OFFICIAL EVENT BITE Fall 2018 Voting Thread

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Which entry was your favorite?


  • Total voters
    24
  • Poll closed .

Astaroth

Chaos is what killed the dinosaurs, darling.
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It varies a lot depending on my schedule, unfortunately.
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Primarily Prefer Male
Playing Style- Passive or Aggressive
I play what's needed, but I do like to take the lead. In my one-on-ones, I often like being the "Game Master" in the sense of creating the setting, controlling NPCs, and steering the plot. But I still like input and collaboration from my partners. In group games, I prefer to be the GM or to play a leading or mentor role.
Favorite Genres
I love a little bit of everything. My top choices would be Horror, Modern Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Magical Realism, Noir, Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Splatterpunk, Post-Apocalyptic, Historical, Mystery, old-school High Fantasy, and Sci-Fi (especially Spacesagas). I'd love to do some occasional Clockpunk or Weird West or Wuxia or Dieselpunk, too.
Genre You DON'T Like
I guess the only thing I don't particularly care for is high school drama, and even that can be fun with a good hook.
#1
Welcome to the very first voting thread for BITE: The Biannual Iwaku Tale Event! We were almost worried you guys weren't going to make it, but all those entries flooded right in over the last couple of days, so you have plenty of tales to read and vote on.

Fortunately, you'll also have plenty of time! The poll ends on September 8th. Normally BITE voting will last for two weeks, but we added a couple of days to account for any extended downtime during our upcoming site updates. Please take time to read over all the entries and vote on your favorite!

This season's prompt was




Your tale should include elements of HORROR via the inclusion of supernatural beings with a little more bite than bark. Vampires, werewolves, zombies, whatever... just as long as it goes bite in the night.​



The prizes for winning are as follows:

MANAGER'S PICK
-A spot in our special Hall of Fame thread
-A temporary ribbon under their avatar proclaiming their winning status
-Three months of Donator status (complete with perks) for free Thanks to an anonymous donor via our fundraiser, this prize has been upgraded to one year of Donator status.
-Up to $25 USD worth of gift cards or straight cash transferred via PayPal.

Also thanks to our generous anonymous fundraiser donor, they will receive:
-A trading-card-sized, hand-painted owl by Diana sent via snail mail
-A "fabulous" illustration by the one and only Jorick
-Any raffle prizes resulting from the 11 tickets drawn in the name of the anonymous donation

COMMUNITY PICK
-A spot in the Hall of Fame
-A different temporary ribbon under their avatar for the same duration
-Three months of donator status


The Community Pick winners will be selected by the votes cast in this thread. If entries in the Community vote tie for first place, all of those entries will be rewarded with the prizes. Once the voting period is over and the Community Winner has been determined, this thread will also be used to announce the recipient of the Managers' Pick prize.

Reminders Voting Rules Feedback Rules

  • Please make sure to read over the rules for voting and giving feedback before jumping on in.

    Keep in mind that entries may contain graphic material. Only entries containing explicit sexual content will be marked NSFW.

    • There will be two winners for each iteration of BITE: the Community Pick that receives the most votes, and a Manager Pick that will be decided in secret by the BITE managers. Each will receive separate but similar prizes for their accomplishment. Monetary prizes are awarded only to the Manager Pick winner in order to prevent giving an incentive to manipulate the vote.

    • The entry with the most votes at the end of the voting period will be declared the Community Pick for that month. However, if the community makes the same selection as the managers, then the second highest vote recipient will be named Community Pick; we don't intend to make the vote seem like it's playing second fiddle to our pick, it's just how it has to work so prize distribution makes sense when there are gift certificates or similar to be won, sorry! The winning entries will win fabulous prizes (fabulousness not guaranteed) and will win a permanent spot in the BITE Hall of Fame thread for all eternity (or until Iwaku explodes).

    • In the case of a tie in the public vote, each winner will receive the Community Pick prize package.

    • All entries will be posted anonymously. Voters will need to make a selection based on the quality of the piece, not the name attached to it.

    • You aren't allowed to tell anyone which entry is yours until AFTER the voting period is over. Doing anything to solicit votes is not allowed and will get you disqualified, and perhaps even banned from BITE altogether. Telling your friends "hey, I entered BITE, go read the entries and vote for one" is fine; telling people "go vote for #4, that's my entry" is not okay.

    • People who have entered the contest can vote, but they can't vote for their own entry or it may be disqualified. If you vote for your own entry by mistake and inform the contest managers of it promptly then we can do some shenanigans to fix it, but intentionally voting for your own is not allowed at all. Show some love to your fellow writers or don't vote, whatever feels right to you. Votes will be public knowledge so we can keep track of this.

    • BITE is a contest to see who can tell the best story. The managers will be mainly focusing on deciding which entry put together the best story, meaning which entry made the best use of the prompt and their own concepts and characters to put together a complete and satisfying plot. You are welcome to choose your own criteria for voting and for reviewing entries, but do keep in mind that this is a storytelling contest rather than a technical writing skills contest.

    • Voters are highly encouraged to read through every entry before voting. We know we can't enforce this, but try to give everyone a chance before picking your favorite.


    • Voters are highly encouraged to post in the voting thread to explain their choice. Full reviews or critiques of the entries are very welcome, but please keep any criticism constructive and civil. Telling someone that their spelling errors and odd word choice made it hard to read is fine, but telling them that they write like shit is not okay.

    • Number/letter grades are also highly discouraged as they tend to be arbitrary and to vary widely in interpretation. This applies to any form of comparative grading. It is better to list strengths and weaknesses from the rubric for each entry based on its individual merit rather than assigning a grade.

    • If you're unsure how to give good feedback or would like some more instructive guidelines on how to critique a written work, read Jorick's guide on the subject.


Without further ado, allow me to present our entries for this season! Thanks to everyone for participating. If you liked a story, PLEASE leave feedback, even if you didn't vote or don't think you're qualified to give critiques. Even a sentence or two about what you thought is helpful to and appreciated by the writers.

There was only silence. Silence, and blood.

A corpse lay in the dirt at her feet; a corpse that was once a man. Thick leather covered him nearly entirely, with wrapping giving his arms and legs a club-like quality and a mask with but slits for eyes covering his face. A single gap through the tall collar around his neck revealed grey skin and black veins. Her sword, a broad and dull blade of steel, plunged through its heart like a stake. Once, she had listened to that heart's beat, as she laid her head upon it's owner's chest. Its rhythm had matched her own, two souls bound together by love—and duty.

But as she listened now, there was only silence. Hans had made his sacrifice, but it was Edda that bore the burden.

A child stood several feet away, his red locks hiding his eyes as he kept his head bowed. He scratched absent-mindedly at his arm, where a fresh vampire bite left his skin pale and sickly. For now, at least, it would not spread. A healthy application of holy water and a thick gag to stifle the screams had made sure of that.

But the holy water had dried up, and the night was still young.

Edda was covered in the same leather protection as her former partner. No vampire could bite or slash through the leather, but pin a hunter down and soon enough they'd tear open a gap wide enough to get through. Hans had been foolish to let himself get cornered, but she would not be so foolish.

"Get over here," she muttered, kneeling down. The boy rushed over and climbed onto her back, burying his head into the crook of her head. "It's dark, and everything's muffled in here. Tap me on the shoulder if you hear anything." She felt him nod, and set off at a jog.

Her footfalls were heavy against the dirt as they made their way down the road, trees dark and tall looming on either side. Just as heavy was the panting of her breath. By her estimation, the chapel was still a good two miles, and it would be a grueling trek with the kid on her back, even without any trouble.

Edda felt a tap on her shoulder.

Immediately halting her movement, she listened. After a few moments, she was rewarded with the sounds of footsteps through the brush off to her left.

Sliding off the beaten path into the woods to the right, she planted herself behind a tree and swung the boy into her lap, holding his mouth firmly shut with one hand as she held her sword loosely with the other. After a few minutes, their pursuers reached the path and stopped. Vampires were not particularly bright predators; they would not think to look for her tracks in the dirt. They would have heard her, however, and now that they had followed them to the source of the sound, it would not take them long to sniff them out.

That is, unless she found a way to escape first.

Releasing the boy's mouth, she motioned him to get back up. With a nod of her head, she sent him deeper into the woods, each step slow and delicate so as to not disturb anything. For her part, she snatched up a rock from the ground, and tossed it back in the direction they'd come from. It bounced once and then rolled onto the road.

The vampires shrieked and charged toward the source of the noise, giving her an opening to rush forward, hurl the kid over her shoulder, and hoof it. It would not take long for the vampires to notice their prey escaping in the opposite direction. Sooner or later, they would have traced the scent of human sweat and fear.

Their only hope was to outrun them.

The first few strides were rough as she tore through branches and shrubbery, but she quickly burst back out onto the road's even ground. All thoughts were pushed from her mind, her body working on instinct to push her muscles to the limit—and keep them there—as the shrieking cries of the distant vampires acted as a continuous warning behind her.

She did not know for how long she ran until the treeline fell away. She did not know how long it was before the sea breeze rushed over her, bringing the smell of salt and home. When she saw the chapel rising into sight, a steadfast beacon of light, standing tall above the sea-cliffs, there was one thing she did know: the shrieks were getting much, much closer.

Her muscles burned, the fire in her veins too great. She stumbled, she fell, she could not go on; but the chapel doors were in sight. The little red-haired boy tugged at her arm, begging her to rise, and she did, but she did not follow. "Run," she muttered, and turned to face her duty one last time.


  

There is no one reason to become a vampire hunter. Many choose the path out of a sense of nobility; a desire to provide shelter to the isolated peoples of the barren coast. Some have lost loved ones to the taint, and seek closure by destroying that stole from them their purpose in life.

For Harald, it was fear. He had watched two of the strongest warriors he'd ever known lay down their lives to return him home, and he had been powerless to help. Shoved aside, so that he might live.

He was still scared, sometimes, when the infected rushed towards him in the dead of night, their shrieks piercing the night. But when his sword tore through their throats and punctured their hearts, there was only comforting silence.

Silence, and blood.

Bite Me Harder

"Did you hear that?" A high-pitched voice whispered nervously, its owner sitting up and grabbing the car door's inner handle tightly. The girl couldn't be more than sixteen, but there was this maturity air in her eyes that betrayed her true age to those who knew how to truly look. "It came from outside."

The girl sitting in the driver's seat, nowhere near as nervous as the first one, chuckled and shook her head. Her black hair reflected the dim lights from the dashboard radio, shining like black ice rather than swallowing any reflections into its darkness. "Don't be silly Megan, we're alone out here, there's no one. Come back here."

With a swift movement, the driver caught the younger girl's chin between cold, slender fingers and gently nudged her back towards her. Their hot breaths mixed for half a moment before Megan bit her lip and weakly tried to pull away.

"Jessica, I don't know, I'm scared. With all the stories going around town lately..." Slowly, her eyes rose to look right into the girl named Jessica, and desire swirled around them without any restraint that might have been caused by fear. The hunger in them was real, almost tangible, and it made Jessica shiver and hold her chin a little harder.

"If anything happens, I'll protect you. Now, come here I said." Without waiting for a reply, Jessica pressed her lips on Megan's and they parted without hesitation. With a controlled breath, she sank her teeth lightly in her date's bottom lip and pulled on it playfully before giving her what she wanted. Megan groaned with impatience at the teasing and pressed herself closer to Jessica, her right hand sliding her the girl's thigh with a very clear intent.

Within a few minutes the windows of the car were covered in mist, the air inside heavy and warm despite the engine being turned off and the colder air outside. Both girls had moved closer to each other and their bodies pressed together without any clothes left in the way. Jessica was surprised and pleased by her own skills at convincing Megan to trust her, and it felt like she had her wrapped around her little finger. Every touch, caress, kiss made the younger-looking girl gasp and cling in need for more. They were only getting started, Jessica knew this, but a gnawing impatience was making her more aggressive than the other nights.

"What have you done to my sweet little Megan, innocent girl is no more." With a grin, Jessica marked her words with her nails digging in Megan's sides and clawing up along her back. The girl moaned and shivered in her arms, but she couldn't help swallowing that delicious sound with a deep kiss that brought Megan's body even closer to hers.

"Harder, please." The whispered words sent ignited something else in Jessica, and she didn't have to make her repeat the plea before executing it.

She kept digging and clawing her nails deeper into Megan's flesh, leaving behind beautiful red trails until droplets of blood bloomed in their path. The sudden metallic smell caused Jessica's nostrils to flare and she breathed in the scent with deep inhalations. By precaution, she closed her eyes and counted to ten before taking another breath. Every single one shattered her resistance until only a thin weak layer was left, and it took all her self-control to pull back and ignore the most delectable smell in the world.

"Let me taste you, hmm?" She murmured seductively in Megan's ear, her teeth teasing the lobe before her tongue ran along the length of it. Another shiver from the girl and she nodded quickly.

"But first, let me return you the favour." The was an odd assertive tone in Megan's voice, but it far from displeased Jessica.

"Sure, I always like a girl who knows what she wants." Her hungry smile turned into an amused one as she pulled away. This girl was amusing and her small frame wouldn't have caused any human from doubting her lack of physical strength. "I'm ravenous though, so don't make me wait too long."

Something odd passed in Megan's eyes, a shadow of mockery perhaps, but it was gone so fast that Jessica brushed it off as a silly quirk the girl might have for dirty talk. As though she was following orders, Megan dove right in and attacked Jessica's neck and shoulders with kisses and bites. Mere seconds later her mouth was already seeking the girl's hard nipples and she hurriedly pressed her tongue flat on them. Her eyes shot up to watch Jessica's reaction, a smile slowly crawling on her face.

"Oh damn, suddenly I approve a lot more of this little detour." Jessica gave Megan exactly what she wanted, a real show of pleasured expressions that would have made the most erotic works of art. "Bite me." This time it was a real order, and Megan promptly obeyed with a small nibble on the outer side of her breast. "No, bite me harder." Moving to her right breast, the girl sank her teeth into the tender flesh, eyes still trained on Jessica's face. The moan of pure pleasure sounded loudly in the small car, and she threw her head back as she arched her spine, pushing her chest harder against Megan's face.


  

Now. The thought barely registered in Megan's mind before the fingers of her left hand wrapped around a hard and almost warm object that was stashed under her. With unnatural force and speed, her hand moved up and forward and a millisecond before the stake pierced Jessica's left breast, her wrist was grabbed by cold fingers. Fuck.

Thankfully, she had planned for this, and her right hand immediately thrust a punch into Jessica's pelvis. Had she been anything else than a vampire, it would have splintered the bone. Instead, a stinging pain coursed through Megan's hand and she bit down harder onto the flesh still between her teeth.

"You fucking bitch!" Jessica's voice had lost all of its honey and the air in the car suddenly got much colder, enough to send goosebumps down Megan's back.

"So this hurt, huh? You're a young one." Megan's eyes flared almost in joy, and there was no denying the elation that ran through her blood and pumped the adrenaline to every corner of her body. "I'm surprised you resisted so long after you made my back bleed. You must've fed a lot lately."

As she spoke, her bruised right hand had rushed to crush Jessica's windpipe, but the appearance of the vampire's sharp teeth had made her hesitate a moment too long. Jessica hissed and with a swift motion of her hand, broke Megan's wrist. Despite the pain, the vampire slayer did not drop the stake and to her horror, Megan laughed and shook her arm away and a loud crack confirmed that the bones had been put back in place.

"What are you, you're not human!" This time, the vampire's words were mixed with both fury and fright, and it confirmed to Megan that Jessica was in fact a very young vampire. At most, she had been turned less than a month ago.

"Your master hasn't mentioned me then, eh? Probably cause I killed him before he could. How lucky for me!"

A flurry of punches and attempts at blocking them followed as Jessica tried to escape, and it was only thanks to the car door bursting out of its place that she managed to shuffle out of the car. Just as she thought it would be her chance to escape, Megan lept forward out of the car with a cat-like agility and immediately straddled a struggling Jessica. It became clear that Megan had superior strength and that the vampire wouldn't stand a chance.

"No, no, don't kill me. Look, we were having fun, right? Don't all young girls want a vampire boy friend, or well, girlfriend? I can protect you, fuck you, treat you like a damned goddess--" The rest of the words were muffled out in a gurgle, Megan having successfully crushed her windpipe.

The slayer had a wicked smile on her face, something out of this world, and her eyes told Jessica that she had slayed countless vampires stronger than her before and that she had simply been an easy prey for her.

"Die, you soulless bitch. You tasted nasty anyway." The look of pleasure in Megan's eyes was almost sexual in nature as she plunged the wooden stake right into Jessica's naked breast, and the rush of ecstasy that followed made her groan loudly.

The blood running down her back was already dry and the minuscule wounds had closed long minutes ago. The midnight wind carried the calming scent of pine trees, and after a few deep breaths, the slayer finally pulled out the stake from Jessica's stiff body and wiped it on the grass next to it. "But I love it when they ask me to bite harder."

Legacy

"Thank you so much for being here, Mr. Walker. I didn't know what else to do. It's been 4 months and nobody could help us. You are the last option we have left."
"Just Walker, please, John. It's not a name, it's a title." His voice was smooth as velvet and red wine.

The living room lay in disarray, uncared for, numerous items discarded and broken. Dusk's light streamed through the half-curtained windows, a single blade of amber splitting the scene of unlit sorrow and pain-stricken faces. John and Ingrid Howard sat in front of him on the opposite couch, huddled together without holding one another, an unspoken distance. Her eyes were bloodshot and glistening, reflecting distrust and beaten strength, a woman with repeatedly shattered hope. The ticking of clock crashed deafeningly, like bells tolling damnation.

"When did your father give you this number?"
"He never did, sir. He bought a locked box in '72 and put a list of phone numbers in it. Told us to open only in case of absolute emergency when every other options had already been exhausted. I've tried the other numbers and they were all out of service. You are the only person to answer."

Even in the depth of his pain John Howard held his head high and kept his back straight, as if his disheveled grey hair was still brown, and his drooping, sorrow-stricken features were still that of a man in control. The months of worry had not been kind to him. Who would one be if the only thing defining their life was stripped away?

"Imagine my surprise when it rang. That number hasn't been active in decades." Walker's tone was clear, neutral, his accent unplacable. "Your father was a very dear friend." He could see the doubt in their eyes, the mother's especially. After all, he barely looked 40.

"Lily. It's a lovely name." The girl looked up at him with joy in her smile. Pure, untroubled. She wore a golden summer dress, her playful eyes gleaming like sapphire, its color of the ocean's depth reflected by her earring. The photo fell damp in his hand, half crumpled. Smelled faintly of salt and bitterness. "How old is she?"

"14 this August." This time Ingrid spoke, her words steely hard, backed not by inner strength but the familiarity of repetition, each time a cut so deep she grew numb to the pain. "She was still choosing a high school. Was going to make a big reveal that Friday."

Her gaze caressed the image of her daughter between his fingers, longing, aching to hold that fragment of her memory so intensely it burned his hand like the midday sun. Gently, as if handling a fragile soul, he set Lily's picture on the table between them and rose.

"Show me."

John touched his wife's shoulder comfortingly before standing and leading him out of the room toward the stairs. Behind him he heard quiet sobbing, despair barely suppressed. She had no hope in him.

"The police had been through the house several times. Nothing was disturbed except her room." John's voice while hushed still echoed eerily through the empty home, an abandoned temple, its goddess stolen. "We've had complaints about the smell, but I didn't want to clean it up just yet. It could still be useful, and maybe someone will come along and..." His voice trailed off abruptly into awkward silence. He hadn't meant to phrase it that way, hadn't meant to betray his doubts. Still, Walker gave no sign that he had caught it. The veil of pretense hung between them the rest of the way, one neither men acknowledged.

The stench hit them first several feet away, a revolting metallic, rotting miasma clinging to the surfaces and walls of this floor like moisture. The closer they got the stronger the smell grew, debilitatingly overwhelming. Scented candles lined the hallway but did little more than slightly dampening the odor's edge, adding a sweet taste of lilac and rose, like the smell of new graves.

"It's unpleasant in there, sir." John handed him a cloth similar to the one covering his nose, which he declined with a shake of the head.

The door whined like a banshee's wail, trepidation manifested in its purist form. John's hand shook violently, and he had to clamp his other on top of it just to push a lifetime's weight aside to reveal a glimpse of the dreaded space beyond.

Blood splattered across every visible surface of Lily's room, drenched every inch, soaking through every single object and wall and bed sheet and memory. Dried blood flaked and fractured, blanketing the room with unnatural cracks, a red porcelain so fragile as to risk shattering with a single touch. The final light of the day set the scarlet curtain to smolder, the color of funeral roses.

Walker's white suit burned like pale flame in the tinted gloom, a phantom traversing a hell of crimson and shadow. He had half-expected to find the floor underneath him sticky and wet, but of course it wasn't. Behind him John audibly gagged and retched under his cloth, still incapable of getting used to the full force of the stench.

"We found this in the morning, and she was gone." Through the gagging and the overwhelming trauma of the memory, his words were barely intelligible. "They didn't find any sign of forced entry or struggle, or her leaving by herself. She just...vanished."

"What did they say about how the blood got here?" Walker ran his hand lightly over the caked surfaces, rubbing the red dust between his fingers. The flakes glimmered like tiny shards of ruby.

"Uhm...the police said the people who did this must have brought it in during the day when we were out and, hid in one of the vacant rooms on this floor." John' self-control was slipping but he clutched it like a man drowning in guilt and self-blame. "They must have been right here not 3 feet from us." Slow tears trickled down his face, the dam leaking, weathered down by the relentless waves. "I kissed her goodnight."

"It was not your fault, my friend."

"Wasn't it? I could have checked the rooms. I could have installed an alarm like Ingrid asked. I.."

"The blood was fresh."

A momentary pause. It hadn't been what the other man had expected.

"I'm sorry?"

"The blood was fresh." Walker's gaze traced the discoloring edges of each splatter, a painter examining a familiar canvas. "It was freshly drawn that night. Hours-old blood doesn't have the same texture or weight."

Slowly, confusion and a spark of light shone through John's eyes, the drowning man finding his straw suddenly sturdy. "So...how did they get it in here?"

"There are only 2 exits." Walker murmured, more to himself than the other man. He drew back the curtains to the glow of street lamps and the night sky. The day had died some minutes before, giving way for golden artificial light to cast the crimson room into washed-out melancholy. His eyes glimmered like emerald gems in the glow, impervious to time.

"No human could lug 70 pounds of blood through a window 5 feet off the ground or a narrow second floor hallway without waking the entire house." Though it was no answer, it was true.
"What about the blood itself?" The smell was inescapable, the sight pervasive. The crimson screamed to be heeded, a message to haunt one's dream for a lifetime.

"It wasn't hers. Mostly animals', pig, chicken. And...something similar to goat?"

"It's not goat." Walker's voice was barely a whisper, like strands of smoke dispersing in the wind.
"Now, I have enough to start."

John's face lifted in an obvious forced smile, too exhausted to bother hiding his despondence.

"My friend, I don't give promises lightly." Walker's hand on the father's shoulder was tender. Compassionate. "But I know what you are going through. I know what it's like to lose a child. So I promise you this,..." for the first time that night something other than steely confidence touched Walker's features, an intensity of absolute attention that bore into the other man's eyes, resolution burning like the sun, "...I will find her. And I will bring her home to you, safe and unharmed."

John Lenney returned the gaze, and what he saw fortified his own hope even if for those moments. He nodded slightly, the gesture conveying a trust given without reserve, father to father.

Lily's mother didn't see Walker out when he left, but he hadn't expected her to.

----

LA at night was a feverish dream, the metaphysical manifested. The glamorous Downtown burned eternally, a neon heaven of sins and ecstasy unbound by daytime conventions, thinly veiled under throbbing multicolored flares and deafening beats drowning out all consequences. The City of Angels nurtured her own demons, crafted a personal hell where the lawless were kings, and the hopeless gods. Where lives were merely the entry price, and blood a mark of dominion. So enticing she was, so alluring, so mysterious, like the perfect night one chases their whole lifetime but never finds.

Walker's search took him into the underbelly of the beast following a trail few could pursue, through a past he had left behind decades before. Nothing resembled what they had been; bigger, better versions of the same establishments lay atop where their predecessors used to be, the demons freeing themselves of their bindings chain by chain. The mask of legitimacy had lost its exclusive value; now every crook and ex-con could get one for a couple of grams and a blowjob.

The fever of LA welcomed him home with open arms and loving whispers. A hunch brought him across town to several butcher shops and underground Satanic suppliers, none of which yielded much progress. They had covered their track well, whoever he was hunting, at least their more conventional loose ends. The years away had made most of his contacts unusable, his options limited. But the game hand't changed, and just like cops knew to follow the money, in his world one need only follow the blood.

Five hours and several favors later found him outside a nightclub at the intersection of Venice and Griffith. The street was deserted and murky, street lamps few and far between. The silence stretched long as shadows, broken only by the occasional sound of cars passing by a few streets over. Walker's white suit seemed to glow against the backdrop of midnight, a lone specter wandering purgatory.

His watch hit 1:11 AM when a side door of the club banged open, letting ear-piercing stroke-inducing bass music into the night, and a figure emerged silhouetted by flashing strobe-lights. A woman of about 35 strode onto the street, lighting a smoke. She wore a hoodie and jeans, her hair slicked back covered in sweat, the amber fire of the smoke revealing tired eyes and weathered features that were still beautiful despite the years.

His approach out of the dark startled her, and he could see her hand dropping into her purse, no doubt for a readied pepper spray.

"Hello." He offered his most disarming smile, his voice light and clear. "My name is Adam. I'm looking for Miss Janet Bailey?"

Her alarmed gaze ran from his smile to his eyes, searching, assessing. What she saw slowly relaxed her posture, but her hand never fully withdrew from the purse. "Sorry honey, I'm off hour. Come back tomorrow." She pushed past him without letting him out of her sight, a level of wariness very much warranted in these parts of town.

"I'm not here for that. I want to talk to you about your brother, Dean." He made no move to follow her and she showed no sign of turning, or even appeared to have heard.

"I'm looking for a missing child." That stopped her, perhaps due to either the sincerity he was trying project or the words themselves. "Please."

"Dean never had anything to do with any missing child." She said over her shoulder, an obvious edge in her tone.

"It's not about him, it's about his past associates." Their voice rang through the crisp night air like echoes of dreams. "Please, miss, just...let me buy you a drink."

Finally she turned to regard him, her eyes reflective beads of glass gleaming in the faint light.

"Associates. Miss. Shit, no one talks like that. You a cop?" She paused to take in his appearance again and shook her head. "No, you don't look it. No cop goes out at night dressed like a spook in a thousand dollar suit."

"It's just a suit." His smile never wavered, only softened until it was little more than a lingering hint on the corner of his lips. "How about that drink, then?"

Janet drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Finally she nodded. A few moments passed of her looking at him expectantly, neither of them moving.

"I...uh, don't know the neighborhood very well." That prompted a raised eyebrow. He only managed to look sheepish and shrugged.

"This way."

The clicking of their boots disappeared into the night, devoured by the unseen road.

----

The bar Janet led him to was a reserved establishment, hidden in an alley away from the main streets. The wood paneling, furniture straight out of the 1980s and the lack of patrons during the prime partying hour made it seem more small-towned than something that would fit in the big city. The clock on the wall struck 1:30.

Janet headed straight for the bar, and the bartender, a young Hispanic man perhaps in his early 30s, fixed her a drink without prompt.

He started to speak the moment they settled in, but Janet's raised finger made him swallow whatever he was about to say. She threw back the Whiskey in one and slammed the glass on the counter, hard.

"What do you want?" She mumbled, her eyes still squinted shut from the alcohol.

Instead of answering, he called himself a glass of water. Both her and the bartender gave him odd looks.

"You spooks and your tight-ass rules. No drinking on the job sounds like a bullshit excuse to jack your price." She made a disgusted face, her stare drilling a hole into the shelves opposite. An unpleasant past experience.

"I'm...not a PI." He only smiled in return, his gaze lingering on the bottles behind the bar a moment too long. "I also don't drink. Not anymore."

"So what the hell are you then?"

"Just someone trying to help two grieving parents." He sipped his water like it was fine wine. "Sorely lacking these days, I think."

She sniffed hard, possibly more at him than what he said, and drank some more.

"From what I've heard, your brother was...special." He chose his words carefully, hesitantly testing the water.

"You can just say it, I don't really give a fuck. He was crazy, stupid, deranged. He thought he was a vampire." She didn't meet his eyes, staring deep into the bottom of her once-again empty glass as if it held all the answers in the world.

"Yes." He could sense more the see that the bluntness both hurt and relieved her, like ripping off a band-aid. "How much do you know about the other people in his weird circle?"

"Next to nothing other than their names. They were a secretive bunch. Not really like a cult, but more a bunch of crazy idiots enabling each other, you know? At first I thought they were just kids playing make-belief, or one of those emo groups that everybody hates but that's basically harmless." She downed another drink like chugging cold water. "And then one day I caught him drinking blood." She half-gagged at the memory, her face twisting into a mirror of past recollection.

"Human blood?" He kept his tone light and interested, prompting rather than interrogating.

"No, thank god for that. Cow blood. One of his buddies got it for him. Bed sick for 2 weeks straight after that. Stupid fucking bastard." A fleeting smile touched the corner of her lips and was gone.

"Hmm."


All the bar's lights were off but for the one above them. Somewhere between Janet's fourth and fifth drink the bartender had disappeared, leaving the bottle on the counter. The street outside was completely deserted, letting a complete silence creep in through the windows like a numbing muted scent. It felt as if the entire world had faded away, and they were on a lone island of color and sound drifting on the ocean of midnight.

"January 16th, 2015. There was a gathering of this group which was an acceleration of their normal pattern involving sacrificial rituals done with a very special and rare type of blood. Your brother was reported to have come into contact with it. What do you know about this?"

"Nothing about what you just describe. Though the date does strike a memory." Her voice was already slurring, her eyelids drooping. She had to struggle to stay awake.

"He came home late that night. I noticed he had a change of clothes, he was wearing things that weren't his. He smelled...metallic. Like blood, but...worse. Like sulphur. I asked him about it and he said he hung out at the library. He had...injuries. Self-inflicted, I think, on his arms and neck. He yelled at me for washing his favorite shirt with the wrong powder, so I knew he probably wasn't suicidal. I left him alone."

"Is that all?"

"All that I can remember, yeah."

"What about his friends, then? This...vampire group."

"What do you want to know?"

"Tell me everything you can recall."

So she did.

----

The ticking of clock thundered in the quiet space. 3:17 AM. The bottle was empty, the glass overturned. The only sounds were quiet snoring and the rhythmic tapping of his fingers on the hard wood of the bar. A scented candle burned on the opposite shelves, its sweet smell teasing up a memory he couldn't quite retrieve.

"Miss Bailey? Miss Bailey." He shook her shoulder lightly without a response.

"She's like that most nights these last few weeks." The bartender reappeared, collecting the bottle and glass. "I already called a cab. Here's her address."

"What happened a few weeks ago?" He looked up sharply catching the unspoken detail, but the other man was already gone again, leaving behind a note with the address on it. Walker's eyebrows furrowed, his gaze passing from the note to the back door swinging close. A quiet moan brought his attention back to Janet. Leaving a fifty on the counter, he rose and gently dragged her out of her seat. She reeked of the cheap stuff she was throwing back for the last hour.

"Come on. Let's get you home, alright?" He murmured, half supporting, half carrying her out the door.

A taxi screeched to a halt outside just as they made it to the curve. Gently, he set her onto the back seat and handed the note to the cab driver before walking off back the way they had come. But he hadn't gone 5 feet before being called back.

"I can't take her like this, man!" The short stocky middle-aged man yelled, a sour expression on his face. "She's out cold. I can't be responsible for this!"

Walker paused between the pitch black road, indecisive. His watch showed 2:24. Half way 'til morning.

Another second of contemplation, then he turned and walked back, getting into the passenger seat. The cab roared to life, a beast declaring dominion over abandoned roads. Its light vanished into the pit of the fevered city.

----

Janet's apartment stank of midnights' exhaustion and woeful disregard. The entrance was littered with empty fast-food boxes, discarded clothes and days-old trash bags. The air felt stuffy, suffocating, like a sealed tomb over a bubbling swamp.

He flicked the light switch only to find the single bulb in the living room shattered, pieces of glass scattering acrossr the floor like shards of broken memories crunching under his shoes. Letting out a long sign, he deposited the mess of hair, cheap alcohol and sweat on the couch and walked to the bathroom, turning its light on. A cold white glare cut through the disarray, brushing expertly a painting of loneliness and abandonment on a canvas bleached by unkind years and rocky paths.

A softness touched his eyes, nearly tender. Here was the full turmoil of a life presented before him in all of its sorrow and heartbreak. A memory tugged at him, begging to resurface.

A sudden groan snapped him back to reality.

"Where the hell..." Her words were almost intelligible.

"Your place. Is there anything I can get for you, Miss? An aspirin, maybe?" He turned her eyelids and checked her pulse. It was only normal intoxication. The amount she had got him worried, she had clearly had more than a few at the nightclub before they met.

"Cupboard..." She slurred breathlessly. The headache was catching up.

He came back a few moments later with 2 pills and a glass of water, which she chugged like the booze from before.

"I have to go." He absently murmured, beginning to rise. A damp hand grabbing his own made him pause.

"Stay." She whispered, her eyes downcast. "Stay. You're already here. Stay a bit longer." Her voice was clearer but still sluggish.

"I...can't, Miss. I'm sorry." His brows furrowed sadly, almost compassionate. "I have work to do."

"Quit the fucking charade!" The sudden outburst caught him completely off-guard, so much he didn't react to move in time when she shoved hard at his chest only to bounce off back onto the couch.

"Isn't this what you have planned the entire night, fucker? Getting me back here all drunk and easy?" Her voice rose to a shrill scream. "You can drop the fucking gentleman act now! You think you're so clever, don't you, preparing all these fucking questions, acting all mysterious and shit. News flash, you dumb fuck, no normal human being shows up in the middle of the night to interrogate people about their dead brother!"

She shoved him again, and this time he retreated a step.

"You want me to beg, you sick fuck? Is that it? Taking advantage of people in distress isn't enough for you? You want to see them grovel at your feet like dogs?" She swung wildly at him but missed, her legs wobbling and throwing her onto the floor. He sprung forward and caught her before she hit, only to have her scratch, claw and tug at him like a feral animal, pushing him away.

"Miss Bailey, I..." And then he saw it. Her eyes were wet with tears, make-up running down her face like rivers of ink and blood.

"You are grieving." He said quietly. A statement rather than a question.

The screaming seemed to have drained everything out of her, and she curled herself up on the floor and cried.

The silence between them stretched long, broken only by heartbreaking sobs wracking her small frame like autumn leaves in the wind. He sat a distance from her, feeling her pain and anguish radiating like smells, a palpable bitter scent he could almost taste or see. He made no move to come closer or try to comfort her, only sat with her in the cold, dark solitude. Offering his presence, and nothing more.

Eventually her sob subsided and the stillness took hold for a while longer.

"I want to take a bath." She said it so quietly he almost didn't catch it. "Help me."

Without a word, he pushed himself off the floor, removing his jacket and rolling his shirt sleeves up. Gently, tenderly, like taking care of a child, he undressed her, peeling off clothes drenched in sweat and reeked of booze, and carried her into the bathroom.


A haze hung in the air, the steam drifting lazily like a mist. The water was near boiling but she didn't make a sound. The tile at his back cooled his drenched shirt, sending shudders down his spine.

"Aren't you going to ask?" The veil of moisture distorted her voice, twisting regret into melancholy.

"Ask what?" He was only being curt. He knew what she meant.

"Who I was grieving."

"Should I?"

A moment of silence.

"My husband died last month. Car accident." The steam muted her pain, giving her words an eerie air. "He promised he would be back before lunch." Numbness radiated with each syllable.

"That's...the thing with promises, isn't it?" His chuckle was dry, humorless. "Each broken one is a tragedy. Makes you wonder, why make any at all?"

They shared a small laugh that trailed into more heavy silence.

"I notice you have a ring."

That drew his eyes down to the band of gold on his left hand. It was cool to the touch when his thumb pressed against its damp surface. Through the layer of condensation, he could almost see the reflection of a familiar form.

"Yeah." He murmured. "Sometimes I forget it's there."

"I'm sorry." She offered. It wasn't for him. It was for both of them.

"So am I." He breathed, his gaze far away. Absently he twisted the ring around his finger, slowly. Round and round and round.
"Do you have any kid?"

"Yeah. A boy." He could hear her smile. "He's at grandma's now." A pause.
"He's the only thing I have left." It was a sad smile, courageous, but beaten.

"I had a little boy as well." His was a wide, unrestrained smile, bright, happy. Sorrowful. "I had a little boy. He was the light of my life."

She seemed to sense his sadness.

"I'm sorry." This time it was for him.

"Thank you." was all he could manage.


The room was quiet except for her slow breathing. He checked his watch. 3:47. Only a few hours until dawn. Gently, he pulled the blanket tight around her and exited, closing the door softly behind him.

----

The crash resounded throughout the building, the crack of wood splintering and metal contraption ripping apart deafening in the narrow hallway. Any other part of the city there would have been shouting and at least five 911 calls. Here, however, the denizens were more than used to signs of violence and loud noises. Walker dusted wood fragments off his shoulder and entered the shabby apartment. The single bulb swung lightly from the vibration of heavy footsteps of the floor above, casting unnatural, trembling shadows across the room.

The curtains were fully drawn, furniture almost non-existent except for a couch, a TV mounted on the wall and a half-crumbling kitchen table. Personal touches were few and far between, little indicating that the person living here thought of the place as home. His boots clicked against the bare unfurnished floor past the living room toward the other doors. The bedroom was in much the same condition, as was the bathroom. The place looked like it hadn't been lived in for weeks.

In the bedroom closet he found a cardboard box, carelessly discarded. The contents were marked as belonging to one Lincoln Holmes, who also happened to be a member of Dean Bailey's old vampire group. Inside were several notebooks and files containing lists of contacts, maps, disturbing drawings of satanic symbols.

And at the bottom of the box, a single ocean-blue earring.


The line rang 3 times before it was picked up.

"Howard. Who's this?" Exhaustion bled through like audible noise.

"It's me. I didn't wake you, did I?"

"I hardly sleep these days, sir." There was no conviction behind John's chuckle. "How can I help you?"

"I found a lead."

The line went quiet for several seconds.

"How...how promising?" His voice was shaking, a man struggling to hold back his fear, not daring to hope.

"Could lead us straight to her if we're lucky." Walker's tone was hesitant, unsure. Afraid to over-promise. He could hear the other man swallowing, hard.

"Take me with you."

"It could be dangerous..."

"Take me with you." There was no room for argument in John Howard's voice, only steely determination. A father's resolution.

"Very well." answered Walker. He understood.

----

The warehouse was deep inside an industrial area where every building looked the same and endless crates formed a maze of steel and rot that led nowhere. A heavy chain held shut the chain-link gate, and he snapped it with a loud crack which resounded through the night like a gunshot.

"What time is it?"

"A quarter past 5." said John, holding a flashlight and looking like he had just crawled out of a grave.

The warehouse was half-crumbling, lacking maintenance for at least a decade. Grass sprouted from the cracks in the cement as high as their knees, blanketing the yard in front of the building.

"Are you sure this is the place?" John was having to fight to stay awake.

"This is the one." Walker said calmly. "She may not be here at all."

"I know." The words seemed to drain him, the possibility despairing even to acknowledge.

The warehouse's metal door groaned open on rusty hinges, letting out a blast of stale, moldy air. The flashlight beam ran over rows upon rows of empty shelves, broken and abandoned, unburied corpses of someone's past unremembered. Miraculously, when they snapped the light switch on. some overhead bulbs still worked, illuminating disconnecting patches of the floor. The carpet of sawdust crunched under their shoes as they moved through the space, searching for a sign, any sign. But half an hour went by and nothing noteworthy was discovered.

"We must have missed something." said John, his brows furrowed in worry. "There's nothing here."

Walker's hazel eyes seemed to glow in the gloomy half-light, scanning the ceiling and floor with patient care, casting his mind back to review each lead that had brought him here, each tiny detail. What had he missed?

A sound broke him out of his thoughts, a strange echoing noise under John's shoes wholly uncharacteristic of solid cement. The other man also caught it a moment later, and they exchanged a look of amazement. Together they knelt down and tested the ground again until they found the section of floor from before. Brushing aside the layer of sawdust revealed a wooden hatch.

"Is this what we're looking for?" Excitement bubbled uncontrollably through John's voice, the thrill of discovery temporarily distracting him from his tragedy.

"I believe so." Walker was more controlled, calm and leveled. They hadn't succeeded, not yet.

The hatch crashed open with a heavy boom, uncovering a seemingly depthless space, like the maw of some unspeakable beast patiently awaiting its next prey's foolish descend. John lost his breath at the sight, his gaze boring into the darkness as if his daughter would materialize out of the opening any second.

The wooden rungs creaked worryingly beneath them but held together. Only half a dozen steps took them to the bottom, the space underneath more wide than deep. Bare brick walls surrounded the claustrophobic basement, covered by a multitude of messy crawling Satanic symbols sprayed in red. The flashlight beam swept across numerous badly drawn depiction of sacrificial rituals and 3D-styled slogan proclaiming the End of Days, and finally came to rest upon a small frame in one corner.

John's body started to shake the moment he spotted the figure, his face frozen in shock and frightened hope. His eyes went to Walker, seeking reassurance, or affirmation. Walker didn't meet the other man's pleading gaze, his own fixed unblinkingly on the tiny body not 10 feet from them, gradually closing the distance while surveying every visible detail. Could it be?

It was a child, he could see that much, lying face down. There was no indication that they had been there long, the clothes - hoodie and jeans, which provided no further detail of any kind- were still at first glance clean and new. The child's hair was hidden under the grey hood. There was no sign of injury. Walker found the hand he was extending shaking when he touched the child's shoulder and rolled them over.

A little boy of maybe 10 years old looked up at him groggily, squinting against the glare of the flashlight. Behind him, he heard a sobbing gasp, the sound betraying more dismay and pain than a thousand screams.

"Hello." He breathed, brows furrowed gravely but his smile stayed friendly regardless.

"Hello." The boy replied with a tiny voice and his own hesitant smile, rubbing his eyes sleepily.

"I'm Adam. What's your name?" Walker said, one hand diverting the flashlight hand behind him away from the kid.

"Noel?" He said it shyly, like a question.

Walker pulled Noel into a sitting position and carefully dusted the front of his clothes off. "Do you know where you are, Noel?"

"No..." His voice grew even tinier, as if he was expecting to be punished for not knowing the answer.

"No, no it's okay. It's alright. You're not in trouble. You're just far from home is all. Where are your parents?"

"I don't know..." It was clear that Noel wasn't going to be of much help.

"Let's just get you out of here first, and then we'll find a way to get you home, okay?" Noel nodded dumbly, still not fully awake. Walker took the boy's hand in his own and turned toward the ladder.

He found John sitting on the floor with his head in his hand. Fear and devastation radiated off him like palpable heat.

"I don't know if I can keep doing this." His voice quavered, teetering on an unseen edge. "I don't know how much more of this I can handle." His form was slumped, drained by warring emotions.

Gently, projecting all the strength he could muster through the touch, Walker set his hand on the other man's shoulder as he had done in Lily's room only hours before. "I have given you a promise that I will bring her home. And so I will." The smooth velvet in his tone was gone, replaced by granite. "But I cannot do everything by myself, John. Your daughter needs you." His eyes pierced into the tear-filled gaze of the frightened father in front of him. "Lily needs you." He hissed those last words, a violent reminder. They stayed that way for a long minute, until John finally pulled himself back together and took Walker's offered hand to be pulled to his feet.

"Thank you." He whispered quietly, a thousand more things left unsaid but understood all the same.

"It's my duty." Walker replied softly.


The half-light of the warehouse above was liberating compared to the claustrophobic hovel below.
"Now what?" said John, seemingly not expecting answer.

Walker was about to answer when a noise snapped his head toward a dark corner. His blazing emerald gaze narrowed, then widened in recognition. Slowly, his expression changed into something sad, aching, almost...regretful.

"I'm sorry, my friend."

"What is it?" John asked, but then he saw it.

Eyes in the murky black, glowing crimson like blood moons, radiating gleeful malice. Ten, twenty, forty, he lost count afterwards. Low grumbles from countless throats shook the very floor beneath their feet.

"What is that?" The terror John showed only fueled the eyes, and they began to circle, keeping to the shadow. Round and round and round. Walker signed to his companion to stay where he was, his stare fixed on a particular patch of shadow.

A figure entered one of the pockets of light, a middle-aged man with blond hair and dark complexion, wearing a black suit. He was grinning ear to ear.

"Our guest of the night is here." He proclaimed, the presenter of the circus introducing freaks.

"Powell." He said plainly, without surprise or accusation. "I take it this is a trap, then."

That only earned him a smirk. "Very perceptive of you, Walker. We've come to do our duty as hosts." Deliberately, no doubt savoring the show, two of Powell's front teeth began to lengthen, growing into grotesquely pointed fangs like that of a feral predator, twisting his already savage expression into that of an inhuman beast. "All 7 clans of LA are here to welcome you home."

And the eyes began to mutter, mocking, scorning.
"Look, look, here comes the great Walker of Ruins. All kneel before his Majesty and tremble."
"He hates us. Look how he despises us. We are ants under his boots. We are so afraid, terrified, quivering on our feet."
"Such compassion, such kindness. He shits rainbows and vomits sparkle. Everywhere he goes becomes utopia. We're so glad he's here."

And they laughed their petty, ugly laughs, a hundred nails grating on chalkboard, a thousand teeth grinding on stone.

"I've never hated any of you." Walker's voice was even, and everywhere he looked the eyes averted their gaze. "You are nothing more than junkies with bells and whistles. I don't hate you. I pity what you've become."

"Very generous, very noble." Powell said, his unnatural grin unwavering. "Now, you must have question."

"A few." He allowed. "I must admit I am quite puzzled as to how you crafted such intricate trap. None of you is clever enough for something this complicated. How did you know I'd recognize demon blood? How did you know I would be able track down a 2-years-old trail? Every crumb was placed so neatly exactly where I'd look. It's as if..."

"...the plan was made by someone who knows you intimately."

The voice stopped Walker dead in his track, his face frozen in absolute shock. The eyes quieted and a heavy silence devoured the warehouse.

A rhythmic clicking echoed in the hushed space like the inevitable tolling of death's door, and a second man stepped out of the shadow. He was perhaps in his 80s, though his back was still straight and his hair dyed a youthful brown. He wore a spotless white suit, nearly a matching version of Walker's. His tie was a brilliant scarlet the color of blood in the rain, and his piercing blue eyes projected frigid resolve. He leaned on an unornate walking cane just a little, as if fully utilizing it was a shameful weakness.

The stillness stretched, an eternity in a single moment. Finally the old man shattered the fragile atmosphere, his voice, a cultured, high-class English dialect, held a quiver of old age mostly suppressed by pure will power.

"You look the same."

Walker's face was slack, a hundred emotions passing through his features, numbness, fear, love. But none stayed. Eventually, a pervasive, debilitating sorrow settled, one that could never be hoped to redeem.

"Hey, Albert."

"Hey, dad." The old man replied simply.

"You look...well." His eyes were tender. Longing.

"I look old, dad." Albert sighed. "I'm dying soon. Stage 4 cancer." He said it like it was an inconsequential inconvinience.

"I'm...sorry."

"I know." Albert said lightly. "Your promise to mom and all. I understand, I do."

"She only wanted you to have a normal life. A full life." Untroubled by my mistake, my world.

"And I did." Fond recollections twitched the corner of his lips.

"But my time is short, and before I'm gone..." He made a gesture to the blackness behind him, "...I needed to see you one last time. To do one last thing, for you." Two pairs of glowing crimson orbs approached, and the familiarity of the forms they dragged behind made Walker's heart stop.

The first was a young girl of about 15, her blond hair dishevel and face twisted in fear. Her left earring was missing. Lily Howard.

At the sight of his daughter, all of John's fear and confusion and terror seemed to dissipate. Howling, fueled by a father's desperation, he sprinted forward with a speed uncanny for a man of his age, but Powell, impossibly fast, appeared between them. A slight shove of his palm threw John backward crashing into the floor coughing blood.

"Papa!" The girl's wails broke Walker's heart into a million pieces but drew roaring laughter from the circling hoard.
"It's okay honey." Even through the agony John still managed to smile, struggling to his feet. "Papa's here. It's alright now."

A moment later a young Hispanic man - the bartender he had met only hours before - dragged Janet Bailey screaming and kicking to Albert's side. Her face was bruised, bloodied. It was clear she had fought with everything she had.

"What are you doing, Albert?" Panic boiled in his chest like lava, threatening to drown him from the inside out.

Janet's head snapped up at his voice and her gaze found his, confused and pleading. But then her eyes dropped to his waist, and her form went still.

"Mommy?" He heard a tiny, fragile sound beside him, and his blood went cold.

"Noel?" Janet slurred through her broken lips. "Are you alright, baby? Did they hurt you?" Tears streamed down her face freely. Helplessness and fear drained whatever fight she had left out of her.

"Albert. Please. You are better than this." Was he? Walker didn't know this cruel man standing in front of him, resembling in no detail the angry little boy he had last seen.

Albert didn't meet his father's disbelieving eyes, looking instead down at the woman at his feet.

"Everyone who knows my dad said he was a good man, a decent man." His was magnetic, full of charm. "When you met him, you offered yourself to him like a whore, yes?"

Janet spat in his face. The bartender's fist connected with hers a second later, breaking her nose in a fountain of blood. Calmly, Albert withdrew a handkerchief and wiped away the bloody speck on his cheek, continuing unfazed and gesturing for the other man to hold the dazed woman up by her hair. Walker's nails dug deep into his palm, his entire frame shaking, his fury battling his shock and indecision.

"I expected you to. And he refused you, I'm sure, even if it was a kind gesture to comfort a grieving woman. You see, my father is an honourable fool, an idiot, in your crude language. He feels that he has a sense of duty, to lead by example, to be the best humanity could be. To show us junkies, in his own word, that we could be something better." Now he raised his eyes and challenged Walker's stare with his own. "So he lives by his words. His promises. Even at the expense of his loved ones. Even if it meant robbing his only child of the one thing that gives their life meaning."

For the first time Walker looked away, numb with pain and regret. How many times had he offer his remorse to the people he had hurt? How many more time will he have to utter those same exact words before he could begin to atone for his sins? Would he ever be able to?

"So today, before my time runs out, I want to do one final test. To prove my father wrong, once and for all. It's quite simple in execution, really. It's the set up that proved challenging." From his pocket Albert produce 2 knives.

Walker's eyes widened, and he took a step forward. That was his final mistake. In the blink of an eye monstrous forms bounded from the darkness in ranks of dozens, short, abominable, hunched-over shapes with claws and fanged drooling maws for faces, and surrounded him. Another small group encircled John and Noel, cutting them off from him, forcing them into each other. The little boy clutched the middle-aged man's arm whose eyes never left the crying form of his daughter.

"The rules are quite simple." Albert let one knife drop to the floor at his feet. "You kill the child next to you..." the second knife was tossed through the air to clatter in front of John, "...and I let you and your child walk out of here alive." The beasts holding Lily and Janet released their hold throwing them to the ground, and the monstrous throng around John and Noel retreated a step.

Walker felt something unseen grabbing hold of his heart and squeezed, suffocating him. Bile rose to his throat, the urge to vomit almost unstoppable. How many decades had it been since he had felt nauseous? He had thought he was no longer capable of it.

"Albert! Please." The tremble in his voice only seem to amuse the old man.

"Is that fear I hear from you, dad? Don't be sad. I'm doing this for you, don't you see?" He opened his arms wide to encompass the entirety of the terror-filled warehouse, like a circus master owning the stage, "I will show you that not only human are cruel little creatures, but that their only redeeming quality is their ability to sacrifice everything for their children." He hissed the words, accusing, venomous.

"I've always wanted to step out of your shadow. I hated being known as "Walker's boy". But look,..." Albert waved toward the mass of creatures surrounding them, and they answered him with bellowing laughter, "...look how much power your mere reputation holds. I need only uttered your name, and an army gathered at my feet. They're all here for you, dad."

Hesitantly, almost in a trance with his face a mask of numbness, John knelt and scooped up the knife at his feet. In a sudden blur of movement Janet sprung forward, grabbing the knife and dashed toward the girl.

"No!" Both Walker and John cried out, John's blade reflexive pressing against Noel's face.

Janet's knife hovered inches from tender flesh, trembling hard. They could see her struggling with herself, willing the blade to sink it. Still it did not move, still she couldn't bring herself to just murder a child in cold blood. Even to save her own.

Albert clicked his tongue in disappointment. "Very well. It'd appear that you need some motivation. I will give you one minute." He pressed a button on his watch, setting a timer. "Then none of you walks out of here."

"Please. Don't do it. Please." John could barely speak through the fear suffocating him. "Honey, look at me." He caught his daughter's gaze and held it. "I need you to be brave, okay? I need you to be strong. It's going to be fine. You're going to be fine." Lily's eyes were swollen from crying, but she looked at her father and tried her best to smile.

Janet didn't speak. She bit her lips hard enough to draw blood, her gaze fixing unblinking on the form of her son. The boy wasn't crying, but covering his ears and scrunching his eyes shut as hard as he could. Pretending the monsters weren't there, maybe they'd go away.

"Powell. Please. We had a deal, an agreement. You gave me your word!"

"And?" Powell's grin returned, baring his fangs. Walker's face fell, disbelief and helplessness wracking his body like poison.

Time ticked by, each grain of sand a mountain's weight. John's knife was slack in his hand, seemingly forgotten. He talked to his daughter quietly, comforting her, giving her the strength he pretended to have. Janet's face was a purple mess of bruises and pain, unreadable, but her blade hadn't moved from where she held it first. Noel was singing to himself, each syllable of his childish voice another scorching brand on Walker's soul.

"Time's nearly up." Albert checked his watch. "Last chance." And he started to count.

"10."

John and Janet's eyes widened. They both looked at Walker at the same time, hoping, pleading that he held the answers. They could see that he had none.

"9."

Janet's hand shook, but her knife inched closer to Lily's neck.

"8."

Tears streamed down John's face, and his grip on the knife hardening. "You promised me, Walker. You promised." John's voice was a razor blade grinding in his chest.

"7."

Walker screamed and surged forward, hurling himself at the mass of monsters. His eyes started to grow, his fang and claw extending.

"6."

The hunched beasts raked their talon into his body splitting flesh open, but he barreled through their ranks with sheer determination. Suddenly Powell appeared in front of him howling with glee, delivering a devastating punch that rocked him backward.

"5."

Lily's wail impaled John's soul like a spear. "It's okay honey." He muttered over and over, the words becoming a hypnotic chant. "It's going to be alright." His head swam, and his knife drifted toward the boy like wading through dreamy water.

"4."

Claws slashed into Walker's legs, crashing him to the ground. More monsters climbed on his back, using their weights to pin him down. Powell stood over him, breathing heavily at the carnage. The scene of suffering gave him a raging hard-on.

"3."

Janet's knife made contact, drawing a single drop of blood.

"2."

Noel opened an eye just as the cold steel touched his skin.

"1."

"NO!" Walker screamed, the sound buried under a mountain of monster flesh. John and Janet both howled and plunged their knives downward.

Blood flew through the air.

The watch's shrill alarm blared its tolling of finality, cutting out all sounds.


Noel lay on the ground with his arm around his head. Unharmed, crying. Crimson splattered to the floor from where John had driven his knife into his own palm. Janet's blade was on the ground, clattered there at the last second. She held Lily tight to her chest, cradling the girl's head on her shoulder.

"Well,..." the bemusement was gone from Albert's tone, "...that was quite anti-climatic."

In one single motion he drew a gun and fired twice. John Howard dropped to the floor, an expression of surprise permanently frozen on his face. The body of Noel Bailey jerked once.

Walker's inhuman bellow devoured every other sound, the desperation in it piercing the sky like a lone wolf's cry at full moon. Between one moment and the next his body morphed, spikes sprouting from his back and arm, talons replacing claws. His hand shot out in a blur, grabbing Powell's crotch and ripped his cock off along with most of his intestine and midsection. They splashed to the bloodied dust like trash.

Albert turned his gun to the figures next to him and pulled the trigger again. Two shots rang clear enclosed space. Janet Bailey slumped, two smoking holes in her back. She had turned to cover Lily's body with her own at the last moment.

Albert frowned and raised his gun again, but before he could snap another shot a scaled fist crashed into his chest. Oddly, the last look on his face was that of relief.

The horde of the 7 clans descended upon Walker. He punched through one's chest and ripped out its spine, smashing another's head to a pulp with his other hand. He wrenched the bartender's head from its shoulders and beat the next monster to death with it. The spikes on his back moved like sentient whips, lashing out and impaling one beast after another. He tore apart each and every single Nosfe that came within his reach, and still they came without relent, waves upon waves, driven frenzy by blood and the massacre. His soul was in tatters, his mind fractured like a discarded mirror, reflecting distorted, magnified sins. The bodies of the people he was meant to protect glared at him unblinkingly from where they lay, silent judgment in their murders, demanding payment.

So for the first time in a century, he surrendered himself to the madness, and opened the cage.

----

Tap. Tap. Tap. The crimson trickled, each drop slower than the last. Walker clutched Lily's body in his chest, his shoulders trembling with each sob.

The ugly chuckle echoed above the carnage like a phantom's final haunting.

"You should...thank me, dad." Albert wheezed, blood bubbling through his lips at each word. "I freed...you. Snapped your...chain. First promise is...broken. The beast...is loose." The old man laughed until the internal bleeding filled his lungs and he drowned in his own blood.

Lily's blood pooled in his laps. The first light of dawn set the horizon ablaze.

One of her eyes fluttered dreamily open. Her left hand weakly lifted and wiped a tear from his cheek.

"Mister, don't cry." Her voice was tiny, like the lingering ghost left by a faded impression of something someone wished they had said.

"It's all going to be fine."

"It's all going to be alright."

"I promise."

A low rhythmic buzz filled the lecture hall - the sound of over a hundred trainees chatting to each other. Standing in the wings, Ken Davies, Chief Inspector of the Metropolitan Police Department took off his standard issue cap, running his fingers through his thinning, short-cropped hair. Once a lustrous black, it was now flecked with grey and white; somewhat premature, he had thought, but that was the job for you. Every day dealing with the worst that London could offer took years off your life. He wouldn’t change it for the world though. Not when he went home to his partner and their kids. If he could make the world a bit safer for them, then that was all that mattered. A quick check of his watch showed him it was time. He looked in the mirror one last time, taking a deep breath at the tired man in his 50s staring back at him. Time to get to work.

The noise in the room quickly died away as their guest lecturer walked into the room. In spite of his age, he moved with a force and confidence rarely seen in one half his age. Removing his cap and placing it on the lectern, he stepped forwards and cleared his throat. The room fell completely silent, save for the rustling of paper from the few people who hadn’t got their notebooks ready yet.

“Good morning. My name is Ken Davies, Chief Inspector at the Met. I’ve been asked to come and speak to you trainees today because, regardless of whether you end up as a constable or an inspector, it’s important to understand how investigations work, how they function...and why sometimes they fail. Today we’ll be looking into an old case - it’s one I worked on personally about 15 years ago. Now before we start, I have a disclaimer.” He paused, taking a sip of water to alleviate the sudden dryness in his throat. “This is an unsolved case. It is currently not being actively looked at, but it may be reopened in the future. While much of the information is in the public domain, some of it will not be. That information should not be disclosed to friends or family members, both to respect the privacy of those involved and to safeguard any future leads that may arise in this case.”

He scanned his eyes across the room, trying to make eye contact with as many as possible in order to reinforce his point. Even talking about this case was difficult. The fact that it had gone cold so quickly had left a sour taste in his mouth that had never quite gone away. None of the explanations seemed to fit the evidence, and none of those who knew the truth were able to tell it.

“Well then, let’s begin.

The date is January 18th 2003. First Response officers received word of screams and roaring sounds coming from within flat 23a, 45 Northelm Street. A firearms squad was directed to the scene, as well as a dog handling team. However, by the time they arrived they found that the flat door was broken open from the inside, and the perpetrator had fled the scene, leaving behind a single corpse. They began to fan out to try to get a lead on where the perpetrator had gone, and we were called in to start to collate the evidence.”

Pausing his speech, he moved to a laptop. With a single key press, an image of the flat was projected onto the screen. There was a slight gasp from the students at the sight. Deep scratches scored the walls, bordering a floorspace covered with broken remnants and fragments of furniture. In the middle of the room, a tape outline was placed in the middle of a dark red stain.

“This was what we arrived to. As you can see, not an overly pretty sight. The corpse was covered in bite and claw wounds - apparently some sort of feral animal had attacked them. The extent of the wounds was severe that the corpse had to be identified by dental records. We learned at a later date that it was the body of one Matthew Perry, the owner of the apartment building and landlord for the residents. Now, as an inspector, it’s important to consider what extra information you might need, and where you could find it.” He raised his eyes back towards the audience. “So, where would you start looking?”

A few hands were tentatively raised. He motioned towards one in the middle.

“Well, if the corpse belonged to the landlord, where was the tenant?”

Ken clapped his hands together sharply. “Exactly! Important lead to follow, and we’ll come back to it later. Anything else?” He motioned towards another.

“What did the neighbours see or hear?”

“Absolutely! Finding eyewitnesses is always useful, but there’s something else you might find in the communal stairwells of a block of flats in London.”

“CCTV footage?”

“Absolutely! Plus of course the work of the forensics team in combing the room, but that’s something you find out about later. The immediate job is finding out more on the human side. So let’s start working through this. We’ll go in the order that you suggested these things.”

He cleared his throat. “We’ll start with the tenant. Her name was Laura Bywaters. Obviously, as the tenant, she was a person of some considerable interest to our investigation, and we started making inquiries as to her whereabouts. We found out that she was sent home from work ill that day, and hadn’t returned since. No contact with family and friends in the days prior to or following. We thought she’d gone into hiding, put out a nationwide warrant.

Two days later, she was found naked in a field some 30 miles outside of London. Dead, from hypothermia caused by exposure.” He sighed, shaking his head. “She was only 26, working in the finance industry. Her death was a tragedy both for the family, and for our investigation.” He raised a hand with three fingers, and lowered one. “Sadly, that cut off one of our leads. What was next?”
“Eyewitnesses!”

“Absolutely. So we talked to the other residents. Laura largely kept herself to herself, and tended to order in her shopping and have it delivered. There was some suspicion that she was keeping a pet in her apartment, or at least pet-sitting for someone regularly, because every few weeks there was a lot of snuffling, yelping and barking from her room. Perry had apparently got wind of this and carried out several spot inspections, but never found any sign of it. She apparently also looked tired and stressed around these times.” He lowered his second finger.

“Finally, the CCTV.” He sighed heavily. “In another frustrating twist, the security attendant on duty earlier that day had forgotten to clear the hard drive so that new footage could be written. As a result, whatever those cameras captured was never saved.” He lowered the final finger and scanned the room. “That’s enough from me for a few minutes. Have a bit of a discussion amongst yourselves, and see what you make of the case so far.”

An energetic murmur filled the room as the trainees began to chat to one another. Ken slowly eased himself back into his chair. He knew why he always used this case, even though he’d rather forget about it. Maybe, one day, one of them would have an idea that he’d missed. Maybe there’d be a breakthrough from one of the minds in the room. Hope beyond hope.

A few minutes passed, and he rose again, clapping his hands a couple of times to draw their attention. “Alright then. Let’s see what ideas we have, from the preliminary investigation.” He scanned the room, before gesturing at a raised hand. “Yes, you there on the right.”

“Well, we were thinking it could be that she was petsitting a potentially violent animal when the landlord burst in, and she ran away in fear after it mauled him to death...but that doesn’t explain how she was found in the state she was - there’s no reason she’d have taken off her clothes when she ran away, really.” The student, with wavy brown hair and piercing blue eyes, looked down at him nervously.

“True...that was one thing that made us dubious about it too. We did look into any circumstances around her movements - but the last time anyone saw her was when she came back early from work. That was a gap we couldn’t quite fill. Any other suggestions?” Another hand shot up near the back. “Yes? At the back there?”

Even as the tall student jumped to his feet around his smirking friends Ken knew what was coming. “Maybe it was some kind of weird sex game, and she was naked when she ran out!” Ken smirked slightly. “We considered that lead too. Regardless to say - if nobody noticed a fully clothed woman running through the streets, then they definitely didn’t see a naked one. Besides, if she was the one who had inflicted those wounds, then where was Perry’s blood on her body? Sadly, it’s quickly ruled out.” Don’t rise to them, and dismantle them professionally. There was one every year it seemed.

A couple more outlandish ideas were thrown out, but nothing he’d never heard before. A third individual? The couple across the hallway reported only hearing Laura and later Matthew entering before the incident started. Links to organised crime? No undercover officers had heard anything. Time to move things along.

“OK, so we have a few ideas to play with at the moment. We’re looking for additional information to reduce those ideas down to one that fits all the information. Let’s look into the results of the forensic team, shall we?”

Another click, another image. “This was an unusual feature we found in the kitchen. A tarpaulin had been laid out, and scraps of raw beef mince were found on it. Other fragments were found trodden into the carpets around the flat. In addition, a large quantity of hairs similar to those you might find on a dog were found around the apartment. More of these hairs were found under Perry’s fingernails. So far, so good for the petsitting hypothesis, right? Except there were no leads, dog beds, toys or anything else to suggest an animal was spending any time there. Not even a litterbox - not like a dog could go outside to do its business several floors up.” A hand was raised. “Yes?”

“What about the mince? Where did that come from?”

Ken smiled slightly. That was the right kind of thinking. “Good question. We found several invoices.The previous day Laura had received deliveries from a variety of supermarkets. Odd in itself, but even odder when all the deliveries include 500 grams of minced beef. All orders placed on January 16th at roughly similar times, presumably sequentially.” He could see the confusion on their faces, the same confusion that crossed his whenever he thought about it.

“I can see you’re all confused, so I’m only going to show you one last thing.” He took a bundle of papers off his desk and started passing groups to the students on the end of each row. “What you’re being given are excerpts from Laura’s diary in the days leading up to this incident. It’s...unusual reading, to say the least.” He could almost remember the words by heart, having spend hours poring over them in search of a clue.

16th January 2003
Always a warning sign when you find yourself struck with an intense rage because your stupid intern brought you decaf instead of half caf. Typical dumb blonde who sailed through life on their looks and now is desperately hopeful for a job. Almost slapped the shit out of his perfectly chiselled jawline, but caught myself just in time. Doubt he’d have the sense to report it to HR anyway, but better safe than sorry.

Organised the deliveries this evening. Next day, confirmed time slot so none of them are here at the same time. Better to avoid awkward questions. Dumb kid from the flat across the hall won’t shut up about wanting to meet “my dog” - bloody landlord keeps doing ‘spot inspections’ to make sure I’m not breaking the ‘No Pets’ rule. I really hope he doesn’t decide to pull anything in the next couple of days.

17th January 2003
Found a box on my desk this morning. Ibuprofen and a hot water bottle, along with a correctly made coffee. Maybe that Adonis kid isn’t so dumb as I thought. In any other situation I’d be insulted, but honestly I’m relieved to have a cover story for the aggression that I don’t have to make up. Other people from the office are going out tonight - I said I couldn’t make it and they just accepted it with a knowing look.

Deliveries came - mostly. One emailed saying that they were out of stock due to unusual demand. Went down to the butchers, but they’d closed by the time I got there. Will have to hope I have enough. Got the tarpaulins out of the closet and dusted them off ready. Tossed and turned most of the previous night, so made myself some cocoa and slipped some whisky into it. Hopefully that’ll help me sleep.

18th January 2003
Cocoa largely ineffective. Late to work because of having to shave. Didn’t get much done. Couldn’t focus. Was sent home to rest. People looking on in sympathy, thinking that they understood. Tarpaulins down. Meat out of fridge, onto tarpaulins. Door locked. Key hidden. Curtains shut.


He paused, watching them scan through the words. Eventually one, very tentatively, raised her hand.

“You think you get something from that?”

She seemed torn over sharing, but curiosity eventually won over fear. “Well, did you ever consider the possibility of...werewolves? I mean, it seems like Laura was anticipating whatever happened and…” Her words trailed off as the rest of the group began to laugh. Ken smiled slightly. “Maybe. Maybe that’s the missing link!” He looked back out to the hall as a whole. “I think we’ll stop there for today. Some good thinking has come out today, and some good critique of that against the evidence we have. Maybe one of you will reopen this case and solve it. Here’s hoping anyway.”

As the students filed out, Ken couldn’t help but fixate on the one novel idea from today, in spite of its absurdness. Werewolves. Werewolves! Really? And yet something about it just seemed so neat, so tidy. He just couldn’t let it go. As he headed out, he pulled his phone from his pocket. “Siri, when were the full moons in 2003?”

A few seconds later, his phone fell from his grasp and clattered against the floor.

Tracy carefully balanced on one foot as the chunk of cement beneath her feet shifted. Tepid mud began to pool around its edges, pushed agonizingly up into the sun by Tracy’s weight. Grimacing, she hopped to the next stable-ish looking chunk before the muck could reach her shoes. When it showed no signs of sinking, she stopped to take stock of her progress.

It wasn’t impressive.

Around her, the cement of the street and sidewalk was cracked and uneven, entire segments submerged beneath the encroaching marsh. The lawns lining them were even worse off, with the grass long since drowned, and cattails and lily pads sprouting up in their place. The houses they belonged to listed at crooked angles, panelling dark with dirt and rot. From it all rose the overpowering stench of fresh life and fresher rot.

All in all, it was slow going. Up ahead, Fabiana and Grace pulled ever further away. The former forward thinking enough to bring knee high boots, and the other simply failing to care in sneakers and shorts. With a sigh, Tracy picked up her pace, convincing herself she didn’t mind if the occasional splash of mud caught her shoes and pants. Even if mud was gross enough on its own, let alone mud pushing up from beneath the street. Where sewers are kept. She didn’t mind. She did not. Mind.

“Slow down!” She called out after her friends.

“Fast up!” Grace shot back.

“Yeah,” Fabiana said, peering this way and that into the ever lengthening evening shadows. “That.”

Tracy grumbled herself and once more picked up her pace, continuing to fail at ignoring the spreading mud splatters.

A few years back -- recent enough that Tracy could still remember when she had lived here -- this neighbourhood had been just another part of the small town of Aprilside. Idyllically placed next to both a lake and a small mountain. Or glorified hill, as the residents were prone to chuckling to each other during brisk March barbeques.

Then the government decided to build a dam at the mouth of the river that drained from the lake. Aprilside protested, and some heated rallies even took place -- quite out of character for the town -- but the government insisted that the lake wouldn’t flood its banks. And to their credit, they were right.

The surrounding marshlands, however, tripled in size. Leaving entire neighbourhoods abandoned to rot and drown, while the Mayor tried to pretend they didn't exist. Neighbourhoods like the one Tracy and her friends were currently trudging through.

As an entire chunk of street twisted and disappeared under the mud beneath Tracy’s weight, submerging her foot completely, Tracy let out a muted, frustrated scream. “How much farther?” she snapped.

“Around this corner, I think.” Tall and caramel-skinned, Fabiana was a practical and reliable girl. “There’s extra socks in my bag; you can switch when we get there?”

Tracy gave a resigned nod as she took advantage of their pause to catch up. “You wouldn’t happen to have snacks in there as well, would you?”

She did. Tracy dug into a fruit’n’veggie bar as Grace impatiently hopped from foot to foot. “Can we go, then?” she asked, apparently unbothered by the mud speckling her face and caught in her blonde curls. Fabiana nodded, and the trio took off once more.

Turning the corner Fabiana had indicated, her guess was proven right as the street stretched only another few hundred metres before stopping at the entrance of an old school. As corrupted as the rest of the area, it was a sight to behold. The field was fully underwater, with only sparser patches of cattails to mark where the track had once been. Patches of the school walls were beginning to peel back from the damp, revealing the structural skeleton underneath.

Vines snaked in and out of these wounds, clinging to cracked windows and supporting doors long since busted off their hinges by previous groups of adventurous students. What stood out most of all, however, was the western wing of the school, which had sunk several feet deeper than the rest of the building. Through the cracks between the two segments, hints of classrooms and hallways could be seen, tattered wires and insulation forming an imperfect screen against Tracy’s prying eyes.

“Aprilside High,” Grace declared proudly, taking the whole scene in with outstretched arms like a of carnival ringleader. “Come on, we’re losing the last of the light.”


  

Inside, slits of light cut through the dirt and vegetation that choked the windows. Flashlights were pulled from bags and switched on, their waving movements casting epileptic shadows across the walls and ceiling. The stench of life and rot faded away, replaced by a more tolerable, musty atmosphere.

Alongside her flashlight, Fabiana also produced a map of the school, dug up from a website that had yet to get the memo that its subject was little more than a corpse. After a few moments of study, she points off towards the western wing. “The science room should be that way.”

Tracy shuffled her feet. “Do we have to do this part?”

“You don’t, if you’re scared,” Grace stated, not unkindly.

“It’s not-!” Tracy sighed. “I’m not afraid, I just... don’t think it’s very respectful.”

“Paying our respects isn’t respectful?” Grace joked, already bounding off down the hall. “What a cruel world we live in.”

Fabiana put a hand on Tracy’s hesitating shoulder, gently pushing her in the direction of the departing blonde curls. “Come on, you shouldn’t stay in here alone to fall in a hole or something.”

Tracy nodded and let herself be led along. Soon their lights found Grace once more, hopping from foot to foot as she waited for them. Behind her was the split, as the hallway was horizontally divided in two by the ceiling beyond. Peering underneath, Tracy saw a short drop into brackish waters, a bleary eyed frog blinking back at her.

“Please tell me we’re going up,” she muttered, then breathed a sigh of relief when Fabiana nodded.

“Boost me,” Grace demanded, slinging her bag up into the second floor hallway. Tracy complied, linking her hands and squatting down to give Grace a step up. “Three, two, one, hup!” Tracy grunted as she hefted the other girl up.

“Okay, now pull me up,” Tracy held her hand out for Grace as Fabiana leveraged her height to climb up unassisted. More grunting and straining followed as Tracy clambered up with Grace’s help, careful not to get caught on the rebar or wooden beams jutting out of the wrecked ceiling.

Dusting themselves and each other off, the trio gathered their breath -- Grace the only one of the three who could lay claim to a healthy exercise routine -- before continuing onwards. By this time, the slits of light had been reduced to whispers, and even those fading fast. The darker it grew, the harsher their flashlights seemed in comparison.

Fabiana peered intently at each door they passed, muttering the room numbers to herself until finally holding up a hand to draw everyone to a halt. A quick confirming look down at her map -- followed by a longer, more deliberate one -- before nodding and turning to the others. “This is it?” Fabiana said, the statement coming out as a question.

Tracy and Grace, used to the pervasive uptick at the end of their friend’s sentences, took it for the fact that it was and followed her inside. Desks covered in dusty beakers considered too cheap to pack up when the school was abandoned lined the back wall, all shoved together away from the door. In one corner, their combined weight alongside the marshland’s rotting influence had caused part of the floor to collapse, the desks forming a haphazard pile down to the flooded classroom below.

Tracy took it in with hallowed reverence, this classroom that on its surface looked no different than the rest of the building. Than the rest of the neighbourhood. Quaint suburban familiarity, warped by the jealous mildew of nature. But here was the destination, the entire point of their trip.

The three tiptoed through the room for a minute, looking around and trying to disrupt as little of the dust and dirt as possible, until Fabiana pulled them over with a wave and hushed exclamation. “Here it is,” she said, shining her flashlight down at a patch of the floor near the hole.

“How do you know?” Grace asked, the atmosphere dampening down even her voice to a low whisper.

“Less dust?”

“It might’ve been from one of us.” Tracy pointed out.

Fabiana shook her head. “None of us stepped here? I was watching.” She began shining her light at other places on the floor. “Lots of dust; untouched. No dust, from us. Some dust?”

“Jacob,” Tracy whispered. “This is where he died.” Fabiana nodded, and Grace gave a low whistle. They stood there for a moment, arrayed in a half-circle around the patch of floor, before Tracy sighed. “Let’s do this, then.”

Together, they crouched down and unslung their bags. From within, they started to remove a variety of candles, photos, notes, and other miscellaneous items. A watch, a few pencils, a locked diary, all set aside in a pile. The candles were placed in a loose circle, then the photos in the center of that. There were five of them, two depicting a young boy, two more a girl, and the fifth both of them together, arms around each others shoulders and grinning wide at the camera. Jacob and Chantelle.

The two had been classmates of the girls, and a couple for nearly a year -- an impressive length for that age. Up until a few weeks ago, when both had suddenly gone missing. The town has searched fruitlessly for days, until Jacob’s body -- or what was left of it after the scavengers had had their way -- was found in the husk of Aprilside High. In the very room Tracy and her friends now stood. Chantelle’s body had yet to be found.

Looking at the picture of the girl Tracy held in her hand, she felt another pang of guilt and remorse that she had never gotten to know either of the two very well. She knew it was stupid to blame herself for their deaths, the police having confirmed it was a suspected accident rather than some tortured cry for help. But the thought of their deaths left her feeling sick, and she’d always been taught that if she felt bad about something, it was because she knew deep inside that she’d done something wrong.

She only wished she knew what she had done -- or not done -- to cause her to feel this twisted up inside. She wondered bitterly if perhaps it was using the death of two classmates as an excuse for self-pity; turning their tragedy into something about her.

The way Grace was, she realized as she tuned back in to the world around her. “- can’t wait to see their faces,” her friend was saying excitedly, fiddling with the candles, “because you know they didn’t think we’d actually have the guts to-"

“Let’s finish getting this ready,” Tracy cut in.

A hint of sullen defiance entered Grace’s eyes before she shrugged it off. “I am. Hey Fabiana, your phone has a low light camera, right? They’ll want proof-"

“Stop making this about us!” Tracy snapped, far more harshly than she intended. Seeing the surprised hurt on Grace’s face only added another pang of guilt to the pile, which in turn fueled her frustration. “This is why I didn’t want to do this! Because it’d make it about us! And not- not about them!”

Grace muttered something under her breath that Tracy couldn’t quite catch -- but that sounded something similar to ‘high and mighty’ -- before standing up. “Fine,” she said, voice tight. “You and Fab can finish up. I’ll get out of your way.”

“Grace?” Fabiana hesitantly offered a comforting hand, only to lower it when Grace turned and stomped off towards the hole, the floorboards offering a creaking question mark in answer to the exclamation points of Grace’s footfalls.

Quietly, Tracy and Fabiana began to gather the other items -- possessions of the dead, or offerings from other classmates -- and place them inside the circle of candles surrounding the photos. Tracy pulled a lighter from her pocket and solemnly lit the candles one by one. It wasn’t much, but perhaps it was better than nothing.

After a moment, Fabiana spoke up. “We should take a picture though, since not everyone will be able to see it in person?”

“Yeah,” Tracy said with a small sigh, “you’re rig-”

A scream ripped through the air.

Grabbing her flashlight, Tracy scrambled to the hole where the scream had originated, Fabiana hot on her heels, both too surprised to even take the time to stand. Shadows that had danced indecipherably in the flashlights’ wake before now shredded Tracy’s view to pieces as the lights were clutched tight in shaking hands. Eventually she was able to make out the form of Grace below, huddled on the lowest desk before the water, scratching thoroughly at her shadowed legs.

“Get them off, get them off,” Grace sobbed, and even as Tracy continued to struggle with her light, the shadows on Grace’s legs seemed to writhe out of sync with the others around them.

Fabiana clambered down into the hole, leaving her own flashlight at the lip so that she could grab Grace under the arms with both hands and drag her to her stumbling feet and back up into the science room. Tracy leaned down to help as they drew closer to the top, and together the two of them got Grace up and over the lip of the hole. When Grace continued to scratch at her legs, Tracy leaned in for a closer look before jerking back, knocking Fabiana’s flashlight over the edge in her panic.

It hadn’t been shadows coating Grace’s legs. It had been leeches. Dozens of them, ranching in size from a little finger to several inches in length. Glistening and fat, they clung to Grace save where they had already been clawed off, leaving only marred skin behind.

Fabiana quickly grabbed Grace’s arms and forced them away from the leeches. “Stop! Stop. You’re only making it worse.” With deliberate movements Fabiana released Grace and went to work on the leeches, slowly sliding her nails underneath the mouths of the leeches so they slipped off instead of simply tearing them off. After a few shaky breaths Grace mimicked her, and within minutes the last of the leeches were removed and unceremoniously kicked back into the hole.

Fabiana fell back into a sitting position and studied Grace’s legs. “We should get you to the clinic? So they can clean the bites.”

“You want to head back in the dark?” Tracy asked, baffled.

Grace slapped an angry hand against the floor, her usual energy starting to smother the shock of the leeches. “Well I’m not spending the night here!”

Tracy hesitated for a moment, tempted to point out that the leeches were only a problem if they went into the water. That as long as they stayed where it was dry, it was as safe as could be. But the truth was she was shaken as wel, the walls and rot seeming to press in on her and choke her. And all she had done was watch; she couldn’t imagine how sickening it had to have been for Grace. So she nodded, and as Fabiana acted as physical support for the unsteady Grace, gathered everything up that hadn’t been made a part of the shrine and shoved it in her bag.

Together they retraced their way back through the school, down the hall and clambering through the displaced wreckage between the west wing and the rest of the building. But when Tracy went to open the door they came in through, it only shifted an inch before getting caught on something. With a confused frown she pushed at it again to no avail.

“It’s… stuck.”

What?” Grace pulled free of Fabiana and gave the door a few angry kicks, to much the same effect as Tracy’s shoving. “Of course it is.” She gave the door another hearty kick before following up with the middle finger.

“What other exits are there?” Tracy asked, turning to Fabiana.

Fabiana thought for a second, head tilted back and hands tapping at her legs. “Main door, blocked. East wing door is below grade, so it will be completely underwater? Which leaves the west wing door?”

Grace shied back instinctively. “I can’t go through there.”

Fabiana lifted her leg up awkwardly into the beam of the flashlight, her heavy boots made to look even heavier by the harsh light. “I can? It’s only a couple feet deep. My boots are tall enough.”

“And you’ll unblock this door for us?” Tracy asked, almost as hesitant to enter the submerged west wing as Grace. Fabiana nodded, and after taking Grace’s flashlight headed off with a small wave.

After her departure, Grace sank down against the lockers opposite the door with a groan. Eyes closed and head resting back against the wall, her hands clenched and unclenched as she resisted the urge to scratch at her legs. Legs that Tracy made a point of keeping the light well away from, not wanting to see it reflect off the red blood that marked where the leeches had latched on. Instead she used it to look around at their narrow length of hall, too nervous to wander. At the fluorescent lights lining the ceiling, still home to the carcasses of bugs fried years ago. The textured ceiling tiles who’s semi-regular holes begged to be counted, but were just chaotic enough to make doing so a fool’s errand. At the checkerboard floor, and the thin green lockers from which sprouts of the ever expanding vegetation could be seen poking their heads.

But there was only so much to look at in their immediate vicinity, and quickly the two girls were reduced to waiting in silence. Which is why both immediately heard the sound of wet footsteps approaching from the west wing. Tracy’s heart sank as she realized Fabiana must have failed in finding another way out. But as the footsteps came closer, the silhouette that appeared at the edges of the flashlight’s reach was too short to be Fabiana, the hair too long and curly. And their footsteps were the telltale squeak of wet sneakers, rather than the heavy plodding of thick boots.

Tracy edged closer to Grace as the person came further into the light, heart beating hard. Because even with half of her face shrouded in the shadows cast by her hair, it was undeniable who was walking the halls of Aprilside High. “Chantelle,” Tracy whispered.

The only response she gave was a wan smile as she continued forward. Water dripped from her clothes, formed puddles behind her. Algae patches clung to her, hung from her hair and shoulders in a tattered green shawl.

Grace rose to her feet with a groan as the apparition of a girl weeks dead -- the body had never been found but the idea of her hiding and living in this school was impossible -- continued to walk mutely towards them. “Chantelle,” Tracy tried again, voice cracking, “are you okay?”

With that, the girl stopped only a few yards away. The shadows began to retreat from her face as she straightened, revealing skin as damp and sodden as her clothes. But no sign of leeches; no writhing black shapes or pockmarks to be seen anywhere on her skin, despite appearing to just have climbed out of the same water that had been so thoroughly infested only a few minutes ago. The shadows drew further back, revealing more and more of Chantelle’s face. And while there were no leeches, there was still something wrong. Something off about the shadows. Sitting too dark where it should have been light, obscuring-

A loud noise cut through the tension, all three heads whipping around toward the front doors of the school. The sound of metal being cruelly dragged across rough concrete echoed out in short bursts. Fabiana’s voice came through between, tight with strain. “I’m here - erg - there’s a locker - hrmg - out here. - grmph - Must have been leaning? - hrrg - and fallen when we-”

“Get us out!” Grace shouted, running to the door and banging on it. “Hurry!”

As if Grace’s movement was a catalyst, Chantelle also burst into action, breaking into a sprint straight for Grace. Time began to slow for Tracy, each of Chantelle’s footsteps echoing for minutes at a time. Grace began to turn ever so slowly towards the charge, her injured legs buckling instead of fleeing. She was still shaken from the leeches, and wouldn’t be able to get out of the way in time.

So Tracy got in the way instead.

She wasn’t even aware that she had moved, at first. That she had been moving even before Chantelle had. But as time began to regain its footing and resume its frantic pace, Tracy found herself between the two, hands outstretched to grab Chantelle and bring her to a stop. The two collided, Tracy’s hands slipping on the muck that coated Chantelle. The flashlight tumbled from Tracy’s grasp as they both fell to the floor, and Tracy felt something sharp dig into her skin as Chantelle grabbed her wrist.

Above, she was dimly aware of Grace still trying to force the door open, ramming it again and again with her shoulder. But the bulk of her attention was focused on holding off the dead girl on top of her, whose skin felt smoother and slimier than the muck should’ve accounted for.

A few feet away, the flashlight rolled to a stop with its beam resting upon the two struggling girls, illuminating Chantelle to Tracy’s horror. Her skin was blotched, marked with rubbery black patches. Her flesh seemed to shift constantly, not sitting quite right on her body. And her eyes were simply gone. Not even empty sockets to mark where they would have normally been, only the black rubbery flesh in its place. And as Chantelle grinned down at Tracy, her lips peeled back to reveal rows upon concentric rows of hooked teeth, stretching as far back down her throat as Tracy could see.

Screaming, Tracy managed to roll the creature off of her. As she wrenched her arm free from Chantelle’s grasp, she felt something come away with her. When she looked down she could see leeches, pitch black and glistening against her wrist where Chantelle had been holding her.

Overwhelmed and sickened to her core, Tracy’s body refused to move, refused to act even as every part of her shouted to move -- to run -- as Chantelle got back onto her hands and knees and began advancing on her again. Began reaching out, her hand reforming to compensate for its lost mass even as it drew closer and closer to Tracy’s face.

So thorough was her body’s betrayal that she couldn’t even close her eyes, to at least spare her this final horrific sight. So it was with perfect clarity that she saw the hand explode into countless black shapes as Grace brought the full weight of a rusted baseball bat and six years softball experience to bear against Chantelle’s grasping arm.

Another swing carved a chasm into the side of Chantelle’s torso, leeches dripping from the hole to land on the ground. But even as they did, more gathered themselves together from where they had already fallen and swarmed back to Chantelle, disappearing beneath her pant legs, her arm growing back to its full length. The chasm steadily closing.

A third swing to the leg sent Chantelle to the ground, even as Tracy felt Fabiana’s hands grab her under her arms and hoist her to feet. Usher her towards the door. Regaining some measure of control with the help, Tracy began to stumble forwards, the sounds of metal against meat still ringing out behind her.

Outside, a rusted green locker lay sprawled across the walkway before the door, an assortment of sports equipment spilling out from its broken door. around its base Tracy could see drag marks not only leading to where it had been blocking the door, but also stretching back through the doorway and into the school itself. Littered around its base were even more leeches, a half dozen of them, crawling amidst baseball gloves and tennis racquets.

After a few seconds, Grace bolted out after them, quickly turning to push the doors closed. The bat was slid in through the door handles to bar the way before she stumbled back to join the other two. They stood there expectantly, terrified that at any second Chantelle would come after them; somehow break down the doors, or slither out through gaps in the wall before coming together. Terrified, but not as terrified as they were of turning their backs.

Nothing happened.

They held their breath, Fabiana shining the only remaining flashlight across the front of the building, eyes straining to see any signs of movement.

And still nothing happened.

Until finally, the faint sound of footsteps could be heard -- the telltale squeak of wet sneakers -- retreating back into the building. Heading west, towards the submerged wing. And the three girls finally let themselves release the breath they had been holding. Let themselves lean against each other, and breath in the sickly sweet smell of the marsh, and quietly, silently, begin the trip back home.

Long forlorn nights such as evenings like these always gave room to reminiscence. When the sky was without lights and when even the wind couldn’t bother to sing, a cup of wine would have to do for company. After all, with a life that lasts as long as infinity company was overrated. Snacks, however are welcome, but there are few who dare to climb the mountain and meet the owner of this mansion. Fresh blood rarely entered through these heavy doors, and the few that do are ignorant fools who didn’t buy the rumours in the village at the foot.

To interrupt this long and dreary introduction let’s zoom in on our main character. His name is a nice and generic; Vladimir and judging from his pale skin and sharp canine teeths we all know him to be a vampire.

Vladimir was, to say the least, bored. Bored so out of his mind that he had decided to retell his tale once more. The audience; us, the reader.

“I was once a young and handsome lad, warm blooded and human like any of you.”

The tale often started the same way, the emphasis placed upon his supposed good looks and healthy blush that had all faded over the years. Something caused by apathy for appearances, not so much by age as the world had long since forgotten what age he was.

“It was a night much like tonight,” he continued, leaving out the detail that every night was the same night as the night he turned. Details, mere details, forgotten details for a life as long as his. Vladimir didn’t have the time to think of such details, or rather; he had too much time to remember anymore.

“My blood was so sweet and young. I was irresistible, I have to admit ---”

“Master,” a monotonous voice sounded through the room, interrupting the lonely monologue of Vladimir. A servant comes in, skin as pale as Vladimir’s and with teeth as pointy. Dressed in all black the servant bows faithfully, showing its loyalty to the master who had cursed him. “The master has a visitor,” the man informed, his figure almost disappearing into the shadows.

“It’s fresh blood,” the nameless servant hissed. It was unclear if he was disgusted by the idea, or jealous for the fate he missed out on by a drop.

Vladimir chuckles at the thought, waving his arms open so that his cloak opened like the wings of a bat. “A young visitor!” he exclaims, at first annoyed for he was interrupted, but then excited at the thought of company and food. How long both had been! Hiding his smile behind his curtain of fabric Vladimir tried to sound cool as he inquired further, his ego showing; “What is it, a fair maiden seduced by the sound of me? An ignorant intellectual intrigued by the mystery that is me?”

“Neither, it is a young lad with nowhere to go,” his servant seemed perpetually stuck in the bow, never rising as he spoke. With no order given to straighten up he didn’t budge, no matter how his joints screamed.

“A young orphan boy?” Vladimir cried, turning his back to the nameless servant to face the fire that was forever lit. Sleep he did very little of, but he needed the warmth, for his joints never grew used to the coldness of his body. “Well, let him in,” he ordered, secretly disappointed at the prospect of meeting a boy. Boys were never interesting. They only sought adventure and Vladimir had grown tired of the adventures, having been a boy himself long ago for long enough.

However, youth was rare and the taste of fresh blood was almost forgotten. Vladimir would see the boy just to still his hunger and end the longing.

The door swung open, revealing the small figure of a bitter face that scowled and wished for the world to burn. It was a look the vampire knew well, but once more had forgotten about due to the years that had lasted.

“Oh do, don’t be afraid. Come forth, come closer, let me toast you to a wine. I’m afraid I don’t have much else.” His good senses and well-bred manners were triggered at the sight of the youngling, hand holding out a second cup of wine for the youth.

Stepping closer the lad listened, unable to seem shy and unable to fear a stranger properly. It should have been a sign for the vampire, but perhaps that had been exactly why. With every bit of surprise Vladimir was unsurprised, a forlorn look on his face as he embraced the boy. Oh, how he should have known.

“Ah, a hunter. How cliche.”

A silverware was plunged into his chest burning him from inside out. Finally Vladimir’s end would be reached, but he would be damned if he didn’t leave a legacy behind and he couldn’t rely on his nameless servant to do so for him.

Reaching up to the boy Vladimir smiled one last time before plunging his fangs into his attacker’s flesh.

“Now you shall be the new master of night,” were the last words of the vampire before turning into ash.

And so the story of Vladimir ended. Finally.

Have Mercy on My Soul


“You need to stop this. You were once better than this. Look at the monster you have become.”


A figure, shrouded in black with an echoing voice stood beside a bed. On the bed laid a girl, pale, dead, and looking as if all her blood was drained completely from her veins. The black figure held the hand of what looked like a ghost, the spirit of the dead girl. On the other side of the bed stood a man. His eyes were dark and his skin pale. He looked angry and forlorn, clearly not happy to see the shrouded black figure in front of him, or the spirit of the girl.


“Why on this god damn earth, does a creature like you care how its charges die?” The man, Anthony, hissed at the being, rage in his dark eyes. “It’s my nature, is it not, to feed on human blood, to kill, to keep myself alive? But, instead, I’m haunted by Death himself, constantly following me, constantly revealing to me the souls I’ve drained of life. Why on earth do you care about what I do?”


“Most of your kind have learned to be good, yet you insist on defying, on hiding in the shadows and killing innocents.” Death squeezed the hand of the girl’s spirit, and she peacefully disappeared, with a sigh of relief on her face.


“That’s the only reason? There is others like me, you monster! Leave me alone. Let me live how I see fit in peace!” Anthony grabbed a lamp and smashed it. He pulled up the bed sheets and pillows and threw them on the floor. It only took him a few moments to make the small apartment a total disaster from his fit of rage. “Stop torturing me so with your presence.”


“I don’t do this for you. No. I do not take care for damned souls that go to a dark after-life that I do not control.” Death paused, and let out an obvious sigh from beneath his black shroud. “I do this for my… apprentice.” The figure seemed to hesitate. “She cares too much for broken things and happened to be roaming the city where you were attacked. She saw you lose your will to care, to live, to be anything of your former self, and she pitied you for it. I forbid her from getting involved with your kind, but she begged for me to try and guide you in the right direction, for she claimed no one else would. I have a soft spot for those I care for. So here I am.”


Anthony looked at the figure, confused at his words, confused about everything all of a sudden. He remembered what he had wanted to be before the attack, before the change. A doctor? Yes, that was right. He wanted to go to underdeveloped countries and help children there. He wanted to save the lives of others, do good for the sole purpose of being good, and be a good husband to his wife. Then, life spun out of control when the attack happened. A stranger, pale with dark eyes murdered his wife. Anthony came home to the woman dead and drained of her blood. The monster attacked him next, hungry and not able to control himself, or not wanting to, but Anthony, tried to fight back. The monster was shocked that a human, a lowly, weak creature, would do such a thing. Instead of killing Anthony, he left him in his home, bleeding, crying out in pain, as he changed from a man to a monster. He lost his will to try, and his will to love, because everyone he loved had been taken and he had been left with a hunger and a hatred.


Anthony noticed there were tears in his eyes and that he had sunk to the floor of the apartment. He didn’t know, that he, a monster thirsting for blood, could still cry, still feel loss and pain, the likes of he felt at that moment. Could he change? Could he care once more, or was it all lost?


“I see that you too pity yourself. Maybe there is hope yet.” Death turned to go. “Your future on this earth could be a good one, if you try. You realize that, don’t you?”



Several Years Later



Anthony sat in a coffee shop, a latte in hand one hand, and book in the other. Outside, snow fell to the ground, covering the sidewalks and streets with its soft, cold blanket. The café, from the outside, looked normal, but humans never seemed to come inside, never wanted to. Those who were drawn to it had dark eyes and pale skin, and most of the employees were the same way, save for a few who were other supernatural beings, such as the young barista with the long black hair and olive skin, who was there every afternoon; she could do magic.


Things had changed for Anthony since his last encounter for death. He sought out help, of those like him, and found ways to satisfy his hunger, without killing innocents. There, at the café, they served the blood his kind craved, but collected from dead bodies found, or criminals delivered to the café, thanks to some of Anthony’s kind being in law enforcement. He had also got a job, at the cafe, working in their bookstore section, maintaining the books and gifts, and keeping an eye on the customers. That day, he was off, enjoying a drink he most desperately needed, and reading, things he had once enjoyed when he was human.


“Watcha’ reading, Anthony?” The dark haired barista popped on over, smiling. The café was slow at the moment. Not even the undead wanted to walk out in the cold and frozen snow.


“Hamlet. You know, the Shakespeare play.” Anthony looked up and smiled. The girl always smelled like cinnamon and hope, if hope had a scent. “Bored of this place yet, Melanie? You seem to live here.”


“I like it, especially when you’re here.” Melanie grinned. “You’re nicer than most of our customers, and of course, it’s much better when you are working.”


Melanie’s words made Anthony smile. She was always kind, always watching over those that daily came into the café. She also seemed to pay him special attention, which of course he didn’t mind. Anthony had learned many things, one of which was that his kind and her kind were allies, and although such friendships and relationships weren’t encouraged, they did happen.


“Anyway, I’m ‘bout to close shop.” She watched him with her bright eyes. “Headin’ home?”


Yeah. Probably should.” Anthony felt his heart beating in his chest. He never got the courage to ask Melanie what he had always wanted to ask, but the question finally came tumbling out of his mouth. “Um, come with me? I mean, come back to my place, to um, hang for a bit?”


Melanie said nothing, but her smile said everything. The two headed back to Anthony’s apartment, fighting their way through the cold and snow. Anthony quickly grabbed Melanie a blanket when they entered his apartment; he didn’t really get cold but he knew she did. The girl and he settled onto a couch, Melanie still shaking from the cold and Anthony very shyly put his arm around her. She did not push away, but instead snuggling up to his body, as if he wasn’t damned, but normal as could be.


“Took you long enough. Been wanting to come over for a while.” Melanie looked up at him, a twinkle in her eyes.


“I’ve been around awhile, but pretty girls still scare me.”


The pair smirked and started to talk, about work, life, the customers at the café, and things Melanie had encountered as someone with magic. Conversation switched to more personal things, about life before the attack, Anthony’s wife. Melanie spoke briefly of her life, of how her father did not approve of her working at the café and being so caring and protective towards those like Anthony. As conversation continued, the chemistry grew, and Anthony grabbed Melanie close, kissing her passionately. The young woman returned the favor back and soon the two were wrapped into each other’s arms, and then they were in his bed and then both bodies were entwined in heat, passion, and sudden love.


After such a passionate night, the two beings, so very different, were inseparable. Melanie was always looking out for Anthony, almost like a guardian angel and he tried to do the same for her. Many nights were spent in each other’s beds, together in their homes, and at the café, just being close with one another. Although, Anthony noticed something strange about Melanie, not worrisome, just strange. At times she didn’t want them to go out anywhere and looked nervous, peering through the windows or constantly staring at the door. Anthony tried to address the paranoia, but Melanie brushed it off, saying she just worried for people like them. It came off obviously like such a lie, but he let it go. If she was worried about their safety, it meant she cared, and he himself wanted to keep her safe, too, from whatever was out there, if anything.


It came apparent as time passed, that Melanie and Anthony had no desire to leave each other, wanting to stay together as long was physically possible. Love had blossomed so quickly, and it was still steadily growing, as if it would never stop. One night, Melanie expressed as much as she was Anthony, not doing anything particular, just with him, content.


“I just want to make it clear, I love you.” Melanie squeezed Anthony’s arm. “I don’t want to leave you, not ever.”


“Well, don’t then.” Anthony grinned, pulling her close and kissing her.


Things, unfortunately, never go as lovers plan.


Melanie disappeared some time later. Her apartment was cleared out, her phone impossible to reach and she had left a resignation note at the café without even a warning. It was as if she had never been there, never had been in Anthony’s life, never brought life to the cafe. Anger would boil up in Anthony’s body every once in a while, wondering how a girl who had finally made him love again would break his heart in such a way. After trying multiple times to contact her and find her, the cursed man gave up. He almost thought about quitting the café, and going rogue again, but if Melanie had left anything with him, it was perseverance to try to live a life, like how Death had asked him to years ago. If only someone like him could live a normal life.


One night, Anthony lay in bed, eyes closed, not caring much about anything, thoughts of Melanie still on his lonely mind and broken heart. That’s when he heard a loud noise, and could smell someone in his apartment. He didn’t open his eyes but at first hoped it was Melanie, until he realized how wrong the scent was. It was full of anger and some strange familiarity he couldn’t place. The man groaned, not wanting to deal with robbers or thieves or whoever thought it would be a good idea to break in and come face to face with someone like him. The being was now close, in his own room, and he still didn’t move, thinking he could overtake the stupid intruder easily enough, but why not toy with the dumbass a little bit?


“You made a mistake.” Anthony stretched, eyes still closed. “I’m not scared of-“


“You arrogant son of a bitch!” An angry male voice hissed at him and Anthony suddenly felt a burning sense of pain against his skin and opened his eyes to find a man with blond hair holding a silver dagger against his skin.


The pain from the metal almost paralyzed him. He wanted to move, attack the man, but the sting even from the blade just sitting on his skin was overwhelming all his senses. The man was definitely familiar, and suddenly Anthony realized from where. He had been the brother of the girl he had killed years ago, the final brutal death, when Death had spoken to him for what was hopefully the last time about how he could live a better life.


“I-“ Anthony could barely speak. “It’s you. I’m sorry. I-“


“Shut up, you bastard.” Anthony let out a scream as the man sliced into him, not too deep, but still painful with the cursed metal. “You killed my sister. I’ve been tracking you for years. Now, it’s your turn to feel pain like she did, you monster.”


Too many things happened at once. Anthony felt excruciating pain as the blade sliced into him multiple times. He saw his own blood for the first time, almost as black as his eyes, pouring from his cursed body. The man went to strike again, but a figure in grey appeared, with such a familiar scent. The figure didn’t hesitate, and unceremoniously snapped the neck of the man with the knife as if he was nothing more than a rag doll. Gentle, yet strong hands were all over his wounded body, and he knew at once who was there, even though his vision was blurred.


“I never, ever wanted to leave, my love.” Melanie’s voice seemed to echo. “I am so, so, sorry. I can keep you alive for just a little longer, but there’s nothing else I can do.”


At that moment, another familiar figure appeared. Death was just the same, shrouded in black, but this time didn’t have his face covered. He looked similar to Melanie, except for dark eyes instead of bright ones. He watched the pair with a blank face, neither sad nor happy, as if he didn’t know how to react to something such as this.


“Daughter, I told you not to get attached.” Death’s voice echoed as well, yet there seemed to be sadness there, if faint. “I let you watch over him, but when you fell in love with such a creature. I couldn’t let you. Now look. He dies and there’s nothing that can be done, and your heart bleeds more than it should if you had just made sure he lived a better life.”


“Daughter?” Anthony coughed up blood.


“Yes, I am Death’s Daughter. I saw you change all those years ago and convinced my father to try and save you from such a life.” Melanie squeezed his hand, tears in her eyes. “But, I grew attached watching you from afar, and knew people would be after you. I didn’t plan on falling in love with you, but I don’t regret it one bit. When my father discovered our love, he disapproved and pulled me away from you. I’m so, so, sorry. I never, ever wanted to leave.”


She looked up at Death. “Is there anything, anything, you can do?”


“I’ve told you before, no.” Death sighed, and sadness finally appeared in his eyes, not just his voice, putting a shrouded hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “Where he goes, I do not control. Damned souls go to a dark place, humans would call it Hell, but it is a dark wasteland where cursed soils go to fade away, where I do not rule over.”


“Melanie… I love you.” Anthony felt strange, as if he was truly fading from his cursed body.


Death’s Daughter kissed him tearful just in time as he went paler than he had been before. Whatever magic she had been using to keep him alive had faded. Both Death and Daughter saw the black, tattered spirit of Anthony float above the body.


“I love you, too.” Melanie uttered the words just in time to Anthony’s tattered, damned spirit.


Suddenly, the room grew dark and a black wind came through, and just like that, Anthony’s soul was gone, whisked away by whatever darkness watched over cursed and damned souls.


“I’m going to find him.” Death’s Daughter turned to her father. “I’ll go to Hell and back. I will bring his soul back to us.”


“I don’t think I can stop you.” Death’s eyes were darker and ever, his voice heavy. “I fear for you. You will not be safe, and I cannot help you.”


“I’m going.” Melanie turned to the body on the bed, touching the shell of Anthony one last time. “And I won’t stop, not until I bring him to be with us.”


“So be it, Daughter.”


Death turned right and walked away, disappearing, leaving nothing but shadow behind. Death’s Daughter turned left, wrapped herself around Anthony’s body, and disappeared, leaving mist in her absence.

The Hunter and the Woodcutter

"Ugh..."

The grunt of disgust was followed by a squelching sound as a blade was pulled from the rather large and now dead spider. Its wielder, a woman in leather armour, let out another 'ugh' as she wiped the gore and slime from the blade on nearby grass, not that it made much of a difference; grime continued to stick to her sword.

Suha Cross, bounty hunter and adventurer, seemed rather disgruntled and rightly so. Having been trained from a young age to handle weapons of all kinds against monsters of all sorts, it was rather disappointing when all she would come across were mild pests like overgrown spiders and the occasional confused goblin, all creatures that were too far away from the main populace to care. Alas, most marks were taken by the time she would reach a town, bounties collected and nuisances taken care of.

Sighing softly, she looked away from her still messy blade to her surroundings instead. Having found herself off course due to a fraudulent map she had bought, Suha was very much lost with no idea where her next destination may be. At present she was in a valley of grassy fields, overshadowed by rocky hills that sported sparse trees.

“Wait…” Shielding her eyes, she stared into the distance. Wisps of smoke could be seen, perhaps heralding a village if she continued that way? It seemed unwise to hope-

"Thank you so much, ma'am!" The sudden voice caught her attention immediately. Startled, she turned in its direction and spotted a boy, barely in his teens by the look of his gangly limbs. He was for the moment standing on a sturdy tree branch, but as soon as he saw she noticed him he came tumbling down, though somehow managing to land on his feet. "You really took care of that spider! I thought I was a goner!"

"It was nothing. I'm a hunter, I just did what I'm meant to." She supposed she could have told him she was a bounty hunter and killed monsters for money, but judging from the look of the lad before her, with his patched shirt and threadbare pants, she didn't think he had the coin to recompense her.

"Still, that was amazing. I haven't seen anyone fight like that ever!" He stuck his hand out for her to shake. "I'm Milt, nice to meet you! Who’re you? Do you pass by here a lot?”

“Suha, and no, I don't.” The hunter looked at the offered hand before reciprocating, shaking it gingerly and then letting go. Clearly he was an impressionable person, seeing his awestruck face. Putting that to the side, it had to mean that he lived near here, hopefully. “Where do you come from?” She nodded in the direction of the distant smoke tendrils, hoping her suspicions were right. “Over there?”

“Yeah that's right.” A slight crease marred his previous cheerful expression, as if something was causing him worry, though it quickly returned to normal. “You should come with me. It's not too far. I’m sure my father will want to give you something for saving me.”

Suha was closed to shaking her head no, but the fact that she hadn’t been paid in a while and her gold was quickly depleting, as well as the fact that she hadn't eaten in a while caused the no to become a nod. “Sure, lead the way.”

Conversation was rather sparse as they walked, and whenever there was an exchange of words, it was Milt asking Suha questions about hunting and her previous encounters with monsters. She'd never been the talkative type, although much of that was due to not having anyone around to speak to, and the fact that she had grown up in a rather strict environment, where speaking out of turn could get a person punished.

“Tell me,” she eventually asked, even as the village gates came into sight, “why are you so eager in having me come along to the village?” She turned her gaze to Milt, eyebrow raised in question. By the way his expression darkened yet again, she knew she was right in being suspicious. Rewarding her wasn't the only reason he had asked her to come, there was something else the matter here. “Tell me, otherwise I'll have to excuse myself and continue on my own path.”

“Wait, no, don't go!” The boy grabbed her sleeve, looking desperate. “Please, come with me. You're… you're right. I mean, I want Father to reward you, but there's something else too.” He looked distraught, causing Suha to feel a little guilty .

“Go on then,” she encouraged.

Sighing, Milt looked to the dusty dirt path as he spoke. “It started two months ago, when first my uncle and then my mother…” It seemed as if the words were caught in his throat, the the boy managed to push them out. “They both died.”

Suha’s eyes closed momentarily, understanding why this conversation was difficult for the poor boy. “I understand, continue.”

“We… didn't know how at the beginning.” Milt’s voice remained unsteady as he continued. “Not with Uncle… not with Mother… She'd been fine the whole day, not sick or anything. Then in the morning, Father woke up to see she was dead.” He took a deep breath, as if steadying himself, before speaking once again. “Almost every week, someone's died. We didn't know what was happening until Darian’s woman died.”

“Darian?”

“He's the woodcutter,” Milt explain, finally looking up. His eyes were glazed with unshed tears, but he seemed better in control of his emotions now. “Darian saw what happened…”

“Milt?” Before he could continue onward, someone had called out his name. There seemed to be someone jogging towards the two from the village. “Where were you?!”

“That’s my father.” Milt sounded a little nervous now. “I… didn’t really tell him I was going out.”

“Not a good idea,” Suha muttered back, sighing inwardly. The last thing she needed was a potential reward, food, and even another bounty to disappear in her face.

*​

Slamming an axe into a stump of wood, Darian let out a breath as he stepped back, wiping the sweat off his forehead. He was a tall and well built man, which wasn’t surprising seeing his everyday habit included chopping wood and hauling it around for the villagers to buy or trade for. Pushing his dark hair away from his eyes, he reached down and picked up his water skin, drinking the remaining water within, now warm from the afternoon sun.

He was done work for now. These days most folks were heading indoors even before the sunset, not willing to risk the darkness. Darkness brought evil things, murderous things…

Darian tried to ignore the memories from flooding his mind, but it was impossible. He hadn’t been in love Heidi, thinking of her more as a close friend than potential lover material, but that night he had been drunk and a bed warming tryst had sounded pleasant. Never had he expected to wake up after being spent to the sight of… something with its mouth latched onto Heidi’s neck. Red eyes had flashed in his direction when he’d gasped in shock. By the time he had reached for the dagger by his bedside, the person or creature had already vanished.

Darian… I think… I'm dying… Heidi’s eyes had already been glazing over, and his panicked, fumbling attempts to stop her from bleeding out had been in vain.

Eyes darkening, his hands clenched into fists. She hadn't been the last victim of the bloodsucking beast, and despite efforts to find it, no one had prevailed. The village had always been secluded from the rest of the world; there was no one near or far to turn to for aid or even knowledge… and this frustrated him to no end.

“Hey Darian!”

Hearing his name called, the woodcutter relaxed his fists. “Milt?” He was surprised to see the teenager. “You know your father came this way looking for you?”

“Uh… yeah, I know, sorry about that.” The sheepish look was replaced with something akin to excitement. “Darian, Father’s calling you to our house. Someone’s come, a hunter. She might be able to hunt… the thing!”

“What?” Darian lifted his hands up. “Slow down. Someone’s come our way?”

“Aye! I found her, well, by accident.” He stood there listening to a rushed tale of how Milt had watched a woman skewer a spider with her sword and how she would be able to help the village by killing the night killer. Even as he listened he could feel his anger rising. Milt was just a child really, but did his father, chief of the village and his best friend, really think this woman could help? For all they knew, she could be the one behind the attacks!

“Take me to your father,” he ordered, voice stern.

“Uh, yeah, sure.” Milt looked up at Darian, a little unsure. “Uh, you look angry. Did I say something?”

Darian stayed quiet for a few moments before relenting. “Not you, lad,” he sighed. “Don’t worry. And don’t go running out of the village, you idiot. Especially now!”

“I know, I know.” Milt looked forlorn. “Father gave me a good yelling as well. But at least I found her, the hunter!”

“We’ll see,” the woodcutter muttered. “I don’t trust her.”

“You haven’t even seen her yet!” protested the boy.

“Hmph,” was the very intelligent reply to that, leaving the two to head into the village, one sporting a frown, the other a pout.

*​

Suha put down the now empty bowl of soup she had been given by Milt’s father, Cobb, otherwise known as the chief of the village. It was clear from his conversation with her that he was quite doubtful of her qualifications and was merely having pity on a traveller.

“I can't guarantee your safety here,” he had made sure to tell her after Milt introduced her. Though he was gracious enough to invite her into his house, he had just as easily brushed off his son's story about the spider as well as the information that she was a hunter. Suha wasn't surprised with his sentiments, even though it did annoy her that he wasn't even willing to give her a chance to prove she was the real deal.

Still, she was grateful for the food and the offer to remain in one of the village's house for the night.

As she stood up from the table, about to thank Cobb for the soup, the door opened. In walked Milt and another man behind him. Unlike the gangly teenager and the thin chief, this man was tall and well built, with a frown as intimidating as his stature.

“Ah, Darian,” Cobb started, pleased to see the man. “I see Milt managed to find you.”

“Aye,” the man replied, eyes shifting from the chief to Suha. “He told me about what happened. Said this woman here's a hunter.”

“So she says,” Cobb muttered.

“I'm right here,” Suha interrupted, a little irritated at being talked about as if she was invisible. “Look, I know you may be doubtful of my skills, but I assure you, I have been in the hunting business for a long time, and from what Cobb tells me, I think I know-”

“How can we trust you?” Darian glared at Suha, though his gaze shifted to Cobb. “What if she's the one who's the actual killer? I've heard tales of creatures who can change the way they look. I thought I saw a man, but I could be wrong, I was scared and panicked-”

“I called you so that you could relay your side of the story to her, but you make a valid point, Darian.” The chief let out a sigh and looked to Suha. “I'm sorry, but we cannot risk any more danger to our people. If there are any provisions you need, ask now and I'll provide you what I can. Thereafter, I'm afraid you will need to leave the village.”

“But Father!” Milt protested, shaking his head furiously. He hadn't expected things to turn out this way. “She can help-”

“I'm sorry, Milt, but I must leave.” Suha nodded her head in farewell to both Cobb and Darian before reaching out to pat Milt’s shoulder. “Farewell, and stay safe.”

Even as she left the house, she could hear Milt's angry outburst of “It's all your fault!” She was unsure who those words were directed at, but she knew it wasn’t her at least. She had no choice though. If she wanted to do something for the people here, it was clear that she wouldn't be able to unless she left.

*​

Night came too quickly for Darian. He had headed back home immediately, eating a sparse dinner before climbing into bed. Sleep however didn’t seem to want to visit him that night, leaving him tossing and turning. One moment he was too hot, kicking off his blanket, the other moment he was too cold, pulling it close. Restless and frustrated, he finally pushed away his blanket completely and sat up in bed, rubbing his forehead.

“I need a drink,” he decided, forcing himself up. Fortunately he had a barrel of ale, a gift from Cobb when the latter had returned from a trading venture. Though their village was for the most part self sufficient, every four months a small caravan would be sent out for a little trading of goods and, in the village’s case, information of what was happening in the rest of the world.

Simpler times… the woodcutter thought to himself as he filled a mug with the rich black ale. The chief back then had been Bronn, Cobb’s older brother. He had been considered a strict fellow, but at least the village had been at peace then. Since he had passed, the responsibility of the village had fallen on his friend, and Darian wasn’t sure if Cobb could handle it, especially with all these attacks.

His first two mugs of ale were downed as quickly as water, and by the time he finished his third mug, feelings of guilt were already attacking him. He was the reason Heidi was dead. I should’ve refused her like I always did… His thoughts shifted to the hunter. He hadn’t even asked her name, simply dismissing her because he couldn’t bring himself to trust a stranger. Which made sense, except that hadn’t been the real reason for his anger. No, he was just angry at himself for failing so terribly that somebody else who had nothing to do with the village had to come and take care of their problem.

And because of your stupid pride, you might’ve sent the only aid away. Hell, she could be the next victim…

Darian stopped himself from polishing off his fourth drink, pushing away from the table and standing up. He wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight, not with all these thoughts threatening to turn him into a drunken, sobbing mess. He had to do the right thing while he still had vestiges of sobriety left in him. Heading to his wardrobe, he grabbed his carelessly thrown shirt and pulled it on before doing the same with his boots. There was a moment of uncertainty as he looked to his axe, but it passed with him talking hold of it and slipping it under his belt.

Outside was dark save for the torches set in sconces throughout the small village. His small hut was at the very edge, leading into a forest that took a good few hours to pass through. It was suitable for the sort of work he did, and it gave him peace and quiet when things got a little too noisy. Right now, however, he could have used a little more noise. The crickets were chirping and the leaves rustling in the light night breeze, but he still felt uneasy, as if he was being watched.

Grabbing his axe and holding it before him like a weapon, he whirled around, brandishing it at… nothing. “I know you’re out there!” he barked, his near drunken state giving him a burst of courage. “Come out and face me like a man!”

Silence followed, only to be interrupted by a yelp and the sound of someone rushing away “There you are!” Without thinking, the woodcutter started after the runaway, though a sudden arrow piercing the ground near his feet caused him to freeze.

“You idiot.” Blinking, he saw none other than the hunter coming out from between the trees, bow in hand and frown on face.

*​

“What’re you doing here?” Suha quickly put a finger to her mouth, hoping it would force the big idiot to shut up, at least for a moment.

“Not so loud,” she muttered. “Do you want to wake the whole village? You’ve already ruined my attempt to get rid of that vampire.”

“What-”

“Just be quiet. Let me in your house, I’ll explain there.”

At least he can follow orders. Suha made sure to grab the arrow she had shot to stop Darian before trailing in after him. She wasn’t surprised to find the inside of his hut rather sparse, with only the bare necessary furniture, including a single chair on which she sat down, resting her bow and arrow on the table.

“Well? What were you going to explain?”

Her eyes shifted their gaze from the half filled mug on the table to Darian, who had taken a seat on his bed. “Have you ever heard of vampires?” she asked.

“Maybe,” Darian muttered, seeming discontent. She couldn’t blame him; after all, she had called him an idiot, shot at his feed and was currently occupying his one and only chair.

“There are many myths about them,” she started, “but what I know is no myth or tale. It’s fact. They are creatures who move mostly at night; you could say they are allergic to daylight, though at most it causes them discomfort. To sustain themselves, they need to feed on human blood. When Cobb mentioned what happened to your lover, I knew that it had to be a vampire, even without hearing your side of the story.

“They are hard to kill, but not impossible,” she continued. “Beheading a person’s a sure way to kill them, vampire or not. Not easy to catch one though. I use arrows, touched with yew poison; I was taught the trees are dangerous toward evil… invented the poison myself and so far it’s worked. Then there’s fire, wooden stakes… I could probably have killed it tonight but-”

“But I ruined it,” Darian muttered.

“Well, there’s nothing to say about that now. It’s done. Tomorrow night I’ll have another chance.” Attempting to make the situation a little less tense and awkward, Suha managed a smile at the woodcutter. “At least you now have proof that I’m no vampire. I’ve just told you how to kill one, wouldn’t make sense if I told you all the ways I could die.”

“Aye…” Suha watched as Darian mentally wrestled with everything she had just dropped on him. “How do you know all this?”

“Heh… I wasn’t lying when I said I was a hunter, you know.” She looked to the table and reached for her arrow, smoothing out the feather at the end. “My parents were wanderers, vagabonds, always on the move. Unfortunately, we were attacked by werewolves when I was a child. I was lucky to be found before I was turned into a meal as well, by hunters from a guild dedicated to killing evil creatures wherever they may be. I was an orphan with nowhere else to go, so they took me with them, and there I trained until I was good enough to be called a hunter.”

“Sounds like an adventure,” Darian said. “I’m just a simple woodcutter here.”

“Yes, an adventure, but at what cost?” Suha shook her head, letting go of the arrow. “Only losing my parents.” She stared at Darian. “I’m sure you know how it feels to lose people you love.”

“I…” The woodcutter looked abashed. “Yeah… I’m sorry.” He looked down at his hands, sighing. “Didn’t mean to sound like a jackass.”

“It’s alright,” Suha replied, giving him a small smile. “You’ve been through a lot the last few weeks from what was told to me. I can change that though. I can help you all get back to-” She was about to say ‘normal’, but she doubted anything could be normal for the small village, at least not for a while. “I can help you all take care of that evil being ruining your peace.”

“And what would you want in return?” Darian asked. She watched as he stood up and walked over to the table, picking up her bow and examining it. “Surely there’s a reward you’re hoping for.”

“Well…” It was the truth, even if she felt now felt guilty about it. “That had been the plan, yes. However, I’ve changed my mind.” This is probably why I am terrible at my job. Her teachers had always scolded her for not being able to quell her emotions, and here she was proving them right.

“I’ll take this as my payment.” Reaching out at the half full mug of ale, she brought it to her lips, gulping the remaining drink down as easily as water. By the look Darian gave her, he seemed rightly impressed by that feat.

“You’ll be safe tonight,” she told him as she stood up and took hold of her bow and arrow.

“Where are you going?” Darian asked. “Where will you sleep?”

“The ground’s as good a bed as any, as are the trees,” was Suha’s reply. “No need to worry about me. I’ve been living an adventure, remember?” A rare, impish smile came to her lips. “Sleeping under a blanket of stars is the norm.”

“Right...right…”

Suha watched the man, feeling a little pity for him. She could only imagine the thoughts whirling in his mind. It was never easy when you needed to rely on someone else to protect those you loved.

“It’ll be alright,” she promised. “You should probably go to sleep. I’ll leave you to talk to the chief in the morning.” Reaching out, she gave his arm a small pat.

She did not expect to be taken hold of. “What are you-” Her words were cut short as Darian pressed his lips against hers, taking her completely by surprise. For a second she pushed at him, upset by the sudden move, but then she tasted the ale on his lips and realized he was probably not really sober.

“Sorry…” Darian stumbled back, face red and shamed once again. It was clearly not his night, and Suha wasn’t going to hold it against him. It was not like he was the first drunk person to kiss her.

“Stop apologizing and get sleeping,” she replied, her voice light. “I’ll see myself out… you take care of yourself.”

“Wait!”

“What is it?” Hand on the door handle, she looked back at the woodcutter.

“I never found out your name…”

“That’s true, isn’t it?” She chuckled as she opened the door and stepped out in the night. “You can call me Suha.” She lifted a hand and pointed up at the sky. “Named for a star.” And with that, she left.

*​

Morning brought Darian both a headache and embarrassment. He had been hoping it was all a very bad dream, but the tracks of dirt on his floor as well as the tapped barrel of ale told him that last night had very much happened.

“I’m a fool,” he muttered to himself as he stomped out of his hut, heading out back to where he kept a barrel of water. Picking up the bucket that bobbed within, he decisively dipped it into the barrel and emptied it onto his head. The icy cold water brought clarity and shivers and broke him out of his stupor, for which he was thankful. Letting the bucket fall back into the barrel, he headed inside, ignoring the dripping water as he pulled off his clothes and wiped himself dry.

Feeling more like a human now rather than a stray, homeless animal, Darian clothed himself with fresh, clean clothes before heading out yet again. No more stupid moves, he ordered himself. First thing he had to do was head out to tell Cobb they were mistaken about the hunter, Suha.

Keeping to himself as he traversed most of the village, Darian barely nodded to those waving good day or calling out a good morning. He was normally a friendly enough sort, but given the circumstances surrounding the village, no one seemed too worried with his silence and preoccupied stance.

“Cobb?” he called, knocking on his friend’s door. “Have something important to talk about.” He waited for a good moment before knocking once more. “Hey, Cobb? Milt?”

It was normal for the chief to take his time, but Milt usually rushed to the door. Maybe he was still angry about last night and was shunning Darian?

Well deserved, he thought to himself. I was too quick to judge.

However, it was concerning when the third knock wasn’t met. Darian pressed his ear against the door, listening to see if there was any sound. There was no words heard, but he could hear the sounds of someone of shuffling about.

A cold feeling spread through him as he realized what this could mean. “Open the damn door or I will break it open!” He meant his words, pulling his axe from his belt, ready to use it if need be.

“Wait!” The muffled word from inside was enough to stop Darian, though his axe remained in his hand. There was a clanging sound of a lock being fiddled with, and then the door opened wide enough for Cobb’s face to be seen.

“What’s the matter?” Darian demanded. His friend looked pitiable, sallow skin and dark marks under his eyes, as if he’d had a very bad night’s sleep.

“Nothing, I’m busy. I’ll talk to you later-”

“You’re not fooling me,” Darian growled, forcing the door open with his sheer size. Pushing past Cobb, he stepped inside the house, only to find himself freezing in place from the sight that met his eyes.

Milt was on the floor, barely alive and bleeding from his throat.

“No!” The ragged cry barely escaped Darian as he rushed to the boy’s side. “Cobb, quick, help me stop the bleeding!” Finding nothing nearby, he pulled off his own shirt, pressing it against the boy’s throat to quell the bleeding.

“I’m sorry,” whispered the chief. “I didn’t- I never wanted this to happen.”

“What are you even talking about?! Help me or your son will die!”

“He’s the one who did this, Darian.” The woodcutter’s head jerked in the direction of the door, seeing Suha, bow trained on Cobb. “Look at his leg, it’s bleeding where my arrow caught him last night.”

Darian looked to Cobb in disbelief. “No, it can’t be… tell me it’s not true.”

“I’m sorry.” The chief choked back a sob. “I couldn’t help myself- I tried to control it but the thirst… it’s too much for me.” Tears were streaming down his face and he made no effort to wipe them away.

“You take care of the boy,” Suha said, voice clipped. “Quickly. He needs to live.”

Yes, yes he does. Without him, you wouldn’t be here and we’d all be dead. Hands shaking, Darian lifted Milt in his arms and hurried him to the next room, leaving the hunter with the chief.

*​

Suha waited until Darian was out of the room before speaking up. “How did it happen?”

“Our last caravan trip,” Cobb replied, looking defeated. “She came to me at night, the vampiress. She didn’t kill me… thought it would be amusing to change me instead.” His chest heaved as he forced himself to keep his sobs in check. “I thought… I thought I could control it. But when I returned… first Bronn… then my wife… I can’t even remember the others… Last night I was going after Darian. He knew too much, and with you around, what if he gave in … what if he recalled my face? ”

“So you wanted to kill him,” Suha said flatly.

“No! He’s my best friend… I could never. I wanted- I wanted to change him. I failed, I was injured, I came back home. I tried to control my pain, my thirst. I would have left come morning but… I gave in.” He pressed his hands against his face, shoulders shaking.

“I’m sorry,” Suha said quietly, feeling her own heart tightened as she watched the poor, broken man. Maybe killing mindless spiders was better than having to see others in such wretched pain. “You… you know there’s no changing back, right?” There was no reply. “Running away from here will just continue the same cycle. People will die, and the burden of that sin will be on you.”

“Will… will you do me one favour?” he asked hoarsely. “Before… before you send me away?” When Suha nodded, he continued. “Tell Milt I died trying to save him. Please… I can’t die peacefully without knowing he will be spared the knowledge of his father’s sins..”

“Very well.” The hunter pulled her sword from its sheath. “My blade is poisoned, so it will be quick-”

“Let me.” Darian had returned to the room. “He was my friend. If anyone should… it should be me. Please… go to the boy.”

Not having the heart to refuse, Suha handed her sword to the woodcutter and left the room to be with Milt.

*​

Two Weeks Later

It was no surprise that the village was somber, despite the vampire having been caught and disposed of. They were once more without a leader, and so soon after losing their previous chief. Still, despite the grim mood, there were signs of life and renewal once more. Milt had recovered for the most part, though the wound of loss would take a long time to heal. He had taken to spending time with Suha who remained in the village still, despite not having received any reward from the rest of the village.

She did not expect any- after all, she wasn’t the one who killed the vampire, and the true identity of who it was would remain a secret forever.

At last came the day for her to depart. She knew very well there was nothing for her here. It wasn’t as if she was unwelcome, but she was a stranger and the village needed time with their own to recover completely. Milt would miss her and perhaps Darian as well; she knew she would think of both of them. However, she was a hunter and being on the road was part of who she was. Packing her meager belongings, she left the village at dawn, heading in the same direction of where she had killed the spider and incidentally met Milt.

She did not expect to see a horse and cart in the fields. Seeing Darian there was even more of a surprise.

“What?” Before she could say anything, he continued onward. “You thought you could just leave without even saying goodbye first?”

Suha’s shoulders slumped, both happy yet exasperated at seeing the woodcutter. She had wanted to make a clean break, yet here he was. “Where’s Milt?”

Darian looked over his shoulder to the boy sleeping in the wagon. “We figured you would plan something like this, so we decided to meet out here.”

“I can’t stay,” Suha stated. “The village- it’s not my home. I’m an intruder and my place is on the road.”

“I know,” Darian replied. “Believe me. I may be a fool, but I’m not that foolish. But…” He let out a deep breath. “All of this… this incident has taught me that there’s a lot I don’t know. We’re very… closed here, living so far and secluded, and it can only lead to more harm. The others can decide for themselves what they want, but me, I want to- no, I need to leave, travel, see more of the world. And Milt… I promised Cobb I would take care of him. So… there you have it.”

“So what, you’re just going to go wander around with no idea of how it is out there?”

“Well,” Darian replied, smiling down at Suha, “why not join us and show us the right way?” He reached down, ready to help her up onto the wagon.

“I…” Suha swallowed, a little overwhelmed by the sudden proposition. Being a hunter was a lonely trade at times, and she wasn’t averse to conversation. Milt was healing, but already the spark she had first seen in his eyes was returning; it would be wonderful to see him return to the boy she first met. As for Darian...

“No more drunk kisses, promise.”

Unable to keep herself from laughing aloud, Suha relented and grabbed hold of Darian’s hand, allowing herself to be pulled up onto the wagon. “Very well then. Let’s see where the road leads us.”

After Bite

My feet slapped against the cracked pavement. I had known the risk when I went out, but we needed food and fresh water. It was the only option at the time. Just like running was my only option afterwards. I ran and I ran. My lungs burning and my legs starting to cramp. I knew I couldn’t stop though. I couldn’t stop because my pursuers would not stop. They would keep going until they caught up with me.

I was close to the safehouse. I could see it in the distance. I just had to keep going and get there. The stomping feet behind me never let up though. I was tiring and they were gaining. The uneven pavement beneath my feet was becoming an obstacle as my legs started to refuse to work. It became a chore to pick up my feet, but I was so close, I couldn’t give up now.

That was the thought going through my head when I tripped on a piece of rubble and went tumbling forward, rolling across the street and coming to a stop on my side. I was stunned, the air knocked out of me, and a nasty scrape on my leg was beginning to bleed, but I didn’t have the time to sit there and feel pity for myself, so I threw all my remaining energy into getting back up and continuing my run.

My leg burned as I pushed through the pain. I was limping now, but the safehouse was right there. I screamed as I felt something wrap around my leg and pull me down. I went face first into the pavement this time, slamming my nose against the ground. A flash of white light filled my vision and the blood started flowing freely. This was how I was going to die.

The feeling of my skin being ripped apart by human teeth was something I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to describe. It burned. It hurt. I could feel the virus transferring to me, entering my bloodstream. Another heavy weight fell on my back and another set of teeth found purchase on my arm. I screamed again, and thrashed under their weight but it was useless. They were going to eat me. At least I didn’t have to worry about becoming one of them.

The sound of gunshots echoed off the sides of the buildings around me and the weight on top of me shifted and fell. That’s when the tears started falling. I became inconsolable. Another gunshot sounded and the second zombie fell off me onto the ground. It twitched once which made me jump and try to roll away but there was still a body on top of me. The blood trickling from its wound was cold and lifeless on my back. My arm hurt. My leg was throbbing. My face was covered in blood. And I was sobbing. Getting eaten now wasn’t an option. I was going to turn.

The weight was lifted off of me and gentle hands grabbed both of my arms hoisting me up to a standing position.

“Just leave me,” I sobbed, my head flopping forward and my dirty blonde hair covering my eyes.

“Just try to walk, Audrey. We’ll be home soon.”

I didn’t want to walk. I didn’t want to go home. I would put everyone in danger, and they knew it. The doc wasn’t even close to being done with the cure. Someone was going to have to shoot me and I didn’t want to put anybody through that, so instead I dug my heels in.

“Let me go!”

“We’re close to a cure. You’ll just have to go on bed rest for a while. Can’t have the virus taking you over too quickly.”

“Don’t lie to placate me. I know where we are in the hunt for the cure. We’re not nearly at the stage where we should be bringing the bitten home.” My tears had dried up, my deep sadness and hopelessness turned to righteous anger. I would not put my family in danger.

“Audrey…”

“No, Devon. Let me go.” I wasn’t going to beg. But both he and I knew that it was the right thing to do, even though I knew he wouldn’t listen and I wasn’t in any position to fight him. So steadily I was dragged back to the house. He didn’t even bother to engage me anymore, so I stayed sullenly silent, formulating a plan, until the door was opened.

Devon’s hands had shifted to open the door and I knew that was going to be my only opportunity so I threw myself backwards. I landed on the ground with a thud and as quickly as I could, which was not very quickly at all, I scrambled to my hands and knees and started crawling away from the house.

I didn’t get very far when Devon’s hands found purchase around my waist and he hoisted me up over his shoulder and fireman carried me into the house with Nevaeh following us in, her head slowly shaking back and forth and tears making rivers through the dirt on her cheeks.

The “house” was an old doctor’s office on the outside of the city. We’d boarded up all the exterior windows, moved most of the beds to one room and set up a sort of communal bedroom. It was safer to sleep together, but we still took shifts as night watch because we weren’t about ready to become complacent in our home. There was a group of about fifteen of us that had somehow found each other in the aftermath of the terrible tragedy that befell humanity, and since coming together we’d done nothing but take care of each other. I wasn’t the first to get bitten, but I was the first to be dragged back home after being bitten.

I was carried through the house, past the worried and distraught faces of the people I’d come to think of as my family. Not a single one would look at me as I fought against Devon, demanding that he let me go.

I was carried to the makeshift hospital at the back of the building and tossed in a bed, Devon bodily holding me down while calling for Doc to hurry up with the restraints.

“Just let me leave. Don’t make me face the turn, please.” I was crying again, as I struggled against Devon’s weight. Even fully healed I wouldn’t have been able to overpower him, but it was worth it to me to try.

“Audrey! That’s enough. I’m not letting you go kill yourself. We’re close to a breakthrough this might be the push we need to complete it.” Devon’s voice shook as he spoke. He was scared, and I was making it worse.

I stopped fighting as they strapped me to the bed. It was over now anyway. I couldn’t overpower Devon, let alone Devon and Doc. I looked at the pair of them, their faces blurred behind tears, but I knew what I was looking at. Devon’s dark hair hung loose down to his shoulders and his brown eyes were probably looking at me with pity, while the Doc’s bright blue eyes were probably staring at me with hope and fascination. I’d be the first live guinea pig he had.

I laid there silently crying for I don’t know how long. The hours past, Doc came and took blood several times, apologizing to me each time and smoothing my hair like my dad used to do when I was little. It just made me cry harder. My parents had been killed in the first wave. I just couldn’t believe that I had survived for so long just to die. Is that why I was fighting so hard, is that why I strived to stay alive? Death was the end result for everybody, but death like this was just cruel.

I was still sobbing when Devon came to visit me. He pulled a chair close to the bed and sat down next to me. His calloused hand reached out and grabbed mine and I turned my head away from him.

“I’m so sorry this happened, Audrey…”

I stayed quiet for a minute waiting to see if he had more to say or if that was it. “I can feel the poison spreading through my body. I’m going to turn. I’m going to turn and I’m going to kill you all. Please either kill me or let me go. It’s not safe to keep me here.”

“If it gets to that point, I’ll kill you.” His voice sounded small and quiet, like he was admitting something to the both of us that he wasn’t proud of.

“I can’t believe that you’d be this stupid, Devon,” I responded, the anger seeping back into my voice.

“I prefer to see it as compassionate, and sentimental. I’m not going to let you die, Audrey.”

My head rolled over on the pillow and I fixed him with the most serious look I could muster. “You need to let me die. I’m already gone.”

Devon silently shook his head and let go of my hand. It was obvious he wasn't hearing what I was saying. He didn’t want to hear it, and he damned sure wasn’t going to believe it.

Time passed. I wasn’t sure how much. I slept a lot. I was tired. Dying was exhausting work. I was scared too. For myself. For my family. If they didn’t let me go soon someone was going to have to shoot me in the head. I could feel the zombification process happening. My brain was dying, it was hard to think. The Doc visited often, usually with some kind of syringe. Sometimes he took blood, other times he was injecting me with one thing or another. I didn’t care enough to ask. We weren’t close enough to a vaccine that it mattered. I knew the truth even if everyone else was lying to themselves.

Devon’s visits were frequent at first, but I never said anything more to him. He didn’t want to hear the truth. So he just came and held my hand. He talked about how close the cure was and how I was going to be the first success story, but honestly I wasn’t really listening. I was too lost in my own thoughts. Eventually, I think Devon gave up, or it was becoming too hard to watch me die so slowly. Either way, he stopped coming.

Other people came too. Nevaeh was one of them. All she did was cry and apologize over and over. She felt that it was her fault. She should’ve been the one out gathering food. It was her turn, but I had gone instead. It was fine though. I didn’t blame her. I blamed God.

I was livid and I was terrified and I wanted to know what the hell kind of benevolent being would just sit around and watch this happen to his greatest creation. God and I were on bad terms right then.

And that’s how I spent half my time: cursing God and His stupid Plan. The rest of the time I let my imagination get the better of me. I imagined what would happen when I turn. I imagined eating off Nevaeh’s face, and chowing down on Devon’s intestines while Doc’s dead body laid strewn across his lab table. Other bodies littered my imagination and I couldn’t stop crying. I cried until my tear ducts refused to work anymore. And finally I was left wondering if any part of me was still going to be alive inside the zombie. Would I recognize my friends and just not care? Or would I be gone completely, taken over by the hideous creature I was becoming?

I felt my joints become achy and stiff. I couldn’t tell if it was because of the restraints or if my body was finally dying too. My mind had been a mess for days, it was about time my body caught up to it. They fed me by hand daily and yet I was still hungry all the time. No, hungry wasn’t the right word for it. I was starving. Ravenous. I needed food. I needed to eat. Eventually it became an all-consuming thought, pushing everything else out of my head. My hatred for God was forgotten. My imaginings of the horrid things to come gone. It was just this all consuming hunger.

“Doc’s definitely making some good progress. He’s for sure slowed the progress of the virus. Technically, you should be dead right now, but you aren’t.” Devon was my feeder of the day, and he was chatty whenever he came in. The fact that I hadn’t turned yet had boosted his confidence that he’d done the right thing.

“Just fucking feed me,” I said, snapping at the hand that was hovering just above my mouth.

He jerked back and looked at me, his brows drawn together in worry. “I know you don’t want to hear it, but come on, Audrey. This is good news.”

“Nothing’s good news. Give me the fucking food.”

He frowned and carefully dropped the food in his hand into my mouth. He didn’t talk at all for the rest of the time he was there.

The doctor came in later that same day, and laid a hand on my head. “You’re burning up, Audrey. I’m going to see if I can get your fever down with a mixture of different fever medications. You haven’t been responding to the tylenol I’ve been mixing in your daily serum, it seems.”

I wanted to scream at him. I was miserable and tying me to this bed was torture. They kept my bed pans clean, and I wasn’t living in squalor, but I shouldn’t be living at all. I was on fire. My whole body burned and ached. The serum was just prolonging the inevitable and we all knew it. I wasn’t getting better. I was just getting worse slower. They were torturing me and what made it worse is they were doing it out of love. They couldn’t see that this was wrong.

My thoughts became fuzzier and fuzzier as time went on. I could no longer maintain a conversation or form a coherent thought. Instead I laid there, strapped to that bed screaming about the pain and the hunger. Nobody slept when I was like that. I always had an audience, but I didn’t care. I cared about nothing anymore. Just when my next meal was.

Devon didn’t try talking to me anymore. In fact, I stopped seeing him all together. It was probably because he was readying himself to do what needed to be done. But I didn’t know. I didn’t care. It was better that he wasn’t around anymore.

I nearly bit the hand that fed me once. I know because I felt her flesh scrape along my teeth. I didn’t have enough purchase to bite down unfortunately. I never saw her come feed me again and the next person made sure to drop the food into my mouth from a distance. I devoured it like there was nothing left in this world except for food. And to me, that was it.

I don’t know how long it had been since seeing him, but eventually Devon made a reappearance at my bedside. He held a mirror in his hand and his eyes held the sorrow that he should have been feeling weeks before.

“I want you to look at yourself, Audrey. I want you to see what you’re becoming and I want you to stop it, okay. You have to fight it.”

He thrust the mirror at me, and angled it so I could see properly. I looked terrible. My skin had taken on a light green pallor and my blonde hair was matted to my head. There were still dried flecks of blood on my face that I had refused to let them wash off. The dead look in my blue eyes was enough to have me looking away though. I was already what I feared. You could see it on me. I turned my head away from the mirror and away from Devon. He had wanted me to fight, but I saw nothing worth fighting for in that mirror.

“Audrey, look at it! Fight this! I know you’re in there, come on.” His voice cracked as he spoke and I could all but hear the tears flowing down his cheeks.

I screamed. And thrashed. It was all I could do. My body wasn’t mine anymore It was the only response I could give him.

“I don’t want to kill you, Audrey. Please fight this. Get better. Let the medicine work. Please God, just do something. Don’t let it take you.”

I thrashed harder against my restraints, feeling them give a little bit. Turning my face I screamed at him. I didn’t say anything, I just screamed and gnashed my teeth. I wanted to bite him. I needed to bite him. He backed away, the tears still freely rolling down his face.

“Audrey… don’t…”

I kept screaming. I screamed for a long time. Long after Devon disappeared through the door, his head hung in defeat. I eventually stopped, but only because my voice gave out and I could no longer make any noise.

I was still reeling from my screaming fit when Devon returned. His face looked resolute and in his hands he held a pistol. He raised the pistol and pointed it toward me. I growled and thrashed against the restraints feeling them loosen a bit more.

“I’m so sorry, Audrey. I really thought...well, I hoped… hoped that you would be the miracle. I don’t want to do this…”

I tugged harder and the restraint holding my right wrist came loose enough for me to slip my hand out. I scrambled for the other restraint. It fumbled in my fingers and I could quite figure out how to unhook the damned thing. Devon stepped closer, the gun still raised in a shaky hand. He fired a shot just as I managed to get my second hand free and missed. I was moving too erratically for him to get a decent shot. My attention shifted to my feet. I kicked and pulled and eventually got one free. Devon was watching, shocked and shaking. He’d taken a shot and missed. Could he shoot again or would his feelings get the better of him? I didn’t care. I was almost free. And my first meal was just waiting for me. I worked hard at getting my other foot out of the restraint, not at all paying attention to Devon. I finally got it. I was free! I lunged, leaping off the bed toward Devon.

The gun went off and the world went black.

“God, they left such a mess.”

A single oar batted a plastic cup bobbing in the river, it’s owner – Izabel - chucking her braided black hair over her shoulder. She crinkled a petite nose at the refuse dumped into the Amazon from the reverie as she stood atop her paddleboard. Another boarder, Luiza, squinted at the massive dock where the night’s last gig was playing on an ad-hoc stage, young diehards dancing to bad rock music.

“Man, this line up bites,” Luiza sniffed, scratching sun-tanned skin with black-lacquered nails. “That gig last week was to die for. And their drummer was so fine--

“Luiza, all of this is going to drift toward my place,” Izabel complained, gesturing with the oar at the trash.

“Hey, shake that thing at the event manager, not me,” Luiza suggested as she began to paddle away, leaving Izabel to lightly steam. As a last parting snub, Izabel swatted some trash back towards the party.

Izabel rejoined Luiza with some chagrin as she saw her friend’s blasé expression.

“Hey, sorry, if I killed the mood. I was… annoyed,” Izabel said after a few minutes of quiet paddling.

“Hm? Oh, no worries. You didn’t kill the mood – that band did. Though I figure you didn’t listen to them, what with your environmentalist worries,” Luiza joked, and Izabel tutted at her.

“Oh, Missie, yes I did. I think a baboon could keep better time than their drummer. And their singer sounded like a strangled cat,” Izabel conceded, headed towards a light in the distance, and Luiza grinned.

“Maybe better luck next time. Not like we wasted any money, anyhow…”

A house with a thatched roof on stilts began to take shape in the dark, marked by lights inside the windows as well as a dock lantern. Guitar music skipped across the water, and Izabel’s face lit up. In contrast, Luiza frowned.

“You got someone over?” the taller girl asked, and Izabel nodded.

“Uh, yeah, Manny. From last week’s show?”

“Hold on, last week? Has he been here the whole time?”

Izabel pursed her lips in annoyance. It wasn’t as if she was some kid. It was her house.

“No, not the whole time. He gets off around seven or eight, so he comes over, and we… chat,” Izabel said with a slightly lecherous twist of the mouth, and Luiza coughed out a laugh.

“Oh, you chat. Vigorously?”

“I like lively conversation.”

“You know what they say about bringing strange men home,” Luiza said with a grin.

Izabel gave Luiza a long-suffering look.

“We’re not in the Dark Ages anymore, Mami,” Izabel teased. “And just to ease your mind - I got a brand spanking new IUD. So I’m covered.”

She flung a hand towards the heavenly series of chords wafting in their direction.

And he plays like he was born with a guitar in his hand. Do you hear that?”

Luiza put up her hands in defeat, shaking her head.

“Look, I just don’t want to have to punch no heartbreakers in the face, okay?” she joked, shadow-boxing, and Izabel laughed.

Once in earshot of the dock, Izabel shouted, “Manny, you over there?”

“Yeah! One second.”

The chords stopped, and he stepped forward into the light. A young man with a ball cap, white tank top, and white shorts stepped into view, and he smiled winningly as he helped the two ladies approaching the sloped dock. The murky water had slowed somewhat, but the area around the dock was almost a bit tumultuous, and Izabel fought the current.

“I think I might just jump it this time,” Izabel muttered.

“I dunno, that’s a ways,” Manny warned.

“Your fault if you get soaked,” Luiza stated drily, rolling her eyes at Izabel’s antics.

“Nah, I think I can make it,” Izabel professed, though half a mind was already focused being sopping wet in a T-shirt and shorts in front of the guitarist on the dock. She’d at least make a good faith effort at landing the jump.

One foot left the board as she jumped, but she was just a foot too short of the dock, and into the Amazon she disappeared, Luiza flinching away from the splash. Izabel surfaced with a cough, wiping her eyes as Manny quickly reached down to take one of her arms and help her onto the dock.

“Jesus!” Manny laughed as Izabel sputtered.

“Okay, so maybe I couldn’t make it. Luiza, can you get my board?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Hey, hold on, you got something stuck to you,” Manny said as he hauled her closer. His hand was warm and dry around her forearm, his grip strong, as the other hand pointed to something wrapped around her forearm.

“Hm? It’s probably the trash those idiots tossed into the river upstream,” Izabel chided as she hauled herself gracelessly onto the dock.

Luiza was less convinced as she watched Izabel walk towards the light to peel it off.

“Izabel, that’s not trash.”

The young woman froze as she stared at what she had thought was a plastic bag. Instead, upon closer inspection, it was hair, with something heavy dangling off one end. Izabel swallowed as she got a better look, whispering, “Oh, God.”

It was a blond strand, still attached to a piece of scalp.

***​

“Hm? No, I haven’t gotten an answer back. You know how they are, Lulu,” Izabel said as she pressed a phone between her ear and shoulder. Her hands were preoccupied with brush and pallet, a canvas in front of her.

”Damn pigs. People die every day, right? No big deal,” Luiza shot back, and Izabel sighed.

“It’s only been two weeks,” Izabel reasoned.

”Yeah, but have you been listening to the radio? Girls have been missing since storm season started.”
Izabel had heard. It was hard to stomach.

“Maybe somebody fell in at one of the concerts.”

”Just…be careful up there. You ever need me, call me. And hey – so I got this boat after Constanza and I broke up, and I was thinkin’-“

“Hey, what’s this?”

Izabel jumped as she dropped the phone, glancing behind. Her heart tapped a frantic tattoo, Manny pulling back and away in surprise at her flinch. She smiled as soon as she registered his presence, glancing at the windows. Damn! Had she been painting that long? It was nighttime!

“Oh, I didn’t hear you walk in. Sorry,” Izabel huffed as she tried to catch her breath..

“I didn’t mean to scare you. I should have knocked. I saw the door was open…” Manny stated, readjusting his cap, and Izabel shrugged.

“It’s okay, I wanted to feel the breeze, though it looks like it might rain…”

“So you paint? What’s that?” Manny asked, pointing a stocky finger at her work.

On the canvas, a dancer dressed in a colorful frock pressed close to a skeleton in a matching suit. Around her and her partner, a half-finished crowd gleefully clapped or cheered, some dancing as well. Yet, the woman had a fearful expression as the skeleton’s cheek pressed to hers.

“It’s a Death and the Maiden,” Izabel explained as she picked up her phone. “Death is infatuated with her, but she wants nothing to do with him. But she has to dance with him anyways because that’s just what’s expected.”

She gestured with the brush to the crowd.

Manny peered at the painting over her shoulder. She could feel the warmth radiating off his pale skin, surrounded by a faint musk that drew her towards him. He glanced at her, eyes twinkling, as he said, “You’re really good. I love the rendering, very vivid. And the expression on her face…”

“Thank you.”

“And… what if they were alone?” he asked, gesturing to Death and the dancer. “What would she do then?”

His breath tickled the shell of her ear, and a shiver danced down her shoulder blades.

“I don’t know. Death is not very handsome, so probably not much,” Izabel chuckled, eying Manny.

The guitarist smiled wide.

“You think the same about me, eh?”

“Oh… definitely not,” she professed as he gently kissed her neck.

***​

The world was an unformed mass, her eyes adjusting to her room. Her mind was fuzzy with dreams as she stared up at a figure beside her bed. All she could see was a tall, dark silhouette, broad-shouldered with no neck, as if she were staring at a seven foot tall hunchback. Heavy breathing came from behind the figure as if it were facing away from her, wet and wheezing, a primordial sound that summoned revulsion.

A bad dream, she thought, closing her eyes as sleep pulled her close like a lover.

And when her eyes opened again, she was standing at the edge of her dock.

With a flinch, she backed away from the water, the early dawn sun barely delineating wood from river. Her stomach seemed to fall to her feet as she glanced around, looking back to the house, where the door was left open. She held herself as she tried to make sense of how she came to be at the water’s edge. She had never been a sleepwalker, not even as a girl.

“Izabel?”

She looked back up the dock as she heard her name, seeing Manny stare with concern at her.

“What’re you doing out here so early? Are you okay?”

Izabel glanced at the river momentarily before waving him off.

“Yeah, I’m...fine.”

***​

“Sounds like sleep paralysis!” Luiza yelled as she boated them back towards the house. She did, indeed, have a nice boat she gifted herself after she and Constanza split. Izabel had ogled it as soon as Luiza came to pick her up from the resort, appreciating the silver hull, though she imagined it put a dent in Luiza’s now-halved funds.

“What’s that?” Izabel asked, leaning forward to hear better.

“Sleep paralysis! You hallucinate while you’re half-asleep that there’s something standing in your room! You
probably dreamed Mr. Aquel!”

A smile spread across Izabel’s face. The overweight gorilla constantly breathed down the bartenders’ necks, his unibrow often doing a tango with itself as he huffed. Everyone, customers included, breathed a sigh of relief when the oaf found someone else to harass. She’d been blowing off steam by doodling a rather unflattering caricature of him that the other girls loved…

“What about the sleepwalking?” Izabel asked.

“Same thing! It’s tourist season!” Luiza shouted back.

Luiza cut the motor, coasting across the wide river in the direction of the house. The trees loomed overhead, and the sky began to darken. Izabel rubbed her arms, feeling the change in the air.

“If you need me to, I can booby trap the house,” Luiza offered, and Izabel guffawed.

“Go ahead, install a net!”

“Hey, sleepwalking is no joke. You almost fell in, didn’t you? Though who knows, maybe you would have gone for a swim,” Luiza joked, though she paused before saying, “Seriously, I think you need to put something in the doorway like cans so you’ll wake up if you knock them over. Even good swimmers drown out here.”

“Thanks for showing me the bright side,” Izabel jabbed as she stared at the house, straightening up as she heard the sound of a guitar. “Oh, Manny’s back.”

“This loser again?” Luiza muttered under her breath, making a face. “Izabel, you haven’t been feeding him, have you? They’re like cats. Now he won’t ever leave.”

“Look, just because you’re single and bitter now –“

“Hey, fresh wound! Not fair!”

The willowy young woman grinned and strode atop the dock.

Luiza shouted after her, “Cans! By the door! Or just chain yourself to the bed, he’ll like that right?”

Izabel gave Luiza a certain finger as she walked back to her house and the sound of Spanish guitar. On the horizon, storm clouds began to threaten the sky.

***​

Her eyes opened to the river lit by a dawning sun, toes dangling off the edge of the dock. With a jerk, she fell back, landing hard on her side. She sucked in air as if she had been drowning, and her stomach bucked in panic. She swallowed, her mouth wet, and each breath entered with a shudder.

This was the fourth time, and every time it was the same. The figure by the bed, the heavy and labored breathing, and a feeling of dread. Then, she would wake up here, at the edge of the dock, her feet halfway into the water.

It had to be the stress. After all, there was plenty to be stressed out about now.

She stood up, looking back towards the house, and something turned in her stomach. She was sore, but not in the typical way. Manny had come by the week before, and the evening had been a warm blur of music, candlelight, and his cooking. Yet, her mind had been elsewhere then, despite the spread she’d come home to. No, there were other parts of her that were sore, things that had never hurt before. The two of them had gotten to be so comfortable with each other, and she hadn’t wanted to ruin that…

She was late. By three weeks.

***​

“Sometimes the cycle becomes irregular the first few weeks of use, so maybe -- …oh.”

The office was warm, the walls painted a bright pink. Small, cartoon animals were stickered near the baseboard as the tech ran the ultrasound along the curve of Izabel’s stomach. Black and white patterns bloomed in incomprehensible masses on the screen.

“Are you sure you got an IUD?” the tech asked, concerned.

“Yes! You can ask Doctor Debahktuni. I came in a couple of months ago,” Izabel snapped with frustration, rubbing her forehead.

The tech did some fiddling with the computer and frowned heavily. He shook his head.

“Must be a clerical error. It says you got one, but you definitely don’t have one. I can’t find it. And on top of that…”

The tech grimaced a bit, putting the instrument to her abdomen again, the gel chilly against her skin. He pointed to a speck about as big as a peanut on the monitor.

“This is a fetus… and it’s about ten weeks old.”

***​

“Do you want me to kill him? I can,” Luiza stated matter-of-factly.

Izabel sat in Luiza’s boat with her head in her hands, trying to process all the information given to her. 10 weeks. It made no sense. She got the IUD well before that, and her first encounter had been only a month ago, with Manny. How could a fetus be ten weeks if she had only missed her last cycle three weeks ago?

“Iz.”

Izabel looked up as Luiza patted the other’s knee.

“It’ll be okay, you know,” Luiza assured, the trolling motor on low to both give Izabel time to think as well as cut down on the noise.

“I just don’t know if I should tell him, or if I should maybe call Mami first. God, she’ll kill me…” Izabel moaned into her hands.

“Whoa, whoa, we don’t care about what Mami thinks right now, alright? We’re gonna take care of you first,” Luiza urged gently, before looking back on the shore to view their progress. “Hey… there’s someone at the house.”

Izabel’s head shot up, but the urge to flee subsided as she spied a slight man in a windbreaker, with a thick mustache and a hat. As they drew up to the dock, he began to walk towards them.

“You are Izabel Camarero? I am Detective Ignacio with Iquitos Police Department. I tried to call but you were probably out,” the detective said.

“Oh – I think someone said something about you coming by,” Izabel stated, gesturing for him to come into the house. Luiza motioned that she was going to leave, and Izabel waved listlessly as she began going through the motions of entertaining her guest. Oblivious to her surroundings, she was suddenly aware that they were sitting on the porch with bottles of cold Inca Kola from the fridge.

“I’m sorry, is this a bad time?” Detective Ignacio asked, setting down a worn hat, and Izabel shook her head.

“No, no. What is it that you wanted to know?”

Detective Ignacio dug around in his pocket and produced a photograph, handing it to Izabel.

“We pulled DNA from the hair you gave us. Her name was Ingrid Statler, a German tourist, and she was last seen at a guitar bar. Do you recognize the name?”

Izabel let her gaze linger on the woman. She was thin, tall, with laugh lines and dirty blonde hair, the very same which had wrapped around her arm a month ago. Knowing she was the last person to touch this woman chilled her skin.

“No, I haven’t,” Izabel answered, handing back the photo.

“What about Eliza Murdoch? Tanya Albanito? Octavia Gonzalez? No?”

“My friend Luiza worked with an Octavia Gonzalez, but she left to work as a roadie for a while. The pay was better,” Izabel recalled softly, the wheels turning. “Yeah… she’d come here for a drink sometimes with Lulu. Don’t know if that’s the same one… Anyway, you could ask her tonight if you need to. She just lives about three houses upstream.”

“Oh, wonderful. I may just do that. She could know something,” Ignacio said, looking up the river. “Oh! Would you look at that? Botos.”

Ignacio pointed out at the pale pink backs of river dolphins leaving gentle wakes behind them. Mist drifted from their blowholes, as they came up for air.

“My mother used to tell me all kinds of stories about them,” he recounted.

“Oh, you too?” Izabel asked.

Ignacio nodded sagely, getting up for a better view. He leaned against the railing.

“She said, ‘Be careful, or else the encantado will get you. Don’t look them in the eye, and don’t go near the river at dark, especially with your little sister.’ You know, to scare us into behaving,” Ignacio chuckled as he watched the placid water waver under the dying eye of the sun. “And beware of men who always wear hats. You can tell I'm not one because I brandish this thing...”

He pointed to the bald spot on his head with a resigned shrug of the shoulders. Izabel smiled, recalling how her father joked that he himself was an Encantado because he constantly wore a straw hat to hide his blowhole. Her mother’s stories had been geared towards cautionary tales – to not trust strange men, lest an encantado impregnate and kidnap her.

The last thought struck a chord, and her stomach knotted.

“Well, I won’t keep you,” Ignacio said, putting on his hat. “That bit about Octavia is very helpful, though. It is odd, though… Seems our murderer loves music and single women.”

***​

Ignacio’s words haunted her.

"Seems our murderer loves music and single women."

She washed the dishes absentmindedly, hands going in listless circles. Like old ghost stories, the tales her father would tell surfaced in her mind, of creatures that loved light and music and carnival – and women.

”Would you look at that? Botos.”

Her mother had told her they only ever came out of the water at night. That they could compel you to do whatever they wanted. They were charming, sometimes even extravagant.

”I’m not one because I brandish this thing…”

And that they always wore a hat. Always.

”’Be careful, or else the Encantado will get you.”

“Hey.”

Izabel jumped as a pair of arms wound around her waist, Manny settling his chin into her the hollow between neck and shoulder. She swallowed hard as she kept her eyes down, scrubbing a spotless dish. Manny’s ever-present baseball cap lingered in her peripheral vision, his cologne addictive. She glanced out the window ahead, the rain pouring down the window.

“You look stressed out. What’s up?” he asked tenderly, and a spear of doubt struck her.

Stupid. He takes his hat off in the bedroom. Stop scaring yourself with fairytales.

“I…have some news for you,” Izabel said, slowly turning around in Manny’s arms, looking into a pair of liquid brown eyes that seemed to engulf her, and…

…where was she?

Lightning illuminated the world around her for a moment. She flailed in the water, rudely aware that she was in the middle of the river, with no recollection of how she got there. It was dark, and the typically sluggish water was now ferocious. Izabel wiped wet hair out of her eyes as she searched for anything familiar in the dark, the storm obscuring all landmarks as the water moved her further and further downstream.

I have to do something… I’ll be pulled out to sea, Izabel thought frantically, and she swam with the current towards a rotting tree that seemed halfway familiar. She got hold of a limb, hanging on, as she looked back up the river.

How did she get here? She remembered nothing after turning to Manny. It was as if the world had faded into cotton, without form or definition, only softness.

Lightning flashed again, and this time, she saw the figure of a man standing atop the river’s surface, and Izabel stared, eyes wide and dripping. The lightning continued to flash, and the man sank into the river without a splash, and Izabel flung herself into the current, trying to swim for a shore line, any shore line. She sobbed as she frantically pulled, unable to see for rain and tears and river water, coughing as it filled her mouth. Looking behind her, she thought she saw a wet, gaping mouth in the middle of a thick, pink back breath out mist.

Something warm, gentle, and long brushed against her leg, and she jerked away from it, only to have iron pegs driven into her ankle.

Izabel disappeared under the water with a yank, unable to snatch a breath before she was totally submerged beneath the murk. She kicked out with her foot, and it seemed to do little good as a pair of hands – no, not hands, they were too long and spindly and smooth to be hands – gripped her hips. A thin row of teeth raked her middle as it nibbled. She struggled against it, reaching her hands down to find its face and digging a nail into something the consistency of a soft-boiled egg –

The encantado shoved her away with a high trill, and she fought to the surface, gasping air and treading water with only one good leg. Her body shuddered in shock as her eyes were drawn to a light, and with an explosion of hope realized it was somebody’s boat. She raced towards it with flailing limbs.

“Izabel? Izabel!” a familiar voice shouted over the roar of thunder and rain, and Izabel shrieked, “Luiza!”

“Izabel! Where is he?” yelled another voice, this one the detective, as Izabel reached the boat.

His answer came shortly. Izabel was jerked beneath the water, Ignacio grabbing a flailing wrist and elbow.

Luiza and Ignacio fought to keep a hold of the woman, but the thing in the water was strong, easily threatening to capsize the boat. As they played a cruel game of tug of war, Luiza caught glimpses of something pink and glistening flail in the water, now and again revealing a muscular back sporting a humanoid, lipless mouth along its spine. It had the shape of a man, but it was too long by four or five feet, too broad and fleshy. Once she thought she saw a neckless head, a baleful human eye staring at her before disappearing. A too-many-jointed tail splashed them with a bucket’s worth of water, and Luiza realized Izabel was no longer fighting to hold on.

“She’s drowning!” Luiza shouted.

Ignacio readjusted his grip and reached down to grab a boat hook from the boat’s floor, jabbing the blunt end down into the water.

“Aim for the blowhole!” Luiza ordered as she tried to haul back on Izabel, and Ignacio wildly stabbed down as the encantado was pulled up.

He whacked it over the back, hitting it square on the hole, and Izabel suddenly went limp as the creature fled deeper under the water. Aware that the respite would be short, the two drug Izabel into the boat, and the girl retched. Ignacio pulled his gun from its holster as he kept watch, the rain drenching them all as it stormed. After several minutes, the downpour began to abate, and nothing else accosted them.

“Let’s get her to the hospital,” Ignacio suggested, and Luiza nodded, pulling the cord on the motor.

***​

“…And did you ever get a last name?”

“No, I didn’t. I don’t think they have them,” Izabel chuckled darkly. “We were… friends with benefits, I guess. Convenient.”

She fell silent as Ignacio sat across from her hospital bed. There was a noticeable bump across her midsection now, which served as a shelf for the pad of paper Izabel drew on. Ignacio had noted the rapid growth in the past month, and even the hospital staff was stumped.

“What I want to know is, why do this to me?” Izabel finally said, throwing the pad down on the bed and pointing angrily towards her pregnant body. “Were the others…?”

She didn’t bother to finish. Ignacio sighed, tapping his pen against his leg.

“We do not know. So far, there are no bodies to find, though one woman, Tanya, did buy a pregnancy test ten days before she disappeared,” Ignacio sighed, staring into his lap. “There are stories, of course, but they’re…”

He paused, and Izabel stared. Were these just stories? Could they say that any longer?

“My mother used to tell me that the encantado love to be with humans, that we are their favorite creature on this Earth, and so they kidnap us to be with them in their city underground,” Ignacio said.

Izabel laughed with little humor.

“I don’t think he meant to take me home to his parents,” she said, rubbing her stomach.

“The stories also say that they come back for the children they father,” Ignacio slowly added, “to be encantados themselves.”

Izabel was quiet, her gaze resting on the drawing she had been working on, of a young naked woman strangling a skeleton. Her heart hammered in her chest, something kicking her from within.

“Let him come, then. See what he finds.”

The murky waters of the river bubbled and churned with untold secrets and broken promises. And on the shore he stood, staring into it with the expression of a man who had lost everything.

Perhaps he had.

He could still see the teeth, could still see the evil glint in the eye of what he thought was his one true love. His left hand strangled the handle of the knife, the polished blade now tarnished with the red of human blood. It dripped into the matted grass at his feet, staining the green tendrils.

He should have never taken her hand.

That's where it all had started, hadn't it? One touch was all it took to render him helpless at her feet.

The cackling laughter rang in his ears once more and he flinched, sucking in a breath and stumbling backward, away from the shore of the river. It was calmer now, the rippling from where she had crashed in gone in favor of the ever-present current.

Drip. Drip.

He swallowed his own bile when it rose in his throat as he looked at his right arm, then decided it was probably best to not look at it again.

Forests were supposed to be more welcoming than this, right? Leaves were not supposed to be banished in the heat of summer, and branches, even at night, were not intended to be black and twisted. The moonlight sparkled gently on the swirling pool of the river before him, a sight that would normally be comforting. At that moment, though, all he could remember was how the moon had glinted in her eyes.

How his right wrist had become entrapped by her fingers.

"Let's find somewhere better than this," she had whispered, her impossibly red lips brushing against his ear. "I know a place."

Like a fool, he had agreed.

This was his fault.

He shut his eyes but quickly opened them again, the inside of his eyelids only serving to sear the image of her transformation in his brain.

The crunch of the grass underneath their feet had teased him with every swing of her hips, and the way the stars had captured themselves in her glossy, almost-wet black hair had so entranced him that he hadn't even seen where they were going until it was too late. They had stood atop the hill outside the edge of the forest, her left hand reaching for his and a coy smile on her lips.

They were alone.

It had all seemed right, and yet so terribly wrong. Something had made him hesitate. Was it the look she gave him? The way her pupils trembled in the light of the moon above them? Or maybe it was the teeth.

The sharp fangs that had suddenly revealed themselves, nestled among the perfect white pearls that resided in her mouth.

He had gasped, had tried to pull away, but by then it was too late. His hand had become entrapped in a sticky black ooze secreting from her fingers, swallowing his hand whole. She grinned, then laughed.

This time, it was less than flirtatious.

As she transformed, he remembered the warnings everyone had given him when he was younger, but now it was too late. Far too late. The woman before him had turned into a horse with devilish eyes and split hooves, with seaweed braided into the tendrils of its mane and tail.

Her- no, its- lips curled up to reveal row upon row of sharp fangs. It snapped at him once, reared, and then ran.

It shot down the hill, carrying him with it, his right hand swallowed by the lump of black ooze at its shoulder. He knew he only had one choice.

As the thundering gait of the monster brought him closer and closer to the shore of the river, he somehow managed to use his free hand to yank the knife from his belt.

And he began to saw.

The knife bit into flesh and the creature screamed angrily, its gallop turning into a full-blown run. It swerved this way and that, smashing him into trees and dragging him along the forest floor, but still, he persisted. The blade cut past muscle and into bone, and his cries were only drowned out by the sound of its protest.

At the edge of the river, he finally succeeded. It plunged into the river and disappeared into nothingness, the dark waters swallowing its body whole.

And now, James was left on the shore. Alive, but left with just one hand, one knife, and three questions.

How many people, he wondered, had been less fortunate?

How many bones had been carried to the depths?

How many hapless souls had been torn apart by the teeth of the river kelpie?
 

HerziQuerzi

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#2
damn thats some fast voting
 

Jays

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#3
11 entries
I predicted 20
I'm not wrong a lot of people just procrastinated
 

Greenie

Here in the Void
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#4
Read five entries, six more to go!

I gotta say :O I am impressed by the writing so far. Y'all're gonna put me to shame!
 

Shizuochan

he hears his master's voice
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#5
I was sad at work today and I had all your 11 entries to get me by. Thanks so much! - I enjoyed every single one of them. Here are some reviews, if you're into that kind of sick shit. In the end, I went for Aprilside for it's overall polish, character work, exceptional dialogue, and just overall coherence as a piece holistically.

Again, loved 'em all.

Bite me Harder
Hey, I haven’t seen a smut entry before yet. Nice!

One of my favorite premises of the eleven entries, the meek submissive revealed to be a vampire hunter even more sadistic than the vampire herself. It’s elegant, I love it.

I enjoyed your facility with physical description, and did find parts of it rather sexy, which I imagine is a prime directive, right? I do, however, think that you do that particular facility a disservice when you resort to phrases like “desire swirled” and, to a lesser extent, that bit about the “real, tangible hunger”. I think you’ve proven that you’re adept with the physical aspect; desire swirled is better captured with, like, descriptions of the looks in their eyes, their hot breath, the hunger with things like lip-biting. I’m being very generic here, as I’m an erotica-novice at best, but you can do it better than I!

I do also think that ‘seductively’ is a bit of a weak word (I think the same of adverbs in general, despite egregiously abusing them), and I’d argue that it’s a step (a fairly large one, to be fair) from saying ‘[x] did [x thing] sexily’. There was also the paragraph or so where your word choice included things like ‘executed’, which I thought was a bit strangely mechanical for the piece. But otherwise, pretty good, your nsfw-chops are pretty bueno.

And again, really enjoyed the central premise.

Untitled

Solidly done. A pretty well-executed take on a fairly stock story, I enjoyed it.

Was surprised you didn’t just title the piece ‘Silence and Blood’. I appreciated the way you wove those twin elements throughout the story, and the way their meanings transformed as the reader progressed throughout the story; the silence of the lover’s dead heart, and then the comfort it brings the newly fledged hunter, who feels a certain sense of relief and solace in the slaying of vampires.

The vampire-chase itself didn’t full-on do it for me, unfortunately. I attribute some of this to the regularity with which action felt paused at parts; whether it be because action phrases were coupled with explanations of the character’s thoughts and rationale behind them (“With a nod of her head, she sent him deeper into the woods, each step slow and delicate so as to not disturb anything”) or when actions were coupled with narrator-explanation (the bit about the vampires being not particularly bright hunters). These are all important things to include, but I think you needed either a bit less of them, or a few more sentences/phrases dedicated solely to pace, to movement and action.

Also be a little mindful of word choice! For the most part, you were good (‘hoof it’ was really the only egregious immersion-breaker), but definitely try and look for some more evocative words!

Legacy

I think you came pretty close to nailing that opening paragraph 100%. The Walker, very fucking nice. I do, however, think it would have been A++ grade if you had incorporated a visual (probably something like “the man with the white suit”) in addition to the velvety voice thing. Throughout, the Walker is like this noir-protagonist, and if you had presented the initial image of this mysterious dude in the near-iconic white suit. Wow, that would’ve been aces. But this, this was still really really good for an opener. (on further review, there's a few issues with word order, but STILL, nice)

You have a knack for the poetic, and your descriptions are generally very impressive. The L.A. blurbs are particularly strong. There are times where they’re a bit overwrought, and - I admit - sometime near the end of the L.A. blurb I thought you may have gone overboard. “The mask of legitimacy had lost its exclusive value; now every crook and ex-con could get one for a couple of grams and a blowjob.”, for example, is a clever, beautiful line, but made after I thought the idea of L.A. being ‘dirty beneath the beauty’ was well-established.

But ultimately, pretty excellent grasp on evocation through language, good job.

The actual, I guess, ‘detective-work’ aspect of this was pretty standard, the initial twist (oh she must’ve left through the window) into some functional transitions (the grieving widow, the fortunately found entrance). I didn’t hold it against the piece too much because I feel like the mystery was secondary to what the real point of it all was, breaking the Walker of Ruins.

The Walker is this vague, malleable sort of character that feels almost like he’s presented out of an urban legend. He has a quirk that could be iconic (the white suit), and is an incredibly well-realized idea, if not necessarily fully expanded upon as a character. This is both somewhat expected out of a character revealed through a short work (if the Walker had a series, for example, this ‘issue’ would be published sometime mid-to-late run, with the readers having some familiarity already?), and also true to the form of the noir-protagonist.

Excellent callback to the whole exchange about ‘promises’.

The final bit, with the Walker going mad and stomping on them goons was written in a manner that starkly contrasted the earlier poetical-ness (yay! Ripping people’s cocks off!). I feel like I’m correct in saying that this was intentional? The baseness, crassness of the prose during Walker’s rampage meant to represent him devolving into the bestial? Excellent (I do think you missed an opportunity by not prominently talking about, like, his white suit getting bloodied. I think that was a gimme, but maybe low hanging fruit!)

Great job.

Cold Case

Interesting formatting, and I appreciated it. Solidly written. It’s well thought out, and reads like a nice dissection of the investigative process, which doubles as setting up all the hints, and it’s overall very clever.

I’m unsure of how you could have done it differently, but the ending bit where the person suggests the idea of it being werewolves felt very much like giving away the punchline, the game, a tad bit early. It’s very clever, very well-thought out, but robbed itself of the revelation. Still liked the way you handled the ending wham-line.

I really did enjoy the idea though, and your writing was genuinely very clever.

Aprilside

I’ll lead by saying that this was the story that won my vote.

Natural dialogue that I could probably on my own attribute to each character without author indication (a testament to the character work), and of the pieces, I think it had the most well-realized narrative voice. Clever, enhanced the story, but wasn’t obtrusive. The characters were well-realized in a short span of time as easily recognizable teenaged archetypes, although the cynic in me does find the ‘practical, decent’ kid to be, and to have been used, a bit functionally, almost as device, when compared to Grace and Tracy.

Excellent imagery for the horror portions, that evoked without coming across as overly effortful. Natural. And, for the end, through the door, another teenaged misadventure to add to their life - almost like the ending of one of those 80’s teenaged-schoolkids-go-on-an-adventure movie. I’ve read only the past 3 miscs? But I think this was the most well-realized, coherent in narrative and theme, if not necessarily the flashiest, piece I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

Well done.

edit: i had the pleasure of reading this out loud recently. On another review, I'll note that the ending could have probably been more concise (door slam shut, cut out some of the exposition, and then proceed with that nice ending paragraph). Some of the sentences, particular those where you used " -- phrase -- " were a bit hard on flow. I maintain that this was great, however.

Finally

Vladimir was a very fun pastiche character. I appreciated him.

I do think this piece came off as incomplete, and not necessarily because it was too short. That’d be a bit simplistic. In fact, one of the ways this piece would have seemed more well-paced to me was if it had been even shorter and embraced the bit of slapstick that I gleaned from his death - if, for example, he got staked, went “Oh, a hunter, how cliche.” Done. Boom. Punchline slammed hilariously.

That’s not to say I don’t get why that ending bit with creating a legacy was there, Vladimir was established as a storyteller - the ending’s still very true to character. Even if I say the pacing’s off, what you did is very much narratively coherent. But the legacy idea is one that gets expanded upon too suddenly, it seems all jokesy and then suddenly, we get hit with this deep realization that the PoV character very much wants to leave a legacy in his dying moments.

But Vladimir very much tickled me in his short (well, long) time with us. Good job.

Have Mercy on My Soul

Hey, good job.

I read through this one twice cause it occurred to me that it was a lot more ambitious than I originally noted. It’s on one hand a story about a man’s (well, a monster’s) transformation and on the other hand a myth-type story about the Daughter of Death and the Monster She Loved.

In the end, I think that presenting the man’s transformation through a paragraph synopsis of his life, a brief convo with Death, and then a sudden epiphany and timeskip wasn’t enough. And I feel that because Anthony’s transformation is paced sub-optimally, that it detracts from the love myth as well - it’s, in a way, like showing a scene with a murderer in a movie, and then cutting away to a scene with them in a ‘meet cute’ with a nice girl.

I thought it was very sweet, however, and this was one of my favorite premises.

The Hunter + the Cutter of Wood

It’s a very clean, technically well-written story, and I appreciate that. It suffers, unfortunately, from what it tries to accomplish beneath the constraint of its length and pacing: we have the hunter being introduced to the village by the kid, the secondary protagonist wallowing in his guilt, secondary protagonist meeting hunter and foreshadowing their joining, and then the twist… which doesn’t really have much in the way of set-up, and then the conclusion.

It’s polished, everything moves in coherent ways, Darian - the better-realized of the protagonists - undergoes tangible character development, but what it does is move, and not necessarily much else. It’s a very functional piece, that doesn’t have a chance to flourish because it focuses primarily on simply getting from point A to point B.

Afterbite

I’ll get my initial bias out of the way and just state that I’ve always taken issue with first person perspective pieces where the person literally narrates the moment of their own death. It’s just… weird, unfortunately.

“That was the thought going through my head when…” is also kind of awkward in a first person perspective, we’re already in the guy’s (or girl, unisex names op!) head, you can be more direct with it. It’s what helps to immerse the reader in the first person narrative - if the first person perspective sounds like the guy leading you through an instructive lecture of what’s going on in his head (which is not to say that the piece feels like it, but that impression kind of leaks through in spots), it sort of takes the reader out of it.

You also, in the future, want to lend the narrator’s action more of the thoughts and emotions behind it. “I sobbed” and “I became inconsolable” are perfectly functional, but they don’t make the most out of the medium. Talk about the feeling of burning salt-water welling in their tear-ducts, the way it feels like tremors are running through his extremities as he realizes the hopelessness of it all. Make the most of your chosen form; it’s possible that, as is, this could have been written in third-person without losing much.

However, outside of that, there were genuine poignant moments where the narrator goes from lamenting God, to suddenly not even bothering with the idea of it anymore (and, honestly, that you made it happen in the very next paragraph is actually kind of an inspired representation of the stressed, broken thought process), where you do make the most of the form of overloading us with some pretty effectively written thoughts and internal monologues.

Pretty ambitious piece, and I think you did a good job!

Encante

Nice! As with Aprilside, nice, easy, naturally-written dialogue. This whole piece also bounced with a quick-paced fluency, from one scene to the next. Highly efficient writing, and a cast that proves to be charming in their brief written existence.

And that ‘encantado’, really great. I had no prior knowledge of what that was (in fact, I’m still not sure if it was entirely made up by you, having possibly failed my initial google-fu) and thus that the image of it was as well-realized as it was is a testament to how well you did with it. Overall, a really nice job, and was one of the strongest contenders for my vote.

Bloodstained Memories

The piece was written with a sort of minimalist style. This benefitted the pacing of the encounter, lending an urgency to the retelling (which, unfortunately, was going to be dulled from the start since it was a retelling of the past). However, I think the unveiling of the kelpie suffered dramatically because of it.

“The woman before him had turned into a horse with devilish eyes and split hooves, with seaweed braided into the tendrils of its mane and tail.” This is good, but the kelpie is also the centerpiece of the story - I think it behooves (HAHAHAHAHAHA) you to go even further. Keep everything else minimalist, even, just bolster this.
 
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RJS

Already getting hyped for the fiesta!
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Fantasy and SciFi are the two genres I most enjoy. I absolutely adore Dark Fantasy/Dark SciFi, and I quite enjoy RPs with at least a facet of comedy in them too.
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#6
Just want to reiterate what others have said here - It was a very strong field and a tough choice on how to vote.

I'm working on some reviews that I'll be putting up after the voting period is done.
 

HerziQuerzi

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#7
Like movie editing, generally the best sign that an aspect of your writing it being done well is that it isn't noticeable. It's hard for me to single out things to praise since when it's handled right the good things should be guiding from the background instead of drawing attention. All that to say that these reviews end up more slanted to the negative because that stuff does stand out. Apologies.

Some terms I’ll be including at the end of each of these, as a kind of summary.
Flow: How well each sentence and word leads into the next; the ability of the narration itself to hold one’s attention, regardless of the actual content.
Descriptors: Metaphors, similes, adjectives, verb choice, etc. How well a image is painted in the reader’s head, and clarity of what’s going on physically.
Narrative Structure: Characterization, character arcs, plot, overall pacing. The quality of the formation of a story, as if reduced to bullet points.

The one I voted for is in italics.

Untitled
  • Some awkward phrasings and descriptors. Such as in the second paragraph: is “with wrapping” still talking about the leather from the first half of the paragraph, or cloth wrapping in addition to the leather?
    • Similarly, “a broad and dull sword”. I can only assume you mean ‘dull’ as in the opposite of shiny, but within the context of swords the first place my mind goes is the opposite of sharp. A strange property for a sword.
  • Unless it’s a motif, avoid repeating words in close proximity. A la “Hans had been foolish {...} she would not be so foolish”. This one might have worked better if they had been divided by a period rather than a comma, or better yet a paragraph break, but this early section has had enough short paragraphs that the cleanest fix would simply be synonyms.
  • ”The crook of her head”. Usually it’s the crook of the neck, non?
  • ”Hoof it” is a really casual piece of slang in an otherwise more subdued narrative vocabulary.
  • The short impact paragraphs are overdone. The impact they’re meant to provide is undermined when every third paragraph is trying to provide that impact.
  • Switching to Harald’s epilogue at the end in lieu of Edda’s last stand I feel undermines the arc of Edda, who up until then had been our POV, in favour of a character who, again, up until that point had only been a plot device.
  • Strong flow, good descriptors, shaky narrative structure.

Bite Me Harder
  • Dialogue is clunky and unnatural. Especially as we enter the naughty bits ( ;) ) as they -- especially Jessica -- talk in lengthy sentences mid passion spikes.
  • The physical descriptions are good, but the internal thoughts tend towards heavy-handed and/or cliche in their word choices.
  • It was hard to grow attached to the story, the characters lacking characterization beyond surface level.
  • Clunky flow, good descriptors, good narrative structure.

Legacy
  • Lots of stiff dialogue, with long, rigidly formatted sentences. Generally, when people talk, they tend to break things down a lot more. Ramble, or jump from thing to thing, or go off on tangents. Lose track of their sentence, etc. A thousand and one ways to mildly break grammar, in the search of naturally conveying ideas.
  • Some minor grammar and tense mishaps. Using numbers like 70 and 2 instead of writing them out, describing the blood as “soaking through every single object” in the present tense despite it having dried long ago. Stuff like that. Also not sure if the constant switching between two paragraph breaks and one is intentional or not.
    • Also some more major ones, that actively impede the ability to track the story. Like the post-bar scene saying it’s 3:17 at the start, and 2:24 at the end.
  • A lot of the descriptions are overly complicated. More focused on adjectives and similes over explaining the scene, which leaves things feeling adrift a lot of the time, as well as creating a clear disconnect between the store proper and the description sections.
  • Keep track of what information has been revealed, and how it affects how people interpret the scene. Because for the entire bar scene, they kind of dance around the brother’s death. Only reference being that they keep referring to him in the past tense. Let alone a timeframe for his death. The first time they come right out and say he’s dead is just before the “You are grieving” line. Creating an implication that the grieving is about the dead brother. Which then makes the “Who I was grieving” bit in the bath read weird.
  • The “cool to the touch” detail on the ring is a nice little hint, seeing as normally it’d be warm from being worn.
  • ”casting his mind back to review each lead that had brought him here, each tiny detail. What had he missed?” Normally, in these kinds of stories, this would be an invitation to the reader to also thing back. A challenge for them to try and piece it together themselves. But in this case, the reader is never given the clues. The story is presented as a mystery/detective story, but withholds the aspects that define those kinds of stories: the pieces of the puzzle. The ability to, when it’s all said and done, look back and chide yourself for not figuring it out sooner.
    • On a similar note, the finale clashes with the rest of the piece. Like, it makes sense, but in short stories more than longform fiction it’s important to keep your tone and themes consistent. A slow, noire-esque opening and graphic, bloody ending are two very different things that pull the overall impression of the story in two different directions.
  • Average flow, good descriptors* (see above), haphazard narrative structure

Cold Case
  • I like the alternative take on approaching the story and framing; this kind of thing wouldn’t work in longform due to the feeling of detachment building up over time, but is an excellent fit for a short story. Naturally condensing the story into shorter, clearer pieces, letting you fit more into less.
  • Lots of small smiles and smiled slightly’s from Ken. Could either use some variety to reset him between them, or simply cut some. Find other ways to convey his mood and reactions, when said moods/reactions are all so similar.
  • Other than that, my only real issues are logic, in-universe based. Like none of the students taking the route of enquiring about Laura’s body. We, the reader, are already getting a strong idea of where this is going, but the police and trainees should see that as a line of investigation that could lead to more answers. Not a dead end. The whys and hows of her body being out there.
  • Similarly, in terms of having a hard time thinking of people acting as they do in the story, the final diary entry. The other ones all read naturally and like something someone would write down, but the pseudo checklist in the final entry just seems weird. It’s very… blunt, and strange for Laura to be writing down. Though an actual checklist would make perfect sense.
  • Dialogue is solid and natural 95% of the time; only weird bits are Ken saying “Absolutely!” twice in a row, and I feel a more involved interaction to someone suggesting werewolves would’ve felt more realistic.
  • Good flow, average descriptors, strong narrative structure

A Night at Aprilside High
  • Fabiana seems to flip flop between quietly sarcastic to quietly supportive, between beginning and middle, without enough characterization for it to be explained as an inner heart kind of deal. Part of a larger issue, where Fabiana seems to exist to help move the plot along while the more interesting Tracy and Grace bounce off each other.
  • Dialogue sounds natural, good job.
  • Though presented as a horror story, the monster isn’t given time to grow. Instead of lurking and hunting and gradually increasing the tension, it shows up for one climactic showdown and then the story ends. It’s a horror story that transitions straight from set up to climax, with little in the way of actually mounting horror beyond setting descriptions.
  • Strong flow, great descriptors, average narrative structure

Finally
  • ”Long forlorn nights such as evenings like these” This is a very awkward nested simile. Much cleaner if it just stuck to the nights or to the evenings.
  • Make sure to keep the tenses straight; even descriptions like “there are few who dare” and “the few that do” should match the past tense that the rest of the story is written in.
  • Having the more casual, meta nature of the narrator revealed in the second paragraph instead of the first creates a mental false start for the reader. One that could strengthen that kind of narration, but only if it’s introduction is more… personality filled? Vibrant and actively calling attention to itself.
  • ”“It’s fresh blood,” the nameless servant hissed” When dividing one person’s dialogue between multiple paragraphs, it’s important to put extra work into making it clear that it’s a continuation of the dialogue that came before. As people will naturally enter a mindset of Person A / Person B back and forths. Ending the previous paragraph with dialogue so you can leave a hanging quotation mark; describing the second paragraphs dialogue as “continued”, and other such things help tie things together.
  • The ending is very rushed, and doesn’t present a story arc. It’s also kind of confusing, in whether Vlad knew it was coming or not. “With every bit of surprise Vladimir was unsurprised” I don’t know what this is saying, and the surrounding sentences seem to bounce back and forth between Vlad knowing what’s going on and not.
  • Average flow, strong descriptors, weak narrative structure

Have Mercy On My Soul
  • There’s a disconnect between the narration, which reads as modern and smooth, and the dialogue, which is stilted and stiff. I imagine it’s a conscious decision, likely using more rigid grammar and vocabulary to try and evoke a certain time period, but it’s undermined by tense and grammar errors in said dialogue. Also, when Anthony rages at Death in the opening scene, his dialogue remains paced and stiff in the midst of his rage.
  • Similarly, that rage could have benefited from some more internal thoughts and emotional descriptions. Pure physical descriptions leave it feeling flat and unpassionate.
    • On a similar note, the following backstory exposition is very blunt. And when taking into account the length difference between the first scene and the rest of the story, it’s a backstory flashback within another backstory flashback.
  • ”she could do magic” This would fit in with a more irreverent, comedic narrative voice. As is, it feels like something that should fall under show, don’t tell.
  • There’s a strange tension here, with the story jumping in and out of shorthand exposition. It constantly feels like the story is about to start properly, only for it to last all of a few paragraphs before going into more time skips and overviews.
    • It’s all the important, emotional parts of the story as well. Anthony’s past grief, the blooming romance, the disappearance. All the things that would make us feel attached to Anthony, chances to grow close to him, are instead treated as hurdles to speed past. Skimmed over and left behind. Which, in turn, undermines the emotional impact of the finale.
  • Good flow, good descriptors, poor narrative structure

The Hunter and the Woodcutter
  • Watch out for typos. Things like “hadn’t been in love Heidi”. The phrasing is often stilted.
  • ”Cobb, otherwise known as the chief of the village” This is the second time his position was told to the reader, and both times in a very blunt manner.
  • The jumping back and forth between scenes during the introductory part is kind of clunky, with each sections momentum not flowing well into the next.
  • Without providing a reason such as sleeping or attacked from behind, it’s weird that every assumes that Milt wouldn’t know his father attacked him without being told.
  • Similarly, what reason is there for Milt not turning after being bit?
  • Overall, the study seems to rush from plot point to plot point, without giving characters or the world a chance to breathe.
  • Poor flow, average descriptors, average narrative structure

After Bite
  • Strong opening that grabs the reader’s attention.
  • Good characterization of the POV, and their gradual descent into hunger.
  • (Sorry I just don’t have much to say about this one)
  • Strong flow, decent descriptors, strong narrative structure

Encante: Take a Bite Outta This
  • Nice, natural sounding dialogue. Good job!
  • The pacing of the build up is handled well, a steady climb rather than jerky steps.
  • I appreciate taking the opportunity to get creative with your monster.
  • (Hey look another one I don’t have much to say about)
  • Great flow, strong descriptors, strong narrative structure

Bloodstained Memories
  • A very good opening, that raises questions without crossing the line in to full on confusion. A fine balance, well tread.
  • Overall good, but the looking back style of narration kind of robs the story of an arc; the sequence of events short enough that even if it had been told in a more traditional manner it would’ve been difficult to pull a complete feeling story from it, with characterization and growth.
  • Strong flow, great descriptors, average narrative structure.

What's a spoiler tag?
 

Jorick

A thought often makes us hotter than a fire.
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Fantasy is my #1; I will give almost anything a chance if it has strong fantasy elements. Post apocalyptic, superhero, alternate history, science fantasy, some supernatural, romance, and a few fandoms (especially Game of Thrones) are also likely to catch my eye.
Genre You DON'T Like
Horror, western, pure slice of life.
#8
Quick announcement for you guys!

Due to the update time going longer than we had anticipated and built into the voting period, we're giving an additional day for voting. Although we cannot change the poll, we will allow votes posted in the thread by those who have not yet voted to count until 12:37 PM Iwaku time (CDT) on September 9. That'd be 1:37 PM EDT, or 5:37 PM GMT, for easier math to figure out the time in your own time zone.
 

Jorick

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Fantasy is my #1; I will give almost anything a chance if it has strong fantasy elements. Post apocalyptic, superhero, alternate history, science fantasy, some supernatural, romance, and a few fandoms (especially Game of Thrones) are also likely to catch my eye.
Genre You DON'T Like
Horror, western, pure slice of life.
#9
And to make the time zone thing a bit easier, the poll has closed but voting is still open for 24 hours from the time of this post going up. If you have not voted yet and wish to do so, just state your vote here in the thread and it'll be counted.
 

HerziQuerzi

Failures don't get into paradise
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#10
POLLS CLOSED MY ENTRY IS- oh wait
 

Jays

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#11
How do you review your own entry
 

Greenie

Here in the Void
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Yaoi
#12

neobendium

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I'm up for mostly anything. But I don't really like voodo and lots of magic. Don't get me wrong, I like fantasy and dragons and stuff....just not the magic part. That's weird to me. And no demons.
#13
How do you review your own entry
You don't, and instead wait for after the voting phase is over to post the reviews.
 

HerziQuerzi

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#14

Shizuochan

he hears his master's voice
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#15
That is absolutely slanderous I had no desire for Herzi to write his reviews and totally be better at them than me by a wide margin.
 
Last edited:

Jays

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#16

Shizuochan

he hears his master's voice
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#17
I am still bedridden, you fuck!
 

Jays

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#18
you don't sound very still
 

Nemopedia

Storms lie. A breeze it becomes. A breath it ends.
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#19
I want to start that everyone already won by submitting. Writing an entry in a few weeks time is hard. Especially if it is supposed to be one of your better works. I had a hard time voting, but in the end I managed to vote based on the bullets I had noted. All entries were great, but ‘Legacy’ just had a few more bullets that won it for me.

N.b: I’m sorry, my reviews are short and don't hold much substance other than my opinions. :'} For more technical reviews see Herzi and Shiz.

The way the story started and ended took me. There is a certain tone and mood to it for me that just makes it all the more powerful. I know it is a literary device often employed, but I just wanted to point out that I thought it was done well.

The mood of the story was good as well, kid and woman are being hunted, a fair bit of suspense. It wasn’t unpredictable, but it managed to keep my attention and unpredictability isn’t always needed.

The shift of person took me. While I appreciate the backstory and the motivations of the kid it was too promptly done for me. It disturbed my pace and focus on the story and just pulled me out.
blushu, blushu, muchu, blushu. The first NSFW entry, I believe! I’m not a fan of smut, but I think this was tastefully done.

I had trouble making out if the vampire slayer was also a vampire, or something else or just vampire slayer. Though, that has more to do with a lack of familiarity with vampire slayers, I think.
I voted for this entry!

Strong introduction that immediately had me sucked into the story as well. There were a few things (details) that bothered me, however.

The times confused me. At some point in the story it was 3.17 am and then in the next paragraph it was 2.24 am, could be a typo, but that pulled me really out of the game.

The mention of that box from the father really confuses me. It was mentioned at the start and given some attention, giving me the idea it was something important, but in the end it was never really explained. At least to me it wasn’t really.
I really like this take on a detective story/mystery. However, the sudden and random acceptance of the werewolf theory without any question had me. I get that it fits, but the story has established that this is a world where they don’t believe in existences like werewolves and there was already one jokester that got called out on a theory that (to me) would have been more plausible than the suggestion of werewolves. As we always joke around: the favourite words of these investigators are ‘but’ and ‘however’ to the point of frustration.
To me the introduction was rather long and took me a while to get into. Otherwise it was well-executed to me. The mood had me hooked and I was rightly spooked as well by the end. The feeling of horror and dread came across well.
Short, sarcastic and a bit rushed. More work and attention could have been given to the ending, where Vladimir is lamenting his life. The introduction is rather dreary, with a sudden leap to the narrator breaking the fourth wall.
I liked the overall story. The vampire that changed himself for the better and hopes for redemption. I wasn’t a fan of the dialogue, however. It felt too drawled out and dramatic to me, spoiling the overall tone and mood.
I liked this story. It was adorable, but also loaded in a way horror should be. I agree with the others that it reads as if the story is just rushing itself to the next point. The switching of pov’s didn’t help with that either as it felt like I was introduced to the story twice.
I’m not a fan of the first person and that alone makes me biased before I know the whole story. Other than that I liked the gradual loss of humanity of the main character and the foreshadowing done at the start.
I appreciate the new creature used. I had no idea what an encantado was, but this was a good introduction and explanation of the creature! Other than that I don’t have much to say about this piece.
I like kelpies, or at least reading about them. I thought the piece was about vampires first, but that was quickly done away with. Nice story, but I was just a little bit confused about the order of business, which made it harder for me to get into.
 

Jays

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#20
Brief review including mostly my opinion, which is of course biased. What I say do not reflect the objective quality of the piece, only how I perceive them. Let's begin.

also I totally didn't copy herz's criteria, ye trippin'
An interesting piece, to me this isn't a full story, this is a single scene. To view it as such it serves its function well enough, but judging it from the point of view of a story, which is what this competition is for, it is problematic and lackluster.

- The characterization is practically non-existent. Both characters are more tropes than living human, the boy practically a plot device up until the end. But considering the length of the story, there isn't much more that could have been done. This is serviceable.

- The one consistent aspect throughout this story is the tension, which again suffered due to limited characterization, build up and most of all, ambiguous goal. The chapel could have been revealed sooner to aid said tension, and by revealing it so late it not only left the preceding events feel adrift but also, when finally mentioned, sudden and without maximum impact.

- The final switch of POV is, I think, the most problematic part, not because of the switch itself but where you put it. The tension was building up to a climax, and at the very moment said climax, the desperate showdown, is about to happen, the story is suddenly cut off to focus on something seemingly completely unrelated, tone-wise, to everything that had just happened. The random change was awkward on its own, but the transition and the content of the ending made it feel like a cheap punchline.

Overall, cool flow, good atmosphere, shaky plot and execution of ending.

-The opening threw me for a loop. It made sense later after the reveal, but until then, that single line about the aged eyes first set my expectation in one place, then the following paragraphs portrayed a character completely unrelated to the image that was first described. There wouldn't have been so much issues had it not been the very first impression. More hints are dropped not too long after, but there is a such a massive contrast between the charade and how those hints are presented that each one felt out of place, like Megan was 2 different characters. The apparent "mask" and her "true self" didn't connect.

-After Megan was revealed, everything that followed feel like the climax (no pun intended) of the story, which is problematic since it dragged on way too long.

-The dialogue is too stiff, overly dramatic and without appropriately used breaks. The result is something out of a bad network show script.

-The NSFW aspect feels half-assed. Keeping it SFW aka stopping at passionate kissing wouldn't have taken much if anything away from the story, but if you had gone all the way, then the prominent theme of pleasure would make a greatly interesting contrast to the sudden reveal of violence and death afterward. But you did neither, and in the end the NSFW feels like a novelty, something tagged on without much value other than to have a smut entry because it's cool.

Overall, disjointed flow, troublesome pacing, and lacking a clear direction.

-Opened like a mystery/detective story, but the mystery aspect is soon pushed aside. This reads more like a character-driven piece than a story-driven piece. You focus too much on creating a certain feel at the expense of your plot. And even that focus was inconsistent, because after the final act of the story kicked off with the arrival at the warehouse, the writing changed dramatically. The switch wasn't very obvious, but until the very end, especially if the story is read during several sittings, it's very jarring.

-The opening was probably the strongest part of the story, but by the end the promise and expectation set up by that opening, I feel, was not satisfied.

-There are layout, minor grammar mistakes and information reveal details which took me out of the story. As others had pointed out, the strange time-line disconnection. At first I even thought it had some plot significance, but of course that turned out not to be the case.

-A couple of characters are thin, especially the missing girl's father. The others was sufficient to the story as they were presented, but John still managed to feel like a collection of distressed father tropes, which is a problem given the amount of character-building he received. The main character, Walker, felt inhuman, but I guess that was the point.

Overall, good atmosphere, sufficient flow, decent, but due to the story conflicting with the expectation set up but by the opening, ultimately somewhat disappointing plot.

First of all, this story lacks character conflict, but made up for in interesting execution and settings. I do feel this entry would be so much more impactful if I had gone in without knowing the prompt. As it is, everyone of course sees the werewolf twist from a mile away, but this, for once, is no fault of the writer. Just a shame, that's all.

-Characterization is not as well-established as it could be, but it didn't affect the reading experience for me, so that's that.

-The dialogue is great, very natural. It succeeds in matching 2 distinctly different atmospheres, the lecture hall and the on-going investigation, and I did feel, almost visually, like I was running through flashbacks.

-I do think it'd have been a lot better if you hadn't come right out and call werewolf though. It was obvious enough, but only through the point of the reader. The thin veil of mystery for the characters was still important and much more interesting there than shattered with an obvious reveal. The ambiguity in the right dosage can create very powerful engagement.

Overall this feels like the season 4 mid-season finale of a procedural police show. That's not a bad thing, that's a compliment.

-As a horror story it's probably not a good sign that when the monster was revealed, the tension and dread was gone, because that just means the unknown is scarier than your monster. The monster, I must admit, is slightly underwhelming for me, only because the build-up was done so well.

-The best thing about this entry is the dialogue. I don't know how highschool girls actually speak, but to me it's genuine and realistic enough.

-Some parts do drag a bit more than others, but that's probably just my impatience.

I actually don't have much to say about this one, it's a good story. Overall, very good flow, cool atmosphere, functional story structure.

I don't like this story. Clunky transitions, awkward phrasings and word uses, the complete lack of direction. Sarcastic and mocking stories work because they appear to be clever enough to generate believable authority to be able to overturn tropes and still make it interesting. This just feels like it's trying to be clever and falling short. There isn't much more to say.

-The one thing that is abundantly clear here is the lack of focus and direction. Is it a romance? Is it a tragedy? An origin story? I personally can't tell.

-The opening is essentially a flashback but instead used as introduction. It gives us no indication as to what the rest of the story would be like, or even transition well at all into the main body.

-The dialogue doesn't sound like what a real human would say. It's rigid, lacking in emotions, which creates a jarring contrast against the story especially during emotional moments. The majority of the dialogue feels like exposition, and adding that on top of the non-dialogue exposition that's already there, it feels like I'm just being forced-fed information.

-The romance seems rushed. There isn't much more to say about that.

-That ending came out of nowhere. It doesn't even feel like the same story as the preceding events, it's that different in tone.

-Characterization is lackluster. Death is little more than a plot device, and Melanie the author's projection of themselves into a fantasy scenario.

I don't know how to say this nicely, so I will say it as honestly as I could. The entire time I'm reading through it, all that goes through my mind is: "This reads like someone's teenage fantasy." It's well written, but the plot, dialogue and characterization I'm just not a fan of.

-The switching of POV is fine as an idea but your transitions need work. It's not so much smooth change of scene but having the channel you're watching forcefully changed and you can't do anything about it.

-Some repetition of information is distracting. Sometimes the make sense in the form of character dialogue, but since we, the reader, had already known this, it's probably better to include it cleverly along with another piece of information, or skip it altogether.

-Everything feels rushed. As long as the story is, somehow I still feel like important scenes aren't given enough attention. That is problematic.

-The twist came out of nowhere without set up. That undermines its impact a whole lot.

-The romance feels forced, a bi-product of the rushed feeling and inadequate interaction between the leads.

-The build-up died half-way, not even close to a proper action climax. There wasn't enough character building to justify an emotional climax.

Clunky disjointed flow, average structure, problematic pacing.

-The one major flaw I find with this story is the lack of character conflict. There is conflict for the side characters, namely Devon. However, the main character didn't fight it, she just wanted to die since the very beginning. So instead of a losing struggle we could relate to, it's a recounting of different stages of a disease which while still have some emotional impact doesn't get as much as it could have. The struggle of Devon is interesting, but it's clearly not the main focus of the story and often pushed aside for long stretches of time.

Overall, solidly written, great flow and atmosphere, great pacing, but in the end doesn't have that decisive spark that marks it truly remarkable.

This is the entry I voted for. It's honestly the one I like the most. The dialogue is not only natural, but reflect emotional and personality exceptionally well. The atmosphere is great, almost an exotic solitude. The build-up is careful, gradual but not slow or burdensome. There are still a few issues, of course.
-The detective's characterization is lacking, and since he provides so much exposition about the myth he risks becoming a plot device.

-The appearance of Luiza and Ignacio at the end feels unwarranted and out of nowhere, almost like a Deus Ex Machina.

-The characterization of the encantado's mask is nearly non-existent. I'm not sure if it's intentional or not to make it seem more inhuman, and it doesn't really affect the story too much, but personally I'd like for the relationship between Izabel and it to be developed some more, so the final reveal at the end can have even more impact.

Overall, amazingly written, great flow, great pacing, a thoroughly enjoyable story with a few issues which doesn't harm the reading experience too much.

Well written with a serviceable plot, but the big issue is how it's told.

-The flashing back and forth between past and present is sometimes difficult to follow as well as cut short whatever flow each section has going.

-The climax revealed early robbed it of most of the impact.

-No characterization to speak of, which considering the length and detail of the story is somewhat expected.

Overall, disjointed and disruptive flow, awkward pacing, good atmosphere.