Black Blood 146 B.C.

The screams of women and children echoed in the night as they ran for their lives through the puddles and narrow streets. They flooded past us into the dimly lit agora at the center of town. We stood our ground. Stands that once shelved aged wines and the finest silk lay in pieces strewn across the ground. We had stripped them to construct a small palisade there to shelter those unable to fight. We stood at the opening alongside a handful of the local militia as its only line of defense. Thunder boomed overhead. I could hear the vicious growls of the enemy as they approached us in the darkness. I grabbed the whistle around my neck and loosed its piercing shriek.

“Form up on me!”

My men moved into position in line with me at the gap in the wall. We lined up our tall red shields to plug the hole. There were only five of us left. Hopefully it would be enough to keep them from getting past. Behind us, the thin line of militia readied for battle. I could see the terror painted onto their faces. Most had never seen battle. It’s good we were here. Young children hastily ran down the line, distributing javelins and spears to them. I turned to Decimus, my second in command. His joyful face seemed out of place in the chaos that surrounded us.

“Hey Achaicus, if we die, I’m still going collect on those three denarii you owe me.” He joked, oblivious of the chaos around us.

“If we die, I’ll pay you back in Persian whores when we wake in Elysium.” I responded with a smile.

The wails of dying civilians grew louder. The enemy was close. I looked around at my men. Crassius and Marcus stood to my left. They were identical twins of large stature, they had been terrified by battle in the past but now they stood calm and collected. They had been calloused by our first encounter. Though their faces were void of expression, I could see a burning desire for revenge glimmering in their eyes.

Good, we’ll need that

Decimus and Quintus stood to my right. I had known Decimus for a long time and was honored to fight by his side. He possessed an indomitable spirit that had kept us sane this whole time. His confident grin assured me that there was a chance we might survive the night. Quintus was quite small for a Roman and extraordinarily meek in day to day life. But when backed in a corner, his energy and skill in battle were unmatched. Under his blood stained helmet he furrowed his brow and grit his teeth. He was ready for what was coming, and I trusted that he would fight with us to the death, should it come to that.

The screaming off in the distance suddenly and instantaneously ceased. Replaced by the curious patter of raindrops on steel. I unsheathed my sword and held it high above my head. The panicking civilians in the palisade went quiet. The militia raised their javelins, ready to hurl at my command. The only voice that could be heard was that of a lone infant crying among the refugees.

Moments later we could hear the unsettling mass of growls. A lone figure shambled into the light and stood still. His skin was grey. His open mouth, smothered with blood and overflowing with bubbling saliva. I recognized his mutilated face. I had killed him. The Greek breastplate he wore was punctured and stained with black blood. We had to be wary of his bite or embrace a frenzied existence after death. We had all seen it happen before. We called them the inferi. The dead.

A large group of corpses followed him into the light. A few wore the heavy steel armor of the Roman Army, they were crouched onto their hands from its weight and moved like four legged beasts. They barred their teeth and snarled furiously at us. It was disturbing to see our own transformed into such terrible creatures. If all went well, no more would be added to their ranks this night.

As the group continued to gather in front of us I sliced my sword forward through the air.

“Now!”

The militia unleashed a volley of javelins over our heads. Many struck home in the chests of the nonliving. They fell to the ground from the force of impact, only to rise moments later. Black blood pooled on the floor. Those impaled through the face went limp and collapsed. A sharp blow to the head seemed to be their only weakness.

The Greek soldier in front was impaled through the stomach, forcing him to stumble backwards. He paused for a moment before growling and sprinting straight for us, followed en mass by the horde. The Roman inferi resembled rabid wolves as they charged on all fours, mouths open with hunger and animalistic desire. We beat our swords against our shields in anticipation.

“Spears!”

The militia hastily picked up the bronze spears at their feet and rushed behind us forming two tightly packed rows of men. The first row crouched and stuck their spears through the gaps between our shields. The second stood and pointed their spears out at head level. It would be moments before they were upon us. I gritted my teeth.

“Brace for impact!”

As the inferi crashed into our line it took all of our strength to keep from staggering backwards. The Greek soldier had been stopped by a spear through his heart just a couple feet in front of my face. I could smell his wretched breath as he inched closer. Scraping his flesh along the wooden shaft of the spear, nothing seemed to distract him from the desire to sink his decaying teeth into my throat. I thrust my sword under his chin. Straight into the brain. The supernatural glow left his eyes as he went limp. I twisted my sword arm around in the internal mush of his skull for good measure before pulling it out. The spear he had been impaled upon kept him standing upright. I looked around to asses our situation.

Decimus was frantically kicking at a Roman corpse trying to gnaw at his exposed ankles. I came to his aid with a sharp kick to the corpse’s side. It flipped over and lay at Decimus’s feet. He brought his shield down swifly. The head was severed with ease and black blood squirted in every direction. Decimus shot me an appreciative grin. I smiled back and turned my attention to the other men.

Quintus was shielded from the rest of the inferi by a limp corpse that had been stabbed through the forehead in the initial charge. He slashed furiously at the husk of a body in vain.

Efutue!” He cursed. “It’s not fair Achaicus, this fellatrix is standing between me and the action!”

I nodded reassuringly. At least he was safe and holding the line. I looked to my left. Crassius and Marcus worked together like hunter and hound. Crassius kicked away the arms supporting a crawling Roman corpse. It quickly collapsed under the weight of its bulky steel armor. Without pause Marcus drove his sword home straight through the base of the neck. Three slain Roman inferi were piled at their feet.

I heard a loud snarl in front of me and turned my attention to my own share of the fight. A Roman corpse had attempted to crawl between the legs of suspended the Greek soldier and had gotten stuck just below the Greek’s groin. He snapped at me and I instinctively stabbed downward at the beast’s scalp. The blow merely glanced off his thick steel helmet. He moved his head wildly in an attempt to escape. I placed the bottom half of my shield under his chin and lifted his gaze upward. Once I could see the pure darkness in his eyes I stabbed again. This time the blade struck home between his eyes. His stare lost its urgency as black blood drained to the ground. I pulled my shield back to my body and he slunk to the blood stained floor under the Greek soldier.

We were starting to gain confidence that this night would end in victory until a deafening mass of growls gripped us with renewed fear. At least two full centuries of inferi stood at the edge of the light. Greek hoplites and Roman legionnaires side by side. Decimus sliced a standing inferi across the chest as it charged toward him. It spun around and turned to its fellow undead, snarling for aid. They let out an unnervingly human cry and charged.

“Brace yourselves!”

They smashed into us with the force of a rolling wave. I was knocked back into the militia behind me. They struggled to keep the inferi at bay, but their strength failed in a matter of seconds and the dead rushed into the palisade. Welcomed by a cacophony of screams from the old, the women and the children. They eagerly leapt over us at the opportunity for easy prey. I looked up at the Greek corpse I had killed. Black blood dripped down from his chin and spattered onto my forehead. The sound of Quintus’s voice snapped me out of my daze.

“Achaicus! If we don’t get out of here right now we’ll be inferi chow!” Quintus struggled to push aside the plump corpse pinning him to the ground. “Let’s go!”

We all wiggled around to free ourselves from the immobilizing weight of the corpses. Marcus easily shrugged off two large Roman bodies and frantically grasped my hand to lift me up. He nervously glanced over his shoulder at the ensuing chaos. I thanked him and scanned our surroundings to find a route of escape. To our rear, the militia scrambled out from under piles of corpses and ran to protect their loved ones. The refugees were being consumed in an inferi feeding frenzy. Thick spatters of blood and severed limbs flew through the air.

Their desperate screams as they were ripped apart shook my skull to its core.

Some of the militiamen realized the futility in fighting and simply fled out along the main road through town. Crassius and Marcus stared eagerly at the road. I could tell that they wanted to follow the militia through the most direct route through the city. My instincts urged me to run with the herd, but I knew that more inferni could be lying in wait. Breaking off from the main road was a narrow alleyway wedged between two extravagant villas.

“That way!” I pointed my sword its direction.

We bolted to the alleyway, careful not to give any more notice to the slaughter behind us. For the sake of our sanity we absolved ourselves of any responsibility for what had happened to the refugees at the hands of the inferni. When I reached the narrow alleyway I did look back once for good measure. The inferni were still occupied in the palisade and the bloodcurdling screams were ever present in the night. I disappeared into the darkness of the alleyway and my men followed suit.

By the time the sun was just beginning to crest over the craggy hills of the Greek landscape we had put significant distance between us and the doomed city. I sat down on a patch of grass underneath a large oak at the top of a hill and gestured for my men to join me. This was the first time we had stopped moving since our retreat from the city. The morning dew gave the ground a cool, seductive comfort. After a few silent minutes had passed I stood and urged my men forward. We needed to keep moving.

“We’ll head that way” I gestured to the West. “We should make progress towards camp. They need to hear our report before they send out any more-”

“And then what?” Marcus stood to face me. “Regroup with the legion? We fought a few hundred inferni back there, now you ask us to face thousands?”

“We need cohesion and discipline. Five men cannot survive on their own and I’m willing to bet the legion needs as many men as it can muster.”

“Achaicus! The legion is gone! All we know is that wherever there are people there are inferni! I say we go North along the coast, find a ship, and leave this forsaken place!”

“We have a duty to aid the Republic! I will not doom fellow Romans, MY men, to die! Not if I have yet to lend my aid! We can still win this war Marcus!”

“I don’t give a damn about your Republic or your precious war! I’m not looking to die! I’m going North! Anyone who wants to live can join me.”

Crassius stood behind his brother. Quintus and Decimus stood behind me and cautiously placed their hands over the hilts of their swords. I stared at Marcus. He was taken aback by the anger in my response.

“Come with us. We’re going West!”

Futete! Make me!” Marcus unsheathed his sword.

Everyone drew their weapons and raised their shields. The tension on the hill was amplified by a moment of silence.

“If you desert, I’m going to have to kill you.”

“You can try.”

Marcus threw a powerful swing at my head. I blocked the blow with my shield and thrust my blade at his chest with the intent to kill. Crassius parried my sword with his own and with a single kick, knocked me to the ground. Decimus and Quintus came to my aid. The distinct clamor of steel on steel echoed through the empty landscape. Quintus was a more than a match for Marcus, but Decimus struggled to fend off Crassius’s fury of blows. I scrambled to my feet. A stinging pain from my ribs was excruciating, but I managed to put it to the back of my mind. I held my shield high and charged Crassius. Decimus sensed my attack and sidestepped out of my way. Crassius’s face turned to shock as he instantly realized what was happening.

Just a moment too late my friend

I crashed into him, slamming him forcefully onto the ground. He gazed up at me with a dazed expression as I lifted the hilt of my sword and smashed it down onto his forehead. He flailed his arms against my armor. I did it over and over again, savagely beating the energy out of his large body. Blood poured off of his head and onto the dewy grass. Decimus watched in horror at the animal that had taken hold of me. His skull began to give way and the struggling ceased. Each successive blow resulted in a brittle snapping sound until my hilt had dug itself deep into his face. My attacks slowed as my rage began to fade. I looked down at my blood soaked hands. The pain returned to my ribcage. It felt good, like a twisted reward for a job well done.

Marcus, still fending off Quintus, was enraged by the death of his brother. His blows increased in frequency and strength. Quintus staggered back at every blocked attack. He soon found himself at the edge of a fairly steep portion of the hill. Decimus ran to Quintus’s aid. With both of them on the offensive, Marcus was quickly overwhelmed again. In an act of desperation, he cried out and slammed his body into Quintus. He screamed as he was thrown backward and down the steep edge of the hill. Decimus raised his sword to strike, but was dispatched by a swift kick from Marcus. He too was sent tumbling down the hill. Marcus breathed heavily and hit me with a smoldering glare.

“You killed my brother Achaicus.” He looked down at Quintus and Decimus. They were frantically climbing back up the hill. They would be here soon. “I’m going North. Don’t try to stop me. You kept one of us from leaving, I hope that pleases your damn Republic.”

I sat there, still on top of of Crassius’s lifeless body. I could see the burning rage in Marcus’s eyes. He spat at my feet and walked away. Quintus and Decimus finally made it to the top of the hill ready for a fight. Instead they found me standing, staring down at Crassius’s mutilated face. Was it worth it?

Decimus placed a firm hand on my shoulder.

“You know I’d follow you anywhere right?” The usual joyfulness in Decimus’s voice was replaced by a low, serious tone.

“I have trust in you Achaicus. You’ve kept us alive this long.” Quintus chimed in.

I flashed a weak smile at them. I pointed West with a blood soaked finger and began walking down the hill. Quintus and Decimus looked at each other with concern and then hurried to join me on the road back to camp.

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Age of Kingdoms

In the fourth grade there was one thing that I loved more than anything else. I would get home from school, heat up a microwave burrito, lean back in a creaky old office chair, and boot up our family’s desktop computer. Age of Kingdoms was always in the disc tray because it was the only game I’d ever play. I was so consumed in tending to my fledgling civilization that hours would flash before my eyes. Every game started out the same, you start with a handful of pixelated villagers and a king. I’d promptly send the villagers to work cutting down trees and hunting for food, while the king sat behind the walls of his castle overseeing the fragile economy. If he died the game was over. I would lose. Eventually I would stockpile enough resources to build walls and armies to protect my people from the neighboring kingdom. Once I had built up enough I would strike at the heart of my AI opponent. Their cities would crumble under my military might, and a welcome tingle would roll down my spine. Bold white text would appear on the screen. YOU ARE VICTORIOUS.

As one of the scrawnier kids living in a small town, it gave me the chance to feel important. I was a friendless nobody in real life, but in the game I was a god. I really think it helped my self esteem growing up.

But like with most things, after a while the joy of pummeling a computer into the dust subsided. It was too easy. My dad had recently set up a DSL router. The internet was finally at my fingertips, and with it the excitement of a new challenge. After school on friday I practically ran home. I trembled in anticipation as I booted up the computer and moused over the Age of Kingdoms icon. In a couple minutes I had the multiplayer menu opened, searching for matches.

No game(s) found…

I frowned. This was not what I had expected. I restarted the game and still-

No game(s) found…

I was about to give up when a message popped up on my screen.

Drudg3s74: Want 2 play??

Eagerly, I replied.

Steven: Yeah lets get a game started.

Drudg3s74: OK you host.

I started up the match. It spawned me in the center of an island with a handful of villagers, my king and a castle. I sent my people to work, gathering wood and food from the surrounding countryside. I made more villagers and sent them to mine some gold I had spotted closer to the coast. I was losing myself in the game, it was a familiar cathartic feeling.

Drudg3s74: How r you?

Steven: I’m fine, how about you?

Drudg3s74: Good

Drudg3s74: Not many people play this game

Steven: My parents say its a waste of time

Drudg3s74: What do you say?

Steven: It makes me feel in control

Steven: I don’t get to feel that way very often

Drudg3s74: Same.

Our text exchange died down and I returned my focus to the game. The pixelated people worked like ants, gathering resources and depositing them at my stockpile. Back and forth they went. Storing massive amounts of gold and wood. My people threw out their rags for fine silk togas. They grew fat and rich. It was mesmerizing to watch the transformation.

“Steven! Time for bed!!” My mother yelled from the other room.

I glanced up at the clock. It was 8:30. My stomach grumbled, I had lost track of time and missed dinner. Probably why my mom was so irate.

Steven: I have to go to bed

Drudg3s74Play tomorrow?

Steven: Yeah sure, I’ll save it. Night.

The next morning I woke up and devoured a bowl of cereal. I had to get back to that game. Today was saturday, meaning I had the entire weekend to play. When I got to the computer room my parents were huddled around the screen.

“I-I don’t understand, they just tripled overnight!” My father gasped.

“What does this mean honey?”

“I just made $300,000..”

The room was quiet for a brief moment before exploding with noise.

“OH MY GOD” My mother exclaimed.

“I’m taking you out tonight babe” My father beamed. “Anywhere you want. Steven’s old enough to stay without a sitter. All he ever does is play his game anyways.”

I felt sting of shame at the truth of my dad’s logic. My parents laughed with joy and embraced. They told me there were hot dogs in the fridge and to get to bed at a decent hour. Then giggled their way out the door. I waited a few minutes after the door slammed shut to boot up the game. Just a few moments to experience the bleak loneliness of real life before returning to my colorful fantasy. Immediately after the game started a message appeared on my screen.

Drudg3s74: Want 2 play??

Steven: Sure.

I loaded the game from where we had left off. My villagers continued to gather and multiply. I invented agriculture and gradually my farms spread through the deforested land. The invention of smelting meant better metals for tools and weapons. My small village grew to a town, then to a city. The clay huts my villagers resided in upgraded to hovels, then to towering apartment buildings. Soon I had a sprawling metropolis, streets flooded with workers and merchants. Soldiers in glistening blue armor guarded my castle and patrolled the lands in my domain. My opponent had been surprisingly quiet the entire time. For the first time in hours I looked up at the clock. 10:45. I needed to get off.

Steven: I have to go

After waiting for a couple minutes a chat message appeared.

Drudg3s74: Play tomorrow?

Steven: You bet. See you tomorrow.

I woke up on Sunday morning to the sounds of heavy machinery whirring. I jumped out of bed to open the blinds and harsh light blinded me for a second. When my eyes adjusted all I saw for miles was construction site after construction site. My school was down the street. There were new classrooms and facilities being built by an army of workers. They seemed to have appeared overnight. Progress was already visible. The frames of new houses were being hoisted up. It was strange. The events of yesterday and today were seemingly random, but I felt a connection between them. All I knew for sure was that the excessive noise was annoying. I stumbled into the living room and poured myself a bowl of cereal. There was a note stapled to the box.

Steven, your dad and I have decided to vacation up at Tahoe. We’ll be back later this week. Hot dogs in the fridge. -xoxo Mom

I sighed. Another day to myself. My parents left on these kinds of trips often. Most of the time without bothering to let me know beforehand. After a lonely breakfast I booted up Age of Kingdoms.

Drudg3s74: Want 2 play??

Steven: Ok

I returned to my people. What to do next? I decided it was time to develop my coastline. A fleet of fishing ships left my harbor, scouring the uncharted seas for whatever it could provide. That’s when I spotted a ship with red sails. The enemy. The ship retreated back into uncharted waters and returned moments later with a fleet behind it. Hundreds of red sails dotted the screen. It was an attack, and I was utterly unprepared.

Drudg3s74: Ready or not here I come

The ships landed on the beaches of my island and soldiers with fierce red armor poured out into the countryside. There was nothing I could do. They torched the outlying farms and houses before making their way inward. I rallied my troops and sent them into battle. Red knights on horseback trampled through my lines and cut down every last one. Then they marched on the city, slaughtering every villager, reducing my great buildings to rubble. I realized my king was next and evacuated him to the other side of the island where more enemy soldiers lay in wait. Red crossbowmen loosed a volley of bolts at my king–

A sharp pain contorted my shoulder. I howled at the excruciating sensation. A large spot of warm blood pooled under my t-shirt. WHAT THE FUCK?!?

I looked back at the screen. A message was waiting for me.

Drudg3s74: I don’t want this game to end yet

Drudg3s74: Play tomorrow?

My king was wounded but not yet dead. The red troops had ceased their onslaught and retreated back to their ships. Then the screen went black. I sat there in that worn out office chair in shock, blood trickling down my side. I tried to process what had happened but the pain overtook me and my eyes shut.

When I opened them it was well into monday afternoon. The air was thick and harsh on the throat. I coughed uncontrollably as I lifted up my shirt to peer underneath. The wound had scabbed over, sticking like velcro to my white t-shirt. Careful not to jostle my shoulder, I slowly rose out of the office chair. If the blood on my shirt was real then-. I hurried to my bedroom window and ripped open the blinds.

There was nothing left but scorched earth and piles of rubble. The construction sites were silent. The heavy machinery and bodies of the workers were charred black. Down the road my school had been reduced to a mound of bricks. No class today. It seemed only my neighborhood had been spared the from a fiery doom. This was no game, this was real life.

I knew what I had to do.

I sat back down in my chair, still clutching my bloody shoulder and booted up the game for one last time.

Drudg3s74: Want 2 play??

Those words held a new meaning this time.

Steven: Let’s end this.

The game resumed. My city was in ruins. Like the aftermath of the fire that devastated my hometown, only my castle and a few buildings in the area around it were left unscathed. I moved my king back into the castle and rallied what remained of my villager population. Then I started to rebuild.

Things were slow at first, but I kept at it. Hours flew by in the blink of an eye. At 1 am on tuesday morning I had built my kingdom back to its former glory. My farms resown, my armies reformed. Once again my people moved from pitiful mud huts to luxurious condos. A great wall was erected around the city built upon it’s own ashes. The natural resources on the island were exhausted so I sailed to smaller islands off the coast to strip them of their wealth. From the plentiful forests of those islands a great fleet was constructed, but not of fishing ships. This time warships armed to the teeth ran patrols around my island fortress. I was at the height of my strength. Better yet, the fog had rolled in. Now was the time to strike.

Steven: You willing to try your luck a second time?

Drudg3s74: Here I come

Not a minute had passed before red sails once again appeared at the edges of my domain. They sailed straight for my undefended coastline.

The trap was sprung. I took a deep breath and continued.

Ships with majestic blue sails swiftly moved out of their hiding places amidst the thick fog. They attacked from both sides, taking the invading fleet by surprise. The exchange of fire arrow volleys on screen was a magnificent sight to behold. Red ships sank to the depths by the dozen, and with each of them a portion of the invading army.

My opponent saw my naval advantage and sent the remainder of his fleet to shore. Despite his significant losses at sea, red soldiers disembarked by the thousands. They fanned out into the farmlands, raiding and killing as they went. The remainder of their fleet, annihilated behind them. They were trapped on this island.

While the red army devastated the surrounding land, the next part of my plan went into action. A large contingent of my army stood outside the city walls. Ready to fend off the red invaders. The rest of my forces waited on the other side of the island, loading heavy siege equipment onto large transport ships. The ships sailed around the island, escorted by my fleet, and then moved into the now undefended red territory. As I neared the shore volleys of arrows rained down on the fleet. Maybe a little more defended than I had planned on. I sailed straight through the hail of fire and my men stormed the beach. After some vicious fighting, the arrows stopped. Now it was my turn. Large wooden catapults rolled onto the sand. I gave my men one standing order, to take the castle and bring back the enemy king’s head.

I got an alert from my city and moused back over to my island to see what was happening. The red army had formed up outside the city, outnumbering the defenders 3 to 1. The odds meant victory was impossible, but I just had to hold them off a while longer. The two armies smashed into each other. The screen was filled with red and blue soldiers fighting to the death. With swords and battered shields they fought on tirelessly and with ruthless efficiency.

Another alert turned my attention to the other island. There, my blue army had ransacked the enemy city. Now they moved on to the castle. Catapults hurled fireballs into it’s decorated stone masonry. Chipping it away little by little while my soldiers formed up to cut off any routes of escape. I left them to their work and focused on the battle on the fringes of my on city.

The defenders fought valiantly. But the overwhelming numbers of the red army proved too much. Every last one was slaughtered. Their blue bodies sprinkled the ground at the base of the city walls. The invaders let out a brief cry of victory before breaking out their ladders and grappling hooks. I didn’t have much time.

I wiped my palms off on my shirt. They left long yellow streaks of sweat over the dried blood. In a moment, the red army would be over my walls and the fire would rage on again in the real world. I sighed deeply and focused back in on the events unfolding in front of me.

The enemy castle was crumbling before my eyes. Arrows rained from the battlements sniping my troops down below. The square my spearmen had formed around the structure was breaking. Gaps in their wall were numerous and occupied by corpses filled with arrows.

Another alert from my island drew me away. The red army was storming the streets of my city. They razed every structure they came across to the ground. My villagers congested the streets rather than evacuate. The soldiers hacked and slashed their way through the sea of blue civilians. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make. Anything was worth buying my army a little more precious time.

Back on the enemy island the castle was on the verge of collapse. Every fiery boulder impacted with devastating effect. The regal sound of trumpets took me by surprise. The great metal gates of the castle flew open and the red king raced out on horseback. What remained of my spearmen chased after him. He rode east, into the woods.

“SHIT!” I screamed at my computer and threw my fist down on the table.

Drudg3s74: That was close

Drudg3s74: My turn

Red catapults set up around my castle and loosed their deadly payload. The walls of my house shook violently. The clock and countless framed pictures shattered face first onto the hardwood floor. My office chair swiveled around in circles and rolled to the other side of the room. A loud creaking noise turned my attention to the ceiling. In an instant the drywall collapsed, coating everything in a layer of white debris. The thick arm of a large oak tree followed, clipping my left hand as it crashed into the hardwood. I looked and my hand and screamed at the top of my lungs. My fingers were limp. Any attempt to move them resulted in an unimaginable spasm of pain. White bone protruded out of my forearm. My left hand was fucked.

Holding back tears, I dismounted my office chair and wiggled my way through the tangled branches between me and the game. Every contact with bark on my busted hand left me momentarily frozen in pain. Eventually I made my way through and stood in front of the computer. My right hand gripped the mouse. I had to end this NOW.

All fighting in the game had stopped. I looked to my castle, the fireballs being hurled by the red army’s catapults were frozen mid-flight. On the other island my men had the red king trapped in the thick forest. They had a him on his knees, a spear at his throat.

Drudg3s74: You said this game made you feel important

Drudg3s74: Why do you want it to end?

Drudg3s74: We can be gods, you and I

Drudg3s74: All you have to do is keep the game going..

Drudg3s74: forever

I looked around at the destruction around me. I took a shaky breath before replying.

Steven: lol nah

The game resumed. In 16-bit color, a spear slid through the red king’s neck. I felt nothing when the text appeared on screen.

YOU ARE VICTORIOUS

Bagpipes and Barbed Wire

As the sun set in the west, the constant pounding of artillery fire illuminated the borders of the night sky. We had received orders from the sergeant the previous morning; a night raid on the German lines would take place as soon as the mortars and howitzers ceased. He had given the order but Sarge knew there was no way he could force us to go out there again. He was not an especially authoritative man, nor was he inspirational. All of us on Hill 33 looked to the Scot to lead us into battle.

The Scot was a fierce fighting man with a full red beard. He went over the top when he pleased, discarding his uniform and weapons for traditional Scottish dress. We ignored the whistles and screams of the Sarge. Instead waiting for the somber, piercing cry of the Scot’s bagpipes. The music seemed to take control of our bodies, replacing fear with a feeling of boundless courage. Which is why that night, when the Sarge blew his whistle we paid him no mind.

“There will be no bagpipes tonight! That fucking Scotsman is trying to undermine me again!!” The Sarge screamed back at us in between whistles “Tonight you will execute my orders without question!”.

We looked around in confusion. Where was the Scot? We all stood paralyzed in silence and fear. Breaking the quiet was a voice in the darkness. A heavyset man stepped into the the moonlight. It was the Scot.

“Aye, I don’t think you lads should charge off this hill tonight. Jerry also has plans tonight, it won’t end well. I can feel it in me’ bones.”

“And what would you have me do?” The Sarge barked “HQ wants us to lay the groundwork for the big offensive in two weeks time. We need to take Hill 34 and push the Jerries back! Not sit around and twiddle our thumbs while our boys die in the thousands because a fucking Scotsman couldn’t follow a single fucking order from his superior officer!!”

The Sarge’s face was red with anger we had never seen him before. He drew his shiny pearl handled revolver out of its holster and pressed it against the Scot’s freckled face. “I can shoot you now for insubordination!” A wiry smile crept onto his face “No. You’ll lead us as you seem to always do. WALK!!”

We looked at each other in amazement. I grabbed onto one of the wooden ladders in preparation. The Sarge shot me a quick glare.

“Don’t! The Scot likes to lead us, now let him.” He prodded the Scot’s head with the barrel of his revolver. “Over the top soldier.”

The Scot looked back at us with a peaceful face and turned to climb up the rickety trench wall. The silhouette as he stood atop Hill 33 still haunts me to this day.

“Good luck lads..” Were his last words as the lead from German machine guns ripped through his walking corpse.

Sarge blew his whistle as blood rained into the trench. Out of sheer instinctual fear we complied and charged into the terrible crackling of machine gun and rifle fire. I wiped the blood from my eyes and made my way up the trench wall alongside the rest of the first wave. Men fell to the ground limp and lifeless around me and joined us once again in our advance as they tumbled slowly down Hill 33.

Our march turned into a slide as dirt turned to mud and slabs of decomposing flesh. I lost balance and fell flat on my back. As I continued to slide, I looked up at the once peaceful night sky as bullets whizzed by and mud spat in my face. In an instant, a searing pain in my right leg caught me in my descent. As I jerked to a stop bright red flares illuminated the thin valley below. Jerry was there. The crack of rifle fire below opened up amidst the already chaotic sounds of battle.

As my friends slid into a hail of bullets, I could do nothing but watch blood fly and bits of bone splinter out of their squirming bodies.

“RETREAT!! FALL BACK TO THE TRENCH!!”

I glanced up to see the Sarge frantically clawing at the mud, trying desperately to climb up the slimy slopes of Hill 33. The gravity of the situation set in and I madly mangled my hands in an attempt to free myself from the rusty barbed wire. The tighter my grasp, the more blood oozed from my struggling hands, and the closer I found myself to freeing my leg. I shook my leg violently until it came free and flipped around to scale the hill.

Above me, Sarge continued his climb using bodies and discarded weapons as handholds. I thrust my bleeding palms into the mud and crawled after him. I felt a wave of anger rising from my gut to my skull. I moved one arm in front of the other, over and over again. I heard the bullets slap noisily into the mud and bodies around me. Slowly, my arms began to sink less and less as the mud gradually turned to loosened dirt. I raised my head for the first time to see the crown of the hill a mere few meters away. I fought through the exhaustion in my limbs until I had reached the familiar sandbags that signaled the end of No Man’s Land. I let out a sigh of relief as I pulled myself up and over. Into the relative safety of the trench.

“We got another one!” Another survivor of the failed attack ran to my aid. He looked down at the blood streaming down my arms and the multiple lacerations on my leg. “I need a stretcher ASAP! You got outta there just in time mate.”

“Why’s that?” I inquired. My arms and lungs still burned from the climb.

“HQ got a tip about the German troops in the valley. A few mustard gas canisters are converging on their position as we speak. If we can’t shoot ’em out we’ll gas ’em out.” The soldier grinned from ear to ear.

The canisters landed with a thud in the valley below. I peeked above the trench wall at the yellow gas creeping slowly up the hillside. The deafening screams of the soldiers below echoed through my brain. A single thought articulated in my head.

Gas is a terrible way to die. No one deserves such a fate. No one.

As the hollering of dying men began to fade, so did the crackle of gunfire. In the peace the gas had afforded us I heard a familiar voice.

“HELP! ANYONE!! MY EYES BURN!! OH!! IT HURTS! PLEASE HELP ME!!”

It was Sarge. He was lying face down in the dirt writhing in pain less a little ways down the hill. Less than 100 meters from the trench. His fingers scratching at his inflamed eye sockets.

Gas is a terrible way to die. No one deserves such a fate. No one.

As the men with the stretcher arrived, I leapt to my feet with newfound strength. I snatched the stretcher from their clammy hands and to their amazement, hopped up and over the safety of the trench wall. Into No Man’s Land once more. They stared at me in awe as I limped to the edge of the yellow gas. Dragging the stretcher along with me.

The further I got from the top of the hill the more my lungs burned with every breath. My vision blurred as I approached Sarge’s squirming body. The energy I had used thus far seemed to be sapping away in the yellow mist. A burning sensation overtook my senses, setting my nerves ablaze with pain. Sarge slowly stopped squirming and looked up to me, his eyes bloodshot and bruised.

“You gave it your best shot. That’s all I can ask of any of my boys.” His eyes squinted till they were nearly shut and his frantic breathing slowed to a crawl. “I tried to do the right thing. Turns out I was wrong.”

I collapsed to my knees and tried to catch my breath. Each one burned more than the last. With my last ounce of strength I grasped onto Sarge’s uniform and rolled him onto the stretcher. A strange feeling overtook me and I pushed through the pain. I started pulling the stretcher up the hill. With each step my knees buckled. With each breath my throat screamed for respite.

By the time I looked up the trenches were a few meters away. I just needed to go a little bit further. That’s when my legs gave out.

I slammed face first into the dirt. I was done for. My breaths were short and labored. In a last ditch effort I reached out in an attempt to drag myself further.

A hand met mine and hoisted me to my feet. The rest of the survivors banded around us and pulled us back to our lines. A pair of medics frantically rushed over and ran off with the stretcher. Once safe, I noticed the men staring at me once again in awe and silence.

To this day the men who served on Hill 33 swear that when I disappeared into that yellow cloud of gas they could hear the haunting, somber sound of bagpipes from the valley below.

The Origins of Lou Rock

Lou paused on his aimless wander through the twisted streets of the frontier town. It was a place the humans called Duri on the border of the Brandywood forest. It was a strange place, but Lou was welcomed by a familiar sight. A local pub, a wooden sign with the words “The Shattered Shield” hung low and decrepit. Lou let out a hearty sigh and pushed open the worn out door. He was greeted by the smell of piss and vomit. This was the perfect place to finally stop and take a breather, having been on the road for several weeks. He sat down at the bar and stroked his bushy Dwarven beard. How had things come to this?

Lou hailed from the great mudlands to the south. More specifically, the bustling mining town of Slopp. The largest of many Dwarven mining communities deep in the mudlands, Slopp attracted immigrants all over the world seeking their fortune. It was also known as the “Island of Stone”, the main city was constructed upon a colossal stone pillar barely protruding out of the ground. Its tall stone towers and high stone walls were found nowhere else in the mudlands.

Mud mining is a lucrative business involving diving down into the more watery ground of the “Mud fields”. The mudlands was once home to a great civilization that has since been lost many hundreds of feet under the thick mud. Mud miners make their fortune and risk their lives to bring priceless artifacts back to the surface. The vast majority of them retire after a few years, or risk having their bodies lost to the merciless muddy depths.

Lou was a miner himself once. But that was long ago, he had found his calling as a farmer and appreciated the simple life that it entailed. He tended to his rice on the outskirts of the Slopp countryside and never thought much about the hard life many of his colleagues still faced in the mud fields. But that was before The Nesting.

After a particularly dry decade, the miners were forced to dive deeper into the mud for their precious artifacts. Although plenty of young Dwarves dived to their deaths, nothing was found. The city suffered as migrants flocked off of the island. It seemed that the mud fields of Slopp had dried up until a previously unknown Dwarf by the name of Wrenn pulled up a mysterious artifact from the deep. A gigantic black egg.

The egg quickly gained a cult following in the city of Slopp. They were convinced that this egg would be their salvation. They constructed a great nest of fire hardened mud in the center of town. Festivals were thrown in its honor and the people settled back in droves. It seemed that the Gods smiled on this find.

Lou came to the island with a wagon full of rice to sell at the annual Harvest Festival. He had gotten stuck along the way, and was arriving much later than his competition. As a new moon shone through the cloud filled sky he knew the loss in sales would be rough. As he approached the great stone gates of Slopp, he paused and noticed an absence of guards. The streets seemed abandoned in a hurry. Carts and tools lay abandoned on the ground. Lou heard a great cheer coming from the center of town. He tied up his donkey and ran deeper into the stone city. He could feel something troubling in the air.

As he approached the town center he saw a huge mass of Dwarves crowded around the nest. In place of the egg was a fearsome beast. Lou shivered at the sight of it. A black dragon with jagged horns protruding from its head. It wailed into the cloudy night sky, spitting bits of acid into the air. The people cheered.

In the following months Lou was forced from his home. The newly formed Order of Black had assumed governance of Slopp with “Wrenn The Uncoverer” at its head. All able-bodied Dwarves were forced to work the mud fields. They were amassing a hoard for their draconic god the likes of which had never been seen. The mud fields once again flowed with golden trinkets and artifacts at an astounding rate.

One foggy morning, Lou reported in for work. He looked at the tally board. Five had died over the night shift. A terrible loss, but he felt nothing. He had been desensitized to the deaths of his friends. Lou donned his heavy leather suit and strapped a breathing tube to his stainless steel mask. He had only been allocated 500 feet of tubing, hopefully he would not require any more. He tied a bag of rocks to his waist and moved to the edge of one of the watery pits.

“Here goes nothing.”

He leaped head first into the muddy depths and let the rocks carry him down. He felt the stones hit the floor after a couple minutes. He went to work immediately, feeling around on the floor for anything, any reason to return to the surface before something could go wrong. He blindly felt around for a while before hitting a metallic slab with his wrist. Lou felt a wave of relief as he grabbed onto the slab and cut the line tying him to the rocks. He tugged on his breathing tube twice and let out a sign of relief as he was hauled to the surface.

When they had finally hoisted him up, they wasted no time in snatching the artifact for identification. Lou struggled to shed his suit but stopped midway at the sound of gasps. The Order of Black officer assigned to the sector took off running toward the island. The thick mud plastering the slab was scraped away, the dark brown gave way to a magnificent silvery shine. The plate was blank except for an inscription, in the Dwarven tongue. As they cleaned the foreman read it aloud.

“We accepted him with open arms. We had no idea the egg had already driven him to madness. His name was Crastor. He found it atop the great mountains to the north and convinced us to raise it and protect it. The moment it hatched we were doomed. He took power and made us his slaves. Though we did so willingly in our fervor. As our devotion faded, it became apparent his lust for power would never be satiated. We rebelled, but were slaughtered by the thousands. When the beast laid its cursed eggs we knew we could not let its evil manifest and spread to the world. The warlocks banded together and sacrificed the city so that the world could live. Mud cleanses all, and that is why we unleashed it upon ourselves. And now-”

The foreman stopped short and arched his back in pain, revealing a single crossbow bolt lodged behind his head. Several others struck home in the small of his back and he fell forward onto the mud. A company of heavily armored soldiers bearing the banner of the Order had seemingly come out of nowhere. They began yelling orders to surrender and shooting their crossbows into the small crowd.

Lou watched as many of his friends collapse onto the muddy ground. Though he had been numbed to the sight of dead dwarves, this was different. This was a betrayal. This was a rage he had had never experienced before. A fire in his chest overpowered his senses.

Kill. Smash. Destroy. Lou picked up the silver slab and used it to shield his charge. He heard the clink of crossbow bolts harmlessly reflect off of the front. Before making impact he tossed the tablet forward, crushing a soldier in front. Then sidestepped and landed a blow on the face a particularly burly dwarf. Ignoring the immense pain in his fist, he spun the soldier around and ripped off the greataxe slung around his back. Lou leaped forward onto the crowd of Order soldiers, now cowering in fear with his axe raised high. Then it all went black.

The next thing Lou remembered was standing over a heap of corpses, many hewn in half. There was no part of his body not coated in sticky red blood. He only knew he had to run.

So he ran. He ran for weeks until the mudlands faded into the distance. He ran past great forests and mountains the likes of which he could never have imagined. His journey led him to the frontier town of Duri and the Shattered Shield. While he sat and drank there was one thing on Lou’s mind.

Revenge.

Terrae Illius Mortiferis

The landing bay doors opened and a bright light flooded the holding area. We all shielded our eyes from the burning light. A loud pattern of clicks sounded through the air and our cell doors swung open. I vaguely remember the trip. They put something in the air that made us sleep for God knows how long. What I do remember before landing here was watching Earth burn from the cold confines of my cell. They bombed every city, killed everyone they did not take aboard their ship as their prisoners.

They were a race of insect-like amphibians. Standing eight feet tall on two webbed feet with folded arms reminiscent of a praying mantis, and a coat of light blue rubbery skin. Their bulging orange eyes constantly scanned their surroundings with an anxious demeanor. Alien to say the least. Someone aboard called them the Diripientes Terrae and it caught on, Diri for short. It was Latin, meaning ‘Destroyers of Earth’. They communicated to each other with a series of clicks, or so it seemed, we really had no clue of anything about them. Except one thing.

Dr. Radnor, a former professor of biology at UC Davis came up with a hypothesis. We had noticed that the artificial gravity of the ship was calibrated to a gravity many times less than that of Earth’s. Theoretically, if this was the gravity the Diri were accustomed to on their home planet, they would have evolved to have substantially less muscle density than pretty much anything coming from a planet the size of Earth. We could use this to our advantage, but we could only use it once before the Diri realized our strength.

So when the landing bay doors opened, we took a few moments to collect ourselves. Outside everything was different. A desolate landscape with an unforgiving sun and sand dunes as far as the eye could see. A wall of Diri stood outside on the shifting sand eager to do whatever they had planned for us. Each held what appeared to be some sort of firearm. Dr. Radnor let out a piercing scream.

‘Rush ’em!’

We flooded out of the ship in droves. The Diri fired wildly into the crowd. Bright green bolts of light disintegrated whole groups of people into a fine red mist with every shot. But we kept running until we got within arms reach. That’s when the tide turned. I was one of the first to fight. I threw a closed fist into one of the Diri’s large orange eyeballs. I was surprised when my arm passed through it’s head like jelly. It exploded violently, showering bits of blue everywhere. The rest of it’s body slunk lifelessly onto the burning sand. It’s comrades stared at me paralyzed in fear, a mass of confused clicks sounded throughout their ranks. Then the rest of us descended upon them with the force of a tsunami. The sheer force of impact sent them flying into the air. Blue gore flew everywhere as their numbers thinned. It wasn’t long before we had killed every single one of them. A mighty cheer went up from what remained of humanity. Dr. Radnor picked up one of their weapons and stood atop a nearby sand dune.

‘These guys want a war? Hell, that’s what humans do best.’

The rest is written in the history books. How we marched into their hives and burned them to the ground, how we mercilessly hunted down every last one of them, and how we started building a new Earth on that desolate planet. Even though we haven’t seen one of them for years, we still haven’t satiated our lust for revenge. We know there are more of them out there in the deep confines of outer space. And if they bothered to study our culture at all, they know that we’re coming for them.

They took our planet and our loved ones.

So we will take everything from them.

Joey

In 1983 I took a teaching position at an elementary school in the town of Pulp. It was a small, unincorporated town nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The town had been build around the corn liquor business during the prohibition. But despite the town’s criminal past, a real community had developed. I was happy to greet a class of smiling children every day.

‘Hello Mr. Schuler!’ The class would say,

‘Hello class!’ I would reply.

My days were filled with teaching my class everything from science to history. They loved to learn and I loved to teach. Every child left with a smile on their faces, excited to share what they had learned with their families. Everyone except for little Joey Smith. He was always particularly gloomy after class, sometimes scared to leave school for the day. Some days he would come in with a black eye. One day I asked him what was wrong and what he said concerned me.

‘I have to go somewhere after school. I don’t like it there anymore.’

I contacted the police and they conducted a thorough investigation of the boy’s family and supposed after school activities. They sent a deputy named Clarence to talk me after they had finished their investigation. He told me what they had found.

‘Joey’s parents have been dead for months Mr. Schuler. We found their bodies on the floor in their home. It seem that they were killed in a robbery. We talked to Joey and he said that he hid under his bed and ran away after the robbers left. He’s been living in an abandoned distillery out in the woods for some time now. We’re going to put him into the foster house down on Denton Avenue for now. Thank you for alerting us to the situation.’

I talked with Clarence for some time. I did not want Joey growing up in the foster system. I had seen what that can do to a kid. We decided that adoption was probably the best option.

The next day I went to the foster house and filled out a massive pile of paperwork. I left with Joey as my adopted son. Over the next few weeks I noticed a change in Joey. For the first time I saw him happy, both at school and at home.

One day, Joey and I walked into class together as usual. Although today the class didn’t bother to greet me. Instead they talked amongst themselves.

‘Hello class!’ I exclaimed.

Only Joey said hello back. The rest of the class stared at the clock. I chose to ignore their insolent behavior and started my lesson. I got about ten minutes in when students started leaving. Just walking out of class and talking to each other. I had never seen anything so rude in my life. I yelled at them to come back but they ignored me. I had no idea what I had done to anger them so much. Soon enough everyone had left, everyone except for Joey. He was a good kid.

I continued to teach till the end of the school day. I looked back to find Joey smiling, I packed up my things and we started walking back home. We had just reached the edge of school property when Joey told me there was something he wanted to show me. I humored him and inquired what it was, but he just laughed and told me that we could only get there by walking. I let him lead me into the woods. We walked till the sun began to set before spotting a shack sitting in a small clearing of brush. I hesitated, but Joey did not. He walked straight up to a piece of sheet metal that served as a door and knocked three times.

‘We can go in now.’ Joey whispered to me.

I realized what this was. It was undoubtedly the old distillery Joey had called home for so many months. I called out to Joey to come back to me, but he had already entered. I would have to go and get him.

I pulled open the rusty door to find Joey making himself at home in the tiny shack. He sat in an old rocking chair that creaked as it moved back and forth.

‘This was my old house! I always sit in this chair. It’s the best chair I’ve ever had!’

I was delicate with him. This was obviously a coping mechanism that he had developed after the death of his parents. I walked through the doorway and the rusty door closed behind me. I placed a comforting hand on Joey’s shoulder.

‘Joey. Let’s go home.’

Suddenly I heard a loud bang on the metal door. A soft, concerned voice spoke from the other side.

‘Who are you? What are you doing here?’

The door creaked open slowly, revealing a thin, attractive woman. She had long brunette hair and her complexion was the fairest I had ever seen. For someone who lived in this shack, she seemed fairly clean. Her eyes lit up when she spotted Joey sitting in the rocking chair.

‘Joey! My little Joey! I thought they had taken you away forever!’

‘Mommy!’ Joey unzipped his backpack and took out a drawing he had done in class. ‘I made this for you!’

I assumed that this woman took care of Joey after his parent’s murders. She glanced over at me with wide eyes.

‘I’ll always love you Joey, but why? Why did you bring him here?’

‘Because I like him mommy. He takes care of me.’

‘Oh, no child.’ Tears welled up in her eyes ‘He can’t take care of you anymore. You have to go to the police now, live in a foster home. You can’t keep doing this!’

I was confused and infuriated. Who exactly did this woman think she was?

‘Excuse me miss, I believe I can take care of Joey just fine at the moment.’

She looked at me with blind fury contained within her eyes. She kicked the door open and left. After the door slammed shut it was silent. I gestured to Joey that it was time to go home and he obliged me by following me out of that shady forest. It would be dark soon, and I needed to get him to bed for school tomorrow.

By the time we got home I was very tired. I can’t explain it, but something bothered me about that woman’s words in the woods. ‘You can’t keep doing this!’ It seemed like a strange thing to say. Did it mean that Joey brought other people out to that shack? If so, why?

I threw those ideas out of my mind for now and walked into the kitchen to prepare dinner. Joey sat at the table scribbling away on some homework I had assigned him.

‘Ya know, I don’t feel like doing homework.’ Joey tossed aside his pencil.

‘That’s fine, just have something to eat. I’m making pasta salad.’ It was fine that Joey didn’t do the homework today. Seeing as how he was the only one in class today, he was already ahead.

‘No!’ His face contorted and turned red. ‘I’m not doing homework ever again! And we’re not having pasta salad! We’re having ice cream! Ice cream for dinner! I want it now!’

I was taken aback. Joey had never acted like this before and I wondered if it had something to do with the woman in the woods. I felt for him, he must be in a very troubling state of mind. Still, I could not stand by and let him walk all over me.

‘No, we’re having pasta salad. Maybe you can have some ice cream after dinner. And you’re still going to have homework. That’s non-negotiable.’

‘NO!!’ His face had turned even redder as he screamed ‘You’ll do what I say or I’ll make you hurt!!’

‘You know what? This behavior is inexcusable. Go to your room. Now. When you cool off you can come down and have some food.’

Joey thrust his hand into his backpack and rummaged around. He pulled out a small needle. I felt inexplicably troubled at the sight of it. Before I could tell him to put it away he stabbed it down into his palm. I instantly felt a searing spasm of pain in my hand. Joey was silent. He glared at me with an intensive stare.

‘DO WHAT I SAY! DO IT! DO IT!’ He hopped up and down in his chair like a rabid animal. He started to dig around inside his palm, blood streamed from his palm onto the table. I felt the pain return even more potent this time around.

I could not take the pain any longer. It was like my hand was on fire. I stumbled over to the freezer, clutching my hand in pain and ripped the door open. Then I grabbed the ice cream and threw it onto the table. Joey pulled the needle out of his skin and the pain instantly stopped. What just happened?

‘Now you know to do what I say. Things will be different now.’

‘What?’ My thoughts were racing and my heart felt like it was beating out of my chest. ‘No! I’m still the adult here. You need to stop this behavior right now!’

Joey sighed and flipped his hand over on the table. Then he pushed the needle through the back of his hand. I felt the pain the instant he broke the skin. I could feel the metal sliding against the inside of my hand somehow. The pain was unbearable. Once the needle was through, Joey pulled it out from the other side. The pain subsided. He was still very quiet the whole time.

‘I have something to show you to help you understand.’

He walked upstairs and gestured for me to follow him. We walked down the hall until we got to the door to my room. It was cracked open slightly. I felt a icy shiver rattle my spine. Something was very wrong. Joey opened the door and my heart stopped when I realized what was inside.

There I was, peacefully in bed. I had no rational explanation. I was there, but I was also here at the same time.

‘I’ll let you return to your body, but now you understand to do what I say’

I looked down at Joey. He had a wide grin from cheek to cheek.

‘My daddy couldn’t take it. He shot my mommy, then he tried to shoot me. But I was always faster than him. Then I had to live by myself. And that wasn’t very fun. You won’t make me live by myself again, will you?’

I shook my head. There had to be an explanation for all of this. It was all too terrifying to be true. Had I been dreaming this whole time? Am I dreaming now?

Joey snapped his fingers and I woke. The sun shone through the blinds and I struggled to untangle myself from the mess of sheets and blankets. Had it all been a horrible, horrible dream? I walked downstairs to find Joey happily eating cereal at the kitchen table. I smiled but froze when I spotted a needle, sitting in reach of his left hand. It was covered in sticky, dark red blood. That’s when I realized just how real last night had been. He was evil, an unholy abomination. I had to kill him, I can’t explain the desire without sounding completely mad, but I had to. I scanned my surroundings frantically. A dull steak knife lay on the counter between me and him. He looked up at me and winked. A sudden burst of adrenaline took hold of my body and I ran at him with the knife in hand.

I can’t recall a lot about what happened next. All I can remember is when I tackled him to the floor, his eyes filled with a red fluid. Not blood, but something else. Then everything went black.

I woke up in the run down shack in the middle of the woods. The pale woman knelt over my body, running her fingers through my hair.

‘I love my little Joey, but he has to stop doing this. It’s a shame what happened to you.’

‘Wha-‘ I scrambled to my feet. ‘What happened to me? I remember it all going black, then I woke up back here. Did Joey take me here? How? I don’t understand..’

‘Honey.’ She placed a comforting hand on my shoulder. ‘You’re dead. You’ve been dead for a few days now. Though I suspect no one else knows yet. He keeps us here, the people he’s killed. We cannot leave. You’re the third, but I suspect you won’t be the last. If this is hell, then I suppose he is the devil. He didn’t feel anything when he abused us, when he made us do things, when he murdered us. He is evil incarnate, but I love him and you will learn to as well.’

I have spent what seems like an eternity here in these woods. Joey’s mother was right, over the years more and more people would appear in the shack. He visits us occasionally, and although I resented him at first I learned to love him. He doesn’t hurt you if you love him. Recently there hasn’t been anyone new here. I’m not sure what that means. Maybe someone succeeded where we had all failed. Maybe Joey is dead and no one else will share our terrible fate. I’m not even sure if he is capable of dying. Or maybe he is just looking for another person to be his plaything. I don’t know how old he is currently, and I have trouble remembering his face. My memory isn’t what it used to be.

If you ever meet a Joey Smith from Pulp California, please don’t try to see if I have been telling you the truth. I have. Just run, get as far away from him as humanly possible, and them some.

A Fair Trade

We marched up the hill in the morning fighting the bitter cold. It had been raining for days, and our boots sunk into the deep mud it had left behind. by the time we had made it to the top, a thick fog had rolled in from the west obscuring all visibility below. We heard the not so distant barking of orders from officers to subordinates. No doubt they knew we were here. Our platoon had been on the move for days, but a burning passion kept us going.

Napoleon had landed his armies on British soil. Our homes were under attack.

We all read about it in the papers, but no one believed it to be true. Napoleon had sent his armies by air aboard a massive fleet of balloon transports. Though many had perished crossing the English Channel, many survived. Enough to give us a run for our money.

Although the prospect was terrifying, we had been given assurances. Most of Napoleon’s forces were concentrated to the south in the Siege of London. He had precious few artillery pieces and no doubt they were all accompanying his main force. All we had to contend with were smaller raiding parties he had sent North to pillage and send back supplies to feed his army. The whole platoon had all wished to see combat on one of our patrols, and our wish had been granted this day.

The army had become an unorganized mess since the invasion, so we took what we could get. Most of the men were new conscripts with no combat training or experience. They were all so confident and full of life. I envied them. The only people worth knowing were the veterans. There were only three of us.

Crawford was a stoic Scot with a permanent scowl fixed onto his face. We had both fought the French in Spain a few years before, and knew how terrifying the looming battle would be.

Williams also fought in Spain, though Crawford and I had never met him before a few weeks ago. His hands trembled whenever he heard the French tongue. He had definitely seen his fair share of war on that godforsaken peninsula.

Though not a veteran of combat, First Leftenant Cliff, our platoon commander seemed a capable man. Though like the greenhorns he constantly spoke of glories and spoils after our victory. That scared me.

We fell into line at the orders of Cliff and took a strategic position among the piles of boulders just past the crown of the hill. Everyone was silent as we waited for the first shot to be fired. What came next shook us all.

A horn sounded and we heard a stampede of hooves. We had been preparing for an infantry charge up the hill, but this was much worse. We had no time to reposition. One of the conscripts screamed in terror. He got up from behind a boulder tried to throw down his weapon and rout. Cliff quickly drew his pistol and shot him down. Then he began rapidly barking orders.

‘Get behind those rocks and fix bayonets! When those bastards pass through they should NOT be able to see you! When I fire, form up and follow suit!’

We crouched behind our rocks as if it were our saving grace. Crawford glanced up at me while attaching his bayonet and whispered.

‘Just like the peninsula, eh boyo?’

Just like the peninsula I thought to myself. I looked to Williams, who had begun shaking uncontrollably since the sound of horses began. He was now clam and collected.

The sound of hooves grew louder until we saw the horses charge past. I looked up and saw that no soldiers were atop the steeds. In fact, no saddles had been attached at all. These horses had been nothing but a diversion. I turned to notify Cliff, but before I could the sound of hooves had vanished over the hill and a more familiar sound filled the air. The sound of infantry screaming as they ran toward us.

Cliff screamed to us to fall back into line three men deep in front of the boulders and fire by rank on his order. We all rushed into formation. Many of the recruits tripped on their way to the line. Cliff waited until we were all in formation to give the order.

‘Front rank! Fire!’

We unleashed a volley of lead down the hill followed by a cacophony of screams. Us veterans had chosen to be in the front rank as an example to the men. As soon as we had fired we knelt down to reload. They did the same.

‘Second rank! Fire!’

The second rank fired and knelt down to reload by our example.

‘Third rank! Fire!’

The third rank fired a volley in the same fashion, but by then the French soldiers had appeared through the fog. They were yelling and firing wildly at us.

‘Front rank! Fire!’

Only Crawford, Williams and I had reloaded in time and squeezed off well placed shots into the mass of men. The conscripts stood to brace for impact.

‘Prepare to charge!’

We tightened our formation and faced our bayonets out toward the enemy. No one spoke a word except for Williams who had madly begun versing scripture.

‘CHARGE!’

We all yelled valiantly at the top of our lungs like men possessed as we ran down the hill. We crashed with the deafening sound of wood on wood and metal on flesh. Crawford and I had stuck together and pushed a poor Frenchman flat on his ass. Williams ran from behind us to sink his bayonet into the man’s chest. The thick fog had still not cleared and it seemed empty as Crawford, Williams and I searched for another man.

We found one on top of one of the greenhorns. Bashing his face in with the butt of his musket. Crawford charged and kicked the man off. I quickly sunk my bayonet into his throat.

Williams was locked in a fight with a man nearby. Both had lost their weapons and were rolling around in the mud. I grabbed the Frenchman’s gun and fired a shot into his side. Williams quickly gained the advantage and proceeded to smash his head with a nearby rock. I turned my attention back to Crawford only to find him staring at me, standing limp. He fell and revealed a French soldier. His uniform soaked in the blood of Crawford’s back.

I screamed like a wild beast as I charged him. I parried away his musket with my own and slammed him to the ground with the full force of my body. He fell and stared at me with wide eyes.

cèdecède!’ he yelled with his arms up to his ears, but I ignored his pleas.

I positioned my bayonet in between his eyes and thrust it downward. He squirmed in agony as I drove it deeper into his head. A slow death is what he deserved. Finally his skull gave way and my bayonet moved forward without obstruction. The Frenchman twitched once and stopped moving. I sensed someone watching me and dug out my weapon to face my new enemy. Williams stood there, disturbed by what he had witnessed. I stared back with a coat of blood over my face.

Soon afterwards, a horn from down the hill sounded a retreat. The French forces routed into the fog and soon vanished into obscurity. Cliff gathered the remaining men and ran after them. But after a few minutes we could no longer hear them. Only Williams and I were left among the field of lifeless corpses sinking into the mud. I stared at the man I had killed so viciously and then at Crawford’s bleeding back. The only part of him now sticking above the mud. Williams came to my side and looked down with me at our fallen comrade.

‘It wasn’t a fair trade’ I whispered.

‘It never is.’ Williams replied.

“Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”- Arthur Wellesly, Duke of Wellington

Atomic Stories and Lovecraftian Writings.