Thoughts on a Sunday morning

It’s almost noon, and I’m sitting outside with my coffee. Cars are driving by, there are ducks flying, and it’s one of the warmest days we’ve had this year so far. I really enjoy slow, lazy mornings like this one.

I figured since I’m not really doing anything productive, I’ll make a little update here about what I’m working at right now.

I posted yesterday about my new collection of poems that I’m editing and finishing, but I’ve got some other stuff in the works as well. I’ve been making an effort to post more chapters of my fantasy novel The Keeping of the Light lately, and with good reason: I’ve written more chapters. I’d been on somewhat of a hiatus from the novel since early last year, and have been focusing on other things. That changed a couple of weeks ago when I started reading over my progress so far.

When I stopped writing last year, my plan was to take a short break from the project to decide a direction for one of the main characters. However, a short break became a long break and that long break turned into a year.

Coming back to the project after all this time, and reading my work up until now, the direction is clear. Honestly I can’t believe it took me this long to figure it out.

Now, I’m posting at least a chapter a day until I’m up to my current progress, and then i can finally start posting the new chapters. I’m really looking forward to seeing things how things turn out from here.

On top of that, I’m also prepping another book review, something I’ve only done once so far. Keep an eye out for that.

And hey, look at that: my coffee is gone. Damn. Should I grab my computer and get to work? Should I get another cup? Maybe I should just sit here for another hour and read for a while.

While I’m trying to decide what to do with my day, I hope you enjoy yours, wherever you happen to be.

Happy writing.

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The Keeping of the Light – Chapter 14 – Lhorrenhelm

Jamie closed his eyes tight against the world and bit his tongue so hard he tasted blood. Gods, why did I have to look down? The rope around his chest seemed tight enough to squeeze the life out of him. He panicked and let go with one hand – tugging at the rope. He had to loosen it. He couldn’t breathe.

“Jamie!” Mavis said, above him and to his right. “Take a deep breath – slow. That’s it. You’re alright. You’re alright aren’t you?”

“Yah,” he managed, finally opening his eyes again. “I’m good. Lost my footing for a second.”

“We’ll rest when we reach the ledge,” Mavis said, “won’t be much longer, I think. Just take your time and don’t look down.”

“Think of fire, Jamie,” said Hektor from below. “Fire and hot stew and warm beer – that’s what’s over this cliff. Think about your friend. Lyca, right?”

Jamie nodded. “I’m good. Let’s keep going.” He focused as hard as he could on the rock face before him and Mavis’ choice of hand and foot holds above. We’re almost there, he thought. Finally.

It was seven days ago that they had been forced to flee to the west shore. Seven days since the grinning man and Shalsa and their band of tarred raiders had driven them off with spears and arrows, taking their only source of food. Or was it eight days? It was hard to remember. Jamie tried to count the meals he had eaten since – it was the best way to keep track of time. Each day they ate a ration chunk of swile meat – smaller than the palm of a man’s hand, and raw – and a bit of tack. The tack had run out three days ago, and Jamie was sure they had eaten tack four days in a row. No, it was five. Five days with tack, three with just meat. Eight days since their escape. Or is it nine?

Jamie had come to think of it as an escape but that was wrong too – they had been allowed to run. Forced to run. He remembered the spears and arrows singing through the air after them and Shalsa’s crazed taunting. The laughter. That horrible, amused laughter of the grinning man and his devils.

The message was still a mystery to Jamie and the others. The Oyen is with us? The nightmare only became more confusing when they opened the bag that had been given to them. Jamie emptied the contents into his hand, finding thirty-six bronze rings, many stained with dried blood. These people were murderers.

Now, it seemed, the nightmare was coming to an end. According to Hektor’s memory and Jamie and Mavis’ rough estimation, they should reach the capitol before sundown. The sky had brightened, the sunlight was stronger. If it would stop snowing for a damned minute, they might be able to see open sky. To their right, a sheer face of ice, toothed at the top by fangs of ancient frozen stone, ghostly in the clouds above. To their left, the Further faded into open ocean, and ice was spreading, breaking into pieces and being swept out along the shore by the ever-westerly winds. In their face and below their hands and feet lay the great stone cliff that they were climbing. Thirty feet up – maybe forty – the safety of the plateau waited, where the lands and city of Lhorrenhelm were nestled between the Western Ridge and the sea. Jamie dared not guess how many feet the fall was to the ground below.

The journey since fleeing to the western shore had been a treacherous one. On the eastern side, the Further sloped gently under the steep cliffs, leaving a belt of forest along the water’s edge. Here, the cliffs plummeted all the way down to the shore. No trees, no paths, just stretches of rocky till that threatened to give way to a slide into the water at each step. To cross the ice again was suicide – facing the raiders again would be certain death, and the closer they got to open ocean, the more erratic the ice conditions became. What should have been a few days hike had become a struggle to survive.

Twenty feet was all that remained until they were on level ground again. Jamie thought of the warmth of hot hearths and soup, stew, beer and strong, sweet wine. He could almost taste it. The thought excited him, but it came with an aftershock of guilt every time. Lyca, Geoffrey, the Straulks, the sisters… all those faces of home that were rationing out kelp and months-old root and scraps of meat at every meal. They would not have those luxuries for quite some time now.

By now no ships were moving in the bay. The journey back to Rivermouth would have to be by sled. The capitol had to have some tamers with moose or reindeer to spare. They had coin, but Jamie didn’t know whether it would be enough. He’d only ever traded a few coppers for traps in the past, and had no idea what a sled would cost, let alone beasts to haul it. Everything the people of their village had, or admitted to having, was in a tiny purse in his pack. Jamie didn’t want to lose it all on a bad bargain.

Ten feet above him, Mavis let out a cry. Jamie locked onto the rock face as tightly as possible – bracing his body against the shock when the line would go tight…

But then Mavis cried out again, and again. He shouted and whooped and started to laugh. He wasn’t falling – he was there!

“It’s beautiful!” he gasped. His voice was hoarse with cold and hunger. “It’s the most fucking beautiful field of snow I ever saw! Oh, Jamie-boy you’ll die when you see it!”

“Soon enough…” Jamie shouted back.

“Quit yer gabberin’ and help us up, Hunter!” said Hektor from below.

Hand over hand, foot over foot, Jamie made his way up, aided by Mavis pulling slowly from a few feet up, and then…

White! Everything was white. Blinding white. He was on the edge of the plateau, which stretched on and on for acres, rolling with gentle, low hills and specked here and there with brown where dead vegetable stalks jutted from beneath the snow. In the distance, Jamie could see buildings, towers, lights, and the brightest light of them all, shining like a red-and-orange star stop the highest lightkeeper’s tower in the north.

“Boys!” Jamie said, as Hektor climbed to his feet beside him. “We’re here.”

“You lead the way, lad,” Hektor puffed, slapping his hands together to get the blood flowing in his fingers. “But let’s get these ropes off first, yah?”

“Yah,” said Jamie, weakly. “To hell with these ropes.”

Beneath their feet the snow crunched and squeaked and their breaths drifted lazily around their heads in puffs of steam. It was colder up here, with no shelter from the wind, but their walking kept them warm, and the growing lights ahead of them kept them marching on. Hours later they were among huts, and then houses, and the buildings grew and grew. More and more were made of stone and they could feel the path beneath their feet harden from the spongy, half-frozen mud to slush-covered cobble.

Doors opened on either side as people looked out, astonished, at the strangers who had just wandered into their streets from the snowfield. A few greeted them, cautiously, but most stood behind their doors, and a few made it clear that they were armed. People were shouting to one another. Somebody was waving a torch in their faces…

Mavis was the first to fall. He tripped in his own feet and toppled in seemingly slow-motion to the snow. At first, he struggled, but then gave up and lay unmoving.

Hektor was next. They put his arms behind his back but didn’t get the fight they expected when he slumped lazily to his knees and closed his eyes – he was sleeping, knelt on the ground.

There were more around Jamie now, shouting something… why were they being so damned loud? And why did they all look so alarmed? He just wanted to sleep. And some food maybe… and…

“Help us?” he murmured, as a hand closed around his arm. There was a bronze ring on its finger. They all had bronze rings, these people. Jamie felt his knees buckle as they kicked him from behind and he collapsed in the road, face down with a mouthful of dirty snow.

“Whalesong” and other poems

Yesterday I found myself looking through old notebooks and found scribblings of old poems I was working on throughout the last few years. After spending so much time away from them, it was exciting revisiting those notes with a new perspective. I’ve been going through them casually, rereading and rewriting, and I’m looking forward to having a new batch of poems to release soon.

The first of these is “Whalesong”, posted last night. I haven’t had a chance to set up the link from my “poems” page yet, but that should come soon. Maybe I’ll group these new/old poems together in a collection of sorts. We’ll see.

It’s been interesting so far, coming back to those notes after such a long time. I feel disconnected from them, but perhaps also have a better understanding than I did when I started scribbling them out. It’s hard to explain, but it’s an interesting experience. I usually write poems very quickly, in a day or so, but I’m liking the results so far. Hopefully you do as well.

Happy writing.

Whalesong (a poem)

needles scraping bone,
heel and sole.

sliding cold inside your boots
you bear the weight of all you love,
while inches underneath
the giant gods of other worlds relay
their shepard songs.

empty aqua loneliness.

they disappear,
soaring softly into darkness and
sinking,

willing,

deeper than the sky is wide.

their dreams are of a solid state;
the breath that leaves their backs a
force of nature,

strong enough to rent the field on which you stand that now,
to us,
seems still as stone.

The Keeping of the Light – Chapter 13 – Riverfolk and Raiders

Lyca woke with a start. Her dreams had been wild and she had barely slept, but she realized now that things were okay. Okay? I must be going mad. Mavis and Jamie gone… Locke dead… Sherylyn dying… and Geoffrey, well…

Among all that had gone wrong, Geoffrey did seem to be pulling through. The day that the riverfolk arrived – the day of the attack – Lyca and Sherylyn had been rushed to the Straulks’ home and tended to as much as could be done. When she finally convinced them to let her return home she had arrived to find Geoffrey sitting at the table with Shenya Wyndhill, spooning out two big bowls of crow soup and patiently waiting for her to return. His fever seemed to be gone. Shenya told Lyca that as soon as he had heard what happened he climbed out of bed and insisted on going to see her. My little hero.

She busied herself changing the wrappings on her leg. The rags needed to be replaced every morning where the lynx had clawed through her flesh to keep the blood poison from spreading. At first her bandages stank of pus and rot, but each day the wound healed a little, and she grew stronger. There would be a gnarly scar, for sure – the beast had sliced damn near down to the bone. Lyca was certain she’d never run again. At least I can walk.

Geoffrey was still asleep, nestled in his pile of blankets and whistling through his nose. The fire crackled quietly, and Lyca eased carefully into her clothes to sit for a while. It seems so peaceful now. Even the snow is beautiful. Outside the stained, milky window the frozen stream by her cabin lay glistening like strands of silver in the weak morning glow. An icicle chimed as it fell from the eave. She wished she could stay there for good, listening to the world by the heat of the stove. Bugger it all, she thought angrily, and rose to prepare for the council.

The day the riverfolk arrived something came over the town – a sense of urgency. It had been too long without word from the capitol, and two of their own young men had traipsed off into the further to seek for answers, but finally Rivermouth’s eyes were open to the danger that crept toward them. The riverfolk were kind enough, but hard. They had journeyed three days from Greepetown after admitting defeat to winter and had suffered losses on the way. A young boy had succumbed to the cold on the second night, and a newborn babe had been snatched from her mother’s arms by a starving kreehawk. Their leader was Gerrik Hull, a hunter who had led the group south to find refuge. Not all of their people had come, though. Gerrik explained that half the town had refused to leave their homes. “You’ll lead us to our deaths, Hull,” his wife’s brother had told him. Her name was Hellyn.

Lyca woke Geoffrey with a gentle shake. “There’s hot water in the pot,” she told him, “put in a scoop of sap and drink up. I’ll get us some food when I’m back, okay?”

The boy’s face was still deathly thin, but his wide brown eyes were brighter now. His skin had lost the yellow hue and he spoke with more strength than before. He slept often but ate well. “Okay. Will you be quick, sissy?”

“As quick as I can, squirt.” She pinched his nose.

The front room of Straulk’s trading shop had been cleared out to make room. The shelves had all been pushed against the walls, and the two slender tables that served as Mr Straulk’s counter had been set end to end. There weren’t enough chairs and stools so most stood around, looking nervous. Lyca took notice of the Greepetown woman who had lost her baby, sitting near one end of the table. Her face was gaunt – eyes blank. Sherylyn was absent – her wounds were too grievous, and Lyca wondered whether she would survive.

“There’s a brave lass,” announced Tiny when she came in. He was a quarter man taller than most, strong as a bull and with a belly that sagged beyond the limits of his belt. “Grab y’self a seat now and get off that leg.” The big man dragged back a remaining stool and ushered her in.

“Your wound – how is it?” asked Gerrik.

“Better, much. I really can’t thank you enough.”

“Yah, she’s a tough one, our Lyca,” said Shenya. Her voice was kind as ever, but her eyes were filled with worry. Lyca could only guess how she was dealing with her sister’s near fatal encounter with the lynx.

A few more came in after she sat down. Most of them riverfolk, whose names she did not know, but also came Felicia’s Aunt Bekka, and lastly Alek and Maya, with their twins.

“Aye,” said Mr Straulk. “Should we get on with this business, then?” A murmur of agreement was heard around the room.

“These are times of grave danger, none can deny.” said Old Crewe, who sat with his withered hands resting on the table’s edge. “Our friends to the north here present us with an option. One that we didn’t have before.”

“And a burden.” Straulk’s voice was low, but loud enough that everyone could hear. Lyca’s cheeks burned with sudden anger.

“We did not wish to bring hardship to your town, mister merchant.” It was Gerrik, from the end of the table.

“Anyone to think that would be a fool,” said Susan. Mr Straulk glared at her.

“Regardless, the choice we make today will almost certainly decide the fates of many.” Old Crewe looked around at the faces in the room. “But there are questions that need be answered first.”

“Aye,” muttered a few. The room was quiet for a moment.

“Your people, Gerrik, have lived on the Whitewater for years.” said Lyca. “You don’t rely on aid as we do. Why is it that this winter is different from any other?”

The riverfolk leader started to speak but held back. There’s something else, Lyca thought, something else he doesn’t want to say. It was his wife who spoke instead.

“Our people have put strain on you all, it’s plain,” said Hellyn, “but you must understand that we had no choice but leave Greepetown. The winds were fierce, food might not have lasted us. That much we could have suffered out as usual, like you say but…” She paused, glancing at Gerrik for a second. “But then we heard about the raiders.”

“Hellyn, those are just rumours.”

“Are they?” said another of the Riverfolk – a dark haired boy in his teens. “That man you found, though…”

Mr Straulk looked unsettled. “What’s this news? And why is this the first we’ve heard of it.?”

“Only rumours,” Gerrik said weakly. “We never saw them, not with our own eyes. It may not be true.”

“The man saw them with his own eyes. Surely that’s enough? If you didn’t believe it why would you agree to leave?” Hellyn pressed him.

“I’d rather not take chances when it comes to my family, you know that. But still, it’s hearsay.”

An explanation would be appreciated, I think,” said Tiny.

Gerrik spoke slowly and carefully. This is no tale he wants to tell. “I was returning from a hunt. Empty-handed. I was in earshot of the rapids when I heard something… strange. I thought it might be a moose, or maybe a stray keywing come down from the highlands. So I got closer and there was blood on the snow. No small amount of blood.” He glanced around at the waiting faces. “It was a trapper. Lost, weary. He had taken an arrow to the gut. He was talking madness, sick from blood poison. My first thought was he must have fallen on his own shaft.”

“Tell them what you told us,” said Hellyn.

Straulk’s impatience was overflowing. “You’d best not be hiding something important, Hull. You’re a guest here, remember that.” He’s so suspicious, thought Lyca. Mavis is so much like him.

“The poor sod had lost a lot of blood,” Gerrik said. “He might have even been dream-walking at that point. He was on the edge of death. When the poison gets in your blood you see strange things, everybody knows that.”

“He was attacked,” the brown-haired youth said. “By a band of raiders.”

“He thought he’d been attacked.” People were muttering now. The air tightened.

“How many men?” Tiny’s red face was strained with worry. “Hull, if there’s raiders attacking innocent people we need to know. I need to protect me and mine.”

“That’s why I wanted to tell you all, at once. I want to be clear that I’m not sure whether what this fellow said was true or not, but…” he struggled for words.

“But it convinced you. Some part of you, at least.” Lyca spoke up.

“Aye,” said Gerrik. “The part that loves my kin.” He turned to Tiny. “He said it was men and women. I don’t know how many, but a small group, at least. Men and women in tarred leather, armed with spears and bows.”

“When was this?” Shenya’s face was pale.

“Five days before we left Greepetown. We tried to gather as many as possible, but not everybody believed the tale. We dared not linger longer than that.” Gerrik looked to Mr Straulk. “Had I any reason to believe this man’s tale completely, I would have told you immediately. I didn’t want to spread panic.”

“You believed it enough to flee your home!” The merchant was visibly angry. “You believed it enough to leave half your people behind to escape and run to our land!”

“The cold, the conditions… We couldn’t risk adding the chance of violence-”

“My brother and wedsister are dead and dying, and you drag raiders here!?” Straulk burst, spraying spittle through the air.

ENOUGH!” boomed Tiny, slamming a club fist onto the table. “Seat yourself or I will, Straulk. Best you remember that if not for these people Sherylyn would be dead and cold already.”

The merchant shrank, and when he spoke again he did so quietly. “If not for Lyca, Sherylyn would be dead. Not for some river man.” He sent a final glare across the table at Gerrik and left, letting his own door slam shut behind him.

“Mr Straulk is still in grief. We all are. Don’t let him make you think you’re not welcome here.” Lyca said.

“Thank you,” said Hellyn. Her husband was silent.

“We have yet to decide,” Old Crewe wavered. “Do we stay, or do we go?”

There was a silence that seemed to last forever. The townsfolk had waited long enough to have council, and none of them had wanted the time to come. Even with what the riverfolk had brought, they would not have enough supplies for everyone to last out the winter. There was a chance that help would come, but many had little hope for Jamie and Mavis. A large portion considered them dead, including Mavis’ own father.

They had agreed without question – but with hesitation from the merchant – that Gerrik and his people would be welcome to stay, and with that agreement they knew there would come a dreaded crossroads. None had spoken aloud of it but finally feeble Old Crewe was the one to say it. Stay or go.

“It’s harsh to hear it so plainly.” Thom said, from Shenya’s side.

“True,” said the mapmaker, “but the answer is clear to me. We will not last the winter here.”

“Mavis and Jamie will bring help as soon as they reach Lhorrenhelm,” Lyca said.

“Given they survive,” said Maya. “And who’s to say the capitol will send help? From what I can tell, they’ve abandoned us.”

“What of Sherylyn?” Shenya asked the table. “If we take the journey she won’t make it. There’s no way she’s fit to travel, right Susan?”

Susan shook her head. “The beast’s claws are foul. Sherylyn’s cuts are festering now as bad as ever. And the fever… Helena says she can’t get it to stop.”

“She will have comfort on our sleds,” Gerrik said. “We can wrap her in furs and tend to her along the way. The rest of us will take turns sleeping and leading the moose.”

“And keeping watch,” added Hellyn.

“I’ll not sleep,” said Tiny, “not with this talk of raiders. I’d rather slip through the ice like a swile than be speared like one.”

“Speak not of such things, child,” said Missus Bekka. Her husband and son had both drowned years ago, before Felicia came into her care. “Use your fear, don’t bend to it. We’ll all have enough of it to face soon.” Tiny said no word but nodded respectfully.

“Have we decided?” asked Maya, rising. “Shall we gather our things? I say Aye.”

“Aye,” said her husband. “Aye,” said Old Crewe, and Shenya and Thom. “Aye,” said Tiny, and Missus Bekka. Slowly, the room came to it’s decision, although Lyca thought that here and there she heard a “nay” from the crowd.

“Aye,” she said, and stood from her stool. She winced as the raw flesh around her wound tightened. I must be strong, she thought. We must all be strong. Like Geoffrey.

The Keeping of the Light – Chapter 12 – The Grinning Man

The trio, led by Mavis, crept warily on through the night. Guided by the light of their flickering torches, they stepped precariously from pan to pan as the never-ending field of ice before them shifting with the movement of the water beneath. Inches lay between them and the icy depths of the Further.

This is madness, Jamie thought to himself as the white surface creaked and groaned. Once already he had fallen into the winter water and was not eager to do so again – especially being so far from shore and any hope of lighting a fire.

“We ought to look for holes, I say,” said Mavis, “where they come up to the surface to breathe.”

“Aye,” agreed Hektor from the back of the line.

“Any sign of the other lights, Hektor?” Jamie asked over his shoulder.

“None,” replied the older man, who was spying around with his eyeglass. “And lets keep it that way. No man has good reason to be on the ice at this time of night unless they are as starved as we are.”

“Perhaps they’ve succeeded in their hunt and returned home?” said Mavis.

“I doubt,” Jamie said. “There are no settlements on the West shore other than Birchbanks, and that is miles to the North of here. Lhorrenhelm is farther south.”

“I agree with Jamie. They would not have gone back this fast. Their torches should still be visible.” Hektor took another cautious look along the facing shoreline. “Nothing but black.”

“They must have camped for the night, then.”

“I hope so, Mave,” said Jamie. “I have a really bad feeling about meeting strangers out here in the dark. Especially those which douse their torches.”

They crept on, using their makeshift spears to test the sturdiness of each ice pan before walking onto it. Hektor started a low chant, half singing and half humming the words to himself as they moved on with their hunt:

            “The night is cold and winter long,
            and winds of western wilds sweep,
            but my fire is warm and whisky strong,
            and I must fight away the sleep.

            The trapper’s trail o’er hill and field,
            goes silently across the land.
            From traps I plea that none will steal
            the fruits of labours of my hand.

            Now come ye back just one last time,
            to northern reaches through the snow.
            But the greatest treasures I shall find
            are paths that lead my feet back home.

            The trapper’s trail o’er valley wide,
            leads restless men all to their catch,
            but wander not too long my friend…”

Hektor’s song trailed off. Something else had caught his attention. “Did ye hear that, lads?” he said, after a moment’s pause. The other two stopped.

“What?” Mavis and Jamie asked in unison.

“Shhh!” Hektor hissed, holding up his torch to silence silence them. “Listen.”

The trio held their breath. Jamie strained his ears hard, hearing nothing but the gentle whispering of drifting snow and his own heartbeat – which had grown faster and louder.

“I don’t hear…” he started, but then stopped. He could hear a faint noise, like the gentle stirring of water. Looking at his feet, his mind suddenly sprang into action. It’s coming from beneath us! He dropped to his knees and pressed his ear hard onto the ice.

“What in Aer’s name are you doing?” Mavis asked in disbelief.

“Bubbles,” he answered slowly. Sure enough, he could hear bubbles thudding softly against the underside of the ice pan, gathering together to form a pocket of air. “Something below us is moving!”

“Ha-ho!” Hektor heaved a hoarse laugh of excitement. “Mavis, quick – watch the edge of the ice!”

Mavis sprang into action. Readying his spear and raising his torch, he stared hard at the thin seam of water surrounding the ice on which they stood.

“There!” he said, aiming his spear at the westernmost edge of the ice. A gargling bunch of bubbles was squeezing up between the ice. Then, they stopped.

“It’s not coming to the surface?” Jamie groaned with disappointment, getting back to his feet. Mavis looked heartbroken. However, Hektor had not lost his spirit.

“What are you waiting for?” he pressed to his younger companions. “Follow them, lads!” follow the air! The beast will have to come to the surface to breathe soon!”

Jamie and Mavis came to their senses immediately. Raising their torches high to spread the light, the three men hurried onto the next ice pan just in time to see more bubbles appear at its far edge. Mavis paused as the ice shifted slightly under the sudden weight.

“Don’t stop, Hunter!” Hektor said hurriedly. “We cannot lose sight of the trail.”

“Run!” Jamie shouted, now feeling the intensity of the hunger in his stomach.

Mavis lead them onward. They scrambled and leapt from pan to pan, barely keeping up with the stream of bubbles that was emerging before them. They ran with torches held on high, ever westward, keeping balance with their modest spears. Once, Hektor slipped, but Jamie yanked him ahead before he could fall backwards into the briny abyss. After what felt like hours they came to a skidding halt on a huge pan of ice. It was rough and uneven, and looked like a small floating island made of smaller pieces frozen together. In a depression at the center of the ice drift was a large hole, smooth around the edges and roughly six feet across. Bubbles erupted furiously from it.

“This is it,” Jamie croaked as they hid behind a mound of snow.

“Ready your spears.” Hektor whispered.

“And keep your torches high,” Mavis added, “it might blind the creature and confuse it. We need all the surprise we can get.” The bubbling stopped, and they all help their breath.

After a second of silence something emerged slowly from the center of the ice hole. A massive head – like that of a short-snouted, whiskered bear – rose out of the water. It sniffed and snorted, spraying icy mist from its nostrils. It had large, black eyes and slick fur that was pale grey. It gazed curiously at the flickering torchlight for a heartbeat, and then disappeared below the water in a splash. The swile had gone.

“No…” Hektor groaned. Mavis swore and threw down his spear. Jamie got to his feet and kicked at the mound of snow they had hidden behind.

It moved.

The three men jumped back as cracks form in the snow crust covered the mound. Jamie had thought it was ice but no – it was moving. It was alive! A rumbling groaning snort was erupting and steam was rising as the enormous swile before them shivered sheets of glazed frost from its back.

Mavis scrambled to grab up his spear as the other two men lurched at the animal, pressing with all their weight to puncture the thick skin of the water beast, now writhing before them. Mavis stabbed now too, and blood was running onto the ice sheet. The animal fought, but its life was over. Hektor drew back and gave a final stab at the back of the creature’s neck and the deed was done. A head the size of a man’s torso fell limply to the ice – tusks and all.

“Shit,” Jamie said, grinning with disbelief. Hektor roared with triumphant laughter.

“Behold, the mighty Hunter!” he sang, and pounded Mavis on the back. They rapped spears together and cheered and Mavis knelt down to start cutting off slabs of meat. They wouldn’t be able to take it all back to the shore – there was too much. But now they had food, real food. Mavis had loaded two chunks of warm black flesh into Jamie’s pack when around them, torches suddenly flared into life.

“The hell – who’s there!?” Hektor shouted, raising his spear.

“Show yourselves!” Jamie said, following suit. A muffled, amused sort of laughter echoed back to them in response.

“I offer you our most sincere gratitude,” came a man’s voice, calm and cold. “For this feast you have provided.” Mavis stood up, brandishing his knife and baring his teeth.

“You will leave us,” he blared at the faceless taunter, hidden behind tattered scarf and blackened hood, “this beast is ours. We’ve earned it!” More cruel laughter. More torches lit up. Jamie was trying to count them now. Nine. Twelve. Sixteen. More and more faces lit up, all wrapped in scarves and wearing coats of dark leather, greasy and tattered. Nineteen. They carried short spears with long, evil blades and their eyes glinted with something that seemed like hunger. Twenty-four. Twenty-five.

“Mavis,” Jamie said, hushed, “look around.” But his friend was shaking with anger.

“We will leave you this beast now,” Hektor said, slowly but with commanding tone. “We will go-”

“No!” Mavis was livid. He waved his knife in the air. “YOU will leave now. Leave us be!” Hektor put a hand on his shoulder.

“We will go now, to hunt elsewhere.”

“Mavis, Listen. Let’s do what Hektor says, let’s go now.” Jamie could hear his own voice shaking, with anger but stronger was the fear. The crowd gathering around them was blocking the way they had come. The would have to run for it but… He peered back over his shoulder at the Western Ridge looming over them, outlined by pale blue moonlight.

“Go?” The cruel voice sifted through the drifting snow to them. “That is fair. We do not wish to do harm. But tell me – where will you go?” The half circle of figures moved closer. Each had a spear – some had bows. “Where do you call home?”

“We come from the capitol,” Hektor announced with some convincing authority. “We will move southward to hunt, out of your territory. Take this meat, consider it a token of peace.” Jamie could see that Hektor was gripping his spear tightly – preparing to throw it if need be.

“The capitol?” The man pulled down his scarf and spat onto the ice. He smiled, revealing yellow, jagged teeth. “Ah, so you are scampering away to the great city of the north,” he said mockingly. “Tell me, hunter-men,” he raised his own spear, “where does your allegiance lay? To Lhorrenhelm? To the High Keeper?”

“Aye,” said Hektor, “to the High Keeper.” Jamie held his breath. He hoped Hektor knew what he was talking about.

This seemed to satisfy the grinning man. He slid a tongue across his crusted lips and paused for a moment. “It seems you have found yourselves in a state of happy consequences, my hunter-men.”

“What?” asked a rasping voice from one of the other figures. This one sounded like a woman. “Just let them run off?” She pulled her scarf down as well, revealing a face smeared with tar and littered with iron rings. “These swine?”

“Not empty-handed, Shalsa,” said the grinning man. He turned back to the trio standing before the dead swile. “You will deliver us a message, hunter-men. You will leave this beast and you will take our message to the capitol. To the High Keeper. You will do this.” He offered his ugly smile again. The woman named Shalsa did not look pleased.

“This one had best leave his spear on the ground, as well,” she said, pointing a jagged blade at Hektor. “His voice is smooth but his eyes say ‘kill, kill.’ The capitol does not send hunters this far north in winter. They came for us, not swiles.”

“Now, now, Shalsa. These ones have value to us, not like the last.” He pulled a small cloth bag from a pocket.

“What is your message?” Jamie asked, eyeing the bag.

“This,” said the grinning man, swinging it back and forth. “Take this directly to your High Keeper. I want you to lay it at her miserable feet and tell her this: The Oyen is with us.” He tossed the bag to Jamie’s feet. “Hear me, scruff? The Oyen is with us. Can you handle that?”

Jamie nodded, terrified, and picked it up.

“And now,” the man said, walking backwards to where his comrades stood, “you run.”

The trio started backing away, slowly.

“He said, RUN!” shrieked Shalsa, and at that second six spears flew through the air, stabbing into the ground at their feet. The three men tore off, scrambling as fast as they could across the ice as more spears and arrows grazed threateningly close by them. The slipped and fell, climbed to their feet and ran and fell over and over again, and all the while they could hear the crowd’s laughter and Shalsa’s shouts of “RUN, SWINE, RUN! RUN!”

They didn’t stop until they collapsed onto the rocky western shore, gasping for breath and wincing at the pain in their feet and lungs. They spent the night there, nestled uncomfortably among the boulders and watching the torches burning a mile away out on the ice. Jamie was fitful, waking up every few minutes and staring off into the night, expecting to see toothy grins and tar-stained faces laughing in the darkness. In those moments where Jamie was awake he could see Hektor staring stone-faced at the torchlight.

The night was long and cold.

Deep Sleep (originally published on creepypasta.com)

I need to get back to digging soon.

My son is digging now, god bless him. He thinks I’m asleep, but that’s not going to happen. I haven’t slept easy for the last year. And now… now I don’t sleep at all.

It was about a year and a half ago that we moved. Karen got the RN position at the local clinic and I had been laid off from work at the greenhouses for a few months. We were getting low on money. Debt up to our necks. Tuition fees. Bills. We had no choice.

We packed up everything we could, sold what we couldn’t afford to move, and left our home of 14 years behind us. Our boy, Liam, was away at university at the time. I don’t think he understood how tight things were getting for us. I hope not. We didn’t need him worrying about all of that.

Right away we settled into the place. Karen was working 11 hour shifts at the clinic, on call 24/7. I started making money however I could. Yard work, some minor carpentry. After a couple months I got in with a roofing crew and by then we were doing okay. Started paying off the bills. Started getting our lives back in order.

That’s when it started happening.

Karen always had the nightmares. She told me how even as a little girl she would be afraid to go to bed… afraid to close her eyes for very long. I can remember when we first started dating back in high school, the first night we slept together she woke up screaming in the middle of the night. I’d never seen somebody so afraid. Most people tend to grow out of those things when they get older. The occasional bad dream isn’t that abnormal, but for me, adulthood means now I hardly dream at all. For Karen, the dreams never went away. She’d wake up almost every night in a sweat, shaking and out of breath. About three years after our marriage she finally took the doctor’s advice and went on a sleeping aid. They didn’t stop completely, but with the pills she could get through every other night with at least a few hours of good sleep. That’s what she told me, at least.

It was always the same. She’d wake up with a jump, breathing fast and wiping tears out of her eyes. “I was falling again,” she’d say, “just falling down and down.” I’d hold her for a bit, we’d shake it off and go back to sleep. It was normal for us, just one of those things you deal with as a couple. I never thought it would get so bad.

We’d both had a long day. Karen had just got home from the clinic and I’d finished up work on the Thompsons’ roof with the boys about an hour before she got back. I had the grill going when she walked up the front steps. It was the hottest day of that summer. Thirty-six degrees in the shade. Isn’t it funny, the stupid little things you remember? We ate porkchops for supper. Talked to Liam on the phone. Had a cold shower and watched some TV before going upstairs to bed.

I woke up, expecting to hear Karen’s rapid breathing and gasp of shock, but everything was quiet. Peaceful. Something was off, though. Something didn’t feel right. I don’t know if you have a significant other in your life, but when you share a bed with somebody for a long time you get real used to it. There’s a certain sense you have of that person lying next to you. I realized then what it was that felt so off. I couldn’t feel Karen next to me.

Then the strangest thing happened: I felt her hit the bed.

She screamed, louder and more afraid than I’d heard her in years. By the time I got my senses together enough to hold on to her to try and calm her down, she was completely soaked in sweat. When I pulled the bed sheets off her, Karen’s skin was cold to the touch and she wouldn’t stop crying. I had never felt so helpless, holding onto her and trying to talk her out of it. “It’s okay,” I told her, “you’re okay.” All the while, the bed was still shaking from when she had landed on the mattress.

After a long time, she did fall back to sleep. I laid awake, thinking. What happened hadn’t made any sense. I was sure that this time – and as far as I knew, for the first time – Karen really had been falling in her sleep.

After thinking it over for what felt like hours, I convinced myself of how it all went down. She must have been sleepwalking and fell on the bed just after I woke up. That would explain why she hit the bed so hard, and maybe when she had been walking around, she had bumped into something and that’s why I had woken up at that moment. I never woke up before Karen, not before this one time.

I laid there until morning trying to believe the explanation I had come up with, but two things wouldn’t allow me to be convinced. Karen never sleepwalked, and even if she had been that night, how did she get under the sheets so fast after falling into bed?

I remember being completely out of it the next day, after getting hardly any sleep and having the incident heavy on my mind. I didn’t say anything to Karen about it, but I could tell she knew something was up. That night when we went to bed, I didn’t fall asleep as quickly as I usually did. I lay there next to her, feeling the sheets move with her breathing, hearing the rain pattering over the deck outside.

That night, she didn’t even wake up, and after a few hours, I went to sleep.

It didn’t happen again the rest of the week. The week after that, she had a couple of nightmares, but nothing out of the ordinary, just what we had grown used to over the years. Another week passed by, and I stopped worrying about it. We carried on with our lives. Liam came home to visit for a few days between the end of his summer job and the start of the new semester. Things were good.

A week after Labor Day, it happened again. This time it was worse.

At four in the morning I woke up to Karen screaming and shaking around, but again, something was off. Her screams were shrill, frantic, but her voice sounded muffled. Again, I couldn’t feel her lying next to me, and I started crawling around, pulling up the sheets and feeling around for her with no luck. In my freshly-woken state, it took me a moment to realize what was happening. Karen’s screams were coming from underneath the bed.

With the lights on and my senses back I got her out from under there in a few seconds, but she was in rough shape. By the time I got her calmed down, she was still shivering like hell, cold and sweaty. I wanted to take her to the clinic, but she wouldn’t go, she just wouldn’t.

We sat there all night, leaning up against the bed, holding on to each other with the lights turned on. When I started to come down from the shock, I told Karen I was scared. She told me that she was too.

With my wife’s new sleepwalking problem, sleep started becoming hard to come by. Most nights I’d end up lying awake until sunrise, unable to keep my eyes shut. Karen would tell me there was nothing to worry about, but of course, I couldn’t believe her.

Not more than two weeks had passed when it happened the next time. Just like before, Karen would end up under the bed in a complete state of shock. I could do nothing but get her out of there as fast as possible and try to calm her down. In November it happened twice. Still, she refused to go see the doctor. The end of November is when I decided to set up the camera.

I didn’t tell Karen about it at first because I knew she wouldn’t allow it. She was determined to try and forget about the incidents, but I couldn’t. It felt too strange to write off as a sudden case of sleepwalking, and if that’s all it was, at least then I’d know for sure.

I borrowed a trail cam from one of the boys in the roofing crew. They’d use it for hunting during the fall. Basically, you set the thing up and if it detects motion, an infrared camera takes a snapshot of whatever’s going on. It works in total dark, and will take a picture every five seconds as long as there is movement. If Karen was sleepwalking, I’d have to catch it with this thing.

I hid it in my work bag, which I kept on my dresser in the bedroom. Each night before bed, while Karen was in the bathroom taking her makeup off, I’d turn on the trail cam and set it up so that the lens pointed out of the open end of the bag. For weeks I’d set up that damned thing every night and nothing happened. Karen would have her usual nightmares, but nothing like what had happened before. Every morning I’d check the photos and find nothing but a few shots of us rolling over in bed, or the occasional time one of us went to the bathroom. Nothing. I started wondering why I was doing this but during Christmas break Karen had another incident, and this time the camera was ready.

Liam was home for Christmas and we’d all been over to a friends’ place for a visit and drinks. Around midnight we got back home and said goodnight to one another before heading upstairs to our bedrooms. I turned on the trail cam, not really expecting anything. At that point it had just become habit.

I jumped out of bed as soon as I heard Karen’s screams. I turned on the light and rushed back to the bed, ready to reach in and pull her out, my heart pounding in my chest. I got down on my hands and knees but realized after a moment that she wasn’t there. The space under the bed was empty.

That’s when Liam came into the room. His face was a mixture of confusion and shock. He said “Dad, what’s going on?” I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t think.

I realized then that Karen’s screaming was coming from outside the bedroom, she sounded like she was downstairs somewhere. I darted out of the room and ran down the hall, down the stairs with Liam following close behind. We found her lying in the middle of the kitchen floor, clutching her bloody left arm to her chest. She was sobbing, screaming in terror and unable to get up off the floor. When I went to her I saw the bone jutting out of her forearm. Instinct kicked in. I picked her up in my arms, Liam grabbed the keys and together we got her into the truck and were rushing up the clinic steps in under ten minutes.

The rest of the night was hectic. After checking out her arm, the doctor got us on the ambulance to the city. Liam rode in the back with his mom, I followed them in the truck. Longest goddamned four-hour drive of my life. At the hospital they fixed her arm, and found three broken ribs as well, all on her left side. The verdict was pretty clear – she must have fallen while sleepwalking. But even the doctor at the hospital had to agree with me that it was an awful lot of damage for such a simple fall. His reasoning? He said she must have climbed up on the kitchen counter and jumped off.

Liam had so many questions. I didn’t know what to tell him, so I told him the lie we’d been telling ourselves for the last half a year. “Your mom’s been sleepwalking a lot lately,” I told him. “Don’t worry, we’ve got it under control,” I told him.

I didn’t look at the photos until after he’d gone back for the winter semester. I didn’t want to look at them, even then. I was scared to.

There were twenty pictures taken that night. Three of Karen walking in the room and getting into bed. Two of me and Karen rolling over. Twelve of Liam and I in the bedroom until we ran out. There were three pictures from before I woke up that scared the living hell out of me, and those are why I told Karen about the trail cam.

The first picture showed me and Karen lying side by side in bed, blankets up to our chins, peacefully sleeping. The next showed us in the exact same positions, me on my right side, Karen on her left, but she appeared to be floating about a foot above the bed. In the next picture, she was gone. I realized then what I had been too unnerved to notice at the time of the incident – the place we found Karen in the kitchen is directly below our bed upstairs.

She wasn’t happy when I told her I’d been spying on us for months. Karen doesn’t get mad often, but when she does it’s not something you want to be around for. Finally, though, I convinced her to look at the pictures. She cried for hours, and I with her.

We took no chances after that. From that day on Karen and I slept in shifts, each staying awake to watch the other. That was our promise to one another. I’m not sure I ever really slept, though. I was too afraid Karen would fall asleep as well, and then without me watching, it would happen again. I had a fear that I refused to voice to Karen, that I was too afraid to even think to myself about for more than a moment. Karen had somehow fallen through a whole story of our house and broken a few bones. We also had a basement below that level. If the fall to the kitchen floor ten feet below had broken her arm, what would a twenty-foot fall do? The basement floor was solid, unfinished concrete. Even now, after all that’s happened, I can’t think about that.

We kept it up, sleeping in turns. I would watch Karen for the first four hours, and then she would watch me. We lived like that for eight months. Constantly tired, constantly afraid. We stopped going out, stopped talking to people. I don’t know how many times I damn near fell off the edge of somebody’s roof from exhaustion. I don’t know how Karen kept it up. She was always the stronger one. We promised to one another that we’d get through it, that this thing wouldn’t destroy us. God, what I wouldn’t give to go back and change things. But it’s too late for that. I failed her. It’s all my fault.

It was almost two thirty in the morning. There were only about five minutes left before the alarm would go off and we’d switch places. Karen would get up and I’d lie down. It was warm. It was quiet. She was lying on her left side, like she always did, breathing softly. I remember thinking that, from my angle, it looked like she was smiling. My back was aching, and I leaned back against the headboard for just a moment to rest it. I closed my eyes and let myself relax for the first time in a long time.

Karen’s alarm woke me, and she wasn’t there. This time, I couldn’t hear her screaming. I called out to her, but she didn’t answer.

She wasn’t under the bed, and she wasn’t downstairs in the kitchen. I ran all through the house, screaming, yelling out to her, praying that I’d turn a corner and there she’d be, just coming back from getting a glass of water or using the bathroom. She wasn’t anywhere in the first or second story of the house, and that left only one place to look.

I opened the basement door, and went down. Karen wasn’t there, either.

For a few seconds, I felt relief. Just a few seconds. After that, I fell to the floor and lost myself. I lay on that cold, concrete floor in tears. All the exhaustion and emotion that had built up in me over those eight long months just took over, and I couldn’t get up. In my hysteria I imagined her down there somewhere under the ground, still screaming and shaking in fear from her falling nightmare. A few times I even thought I could hear her. The next morning the clinic called the house asking about Karen. “She’s gone,” I told them, “I lost her.” I don’t know how long I spent walking around in the house, calling out her name before I finally decided what needed to be done. I went out to the shed, the sunlight blinding me, and grabbed the sledgehammer and pickaxe.

The cops came to the house. The sheriff and deputy both came to check things out after Karen hadn’t shown up for work and I suppose what I told the receptionist must have given them a bit of a scare. They asked me what I was doing all covered in dirt and dust and I told them just what I was doing. “Looking for Karen,” I told them. Now, I get it. They thought I killed her. That’s why they asked to come in. That’s why they wanted me to show them around the house.

I showed them every room, every corner, every closet. I showed them the pictures from the trail cam. I took them to the basement and showed them my work. It had taken me nearly the entire day to break through the concrete and get it cleared away. By the time they showed up, I’d dug down about two feet into the soil. It’s really rocky here, so it takes a long time to make any progress. I asked them If they would help me out for a while. Sheriff agreed to help me while deputy went to make a phone call. After a while he came back too. For a bit they just watched me dig, but then they joined in too.

I don’t know what they expected, but whatever it was, they didn’t get it. They asked me a few times where Karen was, and I told them I didn’t know. How could I possibly explain it to them? How could they ever understand?

It broke my heart when Liam showed up at the house. Deputy had called him. He’d left the city as soon as he could, and made the drive home in three hours. He asked me what was going on, and how could I lie to him again? How could I look my boy in the eye and tell him everything was okay? Everything came out. I told him about how the nightmares his mother had been having had gotten worse, and about how she kept falling and falling. At first, I know he thought I was crazy, but now I’m not so sure. He was there that night she broke her arm. He knows that whatever’s happening to us is not normal. Even the cops haven’t accused me of madness yet.

He asked me for a shovel, and started digging as well. That was yesterday. After a while, the cops left. I asked them If they’d come back to help again in the morning, and they did. Now that there’re four of us, the work is going much quicker. The cops keep asking me where Karen is, and I keep telling them she has to be down there somewhere. It’s not the answer they’re looking for, but it’s the best I have.

At noon today, the deputy himself stopped digging and held up a hand for us to listen. I don’t know what it is, but we can hear sounds coming from below. Somewhere deeper down, something is making noise. If you hold still with your hand to the ground, you can feel the rocks shaking from time to time. We kept digging.  At the time, the hole was about seven feet deep, so we set up a ladder to help with climbing in and out for breaks.

At six o’clock we turned over a rock the size of the kitchen table, and lying underneath it, as shiny and clean as the day I bought it, was Karen’s engagement ring. We kept digging. The ground is different down there. The earth is darker. Metallic, almost. The noises are getting louder. Sometimes, they sound like voices.

It must have been just before ten when they told me to come upstairs and lie down. I didn’t want to, I wanted to keep helping, but Liam made me promise. I won’t go breaking promises to my family again. I won’t.

I need to get back to digging soon. It’s been a few hours, and I think I can hear the sheriff shouting from downstairs. Maybe they’ve found something else. Maybe she’s still alive. Maybe.

Horrible, Nasty Things

I’m quite happy at the moment, all thanks to short fiction. I’m feeling very inspired.

I’ve spent the last couple of months revisiting some short fiction works from my past (most of which were prescribed reading during school days) and have more inspired than usual to write some short stories. When I write short stories, I almost always write horror.

I don’t know what it is about short horror fiction but it’s really quite the formula for atmosphere. Those fleeting glimpses of a larger story draw you in and open your mind to possibilities and… end. They leave you after a handful of pages with so many unanswered questions, so many possible explanations and backstories lingering in your mind. It’s totally intoxicating.

My little journey in rediscovery started with HP Lovecraft via the delightful “HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast” and rereadings of works like Dagon and The Outsider. Other works that I dug up from assigned readings included WW Jacobs’ The Monkeys Paw and Will F Jacobs’ Side Bet and… was every short story I read in school authored by somebody called Jacobs?

I’m getting off track. The point is, short fiction is fun. Horror is fun. Short horror is fantastic. Since publishing my last horror piece “Deep Sleep” online, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring what I can do with my own short stories. I’ve got so many ideas I want to try out I’ve actually started plotting them out ahead of time, which is something I never do.

I’m not exactly sure what my intent was with this post, but I’m in the writing mood and wanted to share some thoughts before I get started.

There’s a thunderstorm going on outside my window right now, and the lightning is flashing on the trees outside. Time to get to work.

Happy writing, ghoulies.

Finding the (right) time to write

Our environment influences us, no doubt. It changes our mood, our attention span and our train of thought. I’ve come to find (without too much surprise) that it has a direct influence on my writing.

I’ve spoken before about atmosphere and writing – with respect to music and background noise in particular. But location isn’t the only thing that changes the way we write. For me, time of day is extremely important. Depending on whether or not I can see the sun shining, how long it’s been since I’ve slept, the knowledge of what’s going on in the outside world… all of those things can play a role. In my experience it really depends on the type of material I’m writing, but knowing the right time to write can be just as important as finding the correct place. Let’s start at the beginning.

Morning.

Mornings are damn productive. Get up and go. My preferred method? Empty stomach, lots of coffee, empty cafe. For some reason I do my best long prose writing in the mornings. This is when my novels get a boost. It’s a great time for brainstorming and even better for a high word count in a short amount of time. Mornings seem to be a great time to express a lot of emotion and thought without over thinking things. It’s easy to get into a flow. My favorite time of day for poetry.

Afternoon.

This is prime dialogue time. I’ve had my coffee, I’ve had something to eat. People are moving, talking, commuting all around. This is when I can really focus on word choice and character building, making conversation-writing a dream. In the morning I let my imagination run wild with ideas, and in the afternoon it all comes together. Not a good time for poetry, I’ve found. Stream of consciousness is much more predictable (and less interesting). I love writing fantasy in the afternoons, as this is when I do my best technical thinking and problem solving.

Evening.

For me, this is the least productive time of day. In the evenings I enjoy reading other people’s works, watching movies, listening to music. It’s nearly impossible for me to focus on my own writing in the evening, unless I’m especially inspired or have found the perfect location. This is when my mind is on other things.

Late night.

This, my friends, is where the horror happens. After-dark writing produces an atmosphere that I just can’t seem to tap into at other times of the day. Emotions are easy to unlock, settings become much more vivid in my mind and – perhaps most importantly – I’m tired. This is when the thoughts that come at the end of a long day – thoughts that we tend to push out of our minds in the lighter hours – start to creep into full view. If I dim the lights and turn my back to an open door and start typing, I can really unsettle myself at times. When I start glancing over my shoulder and double checking to make sure the door is locked, now I’m in prime terror territory. Poems and short stories thrive here.

Of course, this is just my experience. You may find that your right times for writing are totally different. Whatever the case, try out different things. If you’re stuck in a rut or running out of ideas, leave it for later. Get up early the next morning and try again. Have a go after supper. If that’s not your thing, wait until the lights go out and try again. Style is a tricky beast to master, but experimentation will help you figure it out. And if it doesn’t work? Try again later.

Happy writing.

The Forgotten (originally published on creepypasta.com)

While hiking alone during my twenty-fifth year in the southwestern barrens of the Newfoundland interior highlands, I found myself lost for three days. During this time, I encountered several phenomena which disturbed me in ways I thought not possible. In those seventy-two hours I wandered aimlessly but not without purpose into what I can only describe as some sort of grand hallucination or a waking fever dream, and the thought of my days in that lost wilderness brings me to tears now as I type these long-repressed words which have plagued me for a lifetime. Forgive my ramblings and my endlessly meandering thoughts and my words which run too long and too wildly and remember, please, that those same unending imageries plague me in a way that you could never begin to imagine. Perhaps now, upon reading this, you will begin to understand the reasons for my current condition. Forgive me, reader, as I try to describe the agony that I endured in those days and throughout the sleepless nights since those steps I took into a world best left undisturbed.

A long weekend on holiday from the teaching college seemed to me the perfect opportunity to rediscover places I had visited in my youth with an uncle – my mother’s brother – who had trapped foxes and beavers and mink and the elusive arctic hares which used to run like lightning through those lands. He had taken me on camping trips into the barrens many times where we walked and talked and fished for trout in cold little pools and sat around small fires brewing tea in apple juice cans. He would tell me stories of his people, the Mi’kmaq, and of how they used to hunt the herds of woodland caribou that ran thick as sheep through the unending country in the days before the white man and the moose and the coyote came. He would tell me of the Beothuk, who are now all dead and gone to the last, and whose paths his elders had shown to him as a boy. The same paths those ancient folk used to tread on their annual migrations from the country to the shores of the sea and beyond. And he told me, if my memory is worth trusting after all these years, of the people that had lived there even before the Beothuk, whose language and paths and territories and legends and gods were witnessed only by the dead ancestors of our dead ancestors, and of whom there was no living memory other than the rumor that they had once lived in that land. He shared with me the subtle and minimal clues of their heritage that he had gathered from his elders, but much of it was unknown to him even in those days because he had been forced into learning by missionaries under the name of the Catholic church at an early age and they had schooled him in English and forbade the uttering of his mother tongue.

What I was able to gather from him before he passed away in his forties is not enough to fully describe the culture of those people. None of their language and few of their customs were known to him, and of their origins he would simply state that they were of that place – not that they had originated there, but that they had always been there. They were referred to by my uncle’s elders as mythical beings, godlike in their stature and connection to the land. He did not know what had happened to them, and nor did anyone that he had ever spoken to. It seems to me now that the truest explanation of those people is that they once were there, but now they are not, and any pondering as to why this is the case is so far removed from the time of those folk that it becomes an irrelevant question. Of their territory he was very specific, and from this I gather that they were not a people of great number – possibly existing in one large community or tribe due to a reliance on a localized resource which was in great supply in the region, or perhaps it was the locale of their last stand against some greater outside threat that was beyond their understanding or comprehension and against which they resisted desperately until the speakers of legends forgot that they had ever occupied a place that was not this one. According to my uncle, it was within the barrens that they lived, and it is this area which remains in its state of undeveloped wilderness as I write this sentence. I would have written this off in my younger years – no doubt – as mere circumstance. I no longer believe that this is the case.

It was because of this mystery that I was drawn to the region as a child, and I would daydream endlessly about hiking across the expanse in search of some evidence of those people – perhaps discovering the remains of a settlement or burial site. I wanted desperately to know what had happened to them, who they were, and what their relationship with the land was. What could explain my forefathers’ reverence of those folk? What clues might remain that could help uncover their lost and forgotten history? To my constant dismay, my uncle would always follow the same few paths on our hikes into that country, and if I were ever to implore about some far off location beyond the regular areas explored he would sternly redirect my attention to the current path and express a sometimes extreme anger towards my tendency to stray. Despite his urging and constant arguments about the dangers of being lost in the barrens, my eyes and my thoughts always wandered toward the horizon and the turns not taken. They called to me.

Finally, this inherent curiosity led me to set foot again into that vast and lonesome place, taking with me a small pack of provisions and a tent to set up in case of rain. It was my plan to set course from the stretch of highway near the Middle Ridge Wilderness Reserve near Bay d’Espoir and trek due west – I would end my hike on the highway near the Annieopsquotch Mountains and hitch a ride to the nearest bus terminal. I set out on the eleventh of October at dawn with the sun at my back and the retreating night ahead of me and grinning to myself as each step brought me farther and farther away from the life I once knew.

That first day was difficult, as it took time for my body to adjust to the task at hand. Two years of studying at a desk were not the best preparation for my chosen route – which would take at least four days to traverse – but I forced myself onward, draining my water canteen every few hours. At last, I had reached the point of no return, where the last visible signs of human civilization would dip below the horizon. I could just barely glimpse the flashes of light from cars reflecting the sun in the distance. I stopped there and filled my canteen at a small stream, and looked around at the vast and deeply blue sky and felt for the first time in years a sense of just how small I was within this wide and ancient land. I turned for a last look toward the highway in the east, then continued to walk. In the middle of the afternoon I crossed through the remains of a forest that had burned long ago, where bleach-white bones of limbless tree husks stood in stark contrast against the rusty berry bushes that covered the high ground in that time of year. Later, I stumbled on the remains of a campsite – the occupants of which had left dozens of shattered beer bottles strewn across the ground in a wide arc around their fire. The crescent of broken glass glistened in the evening sun like a ring of stars, and knelt for a while to catch my breath and shake my head at the mess they had left behind. That night I slept beneath the moon in a dry hollow between dwarf fir trees and watched the stars flickering overhead in the inky blackness. I had never felt so alive.

The second day I woke with a start as the little stunted trees around me shook with a thundering of footsteps and I stood up to find my camp surrounded by a small herd of migrating caribou. There were about fifty, and they moved steadily eastward, chewing at the ground and puffing steam from their long muzzles and they had soon passed me by heading into the sunrise. That day I walked slowly with the muscles cramping in my legs, but in a few hours I had found my pace again and moved steadily westward into that place, opposite to the journey of the caribou. The land began to change as I carried on, with the springy semi-tundra hardening into a dry and unforgiving soil that resisted any pressure, and if I closed my eyes I could almost convince myself I was walking on asphalt. By noon I came to the edge of a wide valley, carved by glaciers and millennia of erosion into a sloping bowl that stretched nearly to the horizon on the other side. There was a river flowing through it, and I decided that I would rest there. It took until late afternoon for me to come to the river and when I did I was more tired than I could ever remember being. My feet were blistered, my shoulders aching from my pack, and the smell of sweat in my clothes was so strong that I stripped naked and wrung them out in the cold, clear water.

I began to think, then, that my trip was not as well planned as I had thought. I had only just enough food for three days – although I was sure I had packed more – and I hadn’t brought a change of clothes because I thought it would save space. My mood turned sour and I stared angrily at the valley wall before me and made the hasty choice to climb it before setting camp. It would be dark by seven, but I didn’t care – I was so fed up with myself that I just wanted to get the hike over with as fast as possible. I didn’t dare turn back, because if my friends at the college got word that I’d forfeited my great adventure they would never let me hear it out, and despite my bad temper and my sudden impatience, I still longed to see the expanse in it’s entirety. I marched up the hillside, faster than was wise, through the thinning trees and over rocks and under arm-like, scooping branches and around another, larger herd of caribou that flowed toward the river in a flood of fur and antlers. The hours flew by and still I climbed on in my stupidity and it was well after sunset when I stumbled blindly onto the crest of a small hill at the valleys edge and set camp for the night. I ate ravenously and laughed at my own stubbornness and lay in my sleeping roll watching the flames before quickly falling into and deep and exhausted sleep.

I woke in the night to my little fire dying into feeble smoldering coals and struggled out of my sleeping roll, fighting to keep from shuddering in the unbelievably cold air. The temperature had dropped unexpectedly and frost was gathering in the tips of the surrounding vegetation, glowing in the soft blue light cast down by the moon which was waning but as of yet bright enough to illuminate my campsite. My hands were numb, and after struggling to get the fire going again I gave up and fumbled in my pack for the tent. In the minutes it took to set it up, I found myself jumping at small sounds and turning quickly to look over my shoulder. The silence of that hill in the night was staggering, and each movement I made to adjust the tent straps or stamp down a peg or throw my belongings inside it brought an unbearable sensation down upon me, as though I would give myself away – but to whom? At last, I had erected the tiny shelter and pulled myself inside it, head first, and wrapped myself in my sleeping roll to settle once again into a peaceful sleep. It was at this point I realized I had forgotten to tie the tent flap shut. Being as tired as I was, I decided that a small draft would be tolerable, and I tucked myself in doubly against the cold with only my head protruding. I lay there for a while, listening to the sounds of the barrens outside, of the persistent fall breeze rustling against the canvas, of the last few coals sputtering out in the cold, of the movement of caribou in the valley below grunting in the dark.

And the night drew on and I lay there, breathing quietly and watching my breath turn into a moist fog that hung in the tent like the smoke of a doused candle. I listened with increasing intensity to the minute sounds of the world outside, which seemed to be growing more and more sparse as the moments passed. The winds became gentler and less chaotic and after a time they ceased completely and the air hung heavily over the world. In that stillness and absolute silence came the suspicion that there was something moving nearby, outside my little canvas tent. I did not see a shadow cast by the moon against the thin and tightly bound fabric, nor did I hear a noise that would give away the approach of an entity into my small camp. I felt – in that void of sound and light which surrounded me entirely – a change in the air of which I cannot accurately explain.

The very night itself seemed to be drawing in on me, pressing itself into my skin and brushing obscenely against the space near the back of my neck and shoulders, as if to suggest the presence of some invisible form that had wandered unwelcome into that place and passed through it without noticing my huddled form laying crumpled in fear across its path. I held myself still, reducing my breaths to shallow murmurs, and fought against the hollow pain raising in my stomach, and when the sound of my own low gasps for air became unbearably distracting, I took in a lungful and held it, waiting against hope as cold, stinging sweat oozed into my eyes. I used the last of my faltering willpower to resist the urge to blink, and focused the entirety of my attention on the narrow window left by the unfastened flap of canvas hanging above my feet. I waited.

In all of that vast and empty nothingness out there, I could plainly see some pale thing run past the open end of my tent.

I gasped for air, unable to stop my body from emitting a small shriek of fear, and I lurched forward, plunging my head out through the tent flap and into the night. I stared all around, scanning the hillside for as far as I could see, but there was nothing there. Slowly, quietly, I backed into the tent and tied the flap tightly shut, and buried myself in my sleeping roll, curling into a shaking ball with my knees at my chest and covered myself entirely. I was still laying in that position, still shivering, still drenched in a sticky, waxy sweat when I lifted my face from under the blanket to realize the sun was starting to rise. I exited the tent, slowly at first and then springing wildly around, darting left and right, hoping to confuse any intruder that may be watching and waiting for a chance for surprise attack, but there was only me alone on that hill. I stuffed my tent hastily into my bag and gathered my few possessions and noticed with a sideways glance that my fire coals were still smoking hot as I turned to leave camp, despite the fire having gone out hours ago.

With the morning sun warming my back I started to regain some of my nerve, and within an hour I was convincing myself that what I had seen could be nothing more than a lone animal passing by. Perhaps it was a straggler caribou from the herd in the valley, and perhaps my heightened senses during that moment were a symptom of my being alone for nearly three days. I told myself – out loud, as though to an audience – that there was nothing to be afraid of. Now, I figured, I ought to be at about the halfway point of my hike, but as I examined my small and tattered map, I realized that I must have walked slightly off course, either to the north or south. None of the landmarks that I had expected to see from the map were visible, and the wide valley that I had crossed the previous day didn’t seem to show up at all on paper. I was lost, but what kept me from panicking was that I knew if I kept walking westward I would eventually reach the highway, as long as I kept my head straight and didn’t start going in circles. It would have been possible for me to turn back the way I had come, but something kept me going onward, deeper into those barrens and away from the valley I had crossed.

Here, the landscape had undergone another transition, and where before there were long stretches of rolling hills, now the rises lay low against the earth, and I felt as though I could see an impossible distance in each direction. The graceful topography of the valley had given way to an endless stony plain scattered with enormous erratic boulders that rose as high as houses and rested uneasily on points that suggested they might topple given the slightest amount of pressure. Upon their surfaces were carved crude forms like the dashes of some lost runic language or perhaps the shapes of animals worn away beyond recognition. Upon closer inspection, I decided they must be the weathered markings of windblown sand, nothing more. It made the most sense. The vegetation was reduced to scattered wiry bushes the reddish brown of clotted blood and the lichen grew thick upon the ground. I walked on and shuddered at the bizarre echoing of my own footsteps off those stone giants and did not stop to rest until the moon overtook the sun in the evening sky.

I wasted no time with fires that night. Immediately I set my tent on a growth of green lichen and climbed inside, fastening myself and my few belongings securely within the confines of those canvas walls and wrapped myself tightly in my blanket. Reaching into my pack, I found my rations gone, lost through a rip in the fabric. Only my water canteen and a few curious stones remained. I shut my eyes and prayed for sleep, as I had only gotten a few hours since my first camp. I wanted desperately to feel the embrace of unconsciousness and for the aching in my muscles and stomach to subside. Even a nightmare would be better than this. But sleep did not come, and in the minutes that followed I fell again into that deep sense of dread that I had experienced the night before on the hilltop. A deathly quiet had formed around me, and the sounds of my own body seemed immeasurably loud. I struggled to keep my entire body hidden inside the sleeping roll – it was slightly too small, and my feet or the top of my head or my back kept protruding into the cold air of the tent and in those moments I shuddered and frantically worked to conceal myself again. I knew that nothing could see me inside the tent, but it didn’t matter. I started to wonder if I had left the flap open again, and – too frightened to check and see – I remained in my blanket cocoon, awaiting morning or some terrible end to the silence.

From outside the tent there came a faint rustling noise. I held my breath again, focussing entirely on remaining still and listening, but there was no need. The sound grew louder. It became clear to me that there was somebody or something nearby, and that they were not alone. The rustling grew louder still, and there was a shifting and a scraping of something soft against the stony floor of the night and then a grinding noise, like the crunching of dry gravel beneath a wheel. I grabbed my forearm and pinched hard, hoping to wake myself from the dream, digging in my fingernails and drawing blood, and I did not wake – I was not asleep. Slowly, with a movement I was sure wouldn’t make a sound, I pulled the blanket down from over my face and forced open my eyes.

Outside there was the unmistakeable flickering light of a fire, and it flashed and cast silhouettes of grotesque forms which licked and rippled across the canvas and I could not bring myself to look away. They were like naked shapes of men or women, with their unclothed bodies bared against the night and prancing fluidly by the movement of the flame and their own otherworldly dance. And their long, distorted forms wound themselves around me in my tiny cold bed and sucked the breath from my body as they lifted their arms to the night and sang in a tongue that seemed not to come from their mouths but from the very earth itself, and sounded to me nothing like speech at all. And they were not like men or women. From their bodies there came impossible shapes like antlers or tails or branches of trees or the billowing of clouds or the glistening forms of some rotting thing that had once been alive. They swayed with the fire and chanted and transformed and they heard the screams of terror bursting from my own shapeless mouth and approached the tent and then I knew that there was no hope and my eyes filled with sweat and tears and blinded me so I did not see their faces when they came and dragged me away into the horror that waited out there in that cruel and loathsome night.

I woke in the morning with frost in my hair. My tent and my pack were gone, and around me in a perfect circle lay the remains of burnt wood and coals and bones blackened from roasting. I rose and stared around me, my eyes darting from one boulder to the next, expecting to see one of my attackers out there watching me, but there was nothing. I walked in a circle, jumping and clapping hard in an attempt to bring life back to my numb feet and hands – my boots had been taken as well – and all the while staring around in the dim early light. On the ground there was a chunk of burned meat, and with a full day and night’s worth of hunger gnawing at me I picked it up and sunk my teeth into it, hardly chewing before swallowing and tearing off another bite. On the outside the meat was black and hard, but inside the crust it was still red-raw and warm blood dripped down my chin and soaked my clothes and it seemed to tense up when I sunk in my teeth as though the muscle were still alive. I couldn’t stop. I gorged on the strange flesh and when it was gone I licked off my hands and sat on the ground staring up at the orange and violet sky and broke into sobs of joy or relief or despair – I cannot say what it was, for sure.

And I started to walk again, with my back to the sun. After a time there came the sounds of claws or hooves on the ground but I did not turn back to look. I kept walking westward, even when the great stones on either side began to creak and groan as though they would fall and crush my body into nothingness. I did not stop when the chant began again in my wake, and the sky became choked with clouds and the air grew hot and moist like the cavity of a freshly-dead corpse. The smell of meat was in my throat, and I gagged and fell to my knees, but my retching brought up only ash and bile so I got to my feet again. The sounds of the dancing, chanting things followed me in my hysteria throughout that day and the night that followed, out of the hard plain and over fields of yellow grass and through the stinking bog where my bleeding soles turned the water red.

I dared not turn to face them until the next day after I had passed between two toppled mounds of stone that perhaps once had been placed by hand, and it was in that moment when I finally looked behind me and saw that there was nothing there. Sometimes I think that was worse than everything that had happened before.

By noon I had given up and toppled face down onto the ground and lay there waiting to die. I wanted to die. I did not shudder when I heard footsteps approaching or when the shouting started or when the hands closed tightly around my shoulders, turning me onto my back so all I could see was the blinding white light of the sun in my eyes. It was a hunter, staring down at me, shaking me with a look on his face that told me he had thought I was dead. He half-dragged, half-carried me to the roadside, just over a kilometre away, and helped me into the back of his truck where I lost myself in a fit of tears and screaming and insisted that it couldn’t be real. He drove me to the hospital, urging that I have the food and water he pushed in my face, and I thanked him even though I was too tired to eat.

I never told the doctors what I’d seen, because I know they would have surely had me locked away, and perhaps they would have been right to do so. Perhaps the medication they would have prescribed me might have helped with the nightmares and the hallucinations I’ve had since then, but I’ve always been too afraid to let them examine me. Maybe they’d make the horrors go away, and make me see the nonsense of my fears. Maybe they’d prove my memories to be false. Imaginings. But if they didn’t?

My uncle would wake from the dead if he could see the mess I’ve made of my life. How often he had warned me, how often he had held me back as I started to wander from the path. How I wish I could take it all back and heed his words, to honour his wishes and the laws of our elders, but I must pay the price for my curiosity. From the moment I open my eyes, throughout the long hours of the sun, until I creep anxiously to bed for a night of sleepless writhing, I am plagued by visions of the forgotten ones and the horrors they performed on me during that night of desolation in the barrens. At times I can feel the ground beneath me moving, the winds outside splashing against the walls, and in moments when I pray that peace has finally found me, I can hear them again – those ancient, terrible things. At night when I lie staring at the ceiling with the taste of ash in my mouth and the sweat rolling thickly from my brow, I can hear their hooves and claws and sliding forms moving all around me. The halls are filled with the sounds of chanting, and the scent of fire and smoke and burning flesh sets me howling till morning, and the nightmare starts anew.

I tell myself that these visions are figments of my fevered mind brought up by some long-past trauma in my own youth, and that whatever had occurred in those barrens years ago is lost in time. The dead are gone, and the past is past. But is that the truth? In those spaces, uninhabited for countless years, is there not something lingering of the place it once had been, or of the ones who lived there? Could there, perhaps, in some long-forgotten corner of those endless barrens, remain the memory of what had existed there before our time? Like the decay of a shout or cry or laughter that rings on and on but grows increasingly distant and distorted, could it be that a shadow remains hidden away of the life that once had been? Those voices that had spoken in tongues unknown may still be ringing, echoing faintly the response of the land to the human voice, or some other voice that had made a sound. Some wisp of thought may still linger in the roots of grasses or the hollows of ancient trees or the dusty, hard spaces between the ground and flattened stones which wait with inconceivable patience to be kicked aside by the toes of some restless intruder who knows not where he walks. And if he stops abruptly and listens – with a sudden vivid sense of his loneliness and the pulsing in his chest and the breath of hot wind against the back of his ragged scalp, and twists around in his sweaty clothes and holds his breath in his throat in a moment of painful and terrible anticipation – does he hear it?

I’d rather believe I’m insane.