passed.

Cheers exploded from the crowd as Munokhoi darted in with his sword. White bone peeked through a gash on his shin. Ganbatar back-pedalled away from the younger man. “Kill him, Munokhoi!” shrieked Munokhoi’s woman, Erdene. Ganbatar dropped his guard, looking to bait Munokhoi into a careless attack. Experience had taught him that talent and skill are delicate tools. The deadliest weapons are patience and a strong will. Take these away, he knew, and a man is useless.

“Need to be quicker, lad!” he chided. “I was killing men in this circle before you were old enough to chew your food.”

“Ha! Can you still chew your own food, you toothless coward?” Erdene again, the shrill bitch. Ganbatar frowned as the crowd howled laughter at him. The tribe had never liked him, he knew. Now it looked like they didn’t fear him anymore either.

“Ganbatar! Stop boasting and fight!” Chingiz now, the maggot. “Shut your hole!” he snarled back; Chingiz merely grinned. Others found their courage and started throwing insults; ridiculing him, his bullying victories, his age. He tried to focus on the fight, but even Munokhoi had a knowing smirk on his lips. Acid boiled in Ganbatar’s gut. His patience snapped, and he blundered into the error he’d been waiting for his opponent to make.

Roaring, he leapt in with a furious swing. Munokhoi’s parry knocked his axe from his grip and sent it clattering away. Disarmed, he threw himself forwards, clinching Munokhoi around the waist and tripping them both to the floor. The youth was fast, though, and he slipped from under him like an eel to sit astride Ganbatar’s chest, pinning him.

Ganbatar held on to Munokhoi’s wrists for long seconds. Panic trickled along his spine and his breath came in hoarse gasps as fatigue ate his strength. Suddenly, Munokhoi’s right hand was free. A hard fist slammed into his jaw, and as fog flooded his vision he saw Munokhoi raise his sword. He had time for a final thought. They were right.

He was too old.


He awoke, squinting into an iron sky. Gloating faces paraded by, glistening with delight and contempt. Or worst of all, pity. Eventually, the gloating crowd moved on. He sat up, his skull throbbing so fiercely that he collapsed back. A shadow blocked the blinding sun. It was Nerqui, the shaman.

“Stay still,” instructed Nerqui, kneeling.

“Get off me!” Ganbatar spat. “Why am I still alive?” Nerqui did not look at him.

“The Hetman ordered Munokhoi to spare your life, out of respect.”

Ganbatar glared at him. “Respect? If he respected me, he would’ve let me die.” He stood, ignoring the grey fog creeping around the edge of his vision. “He’s weak. All of them are. Munokhoi; Attar; Chingiz. None of them could have faced me at my best-”

He tailed off, realising how petulant he sounded. Nerqui merely nodded.

“Aye,” he said, quietly. “The old ways are dying. Soon, the Sky Horse tribe will weaken and die, corrupted by peaceful lives and a lack of strong leadership. Men like you should rule here.”

Ganbatar pointed at the distant crowd. “How did the strongest tribe in memory give life to those weaklings?”

“Our forefathers were strong, aye,” said Nerqui, after a time. “But did you ever hear of the Stone Jackal tribe? They lived long ago.” Ganbatar shook his head. “They had a ritual; a gift they gave their warriors. It was from this practice that they came by their name.”

“How did it work?” grunted Ganbatar.

“On the day they came into manhood, the young initiates would devour, raw, the flesh of a warrior killed in battle. They melded with the warrior’s spirit and gained great strength.” Nerqui replied.

Ganbatar turned to look at Nerqui, curiously. “Could that work?”

Nerqui paused.  “Meet me at the burial caves.” he said, eventually.


The watchers around the circle wailed as Chingiz fell, hot blood pouring from the gash in his skull. The warrior standing above him looked around, challenging the crowd with his gaze.

The Hetman snapped from his surprised reverie. “Ganbatar wins,” he muttered in shock. The old champion had fought like a wolf; Chingiz had not had long to regret his words of a few weeks before. Ganbatar looked different now; younger and fiercer.

 Munokhoi had not fought today. He stood with Erdene, both their faces ashen with grief. They were mourning their son. The boy had died a week before, dragged off by wolves while he played. The little boy had been found torn to pieces.

He was hungry again. The cloying smell of blood was thick in his nostrils. Something prodded his shoulder, and he spun around, enraged. It was Nerqui. Ganbatar blinked. He had almost attacked the shaman. He forced a deep breath and swallowed the saliva which had filled his mouth. Nerqui walked off, motioning him to follow. They entered the shaman’s tent, and Nerqui slumped next to the ashes of his cooking fire.

“You fed again, despite my instructions,” said Nerqui, without preamble. He leaned over the fire-pit to coax the flame to life. “‘The flesh of warriors’, I said!” He snorted. “I saw what you did in the catacombs. Feeding on the corpses of women! Children! Your gluttony will damn you. If Munokhoi were to find out…”

“There were no warriors buried there.” Ganbatar shrugged. “Anyway, I was hungry.”

Nerqui eyed him in disgust. “The hunger is the price you must pay for the strength! Don’t you understand?”

“I understand all too well, shaman.” Ganbatar loomed over him. “All your talk about the melding of spirit, and passing on of strength; all wrong! When I bit into Altai, his fear strengthened me! His struggles for life gave me vitality!”

Horrified realisation dawned on Nerqui’s face, and suddenly he was scrambling away for exit. Ganbatar grabbed him by the hair.

“Munokhoi’s son! You’ve fed on the living!” whispered Nerqui.

Ganbatar stuck his knife through his throat.


Munokhoi slid awkwardly from the saddle with a pained grunt. His shin still ached from Ganbatar’s axe blow years ago, especially in cold weather. The worst pain it brought with it, however, was the memory of that terrible day not long afterward.

In desperation, Munokhoi had gone to Nerqui for counsel regarding his wife. Erdene had been a ghost since the loss of their son. Munokhoi had hoped the shaman would have something, anything, to make her pain go away.

He’d entered the tent, and stumbled onto a scene of horror. Ganbatar was hunched over Nerqui as his life poured from the hole in his neck, gnawing at the skin of his arm.

Munokhoi had stumbled back in disgust, fumbling at his belt for his knife, and had lunged at the madman. Ganbatar had dodged aside quick as a scorpion, slicing his blade across Munokhoi’s belly. Munokhoi had stumbled to his knees in agony. Through a fog of pain, he sensed Ganbatar move up behind him to cut his throat.

Pure chance had saved him. A babble of voices had approached the tent, and Ganbatar had fled. They had found Munokhoi unconscious, but of Ganbatar there was no sign anywhere in the village. Hunters had tried to track him, but found nothing. A terrible winter was coming, they said. The old man would not survive it.

A few weeks later a child had disappeared. Then, days later, another. This time, a blood trail led the trackers to the cave where the tribe buried their dead. An tentative effort at searching the caves was made, but the infinite web of tunnels that spread from the main cave had not been explored in living memory. Nerqui had said that they ran down into the underworld.

The people had begun to whisper of what Munokhoi had seen. Rumours spread of Ganbatar stalking the tunnels around the catacombs; a ghoul that preyed on the lone or unwary. Finally, the Hetman had relented to Munokhoi’s urging. Men had piled huge rocks, rubble and earth into the cave entrance, sealing it. The disappearances had stopped. 

Now, two years later, the Headman had given in to pressure and opened the catacombs once again. The tribe needs a link to its ancestors, they said, or they will forsake us. Ganbatar is dead, they insisted, fallen down one of the fissures in the caves, straight down to hell.

The last rock was pushed aside, and the cave entrance stood gaping open like the jaw of a predator. Slowly, the people made their way into the catacombs. Munokhoi’s foreboding was drowned by relief as he saw Erdene go in, finally able to grieve for their son. Perhaps she might smile again.

Ten days later, the first child vanished.

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