From the Slushpile: Some Kind of Way Out of Here (Part Four)

And now for the punchline…

Alabama logo_1958

### Part Four ###

The sergeant had admitted to being a member of a tribe that had worshipped at this site in antiquity. Had they sought to placate this alien god with sacrifices? If so, had he brought us here to feed the beast, this alabaster being smiling down at us?

“Those are serious charges,” Minh said as he stepped between me and Thanh. “You better have evidence to back up these wild allegations, Corporal. Otherwise, you’ll face a court-martial.”

Taking several breaths to center myself, I steadied my voice before responding. Lien urged me to tell him everything, but relying on the word of a dead woman would make me look unhinged. Of course, I was relying on the word of one, so there might have been some truth to that characterization.

“His hat is foreign. It depicts an American sports team, I think.”

“Alabama to be exact,” Thanh admitted. He took a drag off his cigarette and then blew out a cloud of blue smoke before elaborating. “A missionary who came to my village gave it to me. He wanted me to have something to remember him by, since he taught me so much. I kept it because I like elephants.”

“Perfectly reasonable explanation,” Minh concluded. He explained, “American sports grew in popularity among the populace after their units were stationed here during the Second World War. Our radio stations rebroadcast games and matches to keep up morale. Part of my training as a political officer involves countering this type of propaganda, but I don’t normally arrest a man for his taste in sports. I’m a communist, not a fascist.”

I couldn’t argue with anything the lieutenant said. He proved an effective lawyer for the defendant. And Thanh’s story sounded plausible enough. Perhaps I was wrong after all. Maybe I was unhinged, unable to accept the awful reality that Quan had killed Hien and fled.

Tears blurred my vision as I looked from Minh to Thanh and finally to Lien. My breath caught in my throat. She looked like she had in the last moments of her life. Chunks of shrapnel had punched bloody holes in both legs and her abdomen, but it was the knife in her chest had killed her. No, not that knife, I thought. I’d stabbed Lien with my combat knife, the one still on my belt, but she had the golden kila with the fist-sized ruby pommel buried between her breasts.

“He can lie about the hat but not the dagger,” I cried. “I bet he has it!”

As the officer turned toward the sergeant, Thanh blew a cloud of smoke in Minh’s face. The lieutenant coughed once and then twice before his breath caught in his throat. I’d missed the gunshot initially, but its sharp report echoed off the cavern walls.

Minh tried to cover the wound in his throat but blood spurted everywhere. The second shot hit him in the temple. He landed face down in the clamshell-shaped pool. His blood mixed with its contents, leaving the water looking as rusty as it tasted.

Chuckling, the sergeant leveled the tiny pistol at me. His Tokarev didn’t look intimidating but proved quite lethal. We were too close to each other to reach my submachine gun. I’d be dead before I took a step toward it.

“You’re quite the troublemaker, Ba,” Thanh said. “I was sure you’d buy my story and follow me on another fool’s errand to find a way out. Then I’d dispose of you as easily as I pushed Quan over the edge and cut Hien from ear to ear.

“If I could revive Ganesha’s dark twin in the process, so be it. With the kila removed from its chest, Chaugnar Faugn’s bloodlust will return, awakening it from its dormant state. Once more, it will feed on the living instead of relying on the magic of the blood-ruby in this dagger for sustenance.

“It has slept too long. Mankind has grown arrogant and irreverent; Great Old Ones, like the one seated here, will restore the cosmic order. They will destroy the ability of humans to inflict cruelty and carry conflict to the four corners of the world. That is the provenance of the Great Old Ones, of beings like Chaugnar Faugn, not mostly hairless killer apes.”

Lien stood behind the scout sergeant. She wept tears of blood, but a smile touched her lips. She said, “Who is he to presume to tell me what I am to do with my life? He is neither follower nor supplicant, only a petty tyrant born of pain and betrayal. Whatever his original intentions were, like mankind, he has gone too far.”

Acting as her medium, I repeated her questions to Thanh directly, “What gives you the right to dictate the actions of a Great Old One, a being that predates human existence? What makes you arrogant enough to assume you’re special or chosen? You’re nothing but a mouthy feast for a mighty beast.”

Thanh took a step closer and jammed the barrel of the Tokarev under my chin. I expected to meet Lien in the afterlife, but he did not fire. Instead, he tapped the logo on the cap with his free hand. “This,” he said, “this is how I know. I am special. I am chosen. When the Americans came to my village for recruits, I went with them. I trained under a Green Beret, a straight-shooting, slow-talking good-ole-boy from Alabama.

“While I was in the jungle completing my training, Viet Cong, like you, came and killed everyone, even the children, because we cooperated with the Americans. Had I stayed behind, I’d have been killed along with my parents, my wife, and our little boy. Instead, a man bearing this elephant had come halfway around the world to train me to defeat those who would slaughter my people.

“After my village burned, I infiltrated the VC forces here and fed information to ARVN and the Americans. If it hadn’t been for me, you and your stupid whore would have played deejay, but I made sure most of the tapes were seized and your contacts at the radio station arrested before Tet. You walked right into my trap.”

Confronted by the man who’d taken Lien from me, my screams filled the cavern as my emotions boiled to the surface. I slammed a forearm into his wrist to force the pistol away. Its report deafened me, muting my screams and disorienting me. I clung to his shirt for balance, but he swept my leg out from under me.

We fell in a heap onto the back of the dead officer. His pistol disappeared into the basin of bloody water. My enemy disarmed, I reached for my knife. As the blade cleared its sheath, he bashed his forehead into my nose. While I blinked fresh tears from my eyes, the mad sergeant pulled the kila from his satchel. He raised its golden blade high, but I came in low. I stabbed him in the stomach and lungs as I sought his heart. Thanh slashed downward but missed me by more than a meter.

The distance between us tripled before I realized what was happening. When I came to comprehend what unfolded before my eyes, my sanity sank as my screams rose to a crescendo. One of Chaugnar Faugn’s tentacles had risen from the pool and wound itself around the sergeant’s torso. As I watched, the other snaked around his legs and squeezed until his bones snapped. The end of the entity’s trunk unfurled like a lotus in bloom. Row upon row of teeth lined the rim of the flowery appendage. It stretched wide like the jaws of a serpent, enveloped Thanh’s head, and shut with enough force to decapitate him.

Instead of going limp, the doomed sergeant’s body thrashed wildly. The kila dropped from his hand, bounced off the lip of the basin, and clattered to a halt at my feet. But I couldn’t tear my eyes from the horrific scene before them. The Great Old One raised the sergeant’s body above its head. With a sharp snap of its appendages, Chaugnar Faugn pulled Thanh apart before my very eyes. Blood and gore crashed like a crimson tide onto the deity’s bloated body.

“Now, Ba, it’s now or never!” Lien called. “Before I lose control, take the knife and free me from a life of bloodshed and suffering.”

Though I could no longer see her, the words she’d said in the sewers beneath Qui Nhon City rang clearer than ever. I hefted the kila and approached the deity as it bathed in the traitorous sergeant’s blood. Caught in its sanguine orgy, it did not note my presence until I stepped into the pool.

The toothy maw at the end of its trunk rushed toward my face, but it spurred me forward rather than backward. I stepped onto the dais, lunged forward, and jammed the dagger deep into the Great Old One’s bosom.

Energy rushed through my body with the force of a lightning bolt. Warmth flooded my groin as the electricity made me piss my pants. I staggered away and fell beside the basin. My body contorted and shook until I lost consciousness.

I’m not sure how long I laid there covered in blood and urine. The sun had yet to set, but the cavern grew dimmer by the moment. Once sense and sensation returned to me, I dragged myself upright.

As I struggled to regain my balance, I kept a watchful eye on the Great Old One, but it had returned to its former statuesque state. Not a drop of blood marred its richly decorated exterior.

“I wish things could have turned out differently,” Lien said. Turning toward her, I saw that she had resumed her earlier, less ghastly appearance but an eternity of sadness lingered at the corners of her smile.

“Me too. I’ll never forget you.” It was cliché, but I meant it.

“Nor I you. You have done horrible things in this war, but you are a good man. Keep that in mind on your journey, for there is only one kind of way out of here now. I don’t know if you’ll survive it. You’ve been through so much already.”

We stood less than a hand’s span apart. Her ethereal glow warmed my heart but not my body. I wanted to be with her forever. “I don’t have to go.”

“Yes, you do. Unless you want to wait here with me in the dark until gnawing hunger kills you. For some of us, that takes an eternity. For you, it’ll just feel like one.”

“Tell me then,” I pleaded. “How do I get out of here?”

“Come to me, lover, and I will show you.”

Lien spread her arms and welcomed me into her embrace. Stepping forward, I plunged through the specter of my dead lover and toppled over the edge. As I tumbled into the dark heart of the abyss, I wondered if I would see her on the other side.

THE END

This story was written by Jeremy Hicks. It is his original content and cannot be used anywhere else without his expressed written consent. However, this blog may be shared, reblogged, etc. on social media for the purposes of promoting the author, his blog, and his other creative works. 

Any resemblance to persons living or dead, events real or imagined, etc. is entirely intentional. This is a work of fiction but draws on real events and references the real world at times. Any reference, product placement, or pop culture quote is not intended to impinge on any trademark, patent, and/or copyright; rather it is flavor text for the dialogue of characters raised within the context of our pop culture.

 If you don’t like these terms of agreement, go check yourself. You’re complaining about a #FREE story.

From the Slushpile: Some Kind of Way Out of Here (Part Two)

Happy Veteran’s Day. Thanks to all those who have served, in whatever capacity, at home or abroad.

mcgovern quote

On with the next installment…

### Part Two ###

When my beloved came to me, she appeared as she had in the days of our happier youth, before this latest Vietnam War. She beckoned me, curling one finger like she had the first time she urged me to slip from my home to accompany her on a nocturnal adventure. We had enjoyed many such rendezvous over the years. Our latest had proven to be our last, outside of the realm of dreams anyway.

Hot tears rolled down my cheeks. There had been no time to mourn her earlier. Now, I could not help myself. I bawled like a babe in its mother’s arms. I ached to rest my head on her chest and let her heartbeat lull me to blissful sleep.

Wordlessly, Lien led me through the temple, gliding with ease across its rubble-strewn floor. We traversed a series of oddly proportioned hallways and antechambers until at last we emerged into a grand chamber beneath a high-peaked ceiling. She paused in the center of the room to turn, raise her arms to the heavens, and stick out her tongue, as she was wont to do as a mischievous child.

Lien’s pose reminded me of icons of the Hindu gods depicted in Cham temples on the city’s outskirts. Spinning away like a top, she crossed to the far side of the room, stopped at a set of stairs leading below, and glanced back at me. A sad smile touched her lips before she slipped through the portal. Though she had disappeared from sight, her angelic voice sang in my brain, “To ascend, you must first descend. But be forewarned, my love, those burdened by too much sin will never see home again.”

Thunder rolled as if to punctuate her warning. It faded to a dull roar that did not stop, even after I returned from the land of dreams. Blinking back tears, I forced myself to focus on my surroundings. The harsh light of day stabbed at my sensitive orbs, which turned the ache in my head to a fire in my brain. I stared up at a shaft of sunlight. Streaming through a natural skylight in the domed ceiling, the narrow opening served as the cavern’s sole source of illumination.

I stifled a scream as my gaze fell upon a multi-armed elephantine beast seated on a raised dais in the center of a pool of water. My heart slowed once I realized it was a statue and not some otherworldly beast. Despite its monstrous appearance, the statue’s face was serene. Its eyes were closed, and two of its arms were poised as if in a meditative state. In stark contrast, its lower set of arms held grisly items. A human heart of polished obsidian rested in a dish in its upturned left hand. The right held aloft an axe with a shiny blade.

Bangles and jewels adorning the bloated figure sparkled in the single ray of sunlight. The largest of them was a fist-sized ruby inset into the handle of a golden kila, a ritual dagger common throughout Southeast Asia. The position of the kila gave the god the appearance of having a stake through its heart. A series of smaller rubies around the entry wound trailed downward toward the its distended belly in a grotesque albeit glittering representation of flowing blood.

As I scrambled backward from the horrid icon, unseen hands grabbed me from the darkness beyond the circle of light. My scream shattered the quiet and echoed back to me. I struggled against my unknown attackers, only to be slapped across the mouth with enough force to stop my screaming.

“Keep quiet, you fool,” Thanh hissed in my ear. “There could be a patrol up there.”

“If you get us caught,” Quan said, “I’ll chuck you into the abyss myself.”

“The same goes for you,” the sergeant warned the bully. “So shut it.”

As my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I saw an array of familiar faces. By some miracle, Lieutenant Minh and mud-covered Hien had survived the temple’s collapse along with the scout and the thief. My panic waned. At least I wasn’t alone in the dark with that thing.

“Abyss?” I asked, unable to decipher Quan’s threat.

“That’s why we grabbed you, fool,” he replied, “to keep you from pitching over the side of the platform.”

The private thumbed the stud on his Soviet-style signal light. I gasped when I saw how close I’d come to plummeting to my demise. The wan beam of light diffused a dozen or so meters below our precarious position on the island of stone in the center of the cavern. Never a fan of heights, I scrambled away from the pit’s edge and collided with the sergeant. He grabbed me by the collar and shook me.

“Take it easy on the corporal,” Minh cautioned him. Addressing me, the lieutenant said, “You were out for a while. Have you ever had seizures before?”

“Seizures? Not to my knowledge. Why do you ask?”

“You convulsed for several minutes and then started snoring. You might have a concussion or a skull fracture.”

“Maybe both,” Thanh interjected. “Too bad we lost our medic back at the radio station. We bound the wound on your scalp the best we could before carrying you down.”

“Ba will be fine,” Hien interjected. “He’s as thick-headed as a water buffalo and twice as tough, only without the grace and good looks.”

“Thanks,” I replied with a weak grin. “At least, we didn’t lose you or your sense of humor when the walls came crashing down.”

“The war effort would never recover,” the joker retorted, laughing at his own comeback. “Corporals are a dozen for a dong, but good comedians are as worth as much as the shiny on that statue!”

“Speaking of that monstrosity,” I said, “what is it? And where are we? Last thing I remember was rushing into the temple and then darkness. Well, that and Lien.”

“You must have a concussion,” Quan concluded. “Lien’s dead. Don’t you remember knifing her in the sewers?”

I winced as I recalled the light dying in her eyes. But I had seen her in the temple. Had it been a dream? It had seemed too real. And what of her warning?

“All too well,” I replied. “I guess I confused my dreams with reality. In them, she led me to a barred door in a room filled with shrines. She said I had to descend to ascend, but if I had too much sin, I wouldn’t make it home again.”

Now, it was Thanh’s turn to laugh. However, his menacing chuckle sounded shrill, even inhuman. Shaking his head, the scout sergeant said, “You must have overheard our conversation in the shrine room. We found a door behind one of the idols, an icon of Kali, the Dark Mother of the Cham. The base of her statue contained a similar inscription. Once we unbarred the door, we found a set of stairs. They led to this cavern, a temple of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god known as the Remover of Obstacles. Trust in him; he’ll aid our escape.”

The sergeant’s eyes blazed with an intensity I’d not seen in them before he mentioned the ancient Cham deities.

“How do you know all of this?” I asked, frightened by the idea of placing my trust in anyone other than Buddha.

“Long before the Cham brought their Hindu gods to what came to be known as Vietnam,” Thanh said, “my people lived at the base of these mountains, fished in the primordial sea, and enjoyed a peace few know.

“Nothing would be the same after the arrival of these invaders and their alien gods. We tried to coexist and adopt their ways as our own, but my tribe was persecuted and driven inland to eke out a living in the highlands. Some of us came to pay homage to their deities; after all, they served the Cham better than our gods protected us.”

“Enough superstitious nonsense, Sergeant,” Minh ordered. “Fairy tales won’t help us find a way back to the surface.”

“But they aren’t fairy tales.”

“Bullshit is more like it,” Quan added as he drew his bayonet. “The only thing this statue is good for is filling my pockets with a small fortune.”

“Don’t you dare!” Thanh barked. “You’ll get us killed if you defile it.”

“The sergeant is right,” Minh seconded. “It’s liable to be booby-trapped. You might end up bringing the ceiling down.”

“Again,” Thanh added with a grimace.

“I wasn’t the one who shot down the Huey,” Quan whined, “or led us to this hellhole.”

“No, but you set the wheel of dharma into motion,” I ventured as I struggled to stand. “From now on, you follow the orders of your superiors or risk the consequences of insubordination and court martial.”

“Look whose balls dropped,” Quan quipped. “If all it took was a good lick to the head, I’d have volunteered to administer it ages ago.”

“Shut it!” I barked. And for once, the bully listened.

Taking advantage of the silence, Thanh said, “Lieutenant, with your permission, we should split up and look for another exit.”

“If there is one,” Quan muttered.

“There’s bound to be some kind of way out of here,” I said. “I doubt the laborers who built this complex used a single staircase.”

“Now, you’re thinking,” the sergeant said, clapping me on the back hard enough to send my head spinning. I took two drunken steps before I had to sit.

“Maybe I’ll wait here and catch my breath.”

Minh agreed it a wise decision and volunteered to stay behind with me. I had reservations about sending Thanh and Quan into the darkness with only Hien to keep them from each other’s throats. Then again, if the troublemakers killed one another, I wouldn’t have to listen to them bicker like roosters vying for the sole hen in the coop.

So, I agreed with their plan of action and steeled myself for an extended fight with exhaustion. The cool, dark confines of the cavern lulled me to the edge of sleep. I wanted to heed its silence call to slumber, hoping that I’d see Lien again.

### To Be Continued ###

This story was written by Jeremy Hicks. It is his original content and cannot be used anywhere else without his expressed written consent. However, this blog may be shared, reblogged, etc. on social media for the purposes of promoting the author, his blog, and his other creative works. 

Any resemblance to persons living or dead, events real or imagined, etc. is entirely intentional. This is a work of fiction but draws on real events and references the real world at times. Any reference, product placement, or pop culture quote is not intended to impinge on any trademark, patent, and/or copyright; rather it is flavor text for the dialogue of characters raised within the context of our pop culture.

 If you don’t like these terms of agreement, go check yourself. You’re complaining about a #FREE story.

From the Slushpile: Some Kind of Way Out of Here (Part One)

In honor of Veteran’s Day, I’m posting a war story from the slushpile. I wrote this story specifically for Chaosium’s “Summer of Lovecraft” anthology, but due to technical circumstances beyond the editor’s control, it was never read. By the time I realized it was buried in their spam folder, the stories for the anthology had already been selected. I submitted it a few other places, but it has never found a home. So, I’ll publish it in installments here during the week of Veteran’s Day to remind us that war is hell and that there are veterans on all sides of a conflict.

I thank them all for their service, for they were mostly poor, unfortunate souls fighting in rich men’s wars. And in Vietnam, it was definitely a politician’s war with brave men and women on both sides caught in the madness of the Cold War era. During my research, I found out how much American pop culture began to affect Vietnam after our soldiers helped push the Japanese out during WW2. So, you’ll see that Vietnamese men and women, patriots of their homeland, were not so different from American youths who were drafted to fight them, in the case of the VC and NVA, or fight alongside them, in the case of the South’s ARVN.

I was inspired to write this story by North Vietnamese Army Veteran Bao Ninh, for his “Sorrow of War”, much like Mark Twain’s “War Prayer” taught me that there are humans on both sides of a conflict, regardless of what propagandists would have you believe. It is heavily steeped in the Cthulhu Mythos, created by H.P. Lovecraft and elaborated on by Frank Belknap Long with his introduction of one of the deities featured in this story. There is also a heavy influence by Jimi Hendrix, if you didn’t realize that from the title. What can I say? I love the classics, especially rock from the Vietnam Era. It really inspired me here.

I chose a real event as my inciting incident. During the Tet Offensive of 1968, the radio station in Qui Nhon City, located in South Vietnam, was attacked by VC insurgents seeking to play propaganda reels over the air to incite the masses to rise. Without spoiling anything, I will show you how it played out and a speculative fate for some of those involved if the Cthulhu Mythos was real.

Without further preamble, I bring you the first part of “Some Kind of Way Out of Here.”

Qui Nhon Radio Station after the Tet attack of 1968. This photo was on the cover of Time Magazine.

Qui Nhon Radio Station after the Tet attack of 1968. This photo was on the cover of Time Magazine.

### Part One ###

My hands did not shake as the knife penetrated her skin. Her inky eyes opened wide as the blade slipped between her breasts. She thanked me with her last breath. Despite our problems, she loved me still. Lien had told me so on countless occasions. She’d said it earlier tonight, when she dedicated a song to us; it was the last to play on Qui Nhon radio station before the start of Tet.

Like many of the Viet Cong recruits from Qui Nhon City or its outlying farms and villages, Lien and I had known each other since before the war. Our fathers had died fighting the Viet Minh, French colonialists, back in the Fifties. We grew up in the same neighborhood, one pockmarked by a succession of wars against an ever-changing cast of colonial powers.

Lien and I had lain together under the stars and listened to the radio play our favorite American and British rock bands. We formed a short-lived band in our teens with some second-hand instruments. And we sang together. Badly, I admit, but we tried our best.

Passing Qui Nhon radio station not-too-many years before that hellish night, we made a pledge while drunk on cheap cassava wine. We’d convince the radio station to play our music. We’d storm the booth and make them if necessary. We never made it as far as recording a demo. But a few hours before I’d cut my beloved’s life short, we did storm the station.

Our goal had been to force them to play the North’s call to arms, part of Hanoi’s nationwide appeal to our people to rise like a tide on Tet to drown the invaders and their Saigon puppets in blood. But we failed. When the call went largely unheard in Qui Nhon City, most of us ended up choking on our own blood or covered in that of our comrades.

Members of our battalion had been betrayed by an unknown source and caught in possession of copies of our propaganda tapes. With our forces spread thin throughout the city and on orders to maintain radio silence until the Party message ran, the operation could not be aborted. Thanks to a last minute tip from the police, the station’s technicians thwarted us; they sabotaged the equipment before we secured the building.

Across South Vietnam, commands from the North to crack the sky and shake the earth had played over the airwaves but failed to stir the populace. With a broken transmitter, our propaganda failed to play across Bin Dinh province. Using the employees as human shields, we stalled for time to repair it.

Our officers underestimated the impatience of the Republic of Korea’s commandos, fierce foes stationed in the city. We were on the verge of fixing the problem when their rockets and recoilless rifle fire penetrated the station. Countless rounds of small arms fire pockmarked the building in support of the heavy ordinance. Shrapnel blew several of my comrades apart and peppered my beloved’s torso and legs.

Most of our remaining defenders died in the final assault. A handful of our original force escaped into the sewers. Lien had been too wounded to make the trip from the sewers to our bunker complex in the Phu Cat Mountains; so she asked me to perform one final act of love, the kindness of killing her. Those who died during our failed operation turned out to be the lucky ones. The six survivors had no idea of the fresh hells that awaited us.

As we watched from a storm drain, soldiers with submachine guns and policemen leading trained dogs searched a residential neighborhood, while Sergeant Thanh, a scout for the sappers, argued with Lieutenant Minh, a NVA political officer attached to our battalion. Since neither was our direct superior, I abstained from the debate. My squad mates in the regional infantry, both privates, a joker named Hien and a thug called Quan, followed my lead. The sixth man, another sapper who clung to his RPG as if it was his paddle on this river of shit, hung close to Thanh, and didn’t speak to me or my men.

Unfortunately, Quan, rumored to have joined the war effort to legitimize his criminal activities, had his own idea on how to proceed. When the private pulled a grenade from his belt, I had to admit he had initiative, even if it were only for mayhem. He crossed the stream of waste, primed the explosive device, and pitched it out of the drain. The grenade bounced against the airfield fence and exploded between two police jeeps parked by the roadside, triggering secondary explosions, flipping the vehicles and setting them afire. Cops and soldiers abandoned their search and headed for the airfield.

Quan lobbed another grenade and said, “Run!”

We ran for the sewer exit at the base of the roadbed. The sun crested the horizon as we emerged into a drainage ditch. The combination of its rays and airfield floodlights plunged the houses ahead of us into shadow.

As we reached the last row of houses, the northern lieutenant asked, “Sergeant, can you recommend a safe way out of the city?”

“We could have stolen one of those jeeps back there,” Thanh mused, rubbing his stubble-covered chin, “but someone went and blew them up.” His round, wide-set eyes and ruddy skin marked him as a tribesman of the Central Highlands, many of whom had originated on the coast only to be pushed inland by invasion after invasion.

Averting his gaze from the fish-eyed sergeant, Quan said, “It beat standing in shit while you two measured your cocks with a chopstick. If you’d kept chattering like monkeys, we’d all be dead.”

Thanh crossed the distance between them before I blinked. He jabbed the butt of his rifle into the private’s stomach. Quan doubled over as the air left his lungs. He lunged forward and slammed into the sergeant, knocking the red cap from his head, but the stout tribesman held his ground.

“Enough,” I said. “I won’t have you hitting my men.” I regretted defending the squad bully, but he was our bully.

“Your men,” Thanh laughed. “You sound like a captain instead of a corporal.”

“He’ll make it there faster than either of you,” Minh interjected. “At least he’s focusing on the mission instead of fighting with subordinates.”

“The mission? Your Tet Offensive has been doomed from its inception.”

“Careful there, Sergeant” the political officer cautioned. “There’s a fine line between free and seditious speech during a time of war.”

Thanh’s turn came to drop his gaze, but he did not lower his guard. The other sapper retrieved his sergeant’s hat and returned it. The crimson ball cap featured a gray and white elephant, likely the logo of an American sports team.

Lieutenant Minh asked, “If you’re done scuffling like school boys, does anyone have a preferred route? If not, we’ll skirt Nui Ba Hoa to the west and try to find a ride.”

“That won’t work now,” Thanh replied. “We’ll never make it through the checkpoints. Our paperwork and uniforms won’t hold up to close scrutiny. Our best chance is the mountain itself. There is a ruined temple near the summit that should make good shelter until nightfall. Under the cover of darkness, we can head to the river, steal a boat, and then go north to the fallback point.”

“That’s a lot of climbing,” Hien lamented. “I didn’t join the army to become a mountaineer; I joined it for the high wages and safe working environment.”

“You and me both,” Quan added with a grunt. “I’m no mountain goat. Why don’t we hide in one of these apartment buildings until the heat dies down? Then we can slip out of town.”

“What if they search house-to-house?” I asked. “Do we fight off the police, ARVN, Korean commandos, and the Americans?”

“I see Corporal Ba is thinking ahead,” Minh said. “I don’t relish the idea of being trapped, surrounded by the enemy, with no way out.”

“What do you call our situation then?” Hien asked.

“I call it salvageable,” the lieutenant replied. “Sergeant, lead the way.”

Thanh nodded curtly, but I noted a slight grin on his mustachioed lips as he turned toward the mountain. He set a brisk pace, one that would have been impossible in the same low area during the wet season. The ground proved spongy but did not devour my already sodden shoes. However, Hien’s luck did not hold.

He tripped over his own feet and landed face first in the muck. Ever the clown, he sprang to his feet, hooted, and cavorted for our amusement. I laughed at the muddy buffoon’s antics despite my shock and exhaustion. We all did, even the dour scout sergeant. But our mirth did not last.

A menacing, mechanical whop-whop-whop, a noise that had come to fill my nightmares, cut through our laughter. My head snapped toward the rising clamor. A pair of Huey gunships rounded the southern slopes of Nui Ba Hoa on a path toward the smoke rising from the airfield.

“Run!” I’m not sure who issued the order first, but we all echoed it.

Hien slogged across the marsh but was weighed down by mud. I willed myself to wait for the hapless fool; my legs fought me, but I held my ground, wavering like a man trying not to piss himself. The sappers remained alongside me.

Minh followed Quan toward the undergrowth at the base of the mountain. The lieutenant shouted over the whop-whop-whop of the rotor blades, “Head for the trees.”

“He’s got the right idea,” Thanh urged. “C’mon.” He grabbed the sapper by the shoulder, but the other soldier refused to budge. Instead, he aimed the RPG.

The unnamed sapper waited until Hien passed us before firing. The rocket-propelled grenade streaked away and struck the lead helicopter. The Huey spun out of control as smoke poured from its ruined tail section. It struck the ground, flipped, and exploded close enough to me to feel the heat.

The remaining Huey altered course to pursue us. Its door gunner rattled off white hot rounds from a machine gun. I lost count of how many struck the sapper, but lead filled the air like rain. As we ran for our lives, tracers streaked by close enough to reach out and touch.

Had Lord Buddha not wanted me to experience greater suffering, I would have died alongside the sapper instead of reaching the wood line. Although trees splintered all around me from incoming fire, I waded through the flying shrapnel untouched, as if I had become one of the immortals.

“Follow me!” Thanh cried over the din of battle.

Sprinting through the forest, as if he’d been raised in it, the sergeant passed Minh and then Quan. The terrain changed ahead of us, and the slope took on a manicured appearance, as if it had been terraced in ages past. I noticed pieces of fallen columns bigger around than the trees. Glyphs and figures decorated some of them, but I had no time for sightseeing. I ran for my life.

Despite my fervent prayers, the Huey had not given up pursuit. The sound of the chopper blades followed us as we dodged through the foliage. Luckily, the helicopter’s shots went wide and its rockets flew over our heads to explode in the canopy.

Near the summit, a temple of stone loomed out of the undergrowth. Its dark, gaping opening appeared obscene, representing the opening of a woman or a lotus flower, perhaps both. The entire building broadcast an ominous vibe that prickled the hair on the back of my neck. For some reason, I feared the unknown beyond that doorway more than the Huey on my heels. But, as the Yankees would say, beggars could not choose their port in a storm. So, I dashed in after my comrades.

A barrage of the gunship’s rockets sought out the structure and collapsed the opening behind me. Stones rumbled like thunder as they shifted above me, but I did not let the absence of light stop my forward progression. I barreled headlong into someone and collapsed in a tangle of floundering limbs. Moments later, the temple came down on top of us. I surrendered to the darkness and fell into the land of dreams, which for me had become a place of nightmares since the start of the war in the South. This occasion proved no different, despite seeing Lien again.

### To Be Continued ###

This story was written by Jeremy Hicks. It is his original content and cannot be used anywhere else without his expressed written consent. However, this blog may be shared, reblogged, etc. on social media for the purposes of promoting the author, his blog, and his other creative works. 

Any resemblance to persons living or dead, events real or imagined, etc. is entirely intentional. This is a work of fiction but draws on real events and references the real world at times. Any reference, product placement, or pop culture quote is not intended to impinge on any trademark, patent, and/or copyright; rather it is flavor text for the dialogue of characters raised within the context of our pop culture.

 If you don’t like these terms of agreement, go check yourself. You’re complaining about a #FREE story.

A Happening Halloween with Rachael Hill

As I prepare for Halloween this year, I am excited to report those plans include spending the weekend at HallowCon with some of my favorite creative minds in the Southeast. To add to the excitement, I had the special pleasure of interviewing one of them beforehand. As imaginative and talented as she is pale and lovely, my friend Rachael Hill is the subject of today’s interview. Rachael is the author of Cuisine from Beyond, a professional photographer, experienced welder, culinary artist, and much more, as you’ll find out during the course of our interview.

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You’ve been called the Gothic Rachel Ray. Could you tell us about the book that spawned this apt description?

The book, Cuisine from Beyond, is a horror-themed cookbook inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos as a whole. I’ve always wanted to write a cookbook, but I didn’t want it to look like every other cookbook out there. I had to stand out and reflect my vision.

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If your vision included a visual feast for the eyes, I’d say you succeeded beyond your wildest expectations. Did you do all of the design work on your own or did you have help in putting it together?

I knew exactly what I wanted the cover and pages to look like. I just had to have help getting the images out of my head onto the pages. Mark Helwig did the cover art. He was somehow able to bring my idea of Chef Cthulhu to life. He is really brilliant at that. And as far as the rest of the design work, it was collaboration between me and the publisher. I’m sure I was quite the diva about it.

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How much experimentation did you do with the recipes beforehand? And have you gotten any feedback from people who have prepared your recipes?

Some of the recipes are recipes that I make often. But there are some that honestly had zero experimentation. I would literally have an idea, sometimes while in the grocery store, and roll with it. Sometimes it worked out and ended up in the book. Actually, it worked a lot of the time.

As far as feedback, yes, I’ve had several people contact me about cooking recipes from the book and that they loved them. A good bit of the feedback is about how easy the recipes are to follow. I also know of at least 2 people that have made every recipe from the book.

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How long have you been cooking creatively? And do you have any particular culinary mentors or other sources of inspiration?

I’ve been cooking for as long as I can remember. I don’t necessarily have any culinary mentors, but I grew up living next door to my grandparents and my grandmother was always cooking something. I can remember pulling a chair next to her and helping. She would make jellies and jams, from fruits her and my grandfather grew. I still make jams and jellies to this day. So, I suppose keeping those skills and memories alive is my inspiration.

Moon photograph taken by Rachael Hill

Moon photograph taken by Rachael Hill

In addition to your culinary and literary endeavors, you’re also a brilliant photographer, capturing everything from American bands to individual snowflakes to the icy rings of Saturn. And from what I understand you also set up most of the shots in your vaunted cookbook. How long have you been a photographer? And what are your favorite subjects/themes to explore?

Haha, I wouldn’t say brilliant. When I started the book, I was also learning about photography, so in the beginning I didn’t know too much. By the end of the book, I was MegaDiva about the shots. But, all photos were collaboration between me and Kevin and Joe. We all three put our heads together to make these shots beautiful.

I’ve only been a photographer for 4 years. I started in 2010 and it just took off.
My favorite subject by far to shoot is live music. I also love macro photography and astrophotography. My main goal with every photo I take is to capture feeling and emotion, not just an image.

Frozen bubble. Photograph taken by Rachael Hill.

Frozen bubble. Photograph taken by Rachael Hill.

A true Renaissance woman, you are also a painter. How would you describe your style and process? Do you have particular themes that you like to explore using paint and canvas?

I don’t consider myself a painter, at all. I know way too many artists that are brilliant at what they do, and to call myself an artist or painter is just nuts. But, I do, on occasion throw paint at canvas. I call it fast and messy art. Haha. There generally isn’t a theme. I guess whatever mood I’m in at the time reflects how I paint.

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Speaking of colorful canvases, like me, you’re a fan of ink and seem to find comfort under the needle. How many tattoos do you have so far? What are they? And what’s next?

Yes, I love being under those needles. I call it “tattoo therapy”. I only have like 8 tattoos. The number isn’t big, but the sizes of the tattoos are. I have a sleeve on my left arm. An original voodoo inspired artwork on my right forearm. A skull/flower piece on my chest. A demon hand ripping out of me on my left ribcage and the words “Somethings are Beyond Therapy” and the Ludovico Technique logo (the band that the quote came from) on my left ribcage that looks carved into my skin. Ummm.. a outline of a shark on my right ankle and a Winnie the Pooh on my left calf. Yes…a Winnie the Pooh.. don’t judge. Then there a few tribal tats here and there.

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What’s next.. hummm.. let’s see. There is a story behind the demon hand and the lyric carved into my side. Basically, in a nutshell, most people try to get rid of their inner demon. I embrace mine. I’ve also discovered the whole Supernatural fandom. So, I’m thinking my next tattoos will be something Supernatural-related that also ties with the whole “keeping my demon in” theme.

Andy Deane from Bella Morte at RavenCon. Photograph by Rachael Hill.

Andy Deane from Bella Morte at RavenCon. Photograph by Rachael Hill.

I like to ask a variation of this question of my interview subjects. If you could party with any creative type, living or dead, who would it be, and what would you drink and discuss?

This is such a hard question. I am so lucky to be able to know and hang out with so many creative types already. And I’m friends with someone that has inspired me so much already and that is Andy Deane of the band Bella Morte. I don’t really have an author that inspired me want to write or an artist that inspired me to create. So, after days of consideration, here is my answer. I pull a lot of inspiration from music, which is weird because I’m not a musician. And I’m not much of a partier or drinker, so I would probably just want to hang out and chill. But as far as a dead creative person, I’d say Peter Steele from Type O Negative. No idea what we’d drink, or discuss, but I “found my goth” by listening to Type O Negative. But the living person is someone that I’ve not actually physically spoken to and that would be Ben V. from Ludovico Technique. His music and lyrics have had such a huge impact on me personally. I’d drink Red Bull and water. I think I’d tell him how his words have helped me through some rough times, and then maybe we’d get out the telescopes and do some astrophotography. And now that I’ve went total fan girl and made a fool of myself, next question please.

Ben V. from the Ludovic Technique. Photograph & Jack-o-lantern by Rachael Hill

Ben V. from the Ludovic Technique. Photograph & Jack-o-lantern by Rachael Hill

Most people probably do not realize this, but the Gothic Rachel Ray is also a world-class industrial welder. Have you ever applied your skills with a welder or blowtorch to an industrial, metalwork, or steampunk-themed project? And if you have yet to do so, why in Dio’s name not?

Well, welding is my full time job. I’ve been welding for 19 years. And while I’m decent at it, I do not want to do it outside of my job. I’ve never applied my skills to any art or metalwork. And as far as a steampunk-themed project? I am going to make a few enemies here, but, you will NEVER see me do anything steampunk-themed. I am not a fan of steampunk at all. The only steampunk thing I even remotely like is the band Abney Park, outside of that, nope, no steampunk in my future.

Lemur Zombie. Photograph taken by Rachael Hill.

Lemur Zombie. Photograph taken by Rachael Hill.

What creative project are you working on currently?

Currently, I’m trying to get back into the artistic side of photography. I got so busy doing portraits and weddings that I lost that side of photography. I would only pick up my camera if I had to. I’m also working on releasing a small magazine/digest version of my book with all new recipes. And I am working on starting my blog back up, though I’ve really dropped the ball on that.

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Last but not least, when and where will you be making your next public appearance?

My next public appearance has yet to be determined. I will be attending HallowCon (in Dalton, GA) on Halloween weekend. There will be a table there with my books for sale.

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Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions about yourself. I know you prefer the darkness and behind humble, so I appreciate you letting me sing your praises and shine some light on you and your various creative pursuits. As always, talking with you has been a pleasure. I look forward to the sequel to Cuisine from Beyond almost as much as I look forward to hanging out with you at HallowCon once again.

To find out more about Rachael Hill Photography, check out her page on Facebook here:

https://www.facebook.com/Rachael.Hill.Photography

You can follow Rachael Hill on Flickr at the following URL:

http://www.flickr.com/rdhill

To purchase Cuisine from Beyond on Amazon, click the following URL:

http://www.amazon.com/Cuisine-Beyond-Rachael-D-Hill/dp/0977043789

For more information about HallowCon, click on the picture below:

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Author Interview: Logan Masterson and the Denizens of Ravencroft Springs

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Little did our subject, author/editor/artisan Logan L. Masterson, realize that he’d become the topic of the afternoon, even before arriving for his interview. During our usual ritual of in depth conversation over the chaos of Call of Duty, my brother Joshua and I had been discussing our own personal experiences with the weird and wild denizens of Ravencroft Springs. This fictional town, the epicenter of Masterson’s novella of the same name, recently released by Pro Se Press, hit close to home for us.

My brother and I grew up on a farm on the edge of a creepy little town nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians, one caught in a cycle of crime, grime, and decay similar to Masterson’s Ravencroft Springs. There are even mysterious murders, missing persons, and mouldering rows of millhouses. As a result, the old mining town portrayed in Masterson’s novella came alive for us. It easily becomes a believable centerpiece for the grim events that unfold in this brief, fast-moving tale of unlikely lovers doomed by abyssal, otherworldly creatures and their murderous cultists, common enough tropes in Lovecraftian horror that are utilized quite well in this Southern gothic story.

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With Masterson’s easy, flowing prose and the conversational tone of its narrator, Ravencroft Springs feels like an even faster read, which is a shame, because it left us wanting more. More of the smart, determined protagonist. More of the deranged, deformed townies. And more beings from the Cthulhu Mythos. So, you can bet we hope to read more tales of terror set in Ravencroft Springs soon. We’re sure that you will too after reading it.

As for its creator, I met Logan Masterson after he edited my short story submission for Capes and Clockwork, a Dark Oak Press anthology featuring stories about superheroes in the age of steam. He is also the author of one of the entries in this collection of steampunk superhero stories. Mr. Masterson also served as editor on the Pulpology anthology; however, he was not one of the contributors for that collection. After nearly a year on the hectic convention circuit and working on our individual projects, I finally had a chance to sit Logan down and ask him about his writing, editing, and other projects. Let’s hope you enjoy his answers as much as I did.

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How long have you been writing fiction? And what genre(s) do you prefer?

I’ve been writing fiction formally since I was a teenager, some twenty-five years ago. I took it up seriously, along with poetry, way back in high school. There was a long hiatus there, but I’m back in the saddle and giving it a real go now.

I love all the speculative genres, but my real calling is probably fantasy. I love world-building and epic adventure so very much that anything else I write becomes fantasy in some sense anyway.

When writing fiction, do you prefer short stories, novellas, or novels? Why?

The novella is probably the perfect form for me. Its length allows for plenty of development and a subplot or two without begging for filler. Writing short stories is really rough, especially at the common 7,000 word limit. Novels are also difficult, since they demand a tremendous amount of content that must be lovingly curated. The fantasy novel is even tougher: it’s easy to fill a book with unnecessary background, action and detail.

What writer(s) has/have influenced your writing the most?

If I had to pick a handful, they would be Tolkien, Dickens, Raymond E. Feist, Neil Gaiman, and lately Alex Bledsoe, especially his Tufa novels.

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As a writer, are there common themes or tropes that you prefer to use in your work?

The tropes really depend on the genre, but the themes are pretty much the same throughout. Humanity is my theme. The strengths and weaknesses that make us what we are: love, hate, tradition, fear; these are the internals. Externally, humanity is culture, war, greed, nobility, and a thousand more facets of a great dusky jewel.

Where do you find inspiration for your writing?

Inspiration is everywhere. Everywhere! I find ideas in comic books, TV shows, the news, personal anecdotes, just all over the place. Combining elements, working ideas together and hammering them into something newish, that’s the tricky bit.

Is there a work of fiction that you keep coming back to, one that you can read over and over again? If so, why?

The Lord of the Rings. I’ve read it more than a dozen times. It’s epic and personal, the scion of fantasy, but shot through with tremendous horror. Tolkien’s prose is incredible in places, and his descriptions are comfortable and evocative enough to make a reader feel like he’d actually been there. I also revisit Shakespeare and Dickens every once in a while, to touch the very avatars of character and structure respectively.

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As far as your own work goes, what are you working on currently?

I have several projects on the go just now, all at various stages. The first sequel to Ravencroft Springs is forming up nicely in my head. Meanwhile, I’m getting words down on a new series of fantasy short(ish) stories about three postulant priestesses. An epic fantasy continues to slow roast on the back burner, if I can slant-mix a metaphor.

Will there be a sequel to Ravencroft Springs? If so, what can you tell us about it?

I can’t say much, really, but I’ll give you this: Ravencroft Springs is the first installment in a Supernatural Southern Gothic trilogy. Since the tropes of supernatural horror are crystal clear, I thought I’d muddy the waters a bit by adding elements of the southern gothic, a genre steeping in history and mystery.

What will be coming out next for you?

I have a couple of finished stories in different stages of submission right now, so I’m not sure what will come first. There’s a prequel to Ravencroft Springs out there, and a sequel to my Prime Movers story in Capes & Clockwork. I’ll be sure to let you know when “The Feast of Love” and “The Ecuadorian Adventure” come out.

Where will you be making your next public appearance to promote your work?

My next scheduled event right now is Killer Nashville, a great crime and mystery conference here in town on August 21-24. It’s a great event, with a staged crime scene contest, lots of amazing panels, and terrific guests. After that, I’ll be at Imaginarium in September, a new convention in Louisville, and at the Southern Festival of Books here in Nashville in October.

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Find out more about Logan L. Masterson and his creative endeavors at the following link: http://agonyzer.com/

Like Logan’s author page on Facebook @ https://www.facebook.com/LoganLMasterson

Like the Ravencroft Springs fan page on Facebook @ https://www.facebook.com/RavencroftSprings

Buy Ravencroft Springs on Amazon @ http://www.amazon.com/Ravencroft-Springs-Logan-L-Masterson-ebook/dp/B00K1I5RPO

Buy Capes & Clockwork on Amazon @ http://www.amazon.com/Capes-Clockwork-D-Alan-Lewis/dp/1937035689

Buy Pulpology on Amazon @ http://www.amazon.com/Pulpology-D-Alan-Lewis/dp/1496140478