I’m Happy With My Current Provider Of Nightmares

You’re back.

I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m not surprised, not really. After all, you come here every night. Every single night for… huh, a whole year now. Should I say ‘Happy Anniversary’? No, that would be pointless. You never reply. You never say anything.

You’re just… there.

Once again it starts in a blink. One moment I am closing my eyes, focusing on the darkness to lull my brain into sleep, then I wake up on my right side. Not once have I ever fallen asleep in that position, yet it’s always that side I wake up on. My cheek is pressed into the pillow, my right hand beside it and my eyes facing my bedside cabinet. It’s dark, but my eyes are so used to this sight that they adjust quickly, soon able to make out the shape of my porcelain doll, her pale skin giving off an almost hypnotic glow.

What time do you come? The clock is on the other side of the room, and I can never turn over to look at it.

Not while your hands are holding me down.

One is wrapped around my right wrist.

One is spread across my scalp.

And one is… is… is that one even real? There are no marks in the morning, no blood, and no stains, yet I feel it.

I feel… I feel it g-gripping my spine.

It’s tight. A tight squeezing sensation that should hurt… but all I feel is numb, as if I’ve been petrified.

I’ve heard of sleep paralysis demons, but the story always goes that they sit on top of you, staring at you… not keeping you turned away. At first, I fought back. Why wouldn’t I? I was so sure you were holding me down to do something. Hurt me in some way, tear me apart… anything.

But you didn’t. And you haven’t. Even now you… are… just…

What was that sound?

There was a thump. Must be one of the neighbours, it sounded distant, and sound does travel weirdly in this building. It’s strange though, strange for them to be moving around this late. Saying that I don’t know how late it is; you still won’t let me look at the clock.

What is it you want?

Night after night you do this. I wake up to find you here, holding me down with no change. And you disappear as quickly as you arrive. A blink and you’re there, a blink and you’re gone! I don’t feel like I sleep at all, but I must have done; it’s morning when you’re gone.

What are you?

A demon?

A hallucination?

A nightmare?

All I can see is the hand on my wrist. It’s dark but… is that skin? It looks more like a shadow, or a shape cut out of a picture. I can’t see any texture, any features, and all I feel is… that heavy numbness. You might as well be solid nothingness! And that’s all I can see of you. I don’t know what your face looks like, do you even have a face? You never talk. You’re silent and cold and… horrible.  

But you know what?

The only thing worse than you being here is how familiar your presence has become. My nights are incomplete without a visit, without those unsettling sensations and nothing I do changes anything. Therapy, medication… sleep deprivation. None of them have any effect. It’s just part of my life. Almost a comfort in how rout- what was that?!

A sound!

A-another sound, louder this time. That wasn’t a thump, it sounded like… like a footstep? Outside? My flat is on the top floor, and I live alone, but I’m sure that sound came from the hall. No! No that can’t be right, I must be imagining things. Still, I wish I could check… ugh, no. You won’t let me move even for this, will you?

Ok, I must calm down. Take a deep breath Erika, take a deep breath.

In.

And out.

In.

And out.

I know that sound travels strangely, and you’re just making me tense. Heck maybe you’re doing this on purpose, eh? Making me paranoid all this time then suddenly projecting noises everywhere like some fucked up ventriloquist? Hehe, good trick.

In.

And out.

That sound was nothing.

There’s nothing there.

There’s nothing there.

Growling.

Faint. Low. Growling.

….

My bedroom door is locked. That gives me time to call the police, hide under my bed or maybe the wardrobe; wardrobe might be better as it also has a lock. I just have to get the phone off my desk.

My desk.

On the other side of my room.

If I could… just… wriggle… away…

Please let go.

The growls are getting louder, and there’s scratching now too. You can hear them, can’t you? Surely you can hear them. I know you can hear them! You know there’s something here as well as I do, something that could be dangerous! But I can’t do anything about it if I can’t move! Please jus- ARGH!

Why are you doing this?

My free limbs try to move and… jerk. Jerk and jolt, my body contracting in on itself over and over and over again. My eyes are itching with every twitch, but even crying is too hard. You’re keeping me numb! All the while those sounds outside are getting louder, I must move but the heaviness of your grip keeps forcing me still! My spine… my spine… your grip so tight. Are you tugging it back or is that just because I’m moving away? Why are you so determined to stop me? Why won’t you let me save myself?

It’s breathing.

That… thing outside is breathing.

Why can I hear it breathing?

What is it?

What does it want?

Please I am begging you, let me move! You’ve been coming here all these nights with no change, so surely there’s a reason for that! Surely you have a purpose for being here and keeping me like this! Do you need me for something? Are you getting something from this? Because whatever’s out there could stop that! It could take me away from you! It could hurt me! It could kill me!

PLEASE DON’T LET IT KILL ME!

That’s the doorknob.

Rattling.

Jittering.

It’s trying to get in!

No.

No.

No no.

No no no no no no no NO NO NO NO NONONONONO!

My mind is trying fight, to force my body into moving, but that weight of nothingness just keeps pushing me down into the bed. The only thing going is my heart, pounding so hard and fast I feel it could burst out of my chest! I just… ugh! Ugh! I felt you move! Your fingers… in my hair… curling… so you can move? Then move! Let me!

ARGH! No! Not like that! Stop squeezing my spine! The spasm is stronger, but I still can’t shift so much as a centimetre across the bed.

Can’t get up.

Can’t turn over.

I just… keep… trying….

Oh god! If my bones strain any harder my limbs will surely pop out of my sockets! Why doesn’t this hurt? It’s supposed to hurt! All I feel is that… that t-tension running through every inch of me! What have you done to my nerves? Why can’t I feel properly?!

Don’t panic! Don’t panic! Deep breaths Erika!

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Out.

In.

Out!

In.

In.

In…

That thing outside won’t shut up.

Scratching and rattling and scratching and rattling and scratching and I CAN’T STAND THIS NOISE!

Please do something! Please let me do something! I’ll keep you! I’ll never try to get away again! I can handle your horrible numbness and your hands forcing me down! I can cope with you! I know you and I’m happy to stay with you if that’s what you want so please please please help me! Don’t let it get me! Don’t let-

… oh god…

… that… that click…

… that was the lock.

//

This… this is an interesting one for me.

The story is one I’ve had in mind for ages but I’ve always struggled getting it down into a full piece. It was inspired by two of the scariest experiences I’ve had plus a bit of my experience with depression, so it’s more personal than what I usually write and because of that I don’t know how well I’ve been able to translate that fear for general readers. But it’s down, shorter than my usual pieces but I’m happy that it’s down and it’s always good to put up a new horror piece.

Fun fact, the title was a quote from this Markiplier video (it stuck in my head instantly and I’ve always wanted to write a story based on it) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ck8_rccTBXg

And here’s the itch.io link – https://anmanarrative.itch.io/im-happy-with-my-current-provider-of-nightmare

Jonah’s Purchase – Respect The Bloody Coin (Episode 1)

Another chunk of blood was coughed onto the track.

Jonah clutched his chest, his strained gasps echoing throughout the tunnel as he hobbled forward, his left leg bloodied and limp. A pickaxe swung from his other hand, the tip dragging a crooked line through the dirt. The lanterns above caused his shadow to extend before him, its shape malformed with every jerky step. He could feel his bones growing heavy, desperate to collapse in exhaustion.

But the distant growls kept him going.

For years, the beasts had been a constant presence, picking off anyone stranded and alone at night, but never had they been so aggressive. No longer a lone shape in the darkness, now they hunted in packs with an almost sadistic ferocity. Jonah was sure it was because of that vicious old coot Marcus; strange chanting could be heard from the caves night after night, and more of his grotesque charms were being strung up than ever before. At first it was just the miners at risk, disrupting their already dangerous work, but then they started going for the village itself. Jonah and his team had fought tooth and nail just to keep safe, and sometimes they were able to hold the monsters back long enough for everyone to hide away.

Every day made it harder.

Then, coming back to see his home in ruins with no sign of life, a flush of rage ran through him. He’d rushed down into the shaft without a second thought, grabbing his pickaxe with the intention of killing every single monster in his path. First, he would clear the mine, then he would go to the caves and finally kill Marcus.

Three went down before his courage left him.

He dragged himself around a corner, leaning against the support beam to try and catch his breath. At last, he’d reached the beginning of the track, a cart still laden with ore and jewels waiting to be pushed. His dark eyes dragged over the scene, taking in the discarded tools, scattered chunks of ore… and shreds of blood-stained clothing.

Knuckles whitening, a lump forming in his throat, Jonah choked out “… I’m sorry… I’m s-so sorry…”

“Looking for a trinket?”

The high voice cut through the silence, causing Jonah’s head to jerk around in response.

There, tucked into a corner of the cavern… was a stall.

Tall and made of polished ebony, covered with an embroidered canvas of vivid green and blue flowers, small bells adorning the edge. The front tray was covered in jars, bottles, boxes, and an assortment of herbs. Jewels and unrecognisable devices cluttered shelves along the side, while weapons lined the back with their edges glinting in the lantern’s flame; swords, daggers, maces, and bows. Manning the stall was a green skinned goblin, bright yellow eyes poking over a hooked nose. The creature, standing at only around three feet, was perched on the edge of the front tray, garbed in a blue tunic with a white sleeveless robe over the top. A flat cap the same shade as the tunic rested on her head, with a white veil underneath; this gave the illusion of a sheet of white hair.

The colourful garments and multitude of strange items contrasted starkly with the dark, earthy tones of the mine, but nothing was more out of place than her bright, cheerful smile.

“… y-you… you’re still here?” Jonah hissed, a burst of pain running up his leg as he dragged it over to the stall.

“O’course Jonah! Ya didn’t think I’d abandon my best customer, did ya?” She chuckled, her nasally tones reverberating against the empty walls.

Jonah flinched at the sound, turning back to the tunnel with his pickaxe raised.

Nothing.

But he knew the beasts were still around.

“What the fuck are you thinking? This is the worst place to be right now, don’t you know what’s down here?”

She tilted her head, long ears twitching as she responded “Dearie, I know damn well what’s down here. And I’ve got to say I’m impressed with how ya’ve been handling those furry beasties! Keep it up and I’ve no doubt ya’ll end up a local leg-”

“CUT THE CRAP RAYNE!” There was a crack as Jonah’s fist thumped the stall, his features twisting as he stared at her. “Look, you’ve been appearing everywhere lately! You must know how bad things have gotten… how many of us are g-gone. Yet you’re still alive! And you’ve got all… all this!” He swept a desperate hand over the tray, his face twisted in a contortion of fury and desperation. “Can’t you do anything?!”

“… tut tut.” Rayne’s smile never faded throughout his tirade, though her eyes narrowed as she continued. “Ya know I’m just a humble merchant working for the monies. But my services are always open to ya… if ya wish?”

The two watched each other, both unblinking and unwilling to look away.

Insects scuttled along the dirt, while the lantern flame continued to flicker. Jonah had gripped his pickaxe more tightly as he contemplated, not for the first time, taking a swing at this mysterious merchant; how badly he wanted to wipe that calm grin off her face. But the pain in his leg, the faint rumble of the nearby monsters, and the will to survive, made him instead reach into his pocket. A small selection of coins, gems and scraps of metal soon clattered onto the tray.

“This is all I can carry. I need to heal. Fast.”

Rayne ran her fingers through the treasures, selecting a rough emerald and rolling it back and forth. She squinted, ears twitching and tapping her fingernail against its surface before chuckling to herself. Then she selected a bottle full of red liquid, holding it out for Jonah to take.

“Quickest brew I’ve got, should mend those bones good and proper.”

He snatched the bottle from her mottled fingers, popping the cork and downing the potion in one go. A flush of heat rushed through him within seconds. He jerked, feeling muscle stitch and bones snap back into place. The pain was still there, but his mobility was back, and with it a renewed sense of vigour.

Time to make those bastards pay.

“Safe travels Jonah!”

A grunt was all the acknowledgement he gave Rayne as he turned towards the western tunnel, following the sloping ground, and pulling his weapon close to his chest. He gritted his teeth, determined to take down as many monsters with him as he could. If he could get to Marcus then he would, but now he’d settle for raising hell. He even managed to force a smile, dragging in one more breath before turning the corner.

He felt the teeth before he saw them.

*

Rayne listened to the sounds of tearing flesh for a few minutes.

Then she hopped the stall, strolling along the tunnel until she came across the limp mess of blood and flesh that used to be Jonah.

Ripping into it was a tall beast, covered in shaggy grey fur with a long, curved snout; the snout was now dripping crimson. It looked up at her, green eyes narrowing and shoulders tensing as it prepared to strike. Rayne pulled out a gold coin from her pocket, half stained red with blood; the image of a dagger with two flowers and a ring on the blade was engraved upon it. The beast nearly leapt into a pounce but shuddered to a stop when it caught sight of the coin. It hesitated, bouncing slightly on its heels as if wanting to keep moving, before reluctantly backing away with a petulant growl.

Satisfied with this reaction, Rayne knelt to examine the bloody remains.

“… Bugger.”

She sighed, returning to the stall as the beast once more set about devouring Jonah’s corpse. The back canvas was pulled aside to reveal another sloping tunnel, much steeper than the one she had just come from and with no visible source of light. The darkness did not impede Rayne from walking confidently along, ears twitching every so often as she listened for the sound of voices.

Sure enough, three of them could be heard behind a curtain of fur. 

She ducked inside to find a tall cavern, illuminated by glowing crystals. Stood in the middle were three figures, gathered around a wooden table in deep conversation. The table was strewn with jewels, tools, and several bottles of spirits. One was a dwarf, dressed in a brown leather coat over a chainmail dress, her bushy black beard braided down to her knees. Beside her sat a dryad, towering over the others with pale brown skin the texture of bark, while long green tresses all but covered her face, trailing down to the ground; small pink buds hung delicately on the ends. The last of them was a naga, sat on a pile of his own orange and black scales. His yellow eyes bugged out, looking too big for his head, while his fangs protruded from his mouth.

Rayne stopped a few paces away from the group, letting out a sharp whistle. The three stopped talking, turning to look at her inquisitively.

“Jonah’s dead.”

Nothing happened for several moments. All three stared at Rayne, their expressions wide and their mouths opened.

Then the dwarf let out a loud guffaw “Ha! I knew it! Pay up you big tree!”

The dryad sighed, passing a jingling bag to the smirking dwarf before adding in a deep voice “Ugh, I was so certain he would last longer. How did you know Bernice?”

“Lesson number one Willow; the more of a hero complex they have, the more that’s going to bite them in the ass!”

“Tell me he at least died to one of the alphas.” The naga hissed, shuffling to the side as Rayne jumped onto the table.

“No such luck Adaro.” Rayne replied, grabbing the nearest bottle, and taking a long drink. “Random beastie jumped him right after he heeled up. Shame, seemed to still have some fire in him.”

With a low mutter Adaro snatched the bottle off her, taking a swig himself. “Fuck’s sake, and here I thought Helena was a disappointment. At least she went down to a pack!”

The bottle was passed around a few more times, the group listening to details of Jonah’s death and comparing notes of other people they had come across. Soon enough two more figures entered the cavern. One was a tall human with coal-black skin and dark brown eyes, clothed in a yellow robe with a longsword on his back, while the other was a squat man with a hooked nose and pointed ears; they were similar in shape to Rayne’s, but his skin was an almost translucent white.  

“Things have been incredibly quiet up there boss, and Marcus is starting to get cocky. I don’t think he’ll play by the rules for long.” The black man said, to which the other man nodded in reply.

“True, let’s hope Talia gets back soon with news.” He looked towards the table, raising an eyebrow at the four figures. “You’re all down here now? How dead is business?”

“Dead as Jonah.” The dwarf laughed, earning a playful punch from the Dryad as she did so.

“Damn, he was one of the last real survivors out there. Looks like we are going to have to move out.”

Rayne groaned, her nose wrinkling as she did so. “Don’t tell me we’ve got to go on the circuit again, I liked settling down!”

“Better the circuit than this godforsaken mine; I would give anything for some sunlight.”

“You know if Bernice can’t deal with it then it must be bad.” Willow commented. “There has to be somewhere we can go.”

“There’s always Parthon?” The black skinned man took the bottle from Rayne, draining it in one gulp.

“No. Sorry Kanza, but I am not spending another night with those self-righteous, judgemental idiots.”

“Damn right sister.” Bernice banged her fist on the table, knocking down the remaining bottles with a clatter as she did so.

“Just a suggestion, no need to take it out on the drink.”

The group exploded into a roar of laughter, even the boss chuckling along. “Well, let’s at least see how the haul has stacked up.”

All of them began pulling out an assortment of coins, jewels, figures, and devices, earning an approving grunt from their leader. They were picked through, sorting the fake from the genuine and shares were divided between them, while the remaining dregs of alcohol were glugged down. Half an hour passed before a loud squawk caught their attention, the group look up to the ceiling.

A harpy, blue feathers glistening in the light of the crystals soared down to join them, a satchel wrapped around her. She landed on the ground beside the boss, giving his ear an affectionate nip as she did so. “Hi papa, got some letters here.”

“Perfect timing darling, we will be moving on soon.” He took the envelopes from her, sifting through them and scanning the letters with his eyes. The others watched in anticipation, all but holding their breath as they waited. Soon a grin spread across his face. “Oh, we have hit the jackpot! My fellow guild members, what would you say about a new place currently going through a bit of a civil war. With the added bonus of an invading force… and a necromantic criminal underworld?”

The cheering ricocheted off the cavern walls, all of them laughing and whooping with unrestrained excitement. Kanza and Adaro both slapped the table hard. Bernice jumped to her feet, chainmail rattling as she danced a jig, Willow soon clapping along. Talia tried to copy the dwarf’s movements, her wings beating gusts of wind across the group. Rayne was the first to ask, “Where we going boss?!”

“Akmens.”

This only made the excitement grew. “The city? That place is huge! We could make a fortune there!”

“And we will!” The boss stood up, hands on his hips and a smirk on his lips. “Pack it up everyone, we set off at first light! First impressions are important after all, and we’ve got some important folks to meet if we’re gonna set up shop. And remember,” He pulled a gold coin out of his pocket, with the same design and blood stain of Rain’s. “Respect the bloody coin!”

All of them pulled out their own identical coins, holding them up in a circle, the metal shimmering under the crystal light. 

“RESPECT THE BLOODY COIN!”

//

Decided to start a new fantasy series, inspired by the merchants of Resident Evil 4 and Resident Evil Village (notably that line from Duke indicating he knew the merchant). It’s going to be more of a typical fantasy setting (still dark fantasy though) and a bit more story-focused than Demon Skinned Postwoman, though the characters will still be the main driving force. I am loving being able to create a new world and cast, and hopefully it won’t be long before the next one is up.

Also I am stupidly proud of the title ‘Respect The Bloody Coin’; definitely the best title I have ever come up with.

Here’s the itch.io link – https://anmanarrative.itch.io/respect-the-bloody-coin-episode-1-jonahs-purchase

The Walking Nest – Demon Skinned Postwoman (Episode 5)

The ‘thank you’ was a nice touch, as was the hint about the gorilla-dinosaurs. And considering the directions Jen usually got were short and vague, this note was like having GPS again. True it was an area she wasn’t familiar with, but that was nothing new. She had been convinced that, other than the distance, this was going to be one of her most straightforward deliveries.

Except nobody was here.

She bit her lip, tucking the envelope away and opening her mouth to shout “HELLO? HELLO? ANYBODY? … Post is here?”

Nothing.

The station was, like every other human structure, in a state of ruin. The stops were still intact, though most were now covered with leather or cloth, creating a scattered series of makeshift tents. There were four buses remaining, two still upright and in decent condition; they almost looked drivable. If it weren’t for the web of eyeballs covering the controls, she would have tried the ignition. The other two were on their side, one of them leaning into the exposed wall of an oblong building with a tree trunk of twisting limbs stretching up to the top floor.  

She hadn’t had chance to explore the building yet, as her focus had been on the tents.

Someone had been living here, that much was obvious. The tents showed signs of wear, and what items remained were all in disarray. There were the remains of a fire pit, a few broken tools and some personal items; one eyeless teddy bear peaked out at her from a nearby drain. She even came across one tent with a small stockpile of unopened tins, the labels all faded.

Pity I don’t have a rucksack. The thought lasted a moment before it was eclipsed by I didn’t really just consider stealing these did I? That’s a shitty thought Jen, what if someone comes back?

Her eyes drifted down to a scuff mark on the ground, crouching down to run her fingers across it.

This was a problem. Unless somebody was hiding in the building or in a secret underground bunker she didn’t know about, there was no way she could deliver the letter. If this had been another dead letter she could go home, but so far she hadn’t come across any bodies or even blood. And the lack of damage told her that whoever was here may have just left, meaning that they were still out there somewhere. But she had no way to find them… leaving her with a letter she couldn’t do anything with.

At least when this happened before I could take it back to the post office. I had a whole team to help me there.

She sighed, standing up from her crouch.

“AGH! Oh shit oh shit oh shit! Cramp cramp cramp! Fucking hell that hurts!”

Jen doubled over as the cramp ran up her left leg, curses continuing to pour from her lips. She hadn’t dared to stand fully upright until now, hovering in a near constant half-crouch to keep up her disguise in case she came across a demon. Though as she stood there in the abandoned bus station, silent except for her own swearing, Jen considered that maybe this time she could have afforded to be a little less cautious.

That’s when the ground rumbled.

She stumbled, gripping the nearest tent-flap and hissing through a fresh wave of pain. The shaking stopped almost as soon as it started, giving Jen just enough time to steady herself before another one rolled through the ground. Each tremble was stronger than the last but all of them were short, more like giant footsteps than an earthquake. Jen had seen her fair share of large demons, Mama herself was a perfect example, but she had yet to meet any that could star in their own kaiju film.

The tremors stopped.

A few more minutes passed but still nothing.

Then she heard flapping. Faint but still clearly flapping.   

Jen dropped back down to all fours, slowly this time to not exacerbate the fading cramps, and crouched down behind one of the tents. Her head raised just enough to peek out, peering first towards the statue and then to the area behind it. She had taken notice of the area before but hadn’t bothered to explore as there was no sign of any tents or other settlements there. The space seemed to be the remnants of a shopping park there; small buildings, empty stalls and a vast car park, overshadowed by a tall, black dome.

She blinked.

Black dome? That wasn’t there before.   

A small flicker made her sink further into cover, squinting through the eye sockets of her mask. Something was moving between the stalls. It was difficult to make out the details from this distance, but the shape was too thin to be one of the dinosaur gorillas mentioned in the note. As it came further into view, she could make out at least four thin legs curling and stretching their way through the rubble, attached to a long body. The movements were slow and deliberate, like a spider crawling across its web. Every so often it would stop, bending down and extending something long from its body. Whatever the appendage was, it pawed at ground before retracting as quickly as it had appeared. Then the creature would move on and repeat the process. The creature appeared to be looking for something, perhaps hunting or scavenging.

It was fascinating to watch… but also concerning. The spider demon was going about its business in a leisurely manner and was far enough away that Jen could feasibly sneak away. The tents provided enough cover if she kept low, though her muscles protested at the thought of more crouching, and it wouldn’t take that much effort to circle back to the tracks and head home. That would be the sensible option, but Jen still wanted to explore the main station building. She couldn’t shake the feeling that there might be people in there, or at least some clue as to where they had gone.

Her fingers slipped into her pouch, feeling the thick envelope nestled within and sucking a breath in between her teeth.

“Ok… ok… don’t panic… just start moving…”

One step. Then another. Slow, steady and with frequent breaks to keep an eye on the spider-demon, Jen started to inch her way to the building. The demon was also getting closer, though at a far slower pace than her and with no indication it even knew she was there. Another look revealed it had reached the statue, still seemingly examining every inch it came across.  

Is it alone? I thought I heard flapping earlier, but maybe that-

An ear-splitting screech ripped through her eardrums, echoing with force of a loudspeaker. She clutched her ears through the mask, twisting to see a small demon hovering above her. It fixed her with a pair of glassy bug-eyes and what looked like a trunk was pointing upwards, continue to emit that loud shriek. There was no attempt to attack, in fact the demon was keeping a fair distance, but it refused to keep quiet.

A worrying thought made Jen look back towards the statue, seeing that the spider-demon was now looking in their direction. Then it scuttled forward.

“Nope!”

She scrambled to her feet, claws scraping loudly on the ground as she started dashing towards the building. The shrieking of the bat demon was cut off in an odd yelp, as if it wasn’t expecting her to move so quick. As she dashed towards the building she zig-zagged; a tactic she’d seen other rat-heads use to escape their predators, even tearing down a few of the ragged tents to create more obstacles between her and the spider. The maneuver proved more successful than expected; by the time she had pulled herself onto one of the overturned buses, the spider-demon has its legs tangled in a scrap of fabric. She dropped down to grab a chunk of rubble, lobbing it at the creature with enough force to knock it back a few paces.

Grinning in triumph, Jen turned her attention back to the building. The limb trunk had blocked up any gaps on the ground floor, with no door visible. Her only option was to start climbing, jamming her claws into the flesh to keep her grip. It wasn’t easy; the flesh was moist and sticky with blood, fighting her progress upwards. Her lungs burned and her muscles screamed at her, eventually forcing her to dismount onto the first floor rather than the top floor as intended. She dropped into a heap, moaning as she forced herself onto her knees, already searching for a method of escape or attack.

Her search was soon interrupted by another shriek, the bat demon flying towards her from a shattered window. In a fit of fear and frustration she found herself yelling “OH SHUT UP WILL YOU!”

To her surprise it did, nearly falling from the air as it did so.

“What did you say?”

“I SAID SHU- Wait, you can talk?”

“Of course I can talk!” The demon exclaimed, his voice high and nasally as he continued “Since when can you talk?”

“What do you mean since…. Oh.” In that moment, Jen remembered that rat-heads didn’t speak. She was thankful for the mask hiding her embarrassed blush, unable to believe she had given herself away with such a stupid move.

Both of them regarded each other, neither making a move until eventually the demon asked “Seriously when did this happen? I’ve never heard any of you scavengers make a peep before.” The tone was more curious than angry, the demon cocking his one side and watching her like she was in a zoo.  

“I’m not really like the others. Look, I don’t want any trouble here. Is there any chance you’d be willing to let me slip out the back? Maybe?”

The glassy eyes narrowed at this. “So you can alert the rest of your pack?”

“What? No. I don’t have a pack.”

“Come off it, everyone knows you beasts travel in packs! You’re gonna go running off to them so you can ambush us!”

“That’s not… why would I ambush you? I don’t know who you are, all I want to return home without getting killed!”

“Then why were you spying on us?”

“I was trying to leave! You’re the one who gave up my position so your buddy could hunt me down!”

“We’re not hunting you, we thought you were attacking!”

“WELL I’M NOT!”

“NEITHER ARE WE!”

Their shouts echoed in the empty building, bouncing from wall to wall as they faded into nothing. Jen was panting, clutching her chest while maintaining eye-contact with the demon. His wings were flapping much faster now, and his trunk had flared every time he raised his voice. Neither of them dared make a move, and the silence was only broken when a new voice called out from a nearby stairwell.  

“Soar? You ok Soar?”

Her whole body grew tense, a tightness curling around her spine as she waited to see what Soar would do. He still watched her, making a little huffing sound with his trunk before finally calling out “Y-yeah, I’m fine. I’m in here.”

Jen let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding, getting to her feet “Ok, Soar, let’s clear this up. I don’t wanna kill you and you don’t wanna kill me… I hope. All I want is to finish doing my job and head home, I swear I won’t get in your way. Please can we just put this behind us and go about our business?”

“Hmm.” Soar cocked his head again, daring to edge a little closer and dropping down until they were at eye level. “You said that before, what do you mean by ‘job’? What kind of job can one of you creatures do?”

“Um, you see… It’s uh… Fuck’s sake, I don’t have a good excuse for this so I’m just going to be honest.”

Grasping both jaws from her mask, she pulled them apart as wide as they could go. Her human face was now clearly visible, still flushed red with emotions and a thin sheen of sweat. Soar stared at her, his eyes bugging out as if they were going to pop, while his trunk twitched. She felt like she should say something, explain or break the tension, but words failed to appear and the two ended up in another awkward staring contest.

“Soar are you alright… in… here?”

Both turned at the same time to the top of a nearby stairwell, seeing the spider-demon stood there. Up close she noticed that their front two legs were longer than the back two, allowing them to stand almost upright. Jen also made out a multitude of slits covering their torso and head, not like scars but more like gills without the movement. Their face was made up of three amber eyes, two in the usual place and one where a nose would be on a human, with a thin mouth stretching wide from right to left. The eyes were currently blinking, fixed on her with the same expression of shock that Soar had.

“… You, uh, got something stuck in your throat?”

The snort left Jen before she could stop it, a hand flying up to smother the giggles that followed. It wasn’t the funniest joke in the world, she wasn’t sure if it was even meant as a joke, but she rarely heard demons make such comments. And it was a welcome relief of tension all around. The spider grinned in response and even Soar seemed to relax, fluttering over to balance on the stair railing before asking “What took you so long Tegan?”

“I came in from the back in case they tried to sneak out. Seriously though, what am I looking at?”

“No idea, but I don’t think she’s dangerous.”

Shaking her head as the last few chuckles faded, Jen looked over and pointed to the lower jaw of her mask. “This is a disguise, I’m actually human; the head is a mask and the skin is a suit. It’s a survival tactic… which today hasn’t been a good example of.”

Both demons glanced at each other, Soar only looking more bewildered while Tegan had an amused smirk as they commented “I just hope the poor bugger was dead when you skinned it. Is this a common human practise?”

“No. Well…” The image of a fur coat her Grandma often wore came to mind, but she decided it really wasn’t the time to start discussing old fashion trends. “As far as I’m aware I’m the only one doing this.”

“Hold up,” Soar said, hopping up and down on his makeshift perch to get her attention. “If you’re human, does that mean you know where the other humans are?”

She blinked, surprised at this line of questioning. “No, I was looking of them when you arrived. Why?”

“Trade.” Tegan straightened up, flexing their many jointed legs. “You humans are a strange lot, but you’ve come up with some useful bits; medicine in particular. Plus, Orett insists we stop at every single settlement just so she can add to her collection.”

“I see. What do you give them?”

“Food mostly, occasionally a tool or trinket.”

“Huh.” Jen hadn’t heard of this arrangement before. No human she had visited ever mentioned trading with demons, in fact most still saw them as viscious monsters. Mama was open to talking to humans but still advised Jen to stay out of the way when parents came to collect their children, often with good reason. Maybe these two, or group considering their mention of someone called ‘Orett’, were an exception. “Fair enough. Well I’m not here to trade. I’ll see if I can find any signs of the people who lived here, then I’ll head home.” She hesitated before adding “Are still agreed on the not attacking each other thing?”

Soar nodded, taking to the air once more. “Yeah, we’re agreed. Sorry about that.”

“Me too. And uh, Tegan?” The spider cocked their head. “Sorry about throwing stuff at you earlier.”

“Eh, no harm done. It was an impressive shot from that distance.”

“Hehe, thanks.”

“Now that’s dealt with,” Soar turned to Tegan. “we’d better head back to the nest. If we’re too long Orett’ll get restless and start exploring; Aarde will kill us if she brings back another one of those fluffy blocks.”

With that Soar fluttered down the stairs, not even giving a backwards glance. Tegan turned to follow suit but then turned to look back at Jen. A thin tentacle slid out from one of the slits in their neck, giving her a little wave before retreating as the spider disappeared.

“… huh.”

She listened to the fading sound of footsteps, then started to look around.

The building showed no more signs of life than the tents outside, though once again a few scuffs and objects in disarray suggested the possibility of a quick getaway. No notes though, no maps or directions or anything that might tell her where they went. The top and ground floor proved just as fruitless as the first. Jen pulled out the letter again, scanning the instructions for any hidden message, any missed words that might tell her where to go. But there was nothing.

“Sorry, looks like it’ll be a while before you get delivered… if you ever do.”

A hurried second search proved no better than the first, so she finally went back outside, finding the back door that Tegan had entered. It was starting to rain outside, that oddly warm rain that felt more like stepping into a shower than any of the freezing downpours she’d known before the melds.

“Find anything?”

She let out a strained squeak, hand clutching her chest as she turned to see Tegan a few feet away, leaning their front legs against a pile of rubble.

“No. And thanks for the heart-attack.” They chuckled, walking over while Jen added “I don’t supposed you’ve noticed anything?”

Two tentacles slipped from either side of their torso, giving a shrugging motion. “Not really, though I’m not sure what I’d be looking for.”

“I was hoping for more of a scent trail?”

“I’m not an expert but I think” One of the tentacles stretched towards her and tapped the snout of her mask. “that might be this beasts speciality.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Nice to know sarcasm transcends species. Why are you still here anyway? I thought Soar said you needed to leave.”

“Soar is doing a final fly over, and I thought I’d sift through to see if there’s anything worth taking back. There isn’t, even if Orett would disagree.” They kicked at an old timetable as if to make their point. “But we should be heading off, we need to head to the crater lumps soon; plus it’d be nice to get the milk before the next flare.”

“Have fun with that. Bye Tegan.”

“Bye skin-walker.”

“Even if we never see each other again, I’d prefer you call me by my name. Which is Jen, by the way.”

Another low chuckle rumbled from their throat. “As you wish… Jen.”

Jen shook her head as the two turned away from each other. She’d made it a dozen paces before stopping, her eyebrows knitting together as something began niggling at the back of her mind.

“Crater lumps… milk… Hey! Hold up!” Tegan turned at the sound of her voice, their neck twisting nearly a hundred and eighty degrees. “Any chance you’re heading to Mama’s hut? Tall demon? Lots of breasts? Surrounded by screaming infants?”

“… Yes, you know her?”

“Actually, I live with her. I mean she said her kind live really far from each other so I’m assuming we mean the same Mama.” All three eyes had narrowed, flicking down over her as if she were being examined. “What?”

“… Are you a child?”

“No! What? Why would you think that?”

“I don’t know how you humans age, and I’ve never heard of a Mama taking in an adult before.”

“That doesn’t automatically make me a child! Ok she calls me child, but she calls a lot of people that; it’s just what she’s like. I can assure you that I am 100% an adult and have been for several years.” The wide mouth was curling ever so slightly, and Jen was suddenly aware of how strange her last comment was. She shook her head before continuing “The point I was making is that I think we’re going in the same direction.”

“Oh, I see. In that case, do you want a ride?”

Jen blinked. “A ride?”

“Hehe, follow me. Although fair warning, Orett is going to go crazy when she meets you.”

“Is she dangerous?”

Tegan remained silent for several minutes. “… no.”

“You don’t sound very certain.”

“She won’t try to kill you, none of us will, but she will bombard you with questions until you wish for death.”

“Ah… ok. I think I can handle that.”

The two of them picked their way through the abandoned campsite, moving past the statue and towards the shopping park. They were getting closer to the black dome, and as she followed Tegan Jen noticed it wasn’t a dome at all. It was a giant insect. The dome shape came from a large shell on its back, similar to that of a snail but without the swirls and coloured an obsidian black. She couldn’t tell how many legs the creature had as there seemed to be several of them dug into the earth itself, but the head was narrow, its nose curling upwards into a horn. She saw only two eyes, large grey ones that blinked sleepily at her.

“Woah.”

“Hehe. Welcome to the Walking Nest. Don’t be nervous, she’s very docile.” To prove their point, Tegan gave the nose-horn a gentle pet. A low rumble sounded from the creature, strong enough to send a vibration through the ground but sounding like a purring cat.

It was oddly cute.

“There you are Tegan! Let’s go, Aarde wants us gone before… oh, hello again.”

“Hi Soar.” She said, smiling at the bat-demon fluttering down towards them.

“Turns out Jen here lives with Mama; figured she might as well come with us.”

Soar looked from Jen to Tegan, his glassy eyes twitching while his nasally voice sounded somewhere between annoyed and amused. “Aarde is going to kill you.” With that he zoomed upwards, giving a few high-pitched shrieks before disappearing inside the dome; she couldn’t see exactly where he entered, but she had to assume there was a door of some kind. The issue was how high that door seemed to be.  

“No chance of a ladder I suppose.”

“Not quite.” Tegan stepped in front of her, crouching down and saying “Hop on.”

Jen stared at the demon’s back, eyes flicking between it and their face before looking at the station behind her. This was a very strange situation, but it was that or a long, risky walk home. Besides, she was getting very curious about the inhabitants of this ‘nest’.  She stepped forward, grasping Tegan’s shoulders, and hoisting herself up. She wrapped her arms around their neck and her legs around their waist for support. A sudden smoothness sliding across her wrists made her flinch, followed by a similar sensation around her ankles, soon revealed to be yet more tentacles. She craned her neck around so Tegan could see her face, eyebrow raised in question.

“Don’t want you to fall off. Ready?”

She sighed and nodded, bracing herself for the climb.

They didn’t climb.

Tegan’s back legs curled up as they crouched further down, low enough that Jen’s toes brushed the ground. Then, in a burst of force and speed, their legs straightened and the two of them sprung into the air. Jen felt a squeal rip from her throat, clutching onto Tegan more tightly as they ascended up and up and up. It was nothing like taking off in an aeroplane or riding a high roller coaster. The world rushed past in a sudden blur; Jen unable to look down even if she wanted to. Just when she thought they couldn’t go any higher, there was a brief rush of gravity and they stopped, Tegan gripping the side of the shell.

“You okay back there?”

“My stomach’s still on the ground but other than that!”

Tegan laughed loudly, and she could feel the laugh shuddering through their body as they crawled towards a small opening to the left of where they had stopped.

Slipping inside, Tegan crouching down again to let Jen down. Her legs were a little shaky from the jump, not helped by a slight dip as her feet touched the ground. The two of them stood in a small, cavern-like space, everything coloured dark grey with blue and red lines pulsing like thick veins. There were pillars connected from walls to ceilings, also of a similar grey material. She saw another entrance, which Tegan led her towards, and they stepped inside to see an almost identical space, though this one was much larger in scale.

Her observation was interrupted when two small yellow eyes, and four thick white tusks, obscured her vision.

“You’re the human! And you do wear skin! Is this camouflage? What is it for? A hunting technique? Ritual? Can you shed it? Does it change your insides? Can I see?”

The string of questions was fired at her in a low, gruff voice, tinged with the breathless excitement of a teenager meeting their favourite band. And the flow continued, with Jen opening and closing her mouth like a goldfish, waiting both for an opening to speak and for her overwhelmed brain to start producing words.

“Did you implant those veins we found in the ground? Do they relate to the big blocks with the circles on-”

“Orett.” The quiet voice made the tusked talker pause, glancing to her shoulder where a slender hand had suddenly appeared. “Remember. One question. Then wait. For answers.”

“Yes yes I know but-”

“One. Then wait.”

Orett’s face visibly contorted, fighting an internal battle before nodding and stepping back. Her personal space restored, Jen stepped inside the room properly before turning her attention back to Orett.

The demon stood at an intimidating eight feet, her muscular frame adding to her imposing stature. Four arms crossed over her chest, and Jen noticed that she was wearing what looked like a brown leather dress, the colour standing out against the blonde fur covering every inch of her body. Her grizzled features were crowned by a pair of floppy ears, much like that of a rabbit. That, combined with the excitement visibly glinting in her eyes, did somewhat lessen the intimidation factor. Orett stood in contrast to the demon now slithering to her side, as this one looked like a human-sized earthworm. This one had six arms, three on each side, and a bulbous head. The face was made up of a single green eye and two mandibles where a mouth would be. Two of the arms were stretched upwards, still rest on Orett’s shoulders, but the other four seemed oddly short; just rolls of skin ending in hands. There was a similar roll where her neck would be.

The mandibles were stretched it what Jen could only assume was a smile as the worm demon said “Sorry. She. Gets excited.” There was a genuine, friendly warmth to her tone, even with the strange pauses between words.

“… uh, no. No, it’s no problem. Just uh, threw me off guard.” Jen laughed, smiling back. “Sorry to intrude, Tegan said you were going to see Mama and I live there so…”

“No. Intrusion. The nest. Always has room.” She responded, gently nudging Orett aside and taking Jen’s arm to lead her deeper into the chamber. It was brighter than the one she had entered through, with lights sparking through some of the veins on the ceiling and several lumps protruding from various angles. She spotted Tegan leaning against one wall, a tentacle stroking one of the veins idly, while Soar was balanced on one of the floor lumps. “I. Am Aarde. Humans. Have names?”

“Yes, they do, and mine is Jen.”

“Ah. Jen. Lovely. You know. Tegan. And Soar. Orett. My heart. And Hemel. My limb.”

“Your li-”

Jen looked to where Aarde was indicating, shocked to discover there was another inhabitant quietly sat in a corner. It was another worm demon, almost identical to Aarde except the skin was a shade of purple and there were horns coming out of his head.

“He. Is my. Limb. Born. Together. Then we. Separate.”

“Oh, so he’s your sibling. I see. Hi, uh, Hemel.” Her greeting was not returned, the lone eye unblinking as it watched her. He was staring just as intently as Orett, but while she had the over-enthusiasm of a kid seeing a zoo for the first time, his gaze was more like a scientist examining a test subject. Goosebumps started running across her skin, and she quickly turned her attention back to the others. “So, is this a common mode of transport for demons?

“It is for us.” Orett said jovially, giving one of the pulsing pillars a hearty slap. The insect rumbled to life, Jen stumbling slightly as it began it’s steady, lumbering journey. “The Walking Nest is our home all over. Do humans have nests like this? Is that what the big blocks were for?”

“Orett.”

“No, it’s fine.” Jen said, smiling at Aarde before turning back to Orett, who seemed barely able to contain herself. “Nothing… living, but yes we do something like that. This place we’re leaving is what we call a bus station, and those blocks are buses. They are built for transporting humans wherever they want to go.”

“Bus. Bus bus bus bus bus bus bus bus bus…” Orett repeated the word over and over, as if she were tasting it.

“So, the nest doesn’t mind you living inside her?”

“Not. At all. Sometimes. She does. Not notice us.”

“Huh, so like… parasites?”

“We. Don’t. Hurt. Her.” The speech was even more broken than Aarde’s, and voice behind it was coarse and sharp. Jen looked over to see Hemel, still watching her with the same intensity though there was now a flare of anger in his eye. “We. Keep. Her Clean. We. Care. For. Her. We. Do. Not. Cause. Damage. Unlike. Your. Structures.” The last words were practically spat out, acidic and pointed.

All but shrinking in on herself, Jen stammered out “I-I’m sorry. Bad word choice, I didn’t mean to cause offense.”

“Don’t mind him.” Tegan tilted their head, smirking as they continued “He’s right though, at least in his case; Hemel acts much more like a fungus than a parasite.”

This comment earned a loud hiss from the worm-demon, Hemel now glaring daggers at Tegan instead. But before the situation could escalate further, Soar’s voice piped up. “We don’t know if anybody else travels like this, we just started working together after we got split up from our clans. You know, after everything changed?”

“You all got split up?” There was a few nods and a low murmur of agreement from the group. “I’m sorry, that must be difficult. .”

“Nonsense! We have always been travellers! And your clan is what you make, not what you’re born to!” Orett declared proudly, giving a hearty laugh and hugging Aarde as she did so.

Jen smiled, but her mind was reeling.  

She knew many humans had been separated from their families; that was the whole reason she was delivering letters in the first place. But she had never considered that the same thing could happen to demons. Now she thought about it, it seemed obvious. Demons may live differently from humans in many ways, but they still had families and communities. Mama and all the infants she nursed was solid proof of that. Then again, other than Mama her main encounters with demons had been the feral, non-speaking kind.

Meeting this group was certainly an eye-opener.

The rest of the journey passed by uneventfully for the most part. It consisted of Orett asking Jen constant questions about the various devices, buildings, and items she had come across and how humans used them. Jen answered as best she could, having settled onto one of the protruding lumps on the wall next to Tegan, who mostly just listened to the conversation with only the occasional contribution. Soar, true to his bat-like appearance, was now sleeping upside down, his claws clutched around one of the veins embedded in the ceiling. According to Tegan the veins and pillars were full of nerves, and every so often one of the group would stroke or tap them. It helped relax the Nest, keeping her content as she plodded along towards their destination.

Aarde kept quiet for most of the trip, speaking up only when Orett got too excited in her questioning. She had slowly curled her long tail around her mate’s body, the two of them comfortably snuggled together. They were a cute couple, and Jen couldn’t help smiling at how openly affectionate the two of them were with each other. Though as time passed the embrace seemed to get more intimate, and eventually she had to turn her reddening face away.

Her heart nearly stopped.

Hemel’s face was now hovering a few inches away from hers, his expression no kinder than earlier. The effect was only worsened when she realised his body hadn’t moved, his neck had simply stretched out to reach her.

“What. Do. You. Know. About. The. Change.”

She was sure it was a question, but his broken speech made it sound more like a statement. “Um… what change?”

“The. Change. To. The. World.” He spoke slowly, with a patient condescension like a teacher explaining a problem to the class dunce. “The. Humans. Did. Something. What. Was. It.”

A quick glance showed that the others had taken notice of the conversation. Tegan appeared to have tensed up, but didn’t say anything this time. Aarde and Orett were also silent, and all three of them shared the same expression.

Curiosity.

Maybe they wanted to know just as much as Hemel did.

“Um… I-I don’t really know.” Hemel’s eye narrowed and she quickly explained “I mean, I heard that on the day it happened some scientists in Tokyo were doing a big experiment? Something to do with atoms. But I’m not really a science buff so I don’t know the details. Sorry.”

Nothing. The whole room was silent, everyone watching Hemel intently.

Then, with the barest nod he said “Experiment. Hmm.”

He didn’t say anything else, already retracting his head back to his body, a more thoughtful expression taking over his features while his mandibles clicked lightly. As glad as she was for the renewed distance between them, something about his reaction made Jen ask “What about on your side? Were the demons doing anything that day?”

There was no answer. There wasn’t even an acknowledgment that she’d spoken. He was already back in his corner, still with that thoughtful expression and no longer staring at her. She turned to Tegan with a raised eyebrow, to which they shrugged and said “That’s the most he’s talked to any human. I think you’re growing on him.”

Before she could say anything else, the Nest gave a sudden jolt, Jen nearly knocked from her seat as everything around her grew still.

“We’re here!” Orett bellowed, her voice waking a now very grumpy Soar. His trunk pointed at Orett and blew a sharp puff of air in her direction; either the other demon didn’t notice, or she didn’t care. “Alright, let’s go get the milk!”

“I’ll. Come with. You.”

“You sure, my heart? It won’t take long.”

“I know. You. Believe. That.”

The two of them laughed, heading back to the space where Jen and Tegan had entered. Hemel didn’t move from his corner and Soar had already fallen asleep again, so Jen followed them with Tegan close behind her.  

“Ready to scream again?”

“You’re enjoying this way too much.” Jen climbed onto their back and clung on tight as they jumped down, landing on the ground in front of Mama’s hut. Orett and Aarde soon joined them, the larger demon scaling down the Nest’s shell with her mate wrapped tightly around them. Once assembled, the group stood back to let Jen enter first, calling out as she did “Mama? I’m back!”

“Oh child! I was not expecting your return so soon; you said this would be a long delivery.”

“It got cut short, and I got a ride home. Speaking of which, I’ve got some visitors for you.”

“Orett!” She exclaimed, smiling widely as Orett and Aarde entered the hut. Putting the child she had been cradling back in its bed, her arms stretched out to give the four-armed demon a hug. “It has been a while, how are you, my friend?”

Recognising the tone of someone ready to reminisce, Jen slipped back outside, catching Aarde’s eyes as she did so; clearly this was why she insisted on coming. She pulled the mask off completely, shaking her hair free and taking a deep breath of fresh air. Tegan, who hadn’t bothered to go inside the hut, watched her.

“Yes?”

“Your head looks smaller without the mask.”

“I’m not sure how to respond to that.” She snorted, smiling as she looked up at the Nest. “I suppose you lot will head off as soon as they’ve got the milk?”

“Yes, the Nest will want to burrow down before the flares come. But we’ll likely be passing this way again.”

“I see. My job involves a lot of walking around so we could bump into each other anywhere.”

“That’s right.” They suddenly moved towards her, leaning their head down to meet her gaze directly. “You never did say what this job is.”

“Between Orett’s questions and Hemel’s… well, Hemel, I didn’t really get much of a chance. But since you ask,” The pouch was opened and the letter brought out for Tegan to look, their eyes trailing across the dark words. “I deliver letters. They’re written messages; I don’t know if you do something similar.”

Tegan shook their head, stretching out a tentacle to gingerly touch the paper. “Some clans have a written language but most of us don’t need. I can’t think of any who would use it in this manner.” They turned the envelope over and over, then handed it back to her. “Is that why you were looking for the humans in that… bus station? To deliver this message?” She nodded, slipping it back into her pouch as she did so. “But you didn’t find them. What will you do with it now?”

“That’s… that’s a good question.” Her eyes cast down to the ground, biting her lip before saying “If I’d found them dead then there wouldn’t be anything I could do. But there’s a chance they’re still out there, so now I must figure out where they’ve gone. It’ll likely take a long time, but unless I get a solid answer either way, all I can do is keep trying.”

“That sounds… exhausting.”

“Hehe, it is. But it’s also nice. Seeing people’s faces when they get a letter from someone that they lost contact with, even if you never find out its contents, is a special feeling. Maybe because it’s a physical, personal connection that you can hold in your hand, but with everything that’s happened since the meld…” She shrugged, looking back up at Tegan. “I don’t know, it’s just nice.”

The conversation wasn’t given a chance to continue as Orett and Aarde suddenly reappeared, the latter carrying three water-skins full of milk while dragging her mate along behind her.

“Goodbye. Jen. It was. Nice. To. Meet you.”

“Indeed! Be well Mama, and you Jen! We’ll be sure to visit again because I still have more questions!”

“And I’ll try to have the answers.” She said, waving as the two of them off as they began to climb back up the Nest’s shell. “It might have been easier if she wanted to eat me.”

“Nah, she’d never do that even if she weren’t fascinated by humans. Orett looks tough but she can’t be bothered going through layers skin and bone; she’d rather have her food already cracked open so she can get straight to the entrails.”

“Huh… well they say it’s what’s inside that counts. Can’t get more inside than entrails.”

Tegan chuckled, craning down to her and murmuring “And I’m sure your entrails would look quite lovely if you were cracked open.”

They stepped over her and soon launched into the air, waving a tentacle at her from the top before disappearing inside. Soon there was a rumble and a shudder, and the Nest ambled away. From the ground she could see that it didn’t so much walk as it shuffled through the dirt, leaving great tracks in its wake as it faded from sight.  

Jen watched it vanish.

Then she blinked.

“… lovely?” She turned to enter the hut, pausing at the entrance before asking “Hey, Mama?”

“Yes child?”

“You know how you said that demons sometimes use violent language, but they don’t always mean it literally? They use it like an expression?”

“Yes child.”

“How do you tell the difference?”

Mama hesitated, glancing upward as she picked up an identical pair of reptilian babies and began to nurse them. “I suppose it is like what you say about humans; it depends on the character of the speaker. Why do you ask?”

“Well, it’s just um, Tegan said something before they left. The words were… disturbing, quite frankly, but the tone almost made it sound like they were flirting with me.”

All sound drained from the room in an instant, and when she looked towards her guardian, she saw that Mama was watching her with an expression she could only describe as barely suppressed maternal rage. Finally, her voice icy cold, Mama said “Whatever their meaning, you tell me if they cause you any trouble.”

//

Another episode, and not too long after the last one. I’d say I’m on a roll but doing so is bad luck and will probably delay the next one for another year.

And this one was SO much fun. It was great creating some more demon characters, and writing dialogue for them; a few people have told me that writing dialogue is my strongest skill as a writer (which is funny considering how many of my short stories follow one character and mostly consist of description – let me know what you guys think). The inhabitants of the nest will definitely be recurring characters, I really love writing with them (totally not setting one of them up as a potential love interest).

Next one will be another letter delivery, and I think this series might be due for a taste of horror.

Here’s the itch.io version in case you want to support me –

Cover art was made by the incredible Dhani Shanti, follow him on twitter https://twitter.com/dizzlefizzle_ and check out his website https://dshanti0013.wixsite.com/dizzlefizzle

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First – https://anmanarrative.wordpress.com/2020/01/18/emmas-letter-demon-skinned-postwoman/

Observations – Demon Skinned Postwoman (Episode 4)

“But how long could they live there without drowning? You humans don’t seem to have much breath control.”

“No, they wouldn’t need to hold their breath.” Jen said through a mouthful of dried meat, stopping to swallow before continuing “What the guy did was build a city on the ocean floor. It was made up of airtight domes and tubes; once you’re inside you can walk and breathe normally.”

“So, they live underwater without actually being in the water?”

“Exactly.”

Mama pondered this answer, absent-mindedly picking up a bird-like infant as it started pecking at the tentacle poking out from a neighbouring cradle. Meanwhile Jen was sitting cross-legged on the floor, picking at the meat with one hand. Currently curled in her lap was another infant, a blue-skinned maggot the size of a cat. Occasionally it let out a little  ‘blub’ of contentment.

There was rarely an opportunity for her to help with the children. Part of that was the obvious fact that couldn’t nurse them, but the more pressing issue was how even at their youngest, most of them were too dangerous for her to handle. Teeth, talons, tentacles; some of them were even venomous. Mama was naturally built to cope with all of these whereas Jen was not, and to make matters worse some of the infants were aggravated by the unfamiliar scent of human. Often it was safer for everyone involved if she just stayed out of the way, and Mama was more than capable of handling all of them. However, both women agreed that it was better for Jen to interact with them whenever she could, getting them used to her scent and presence to keep a peaceful environment and not cause them unnecessary stress.

Some of them were safe, or at the very least docile enough for her to handle directly. The little boy currently snuggling against her knee was a good example. He was a friendly and affectionate child, and his teeth were in his throat rather than his mouth, so the worst damage he could do was leave a suction mark. Jen found him oddly cute and had affectionately given him the nickname ‘Wiggles’ in response to the way he shuffled around.

Mama finally broke the silence, her long nose creasing as she spoke. “Child, I am struggling to see the point of living in a body of water if you cannot adapt to aquatic life.”

Now it was Jen’s turn to think, giving Wiggles a little scratch as she did so. “Well… see, the point wasn’t really about living underwater. It was about living somewhere completely outside of any government control; the bottom of the sea was just the best place to do that. He might have gone to space if he had the technology. And another guy did a similar thing by building a floating city in the sky!”

“All uninhabitable environments, which is counterproductive to survival. Humans must be terrible at leadership to drive their own kind to such lengths.”

“Part of me feels like I should defend my species… but looking back at our history I can’t say that you’re wrong.”

Mama chuckled at this, turning her attention back to the suckling infant. “So, you have humans living in an underwater city despite not being able to live underwater. And they start killing each other after consuming slugs that let them create lightning and fire?”

Jen nodded slowly, a smile plastered on her lips while her head was swimming with regret.

She said ‘would you kindly’. She wasn’t making a reference because she doesn’t know what it’s a reference to. You could have just let it pass by unnoticed but no! You had to try explaining the story and setting of a video game to a demon who doesn’t know what a video game is! And it’s not even a simple story! Next time keep your mouth shut you fool.  

Despite these thoughts she was enjoying how much interest Mama was taking. She’d only recently found out that demons had their own fiction, and it was fun being able to swap stories. Mama had told her one about a pillar made entirely of eyes that somehow appeared on every horizon, hypnotizing any demon who looked at it directly. Before today’s debarcle Jen had mostly be sharing fairy tales, which Mama found quite enjoyable. Her current favourite was Rumpelstiltskin.

There was a faint rustling sound from the entrance, both turning to see Jen’s letter sack shift. Nobody came in, and after a few seconds of silence they noticed footsteps growing steadily fainter.

“Another one that doesn’t say hello. How rude.” Mama tutted, glancing over at Jen. “Not going to check?”

“Nah, it’s not going anywhere. Besides,” she added, looking down to see Wiggles tugging at the meat in her hand. “I’m about due for a day off.”

“Ah good. You have been running around a lot lately, especially after that loud one showed up.”

The ‘loud one’ was Corporal Marshall, an obnoxious soldier whose directions had led her into the path of angry lobster demons who had chased her into an abandoned submarine. His letter ended up dead, which was always sad, but it was difficult to feel sympathy when she’d spent nearly a whole day waiting for the furry bastards to fall asleep so she could escape. Her suit had been damaged, she had a small burn on her foot and even now she was tired no matter how much she slept. In her bitterness Jen had promised herself that if they ever met again she’d punch him in the face, gun or no gun.

“Anything planned for today, child?”

“I noticed yesterday that there are some rat-heads living in the crater. Seems like a good opportunity to watch them, see if I can learn more about their behaviour before I go out again.” She watched as Wiggles swallowed the remaining meat before adding “Assuming they’re not hunting of course.”

Mama nodded knowingly. “They can be vicious. But I doubt the crater has much to hunt, so you should be fine. Oh, do let me know if you need one of them for a new suit.”

“… t-thanks Mama, but mine will be fine for a while. That mixture Elena gave me has pretty much halted the decomposition, and I’ve been able to patch up where it got torn.”

“Hmm… as you say.”

*

It was another hour before Jen left the hut, waving goodbye to Mama and heading towards the crater.

Her head felt strangely naked without the mask, though it was pleasant having a breeze run through her hair for a change. She had pulled on a pair of loose trousers and a long coat. A few sheets of paper were folded in one pocket, while the other held a stick of charcoal and a pencil. The pencil had been a rare find that she tried to use sparingly, but while the charcoal worked well for plotting maps it was very awkward to write with.

When was the last time I went out without the suit?

The thought made her lips curl into a smile, a little bounce in her step as she approached the base of the crater. As useful as the suit was, especially with how often it had saved her life, it was essentially a uniform. Wearing it put her brain into work-mode. And work-mode was nearly always synonymous with survival-mode. Whereas here, as she started climb up the rocky incline, she was more relaxed than she had been in ages. Granted she still had to be somewhat cautious, but there was far less chance of being mauled by furry lobsters.

With a grunt she hauled herself onto the rim, staggering to a standstill and looking down into the crater.

There.

There were the rat-heads.

All scattered across the dusty surface, a few of them gathered around what looked like a fleshy pool. A rough headcount got her to thirteen, five of them small enough to be infants. One or two of them glanced in her direction but none showed any sign of aggression. There was a calm atmosphere to the place, reminding her of when she’d see stray cats all lazing in the sunlight.

Just what she needed.

A quick survey drew her attention to a mound of rock jutting from the far side of the rim, providing a little shaded area right on the edge. She made her way over and settled down, making sure she was clearly visible to the demons below. Her grandad, a big wildlife fanatic, had told her every time they went camping “Keep your distance but let the animals see you; if they think you’re trying to hide they’ll perceive you as a threat.” The advice seemed to work; in all the weekends they’d spent in one forest or another, the closest they’d ever come to an attack was the time a squirrel tried to pinch her sandwich.

He’d love to see this now… he’d have that silly tight-lipped grin he always gets when he’s trying to keep quiet so he doesn’t scare away whatever animal he’s watching.

Her eyes started to sting.

She sniffed, swallowed a lump in her throat and took a breath. Then she pulled out her pencil and watched.

Instinctively her gaze was drawn to the children. From this distance they looked like smaller versions of the adults, the biggest difference being the paler shade of their skin. She couldn’t tell if they were male or female as they were moving too much for her to spot which ones had a stubby tail at the base of their spine; only males had those, which was how she’d figured out her suit was female. She also couldn’t figure out which adults were the parents of which children. However, Mama had mentioned that communal parenting wasn’t uncommon amongst demons, so perhaps it wasn’t a great concern for them. The children seemed happy to flit from adult to adult as they pleased. Rolling around, play-fighting, and one of them kept bumping its nose against that of an adult female. She yawned, her jaw stretching wide, but eventually started nuzzling back.

I’ve seen others do that, so maybe that kind of nose rubbing is a common method of contact. Like dogs. Useful to know in case I can’t avoid getting close.

She jotted a note down.

Every rat-head suddenly looked up. Not at Jen, but at the other side of the crater. She followed their gaze, seeing a heavily pregnant female crawling over the rim, soon followed at a distance by two other adults. Those in the crater didn’t move but all of them were focused on her; even the children seemed to notice something was up, though that didn’t stop two of them from batting their heads together. The female moved along, settling into an empty space near the fleshy pool and laying down on her side. Once settled, she raised her muzzle into the air and let out a gentle mewling sound. The sound had barely finished before three adults were surrounding her, yipping, and nuzzling and showering her with affection.

“Okay… so they give her space and independence but keep an eye out in case she needs anything.” She muttered, making another note. “Huh, as far as maternity policies go it’s not a bad deal.”

Some motion in the corner of her vision made her turn, looking to see one of the newly arrived adults making a gesture to their fellows. The movement was quick, and nothing about their body language told her what it was for. But other rat-heads mimicked the motion, and then another. By the fourth time she’d picked out each step.  

The left claw lifted to rest on the back of the neck, each finger tapped the neck once before the arm dropped down like it had gone limp.

It wasn’t a move she’d seen before. Most gestures were simple sweeps or jabs, like the submission gesture. Yes, there was some subtlety to getting them right, but she hadn’t witnessed any with as many steps as this. Her only thought was that it could be unique to this group, like a sign of identification.

Jen hesitated.

Then she set her pencil and paper down.

“Let’s see; left hand to the neck, fingers tap, then drop. Left, neck, fingers, drop. Left, neck…”

She repeated the movement a few times, playing with speed and  how far her arm stretched until she was satisfied. There was no guarantee she’d ever have to use it, but better to have it and not need it.  

The sky grew duller the longer she stayed, watching the group while continuing to make notes. Once or twice one of them looked like they wanted to approach her, but none of them got further than a few steps. It was peaceful just sitting here, and part of her could have stayed all night, but she didn’t want to risk outstaying her welcome. With a yawn, a stretch and a faint click of her stiff bones, she stood up. Going all the way to the other side of the rim seemed pointless, so she instead turned to descend where she was and circle back when she reached the ground. Just as she began to drop herself down over the edge, a faint growl caught her attention.

There was another rat-head at the bottom of the incline, a strip of dark green meat between its jaws. It had paused in it’s climb upwards, staring at her with pale eyes just visible within the hollow depths of the sockets. She couldn’t tell the sex from this side, but she did notice their back right leg ended in a stump and there were visible scares on their chest. They didn’t attack but their shoulders were rigid, causing Jen’s heart to begin thumping painfully in her chest.

Running would only cause a panic and potentially draw the attention of others; Jen wasn’t even certain she could outrun one of them.

The two watched each other silently, each waiting for the other to act first.  

Then, careful not to move too quickly, she raised her left arm.  

Left… neck… fingers… drop…

No response.

No change in posture.

No sign of moving.

Oh shit.

Before she could decide on a back-up plan, the rat-head cocked their head to one side and let out another growl. It didn’t sound particularly aggressive or angry, if anything it sounded more confused. They didn’t return the gesture either. But after a few more moments of tense quiet, they moved one claw forward and resumed their crawl upwards, never breaking eye contact as they did.

Jen took the hint, edging her way down at as calm a pace as she could manage.

The two passed each other without incident, and once at the bottom she looked back to see the rat-head still watching her, head once again cocked to the side before they disappeared over the rim.

“… ok. That was close but I am alive. I’m counting that as a successful day off.”

//

Hey look, I wrote another episode and it didn’t take a year! And I’m already writing the next one, woo! A bit more mellow this time, just showing a bit more of Jen’s life with Mama and seeing how she studies the rat-heads to mimic their behaviour (very demon-centric).

The next episode is also going to be demon-centric. So far the only demon character we’ve gotten to know is Mama, but the next one will introduced some new characters which should be a lot of fun in terms of dialogue (some of the characters may even be recurring).

Here’s the itch.io version in case you want to support me – https://anmanarrative.itch.io/demon-skinned-postwoman-episode-4-observations

Cover art was made by the incredible Dhani Shanti, follow him on twitter https://twitter.com/dizzlefizzle_ and check out his website https://dshanti0013.wixsite.com/dizzlefizzle

Previous – https://anmanarrative.wordpress.com/2021/01/21/corporal-marshalls-letter-demon-skinned-postwoman/

Next – https://anmanarrative.wordpress.com/2021/05/06/the-walking-nest-demon-skinned-postwoman-episode-5/

First – https://anmanarrative.wordpress.com/2020/01/18/emmas-letter-demon-skinned-postwoman/

Project Azoth

“Dr Erika West beginning experiment forty-seven of Project Azoth. Attempt twenty-three with Specimen Eldritch. Single subject; male, albino laboratory mouse. Commencing with matter collection from the specimen’s right lung.”

Erika stopped the dictaphone with a click before setting it down on the tool tray. Her latex-covered fingers drifted towards a scalpel, newly cleaned and gleaming under the spotlight. For a moment she hesitated, hovering over the other tools one by one, before picking the scalpel up and turning her attention to the table.

What lay there was at least seven feet tall, composed of stringy flesh stretched over muscle, tendons, and organs like cobwebs. It was pale; every inch was a different shade of white, cream and even grey in patches. On the right was an arm and a leg, the leg splitting in two at the knee, fingers and toes ending in pointed, nail-less tips. On the left two arms jutted from the shoulder, while the leg was composed of a twisting mass of tentacles. At the top was a bulbous head cleaved down to the neck, the gaping wound bridged by thin strands of cartilage. Both halves were featureless except for an eye, surrounded by needle-thin spikes and staring at her sightlessly.

Erika stared back, then returned her attention to the scalpel.

She moved its tip to one of the shoulders, piercing the stringy skin then moving down to the creature’s chest. There was a little resistance against the blade, requiring more pressure than if she was cutting human flesh, but she was able to slice up to the other shoulder, then down to the pelvis. Once the Y incision was complete, she put down the scalpel, fingers now wrapping around a pair of forceps. It took a few pairs to hold the skin open, some parts beginning to stitch together even as she did so. Her tongue clicked in frustration, but at last the torso was exposed, and she again picked up the dictaphone.

“Regeneration is still present but lessens upon separation. Preparing to extract the right lung.”

She instinctively moved towards the rib cutters; that would be next in a normal procedure. Yet just as her fingertips grazed the instrument, she stopped. There were no ribs here, or bones of any kind. Skin and cartilage were all that held the insides… inside.

“Twenty-three attempts and I still forget every time.”

Instead she picked up a pair of scissors and another pair of forceps, using the latter to carefully grip a large, yellowish lung. Her hand trembled with the weight as she pulled, slipping the scissors into the gap. Slowly she snipped and snipped the connecting tissue. It took longer than the initial incision; while the tissue was easier to cut it fused together far quicker. She bit her lip, toes tapping as she worked.

At last the organ was separated. By now her forcep hand ached and trembled, struggling to keep her grip on the lung. The scissors were dropped to free her other hand, banging off the table and hitting the ground with a loud clatter.

“Fuck.” She cursed. “This is where an assistant would come in handy.”

As if in answer to her muttering, something stroked her hand. She didn’t flinch, only narrowing her eyes as she watched a small tendril of tissue wiggling two and fro. The tissue stretched out from the left lung, a brighter yellow than the rest. Erika glanced at the other organs, seeing similar tendrils all squirming free of their fleshy beds. It was fascinating to watch, like seeing a tadpole growing its legs, and Erika found herself entranced.

But a dull ache in her wrist brought her back to reality; the lung was heavier than it looked.

She carried the lung to a workbench set a few paces away. It gave a wet thump as it was dropped into a silver tray, close to another set of gleaming tools, three syringes (two empty, one full of green liquid) and beakers full of various solutions. There was also a cage, currently housing a small white mouse. The little rodent gave a squeak at the sounds being made but became still soon after, watching her through tiny pink eyes.

Erika paused, walking back to the operating table to grab her dictaphone.

“Matter showing sentience in a condition not previously observed. Memo; consult with colleague at first opportunity.”

The detached lung had already begun growing tendrils of its own. It even started rocking back and forth in the tray, forcing Erika to hold it with one hand while another pushed an empty syringe into its centre. The organ stopped rocking, shuddering for several moments before growing still as a statue. She released the plunger, watching the syringe fill with a thick, milky substance. Once it was full she moved to a beaker, half-full with a bright blue solution, and squeezed three droplets out of the syringe. They clouded in the blue, zig zagging as she gave the mixture a stir before dispensing some into one of the empty syringes.

The dictaphone clicked to life once more.

“Matter successfully extracted and added to the protein solution. Preparing to inject the subject.”

A loud squeak erupted from the mouse as the needle approached it. Using a small flap on the other side of the cage, Erika slipped her hand inside and grabbed the flailing rodent, forcing it still the needle pierced its side. There was a moment of silence, broken only by short squeaks from the now twitching mouse.

Erika removed the needle, then began counting.

“Ten… nine… eight… seven… six… five… four… three… two… one. Goodnight little one.”

The green syringe went in next, quickly sinking it into the white fur. A slight squelching noise sounded behind her, but she ignored it, removing her hands from the cage and stepping back.

The mouse started convulsing.

Its tiny body heaved, clinging to the floor of the cage with pain-filled squeals as it coughed. The mouse suddenly grew still, causing Erika to frown as she tapped the workbench.

Then the mouse wretched, bringing up a thick clump of bile and organs.

One minute.

Two minutes.

Seven minutes.

Click.

“Subject appears to be deceased; there is no visible sign of regeneration or sentience. Conclusion… failure. Again.”

You will hear the song soon.

The voice was layered, as if two people were speaking at once, and filled every corner of the laboratory.

“I told you before,” She began, rolling her eyes as she turned back towards the table. “you can’t speak while I’m recording. You’ll corrupt it.”

A throaty, high-pitched chuckled from the creature now sitting upright, running one of their left hands across the mass of organs still spilling out from their torso. The two halves of their head swayed independently of each other, various small slits splitting open along the neck which moved up and down as they spoke, We cannot help that the waves do not like us. They get confused.

“Well confused waves equals” Click. “a tainted record.”

Several of the mouths crinkled together in what she could only assume was a pout. No need to be cross. We were quiet during the cutting.

They started folding their torso skin together, using another hand to keep the organs in place while the pale flesh stitched itself up. Erika sighed, walking over to help remove the forceps still grasping some parts.

“You know El, that’s the first time I’ve seen them show sentience while still attached.” El cocked the left half of its head. “Your insides were wriggling.” She explained.

Hehe, we think they get confused as well. They become exposed to air and think it is time to walk. But they do not have the key to leave… all they can do is tug at the doorknob.

“They never did it before.”

Some exits take time to find.

The forceps clattered loudly into the tray. “Interesting, I’ll definitely have to keep an eye on that. Meanwhile we need to try and figure out what needs to be adjusted next time.” Erika walked over to the workbench, running a viscera-stained glove through her hair. “Alright, I’ll keep a few samples of this mixture on hold to examine later. Perhaps there’s something I’m missing with main solution. Or I could be ignoring something… something from the previous… we could use multiple subjects for the next one. Assuming Croft doesn’t limit my animal access again… the miserable old grouch.” Her fingers tapped the surface of the bench, watching the mouse corpse. “I was sure I had it right this time.”

Your skin is darker.

Her brows creased. “Considering my relationship with the sun is non-existent I highly doubt that. Unless they’ve added UV lights in… here…”

Erika had turned to see two pale fingers barely a millimetre from her eyes. She could almost feel the tips grazing them. Her limbs grew stiff, and she felt her breath beginning to rattle unsteadily. But after a few moments they moved down, touching the lids underneath.

Here. and here. Darker.

“Huh? Oh… ha-ha, I understand you now. No they’re just bags.” She moved the fingers away from her face. “It’s a sign that I’m tired. I haven’t been able to sleep much.”

El watched her, quiet for a moment before wrapping their fingers around hers.

Why?

“Because I’ve been doing this for nearly a year and even with your help… I haven’t been able to make a real breakthrough.” She could feel the crack in her voice before she heard it. Years of keeping her thoughts and feelings to herself went out the window whenever the two of them talked; El had a knack for getting her to say exactly what was on her mind. “I need results from this if I’m ever going to move on to human trials. With my funding getting slashed, no extra hands available and Croft putting me on the bacterial squad, plus having to keep you under wraps… it’s a lot to think about. And thinking about it frazzles my brain, which leads to lack of sleep. Hence the bags.” The right half of their head twisted slightly, then they let go of her hand and walked back over to the operating table. “What now?”

You said we cannot go in because you need to be clear. Yet you allow this madness. It is unfair.

“I’m not sure I’d call my life’s work madness… even if this experiment does fit the mad scientist gig.”

It affects your mind. It makes your body weak. It keeps you on edge. We have seen a great deal of madness, and we see it now in you.

Erika sighed again. “El I can’t avoid this stress. This is what I have dedicated my life to, making it a permanent part of my existence. It’s the madness I can handle. You… you’re a lot more intense.” She cocked her head, giving a half smile. “And you know that, otherwise you wouldn’t wait for my permission.”

We know. But it is unfair.

“Are you jealous of my stress?” El didn’t answer, instead idly playing with a single loose scrap of skin. “Look, most of my stress comes from lack of results. When we make the next breakthrough, I will feel much better… maybe even enough for you to go in. But there’s a lot more work before then and I need your help to get there. Ok?”

El glanced at her, some of the needle-points around the eyes scrunching together before giving a nod. She smiled, turning back towards the bench and starting to pull off her gloves.

Can we use this again?

El was holding a small stryker saw, the wire dangling down.

“The stryker saw is for bones. You don’t have bones. I told you this before.”

It tickles though.

Erika opened her mouth to respond but they were both cut off by a loud banging outside the door. She dropped her gloves and walked over to the door, raising onto her tiptoes to look through the glass. A group of security guards were bringing a large set of boxes while an older male scientist signed a clipboard.

“New delivery. Must be the newest specimens. Which I’m not going to see anytime soon unless they’re microscopic. I bet all the other teams are popping open the champagne because they got some new cold capsule off the rack.” She bit her lip, walking back over and turning to stare at the dead mouse. “It works under the microscope… why won’t it work here?”

Why are you so sure this one is a failure? El said, lumbering over to join her by the cage.

“Because nothing has happened.”

Yet.

Erika turned back, visible confusion contorting her face. “Yet? Your regeneration begins almost immediately, even under the microscope. Why would it be different in a living creature?”

That creature is not alive.

“You know what I mean.”

Not everything works to order. Chaos is a factor.

“Every aspect of the experiment has to be controlled.”

But a discovery is just a form of chaos, is it not? Something otherwise unknown suddenly appearing? Treat it not as something to be controlled but something to be observed. A variable. Erika couldn’t stop herself smiling; more and more El had begun using scientific terminology. It was strangely endearing. We hear the song. It is faint. But it is there. Listen.

“I-”

Listen.

She sighed and closed her eyes, trying to listen.

Nothing.

There was the soft hum of the lights and the thud of her own heartbeat, but everything else was silent. She certainly couldn’t hear any ‘song’. Her foot started to tap of its own accord, but she stopped it, aware of El watching her. Odd language aside, she knew they had a better understanding of how this worked than she did. And while the rational part of her brain struggled with patience, there was no doubt she had made far more progress with El’s help than she ever had alone. Sometimes it was better to just go with the flow.

Squelch.

Her eyes flicked over the cage again.

There… a twitch! In the mass of intestines there was a twitch! Then a pulse as the tiniest little tendril made its way through the skin. She leaned even closer, all but pressing her face up against the cage. More tendrils appeared, starting to flex and cling to the bottom. It slowly lifted itself upright, guts and body wobbling. There was no movement from the mouse itself; only the trembling entrails made any motion.

But motion was motion… and motion was good.

“Heh… ha ha-ha. It’s working! It’s actually…” She smiled, genuinely smiled as she watched the little abomination hobbling about. “I can’t believe it.”

Is that a breakthrough?

She turned towards El’s face, watching the two halves flutter together like butterfly wings. “Yes. It’s exactly the breakthrough we needed.” Her eyes started to itch, happy tears threatening to spill at any moment. “Ok, you were right. I guess I’ve got to start treating time as another variable, but at least we have results.”

Does that mean we can go in?

Their voice had an inflection to it, almost begging as they started to move closer to her.

Erika hesitated. “Well… I do still have some work to do. I need to write up the results, clean the equipment…” A pair of tentacles started wrapping around her leg, squeezing slightly as they did so. “… and we need to make sure to lock everything up before the cleaners get here…” Her back was pressed into the workbench. “… you know we can’t let anybody know about you…”

Please. The begging tone was stronger now, pleading as they added We will not break anything. We will keep you wrapped up safe and tight. We will not let you shatter. We promise. Please.

Erika glanced back at the cage.

The little mass of viscera was still shuffling about, blissfully enjoying its newfound mobility. It was what she had been aiming for. Maybe not exactly how she imagined but it still brought her closer to her goal.

Perhaps they did deserve a break.

“Alright… but just for a little bit.”

The many mouths curled into smiles, the eyes glistening with unrestrained joy.

A hand appeared on either side of her face, while both halves of their head leaned forward. One needle point from each eye began to extend. Further and further, they stretched. She took a deep breath, letting El hold her eyelids open as the sharp tips hovered close. They cocked their head, waiting for her to nod before the needles pushed deep into her pupils. Her whole body jerked, feeling them pushing deeper and deeper… all the way through into her brain.

Colours and song overtook her consciousness.

*

I think this might be a self-indulgent piece… but it might also be a decent concept… I genuinely can’t tell.

It was fun to write.

And I definitely like how it turned out.

Oh well. If you like it then great, if you don’t… nothing will change.

The First Jewel To Be Saved

“Some of our jewels are light this month. Have you noticed any problems during their examinations? We should hate for them to be unwell.”

“Nothing of the sort, Demetrius. I imagine that the newer ones simply need time to adjust; you know how stress can affect the cycle.”

“Ah, of course.” Spindly fingers grasped one of the crooked, haphazardly sewn toy horses lined up on the table, pulling it forward before pressing a pair of scissors to one of the seams. “Be so kind as to remind them that they can ask for anything. Whatever the need, we will strive to fulfill it; we want our jewels to be comfortable after all.”

Yes… as comfortable as a marionette suspended by chains over a gilded stage.

My smile twitched in time with the snip, snip, snip of the scissors, watching their blades slide through the worn cotton. They curved around a thick patch of dark red, its shape a mockery of where a saddle would be. The other horses had similar blotches, matching those on the creature’s own patchwork robe.

“And what about you, friend?”

Its face was closer now, although what hovered before me was an insult to the word. More like a shuddering mass of eyes and teeth bobbing on the end of a long, goose-like neck; its skin peppered with sores and flaky scabs. A clump of teeth in the middle had contorted, which I know to be their way of smiling.  

I hate seeing them smile.

“I’m not due for a couple more days, but there have some phantom pains, so everything seems to be in working order.” Demetrius’s head bobbed up and down, the neck just out of strangling range. If it had any bones, I would happily twist that long neck until they snapped. “Is there anything else you need… friend?” I asked, the word acid on my tongue. “Only I do have an examination due to begin soon.”

“Of course, of course!” Another horse was pulled forward. “Do go ahead, we must attend to our jewels every need after all.”

Every need that lines up with yours.

“Then I shall speak to you later… friend.” I inclined my head and turned away from the toy mutilation.

My hand had barely grazed the door handle when Demetrius spoke again “We hope you know how much we appreciate all of your hard work.” Bile started to rise in my throat, but I still turned back to hear the rest of its words. “True your early days were a little… rough, and many of us were hesitant to trust you with such responsibility, yet you have proven yourself time and again.” Its voice dripped with honey-drenched venom; why must there be such sincerity in those words? “Dearest Aquamarine, you have truly become one of our most precious treasures.”

Keep smiling.

Just keep smiling and leave.

The parasite will die… but not yet.

I finally closed the door behind me, taking a moment to glance up and down the corridor.

Empty, as to be expected at this time of day. But I didn’t want to risk Demetrius hearing me, so I rounded the corner, putting some distance between me and my friend. Soon I stopped in between two paintings; one a medieval court scene, the other a Victorian family portrait. Still there was nobody around, and this should be far enough away that I won’t draw attention. Perfect, time to take a few deep breaths.

In… and out.

In… and out.

Then I punched the wall.

Oh dear, I didn’t think I was strong enough to leave a crack. And the skin of my knuckles has broken. Damn. At least it hasn’t stained the wall, and I have spare bandages in my office. As for the smell… well, what’s one more drop of blood in this place?  

With another deep breath, I began walking.

Aquamarine.

Demetrius picked it for me, likely because it sounds similar to my real name, Marina. That was a few months ago, and now most of the vermin refer to me by that name. Either that or friend. Both options disgust me, I hate the intimacy… the endearment behind their use. But more than that, I hate how they act liked I’ve earned it.   

No one else is referred to by name. At least, no other human is. The creatures have given themselves names in our language, though the range is ridiculous; Theodore in one room and Anubis in another. But even then, they mostly refer to each other as friend. The other captives use their own names to speak to each other, but to the creatures they’re just… jewels.

Precious little stones of all shapes and sizes, there to be kept safe and polished for as long as they give rubies.

Something caught the corner of my eye, and I turned to see my reflection in one of the large windows, blackened by the night outside. Rough white dress, worn and stained in places, with a wobbly red cross sewn on the front. Black hair pulled tight, hidden under a white scarf. Grey eyes open that little bit too wide, exaggerated further by the dark circles beneath them. And of course, the permanent smile on my cracked lips.

A parody of a nurse and a friendly face here to make things easier… that’s what I need to be.

Just a little longer.

I can break character when they’re all out.

I touched the corner of my smile, feeling how hard the tension had made the muscles in my cheeks. Julia once asked how I could cope with the pain of smiling all the time, but at this stage it hurts more not to smile. My face has been moulded to fit the mask. I imagine it will  vanish once everyone has been saved.

No… it will vanish after I’ve torn those abominations to shreds.   

Hehe. Time to get back to work.

This mansion must have been nice at one point. A beautiful, classy, elegant place where the aristocracy would gather; wining, dining and dancing the night away. But now the carpets beneath my feet are worn, and the walls are adorned with a mishmash of art from all different periods and cultures. That’s what they’ve done over the years; they picked up bits and bobs from humanity, keeping what they liked and jamming it together like the ill-fitting pieces of a puzzle. The effect is uncanny, even more so when you mix humans into their twisted little world.

Speaking of which, “Good morning Gina, Sam.”

The two women looked startled, not having noticed me coming down the hall; it seems my knack for silent travel is as strong as ever.  They both gave a hesitant ‘hello’, Gina even attempting a smile. Sam only looked away, not quite quick enough to hide the flicker of anger in her eyes. As we passed, I heard a hushed whisper pass between them, too quiet to make out all but one word.

Traitor.

When did I start paying such close attention to other people’s feelings? Or what they think of me?

I never used to. And it wasn’t out of arrogance or selfishness, at least I don’t think it was, but the emotions of others just never factored in before. I lived my life; everybody else was just set dressing. Even when I was first brought here, I spent more time trying to kill those parasites and run away than I did getting to know my fellow captives. From that to what I have become now, it’s no wonder they don’t like me.

But they still trust me.

They trust me enough to be alone with them.

They trust me to examine them.

They trust me because despite all I’ve done… I’m not one of those creatures.

And that trust is all I need.

Hehe.  

Hehehehe.

The door to what was now considered my office stood slightly ajar. Clearly, Evie didn’t want to wait outside, but that’s no problem.

There was an odd sense of comfort as I entered the dingy room.

A flick of the light switch illuminated several shapes along the walls. A large wooden desk, alongside shelves and cupboards packed tight with books, sheets of paper, and various medical apparatus. As a matter of principle, I tried not to let things pile up on the floor, resulting in every available surface being filled to bursting point.  It still smelled of must no matter how often I cleaned it, and the pictures only did so much to cover up the scratch marks, but it had become the one part of this hellhole I felt remotely comfortable in. Not as overly decorated as the bedrooms nor as dank as the dungeons. I still don’t feel at home here, and I hope I never do, but at least it doesn’t make me want to slit my throat.

Evie was sat in a green armchair in front of my desk. Her dark skin had a sickly pallor to it, and she was noticeably thinner than when she first arrived, but even so she made the effort to stand and smile when she noticed me entering.

“Hi Marina. S-sorry to just let myself in but the door was unlocked-”

“It’s fine Evie, it’s fine. You know you’re welcome anytime.” I indicated for her to sit down again, closing the door behind me and walking over. “So… how are you feeling?”

She seemed to be having trouble keeping eye contact with me but managed to answer “A bit sluggish and nauseous. I have been throwing up quite a bit which is why they… made me come here.” Her head snapped up, eyes widening with the look of a child who had just sworn in front of a teacher. “N-not that I have an issue with being here! And I d-definitely appreciate you seeing me but-”

“You don’t have to apologise, Evie.” I placed a hand on the back of the chair, close to her shoulder without touching it. She still flinched, immediately looking guilty as she did so. “They’re very paranoid about our health and they don’t understand enough to trust our judgment; hence why I’m here. Have you ever had this with your period before?”

Evie nodded. “More than once, though never three months in a row. It isn’t just when I’m on the rag either. And I have felt… discomfort down there, you know? It isn’t like… what happened to your hand?”

I followed her gaze down to my knuckles, the blood having already dried into a crusty scab.

“Just a little accident. Anyway, that discomfort probably isn’t anything serious, maybe you’ve had trouble adjusting to the food here.” She wouldn’t be the first; liver and spinach aren’t exactly a standard diet for most people. “But if you’d like I can have a look and see if I can find anything. Ok?” Evie nodded again, though eyes kept going back to my hand. “Alright, if you just want to lie down on the table.”

I indicated an examination table to her left. Well, I call it an examination table. It’s really just a narrow desk with a cloth over the top and some cushions for comfort, but it serves the same purpose well enough. Evie didn’t look too convinced though, glancing between it and the door.

“Um… it is just going to be you, right? I-I mean… they’re not… they won’t…”

She’s trembling.

Poor girl, she really is struggling here. All of them are of course, but some find it much harder to cope with than others. I’m glad she’s the first to be saved; at least she won’t have to deal with this for long.

Hmm, there’s that caring about others thing again. Must be becoming a habit.

I turned to the desk, pushing a few pages of notes aside before picking up a small bead on a string, holding it up to her and saying “You may have seen one of these on some of the other doors. They use it to indicate that they don’t want to be disturbed.” I opened the door and tied the string onto the outside handle, then closed and locked it. “Better?”

“… yeah. Yeah, that’s a lot better, thanks Marina.”

Evie pulled herself onto the table, turning to sit upright as she waited for further instructions. There was a dark stain on her skirt, a result of them not allowing us to use any products, but she didn’t seem bothered by it. Once she had settled, I walked around to the other side of the desk. There’s no sense risking infection for a moment of temper, so I rummaged around for a bandage, wrapping it around my hand and pulling an old pair of gloves over the top. Satisfied, I quickly glanced over the items I would be needing.

A large jug and two glasses, the jug containing a transparent liquid.

A tray full of shiny medical instruments, ranging from basic care to invasive surgery.

And a set of biological charts, one of which I pulled forward to remind myself where to start.

“Hey, Marina?”

“Hmm?”

“You found something here… didn’t you?”

Well now, this is interesting. I didn’t think any of them knew what I was doing here, especially when I’ve been so careful about hiding it. Not that I think they’ll tell on me, far from it, but I’ve intentionally kept quiet while I figure out all the kinks. The plan to save them is far from perfect; there’s a risk they could misunderstand my intentions.

“What do you mean ‘found something’?”

I didn’t need to look to know how nervous she was, but to her credit, she pushed on and answered me, her voice audibly cracking as she did so.  

“I mean… t-that is… Look, I know I haven’t been here very long, but I heard from the others about what happened to you. Before you… before you started doing this. Y-you were just one of us before, and you fought back! Everyone knows the stories! Like how you tried attacking them…”

Snapping my knife as I uselessly hacked at those walking piles of cartilage.

“… a-and how you managed to get further away from the mansion than anyone else…”

Barely able to breathe with my legs skewered by thorns from that godforsaken hedge maze.

“… and even when you were brought back you still resisted!”

Chained and gagging on a tube while they forced water, soup and whatever else they could down my throat.

“Some of the older ones actually thought you’d get away… but then you changed. You became this. You started working with them.” She hesitated before continuing “Some of the others think it’s a kind of stockholm syndrome, or that you just did it to save your own skin, but the rest… they thought you knew something we didn’t. That you were just playing along with them because you had found something that could help us.”

In other words, ‘please tell me you’re not really on their side after everything you’ve been through’.

Tap.

Tap.

Tap.

My fingernails continued tapping on the desk as I thought, knowing that if I turned around now, I would see that hopeful glint in her eye. It didn’t show up very often, the others tended to look at me with one of three expressions: hatred, disgust… or pity. But hope sometimes snuck its way in there, just in those brief seconds. She’s right of course, this is exactly what I’m doing, and she’s the only one to ever broach the subject. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to share what I’ve found… she’s the first to be saved, after all, understanding how would surely give her peace of mind for the others.

“Hehe… hehehe… hehehehehehe-”

“M-marina?”

Oops. “Did I laugh out loud?” There was no reply, but I knew the answer was yes. “Sorry. I spend a lot of time in my own mind; sometimes things slip out. But in response to your question… yes, I did find something.”

There was a rattle behind me, and I looked to see Evie gripping the edge of the table with whitened knuckles, her eyes wide and sparkling while her chest visibly rose and fell with excitement. Bless her heart; she’s trying so hard to stay calm. But it feels nice to see her light up like that.

… I think.

Everyone always describes the feeling of doing something for others as a warm sensation deep inside, but I’ve never had that. This is more like a spark of static across my brain. Hmm, maybe some people experience it differently. Either way, I know I’m doing the right thing.

“It’s not pleasant information,” I warned, moving the tray closer to her before doing the same with the jug and one of the glasses. “and it may not be what you want to hear.”

“Th-that’s fine! I just… if you know something, I want to know too. Please Marina.”

“Alright then Evie, I’ll tell you want I know. Sit up straight, I’ll give you a look over while we’re talking.” She obliged, sitting upright while I selected a thin stick off the tray and asked, “Have the others told you about the incident yet?”

Her eyebrows creased with effort. “Is that when the creatures let in a male doctor but some of the girls sealed him in a room all night an-”

“No no. That was an incident but not the incident. Open your mouth.” I pushed her tongue down examine the back of her throat. “No swelling, good. A few of the others know that something bad happened, but for a long time the details were lost; or more specifically, kept secret. Most of them I had to piece together myself from what evidence I found. The creatures have deliberately kept it quiet.” I took the stick out, pausing a moment before adding “They didn’t want to alarm us.” Her eyes widened, and a faint squeak escaped between her lips. “Do you want me to stop?”

She didn’t move for a moment, glancing between me and the door.

Then shook her head.

“Ok.” I felt her forehead, testing for signs of a fever. “You know that there are nine of them here currently? Well, there used to be ten. Actually, there used to be more than that but for our purposes, there were ten, the tenth calling itself Albion.”

Evie snorted, biting her lip in a bid to stop herself from giggling. “Albion?”

“Yes, another example of their marvellous choice of names. You want a drink?” She nodded, watching as I poured out some of the liquid from the jug into the glass. I watched as well, pleased to see nothing had gathered in the bottom of the jug. I was worried it wouldn’t dissolve completely; this solution is still quite new and I’m not confident I have the dosage right. But that’s why it needs to be tested, so I passed her the glass. “As I said most of this has been pieced together, mostly using what’s in this room, but from what I’ve been able to find Albion was interested in… learning about living creatures, and how they worked. Because of that, they started studying surgery, and eventually wanted to test what they’d learned.”

“Wait, what? Are you telling me one of those things started cutting people up?!”

“No no, they weren’t allowed to. Instead, they started on animals.”

“Ugh.” She cringed, lowering the glass just as she had been about to take a sip. “That’s not much bet… started?”

“Yes.” I turned away to consult one of my diagrams, tracing a few lines with the tip of my nail.  “For a while that’s all there was to it, just dissecting animals in an attempt to figure out what makes us all tick. I don’t know exactly how long that went on for, but things started to change when they got hold of a newspaper… from 1888.” There was a sharp intake of breath behind me; Evie must have guessed where I’m going. “In the paper was an article about the murder of Catherine Eddows. It seems Albion paid specific attention to what was removed from her body, which gave them the impression that they could do the same thing… as an alternate method to get our blood.”

“… a… an alt-…”

“They believed that a finite amount of blood is stored in the uterus, and little by little it gets released every month. By harvesting it directly, they reasoned it wouldn’t be necessary to keep us here for so long. Unfortunately, they didn’t understand that the blood and tissue are constantly getting replenished. Now, I haven’t been able to confirm exactly what happened, as none of them will talk to me about it, but it seems that one day Albion was compelled to… test out this method. Ironically, they lost about five women in the carnage and-”

My words were interrupted by a violent heaving sound, followed by a splat and a crash. I turned to see Evie doubled over, arms clutched over her stomach as vomit was chugged out, only taking breaks to gasp and cough before starting to heave again. Most of it had fallen onto the floor, shards of broken glass mixed in where she had dropped the glass. That seemed like a bit of a waste, but I couldn’t blame the poor thing, walking over and rubbing her back to help her along.

“Easy now, easy. Just let it out.”

Her eyes were already red as tears leaked out, snot starting to drip down her nose. She gripped my arm for support, heaving a few more times until my dress was decorated with a thin trail of vomit. I shushed and rubbed, letting her keep hold of me as the last few dregs dribbled out. At last, she seemed to be done, her head rocking forward to rest against me while she croaked “Agck… ugh… I’m… ugk… I’m sorry Marina…”

“There there, don’t be silly. Better out here than inside making you feel bad.”

There were a few more minutes of dry heaving and choked sobs before Evie was calm enough to lift her head. Her shaking fingers still dug into my arm, and I must admit it is strange having someone cling to me like this. I’ve never been particularly good with physical affection. Perhaps that was another mistake, another way that thinking only of myself has hampered my efforts.

And why it’s so important that I save the others first.  

“Better?”

Evie nodded, giving a small sniff before looking down at the mess of vomit and broken glass on the floor. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine. Let me get you another drink.” Lucky I remembered to keep an extra glass handy, what’s left in the jug should still be enough. I held the glass up to her lips, keeping hold of it while she drank as her hands were still trembling. “Slowly. You don’t want to throw up again.” Evie nodded, taking a smaller sip and swallowing. “That’s better. I’m sorry I upset you.”

“N-no it’s fine. You warned me and I said to go ahead anyway. I guess… I-I guess I got my hopes up a bit. I thought that you had found something to help.” She drank again, leaning back slightly. “Suppose that was stupid of me. Stupid to… to think we could actually… sorry.” She apologised, wiping her eyes as fresh tears started to bloom. Another swig, only a few drops remaining. Good. “I must be a right state. D-do you mind if I lie down? All this silly crying is making my head swim.”

“Go ahead, get comfortable.”

I took the glass from her and moved back to the desk, setting it down before taking another look at the diagrams. Seems the time has come, and now that Evie is a bit more settled, I can start the real work. Besides which, some good news will lift her spirits.

“You weren’t wrong.”

“Hmm? What do you mean?”

“About finding something to help.” My fingers moved to the tray, lingering over each instrument in turn. After a few seconds, I selected a single scalpel, examining the edge of the blade before adding “While their reasoning for doing it was flawed, and their method… inelegant, Albion had a point.”

Funny, by all rights I should be nervous about this. It has taken months of worming my way into the creature’s circle of trust, finding all the equipment and medicines I’ll need not only to keep up the charade but also to enact the final plan. And this is only the first step of many, I have much work to do before all of them can be saved. Every inch of me should be trembling… yet I feel more at ease now than I have in a long time.

Euphoric almost.

I wish I could say the same for poor Evie. Her eyes bulged like a fish from where she lay, staring fixedly at the scalpel in my hand.

“Don’t worry, it’s in good condition. I’ve been keeping all of the tools well-maintained and fully sanitized for as long as I’ve had access to them. Admittedly it took a while, nobody really cleaned up after Albion’s massacre, so there were some tough old stains to deal with. Now, hehe… you’ve probably already guessed that I have no training as a surgeon. I know enough about basic health care from my mum, she was a nurse you see, but what I’m going to do here is the fruit of many hours spent studying medical texts. A few of them are a little out of date, but I think I’ve got the principle down. I promise I will do everything in my power to minimize the damage. And once I’ve had a bit of practise the results will be much more efficient, don’t you agree?”

My words elicited a squeak from Evie as she tried to sit up…try being the operative word.

I raised the glass in front of her face, idly swirling the small remnant of liquid around as her head fell back onto the cushion.  

“Looks like you didn’t need the full amount for it to become effective. That’s useful to know, I want to make sure I keep any future doses only to what is necessary for the procedure. Oh no Evie, please don’t strain yourself.” Her arms were visibly tensing, and I placed a reassuring hand on hers to try and help her relax. “You’re going to be paralysed for a little while longer; forcing your muscles now could cause long-term damage.”

My warning went unheeded as she began trembling, fighting against the stiffness that overtook her limbs. Her lips parted slightly but even then, she couldn’t get out much more than a faint squeak. Impressive how quickly it acts, and I didn’t realise it would restrict her vocal cords so much; that’s useful, can’t have anybody overhearing after all.

“You should be going numb soon, I mixed in a few painkillers. Personally, I would have preferred to put you under completely, but the only sedative I found that could do the trick is the one Emily nearly choked on. Remember? Her throat swelled up like a toad, it took a whole week before she could breathe normally again. And even with smaller doses that swelling still occurs; they know to look for that. I won’t be able to save any of you if they know what I’m doing.”

There was a slight twitch in her cheek, but it appeared Evie had lost complete control of her body. I waited a few moments. There was always the chance that the effects were temporary, but the longer I watched the plainer it became that she was not going anywhere. Now to start the tricky bit. I moved one of the cushions so it rested under her knees, keeping her legs slightly elevated. Then I lifted the hem of her skirt, pulling it all the way up to expose her belly. Tears were streaming down her frozen cheek as her eyes followed the scalpel now hovering over her flesh.

“I know this seems harsh, Evie, but it’s the only way I’ll be able to save you all.”

The first incision is the most important, and it must be done in the right place.

Fighting them doesn’t work.”

I can’t let her down.

Running away doesn’t work.”

I can’t let any of them down.”

“But this…

Ah… hehehe, here it is.

… this will work.”

I let the tip of the scalpel press lightly against her skin… and for the first time in months, my smile felt genuine.

“They won’t want us… if we can’t bleed.

//

Also available on itch.io – https://anmanarrative.itch.io/the-first-jewel-to-be-saved

This is an idea I’ve been playing with for a long time now. The original idea was for a longer story (which I may still do, though I’m rethinking what perspective it would be written from) but for now I just wanted to get it out there in some form. Plus out of all the characters I’ve ever created, Marina is easily one of my favourites and I really wanted to do something with her.

Also writing it has reminded me how much I love writing horror from the perspective of a killer/monster (take from that what you will). I used to do it all the time (like with this short story https://anmanarrative.wordpress.com/2020/10/03/to-be-old-and-wise-you-must-first-be-young-and-stupid/ ) but somewhere along the line I stopped and I don’t really know why. I definitely think I write better like that, it just flows more naturallly (again, read from that what you will) but let me know if you’d be interested in more stories like that.

As always let me know what you think.

Corporal Marshall’s Letter – Demon Skinned Postwoman (Episode 3)

“Ow! For fuck’s sake!”

Jen glared at the bead of blood swelling on her fingertip.

It was one of the fresher pinpricks scattered across her hands, most of them having faded to barely visible marks at this point. Her sewing had improved over time, the stitching was much neater and the seams strong enough to withstand long periods of wear, but she was still a novice. Combined with the awkwardness of having to sew herself into the suit and she was thankful to only be pricking her hands; there had been more than a few nightmares about piercing her gut.   

She picked up the needle again, letting out a little sigh and muttering “I’d sell my soul for a decent zip right now.”

The only response to her wish was a sudden shout from Mama’s room, followed by a few faint curses. Jen dropped the needle and leapt to her feet.

“Mama?! What happened?!”

Nothing seemed out of place, in fact Mama was gently rocking an egg-shell cradle as if nothing had happened; inside a featherless bird-like baby writhed and squealed.

“Ah child, you have a visitor.” She said, pointing a talon towards the main entrance. “Quite a rude one at that; they didn’t even say hello.”

Jen’s eyebrows creased, stepping outside into the humid air. There were footprints on the ground, but she couldn’t see any-

“DON’T MOVE DEMON!”

A gun clicked loudly behind her and Jen instinctively raised her hands. “Woah woah woah don’t shoot! I’m not a demon!” She turned slowly, keeping her hands high. “I swear I’m not a demon!”

The barrel of the machine gun hesitated, its owner staring in bewildered horror at her half-suited body.

Good job I didn’t put the mask on yet. She thought, trying to keep her voice calm while she eyed the weapon. “I know this looks weird but it’s just a suit. Completely human under here, see? I’ve got a shirt and hair and everything; 100% human.”

The gun didn’t lower but it visibly hesitated, giving Jen the opportunity to examine her shooter. Despite being covered in dust and bloodstains the camouflage gave him away as a soldier. He stood at least a foot taller than her, his dirt smeared face peeking out from under a round helmet, a few strands of blonde hair hovering over his eyes. Apart from the one still pointing at her, he had two smaller guns on his belt and a knife strapped to his leg.

That amount of weaponry wasn’t helping her nerves.

He wasn’t the first soldier she’d met since the meld, there were quite a few who still had their uniforms and equipment. Most seemed to be working with other humans to rebuild and defend communities, such as those Colonel White commanded at Gamma base, but others acted a bit more… trigger happy. The attitude seemed to be ‘shoot anything not human and act like you know what you’re doing’. Humans weren’t the only ones being hunted after all, and even she had been shot at a few times. Part of her knew it wasn’t fair to judge them all for this, some were just as scared as everyone else and coping however they could. But after spending so much time with Mama the idea of demon slaughter was more than a little upsetting.

At last, the gun was lowered.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Jen blinked; not sure she’d heard him right. “I’m… I’m sorry?”

“This!” He said, standing upright and using the gun to gesture at her suit. “This sick shit demon getup! I was told I’d find a postman here who can take messages anywhere, instead I find some messed up cosplayer!”

Lowering her hands Jen countered “Postwoman if you don’t mind. And do you seriously mean to tell me that nobody mentioned I’d be wearing this?”

“YES!”

“Bloody hell! What’s the point of networking if a detail that important gets left out?” She rubbed her forehead, feeling the pressure of a migraine beginning to build. “Look, you’ve got your big old gun to survive. Me? I wear this; it makes it easier to move around unnoticed.”

He didn’t look convinced, glancing between her and the curtain. “What about the freakshow in there?”

“Wow, are those the manners you learned at boot-camp? Not all demons are hostile you know, and Mama’s been helping me-”

“Mama! Fucking Mama!”

Jen gritted her teeth; this soldier was starting to seriously piss her off. She had dealt with questions about her situation before, but most of the people who gave her letters tended to either shrug it off or keep quiet.

“You know, if how I do things is so disgusting to you then clearly my services aren’t suitable. Thanks for wasting my time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got letters to deliver.”

She turned back towards the curtain, mind already turning to the route she had planned today when a heavy hand fell on her shoulder.

“Wait! Look I’m… I’m sorry. Whatever fucked up shit you’re into is none of my business.” Jen glared at him, starting to pull away but he held on. “Ok ok I really amsorry, but I need this letter delivered! Please!”

There was a long pause, the two of them watching each other until the silence was broken by Mama’s voice.

“Everything alright out there child?”

Jen looked between the curtain and the soldier, seeing a line of desperation cutting through his hardened features. She was tempted to go back inside, but eventually called out “Fine Mama, just… doing business. Alright, let me see the letter.” Her last words were addressed to the soldier, who quickly fished out a letter from his pocket and handed it over. The paper was thin and crumpled with an untidy scrawl on the front. “Private S Walker? Colleague of yours?”

“Yes. He was in my squadron. Good man, due to be promoted.”

“Got it, and where would… have you got a name, soldier boy?”

He grunted a little, straightening up as he responded “Corporal Martin Marshall. But that’s Corporal to you, civilian.”

“Alright Corporal, my name is Jen. Now, where is Private Walker?”

“I don’t know.”

“… what do you mean you don’t know?”

“I don’t know where he is, that’s why I’m here talking to you! You’re supposed to know this hellhole better than anyone and be able to find people! Isn’t that your fucking job?!”

Don’t hit him Jen. It’s not worth it… plus he has guns. “Ok, let me make this clear to you, Corporal. I. Deliver. Letters. I wear the suit for protection and, yes, I have figured out a few tricks to navigate around and find people. But that doesn’t make me omniscient; I still need something to start from! A direction or a landmark; something! And sometimes… sometimes I can’t find them even then.” Names floated in front of her eyes as she spoke. “If that’s not good enough for you then go.”

Another silence passed between them, Jen once again considering just walking away. 

“There was… there was a storm. A sandstorm.”

“… oh.”

Sandstorm. More like grains of acid travelling at a thousand miles an hour. Mama had explained it as best she could, apparently it was a natural phenomenon the world used to cleanse itself of any impurities. The sand would burn any organic matter it touched, and if left too long it could even dissolve bone. She had seen some of the remnants; not a pretty sight. Mama also mentioned that they happened more and more often since the meld, as if humans were a type of infestation.

“We were on patrol when it hit, investigating some reports of ground collapses and attacks on one of our usual routes. There was not much time to react when it started, and we got separated very quickly. I managed to take shelter under this ridge thing. By the time the storm had passed there was no sign of him. No trail to follow, not a single footprint and there was still so much sand… I-I don’t know where Sammy’s gone.” There was a crack in his voice. He turned his face away, but Jen swore she could make out a faint shimmer in his eyes as he added “We went southeast of Black Lake, if you know it. I remember there was a big metal thing near where we got separated. Long and round; I think it was an old submarine.” He looked up back at her, his expression hardened. “That’s all I can say. I’m sorry if it’s not enough but I still want you to try.”

It wasn’t much to go on, though she had succeeded with less. She knew Black Lake at least. The sandstorm was the biggest factor to contend with. And he had mentioned something about the ground collapsing; that couldn’t be anything good. Every time she looked at it there was less chance of success.

I could say no, I’m under no obligation to deliver it. And he has been a jackass. Still…

The Corporal’s expression faltered, and despite everything Jen couldn’t bring herself to say no.  

“I can’t promise anything, Corporal. But I will try.”

It was amazing how quickly his face brightened at her words, and there was a genuine note of gratitude as he muttered “Th… thanks.”

“You’re welcome. Now… please tell you were told about payment.”

“Huh? Oh, yes right. Obviously you won’t take cash.”

“That’s right, it’s trade on… ly… You still have cash?” A few rustles later and Jen was staring at a tight roll of £20 notes. She let out a low whistle, genuinely impressed. “Wow, I didn’t know any had survived; old Delaney might get to run a bank after all. But unless there’s a shop in one of those pockets it’s still useless. I don’t take food either; got my own supply.”

“I don’t know what I’ve got that’s useful to trade; it’s mostly regulation stuff, and even that we keep light these days. I could probably part with the desert eagle?

“No guns. Got any stationary? I could always use extra paper.”

“Nothing like that. Let’s see, I have a pocketknife… a compass… bandages…”

“Does the compass work?”

He frowned as he pulled the little circle out of his pocket. “Surprisingly yes, don’t know how but it’s able to find the poles. Hasn’t helped me much but if you want it…”

Jen nodded, taking the small device and watching as the arrow shuddered towards north. This was a surprising stroke of luck. Due to the lack of sun directions had been a nightmare, even more so each time the environment changed. The compass wouldn’t fix all her issues, but it would at least give her a better anchor to work from.

The two parted ways and Jen headed back inside, still looking at the compass.

“Mama?”

“Yes child?”

“This is going to be a long one; I’ll take a waterskin with me.”

*

It took nearly a day to reach the site known commonly as Black Lake, slowed by a longer than usual delivery to the rabbit mountain community. The cave system was one of her most common stops, and even when the world shifted it was such a clear landmark that finding it was quite easy. However, she had accumulated a large bundle this time and with how complex the community had become tracking down each recipient took some time. A surprise encounter with a tearful Emma and John waylaid her even further; she was pleased to see them reunited and was even introduced to their son before finally managing to pry herself away.

A few more stops after that left only Private Walker’s letter remaining, finally leading her to the vast expanse of dark water in a star-shaped basin.

Jen didn’t know if the colour came from the water itself or the lakebed. There was a distinct smell of salt coming from it, similar to that of an ocean but much stronger; it irritated her nose the longer she was exposed to it. A few small demons wandered along its bank, tiny creatures that looked like a strange combination of crocodile and chihuahua, though they didn’t go near the water itself.

Come to think of it, I’ve never seen anything go in the water. Not to drink or to bathe… is it even safe?

The thought festered in her mind for a while, and she decided it would a good idea to keep her distance from the water.   

Crouched by a rotting pile of wood, she pulled out the compass and watched the arrow start to spin, keeping her hands close to her chest so nobody could see what she had. The waterskin sloshed inside a makeshift pocket she had sewn onto the front of the suit, making her belly appear slightly swollen.

“Southeast… southeast… that way!”

While at rabbit mountain she had taken the opportunity to ask a few people about Private Walker and the submarine, hoping to flesh out the directions she had been given by Corporal Marshall. Nobody recognised the name, and although a few mentioned seeing something that looked like a submarine their pointers were just as vague as the corporals. She was still very much on her own.

Slipping the compass back into her pouch, she let out a low growl to help get into character, then began to crawl away from the lake.

The sky seemed brighter than usual, illuminating the red-tinged landscape. Beneath her feet the dust-covered ground was growing harder, scattered with the remains of the sandstorm that hadn’t yet dissolved. Her suit was thick enough that the remaining sand wouldn’t reach her skin, but she still avoided it however she could; no point risking damage to the suit, and it made sense for a rat-head to keep their distance from something so dangerous. There were other traces of the storm; withered plant-life, burn marks on the rocks… and bones.

Jen stopped, tilting her head as if sniffing the air.

It was quiet. Quiet and far more open than she would have liked. The lack of life was starting to make her uncomfortable, her spine growing tense as if being squeezed. No demons, large or small, or even an eyeball growing out of the ground. And yet she didn’t feel like she was alone. The more she listened, the more she could swear she heard a faint scuttling sound in the distance.

Maybe I should have taken the gun. She thought, but immediately shook it away; she had managed to avoid killing so far and intended it keep it that way. 

After a few minutes she resumed her crawl, moving slower and taking more breaks than she usually would. A stone ridge began to incline on either side of her, lightly covered in withered grass. She noticed the ground appeared looser, and as her hand scraped over the dirt she could have sworn there was a faint vibration. Corporal Marshall hadn’t mentioned anything like this, but the compass still indicated she was going in the right direction. Just as she was starting to consider doubling back, she noticed something poking out beyond the far end of the ridge. Something large, rusty in colour from what she could tell at this distance, and with a round shape… like the end of a submarine!

“Bingo!” She all but cheered as she picked up the pace.

Her left hand suddenly started to dip. She pulled back just as the ground crumbled away, a deep tunnel left in its place. Panting slightly, Jen stared into the dark hole. The Corporal had mentioned hiding, but he said it was under a ridge; this was more like a burrow. When she leaned forward the scuttling sounds got louder. She moved back, trying to decide what direction to move in, only to feel something grasping her ankle. With a shriek she yanked herself away from a thick, grey, fur-covered lobster claw sticking out of the dirt.

“Oh shit…”

The curse had barely left her lips before more claws came bursting up, soon followed by narrow heads and clicking fangs. Jen had to hop to avoid each new attack. There were big enough gaps between them for her to step on, but it was hard to predict where they would come up. She hissed as loud as she could, swiping back at the nearest claw, but her attempted display of aggression only resulted in the nearest creature giving a horribly high-pitched squeal. Her heart raced as she looked back at the submarine; there were at least a dozen of the creatures between it and her, far too many to get past while pretending to be a rat-head.

“Fuck it!”

She sprung up to her feet and ran, aiming for the ridge as she continued to dodge attacks. Several of them snagged her suit as she passed, but soon she had reached the nearest of the ridges, taking a running leap to grab onto the edge. The claws helped her to find purchase on the rock, and she struggled to pull herself up. One of the furry lobsters took advantage of her dangling, grasping her leg and yanking it down. Tears filled her eyes, the pain shooting up her body while her leg felt like it was going to dislocate. She wriggled, using her other leg to kick the claw away as she dragged herself onto the top of the ridge. Her leg finally came free with a tearing sound and she collapsed on the grassy surface, pulling it up to examine the damage and seeing her own foot peeking out of a gash in the suit.

“Perfect… just perfect….”

Clicks and screeches caught her attention, seeing the lobsters were moving towards the ridge. From up here she could see just how big they were, their bodies like centipedes and their tails wide and flat, pounding the ground in frustration. 

“Thanks for warning me about this Corporal!”

Gritting her teeth, she turned back to the submarine.

The ridge stretched all the way towards it, so she stood up and forced herself into a limping run, aware of the lobsters starting to scratch at the bottom of the ridge. A few of them seemed to have figured out where she was going and were scuttling alongside her, others returning to their burrows. A small gap loomed ahead, Jen building up as much speed as she could with the damage to her suit, jumping at the last minute and landing on her stomach with a heavy thump.

Her lungs and her muscles ached, every inch of her screaming for respite. A flush of dampness spread across her front; the impact must have caused the waterskin to burst inside its pocket. With what was left of her strength she pushed herself onto her knees. Not far in front was a raised section of metal, indicating the main entrance to the submarine. It took some effort to get her body crawling, but soon she had reached the entrance, finding the hatch door open and a pulsing mass of flesh surrounding it. Before she could look inside, she heard a thud, followed quickly by an ear-splitting scraping sound, turning to see one of the lobsters approaching. It was even more unsteady than she was, but she knew it wouldn’t take long to reach her and started to move back.

The metal gave way to nothing as she slipped into the entrance, shrieking while her flailing arms sought any kind of grip.

Her descent came to an abrupt halt when something cold grabbed her wrist, quickly revealed to be a hand protruding from the fleshy mass on the ceiling, it’s grip strong enough to keep her suspended in the air. Before Jen had time to process this there was more scrapes from outside. Using the hand and a few tentacle-like appendages dangling alongside it, she swung herself back up to the hatch and grabbed the wheel, slamming it down with a grunt of effort just as the lobster slashed at her.

The world grew dark, silent save for the echoing bangs of her attacker. After several moments, feeling the blood rushing to her head as she hung awkwardly, the sounds began to fade. Jen managed to disentangle herself from the hanging limbs, twisting as she dropped down to land on her feet; an act she regretted as the impact ricocheted through her knees.

She gasped, not even having the strength to groan as she curled into the foetal position on the metal grating.

She lay there a minute.

Then two.

Five.

Ten.

Eventually the discomfort of the metal overcame her aches and pains. Jen uncurled herself and stood up, pulling apart the jaws of her mask and blinking to let her eyes adjust to the gloom. It wasn’t pitch black, now that she looked she could see what appeared to be luminous algae scattered along the wall, casting a sickly yellow glow throughout the submarine. The inside was certainly big, though the number of old pipes and controls made it feel a bit claustrophobic. Part of her wondered if anything still worked, or even how such a massive thing had even ended up like this, but considering how messed up the world had become since the meld it was unlikely she could ever find an answer.  

Her eyes turned instead to the hatch she had come through, staring at the limbs still hanging down.

“Thanks for the hand.” She said, unable to stop herself giggling as she did so. Once she had caught her breath, she reached into her pouch and pulled out the wrinkled letter. “Ok, now I have two things to deal with; getting past the lobsters and where to look for Private Walker. If he has already left the area, then I’m screwed.”

Her foot slid backwards, and she nearly jumped at a burning sensation, whirling around to see piles of sand all down the left hallway. It was strange seeing so much that hadn’t dissolved, especially compared to how it was outside; perhaps the lack of organic material left it no way to fizzle out.

“The door must have been open during the storm. Perhaps…” She hesitated, glancing down both corridors then shouting “PRIVATE WALKER? PRIVATE WALKER? SAMMY? ARE YOU IN HERE?”

Nothing.

Not a single sound.

But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t here.

With no other choice, she turned down to the right.

There were a few bits of sand down this direction but nothing like the other piles she had seen, and just enough algae appeared to help her navigate safely. She searched each room she came across, occasionally calling Private Walker’s name in the hopes that he was hiding out somewhere. The deeper inside she went the more flesh mounds she noticed appearing on the walls and ceilings. Mostly limbs and eyes, though she did see one shrivelled head, too disfigured to make out what kind of creature it was.

After opening one cabin door, Jen was momentarily taken aback by a wash of decay. For the most part she had grown used to such smells, but this was strong and had a faint acidic note to it. It did not take long for her to find the source of the smell, a rotting body slumped against the far wall beside a thick stretch of flesh; part of it had grown around the body’s arm like the root of a tree. There was enough of the body remaining to show it was human… and enough clothing to identify it as a soldier. Her stomach tightened, dread flooding her brain as she gingerly turned the body over, careful in case there were any loose grains remaining. A glint of silver drew her attention, and soon she was looking at a dog tag.

“Private S. Walker… sorry Sammy.”

Tears pricked at her eyes; she always hated when this happened.

The dead letter was placed on the Privates chest, and she even gave a small salute before turning away. There were a few distant bangs from outside, but not as many as she was expecting. That either meant that the lobsters were getting bored or they were waiting to surprise her again. Either way it was still too dangerous to leave. She slumped down against the door of the cabin, pulling out the damaged waterskin from its damp hiding place. There was still a small amount remaining, so she took a swig.

Her eyes fell again on the soldier’s body.

“I know you couldn’t read the letter Sammy, but I’m sure you’ll see the Corporal again eventually.” A much louder bang sounded, and Jen gritted her teeth. “Sooner than expected if I ever get my hands on him.”

//

Also available on itch.io – https://anmanarrative.itch.io/demon-skinned-postwoman-episode-3-corporal-marshalls-letter

Cover art was made by the incredible Dhani Shanti, follow him on twitter https://twitter.com/dizzlefizzle_ and check out his website https://dshanti0013.wixsite.com/dizzlefizzle

Well it’s been a LONG time but I finally wrote a new entry in this series! Not sure how inspiration came to me but I’m happy it did, I forgot how much I’ve enjoyed writing about this world. I’ve already started working on the next entry so hopefully I can start writing them regularly like I originally planned.

Previous – https://anmanarrative.wordpress.com/2020/01/29/mama-demon-skinned-postwoman/

Next – https://anmanarrative.wordpress.com/2021/04/14/observations-demon-skinned-postwoman-episode-4/

First – https://anmanarrative.wordpress.com/2020/01/18/emmas-letter-demon-skinned-postwoman/

“To be old and wise you must first be young and stupid.”

Over the years I do feel like I have grown more mature.

Sometimes it is hard to believe that there are any benefits to growing up, especially considering how exciting youth can be. All the rushing emotions, the new experiences… and the mistakes.

The wonderful, wonderful mistakes.

I was always a sensitive girl, getting upset at anything and everything. No matter how much I loved someone or how sorry they were, if they annoyed me even a little bit I would lose it. And I could never handle it gracefully! There was always this urge to do something until whatever the frustration was had gone. When I was little the merest comment would send me into instant tears, then from about ten onwards I started lashing out. Honestly, the fights I got into are cringe-worthy to think of; all that hair-pulling!

High school was the big turning point though, as that was when I figured out my coping method… but it was also the first time I got caught.

Silly me, we’d been arguing all day so it made sense I’d be the number one suspect. And with all the renovations around my estate alleys just aren’t what they used to be. The police were unable to prove anything but still, I had painted a target on my head.

Part of me knew that the sensible thing to do would be to step back and forget it ever happened. But seeing that light flicker out… it was the most the beautiful moment of my life. A deep sense of euphoric peace came over me, in those few minutes it seemed like nothing could ever bother me again. And the more I tried to put it out of my mind, the more I knew I wanted to do it again.

This time I had to be more subtle, so I started going to anger management classes. It helped me control my feelings, plus my parents were happy that I was willing to get ‘help’ for my issues. As I got closer to finishing school I rarely fought, my grades went up, and the science teacher taught me a lot of cool tricks about the human body. The second time was still a bit shaky as I was struggling with an alibi, but this time they could not get any physical evidence. And by this point I was hooked; it was only a matter of time before I needed to see another light flicker out.

So like with any hobby, I practised.

By the time I moved away to university I was starting to manage a monthly routine. Heck I even timed it to match my monthlies; it gave me the perfect cover-up for the smell of blood. My record was still a bit dodgy. And there were a few embarrassing slip-ups (footprints, messy alibis, that toe the binmen found etc). And my anger had not completely abated. There were still one or two fights, especially after drinking.

The next big mistake was not long after graduation. I got caught beating up some foul-mouthed prick, the police arrived and I was arrested. Vodka made me chatty and not very polite, which did not help the situation at all. Thankfully I didn’t have my tools with me, so the charge was just for assault. Still had to go to prison but it gave me time to think long and hard about my mistakes.

I got out.

I got a job.

I cut back to one roughly every three months.

And I lived my life.

Never married but that didn’t matter; no relationship could ever compare to that dimming light. Better yet, all that experience meant I stopped slipping up. It was truly an artform by this point; a multitude of masterpieces that I couldn’t take credit for.

And now, as I am coming up to my fiftieth birthday, I look back on all those mistakes with fondness. Yes, I was a dumb girl who made some stupid moves, but you really do grow wiser with age. You start to see where it is worth taking the risk and where you have to step back and act more carefully. Getting something wrong at the beginning is fine if it helps you perfect your count in the end.

While I will never forget the first time, I am nearly at a hundred now.

That is quite an achievement, don’t you think?

*

I decided to edit and post this as a little confidence booster.

Honestly I’ve been struggling to write much to a finished state lately. Still editing my novel which is not going to be ready for 2020 as planned but better that I delay it until I’m happy rather than putting it out there just for the sake of getting it out. That’s part of the reason why I decided to go for self-publishing, so I could have full control of my work and make sure I’m happy with it.

Working on a couple of short stories, including one potentially for an anthology put together by the incredible Nita Pan (she is incredible and you should all check her out – links down below), but finding it difficult to get them finished and edited.

So I was looking through my old work and came across this piece I wrote back when I was in the creative writing society of my university. The title is actually the prompt we were given, and while it isn’t my best work by a long shot (I have improved so much over the years) I did receive a fantastic compliment for it. At a later session one of the other members told me that this piece actually gave her a nightmare. Considering how much I love writing horror and how much I want to do it well, this is the best best compliment I have ever received on any of my stories.

So there you go, just putting this up to give myself a little boost and hopefully motivate me to finish my other things. If you like it too that’s great but really I just needed to do this for myself.

Fun fact, most of the prompt responses I wrote were from the perspectives of killers, monsters and people losing their minds. I could turn nearly every prompt into something twisted, to the point where I got the reputation as the creepy writer of the group. And apparently I was creepy when reading them out loud as well, so if anyone needs a psycho lady voice-over hit me up haha.

Nita Pan twitter – https://twitter.com/nitapanwrites

Nita Pan website – https://nitapanwrites.com/

Choked

Our world is being choked

*

It has been choked by smoke

Nature burning for months

All living things affected

Earth crying for the fires death

Homes at risk in need of aid

With few high answering the call

Yet when history was set alight

It was quickly promised new life

Tears for glass and stone

Silence for bush and forest

We value that which we make

More than the planet that birthed us

*

It has been choked by sickness

A plague hiding in plain sight

Slithering from soul to soul

Death coiling while power stands by

Too long they took to act

Too little they did to protect

No help for the healers at risk

Yet they claim they have done all

The sickness has not left

And still it is hard to breath

Now they press for normality

More love for coin then life

*

It has been choked by suffering

Oppression from those sworn to protect

Murderers shielded from justice

By the uniform they corrupt

Discrimination now exposed

Though always it was there

And now the people scream

Trying peace and getting violence

Still they fight for every life

Standing proud and striking back

Suffocating the power that chokes them

With gas and spray and hate

*

Amidst all this a common thread

All is choked by fear

*

Fear for nature neglected and abused

Fear of the plague still clinging on

Fear for the safety of all those fighting

Fear of the year getting worse

Fear for the world now falling apart

Fear of the future we cannot see coming

*

One step forward two steps back

New wounds tear through healing scars

Worse worse worse it grows

Consuming our lungs and turning us blue

Trying to believe it is not the end

That all can be weathered and won

Yet as everything cracks and crumbles

It is hard… hard not to choke on despair

*

Choke

I hope we win the fight

Choke

I hope we can survive this year

Choke

I hope for a day we can breathe again

*

That hope is our inhaler

But we still need a respirator

***

Well… haven’t written one of these in a while.

So this is one of three vent poems I’ve written over the years, and what I mean by vent poem is just a poem that lets me vent my feelings on a particular event (whether I am directly involved or not). Despite the fact that I’ve been coping fairly well in terms of mental-health (my depression has flared up over the last few months but never to a serious state) 2020 is wearing on me. Everything that’s happened this year (some things even started last year now I think about it) is starting to get too much to think about, but it’s also unavoidable so I decided to try and get some of it off my chest.

Now I realise I haven’t shared the other two poems on here, and not sure if I’m going to any time soon. See I am an escapist writer. I like fiction as fiction, and while sometimes my work will be inspired by real events/history/personal experiences (whether intentionally or subconsciously) I write to tell stories not make statements. The only piece of fiction that really came from something real was Always There, but even that was just drawing on my depression for inspiration (Tomb Raider was equally responsible for that story); admittedly it was therapeutic, but it’s still intended to be fiction. If people read something deeper into my work then great, go for it and tell me your thoughts, but at this point in time that’s not my aim as a writer. Maybe later that will change, but right now I write for the same reason I read; to get lost in a fictional world.

But every so often something sticks with me and I have to express myself, so that’s what the vent poetry is for. As I said before this is only the third one I’ve ever written, but every time I finish one it makes me feel better. This is the least structured of all the vent poems but the point is to express my feelings, not to win an award, so who cares.

I don’t know why I just rambled on for all that, really I should not be allowed to say anything outside of my written work because I always say a lot of nonsense, haha. Honestly it just feels good to get this out, I haven’t been able to write anything in just over 3 weeks so hopefully this frees my brain up for a return to fiction. Also wordpress? Seriously why can I not leave spaces in between lines?! The asterisks look weird but it’s the only way I can separate the lines how I want!

On a final note regarding the current situation… Black Lives Matter.

Red Thread

“Keep your stitches neat and your head down. Focus only on your work.”

“Yes Miss.” Evelyn chorused with the rest of the room, keeping her eyes on her embroidery.

The stitched face of a woman looked back at her while she continued to sew. She was an elegant lady, pale-skinned and red-haired in a dark blue gown, a powder-blue parasol clutched in her hands. It was nearly finished, the result of hours of patient work. In her opinion it was just as good, if not better, as those of the other students. All that was left were the red flowers on the dress and…

Evelyn stared at her table.

Flosses lay there, pitiful shreds of thread that remained from her previous stitching. There was not so much as a scrap of red thread. She thought she had planned enough for the hair and the dress; clearly, she had misjudged how much she would need. The lady was complete, but without that detail she looked flat and dull.

She had to be beautiful.

Without daring to look up, she asked “Um, Miss? Miss, I need some red thread to fin-”

“A good seamstress plans her work around the materials at hand. You should have everything you need.”

“Yes, I know, and I promise that next time I’ll do better, but if I could just nip out an-”

“You will not leave until the piece is finished.”

Evelyn’s protests died in her throat, listening to the fading clip clop of her teacher’s boots.

She wasn’t allowed to leave until it was done, but there was no way to finish without more red thread. Her eyes briefly flicked towards the student on her left, glancing at their table. Their thread was all but gone, and there was no red to be seen. A look to the right showed the same. And she could hear people scraping their chairs, preparing to leave.

How could she get the red thread?

Her eyes fell on her sewing scissors.

She set the embroidery on her lap, puncturing an empty space of cloth with the threadless needle before reaching out to the scissors. The grips slid comfortably around her fingers. Cold metal touched skin. There was no weight to the object, yet it shuddered in her hands. Then, tracing the tip of the blade on the inside of her wrist in a square motion, she settled on one patch of skin.

The scissors opened.

Nobody noticed the moist squelch of metal cutting through skin. Or if they did, they didn’t say anything.

Evelyn gritted her teeth as she continued to carefully cut a square of skin, leaving one side intact so she could pull it open and closed easily. Once the viscera was exposed, pulsing in its newfound freedom, she used the scissors to carefully snip a single vein.

Red began to blossom.

Evelyn quickly put the scissors down and picked up the needle, threading the weeping vein through its eye before piercing the cloth again.

Stitch by stitch by stitch.

It was the perfect shade of red, allowing her to carefully add tiny detailed flowers to the woman’s blue dress. Occasionally she tugged at the vein to pull more out. The sensation made her arm feel tight, tension causing her hand to shake, yet still she continued.

Cross-stitch here. Featherstitch there.

The red was beginning to spread beyond the flowers. It zig-zagged in a spiderweb through the rest of the colours, and as Evelyn made more and more stitches it started adding details of its own. Lines of red went from the woman’s dress to her arms, piercing through her pale skin as if she was being sewn to the fabric. The smile grew wide and jagged, while tiny stitches of blood spiralled from the corners of each eye.

Her vision began to blur.

Her stomach curled.

And her arm throbbed dully as the vein struggled to stay in place.

Evelyn gritted her teeth, focusing on the final few flowers. She disregarded the new extensions to the limbs, and the pointed protrusions on the torso and neck. She didn’t even take notice of the spindly, finger-like objects now clutching the parasol.

The final stitch.

Again, she picked up the scissors, severing the connection between the vein and the needle before tightly knotting what was left at the back of the fabric.

“M-Miss… I’ve… I’ve finished…”

Evelyn held the distorted embroidery out to her teacher, keeping her gaze low as her teacher clip-clopped over. When the fabric left her hand, it took her strength with it, causing her to slump forward and crumple to a heap. The floor was painted by the still weeping vein.

“Well done Evelyn, I knew you could make something beautiful. It looks like you poured your heart into this.”

*

No idea where this came from but I’m not one to turn my nose up at productivity. It’s much shorter than my usual pieces and honestly kind of weird (I wrote this in a bit of a haze) but I think it’s an interesting little horror concept.

Also between this and my other short story Breathless Purple I seem to be on a colour kick with horror, maybe I should do a full rainbow horror anthology.

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