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 Three)

And here’s where it starts to get weird…

chaugnar-faughn-statue-small

### Part Three ###

The weak beams of their electric lanterns darted along the rough walls. The three enlisted men crossed one narrow stone bridge and then another as they explored the expansive main chamber. They signaled to us each time they located a passageway leading away from it. I signaled back with my hand-powered flashlight, while Minh plotted the archways on the map he’d started.

They’d found a total of five possible egresses from the central cavern. Wait, no, six, I reminded myself. The lieutenant had forgotten to include the stairway leading back to the surface temple, until I pointed it out to him. Based on the sketch map, I expected two more passageways to be discovered.

Here at the feet of an alien god, according to the map, we sat at the hub of a wheel of dharma. Minh would have noticed it too, but the atheistic Communist Party cheerleader could see nothing beyond the material plane. Were we being judged? Or had our guilt been established before any of us set foot in this sacred place?

In short order, the sergeant located a collapsed corridor to the southwest, while Hien and Quan identified an archway along the western wall. A waterfall had helped to conceal it from afar. Water trickled down from the skylight in the ceiling of the cave and pooled in a shallow cistern below the drip line of the waterfall. The overflow ran through a narrow aqueduct. It fed another shallow basin in the shape of an open clamshell.

The elephant god’s dais sat in the center of this water-filled basin. Upon closer inspection, I realized its lower appendages were not legs at all. One tentacle overlaid another in a twisted approximation of the lotus position. They wound around the base of the corpulent statue like serpents before trailing downward into the water.

Four of the seven passageways turned out to be safe. Two of the remainder tapered to rubble strewn dead ends within meters, and the staircase was no kind of way out of here. Minh decided we’d rest and then seek the right path. But we all agreed not to tarry too long. No one wanted to starve, much less consider the grisly alternatives.

The waterfall feeding the pools provided fresh water, so dehydration was not an immediate threat. Despite a metallic tang, like rust on the tongue, the water seemed safe enough. It did not kill us or make us shit ourselves while exploring the meandering corridors under the mountain. As our sole water source, however, it limited our ability to travel beyond the main room for extended periods.

My dead lover manifested on a regular basis after we started trying to find our way clear of the temple complex. Though no one else seemed to see or hear Lien, I tried and failed to convince myself that she was my guilty conscience or a specter of the mind’s eye, a byproduct of shock, concussion, and exhaustion.

Wandering the winding corridors one after another, Thanh led us deeper into the heart of Hui Bah Noa. As we passed mural after mural carved into the walls, he spoke of Ganesha, Shiva, and his wife Kali. He told us how the gods of the Cham had warred with demons from the stars in a previous cycle of ages, when man existed in a state of barbarism. The victorious gods had sealed the demons in cities beneath the sea.

Lien would smile in her bemused way, like the first time I saw her slit a grown man’s throat, and shake her head. Then she would explain to me a bit more about the true gods, the Great Old Ones, and how the statue on the dais, Chaugnar Faugn, represented an entity older than the Cham and even their Hindu gods. Ganesha represented a later benevolent interpretation of this bloodthirsty being from beyond the stars.

Confounded by another collapsed corridor, we backtracked to the main chamber and set up camp. The sun had passed overhead hours ago, and the wan light of late afternoon filtered down from the domed ceiling. It draped the bloated statue in long shadows, giving it an even more sinister appearance.

I slept but did not rest. My fever dreams became nightmares. Lien and I wandered alone along the corridors. She led me through dark passages by one ice cold hand, but we ended up back to the main chamber. Even in the dreamscape, I could not escape the Temple of Chaugnar Faugn.

Lien danced for me here, slow and sensual, before making love to me in the pool at the base of the statue. As I neared climax, she transformed into the being on the dais and wrapped her tentacles around me. Her lips and tongue became the engorged trunk of the beast. The monster forced itself inside my mouth before I could scream. I felt the end of the invasive appendage uncoiling, expanding in my throat. And then I came.

I awoke crying and shaking, ashamed of the sticky mess in my trousers. Crawling to the base of the pool, I lapped at the brackish water before realizing what I was doing. I sputtered and fell back on my haunches.

The statue loomed over me, bathed in the early light of dawn. It appeared to be smiling broader than before, but something else seemed different. As my vision cleared, I could see that someone had removed the dagger with the ruby pommel from its chest. Apparently, the thief had pilfered the smaller blood rubies too. All that remained was a star-shaped scar on a bare white bosom.

I tried to stand but lost my balance when my hand hit something sticky yet slippery on the floor. I landed on one of my comrades and sputtered an apology. When no one responded, I rolled over to find out who I’d disturbed.

I came face to face with dead-eyed Hien. His throat had been slit with the precision of a surgeon; blood had covered his chest before pooling on the floor around him. Judging by his warmth, he hadn’t been dead long.

My screams brought Thanh and Minh to my side, but I saw no sign of Quan or his gear. I forced myself not to be sick as the implications became clear. When one looked beneath the surface, they were dire indeed.

“Looks like Mr. Tough Guy filled his pockets,” Thanh explained. “Too bad Clown Shoes woke up and had to be silenced. Guess Quan didn’t want to leave any witnesses.”

The lieutenant nodded in agreement. But Lien stood behind Thanh, shaking her head again. I had to agree; the sergeant’s story stunk worse than a fish market on a hot day. To an outsider, his neat explanation made sense. But I knew both of those men. And they knew each other.

“That’s plausible enough,” I said, “unless you know they’d been neighbors most of their lives. Or that Hien had married Quan’s sister last year. If greed had blinded Quan enough to kill his brother-in-law, why would he leave us alive? One burst from his rifle, and there are no loose ends.”

Thanh didn’t answer. Instead, he stared at the statue, rolling a cigarette from a battered tin of tobacco. My tired eyes tracked from lingering Lien to the statue to the scout sergeant. His trench lighter flared brightly when he lit his cigarette. The glow of the firelight danced across the embroidered elephant logo.

What my mind had not been able to correlate before came together with the clarity of a puzzle missing a few key pieces. Between Lien and Thanh, they would provide them. I’d make sure of it or die trying. I’d had enough of lies.

“Ask him about his hat,” Lien whispered. “He’ll lie.”

“Don’t tell me what to do,” I muttered. “I know he’s a liar. I don’t need to know about his hat to know he’s been leading us in circles for days, until we’re too weak to do anything about it.” I shouted, “But what is it? Answer me, goddammit! Are we supposed to be sacrifices to that thing? Did you sacrifice Hien? Quan too?”

All eyes were on me then. Everyone stared at the ranting lunatic, the corporal who’d been speaking with the unquiet dead. But I hadn’t cracked; I had come to a conclusion. The man who’d led us here had a sinister hidden agenda. And I was right.

### 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.

From the Slushpile: The Devil & Klaus Kristiansen (Final Installment)

### \m/ ###

In the end, we dragged the dead into Luke’s tent and then burned them along with the pine forest. If we were fortunate, fire would cleanse the bodies and the crime scene. The lazy local police would write it up as a tragic accident: two druggies passed out, and their untended campfire burned them and the woods to ash. Case closed.

Klaus, Turtle, and I made a pact that night, one sealed with the blood of our friend. We resolved to never talk about it to anyone, even each other. It started as a dream, a nightmare to be honest, and it would end that way. We lived in the waking world after all and things like that didn’t happen here. Denial became our creed, our code.

For a time, it worked. As the years passed, we drifted apart. And like all college friends, we went our separate ways after leaving school.

I finished before both of them and got a job with a private archaeology firm putting my degree and my experience with shovels to use every day. I faced my dark times and moved past them; I enjoyed the woods around me, especially the grainy feel of the wooden handle in my calloused hands. For me, my work experience was cathartic.

Klaus finished his double majors and took a position with a rigidly structured, family-owned corporation that didn’t mesh well with his selfish satanic views and rock ‘n roll lifestyle. After his short-lived, volatile career in the private sector, he retreated from public life too. Instead of partying with friends or playing heavy metal music at local bars, he hid away from the world at his grandmother’s expansive farm in the southern part of the county. The last I’d heard he was delivering pizza to make ends meet.

Turtle, surprisingly enough, went into law enforcement. Or at least as close as they’d let him with bad eyes, bum knees, and a pronounced beer belly. He worked as a radio dispatcher for the county sheriff’s office and would always let me know if someone we knew got robbed, arrested, or even pulled over for that matter. Turtle provided better gossip than my grandmother, beloved family snoop and infamous community busybody.

Since he monitored other people’s communications as part of his job, Turtle avoided relaying anything to me through digital channels such as phones and Facebook. So I’d gotten used to the occasional handwritten letter from him stuffed into the tiny mailbox at the apartment building near my home office. But the overstuffed manila envelope from him took me by surprise. I found its grisly contents even more shocking.

Turtle enclosed a long, rambling letter along with newspaper clippings and what appeared to be photocopies of police files and crime scene photos. The clippings detailed the accidental discovery of human remains. As they are wont to do when replacing or installing a new water line, county workers had dug a trench across a county road that had been paved several years before. Only on this occasion, they had trenched across the femur bones of a local woman who’d gone missing shortly before the road was redone.

The newspaper articles were short on details, but the letter informed me that the police had withheld information until a proper forensic analysis of the body could be conducted. According to the photos and reports, they’d learned that she’d been a victim of a heinous but familiar crime. Her ribs had been cracked open and her heart removed. The county medical examiner called the killing ritualistic, perhaps the work of a Satanist. In his letter, Turtle appealed to me for answers. Did I think it was Luke’s handiwork? Could Klaus have been possessed by it when he killed Luke? Should he talk to the cops?

My blood ran cold as my breathing hitched, almost causing me to toss my lunch. I fought down the growing sense of alarm and the feeling of betrayal. I checked the postmark. It was dated almost a week ago, the newspaper clippings two weeks earlier.

I called Turtle’s cell phone several times but received no answer. Alarm turned to panic and paranoia. Perhaps he was at work. Perhaps he was at work telling his buddies in blue all about a similar murder he’d witnessed once upon a time. Or maybe he was dead already. After all, if this killing had come to light, so could the others. A smart killer threatened with possible exposure wouldn’t leave loose ends. And there were only three living souls who knew the truth about heartless victims in the rolling hills of Bama.

One call to Turtle’s mother confirmed my suspicions. Through the sound of tears and a snot-filled nose, she told me how her baby boy had eaten a big meal, drank most of a bottle of the wine I’d sent him from a winery in Tennessee, and then gone to bed for the last time. She’d found him the next morning. He’d been dead for hours. The paramedics had taken one look at the bloated body surrounded by crumpled pizza boxes, fast food wrappers, and empty beer and wine bottles and called it a cardiac event. The doctors at the for-profit regional medical center had confirmed it without so much as an autopsy. By the time my conversation ended with Turtle’s mom, I’d agreed to be a pallbearer. After all, I had to come home to deal with some unfinished business anyway.

I didn’t bother to unpack my work clothes or equipment as this trip was liable to involve some digging. I hung my black suit above my dress shoes in the backseat of the truck and headed for home. I dreaded going back there, even if only for a little while, so I took my sweet time. Alone with my thoughts, I hardened myself for the task to come.

Rain drizzled on the somber assembly around the grave of my friend. The Turtle’s law enforcement friends and co-workers had come out in force. Pardon the pun. But funerals always help me find the humor in life.

I stared across the thin blue line, an odd euphemism since most of the cops made Turtle look svelte by comparison. Klaus glared back at me. His cold black eyes seemed lifeless, his skin pale as a corpse, a stark contrast to his black-on-black wardrobe. As always, he punctuated his severe gothic punk look with his silvery pentagram pendant. In short, little about him had changed in those years since the bad old days.

I decided on my course of action as the preacher hemmed and hawed about the glory of the Lord or some other such nonsense. Like most ministers in the South, he’d chosen the forum of a funeral to harangue people into attending church rather than celebrating the life and times of our fallen friend.

Typical, I thought. Turtle must be rolling in his coffin. His parents might have found Jesus in their later years, but their gifted gypsy boy had remained an outspoken pagan and amateur psychic as an adult. Of the three of us, I considered him the least likely to set foot in a church and that was saying quite a bit. Klaus adhered to LeVayan Satanism as opposed to theistic Luciferianism, but he was still an ardent anti-Christian. And I’d probably burst into flames by walking through the doors of any church.

After the rainy, gray funeral ended and the army of men in blue dispersed, Klaus approached me. As always, he looked grave and serious. He’d been born and would die a walking stereotype. Too bad the people around him tended to judge a book by its cover, including his friends and family. He looked dejected, lonely, and a shadow of himself.

“We have to talk,” he said, adjusting the waistband of his Victorian dress pants. As he did so, the handle of his pistol became visible. Carrying a concealed weapon at a funeral, I thought. He must be scared, stupid, or serious, deadly serious. I bet on all three.

“There’s nothing to talk about, remember?” I reminded Klaus and turned away.

He grabbed me by the arm, and I locked eyes with him. My gaze bore into his vacant eyes, and he withered like a sunflower deprived of sunshine under its intensity. Klaus let go and stepped away from me.

“For what it’s worth,” he said, “I’m sorry for everything that went wrong back in the day. I wanted to tell Turtle that too. I didn’t think…he was still so young. But I guess we’re not guaranteed any day beyond this one, right?”

“That’s a truer statement for some than it is for others.”

Klaus shivered in his oversized suit and pulled the long-tailed jacket tighter around him. Raising his dark eyes to my own, he tried to smile and failed. He averted his gaze and shuffled his feet. I couldn’t admit to being any more comfortable around him.

“Let’s talk about this indoors,” he said. “I’m freezing my balls off out here.”

“Can’t do it at the moment. I have to visit family while I’m here.”

“How about after I get off work tonight? I’ll be there till around 11 o’clock.”

“Are you still delivering pizzas?”

“Yeah,” he shuffled his feet in the wet grass around the open grave. “It’s hard to find a job around these parts with degrees in psychology and sociology.”

“Imagine that,” I chuckled. “The way I keep work is by staying on the road. Speaking of the road, I need to be hitting it soon. Thanks by the way.”

“Thanks for what? The apology?”

“That and the gift.”

Klaus looked confused. After a moment, he asked, “The gift of friendship?”

“You could say that,” I winked. “It’s something I wouldn’t have without you.”

“Uh, give me a call at work later.” He added, “If you want to, that is.”

I smiled and said, “Neither heaven nor hell could stop me.”

I left Klaus standing in the rain. By the time, I saw him that evening it had ceased. The temperature was hot and muggy as it tended to be in the Deep South. He stepped onto the ill lit porch of the rundown house. One of many foreclosures in the avenues on the eastside of town, I’d taken the real estate sign out of the yard and made it my own for the night. There was one thing left to do here in the Hellmouth and then I could go.

“Ever seen the back of a shovel?” I asked my prey as he stood framed in the pale moonlight. Though I wore the skin of his former friend, I considered him to be one thing, a loose end. He might have brought me into this world, but I was taking him out of it.

The answer I sought came a moment later when the shovel blade made contact with an all-too-familiar face. His eyes rolled back into the sunken sockets as he groaned in pain. Unwilling to give my enemy any quarter, I swung again…and again. The shovel rang like a badly forged bell.

KLANG! KLANG! KLANG!

My heart raced; my breathing grew ragged and shallow. I needed to lose weight.

KLANG! KLANG! KLANG!

I didn’t stop until the bloody mess that lay below the blade of the spade was no longer recognizable as the man I’d once called friend. Klaus twitched spastically and tried to reach for the pistol in his belt holster. So I hit him once more for good measure.

Turtle, the facilitator, had been easier, an accident had sufficed. He sent me letters on a regular basis; and I mailed him unique wines and liquors encountered in my travels. When my grandmother, a faster but less reliable source of gossip from the county grapevine, had told me about the body found in a stretch of highway, I knew I had to act. Enough pure nicotine injected through the cork of a wine bottle had done the trick. An overweight smoker having a heart attack seemed as natural to the corner as the majesty of the secluded hilltop where I now stood over the hole I’d dug for Klaus Kristiansen.

On another fateful morning near the Hellmouth, I buried my conduit, the final witness to my unwelcome, unceremonious birth into the world of humankind, deep in the Alabama clay.

But not before I ate his heart.

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: The Devil & Klaus Kristiansen (Part IV)

### \m/ ###

Luke’s family farm stretched along both sides of the rural highway that routed traffic through the north end of our county to the Georgia line. Laden with beer, liquor, and few other party favors, we sought to attract as little attention as possible from the roving county patrols. So we parked in front of one of the cattle gates on an unpaved farm road that led onto their property.

The waxing moon illuminated our awkward climb over the rickety steel gate. Once far enough from the highway, we switched on our flashlights and followed the winding trail through the woods toward the familiar camping site, a mainstay of our freshman and sophomore years. What had been fertile farmland in decades past was now an expanse of rock and red clay covered by an overgrown pine plantation.

Neither Klaus nor Turtle spoke as we moved toward our destination. To my knowledge, they hadn’t spoken to each other since the morning of the incident in Klaus’s apartment. But that hadn’t stopped either of the quarreling friends from using me as a sounding board and occasional go-between.

I hoped Luke would have a rational explanation for his rash decision to return to a state of nature. And if not a sensible reason, at least one fueled by his years of drug abuse rather than the supernatural.

Born and raised in these parts, I took the lead on our silent moonlit stroll. Though my eyelids were heavy, I still took the opportunity to gaze up at the pale beauty shining in the sky above us. My enjoyment was not to last, for one spider web and then another brushed my face, setting me on edge.

My unease turned to alarm when a cry broke the stillness of the night. We stopped walking and panned the beams of our flashlights around to scan our surroundings. Our resolve wavered like a stand of pine trees in the path of a twister. Another scream almost sent us into full flight.

“Is that a woman screaming?” Klaus asked as he backed down the trail.

“Probably a big cat, maybe a panther,” I replied, more concerned about becoming a meal for a hungry hunting cat than anything else.

“That’s reassuring. Glad I’m armed.”

“Armed? What the fuck do you mean you’re armed? I got drugs on me and a record haunting me. That ain’t cool, man!”

“Simmer down, convict,” Klaus quipped, referring to my brief stay in county jail over a possession charge. “I didn’t bring my Glock, so your ass cherry is safe. But I brought this baby.” He opened his leather jacket to reveal a foot long bowie knife. He pulled the blade halfway out of its sheath and gestured to its sheen.

Turtle commented, “I see you dipped it in silver like I said.”

“Yeah,” Klaus answered, “I did it like bluing a gun. Let’s just hope it worked.”

“What do you mean ‘dipped it in silver’?” I asked. “And when did you two start talking to each other again?”

“We haven’t been talking,” Turtle said. “We’ve been emailing. Making plans.”

“Making plans for what exactly?” I asked, my level of alarm rising along with my sense of dread.

“It’s probably nothing, Jay,” Klaus said, returning the knife to its sheath. He used my first name so rarely that I knew that the situation was grave. “But didn’t Boy Scouts teach you to be prepared? Isn’t that your motto: hope for the best; prepare for the worst?”

“Guys, I don’t like where this conversation is going,” I reiterated. “This is not a game; we are not smiting evil. We see where that avenue led us, nowhere fast.”

Another scream from the direction of the firelight shimmering through the trees interrupted any response to my warning. But it reinforced their position. Perhaps this had been an ill-conceived notion. Or could it have been a deliberate manipulation based on their fears, superstitions, and ulterior motives? Had my friends coaxed me here because they thought Luke possessed? Worse yet, could they be right? Was it even possible?

We crept toward the edge of the clearing that contained the camp site, but no further cries assailed us. Instead, a wet sucking sound met my ears that caused me to halt instead of pushing through the wood line.

“Sounds like a wet boot stuck in mud?” Klaus whispered.

Turtle blushed and giggled. “Or something like that.”

Could we be interrupting Luke and one of his dippy hippie girlfriends? I thought. If so, how angry would they be with us for disturbing their nocturnal, arboreal romp?

“What do we do now?” I asked. “Should we let him know we’re here? Don’t know about ya’ll, but I’ve got no interest in seeing hairy man ass by the pale moonlight.”

“You’re in luck then,” Klaus replied. “Luke is pretty hairless.”

I paused in mid step. “And how do you know that?”

“We’ve gone to the gym before,” Klaus explained, “to work out.”

Turtle pantomimed an obscene sexual gesture behind Klaus’s back and caused me to giggle despite the nebulous nature of our situation. The human scarecrow spun around but failed to catch our clownish friend in the act. The frustration and bewilderment on Klaus’s face caused us to share another laugh at his expense.

“Come with me if you want to see your gym buddy,” I said in a horrible mockery of California’s former Governator. I added with a squawking cry, “Get to the clearing!”

Turtle and I were still laughing at my bad impression of Arnold Schwarzenegger when we broke through the pines and into the area cleared for the family campsite. But laughter and mirth died on our lips as we surveyed the shadowy sanguine scene illumed by the flickering campfire. In the coming months, what I saw that awful night would haunt me; I couldn’t laugh or sleep from the time the moon rose until it set. After that punctuated period of insomnia passed, my memories of the silver lady remained forever tarnished by the image of our bloody friend bathed in her light.

Luke crouched over the nude body of a young woman whose chest had been ripped open. Rocking back and forth on his bare feet, he gnawed on the ruined heart clutched in his hands. As my mind reeled, it connected the dots for me. I recognized the similarities between the act of terror playing out before our eyes and the murderous scene from our dreams. The location and victim were different, but the ritualistic nature of the killing was almost identical. Klaus’s darkest dreams had become our new reality.

Luke’s black eyes sought us out across the firelight. He stared at us without blinking for what seemed like an eternity. And then he went back to the hearty meal in his hands.

“What do we do now?” I asked, truly at a loss.

“We do what we came here to do,” Klaus replied.

“And what is that exactly?”

“We end this,” Turtle said. “We send this thing back to where it came from.”

I didn’t like where this was going. “And how do we do that?”

“We kill the host with a sliver of silver in the heart and then burn the body. That should do it.”

“Are you sure, Turtle?”

“Nope.”

“Thanks, thanks a lot, guys.” Not that I meant it. “So what now, brave crusaders?”

Klaus drew his silvered bowie knife and yelled, “We charge!”

In the landscape of his mind’s eye, he saw himself as the shining noble warrior he preferred to play in our Dungeons and Dragons expeditions. But he had less training with a knife than he had experience at stabbing someone in the heart, which was to say zero, to my knowledge.

Perplexed and unarmed, I watched as disaster, born from my friend’s inability to distinguish reality from fantasy, manifested itself before my very eyes.

Luke raised his head and shrieked so shrilly that it halted Klaus’s advance. My friend staggered under the assault on his eardrums and equilibrium. As soon as he was off balance, Luke leapt. He sprung into the air and landed close enough to Klaus to force the taller man back a step.

Klaus dropped the knife as he gazed into the soulless eyes of the being inside our friend. He turned to run but never made it. Luke pounced on him like a blood-soaked Tigger and took the lanky man to the ground. Snarling, Luke clawed and snapped at him. Blood from the cannibal on his chest dribbled into Klaus’s mouth. Gagging and retching, he flopped like a fish underneath the lighter but stronger man on top of him.

Turtle rushed forward, but I put discretion before valor. No way was I facing off against some hellish thing with a sack full of beer and munchies. Looking about the campsite, my eyes settled on a shovel at the edge of the clearing. I bolted for it.

Turtle and Klaus wrestled with our possessed friend as I raced to arm myself. They punched, kicked, and elbowed him but nothing seemed to stop the assault. Turtle’s choke hold ended badly when Luke flipped our hefty friend over his shoulder. Luke tore at Klaus with his fingernails and then latched onto his forearm like a vicious pit bull.

Snatching the spade from the edge of the freshly dug latrine, I looked back toward the tussling trio of men I’d called friends before this insanity began a few weeks ago. I realized at that point I was risking my life for people who’d risked it without any concern for my safety.

Turtle had done so with his psychic parlor tricks gone awry. And then Klaus had led me to the woods tonight under false pretenses with his half-assed plan to stake a man possessed by a murderous being from another world, be it one of dreams, spirit, or fire and brimstone. By all rights, I should have fled.

But I didn’t. And when I can’t sleep at night now, I remember that that was my turning point, the moment that I sealed my fate and decided my future. I hefted the shovel like some medieval pole arm and sprinted toward the tussling trio. As I closed on them, I swung with all my might. The shovel blade rang when it made contact with the side of Luke’s head. He landed on the ground beside Klaus but kept fighting. The handle vibrated in my hands but spurred me onward. So I kept swinging.

Luke’s skull gave way before my arms did, but the mangled body kept fighting me long after its face was no longer recognizable as our friend. Finally, Klaus stumbled forward and jammed the silver knife deep into the possessed man’s chest. The effect was instantaneous. Luke seized and then collapsed backward. He lay there unmoving, smoke rising from the wound. I couldn’t tell if it was the flesh smoldering or the silver boiling.

The smoke from the body of our murdered friend rose up around us. It grew so thick, so fast that it obscured Klaus for a moment. The noxious cloud dissipated quickly, and then it was gone. We were left in the clearing with an injured friend, a dead one, and the ravaged body of a total stranger.

### Stay Tuned. The Final Installment is coming soon ###

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.

Also, if I’ve let you read this story in the past, please do not post spoilers in the comments here or on any of my social media.

Thanks!

From the Slushpile: The Devil & Klaus Kristiansen (Part III)

Author’s Note: In the interest of timeliness, I have compressed my serialization to five parts. I want you to read all of this before Halloween. 3:)

### \m/ ###

My eyes tried to focus on the unearthly visage of the beast, but my brain either failed or refused to fully comprehend its features. The inky mass moved rapidly. Tucking the heart in close to its own rotten excuse for one, it sprung toward the far wall. The shadow thing reminded me of a running back on the move and the open window appeared its end zone.

I rushed to the windowsill but moved too slowly to intercept the shadow. To this day, I’m not sure what I’d have done had I caught the tiger by the tail. Truth be told, I was woefully unprepared for the challenge, mind, body, and soul.

The shadowy devil leapt from the second story of the plantation house. It landed on its feet in the dense foliage below the window and fled into the forest. Stuck in a mind bound by conventional physics, I didn’t see how I could follow without injuring myself.

So I gave chase with my mind’s eye. Turtle took my hand there in the dimly lit bedroom. He had entered quietly; ignoring the dying girl, he’d moved to my side. As he took my hand, my metaphysical self flowed forth like a river, pursuing my prey.

Through the eyes of the beast, I saw the twisted foliage and dense woods beyond the edge of the college property. The shadow fled through all of it with ease, even grace, pulling our senses along with its own. As its malevolent thoughts intruded upon my own, I realized I’d come to share more than its senses. I shared its mind and accessed its awful alien thoughts. But as I peered into its abyssal depths, it looked back.

I had no sooner locked eyes with this devil, when I was suddenly pulled back into Klaus’s living room. Across from me, Turtle convulsed, frothed at the mouth, and then flopped onto his rounded back. As our flailing friend let go of our hands, Klaus flew backwards as if he’d been struck.

Feeling as if I’d French-kissed an open circuit, I slumped back on the overstuffed couch, exhausted yet exhilarated by the whole strange experience. The universe would never look the same to me again. And I knew my courage and curiosity would always see me through the trials and tribulations to come.

However, my fear returned in full force as our friend continued to convulse on Klaus’s carpet. The bewildered dreamer and I removed any items and furniture from harm’s way but knew enough not to interfere with Turtle’s seizure. Klaus was on the phone dialing emergency services when the spasms ceased abruptly.

Turtle sat bolt upright in the floor.  His head turned to Klaus stiffly.  And he said, “No police. No ambulance. I’m fine.”

Klaus looked at me instead of Turtle. I shrugged. After all, who was I to tell Turtle how he was supposed to feel after dragging all three of us into some dream hell created by Klaus’s diseased mind. Reluctantly, he set the phone back into the cradle.

“Are you sure, man?” Klaus asked.

“Yesss…” Turtle hissed, exhaling deeply. As he did so, his breath misted as it would outside on a cold winter’s morning. And with that he fainted dead away.

Goosebumps raced down my arms as frosty breath escaped from my pursed lips. Across the room, Klaus the human skeleton shook like an anorexic in the arctic, but at least he was conscious. Unable to process the reality of the situation around me, I hauled my ass over to where Turtle snoozed on the carpet. He slept so soundly that he snored.

“Holy shit! What the hell just happened?” Klaus cried, springing from the couch with renewed vigor. “Did we get dosed or something at the party?”

“Dosed?  I doubt it.” And I did. Ritually or recreationally, I’d ingested acid, absinthe, peyote, psilocybin, and, on occasion, mescaline; but none of those had ever produced such a pronounced effect. The immersive three-dimensional mass hallucination we’d experienced had appealed to all five senses. The only real life equivalent involved acute mental illnesses, for the technological equivalent required bulky hardware and expensive equipment to create so-called virtual reality. And the best on the market couldn’t fool all of our senses. So the scene played out like fiction, bad horror fiction.

“Gotta hit the head, boys,” Klaus said as he leapt from barefoot to barefoot. “Whatever it was caused me to damn near piss myself. Thanks, Turtle.”

“Yeah,” I added, “he nearly got me with that act too.”

As Klaus passed through the single bedroom into the solitary bathroom, Turtle leaned toward me and grinned. “It’s no act, boy-o. It’s all real.”

His eyes held my gaze levelly, soberly. If he was lying, Turtle had one helluva poker face. But the biting cold, the vivid vision, and the scream echoing from the bathroom lent credence to his dire assertion. One half of the door knob thunked to the carpeted floor. Someone, something clawed, then beat on the bathroom door. Klaus’s screams continued until he shattered the doorframe and burst into the bedroom.

“What the hell’s wrong with you, man?” I asked as I stood beside Turtle in the open doorway.

Klaus rose from the floor. He shivered all over, his coal black eyes riveted on the dark interior of the bathroom. The crotch of his black denim jeans was soaked through with what, judging by its pungent odor, could only be piss.

“It, it tried to get, get me,” he stuttered.

“Told you, dude,” Turtle said, shrugging his shoulders.

“Knock it off!” I shouted. “You’re not making this any easier.”

“No, he’s right,” Klaus said as he advanced on Turtle. Grabbing him by his collar, my enraged friend shook the grinning fool. “What did you turn loose in my apartment, you stupid sonuva–”

Stepping in between them, I wrenched Klaus’s hands out from around Turtle’s fat neck. “Knock it off. He’s screwing with you.”

Both men fell back as I filled the space between them. They huffed, puffed, and glared at each other. Klaus had berated Turtle before but looked ready to throttle him at a moment’s notice. But I couldn’t ignore the pain in my own bladder any longer, especially with the smell of urine permeating the stale air around me.

Drawn toward the bathroom, I said, “Big bad or no big bad, I’ve gotta piss.”

“Don’t go in there!” Both men cautioned.

“At least ya’ll agree on something.”

My smartass comment hung in the air, like the foul reminder of Klaus’s piddle party in the potty, as I entered the freezing confines of the tiny bathroom. My breath turned to frost before me; the cold caused my bloated bladder to cramp tighter. Ignoring the mirror over the sink, I stood over the urine-soaked toilet and shook my head.

I sighed with relief as the hot stream burst forth and splattered against the inside of the porcelain bowl. As release turned to relief, I groaned and closed my eyes.

“How do you ever expect to pleasure a woman with that wee little piggy, piggy?” An eerily familiar voice asked before chuckling at my expense.

Startled, I flinched and felt warm liquid coat my fingers, crotch, and inner thigh. Looking around, I saw no one but me and my reflection.

“Were you sick bastards watching me pee?” I called out to my friends.

Before either of them could answer, my image in the looking glass replied, “Nope. That was all me, piggy.” And then it waggled its tongue and a single pinkie.

I’d made faces in the mirror before but never with piss dribbling down my leg. As I backed toward the door, I restored my modesty to its damp shelter. But I didn’t dare divert my eyes from my doppelganger. Though the image didn’t say anything else, it stood stock still until I lost sight of it upon egress from the noxious bathroom.

Klaus said, “Not so easy to piss while taunting yourself is it?”

Shaking my head, I mumbled, “Felt like gym class.”

“Whatever it is, we have to get rid of this thing.”

“Get rid of it? Let’s get the hell out of here?”

“We could always call Ghostbusters?” Turtle interjected.

“Shut it, Turtle.” Klaus snapped. Turning to me, he added, “I don’t have the luxury of leaving; I live here.”

“Pull back and nuke the site from orbit. Only way to be sure.”

“Stop quoting movies, Turtle,” Klaus fumed. “You did this. Now fix it.”

“Me? I didn’t do anything. I merely facilitated. That thing was in your dreams already; you were carrying it around with you before you met either of us. For all I know, you were born with it. Or maybe it was Maybelline.”

“You think this is funny!” Klaus snatched Turtle by the collar of his work shirt and shook him. “You unleash some pissed off demon in my house and it’s my fault.”

“Better pissed off than pissed on,” Turtle quipped.

“Enough!” I shouted. First one and then the other squabbling man-child fell silent. “We’re going to my house, getting my pipe, and coming back to kick some spiritual ass.”

“Dude, now is not the time to get high.”

I slapped Klaus then. Hard. He stared at me, mouth agape for a long moment. I thought he might swing on me, but shock and slight damage had silenced him.

“What’d you do that for?” Klaus stammered as he held his jaw. From the way his bottom lip jutted out from its companion, you’d think I’d punched him in the mouth.

“Clearly, you were hysterical. Don’t let me ever hear you say that anything like that again. It’s always the right time to get high. But I wasn’t talking about that kind of pipe. Come with me, I’ll explain later.”

The trip over curvy country roads through the north end of the county passed in silence. I left the Turtle and Klaus in my silver, rust, and primer Hell Camino as I went inside the century old farmhouse atop the hill. Returning minutes later clad in a fresh pair of jeans, I placed the bulky doe skin medicine bundle in the trunk of the pickup car.

“What’s that?” Klaus asked as I crowded in beside him.

“A spiritual hammer,” Turtle answered for me.

“Let’s hope it’s big enough for the big bad,” I said, slinging gravel behind us.

I broke down the plan for them on the way back to town. In the process, I revealed some of my past, including my spiritual upbringing. Parts of my life I’d kept locked away from my college friends. I told them about my summers on the reservation, visiting distant relatives, and reconnecting with my roots through my medicine father, a close friend of my Lakota family.

The mixed blood Oglala man had taught me the rites and rituals associated with the chanupa wakan, the Sacred Pipe. Though most of them involved prayers of gratitude and offerings to the universe’s mysteries, both great and small, one of them involved a ceremony designed to cleanse people, places, and objects of corrupting energies. But would it cleanse a home of an unwanted intruder from my friend’s dreamscape? Time would tell, but I didn’t tell that to either of my companions. I needed them to believe not doubt the efficacy of the ceremony.

We reentered the apartment cautiously. Holding a smoldering sage wand aloft, I lead the way into the occupied dwelling. Though I could not see it, I felt it watching us, waiting for us.

I inhaled the sweet aroma of the burning leaves. My native forefathers believed sage repelled negative energy, especially spirits. As it turned out, it agitated them as well.

The door slammed shut behind us. As we turned toward the sound, the doors of the kitchen cabinets opened wide and then shut hard enough to rattle the dishes inside. Drawers shot out into the floor and scattered silverware, dish towels, and drug paraphernalia all over the linoleum.

Undeterred by the spiritual tantrum, we cleared the coffee table from the center of the room.  I sat on the floor in the north after placing Klaus and the Turtle in the east and south respectively. The position in the west remained open until I filled it with a seashell.

Ignoring the cacophony in the kitchen, I used the sage wand to light a braid of sweet grass, another herb known to affect spiritual beings. Then I left the wand to burn in the shell alongside the sweet grass. Reaching into my medicine bundle, I took out another smaller bundle, this one wrapped in the soft silver-and-black pelt of a wolf.

I unraveled the fur and revealed a chanupa wakan in two segments, stone bowl and wooden stem. Murmuring my thanks to Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery at the center of all things, as well as to Father Sky and Mother Earth, I joined the pieces of the pipe together. Once secured to the stem, I filled the blood red catlinite bowl with a smoking mixture of tobacco and other herbs known collectively as kinnikinnick and then touched a lit match to it. Inhaling the acrid mix, calm and tranquility fell over me despite the storm encircling me. But my peace was not to last.

As soon as I involved the others, the ceremony went awry. I’m not sure what happened, or who to blame for that matter, but the pipe made one pass and went out. I tried time and again to light it but failed. Disassembling the pipe and clearing it with a straightened coat hanger didn’t help the situation either.

The room felt different, however. The temperature had risen. And the cabinets had ceased to clatter. But the relative stillness lulled us into a false sense of security, for the unmistakable feeling of being stared at by something other than my friends remained.

“Do you think it worked?” Klaus asked.

“I dunno, man,” I answered, shaking my head in bewilderment. “But I can tell you one thing. I can see light through this pipe stem and it won’t draw air. What the hell?”

Turtle dispelled any hope that the cleansing had been successful when he said, “It’s still here. And it’s not happy. I think it might be sulking, like an angry, hurt child.”

As if in response to his warning, the door to the closet in the bedroom slammed shut with enough force to rattle its frame. Something thudded, thrashed, and then thundered inside the tiny space. But soon enough it stopped and left the apartment quiet.

We crept into the bedroom as a group. Something wet and dark covered the carpet near the closet. At first, I mistook it for urine that had run out of the tile floor of the bathroom to puddle onto the carpet. As Klaus switched on the overhead light, the single bulb revealed the fluid to be thick and viscous with the color and consistency of plasma.

As we watched in mute horror, the sanguine substance seeped from under the door of the closet. The illusion held us until I grabbed its handle and flung it open. The bloody imagery vanished, replaced by a biting cold and foul smell that wafted forth from the possessed space. The door closed in my face with enough force to rattle my teeth.

“Told you,” Turtle said with a smug expression on his fat face.

“Stop it!” Klaus cried. “Ya’ll are making it worse. And I’m stuck living here.”

“My advice is move,” Turtle replied, “for your sake, for your soul’s sake.”

“I’ll second that,” I added. “It’s a crummy college apartment in a town filled with crummy college apartments. Pick up and move ASAP.”

“Are you kidding me?” Klaus said. “Can’t we get a priest or something?”

“How many clergymen are we gonna find in Alabama who know how to perform an exorcism, much less who’ll perform one for a Satanist, a Gypsy, and an Indian?”

“Jay’s got a point there,” Turtle replied. “And they’ll blame it on us anyway.”

“You’re right,” Klaus said, “especially since it’s your fault.”

Turtle glowered at him and finally snapped, “Don’t blame me for the demons you carry around inside your head! I might have facilitated its escape. But you’re the conduit. It’s your darkness, not mine!”

Klaus huffed and puffed but did not speak. He looked crestfallen as he struggled to accept the maddening reality of our situation, a situation created by the hobgoblins haunting his mind. Sadly, neither Turtle nor I could do anything other than help him pack. So my friend moved that very night.

A few weeks later, our friend Luke moved into the possessed place despite our warning. A spiritualist like me, he prided himself on his connection to the natural world as well as the unseen world around us. But most of his occult knowledge had been distorted, along with his sense of reality, by a steady regimen of hallucinogens and psychedelics. For Luke, the prospect of a haunted apartment appealed to his esoteric, eccentric nature.

Our friend lasted less than two weeks before he fled in the middle of the night too. He refused to return to the apartment and moved into a tent in the dense woods behind his parent’s farm. We resolved to visit him, to hear the whole story, but that set in motion a chain of events that damned us all.

In our case, our road to hell was paved with good intentions.

### TO BE CONTINUED — Part IV Coming Next Week ###

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.

Also, if I’ve let you read this story in the past, please do not post spoilers in the comments here or on any of my social media. Thanks!

From the Slushpile: The Devil & Klaus Kristiansen (Part 2)

Author’s Note: I will post all six parts before Halloween weekend. So stay tuned for one helluva horror story.

Part Two

### \m/ ###

As it turned out, the Hell portrayed in Turtle’s dreams looked like the byproduct of a collegiate man-child steeped in pop culture, rock music, and a lot of hallucinogens. AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” blared from the speakers of an unseen jukebox as we strode through the grandiose double doors of the antebellum home turned satanic frat house. Thick tendrils of smoke or fog curled around our feet as we moved through the riotous throng packed into the entry hall.  Over the doors, a tooled wood sign read:  Abandon All Inhibitions Ye Who Enter Here.

Faces of friends and enemies mixed with those of fiends. Together they capered wildly, spastically to the power chords of rock ‘n roll’s finest. I felt overwhelmed, my senses assaulted by the cacophony.

I turned back toward the doors, but there was nowhere to go. No moon, no stars shined in the night sky. The mist covered the parking lot like a blanket. The strange orange hue of the street lights obscured all but the house and its adjacent grounds.

“What the hell, Turtle?” Klaus demanded, seizing our friend by the collar of his faded Wolverine tee and wresting my attention from the dreamscape outside the house.

“Exactly!” Turtle answered. “What version of hell is this? Mine? Or one of yours? Because I didn’t have this nightmare until after I’d met both of you. And each of you is in the dream. But whose hell is this? Because you’re both there every time it happens.”

“Every time what happens?” I inquired, my sense of dread growing.

“You’ll see.” Turtle’s mercurial smile made me want to smash his remaining teeth out of his skull. “There’s still time yet. Until then enjoy the party.”

The Turtle danced, if you could call it that, his way through the crowd of raucous revelers. Klaus and I stuck close to our friend unsure what would happen if we became separated in his deranged dreamscape. A thousand vices and temptations surrounded us at every turn. I saw the things we normally enjoyed, but also mirrors piled high with white powder, stripped and ready pain-sluts of the barely legal variety, and a hundred other deviances ranging from the laughable to the unforgiveable.

Either Turtle the Video Game Virgin knew how to party harder than anyone had suspected or he’d tapped into some primal part of our brains…but which one of us. Perhaps he’d perceived repressed kinks, vices, and other socially unacceptable behaviors present in one or even both of us.  That possibility disturbed me, but little of what I saw scared the hell out of me. I did have a slight problem with the horned thing corn-holing our school mascot over the side of a sofa. And the sight of a sadistic bastard licking blood from the blade he’d used to slice spirals into the tender flesh of a pretty co-ed sickened me to the core.

Surely, none of this could be real. Even if it was a collective dream, some twisted, hedonistic manifestation of the universal unconsciousness, it was still a dream. I comforted myself with that fiction, ignorant of how wrong I was about our situation.

Turtle glanced behind him to make sure we were close on his heels and then mounted the grand staircase that dominated the entrance hallway to the mansion. A throng of partiers clustered on the winding stairs enjoying a wide array of pleasures. As I passed a diminutive woman bent over the sturdy railing, one of the two men penetrating her stopped long enough to ask me to join their public perversion.

Blushing crimson, I declined and hurried after Klaus and Turtle. As a virginal teenager, I felt overwhelmed by the sensational sins being committed all around me. My brain ached inside my skull, and my manhood throbbed in the confines of my jeans. I retreated inside myself as I tried to deal with all of the conflicting emotions in between.

Was this place hell? Or was it Turtle’s version of a wet dream? Or worse yet, one of mine or Klaus’s somnolent fantasies?

Although everything I’d seen at the party appeared deviant when compared to conventional social mores of the day, little of it seemed dangerous. Unless our creator considered anything visceral and enjoyable to be a sin. And I didn’t subscribe to that narrow-minded, puritanical view then…or now for that matter. I’d yet to see anything nefarious, much less hellish…unless one counted the pounding, repetitive electronica that had replaced legends of hard rock and heavy metal to become our new soundtrack.

The festivities on the second floor felt more like a rave than the festivities enjoyed by the Goth/Metal crowd on the ground level of the unnamed fraternity house. So in my mind, the party became annoying instead of more infernal, despite the horned humanoids twirling glow-sticks about their scaly bodies. If you’ve seen one dancing Sleestak with a glow-stick, you’ve seen them all. And raving demons were not my idea of hell; they were my idea of a bad pun.

“This has to be the lamest layer of all the hells in the multiverse,” I commented.

“Agreed,” Klaus seconded. “Hard drugs, kinky sex, and canned music doesn’t make it hell. It makes it a college party. The textbook definition of one as a matter of fact. I’ve seen scarier stuff at a Senate hearing on CSPAN.”

Klaus and I chuckled, but Turtle didn’t appear amused. Instead he looked at us as if we were stupid. But we weren’t; we were ignorant, cocky know-it-alls, like so many narcissistic nineteen-year-old nerds. In fact, without our narcissistic, nerdy traits, Klaus and I would have become enemies long before the events to come made it so.

Concern coloring his chiseled face, Turtle told us, “Dreams, like anything, exist according to certain rules. And one of those is the interconnectedness of all things, all places, all times. Dreams are the nexuses, the cruxes upon which the entire fabric of creation is built.

“After all, what are we but a collective realization of a universal dream. Somewhere, someplace, sometime, everything around us was dreamed into being by someone or something. As surely as we see this dream now, our creator pictured the dream that became our waking universe in its mind’s eye.

“And if dreams can show us a version of heaven that a sleeper can craft into reality upon awakening, a nightmare can become a living hell. That’s what I’m about to show you, the difference between dreams and nightmares, between heaven and hell.”

We turned down another corridor, and the scene around us shifted for the third time. As we entered this wing of the house, the furniture and the décor took on a style incongruent with the rest of the interior. I turned to pass my observation on to Klaus, but he’d fallen behind. In fact, he stood transfixed, his hollow eyes riveted on the lone door at the end of the long hallway.

“Are you okay?” I asked, knowing the answer already. My friend had grown as pale as a Hollywood vampire. Tears touched the corners of his eyes, a sight none of us had seen before…or since.

“But it can’t be,” Klaus muttered.

“What can’t it be?” Turtle inquired, joining us in the middle of the empty hall.

“I’ve seen this before,” Klaus replied. “All of it. I didn’t remember until I saw that door. That damn door and the horror that lurks beyond it have haunted me for years. But it can’t be. It’s just a dream.”

“Yes,” Turtle said, tapping Klaus in the center of his forehead. “It’s all here. Or we’re all there rather. Thanks to a little family tradition passed down through my mom’s side of the family. My gypsy blood produces a fair number of psychics, mediums, touch telepaths, and empaths.”

“And here I thought gypsies were alcoholics and kleptomaniacs,” Klaus joked.

“You forgot con artists,” I added, knowing in my heart what Turtle said to be true. But I wasn’t ready to accept it then. It took the unnatural shocks that came after for me to accept the paranormal as my new norm.

“I never thought I’d live long enough to admit it,” Klaus said, wiping his eyes, “but Turtle might be right. I’ve seen this house before; I’ve opened that door before. Countless times. And it never ends well.”

“What do you mean it doesn’t end well?” I asked, dreading the response.

Locking eyes with me, Klaus pleaded, “I wanna go home now. I don’t wanna live through this nightmare again. This might not be your idea of hell, but there’s a devil behind that door. A devil and a dead girl.”

“A dead girl?” I asked, bewildered by Klaus’s revelation. Glancing at my other friend, I saw that Turtle appeared calm, cool, and collected, the exact opposite of his waking demeanor.

“Well, she’s not dead yet…” Turtle said, “…not this go round anyway.”

A shrill squeal pierced the door, echoing down the hall. The cry of a damsel in distress, even a dream one, called out to my primal, protective nature. I charged the door while Klaus beat feet toward the stairs. Turtle lingered in between, unsure who to follow.

The locked door didn’t stop me long. Throwing my considerable girth against it, I overpowered the frame itself. As it separated from the wall with a sickening CRACK, I backed away and kicked outward. My big boot finished the work my sore shoulder started. The defeated door hung ajar from its ruined frame, orange light spilling into the hall from around its seams.

Shadows flitted in and out of the light in the room beyond the door. Throwing caution to an ill wind, I rushed through the doorway and into a blood-splattered bedroom. The room’s white interior had turned to crimson thanks to its two maddening occupants.

A shadowy figure perched on the center of a brass canopy bed; in its sizeable paws, the beast held the still beating heart of its victim, the nearly dead girl. The angel in alabaster lay sprawled on the mattress, wearing the remnants of a lacy summer dress. In the wan light cast by the street lights, her auburn curls took on the same shade as the gory fluids oozing from her savaged bosom. Only one perfect pale breast remained intact; its twin destroyed when the devil had ripped out her heart. The dying girl whimpered as yet unaware of her own demise. When her emerald eyes locked on her stolen heart, she wept a final tear.

*** Part 3 Coming Soon ***

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.

Also, if I’ve let you read this story in the past, please do not post spoilers in the comments here or on any of my social media. Thanks!