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Origin of Evil: Beginnings by Caroline Angel

Origin of Evil: Beginnings by Caroline Angel

Cover Design – Red Cape Graphic Design

Red Cape Publishing are thrilled to announce the release of Origin of Evil: Beginnings by Caroline Angel on November 10th 2021, Book Two in the Origin of Evil series.

From Caroline Angel, author of Madman Across the Water, Less, and Where Shadows Move comes Origin of Evil: Beginnings.
With the Destroyer of Worlds still missing and evil lurking around every corner, the Guardians and their human helpers find themselves in a brutal fight to save The Dahn. With creature attacks on the rise and a shocking betrayal within their own ranks, time is running out.
The past and the present collide in Origin of Evil: Beginnings as the true nature of The Dahn is revealed and the consequences of the past return to haunt her. Will the truth be her undoing in this action-packed sequel to Origin of Evil?

Available to pre-order for Kindle (included in Kindle Unlimited) from Amazon at https://mybook.to/OoEBeginnings  

Paperback available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble from November 10th.

Day 31 – Desperate by Nat Whiston

Desperate (from K is for Kidnap)

Nat Whiston

My eyes flutter open to darkness as I try to move my hands and head. My neck and wrists feel bound with itchy rope. I inhale deep the smell of rotten potatoes surrounding me. Where the hell am I?! I was in my bed, and now I’m here? It felt like moments ago, I was safe at home, and I don’t remember much—only a giant hand covering my face that stank of shit and cigarettes. Next thing, I’m waking up here. I try kicking my legs to break free of my bindings, but they are too tight.

“HELP, IS ANYONE THERE!” I cry out into the dark.

The smell of sweat smears the inside of the sack, making it hard to breathe. My chest feels tight, and my breathing quickens as panic sets in when something grabs the bag over my head. The material burns my cheek, and the bag is gone. I hear it hit the ground. My eyesight is attempting to make out shapes, the harsh light burns my eyes into focus, and my kidnapper is revealed.

“WHO ARE YOU?! WHERE THE HELL AM I?!” I shout at the figure, tears streaming down my cheeks.

He answers my question with a sharp slap across the face, and he forces a gag into my mouth; I try to bite him, but he jabs me in the gut. The pain makes me submit, along with the fear of further attacks. My attacker is standing over me, wearing a black face mask. His imposing demeanour makes me shrink down into the seat. All I know about him is his appearance, and he is a built man, covered in tribal tattoos and one across his bare chest of a dragon. Its eyes are piercing red that stands out from the rest of the design. The draughty warehouse is gloomy, with only the odd dash of light illuminating the area. My eyes dart around the room, looking for a possible way out through the broken glass and discarded rubbish. Needles littered around me in a pattern, not another person in sight, just me and the psychopath.

“Please,” I beg, “if you let me go, I swear I won’t tell anyone.”

He waves a hand in the air as he comes closer and stares deep into my eyes. I see the blackness consume the man’s entire iris; this monster wasn’t human.

“You’re not going anywhere, not until I get what I want,” he says while pressing his hands against my wet cheeks. The words fill me with terror, and warm urine pours out of my pyjama shorts. He sniffs me, and a look of disgust appears on his face.

“Dirty little bitch,” he mutters before he begins his punishment on me with his fists.

 Blow after blow, I scream and sob in distress; he switches between hard punches and sharp slaps. My skin is on fire. I swear at him, tell him to go to hell, but it only motivates him; he’s determined to break my spirit. I am terrified, and my body hurts from every attack. I cry out for my mom, and he smiles at my sorrow. He runs his hand over to the metal table at the side and raises a pair of pliers, waving them at me with a wolfish grin. My head shakes, no more, please just let me go home. I managed to shake the gag down to my neck.

“Please no, don’t do this! I’m only seventeen!” I try to cry out, but he grabs my hand and rests my first nail inside the tip of the pliers.

“I know,” he answers, “young girls scream the loudest, and their souls taste the sweetest.” He pulls up my gag, stuffing it back in my mouth, before yanking hard on my nail and removing it from the bed. He enjoyed tearing it out, his depraved laughter ringing in my ears as muffled cries try to leave my mouth.

Why haven’t my parents found me yet? Why can’t I hear sirens or police cars coming? The sinister grin on his face made me sick as he pulled nail after nail from my fingers. Blood oozes all over the chair and floor, filling up previous claw marks already left there. After he moves to my fourth finger, my throat feels like I’ve swallowed shards of glass. Drained and tired, I had no tears left to cry; the first light of morning broke through the broken glass, and he began to walk away. He disappears into the back of the room and vanishes completely. As the sun rises higher, flooding the room in sunlight, I wonder if he is truly gone or adding to my suffering with mind games.

***

“He’s gone,” I hear a voice say. I shift my body in the chair; looking around the room, I see no one around me.

“Don’t be scared. I won’t hurt you.” The voice is comforting, but my hands still shuck in my bindings.

The sounds of passing trains interrupt my trail of thought, and my eyes fall upon a large, heavy trunk covered in old blood. The straps are thick and dirty. The big lock restricts the lid from opening. I notice the bloody handprint and shudder.

“I know you’re scared, but he won’t be back ‘til the sun goes down. He can’t come out during the day,” the voice confirms; it is then I realise the voice is coming from the trunk. My body is convulsing as I’m now frantically trying to get out of my bindings. I scream for help constantly, until my throat is sore. Finally, I accept failure and give in; maybe I am going mad from thirst and hunger. But still, it can’t hurt to try and get answers, even if it’s only my head trying to get me through this in some bizarre way. Either way, with what I’ve just gone through, I’ll take any company.

“Who is he?” I ask the now quiet trunk.

“We don’t know,” the trunk answers back; it goes quiet for a moment before talking again. “How old are you?” the voice asks softly.

“Seven…teen but…today’s my birthday, so I’m eighteen now,” I stutter in response.

“That’s why he picked you then; if today’s your birthday, then he will try to take it tonight.”

“Take what?” Another long pause follows.

“Your soul,” it responds plainly. The air suddenly feels thick as tar, and my eyes burn from tears trying to break out. My body droops forward, and every hair stands on end.

“I’m sorry, I wish I could help you.” The voice is genuine and sincere, and a sense of warmth reminds me I’m not alone.

“What’s your name?” I ask the trunk.

“Kiara, yours?” I let out a sigh and lifted myself upright.

“Kim,” I reply.

“Well, Kim… I should say happy birthday,” Kiara remarks.

“Yeah, some birthday,” I sniff, holding the tears at bay.

***

The sun goes down, and the room begins to turn pitch black; fear rises within me. He steps out of the darkness, smiles, and strolls over to the container. He slips a key out of his pocket, pokes it in the lock and jerks the lid open. Finally, I get to see Kiara, and my eyes widen in horror when he pulls out a jar and inside it is a severed head.

“I see you’ve met Kiara”, his face gleaming with arrogance, “she was twenty-one when I killed her, then there is Melissa, who was thirty, Jane forty…”

“Why?” I murmur

“I need all the milestones, they have power, and your souls will stay with me forever.” He moves in closer, and I spit in his face.

“Screw you, my parents will find me and arrest your ass,” I snipe; he grabs my head and yanks me forward.

“Who do you think let me have you?” he remarks.

“No… I don’t believe you!” I exclaim.

He pulls out a cigarette packet and gleefully pulls one out, lighting it with a dirty match.

“You’re officially an adult now, so not their problem anymore,” he mocked.

“You’re a fucking liar!” I yell. Tears stream down my cheeks

He responds by burning my skin with the cigarette. The smell of smoke makes me feel sick, but it is better than the smells surrounding me as vomit and urine stick to my clothes. He reaches for the bronze hammer, pressing it to his lips before licking it. In one quick action, he slams it down on my arm. I wail uncontrollably as the bone protrudes. Whack, another bone breaks under solid metal, this time, my shin shatters under my skin.

My whole body feels like it is breaking apart piece by piece. I think tonight the demon will kill me, and the monster starts beating me relentlessly with the hammer. Time means nothing here. I black out a couple of times from the pain and when my eyes open again, it’s morning, and the thing is gone.

***

The whispers soon start up once more, coming from all around me this time, not just the trunk, and instead of bringing comfort, they fill the air with angry cries. Unable to cover my ears to fight the attacks, I’m forced to listen to every horrible thing he did to each of his victims. Melissa says he drowned her in the metal tub over in the corner. Once she was dead, he trapped her soul but took her head.

“It’s what he does,” Kiara explains. “He takes you from your home and then tortures you until you willingly give him your soul.”

“How does he do that?” I ask. There’s movement from the chest, and it startles me, now knowing what’s in there. I’m confused at how it just moved.

“You have to give up, and when you take your last breath, he will do a ritual to remove your soul.” Part of me didn’t want to hear this, but I needed to know how to avoid my fate.

My feet shuffle against the rope, and my ankles are sore from constant rope burn, so when I eventually do try to escape, it’s not going to be easy with stiff muscles.

“What happened to you, Kiara?” The case shifted once again to my question.

“I was meeting a man for dinner, we had been talking online, he seemed so nice…” she trailed off before pausing, “a couple of drinks later, I’m here in this hellhole. Being hung from the beam at the back.” Her voice was full of sadness as she spoke of her death.

“Get some sleep Kim, you’re going to need it,” Melissa remarks. Unable to hold my head up any longer, my chin drops to my chest. My eyes close, shutting out the world around me, dreaming about my family and walking the dogs across the field, chasing my little brother Asher across the estate, the large manor house in the distance overshadowing fields of golden wheat. With the gentle feel of the wind rushing past my skin, I’m lost in the dream until a sharp pain wakes me up.

“Wakey, wakey,” he says, slapping my face repeatedly. If it was even possible, he smells worse than before, like rotten eggs mixed with hot vomit. I stop myself hurling in my mouth as he grabs my chin.

“Did you miss me, Kimmy?” the demon coos.

“No,” I snap. The man removes his mask and fakes a look of disappointment before the smile returns. He looks so ordinary, around my dad’s age, so early forties. A silver line runs through his sweat-soaked black hair.

“You know Kim, I’ve been doing this a long time, and I always get what I want,” he sneers.

He walks over to me and unties my bindings, first my legs and then my arms. The ropes drop down around me. For a moment, I sit there confused and unable to move, but then he gets impatient and drags me to the floor. He gazes down at me. His features completely change. His eyes are now an amber colour with thick black pupils. On each hand, a set of claws similar to a bear. Jutting out from under his lips is a furious set of teeth. He is the most terrifying thing I have ever seen. My body freezes to the ground. The adrenaline begins to pump through my veins, and my pulse is racing as he glares down at me.

“What are you?” I whisper.

“They call me Cain,” he retorts before bending down to get close to my face. His warm rotten breath is repulsive. “Now… run,” Cain commands.

Without delay, I’m going into a weak sprint. My shin is still pretty broken, so running is a nightmare and won’t get me far; my only option is to hide. I’m hobbling along like a gazelle that’s been wounded by an attack from a lion, trying everything in my power to force my body to move faster. Taking a sharp turn round to a large corridor with multiple rooms, the grey walls and ceiling with wires dangling down don’t give me much confidence. I drag my foot behind me, peeking into every window to find somewhere to hide. But the rooms have been stripped bare, no cupboards, no drawers, not even a chair. The sounds echo through the whole structure as Cain starts to whistle a happy tune. The closer it gets, the less time I know I have, so I desperately drag myself towards the last door, swinging it open. Crawling on all fours, round the frame and into the room, my arm throbs as the bone sticks out. It is oozing pus. The space appears very familiar to me, like I’ve been here in the past. The crooked picture at the back looks like a place I knew, but it is so severely damaged I can’t make out the figures. A damp smell rises in the air with every shuffle I make across the floor. The sound of whistling gets closer, so I’m hunched up behind the door trying to stay out of view in case Cain looks through the window. My heart is in my ears now, drumming away, almost deafening me. But in a way, I’m glad as it drowns out the sound of Cain’s eerie whistling. He’s close now, and my cheek is pressed against the door listening to his heavy footsteps. The pace is slow; Cain’s taking his time walking down the corridor, which unsettles me even more.

“Here, kitty kitty kitty,” he calls out. A shiver runs down my spine, and my body presses harder against the door. The sound stops outside the degraded green door I’m perched behind, flecks of paint sticking to my arm. Then there is silence, no movement, no sound. The only sound that can be heard is my shallow breathing. Moving slightly away from the door, I take a peek to see if Cain is gone. I edge up closer, raising myself with my good arm while clenching the broken one tight to my chest. The window is empty; I’m able to breathe for a moment. Suddenly there is a large thump against the glass, shattering it, and shards blast around me as Cain reaches through to grab me. A scream leaves my mouth, and I throw my body to the door, hoping it is enough to hold the door closed. My skinny frame is no match for the brutal force behind it, and it sends me flying across the room as the door bursts off its hinges. My vision goes blurry. My hand touches my head, and when I look down, it is covered in warm sticky blood. I shriek as Cain comes into view with a spanner in his hand. He lunges at me, and I try to shield my face as he belts me. Whack, another hit to my face. My broken arm comes up to protect my head, and I curl into a ball as he beats me.

Feeling woozy with my face covered with blood, I realise I do not want to die. I wait for my heart rate to go right down, then hold my breath. Cain moves in closer to me, his breath warm on my neck as he sniffs me like an animal. He chuckles under his breath, and I can hear the spanner bounce onto the floor. The stench follows him, and I’m now struggling to ignore the vile stench. Before I hear him about to walk away, I take my moment. My eyes shoot open, and I lunge forward with every bit of energy in me towards the spanner. My hand clutches the cold metal off the floor. His eyes are now on me, filled with anger, and he runs forward to remove it from me. Grabbing my hand and yanking hard, his claws tear through the top of my hand. Remembering everything he’s done to me, my arm and body aches, but I have to fight. As my hand draws back, he takes strips of my skin, but I’ve now got the spanner. His skull is in front of me, smiling that horrible smile, and I bring down the spanner onto his head. I am bashing hard with everything I have, and my eyes close as bits of blood splatter up my face. My eyes open, and my captor is lying on the floor in a puddle of his blood. I leap up, stumble out of the room, slam the door behind me and pull across the lock. My eyes scan the corridor until my memory kicks in, then I step into the dark, half-naked and barefoot.

I come to the main floor of the warehouse, and my ankle gives way. Once I’m back on my feet, I make my way into the dimly lit room towards the back of the warehouse. My feet are getting torn to pieces by the sharp glass littering the floor, making me wince with every stride. Finally slamming into a wall, I feel around the thick brickwork until I feel the cold metal of the ladder I had seen during the day. I’ve no time to waste, so I begin climbing until I reach the ground above. Stale blood has now crusted over where my nails used to be as I scramble up the ladder.

At the top of the wall, I’m hit by the rain as it washes over me. I am embracing the cold downpour and taking a deep breath. Stepping off the wall onto the path, the train comes rushing by, and the air hits me hard, nearly knocking me into the bushes. I turn back to the place once my prison, the dishevelled broken-down warehouse, now clearly presented by streetlights that illuminate the broken beams and crusted paintwork. Then my eyes discover the sign, and they widen with horror as the name, even though faded, is still visible. Headlights pull out of the dark, going to the back of the warehouse. Can it be? The lights shine on the bonnet of the brand-new Mercedes, a navy blue that remind me of a car I know all too well. I look back up at the sign, trying so hard to persuade myself it is a coincidence. The sign reads ‘Blackfield Industries’, my last name, and the name of my father’s old business. I move behind the bush, so I’m entirely out of sight; I’m unsure if I should reveal myself yet. Not until this niggling doubt goes away. I cradle my throbbing arm like a baby. My suspicions are only confirmed more when he drags an unconscious woman from the boot of the car. This can’t be real? Why would my dad have anything to do with this beast?! He drops the body like trash at the backdoor, then turns back to his car. To my horror, Cain appears; part of his head and face are missing from my last attack. The bastard survived! He picks up the woman and takes her inside, and all the lights in the warehouse turn on.

***

My body drops; I’m now on my knees screaming out at the sky. Feeling like the warehouse is mocking me, this broken-down shell of a building. Can I go home? Knowing what I know about my father, would he let me go to the police? My mind is swimming, and none of my thoughts make sense. Nothing makes sense anymore. I hear the cries of the victims, and it breaks my spirit to listen to their agony. Begging for mercy and release, but he won’t let them go. I’m frustrated that I can’t help. I wish they knew it only encouraged him and I screamed out, telling them to be strong.

All my emotions are draining from my body. I’m no help to anyone like this, let alone myself, so I walk across the tracks in the rain and go on my way to get as far away from this place as possible. I drag myself along the long stretch staying close to the railway lines, trying to keep out of sight. Knowing now Cain’s alive, I can’t afford for him to find me. Eventually, the tiredness gets the better of me, and I collapse not far from the signal post.

When I finally wake up, I’m in a large white room wearing a hospital gown. The smell of disinfectant is overpowering, and the bright lights hurt my eyes. My hands are bandaged, and my arm hangs in a sling. My attention goes to the end of the bed; a nurse sits with a worried look on her face.

“You’re awake! You had us all very worried,” she comments while pushing a strand of blonde hair back into her bun.

“How long have I been asleep?” I ask. She smiles and comes to my side, resting her hand on mine. The gentle touch is the most kindness I’ve experienced in days; I drop my head down into her lap and break down.

“Two days, sweetheart,” she answers, brushing my hair with her hand. “What happened to you?” My head shakes to her question. No one will believe me if I tell them the truth; the best thing I can do is pretend to know nothing about what happened.

“Well, don’t worry, Kim.” I look up, and she notes my look of shock; how does she know my name? “We did a bit of research for missing persons, and your picture came up,” she confirms, running her hand to my cheek. So my family knew I was missing; the relief was short-lived when my father walked through the door.

“I’ve come to take you home, Kimmy,” he says with a smile. I can’t hide the fear in my eyes as I slide backwards on the bed and grab the nurse’s hand. She nods her head and turns to my father.

“Mr Blackfield, can you give us a moment?” she asks. My father shuffles uncomfortably at the door before leaving the room and closing the door behind him. Her name badge now in full view reads ‘Melissa’, and once I know we’re alone, I grab Melissa and pull her in close.

“Please…don’t let me go home with him,” I beg. For a moment, my request confuses her, then she sees my bandaged hands tremble as they grip her dress.

“What happened to you, Kim?” she asks again. Her eyes were soft and warm.

“A demon wants my soul, and I think my father gave me to him,” I blurt out. The sceptical look turns to worry, and before I’m able to explain or react, she reaches for the needle on the table next to me. Quickly, she darts it into my arm then rubs the area with a cotton bud from her pocket. My eyelids start to feel heavy.

“I’m sorry, Kim, someday you’ll understand. We all make deals that we are not proud of,” she says. As I’m slipping into the dark, the sound of the door opening catches my attention.

“She’s sedated?” I hear my father ask.

“For now, but your daughter can not be used now. It would help if you found another, or Cain won’t honour the agreement,” Melissa comments.

“Then we’re all doomed.” I feel something wet on my head and what feels like lips pressing against my forehead. “Please don’t hate me, princess.” His voice shakes as I drift entirely into the pitch black, and I still don’t know why my father would betray me. Why would he give me to that monster? Why would he allow me to go through all that pain and torment? In the darkness, I hear a whisper that terrifies me to my very core, the words that I will carry for the rest of my life.

“All you had to do was give up, then you would have saved us all.”

K is for Kidnap is available for Kindle and in paperback here.

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Day 30 – A Mourning in Sleepy Hollow by Robert P. Ottone

A Mourning in Sleepy Hollow (from J is for Jack-o’-Lantern)

Robert P. Ottone

Constable Hayward knelt beside the road near the church bridge, staring at the remains of a pumpkin. Snow was falling lightly, tiny flakes, and Hayward knew that he didn’t have much time before the entire area was blanketed with fresh powder.

The Dutch Burial Ground sat nearby, snow beginning to pile atop the headstones. Hayward looked toward the small cemetery, trying to spot jagged pieces of orange amongst the white. Hayward furrowed his brow and started gathering some of the pieces of the gourd, eventually finding a piece with a triangle cut out.

“Think it was him?” the Constable’s son, Aranck asked, shivering in the cold. The eighteen-year-old rubbed his chest through his heavy coat. “Think it was the Horseman?”

“Don’t know. Keep your eyes open.”

He stared at the hole a moment, trying to imagine what it was, when he heard the distressed neighs of a horse. He nodded toward where the neighing was coming from. “Go check it out.”

Aranck climbed down the embankment and found an old gray horse, underfed and nervously kicking at the rocks along the river. “I think this is Gunpowder, the nag that belongs to the new schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane.”

Hayward steadied himself as he joined Aranck on the embankment. His heavy frame wobbled unsteadily in the snowy mud, slowed from years of either fighting whatever war called upon the men of New York, or from serving as the only lawman in a busy town.

Before becoming Constable, Hayward had been a successful tracker and hunter from Setauket, who worked primarily as a spy during the war, gathering intelligence on British troop maneuvers in New York City. Afterward, he arrived in Sleepy Hollow and found himself in love with Aranck’s mother of the local Wecquaesgeek tribe. When her people migrated further west, she stayed behind with Hayward and their child. After brokering many deals with the tribal elders who remained after the war, the town squire asked him to remain in Sleepy Hollow as a lawman.

“That old horse’s seen better days, eh, papa?” Aranck called from the bridge, studying the tracks in the mud. “Looks like a weak rear hoof.”

Good catch. Hayward smiled. Aranck was becoming a good tracker, too, still so young. And he looked so much like his mother. “For certain, my boy.”

When the Bleeker girl disappeared years back, it was Aranck who found her, half-buried in the snow with a broken ankle. His son spoke of whispers in the wind that drew him to the injured child. Whispers Hayward knew his wife heard in her youth; her days spent with the tribe in the forests of the valley.

“It looks burned. On the inside. Look,” Hayward showed a few scorched pieces of pumpkin to his son. The insides, the flesh of the gourd, were singed, as though detonated from the inside.

“A Jack-O’-Lantern,” Aranck said, studying the pieces. He ran his finger along the inside of a larger piece of pumpkin, scraping some of the singed blackness away with his nail. “Like what we used to carve with mother.”

Hayward wondered how Aranck’s life would turn out, a child of two worlds, never comfortable in either his mother’s tradition, or the tradition of the white man.

“Think it was a land dispute?” Aranck asked. “Maybe the schoolmaster had his eyes set on more than Squire Van Tassel’s daughter?”

“You think they ran him out of town? Whoever he was doing business with?”

Aranck shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time, right? These white men and their petty squabbles.”

“We need to find Brom Bones. Think you can get word to his little sidekick?”

“Fred Dutcher? Sure. Meet you at the hall in an hour.”

Aranck climbed on his horse and took off toward Sleepy Hollow. Hayward thought, often, about his son leaving the town. The boy had expressed his desire to do so. To join his people who migrated west. To fully immerse himself in the old ways. Hayward pressed the heartache of his son leaving deep down and focused on the job.

Hayward began to escort Gunpowder back up the hill to the bridge, careful to lead the horse slowly so as not to rattle the poor nag’s nerves any further.

***

“Why is it that every time something goes wrong in this one-horse town, you come after me, Constable?” Brom Bones said, rubbing his temples. The man’s enormity was stuff of legend in the Hudson Valley. Some of the little ones often marveled at his size, asking if he was half-bear or half-bull. Brom would often respond with “Half-bear, half-bull and half-wildcat.” Suffice to say, math was not his strong suit.

“Usually, your dumb self is involved in all the goings-on in Sleepy Hollow,” Aranck said. “What’s wrong with your head?”

“Headache s’all. What’s it to you, half-breed?”

Aranck’s lips pressed together tightly. Without warning, he slapped Brom so hard, he fell off the stool in the center of the meeting hall.

Brom grabbed the side of his face and howled, as Aranck readied for the enormous man to rise, ready for a scrap.

“You sonofa –” the enormous man screamed, rising quickly.

Hayward moved faster, stepping between his son and the raging Dutchman. “Aranck, go outside.”

Aranck followed his father’s orders, striding past Squire Van Tassel, who stood, arms crossed, next to the door of the meeting house.

“Where’s the schoolmaster, Brom?”

“I wanna press charges, Constable, he can’t hit me!”

“Brom, it’s your word against his. And I’m the law. In what reality will I press charges against my own kin?”

Brom sighed and sat back down on the stool. “Why are we talkin’ ‘bout that old scare-crane, anyway? Ain’t seen ‘im since last night.”

“Around what time?”

“I dunno, me and Dutcher were at the party. Van Tassel’s.”

“What happened at the party? Did you two have words?”

Brom shook his head. He stretched his jaw, still reeling from the slap Aranck gave him. “No, not at all. He was occupied with Ms. Katrina all night, the Yankee bastard. Caught the two of them fightin’ about sumthin’.”

Hayward looked at Squire Van Tassel. “Brom, we know that you and the schoolmaster have had problems. Just tell us where he is and I promise everything’ll be okay.”

Brom looked up at Hayward. “Honest, Constable, I didn’t do nothin’ to the schoolmaster. Me and Dutcher nicked off to Dumpkey’s hay loft with a cask of Van Tassel’s wine. Sorry, Squire.”

Van Tassel shook his head. “Idiot.”

“That’s why your head hurts. You were making too much merry last night. The spirits have taken their revenge on ya today.”

Brom nodded. “Can I go now?”

“Head to the pub. If you and Dutcher leave town, I’ll have a full party after you by nightfall. You won’t get far. And if you have eyes set on retribution for that little love tap my son gave ya, you better think twice.”

Brom sighed. He rose, slowly, and walked to the door. Hayward watched as Brom eyed Aranck, who leaned against a column outside the meeting house. Squire Van Tassel joined the Constable on the porch and looked over the town.

“You get your temper from your old man,” Hayward said. “I know that. You know that. But you need to watch it. Life isn’t going to be easy for you. Especially if you still plan to leave the Hollow.”

Aranck nodded. “I know. I’m sorry, pa.”

“You don’t need to apologize to me. Brom acts like a child, but you were out of line. Maybe send your apologies his way, with a nice bottle of our brandy.”

“Fair enough.”

“Squire, we’re gonna need to talk to Katrina. Mind fetching her?”

***

Hayward watched as Squire Van Tassel escorted Katrina down the snow-covered street to the town hall building. They were talking, the squire no doubt coaching his daughter on how to respond to the questions Hayward had planned for her.

“Katrina, always a pleasure,” Hayward said, smiling, and kissing the young girl’s slender hand. She curtsied and smiled, her intense blue eyes flashing in the afternoon light flooding the town hall meeting room.

Aranck, a few years Katrina’s junior, stood by a window, watching Fred Dutcher spill his guts beside the town pub. Brom Bones stood behind him, nervously pacing about in the snow.

“We just have a few questions for you, Miss Van Tassel,” Hayward began.

“‘We?’ Is Aranck officially a deputy now?” she asked, her gaze wandering over toward Aranck by the window.

“Not yet, but he’s learning more every day. Someone’s gotta keep an eye on the Van Tassels when I’m gone,” Hayward smiled.

Katrina chuckled, and so did Squire Van Tassel. Aranck stood, eyes locked on Dutcher and Brom nearby, loitering outside the pub.

“Katrina, what happened with the schoolmaster last night?”

She shrugged. “Well, you see, we’ve been engaged in a sort-of … whirlwind the past few months.”

“Is that so?” Squire Van Tassel asked.

“Well, yes, father, Ichabod is an educated man, not like the usual types around here.”

Aranck turned from the window and looked at Katrina. Their eyes met, and she looked away, nervously.

“Aren’t you supposed to be Brom Bones’ girl?” Hayward asked.

Aranck grabbed his coat and exited the meeting room, heading off into the snow.

Katrina looked up at her father. Then cast her gaze to the floor and shrugged. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Constable.”

Hayward looked up at Squire Van Tassel and gestured toward the door. Van Tassel followed in Aranck’s footsteps, disappearing outside.

Hayward pulled a chair over to Katrina and sat opposite her.

“There. All our company is gone. You can talk to me, Katrina.”

“Brom is … well … he’s good for passing the time, you know? Like riding a wild horse. He’s exciting. Powerful. But unskilled. Once the thrill is gone, there’s not much tohim.”

Hayward nodded. “Understood. And the schoolmaster?”

Katrina’s eyes sparkled at the mention of the missing schoolmaster. “You must find him, Constable. We had such a terrible fight last night. He asked for my hand. I told him I needed more time.”

Hayward put his hand on Katrina’s shoulder. “I can understand that. That’s a lot to put on a young woman after such a short time.”

“I worry that Brom did something to him. Last night. Likes to dress like the Headless Horseman. Black cape, Jack-O’-Lantern, you know?”

“Lots of boys do. Even Aranck –”

“I would’ve thought Aranck was above such childish folly. He was always a more sensitive soul.”

Hayward smiled. “Gets that from his mother.”

Katrina smiled at him. “I don’t think that’s entirely true.” She took Hayward’s hand. “Please. Find Ichabod. I know in my heart he’s still out there. If Brom had anything to do with it, he’ll tell you. He’s always been a braggart.”

“I don’t think Brom is involved, Miss Van Tassel.”

She sighed and looked up at him. It was impossible not to see what every boy in town loved about her. The intensity of her eyes, her plump, rosy cheeks, the color of an autumn evening as day burns away to night. The kindness in her demeanor. It was more than just the desire for her father’s bounty that drew men to her. “I simply don’t know who else would harbor ill intentions toward my Ichabod, Constable.”

***

Outside the meeting hall, Aranck stood, watching folks mill about the town. He had slipped his fingers into a small leather pouch and pulled out a thin cigar. Lighting it slowly, he breathed in the aroma, a blend of spice, fruit and even a hint of leather. His father exited the hall and stood beside him.

“Got one of those for me, boy?”

Aranck again reached into his pouch and handed a cigar to his father.

Hayward stared at his son. His long black hair caught a bit of wind and blew, as though it had a life of its own. “Something troubles you. Speak freely, boy.”

“It wasn’t Brom. It wasn’t anyone in his gang. Brom’s a good rider, but riding a horse and carrying a flaming pumpkin?” Aranck trailed off. Lost in thought.

“What’re you thinkin’?”

“You know what I’m thinking, pa. When you eliminate the possible, the likely, the rational, what remains?”

Hayward nodded. “The impossible.”

“Crane was angry. He wanted Katrina’s hand. Shoulda had the brains to leave when he could.”

“The folly of youth … ready to take on the world, boy?”

“Maybe. I’m just sayin’, the schoolmaster loved Miss Katrina. The pumpkins. The horse. He couldn’t have gone far on foot, pa. People disappear sometimes. Something takes people. White men are sloppy. They leave clues. You taught me that.”

“Aranck, nobody’s seen the horseman in years.”

“Because nobody’s stupid enough to disrupt the way things are here in the Hollow. We go, day to day, working, playing, drinking, fighting, we never leave, unless taken by grim death. The last schoolmaster, Palmer, you know he disappeared too.”

“He ran off, he was crazed –”

“Was he? My conversations with him were usually pretty sane, father.” Aranck took a long drag off his cigar.

Hayward knew the boy wasn’t wrong. The similarities between Crane and Palmer’s cases were striking, but in the case of Palmer, they never found any indication that he tried to leave. No horse. No broken gourds. No report of him missing. Just one day, the schoolhouse was left with an open door, swaying in the fall wind.

“What do we do, my boy?”

Aranck finished his cigar. He flicked it into the mud. “I have an idea, but first, I want to check with Her. She might know something.”

Her. The thought of his son trekking off into the woods to take counsel with Sleepy Hollow’s resident witch gave Hayward pause. While everyone knew about the Headless Horseman, not many knew of the crone who lived deep in the woods at the base of a small, rocky outcropping.

Aranck’s mother would visit her often. Bringing her food. Ale. Aranck joined his mother on these trips, and the old crone took to him. She would leave gifts on Hayward’s doorstep for the boy. Dolls fashioned from strips of clothing and animal fur.

“If that’s what you feel you have to do, boy, that’s fine, but I think it’s time I meet this hag.”

***

As Hayward and Aranck made their way through the forest outside of Sleepy Hollow, they marveled at the sight of the lush orange and red foliage. It was as if the trees were ablaze in the afternoon light, and the ground, coated with dried leaves, crackled under the hooves of their horses.

Aranck’s eyes watched the trees around them. He would sometimes awaken in the night and walk out into the darkness in his night clothes, barefoot, even in winter. He described what he believed to be a whisper in the darkness, a voice on the wind, calling him into the woods. Not malevolent, but instead kind and soothing.

He often heard those same voices in the woods around the crone’s home.

“We are nearly there, father. The location is always a secret to my eyes, but never my ears.”

As they continued, Hayward started seeing smaller rocks appearing in the forest. They moved deeper into the woods, and the stones became larger. He remembered his son often returning home with rounded, almost polished pieces of rock, purple and light blue, rocks not normally found in the valley or in the foothills. Aranck would admit to gathering them while visiting the crone in the woods.

They were close.

“Father, when we get there, let me do all the talking, alright?”

Hayward nodded. He knew better.

Eventually, they came to the mouth of a small cave. Aranck stopped in his tracks, his horse refusing to move any closer.

“This is it.”

“She lives in there?” Hayward stared at the cave’s mouth. The opening was tiny.

Once inside, Hayward was struck by how large and empty the space was. It seemed to stretch further underground, possibly forming a system that ran as far north as the foothills, as opposed to deeper into a larger mountain-structure, and Hayward wondered how others hadn’t discovered these caves before.

“It is not much further,” Aranck said, producing a small lantern from his pack and lighting it in the failing daylight.

They continued, and eventually came to an area not unlike a chapel, with tall ceilings, formed naturally over hundreds, maybe thousands of years.

Hayward gasped, staring at the lanterns and torches mounted to the walls of the cave. On the walls hung animal pelts, and in many other areas along the walls were drawings of tribal warriors, hunting and worshipping creatures that at first resembled bears, but stood more humanlike. “My Lord …”

“… won’t be found here, Constable.” A voice spoke from the far end of the cave. The “crone” as she was often referred to by the few townsfolk who saw her, wasn’t a crone at all, but instead a beautiful, dark-haired, dark-skinned woman. Her appearance reminded Hayward of so many of the Wecquaesgeek women he knew before the war. Sharp features. Impossibly long, black hair, down to her knees. Wearing what Hayward thought was a deer skin draped across her body, her dark eyes flickered in the torchlight of the cave.

On closer inspection, the cave was warmer and more welcoming than he had initially realized. Cozy, even. There was the slightest scent of lavender in the air, and the animal pelts were thick and soft. Hayward almost felt at home in the crone’s cave.

Aranck exchanged pleasantries with the woman in their shared language and presented her with a small leather pouch of berries and nuts. He also produced a large woven mat from his pack and slung it over a large rock.

She sat upon the mat and swung her bare legs up and under her body, resting on her knees. She looked no older than Aranck, and yet, the rumors of her existence in the woods around Sleepy Hollow had spread since before the boy’s birth.

“It is an honor to have your father here, Aranck,” she said. Her voice, though soft, carried tremendous weight. Aranck knelt before her, sitting cross-legged, like a child in school.

“I have heard many tales of you,” Hayward said, softly, as though a raised voice might trigger a collapse of the stone ceiling above. “You are not what I expected.”

She smiled. “And what did you expect?”

Without warning, a great black fog erupted from around her, enveloping her quickly. When it dissipated, a much older, white woman, with long gray hair, wrinkled features, and a long, obtrusive nose, sat in her place, draped in drab, dreary rags.

Aranck laughed. She did, too. Her soft and powerful voice was replaced with a cackle that made Hayward’s knees go weak.

“My dear Constable, there is so much more to those around you than you ever imagined …” again the smoke enveloped her, and she returned to her previous form, lovely and perfect. “Your ignorance of our ways blinds you to the truth the valley offers you.”

“Nanepaishot, you know why we have come,” Aranck began.

She raised her hand, stopping him from finishing. She placed that same hand on Aranck’s shoulder and stared, lovingly, into his eyes. Hayward thought for a moment that his son sat in a trance, but then realized that the look of adoration on his face was the same look he’d often have for his mother. It was a look of devotion and deeply rooted love.

“On this night, he rides. He keeps a careful watch over the valley. He is always there, even when you cannot see him.”

She paused. Her long, slender fingers traced black, cloudy shapes in the air. Hayward recognized horses, muskets, cannonballs, and finally, a Jack-O’-Lantern. “It is justice he seeks. Retribution. For stealing our land.”

Shifting into a kneeling position on the rock, she adjusted her deerskin and cast a vacant gaze into the sky. “Manitos lie in these woods. These mountains. But your horseman. He is something else. Our spirit manifest. Like me. Yotoanit …”

Aranck gasped. “That cannot be, Nanepaishot.”

She closed her eyes and nodded. “He is the spirit. The one kept in the dark for so long. For so many centuries.”

“Until the war.”

Again, she nodded. The dark smoke around her cleared, and she stared at Hayward. “Death is not through with Sleepy Hollow. The schoolmaster is gone. Dragged to hell by Yotoanit.”

“Who is Yotoanit? I don’t understand …” Hayward began, his voice pleading.

“You will find him at the bridge. The veil is thin tonight. It always is this time of year. That is why your people display such superstitious frivolity. To protect you from spirits. To seek the horseman is to seek death itself, Constable.” She looked at Aranck. “None are safe from Yotoanit.”

Carefully, she slipped off the rock, and Aranck rose to help her. She held his arm tightly, as they made their way to a nearby bed of animal skins, flowers and straw. Once down, Aranck covered her with a thick bear skin. She reached up and slowly brushed a long strand of dark hair from his face. “Aranck, you look so very much like her.”

The boy smiled.

“You are as beautiful as the night is treacherous,” she whispered to Aranck in the dark.

***

“What the hell happened in there?” Hayward asked as the two slipped out of the cave.

“Did you not see? She confirmed my suspicions about the horseman. And yet, it is far worse. So, so much worse.”

“That name, Yotoanit. What does that mean?”

Aranck sighed. “Our people, at least, what mother told me of our people, believed in many things. One of those things was Yotoanit, the god of fire. A cursed being from deep within our belief. Born of strife and malice, he sows destruction in his wake.”

A great wave of guilt struck Hayward, as he never put much stock in his wife and child’s culture. “How do we stop him? What’s ‘manitos’?”

“Nanepaishot grows weak when she uses her gifts. That’s ‘manitos’, essentially, our life energy. Flesh is a limiting form to our gods. We weaken him, trick him across the river, put him down like a dog. There is a reason he’s never seen outside of the valley. The flesh is weak.”

“I’ll say,” Hayward uttered.

“He’s a god of fire. Crossing a body of water out of the valley is his weakness. If we can, tonight, draw him out. Keep him busy. Ride like the devil, force him to act, use his power, draw him close to the bridge, near the river, we might be able to vanquish him.”

“That’s a huge might, Aranck.”

“It is all we have, father.”

***

After a quick stop at the pub to recruit a pair of extra hands, Hayward and Aranck made for the bridge nearest the church. Brom and Aranck stood on the western bank of the bridge, not far from where Hayward and the boy had found Gunpowder earlier that day. The temperature had dropped and Brom sipped from a large bottle of brandy.

“I’m sorry about your chin,” Aranck said, one hand on his musket, the other resting against a tree in the midst of shedding its leaves for the season.

“It’s my jaw but thank you. Wasn’t right. What I said. You being a half-breed, I mean.”

Aranck nodded. “Thank you for helping us tonight. You and Dutcher.”

“Truth be told, Dutcher’s a lousy shot with a musket, so, if anything does happen and that galloping nightmare appears, he’s liable to shoot one of us.”

Aranck chuckled. Brom handed him the bottle of brandy, and the boy took a sip.

***

Hours later, the temperature seemed to dip below freezing, and Fred Dutcher sat beside Hayward in a large elderberry bush on the opposite side of the bridge. A great dampness hung in the air, and the Constable was chilled to the bone.

“Explain to me again why we can’t light no fire, Constable?”

Hayward rolled his eyes. “Because we’re trying not to be seen. That’s why the horses are tied close to the river, and we’re up here.”

Dutcher nodded. “Seems stupid to me.”

Hayward chuckled. “I imagine a great many things do.”

A light padding in the distance caught Hayward’s attention.

“I saw him once, you know. The Horseman.”

“Did you now?”

Hayward only half-listened as Dutcher began his story. “Me and Brom, you know, we go a-ways back. We were walking in the mountains, you know, in the Dunderbergs …”

Hayward kept his focus on the light noise he heard. He glanced across the river and prayed his son could hear it, too. For a moment, he thought he heard a horse neigh, far off, in the blackness of night.

“… never thought much for those old stories of goblins in the mountains, ya know? Seemed awful silly t’me.”

The Constable unslung the musket from his shoulder and leaned forward on his knee. He blocked out Dutcher’s voice and focused instead on the rising sound of hooves in the distance. Again, he glanced across the river, desperate for a glimpse of his son. Please, Aranck, tell me you can hear it.

“… but then, once we made it to the top of the Dunderbergs, we saw him. Down below, near the river.”

Hayward looked down the road toward Sleepy Hollow. The sound was growing ever-nearer, and he knew that soon, whatever it was would be on top of him and Dutcher.

Hayward checked his musket, taking his time to ensure there was a round loaded. He didn’t know if he’d be able to get off another musket shot, so he checked his pistol, as well. He even checked Dutcher’s, who seemed lost in his own tale.

“Down by the river … his head was all fire. Hellfire, some say. I don’t much know about that …”

The steps grew louder, driving closer and closer. Hayward knew that soon, whatever it was would be within range of a shot. He watched the road headed east, as it dropped off in a great ridge, framed by enormous trees.

Dutcher’s story began to slow. The sound of the approaching horse was too loud to ignore. A distant, guttural neigh alerted both of them, and slowly, Hayward rose, peering just above the bush, watching the horizon of the road. A faint orange glow flickered east.

“Hellfire …” Dutcher whispered in the dark, his lips quivering, more from fright than the cold air. Their horses neighed softly, lifting their heads and snorting.

All sound seemed to escape the area surrounding the bridge. Hayward looked toward the graveyard, half-expecting to see the spirits of spectral nightmares emerging from the ground, but there was nothing. Hayward had fought in the war. He had seen bloodshed firsthand countless times. He tightened his grip on the sabre hanging from his hip.

Yet now, in this moment, hiding in a bush with a moron, Hayward knew the true meaning of fear. He watched it break over the horizon, galloping hard on a black steed in the night. Hayward produced a spyglass, a remnant of his days with the Culper Spy Ring during the war and peered through.

The Headless Horseman. In all his nightmarish glory. The specter was massive. Far larger than any of the descriptions Hayward had heard throughout the years. Even without a head, it towered over himself and Dutcher, maybe even Brom, who was the tallest of their meager group.

The Horseman’s steed. Under normal circumstances, one might find a creature like this rotting in a field, but instead, it stood, muscles and ribcage visible in sections, half of its skull steaming in the damp, cool night. Strings of sinew clung to the horse’s exposed ribs, dangling, wet-looking, in the moonlight.

“My God …” Hayward muttered under his breath, as he clutched his musket tighter. “Go to the horses, Dutcher. See to them.”

The horses, meanwhile, had begun to neigh, disturbed by the presence of the Horseman, even at such a distance.

The Horseman sat in his saddle. If he had a head, Hayward might have imagined him watching the bush. He simply sat, motionless, his horse breathing heavy in the night, casting steam from the exposed portions of its skull in the cold.

Hayward glanced toward Dutcher, who had gotten the horses under control.

The Horseman remained, steady and focused on the bridge.

“He knows we’re here …” Hayward whispered.

Without warning, the sound of a musket shot pierced Hayward’s ear and he turned, startled at the sound. Brom Bones stood on the opposite side of the river, weapon smoking from the discharge.

“Ride, you hobgoblin! Ride to me!” Brom shouted, reloading his musket.

The Horseman circled quickly, and in an explosion of speed, tore off toward the bridge, and Hayward panicked. The Constable raised his musket and prepared to fire, waiting until he knew for sure that he could hit the spirit, when without warning, he was pushed to the ground by Dutcher, on horseback.

“Here! Here!” cried Dutcher, waving one arm, while holding the reins of the horse with his other.

“Dutcher, you fool!” Brom screamed, finishing reloading his musket.

Dutcher tore toward the Horseman, then stopped, turning back toward the bridge quickly, attempting to bait the ghoul. The Horseman brandished an enormous blade, and charged, gaining on Dutcher quickly.

In the blink of an eye, the Horseman’s neck erupted in an explosion of flame, and a Jack-O’-Lantern appeared, grinning madly, engulfed in fire. Hayward was frozen by the intensity of the orange glow in the night and watched as the Horseman simply raised his arm and pointed at Dutcher.

With impossible accuracy, the grinning gourd flew at Dutcher, a sound not unlike a scream piercing the night. The pumpkin collided hard and knocked the man from his saddle.

In an instant, the Horseman closed on Dutcher, whose head hung limply, shocked from the collision and the fall. He stirred a moment, and turned, as the Horseman brandished an enormous blade and with a flash, severed Dutcher’s head clean from his shoulders.

Dutcher’s horse whinnied, pitched up on its back legs, and Dutcher’s lifeless body crumpled to the mud.

Aranck emerged from the embankment, musket and pistol at the ready. He stood, side by side with Brom, and raised his weapon. The Horseman continued his charge, and when he was about twenty yards away from the two young men, Hayward emerged from the bush and fired a shot.

The Horseman spun, and up close, Hayward could see another column of fire emerge from the Horseman’s shoulders. Another Jack-O’-Lantern appeared, with the same angry expression as the one previous.

The Horseman turned from Aranck and Brom and started back toward Hayward.

“Boys, run!” Hayward screamed, slipping down into the eastern embankment. He quickly gathered himself and climbed on his horse, tearing off north of the river, along the rocky shore.

Aranck and Brom climbed on their horses and tore off north as well, but on the western bank, desperate to keep pace with Hayward and the Horseman.

They watched the Horseman gain ground on the Constable, sword held high, ready to strike.

“Father! Ride! Ride hard!” Aranck screamed.

Brom raised his pistol and fired a shot, which, were The Horseman a living being, would’ve easily downed him, but instead did nothing. The Horseman slowed a touch and turned, its great Jack-O’-Lantern skull igniting in an orange fireball.

“Up there! The river narrows!” Brom shouted as they approached a natural rock bridge between the two banks.

Kicking his horse in the ribs hard, Aranck raced toward the rocks, and crossed quickly, his horse stumbling a moment, as it tried to gain footing.

“Father, I’m here!”

The two rode, side by side, as Brom crossed the rocky area, as well, slowing his horse and placing himself behind the Headless Horseman.

“Keep riding, you fools!” Brom screamed.

The Horseman, in one motion, turned, and with the same gesture that nailed Dutcher, soared his gourd at Brom.

With incredible speed, Brom ducked and the Jack-O’-Lantern flew past his head. Brom watched as the Jack-O’-Lantern exploded behind him in a riot of fire and orange husk.

When Brom turned back around, he could barely believe his eyes as the area where the Horseman’s head should be suddenly erupted into towering orange flames. In an instant, they formed another Jack-O’-Lantern, and Brom rode harder, drawing his pistol.

As he took aim at the Horseman, the spirit seemed to anticipate the man’s moves, and reacted by lobbing his new-formed pumpkin head directly at Brom. This time, the Jack-O’-Lantern exploded in Brom’s face, tearing the strong Dutchman from his saddle, and slamming him to the mud.

He rolled onto his side and watched as the Horseman bore down on him, high in his saddle.

“Do your worst, hellspawn …” Brom said, spitting a loosened tooth from his mouth.

The Horseman climbed down from his saddle and stood. He drew his sabre and stalked toward Brom. The blade still dripped with Fred Dutcher’s blood.

Suddenly, two shots rang out, the Headless Horseman lurched forward, roaring into the night sky in agony.

Brom braced himself for the end, but when it didn’t come, he opened his eyes and looked up.

The Horseman touched a gloved hand to his own chest. Rivulets of fire began to form from the two spots where the rounds tore through him, followed by strings of orange-red goo, strands of pumpkin innards, seeds barely hanging on as the gourd meat dripped from The Horseman’s chest.

The Horseman turned, and watched as Aranck and Hayward sat on horseback, reloading their muskets thirty yards north of the river.

“You are running him down! He is bleeding!” Brom screamed, before being stabbed in the shoulder by the Horseman.

In a flash of orange fury, another Jack-O’-Lantern formed on the Horseman’s shoulders, and he turned, stalking toward his horse. Quickly, he climbed back into his saddle and tore off toward Aranck and Hayward.

“We have to get him to the other side of the river, we have to trick him across,” Aranck said, frantically.

Hayward turned to his son and pushed him from his horse. He threw his musket down at the boy’s feet and turned back to the Horseman, who was gaining on them quickly.

“Hyah!” Hayward shouted, tearing further north of the river, forcing his horse into the shallow depths, trudging through water and mud.

The Horseman followed close behind.

“Come on, you old nag, come on!” Hayward’s horse darted more to the center of the river, deep, but still passable, and whinnied in the dark.

The Horseman gained on Hayward across the river, and in a terrifying explosion of mud, water, pumpkin and fire, their horses collided.

Hayward lay, face down in the mud, staring at the smiling Jack-O’-Lantern face of Sleepy Hollow’s notorious nightmare, who lay still in the shallow waters of the river that served as a natural barrier between Sleepy Hollow and regions due west.

The Horseman rose, as did Hayward. Slashing with his sabre, the Horseman gained on Hayward quickly, but Hayward met the demon’s blade with his own, with a clash of steel on steel.

Hayward stumbled in the shallow waters, as did the Horseman. Their sabres collided repeatedly, sparks of fire flickering into the night. The Constable noted that the demon had slowed considerably, the water washing over its boots.

Hayward, his only recourse a pure defense, as he stumbled further and further backward, his boots heavy, sodden with mud. He could feel his heart pounding, as though it could tear free of his chest at any moment.

They fought, The Horseman, though weakened, was still the better of the two. Hayward, one eye on Aranck on the eastern side of the river, and another on Brom Bones, bleeding, struggling in the mud.

Each attack of the Horseman forced Hayward backward, and sapped the Constable’s energy. Eventually, Hayward fell to the banks of the river, exhausted and reeling from the barrage of sword-on-sword pressure unleashed by The Horseman.

More gunshots. The Horseman froze in place. Turning, the specter spotted Aranck standing along the edge of the river, dual pistols raised, smoking in the moonlight.

The Horseman touched his wounds. He was dripping pumpkin innards at a rapid pace, and Hayward rose slowly behind him. The Horseman began stalking toward Aranck as the boy fumbled for the musket slung over his shoulder.

Hayward wrapped his strong arms around The Horseman and held him firmly in place in the center of the river, water sloshing around their ankles, soaking them both. On unsteady, exhausted legs, Hayward began dragging The Horseman backward, closer to the opposite side of the shore. The spirit had begun to slow, proving that the flesh truly was weak.

Once across, the demon got one of his arms loose, raised his sabre and ran himself through, the blade passing through himself, and out his back, into Hayward’s chest, locking the two of them together.

“See you in hell, demon …” Hayward whispered to The Horseman before sliding off the end of the blade and collapsing to the rocks on the western side of the river. “Now, Aranck! Shoot him now!” Hayward screamed.

On the second “now” Aranck fired. The round soared across the river and slammed directly into the Jack-O’-Lantern resting upon the shoulders of the Headless Horseman. The flaming gourd erupted in a torrent of hellfire and pumpkin pieces, splattering all over the Constable, as well as the side of the river.

Aranck splashed through the water to his father. He stared at the motionless body of The Horseman, sabre resting just out of reach. Aranck picked the blade up as it slowly withered in his hand, the steel rusting and turning to dust. The body of the Horseman followed suit, rotting at a rapid pace, before dissolving along the banks of the river.

Even the shattered pieces of Jack-O’-Lantern rotted quickly, browning and turning to mush.

Aranck knelt beside Hayward, and placed his hand on his father’s chest, in a futile effort to stem the blood loss.

“Father …”

Hayward smiled up at the boy. He caressed his cheek. Brushed a strand of long, black hair from his face. “My sweet boy. That was … a spirited shot.”

Aranck smiled. “Let’s get you back into town, father …”

Hayward coughed, flecks of crimson escaping his mouth, dotting his chin and lips. “I don’t think there’s … much … time for that.”

Tears welled in the boy’s eyes.

“Constable …?”

Aranck turned and spotted Brom, standing nearby, the horses reined. Slowly, Hayward’s son shook his head.

Brom knelt down, favoring his own wound, still holding the reins, and watched as the Constable took slow, labored breaths. The forest around the river grew eerily quiet, with nary the sound of an owl to pierce the night.

“I love you, father, I’m so sorry …”

Hayward squeezed his son’s hand. “Watch over them, Aranck. Care for them.”

Aranck nodded.

Hayward’s breath quickened a moment, then slowed. The steam of his breath danced in the air, curling, flitting about, until finally, it was gone.

Aranck lowered his head and quietly said a Wecquaesgeek prayer taught to him by his mother, long ago, during one of their treks into the woods.

***

The following morning, Aranck and Brom buried Constable Hayward’s body in the family plot in the churchyard. It was a solemn ceremony, and Aranck was touched by the arrival of so many folks from Sleepy Hollow and the surrounding areas.

Katrina stood for a long time at Hayward’s grave, alongside Squire Van Tassel. She placed a small bouquet of milkweed and yarrow on his casket and told Aranck how sorry she was for his loss.

Nanepaishot came, disguised as a child. She and Aranck spoke of the woods being calm. Of how she couldn’t sense Yotoanit any longer in the foothills or along the rivers of Sleepy Hollow.

“The people are safe, then?” Aranck asked, kneeling, eye level with the powerful spirit of the region.

“There are many things yet to be feared, but Yotoanit is no longer one of them. Your father was a brave man. He gave these people a wonderful gift with his passing.”

Aranck nodded.

You are that gift, Aranck. It is a great burden to protect these people. But you can bear such a burden.”

Again, the boy nodded.

“If ever you need my counsel, you know where to find me.”

With that, Nanepaishot turned, and walked off into the tree line. Aranck could make out the tiniest wisp of black smoke trailing behind her.

“Aranck?”

The young man turned and spotted Brom Bones standing behind him, nervously fumbling with his hat, the bandages on his chest visible under his finest dress shirt.

“Yes, Brom?”

“I wanted to tell you how sorry I am. Your father and I didn’t always see eye to eye on things, but he was a good man. He kept us all safe.”

Aranck nodded. “He did.”

“Heard Squire Van Tassel wants to make you the new Constable.”

“He does.”

Brom stepped closer to Aranck. He patted the boy on the shoulder. “I don’t think anyone’s better suited.”

“Thank you, Brom.”

“If you ever need someone to get their hands dirty out there. In the forest. In the mountains. I’m your man.”

Aranck smiled. “There is comfort in having a half-bear, half-bull, half-wildcat by my side.”

Brom put his arm around Aranck’s shoulder. “You know where to find me.”

Brom started off toward the pub as brown, red and gold leaves fell from the trees scattered around the churchyard, mingling with the snowfall from the day before.

Warm color against a white canvas.

J is for Jack-o’-Lantern is available for Kindle and in paperback.

Find out more about Robert on Twitter, Instagram, and other online sites.

Her Infernal Name & Other Nightmares by Robert P. Ottone is available here.

Day 29 – Hackergirl by Doris V. Sutherland

Hackergirl (from I is for Internet)

Doris V. Sutherland

“A virtual world is calling you, come and give it a whirl, take a trip through cyberspace with the Hackergirls…”

Olive stared at me as she sat down with her second pint of cider. I saw her expression of sheer bewilderment and realised that I’d been mumbling out loud. I felt myself blushing.

“What was that, Pam?” she asked.

“Sorry,” I replied. “Just a song that was in my head. From a cartoon I watched when I was little. Hackergirls.” I fiddled with my pink woolly hat.

Olive smiled. “Can’t say I remember that one. I was a SpongeBob kid. That starfish guy was my favourite.” She began filing her nails as a cheesy 90s music video came on the pub television.

Kids’ cartoons. Our conversation had started with the fact that I’d just lost my job, but I didn’t feel like dwelling on that subject. We’d been veering from topic to topic and drink to drink, lapsing into the occasional awkward silence. Now, we were reminiscing about cartoons. Olive wouldn’t give up without doing her best to get me cheerful again, and that’s why she was the first person I called after I got fired. But so far, not even she had managed to lift my spirits.

I sipped my blue VK, the cheapest alcoholic drink in the pub refrigerator. Images and sensations started to drift back into my head. The expression on my boss’s face. The lurching in my stomach when I realised I would be losing my job. How stupid and childish I felt, standing there in the Hello Kitty t-shirt I sometimes wore to work. Trying to eat lunch afterwards but losing my appetite, the half-eaten bread roll sitting in the polystyrene cup with the remnants of the mushy peas.

“How much rent money do you have left?” asked Olive.

“Oh, enough for a few more months.”

Olive stopped filing her nails. She had a severe expression.

“So, a few months down the line you’ll be in the hole. Pam, I can get you out of this. I make a bit of extra money writing catalogue stuff for software sites, easy when you get the hang of it. If I speak to the right people I can get you a job doing the same thing.”

I tipped forwards until I was face-down on the table. I felt my pink hat slipping off.

“But I can’t write for crap and I don’t know anything about software!”

“Pam, you’re just a bit drunk right now, that’s all. Let’s see how you feel when you’re sober.”

I lifted myself up and took another gulp. Olive returned to her fingernails, and I noticed that her nailfile was part of a shiny penknife.

“Looks like a handy thing to have around,” I said, pointing to the knife.

“This? Oh, got it in a Christmas cracker. Penknife that’s also a keyring.” She jiggled the metal hoop that dangled from the end and then began slipping out the various blades one by one. A small pair of scissors, a corkscrew, a surprisingly long knife, and a bottle-opener.

“I could do with one of those,” I said. “Bottle-opener at home’s broken.” I sighed. Another creature comfort I’d taken for granted until my money got tight. Olive smiled and pushed the keyring in front of me.

“It’s yours.” I laughed and thanked her as I played with the keyring. She cocked her head at me.

“You’re like a kitten with a bit of string, you are,” she said. I giggled in response, but her face was straight. “I know what you’re like, Pam. When you start getting excited about trivial stuff like that, it means you need something to give you direction. Keep you focused.”

“Like what?”

“Learn a language. Start a workout routine. Anything so long as you’re doing something.”

“Keep my mind off the bad stuff, eh? I have the perfect solution.” I raised my bottle and took a swig. Blondie came on the television and I stood up to dance along with Heart of Glass. Olive must have realised that I wouldn’t be stopping any time soon, and she got up to join in.

It wasn’t long before we left the bar, still doing high-pitched Debbie Harry impersonations. The nearest streetlight was faulty, making it too dark to see anything once we got away from the building. I was still tipsy and had to walk slowly to avoid tripping. Olive fumbled in her pocket and pulled out her phone. She pushed a few buttons and the screen let out a shaft of light, illuminating the path in front of us.

“Torch app,” she said, her toothy grin reflecting the glow.

We arrived at the bus stop and I gave Olive a hug as her bus approached.

“I’m only away for a few weeks, Pam. We’ll be hanging out together again in no time at all, and I’ll help you get a new job.”

She hopped onto the bus and I waved as it started to drive off. She waved back, illuminated through the window. When the bus was out of view, I let out a sigh. I fumbled with my phone and eventually managed to download a torch app. The light shone in front of me as I began making my way home.

***

Pam booted up the computer that she got for her fourteenth birthday a few months beforehand. Opening her browser window and heading to her bookmarks list, she clicked on the name at the very top: Unofficial World of Hackergirls.

She visited this forum every day. It was her afternoon ritual to get home from school and catch up on the latest talk about the hit new cartoon series from Japan–although Pam had got into trouble with the other members when she called it a “cartoon”. They preferred the term “anime”. Pam wasn’t sure how to pronounce that, but she started using it so as not to upset her new friends.

She skimmed over the forum’s new posts. As usual, the members were discussing their favourite episodes, posting their drawings of the characters, and arguing over which girl would hook up with which boy when the next season started.

The series was on hiatus while new episodes were being translated. The last time that happened, the forum’s members had taken to telling their own stories about the characters. They ended up working together on one big Hackergirls adventure as a community project. Realising that they didn’t know enough about Japan to recapture the cartoon’s Tokyo setting, they decided that each member should set their chapter in their hometown. Pam had great fun writing about the adventures of a Hackergirl living in Basingstoke, entering cyberspace through a public PC at the very library that Pam herself visited. Her friend Mary, meanwhile, created a character living in Edinburgh.

Mary was one of the lights of the proverbial party. She would write spoof interviews with the fictional characters of Hackergirls, filled with in-jokes about the sillier aspects of the cartoon. Whenever she posted them, the whole forum gathered together for a laugh.

Like a number of the more enterprising members, Mary had even tailored her own Hackergirl costumes and posted photographs online. It was not too hard to make halfway-convincing recreations of the Hackergirls’ day-to-day outfits, which were simply Japanese school uniforms. But in each episode the heroines jumped into cyberspace and began sporting costumes that glowed like neon lights, and those were harder to make at home.

Pam had tried to make her very own Hackergirl costume once, daubing glow-in-the-dark paint over some old pyjamas. She posted a few photos and got a lot of comments from the other posters. Few mentioned her outfit; the majority talked about her physical appearance. They told her that she looked like Mizoki, the bookish Hackergirl who always sported square-rimmed glasses like hers.

Mizoki had been a favourite character at the forum ever since a member posted screenshots from a certain Hackergirls episode, an episode that had never been cleared for broadcast in the English-speaking world. The episode involved Mizoki bathing in a hot-spring, naked.

***

I pulled a Bacardi out of the fridge and opened it with Olive’s penknife. I drank it while I checked my emails, hoping to find a response to one of my job applications. There was a single new message, from an address I didn’t recognise. The title was simply “Hello Pam”. I opened it, and could feel myself sinking into the chair as I read on:

Are you still single? Hard to believe, a pretty little thing like you. What’s say we hang out? Just looking at your face makes me hard as a rock. I think you look good in a tight top, it really shows off your curves.  And lose the ponytail. You’d look more womanly with your hair loose and long.

I ran my fingers over my scalp and they came out covered in perspiration. Who was this person? Perhaps there wasn’t a person, perhaps it was just a spam message put out by some sort of bot. But how could a bot know I had a ponytail? How could anyone know I had a ponytail, unless they knew me? 

I felt a compulsion to get up and check that the door was locked, and then I went from window to window and tugged the curtains closed. When I got back to the computer, I deleted the email, emptied the trash, and after a few minutes’ fumbling I was able to block the address that sent it. I tried to push the whole thing to the back of my mind and go about the rest of the day.

I remembered Olive’s suggestion and decided to do some exercise. I found a workout video online and played it. A cheerful-looking fitness instructor appeared in the middle of the screen, flanked by two pretty young women in sports bras and jog bottoms. The routine started with the typical stretches and shoulder taps.

“Good work,” said the man on the screen. “You’re looking good, real good. Let’s get some sweat going. Let’s get hot. Are you hot? ‘Cause you’re making me hot.”

I stopped my workout there and then, closing the video and falling on my chair. I knew fitness instructors were supposed to encourage their audiences with pre-recorded enthusiasm, but whoever they’d hired for this video needed to work on his manner. Olive would have laughed out loud: a fitness instructor making pervy comments to the camera. Exactly her sense of humour. I tried to chuckle as I imagined her reaction, but nothing came out.

***

Pam never again wore her glowing pyjamas, but she continued to post photographs of herself to the forum. The images chronicled the changes that her body undertook across 2002. She began showing more skin and noticed the increased attention from the boys of the forum. One time she took a series of photos of herself in a black blouse that was buttoned only at waist level, exposing a large portion of her newly formed bust. Her square-rimmed glasses added a mature touch to her youthful face, but the legs displayed beneath her short, tight black skirt still had a layer of puppy fat.

After she posted those photos, her private message folder was filled up with requests. The boys wanted to see more. She sent them flirtatious messages, telling them that if they were lucky, then they may get their wish someday.

On the 13th of August 2002, Pam removed her clothes, stood in front of her webcam and took a series of photographs. She did not share them with every male member of the forum, however. She intended them for the eyes of one person, and one person alone.

He called himself Aclos. He had taken the name from the evil computer system that threatened the world each week, necessitating Mizoki and the other Hackergirls to thwart its plans. Pam had noticed how the boys at the forum often named themselves after the villains of the show. That was boys for you. She knew Aclos was a sweet person deep down, attracted to girls in the way that most boys are.

***

My morning routine came to include checking my inbox and half-expecting another message from the pervert. The days passed with nothing suspicious turning up in my emails, and I was almost ready to forget the whole incident. But then, exactly a week after the first email arrived, I got another one:

Still got no boyfriend? Don’t worry, it’s only a matter of time. Especially with me around!

I deleted it and blocked the sender. By the time I’d done that, another had arrived:

I like your tits, Pam.

Deleted email, blocked sender, then got this:

When do we get to fuck?

Each time a different address. At first I assumed it was just one guy who’d made a load of accounts. One really desperate, obsessed guy. As more and more emails arrived, I began to wonder if my Facebook profile had been posted to some forum for perverts, all looking at my photos, talking about my body…

I stayed away from the computer for a few hours. I watched a sitcom repeat with a mug of hot chocolate. I tried to laugh at the American flatmates on TV and mustered a few shaky giggles. After episode upon episode of mindless telly I realised that it must be getting dark outside. I peeked out through the curtains, and sure enough, there was my own face reflected back at me against the night sky.

But before I got ready for bed, I had to make sure that nothing else had been sent to me. It turned out that my inbox had one new message. The title was a web address ending with HaGi.JPG. An image file. No mention of my name, nothing pervy. I wondered if it might be someone different this time. I was curious.

I clicked the email. No text inside, just the image address. Now, I’d heard all the horror stories about what’s on the shadier corners of the web: child porn, terrorist executions. These things passed through my mind as I wondered what HaGi.JPG might possibly be. The name certainly didn’t give much away, although “HaGi” did ring a bell somehow.

I had a feeling that it might be something from a friend, perhaps something important. I copied the address into my browser and hit “enter”.

I was taken to a colourful and very detailed drawing. The image was immediately familiar, but it took me a second or two to fully process what I was looking at.

It was a drawing of myself.

A drawing of myself as a Hackergirl.

I stared at it. The character in the image was wearing a glowing Hackergirl costume, I remembered that much from my youthful obsession with the cartoon. It was skimpier than the ones on TV, but I recognised it. And despite the cartoon stylisation, I could tell that it had my face.

Whoever was sending these emails knew more about me than could be found with a quick look at my Facebook page. He even knew what cartoons I liked as a kid.

***

Aclos told jokes that made Pam laugh. The two friends talked about music that they both liked, things they both found annoying, things they hoped to do in the future. They began sharing private messages. Aclos sent her a photograph showing an attractive sixteen-year-old boy with a halfway-there Kurt Cobain haircut. He said that it was a photo of himself.

He told her that he liked her photos. He asked if he could see more of her.

Pam had thought about it for a while beforehand. She knew that it would be illegal. But Aclos was just two years older than her, a fellow teenager.

When Aclos saw Pam’s private photographs, he told her that she was beautiful, that she was the sexiest girl he had ever seen. He then sent back one of the pictures, now with modifications. He had used art software to paint a glowing Hackergirl outfit onto her body.

After that, Aclos began drawing pictures of Pam as a Hackergirl. His early attempts were crude, obviously traced in large part from one of the Hackergirls comic books. But over time, she noticed how his art improved, how he became more skilled in capturing her likeness. The outfit that he gave her was different to the ones in the cartoon: the skirt was shorter, the neckline much lower, the futuristic fabric seemingly bonded to her skin. But she did not object to this.

Aclos was not like the boys at school, who walked past her in the corridors and were too busy talking amongst themselves to ever speak to her. Aclos listened to her, and he even drew pictures for her, pictures that showed her as the person she wanted to be. She printed the drawings and hid them in her diary.

Pam had images of Aclos in her head. She imagined the face in his photograph on different bodies. Sometimes he was a strong lad, head of his PE class. Other times he was a frail boy, the shy type who needed an outgoing girl to help build his confidence.

She sometimes heard things on the news about child predators on the Internet. Her favourite radio station often played an advert where the voice of a teenage girl blurred into that of a sinister-sounding grown man: “paedophiles use the Internet,” warned an announcer at the end. But how could Aclos be anything other than the creative, loving, slightly cheeky boy that he claimed to be?

While Pam still visited the Hackergirls forum, there was less conversation to be had. The latest season of the cartoon had ended a month ago, after all. But Pam found herself surprised by one thing: Mary no longer posted there. Mary, the member everyone else liked.

Where had she got to?

***

After my shower the next morning, I sat down and pointed my browser to my emails. I felt about ready to vomit, but I had to get it over and done with. I opened my inbox. There was a new email, but it wasn’t anonymous. It came from a Gmail address with the name Richard.

Hey Pam, you look really hot in the Hackergirl painting 🙂

I hit the back button. Another new email had appeared in my inbox, the sender’s name this time given as George.

Hey there sexy Hackergirl, wanna suck my cock?

I hit back. Reload. Another email had arrived. Reload. Two more. Reload. Another. Reload. Two more. I waited a few seconds. Reload. Five more in my inbox. I clicked the most recent. It was from someone calling himself Steve.

Slugs and snails and slimy little tails, that’s what little boys are made of… little boys like me.

Below this was an image. Another drawing of myself as a Hackergirl. This time, I was bound to a table while a silhouetted man prepared to rape me. The artist had gone through the trouble of adding little teardrops to my eyes.

As I lay in bed that night, I trembled. My eyes were open. I couldn‘t bring myself to close them until I became tired enough for them to close by themselves.

***

One day, Pam noticed that Mary was online on ICQ. She sent a message over, asking why Mary had vanished from the forum.

Mary responded. She said that things turned bad after she started posting photographs of herself. She got messages from one of the boys at the forum. At first, he complimented her. Then he began to lust after her. She became uncomfortable. Worse than uncomfortable: she felt as though something had been taken from her.

Then she heard news reports about girls meeting predators online pretending to be kids their own age. After that, Mary began to suspect that the young boy who had been messaging her was not a young boy at all.

Pam asked Mary which member she was talking about. But somehow, even before Mary replied, Pam knew what the answer would be. It would be Aclos. And it was.

They had an argument in the message window. Pam told Mary what a sweet boy she thought Aclos was. Mary replied that, once, she had felt the same way about him.

Pam left the discussion, breathing heavily. She jumped onto her bed and clutched her rolled-up duvet, burying her face into it.

An hour later she went back to her PC and opened her messenger.

Aclos was online.

She started a conversation with him. They said their hellos before she moved on.

Mizoki88: put ur webcam on

Aclos: I don’t have one.

Mizoki88: it says on ur profile that you do

Aclos: Then it’s wrong.

Mizoki88: why wud it be wrong?

Pam looked through the menu that came up when she right-clicked Aclos’s name. There it was: “Invite to webcam chat.” She clicked it.

An hourglass icon appeared. “Awaiting reply.”

She waited. Her eyes were wide and sweat was on her forehead.

Mizoki88: ive invited u to a cam chat

Aclos: Sorry, but I really don’t have a webcam.

She took in a deep breath before typing the next line.

Mizoki88: too bad, I have a lot to show u 😉

She scrunched her eyes shut and hit enter. Then she heard a ding-dong sound from the computer. A new screen had opened up. A webcam screen. It showed a drab-looking room, shelves cluttered with electronic equipment. Somebody was there, but he was avoiding the lens of the camera. Pam saw only two parts of the person.

One was the fabric of a black t-shirt.

The other was a brief glimpse of a hand, a hand captured by the camera a split-second before darting away from the mouse and out of view. A hand with thick veins and black hairs. The hand of a grown man, middle-aged or older.

Pam slammed the laptop shut.

She opened up her diary and pulled out each of Aclos’s drawings. The pictures of her in a skimpy Hackergirl costume made a loose pile on her desk. She picked one up and crumpled it into a ball. When she dropped it, it began unfolding and the picture stared back at her. Hackergirl Pam, now distorted by creases and folds, still had a cheery grin on her face as she winked her eye and made a peace sign with her fingers. Pam picked it up and tore it to scraps. She did the same to the rest of the pile.

All that was left was a small heap of torn paper. But that was not enough.

Her parents kept a spare cigarette lighter in the living room. She borrowed it long enough to reduce Aclos’s drawings to ash.

***

I woke up, feeling sweat on my pillow. It was dark in my bedroom. Someone was there.

I couldn’t see them, but I knew they were there. I had to get out. I jumped out of bed, but the bedclothes were tangled around my foot. I tripped. As I fell, I caught a glimpse of a face, of an arm, of the man standing in the dark room, almost blurring in with the surroundings. I landed on the carpet and I felt vines reaching down, stroking my skin. They were the man’s vines, cold and moist. I clambered upwards and stumbled against my dresser. I heard a jar of nail polish fall to the floor, but that wasn’t important. I scrambled to the door, not daring to look behind me, and ran into the bathroom. I flicked on the light.

I stood there, bathed in yellow electric glow, and came to my senses. There wasn’t a man in the bedroom, there couldn’t have been. Even in the dark, I would have been able to make him out. And men don’t have vines, either. It was just my mind playing tricks. Night terrors. I’d heard from friends whose kids had night terrors, jumping out of bed convinced that something was in the bedroom with them. You were supposed to grow out of them after adolescence, but apparently they can still happen now and again when you’re an adult. Indigestion or something.

I went back to my bedroom. Nobody there. I tucked myself in and went to sleep.

***

In the morning I saw that my inbox had a new message. The sender’s name was a meaningless jumble of letters and numbers. “No subject,” ran the header.

We hope you like this new video about you, we spent a lot of time on it 🙂

I looked at the blue linked text that ran underneath. I wasn’t sure if the movement in my stomach was swelling or contraction. I didn’t want to click. I could simply close the window, turn off the computer, and step outside. I could go shopping or visit the cinema.

But something tugged me towards the link. Perhaps morbid curiosity. Perhaps the knowledge that no matter how long I stayed away from my PC, these messages would keep on coming anyway.

I played the video.

It was another drawing of me as a Hackergirl. The on-screen face–like mine but with eyes so much larger, nose more petite, skin PVC-smooth–started back at me. It was animated. It gave me a knowing smirk.

“Hi there, Pam,” it said.

“Oh, fuck,” I murmured under my breath.

The animated character let out a high-pitched laugh. “You never used that kind of language when you were fourteen,” said the face in the video. “You only heard words like that around the house when your parents were arguing, remember? Swearing made you uncomfortable. You ran to your bedroom and cried when you first heard your mother say ‘fuck’.”

I sat bolt upright. Against all logic, I asked the digital image a question: “How did you know that?”

The two-dimensional face looked upwards with a wistful expression. “You were so innocent back then,” said the Hackergirl, and I noticed a slight metallic twang to the voice. It reminded me of the tinned announcements in the London Underground. “You still liked kitties and ponies and clothes with pink frills. You’d only just realised that you liked different things too, things your parents would’ve never approved of.”

“Shut up,” I said. “You have no right to know that.”

The Hackergirl fluttered the lashes of her sparkling eyes and wagged a finger. “I have every right, Pam,” she said, as well-spoken as a teacher’s pet. “I’m part of you, after all. That’s how I remember so much. I remember how Aclos made you feel.”

“Don’t mention him,” I growled. “Don’t talk about Aclos.”

“Don’t you remember how good he made you feel? You’d never thought of yourself as pretty, but here was a boy who liked you so much that he wanted to see you naked.”

“Shut up.”

“You were so embarrassed getting your first bra, but meeting a boy who wanted to get you out of your bra made it all worthwhile…”

Shut up.”

The animated girl laughed.

“Shouting won’t change things, Pam. You remember what happened last night, in your bedroom? Well, it’s coming again tonight. But this time it’ll be closer, closer, just waiting for you to close your pretty little eyes…”

I jumped away from the computer, grabbed my bag, and ran out the door.

***

I stumbled down the path. When I glanced back at the flats I felt as though the windows were watching me. I ran around the corner until the building was out of view. I sat on the pavement. Tears had started to come from my eyes and I could feel my whole body shaking. I took out my phone and dialled Olive.

“Pam? That you?”

It took me a while to answer.

“Olive, I need to talk.”

“What’s happened?”

I paused and thought. There was no way she could solve my problems. She wouldn’t know what was going on any more than I did. I had to be less direct. I swallowed and tried to keep emotion from my voice as I lied to my friend.

“Oh, it’s nothing serious. I just got an email from an ex-boyfriend. You know the sort who just won’t accept it’s over?”

I was hoping for a laugh from Olive at that point, something to lighten the mood. When she replied, her tone had no humour.

“Oh, God, yeah, I’ve had my share of blokes like that.”

“Any advice?”

“Pammy, that kind of thing depends on the person. I mean, what’s he been up to?”

I bit my lip as I decided on the best answer.

“It’s long story,” I said. “And I think it might just be beginning. I want to know what I can do if it gets out of hand.”

“One time I had to take out a restraining order.”

Despite myself, I let out a low laugh. Somehow, I didn’t think the guy after me would let an order restrain him. Olive didn’t seem to notice my reaction and carried on.

“That took a while, though. I needed actual evidence of his behaviour before I could convince anyone. I copied some posts he’d made on his Facebook, really abusive stuff, and I gathered it all together.”

I perked up. This was getting a little closer to home. “And that worked?”

“Oh, yeah. I had my doubts for a while, though. I mean, for one thing, by the time I started arranging to take out the order, he’d stopped posting about me on Facebook. He’d moved on to telephone calls and the like. So, I had to dig through his old posts to find the worst stuff. It was just as well that those posts were burned onto my memory. I knew exactly where each one was, even though they were all pretty old by then.”

I didn’t reply. At that point I had too much running through my head.

“But Pam, you really need to tell me more if you want me to help…”

“Oh, no,” I replied. “No, you’ve helped already, Olive.”

“Pam…?”

“Trust me, Olive. I think you’ve saved me. I’ll speak to you later.”

I ended the call. I didn’t know what would be waiting for me back home, so I thought of a place that had always been safe.

***

The local library was fairly busy when I arrived. I logged onto the one available computer and opened a browser. It was time to start some searching of my own.

I typed in “Unofficial World of Hackergirls,” even though I expected the forum to have been taken offline by now. There was a jump in my heart when the familiar old site came up. Someone had archived it. As I started flicking through the discussions, memories trickled back: old names, old conversations, old in-jokes we all shared. Then I saw it.

A post by Aclos.

A chill run through every blood vessel in my body.

I read through the post. It was nothing remarkable, just a discussion about which Hackergirl was the coolest. Typical kids’ forum stuff. But it reminded me of something. I could feel a nagging thought at the back of my mind.

I closed my eyes and rubbed my hands over my face. Images of fifteen-year-old posts, memories of long-gone forum discussions flashed and flickered through my head. I had a memory that I knew I had to pull out, and when it came to me, I felt my eyes bulge open.

The fanfic.

The group story that we took part in, including Aclos. We invented Hackergirls who lived in our own towns. My Hackergirl lived in Basingstoke. And Aclos wrote a Hackergirl from Croydon.

Aclos lived in Croydon.

I carried on hunting through the forum, trying to find any other personal details he’d let slip. My eyes were inches from the monitor and I could feel sweat trickling down my forehead, into my eyes. I was clicking away on the mouse, page after page after page after page. Clickclickclickclickclick. People on the nearby computers were shooting bewildered glances my way, but I didn’t care. I don’t think I blinked once as I skimmed through Aclos’s posts. Aclos talking about sexy ladies in a cartoon. Aclos flirting with girls at the forum. Aclos asking a girl for her photograph. Aclos being asked by that girl for his email address. Aclos posting his email address.

I froze.

It was there, right in front of me. BEastmead@xenomale.com

B. Eastmead. Was that his name?

I opened up a new search window and entered in all the information I had about Aclos so far: the name B. Eastmead, the town Croydon. A few pages came up, stuff from the electoral register. I flicked through. One of the names there was a Croydon resident named Barry Eastmead.

My heart was thumping. Was this him? Had I found him? I searched “Barry Eastmead” and turned up a site called Eastmead Electronics. I clicked.

The site was plain, with a white background and a few lines of text. It had a copyright notice with the year 2008, and obviously hadn’t been updated since then. To most people it would have been unremarkable: just a website promoting a small computer repairs workshop, probably operated by one guy out of his garage. But my eyes were focused on the middle of the page. There was a photograph of a man’s face, with the name Barry Eastmead written underneath. He was middle-aged, his thinning hair starting to go grey. His eyes looked empty, blank. He wore a black shirt. The photograph had been taken with a camera flash, making his skin look pale against the dimly lit room behind him.

I recognised that room, with the dark walls and shelves filled with electronics. I sat and stared, but what was in front of me had faded from my view. All I could see were memories, memories of that day when I was fourteen and I caught a glimpse of his hand on the webcam…

“Is everything alright?”

I spun around at the woman standing over me. I could see from the card around her neck that she was a staff member. My face twitched into a forced smile.

“Yeah, sure, just didn’t get much sleep last night,” I said. She gave me one last glance before departing.

I looked at some of the other pages that came up on the search. I saw some posts from around 2004 at forums about UFOs and paranormal stuff. Barry Eastmead had been quite active in those communities, it seems. Most of his posts linked to long articles about cybernetics and artificial intelligence and mind-machine interfaces and other stuff I couldn’t make head nor tail of. Web-surfing had taken me as far as it could; now I had to take physical steps.

Ten minutes later I left the library and took a bus down to the train station. While I was onboard, I happened to slip my hand into my pocket and feel Olive’s keyring inside. The reminder of my friend calmed me a little, and then I cleared my thoughts. I didn’t want Aclos getting inside them. The bus arrived just as the next train to Croydon was pulling in, so I bought my ticket and boarded. I sat and watched as the city faded away to be replaced with fields of sheep and cows. I realised just how exhausted I was, how my sleep patterns had been disrupted over the past few nights. I couldn’t help sitting back and letting my eyes close…

***

Pam dreams. She dreams of being in her bedroom, with fragmented figures watching from every corner. She exercises in pastel pink underwear, doing squats and sprints. Faces leer at her. They are hidden in the darkness, yet she can make out every strand of facial hair. She carries on, sweating as she is watched.

As I watch.

***

Someone shook my shoulder. It was a middle-aged woman in a purple jacket.

“This your station, love?”

I looked out the train window and saw a sign reading “CROYDON”. I gave the woman a smile of appreciation as I thanked her before stepping off the train. Reaching into my bag, I pulled out a map I’d printed out down the library. A ballpoint dot marked the address given on the Eastmead Electronics website, and it wasn’t too far from the station.

I carried along the scrawled-in route until I came to a nondescript little house tucked away in a cul-de-sac. There was a small garden, but it was overgrown as though nobody had tended it for years.

I approached the door and, making as little noise as I could, I turned the handle. The door was unlocked and I pushed it open, inch by inch. The hallway I stepped into was pure, spilled-ink black. It didn’t usually take long for my eyes to get used to the dark, but here, the blackness showed no signs of fading. I had to walk with care, and it felt like a full minute between each step as I made my way onwards.

Just as I started getting confident enough to pick up my pace. I stepped face-first into a wall and smothered the yelp that came up my throat. The hallway was so dark that I hadn’t noticed its ending. I felt my way around, trying to keep my breaths quiet, until I realised that the corridor had an opening to the right. I turned the corner.

Something appeared a few feet ahead of me. It was a Hackergirl: the Hackergirl-me that Aclos had sent to my inbox. I saw my body squeezed into the futuristic costume, and my facial features squeezed into a two-dimensional mask with a pen-dot nose and big, sparkling eyes. The figure stood dancing in the centre of the room, a two-dimensional character glowing against the darkness in bright cartoon colours, the movements jerky like a neon sign outside a Las Vegas bar. Then another image appeared in the corner of the room, another cartoon caricature of myself, slinking and swaying like a pole-dancer.

Light poured from the moving figures and gave an idea of the room’s shape. I could make out the peeling wallpaper, the dust-coated carpet. I saw a movement out the corner of my eye and spun around. A third animated image had appeared; this time, it showed a cartoon version of myself performing a striptease, her body–my body–spilling from the cast-off costume, skin catching the light like a rubber toy. I swallowed and reached out. I felt a hard, smooth surface. The images were being screened onto sheets of glass. I glanced around for the white light of a projector but saw nothing.

At the end of the room was the oblong shape of a door. As I made my way towards it a fourth image faded into view: this one showed me completely naked, fingers reaching down towards my crotch and… I turned my head away. Then the fifth appeared. I stopped. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help myself.

This screen showed a naked cartoon of me looking distressed, a furrowed brow above weepy eyes. A sudden gash appeared along my chest as though carved by an invisible knife and blood sprayed out, then another gash came from the opposite direction to leave a bleeding “X”. I saw myself wailing in agony as the skin of my cartoon face began to peel back, exposing a grinning red muscle-face beneath. Then I saw my body gyrating again, like something was pushing into the red-X chest wound, thrusting, thrusting

I looked away and started running towards the door. More images were appearing around the room. I glimpsed the bloody, skinless face of the cartoon-me. A snapped bone sliding from my flesh like a cock from a foreskin. A sparkling anime eye slipping from a socket and something entering the hole. When I reached the door, it was ajar, and I pushed it open. I stopped just in time to realise that there was a flight of stairs in front of me, heading down. I had no choice but to grip the handrails and descend.

The stairway seemed even darker than the entrance hallway. I could hear a sound that I took to be the wind blowing through some unseen shaft. But after a while I began to make out a voice in the low murmur.

After all those years, you still have me in your head, Pamela.

I breathed in and swallowed. “You won’t be there much longer.”

I noticed slight movements along the pitch-black walls. Here, something that looked like the gleam of two eyes. There, something almost like two lips mouthing along to the words. But whenever my eyes focused on a movement it faded into the blackness.

Aren’t you the least bit curious how I entered your mind?

“I’m more interested in how I’ll get you out.”

You would never have understood, anyway. I spent twenty years studying the esoteric aspects of communication technology. The mind, the spirit, the mechanical — the boundaries are more porous than many think. Few could have accomplished all that I did.

“If you’re the smart one, how come you need me?”

I still have flesh, blood, urges. And I could never allow my prize morsel to escape.

The prickling at my back could have been a breeze, could have been a fly, could have been a finger tickling across my goose-bumped skin. I kept my face forward and carried on down the stairs. But I could not see the end: I could see only the dark.

Then I remembered something. The torch app. I yanked my phone out of my pocket and activated it, the shaft of light penetrating the shadows to illuminate the flaking white paint and crumbling steps of the stairwell as I descended. A thick coating of dust indicated that nobody had walked this way for some time, perhaps years.

The floorboards at the bottom of the stairs were warped and twisted, and I walked carefully over the curved mounds. Large flakes of plaster from the ceiling were scattered over the floor. Halfway along was a doorway on the right-hand wall. I peered in, flashing the torch inside, and looked away with revulsion when I saw that the room contained a toilet encrusted with black slime. I continued towards a door at the far end of the corridor, and I noticed a small flash from the crack below the door. Something on the other side was flickering with blue light, and the closer I got, the more frequent the flashes became.

I reached the door, turned the handle, and opened it a crack. Then, as though someone had grasped it from the other side, it swung open, dragging me into the room.

***

Pam enters the room. She is picked up by every camera lens on my body, but at the same time, I cannot help but open my eyes. The encrusted mucus crumbles from my eyelids and my vision focuses.

I see her before me. My heart beats faster, each pulsation sending a charge through my body. I feel my cables rising, stiffening, as they point towards her. An intense fear distorts her face. Her body contorts as though she is about to vomit. Her emotions reach me, coursing through the wires and running into my brain.

In my mind I picture the drawing of Pam that I made so long ago. The image appears on the screens around the room. She does not look at them, her eyes remain locked onto my body. She does not even notice when a coiled cable rises from the floor and twirls around her leg, pulling her down. Other cables wrap around her body and bind her. I make no conscious effort to cause this: it occurs according to instinct. The cables drag her towards me.

She struggles, she gasps. She cannot escape. The cables are too tight. She has one arm free, holding her mobile phone. She flails but can do nothing. I feel my flesh palpitating as it begins to part, a long coalescence of plastic, metal and wires emerging from inside me. Her eyes are wide as she sees it. The cables lift her, raise her into the air. Her face is towards mine, her pelvis is towards…

But she moves her arm, she is still holding the telephone, a shaft of light is… oh dear God I cannot see, the light is in my eyes, I cannot hold her, my cables are loosening…

My mind switches to the camera lenses. I see again. She is picking herself up from the floor. She has something in her other hand. A bunch of keys, with a large silver keyring. She fiddles with it. A long penknife blade slides out and she lifts it. I send the cables to stop her, to bind her arm, her arm which is coming down… no, it is too late… the knife is…

***

I pulled the knife out of his flesh, and then I rammed it back in. I repeated this action three more times, perhaps four, perhaps five, I can hardly be expected to remember the exact number. Then I pulled out the knife. I stood, I breathed, and I looked down at what was in front of me.

Slumped backwards against a heap of electronics was a corpse. It must have been dead even before I stabbed it. The limbs were rotting, with no more than leads and wires holding them together. My stomach lurched when I saw how the cables reached inside the body, like artificial sinews. Then I noticed the body’s groin, with the leads and the pubic hairs and the wires and the bloated grey-green testicles and…

I bent double and retched. I tried to keep my gaze away from the body, but I couldn’t help looking back at it. My eyes fell on the red wounds that I had left across the face–the face, with metal clamps binding its skin to one of the electronic devices, half-rotted flesh melting over the circuit boards like slime mould in a dead hoarder’s cupboard, its pale green contrasting with the red blood, something white beginning to trickle out…

I retched again, but even after a few heaves, nothing came out. I twitched, wanting to flee. I twitched again, looking around for something I could use as a club to smash the thing that was Aclos to oblivion.

I reached into the heap of mechanics under the body and tugged out what seemed to be a pair of computers soldered together, the plastic half-melted. The heap collapsed and the corpse fell with it, the back of its head and shoulders against the floor, its necrotic legs propped over a stack of electronics, loose and ungainly like a Guy on a bonfire. I held the fused machine high above and brought it down on the corpse’s head. The squelching sound, and the smell that came out, and the splatter of cream-coloured liquid, all made me turn around and throw up over the floor.

Finding my way back out of the house was easier than getting in. The screens that once showed obscene caricatures of me were now just clear panels of glass, and when I reached the front door I finally escaped into the fresh air. I ran away from the building, through the lanes between houses, past people–people, not corpses. Then I sat down on the pavement.

I pulled out my phone and called Olive.

“Pam? How’s it going?”

I wiped my eyes and could feel my mouth forcing itself into a smile.

“Pretty damn good, thanks. Just dealt with my ex.”

I is for Internet is available for Kindle and in paperback here.

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Day 28 – Kingdom by Sarah Jane Huntington

Kingdom (from H is for Hell)

Sarah Jane Huntington

Thirty-year-old Holly stared around her, gazing dumbly at the cluster of bodies lying broken. Each one bloodied with twisted limbs and all scattered around her bare feet.

She squeezed her eyes shut and recalled her leader’s words, “false visions are common during the attempted ascent to other realms. Reality shifts, the veil shifts, remember this.” Holly dared to open one single eye, the scene around her dissolved and returned to its usual state. Seven different people lay still, settled in deep concentration. Holly watched their chests rise and fall with every slow breath they took.

Have they left without me? Which worlds are they exploring? Will they wait for me?

Try harder, she ordered herself, I have to try harder.

Holly gripped her straight-edged knife and slid the brutally sharpened blade deeply across her already crisscrossed scarred skin. The release felt immediate, as a flash of pain bloomed into white-hot agony, causing her to gasp aloud. An almost euphoric feeling began inside her, it seeped through her belly and spread its curious warmth along her veins and limbs as she sweated profusely.

Holly tilted her head back and waited for her consciousness to rise and escape her earthly body. She focused every thought on the transcendence of boundaries, of lifting up, and of finally being rid of her worldly and heavy shackles.

The anchor she always felt, the one which weighed her to her mortal life, loosened slightly. The anchor’s chain lengthened and stretched as Holly took a careful single steady breath.

A groan from nearby jolted her and Holly’s eyes flew open.

No! I almost had it! I’m sure I almost had it.

Holly glanced down to see blood pouring from her freshest wound, she traced the line of red all the way to her toes as her tears fell. Overwhelmed with disappointment, she shivered and raised herself off the small single bed. She tiptoed carefully around the others in the room and left.

***

Holly had been a member of the secretive Kingdom of Pain for three years. Her first year had been spent deep in esoteric books, reading, and studying the works of their leader and charismatic group founder Leo. She’d devoured detailed books of occult workings, concentrated energy points of opening doorways, the collective power of the mind, astrology, ancient spells, ritual and techniques, chakras, auras. An exhaustive list of every way possible that might help her set her mind off wandering other universes. On paper, she had become an expert with her tireless study and knowledge.

Her second year had been spent in deep meditation and fasting, all to ready her body for astral traveling. She’d learned to focus, to breathe correctly, to develop her senses and reflexes to better experience the worlds unseen by most.

Her third year had so far been a failure – she was unable to do the one thing all but the newest initiates could do, invoke an out of body experience via self-inflicted pain and suffering.

The suffering aspect she had no problem with. Holly felt deep unmovable pain and guilt which bore down relentlessly each conscious moment.

Holly tried to walk straight to her shared dormitory room so she could think in peace, she kept her head down and ignored the eyes of the others who watched her, each waiting for their own turn in the transcendence room.

“Holly,” Miriam, Leo’s second in command, stepped briskly forward, “he wants to see you.”

Holly felt her stomach turn cold. “I need to clean my new cuts,” she replied, although she knew it was useless to argue.

Miriam shook her head and gripped her arm. She half pushed and half guided her to the closed office door and knocked.

“In,” Leo announced as Miriam pushed her forward.

“Leo, I…” Holly said.

“Sit,” he snapped as the door swung heavily shut behind her.

Holly crossed the book-lined room, walking with a confidence she didn’t feel across the plush red carpet and sat in a sturdy oak chair.

***

Holly had once described herself as utterly lost until she’d met Leo. She’d been homeless, with no real place to go. She’d walked into a free talk on metaphysics in the center of an old town she’d wandered into. At the time, she’d only wanted to escape the relentless cold outside and had been drawn in by the ‘Free coffee’ sign. After hearing the talk, she’d been hooked on Leo’s ideas and had dared to approach him. Leo had sensed she was lost… lost, and afraid. He’d found her suffering to be beautiful and something she could use to help propel her to elsewhere. He hadn’t sensed her permanent guilt, the guilt that chased her no matter how far or how quickly she ran.

Holly had only longed for somewhere to feel at home and to find someone who might consider her special. She’d wanted to stop running. Two weeks later, she’d moved into the Kingdom-owned house, an old rambling manor at the end of an even older street of pretty cottages in a tiny rural village.

“You left the room again. Why?” Leo asked, taking a seat across from her. In the last two years, Leo’s hair had turned a vibrant shade of white and his minor wrinkles had deepened to visible ridges. She stared back into the depths of his clever brown eyes and wondered if she should lie. Instead, she pushed the thought aside and felt sure he’d know if she spoke less than truthfully.

“I almost did it, I almost left my body,” she eventually told him. “I’m certain this time. But a noise from…”

“We work as a group here Holly, one unit. You know this,” he interrupted.

“I know, but if I could just try alone, in silence. Just for the first time.”

Leo frowned and closed his eyes. He considered this while Holly held her breath tightly. Her whole body felt far too tense, she knew what she was asking was against every rule she’d been taught so far. Only Leo knew how to traverse the other realms on his own, navigating them, he’d said, all by himself.

“You know my history, Holly. On my first travel, my very first, I was almost trapped in the void, in the endless. An eternal hell, a pit. My own soul, my Ka, everything that makes me who I am was almost lost in the perpetual fire. I was alone in Tibet and luckily, I found my way back.”

Holly nodded along, she’d heard the story a hundred times, “But Miriam, with her being a fetcher, a finder, I wouldn’t be lost for long.”

“Miriam’s skills are limited. She can only find those who haven’t wandered far and it’s at great risk to herself, I should add. Is it a chance you really want to take? We go as a group and look out for one another, so none are lost. Selfish behavior will not be tolerated.”

“But if I can’t achieve it, will I have to leave the house then?” she asked.

“My group is for those of exceptional talent only,” he said. “I’ve spent and dedicated my life to my perfect technique and now I choose to teach others. No use comes from those unable to body separate.”

They’ll kick me out, where will I go? I don’t have anyone on the outside, not anymore, Holly thought and lowered her eyes. She felt shame and tears well up, neither of which were allowed in the Kingdom. Any emotion that didn’t contribute to the transcendence of the body was strictly forbidden.

“Please can I have one more try? Just one,” she pleaded.

“The next travel is in two days. Prepare Holly, prepare, or pack your belongings. There are places of great wonder for those who have the talent and ability to see new worlds without eyes.”

“I want to see them, I do. So much Leo. I long for it. I hate this world,” she spat.

“That’s the wrong attitude to have. We use physical pain to shock and free our souls, emotional pain will prevent any travel. It’s a blockage in fact. Get a better handle on that temper of yours.”

“Okay,” she breathed, “I understand, thank you.”

The pain in Holly’s thigh worked to numb her feelings as she left. She headed upstairs quietly and straight into the showers. She turned the spray onto blue for cold and stood frozen, shivering under the water. When she felt sure no one was around, she crouched down and sobbed loudly, biting into her hands to stifle her forbidden sound of despair.

***

Holly dreamed a simple dream, the same one she’d had most nights for years. In the dream, her family was still alive, happy, and thriving. Holly and her two small sisters sat at the kitchen table, kicking each other underneath and laughing. Her parents stood cooking and smiling, while her mother hummed a gentle, soft, and familiar lullaby. Her dream was a half-remembered memory of the morning of the accident. The day of her sixteenth birthday, when their family car swerved from an old bridge into treacherous deep water, killing everyone in the car but Holly.

Holly had been the only one without a seatbelt to hold her. She’d escaped, swam to the surface, and was rescued by passers-by. Holly had been shuttled to relative after relative since no one had wanted her to stay with them. She’d been difficult and full of anger and fury. She hadn’t once felt at home in her life or comfortable in her own skin until she met Leo.

She woke and stretched, surprised to find it was still dark in the dorm room she shared. Several other women and two new initiates slept peacefully and silently while waves of dread swept over Holly. She felt a stab of envy at the others, the ones who could invoke astral travel with one deep cut of their skin.

She felt afraid, scared of being a failure, and terrified of being asked or even ordered to leave. I can’t face the real world, I just can’t. So that leaves one option, I can do it, I want to astral travel. I need to do it. Anything beats being here in my body. I know I can do it.

Holly had begun months before to also rely on the pain of cutting herself to escape the hurt she felt permanently etched across her heart. I have to do it, she told herself, and suddenly she knew exactly what to do. Holly had always followed the rules and steps perfectly, the directions written out by Leo, and his instructions that safety must always come first on out of body separation.

As quietly as possible, she crept from her small bed and out of the room.

If anyone sees me, I’ll say I need the bathroom or a drink of water.

Holly tiptoed downstairs, holding her breath the entire time. Ritual knives to use for invoking traveling were kept in the main transcendence room. So Holly sneaked into the kitchen and felt around in the dark for Miriam’s cooking salt and her sharpest chopping knife. Her hand landed on the familiar shapes with relief. She looked around, feeling certain someone was about to appear and catch her, but the house stayed entirely silent. She crept back upstairs with her secrets hidden in the folds of her nightgown. She sneaked along a hallway and entered the far bathroom, the small cold one hardly anyone used.

Harder than ever before, more painful than ever before, and you’ll be free. Holly’s thoughts sent a wave of pleasure through her. She longed to be free and craved it with a bitter passion.

She sat in the corner and took ten calming deep breaths, then ten more as she willed herself to relax. I can do this, I can do this, she chanted, pure belief is the very first step.

She held her knife in her familiar grip and sliced her arm savagely, each cut caused her to gasp out loud as the pain overwhelmed her. More Holly, more. Do it!

She’d been taught the best places to cut without serious harm but as a fire burned in her, she disregarded her lessons. She turned to her thigh and cut deeply. The blood flowed and pooled quickly onto the floor. With a final deep breath, she tipped the salt canister and poured the lot directly into her wound.

The pain flashed and sparked as she stifled a scream. Agony tore through her as she tried to think and remain clear. Her vision swam as she held on, willing her soul to escape if only for a moment. Holly felt a juddering, a spark of something other. Her vision switched to blackness as her heart thudded in her ears. A sensation and feeling of numbness spread as her whole body tingled. Holly felt on the precipice of something greater than herself, greater than anything she had ever imagined. The feeling faded in an instant and she opened her eyes.

Did I lose it again? I was so close!

Moonlight poured in through the small window and illuminated the bathroom to an almost black and white scene.

I’ve failed again, Holly thought, I need to clear this mess up now or I’ll be caught.

As soon as the image of standing popped into her head, she felt herself rise up. Up through the cracked ceiling, up through the highest bedroom where Leo lay asleep in his kingly luxury chamber. Up further and out through the roof, she flew free and light. The world had become several shades of grey with tiny pinpricks of light in a vast and endless sky.

I did it! I did it! I really did it!

Holly felt a wave of ecstasy, the most euphoric feeling she could have ever imagined. She twisted and somersaulted, unseen by human eyes, and amazed at her own ability and dexterity. She yearned to scream in delight and joy but found no sound came from her mouth. In the street below her, a tabby cat hunched itself up and hissed as it sensed her. Holly laughed with silent happiness and gracefully pushed herself along.

A thin, almost silver, translucent cord stretched from her belly and tethered her to her body. To Holly, it seemed as if it could stretch around the entire world twice with room to spare. For the first time in her life, she felt true complete bliss.

Numbers and quotes stood out, all written on the surface of the Kingdom’s roof. A brief memory of Leo’s words flashed across her mind, “for those who achieve out of body, commit the words and numbers on the roof to memory as proof.”

Holly giggled, she found she didn’t care what proof she had. She’d done it and nobody could take that away from her. She wasn’t a failure after all. Holly sped upwards, she felt as if she could touch the stars if she wished. She spiraled and twisted happily. Below her, thick trees stood solemn, lined up like tiny soldiers. A chimney blew a line of smoke up to meet her and Holly glided through the distinctive patterns the trail made. She pressed on and glided towards a small pond at the edge of the village, one she sometimes visited to feed a cluster of ducks. Holly hung still in the air. Across the pond spread a bright flame of blue and white, movement rippling slowly across, unburdened by the flames.

What is that? It’s moving? Is this my world still?

She dived deliberately lower and slammed her feet down as if she’d pressed invisible brakes. White flames flickered on the edge while a fierce blue burned in the center. A large, hunched shape moved back and forth across. With no warning, the shape reared up to stand at least eight feet tall. Weeds hung off it as it roared with its gargoyle-like face and revealed sharp brutal teeth. Shiny white orbs for eyes watched her steadily. Thick muscular arms, each with terrifying long claws moved to snatch her. Holly jolted in fear and sped away, up as far as she could go. Her breath burst out in ragged gasps, What was that? Where am I exactly?

Beside her, grey mist swarmed and swirled.Holly ran her arms through the haze in wonder.

Do I still look like me? I can still think and see, but I have no brain or eyes. I’m still me! I’m cold, how can I be cold with no body to feel with?

Questions tumbled over each other as Holly dashed further up, the cold became unrelenting and almost painful. Instinct made her stop sharply and stare around.

Four shadowy jet black gowned and hooded figures watched her progress, their gowns swayed as if in a gentle breeze only they could feel.

I know what they are! They’re shades, souls of the lost. Leo said they can’t hurt us, they vibrate differently, they can’t see me, she thought. Holly didn’t feel afraid, even as they began to circle her and one began to hum a half-familiar song.

What is that tune? A lullaby? What are they doing? Holly raised her arms in defense as each one took turns to grab at her.

“Stop! You can’t see me!” she tried to shout soundlessly as fear reared up inside of her.

Holly spun around wildly, she felt a sharp pull on the cord which held her as she started to panic blindly. One being held her cord, it pulled itself towards her as she felt the tugs in her stomach. Thick mottled blue hands scraped and clawed as it edged closer.

She willed herself back into her body uselessly as the other three shadows hissed and growled with rage. They began to spin and dance around her.

She pulled on her own cord repeatedly and shook it to loosen the being. It flew off with a snarl to join the others. Holly tried to will herself back to her body. The four shadows froze and began a high-pitched shriek and wail.

She clamped her hands over her ears desperately, her grip lost on her cord as she spiraled and tumbled out of control. She hit the nearest shadow and felt the solid impact, “Murderer,” it screeched before she bounced away.

What? Why is it saying that? How do I get back? I need to get back. I have to get away. I shouldn’t have come. Can I die? Can I die here? I don’t want to die.

“Killer,” a second shadow breathed. Holly felt her hair being brutally pulled, she kicked out and thrashed her arms.

She felt a burst of survival instinct and adrenaline, the powerful will to live. She aimed herself downward and dropped. She plummeted through the atmosphere at speed. The four beings gave chase, they were faster than her and raced down with practiced ease. They veered as one and blocked her path as a solid line. Holly dived to the side and saw blue and red lights shining like a beacon from the grey fog. With a jolt of happiness, she raced towards them.

“Murderer,” the biggest shade hit her full force in the chest. Holly groaned in pain and watched in despair as her cord snapped and twisted away. It fell to the ground in a shower of tiny sparks.

NO, NO, NO! Holly screamed silently. For all her studies, she didn’t know what it could mean. She tried to find the lights she’d seen and spun in circles. To Holly, everything looked like the same heavy grey mist, she couldn’t tell which way was up or down anymore.

There! her mind yelled. Almost swimming through the air, Holly followed the path to a barely-there blinking red light. She hit the roof of the Kingdom without a sound and watched the scene below her play out in horror. The house she’d lived in for three years stood illuminated by the lights of an ambulance and a solitary police car. She watched from up high as her own body was solemnly brought out on a stretcher, her form lay covered in a plain white sheet while Leo and Miriam stood watching from the doorway.

“Suicide,” she heard his muffled voice speak as if she were underwater, “she was a self-harmer, unfortunately.”

“NO! No, it wasn’t, I swear, it was an accident. Help me. Miriam can find me!” she shouted. Miriam shook her head and turned to move back inside, she stopped, took a step back, and assessed the night sky around her.

“I’m here!” Holly screamed, “I’m here!”

Pulled by Leo, Miriam stepped away. The heavy door closed with a resounding thud behind them.

Cold tears began to fall as her own translucent body shook rapidly.

What have I done? Oh my God, what have I done? Will she find me? I’ll wait. Is this hell? Am I in hell?

Four shadow figures set down without a sound behind her.

Holly dropped her head as she sensed them, she turned as the tallest one removed its hood. She didn’t need to see, she already knew who it was, her own father.

Her family stood in front of her, staring down with nothing but fury on their rotting and bloated putrid faces. The smallest one, her dead sister, spat a single stream of water in her direction.

“I’m sorry,” Holly mouthed and held up her hands, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean…”

Holly had been running for a long time, running from her own memories of the day her family was killed, of the day she yet again lost her temper in the car and yanked the steering wheel into the lake, fully intent on ending all of their lives.

“We’ve been waiting for you,” they hissed as one. Holly screamed a silent wail of terror as she became engulfed by a swarm of vengeful shadows.

***

The thing that used to be Holly wanders alone in the grey realm. It has a vague memory of what it was before, of what life was, and how it had chosen to live as a human being.

All it knows is pain and suffering. An endless bitter regret and despair. It travels a single realm, deeply in search of something it can never find, a way out. It knows that this is its eternity. Every shadow that crosses its path frightens it, it spends every moment afraid and terrorized. It does not know why, only that it is.

Repeatedly and without warning, a monstrous claw reaches from a burning abyss of fire and grabs it. It snatches it and holds it down in the water, while it writhes and thrashes, desperate for an escape.

The thing that used to be Holly can sense its existence is a punishment, it can sense its shame and damnation. It can sense it will remain in the grey forever.

H is for Hell is available for Kindle and in paperback here.

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