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Thread: The Catalogue Pt. 7: Competition Winners

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    Default The Catalogue Pt. 7: Competition Winners

    Competition Winners

    This Catalogue serves to keep a record of past Scriptorium competition winners. Stored are first, second, and third place of all competitions and the winners of the Librarian choice award.



    Halloween Writing Competition 2008

    Winner
    Author: Zuwxiv
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 
    The Man
    On the night before November, as the sun burned blood-red embers,
    Over the quaint and curious houses perched beyond my only door,
    As I pondered newfound faces, gnarled heads of pumpkin races,
    With a burning flame in places where a heart should be before -
    Then they came, in cruel disguises, as I’d never seen before -
    Knocking at my chamber door.

    I gaze through my peeping window, but it shows me naught but shadow,
    Trust I not their black eyes hollow, moat it is of my rancor.
    Question I forbidding aims, through a door closed to their games,
    and to my sceptic disdain, “Trick or treat!” they do implore -
    For the nameless and the masked, I myself to them implore
    “Leave this place forever more.”

    My tormentors claim donation, demand they a staple ration
    They desire sweets and candy to appease the ghastly corps.
    Trust I not demanding strangers, know I of the certain dangers,
    Of mobs of hungered covered rangers pounding on my chamber door -
    Teeth and claw and wing and beak luring prey to open door -
    Fear I night-time mischief war.

    Say they are the neighbor’s children, see I dozen faces hidden,
    Hidden under grim facade of nameless shaken darkened gore.
    “No,” I shriek, “Leave my home, go ye back to where ye roam!
    Haunt the ancient dusty tomes, make not doorsteps worn and sore!”
    Their reply, all as one... “Stranger, we are not yet sore...
    lest you keep unopened door.”

    Fear I then the threat of ire, trust I have they will retire,
    Grab I morsels for the devils - I throw open chamber door-
    See I not the neighbor’s children, see I monsters, creatures, demon,
    See I nameless wicked heathen of vindictive lost folklore,
    Plead I, “Take what you desire, demons of eons’ folklore!”
    To those guests beyond my door.

    Answer they with toothy smile that revealed a sickly guile
    And their sullen eyes glowed as I’d never seen before...
    And by the light those orbs had cast, revealed to me was horror vast
    For I could now see at last, it was not masks they wore!
    No costumes, garbs, or tricks were these - it was their gruesome skin they wore,
    Beyond my opened door!

    Reached they in with gnarled claws, took I not a moment’s pause,
    Lunged I then, in a moment, grabbed in vain to close the door,
    But once willing, I could not undo the welcome I begot
    All my effort, all for naught, all of them upon me tore!
    Screamed, I writhed, I thrashed, I flailed, struggled with them till I tore.
    For their disease I had no cure.

    Then on that day oft forgotten, my very form from me was taken
    In their greed those fiends had stolen what I could replace no more.
    Coward’s fear was not able to prevent my grisly fable
    My shape, my species, and my label - forever changed those days of yore.
    Now my flight is towards fear, I do not flee that hallow yore -
    For I the messenger of more.

    Now I pay for trust misplaced, now I haunt the weak disgraced,
    Curse I am, to never leave, to always and forever soar
    In the minds of those who suffer, loneliness and lost of other,
    Though my words act as a buffer, to my crooked beaked rapport!
    From the now until forever, I shall croak my one-word lore!
    Quoth I to the, "Nevermore."


    Second Place
    Author: Julius2
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 
    The Punishment

    "It was a usual Halloween night... or so it seemed, until it happened.

    Jack and Liam where heading home after a long candy-gathering night.
    The two brothers wanted to sleep, espacially Liam who was the youngest. Suddenly it started raining.
    _We must hurry, Liam!
    _I cannot run! I am too tired!
    _Well then, think about the candy we gathered and do it! Mum, is going to kill us if we arrive soaking!
    _OK, you win...
    Jack looked at the moon but it was not visible, a red shadow was covering it.
    As the kept running Jack noticed that a strange blue fog was slowly appearing around them, but he didn't want to upset Liam, so he did not say anything.

    They were half way home but they could see nothing. The fog was too thick.
    _Where are we? Liam shouted.
    _We are near our house, don't worry.
    _Even if we are near the house, how on earth are we going to reach it, since we can't see a thing?!
    _Don't make it more difficult than it is. Give me the torch.
    _Here, catch!
    The torch fell on the ground with a thud.
    _Now, look what you've done! Jack said
    _Don't blame me, it's this stupid fog.
    _Phew, it works....OK, let's go... Err, Liam, where are you?

    Liam was gone. Jack looked around but nothing. And the torch didn't help. The fog was too thick, Jack couldn't breath easily. After muttering all his swear

    words he shouted: "Is anybody here?" There was no answer. Jack sat down to think. After realising that he could achieve nothing there, he walked forward.

    After a few metres he found out that the road was gone. "What the hell?" he said to himself.

    He had been walking for half an hour and the rain had stopped. The fog was starting to disolve. After crossing a shallow pond which shouldn't be there he

    found himself on a field. It was afternoon. Everything looked very familiar, but he couldn't remember much. A few metres in front of him there was a family

    having a picnic. He shouted: "Hey, you there!", but no one replied. It was as if he never shouted. He walked towards the family and the he almost fainted. It

    was his family, with the exception that he was missing. "But how? This happened four years ago..." he thought. "And who's that kid?" he said while looking

    at boy the same age as him. The family was acting like he was not there.

    _Having fun, Samuel?
    Jack screamed. "Who are you? You gave me the creeps!" he said to the bearded man in front of him. "And how did you appear like that? Have you anything

    to do with all this?"

    _Now, relax, it's not your first time, anyway.
    _My first time...?
    The man laughed. He was wearing a red cloak that covered all his body except the head.
    _You have been doing this for years, Cursed One. Why don't you embrace your punishment?
    _My...punishment...
    _A hundred years ago, October 31 1908. The assassination of thirteen priests... Samuel, try to remember.
    _I am Jack Essar, and I was born in 1992...
    _That's what YOU think. Look into your soul and you will find all answeres.

    The bearded man disappeared.
    Jack felt exhausted and his head was aching. He tried to go away from that place. He reached the small pond and washed his face hoping that it was all a

    dream. He felt better, but everything was the same... He started crying, and after a few hours of sorrow he looked in the pond. He saw a man in his twenties

    with long black hair. There were scars on his face. He looked so familiar, yet so unknown. Then he started to remember...

    People laughing, the party was great, drinks and food on the tables. There were twelve people in the mansion, the the priest-who the last guest-arrived. His

    beard was shining under the light. Jack tried to stop thinking but it was no use. He saw the scarred man entering the buliding.
    Fear, blood and grief everywhere. "Pain! Pain! I cannot stop!!" Jack cried.

    A voice was telling Jack to run, but it was to late. He was Samuel and he was not. The two personalities co-existed in one body. Then, the bearded man arrived.

    _When you killed tese people Samuel, you were sad, right?
    _Yes.
    _And you wanted them to feel sorry as well, right?
    _Yes.
    _This is your last chance. This was the hundredth time you were reborn. Do you apologise?
    _No.
    _You know the consequences, don't you?
    _Yes.
    _Another hundred years then?
    _Yes.
    _As you wish then.

    The priest disappeared and a blue fog surrounded Samuel.

    A baby was born. It was October 31 2008. The moon was covered by a red shadow and there was a blue fog outside.

    Jack Essar had never existed.

    THE END


    Third Place
    Author: Mega Tortas
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 
    WereWolve's and stuff

    When I was little and they left me alone at night, I would watch scary movies in the dark. The only light in the house was my night light way down the hall in the bathroom. That was one of the rules…Only one light allowed to keep away the darkness. Now while the movie was on everything was okay because you always knew where the monster was…in the TV. When the commercials came that’s when the troubles began….

    When the commercials came where did the monsters go? I mean you knew they weren’t in the TV anymore. So where did they go? It was okay though as long as I stayed perfectly still and didn’t breath too heavy I knew they couldn’t find me. When I couldn't’ hold in the pee anymore I would risk running way down the hall to the bathroom. They almost got me one night you know…..It was a Boogie or a Ghoul I can’t remember which now. Damn my little tiny bladder.

    I remember driving with Aunt Nancy to her house one moon lit night. We were in her Dodge Dart on that windy road that cut thru the hills and skirted the golf course. We were both lost in our thoughts, no one speaking and just the silence of the night to keep us company. I heard it though and knew better than to look and risk the both of us . You could hear it running, panting, and the claws grasping at the back bumper….I had to look. Just a quick peek to make sure. So I did and wished I hadn’t. The WW was there sure enough reaching out, claws grasping, scratching the bumper within a breath of catching hold. I didn’t mean to but gasped. “What’s wrong???” Aunt Nancy asked and shook me from my trance. Uuuh..nothing just couldn't’t catch breath is all. I lied…I had to or we would have been lost. It let us go that night even though I had broken the rules…….

    When “The Howling” came out my step mom took me to see it. I really wish she hadn’t. "The Howling” was an innovation & special effects masterpiece. At one point in the movie a guy got his head bit off and I’m pretty sure both of us got splattered with blood. We got home okay and I decided to go to bed. Big mistake….I had a corner bedroom on our house with windows behind and to the side of my bed. Yeah we lived in Miami and the walls were concrete with jail bars covering the windows and doors. That wouldn’t stop them though. Not if they really wanted to get you. So I lay there in bed stiff as a board, petrified not daring to move. As the moonlight gleamed through the curtains I sweated uncontrollably awaiting my fate. At one point I couldn't’t stand to look any more and pulled the covers over my head. Sometime during the night I awoke and could feel them perched on the corner of my bed just watching, waiting for a signal I would never understand…….

    Go ahead look under your bed in the middle of the night and see what it gets you…I know you must have learned at least that much by now . Yeah the closet door is left a slightly ajar on purpose. Maybe you enjoy hearing the closet door creak open in the middle of the night. Not me, I learned that lesson long ago. That scratching at the window that you think is a tree branch pushed by the wind ….No ..I don’t think so. You see It’s the ones that don’t believe that get it first. The rest of us are just waiting till it’s our turn…


    Librarians' Choice Award Winner
    Author: Zuwxiv
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 
    The Man
    On the night before November, as the sun burned blood-red embers,
    Over the quaint and curious houses perched beyond my only door,
    As I pondered newfound faces, gnarled heads of pumpkin races,
    With a burning flame in places where a heart should be before -
    Then they came, in cruel disguises, as I’d never seen before -
    Knocking at my chamber door.

    I gaze through my peeping window, but it shows me naught but shadow,
    Trust I not their black eyes hollow, moat it is of my rancor.
    Question I forbidding aims, through a door closed to their games,
    and to my sceptic disdain, “Trick or treat!” they do implore -
    For the nameless and the masked, I myself to them implore
    “Leave this place forever more.”

    My tormentors claim donation, demand they a staple ration
    They desire sweets and candy to appease the ghastly corps.
    Trust I not demanding strangers, know I of the certain dangers,
    Of mobs of hungered covered rangers pounding on my chamber door -
    Teeth and claw and wing and beak luring prey to open door -
    Fear I night-time mischief war.

    Say they are the neighbor’s children, see I dozen faces hidden,
    Hidden under grim facade of nameless shaken darkened gore.
    “No,” I shriek, “Leave my home, go ye back to where ye roam!
    Haunt the ancient dusty tomes, make not doorsteps worn and sore!”
    Their reply, all as one... “Stranger, we are not yet sore...
    lest you keep unopened door.”

    Fear I then the threat of ire, trust I have they will retire,
    Grab I morsels for the devils - I throw open chamber door-
    See I not the neighbor’s children, see I monsters, creatures, demon,
    See I nameless wicked heathen of vindictive lost folklore,
    Plead I, “Take what you desire, demons of eons’ folklore!”
    To those guests beyond my door.

    Answer they with toothy smile that revealed a sickly guile
    And their sullen eyes glowed as I’d never seen before...
    And by the light those orbs had cast, revealed to me was horror vast
    For I could now see at last, it was not masks they wore!
    No costumes, garbs, or tricks were these - it was their gruesome skin they wore,
    Beyond my opened door!

    Reached they in with gnarled claws, took I not a moment’s pause,
    Lunged I then, in a moment, grabbed in vain to close the door,
    But once willing, I could not undo the welcome I begot
    All my effort, all for naught, all of them upon me tore!
    Screamed, I writhed, I thrashed, I flailed, struggled with them till I tore.
    For their disease I had no cure.

    Then on that day oft forgotten, my very form from me was taken
    In their greed those fiends had stolen what I could replace no more.
    Coward’s fear was not able to prevent my grisly fable
    My shape, my species, and my label - forever changed those days of yore.
    Now my flight is towards fear, I do not flee that hallow yore -
    For I the messenger of more.

    Now I pay for trust misplaced, now I haunt the weak disgraced,
    Curse I am, to never leave, to always and forever soar
    In the minds of those who suffer, loneliness and lost of other,
    Though my words act as a buffer, to my crooked beaked rapport!
    From the now until forever, I shall croak my one-word lore!
    Quoth I to the, "Nevermore."




    2008 Writing Competition
    Winner
    Author: Juno
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 

    Coffee and Burgers, a Short Anecdote
    A few years ago, when I was ignorant of the Evils of Ronald McDonald, I would come in every other morning or so to my local McDonalds to have a cup of coffee because it was so cheap. Every time I was enjoying my slosh cup of coffee grinds and colored water, an obese man in his thirties would always come in and storm his gigantic, blob-like body to the counter and orders an obscene amount of food that could probably feed a starving village in northern Africa.

    I know, I sound like a prick for saying that about him, but trust me, even the late Pope John Paul II wouldn’t hesitate to call his guy a dickhead. The way he yells at those kids working behind the counter, you’d swear he was a drill sergeant, only one with a high-pitched voiced that cracked every few sentences. He finishes barking orders at the kids and waits there, holding up the only line open. At this point, those kids are too afraid to tell the man to move out of the way, so they quickly pile up his pre-heated burgers and fries for him.

    He quickly begins to inspect his mound of food and as then puts his hand in the fries. You could tell by his face he was pissed. He began to screech, “these fries are cold, they’re always ****ing cold when you serve them! I want fresh ones!”

    The employees apologize and promptly take the fries away. A few minutes later, they come back with just-fried French fries and place them in front of The Blob, who was still holding up the line. The Blob, being the simpleton he is, put his sausage hands right into the fries again, completely scalding his hand with the hot, oil-rich fries. He shrieks like a little girl and quickly pulls his hand back.

    The place is completely silent, except for me, laughing my ass off. The Blob turns around, sobbing and cradling his scalded hand and yells, “what the **** are you laughing at, kid?”

    I just keep laughing uncontrollably and pointing at his hand. Our massive friend may have failed physical education in high school, but I have never seen someone run out of a joint so fast. Once he left, everyone also began to laugh hysterically. The kids at the counter even began handing out The Blob’s food for free to all the people who were held up in line, just for kicks.

    After this most joyous incident, I never had to pay for coffee at McDonalds again, at least until I stopped going.


    Second Place
    Author: The Fuzz
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 

    Morning View
    It’s 5:30AM and you can’t sleep. You sit up in bed still wearing the clothes you passed out in the night before. Outside the sky is light blue in one corner, fading to the dark blue of night in the other. The stars shine in half of the blue expanse. The sun will soon rise so you throw on some sandals and make your way outside to catch the sunrise.

    You walk between the two dormitory buildings under the shade of the fading night sky. A cool breeze blows but it’s still warm enough to be comfortable in shorts and a long sleeved shirt. The sparrow’s call is the only noise that breaks the silence of an early morning college town. A couple, holding hands, walk out of a building and jump over the small stone wall guarding the sidewalk. They look at each other, smiling, and you begin to reflect on your own feelings.

    You’re single again. Every time you have something you let it slip away. You’ve told yourself you’re not ready for anything more than the casual hookups. But deep down you know that’s not the case and the couple walking contentedly ahead of you drives that point home. You want that feeling they have.

    What do you think each time you leave your room? Do you just leave, or do you pause to think about what the coming trip may hold? Do you imagine walking up to a girl watching the clouds go by and striking up a conversation? Do you imagine meeting someone you’ll want to spend the rest of your life with? Does the question, “What if?” run through your mind?

    Today it did.

    Your walk takes you to a small path next to the art building. A hedgerow lines one side of the path, a fence on the other. Squirrels and rabbits run about on the grass past the fence. When no people are about they seem so much more relaxed. You stop and watch a squirrel burrow into the ground and pull out an acorn. A tickle in your throat leads to a cough which breaks the reverie and the squirrel scampers up a tree. You continue towards your unknown destination to see the sunrise.

    It’s bright now even though the sun has not appeared. All traces of the stars are gone. Still no people are in sight. You change directions and begin heading north instead of east. The south quad, an expanse of grass, lies before you. As you turn the corner you hope to see a girl standing in the middle, here for the same reasons as you. But there is not. If only the world worked that way.

    With each turn you think you see a girl out of the corner of your eye, with her head tilted towards the sky. But when you turn to see her, she vanishes and returns to your mind. You let out a short breath and walk on.

    You see an alcove with a bench near the auditorium building, with a weather-worn stone bench. Two mourning doves sit next to each other, letting out their plaintive call of “cooah, coo, coo, coo.” You can’t help but think they look happy being next to each other on such a beautiful morning.

    The main quad on the campus is abandoned. The hundreds of people that normally frequent it are all asleep. The criss-cross of the sidewalk break up the grass into triangles of green. You are disappointed that no girl awaits you here either. The thought of stopping here crosses your mind but you feel that you need to keep going.

    The sidewalk takes you through a small patch of pines. Their needles litter the ground, and the branches sway in the wind. It’s one of the few pine species that have soft needles and you run your hand through then as the wind continues to toss them about.

    Across the street lies the last open space on campus, and it’s the most beautiful. This is where the sunset should be seen, you decide. You cross the street without bothering to look for cars. There are none to look for. You make it to the north quad. Trees line the walkways, some with small white flowers that smell like something familiar. Yet you can’t place the smell. You walk to the center of the open space, which is a bridge over a small creek running through the area. It’s bright now but the sun is still out of sight. In the east an array of colors are visible, all variations of red, orange, yellow, fading into the blue sky.

    Suddenly the sun appears over the top of a building. Its coming sends a bright orange glare, reflected across the thousands of windows on the buildings surrounding the quad. All your thoughts vanish, as you stare at the colors. Moments like these are few and far between. The sparrows still call, the squirrels still run about, and the wind still pushes back your hair. The event you had waited for had come, but a person to share it with is nowhere to be seen.

    Still, the sight elicits a feeling of content. You tilt your head to the sky and look up, still with the smile on your face.

    By now the sun has risen so that all of it is visible and the moment passes. You take one last glance at your surroundings and turn to leave.

    The walk back is slow. You aren’t in any rush, and anything is possible.

    Then you see her as you reach the long sidewalk, three blocks long. She walks towards you and you towards her. Her brown hair is tossed about by the wind but you can see the faint outline of a smile. You smile too, though you’re still a block apart. As you get closer you shift your gaze from her and focus on the sidewalk. You count the cracks and watch the ants scurry on the sidewalk as she draws near. A quick glance towards her reveals she is doing the same.

    Then suddenly you’re side by side, and then you pass one another, both looking at the ground, not even a quick glimpse at the other.

    A few paces after passing each other, both of you pause mid-step. She lets out a sigh at the same time you do. You want to turn around, you want to call out to her, you want to talk to her. But you don’t, and she stands still as well with her head turned a bit, as if she’s listening for you to say something. You stay silent, and she looks forward again. Again you two sigh, but then you just walk away as she does the same.

    The sighs linger in the air where you almost met, floating and mingling together and for a second you hear a faint “What if….” get carried away by the breeze.


    Third Place
    Author: Justinian
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 

    Identity
    You know, hooks are a lot less satisfying than you might think. Sure, a hook draws the reader (you) to the author (me) like a lamb to the slaughter (the writing), but wouldn’t you be less satisfied with a good beginning and a thoroughly disappointing read than with a slow beginning and then a work which gradually picks up into sheer awesomeness? Nay, awesomeness so awesome we shall create our own word to describe it: awesasmic. Awesome so awesome it’s orgasmic. If you prefer, we could also use awesomality. Or both.

    Yes, I thought so. Actually, no I didn’t, I don’t know whether you said ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but I’ll just assume that you’re thinking along the lines of the second because if you didn’t, well, why exactly are you still reading?

    So, now that’s out of the way, let’s mention something before we begin. Authors don’t write because they desperately want to teach something, or send a message to a large group of people, or even for the sake of an agenda they might have — running for President, wanting to legalize marijuana, whatever. The real reason people write books is because when you write something, you have complete control over what the reader is reading. How awesasmic is that? The tradeoff is that to be read, to have this strange power, one must make people actually want to read what you have to say. Readers must want to enter your world, to be under your power (at least in brief sittings). So you’d better damn well make it worth their while.

    Now, I’m not promising that this is going to be worth your while. You might be supremely frustrated after getting your hopes up. Or you could be pleasantly surprised — you take the same risk during sex, so consider my work to be like sex, but without the risk of disease or screaming, unwanted offspring.

    So. Let’s begin.


    * * *

    At this exact point in time, Danny Tremaine thought, it had to be dark and stormy in some part of the world, but where he was it was depressingly sunny. Birds chirped happily, crickets made that incredibly annoying sound which prompts thoughts of murder-suicide, and not a drop of rain fell to the earth.

    Normally, this kind of situation is just fantastic. People with nothing in common and nothing to talk about will fill the uncomfortable silence with “fine day, isn’t it?” “oh, it’s so beautiful today!” and so on. But in this situation, for Danny, it really sucked. Not because Danny didn’t have an appreciation for beautiful days, but because Danny was at this point in time extremely happy, and felt that he should be the only person in the vicinity with a good reason to be happy. The damned sun was stealing his thunder.

    Danny didn’t think that it was at all strange that his happiness depended slightly on whether or not others were happy. In fact, he thought it was normal; who would rather be happy for someone else than for themself? Not Danny.

    Danny Tremaine — not a selfish person, simply not someone who wasted emotion. Even with an unlimited supply of chemicals in his brain to give him emotion, he still hoarded it. He could always draw on his emotion when he actually needed it (delivering a speech, trying to get laid, meeting new people) but when he didn’t, why bother?

    Thus, when Danny was in a happy state of mind, wasting precious emotion because he sort of felt like it, he didn’t at all appreciate other people trivializing his triviality by being happy too. This waste of his emotion was starting to make him sad, which in turn made him angry that he was wasting sadness that should be cultivated and released when necessary (death in a friend’s family, for example).

    It was in this cyclical state of affairs that he ran into the first person he wanted to see: the last person he wanted to see. It was the first person he wanted to see because he hated him and that would help stop his happy cycle; it was the last person he wanted to see because this person liked Danny very, very much.

    This person’s name was Jack Daniels. Yes. His last name had already been Daniels, and his mother (who had one too many Jack Daniels herself on the night Jack Daniels entered the world) decided it would be cruelly fitting to name him Jack. This hadn’t been a problem in his earlier years of schooling because not so many 8-year-olds know what exactly Jack Daniels is, but it became a problem in high school, so he went by Jack and when required to write his full name wrote “Andrew Jackson Daniels, Esq.”, which is a good example of his particularly assholian[1] sense of humor.

    Throughout their uncomfortable years in school together, Jack Daniels absolutely worshiped Danny, even adopting his attitude and speech. At first, Danny had found this to be supremely satisfying, and used his disciple to do entertaining yet incredibly stupid things. Eventually, Danny grew tired of Jack and told him in no uncertain terms to just screw off, for God’s sake, but Jack apparently didn’t realize “screw off” meant “I hate you, leave me alone, please just die”. He had continued to follow Danny around like AIDS (though Danny thought AIDS, at least, would go away when you died instead of delivering your eulogy and putting flowers on your grave). Jack had only finally left him alone when they had gone to different colleges, so Danny wondered quite reasonably what in hell’s name Jack Daniels was doing on a New York sidewalk running into him.

    “Danny!” Jack exclaimed as if he had just seen the most beautiful woman in the world naked and bored.

    “*******!” Danny replied warmly, embracing Jack and hoping it was hard enough to crush one or preferably both of his kidneys.

    Jack laughed, slightly uncomfortably, and seemed as if he was about to embrace Danny back when Danny hastily withdrew and wiped his hands on his dress pants. “What are you doing in New York, Danny?” Jack asked.

    Only images of a serene Mother Theresa and Jesus on the cross kept Danny from responding with sadistic violence. Instead, Danny forced a smile and said, “I live here. What are you doing here, Jack Daniels?”

    “My name isn’t Jack Daniels anymore,” Jack said with a smile.

    “Then, Andrew Jackson Daniels—”

    “Wrong again,” Jack said, with the look of someone who knew his next sentence would be so mind-shatteringly enraging as to cause insanity and possibly even celibacy[2].

    Danny felt a sinking feeling seep into his body. “Then, what’s your name?”

    “Danny Tremaine.”

    1: Assholian - adjective. Behavior or attitude reminiscent of a giant *******; synonyms: assholish, annoying, Tom Cruise.
    2: Well, there has to be reason why priests do it. What, you thought it was God?


    * * *

    For a moment, Danny just stared blankly at Jack. His eyes were slightly glazed over; he had strange thoughts of happy places and fields of flowers and trees and crack cocaine. Then, he said slowly, “Say that again, Jack, I don’t think I quite heard you.”

    “I’ve legally changed my name to Danny Tremaine,” he said again, with a wide cheery smile and a look of ecstasy.

    “That’s,” Danny said, in slight shock. “Interesting. I guess you like the name?”

    “Not really,” Jack admitted. “But I like you. I’m sure you remember.”

    “Who could forget,” Danny said simply. What he meant to say was, ‘let’s go into a very dark, small alley where I will painfully end your life with a blunt object’, but the words didn’t quite come out.

    “Let’s grab a drink, Danny,” Jack said. “We have a lot of catching up to do. What was college like? Any girlfriends? Drink a lot? Get in trouble? See any good movies?”

    “Nggh[3],” Danny said.

    “Wonderful,” Jack said, and began walking. For some reason, Danny followed him; maybe he had nothing better to do, or maybe he was just too shocked to make good decisions.

    3: “Nggh”, in this usage, can mean any number of different things. It could mean, perhaps, exhausted agreement. It could mean, “what?”. It could mean, “why, yes, what a brilliant idea!” But in this particular statement, it most closely means “I would rather be raped by a sex-starved group of imprisoned midgets than be having this conversation”.


    * * *

    Danny Tremaine had sat quietly through an uncomfortable discussion in the bar, his mind finding happier places as it tried to deal with a strange sense of shock and lethargy. Danny had no memory of the conversation, really; he had payed as little attention as humanly possible. He remembered only a few sentences — memories of high school, repeated questions of how life had been. Danny just tried to answer as vaguely as possible.

    Eventually, Jack paid the tab and took Danny out the door onto the streets They stopped together, Danny looking at the ground with a mixture of rage and somewhat humored confusion, and Jack looked up at the sky with excitement. Night had fallen, and the lights of the city hid the stars. That, and the pollution.

    “So, Danny,” Jack said, starting to lead Danny along an unfamiliar route, “Have you ever considered what you want to do with your life?”

    Danny was silent for few moments, crossing his arms in the cold, but he eventually spoke. “I am doing what I want to do. I live in New York, I’m rich, I’ve got a girl ... I’ve made something of my life. Unlike you! You probably still live your mommy, right?”

    Jack smiled. “No. Let me show you my apartment, Danny.”

    Danny shook his head. “I don’t want to go in your damn apartment, *******. I’m going home.”

    Jack paused, then reached into his pocket and withdrew his wallet. It had a strange resemblance to Danny’s, the same make and color, and it was suspicious enough that Danny felt in his pockets, making sure he still had his wallet with him. He did. “Do you recognize this?” Jack said, pulling a credit card out of his wallet.

    “It’s a credit card,” Danny said impatiently.

    “Look a bit closer.”

    Exasperated, Danny looked a little further at it. It was familiar . . . and not just the same kind of card, but the same number. Danny laughed nervously. “That looks a lot like my credit card.”

    “That’s because it is,” Jack replied with a smile. “Well, not exactly; it is an exact copy of yours. You still have yours, of course, but so do I.”

    “Well, it won’t do you any good without my PI—”

    “4132,” Jack said with a smile. “I know everything there is to know about Danny Tremaine.”

    “Okay,” Danny said. “Cut the ********, man. Very funny. Now I’m going, and I never want to talk to you again.”

    “But we’re friends, Danny,” Jack said, with a strange tone Danny had never heard before . . . not fear, not admiration, not adulation . . . contempt. “Such good friends.” He pulled another card out of his wallet, and showed it to Danny, who tried to snatch it.

    “Social Security,” Jack explained. “I have your birth certificate, master’s degree, high school diploma. Social Security, credit card, check book, ID, driver’s license. All with my face on them, and my name. Because my name,” he smiled, “is Danny Tremaine.”

    Danny made a flailing attempt to grab Jack’s wallet, and was met with a shockingly hard punch to the ribs that sent him to the street. He felt strange, lethargic, uncertain . . . and shocked, shocked that Jack Daniels, the biggest pussy in the history of pussies...

    Danny felt something shockingly cold against his forehead.

    He looked up and into the barrel of a gun. His blood ran cold; sweat turned to ice running down his back. “Come on, Jack,” he said uncertainly. “This has been funny. I just want to go home. You want money?”

    “No,” Jack snarled. “I don’t want anything from you, you pathetic bastard. I don’t want anything because my name,” he narrowed his eyes, “my name is Danny Tremaine. I am Danny Tremaine. And I am going to be a much, much better Danny Tremaine than you ever were.”

    A shot rang out, startlingly loud in a loud city. Danny Tremaine died instantly, a hole in his skull, blank eyes looking upwards as his body slumped against the cement. The old Danny Tremaine died, and the new one calmly pocketed his gun and walked away, whistling quietly to no one but himself.


    Librarians' Choice Award Winner
    Author: Faenaris
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 

    A Friend Too Far
    "A friend too far."

    Chapter 1: The Sound.

    You never hear the sound that wakes you. Sure, you can hear the one right after it, but you never know what that one particular sound was. It could have been anything, ranging from a wisp of wind to a good old release of body gasses. Anything. And that is the thing that scares me the most. Because in the Zone, that ‘anything’ can be your death. Be it a fellow human, a dog or something much worse, the Zone is not to be underestimated. The ones who do, tend to have a very short lifespan.

    Whatever the sound was, I instantly sat up, which was followed by a sudden and total feeling of dizzyness. I couldn’t keep my balance and I fell, rather ungainly, back to the hard floor with a thud. A soft curse left my dry lips and I grimaced when I rubbed the back of my head. Well, if that was the only thing that would happen to me today, it would turn out to be the best of days. I looked around in the room, once again shaking my head at the desolace of the place. My time in the Zone is now measured in months instead of weeks and I’m steadily approaching my fourth in this forsaken place, but I still hadn’t adjusted fully to the atmosphere of this place. It was as if everything in the Zone radiated a sense of doom, sorrow and decay. And that has its effect on newcomers too. Heck, it ****ed up the veterans to this place. Happy persons become sad persons, sad persons kill themselves. Sounds like a visit to a mother-in-law, doesn’t it?

    With a snap, I woke from my musings and realised something had woken me in the first place. My ears heard nothing though, except for the soft snoring that came from the other side of the room. My brothers-in-arms slept like babies, so whatever the sound was that brought me back to this hell, it sure as ****ing hell wasn’t something important. I stiffled a yawn and I lay back, intending to go back to my haunted dreams. However, once I got settled back into my not too comfortable sleeping position, I heard ... a scream? I rose with a jolt, my heavy boots thumping hard and sharp in the small room. My companions kept on snoring blissfully, but I wasn’t paying them attention. My feeble ears were scanning the area, trying to pick up more of the haunting screech. It wouldn’t be the first time that one of us had heard something that in the end proved to be an echo or a ghost created by our imagination. Not that it wasn’t understandable. The Zone makes some crazy sounds and if you don’t turn paranoia, you’re either completely insane or dead.

    The sound came again. And this time, it really was a scream. I took a few steps towards one of my companions and using the tip of my boot, I gently nudged him awake. Pietr grunted in dissatisfaction, opening one eye and looking at me lazily.

    “Da?”
    “Trouble. Near.”

    At the sound of “trouble” he immediatly rose and got to his feet. I have to admit, I felt a tinge of jealousy because he could keep his balance whereas my own body had failed me just a minute ago. Pietr shook the Stalker sleeping next to him awake with a soft, but firm hand. Nina, oh so beautiful Nina, also gave a short grunt and like Pietr before her, she immediatly sprang up to her feet when the word fell.

    My hands, still heavy and stiff from the cold night, grabbed for my “boomstick” and I quickly opened the magazine. It had two shells loaded, just like I remembered, and I allowed myself a small compliment for my forsight. What I didn’t remember, was that whenever you open the breach to check the magazine or reload th gun, the previous rounds pop out and fall to the floor so that you can put in a fresh pair without having to drag them out. I bit back an explicit curse and stooped to pick up the red-coloured shells that had fallen with a graceful arc on the dusty floor. And as if to mock me, one of them nearly slipped out of my hands again! With a “clack”, I closed the breach. My pack was on my back in no time and I crouched low, finally noticing that my companions had been observing my clumsiness with amusement. We didn’t speak though. My two words that had woken them early on implied that they should wait for me to give more information. But I kept my mouth shut and simply pointed at my ears. A tense atmosphere developped as we listened to the Zone, trying to discover a clue. Then, another scream cut through the dim. It was closer now. Judging by tone and pitch, it sounded like a male human almost raping his vocal chords in order to convey his rather hopeless situation. The scream became a drawn-out shriek of terror, making it absolutely clear to even the most slow-witted inhabitant of the Zone that Death had come.
    Any human being with a bit of social “feeling” would have opened the reinforced door, run out guns blazing, trying to save the poor soul. We didn’t. You may find us heartless, self-centered s.o.b’s, but all the altruistic people I knew in the Zone were dead, rotting in the tainted soil. The unlucky bastard was probably long dead by the time we found him and whatever finished him, you could bet a million roubles on it that it wasn’t alone. If you think the world is a cruel place, then you’ll believe the Zone to be Hell on Earth. Even now, when I’m writing this down, I still don’t feel sorry for staying put. He would have done the same thing and if I had known, I wouldn’t have blamed him at all.

    Suddenly, the wail cut off, followed by the powerful roar of something big. Really really big. Familiarly big. Nina wide-eyed me and Pietr immediatly disengaged the safety from his AK-47, hiding his surprise remarkably well. I looked down at my “boomstick”, seeing that I had pointed it at the door. Clearly, the incident from the past had left a big mark on my subconsciousness and it had created a new reflex in the progress. My heart, already hammering like a blacksmith, increased its frantic beating even more and it felt as if my chest struggled to keep it contained. I’ll be the first one to admit I’m no hero, but that roar had scared the living daylights out of me. I tried to focus, but it took a lot of willpower to stop my fingers from dancing the same beat as my heart. My eyes sought the others again and I noticed that they too were trying to keep a cool demeanor. Trying and not quite succeeding. Pietr craned his head around, trying to pick up the source of the sound. Nina, with a slight tremor of the hand, checked her side-arm before looking at me. I wanted to comfort her by saying something inspirational, but my skill at speaking had left the building in a hurry and I could only croak an “Okay?”. She nodded nervously and I turned back to the door. After that, none of us dared to move and for what seemed like hours (but in reality was probably closer to a few minutes), we stared at the door, our weapons and ourselves.

    The Zone however remained silent. No roaring, no screaming, no squeaking, nothing. Total silence in the Zone was rare and heralded impending doom. It started to unnerve me and blessed be the Lord that Nina decided to break the silence.

    “You think it is gone?” she whispered.
    I shrugged, a motion that was echoed by Pietr.
    “Maybe we should take a look?” I whispered back.
    As one, Nina and Pietr looked at me as if I had taken a dump in their washing bowls, but I ventured: “You know that that ... “thing” won’t be staying with the body.” I checked my watch.

    “Light is approaching fast and if it is the same creature we have encountered a few nights before, it will be long gone. We know it doesn’t like sunlight. Besides, if that unlucky son of a goat had some shiny things in his backpack, we can use it. We need the roubles for Romanov’s operation.” Pietr nodded slowly in agreement and Nina grimaced.

    “So we’re going out, ey?”
    I returned her grimace and nodded.
    “Right, lets do it then. Sitting here on our hairy behinds and looking pretty won’t help us one bit” came the comical remark from Pietr.
    I smiled, fighting back the urge to laugh insanely. It wasn’t a terribly funny comment, but I felt as tense as a bowstring and I needed something to relieve the pressure a bit. Nina on the other hand grinned madly, slapping Pietr’s shoulder hard.
    “Nicely put, old man.”
    Pietr smiled back at her, giving her a joking “Who are you calling old?”-look and then gazed at me. “Do the honours, will you, Leonid?”

    My smile vanished and I sighed inwardly. Since I had the close-ranged shotgun, I always got the “honour” of opening a door since I had the biggest chance of blowing apart whatever freak of nature was on the other side. It also meant that I had the biggest chance of being ripped into a lot of smaller pieces if the other bloke-thing managed to draw (or claw) quicker than me, but right now, I tried to banish that little detail to the furthest corners of my mind.
    Steeling myself, I moved over to the door. We had taken shelter in some kind of bunker or bomb shelter and the door had an elaborate locking mechanism. So, I set to work and started moving bars that squeaked as if they were being manhandled. After the last *kachink*, I raised my shotgun and pulled back the safety. Whatever was out there, it would meet two shells up close if it foolishly stood in front of me. With a pull, the door opened and the early morning light flashed my eyes to blindness.

    Chapter 2: The Body.

    As soon as my eyes had failed me, I instinctively jumped back a step or two, slowly registering the fact that there wasn’t a monster at the other side of the rusty door. I glanced at Pietr and Nina and then stormed out of the bunker, up into the light, followed closely by my friends.

    The early sun shined bright and harsh in the birthhours of the day but to the untrained eye, everything seemed peaceful. There was a slight breeze and the trees were swinging softly, leaves rustling in harmony. A small flight of birds zoomed overhead, regarding the scene below them. Yes, to any other person, it appeared to be an almost idyllic picture but to the eyes of the three stalkers, it didn’t seem like paradise. Not at all.

    Quickly scanning my surroundings, I noticed nothing out of the ordinary. Nina signalled she saw nothing either and Pietr grunted in confirmation. So, the area was clear and seemed as if nothing had happend. Either the mutant had taken his trophy with him or the body still lay around here somewhere. But where? There wasn’t a bloody trail in sight.

    Nina suddenly exhaled a “Wait.” Pietr and I instantly turned to her and followed her gaze. A pair of boots could be seen sticking out behind a wrecked car. Both Pietr and I hadn’t noticed the boots, and I marveled at the keen eye that Nina possessed. To see the glint of some worn rubber boots from that distance, one needed a good eye. She was a good sniper alright. I walked past her, with Pietr close behind. Nina holstered her PM and readied her SVD, intending to cover us from long-range while keeping an eye out for unwanted guests. As the both of us were walking towards the vehicle, my nostrils picked up a rotten scent that nearly choked me and as we rounded the side of the car, I froze. Lying before us in the dirt was a body that was barely recognisable as human. The head was completly smashed in, revealing the glinting red mass that was the brain. Just like the skull, the torso and ribbs were stoved in by an inhuman force, leaving a rotten mass of intestines and broken bones. One arm of the corpse couldn’t be accounted for and I presumed it was ripped off. One of its legs was snapped in half, wet bone potruding from the flesh. My stomach churned violently and I pushed Pietr away in order to relieve myself of it.

    When I had finished dumping the vodka and other bits I couldn’t (and preferred not to) recognise from the day before unto the grass, I risked a look back at the horrible scene. Pietr looked at the mess with a pale face, but he managed to keep his stomach under control and he raised his arm to signal Nina to come over. Spitting the last traces of bile away, I stumbled back to Pietr. Soft footfalls heralded the arrival of Nina, but before she could take a look, Pietr stopped her. “It isn’t pretty.” Nina shoved him aside and then gagged at the gruesome sight. While Nina repeated my scenario from a few moments before, I stood beside Pietr. “Poor bastard” he mumbled and I nodded absently, keeping one hand in front of my nose and mouth.

    Tearing my eyes away in order to calm down my stomach, I looked to the ground around him. Something glinted in the early sun and I walked over to the source, making sure that my boots didn’t step on any bloody remnants of the poor soul. I crouched and inspected the gleaming metal. It used to be a rifle of some kind, but now only a broken frame remained. It was a modern piece, something that we couldn’t get from the Dealer. My hands twisted the magazine from the wreckage with shaky fingers and I pulled a bullet from it. The round was longer yet smaller in diameter when compared to a bullet from an AK-47. Judging from the calliber and the wrecked frame, I concluded it must have been an advanced rifle. Certainly not Russian equipment. Maybe American. Dropping the pieces back into the dirt but keeping a single bullet, I stood up and watched Pietr grimacing while flipping the body over. Nina sat hunched a bit further off, looking back at the bunker with a corpse-like pallor on her face. Feeling my stomach churning again, I engaged the safeties on my shotgun in order to protect myself from myself and I grabbed a bottle of vodka from my backpack. Sure, torturing my stomach even more wasn’t the smart thing to do, but I am a stubborn lad with a hard head and at that time, I needed something to keep the shake away. You should try staying cool when you see a human, totally mangled and beaten to crap. After a swig or two, my hands stopped trembling and my stomach seemed to relax a bit. Dismissing the thought of having to expell the alcohol from my stomach in the nearby future, I offered the bottle to Pietr. He declined politely, never looking up from his gruesome task and when I offered it to Nina, she took it eagerly and drank a mouthful of the burning liquid. “Easy there, lass. You don’t want to pick up your stomach again.” She smiled weakly and she returned to her newfound hobby of staring in the distance. I returned the bottle to the pack while I watched Pietr continuing his ghastly search through the remains of the dead stalker. I swallowed another mouthful of bile and walked over to him.

    “Need a hand?” I offered. My voice couldn’t hide my reluctance though.
    “Nah, I think I’m almost done. I found his pack, but had to dig through lot of stuff to find it. I’m not gonna be hungry for a long time. “
    “Any clues so far as to who he was?”
    “No, haven’t found a PDA yet, which is odd.”
    It was odd indeed. Every Stalker, from absolute greenhorn to grizzled veteran had some way of keeping track of things. It was uncommon for rookies to carry a sophisticated PDA, but even the most unlucky ones kept notes somehow. Even if that meant using the PDA from a dead Stalker because you just have way too much information to remember.
    “You think he’s a newbie?” I asked.
    “Maybe, maybe not. His suit is pretty advanced for a new player. His gasmask looks new too.” I hadn’t even noticed that he had a gasmask, with all the blood and gore that had been splattered all over it. Just thinking of it made me feel queasy again, so I continued the investigation.
    “I found some pieces of a rifle. It looks like some kind of advanced weapon. Well, it looks more advanced than your AK at least.”
    “Everything looks more advanced than my AK.” he retorted.
    “Yeah, but the gun uses a different calliber.” I gave him the bullet I had picked up from the broken gun.
    Pietr took it reverently, studying it with the same intensity a hawk studies his prey.
    “Well, that isn’t an AK-47 round alright.” Nice one Pietr, I really hadn’t figured that one out yet.
    “Looks Western, doesn’t it?”
    “Aye, it looks like it. But, if it is Western ... You know what that means, right?” His voice sounded different. Whereas it had sounded full of pity and sorrow just a moment ago, there now was something else. Contempt.
    “Have you found a tag?” I enquired, needing to know one more thing before I agree with Pietr’s implied thought. Pietr shook his head before looking at the bullet again. He then looked at the bloodcovered pack, before asking: “Want to take a look, Leo?” I nodded and pointed at Nina. Pietr nodded and grabbed the pack before moving over to Nina with me in tow.

    Nina still looked awfully pale, but at least she looked a bit better for wear than before. She looked at us, then the bloodied pack and then looked back at us. Pietr dropped the pack in front of her and he quickly informed her of what we had learned. “But, if he’s a Merc, then howcome he is alone?” Neither Pietr or me could answer that one, so we needed someone else to help us. Or something. Nina, her curiosity driving away the traces of nausea that clung to her like a tight dress, quickly rubbed the pieces of organic matter from the pack and then opened it. A quick grasp by her agile fingers revealed a bottle of Vodka, a small battered tin box with radiation-pills, a plastic box, another tin box. While Nina continued her search, I grabbed the plastic box, sniffed it and then opened it. Inside, there was some foodstuff: a half-eaten sausage, a small loaf of bread, a tiny pot of mustard. I gasped in surprise: mustard was very rare in the Zone and it costed a small fortune to own even the tiniest of pots. The walls of the plastic box were cold, meaning the contents of the box were kept cool. Without it, one can only take tin cans and dried food with you and even then you have to keep it wrapped. On my first trip, I had left a so-called “dry sausage” unwrapped in my backpack and the scent had invaded the fabric. No wonder we were followed by a pack of freak dogs.

    Nina suddenly smiled and she triumphantly grabbed two black containers from the pack. The yellow triangle that covered the cilinders betrayed the radioactive contents within. However, once she had taken the containers closer, her big smile vanished. There was no typical “crack crack crack” sound from the Geiger counter. So, no artifacts. That was a setback: if the containers had contained artifacts, we could have easily afforded Romanov’s operation. In frustration, Nina threw down the canisters which then rolled around the grass before standing still a bit further. We said nothing, each of us dealing with the dissapointment in our own way. Once again, I cursed Romanov under my breath. We were out here, risking our necks for him. It would be so easy just to give up and head back to camp. I didn’t know why we actually bothered. For all I knew, he could be dead by now, making this entire undertaking pointless.

    A flight of crows scattered, disturbed by something. Or someone. We were all watching the flight of the birds, nerves and muscles tensed in the blink of an eye. We were looking in the wrong direction. Instinct, bred and drilled into us by this place, had made us arm our weapons without thought. Our eyes floated over the terrain, though nothing could be seen. But then again, we were looking in the wrong direction.

    “Bros’ prjamo sejchas!” I froze, my heart thumping madly when I heard the metallic “click”. Nina and Pietr looked at the person behind me, not daring to move, not daring to speak. We got careless and now, we were paying the price for it. One of the lessons that the Zone teaches you, is that you must always keep an eye out for the environment. There were rumours back at the Bar that some Stalkers got killed without a sound or struggle, simply because they didn’t pay close attention to their surroundings. Lucky for us, the person with the gun hadn’t shot us on sight. Not a Killer then. At least, not a cowardly one.

    Another terse command washed over us. “Ostavit' vawa oruzhie!” Reluctantly, we engaged the safeties again and slowly put down our weapons. I had a very bad feeling creeping up my spine while my heart kept hammering away, oblivious to my efforts to slow its rate.

    “Povorachivat'sja!” came the tinny voice and only now, I noticed it sounded muffled. Must be a gasmask. But then I frowned. “Turn round”? Shouldn’t that be “turn around”? Clearly, our unknown assailant wasn’t very fluent at Russian. But then again, who was I to think that? I could only say “hi”, “bye” and “vodka” and I was here for four months already. I couldn’t blame him for his lack of proper Russian usage. And if you wonder how the hell I knew what correct usage was, my astute yet sarcastic reader, I can tell you that I was instructed in the finer points of Russian grammar by a fellow Stalker. He was a soldier-turned-Stalker to be precise and during a night of heavy drinking, he had taught me a few commands. He stressed the command to turn around multiple times, saying that every new speaker of Russian made the same mistake and that it had irked him immensly.

    I did as I was told and I turned “round”, oh so slowly as to avoid a drastically reduced lifespan. Now that I was turned, with my hands kept at elbow height, I could take a good look at the bastard. Our new enemy looked to be as tall as I, but he appeared to be thinner and more fragile than me. His face, I noticed with a shock, was a full-face gasmask of the modern kind. His suit looked way more advanced than the one I was wearing and I swallowed a surge of jealousy. Not the time to become bitter, although nobody could blame me if I did. After I had inspected the suit, my eyes halted at his rifle. It reminded me a bit of the SVD that Nina used, but it looked shorter and, once again, it looked more advanced. An uneasy feeling gripped my heart, which responded by thumping even harder. This guy was modern. Just like the dead stalker.

    My “Oh ****!” that involuntarily escaped my lips didn’t cover my dismay, not by a longshot.


    Chapter 3: The Friend.

    We just stared at eachother, like monkeys staring through the looking glass. The atmosphere seemed to be charging with electricity and my crazy mind started telling me that I would be shot. However, there never was a shot, for the Stalker looked at me and said something. Unfortunately, I hadn’t understood him and I looked at my companions, hoping they had gotten his message. By the confused look on their faces, I gathered they didn’t. The Stalker kept looking at me though, expecting a coherent reply. I shrugged helplessly, which amused the Stalker, his laugh sounding horribly distorted.

    “Your name, stranger?” he repeated. I thought the day had been quite strange already, but somehow, something in my mind clicked. He reminded me of someone. And what was even more disturbing: his accent sounded familiar. He spoke English with the accent that the trio of us used.
    “Leonid.” I blurted out, trying to conceal my surprise while also trying to keep a grip on the present.
    The Stalker considered my reply, before he returned: “Leonid is not your name.” Surprise kicked me in the gut. He knew me? How in the nine circles of Hell could he know me? None of the Stalkers I ever met had this kind of equipment. My mind shuffled quickly through all the mental images nonetheless, but as I expected, nothing turned up. Then again, his mask wasn’t helping me.
    “Who are you?” I suddenly yelled at him and I surprised everyone, even myself, by sounding firm and resolute. The Stalker didn’t reply, keeping his rifle firmly pointed at me. But then, the rifle slowly dropped, which was met by a sigh of relief from behind me. The mortal danger gone, my curiousity surfaced and I yelled at him again.

    The Stalker simply stared, as if watching through me. Time crawled forward and I was about to yell again, when his arms started moving. With an audible *click*, he disarmed his rifle which he then slung over his shoulder. And then, almost theatrical, as if he were an goddamned actor or something, his hands grasped his mask. Pulling it off in a swift move, we finally could take a look at the man. We saw a young face, about our age, with hair as black as coal. Once again, I felt my gut tightening. I knew him alright.

    “But you ... you ... I though you were dead!” I stammered.
    “You know him?” came the surprised gasp from behind. I opened my mouth to speak, but was interrupted.
    “The rumours of my death, Le-o-nid” boomed the ghost from my past, “are greatly exagerated, as you can see.” He grinned broadly and involuntarily, I grinned back. He hadn’t changed.
    “So it would seem, mister ...?
    “They call me Theron, Leonid.”
    “Theron ey? That’s not your name either.” I sarcastically returned, but Theron simply kept on grinning.
    “True. But you know that nobody uses his real name around here, old friend.” he retorted.

    Theron then looked at my companions, his damned grin still on his face.
    “No introduction, Leonid?” he mockingly said, returning his gaze to me. I turned towards my companions and I indicated them with a sweep of my arm. “Nina and Pietr, this is Theron. Theron, meet Nina and Pietr.”
    “Charming.” Theron winked at Nina, who in turn clenched her jaw and stared at him. He didn’t even take a look at Pietr, to which Pietr responded with a glare. It didn’t surprise me that he got ignored though. Theron loved women and he loved beatiful women even more.

    “Friends or associates?” Theron asked, looking back to me.
    “Friends.”
    “Interesting.”
    “Are you a Merc?”
    Theron snapped his head around, looking intensly at Nina. Uh oh.
    “Some call us ‘Mercs’ indeed, my lady.” he oozingly said. Clearly, he was using his so-called tricks in order to seduce Nina. A big mistake and I hoped that Nina would make him pay for it.
    “Then how do you call yourselves then, kind sir?” she returned and Pietr smiled when he heard her cooing tone.
    “We call our fellow Stalker ‘brother’, Nina.” Theron smiled. Nina smiled back, but it wasn’t a true smile. Oh no, Pietr and I knew that smile and we both knew Theron was threading on thin ice. Theron seemed totally oblivious though.
    “Really?” Nina asked.
    “Really.” Theron returned, once again smiling as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
    “Then where were you when your ‘brother’ got killed?” She nodded at the cold body. “Hiding perhaps? Maybe discretion is the better part of valour to you?”.
    Ouch. Why not point your gun at him and pull the trigger, Nina? The outcome would have been the same.

    Theron lost his smile, his ego bruised quite badly. I glanced at Pietr, trying to gauge his opinion regarding this verbal engagement. Pietr however glared at Theron, his eyes colder than ice. The moment it was confirmed that Theron was a mercenary, Pietr had made up his mind. He didn’t like Theron and unless Theron was goddamn Mother Theresa Reborn, he wouldn’t change his mind.
    Theron replied coolly “What makes you think he was my brother?” Now that was interesting. Most interesting. Nina didn’t reply, her face betraying her confusion. Pietr looked at me and in our look, we exchanged the fact that we didn’t understand the situation either. So, we looked back at Theron, asking him without asking to give more information.

    Theron stepped forward and passed us, heading for the corpse. He hunched next to it, his face not showing any sign of nausea. He had seen it before then and he had seen it lots of times. No man can’t ignore that stench and mess unless you have grown used to it. Theron inspected the corpse quickly and efficiently, before looking back at us. “You can keep his stuff, but I need his PDA.” He clearly expected us to hand him the PDA, but none of us moved or responded. Theron got up, taking on an imposing pose. His eyes locked onto mine, his gaze boring into my soul. Or at least, that’s what he hoped. He clearly underestimated me and I don’t take kindly to people that treat me as if I’m somehow less than them. So, I returned his gaze. “Where is it, Leonid?” I shrugged, keeping my eyes on him. He disengaged the powerstruggle and zoomed in on my companions in his quest for the PDA. Nina just stared back at him defiantly and Pietr looked like a stone, no emotion betraying him. Theron clenched his jaw and realizing that none of us could (or would) tell him anything, he crouched again, letting his hands dance across the corpse. While he searched, I approached Nina and Pietr, the both of them keeping a close eye on Theron.

    “You trust him?” Pietr asked.
    “I trusted him once, aye.” I replied.
    “Trusted?” Nina piped in.
    “I knew him and I trusted him. But here in the Zone, it is different.”
    Pietr nodded in understanding and Nina said: “We need more information if you ask me.”
    I agreed and I raised my voice.
    “Theron?”
    No response.
    “Theron?” I called again, slightly annoyed.
    “What?” came the snappy reply, although he kept his eyes at the corpse.
    “What you need the PDA for?”
    He snapped again. “Need to know basis and you don’t need to know, old chap.”
    I bristled in frustration, glaring at him in the hope my eyes would drive a hole through the back of his head.
    Nina fumed in sympathy, but Pietr reacted differently. He reached for his side-arm, armed it and aimed at Theron.
    “I don’t like your tone, Merc.” he spat. Theron looked up, angrily staring at us.
    “How friendly of you.” he mockingly said and I had to use all my willpower in order to restrain myself. Lunging at him and strangling his pompous neck seemed very tempting at that moment.
    “Don’t push your luck, Merc, I got an itchy finger.” Pietr returned, venom dripping from his words.
    Seeing that he meant business and grasping the idea that Nina and I wouldn’t weren’t going to stop Pietr, Theron sighed and stood up.
    “Fine. You win. This fellow here is called Vladimir. Vlad, like myself, is a mercenary and I once called him brother. “ He stared at Nina before continuing. “However, Vlad wanted to get out of this mess. He needed more money and in order to get that, he stole information.”
    “What kind of information?”
    “I’m getting there Leonid, be patient. Don’t be hasty.” he tutted. He didn’t realize how much he was pushing me over the edge. One day, Theron ...
    “Vlad stole the PDA from our leader, a PDA that contained the location to a secret. Our boss was supposed to extract that secret and return it to his employer for a lot of cash. Vlad reasoned that if he got the ‘item’ to the employer, he could run off with the money and live a happy life.”
    “So, let me guess, you had to kill him and get the info back?” Nina concluded.
    “Exactly.”
    “Why not ask your employer to give you another copy?” I added to the interrogation.
    “This is very sensitive information, Leo, and it was safer to have one copy instead of back-up lying around somewhere.”
    “So it is the only one?” Nina asked.
    “Yes, my dear.”
    “I’m not your dear, remember that, Merc.”
    Theron just grinned. “I will, dear.”
    “The lady asked you nicely, Theron. Don’t push it.” Pietr said, his voice icely cold.
    “Sjeesj, lighten up, Piotr.”
    “Pietr, Merc.”
    “Whatever.”

    My mind told me that the situation was going downhill fast and while shooting Theron would be extremely gratifying, angering his associates wasn’t a smart thing to do. Sure, the chances of them finding us after we killed Theron were slim, but taking risks is not my forté. Besides, one little detail got my interest.

    “Excuse us for a second, Theron. Don’t go running off.”
    Utter amazement was visible on his face and he nodded his assent weakly . I stepped a few steps back and beckoned Nina and Pietr to come closer, ignoring their confused looks.
    “Give me one good reason why he is still breathing?” Nina started.
    “Money, Nina, money.”
    “Excuse me?”
    “You see, we need lots of money for Romanov. This might just be our golden ticket.”
    “You want to trust a Merc?” Pietr asked suspiciously, lowering his pistol while keeping a weary eye on Theron. Theron started looking in the distance though, his hands in his waist.
    “I trust him as much as you do, Pietr. Believe me, I just wanna put one between his eyes and be done with it, but we can’t risk his associates finding out. No, we have to deal with another way.”
    “What way?”
    “We help him find the PDA ...” Nina snorted at that, “and when we find it, we ‘persuade’ him to hand it over. He struggles, we shoot.”
    “And if he doesn’t, we shoot. Like you said, Leonid, we can’t risk letting him inform his associates.” Pietr added.
    Nina looked sceptical, but she nodded approvingly. “I’ll keep an eye on him just in case. I don’t trust Mercs and especially not a slimy one like him.”
    Pietr grinned. “I hope he touches your ass. I would love to see him get a kick in the juwels.” Nina slapped him hard on the shoulder, a look of disbelief visible, but the grin never lift his lips. I grinned too, imagining the look on Theron’s face. Nina glared at me, before muttering: “Men ...”

    Theron was gazing in the distance when we approached him and with a snap, he looked at us with suspicion.
    “What, you decided to kill me afteral?” he spat.
    “Hold your horses, Theron, we’re not going to kill you unless you give us reason to do so.”
    “Then what?” he replied, his tone more concillatory.
    “We’re going to help you find that PDA and in return, we expect a reward.”
    “You got to be joking.”
    “I am not.”

    Theron looked at me, searching for a lie on my face. I tried to show him a pokerface, a blank face, so that he wouldn’t turn us down. So far, he seemed to be buying it.
    “You know my boss isn’t going to pay you.”
    “But you can pay us, lad. I bet your boss is gonna pay you handsomely when you bring back the information. We just want a piece of it.
    “What’s a piece?”
    “60.000 roubles.”
    Theron whistled.
    “Why would I want your help then?”
    “If you refuse our help, you give us a reason to shoot you.” I smiled. God, I enjoyed this moment, bringing this ******* down. In an normal place, at a normal time, I wouldn’t be able to kill someone. I bet some shrink or soulviolator would be drooling at the prospect of trying to understand what made me change. They would say all this mumbo jumbo about different social views and altered characteristics. Lucky for us Stalkers, none of those dolts lasted longer than a few days in the Zone. Besides, right now, I loved the new me.

    Theron said nothing, but his face said everything. Dismay, anger, frustration and ... fear. Good. His eyes were regarding me, looking for something. He was probably trying to figure out if he could trust me and more importantly, for him at least, if I would kill him without hesitation.

    “Alright.” It was nothing more than a whisper and while I had heard it, I wanted to prolong his agony a bit longer.
    “Chto?”
    “I said alright! I don’t have a choice, so alright!” His tone was trembling and I had to bite back a wolfish grin.
    “Cheer up, lad. It’s gonna be fun.”


    Last edited by Legio; June 08, 2010 at 06:31 PM.

  2. #2
    Legio's Avatar EMPRESS OF ALL THINGS
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    Default Re: The Catalogue Pt. 7: Competition Winners

    Writing Competition 2009
    Winner
    Author: Justinian
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 
    Euphoria
    “My name is Anthony Alexander, and I make people happy.
    “Happiness, to some, is a very complex and fleeting thing, which cannot be actively sought out but must instead come to you; everyone wants a piece of it, and we go through our life sleepwalking except for those moments when it hits us. The lucid, waking moments amidst the hellish dream, where we realize why life is about floating from moment of worth to moment of worth, that the happiness pays for the other moments . . .
    “I make people happy because it makes me happy, and not because I get some kind of ****ed up good Samaritan pleasure from it, no; money makes me happy, and people pay good money for happiness.
    “A thousand bucks a gram, in fact. Six hundred thirty-two euros, five hundred seven pounds, seven thousand seven hundred seventy-two ****ing South African rands, I don’t care. Money is money. And there is not a soul on this * planet of ours that isn’t looking for happiness.
    “If you don’t have the money, you’ll have to try the conventional methods. Find a girl, raise a family; two and a half kids, hypoallergenic pet, white picket fence. Enjoy that. Or at least, sit around pretending like you’re enjoying that for twenty years until all you can do is live vicariously through your offspring, wondering where the **** the bright-eyed youth with the big ideas turned into this fat turd with no ambition and no libido. Maybe by then you can afford Tony Alexander’s brand of happy, .
    “People have been turning to drugs for release for ... ever. Somewhere, in some wet-dog smelling cave in Africa some depressed neanderthal threw some different sticks in his recently-invented fire and got baked. End result? Munchies, ate the whole ****in' dinosaur race and humanity rose to the top. Thanks, pot. But my point is that drugs are what people turn to, man; people who just have hit rock bottom and have nowhere else to turn to, or maybe they’re just too goddamn lazy to turn to something else first. Hey, I don’t judge.
    “The only problem is, the drugs don’t solve the problem. It’s always gonna be there, nagging at you in the back of your mind ... I’m a failure. I’m nothing. I have accomplished nothing, will accomplish more nothing, will retire and will die and will return to nothing. My only hope is I will die before, not after, I lose complete control of my bowels and spew **** all over when I’m trying to engage in polite conversation with some cute volunteer at the nursing home.
    “Fulfilling, huh?
    “First you try pot. Ten bucks a gram and they don’t call it a ‘gateway drug’ for nothing; it’s a gateway to being continually unable to escape your own failure. Pretty soon the pot isn’t making you happy anymore and you try something else, you try ecstasy maybe, you pop pills. Ten bucks a pill, not that bad for cheap ****. But then the pills stop working.
    “You start snorting crack. That’s more expensive. That’s what they call a ‘hardcore drug’ cause you’re a hardcore piece of to get that desperate. You’re really unhappy. You’re a hundred fifty bucks a gram’s worth of unhappy, and it only gets worse. You try meth and that works for a little while, and you get hopeful, and then tough **** buddy, you’re still not happy and you’re set back a hundred eighty bucks too. You cast aside your fear of needles (one small victory) and start shooting heroin, two hundred a gram. Then before you know it you’re dead, OD’d on looking for happiness, and failing.
    “Life is all about success, man, success. And all people don’t succeed, it’s not in our genes. There are winners, and losers, and you’d think that there’d be some kind of 1:1 ratio there but there isn’t, there are more losers than anything else, they’re everywhere ... and guess what, man, nobody likes to lose. People hate losing. Losing makes you sad.
    "Sad.
    "I make you happy.
    "I make you win.
    “Except, here’s the secret, it isn’t me. It’s you. You have the power, for just a grand a gram, to set everything right again. To bring yourself true, undiluted, one hundred percent pure premium grade happiness. Take this step with me and skip the middleman, skip the ****ing circus of hopelessness, skip all those forgettable moments, all the misery in a sea of apathetic nothingness with your only break the occasional fleeting glimpse of happiness.
    “It’s not a drug. It’s completely natural, your body produces it. It’s just your body doesn’t produce it enough, because we’re some ’s idea of a sick joke. I’m talking about those endorphins, man. The chemicals in your brain. Well they’re not just in your brain anymore, they’re right here in this briefcase, and they’re going to change the world. One miserable at a time.
    "Euphoria."
    * * *
    “That was a good enough sales pitch, I suppose, but what exactly is it? Is it like ecstasy?”
    I looked up over the rim of my bowl and blinked at the man with very impressive jowl-fat for a few long seconds, just long enough to make him feel uncomfortable and stupid for even asking. But not too long, then he’d think I didn’t know, that I didn’t have that knowledge lodged deep in my brain mixed in with much less useful things like what they really put in this soup and how babies are made and that you can construct bombs from common household ingredients ...
    “That’s like asking if a Maserati is like a Honda,” I said calmly, sneering, “except that would be better because those are both ****in' cars at least, and we’re talking two completely different things here. Ecstasy is bull****, man, it’s a drug and all it does is screw around with how you’re happy so you can get happy for five minutes and then pass out and get raped by some creep with body hair.” I quirked an eyebrow and added, “No, not speaking from experience,” because that’s just my sense of humor. “No, man, Euphoria ... it’s not a drug. It’s not fake. It doesn’t make you happy. It is happiness, happiness at its lowest common denominator, happiness in its purest form, the only thing we know it to be: the chemical reactions in your brain that define who you are, what you feel. Happiness in convenient dosage tabs for easy inhalation -- or swallowing, if you‘re so inclined. And I bet you are."
    “Look, I know your ... product, has been highly successful in Los Angeles and New York, but they eat up that kind of **** out there, no offense.” Lots taken, . “Down here, well, we know a bit more about drugs,” he continued. “We see a lot more, we think a lot more, we do a lot more. I won’t go into the details, I don’t want to bore you, so let me put it simply.” The man adjusted his off-white suitcoat and leaned forward in his chair, and I felt a sudden wave of dizzying disgust come over me, as if I’d just seen him finish licking a midget’s ass. Except, what the ****, I might have enjoyed that. Never seen a grown man lick a midget’s ass before. Or any man, grown or not, engage in any activity involving a midget’s ass of any kind, in fact . . .
    My attention returned to the man and his jowl-fat, which swayed gallantly from side to side in an attempt to somehow counterbalance what was most likely the distinct lack of any weight or girth in his nether regions. He took a nervous sip of tepid water and cleared his throat. “If you are going to expect people to pay a thousand a gram for your stuff, you have to be able to back that up. You aren’t going to get the creeps and junkies, you’re going to get the big time customers here. We’re talking seven-figure income, mansion, private jet, knows people in Hollywood, you know?”
    “Yes, but I’ve already convinced the people in Hollywood of Euphoria’s veracity so there are no worries about my clientele’s connections, as far as I’m concerned,” I replied calmly, leaning back in my chair and regarding him. His nose was twitching, I found that strangely comforting in a way that made me feel superior. Nothing beats the feeling of superiority over another human, though it would be more satisfying if it was over someone with a little bit more class, prestige, and balls. Like Putin. “Would you like me to demonstrate, to you, the power of Euphoria? I guarantee, your miserable pathetic existence will be washed away and you will feel like you’re worth something. Then you’ll see, it is worth something; every ****in’ penny I ask for.”
    Jowl-fat sniffed and glared at me. “I don’t sample the goods. Do I look like a junkie to you? I buy for my clients who find it unwise to buy it themselves; something as unprofessional as sampling, I would never do.”
    No, instead you stuff your fat face you ****ing chipmunk. “Very unprofessional indeed, which is why I expected you to go right for it,” I replied with the Anthony Alexander smile, which is roughly one part arrogance, one part confidence and two parts . “You don’t have to worry about that. My people will call your people, and by that I mean I’ll call my people and have them call you but warn them not to talk too fast or your overworked little engine of a heart might actually explode, or implode, or maybe both, I don’t know which a heart is more likely to do, though I suspect a muscle would probably explode, and an organ would probably implode, but the heart is sort of both ...” He began to get the dizzy look in his eye that meant my approach of cramming many words into as little oxygen as possible was working, “... and by tomorrow morning at 9:30 AM you will be most, most assured that I sell only the finest, grade A, one hundred percent pure happiness.”
    "Your ... people? How big is your operation?” Jowl-flap asked.
    I was shocked; it was an intelligent question. “This is the last in the continental United States that hasn’t had Euphoria yet. Soon, this will be a vibrant, bustling place full of vibrant, bustling, happy people just like everywhere should be.” I rose from my seat and shook his slightly shaking hand. “I’d give you my number, but you’d never call,” I said in a mockingly sad tone, and I walked out.
    I walked out with a strange sense of confusion. I had just out-talked myself; my mind was still lagging slightly behind me, wondering what the hell I was going off about and where the random firings of my thought stew were coming from. Goddamn I needed a smoke, something, anything, my mind was racing and there was only one thing I would never touch.
    Jowl-fat was right, you know. Never sample the goods.
    * * *
    I may seem like a spacy sort, perhaps. Head in the clouds, high as a kite. Well, that’s just not true. I am the opposite. It’s simply that my mind and my tongue operate on two completely different planes of action, which makes oral sex a very interesting venture, it must be said; while my mind is on geopolitical science and whether America is ready for a woman president, my tongue is talking about something else completely unrelated, such as world hunger or world peace or whatever the popular thing to unite the entire globe is these days.
    But please, don’t get the wrong impression from me. I am actually extremely intelligent, and I know exactly how my drugs work. We — and by we, I mean me and my company, Euphoria, which I formed with my brother Ben and which, rather predictably, produces Euphoria (which is, by the way, not illegal but also not FDA approved which puts it on the same level as most weight loss products) — started by taking completely ordinary, generally very sad people. At first, when we weren’t so much public with our research, we would claim to be giving people personality tests to see how happy they were on a scale of 1 to 100, 1 being ‘it’s surprising you haven’t brutally murdered yourself and your family yet’ and 100 being ‘it’s surprising you haven’t brutally murdered yourself and your family yet’. People eat up personality tests.
    Then, we would have them take a quick test, tell them they were, in general, very happy (which would, predictably, make them very happy) and then have them run physical fitness tests because they were in the mood to take on the world, and all that. We measured heart rate, excitement level, everything. Our goal was simple: what makes people happiest, and how can we harness it and use it to our own advantage?
    This, of course, is the common goal of the human species. Furthering, not for the species but for the individual human, which in turn benefits the entire species. **** me, I digress. Our tests ranged from showing people pornographic videos to having them run while listening to depressing music, and our research only backed up what is common knowledge, because after all we were only researching to see which was best; strenuous physical activity, as well as excitement and orgasm, cause the relief of endorphins. Endorphins, put very simply, make you happy; they’re nature’s happy juice, to give you a reason to plow on, or, more appropriately, plow in if you take my meaning. Sex is not only highly pleasurable, it also makes us feel fulfilled and happy. Endorphins!
    Then the problem became how to make these endorphins more useful. They only give happiness in quick bursts; in many ways, their effectiveness is like a simple, common drug, except extremely potent and with the only side effect being a psychological, not physical, craving for more. It became a problem of extraction and, ultimately, synthetic replication. The endorphins are there, in a small dose; if we could just get it out from your silly brain where it isn’t doing any good, and grow it and use it all at once in one nigh-literal orgasmic rush of happy thought and sound, it would be the ultimate drug. A natural drug. An addictive drug. An unbelievably expensive drug. And that is exactly, exactly what it is, as much as I profess that it is no drug but it is only natural. Something’s nature is not a good merit by which to judge its worth or how safe it is, by the way; there is nothing particularly natural about ingesting glorified penicillium mold or putting pieces of glass in front of our eyes, but it sure is nice to forget about your first time with a Thai hooker and to be able to ****ing see, isn’t it?
    Eventually, I and Ben figured out how to extract very small amounts of endorphins from the brain; we were, of course, very careful. But it wasn’t enough. It took years to perfect our extraction method, and it is so woefully expensive; that is why we have to sell Euphoria at a profit instead of just giving it away to lazy ****s, because if we could then we totally would just waste it all on simple charity, wouldn’t we?
    Well, me. Ben ... he isn’t so involved with the company anymore.
    * * *
    “You’re a really great brother, man, I just want you to know that. You’re . . . you’re great family, you know. It’s true man, it really is.” Ben’s eyes were wide and shining, his mouth slightly open, his voice slurred. I felt a twitch of revulsion, seeing him hopped up on his own drug, and I wondered somewhere in the back of my mind . . .
    “I am a golden god, a wonderful specimen of a human being,” I said lamely. I refused to touch the Euphoria he’d just hit up on and was encouraging me to enjoy; instead I nursed a glass of vodka, which I cannot ****ing stand (mostly because it tastes like burning ass), and which the FDA also, incidentally, considers less dangerous than ecstasy and marijuana combined. Not vodka alone, of course, I mean alcohol in general. Alcohol, oldest and proudest of drugs.
    You don’t sound too enthusiastic there man,” Ben whined, wriggling in his seat on the couch and staring vacantly at the light for a few long moments, an uncomfortable silence. The seconds dragged slowly by, the only sound his heavy breathing and the rushing of blood in my ears. Obviously my enthusiasm was not greatly concerning him. “I love light. Light is ****ing fantastic,” Ben said, an eyebrow lifting. “Imagine if we didn’t have light. Then it’d be ... it’d be dark, you know? And we’d stumble around and hit things in the dark, man. We’d have to like, learn to adjust. We’d have to evolutionize to that ****, man. Evolve. We’d evolve to have night vision like ****in Superman and then we could see in the dark ‘n ****.” A negative turning into a positive, the glory of Euphoria.
    “More accurately,” I murmured morosely, “we’d simply return to a society oriented around the rising and falling of the sun, and sleeping cycles would return to their normal rate, reducing stress and turning humanity into a species once more of happy, content sun worshipers.”
    “We’re already doing that,” he murmured, confusion slurring his voice, “‘cept without the sun worshiping part. **** that, man.” He wriggled and writhed on the couch, adjusting his position over and over again until he settled into a numbing cycle of sitting still, shifting, and sitting still. I could tell his mind was racing with thought after thought, jumbled together, none of them making sense. I felt almost the same way, but much more lucid and much less happy.
    “I wonder how much Euphoria will change the world. I bet, no, I know, I am entirely certain: the murder rate is gonna sink like a ****in’ rock, and the divorce rate, and the stress rate and the death rate and all the bad rates. And all the good rates are gonna soar, soar.” He chattered on and on.
    I couldn’t stand being around my brother like this, not right now. His complacency annoyed me, his . . . contentment. Since when was Ben content? We had no reason to be. We were constantly moving, restless young men, shifting from place to place and goal to goal like hunter-gatherers of ambition; I wanted to run in a circle, run a marathon, just to beat everyone else. He sat on the couch and looked up at the light and reflected on . . . what? Nothingness. His fleeting moment of happiness wasn’t so fleeting after all and it pissed me off. If we were meant to always be happy like this . . .
    My gaze settled on the Euphoria tab and stayed there for a while, as the sound of my brother’s voice filled my ears but could not penetrate my wall of silence. “I do wonder how much it will change the world,” I said finally, when he had fallen silent and peered at me. “I really do. But . . . hey,” I shrugged it off, “what the *** does it matter, right? We’re rich, man.” The words sounded empty even to my ears, but not to him.
    “I heard on the news Israel is going to invade Iran,” I said after a moment, hoping to get a reaction, to get him to say something, to have an opinion. To care.
    He looked at me blankly, vacantly. I saw in his stare the look of a content sheep, the look of a little boy being dragged by the wrist from one wondrous sight to the next. The smile that hung over his mouth like a heavy shroud of hypocrisy lacked real emotion, intelligence, all the things I expected from my brother, my blood. “That’s nice,“ he finally said, smiling. “I’m sure they’ll sort it out. If not … we can make them forget.” He was perfectly happy, and there was nothing more to seek now. Benjamin Alexander lay there, staring at the light like a ****ing moth without a single goal or care or worry or want, and I was ashamed.
    Where is the drive, brother of mine? Where is the yearning for knowledge, for power, for money, for pussy, for anything? Complacency hung over the couch like a shroud, and I didn’t want to see it, didn’t want to accept it.
    He rolled over on his side and sucked in a breath through his mouth, coughing. “I love you, bro,” he murmured sleepily, slipping into happy unconsciousness.
    I couldn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say, I who the words flow to. For a few fleeting moments I just sat there, eyes wide, fighting off the senses of disgust and revulsion and pity that washed over me like a horrific ocean of vicious repulsion. It made me sick to see him like this, and this was how he always was, ever since the first time he tried our little experiment. Our experiment, though it was more mine than his, and that is not just the arrogance talking; I was the driving force behind it, my hunger for money, for change, for world shattering power. That‘s all it ever was, all it ever came down to. He had been along for the ride, helping me out in my dream, sharing in the profits … the profits. Of always being happy. And now, he was. “Yeah, I‘m a great brother,” I said quietly, and rose, collecting his Euphoria tabs and my bottle of vodka and dumping them in the trash.
    I turned the light out on my way through the door, and I took a deep breath in the hall. “**** him,” I said to myself, looking down and discovering my fists were clenched, knuckles white, my arms trembling, but I didn’t feel any of these things; I felt detached from myself, observing like I was watching a movie with great special effects but whose plot I couldn’t follow, whose characters I didn’t sympathize with. My eyes burned, and I looked away, out the window, and watched the flashing lights, the cacophony of movement and action. It usually calmed me, to see the activity, the bustle, the humanity in the offices and the highrises and the boxes of steel on wheels that moved at speeds that would have made our ancestors **** their pants; but tonight, it did not. Instead, I wondered how many people out there, moving from one place to another, up and down and around like bees in a hive, were on Euphoria -- on my Euphoria. I wondered how many were drifting into endless happiness, a haze of smiles and laughter and bright sunlight and not a care in a world. I wondered how many were never going to experience sadness again, because happiness was just a pill away; I wondered how many would forget their fights with their girlfriends, forget the always-too-big size of their stomach or their always-too-small size of their dick, forget their cancer, forget their tears, forget their self pity and remorse and anger and hatred, forget the moments of excruciating pain and sadness that made the happy moments have meaning; I wondered what it was to forget the distinction, to blur the lines between happy and sad, bored and entertained, awake and asleep, alive and dead.
    I wondered if it was good to forget.
    I wondered if I cared.


    Runner-Up
    Author: Legio Caesar
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 

    Monday
    The train rattled the tracks overhead, silencing all thoughts swimming in the boy's head. Flecks of dirt and articles of trash landed around him as he walked under the 4 train. Times like these were when he felt the most lonely. Even though he had walked this street hundreds of times, seen the projects every day, seen the popped tires and busted windshields, they seemed foreign objects to him. Times like these that even when walking with a friend, he could not hear what they were saying next to him. The train drowned everything out.

    Finally, it passed him and went on its way to Mosholu Parkway. With a dry chuckle to himself, the boy remembered how his english teacher had told him to pronounce it Mosh-ah-loo, and not Moshlooo. The chuckle soon died as he got to the crossing. Parked next to a decaying pillar was a graffitti covered van. It used to be white. Used to be new. Perhaps its owner took good care of it? Maybe he or she scrubbed it every day with a rag. The owner, whoever it was, was definitely poor. There was no doubt in the boy's head. A spike of anger rose within him as the unfairness of it all struck him like a knife to the gut.

    One fist clenched, the other hand hovering over his belt and crotch, he did not wait for the light to change. Glancing to his left, he saw a black sedan approaching. A flag was draped over its hood, but the boy did not pay attention to the red and white stripes and the single star it bore. He ran across the street, heedles of any cars. Nearly tripping over an upended handbag on the curb, the boy allowed himself a small gasp. Looking around, he saw nobody. Just the purse. Nudging it with his toe, he saw that it was completely empty. Shaking his head, he instinctively felt his right pocket. No, it was still there. His bus pass, his chain, and his crumpled dollar bills were there. His phone rested comfotably in his other pocket.

    Another train arrived, disgorging more passengers into the heart of the Bronx. A sea of fitted hats and North Face backpacks swept across the street, but the boy did not notice. He was used to it by now. The train rumbled on to Mosh-ah-loo Parkway and the boy pushed himself into a small grocery. Its one concrete step had fooled him the first time he had gone there, a year before. He had not seen it and ended up sprawled facefirst on the discarded wrappers and bits of straw. Now he was experienced, and he sauntered into the bodega as if he had been born there. Nodding at the shopkeeper, a portly Dominican, the boy grabbed a bottle of coconut water and placed one of his dollars on the counter. It was transparent but dirty, and beneath it were varieties of (stale) candy. He nodded again at the shopkeeper as he took his fifty cents change and left the store.

    From this angle, the boy could see the sides of the elevated train station. Fresh graffitti adorned the police booth. Long empty, it had become a bird's nest and occasional hideout. The boy didn't care, to be honest. It was the cop's own fault for leaving the booth. He took a swig of the water, relishing its sticky sweetness. It was the van owner's own fault for letting his ride get tagged. And it was the woman's own fault for walking in the Bronx with such an expensive handbag. Another gulp of coconut.

    It was his own fault for staying there, and with a suppressed shudder the boy ascended the steps to the train station.


    Third Place
    Author: molls
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 

    A Second Chance
    The two soldiers had been standing on the patrol path besides the river for some time now, watching the chaos on the opposite riverbank.
    Both soldiers were covered from head to toe in some sort of protective gear, even the eyes hidden behind black specs.

    A small herd of deer had left the protective, dark forest to get some water. With their thick pelts, they could have lasted for some time while being exposed to the sun, had they not been ambushed and chased off by some fox-like, extremely fast and agile fur-balls, who bolted out of the brushwood. The fur-balls were themselves shortly followed by an enraged, giant creature, which might have been described as a bear, if only some distinguishing characteristic had been visible under its moving carpet of fur.

    The chase went back into the dense forest and the two men's eyes were drawn to the grey ruins amidst the edge of the wood, overgrown with ivy and other wild plants.

    Both soldiers were covered from head to toe in some sort of protective gear, even the eyes behind black specs.

    Finally the taller man moved to sit down on a nearby stump, all the while staring across the river.

    The other man, standing on the path, broke the silence.


    "Chris, what's wrong? You haven't said a single word today..."

    Emitting a heartbreaking sigh, the sitting soldier finally began to speak. "I've been thinking. A lot. Tell me Alex, did you ever wonder about the past? Who we are? Why we're here?"

    "Well, umm.. To be honest, I got my mind set on the 'now', ya know? Trying to avoid me and others getting ripped by whatever comes out of these woods...Just doing my work..."

    Chris remained silent for a moment, still abesntly staring at the forest. Then, slowly he continued. "Yesterday evening I "persuaded" some of the elders to open their mouths about the past. The section of the past no one else in the whole camp would know, care or even ask about. It kept me up all night..."

    "Chris, if you need to get something off your chest, just go ahead."

    "Yeah, I guess I do. So...
    Basically, in the beginning of the 21st century humanity was struggling with all kinds of problems in society:

    Our energy sources and production could not keep up with the steadily rising demand. For every new oil deposit we were lucky to find, two others were depleted - soon all what's left was Siberia, the Middle East and the sources in the ocean. Coal was nearly gone, with only natural gas being left as an original medium besides the precious oil.

    Of course we were trying to better the situation...Hydroelectric power production, wind energy, solar power, bioenergy and -gas, and revamping the means of transportation through new, ecological engines were options.
    These actually could have helped a lot if the political leaders had grasped the urgency of the situation to it's full extend and had forced to implement these enhancements with all possible means.
    But no - they were jerking around, trying to gain political options and influence with everything, even if it was only buying a cup of coffee.

    And that's not all... Our population was growing, our centres overcrowding - food supply was getting critical. New, more effective forms of growing food plants like grain and corn were just in the development and far from being a significant substitute to the original staples.
    The gap between rich and poor expanded, racial prejudice and organised crime; not to mention terrorism and religious fanatism were more threatening than ever.

    Something was bound to happen, uprisings, civil disorder, famine or resource wars, whatever. Everyone saw it coming, but they'd have rather gone on with their routine lives, ignoring the world around, only beginning to wonder when they suddenly couldn't afford the fuel to drive to their shopping mall trips."

    Alex started pacing up and down the pathsection by the trunk and muttered, "...'twas looking bad eh?"

    Finally, Chris managed to wrench his eyes from the forest, turned to Alex and continued.
    "Yeah, it was looking pretty bad...
    Ultimately some people's finger began twitching over the red buttons -
    and the Third World War broke out. Before the democratic west could decide on what to do, they were already bombed into extinction! All the other states continued with their 'Free for All' and in the end there was only one problem: no one had actually won, or rather survived the war. The first months left 95% of the entire human population dead..!"

    Alex was quick to blurt out."BOOM! Problem solved.
    Seems like killing off billions of people did wonders for sorting out most of our issues and problems then...hah!"

    "It isn't as easy as that, Alex..."

    The addressed stopped his march and exclaimed;
    "Well what's the deal? Our families were the ones left over, so they went on, carved their living, freed from the all the 'modern society' crap; where's your damn point?"

    "You think it all just went on like nothing happened? Did you ever wonder why we have to live in the shades and wear those crappy outfits from head to toe - why the daylight would kill us if we hadn't? Why the animals are covered in thick fur?
    It wasn't supposed to be that way!"

    Alex stayed silent, so Chris continued. "They...said it was a nuclear war! Every noteable place was destroyed by atomic bombings - and what the bombings didn't finish, the fires took over.

    Explosions and fires created huge amounts of dust, smoke and ash, which all went up and settled in the atmosphere. A black shield in the sky above us, blocking out the sun - there was almost no light coming through. Temperature on the whole globe dropped by 10 to 20 degrees!
    Radiation, no light, no warmth - a nuclear winter.

    The Ozone layer - earth's shield against the sun's dangerous UV-light - was almost gone due to the massive amount of free radical catalysts. All caused by the nuclear explosions and the masses of smoke and ash settling in the atmosphere, where they have been accelerating the process of decomposing the Ozone even more!

    So even when the smoke particle layer in the atmosphere finally started to loosen up after months - years? - the UV-light radiation suddenly didn't face any resistance at all and was set loose on the 'frozen' earth, leading to a major meltdown of the world's ice, which in turn resulted in enormous floods!
    From nuclear winter to an ultraviolet summer.

    You see..., there was no chance for survival right from the beginning.
    No hope for anyone.
    None at all..."

    Both remained silent for a minute, then Alex resumed the conversation, shuttering between his sentences.
    "Man that was quite a mouth full. I mean, no one ever said or asked anything about that time... Uh... so what, what happened? It just... sounds impossible, how come we are walking here then?
    You are not suggesting that we are a breed of aliens, in clever disguise - or descendants of some indestructible demigods...?
    Hell yeah, let's just...take the suit off and test it!"

    He began kicking some small stones around.

    "No, damnit! What I am trying to say is that... we are extremely lucky to be here."

    Chris rose up and walked up to Alex, then went on:

    "The people who made it through the aftermath of the war are long dead by now. Who really knows exactly how they did it - if what they did could even be called 'living'. Holing up beneath the earth like some animals, but...
    Sheesh, maybe there were some very awesome super helpful aliens, or some ghosts out there, yeah even our holy god to save the last ones of our kind? Who knows?
    Regardless, it is a miracle that we are here, walking the soil of the planet we were so keen to destroy!"

    Almost casually, Alex stopped kicking the pebble.
    "You really mean it, do you...?"

    "Look, it's not right to narrowmindedly go our way and not look back. If no one cares about what happened to the world in past, the same mistakes will be made again in the future - the elders have to go public with everything they know!

    After hearing all that yesterday, I began to believe that mother earth gave us a second chance. The humanity of the past did not deserve this chance, but we do, we are here, we are alive! And we better open the minds of our people for we will not get a third chance - should anything of this magnitude ever happen again..."

    Now it was Alex who turned and stared across the river.
    "A mother always loves her children, no matter what they do."

    "Hmm... It does beg the question; who is the mother and who is the child now? I suggest we get moving, come on Alex."

    The two soldiers continued their patrol along the path. The words spoken lay heavily on each one's mind -
    for a while.


    "Did you know that humans back then used to have only five fingers and toes on each hand and foot?"

    "Only five? Weirdos..."








    [Author's notes: Political and historical references are made up for the sake of the story, and are not meant to offend. Facts about the nuclear aftermath taken from wikipedia and other sites, some numbers (like 95% of population dead after 1 month) are made up for the story. The message of this story is not a scientific one, so don't feel offended about possible scientific or simulation-based errors.
    This article is an adaption of the brilliant "Oil's Well" by Ross Scott.]
    Last edited by Astaroth; June 28, 2009 at 01:04 PM. Reason: Fixed fieldset tags.

  3. #3
    Legio's Avatar EMPRESS OF ALL THINGS
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    Default Re: The Catalogue Pt. 7: Competition Winners

    Christmas Writing Competition 2009
    Winner
    Author: RazorHead
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 

    The hungry Christmas present.

    The light that hurts my eyes awakens me.
    I yawn and voice my disapproval as the familiar smell of fear and piss wafts over me. I feel thirsty, but see there's no water here. The idea of falling back asleep crosses my mind, but is quickly dismissed. I know if I stay awake awhile longer someone may bring me something to drink, and maybe even a little food. With nothing better to do, I stretch my limbs and slowly approach the thing that stops me. I tap at it once or twice with my foot to check it, but as usual it doesn't move. A cry of pain echos nearby from my neighbor. He is dying now. I can smell the death clinging to his body and know he will soon be gone. I lie down on the cold floor and begin to cry. I am hungry. I am sad. I am alone.

    Suddenly, a movement catches my attention.
    Someone is approaching me, but I don't recognize who they are. I rise to stand on my feet and call out to them for help, but they don't answer me. I hear a clatter and notice the thing that stops me is being opened. I decide to try and run past it to get outside. Before I can act, I'm whisked into the air and held aloft by the stranger. It's a female. She has a strong smell of food on her and she takes me with her.

    I am falling now.
    I swiftly try to regain my balance and land safely, but I hit something hard and hurt my head. I hear a terrible scraping noise above me and then the light disappears. As I try to look around, I sense I'm inside of something very small with little room to breathe. I can see nothing else but feel as if I'm moving. I try to stand up and sway with the motion, but lose my footing and crash back down. My head hurts even worse now and I feel sick from the constant movement. I voice my pain again and again, but there is no reply. Tears run down my face as I eventually drift off to sleep.

    It's been a very long time, and all is quiet and deadly still.
    I glance around me but still sense nothing at all. All of a sudden I hear voices. I don't understand them. Then a great crashing and tearing noise surrounds me in the darkness. The sound grows louder and louder and a light appears above me! It must lead outside! It must lead to freedom! I spring into action and leap with all my strength into the light. I am out in the open. No! Wait! I am still inside! This is not the place with the thing that stops me. No. This is another place. It doesn't matter any more. I will not be held again. So I run! I see the female who smells like food. She tries to grab me, but I'm ready for her this time and quickly squirm past. I run hard, and soon see a small dark opening not far in front of me. Safety! I instantly dash inside to escape my pursuers. I can hear them now, excitedly yelling and running around looking for me. As I grin in satisfaction, I voice my anger at my captors.

    I crawl deeper inside the safe dark passage.
    It's tight in here and it's hot. I start to calm down and plan my next move. Before long, the heat starts to become unbearable. A very strong smell of food is around me. Hot food? I know this smell. My mother used to catch this for me when we lived outside. She would feed it to me, but it was never hot?! What are these creatures doing? What are they eating? Am I going to be next?! My life is in danger and I must act Now! I attempt to rise to my feet, but can't move. My shoulders are stuck! I struggle to push harder and harder but the heat is starting to hurt me now. It's burning me. I start to panic and voice my fear. "Help! Help me! Someone Please!" I feel the hair on my neck begin to sizzle and burn. The heat is entering my body and it's becoming hard to breathe. With all my failing strength, I voice my pain again and again. "I am Dying! I don't want to Die!" Someone Please help me!" Once more there is no answer. I close my eyes tightly and think of my mother as I wait to die.

    Death comes peacefully as I feel the life being tugged and pulled along my body.
    I am floating now. The air is cool. I feel my mothers gentle embrace holding me to her stomach. No...wait? I open my eyes and see a face above me. I'm not dead? I am saved?! The face smiles at me. It's a small female and she's holding me in her lap. She brings something to my face and smiles at me again. I weakly sniff at it and suddenly understand. Wondrous Joy! It's food! The small female, who smiles at me, places it on the ground. I nervously climb down and bite into it. It's good. It's Very good! It's the same thing my mother used to catch and feed me. And it's hot? My body starts to shake and tremble in delight as I devour it. I repeatedly stomp my foot on the ground in approval and voice my desire for more. And there is more. Much more! I eat it all, and for the first time in my entire life, I am no longer hungry.

    Something fly's past my head.
    What was that? There it is again! With the greasy remains of my meal still smeared across my face, I crouch down on the floor and study it in detail. It's small but quick. It moves easily through the air and then hops along the ground. I must have it! The thing I want to catch dips closer now. I leap high into the air to grab it. A miss! I swiftly recover my balance and prepare to strike again. Where is it? I don't know. OK, I see it now, hiding over there. I remember what my mother would do, and take a few slow steps toward it. I wait. It must not see me. Not now. Not when I'm so close to having it. The thing I want to catch starts to twitch back and forth. Without warning it tries to take to the air again. I strike hard and fast. I manage to bring it to the ground and kick furiously at it with my feet. I tear into it with my teeth. Mine! It's Mine! I'm so Happy! I've never been so Happy in my entire life!

    I pick up my newly won prize and proudly walk it to the small female who smiles at me.
    I crawl back into her lap and she rightfully claims it from my mouth. I slowly let my body relax as she softly touches my face and begins to scratch my chin. It feels nice. I begin to make the sound that rumbles in my chest. She seems pleased with this and then smiles at me again. I drift off into a comfortable sleep and think about this, most difficult of days, and finally realize. I am full. I am happy. I am no longer alone.

    I begin to dream of the next time the light that hurts my eyes will awaken me. I hope when that happens, the small female who smiles at me will still be holding me. I hope she will feed me once more, and softly scratch my chin again.



    Runner-Up
    Author: Monarchist
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 

    Light of the World


    A Christmas scene, by X

    "O tidings of comfort and joy,
    comfort and joy,
    O tidings of comfort and joy..."

    Eight little voices echo in the streets before Stephansdom. Aged cobble-stones sit in their comfortable homes, resting under whole hills of snow. Golden carriages rattle on in the clear paths, their sleigh bells sending greetings to the whole world. Somewhere in the depths of the city, a string quartet serenades a public garden. Despite the chill, an old man sits in his rooms and plays a carol on pianoforte, smiling a blissful smile. Elm trees, withered in their icy glow, slumber and sway upon the gentle breeze of a late winter morning. Blue shadows from the rising sun cast their dancing countenance across every street and into every window. In the snug landings, noble childrens' bow-ties are drawn and boot-strings tied; daschunds trot royally, in their own way. All the empire is awash in the bright rays of the day's joy, and a thousand curtains are drawn to let in the glorious ancient light. Another band of singers cries forth from the streets:

    "Let earth receive her King;
    Let every heart prepare him room..."

    In the high hill of Himmelpfortgrund, an old milkman delivers his frozen stock and hurries home to the fire. Far down the snowy hills and misty alleys, on the cosy shores of the Danube, a fishwife straightens her back and admires the golden morning. A legion of valets, footmen, butlers, maids, manservants, and liveried grooms burst forth from their places and fill the streets. Calls for hansoms, broughams, barouches, and tandems reverberate across the avenues. The doors of Hotel Sacher are flung open, and an army of students from the north country fly into every corner to explore the wide-open parks and ways. The sun reaches its full rise, and every spire radiates with brass bells and polished stones. Carols, chorales, hymns, songs, and dances fill the raucous air!

    Deep in the old palace, Habsburgs gleefully open their ribbons and play under the Tree. A creaky headmaster opens up his shutters and puts the early fire on. A stiff wind out of the Innerstadt gives off forests of smoke from uncounted numbers of hearth and home, and happiness spreads across the Earth. The fog clears and grumpy grandfathers open their shutters to embrace the world. The youngest people of all march about in off-tune marching bands, boots, and overcoats, and the city bristles with life. Band stands play their Christmas tunes, complimenting the toddlers' flutes on sidewalks.

    "All you within this place,
    And with true love and brotherhood
    Each other now embrace;
    This holy tide of Christmas
    All others doth deface..."

    Below the hills and palaces, beyond the walls, and away in the rural country, farmers enjoy their puddings. Sturdy tables of oaken wood keep hot porridge, succulent pork, boiled eggs, and good old hops. Plums and candied things rest upon branches, evergreen thistles litter the cabins, and yards hold mountains of gossamer beauty. Peasants bring out the Russian sleighs and visiting family dance a rustic länder on floors of the local village inn. Out and out and out, forever onward and upward, the hardiest of men trudge and crunch into the Alpine ranges before the sun reaches its height. Norfolks, fur coats, and ten million gloves keep them in their happy warmth. No avalanches seem to impede the way, today. The solemn morning sun shouts across the mountaintops; here is a stag, and there is a courageous raven singing its songs!

    Down and down and down, forever flowing to the city, voluptuous brooks branch their way to the ancient city. Ice flows as syrup into Donau's valley, and water maidens bring their under-mentionables for the day's wash. Life circles about and about in an eternal dance before that city, the city! Officials and noblemen bring out their guns to have a jolly hunt. There a handmaiden is startled by gunshot, and here a baron tips his hat in apology. Silver snow covers the world, wreathes deck the country halls and holly makes happy decor for every boy and girl! Stuffy old country gentlemen take their canes and off for the walk, whilst whistling the most joyous and beloved melodies of the day. On and on and on they walk, taking their leisure in coming to the outskirts of the city for festivities. Church bells echo into the lands within and beyond the border, for the sun is coming to its mid-day high. Strings, horns, trumpets, and drums signal the coming of the full day! That ball of fire in the sky lights every luncheon and tea party on Christ's Way!

    Sacred hearts glow under candle-light. The fires, once burning, now come closing and closing and closing in the sunset. Embers burn away and ashes come to make well on their stay as the State Opera opens its balconies. The lamps are lit and out comes the Messiah, out come Beauty and the Beast, Tosca, the Mikado, and Idomeneo! St. Stephen's dome glitters with evening light and the mass of the Joyous Blood of the World rings out for all to hear! Butchers close their doors and woodmen lock the bolts, but the post office stays open just another hour. Children are put to bed, and harps give way to mourn the passing of the sun-soaked world, drenched in lovely snow. The trees are alive, dancing in the windy evening light, and the weather turns to pure white flakes. Night falls upon the roof-tops and sapphire water's bays.

    Thus passed another Christmas away, marking His birth day!



    Third Place
    Author: Raradir
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 

    War and Christmas

    The wind was howling and the waves were lashing against the bow of HMS Wharf, her Captain was John Harringdale a middle aged man who was ravaged by war. He had orders to meet a convoy off the coast of Norway which in the winter months are ravaged by storms and blizzards. But this story is not about Captain Harringdale and his many exploits against the French, but about Charles Horrington a lowly Midshipman who was nigh in his mid twenties and suffered terribly against the cold weather.
    “Sails on the horizon” cried a man from up in the rigging, “quick Mister Horrington take a look through your telescope and tell us what you see” said Lieutenant Appleby who was a large set fellow who's cheeks seemed to have gone bright red in the cold weather “there seems to be a blizzard Sir, I can hardly make out how many ships there are and what colours there flying” “Sir there is a blizzard between us and them, we can't tell whether there ares or the enemies” Appleby said looking up at Captain Harringdale who was stood on the side leaning out while peering into the distance, “well Mr Appleby that's the location were meeting the convoy so we have no choice we have to sail out to them, beat to quarters incase they are the French”. And with that Lieutenant Appleby gave out such a shout everyone thought that it shook the snow off the rigging but it was the ship entering the blizzard. “Well what are you waiting for Mr Horrington, I just gave the order to beat to quarters so get moving to your station, you should find yourself lucky yours is below deck out of this dam cold”. “bloody cold, bloody ship, bloody enemy” Charles mumbled to himself as he scurried bellow deck, “come on lads get those cannons loaded that could be ol'slimey out there waiting for us”, there was many a hurry bellow deck guns moving out here and there powder monkeys running to and fro and the drums beating above deck sounded like thunder crashing down to earth. As Charles stood there waiting to give the order to fire, he heard cheers above deck and the sound of other ships in the water, a man ran down nearly slipping on the snow and shouted “its all right lads there ours” “all right lads back to your stations” shouted Charles as he headed back above deck, the blizzard was still raging and seemed to be having its own battle in the heavens, “Ah Horrington glad to see you back above deck, this darn snow doesn't seem to show signs of stopping, but luckily we don't have to fight in it” said Lieutenant Appleby taking off his hat and brushing the snow off it, but as Appleby was talking Charles was taking little notice, he was watching Captain Harringdale stood on the side shouting to another ship, he could hear little that was being shouted but he heard snippets here and there “If we sail now we could intercept them” or “The blizzard is too strong we'll be blow too far west” it seemed Captain Harringdale got his own way and the convoy was to sail out to intercept some French frigates as he gathered as he heard Appleby talking with another Lieutenant.
    Two days passed until they came out of the blizzard and finally Charles looked around and saw about six more British frigates had joined the convoy in the night, “Mister Appleby Sir are we expecting more than intercepting a convoy, as I noticed more ships have joined us” Appleby turned round and looked at Charles stood there shivering “Well Mister Horrington Sir, I think you shouldn't ask such questions out in the open were crew could hear, but all I can say is your guessing is probably right, we should intercept them within three days if the wind is still in our favour” “That will be Christmas day Sir” said Charles trying to stop himself shivering “Ah so it will be, well then it'll be one hell of a Christmas, your shivering Sir” “yes I seem to suffer from the cold more than others” “Well go get some grog down you that'll warm you up” “thank you Sir” said Charles and he turned and went to find a drop of grog to warm his bones.
    On the morning of the third day Charles was shaken suddenly by another Midshipman “Wake up Charles its the 25th, Christmas” Charles mumbled as he sat up, it was bitterly cold and Charles jumped into his uniform as quick as he could, as he neared the he hatch to go up he noticed flakes of snow seeping in, “ah bloody snow again” Charles muttered as he climbed the steps onto the deck. There was a thick fog all around and the snow was getting more heavy. Charles looked and saw Lieutenant Appleby and Captain Harringdale talking on deck, Charles edged his way nearer to hear what they were saying, “the fog is very thick sir we can hardly see our own ships never mind that of the enemies” “So your right Mister Appleby, give out an extra ration of grog since its Christmas and put on extra watch incase old slimey tries to take us unaware” . There crew was very merry on deck but kept there voices down and even the Lieutenants joined in on some of it saying “Its Christmas after all”. But just as Captain Harringdale ordered for there to be food brought out there was an almighty bang in the distance then more and shouts carried on the fog, all the crew rushed to the side and saw lights in the distance every time there was a light shortly after there was a bang “beat to quarters” shouted Captain Harringdale every body was rushing around ad people handing out weapons and as Charles was about to go down below deck he heard Lieutenant Appleby shout over to Captain Harringdale “We've drifted to far south Sir the rest of the convoy must of met the French”. “Quick lads there battering our ships lets give them a Christmas present they wont forget” Charles shouted at the top of his voice. An hour passed and still there was nothing, all the bangs in the distance seemed to have ceased, an member of the crew turned around to Charles “We should of reached them by now Sir” “I know I'll take a look above deck”, as Charles peered out of the hatch he saw everybody stood at the side of the ship looking out, Charles went up to the side and saw pieces of wood and bodies floating everywhere and every now and then the top of a ship or some masts disappeared under the water, “look Sir a ship flying French colours he's trying to sail away” everyone looked up to the man shouting in the rigging, “everyone back to stations we'll catch that French ship and they'll wish they were born” everyone looked in amazement expecting Captain Harringdale to be stood there but it was a lowly Midshipman stood there shivering “Lieutenant Appleby give that lad a promotion if he survives this” “eye Captain, looks like you should get back below deck Charles” said Appleby smiling at Charles “Sir” and that's all Charles could say as he turned and went back below deck. The ports opened and the guns were run out “wait for it” shouted Charles, they came alongside the French vessel “Fire” shouted Charles there was a loud bang and everyone went deaf for a minute “you hit there powder store Sir” said a member of crew turning around to Charles, but before he could answer back he heard Lieutenant Appleby's voice shouting down below “Everyone on deck were boarding them”. Everyone rushed above deck and leaped on to the French vessel, The fighting went on for hours and eventually there came cheers as the French Captain surrendered his sword to Captain Harringdale, as the dust of battle settled Captain Harringdale called everyone so he could read the list of dead “well” he stopped and sighed “well, were here on the 25th of December, Christmas Day, as everyone back at home is celebrating and eating were here repelling old boney and fighting to the bitter end, so as I read the list of dead we must not forget what happened here today”

    First Lieutenant David Tumbudge
    Able Seaman Tony Dogbridge
    Carpenters Mate Harry Snell
    Midshipman Charles Horrington

    The fog started to lift and flakes of snow began to fall, “Ha he hated the cold” “what are you talking about Appleby” said Captain Harringdale putting down the list of dead “nothing Sir, nothing” Said Appleby with a grin on his face.

    Last edited by Legio; January 10, 2010 at 07:00 AM.

  4. #4
    Legio's Avatar EMPRESS OF ALL THINGS
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    Scriptorium Writing Competition 2010

    Winner
    Author: Kaitsar
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 

    Armageddon dwelt in his corridor, thinking. Some called him Ragnarok, others though of him as "The End of Days", many more named him Shiva. He shrugged, and California suffered a magnitude 7 earthquake. Despite all of his different names, all who believed in him called him God. But not all did believe in him. Those that did knew very little of his true nature.

    He heard everything; the cries of joy, the laughter, even the most minute sounds: a child's skin creasing for a smile, a person blinking away tears of happiness. But not all was well. He also heard the croaks of dying innocents, the fire of weapons that extinguished the lives he loved, the weepings of a family never able to speak to their loved one again. Thousands dies every day. He sighed, and a large typhoon hit the coasts of Japan. He could do nothing. So much power yet so little control.

    All of these thoughts he had had over billions of human years, over and over, thousands of times. Ragnarok had thought all there was to think. There was no thought, emotion, or feeling he had not already experienced. It angered him. People, everywhere, worrying. Worrying of nothing! They hadn't felt, couldn't have felt, true worry, true fear. They didn't know. They knew nothing, nothing! His face tightened in anger, a sinkhole opened in China, killing hundreds.

    And they hurt him! They worshiped him, they preached and predicted his coming, and yet, in their ignorance, the hurt him. He recalled the pain he felt in the year 7,206,942.67, or somewhere in their 1940s. It hit him right between the eyes, a tremendous pain. To him, the pain and aftereffects lasted a mere fraction of a second, compared to the scope of his life, which went on as far back as he could remember, and probably longer. But this pain was so immense it took all he could muster not to stretch and roar. Of course, this would mean the end of the people he loved, yet hated and despised. His feelings for them had maintained their balance for hundreds of their years, but the pain and animosity he felt started to compound, he noticed, in the past few decades. He was more spiteful now than he had ever been in his life, at least the life he could remember.

    They continued to drill and mine and dig into him, bleeding dry his precious lifeblood. He knew they weren't aware, yet he still allowed his loathing of them to grow. It was destined. As their hatred and rejection of him grew, as did his towards them. They were manufacturing their own destruction. He chuckled at the irony of it all and tornadoes ravaged the Midwest of America. His chuckle quickly descended into further anger.

    They hated them! He hated them! They would pay for what they had done to him! They would pay for their ignorance and worries and evil! They would pay for making him listen to their sufferings! Roaring, Apocalypse punched out of the earth's skin, tearing a hole in central Africa, he kicked, draining the Pacific of its contents, he writhed, destroying the buildings and creations of man. Mustering all of his force, he broke through the earth and escaped what had been his eternal prison. The rubble that had been the earth flew into space, never to be seen again. There! They suffered and died for what they had done! They had felt his pain!

    He began to weep.


    Runner-Up
    Author: Maurits
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 



    The Letter



    A Short Story


    "Naval battles are more terrible than land battles, for the victors come out beaten and battered, and the enemy - well, there is nothing left to be said of them. They are shattered"



    It was a warm afternoon in June, and Tacitus was standing on the roof of his house. The air baked, and on the highway no one was to be seen. Then, suddenly, a small breeze touched his skin. At times, some of these would blow inland from the wide seas that surrounded the Italian peninsular. When he was lucky enough to meet one, his thoughts were drawn to these masses of water behind the horizon. They were mysterious, beautiful, but also very dangerous for the people that didn’t know how to tame them.

    A cloud of dust appeared in the distance, just behind the top of a hill that blocked his sight in that direction. Tacitus wondered who would travel at this hour of the day. Only the most urgent of messages were delivered when the sun sent its burning death to all who dared to challenge her. Soon the rider emerged from the dust, and Tacitus wondered where he would be heading for. He was surprised when the rider rode to his villa. Quickly, he shouted some orders to his slaves, to give the man water and bring him onto the roof. ‘’My lord’’, he said when the man arrived on the roof, ‘’what tidings do you bring me?’’

    For a moment the man was silent, as if he didn’t know what to say. Then he answered: ‘’Noble lord, I bring you a message from your friend Marcus. He said that it was of the utmost importance that you receive it as soon as possible.’’ He gave him the letter, and bowed while he left the roof. Tacitus opened the letter, wondering what Marcus had written him. He had been writing for five years on his Great Historiae, and Marcus was one of the people that collected sources for him. He wondered what he had discovered, and thought to be so important! He broke the seal, and started reading…

    ‘’Marcus Tacitus Suo S. (Marcus says hail to his friend Tacitus)

    Noble friend, for several years you have been writing about the great deeds of our ancestors, and I know that you’ve only added the ones that have been of great importance for our Republic. But now I’ve seen and participated in deeds so valiant, and so important, that I think it would be justified to add them to your Historiae. Will you, my dear friend, write them down so they will be remembered for all eternity, so that no one will ever forget the valiance showed by the Roman sailors?
    It all started three months ago. After half a year of training the VI Classis Venetum, a small but highly disciplined fleet, set sail under command of Nauarchus Decimus. I was serving as centurion on one of the smaller ships, with eighty sailors under my command. The trierarchus, or the captain, was a friend of mine. He was a tall and heavy-built man called Titus. The sailors would row, handle the sails, and when in combat I would lead them towards the enemy ship. The trireme that we used had four small ballistae and a catapult, beside its main ram that was clad with iron. Under my command were further optio Lucius and an artillery officer called Publius. Due to the small staff, the officers of the ‘Hercules’ soon became friends, and we had a nice time together.

    After two days of sailing (we were at the middle of the Mare Superum), a heavy wind started blowing. Above the noise of the heavy drums from the belly of the ship, we heard the high sound of the wind and the hearts of many a good soldier were troubled by these ill forebodes…

    ‘Centurio,’ a young sailor said, while asking permission to enter, ‘Would you like to eat in your room, or will you join the trierarchus tonight?’

    Marcus, this being his first long voyage at sea, was only able to bring forward a grumble before he threw his breakfast out. ‘O, beg your pardon sir, I didn’t know that you were ill…’ the young man stammered.

    ‘Is it always like this on the sea?’ Marcus moaned, ‘How can you live when the flour moves two meters up and then four down?’

    The man laughed. ‘You’ll get used to it, sir. But we all pray that we’ll miss the storm that’s heading in this direction. If we’re caught by that one, we’ll face greater dangers than missing a meal or two…’

    Marcus went silent. After he’d dismissed the soldier, he went to Titus, who stood on the deck. He was looking into the east, with a troubled look on his stern face. ‘It’s faster.’ He said to himself. ‘We won’t be able to reach a port before it gets us…’

    I have never been so afraid, my friend. Not even in the middle of a battle you’ll see the despair and helplessness of men caught upon a sinking ship. But I’ll tell you my whole story. After we’d rowed for a few hours against the current, the sky turned into the deepest blue. It seemed that our small fleet was embedded in the water, for at the horizon the air and the water mingled into a blue line in which no one could discover the least sign that we were close to land.

    The wind howled in the mast, while big gulfs crowned with foam hit the ship. Cries of despair went up, and despite all their effort the men weren’t able to row it towards the safe harbor. They had become a toy. A toy, that played a terrible game against the dark sea and the storm. A game for survival.

    While the heavy rain scourged our faces, we weren’t able to see any other ship. ‘How do you know where to go to? And how will we find the other ships after the storm?’ Marcus cried against the wind towards Titus.

    The trierarchus answered with his loud voice: ‘According to my calculations we could find land any moment now. There we’ll have to try to find a shelter and look for the others when this weather’s past by.’

    They stood there, wrestling with the currents to keep the control over the vessel. Suddenly, they heard blood chilling cries above the wind, and then a man standing at the front of the ‘Hercules’ cried: ‘There are reefs! Go back, turn her!’ Then they threw the rudder towards the other side, and while doing so they saw where the cries had come from. At their rear the Poseidon, another galley of their fleet, lay at its side while the waves threw the men up and down. They were thrown against the cliffs and drowned. They managed to turn the ship, but couldn’t do anything for their friends, who were dying in front of their eyes. It seemed that their mission had come to an end before it had even started…

    After hours of darkness and fear, the wind finally lost strength and the sea became a bit calmer. We rowed alongside the coast in order to find a port. There we would wait for signs of the other ships, and take in some fresh food and water. Two hours later a soldier cried ‘Port ahead!’, and a small town came in sight. I was very happy that we were finally going to have land under our feet again. Then, we saw a ship. It was the ‘Augustus’, another trireme of our fleet. We joined it, and later the ‘Apollo’ came rowing into the port. Its mast was broken in two parts, but the sailors quickly repaired it. The officers of the remaining ships gathered, and we decided that we’d wait for one day for the other ships. If we hadn’t got a sign of them by then, we’d sail out again to kill those pirates. Our duty was of such importance that it couldn’t be delayed. Every day that we lost, merchant vessels were being attacked and sunk by those barbarians! Being the officer with the longest service, I became commander of the shrunken fleet until we’d find the Nauarchus again. In this state we slept, not knowing what events would happen the next morning.

    The last rays of the sun hit the roof, and then it disappeared. Tacitus put the letter down. What an amazing journey his friend had made! He would surely add this to his Historiae. Tacitus decided to take a break, so he ate some food and then went asleep. The next morning he would continue reading about the events on the Mare Superum.


    ***


    The next morning, when it was still cool, Tacitus walked to his atrium and sat there in the shadow of a tree. A slave brought him some bread and wine, and after he’d eaten he thought about Marcus’ letter. Eager to know how his adventures had ended he took it, and started reading the last part.

    When I woke up we were at full sea again, and to my great joy I realized that I wasn’t ill anymore! Finally, I could eat some things on board of the ‘Hercules’. Soon I left my room and walked to the deck, in order to ask Titus if he’d join me for breakfast.

    The captain looked happy, saying: ‘Hail, Marcus. There is a good wind, that’ll blow us to the other side of this sea quickly! I hope that you’re a little better than the last days? You can’t fight pirates without food in your stomach.’

    ‘Sure, Titus, I was just wondering if you’d like to eat a little together. That is, if you can leave your post here.’ He didn’t wait for an answer, knowing that his friend would never skip a meal. He ordered a sailor to prepare some bread and meat for them, and some minutes later they sat down. ‘Against what type of pirates will we be fighting?’ he asked.

    ‘These pirates fight in swift ships, called Liburnians,’ Titus answered. ‘Most of them are manned by about sixty pirates, so we’d have overwhelming numbers. I don’t expect there to be with more than three ships, for our navy has already destroyed many of those filthy barbarians. The only thing is that they outmatch us in speed, so we’ll have to come up with something original in order to defeat them.’

    After they’d eaten, Marcus sat down for a while at the bow of the ‘Hercules’. He had to think of a way to defeat those ships. Once they’d boarded one, it would be easy for them to kill their foes with the superior weapons they’d got. The only point was that their ships were swifter, and could shot them all from a distance!

    For hours he sat there, and then two gulls flew over the ship. They saw a hawk. One tried to attack it, and get the fish it had in its mouth. Of course, it didn’t succeed in getting the fish from the much larger bird. Fascinated, Marcus looked at this action above his head. Then, suddenly, the second gull came down on the hawk. For a moment, the large predator was surprised, and dropped the fish, which was caught up by the other gull. They landed on the deck, and ate the fish. Through cooperation they’d succeeded in reaching their goal. Marcus smiled. Finally, he’d got an idea. Alone his ships wouldn’t be able to catch a single pirate, but through smart cooperation they might manage!

    ‘Marcus,’ Titus shouted, ‘in a few hours we’ll reach the area in which the Illyrians have been spot. Hold your men ready for attack, I’ll sign the other ships to stay close together! Did you see those gulls? They are a good sign! Neptune must have sent them to show that he’ll help us, for they are his children.’

    All men gathered, while Marcus explained the plan. Under the deck, optio Lucius would hide with the legionaries, and the main part of the sailors. At Marcus’ sign they’d come forward and engage the enemy. Publius and his men would do the first action. They’d shoot the Liburnans with burning stones and missiles. After that, they’d make use of the moment to ram them.

    It seemed all clear, and when we prepared for the oncoming battle a great excitement took hold of all of us. It seemed like a relief when sails appeared at the horizon. They drew near quickly. When the men in the mast cried that it were our enemies and that they’d got two ships, I grew restless. This would be my moment. Now I’d have to proof my worth in battle! Thankfully, we outnumbered them by one ship, so once we’d got them it would be easy to take them out. The problem was how to do that! It was a good thing that I had thought about this. Hopefully, we’d be able to use the tactic and by that destroy the enemy! It was good that we’d seen the gulls. It comforted the men that the Gods would be with us in the coming battle…

    ‘Aaah…!’ a man sank down before his feet, with an arrow through his throat. The Illyrians were coming close. Still they stayed far enough away from the Romans so that these were unable to ram them. Missiles went to and fro, while men tried to find cover.

    ‘Attack speed!’ a heavy voice from the belly of the ship shouted, and the rowers started to pull the oars at an incredible speed. The ship cut through the waves, and foam was thrown up against Publius and his artillerists. Every few seconds, a large snap could be heard when ballista’s were fired. After having shot, the men sought protection behind the iron shields that had been put in front of them while they reloaded the weapon. At the enemy ship, men could be seen falling down on the deck, hit by their missiles.

    But they wouldn’t win the battle like this. Before his eyes, Marcus could see his plans unfold in the right direction. The two enemy ships were in between the ‘Hercules’ and the two other ships. This was the moment to unleash the terrible attack that he’d prepared! While Lucius and his men checked their equipment one last time, on the command deck Titus shouted the last instructions to the men on the deck: ‘Light the fire!’ his raw voice sounded. At the same time, ‘Fire ammo!’ was shouted between the artillerists, and the first flaming stones and oil-bags were unleashed to find their way to the enemy. These hadn’t expected this, and soon small fires were burning all over the Liburnians, finding their way through dry wood and pieces of rope. For a moment, they laid there lame, as if they were hit by lightning. This was the moment to pick the ripe fruit from the sea! Titus shouted a few orders, and then the ship started vibrating from the great acceleration.

    Under deck, the rowers where working at their highest speed, after their leader had shouted the ‘Ramming speed’ command. Sweat was streaming down over their bodies, as they moved at the rhythm of the beats. Then, one stopped moving, and another one. They died because of a heart attack. Soon they would have to stop, because no one had the condition to keep rowing at this speed for minutes!

    They had almost reached the enemy that they were aiming for, and now the Illyrians had seen the danger they were in. They tried to row away, while some that were burning like hell because the cooking oil sprang overboard. It was too late. With a great clash and an terrible shock the ram of the ‘Hercules’ ate itself a way into its smaller opponent, and at the same moment a bridge with a large iron point fell down on the enemy deck. ‘For Rome and victory!’ the legionaries shouted, when they streamed over the bridge at the enemy deck. Marcus jumped aboard, and was immediately attacked by two large warriors. He took his gladius, and for a moment stood still while the barbarian hew at him with all his force. At the last moment he sprang aside, and hit the man at his head. A large wound appeared, and blood ran all over his face. In a last severe strike, he managed to scratch Marcus’ arm, after which he was hit in his heart.

    Although freed of his first enemy, Marcus still wasn’t safe. With his sword buried in the large man, he couldn’t defend himself against the other pirate that stormed towards him. Just when he was about to be hit, Lucius jumped over to the Liburnian, and slew him from behind. ‘Thanks, man! This was almost my last fight,’ Marcus screamed to his second. Lucius looked back with a grim face. ‘Take your sword sir. Let’s hit a few of these pigs before they’re all away.’

    With these words, they ran into the fight. Around them they heard the cries of battle, while the men fought on. It was clear that this would be a Roman victory! The few Illyrians that were left grouped around the mast, and one by one they were taken out by the Romans. In the meanwhile, the ‘Apollo’ and the ‘Augustus’, two smaller ships of the fleet, had managed to enter the second Liburnian, and were making good progress in capturing it.

    Then suddenly, when they thought that all was over after defeating the last pirates, men from the belly of the ship started shouting: ‘Fire! She’s on Fire!’ For a moment Marcus was pinned to the ground. Fire! It would mean that their own ship, rammed into the Liburnian, would also burn to the waterline. This would sink both ships, and when they didn’t act quickly many men that had survived the onslaught of the battle could still die…

    Quickly he shouted orders. A group of men with axes started cutting the Liburnian into pieces where it was fastened to the ‘Hercules’, while others tried to extinguish the fires with some water. It didn’t work. Because of the oil-bags, the fire drove on top of the water, and already the lower parts of the ship were so hot that they couldn’t go there. It was a hell. Soon they couldn’t stand on the deck anymore, or they’d burn their feet. Luckily, they managed to free their own ship and sprang on to it. When they were finally separated, the Liburnian started to sink, with fell fires at its deck. The wounded Illyrians cried as they were cooked in the boiling water, before the ship took them with it to the bottom of the sea.

    The others had been luckier. The second Liburnian had been captured, but was sunk because they had too few men to keep it. The ships grouped together, and after that Marcus made up the stats. They had lost sixty men in total, but defeated the Illyrians. Now the trade routes would be safe again, although it was heavily paid for by Roman blood. ‘Men of Rome,’ Marcus cried, ‘Today we have lost many comrades. Today we have suffered, in all dangers of these seas. But today, we are victorious! You have fought bravely, and will certainly be remembered for what you’ve done with me. Go now, and be proud!’ Cheers went up, and soon all were busy repairing the ships. All were tired after the action, and longing for home.


    ***



    After we’d defeated the barbarians, we could finally leave the sea. After three days of sailing we ran out of food, but happily we reached our home port that afternoon. The men rested, our wounds were cared for, and after some time I came to fully understand the great deeds we had accomplished. I know that these will be made eternal when you make account of them in your Historiae, and that’s the reason why I made this detailed account and sent it to you with the highest urgency. I know that you’ll do the right thing with it. My noble friend, these are the actions that took place at the Mare Superum.
    VALE MARCUS (greetings of your friend Marcus)

    Tacitus put the letter down. For hours he sat there, thinking about all he’d read. Then, a gull landed at the roof, at his side. For a moment it watched him, and then it flew away, in the direction of the blue depths of the sea. This was a sign of Neptune! Tacitus stood up, walked to his study and started writing. ‘The events at the Mare Superum, victoriously fulfilled by Marcus Aurelius’, the title said. The sun went down, and its last golden rays fell at the mirror of the sea. A place of death and fertility, of gods and brave deeds, but above all the place that would forever keep an important place in the heart of a Roman officer.



    Second Runner-Up
    Author: Trey
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 

    Mughal Mountain, PT. I
    Once upon a time, there was a battle hardened mercenary by the name of Julius Barca. Carthaginian by birth, he had experienced racial discrimination as in the auxilia for the armies of Rome during the 3rd Punic War. So after that he got ticked off and left the army. But then he heard they were going to execute him for desertion so he went east. Wandering through the Saharan desert, he ran into a one eyed Sufi mystic by the name of Aziz.
    What Aziz looks like:
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 
    He has one eye and dark brown skin. He wears half broken glasses. He has a scraggly beard that is infested with lice and wears an orange beany and looks somewhat like a transient. In other words kind of like Rum.

    Julius accosted him, saying:
    "You old fool! Why are you in the desert like this!? And what are those things on your face!"
    Aziz responded with kindness:
    "My son, I see the sadness in your eyes. You should not weep. This desert is very dry and you will lose moisture. You must learn from the camel because I have never seen a camel cry and they can live for a long time in the desert"
    Julius was flabbergasted:
    "You wise fool, you benevolent man, I humbly ask of thee penitence for my transgressions. I have been cast out from those who were my friends because of the color of my skin. I got kind of sad because of it"
    Aziz, in his wisdom encouraged him:
    "My son, seek out the land of battle hardened warriors, who accept all those who can fight, no matter their race, religion, creed, or gender. It is called Mughal Mountain"

    Julius was encouraged, and set of for this wondrous place (But before he left he smoked Hookah with the mystic and passed out in his tent, but the mystic didn't pass out). Along the way, he visited wondrous sites such as the Pyramids, the Nile, and he even read books at the Library of Alexandria! After being educated from this fount of wisdom, he was now more than a warrior, but a scholar too! So now he could plan battles and tactics.

    After awhile he found himself in the mountains of what is now Afghanistan. He wondered what hardy men could live in such a place, when he spotted some of the locals off in the distance committing some of the most unnatural acts he had ever seen:
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 
    Two men wearing well worn turbans and finely groomed beards and having flowing robes and dirty sandals were climbing up a rock, as if they were mountain goats. They appeared to be slapping each other's rear ends with an RPG while laughing and dancing as if in celebration. Such a thing was unheard of where Julius was from. "We only sacrifice children, we don't do this shiz" Julius said, trying to absorb what he saw. Clearly he was having trouble recovering from such a traumatic event. But he was strong so he moved on.

    "If only I had a Hind to strafe these unbelievers" he thought to himself.

    After that he continued down into the Northern reaches of الهند aka India. Because he was a polyglot he learned languages really fast, and asked the locals where Mughal Mountain was.
    "Do not ascend to that accursed place, many dangers are present there. Warriors from the four corners of the earth have been cast out like lepers of this village"

    Julius was not afraid, he was a warrior of fine pedigree! His will was strong! He had no lack of courage! He must have justice! He climbed up the mountain where he met the village elder.
    Village elder:
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 
    The village elder looked not unlike a Roman, however he had longer hair and a 5 o'clock shadow. He was rather short, and dressed in the armor of the Rice Eaters. He also was a crazy mofo into pyramid schemes, but Julius hated economics in school so he couldn't be bothered with such things.


    "Oh wise leader!" Julius cried out,
    "how do I become like one of you?!"
    The village elder slowing replied,
    "You must defeat a warrior of great regard. And not use medicine. And you must also deposit money into our bank account of increasing increments over a period of time"
    "God Damn!" Julius replied,
    "You truly ask much of me, but to whom much is given, much is required"
    So he departed from the mountain in search of an honorable opponent.
    Coming back into the village, he spotted a warrior of great regard.
    Warrior of Great Regard:
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 
    This warrior will be described at a later date.

    He trembled in fear at the sight of his insurmountable mustache. He moved on, seeking one who he could defenestrate from behind.
    END OF PART I
    To be continued...


    Scriptorium Writing Competition 2010

    Librarian's Choice
    Author: Justinian
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 

    The Heartbeat in the Deep



    That day the bombs fell.

    The city was torn limb from limb, cell from cell. All was chaos and fire, the roars of the bombs drowning out the screams of the people below. The bombs fell on skyscrapers and streets, blasting through the foundations of mighty steel and glass monuments to the ingenuity of man. They collapsed in a maelstrom of dust and flame. Shrapnel from millions of shattered windows shrieked through the air, slicing through the fleeing mass of humanity that choked the streets below. The bombs fell on cars and buses, homes and churches, vaporizing every man, woman, and child. Molten metal dripped from the skeletons of buildings, boiling in the streets below. Every living thing was burning; nothing was left but ash and blood. What was there to do but run?

    So I ran. I ran through torn up and blasted streets, littered with the rubble of eviscerated buildings and the broken bodies of the people within; I ran past burning schools and collapsed hospitals, perfect rings of carnage surrounding epicenters of flame; I ran past places I knew, restaurants I had eaten in the day before, the coffee shop I went to every morning. I recognized nothing; I had no time to feel pain, empathy, or loss. There was only me; if anyone else was left alive, I wasn’t looking. All I could hear was my own heartbeat and the rushing of blood in my ears, and it seemed as though each beat of my racing heart was accentuated by the blast of a bomb. The sounds drew closer and closer. How was I to outrun an inferno?

    I could not give up. I sucked in air clogged with smoke and the fumes of burning flesh and kept on running. I was crying, but it was from the wind in my face. For what felt like hours, all I could see was grey smoke and rubble, burning buildings – but then, suddenly, I saw a flash of green between the flames. I ran towards it, each stride harder and harder as exhaustion threatened to overcome adrenaline. Somewhere in my mind I recognized that it had to be the park. Even though I knew nowhere was safe from the bombs, the somehow undisturbed green of the park offered some semblance of hope.

    Suddenly I was running on grass and the air seemed clearer; the smell of destruction and death no longer filled my lungs. I could hear the bombs in the distance, but here it seemed quieter, safer. I sank to my knees in the grass and sucked in a deep breath. I could not recognize where I was. Not too far from me I saw what looked like a cave, a pit of darkness set in the side of a hill. Was it a crater? It could not have been there before.

    A bomb detonated on the street behind me, blasting my back with heat and glass, and another boom filled my ears. I bolted back to my feet and ran towards the darkness. Cool air whispered out from the tunnel, blowing across my face. The fire could not reach me in there. I tripped at the opening, tumbling face-first into the darkness and rolling like a ragdoll down, and down, and down, until at last I stopped and all was silent.

    My own labored breathing was the only sound down in the darkness. It took many long deep breaths before my terror began to subside, before I felt safe from the bombs. Eventually I pulled myself up from my stomach and sat there. I knew if I sat and waited too long, the realizations would set in. That everyone I knew was dead. That my world was destroyed. I couldn’t face that. Instead I focused on the darkness that enveloped me, trying to see something, anything – but the pitch black was impenetrable. My heartbeat started to rise again, thumping in my ears. What if I was inches away from falling into the bowels of the Earth? What if there was no way to get back up?

    What if I wasn’t alone?

    I tried to fight the sudden grip of fear in my lungs. I took deep breaths again. “You just survived a ****ing bombing, you can handle this,” I said, and I was startled by my own voice. Cracked, rasping. I sounded like an old man. A thought flashed through my head, and I fumbled through my pockets, searching, searching – I felt it, an oddly comforting lump in my pocket. My lighter. “Smoking will kill you, they said,” I murmured to myself, laughing nervously. It echoed. I pushed the lid up and flicked once, twice. Finally it lit, blindingly bright compared to the darkness.

    I blinked hard until my eyes adjusted, focusing first on the lighter’s flame, then beyond. All I could see around me was dirt; I was in some kind of tunnel that stretched out beyond what I could see in the dim light, sloping downwards. Behind me was a steep rise; I must have fallen harder than I realized. I noticed that my pants felt wet, and I wondered miserably if I had pissed myself when the bombs fell, touching the fabric to be sure; but when I brought my fingers to the light, they were red. The sight of my own blood shocked me for a moment, but I took a deep breath. Now was not the time to be a pussy. I’ll be fine, I thought. I’ll be fine.

    I rose to my feet, grateful for the ceiling above my head, and reached back to touch the steep slope behind me. For a moment I tried to pull myself up, but it was impossible; the dirt came away in my hands and I fell back to my feet. “You can either sit here or do something,” I said, the sound of my own voice more comforting than deafening silence. I took a deep breath and walked carefully forward, bent over so that the lighter illuminated the ground. I went like this for a while, hoping that the ground would begin to slope upwards again; but it kept going down. I looked behind me and couldn’t see where I had began.

    “Why are you here?”

    I shouted and dropped the lighter, plunging the tunnel back into darkness and my heart into my throat. I clawed out for it and tripped, falling heavily onto the hard ground, deaf to anything but the blood rushing in my ears. “Who are you?” I asked, my voice sounding frail and scared, echoing loudly in the confined space.

    “I don’t remember,” came the voice again; it was feminine, yet entirely alien to my ears. It had some echo, some strange undercurrent that raised the hairs on the back of my neck and made my teeth grind. There was a pause, and I could not find the courage to speak.

    “Why are you here?” the voice repeated, and I rose to my knees, fumbling in the darkness for the lighter.

    “I was running, and came down here,” I said after a moment, breathing heavily. The initial shock of her voice was beginning to fade; I took a deep breath, my fingers brushing against something cool and metal on the ground and closing around it.

    “Running from what?” she asked.

    “The bombing – you didn’t ****ing hear the bombing?” The top of the lighter kept slipping in my fingers; finally it popped open and I pushed down, the tunnel illuminated again, light falling on a slight frame and a pale face–

    She let loose an ear-splitting shriek, a fist flashing out and knocking the lighter from my hand before I could see the rest of her, and I was blind again. I grabbed for it again.

    “No!” She cried. “He will see you.”

    Something in her voice made me fall silent, peering into the darkness. I saw flashes and spots left over from the light of the flame; or maybe the outline of a person. I reached out a hand uncertainly, brushing against something, and I felt her jerk back in surprise. “I’m sorry,” I said, panic rising in my throat again. “I’m just ... I’m lost and I don’t know where I am. I need the light, I have to be able to see...”

    “Do you? Do you have to?” The bitterness in her voice surprised me, and silence fell over us both again.

    “Who is going to see me?” I finally said.

    “I have forgotten everything but Him, so I do not know … how to describe Him to someone like you,” she said, sounding troubled. “But you don’t want Him to see you. Be patient and I will remember the words. Trust me.”

    “Obviously I don’t have a ****ing choice,” I said, voice rising again. “Just explain where I am!”

    “It is easier to show than to tell,” she said after a moment. I felt her hand brush against me and then slip into my hand. “Follow me. Quietly.”

    I felt her hand move away, tugging me slightly, and I took an uncertain step after her, blind in the deep darkness. One small part of me was more afraid of this murky unknown than the bombs above. I followed the faint sound of her footsteps, each taking us deeper and deeper into darkness. The blood rushed in my ears.

    Slowly, so slowly I almost didn’t notice, the complete blindness was tempered by an ethereal light that tinged the darkness faint red. It flickered like a candle, rhythmically pulsing darker, brighter, darker, brighter. It illuminated vague shapes in front of me: the woman who led me, our hands, our footsteps.

    “Where is the light coming from?” I asked.

    “Shh,” she hissed, holding up a hand in front of my face. I was glad I could see it. “Listen.”

    At first I could hear nothing but our breathing; but slowly I could make out a sound underneath it, a heavy rumbling that hung in my head like a bad dream. Thump-thump, it boomed, the ground shaking with each beat. We took a few steps forward and it grew louder and louder, booming and crashing like some primeval drum beating in the bowels of the earth, over and over and over again. It rolled like rhythmic thunder, the light throbbing to match each beat. The hairs rose on the back of my neck. “It’s a heartbeat,” I whispered.

    “Yes. It is His heartbeat.”

    “What do you mean – who is ‘He’?”

    “Listen,” she said, taking a step closer to me. “He is a Demon, and this is His hell. He rules it all, from the maggots wriggling in the dirt to the souls who are trapped here forever.” She pointed to herself. “Everything here is inexorably tied to Him. We are His slaves, condemned eternally to His service by fate, by blood.” My eyes widened, but she held a finger up to my lips. “There are many more than I. We each came down here like you, running away from something, lured into the darkness. But it is a trap.

    “Every century, the Demon pulls another soul into His hell. Each soul has one chance to kill Him, and only one chance. Failure is damnation. As His heartbeat continues, so does our slavery; when it ends, if it ends, our souls are released.”

    Bull****,” I finally gasped.

    “Hmm.” Her head tilted to the side, but her face was obscured by shadows. “It could be. I could be lying to you, toying with you. But you are here, are you not? What else is there to believe?”

    “If you’re His … slave, why are you helping me?”

    “It is my duty,” she said after a moment. “A duty I take gladly, for each new soul is a chance, a slight chance to be free. I guide those who have fallen into this trap; I give them what assistance I am allowed; and I hope that they are smart enough to free us all.” She paused, and took a step closer to me. “For years beyond counting, I have been disappointed. Over, and over, and over again. Perhaps you, at last, are the one who will free us all. Or you will be just another disappointment, another century of hopelessness.”

    Her words slowly sank in. My disbelief eroded with each heavy beat in the ground below. My heart grew heavier, my shoulders slumped under the weight of inevitability: what she was saying was true. I could feel it. “I can’t run away, can I,” I said numbly, my voice quiet.

    “Of course not. It wouldn’t be much of a trap if you could just walk out.” She laughed. I didn’t think it was very funny. “Do not despair,” she said, her voice softening. “It is not an impossible task. Many have tried and all failed, but that does not mean you can‘t succeed. It isn’t hopeless. If it was, it wouldn’t be much of a game.”

    I looked up slowly. “A game?”

    She laughed again, bitterly. “Yes. A game. Or perhaps a show. This --” she gestured around to the tunnel illuminated by the red light, “it is all for amusement. Not only for His amusement, but for the others. I have never seen one of them, but sometimes … when a new soul fails … you can hear them laughing.”

    I swallowed hard and fought back the fear in my throat again.

    “But it is a game, a show,” she continued, “and like any good game, it has rules, it has a winner, a loser. It’s fair. If it wasn’t, the audience wouldn’t care.”

    Almost as if she could feel my fear, she reached out and took my hand again. Her fingers were as cold as ice. “If you are not confident, you have no chance,” she said bluntly. “Whether you fail or succeed, it is the greatest test you will ever face. You were chosen by fate to do this; it is your destiny, one way or another.”

    I took a deep breath and nodded. “What do I do?”

    She laughed and pulled my hand, taking me further down. The light grew brighter until I could see all around me, clearly make out black hair that spilled almost to dirt. In the light, I could make out another person, and I started.

    “It is one of us; he will not hurt you. Slaves we may be, but the Demon cannot make us attack a new soul – it would ruin the game.” She gestured towards him. “We cannot remember our true names, only the names the Demon gives us. Call him whatever you wish. Of course, he can’t answer you,” she said, and then turned around, brushing back her hair. Finally I could see her face under the light. I recoiled, bile rising in my throat.

    Her face was pale as ivory and stained with blood. There were two gaping scars where her eyes should have been, criss-crossed by thick black threads up and down her eyelids. With each pulse of the demonic heart, the thread shimmered. “If your eyes displease Him, He sews them shut. If your ears affront Him, He sews them shut.” She gestured to the other figure. “If your mouth offends Him, He sews it shut.”

    I covered my mouth, revolted. “I’m so sorry…”

    “Why? It’s not as if you did this to us. Right?”

    “I … what--”

    She laughed again. “You humans are so amusing.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw the other stare at her, then quickly look away, as if he knew that I saw him.

    “Aren’t you one too?”

    “Too long ago to remember,” she said, shaking her head. “Or to matter. Come, I’ll explain the rest,” she said impatiently. She started walking and I followed her, deeper into the abyss. “The rules of the game are simple. You will ask Him three questions, and He must answer without lying. You will be given a knife that can pierce His flesh, and a torch born from His own soul. He cannot kill you before you ask all of your questions, or until you attack Him yourself. Be warned: everything I say is true, but designed to trick you. You are not supposed to win. Not without being very clever.” She paused and looked straight at me with her empty eyes. “Nothing is as it seems. You understand?”

    “Yes.”

    “Are you ready?”

    “What?! No!”

    “That’s too bad, because we’re here.”

    I took another step and the tunnel widened out into a cavernous room. It was so bright it hurt my eyes; flames burned across the walls, coursing through the cavern like blood through veins. The thunder of His heartbeat echoed through the chamber; with each beat, the flames burned brighter. At the center of the flame, a pulsing mass of burning flesh twitched rhythmically to the heartbeat. It was a swollen black heart, pumping flame with each beat; twisted around it was a corpulent pile of flesh and bone, a face, legs, a mockery of a human.

    “What’s this?” A voice like thunder rolled across the cavern, followed by faint echoes, a hiss and a roar in one. My teeth grated. “Has it really been a century again?”

    I turned, reaching out for my guide, but she was no longer by my side. She stood across the room with a host of pale-faced, emaciated figures, each with eyes or ears or mouths sewn shut.

    “Come here,” the voice boomed, and my feet shuffled me forward closer and closer to the heart.

    Two burning eyes regarded me from some twisted skull above the heart. A jaw opened, a booming laugh and tendrils of smoke escaping it. “It’s about time.” One of the figures scurried up behind me and dropped a shimmering knife and a torch on the ground, then ran back. “Come and kill me,” the voice mocked.

    I reached down slowly, took a deep breath, and picked up the knife and the torch. I walked towards him, swallowing hard and staring directly into the smoldering eyes. They regarded me curiously.

    “You have three questions before you join the damned.” The demon pointed a withered arm towards the deathly silent spectators. “Take your time. I have little else to amuse me for the next century.” He drew in a deep breath and a wheel of flame encircled his withered arm, coursing through the bone and sinew. Instantly it grew, fiery claws bursting from underneath fingernails, flame oozing from his black skin.

    I took a deep breath. “What is the capability of these things I‘ve been given?”

    “Don’t you know?” He tossed his head, breathing smoke. “Your knife can cut only a small part of my flesh. The flame is mine, and will only make me stronger.”

    His eyes watched me, quietly. I took another deep breath. “How do I kill you?”

    The demon laughed again, a booming laugh that prickled my spire. “You are not so clever as you think. They have all asked this,” he said, a hand gesturing to the figures. “As you can see, they didn’t like the answer.” He laughed again, the crowd shuddering with each grating sound. “I will give you the answer I gave them: the only thing that can harm me is the flesh of my flesh, the blood of my blood.” I swore I saw a smile, fire dripping from the corner of his mouth.

    “I know that you can’t kill me until I ask the final question.”

    “Regrettably.” I saw another grin, black teeth outlined by embers. The claws scratched along the ground again. I looked at those black talons, at the flame that coursed around them, flame that coursed over black skin that shimmered to the beat of his heart. In that moment, a strange hope glimmered in me. I knew I what to do.

    I looked into the Demon’s eyes and smiled.

    I turned and ran towards the crowd of spectators. I grabbed one of the figures, pulling him closer to me and raising the knife quickly, hellfire shining down its blade. His eyes flashed between its point and me, lips trying to move but held shut by the thread. Thick, black thread that shimmered with every thundering beat of the Demon’s heart.

    The knife flashed quickly against one stitch, slicing cleanly through it. The figure’s eyes widened and I saw in them a reflection of flame. Quickly, I fell to the ground, rolling.

    The flaming claws flashed through the air where I had just stood, leaving behind a trail of smoke and ash. “I don’t have to kill you,” the Demon snarled, flashing the claws out at me again. I ducked out of the way, slipping behind the figure and holding him in front of me, quickly slicing through the threads until I could pull one free, a long, black coil that burned my skin.

    The claws flashed at me again and I couldn’t get out of the way fast enough, the torch flying from my hands. I fell hard, face-first into the ground, but I still had the knife and the coil of thread clutched in my hands. I rolled out of the way of His claws, staring into His eyes again.

    “Well done,” the Demon bellowed, laughing. “But do you think you can kill me with one tiny little piece of me? You think a thread can fell a Demon?”

    “No,” I said. The claws flashed towards me again and this time I rolled out of the way, slamming the knife down into the ground and pinning the flaming arm into the dirt. Instantly, more flame coursed around it, strengthening the arm and slowly forcing the dagger out of it as his flesh grew.

    I ran to where the torch lay, still burning. I thrust my fist into the flame, wrapped in the thread. The fire coursed through my veins and devoured my skin, but the thread grew instantly. It fed off the fire, growing thicker and thicker in my hand, bursting into a black spire coursing with flame.

    “Flesh of your flesh,” I said, laughing, the pain forgotten as the thread grew stronger. The claws flashed at me again, but this time I lifted the spine; they crashed together with a horrendous shriek and crack of bone, and one claw fell to the ground. The Demon shrieked and recoiled, bellowing something in a language that burned in my ears.

    I ran towards Him, the spine clutched between both of my hands. “My last question, Demon,” I roared. “Are you afraid?”

    The spine sank deep into the black heart. The Demon roared, bleeding fire, enveloping me, boiling my skin away -- but when the flame touched the spine it grew, splitting the heart in two.

    An ear-splitting shriek escaped the Demon as the fire within faded. The cavern was enveloped in brilliant blood red flame, which pulsed with one last thundering heartbeat and then went out. I collapsed to the ground as the heart withered to ash, receding into the sunken chest of a broken beast that might have once been a man.

    “Thank you,” a voice whispered from the ashes. Then all was silent.

    The threads blinding, muting and silencing the crowd dissolved and slipped away. A chorus of gratitude filled my ears as each tortured soul was released. One by one they crumbled into dust and withered away, until all were gone. All but one.

    My guide walked up to me and laughed. She was stunningly beautiful, long black hair cascading around a perfect face, full lips curved into a wonderful smile. She had eyes now, brilliant blue eyes that bathed the entire cavern in soft light. I had never seen a more beautiful sight in all my life.

    “Well that certainly was amusing!” she said, clapping her hands together joyfully, the words spilling out of her mouth like music. “I didn’t expect you to get that far! They‘re usually so very disappointing, but you…”

    “W… what? Why didn’t you disappear with the rest of them?” I asked, groaning in pain from the burns that covered my body. She laid a cold hand against my shoulder, and the pain all over me numbed and faded, calm filling my aching bones.

    “Why would I have? They’ve all been dead for a long, long time. Only their souls have been trapped here by the Demon, tortured for millenia. You have finally released them from their bonds, released their souls to heaven or hell or wherever they’re supposed to be.” She smiled, her eyes so bright I could see nothing else. “You really ought to be proud. No one‘s done it in two thousand years, you know. I‘ve lost a lot of bets.”

    “I don’t understand,” I coughed, staring into her eyes.

    She shook her head and sighed. “It really is a shame,” she said, patting me on the head. “You did so well. Ah, well, it‘s not like you‘re the first one.” She bent down and kissed me on the lips, and a tingling warmth spread from my lips throughout my entire body. Then she stood and walked away.

    “No! Where are you going!?” I screamed, reaching after her. “Don’t leave me!” My eyes widened as the tips of my fingers began to peel and crack, the skin fading away to ash gray and then to black, my bones crumpling as crippling pain erupted from my chest. I screamed, clawing at my ribs, as the warmth from her kiss turned to flame beneath my skin. A sound began to fill my ears, a sound that reverberated in the cavern around me from deep beneath my chest, a familiar sound...

    She turned and blew me a kiss. “The show must go on!”

    My chest burst into flames and then split open, my burning heart shattering my ribcage, my body withering around it as it twitched and grew and pumped fire through my veins. A cacophony of shrieking laughs filled my ears.

    Then the only sound was the constant beating of my heart. The Heartbeat in the Deep



    That day the bombs fell.

    The city was torn limb from limb, cell from cell. All was chaos and fire, the roars of the bombs drowning out the screams of the people below. The bombs fell on skyscrapers and streets, blasting through the foundations of mighty steel and glass monuments to the ingenuity of man. They collapsed in a maelstrom of dust and flame. Shrapnel from millions of shattered windows shrieked through the air, slicing through the fleeing mass of humanity that choked the streets below. The bombs fell on cars and buses, homes and churches, vaporizing every man, woman, and child. Molten metal dripped from the skeletons of buildings, boiling in the streets below. Every living thing was burning; nothing was left but ash and blood. What was there to do but run?

    So I ran. I ran through torn up and blasted streets, littered with the rubble of eviscerated buildings and the broken bodies of the people within; I ran past burning schools and collapsed hospitals, perfect rings of carnage surrounding epicenters of flame; I ran past places I knew, restaurants I had eaten in the day before, the coffee shop I went to every morning. I recognized nothing; I had no time to feel pain, empathy, or loss. There was only me; if anyone else was left alive, I wasn’t looking. All I could hear was my own heartbeat and the rushing of blood in my ears, and it seemed as though each beat of my racing heart was accentuated by the blast of a bomb. The sounds drew closer and closer. How was I to outrun an inferno?

    I could not give up. I sucked in air clogged with smoke and the fumes of burning flesh and kept on running. I was crying, but it was from the wind in my face. For what felt like hours, all I could see was grey smoke and rubble, burning buildings – but then, suddenly, I saw a flash of green between the flames. I ran towards it, each stride harder and harder as exhaustion threatened to overcome adrenaline. Somewhere in my mind I recognized that it had to be the park. Even though I knew nowhere was safe from the bombs, the somehow undisturbed green of the park offered some semblance of hope.

    Suddenly I was running on grass and the air seemed clearer; the smell of destruction and death no longer filled my lungs. I could hear the bombs in the distance, but here it seemed quieter, safer. I sank to my knees in the grass and sucked in a deep breath. I could not recognize where I was. Not too far from me I saw what looked like a cave, a pit of darkness set in the side of a hill. Was it a crater? It could not have been there before.

    A bomb detonated on the street behind me, blasting my back with heat and glass, and another boom filled my ears. I bolted back to my feet and ran towards the darkness. Cool air whispered out from the tunnel, blowing across my face. The fire could not reach me in there. I tripped at the opening, tumbling face-first into the darkness and rolling like a ragdoll down, and down, and down, until at last I stopped and all was silent.

    My own labored breathing was the only sound down in the darkness. It took many long deep breaths before my terror began to subside, before I felt safe from the bombs. Eventually I pulled myself up from my stomach and sat there. I knew if I sat and waited too long, the realizations would set in. That everyone I knew was dead. That my world was destroyed. I couldn’t face that. Instead I focused on the darkness that enveloped me, trying to see something, anything – but the pitch black was impenetrable. My heartbeat started to rise again, thumping in my ears. What if I was inches away from falling into the bowels of the Earth? What if there was no way to get back up?

    What if I wasn’t alone?

    I tried to fight the sudden grip of fear in my lungs. I took deep breaths again. “You just survived a ****ing bombing, you can handle this,” I said, and I was startled by my own voice. Cracked, rasping. I sounded like an old man. A thought flashed through my head, and I fumbled through my pockets, searching, searching – I felt it, an oddly comforting lump in my pocket. My lighter. “Smoking will kill you, they said,” I murmured to myself, laughing nervously. It echoed. I pushed the lid up and flicked once, twice. Finally it lit, blindingly bright compared to the darkness.

    I blinked hard until my eyes adjusted, focusing first on the lighter’s flame, then beyond. All I could see around me was dirt; I was in some kind of tunnel that stretched out beyond what I could see in the dim light, sloping downwards. Behind me was a steep rise; I must have fallen harder than I realized. I noticed that my pants felt wet, and I wondered miserably if I had pissed myself when the bombs fell, touching the fabric to be sure; but when I brought my fingers to the light, they were red. The sight of my own blood shocked me for a moment, but I took a deep breath. Now was not the time to be a pussy. I’ll be fine, I thought. I’ll be fine.

    I rose to my feet, grateful for the ceiling above my head, and reached back to touch the steep slope behind me. For a moment I tried to pull myself up, but it was impossible; the dirt came away in my hands and I fell back to my feet. “You can either sit here or do something,” I said, the sound of my own voice more comforting than deafening silence. I took a deep breath and walked carefully forward, bent over so that the lighter illuminated the ground. I went like this for a while, hoping that the ground would begin to slope upwards again; but it kept going down. I looked behind me and couldn’t see where I had began.

    “Why are you here?”

    I shouted and dropped the lighter, plunging the tunnel back into darkness and my heart into my throat. I clawed out for it and tripped, falling heavily onto the hard ground, deaf to anything but the blood rushing in my ears. “Who are you?” I asked, my voice sounding frail and scared, echoing loudly in the confined space.

    “I don’t remember,” came the voice again; it was feminine, yet entirely alien to my ears. It had some echo, some strange undercurrent that raised the hairs on the back of my neck and made my teeth grind. There was a pause, and I could not find the courage to speak.

    “Why are you here?” the voice repeated, and I rose to my knees, fumbling in the darkness for the lighter.

    “I was running, and came down here,” I said after a moment, breathing heavily. The initial shock of her voice was beginning to fade; I took a deep breath, my fingers brushing against something cool and metal on the ground and closing around it.

    “Running from what?” she asked.

    “The bombing – you didn’t ****ing hear the bombing?” The top of the lighter kept slipping in my fingers; finally it popped open and I pushed down, the tunnel illuminated again, light falling on a slight frame and a pale face–

    She let loose an ear-splitting shriek, a fist flashing out and knocking the lighter from my hand before I could see the rest of her, and I was blind again. I grabbed for it again.

    “No!” She cried. “He will see you.”

    Something in her voice made me fall silent, peering into the darkness. I saw flashes and spots left over from the light of the flame; or maybe the outline of a person. I reached out a hand uncertainly, brushing against something, and I felt her jerk back in surprise. “I’m sorry,” I said, panic rising in my throat again. “I’m just ... I’m lost and I don’t know where I am. I need the light, I have to be able to see...”

    “Do you? Do you have to?” The bitterness in her voice surprised me, and silence fell over us both again.

    “Who is going to see me?” I finally said.

    “I have forgotten everything but Him, so I do not know … how to describe Him to someone like you,” she said, sounding troubled. “But you don’t want Him to see you. Be patient and I will remember the words. Trust me.”

    “Obviously I don’t have a ****ing choice,” I said, voice rising again. “Just explain where I am!”

    “It is easier to show than to tell,” she said after a moment. I felt her hand brush against me and then slip into my hand. “Follow me. Quietly.”

    I felt her hand move away, tugging me slightly, and I took an uncertain step after her, blind in the deep darkness. One small part of me was more afraid of this murky unknown than the bombs above. I followed the faint sound of her footsteps, each taking us deeper and deeper into darkness. The blood rushed in my ears.

    Slowly, so slowly I almost didn’t notice, the complete blindness was tempered by an ethereal light that tinged the darkness faint red. It flickered like a candle, rhythmically pulsing darker, brighter, darker, brighter. It illuminated vague shapes in front of me: the woman who led me, our hands, our footsteps.

    “Where is the light coming from?” I asked.

    “Shh,” she hissed, holding up a hand in front of my face. I was glad I could see it. “Listen.”

    At first I could hear nothing but our breathing; but slowly I could make out a sound underneath it, a heavy rumbling that hung in my head like a bad dream. Thump-thump, it boomed, the ground shaking with each beat. We took a few steps forward and it grew louder and louder, booming and crashing like some primeval drum beating in the bowels of the earth, over and over and over again. It rolled like rhythmic thunder, the light throbbing to match each beat. The hairs rose on the back of my neck. “It’s a heartbeat,” I whispered.

    “Yes. It is His heartbeat.”

    “What do you mean – who is ‘He’?”

    “Listen,” she said, taking a step closer to me. “He is a Demon, and this is His hell. He rules it all, from the maggots wriggling in the dirt to the souls who are trapped here forever.” She pointed to herself. “Everything here is inexorably tied to Him. We are His slaves, condemned eternally to His service by fate, by blood.” My eyes widened, but she held a finger up to my lips. “There are many more than I. We each came down here like you, running away from something, lured into the darkness. But it is a trap.

    “Every century, the Demon pulls another soul into His hell. Each soul has one chance to kill Him, and only one chance. Failure is damnation. As His heartbeat continues, so does our slavery; when it ends, if it ends, our souls are released.”

    Bull****,” I finally gasped.

    “Hmm.” Her head tilted to the side, but her face was obscured by shadows. “It could be. I could be lying to you, toying with you. But you are here, are you not? What else is there to believe?”

    “If you’re His … slave, why are you helping me?”

    “It is my duty,” she said after a moment. “A duty I take gladly, for each new soul is a chance, a slight chance to be free. I guide those who have fallen into this trap; I give them what assistance I am allowed; and I hope that they are smart enough to free us all.” She paused, and took a step closer to me. “For years beyond counting, I have been disappointed. Over, and over, and over again. Perhaps you, at last, are the one who will free us all. Or you will be just another disappointment, another century of hopelessness.”

    Her words slowly sank in. My disbelief eroded with each heavy beat in the ground below. My heart grew heavier, my shoulders slumped under the weight of inevitability: what she was saying was true. I could feel it. “I can’t run away, can I,” I said numbly, my voice quiet.

    “Of course not. It wouldn’t be much of a trap if you could just walk out.” She laughed. I didn’t think it was very funny. “Do not despair,” she said, her voice softening. “It is not an impossible task. Many have tried and all failed, but that does not mean you can‘t succeed. It isn’t hopeless. If it was, it wouldn’t be much of a game.”

    I looked up slowly. “A game?”

    She laughed again, bitterly. “Yes. A game. Or perhaps a show. This --” she gestured around to the tunnel illuminated by the red light, “it is all for amusement. Not only for His amusement, but for the others. I have never seen one of them, but sometimes … when a new soul fails … you can hear them laughing.”

    I swallowed hard and fought back the fear in my throat again.

    “But it is a game, a show,” she continued, “and like any good game, it has rules, it has a winner, a loser. It’s fair. If it wasn’t, the audience wouldn’t care.”

    Almost as if she could feel my fear, she reached out and took my hand again. Her fingers were as cold as ice. “If you are not confident, you have no chance,” she said bluntly. “Whether you fail or succeed, it is the greatest test you will ever face. You were chosen by fate to do this; it is your destiny, one way or another.”

    I took a deep breath and nodded. “What do I do?”

    She laughed and pulled my hand, taking me further down. The light grew brighter until I could see all around me, clearly make out black hair that spilled almost to dirt. In the light, I could make out another person, and I started.

    “It is one of us; he will not hurt you. Slaves we may be, but the Demon cannot make us attack a new soul – it would ruin the game.” She gestured towards him. “We cannot remember our true names, only the names the Demon gives us. Call him whatever you wish. Of course, he can’t answer you,” she said, and then turned around, brushing back her hair. Finally I could see her face under the light. I recoiled, bile rising in my throat.

    Her face was pale as ivory and stained with blood. There were two gaping scars where her eyes should have been, criss-crossed by thick black threads up and down her eyelids. With each pulse of the demonic heart, the thread shimmered. “If your eyes displease Him, He sews them shut. If your ears affront Him, He sews them shut.” She gestured to the other figure. “If your mouth offends Him, He sews it shut.”

    I covered my mouth, revolted. “I’m so sorry…”

    “Why? It’s not as if you did this to us. Right?”

    “I … what--”

    She laughed again. “You humans are so amusing.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw the other stare at her, then quickly look away, as if he knew that I saw him.

    “Aren’t you one too?”

    “Too long ago to remember,” she said, shaking her head. “Or to matter. Come, I’ll explain the rest,” she said impatiently. She started walking and I followed her, deeper into the abyss. “The rules of the game are simple. You will ask Him three questions, and He must answer without lying. You will be given a knife that can pierce His flesh, and a torch born from His own soul. He cannot kill you before you ask all of your questions, or until you attack Him yourself. Be warned: everything I say is true, but designed to trick you. You are not supposed to win. Not without being very clever.” She paused and looked straight at me with her empty eyes. “Nothing is as it seems. You understand?”

    “Yes.”

    “Are you ready?”

    “What?! No!”

    “That’s too bad, because we’re here.”

    I took another step and the tunnel widened out into a cavernous room. It was so bright it hurt my eyes; flames burned across the walls, coursing through the cavern like blood through veins. The thunder of His heartbeat echoed through the chamber; with each beat, the flames burned brighter. At the center of the flame, a pulsing mass of burning flesh twitched rhythmically to the heartbeat. It was a swollen black heart, pumping flame with each beat; twisted around it was a corpulent pile of flesh and bone, a face, legs, a mockery of a human.

    “What’s this?” A voice like thunder rolled across the cavern, followed by faint echoes, a hiss and a roar in one. My teeth grated. “Has it really been a century again?”

    I turned, reaching out for my guide, but she was no longer by my side. She stood across the room with a host of pale-faced, emaciated figures, each with eyes or ears or mouths sewn shut.

    “Come here,” the voice boomed, and my feet shuffled me forward closer and closer to the heart.

    Two burning eyes regarded me from some twisted skull above the heart. A jaw opened, a booming laugh and tendrils of smoke escaping it. “It’s about time.” One of the figures scurried up behind me and dropped a shimmering knife and a torch on the ground, then ran back. “Come and kill me,” the voice mocked.

    I reached down slowly, took a deep breath, and picked up the knife and the torch. I walked towards him, swallowing hard and staring directly into the smoldering eyes. They regarded me curiously.

    “You have three questions before you join the damned.” The demon pointed a withered arm towards the deathly silent spectators. “Take your time. I have little else to amuse me for the next century.” He drew in a deep breath and a wheel of flame encircled his withered arm, coursing through the bone and sinew. Instantly it grew, fiery claws bursting from underneath fingernails, flame oozing from his black skin.

    I took a deep breath. “What is the capability of these things I‘ve been given?”

    “Don’t you know?” He tossed his head, breathing smoke. “Your knife can cut only a small part of my flesh. The flame is mine, and will only make me stronger.”

    His eyes watched me, quietly. I took another deep breath. “How do I kill you?”

    The demon laughed again, a booming laugh that prickled my spire. “You are not so clever as you think. They have all asked this,” he said, a hand gesturing to the figures. “As you can see, they didn’t like the answer.” He laughed again, the crowd shuddering with each grating sound. “I will give you the answer I gave them: the only thing that can harm me is the flesh of my flesh, the blood of my blood.” I swore I saw a smile, fire dripping from the corner of his mouth.

    “I know that you can’t kill me until I ask the final question.”

    “Regrettably.” I saw another grin, black teeth outlined by embers. The claws scratched along the ground again. I looked at those black talons, at the flame that coursed around them, flame that coursed over black skin that shimmered to the beat of his heart. In that moment, a strange hope glimmered in me. I knew I what to do.

    I looked into the Demon’s eyes and smiled.

    I turned and ran towards the crowd of spectators. I grabbed one of the figures, pulling him closer to me and raising the knife quickly, hellfire shining down its blade. His eyes flashed between its point and me, lips trying to move but held shut by the thread. Thick, black thread that shimmered with every thundering beat of the Demon’s heart.

    The knife flashed quickly against one stitch, slicing cleanly through it. The figure’s eyes widened and I saw in them a reflection of flame. Quickly, I fell to the ground, rolling.

    The flaming claws flashed through the air where I had just stood, leaving behind a trail of smoke and ash. “I don’t have to kill you,” the Demon snarled, flashing the claws out at me again. I ducked out of the way, slipping behind the figure and holding him in front of me, quickly slicing through the threads until I could pull one free, a long, black coil that burned my skin.

    The claws flashed at me again and I couldn’t get out of the way fast enough, the torch flying from my hands. I fell hard, face-first into the ground, but I still had the knife and the coil of thread clutched in my hands. I rolled out of the way of His claws, staring into His eyes again.

    “Well done,” the Demon bellowed, laughing. “But do you think you can kill me with one tiny little piece of me? You think a thread can fell a Demon?”

    “No,” I said. The claws flashed towards me again and this time I rolled out of the way, slamming the knife down into the ground and pinning the flaming arm into the dirt. Instantly, more flame coursed around it, strengthening the arm and slowly forcing the dagger out of it as his flesh grew.

    I ran to where the torch lay, still burning. I thrust my fist into the flame, wrapped in the thread. The fire coursed through my veins and devoured my skin, but the thread grew instantly. It fed off the fire, growing thicker and thicker in my hand, bursting into a black spire coursing with flame.

    “Flesh of your flesh,” I said, laughing, the pain forgotten as the thread grew stronger. The claws flashed at me again, but this time I lifted the spine; they crashed together with a horrendous shriek and crack of bone, and one claw fell to the ground. The Demon shrieked and recoiled, bellowing something in a language that burned in my ears.

    I ran towards Him, the spine clutched between both of my hands. “My last question, Demon,” I roared. “Are you afraid?”

    The spine sank deep into the black heart. The Demon roared, bleeding fire, enveloping me, boiling my skin away -- but when the flame touched the spine it grew, splitting the heart in two.

    An ear-splitting shriek escaped the Demon as the fire within faded. The cavern was enveloped in brilliant blood red flame, which pulsed with one last thundering heartbeat and then went out. I collapsed to the ground as the heart withered to ash, receding into the sunken chest of a broken beast that might have once been a man.

    “Thank you,” a voice whispered from the ashes. Then all was silent.

    The threads blinding, muting and silencing the crowd dissolved and slipped away. A chorus of gratitude filled my ears as each tortured soul was released. One by one they crumbled into dust and withered away, until all were gone. All but one.

    My guide walked up to me and laughed. She was stunningly beautiful, long black hair cascading around a perfect face, full lips curved into a wonderful smile. She had eyes now, brilliant blue eyes that bathed the entire cavern in soft light. I had never seen a more beautiful sight in all my life.

    “Well that certainly was amusing!” she said, clapping her hands together joyfully, the words spilling out of her mouth like music. “I didn’t expect you to get that far! They‘re usually so very disappointing, but you…”

    “W… what? Why didn’t you disappear with the rest of them?” I asked, groaning in pain from the burns that covered my body. She laid a cold hand against my shoulder, and the pain all over me numbed and faded, calm filling my aching bones.

    “Why would I have? They’ve all been dead for a long, long time. Only their souls have been trapped here by the Demon, tortured for millenia. You have finally released them from their bonds, released their souls to heaven or hell or wherever they’re supposed to be.” She smiled, her eyes so bright I could see nothing else. “You really ought to be proud. No one‘s done it in two thousand years, you know. I‘ve lost a lot of bets.”

    “I don’t understand,” I coughed, staring into her eyes.

    She shook her head and sighed. “It really is a shame,” she said, patting me on the head. “You did so well. Ah, well, it‘s not like you‘re the first one.” She bent down and kissed me on the lips, and a tingling warmth spread from my lips throughout my entire body. Then she stood and walked away.

    “No! Where are you going!?” I screamed, reaching after her. “Don’t leave me!” My eyes widened as the tips of my fingers began to peel and crack, the skin fading away to ash gray and then to black, my bones crumpling as crippling pain erupted from my chest. I screamed, clawing at my ribs, as the warmth from her kiss turned to flame beneath my skin. A sound began to fill my ears, a sound that reverberated in the cavern around me from deep beneath my chest, a familiar sound...

    She turned and blew me a kiss. “The show must go on!”

    My chest burst into flames and then split open, my burning heart shattering my ribcage, my body withering around it as it twitched and grew and pumped fire through my veins. A cacophony of shrieking laughs filled my ears.

    Then the only sound was the constant beating of my heart. The Heartbeat in the Deep



    That day the bombs fell.

    The city was torn limb from limb, cell from cell. All was chaos and fire, the roars of the bombs drowning out the screams of the people below. The bombs fell on skyscrapers and streets, blasting through the foundations of mighty steel and glass monuments to the ingenuity of man. They collapsed in a maelstrom of dust and flame. Shrapnel from millions of shattered windows shrieked through the air, slicing through the fleeing mass of humanity that choked the streets below. The bombs fell on cars and buses, homes and churches, vaporizing every man, woman, and child. Molten metal dripped from the skeletons of buildings, boiling in the streets below. Every living thing was burning; nothing was left but ash and blood. What was there to do but run?

    So I ran. I ran through torn up and blasted streets, littered with the rubble of eviscerated buildings and the broken bodies of the people within; I ran past burning schools and collapsed hospitals, perfect rings of carnage surrounding epicenters of flame; I ran past places I knew, restaurants I had eaten in the day before, the coffee shop I went to every morning. I recognized nothing; I had no time to feel pain, empathy, or loss. There was only me; if anyone else was left alive, I wasn’t looking. All I could hear was my own heartbeat and the rushing of blood in my ears, and it seemed as though each beat of my racing heart was accentuated by the blast of a bomb. The sounds drew closer and closer. How was I to outrun an inferno?

    I could not give up. I sucked in air clogged with smoke and the fumes of burning flesh and kept on running. I was crying, but it was from the wind in my face. For what felt like hours, all I could see was grey smoke and rubble, burning buildings – but then, suddenly, I saw a flash of green between the flames. I ran towards it, each stride harder and harder as exhaustion threatened to overcome adrenaline. Somewhere in my mind I recognized that it had to be the park. Even though I knew nowhere was safe from the bombs, the somehow undisturbed green of the park offered some semblance of hope.

    Suddenly I was running on grass and the air seemed clearer; the smell of destruction and death no longer filled my lungs. I could hear the bombs in the distance, but here it seemed quieter, safer. I sank to my knees in the grass and sucked in a deep breath. I could not recognize where I was. Not too far from me I saw what looked like a cave, a pit of darkness set in the side of a hill. Was it a crater? It could not have been there before.

    A bomb detonated on the street behind me, blasting my back with heat and glass, and another boom filled my ears. I bolted back to my feet and ran towards the darkness. Cool air whispered out from the tunnel, blowing across my face. The fire could not reach me in there. I tripped at the opening, tumbling face-first into the darkness and rolling like a ragdoll down, and down, and down, until at last I stopped and all was silent.

    My own labored breathing was the only sound down in the darkness. It took many long deep breaths before my terror began to subside, before I felt safe from the bombs. Eventually I pulled myself up from my stomach and sat there. I knew if I sat and waited too long, the realizations would set in. That everyone I knew was dead. That my world was destroyed. I couldn’t face that. Instead I focused on the darkness that enveloped me, trying to see something, anything – but the pitch black was impenetrable. My heartbeat started to rise again, thumping in my ears. What if I was inches away from falling into the bowels of the Earth? What if there was no way to get back up?

    What if I wasn’t alone?

    I tried to fight the sudden grip of fear in my lungs. I took deep breaths again. “You just survived a ****ing bombing, you can handle this,” I said, and I was startled by my own voice. Cracked, rasping. I sounded like an old man. A thought flashed through my head, and I fumbled through my pockets, searching, searching – I felt it, an oddly comforting lump in my pocket. My lighter. “Smoking will kill you, they said,” I murmured to myself, laughing nervously. It echoed. I pushed the lid up and flicked once, twice. Finally it lit, blindingly bright compared to the darkness.

    I blinked hard until my eyes adjusted, focusing first on the lighter’s flame, then beyond. All I could see around me was dirt; I was in some kind of tunnel that stretched out beyond what I could see in the dim light, sloping downwards. Behind me was a steep rise; I must have fallen harder than I realized. I noticed that my pants felt wet, and I wondered miserably if I had pissed myself when the bombs fell, touching the fabric to be sure; but when I brought my fingers to the light, they were red. The sight of my own blood shocked me for a moment, but I took a deep breath. Now was not the time to be a pussy. I’ll be fine, I thought. I’ll be fine.

    I rose to my feet, grateful for the ceiling above my head, and reached back to touch the steep slope behind me. For a moment I tried to pull myself up, but it was impossible; the dirt came away in my hands and I fell back to my feet. “You can either sit here or do something,” I said, the sound of my own voice more comforting than deafening silence. I took a deep breath and walked carefully forward, bent over so that the lighter illuminated the ground. I went like this for a while, hoping that the ground would begin to slope upwards again; but it kept going down. I looked behind me and couldn’t see where I had began.

    “Why are you here?”

    I shouted and dropped the lighter, plunging the tunnel back into darkness and my heart into my throat. I clawed out for it and tripped, falling heavily onto the hard ground, deaf to anything but the blood rushing in my ears. “Who are you?” I asked, my voice sounding frail and scared, echoing loudly in the confined space.

    “I don’t remember,” came the voice again; it was feminine, yet entirely alien to my ears. It had some echo, some strange undercurrent that raised the hairs on the back of my neck and made my teeth grind. There was a pause, and I could not find the courage to speak.

    “Why are you here?” the voice repeated, and I rose to my knees, fumbling in the darkness for the lighter.

    “I was running, and came down here,” I said after a moment, breathing heavily. The initial shock of her voice was beginning to fade; I took a deep breath, my fingers brushing against something cool and metal on the ground and closing around it.

    “Running from what?” she asked.

    “The bombing – you didn’t ****ing hear the bombing?” The top of the lighter kept slipping in my fingers; finally it popped open and I pushed down, the tunnel illuminated again, light falling on a slight frame and a pale face–

    She let loose an ear-splitting shriek, a fist flashing out and knocking the lighter from my hand before I could see the rest of her, and I was blind again. I grabbed for it again.

    “No!” She cried. “He will see you.”

    Something in her voice made me fall silent, peering into the darkness. I saw flashes and spots left over from the light of the flame; or maybe the outline of a person. I reached out a hand uncertainly, brushing against something, and I felt her jerk back in surprise. “I’m sorry,” I said, panic rising in my throat again. “I’m just ... I’m lost and I don’t know where I am. I need the light, I have to be able to see...”

    “Do you? Do you have to?” The bitterness in her voice surprised me, and silence fell over us both again.

    “Who is going to see me?” I finally said.

    “I have forgotten everything but Him, so I do not know … how to describe Him to someone like you,” she said, sounding troubled. “But you don’t want Him to see you. Be patient and I will remember the words. Trust me.”

    “Obviously I don’t have a ****ing choice,” I said, voice rising again. “Just explain where I am!”

    “It is easier to show than to tell,” she said after a moment. I felt her hand brush against me and then slip into my hand. “Follow me. Quietly.”

    I felt her hand move away, tugging me slightly, and I took an uncertain step after her, blind in the deep darkness. One small part of me was more afraid of this murky unknown than the bombs above. I followed the faint sound of her footsteps, each taking us deeper and deeper into darkness. The blood rushed in my ears.

    Slowly, so slowly I almost didn’t notice, the complete blindness was tempered by an ethereal light that tinged the darkness faint red. It flickered like a candle, rhythmically pulsing darker, brighter, darker, brighter. It illuminated vague shapes in front of me: the woman who led me, our hands, our footsteps.

    “Where is the light coming from?” I asked.

    “Shh,” she hissed, holding up a hand in front of my face. I was glad I could see it. “Listen.”

    At first I could hear nothing but our breathing; but slowly I could make out a sound underneath it, a heavy rumbling that hung in my head like a bad dream. Thump-thump, it boomed, the ground shaking with each beat. We took a few steps forward and it grew louder and louder, booming and crashing like some primeval drum beating in the bowels of the earth, over and over and over again. It rolled like rhythmic thunder, the light throbbing to match each beat. The hairs rose on the back of my neck. “It’s a heartbeat,” I whispered.

    “Yes. It is His heartbeat.”

    “What do you mean – who is ‘He’?”

    “Listen,” she said, taking a step closer to me. “He is a Demon, and this is His hell. He rules it all, from the maggots wriggling in the dirt to the souls who are trapped here forever.” She pointed to herself. “Everything here is inexorably tied to Him. We are His slaves, condemned eternally to His service by fate, by blood.” My eyes widened, but she held a finger up to my lips. “There are many more than I. We each came down here like you, running away from something, lured into the darkness. But it is a trap.

    “Every century, the Demon pulls another soul into His hell. Each soul has one chance to kill Him, and only one chance. Failure is damnation. As His heartbeat continues, so does our slavery; when it ends, if it ends, our souls are released.”

    Bull****,” I finally gasped.

    “Hmm.” Her head tilted to the side, but her face was obscured by shadows. “It could be. I could be lying to you, toying with you. But you are here, are you not? What else is there to believe?”

    “If you’re His … slave, why are you helping me?”

    “It is my duty,” she said after a moment. “A duty I take gladly, for each new soul is a chance, a slight chance to be free. I guide those who have fallen into this trap; I give them what assistance I am allowed; and I hope that they are smart enough to free us all.” She paused, and took a step closer to me. “For years beyond counting, I have been disappointed. Over, and over, and over again. Perhaps you, at last, are the one who will free us all. Or you will be just another disappointment, another century of hopelessness.”

    Her words slowly sank in. My disbelief eroded with each heavy beat in the ground below. My heart grew heavier, my shoulders slumped under the weight of inevitability: what she was saying was true. I could feel it. “I can’t run away, can I,” I said numbly, my voice quiet.

    “Of course not. It wouldn’t be much of a trap if you could just walk out.” She laughed. I didn’t think it was very funny. “Do not despair,” she said, her voice softening. “It is not an impossible task. Many have tried and all failed, but that does not mean you can‘t succeed. It isn’t hopeless. If it was, it wouldn’t be much of a game.”

    I looked up slowly. “A game?”

    She laughed again, bitterly. “Yes. A game. Or perhaps a show. This --” she gestured around to the tunnel illuminated by the red light, “it is all for amusement. Not only for His amusement, but for the others. I have never seen one of them, but sometimes … when a new soul fails … you can hear them laughing.”

    I swallowed hard and fought back the fear in my throat again.

    “But it is a game, a show,” she continued, “and like any good game, it has rules, it has a winner, a loser. It’s fair. If it wasn’t, the audience wouldn’t care.”

    Almost as if she could feel my fear, she reached out and took my hand again. Her fingers were as cold as ice. “If you are not confident, you have no chance,” she said bluntly. “Whether you fail or succeed, it is the greatest test you will ever face. You were chosen by fate to do this; it is your destiny, one way or another.”

    I took a deep breath and nodded. “What do I do?”

    She laughed and pulled my hand, taking me further down. The light grew brighter until I could see all around me, clearly make out black hair that spilled almost to dirt. In the light, I could make out another person, and I started.

    “It is one of us; he will not hurt you. Slaves we may be, but the Demon cannot make us attack a new soul – it would ruin the game.” She gestured towards him. “We cannot remember our true names, only the names the Demon gives us. Call him whatever you wish. Of course, he can’t answer you,” she said, and then turned around, brushing back her hair. Finally I could see her face under the light. I recoiled, bile rising in my throat.

    Her face was pale as ivory and stained with blood. There were two gaping scars where her eyes should have been, criss-crossed by thick black threads up and down her eyelids. With each pulse of the demonic heart, the thread shimmered. “If your eyes displease Him, He sews them shut. If your ears affront Him, He sews them shut.” She gestured to the other figure. “If your mouth offends Him, He sews it shut.”

    I covered my mouth, revolted. “I’m so sorry…”

    “Why? It’s not as if you did this to us. Right?”

    “I … what--”

    She laughed again. “You humans are so amusing.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw the other stare at her, then quickly look away, as if he knew that I saw him.

    “Aren’t you one too?”

    “Too long ago to remember,” she said, shaking her head. “Or to matter. Come, I’ll explain the rest,” she said impatiently. She started walking and I followed her, deeper into the abyss. “The rules of the game are simple. You will ask Him three questions, and He must answer without lying. You will be given a knife that can pierce His flesh, and a torch born from His own soul. He cannot kill you before you ask all of your questions, or until you attack Him yourself. Be warned: everything I say is true, but designed to trick you. You are not supposed to win. Not without being very clever.” She paused and looked straight at me with her empty eyes. “Nothing is as it seems. You understand?”

    “Yes.”

    “Are you ready?”

    “What?! No!”

    “That’s too bad, because we’re here.”

    I took another step and the tunnel widened out into a cavernous room. It was so bright it hurt my eyes; flames burned across the walls, coursing through the cavern like blood through veins. The thunder of His heartbeat echoed through the chamber; with each beat, the flames burned brighter. At the center of the flame, a pulsing mass of burning flesh twitched rhythmically to the heartbeat. It was a swollen black heart, pumping flame with each beat; twisted around it was a corpulent pile of flesh and bone, a face, legs, a mockery of a human.

    “What’s this?” A voice like thunder rolled across the cavern, followed by faint echoes, a hiss and a roar in one. My teeth grated. “Has it really been a century again?”

    I turned, reaching out for my guide, but she was no longer by my side. She stood across the room with a host of pale-faced, emaciated figures, each with eyes or ears or mouths sewn shut.

    “Come here,” the voice boomed, and my feet shuffled me forward closer and closer to the heart.

    Two burning eyes regarded me from some twisted skull above the heart. A jaw opened, a booming laugh and tendrils of smoke escaping it. “It’s about time.” One of the figures scurried up behind me and dropped a shimmering knife and a torch on the ground, then ran back. “Come and kill me,” the voice mocked.

    I reached down slowly, took a deep breath, and picked up the knife and the torch. I walked towards him, swallowing hard and staring directly into the smoldering eyes. They regarded me curiously.

    “You have three questions before you join the damned.” The demon pointed a withered arm towards the deathly silent spectators. “Take your time. I have little else to amuse me for the next century.” He drew in a deep breath and a wheel of flame encircled his withered arm, coursing through the bone and sinew. Instantly it grew, fiery claws bursting from underneath fingernails, flame oozing from his black skin.

    I took a deep breath. “What is the capability of these things I‘ve been given?”

    “Don’t you know?” He tossed his head, breathing smoke. “Your knife can cut only a small part of my flesh. The flame is mine, and will only make me stronger.”

    His eyes watched me, quietly. I took another deep breath. “How do I kill you?”

    The demon laughed again, a booming laugh that prickled my spire. “You are not so clever as you think. They have all asked this,” he said, a hand gesturing to the figures. “As you can see, they didn’t like the answer.” He laughed again, the crowd shuddering with each grating sound. “I will give you the answer I gave them: the only thing that can harm me is the flesh of my flesh, the blood of my blood.” I swore I saw a smile, fire dripping from the corner of his mouth.

    “I know that you can’t kill me until I ask the final question.”

    “Regrettably.” I saw another grin, black teeth outlined by embers. The claws scratched along the ground again. I looked at those black talons, at the flame that coursed around them, flame that coursed over black skin that shimmered to the beat of his heart. In that moment, a strange hope glimmered in me. I knew I what to do.

    I looked into the Demon’s eyes and smiled.

    I turned and ran towards the crowd of spectators. I grabbed one of the figures, pulling him closer to me and raising the knife quickly, hellfire shining down its blade. His eyes flashed between its point and me, lips trying to move but held shut by the thread. Thick, black thread that shimmered with every thundering beat of the Demon’s heart.

    The knife flashed quickly against one stitch, slicing cleanly through it. The figure’s eyes widened and I saw in them a reflection of flame. Quickly, I fell to the ground, rolling.

    The flaming claws flashed through the air where I had just stood, leaving behind a trail of smoke and ash. “I don’t have to kill you,” the Demon snarled, flashing the claws out at me again. I ducked out of the way, slipping behind the figure and holding him in front of me, quickly slicing through the threads until I could pull one free, a long, black coil that burned my skin.

    The claws flashed at me again and I couldn’t get out of the way fast enough, the torch flying from my hands. I fell hard, face-first into the ground, but I still had the knife and the coil of thread clutched in my hands. I rolled out of the way of His claws, staring into His eyes again.

    “Well done,” the Demon bellowed, laughing. “But do you think you can kill me with one tiny little piece of me? You think a thread can fell a Demon?”

    “No,” I said. The claws flashed towards me again and this time I rolled out of the way, slamming the knife down into the ground and pinning the flaming arm into the dirt. Instantly, more flame coursed around it, strengthening the arm and slowly forcing the dagger out of it as his flesh grew.

    I ran to where the torch lay, still burning. I thrust my fist into the flame, wrapped in the thread. The fire coursed through my veins and devoured my skin, but the thread grew instantly. It fed off the fire, growing thicker and thicker in my hand, bursting into a black spire coursing with flame.

    “Flesh of your flesh,” I said, laughing, the pain forgotten as the thread grew stronger. The claws flashed at me again, but this time I lifted the spine; they crashed together with a horrendous shriek and crack of bone, and one claw fell to the ground. The Demon shrieked and recoiled, bellowing something in a language that burned in my ears.

    I ran towards Him, the spine clutched between both of my hands. “My last question, Demon,” I roared. “Are you afraid?”

    The spine sank deep into the black heart. The Demon roared, bleeding fire, enveloping me, boiling my skin away -- but when the flame touched the spine it grew, splitting the heart in two.

    An ear-splitting shriek escaped the Demon as the fire within faded. The cavern was enveloped in brilliant blood red flame, which pulsed with one last thundering heartbeat and then went out. I collapsed to the ground as the heart withered to ash, receding into the sunken chest of a broken beast that might have once been a man.

    “Thank you,” a voice whispered from the ashes. Then all was silent.

    The threads blinding, muting and silencing the crowd dissolved and slipped away. A chorus of gratitude filled my ears as each tortured soul was released. One by one they crumbled into dust and withered away, until all were gone. All but one.

    My guide walked up to me and laughed. She was stunningly beautiful, long black hair cascading around a perfect face, full lips curved into a wonderful smile. She had eyes now, brilliant blue eyes that bathed the entire cavern in soft light. I had never seen a more beautiful sight in all my life.

    “Well that certainly was amusing!” she said, clapping her hands together joyfully, the words spilling out of her mouth like music. “I didn’t expect you to get that far! They‘re usually so very disappointing, but you…”

    “W… what? Why didn’t you disappear with the rest of them?” I asked, groaning in pain from the burns that covered my body. She laid a cold hand against my shoulder, and the pain all over me numbed and faded, calm filling my aching bones.

    “Why would I have? They’ve all been dead for a long, long time. Only their souls have been trapped here by the Demon, tortured for millenia. You have finally released them from their bonds, released their souls to heaven or hell or wherever they’re supposed to be.” She smiled, her eyes so bright I could see nothing else. “You really ought to be proud. No one‘s done it in two thousand years, you know. I‘ve lost a lot of bets.”

    “I don’t understand,” I coughed, staring into her eyes.

    She shook her head and sighed. “It really is a shame,” she said, patting me on the head. “You did so well. Ah, well, it‘s not like you‘re the first one.” She bent down and kissed me on the lips, and a tingling warmth spread from my lips throughout my entire body. Then she stood and walked away.

    “No! Where are you going!?” I screamed, reaching after her. “Don’t leave me!” My eyes widened as the tips of my fingers began to peel and crack, the skin fading away to ash gray and then to black, my bones crumpling as crippling pain erupted from my chest. I screamed, clawing at my ribs, as the warmth from her kiss turned to flame beneath my skin. A sound began to fill my ears, a sound that reverberated in the cavern around me from deep beneath my chest, a familiar sound...

    She turned and blew me a kiss. “The show must go on!”

    My chest burst into flames and then split open, my burning heart shattering my ribcage, my body withering around it as it twitched and grew and pumped fire through my veins. A cacophony of shrieking laughs filled my ears.

    Then the only sound was the constant beating of my heart.
    Last edited by Viking Prince; January 24, 2011 at 04:39 PM.

  5. #5
    Hader's Avatar Things are very seldom what they seem. In my experience, they’re usually a damn sight worse.
    Patrician Consul

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    Default Re: The Catalogue Pt. 7: Competition Winners

    Scriptorium Writing Competition 2011

    Fiction Winner: Maiko by Captain Jin

    Fiction Runner-up: Tea Ceremony by daniu

    Fiction Second Runner-up: Betrayal at Utsunomiya by Destroyer83




    Scriptorium Writing Competition 2011

    Poetry Winner: Oh Lonely Oak by wowbanger

    Poetry Runner-up: Deepest Night by President Kip

    Poetry Second Runner-up: Geisha's Kimono by La♔De♔Da♔Brigadier Graham



    Scriptorium Writing Competition 2011

    Librarian's Choice Award: The Origins of Japanese Emperors by Supermoler



    Scriptorium Writing Competition 2011

    Other Entries

    ... Just a Samurai by alasswild

    A Samurai's Young Lesson by Thucydides77

    Diary of a Samourai by Hero of the West

    The Red Robed General by wowbanger

    A Shogun's Sword by Thefallenhun

    Barking by Alpha Zeke

    Rolling Hills by Mithiras


    Last edited by Hader; April 07, 2011 at 02:15 PM.

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    Default Re: The Catalogue Pt. 7: Competition Winners

    Scriptorium Summer Writing Competition 2011

    Fiction Winner: A Penny for your thoughts, a dollar for your dignity... by Katsumoto

    Fiction Runner-up: Deus Vult! by Inarus

    Fiction Second Runner-up: Over the Top by 'Gunny




    Scriptorium Summer Writing Competition 2011

    Non-Fiction Winner: The Byzantine-Pecheneg Wars by Manuel I Komnenos

    Non-Fiction Runner-up: The Rise of Massed Tactics in Japanese Warfare by Shogun144

    Non-Fiction Second Runner-up: Doors to Manual by Major Darling



    Scriptorium Summer Writing Competition 2011

    Short Fiction Winner: While the World Waits by Dubh the Dark

    Short Fiction Runner-up: Young Noble of Venice by MedievalDragoon

    Short Fiction Second Runner-up: Here is he... by Eol



    Scriptorium Summer Writing Competition 2011

    Librarian's Choice Award: Once Upon a Blue Moon by AJStoner



    Scriptorium Summer Writing Competition 2011

    Other Entries

    Ode to an All Night Diner by AJStoner

    Collapse by Destroyer83

    Good Intentions by Juvenal

    The Island by Finlander

    Last edited by Hader; September 30, 2011 at 01:37 AM.

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    Default Re: The Catalogue Pt. 7: Competition Winners

    Scriptorium Winter Writing Competition 2012

    1st Place: Forlorn Hope by Inarus

    2nd Place: Victory Shall be Ours! by Maximinus Thrax

    3rd Place: Catherine by HeirofAlexander

    Librarian's Choice: Artistic Representation by Radzeer

    Last edited by Hader; April 02, 2012 at 12:37 PM.

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    Hader's Avatar Things are very seldom what they seem. In my experience, they’re usually a damn sight worse.
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    Default Re: The Catalogue Pt. 7: Competition Winners

    Scriptorium Summer Writing Competition 2012

    1st Place: The Post Justinian Period and its Legacy by Pompeius Magnus

    2nd Place: A Midnight Meeting by Diamat

    3rd Place: Unnamed by Sanderlicious

    Librarian's Choice: The People of the Pillars: Broken Torch by Ngugi


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