Jake preps for the show in his bathroom mirror. He straightens out The Black Cat t-shirt he received at their gig six years ago, runs a comb through his beard and hair, and cleans his pants with a lint roller. It’s been a while since The Black Cat has toured in his area, and, supposedly, this will be their last performance ever. A murder took place at their previous concert. Some careless idiot walked away from his friends and was found brutally murdered in a back alley. Still, nobody knows how it happened. Some say rabid dogs attacked him, but there were no sightings in the area or bloody paw prints to follow. Another human could have done it, but the mouth would have to be wide enough to bite an entire torso. Or maybe it was multiple people. That man’s intestines and insides resembled old lunch, the way Jake remembers it. He will never venture to that alley again. 

While trapped in his mind, he removes his glasses to clean them, and as he dons them again, he could swear a black shadow appeared behind him. He gazes in the mirror, squinting at the black mass behind him. 

When did it get so dark? 

The light switch is on and the sun is beaming outside, but the light stopped peeking in. His phone alarm goes off-time to leave the house. Jake opens the bathroom door, stumbles backward at the horrific sight of the mangled man laid out on his living room floor. The fall made his glasses crooked, so he removes them, adjusts the frames; surprisingly, the dead man is gone. 

All of these hallucinations and he hasn’t tried the acid his friend gave him for the event. No matter, he gets up, thinking it’s just chills brought by his last memory of The Black Cat’s concert. 

He exhales sharply as he rises from the floor. He can see his friend’s black SUV through the blinds; she’s on time. 

He grabs his jacket and apartment keys before heading out the door. The door opens, something brushes his shoulder, so he stares back into the dark apartment. He toggles the lights, but they don’t come on. “Damn light!” he curses. The bathroom door creeps open. He left the light on. A shadow creeps, consuming the light, and making its way toward Jake. He quickly closes the door, locks it, removes the acid out of his pocket and stares at it. 

The car horn blares. “Let’s go! You’re going to make us late!” His friend yells from the driver’s seat.

He lets the delusions go, for now, and places his home key under the “welcome” mat. Upon entering the car, the stench of weed fills Jake’s nostrils. “Smoking while driving, Casey?” 

“I’m a pro now.” She winks at him. 

“Yeah…just get us there alive. By the way…” Jake pauses to put on his seatbelt, “you don’t get high off acid by just touching it…right?”

Casey laughs, rolling her eyes, “are you dumb? Let’s go.” 

The three hours between them and the concert won’t take long with the way Casey drives. So, as she lights up her joint, turns up the tunes, and steps on the gas, Jake takes a nap and enjoys the ride. 


“Should you see a black cat, follow it,” whispers a smooth, dainty voice. He awakes, cloaked in darkness, yet screams of a crowd creep into the atmosphere. Familiar voices, familiar setting, however the feeling of being trapped in someone else’s body weighs him down. He can’t move his own fingers, none of the thoughts swimming in his head are of his own. 

Is this… a nightmare?

A fluorescent light beams out of the darkness, hands of the masses raise in the air, a song melodic and enraged transcends his body above the crowd. The world moves in slow motion as he glides across the sea of hands. He glances to the left, and in the distance spots the piercing green sclera of a cat. The feminine voice from earlier returns, “should you see a black cat, follow it.” 

As if they are a part of him, the hands guide him toward the mysterious eyes. 


He is placed on the floor. The faceless humans standing around clear a path for him and the black cat. It’s unwavering stare sends a foreign message to the brain of this body, and he must obey it. 

A living soul inside of a lifeless human walks in the dark, all alone. The music and  screaming fades in the distance. There’s only a heartbeat and the sound of bones breaking resonates in this empty space. This… vessel doesn’t want to move forward, but it has to. Toward an intimidating black drawing of angry eyes, a monster with elongated arms and a gaping mouth on a brick wall. Inside of its mouth, three women holding hands with their heads down, floating above a pentagram.

He stands still, hears his breath. The cat stops at the haunting artwork, staring into the eyes of Jake’s soul. 

What… what is this?

Suddenly, the menacing eyes are staring at him too. 

The heart beats loud and fast. 

The eyes glow bright crimson, the arms morph into tree bark and human body parts that squirm like worms. Everything around him transforms into human arms reaching… for him? He wants to run, but his legs are heavy like cinder blocks. The hideous creation walks forward on its disgusting arms. The women standing around the pentagram come from behind, hands held, and eyes black as coal. 

“Follow the black cat. Follow the black cat. Follow the black cat…” they chant, simultaneously stabbing him over and over. Jake’s soul endures every knife to the chest, gut, and limb. On his dying breath, the women raise up, drop their knives and hold hands. They chant in a foreign language. The ugly monster stomps toward and collapses. The individual body parts transform into more faceless humans. Each one kneels down to feed on the dying body, grabbing fistfuls of skin and flesh. 

He’s screaming. His soul is terrified.

“Dude… Hey… J… Ja…” 

“Ca… Casey…” For some reason he hasn’t died, yet. But Casey’s voice numbs the pain.

Jake wakes up shrieking and with Casey’s angry eyes piercing at him.
“We almost crashed! You scared the hell out of me!” Casey slaps him on the chest.

“What… what happened?” 

“Well,” Casey lights another joint, “you were sleeping, and then you started singing “Sacrifices” from The Black Cat, which was cool, but then… you started screaming like a maniac. I swerved!” She hits him again.

“Sorry… sorry. I had the most bizarre dream.”

“Yeah, I could tell.” 

Jake checks his watch. “Are we almost there?”

“Yeah. Fifteen minutes.”

He puts his head back down, touches his stomach and all the places he remembers getting stabbed. The images of his own flesh ripped from him by the faceless monsters haunt his mind. He ponders he watched a horror movie before bed, but can’t remember which one. Perhaps an old cartoon sparked the gruesome hallucinations. 

He touches the acid in his pants pocket, making sure he didn’t take it, and remains quiet for the rest of the ride, focused on deciphering the strange nightmares and visions of today.


Casey parks the car in the respective spot marked on the tickets, then leads the way toward the ticket booth. Tickets accepted, they walk into the atmosphere of the concert arena alongside others waiting to get in and support their favorite band, The Black Cat.

 Speaking of which, one passes by a group of people head-banging and jumping around to one of Jake’s favorite songs from the band. 

“Did you see that cat?” he asks Casey.

“No. Where? I love cats!”

“It ran this way, you had to have seen it.”

“Whatever, man,” chuckles Casey. 

She asks again if he’s okay. His vague reply gets her off his back. Now, he’s thinking bad food caused the weird dreams. Maybe the Mexican food he ate at 2 am while smoking a joint gave him a stomach ache that healed in his sleep and is showing its face again. Ridiculous, he knows, but other than the acid he didn’t consume, nothing can explain it. 

This is it, the moment Jake and Casey drove three hours for. The gates to the arena are open, everyone in line runs inside screaming, “ FOLLOW THE BLACK CAT! FOLLOW THE BLACK CAT…” Casey turns over to Jake and says, “now is time, let’s take the acid!” 

Jake hesitates. Touching the acid in his pocket, he recalls the strange shadow from his bathroom and the horrid nightmares… knives digging into his skin… being eaten. Still, he can’t bail on Casey, allow her to take the drugs alone and seem like a loser in front of her. They discussed all week about doing it, even paid half for it. So, Jake places the acid in his mouth and runs in with his friend. Immediately, seeing the band gives him a boost in adrenaline. 

After the six year wait, it is almost unreal.

“I just want to thank everyone for coming out to our last concert. It has been a pleasure to rock out on this stage for each one of you. Tonight will be a night no one can forget. And remember, should you see a black cat…” the crowd finishes his sentence, “FOLLOW IT!” 

 Every member appears young, although they got their start in the eighties. The lead singer’s powerful voice is what got Jake through a lot of bad years. He nearly forgot about the bizarre mouthpiece the lead wears to make his gutturals come out more harsh on the microphone. The three ladies behind him, both unmatched by any other band Jake has seen on stage. 

“Here comes the drop!” screams Casey, head-banging and doing air guitar. 

“Hell yeah!” Jake’s vision starts to blur. “This must be the acid kicking in!” he yells over the crowd. 

He bangs his head alongside his best friend. Gets lost in the song. He and the crowd and the band are one, rocking out in unison to the same beat. And when the song ends, he’s going to hug Casey and thank her for buying the tickets again, as she does every time. It was she who introduced him to The Black Cat.

The final riff in this song always catches him by surprise. Jake wipes sweat from his forehead and looks over at Casey, who has disappeared. He searches the crowd for her, screams her name. “Casey! Casey!”

 The drummer begins another song, the lead singer asks the crowd who they love. Everyone shouts the name of the band, but Jake’s vision is clouded and his body is at peak euphoria for him to chant and find Casey. He tries moving through the crowd, but no one lets him through. He hangs his head down, rubs his eyes to get a better view of things. To his surprise, a black cat, perhaps the one from earlier, sits next to him, staring. 

“How did you…” Before Jake can finish asking how the strange cat walked in the arena without getting stomped on, it leaves through the crowd, a path forms behind it. 

Maybe it knows where Casey is. 

He follows behind the cat’s tail.

“Where are we going, little guy?” 

The cat meows. 

Suddenly, the music becomes quiet, though he could swear they walked toward the stage. But he can see Casey, he knows those blonde curls anywhere. “Casey, why did you disappear like that?” He notices the cat disappeared too. “Let’s get back to the crowd…” he reaches for her shoulder, and upon turning around he sees Casey’s eyes are just like the cats. All he can do is laugh. “This is some strong shit, Casey. Who did you get it from?” 

The strobe lights turn off, one by one, drowning him in darkness. He tells Casey they should return to the crowd, and when a pair of red eyes float high above her head, speech escapes him. 

A shadow appears on her, then fades away, taking the top half of her body with it. Blood spurts out of the lower half while the rest of the guts spill onto the floor. 

“CASEY!” he screams her name. Slowly, he walks back, heart racing and knees weak, as the rest of Casey is dragged further into the darkness. Jake turns to run away. Three beautiful women with long hair draped over their faces meet him. “Please… I don’t…” he slaps himself in the face and repeats, “this is a bad trip,” to wake him out of this horrible, drug induced nightmare. “Casey’s not dead… Casey’s not dead…” he cries. 

The women surround him, pull knives out of the open wounds in their faces, and laugh as they stab him. The attack is much worse than how it felt in his dream. An impulse causes him to shake when he hits the ground. His hand is buried in his own blood. He can’t scream; his mouth opens enough to let the blood flow out. 

One of the murderous ladies comes into his blurry view. She smiles a mouth full of rotten teeth and pulls out another knife, a smaller one, and sticks in the skin underneath his ear. The knife glides across his chin, around his other ear, right before the hairline and back down to where it started. Then, she grabs both sides of his face and pulls. Sadly, Jake can still breathe. He was only rendered disabled. 

“The last one…” are the words Jake hears as the last of his blood is dropped and his final breath escapes.


The murderer dons her new mask. The others uncover their human masks, then hold hands and wait. Out of the blood come humanoid demons, all wearing the face of some poor, unfortunate soul; preparation for their ruler, Kot Andlitslaus, God of imitation and trickery. Every six years, Kot Andlitslaus’ power grows with each face it takes and gives the God the ability to use those human faces as it wishes. Every demon in its army must wear a mask in order to be on Earth, for without the faces, they are nothing but ghosts and cannot dwell for too long. Now, all of his subjects are able to break the barriers of the realm and enjoy their feast of man. 

The band stops playing, drops their instruments and transforms into brainless slaves. The crowd jeers and demands they play more. The lights flicker off and then beam, revealing the demons on the stage and in the crowd. Everyone screams and runs. Kot Andlitslaus, the black cat, sits and watches while his army savagely tears the thousands of humans apart; impale them like skewers, slice off their heads, chew-out their bellies, rip off a limb to drink the blood, cut them in half, mince their bodies, devour them, leaving only bits and pieces of their meaningless existence. 



“To my friend, Arshenique. Thank you so much for sharing your story with me and allowing me to create my spin of it. You are one of the strongest people I know.” – D. Thom

Arshenique is glad to be home from an exhausting day at work. Her hands ache from typing all day, her feet hurt from walking up and down stairs with high heels on, and her knees have started squeaking from constantly getting up and sitting back down. As lead journalist at her news station, she never gets a break in those eight–sometimes sixteen–hours. The only thing to stop her from quitting because of the constant death threats she receives from angry locals demanding she erase some of the gossip she’s spread about them to boost her ratings are the bottles of vodka and tequila stashed in various places across the house. 

As she scrolls down twitter and facebook reading “die, bitch!” and “fuck you,” from almost everyone in her city, she cracks open a bottle and drink straight from the spout. Sitting at the dusty dinner table, lights off, feet propped up, she nearly falls out of her chair at a strange twitter comment. 

“Arshenique, one day you’ll find yourself drowning in your own blood, not a bottle of cheap liquor. I have something coming for you.” Their photo is just a black circle and the name is blank. She clicks on it to check the page; an error message pops up instead. She backs out and clicks it again, a black screen covers the display. Her thumb taps the screen over and over but nothing changes. “Damn battery must have died.” 

On her way to get the charger from her purse, a thud from the ceiling stops her in the living room. She switches on the lights, thinking she saw something move; and when the overhead light shines she sees something moving in the ceiling like a basketball traversing through water. The phone slips from her hands onto the floor, as she backs away the ball once moving in a circle stops, then creeps toward her. Arshenique runs upstairs to her bedroom, locks the door, grabs a bottle from under the bed, and dives under the comfort of her covers. Sometimes vodka plays tricks with her mind, whiskey tends to cancel it out.

Whatever it was in the ceiling, she may have seen it before, but blacked out and forgotten it. The way it moved in the ceiling gives her chills that make her throw back three quarters of the bottle. She convinces her drunken self that the cheap vodka made her hallucinate, making her comfortable enough to get out of hiding. In the bathroom are some sleeping pills to help her get to sleep before work in the afternoon. She opens the medicine cabinet, searches for the pills, grabs them and puts two in her hand. “Hopefully, I won’t wake up, so they’ll get their wish,” she mutters before putting them on her tongue and washing them down with liquor.

She closes the medicine cabinet and stares at her defeated reflection. A moment of silence for her pathetic state, then it’s off to bed with the bottle. But as she turns her head, the sound of glass breaking catches her heart and a dark red hand with long, sharpened claws grabs her by the ponytail, forcing her head into the shards of the broken medicine cabinet mirror. Arshenique would scream, but the glass shards gliding down her throat and cutting into her neck make it impossible. Her fading eyesight catches a glimpse of her own face, eye-sockets empty and mouth filled with spiky, nail-like teeth. 

Arshenique’s eyes roll to the back of her head. This is a different kind of numb…

Her scream startles her awake, still in the bathroom, hunched over the sink with the water running. She splashes the cold water on her face. A flash of the blackout nightmare makes her back away from the medicine cabinet with caution. It all felt so real, her face hurts like hell, but it must be from the alcohol. She’s sobering up; time to drink some more. The whiskey bottle on the floor is gulped down in seconds. In the bathroom cabinet, she reaches for another bottle and puts the empty whisky one inside. 

The bedroom is dark, however in her drunken stupor she can find her way through any poorly lit space, so long as there’s a spirit to lead her. Her hand touches a bottle on the bed, so she moves it over, the sound of glass breaking wakes her up again, another reminder of the strange dream. It sounded as if multiple bottles broke, yet she has no recollection of keeping more than one in the bed…okay, maybe a few? She gets back up to check the mess she made, her foot immediately steps on a shard of glass. Of course, she can’t feel anything, only the sensation of stepping in water, so she continues toward the light switch, but there’s something in the way. 

Her hands reach out, she knows the shape of a bottle all too well. A headache ensues. She asks herself how is it possible for a bottle to be directly in front of her. Arshenique feels for a way around the bottle, to her surprise, there’s more. An entire wall of them. The realization weakens her knees, forcing her to the ground as she tries to back away from the enigma. She’d been wasted before, five bottles in on a cold night desperate to fall asleep so she can get away from her thoughts, but this is more than a melancholy thought and well beyond the effects of alcohol. 

Too drunk to move fast enough, her eyes widen, watch in terror as the wall of bottles comes tumbling down like an avalanche. She’s at the bottom of a snowy hill, about to collapse under its weight in glass shards. Arshenique shields her face with her arms, yelping with each prick in her skin, bottles still filled without alcohol bursting on her open wounds, searing the skin. The shards dig deeper into her body, stabbing into her intestines, heart, and other vital organs. 

She succumbs to the pressure, her body a needle in a haystack…

Arshenique wakes up screaming. She rises like a vampire, the weight of the glass is present, yet the room is empty and her skin is free from wounds. She puts her hands to her head and cries, “what is this? Why am I not asleep? I want to go to sleep! I want to go to sleep…” 

The sleeping pills haven’t kicked in yet; she’s tempted to get more but whatever grabbed her from before might attack again. She staggers to her feet, gets in bed. There’s a bottle underneath her pillow. What number is this one? Five? She twists top open, presses the bottle to her lips and starts guzzling it all down. The refreshing taste of Jose Cuervo. 

Perhaps an old show would help calm her nerves, so she searches for the remote, last seen on the nightstand. Remote in one hand, bottle in the other, she turns on the television and takes a swig, and spits everything out when the gruesome image she saw before is the only thing on the screen. She tries clicking away from the frightening image of her face–teeth like rusty nails and gaping eye holes, as if someone peeled her face off–but every channel is the same thing. 

“What the fu–” Sharp nails grip into the bottom of Arshenique’s chin. The hand forces her head to tilt up, her eyes gaze into the black holes of her own face. Attached to the mask is a woman’s pale body hanging out of the ceiling; her body laced in glass and red spikes, like nothing she’s ever seen before. 

The mysterious woman wearing Arshenique’s face begins pulling her arm upwards. She grabs onto the woman’s arms, foolishly forgetting she was covered in glass and spikes, which stab into her hands. Just like an orange, her face peels back, the squirming of Arshenique’s legs rattle the bed frame until her heart stops from the shock. 


“You damage me. Now it’s my turn,” whispers a raspy, unfamiliar voice in Arshenique’s ear. Those words awake her; soft touches to her face ensure it was just another bad dream, or something else entirely. Now she questions if someone broke into her house to poison her supply. No doubt it could be any one of her fans online. A thought pops into her head: the strange account from twitter. 

She crawls out of bed, searches the bedroom for her phone. After a few minutes, she remembers dropping it on the floor in the living room because of the weird phenomenon in the ceiling. It’s too risky to go outside. It could trigger another nightmare. Best to just forget about things and try to sleep. So, Arshenique returns to bed and wraps herself in her blanket, afraid to look at the ceiling, watch television, go outside of the bedroom, or to the bathroom. 

The room is so cold. She stares into the blanket, her alcohol infused breath ensues a headache and her insides burn like they’re going to expire. She questions why she drank so much. It doesn’t even work anymore; proof in her lack of sleep and body pains. Shivering, she reaches her hand forward to see if there’s another bottle nearby, one thing that never fails is the warmth it brings. 

“You don’t get it do you?” The blanket is yanked out of Arshenique’s grasp, a tall, naked and pale body, torso rotted like the plague, stands before her, donning the mask of her peeled face. 

“What are you?” Arshenique cries out. 

The humanoid creature creeps toward her, places it’s knee on the bed near her face and says, “unfortunately, I’m you.” 

Arshenique’s heart thumps in her chest. “Wh–what do you m-mean?” 

“You can’t see it?” The creature backs away. It sticks its claws in it’s disgusting torso and pulls out the intestines, the other organs fall out into a pile on the floor. Its stomach, now empty, mirroring a dark abyss, somehow shows her everything. Within the darkness, Arshenique sees every bottle she’s ever drank, every negative side effect her drinking problem has done to her body, every time she’s made herself look foolish at a get-together because of the open bar, blacking out in front of strangers, all the money she’s wasted on liquor, embarrassing, drunk tweets, the family events she’s missed because she was too hungover to get out of bed, all of the awful words she’s said, everything her terrible habit has ruined. 

Fear has escaped her body, only the urge to be different remains.


“Good Morning, Cincinnati! This is Kiss 107. 1 radio with your morning news…” blares the clock radio.

 The bright sun burns her eyes as they flutter open, her next door neighbor is on cue with the lawn mower, and for the first time in years, there’s no headache banging against her skull. Arshenique sits up, squints out her window to bask in the sun’s illumination over the trees, Victorian style homes, various birds, and reflecting the shadows of people walking by. She questions noticing these details before. 

Arshenique brushes her teeth then showers, makes a small breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast, makes a small batch of coffee, and enjoys it at the dining table. The coffee is too bitter, so she goes to the cupboard for sweetener. Bottles of liquor take up every space on the shelves. The scent of vodka turns her stomach, but brings forth an excellent idea. 

Bottle after bottle is opened and emptied into the kitchen skink. All of the bottles in the kitchen, bathroom, garage, under the bed, in the closets, in her car, in her purse, in the attic, all of it, every last drop is flushed away. She throws the bottles in a few recycle bins on the curb outside of her house, and while outdoors, she perks her nose up to the air and takes a big whiff. It’s a little chilly, so she jogs back inside to grab a jacket. The static of the radio she forgot to turn off mentions the time, which reminds her about her job. Being late was cause for a drink to suppress the stress of her boss possibly firing her, but right now, she couldn’t care less. She loves her job, however, the stress of ratings has turned her into a person she hates. 

On her way to the stairs, her foot steps on something else she’s forgotten–her phone. Damn. Of course, the screen is littered with notifications of missed calls from work, it’s never anyone else. She returns the call, he assistant picks up and she proceeds to tell him she isn’t going into work today. He insists the idea is stupid and could cost her the job, a possible demotion, or worse. Arshenique can’t remember her last vacation. Every day, her eyes are glued to a computer screen or her next drink; now, feels like the perfect time to relax. The nightmares from last night were strange and oddly realistic, she needs a few days to reflect. Again, the assistant urges Arshenique to change her mind, so she hangs up. 

She proceeds up the staircase to turn off the radio in her bedroom. As her finger approaches the power button, a raspy voice on the radio says, “and if you ever need my assistance again, it will be much worse.”

Like the debilitating blow of a metal bat to the stomach, a twinge in her stomach forces her to hunch over her bed–the pain she endured in her dreams last night, tenfold. The scars from the glass shards form on her skin and the pressure of her body being under them returns, followed by images of the creepy mask of her face. 

“I promise…I promise, I won’t,” Arshenique pleads, spitting up blood and vomit while scratching the floor to alleviate some of the pain. The radio’s staticy broadcast cuts out. The pain in Arshenique’s stomach fades away, along with the scars and thoughts of cursed images. “I promise, myself, I’ll never drink again.”

The End


“Hey, there’s another package I need you to deliver.” Isaiha’s boss walks into the shipment area, clipboard and flashlight in hand. 

“But it’s the end of my shift. Barry can do it,” Isaiha scoffs. 

“No can do. It’s on your route. And I know it’s the end of your shift, so I’ll put as little extra in your paycheck.” He hands Isaiha the flashlight, then exits out of the cold, dimly lit room, followed by Barry who walks away without saying a word.   

Typical of his boss to leave the last-minute work to him, but since the pay suffices to afford to take care of his mother in his expensive hometown, he guesses he can’t complain. But, when the day comes to leave this horrid place, he will not hesitate to slam his resignation letter on his boss’ desk.

 All packages ready for delivery are stationed by their respective trucks. Next to his truck is a large, brown box marked “fragile,” loaded onto a cargo cart. Isaiha lets out an exhausted sigh as he loads the box into his truck, but then furrows when he gauges how light the box is. But no matter; he closes the back doors and continues to the driver’s seat, what’s inside the package has nothing to do with him. 

The GPS is logged to the destination; however, for it being on his route, he does not recognize the address. It’s already an hour past the time he should be home, so instead of calling his boss or googling the neighborhood to make sure the address is correct, Isaiha turns the key and gets moving. 

No sun in the sky. The low-beams of his car provide little light in the foggy night atmosphere. He can swear there are pedestrians wandering the streets because of the human-shaped silhouettes catching his eye in the rear and side-view mirrors, yet when the fog clears as it passes by, there’s no one in sight. 

Hours have passed, yet, on the GPS, his car appears to be in the same spot. Something else strange catches his eye; every street on the map is the same. Isaiha wipes the sweat from his brow, pulls over to catch his breath, and inspect the broken GPS. “It must be the weird weather messing with satellites or something,” Isaiha utters to try convincing himself. 

His eyes can’t help fixating at the abyssal fog. He’s never seen it so dense and wonders if he should drive in these conditions, so he tries radioing his boss to confirm—nothing but static on the other end. The woman on GPS startles Isaiha when she announces he’s arrived at his destination, he notes it never spoke until now and he has that setting turned off. He gives the screen a few taps with his finger—the car shuts off. Bewildered, Isaiha jumps out of the car and into the fading fog that trails all the way to the left, diverting his eyes from the truck to a quaint, brown and yellow house. It’s the only house on the block. His heart thumps in his shirt as he reads the address on the mailbox. 

All he wants to do is deliver the package and leave, never return to this creepy neighborhood. Isaiha swings the truck doors open, grabs the box and speed walks up the creaky porch stairs. He knocks on the door—it thuds on the floor, showing nothing in the house, but darkness, but then a blinding, amber light covers everything. Within it, Isaiha sees nightmares mixed into one horrid panorama: his body cooking in a cauldron soup of half-melted bodies, his limbs forced out of their sockets by hideous, humanoid creatures, his eyes explode; roaches and spiders crawl out of the bloody holes, his intestines keep falling out of his belly, boulders rain down from above and crush his body—repeatedly he dies.

The package falls out of Isaiha’s hands and disappears. Human hands reach out of the light and pull him in. 

“L… Lianna?” Isaiha rubs his eyes, questioning the beautiful woman in front of him who resembles one of his ex lovers. His eyes open to a beach of beautiful, pearly sand and blue water that sparkles like gems. He asks himself if he’s dreaming, but he doesn’t want to wake up.

“Isaiah, it’s been so long!” Speaks, the woman in the white summer dress. 

“I must be dreaming, if you’re happy to see me.” The last memory of her is their breakup, when he decided they should go their separate ways because the relationship was getting too serious—he was too young, and she wanted to start a family.

But he has to be dreaming! Even though it’s warm and when the breeze blows, sand crystals brush his skin. And he can’t deny the drastic change calms his heart from the horrors his mind was just consumed by. 

“Isaiah, this…is what it could have been like. I spent a lot of time thinking…” She gets closer to him, the warmth from her breath sprays the back of his neck. “… about what you did to me. To us.” 

Isaiha stands his ground. “I did what I needed to do. I already told you the relationship was sufficat–”

“I remember what you said!” Lianna’s soft, honey voice transforms into rage. She backs away from him; suddenly, the sand turns black. 

I have to be dreaming. He looks down at his work uniform, not a scratch on it. Back to his ex. Her eyes, once amber, now crimson, stare at him with hate. “What the Hell is this? Where are we? Did you kidnap me? Is this–”

“Real?” Lianna interrupts. “I can assure you…” She conjures a silver dagger from her hands and walks toward Isaiah. 

He bolts in the other direction, his legs racing with his heart. So many questions swim through his mind; why is she doing this? Did she really do this or is this just some bizarre dream? Did he even go to work today? Maybe he actually went home on time and is having a nightmare? If only the lucidity of the dream weren’t so intense…

Lianna appears in front of him, making him slide forward in the sand. In a second, she’s close to him, breathing down his neck with the knife stabbed into his gut. His vision fades as the words “I am very real” seep into his ear. 


He’s surrounded by darkness. He can see all around him, yet he lies very still, eyes closed, vulnerable due to lack of clothing. He wants to open his mouth to scream, but an unknown force keeps his lips shut. 

The snapping of a finger wakes Isaiha’s mind. 

Strapped to a chair by barbed wire that cuts deep into his skin. He glances down at the blood leaking from him onto the floor, even his bare feet are wrapped in the spikes. In front of him, Lianna sits in a throne made of squirming, human arms and legs, eyes red and calm, dressed in a long, transparent, black dress; from his damaged eyes he can make-out her crown of human fingers. 

The pain… this is definitely real. 

“I’m sure you’re wondering…” Lianna’s emotionless voice echoes in his ears, “why you’re here right now. We haven’t seen each other in so long, let’s say, two years, and yet, here we are, with you on the brink of death. I bet if that lying mouth could talk, you would beg to be set free.”

Isaiha remains speechless. His heart already exploded dozens of times, but he keeps resurrecting back to this terrifying situation. She’s right, they have been broken up for two years now. He blocked her from everything in his life after she kept calling him. A distant memory of her warning him about how much he’ll pay for breaking her heart crawls into his brain. Now, he wonders, as his heart gears up for another cardiac arrest, if she is even human. If he could, he’d ask why she chose him. 

“Do you really want to know?” Lianna’s question collapses Isaiha’s heart. Unfortunately, only for a moment.

His heart pumps, thoughts regain. “Did… did she just…”

“You’re in my world, Isaiah. I can see and hear everything!” Lianna cackles. “You want to know what I am?” She stands from her throne. “I am a godless being. I came to Earth in hopes of a reason to spare humanity; my first interaction was with you. I saw right through all of your lies. I watched you, every day, after you decided to leave, and during the time, my hatred grew for you and the rest of the pigs. But, don’t take it personally, you could have been anybody. There are so many humans like you.”

Isaiha’s mind can’t help picturing what tortuous tricks she will kill him with. 

“Your insignificant, weak mind could never imagine such master works of art,” she answers him from inside his consciousness. Isaiha has no control of his own thoughts anymore. All he hears is Lianna’s sinister cackle bouncing off his skull. “At first, I thought I’d get rid of you before I turned everything you know and love into fire, but now, I think I’ll make you see what I’ve been planning.” 

His brain searches thousands of images per second, humanity escapes him. His body, numb and cold, almost euphoric, appears to drift into nothing, with only Lianna’s voice to guide him. Like waking out of a coma, he now sees the world, but it’s different. Nobody notices him standing above them, it doesn’t make sense. Am I…in another dream? They all look like ants. Why is he so high up? He can’t see his feet, only the people, buildings, and cars. There’s a nice breeze up here; warmth and reality on his skin. 

Now, there’s fire.

People float in the sky, their clothes stripped along with their skin, then flesh. Their bodies make it to the sky and form into mist that creates a blood rain. Giant creatures made of morphed, disfigured humans climb the skyscrapers of the city and crash through the glass windows to pick out innocent humans and eat them. There’s so much screaming… and death. 

“Can you hear it, Isaiah? The sweet sounds of their misery and demise. Like cattle in the slaughterhouse,” Lianna speaks from his consciousness. 

“I don’t understand. Wh… where am I?” He doesn’t recognize his own echo.

“You are nowhere, because you are nothing.” The scene changes to a familiar grassy field, home to an older, brown house. An elderly woman walks out of the screen door, towel in hand, walking toward the clothes line swinging in the breeze. “Do you recognize her, Isaiah?” 

“That’s… that’s my… mother.” No emotion in his voice for the woman he cares for and supports on his own. Sadly, she has no idea that he’s watching her right now, and if he could, he would call out to her one last time. 

Lianna’s words glide like molasses, “deep down, she’s responsible for this too.”

A hideous, inconceivable creature comes out of the shadows, crawling towards Isaiha’s mother. The woman takes a pause, peaks her face up to the air and smiles. Blood sprays in the air as an elongated arm shoots out of the beast’s stomach-or where a stomach would be- and splits her in half. 

A fire consumes the house. 

Lianna laughs her way to the next destination, stringing Isaiha’s crumbled spirit along on her murderous adventure; a world collapsed by chaos, driven to apocalypse. 


Her hair flows in the wind, the moon illuminates her red eyes and the ever-growing fire. The sinister smile on her face is the subject of everything going according to plan. Now, for the final step—Lianna returns to her realm.

Isaiah, bleed to death, remains in the torture chair, bound by barbed wire. 

“Do you know what comes next?” she asks him. The touch of her finger on his cheek revives him; blood leaks on the floor, again. She snaps her finger, and the chair turns into a metal cage too small for Isaiha’s body. “You get to stay here with me.” 

Lianna sits on her throne, stares at her new slave… an idea sets in. The cage is lit by fire. Instantly, Isaiha screams, squirms around in the tight cage, barely able to move an inch in any direction. And when the screams no longer entice her, she resurrects him and summons tiny mouths to gnaw on his flesh. 

This is his fate. For all eternity, at the whim of his former lover, a new death.



The Aristel Casino thrives on weekend nights. It’s a staple for the wealthiest people in the state to double their weekly millions and brag about who owns more land or profits the most from their overworked employees. Beo despises these people. Yet, every weekend, he greets gamblers who come to his blackjack table with a smile. 

Beo doesn’t mind taking their money; most are novice and become too drunk to stay focused on the cards. He’s pocketed a few thousand extra from time-to-time, and since his boss doesn’t care, so long as the house gets a fair share, he sleeps well and his dreams are seldom nightmares. 

Another aspect Beo can appreciate about his job are the connections he’s made. With every gambler in the casino owning a building, park, or bank, rumors spread on his listening ears. One night, he came across a piece of gossip that turned his life around for the better. A marketing CEO was discussing sensitive business matters with some of her associates. They drank until their wallets were empty, not knowing their dealer was registering important information about certain names mentioned. At the end of his shift that night, Beo searched the internet for those people, and when he found them, he leaked whatever knowledge he had, which put his name in higher corners and forced the stock market to benefit him. 

Cunning Beo ensures to keep his nose under the radar whilst exploiting secrets. He is a family man, after all, and his wife already addressed her concerns about the extra money in their savings and upgrades to the house, and he’s seen a few patrons offering dealers the side-eye. He is going to quit this job, and it’s best to leave before anyone expects him of running his mouth in areas he doesn’t belong; but 

 if one more rich snob dressed in jewels walks in to tell him a funny story about how they cut someone’s check for “the good of the business” he is going to lose his cool composure. 

A special guest is on tonight’s list: the owner of the casino. No one’s ever seen him, but his cutthroat reputation has everyone on edge. Beo won’t let his nervousness get the better of him—thoughts of termination or being exposed to everyone—tonight, and it will take a lot more than some big-wig to prevent him from supporting his wife and children.  

Enough rambling in his own mind. His first guests are here and they’re already chatty. The flirtatious couple sits down and Beo greets them, and as always they wave their hand up to the sky like Beo’s their butler. No matter, the couple’s discussion has already piqued Beo’s interest. They speak of the owner as if he’s a god, untouchable in their world, a rare sight, and a dirty trickster. These are only rumors, but there must be some truth to them if Beo’s boss knows nothing about the man he works for. 

“I was told he only ventures at night because during the day he’s busy parlaying with mistresses,” says the woman clinging to her partner’s arm after taking a sip of her drink. 

The man strokes her hair back and whispers, “Thomas told me that people he terminates disappear from the working world forever. You remember Ariel, right? When he fired her from that secretary job at the firm, no one ever saw her again.” 

“Oh well,” she sighs, “I’m just glad I don’t work in any of his establishments. I’d hate to stop spending money.” 

They both laugh and kiss. Beo couldn’t be more sick. He’ll see how much they’re laughing when they’ve lost it all playing too many hands. And, if he gets a good tip from these drunk assholes, he will do his best to get one of them fired from their high-end jobs and perhaps end up here with the commoners. The cost of living is impossible to meet for the minimum wage in the state. What most would think is a small chunk of change is crucial to citizens with families, and the rich just laugh at it—like they are now—by buying homes in poorer areas for their trap houses and brothels, raising the prices in the neighborhood and forcing people into homelessness. With this casino job, Beo does all right, for now; the more his children grow, along with the rent and his wife’s needs, the more obligated he feels to eavesdrop, sell secrets, and ruin lives. 

Tamara, one of Beo’s coworkers, taps him on the shoulder and interrupts his thoughts. “Elliot said he’d like to see you in his office. He said not to worry, you’re not in any trouble.” She informs him then takes over the blackjack table.  

She said not to worry and normally, he wouldn’t think much of it, but with the owner showing up tonight, Beo fears the burden of added responsibility or working overtime. The office is a short walk to the end of the hall, past the craps tables and slot machines and through the ticket booth.  

The door is already open. Beo exhales, knocks on the door. “You wanted to see me, Elliot,” Beo sighs. 

“Yes, come in! Please.” Elliot looks away from the cameras, speed walks to his desk and pulls out the chair in front of his desk. “Have a seat, Beo. I hope Tamara told you you’re not in any trouble. I just want to discuss some things with you.” 

Beo’s boss seems normal, though it is odd for him to talk to him during his shift. No one’s ever pulled Beo from the table, so this must be important. 

“Sure. What is it?” Beo replies. 

“About my boss, well, our boss, coming in tonight… he never mentioned a time. I hate to do this, but you’re the only one I can count on. I need someone to be here when he arrives and to entertain him. Your record here is marvelous, and you make us a lot of money. I know the boss will find you impressive.”

I knew it… “I’d rather get home to my wife and children, but I suppose I could be the face of the company this time.” 

Elliott offers no reply, just checks off boxes on a few pages of paperwork. 

“Am I free to return to my table. I was entertaining my first guests when Tamara arrived.” 

“Yeah. Sure. Go.” Elliot waves his hand as if speaking to a fly. 

Beo holds back the urge to grab Elliot by the collar and bash his head on the desk. Instead of throwing away his hard work, he raises from the chair, pushes it against the desk and leaves the office. Beo won’t take his rudeness to heart; Elliot’s behavior is common when he’s under pressure, and meeting his boss for the first time must weigh his mind. He hopes the owner won’t take long to arrive and doesn’t stay too long. 

His wife’s suspicions will heighten. 

He walks into the game room. The smell of cigarette smoke and liquor is still pungent. But either that meeting took a lot longer than he thought or all of the guests left early, even the workers. He checks his watch: all zeroes. He swears he checked the time on it before coming to work, and it was just fine. The world clocks above the exit door are also set to zero, which he’s never seen in all of his years of being on the job. Perhaps Elliot forgot to mention something to him, so Beo walks back to the office. 

“Hey, Elli–” To his surprise, Elliot’s gone. Odd of him to leave the door open. The nearest bathroom is towards the exit, Beo would have seen him. “M… maybe he left and forgot to lock up.” Beo pulls his mobile phone out of his pocket and phones him. 

No answer. 

He calls again and there’s still no answer. 

This is beyond irresponsible and unlike Elliot. On the desk are Elliot’s lockup keys. That’s also strange considering his jacket and other belongings are missing. Although he would rather get in his car and drive home, Beo picks up the keys to close the Casino, and leaves a written, apologetic note on the door for the owner:

“Dear…” Beo’s now realizing he doesn’t know the man’s name, “… sir. I am terribly sorry for the entire company’s absence. There has been a misunderstanding that led up to the closure of the casino. Please call Elliot at 555…”

Before leaving the room, he stares at the camera to see if there’s anyone left in the building. Even the cleaning crew left. 

Not his problem. He will lockup as he does any other night and let Elliot bear the responsibility in the morning. So much for overtime. On his way through the employees’ only wing, he shuts off every light and locks the doors. He enters the game room and stops cold upon seeing a woman standing in front of the entrance. Beo has never seen this beautiful young woman in the casino before. There’s no way he would let that bright-orange blunt bob, legs for miles, and enchanting green eyes escape his attention. She is captivating and emits the smell of roses. He watches those black stilettos matching her long, black dress click toward his blackjack table. 

The unknown beauty sets her purse down in front of her and turns her head toward him. He blushes, unaware that she noticed him. 

“Beo, correct?” asks her honey voice. 

Her question breaks him out of gawking. “Yes, ma’am. And you are?” He joins her at the game table.

“I’m the owner, Satainia Dovrag.” She sticks her finger in her purse, then sniffs it. “Where is Elliot?”

Never has a woman made an ugly habit look so attractive. 

“E—Elliot… he… he had somewhere to go. Family emergency. He asked me to close up.” 

“On the night I told him I was coming to inspect? That is… odd.” 

Her unwavering stare is striking, yet sweat beads form on his forehead and a concerning warmth developing in his belly. 

“I agree ma–”

“Please, call me Satainia.” She interrupts.

“Y—yes, of course, Satainia. Would you… still like to play?” 

“Oh…” she laughs, “I have no intention of leaving.” 

“Good. Good.” Beo bows his head. Elliot never mentioned an inspection. In the past, inspections were held on days the casino was closed and every employee worked overtime to prepare. This is different and pressuring. He grabs the blackjack deck out of the draw under the table. He takes them out of the pack; so shaky the cards fumble out of his hands and spread on the board. Beo scurries to pick them up. Satainia picks up one of the face-down cards with her claw, crimson nails. She presents it to him: the devil joker. 

Jokers have no purpose in blackjack, and never has he seen that card design. 

Tamara must have switched decks by accident. 

“How strange to see a joker in a blackjack deck of cards.” She smiles and places the card down, face up. “How about we have some fun with this game, Beo? Husband, father…” she leans in, their lips almost touching, “whistleblower.”

Beo’s insides are the equivalent to hot coals. He can feel the sweat secreting from his pores. “Whatever do you mean–”

“What I mean is you like danger… living on the edge, playing on the big field with people wealthy enough to put you and your family in a box to be forgotten by everyone.”

There’s no escaping it. Beo remains quiet, nods his head and listens to cooperate. 

Satainia’s voice deepens. “You have so much to lose…” 

The lights flicker until they shut off. Beo presses the emergency lights button located under his desk, which turns on red lighting he didn’t know the casino had. “Don’t worry, ma’am.” His voice cracks. All he can see are her piercing green eyes that illuminate through the dark red. He reaches for the phone in his pocket to call the local police department. His heart sinks to his stomach because no matter how much he presses the screen or the button on the side, the screen never brightens on his phone. 

The phone slips from his sweaty hand and drops to the floor. He bends down to pick it up. The room becomes bright red.

Beo jolts up—eyes widen, breath accelerates, and speech escapes his lips at the sight of all the dozens of black holes in the walls. Satainia, staring only at him, doesn’t say a word. 

“Where did… Where did those holes come from?” He puts his hands to his head.

“Aristel is my house, Beo.” Satainia’s smooth, calm voice degraded to raspy and airy. “I have owned it for centuries. You, whistleblower, have spread too many secrets and put my home at risk of closure. It is the source of my power. In these walls, are your most regular customers.” 

Beo’s mind races. Is this a cruel joke from one of the rich assholes? Had they found him out? Did they know all along? The questions seem viable until humanoid creatures, skin black as tar, and cries like newborn babies crawl out of the holes. 

Unable to process the horror, Beo falls to the ground and puts his face in hands, letting the tears burst from his eyes and screams release from his dry throat. 

“Quitting already?” cackles Satainia. Beo looks up at her evil eyes staring down at him from the table. “We still haven’t discussed our game.” 

“What… What are you?” Beo uses the game table to help himself up. 

“Your small mind can’t comprehend what I am.” 

There’s no point in trying to make sense of the situation. Either he’s dreaming or this is the worst day of his life—regardless of which is correct, he isn’t leaving until this is over. He pulls a cigarette and lighter out of the draw and sparks it up, takes a puff. “How do you want to do this?” 

Satainia’s maniacal laugh vibrates the entire building. He can’t stop staring at the ugly creatures behind her. 

“The first to win three hands in a row wins. We will both act as a dealer and a player. I win, you become a part of my human collection.”

“And if I win?”

“Ha! If you win, I will give you this casino. My home. My power.” 

“What happens if I refuse?” 

“Then you will never leave this place. Consider yourself lucky to have a choice in the matter.” She holds her hand out.

 Beo accepts the deal. 

The human and the unknown shake hands to begin their deadly game of blackjack. 

“I almost forgot.” The force of her grip cracks his fingers. “Whenever you lose a hand, I get something. Whatever I want.”

“How is that fair?” Beo scoffs.

“I don’t make humans comfortable.” 

Beo is told to deal first. 

“This round, I want one of your fingers.” 


Scared to death, yet left with no other choice, Beo deals the cards. His shaky hands don’t deal as smooth as he’s used to. 

Satainia and Beo view their cards. 

“Hit me,” she says.

Beo slaps another card down. 

The witch smiles and shows her cards: a jack of hearts, five of spades, and a three of diamonds. 

He maintains a poker face, lifts his cards. A sigh of relief as he places the perfect twenty-one down on the table. 

“Beginner’s luck. Let’s see if you can do it again. I’ll give you another chance to deal.”

Beo does as she commands. As soon as her cards are set, she turns them over—two kings and an ace of spades. 

“Go ahead, flip yours over.” She points to his cards.

His heartbeat pounds his eardrums when he looks at his cards. Seventeen. 

Tsk Tsk. What will you do?”

An experienced player, Beo knows not to make the mistake of hitting, especially when the stakes are as high as his body parts. So, he loses the round. The blackened souls behind the deceitful woman surround Beo. Two hold his face down to the table and the burning cigarette and grab his hands. Fighting back might make it worse, so he faces the board and holds his tears. 

The scaly skin of the monster’s hand grabs his right index finger and yanks it out of the socket. The pain forces his legs to jerk. Satainia’s minions keep him posted under their inhuman strength. 

“Next round you lose, I want to hear you scream.” 

The dead souls return to their positions beside their queen. The cards teleport out of Beo’s hands and into hers. She sets them down next to his face. He’s terrified to turn them over. He lifts right hand to touch them, only to be stopped by Satainia’s winning hand. Another twenty-one.

“Please… No. I’ll do anything, please spare me,” Beo whines.

“You are already doing everything I want you to,” Satainia replies coldly. Two souls stand him up straight and grab his hands like a lover. “Now scream.” A snap of her wicked fingers and Beo’s body bursts into flames. Per her request, Beo screams uncontrollably. He is reborn after death. The fire chars his skin and flesh. If the flames don’t burn up his vital organs, he succumbs to a heart attack instead—so many deaths he endures. But not even his high-pitch cries can block Satainia’s taunting cackle. 

Another snap of her finger and the flames dissipate and the souls release Beo’s hands. His charred body hits the floor like a cooked burger; he can’t speak or move, only hear the clicks of her heels coming closer. 

She now stands in front of him. “One more loss and your soul is mine.”

It’s his turn to deal again. Souls pick him and put the cards in his hands. He can’t fathom how he’s still alive or able to handle the cards. In sync, Beo and Satainia don’t waste time peeking at their cards. Both sets are turned over—a draw. Both have two pairs of fives. 

“Interesting. Hit me.” Satainia demands, still maintaining her unwavering stare. 

He puts a card on her side of the table. She turns it over, revealing a nine of clubs. “It’s showtime,” she whispers. 

Beo draws a card with trembling fingers. He draws a black line across the card as he examines it. “Six. Eleven.” He tallies up his score. Beo pulls another card from the deck. Tears fall when the face of the card reveals the number four. 

“Your heart is going to burst through your chest.” Teases Satainia. If he pulls this off, this nightmare will finally be over. “Draw the card!” the witch yells, breaking his concentration. 

Beo swipes the card, shuts his eyes tight before looking. 

He screams then opens his eyes.

Weakened and numb, he has no energy left to express any emotions. Instead, Beo sets the card in front of her face-up. “No! No!” shouts Satainia. “Do you know how long I have dwelled here? How much time it took me to claim this place?” 

“A deal is a deal,” Beo mutters. 


All of her minions circle around and creep closer to her. She commands them to stay back, but they continue until she is overwhelmed. They trap her on the ground and begin pulling bits of her skin and flesh off her body and stuffing it in their mouths like finger food. To Beo it sounds like dogs munching on meat on bones. He watches in disgust, yet can’t look away. 

The souls finish their meal, leaving nothing left of Satainia Dovrag, except a blood stain outline of her body. 

The holes the black humanoid creatures come from disappear when they climb back inside them. Once all have returned to the inside of the wall, the regular fluorescent lights of the casino flicker on and the world clocks present their specified times. Beo checks his hands and body like a madman, bewildered by the fact he’s back to normal. “Was I dreaming?” he asks himself. 

“Mr. Beo! Mr. Beo!” A recognizable voice calls for him. 

It’s Tamara. “There you are!” He shouts at her. “You and everyone… wait. Since when do you call me Mr. Beo?”

“Since you hired me, sir.” Tamra tilts her head and furrows her eyebrows. “Everything okay?” 

“I hired you?” 

“Yes. Is this a test or something because that wasn’t in the job overview?” 

“What day is it?” Beo grabs her shoulders and gets close.

“Saturday! You’re scaring me.” Tamara pushes him away.

“The ninth?” 

“Yes! I was just letting you know that I’m going to take a smoke break before the shift starts.”

“But… where’s Elliot.” Beo grabs her arm as she walks away.

Tamara’s eyes wander up and to the right. “Last time I saw him he was in the back room counting chips.”

“Counting chips?”

“Yeah. Like you told him to.” She backs away. “I really need to go take my smoke break now. I’m kinda freaked out now.” 

Beo contemplates everything Tamara just said and what he experienced. He runs to the room where the poker chips are set, and there is Elliot, counting each one like Tamra said. 

The chair Elliot’s sitting in falls on the floor because of how fast he stands up. “Hey boss! I’m almost done with these chips.” 

Beo becomes nauseous. If he doesn’t find a toilet now, he’ll throw up on the floor and have to clean it up afterward. He runs to the nearest bathroom, doesn’t make it to the stall, so the sink is used. Other employees using the facilities groan in disgust and exit in a hurry. 

The vomit is black. The sight of it brings memories of the ugly, black creatures he saw in the nightmare. He can’t remember what he ate to cause this. Beo splashes water on his face and the vomit to force it down the drain. He checks his reflection in the mirror, and staring back at him are two beady red eyes and the resemblance of a black soul. 



“Help! Help!” Zeick screams. 

“You keep your mouth shut, little rat.” Sylender bangs on the box. He then picks up a pot of boiling water and dumps it on Zeick’s face. 

The pain makes him jump and squirm in the tight-fit box and cut his skin against the jagged chains.

If only Zeick changed the tires on his car like his wife told him to, his car might not have crashed on the road and lead him to this evil, wicked place. He was hosting a dinner party to celebrate his new job, and as everyone was leaving, he noticed a colorfully wrapped gift left on a living room chair. There was a tag marked “To Dr. Damien Sylender” with an address attached. He drives past the mansion every morning on his route to work and thought he’d be kind and drop it off since no one claimed it. 

The snowy roads were merciless that night, but even his wife said it was a good deed. He drove slow and careful, yet it wasn’t enough to evade the careless idiot driving toward him. When he woke up, he had a pounding headache, his car was wrecked, and the gift was lying right next to him. 

Zeick’s lucky to be alive, considering the irreparable damage to his vehicle. He never saw the other person in the accident, only the opened gate leading to the ominous mansion with candle-lit windows and a dense garden path. He limped toward it, and unknown to him, with each step a light in a window faded. 

He knocked on the door, then put a listening ear to it. It’s possible Zeick heard someone “shushing” as the steps grew closer. The lock unbolted and a man standing seven feet tall, staring with bright gray eyes attached to a gaunt, pale face answered the door. 

“Are… are you Doctor Damien Sylender?” Zeick stuttered.

“That present, is it addressed to me?” The old man’s voice croaked.

Zeick was surprised the doctor didn’t notice his injuries and the blood dripping down the side of his face. “It is… May I use your phone, please? My car just crashed, and I–”

Doctor Sylender snatched the box and slammed the door, only to open it a second later and ask Zeick if he desired a cup of tea. Zeick entered the mansion, astonished by how tall the walls were, the crimson paint peeking through picture frames and paintings, the flames roaring in the grand fireplace, and a giant wall sculpture of sad and angry faces. The vulgarity of the artwork made Zeick sweat. Each picture was a step into Hell, similar to his wife’s taste. There was a massive painting above a bay window; arms and legs protruding out of a box wrapped in chains, and above that, various faces of men and women expressing fear and pain. 

“You know my degree is in art, not medical science?” 

“I had no idea.” Zeick responded. “I honestly never heard of you until today. I never knew who lived in this mansion.” 

A gust of wind flickered the candlelight and for a moment the atrium was pitch-black.

“Is that so?” Sylender whispered. He used a match to relight the candle, casting a glow on his unsettling face and black-tooth smile. 

Zeick gulped down the dryness in his throat. “Sir, I only want to use the phone to call my wife. Then I’ll leave.” 

There was silence for a moment. Dr. Sylender never took his eyes off of him. 

“Yes, of course. But… not after you see my art collection. It’s something I show every guest in my house. I’ve been working on it for years.” 

Zeick wondered why the car accident didn’t put him out of his misery. “Sure thing. But I really need to get to a hospital or something.”

“I won’t take too much of your time. It’s just down this corridor.” 

A stinging pain in Zeick’s ribs occurred on the way to the other hall. This one was all white and at the end was a large painting of bruised humans hanging upside down. 

“I really don’t want to go down there. Please, just let me use your phone! I dropped off your gift, now let me use the phone! I just got into a fucking car accident!” yelled Zeick. 

Again, the lights flickered. Doctor Sylender stood still, but his head turned to face Zeick. Those gray beady eyes are all Zeick can see now. 

“You will see the collection. You will.” 

The hall darkened, and the last image Zeick saw as he screamed for help was naked bodies crawling on the walls. When he awoke—upside down, naked, and covered in open cuts—the first thought in his mind was his wife. She must be worried sick about him.

 Heavy footsteps came from the right. Someone dressed in a baggy latex suit appeared in front of him and removed ruler tape from their pockets. The ruler was pressed to his skin dozens of times. “Stop… Stop! What are you doing?” Zeick shouted. The stranger left without saying a word. 

Zeick grew dizzy. A screeching noise made him scream. He blinked a few times to clear his blurred vision; something shiny was coming toward him, and it reminded him of the same box from the unnerving painting in the mansion’s atrium. The chain-wrapped box is pushed under his head, so he could fall in when the wires around his ankles were cut. 

The nozzle of a hose was reeled in shortly after. It sprayed some type of nauseous chemical because he awoke in another place. Zeick peeked through the four holes in the box to get a glimpse of the bright room, restricted to turning in small increments while seated on the metal surface. There was nothing to see… except other boxes. 

A door opened. 

Zeick’s eyes frantically wandered in every direction. From the corner of his eye, he saw the silhouette of a man, and seconds later, he heard screaming and a knife cutting through meat. Incoming stomps overwhelmed the crying and thumping of his heart. He prayed to anyone that would listen, which ceased when a portion of the top of his box opened up and he saw those harrowing gray eyes. Doctor Sylender grabbed his head, brought it out of the box, then re-attached the piece to lock it in. 

The old man’s claws dug into Zeick’s face, ripped the skin off, and ate it, tiny strips at a time like Hors d’oeuvres. He massaged Zeick’s right eye; said “my favorite” as he pulled it out with his bony fingers and stuffed it into his mouth. It was the worst pain, yet Zeick couldn’t scream. At least, until he heard a knock on the door.


“Damn. Where is this guy? It’s freezing out here!” Dionna knocks on the door again. She saw the lights and shadows and knows someone is home. Her husband went out hours ago to deliver a package to this location, so someone must have seen him. 

She finally hears steps. The door opens and, to her surprise, it’s one of her favorite painters: Damien Sylender. She had no idea he lived so close. 

“I—it’s you! Damien Sylender! I went to your art gallery not too long ago. I’ve always admired your work. He told me where he was going, but not whom the package was for.” 

The tall, older man with a clean cut beard and full head of salt and pepper hair smiles with perfect teeth. “Would you like to get out of the cold for some tea?” he asked. 

“I’d love to!” She enters the home and falls in love with the dark, Victorian decor; all of his artwork draped on the red walls, the black and white marble floors, and a huge fireplace. “This is amazing. My husband, who I’ve been meaning to ask you about, hates this stuff. I could never take him on an art trip with me. We’re so different… in that aspect.” 

“That’s rather unfortunate.” Damien Sylender grabs two glasses and pours a shot of brown liquor into both of them. 

“Yes.” She grabs the glass and takes a sip. “He was supposed to deliver a package here a couple of hours ago, but I haven’t heard from him. Did he stop by?” 

He walks away, opens the glass door next to the staircase. “This gift, you mean?” He presents the gift she remembers from the end of the dinner. 

“Yes. So, he was here.”

“Indeed. Very nice young man. He came by and dropped it off, then he left.” 

The place isn’t that far from home, so perhaps he’s still in the area. Dionna puts her unfinished glass—of what tasted like scotch—down on the mantle of the fireplace. “Thanks for your time. I should go find him.”

“Have you seen this painting before?” 

Dionna looks up at the large painting above the fireplace, unaware it was even there. The multiple limbs and faces are classic Damien, but the box in the center throws her off. 

As if reading her mind, Doctor Damien says, “the box is a new thing I’m trying. I call it, Sylender’s box. It represents all of my ideas.” 

“It’s incredible.” Dionna stares at the painting. One of the floating faces looks oddly familiar. The eyes stare back at her, wide and scared like they’re asking for help. “The faces… are they people close to you?”

He joins her side and gazes up at the painting. “I paint the face of anyone who donates to my art. You’re one of the first to see this one.”

Dionna smiles. “Really?” 

“I could show you the piece I’m working on for my next exhibit. But when you have time, of course.” 

This is a phenomenal opportunity for Dionna. As an art student, her classmates would drool if they found out. “It would only take a second, right?” 

“Yes. Just a moment. It’s right down this corridor.” 



Thousands have come out today to view the solar eclipse, including Jeffrey and his parents and siblings. It’s a special occasion because his part of the world never gets to see it, and when the meteorologist announced a few weeks ago that the solar eclipse would take place today, he and his family stocked up on snacks and beer and cleared their schedules. Almost every roof in the neighborhood is topped with people sitting in lawn chairs, awaiting the event which should start in a few minutes. Jeffrey brought his best friend, Joshua, over after school, since his parents don’t care about the eclipse. All of them have their glasses ready to watch. 

“Thanks for letting me watch the eclipse with y’all Mrs. Geiger!” says Joshua, as he passes Jeffrey’s mother a cold beer from the cooler. 

“Of course! You know you’re always invited to our home.” 

Jeffrey puts on his protective glasses and pulls up a chair next to his friend. “I can’t wait for the eclipse! I can’t believe we get lucky enough in our lifetime!” 

The darkness creeps in; everyone gasps and applauds as they gaze up at the alignment. Jeffrey can’t stop staring, and the more he gawks he can swear a smile appears on the shadow. 

A high-pitch scream alerts him and his family. Across the street, the husband of the Murphy household is on top of one of his daughters, clawing away at her stomach like a savage animal. Mrs. Murphy and the other daughter jumped from the roof and ran into their home. Everyone is screaming and running away. 

The world has become completely dark. Jeffrey can’t see anything anymore. His father guides everyone inside the house through the window and tells them to remain calm. Muffled screams and banging are heard through the walls. Jeffrey tries to fathom what happened. “Did… did Mr. Murphy… kill his daughter? We just saw that… right?” 

His mother tells him to be quiet and calm while rubbing his hand. “We don’t know for sure, but that’s exactly what it looked like.” 

“What is happening?” one of Jeff’s older sisters asks. 

“I’m scared!” shouts another sibling. 

The father starts shushing everyone. “Try to remain calm,” he says.

A loud knock on the downstairs door wakes Jeffrey out of his thought—a replay of the murder he witnessed. The knocking persists. Jeffrey’s father grabs a crowbar and leaves to investigate. Jeffrey tries calling the police, but there’s no signal in the attic, and it’s the same for everyone else. The attic becomes silent once his father’s voice is heard.

“I told you to go away! I’m not going to say it again!” he shouts. 

Jeffrey hears people crying for help and begging to get in. He takes a peek out of the attic window; it’s still dark as an abyss, minus the lights shining from people’s homes. He searches the different houses, his heart rate raises seeing the carnage in each window. The Murphy house is covered in blood and broken windows, and someone is getting beaten to death on the second floor of the Thompson residence. A woman tried running out of the Ruiz house, but was snatched back inside, and the door was slammed shut. He can’t stop staring until a gunshot breaks his nerves.

“Dad!” his sister screams. 

Against their mother’s wishes, everyone runs out of the attic and goes downstairs. Jeffrey is the first to reach the last step, in shock to see his father holding a gun aimed at the front door. 

“D—Dad…” Jeffrey walks toward him but stops when blood seeps out of the bullet hole. “You… killed somebody?” 

“I told you all to stay upstairs with your mother!” his father yells. 

A strange round, black object comes out of the hole, followed by another, then many more. 

“What the hell?” Jeffrey walks backward to the staircase. 

Black bat wings grow out of the spheres along with tiny arms and legs. His father shoots at them. One of them flies toward him and cuts his face, and as his father screams in pain, the tiny creature enters his mouth. 

“No! Dad!” Jeffrey cries out.

 His father doesn’t say a word, just stares at Jeffrey with black eyes and points the gun in his direction. He pulls the trigger. One of his older sister’s falls down from a shot to the forehead. Jeffrey and the others run up the stairs to escape their father. Another shot goes off, Jeffrey’s friend, Joshua, screams and tumbles down the steps. He glances down at his friend, whose final goodbye is a cry for help as he’s gunned down. 

His brother pulls him up the stairs by his shirt. “Come on, we gotta run!” 

Jeffrey and his siblings make it back into the attic. He and his brawny brother push an old dresser over the attic door. “What the hell was that? Dad killed — wait… where is Mom?” Everyone quiets their breathing and listens. The sound of teeth chewing fat and bone gets louder. Jeffrey grabs an old wooden plank, as does his brother, and they both walk in the direction of the nauseating noises. 

“Be careful,” whispers his sister. 

Loud banging from the other side of the attic door follows them to the dark corner. With each step his heart races, and his brother’s shaky breathing makes it worse. Footsteps stomp toward them. Jeffrey backs away, holding his weapon high. His brother runs ahead and before he could swing his plank, a hand reaches through his chest. The weapon falls out of Jeffrey’s numb hands. His sibling’s screams along with the banging on the attic door pound his head. His brother’s limp body is thrown in their direction. Now, Jeffrey stares into his mother’s eyes. 

She lunges toward him, knocks him off his feet. 

“Mom, stop!” he cries as his mother punches him. 

“Die! Die!” she growls. 

In between punches, he sinks his fingers into his mother’s chewed up arm and pushes her off. He picks up the wooden plank and hits her in the back of the head. With a heavy heart and tears streaming down his face, he hits his mother with the plank over and over until it breaks into pieces. Her blood stings his eyes, yet they won’t shut. 

Jeffrey holds his head in his hands and cries over his mother’s dead body. “I’m so sorry.” 

Holes form in her body. He crawls away, then staggers to his feet. A black sphere shoots out of her body and lands in front of him. “Run!” Jeffrey jumps over it and breaks for the window. It’s slightly open; perhaps his mother opened it to check on the noise, but he shouldn’t think about that right now. 

Wings grow out of the sphere. Everyone moves quickly out of the window. Jeffrey grabs a rusty rake before exiting and makes it in time to shut the window on the winged creature. He guides his siblings to the side of the house where there’s a shed they can climb down from. 

Glass breaks. The monster flies toward them. Jeffrey leaps out of the way, unfortunate for his sister who started climbing down. The creature crashes into her face and crawls in her ear. Jeffrey jumps down from the roof and meets up with the others. “We need to go. It got her!” He warns. 

Distant screams and cries make it difficult to find a safe place to go. His brother’s poor health won’t allow him to go any further. Jeffrey doesn’t want to leave him behind, but his sister needs him and running feet are getting closer. Jeffrey and his sister continue forward, their brother’s screams fading in the background. They reach a part of the neighborhood he hasn’t seen before. Neither have phones to shed a light in this dark space and use dim light a few feet away to guide them. 

A putrid smell stings Jeffrey’s nostrils. His sister complains about gagging. The scent strengthens the closer they get. Faint whispers bounce off the walls and the air is warmer than usual. 

“I had to. I had to do it. I had to. I had to do it…” 

Jeffrey keeps his sister behind him as he peeks over the wall. A man sits down on the ground next to five people, naked and nailed to the ground, candles surrounding their bodies, and red symbols on the walls. Jeffrey grips the rake in his hand, tells his sister to stay put, then creeps toward the strange man. 

“I had to. I had to do it. I had to. I had to do it…” 

Jeffrey pokes him with the rake. “What… what did you have to do?”

The man jumps up and faces Jeffrey. His face, covered in scratches and open wounds, makes Jeffrey want to vomit. 

“I had to… to save my baby.” The hideous man looks down at something small wrapped in a blanket. “She is my everything. They… they said I could bring her back. I had to… I just had to do it.”

“Do what?” Jeffrey yells. 

“To call it.” The deranged stranger brushes his fingers against the symbols on the wall. “All I had to do was… I kill — sacrificed them! They told me I had to. I didn’t mean to… kill her.” 

Red clouds Jeffrey’s vision. He yanks the man up by his collar. “What? You caused all of this?” He pushes him to the ground. 

“I had to!” whines the stranger. “I had to repent for my mistake!” 

“You bastard!” Jeffrey stabs him in the torso with the rake. “You caused all of this!” 

“No…” he gasps for air. “If you… kill me. You won–”

Jeffrey pushes the rake in further. “You’ll pay!” 

The hideous man’s bloodshot eyes turn gray; an orange glow peeks out of the darkness. Jeffrey gazes up at the sky, relieved to see the alignment finally coming undone. 

“Jeff! Jeff!” His sister calls out. She runs up to him and gives him a tight hug.
“The sky, is it over?” 

Jeffrey nods and returns her embrace.  

“What happens now?” she asks.

He releases her and walks out of the valley to get a better look at the sky. “I don’t know if anything good can happen after all of this.”

She picks up a book covered in blood. “The pages are soft and leathery.” 

“It has to be that lunatic’s bible or something,” Jeffrey scoffs. 

She gasps and drops the book, cries and falls on the floor, scurrying away like a scared child. 

“What? What’s wrong?” Jeffrey hurries to her. 

“You… you made things worse.” 

Jeffrey picks up the book and flips through the pages. He questions how he could have exacerbated the situation if the sun has returned after killing the man who claims to have caused the eclipse. Sketches of the alignment are followed by pictures of the ritual on the floor. The person performing the ritual must close the portal after the dead becomes fully human again, or the summoned god will roam the Earth for eternity. The final page depicts a humanoid figure stretching over the sun. Underneath it is a horde of tinier humans with their hands in the air. 

Crimson casts over everything. The book becomes ash in Jeffrey’s hands. Up in the sky, red and black eyes peer over the sun. 



Only two is what her doctor recommends for the new drug treatment, but two doesn’t work. It used to. Now, Kacie’s headaches seem to get worse each day, and the only thing she wants to do is stay in bed. She stares at the prescription bottle, turning it around with her fingers, re-reading the label over and over until she finally decides to open it. Kacie taps the pill bottle against her hand until two… three… four pills spill onto her palm. She looks in the mirror at her red, crying eyes and downs the pills. A few splashes of water to cool down her face, then Kacie walks out of the bathroom to crawl into bed with her boyfriend. 


“Oh, my God. How could she do this?” utters a voice that wakes Kacie out of the best sleep she’s had in years. Her eyes don’t want to open. She reaches for her boyfriend; her hand touches something warm and sopping wet. Her eyes spark open to see multiple police officers standing around with their guns aimed at her. She shouts her boyfriend’s name, but in the spot where his body should be are chewed meat chunks and blood. 

“No sudden movements, Ms. Quinn!” shouts an officer. 

Kacie has no idea why the police are in her room. “Where is my boyfriend?” 

“You’re squishing the rest of him in your hands right now,” says the cop holding a pair of handcuffs. 

The entire bed is soaked in blood and her boyfriend is nowhere to be found. She gazes at her bloody, shaking hands and screams. “You… you can’t possibly think I did this,” Kacie cries. 

“No one else has been in this apartment for the past two days, Ms. Quinn. When you failed to show up for work, we were called to do a courtesy check and we entered the premises with the key left under your mat.” The cop removes a handkerchief from her pocket and presses it against her nose. “Excuse me,” she coughs, “the smell of death became stronger the closer we got to the bedroom. When we came in, you were passed out, covered in blood and bits of human flesh; your partner, Sean, nowhere to be found, and a trail of bloody footprints leading to a vomit filled toilet.”

“Not to mention, this.” Another police officer adds, holding up a transparent bag with Sean’s head in it. 

She tries to remember everything from last night. All she can recall is taking her meds before going to bed. No way she killed her own lover—cut off his head and left nothing of his body— she isn’t capable of such violence. Behind the smile she puts on every day is a woman too sad and tired to go to work, let alone commit bloody murder. 

Handcuffs are attached to her wrists. The surreality kicks in once all the blood and claw marks on the floor and walls come into view. Yet, not a single memory of how it all happened. Her reflection appears in the mirror placed on her dresser. Dark blood stains her face all the way down to her feet. Her long brunette hair now resembles a harvest moon laced with bits and pieces of her dead boyfriend. The sight weakens her legs and renders her unconscious. 


Her thoughts are like scribbles on paper. Screams and cries of someone begging for their life ricochets off her skull. An eclipse takes place. A fire consumes an entire forest and burns the animals and the giant trees. It spreads down into the earth until it reaches her insides. Last night, she dreamt of lying in a bed of flowers, naked under a wool blanket, and eyes fixated on the rising sun. The animals cry and run aimlessly through the flames. Saturn comes down from the sky. She sees herself walking toward it, hand pointed to touch its whimsical rings. A crack forms in the massive planet. Raw hands reach out and blood gushes from the fissure. It floods her in a river; the hands pull her down into the dark depths. 


Faint mumbles from unknown voices cloud Kacie’s thoughts. She awakes not knowing when she last fell asleep nor where she is— a basement, with one window, handcuffed to a steel table. 

Two men walk into the room. “You’re finally awake,” speaks the one in the gray suit. 

A menacing pain settles in the back of her head. “Where… where am I? What is this?” She pulls on the cuff. 

“You’re at Alberta County Police Station, Ms. Kacie Quinn. We have to ask you a few questions.” 

“Wait… where is my law–” The pain grows worse. It’s like a hammer banging on her skull. “I… I need… I need my medicine, please.” 

The officers whisper in each other’s ears. One leaves the room while the other sits directly in front of Kacie, clipboard and pen in hand. He sets a voice recorder on the table. “We’ll get this started after you take your medicine. Agreed?” 

The pain creeps to her entire face, makes her eyes water and cheeks flush. “Yeah. Sure. Whatever.” 

The suit talks more, but Kacie can’t decipher any of the words. Her brain is screaming for its pills. Moments later, the other officer walks in; hands Kacie a styrofoam cup of water and her pill bottle wrapped in an evidence bag. Four pills wiped her memory, so this time she consumes three pills. Her medicine is taken away and thus begins the interrogation. The first question is asked, “do you remember what happened last night?” 

Kacie digs deep in her memory. Past the tragic events and terrible people she’s met, a little further along her worst childhood memories, and in the abyss known as her deepest, darkest secrets, yet she still can’t recall what happened. Sean… she misses him so much. She curses herself for not knowing what she could have done to him. She doesn’t want to believe it was her, but what other choice does she have? 

The detective insists the interrogation will go a lot faster if she cooperates. She is trying. The more time she spends lingering in the dark, her mind drifts into peace. This feeling she remembers. It came to her last night when… 

“Ms. Kacie!” the detective shouts.

She looks up to face him; though, her eyes meet something hideous and disturbing. What is this multi-armed creature with large bulging eyes, needle-sharp teeth, and raw, fleshy body staring at her? The monster stands up and waves its arms around. To her right, the other detective in the room is also replaced by an ugly beast. It creeps toward her, she jolts back when its slimy hand touches her cuffed wrist. The handcuff unlocks. Kacie falls back in her chair and crawls up against the wall. “Stay back! Stay back!” 

The door opens. Veiny humanoid beings enter the room and meet up with other ugly monsters. They’re speaking in gurgles and spit. Kacie runs for the open door, an elongated arm stops the door from closing. She turns around to them all, staring at her and closing in. “What are you?” she cries. Her anger spikes as they gang in on her. Something inside of Kacie breaks. Anger—an emotion she suppressed for years—returns and blackens her eyes. She pushes one down, climbs on top of it and scratches and rips off whatever she can. The other monsters try grabbing her with their inhuman appendages. She claws away at their flesh, ripping them to shreds with her bare hands. It feels so good to unleash so much aggression it puts a smile on her face. She can’t stop punching, cutting, scratching, and pulling them apart. 

Everything slaughtered, their bodies dismantled; now, she is hungry. She bends down to pick up the scraps of meat and eat them like a barbarian. Four holes form in the wall in front of her. She stares back at a creature pointing its rusty bladed arm at her. Kacie leaps at it. It hits her in the face. She grabs a fistful of flesh out of the monster’s leg, bringing it down to the floor. She pulls the blade arm until it rips from the socket, then stabs the creature repeatedly with it. It’s screaming and spitting at her. She keeps at it until the monster becomes minced meat. 

Kacie runs out of the room, kills anything that gets in her way. She makes it outside of the building and steps into a world with a navy blue sky streaked with motionless bodies, trees that have bark made of flesh, large red and white gems all over the streets, and hideous beasts walking around spitting and squirming. 

Kacie continues to run until she reaches an area surrounded by trees and human finger grass that crushes under her feet. Every direction looks the same. It’s overwhelming trying to figure out which is the way home. Her stomach hurts. She’s been running for so long, she must be sick. Kacie rests against a tree, rocks back and forth until her eyes become heavy. The silhouette of a man steps closer to her. 

“There you are,” he says. 


“Wh… where am I?” Kacie whines. She’s shivering from the cold. Metal blocks her and limbs from moving. 

“I told you exactly what to do.” 

“D… Doctor Norman?” Kacie swears she knows the voice. 

“I told you to only take two.” Kacie hears footsteps, then his face appears in front of her. His eyes are black as night and skin silver like fish scales. “Taking more than that will speed up the process, and I’m just not ready for that yet!” Dr. Norman slams on the table. “I have to put you in stasis now… with the others.” 

Kacie’s lips quiver. “The others?” 

A black window traps her in a vat. All she can do is scream as she’s transported out of the room. Through the foggy glass she sees large tubes that contain what looks like humans. “Please! No!” she screams. 

The container is stood up. Two people standing next to each other ignore her cries and walk away. Smoke expands in the vat and fills her lungs. Kacie no longer cares about the situation; only about closing her eyes. And when her eyes open again, the world is fiery and crimson. Dozens of other human bodies stand still like her, but some are able to walk around. Her eyes frantically search the area. None of their faces are familiar, except for one a few rows in front of her. Sad eyes she knows too well; her lover, Sean, wanders this wretched place. Her conscious yells his name, though her mouth can’t move.  



No more cruelty. No more neglect. No more torture. Today, Ariel will break free of the chains restricting her to a metal post in the cold, wet basement of her parents’ large estate. Stripped of her humanity as a teenager and forced to fight other wealthy parents’ children, she hasn’t seen the sun in years or dealt with anyone that didn’t use her for money. The time will come when she extracts her revenge on them, but for now she’s focused on loosening her wrists and ankles. She scoops up urine and vomit with her hand and spreads it over the shackles, twists and turns her frail hands until they are free. Her sister, who was brutally murdered in a fight years ago, told her how to get out of the castle through the guards’ barracks. It won’t be easy, and Ariel’s head has been bashed in enough to lose a significant amount of memories, but she is determined to escape with her life.  

Past the large wooden doors, down the stone stairwell, through the single panel door that leads to the barracks, hide and wait until the alarm sounds, escape through the window at the end of the hall and into the large sunflower fields. That is what Ariel was told and replays in her head over and over. In walks the guard for the final security check of the night—another fight tomorrow. As he approaches and the door slams shut, she bites down on his leg, through the cloth and his skin, and tears out a chunk. She shuts up his screaming with the metal shackle, bashing it against his face until his jaw breaks and teeth shatter. She snatches the keys from his belt and enters the torch-lit hallway. 

Her sister was correct about the double doors, which were hidden to Ariel by a burlap sack covering her eyes. 

She inserts the biggest key, holds her breath as the slow creek gets louder and the breeze from possibly the outside brushes her paper skin. There’s only one torch lighting the staircase; slowed steps until she reaches the door. Nothing can be seen through the keyhole, though her instincts flare as if there’s a monster inside. Sweat makes the keys slip out of her hands. Fear rattles them as she unlocks the door. 

Stomping metal boots gets closer. Ariel bolts under a cot and covers her mouth to suppress her scream—an inch away from her hair being stepped on. 

She holds her breath until the last one makes it out of the room, crawls on her hands and knees under the cots, then makes a break for the end of the hall. A major change in scenery from stone to marble floors and walls—something her sister never mentioned—and warmth beaming through the giant bay window with a view of the sunflower fields. 

“There she is! Get her!” shouts a guard. 

She looks behind at the dozens of people, including her mother, running toward her with their beating sticks and chains. Ariel turns the heavy crank just enough to fit through. 

A hand grabs her ankle before she fully escapes. Her mother’s wicked grin shines even more hideously in the sunlight. “Let go of me!” Ariel demands. She yanks her leg away, pulling her mother’s face closer to the grass. Shards of the window stick into her back on the way down, face first in the bed of sunflowers. She wipes the dirt from her eyes and sprints for as fast and as long as she can, through the warm day and into the cool night. 


Unfamiliar voices creep into Ariel’s dreams. 

Her eyes open to fluorescent light and two strangers standing over her. Ariel’s eyes can barely open. “Where… where am I?” she asks. 

“You’re safe,” says a warm, Scottish accent. “Sleep now. You’ll know more when you wake up,” is the last thing she hears before entering a dream world where a large crowd of people watch her sleep. A cloaked person approaches her, places their hand on her belly and presses down. The pressure begins to hurt and shoot pain all over her body, yet she can’t scream or beg them to stop. Their hand enters her body and digs around in the flesh. “The final piece” is what the deep, hoarse voice calls it as it hands it over to a shadow next to them. 

The pain subsides at that moment. Luminous yellow and orange crystals come into view, beckoning her—she reaches for them; blood seeps from her fingertips with every touch. Droplets of her blood spill into her eyes. The stinging squeezes her eyes shut, and when she opens them, her world has suddenly changed again. Her wandering eyes won’t slow to appreciate the green mountains surrounding her and the translucent water she’s submerged in. The others, in their white, flowing gowns, just like hers, stare and laugh. “How did I get here?” asks Ariel with a shaky breath. 

“We brought you here.” The Scottish accent returns, along with an unbearably cold wind. 

“Who are you?” she asks, trotting to them in the shallow water.  

They smile at her and say, “we have met before. On those cobblestone floors when we were both trying to kill each other to eat that night. You are quite strong. You bested me.” 

Ariel’s eyes widen. Faint memories of blood splattering on her face while someone cries under her relentless fist speeds through her mind. She slowly backs up. “Are you going to murder me?” 

“Absolutely not!” They chuckle. “Quite the opposite.” They walk closer and put out their hand. “I’m Kassai Tehbaw.” 

Kassai’s welcoming grin compels Ariel to take their hand, and upon their touch a rush of freeing death consumes her body. She can’t let go while images of her awful parents and the cruel things they made her do replay in her head. The pain of fighting against her will, the emptiness she felt as her mind delved into the psyche of a murderer, and the suicidal ideations that occurred during days of isolation comes out of her and soaks into Kassai’s veins. Their voice intrudes her thoughts, “we are the same as you. We want the same as you. Journey further into Bawism with the rest of us and, together, we will rid the world of those who tortured us.” 

A new sense of self thrives. Kassai holds her hand and guides her into an unknown world. Red and black figures dance and hum around a tall statue of a hideous creature; behind it is a tall pile of organs. Kassai elucidates what it’s for and claims everyone who converts to Bawism must give up a piece of their flesh. There is a God who walks among them, one they worship, who lives within Kassai Tehbaw. 

Today, that God will rise and unleash its wrath on the rich and the wealthy. 

Shadows that once looked human now resemble ugly monsters. The humming has gone from a sweet tune to an ominous hymn. “How did you find me?” Ariel utters, staring into the piercing yellow eyes of the hideous statue. 

“I found you sleeping among the sunflowers,” Kassai whispers. A euphoric sensation sets in—like she has never felt sadness or anger—when Kassai kisses her on the forehead and takes their leave, and watching them remove their white gown and force a perch on the statue in their back becomes the most beautiful display of art she has ever seen. Kassai’s blood spills from the rod and the others, humming and crawling, drink from it like a fountain. “Join us… Ariel. Drink from… me, then kill them all, so that I may return as an immortal being.”

The others scurry out of the way. Slowly, Ariel steps toward Kassai, who is close to their dying breath. She kneels down, gulps the blood from her cupped hands. Foreign memories seen through the eyes of miserable souls: people forced to harm themselves because of great sorrow inflicted on them by others; endless days of gratuitous ridicule for things outside of their control; left without fortune and left to suffer and literally fight for basic needs while those dressed in gold cackle and—a life mirroring her own.

For Kassai—for Bawism, she will kill whoever caused this much misery and sadness. 

Into the night like wolves on the hunt for food, Ariel and the creatures under Baw’s control run to the land of castles and sculptures and bountiful gardens, where the people wear gold and diamonds mined by children, and everyone is involved in some form of wicked trade. 

She’s starving. 

No door is strong enough to stop her from doing Kassai’s will. Ariel runs into homes, killing her smug victims with her bare hands. Not a sleeping child or elder is safe from her vicious claws and seething teeth. She guts them like animals before devouring their flesh, then rips the remains to shreds. 

There’s a giant house with large windows just across a blanket of sunflowers—its pungent smell of punishment and death beckons her. She sprints through the towering flowers with a thirst for blood and flesh. 

The thick wooden doors come crashing down after some help from her new friends. The area is empty, but there is commotion beneath her feet. Ariel presses her ear on the cold marble floor and listens to muffled screams and jeering. With pure barbaric strength, she punches the floor, breaking the marble, and tears it from the ground. Kassai’s followers break the floor with her, then punch the ground to make a hole. Their fists become bloody but never break, and their claws rip through the ground, causing the foundation to break and send them falling through. 

The yelling turns into shrieks and the cobblestone floor and walls become painted in blood. Ariel snatches up the people trying to escape by their throats. She jumps down in front of a woman cowering under debris. 

“Ariel, please! I’m sor–” 

She cuts the woman’s eyes with her claws, silences her scream by ripping out her heart. “You will suffer in Kassai’s realm,” says Ariel before savagely opening the woman’s belly to devour her insides. 

Her new master’s voice speaks for her conscience, “Now, you are free of your past and will forever be bonded to me.” 



When Tucker was very young, he watched his mother die. He walked out of his bedroom one night and through tired eyes saw a dim light coming from his father’s office. A final goodnight to his father before a trip to the bathroom was his plan, but when he opened the door, his father was nowhere to be found. He peered at a plethora of candles and blood covering the floor and walls, and his mother sitting naked, facing away from the door. She turned to him—eyes cold and blood smeared on her face—and smiled. Fear took his breath as he tried to call her name. A voice told him to run when his legs stiffened from the terror of watching his mother’s back tear in half from something dark and beastly coming out of it. Tucker ran and screamed for his father, who grabbed him and held him while crying. His father also said, “your mother was very sick, but now she will be better.” 

Tucker reminisces on that dark time alone in his old house, free from the restraints of the psychiatric hospital that imprisoned him when he was just ten years of age. The doctors poked him with needles that caused his skin to bruise and itch, gave him medicine that made him sleep for hours that felt like days, restrained him to machines that shocked his brain and made his eyes bleed, and hypnotised him to train him to tell a different story from what he saw that night. Years passed, and he couldn’t take it anymore. Tucker told them whatever they wanted, and eventually, they let him free. 

If their abuse wasn’t enough, they also neglected to tell him his father succumbed to the end of a whiskey bottle, which he only found out from finding his dead body on the living room floor of their filthy home. 

No one ever came for the body. It rots, along with everything else in the house. Tucker despised his father for never believing him and turning him over to the hospital. Every now again, he spits on his corpse and curses his name. It doesn’t make him any less angry, only slightly reduces the stress of being alone and still not having any answers. Since his release, Tucker’s main concern is figuring out what happened to his mother. He will never forget what he saw—a monster crawled out of her! No matter how much the doctors tried to convince him otherwise, he knows there is evil from other worlds lurking in the dark recesses of the city. 

His time is spent in his father’s office reading the numerous books he owned; texts on his mother’s mental illness, books about satanism and the occult, and notes he wrote about his mother’s behavior. She truly was sick. 

Tucker always wondered how his dad cured her. 

He finds a paper note tucked deep inside the pages of a book he’s nearly finished; within it is a list of foreign words. Tucker proceeds to pronounce each one aloud and in order, and as they start to look familiar—flashes of the floor where his mother sat had the same letters— multiple black hands with long fingers and sharp claws creep from underground and grab his legs. He doesn’t flinch or scream. This is exactly what Tucker wanted, a gateway into that world, and after several months of researching in seclusion, he gets his wish: to prove what he saw that night was real. 

A slow, cynical laughter floats past his ear and his eyelids become heavy for a brief moment. The panic sensation of falling consumes his entire body as he’s dragged through a tunnel of dirt and faces that stare at him with his mother’s eyes. Every time he blinks, he sees the monster crawling out of her. When it fully exits and reveals its blotchy and bloody skin and elongated arms and legs, it wears her body like a skin suit and smiles. The image sours Tucker’s stomach; she didn’t deserve a savage death. The hurt of guilt sets in. Perhaps running away wasn’t his only option back then.

The wicked hands release him when the tunnel comes to an end. He’s left free-falling in a dark void, screaming, unable to catch a grip on reality. He lands in red water illuminated by an unknown source of bright gray light. “What is this place?” he asks, gazing at his disheveled and gaunt reflection in the thick liquid. A distant scream startles Tucker to his feet; his frantic eyes can’t focus on the blur that splashed in the water. “Hello?” he calls out. Another person comes falling from the darkness above, and then one more, right behind Tucker. He looks down at the strange woman whose facial expression is the embodiment of his emotions. 

“Wh… what is this? How did I…” she pauses and cleans her face. “Is this blood?” she gasps in terror, staring at her stained hands. 

She almost resembles Tucker’s mother. He kneels down to speak to her, but before he can form words, a sinister laughter pierces his ears. Chains wrap around their bodies and entangle them together, along with the other two strangers that fell. The others panic, complicating Tucker’s process to reach a safe place in his mind. He created a world where his mother still exists and instead of being trapped in this hellish place, he could be with her, enjoying time spent as mother and son. 

Giant double doors with a pentagram welded on the front appear in front of him, and finally the others become silent. Horrid creatures devoid of humanistic features and made up of unfamiliar shapes and colors, slither out when the doors open. 

His thoughts escape him. He knows he’s traveling, but his mind is imprisoned somewhere else. Fire surrounds him. Monsters from nightmares roam the flames, harsh gurgles and screams are natural here, like the honking of cars and sirens in his dangerous city. He fears where the inhabitants of this world are taking him and the others, but he’s come too far to turn back now. 

If his mother is here, he hopes in death he will see her. 

The destination is an odious arena of bones and dead bodies that make up the center stage and chairs. The pungent smell of death induces sickness in the strangers. However, Tucker’s eyes are much too fixated on the hauntingly familiar, massive creature standing some distance away from him. His heart could burst. The unnerving emptiness in his mother’s eyes, the claw that ripped her apart—the memories return abruptly and merge with the uneasiness he felt back then when his legs became numb. “It’s… it’s you… isn’t it?” he whispers with a shaky breath. It’s the same hideous demon that appears in all of Tucker’s nightmares and taunts him until he wakes up in a cold sweat. Even now it taunts him as it stands like a god, ignoring the suffering of the innocent. 

The chains confining him finally loosen and fall to the damp floor. “What is this place? Why are we here?” asks one of the strangers as they cough up blood. They obviously haven’t spent years of their life strapped to a hospital bed by metal and leather tight enough to leave permanent bruises and scars. “I remember reading an article on my computer… then I ended up falling.” 

Bright red lights illuminate the space and shed light on four flat pillars rising out of the ground. The pillars rotate and reveal a human nailed to each one by their wrists and ankles. Tucker’s knees drop to the floor, his heartbeat and breath become uncontrollable staring at his mother, who isn’t peacefully resting, but still suffering. Before she became sick and clawed at the walls with her bloody stubs for fingers, she was loving and a great mother. He asks himself, why does she deserve such a cruel fate? 

The evil, menacing monster stares directly at him and speaks in a voice that would terrify a person hiking alone in a dark woods, “there’s only one way to save her, Tucker.” 

Hearing it say his name makes him nauseous. As it continues to speak, the reality of actually being trapped in Hell sets in. His mind becomes a place devoid of any other sound except the demon’s chilling voice. In order to save his mother—cure her of the disease that forced her to sacrifice herself, he must kill every other human in the room. The only way to save her is by stopping the rest of them. 

“We have to… kill each other?” The woman’s worried voice gets Tucker out of his own head. He searches the room. They’re all gazing at each other. “I don’t think I can–”

She’s cut off by a man who points out the fact his brother is nailed to one of the pillars. “He’s really important to me,” he says. “I was supposed to protect him!” 

Tucker backs away, maintains a good enough distance to still listen.

“Wait,” the woman pleads. “Maybe, there’s another way.” 

He laughs at her. “Don’t be stupid. We all got here because we saw something we shouldn’t have. My brother was sick, and I tried to help him, but…” The sentence fades as he hangs his head. “I won’t let it happen again!” He grabs the woman by her hair and throws her to the ground. “I’m sorry about this,” he says, stomping her face so hard Tucker can hear her bones crack. 

“Stop this!” yells another in the group. They look back at Tucker, who is staring blankly at the savage attack and hearing nothing the irate person is screaming at him. The urge to do the same—draw blood, win—burns from within. Last time he had the chance to help his mother, Tucker listened to the cowardly voice in his head and ran away. Now, he wants to face any obstacle to rescue his mother out of this Hell. “Aren’t you going to do something?” asks the person clenching Tucker’s shoulders. 

Tucker meets their gaze with cold eyes. “Yes, I am.” He takes their hand and bites down on their finger, rips it off and spits it out. The person screams and falls back, begs to be spared. Tucker doesn’t care for their cries; he kneels down and punches their face until they can no longer speak, then he sticks his thumbs in their eyes and waits for them to stop squirming. He never thought he was capable of taking a life, but, then again, he never thought the opportunity of redemption would ever present itself. 

“So, I guess it’s just me and you now?” says the other murderer, smirking and licking the blood off his knuckles. He runs toward Tucker with a cocked fist. “You should just give up. I’m not leaving here without my brother!” 

Tucker removes his thumbs and readies himself for a fight. After watching what he did to that woman, he will enjoy killing him.

 He gets closer and falls short of punching Tucker in the face. Tucker grabs his arm and punches him in the gut, and lands another shot to his face. The punk sinks his nails into Tucker’s face and pulls down, then pushes Tucker away. Tucker winces from the pain, but doesn’t let it stop him. While his opponent hunches over, holding his stomach, Tucker runs over to the pillars. He pulls one of the thick nails out of a hanging body and steadies toward his enemy, who notices and grins. “Cheater,” he chuckles.

“Whatever it takes,” whispers Tucker as he inches the nail towards his opponent’s neck. They block with a weak hand. Tucker uses all of his strength to pierce through the hand and stab him in the neck. Blood squirts in his eyes and blurs his vision. With the dead woman in mind, Tucker continues stabbing him until his eyes sting from the blood and arm becomes exhausted. 

Maybe his mother would be proud. It’s certainly a change from just watching her die. 

“That’s it. Now give her back!” Tucker demands with exasperated breath.  

A cackle echoes in the atmosphere. The thing that took his mother slithers to him like a worm and babbles loudly in a foreign language. The surrounding arena is changing into a void of sinister and heinous thoughts. None of them are his, yet the sensation of executing each one feels familiar. Tucker takes a deep breath and prepares his mind for whatever treacherous test lies ahead. Bright and dark colors dance together in a part of his mind he didn’t know existed. Through someone else’s eyes he sees himself grow from an infant to a toddler in a fast-forward motion; a bountiful garden of flowers rots and flourishes, a house filled with people burns to the ground and turns into ash, black shadows that have disturbing red eyes and spiked teeth surround a patient in a hospital room, feeding of off of their life —too many visions for his mind to bear. 

The monster’s voice speaks to him, “this is a fraction of what your mother saw every day while she was sick. I have another test for you.” The hoarse voice becomes louder. “Walk through her world. If you truly believe that a life like hers is worth living, then you should live it yourself.” 

Tucker’s body now drifts through a world where skinless beings of obscure shapes dance around different versions of his mother. Her entire life, a darkness has preyed upon her. Her younger self was always watched by these strange creatures. Their dance, almost ritualistic, seems to keep her burdened. And if Tucker knew what could drive them away or stop their dancing, he would sacrifice anything to save her. His father was too weak to bring her back. Tucker is his mother’s only hope. 

Beyond the horrid monsters is a wall of darkness. He enters with closed eyes and a held breath, his hand held outward. It’s humid, yet cold, as if his skin can’t tell the difference. The space is narrow and the walls are crawling with fiery demons reaching out with their elongated arms and sharp claws. His mother always complained she was hot and cold and itchy and burning and that animals were clawing at her skull. Sometimes, she shrieked endlessly about her thoughts becoming trapped in a cage at the end of a narrowing tunnel that she had to sprint down, and whenever she thought she was close to the end, it would close and trap her in darkness. 

He was embarrassed by her— didn’t want anyone to see them together or know she was his mother. Tucker understands her cries now as he sprints into the unknown, fighting off vicious hands and enduring the threatening pain of their attacks. She always felt small inside her own head.  His father always told him to stay away from her and allow her to heal. So he did. Now, he can hear the suffering in her deafening cries. 

He nears the closing end of the agonizing tunnel. Something tall and misshapen with harrowing red eyes waits for him. its ominous presence startles him and when he stops cold, a demon’s hand grabs him and cuts his chest. As he falls, the monster ahead bends down and crawls toward him. Tucker’s heart beats as fast as it did on that unforgettable night. 

Fear seeps in, and the thought to turn back flashes in his mind. 

“Coward,” taunts the demon. 

He’s trapped in his mother’s negative beliefs about herself, unable to walk normally and short of breath. But the walls are closing in. He doesn’t want to remain in her dark void forever. Seeing her smile again and a second chance at helping her gives him a bit of strength, enough to break free of the arms holding him back. The tunnel’s dim redness starts to fade to black as he nears the end of it. The demon welcomes him with open arms, and, screaming with his eyes closed, he enters them, ignoring the greedy demons that tear his flesh.

Tucker now stands face-to-face with the hideous fiend that claimed his mother’s body. “Enough games! I surpassed your wicked tests. Set her free!” he commands, his gaze unwavering from the demon’s haunting eyes. 

It cackles. “You’re right! Turns out your pathetic human flesh is more durable than I perceived. But…” The darkness slowly changes into the putrid and vile arena where Tucker murdered two strangers. “… there’s one more test!” 

“Tucker! Tucker!” His mother cries out to him. 

He turns to her–nearly collapses from hearing her voice again. Unlike before, he’s running toward her, ready to free her from whatever evil haunts her. 

“Catch!” laughs the demon. 

“What–” Tucker stares in awe at the fire pit beneath him. 

The nails restricting his mother, and the other victims, disappear and they all fall toward the flames. Tucker screams as the anonymous force keeping him afloat vanishes and sends him free falling like the others. 

“Help me! Help me, Tucker!” He hears his mother’s cries among the screams and wails.  

Tucker doesn’t let the burning children and their cries for help distract him from his mother. His skin blisters from the flames, but he’s so close to grabbing her. 

“We’re not going to make it!” she screams. 

He grabs her wrist and pulls her closer. “I’m not going to let you die!” He hugs her tight and shuts his eyes to his nearing death. “Not alone. Not this time. I love you.” 

To his surprise, instead of burning in the flames of Hell, he’s floating in a dark void, holding his mother’s hand.  

“What is this?” she asks.

Tears fill Tucker’s eyes. “I have no idea. But I’m glad you’re here.”

Suddenly, the darkness becomes a fluorescent beam that blinds him. When he opens his eyes, he and his mother are sitting on the floor in his father’s office. He stands quickly to his feet; touches everything to ensure it’s real, runs to the living room to see his father’s rotting carcass. He returns to gawk at his mother, who still looks as young as the day she died. “You really are here.” He cracks a smile. “This is going to be harder to explain than I imagined.”

She tilts her head and says, “I guess you had enough for today. Don’t worry, we’ll put you to sleep soon.”

He gives her a puzzled look. “What are you talking about?”


“Seriously? What’s he doing now?” 

“He’s just babbling like an idiot. Nothing we’ve done today has worked. More tests and we might fry his brain for good.”

“Poor kid. What are we going to tell the parents?”

“The same thing we’ve told them for the past ten years. Until their kid shuts up about demons and monsters, or whatever else his imagination can come up with, he stays here. The public is too skittish for someone like patient Tucker to roam the streets. 

“I suppose you’re right about that.”

“I am. Now tell his parents they can come in. They’re right outside the door. The least we can do is let them speak to him before he undergoes more testing next month.”

“Yes, doctor.” 

Tucker’s parents walk in the room and receive news their son is still unable to speak coherently or follow any basic instructions. They are allowed a few minutes alone with him before he’s kept away for months. 

The father kneels down in front of him and places a hand on his knee. “Son, I’m very sorry. I know you love your mother just as much as I do–sacrificing you was the only way to make her better. I can’t imagine the Hell you’re going through, but I know that if you saw how happy your mother and I are now, you would understand. For months we waited for you to appear during a ritual, and when we finally got our wish, I couldn’t help but to hug you.”

Tucker’s mother kisses him on the forehead and whispers in his ear, “every minute that you suffer here, I regain my life and consciousness back, Tucker. One day, when I am whole again, I promise to save you from that place I once dwelled.” She grabs his chin and stares into his vacant eyes. “But for now, you’ll just have to live in the inferno.” 



Euphoria consumes a man’s body; he’s now floating in a cool wind that guides him to a beckoning garden of unfamiliar flowers. Through a kaleidoscope of alternating bright colors, he hears his name, as if someone is screaming for him. He tells the other voice he is near, just needs more time. It cries his name louder, faster. He reaches the garden, finally able to see up close the different shades of red of the strange flowers. One brushes against his hand. He gawks at its scarlet hue; the petals feel soft between his fingertips. They leave behind a red red stain that reminds him of blood. He turns away from his red hand to look closer at the flower. His chest tightens and stomach curls at the sight of yellow eyes staring back at him. He tries to run away, but stumbles back into more flowers. Again, the voice shouts his name. “I’m here!” He yells, scared to death and hoping whoever is calling him can save him.

“Yes. You are,” says a smooth whisper in his left ear. 

“Wha–” The piercing yellow eyes now close to his face strike him silent. He tries begging for his life with a shaky breath as more creatures that have scratched red skin, gaping mouths unable to cover their seething teeth, and ominous golden eyes crawl toward him like spiders. Now, all he can do is scream and wince in pain as they cut open his stomach, shred his face, and pull on his limbs until they come off. 


“Another suicide on the gang-ridden North end of the city. A man, aged twenty-six, jumped off a ten-story building at around nine tonight. The only witness is a woman who continues to scream the victim’s name and insists that this is the doing of the ‘street witch’ known as Deyana–”

“Street witch?” Deyana chuckles, taking a puff of her cigarette. She blinks an eye and the television switches off. “Bet you learned now.” 

 Her enemy, the witch named Elise, has cast too many spells, performed a disrespectful amount of rituals on sacred ground that does not belong to her, and even slain animals and children to scare Deyana from stepping foot in her stronghold in the North. But of course, that only enraged Deyana more and forced her to step out of bounds. The man who jumped to his death was poisoned by one of her spells. Wearing a hooded cloak, Deyana snuck into the North side and stalked her brother for hours. When he turned a dark corner, she blew the poisonous dust into his eyes and blinded him. It set his mind free, trapped him in a dream state.

Elise’s mother will see a worse fate. 

Deyana flicks her unfinished cigarette out of the window; now that the moon is full, it is time to start the ritual. With the snap of her finger, she morphs out of the blood of her slain enemy. His body, broken to pieces and flattened, has yet to be cleared from the street, which should make the spell even stronger. 

“How dare you show your face here, heathen witch! You will suffer for this!” shouts a disheveled woman scrubbing the ground. 

“If you raised your daughter better, this would never have happened.” 

She leaps from the ground, reaches for something silver on her hip. “Disrespectful cun–” 

With ease, Deyana pushes her back and choke slams her against the wall. “You’ve been out here scrubbing for some time now, old bitch.” She sticks her blade in her belly and twists. “You must be tired.” 

A green ball of light dissipates in Elise’s mother’s dying hand as Deyana stabs another knife into it. Her blood seeps into the cracks of the valley; she’s left gasping her last breaths, unable to move—exactly how Deyana wants her. 

The body, now weakened and drained, is easy to slice open from the neck to the pelvis. Her filthy old organs are removed and thrown in a pile on the ground. Luckily, her son’s body is soft and shattered enough to fit comfortably inside of the carcass and allow Deyana to sear the opening shut with fire from her finger. She sets fire to the pile of organs, mumbles one of her evil magic incantations, and as the fires rapidly grow and roar, cackles as she fades away. 

She reappears back in the streets of the South, still laughing about her own wickedness. But it comes to an abrupt stop when she looks up at her apartment building that is now draped with her two children’s bodies. She’s never left them unprotected. Whatever capable magic is dark and more powerful. She cries their names, “Jalana! Reggie!” A light sparked on them from her palm shines on their sewn mouths and eyes. 

“Bitch!” shouts a familiar voice, accompanied by razor claws that draw blood from Deyana’s neck. “You killed my brother!” 

“Oh, Elise, you finally saw that.” 

“I’ll ki–”

“Save your anger.” Deyana snickers, “you should see what I did to your mother before you waste energy.” The shift in Elise’s demeanor to shock and concern fuels Deyana’s amusement. “I just finished with her. Easy prey.” Elise attacks with swift strikes. Deyana evades and lands a few of her own. “I was only trying to teach you a lesson, Elise. You becoming head witch in the North carries no weight down here. I don’t want this to get any worse than it has to.” 

Elise’s slow chuckle turns into a burst of laughter as she says, “it’s already gotten worse!” A snap of her fingers and the entire North is illuminated by pale blue light, revealing numerous citizens of the North floating in the sky.

“What? How?” Deyana curses. 

“You underestimated me!” 

The fool lunges at Deyana with a conjured sword made of ice. The two of them battle; cast life threatening spells and strikes with their whimsical blades, cut each other to their bones, fill the atmosphere with magic and colors– like looking into a kaleidoscope of death. Their powerful attacks erupt the ground, shatter windows, and disrupt the naturalness of the sky. 

Deyana’s magic keeps the humans from bursting, but it won’t be strong for long. The circle she created to keep them whole is fading and when it does, the sky will rain blood, and everyone she swore to protect will be gone.

Haze fills the air. The smell of smoke diverts their attention. “Oh, right.” A moment to breathe, Deyana lights a cigarette. “About a quarter of the North must be up in flames by now.” She glances smugly at her exhausted opponent. “I used your mother as a catalyst for it.” 

Shrieking and crying like a brat, Elise runs toward Deyana with a blade in one hand and an icy spell in the other. One long drag, then Deyana flicks her cig in the air. It explodes into blinding sparks and sets fire to their surroundings. Elise, now dazed and vulnerable, lands directly on Deyana’s blade, and as she sticks it in further, Deyana’s citizens come floating down like calm snow. 

Her bloody shirt now in Deyana’s grasp, she can finally get a good look at the witch who tried her authority. An eerie smile and the position of her eyes breathes something ominous into Deyana’s thoughts. She follows her dead enemy’s eyes; saddened and mortified, she drops Elise’s cold body, and tears swell up her eyes at the sight of her children’s burned bodies. “No… no…” she cries. 

Everyone behind her cheers and applauds, praises Deyana for saving them from the torment of Elise’s spell. The pain of her wounds is weightless compared to the shock of her own undoing. She mumbles their names, “Jalana… Reggie…” The crowd of people gathering doesn’t understand her pain. They only care about themselves. All the work she’s done to protect the citizens of the South, from healing their weak and pathetic loved ones from disease to nearly dying for them against witches imposing on their miserable lives. It’s their fault. They allowed Elise to walk into Deyana’s home while she was gone. She only left to protect them, and they failed her! She has never failed them, and now she has paid the ultimate price for it. Her children did not deserve to be burned alive by her anger… no. “They do.” 

The fire in the North rages on. She questions living in a world without Jalana and Reggie and the guilt of her failure to keep them alive. Deyana turns to the gawking crowd, stares at them with dead eyes that see her next victims before her.

 They all pretend to be thankful. Her weary heart wants their petty souls to suffer. 

Fire has always been Deyana’s friend and calling. It beckons her in every stage of her life. It is a cure for her weaknesses and a weapon to her enemies. She lives by fire, and she will die by it as well. But not before asking for forgiveness. 

She harnesses the rest of her energy in a crimson sphere that spins like a whirlpool. Within it are flames from the depths of Hell, hot and strong enough to consume every dolt in the North and South. A portal opens, leaving her audience baffled. Monsters and demons that dwell in Hell peek through with curious eyes and seething teeth. She will give her life for one last request.

The harshness of their voices speaks to Deyana in foreign languages that only she can understand. Each of them demands to know why they were summoned, and in return, Deyana asks in her native tongue for her children to return to her with the petty humans before her as a sacrifice. The crowd of fools gasps and runs in fear. 

In the form of fire, the demons rip apart her enemies, devour their flesh, and burn them alive. Screams of human agony grow, and again, Deyana can have the last laugh. 

The more the demons eat, the more her children flourish out of blood, bone, and rotted flesh. But she knows there is no amount of souls that can return her children as whole as they were, but to see them, with gray, molded skin and beady red eyes, and hear them try to say ‘mother’ through an underdeveloped tongue, is still enough. “My children… I’m so sorry,” Deyana cries as she kisses their plushy foreheads. She refuses to express the searing pain of the flames brushing her skin. The muffled cries and screams of Reggie and Jalana carry enough torment to live with her in Hell for eternity. 



Tucker thanks the hostess for his iced coffee before leaving the shop. 

“Of course! Please come again.” She smiles and waves goodbye. 

The sweetness of iced coffee was his first taste when he got out of the psych ward. It made him less sad about missing precious time with his parents, as it reminded him of caramel candy his mother gave him as a child. He tried explaining it to her, but in her old age, it is difficult for her to remember most things. Even now, as he sips from his straw on his way out of the coffee shop, he recalls the moments during festivals or store visits when she handed him candies that tasted just like it. Most of his memories are the horrors of the asylum where they poked and scrambled his brain, mixed with vague visions, like dreams, of days before his psychotic episode (as the doctors called it). 

“Hey, watch out!” someone shouts.

Tucker stops to see the commotion, and as he turns his head, headlights blind his eyes. His world becomes dark; he becomes submerged in the familiarity of euphoria and death. 

Various human body parts fall from a dark gray sky. Garbled voices fade into screams as his spirit delves further down into a part of Hell, more horrendous and putrid than the Inferno. 

The fingers, legs, and heads squirm and flop like gasping fish. There’s a vast fire in the distance; it’s gray like everything else, but it’s the only substance in this strange plane that he can fully perceive. The flames crackle louder, and Tucker’s spirit becomes overwhelmed by the heat, yet he continues forward, speeding through a vast tunnel of discarded human parts to which the end is a horde of creatures crawling in the same direction. Beside the ranks of demons is a massive, horned beast pointing at the white light. As his spirit nears it, a soft, feminine voice speaks, “your son is going to be fine.” A crippling force of energy bursts from the void of light; Tucker’s spirit weakens and diminishes into nothing. He hears the voice again. “There is something concerning… about the back of Tucker’s head.” He understands the woman, but Tucker’s mind is elsewhere, deep in a tunnel, watching the hundreds of thousands of hideous monsters disappear into the light to express concern. Although the spot appears harmless, the doctors want to keep him for a few days. If he could scream, his lungs would burst hearing his mother’s voice agree to keep him there for longer. He questions if he’s dreaming, or if he never left the ward—perhaps it is another trick from the wretched Inferno! Tucker screams, but to no avail. His full physical body now stands among the monsters as he peers into the light. Vague images of his near demise replays, and all he can ask himself is how could he have been so careless? 

He can’t take his life for granted and just die after all he accomplished in the Inferno: murdered people with his bare hands; overcame his deepest fears and tests of agonizing pain; witnessed again and again the strange, false death of his mother, and through it all, he never never knew if he would ever escape. It was Hell. 

He staggers toward the light, getting tackled and trampled along the way, but persistent still. He charges with them, reaching out to his old self. 

“It’s… cold on the other side.” 


Steady beeps, the smell of mothballs, and the sound of someone gargling awake Tucker out of an anesthesia induced slumber. He gazes down at his blurry, frail hands and asks himself, “am I… alive?” 

“Of course you are, Tucker.” A man in a lab coat smiles at him from his bedside. “The hospital is ready to send you back home.”

“Home?” Tucker repeats. 

“Yes. We’ve done all we can do to heal you.”

“Heal?” Tucker’s mind is a blank space. For a second, he knew why he was in the hospital, but now it escapes him. “My mother…”

“Don’t worry. She and your father will pick you up today.” 

Exhaustion and a pounding headache leaves Tucker speechless. He can’t fathom why his brain won’t stop screaming for help, yet he won’t dig deep for reasons either—it hurts too much. Instead, Tucker stares at the white wall, lulling himself with a song he created for dark days in the Inferno. A knock at the door catches his attention, makes him blink an eye, the only reaction he can muster. Even when his mother and father walk in, Tucker has zero enthusiasm or motivation for anything. 

The doctors help his heavy body into the wheelchair to prepare him for release. Everyone appears to be a glob of black paint on a red canvas, or sometimes the scenery changes to a white hallway and everyone speeds past him in a blur. 

Sleep beckons him. The leather of the wheelchair is just as comfortable as the hospital bed. As his head tilts down for sleep, the shrieking voice that begs for help in his mind startles him. 

“You okay, son?” asks his father.
“I… I think so.” 

His mother assures they will have him home in no time, just enough to eat and then get some more rest. She presumes he was asleep the entire time he was in the hospital, but necessary introspection and hellish nightmares wired Tucker’s mind. A chilling breeze brushes his skin when the hospital doors open. His first reaction to the different weather is to scratch the back of his head. 

“Be careful not to damage the bandage, Tucker,” his mother says from the passenger seat. “We only have enough to change it according to the doctor’s recommendation.” 

“Yes mother.” He stops scratching but leaves his hand in place, counting how many times something thumps against his palm. 

Without notice, a gravelly voice intrudes Tucker’s thoughts and speaks to him in a foreign speech. He somewhat comprehends the sinister language, but trying to decipher it makes his head hurt even more. The back of his head itches, throbs, and aches. The foreign words grow louder and exacerbate the pain until a soft voice asks him for help. “You want… help from me?” He ponders who the interloper might be. All he sees are clumps of shadows moving in dim gray light until his father announces their arrival home and interrupts the search for the mystery dweller.

Nothing about the house has changed. The faint scent of lavender and old furniture still lingers, so does the traumatic experience of going into his father’s office that night. He knows what he saw wasn’t real. The doctors told him it wasn’t, yet the fear won’t go away. 

“Try not to think about it.” His father, who caught him looking at the office door, suggests. 

They open the door to his room, and as soon as the bed comes into view, his exhaustion becomes overwhelming. Like a dead weight, he drops on his bed. His mother’s lips press against his forehead. “Goodnight, dear.” 

“Goodnight,” Tucker yawns. And when the lights go down, so do his eyelids.

In his dream, a woman in a bloody and torn-up doctor’s outfit turns around and screams, “help!” 

“Who are you?” 

“Who said that? Tucker?” She yells. 

“How do you know my name? You can’t see me?” 

“Please… something hideous grabbed me and put me here!” She runs and disappears down a pitch-black tunnel. “Get me out of here, please! Tucker!” 

He chases her through the desolate plane, and when he reaches the tunnel, it is different. Unlike the scared woman who ran in, there is a disgusting layer of rotting skin that blocks him. Unafraid, yet cautious, he reaches out and touches the layer of skin with a pointed finger. Before he touches it, he gasps awake to an unnerving poke on the back of his head. Now, he’s panting in a dark room, cold sweat dripping down his face. Similar to how he woke up every day in the psych ward. Contemplating the dream he had becomes a battle between staying awake and enduring the excruciating pain of his headache.

Tucker falls back to sleep, having learned nothing, and drifts back into the nightmare where he left off. The skin is still intact. This time, he punches his fist through—a muffled scream shakes everything. Tucker pulls the skin down enough to see inside. More darkness, though the air is brittle cold. 

“Hello?” He shouts. 

No answer. 

He rips the skin and pulls it down, yells, “hello” again, and still no response, only a distant rumbling. A shriek echoes, scares his legs numb. He can’t run away from the stampede of monsters running toward him. The head of the woman he saw hangs by the teeth of a hideous, bug-eyed demon. They spread her other body parts out among them, chewed and half-eaten. 

Uncontrollable shaking and a rapid breath, legs stiff as floorboards, concerning heartbeat—he begs himself to wake up, “if this is all a dream… Please?”

“Tucker! Let me go!” 

“Wha–” He awakes to his mother gasping for air in his grasp, and a knife in his other hand. Murdering her never crossed his mind until this moment. He remembers hearing her voice in the Inferno. She was there, watching over him and plotting his demise, orchestrating every trial he endured to save her. “Why the fuck are you in my room?” He leans in close to stare at the deception in her eyes. “Who are you? You’re not my mother!”

Through restricted breath his mother replies, “you were supposed to die there.” 

The shock of her words releases the firmness of his grip. “What did you say?” 

“I knew something was wrong…” she coughs. “When your doctor disappeared out of the blue–”

Images of the woman Tucker saw in his nightmare flash in his mind. “How?” Tucker asks, ignoring what he believes to be lies. “How did I get to the Inferno?” He tightens his grip. “You put me there… didn’t you?” 

She begs him to stop. He pushes the knife in his mother’s throat. Her gasps dissipate, and her frantic, teary eyes become vacant. Anger helps drive it in further. A familiar voice in his head convinces him to go off the deep end—slaughter her, to make her regret being a horrible mother. It also tells Tucker to leave nothing left to recognize, and with a smile on his face, he obliges. A dreadful memory of the Inferno accompanies every blood gushing stab. It’s natural for Tucker to kill, so when the haunting voice of his subconscious orders him to murder his father next, he removes the knife from his mother’s face and exits the room. 

In the quiet hallway, his father waits for him. “We knew we had little time left. No matter how many times we’ve tried to kill you, you just keep coming back. Inflict whatever I deserve,” he mutters. 

Uncontrollable rage gives Tucker the strength to tackle his father to the ground and pierce his eyes and throat, taking his life with the same weapon he used to kill his mother. The inner voice applauds his barbaric efforts. “Their souls belonged to me.” Tucker jerks at the tingling in the back of his head, and when his finger digs inside the back of his head with ease, his heart pounds against his chest. It’s larger than his hand!  He reaches further into the hole in his head until a hard shell surface grabs him. “And now I have every tool I need.” The mysterious voice continues. 


A chain of rotted arms reaches out of the hole, stretches out to the bodies of Tucker’s mother and father and pulls them into the disgusting void where they will remain for eternity. The vile demon God, Hailsgream, ruler of the lowest depths of Hell, waste, and filth, presented himself to Tucker’s mother in a dream, manipulated her vulnerability and made her believe sacrificing her own son would cure her mental illness. Only fools make deals with devils and Tucker’s parents were no exception. The God reveals this and more to Tucker as it guides the distorted and obscure creatures of its army out of his decaying skull. It took decades of planning to manifest the ritual; three sacrifices needed to create a portal for Hailsgream to walk among humans like other demon gods. With Tucker’s body as a host, albeit now an inhuman carcass, the God of all things vile will infect humanity and expand the lowest parts of Hell.

The house rots from the inside-out, grows appendages and mold and demonic maggots, the walls morph into human flesh, and a river of green and gray acid develops on the floor. The smell alone is enough to kill or induce sickness throughout the neighborhood. Surrounding nature decomposes and forms a purple and black hue in the atmosphere. Not long before this part of the world is devoured. 




Gathered around the table are Jamie and three other strangers dressed up in what they consider demonic garb, trying to get settled into their characters for their newest campaign. Tonight’s game is a mystery. Though Jamie is considered the master of this game, the story will be told by an ancient book covered in skin and flesh, which he must read from— every single word. Failure to read will cause either death or injury, and as someone on the edge, Jamie couldn’t help buying it from the sketchy pawn shop in the middle of downtown. 

The world has always been a dark and evil place. People in Jamie’s town die by the dozens, every day, because of demons erupting from Hell, or witches fulfilling rituals that murder neighborhoods of people, and much more that nothing is being done about. Jamie was once told of a time  when humans were killed by each other or died from disease. He always wondered if that was a better way of life.

For years, Jamie watched friends and family die, leaving him alone in an obscure world of anonymity. His mind delved further into a dark void after he woke up to his wife’s body cut into pieces, slain in a ritualistic manner—a common occurrence he tried to avoid. Since then, he quit his meaningless job as an architect to find death. 

His skills for the games downtown have developed. If not for the rule of cheating resulting in the death of someone in the world, Jamie would have thrown his first game and been done with it. 

This game is played by many who enjoy a challenging adventure with very high stakes. The objective is to work together to defeat a demon God named Zyndahn Maighrist; all other instructions are vague to the players. The unnerving depiction of a demon on the first page induces nerves Jamie believed to die along with his wife. Its beady, yellow eyes gaze into his soul and capture him, along with its perturbing smile that forces his legs to tremble. 

“Are you all right?” asks one of the players. “We should get started soon, if we want to be home by midnight.” 

“Yes. I–” 

He’s interrupted by a woman laughing across from him. “Brave of you to expect to make it home by midnight.” She chuckles.

“Ha! I’ve done this four times now. Each campaign is different, but it’s nothing to worry about.” He glances at Jamie and smirks. “So long as the Head of the Table knows what he’s doing.”

All demonic eyes stare at Jamie. He is not a novice at tabletop games; however, this is the first time he isn’t creating the reality for the game. To everyone’s knowledge, nothing is revealed about the characters until the game starts. There is a twenty-sided die in the middle of a Hellish map that displays unusual creatures that resemble abominations created in a lab; as if a child with a sick imagination took apart the bodies of humans and demons and put them back together in unconventional ways.

Jamie turns to the next page. The sharpness of the corner cuts his thumb, leaving a stinging pain as it leaks onto the blank black page. The blood soaks in and transforms into words. “Are you all seeing this?” He asks with a quivering breath and rapidly beating heart. 

“That’s new,” says the veteran of this game. 

The player next to Jamie leans over and asks, “well, what does it say?” 

“The… the only way…” his stomach becomes heavy with every word. “The only way to continue the game is with the reader’s blood. The game has officially started, and will not end until…” 

“Until what?” 

“I have to put more blood on the page.” Jamie squeezes his thumb over the book, and reads, “the game won’t end until we all die or overthrow Zyndahn Maighrist.” 

Using more of his blood, he reads the rest of the grueling instructions, each one more shocking than the last. Winning seems impossible with every enemy hundreds of levels higher than a starting player, and the fact they won’t know what their abilities are until the option to roll the die presents itself. 

It seems Jamie’s purpose is to read and survive the campaign. He’s directed to turn the page. It reads, “player one, roll the die.” 

“Already? Roll it for what?” they ask. 

Everyone gasps at the red numbers that appear above the book as it counts down from twenty.  

“Hurry! Tell it to stop!” Jamie yells.

The person agrees with three seconds to spare and rolls a seven. No one is aware of what that means. 

“Player one rolled a seven.” And as Jamie reads the last few words on the page, a white light consumes everything in the room. Their bones explode as the light touches them, filling the room with screams before the players are transferred to the game’s reality.  


Sacks of blood morph into their respective bodies. Jamie appears, the campaign book in his grasp, staring in awe, petrified at the world around him. It’s a polar opposite of what he imagined Hell to be, and on a much weirder scale. Demons with elongated limbs, multicolored skin, and protruding eye sockets squirm and crawl about. Eyes and tongues stick out of the ground like plants and trees. Clusters of enormous and colorful celestial rocks occupy most of the blue sky. To the right is a frozen region with various sizes of unsettling ice sculptures moving in strange patterns. A vast group of hellions floats through the air like a roller coaster and draws everyone’s attention to the left side of the map; a fiery dungeon of screaming souls. 

The dead fall down from a black hole in the light blue sky. Hideous winged beasts pull others out of the ground. In front of Jamie and the other players stands a giant monster staring down with multiple golden, beady eyes that sink into cavernous holes in its face. This is Zyndahn Maighrist as the Creator. 

Player One kneels down in front of the monster and begs for their life. A sharp wind cuts Jamie’s forehead and applies blood to the page. It is Player Two’s turn to roll the die. Before them, a large, red twenty-sided die appears and spins, its pace steadily increasing. “Tell it to stop!” Jamie shouts, and when he does, the die stops and reveals the number eighteen.

“Eig… Eighteen? That’s good! That’s gotta be good, right?” Player One stammers as he crawls away. 

“Player Two rolled an eighteen.” Jamie begins. “Another player must die to grant Player One a second chance.” Another timer appears; countdown from twenty again. 

Each player shares a frightened glance. 

Player Two approaches them with balled fists. “What? Why the hell do you get a second chance when I’m the one that rolled?” 

Seven seconds left. Jamie ponders making the first move; perhaps he could push Player Two into the monster’s creepy fingers that tap on the soft, orange ground. His foot jerks forward, but a loud buzzer stops him cold. The giant zero turns into maggots that slither toward Player One. Too scared to run, the bugs crawl into their orifices. Their cries and screams of agony echo loud enough to vibrate the atmosphere and erupt holes in the sky. Bright colors and the screaming dead traverse through the portals like an infinite chain, creating more chaos with brain-numbing noise. Unable to release the book, Jamie must suffer through it, losing some stats he was unaware he possessed.

The others cover their ears as he focuses on the appearing messages. “The maggots devour Player One’s flesh from the inside out. Failure to obtain a sacrifice results in death.” Their cries cease. Silence as their body disappears into the ground, to eject out of a portal above the Creator and plummet into its mouth. All the players gasp in horror. The many games Jamie played, all of his grueling night terrors, and conversing with occultists did not prepare him for this Hell. Player Three, who has remained silent since arrival, vomits at the sight of Player One’s body becoming an abomination–limbs ripped from their sockets, their blood drained from an open wound in their throat and sprayed over the other freakish fiends.  Zyndahn surgically removes chunks of their flesh and sews it onto a different body part with thread from its fingers. The body changes color when new flesh attaches giving birth to a colorful revolting creature with calves where its eyes should be, veins for legs, skinless fingers for hair, and other inhumane features too sickening for Jamie to describe. 

“Last time I played this game, I saw someone turn into a demon, but…” Player Two pauses, stares blankly at the development of the horrid creature. “…it made sense. I’ve never seen anything so… otherworldly… even from other versions of Hell.”

“How many Hells did you say you saw?” asks Jamie, unsure if he wants the answer. 

Player Two’s vacant stare meets Jamie’s terrified expression. “One too many.” 

A ball of light forms at Zyndahn’s fingertip; the urge to faint as Jamie realizes it’s pointing at him is stopped by the book’s unbending control. The shot of energy pierces through Jamie’s shoulder and opens a wound big enough to allow blood to flow through. It leaks onto the page, continuing the story.  

Now, it is Player Three’s roll. A question takes up an entire page: left or right? The die reappears and rotates, and without hesitation, Player Three stands up, wipes the vomit from her mouth, and says “stop” with seventeen seconds left. Its spinning slows down until it lands on the number twenty. 

“Perfect score!” 

“A Twenty! That must mean we can move forward now,” she says. 

“Left or right?” asks Jamie. 


“Hurry!” Jamie yells as the timer restarts. 

“Um…” she jerks left and right, bewildered at the gruesome choices before her. “Right! I despise the heat.”  

In a vibrating motion, long, frail arms different from any other material in this world reach out of the snowy arctic and wrap around all three players. Pulls them into the Icy Hell, which becomes a dark abyss the deeper they journey. 


Jamie swears his wife just called his name. Impulse to turn around opens his eyes. There she is, standing before him in a beautiful gown, her captivating reflection portrayed differently in each mirror that covers the walls of the bright room. Hesitant footsteps as he approaches her. Her smile brings tears to his eyes and a rapid pace to his heart. “Is this real?” He questions. 

“Is any of this real?” She questions. 

His legs go numb. “Did I say that out loud?” His belly aches at this world’s uncertainty. 

She holds out her hand. “Jamie.”

Their hands touch. All her reflections; sad, happy, shy, join in on the dance. He remembers ballroom dancing with her on days he was free from work. Jamie’s love for games was not shared, so they found something they both enjoyed. 

Every depiction of his deceased wife walks out of the mirrors and gathers around them. Entranced by the dazed look in her eyes, the anomalies do not faze him as they sway back and forth to a harsh violin. The deafening, blood dripping down his neck from shot eardrums, and lack of control of his body are faint to the touch of her skin. 

“Jamie…” He reads her lips. “There’s something you should know.” Their bodies stop in a foxtrot pose. The lights go dim, one after another, then a spotlight casts on his wife. He can’t break away from her; cold tears and her warm blood cover his face as her reflection’s claws split her skull open. 

Jamie’s eyes roll to the back of his head as he experiences death. 

Emotions run high during a barrage of unknown memories. His wife during her childhood to the age she is now: strange dreams she had, memories of relatives and friends who have died, times she smiled because of Jamie–all lead up to her brutal death. In a vile nightmare, she runs through flesh-covered caves away from two people dressed in dark, hooded cloaks. He instinctively reaches for her when she tumbles down a dark path. She awakes several minutes later in immense pain.

 At her feet are the two mysterious people with blades in their hands. “Why are you doing this?” his wife asks. 

A white hand removes one of the hoods and reveals a face that brings Jamie’s spirit to its knees. “The only way to continue living in this world is by sacrificing others,” answers Player Three. “Now…” She raises her weapon. “Hold still.” 

He can’t take much more. Her screaming and bones cracking—the slicing noises, it all makes him sick! He can feel himself regurgitating in another realm. “Stop!” he yells repeatedly.

 An anonymous power pulls him out of the nightmare. The mirrors and ceiling shatter and unveil a world of fire. “You’re running out of time!” Jamie’s wife tells him. Her grip releases. She returns to the cursed state when he woke up next to her for the last time, yet still moves like a live human. 

Claws wrap around Jamie’s body. Again, to separate them to further prove life’s cruel humor. He reaches a hand out to her. “I love you,” they both whisper; words lost in the fiery void of teleportation.


Jamie awakes, standing in an upside-down  house full of staircases. Everything is red as if gazing through a bloody lens. It’s rusty and old; dust in the atmosphere, warmth of a swamp, subtle creak sounds that frighten him.

Of course, the book has not left him. He wants revenge on Player Three on his next turn. If only he could get her alone. Jamie would butcher her after he choked her to death; smile as she breathes her last. 

It still wouldn’t be enough to satisfy him. 

His head becomes heavy and slams against the book. He almost fainted now that the pages are hard as concrete, but the book refused to let him fall. Blood leaks out of his forehead and onto the page. The die appears. “It is your turn.”

“What?” Jamie asks, puzzled by the sudden change in rules. “I thought I was just the reader.” 

The die spins.

“What… punish… ment…” It’s difficult to read with blood stinging his eyes. “… do you… wish upon… Play… er Three?” 

If not for the pain, he would crack a smile. 

The timer starts. A scream from above grabs his attention. Player Two and Three are falling from the dark sky. Her face disgusts him. Jamie ponders an evil request, then stops the die. 


“Well, what happens now?” Player Three asks. 

“Yeah? And since when does the Reader roll?” 

“Do you know where we were just now?” Player Three pinches the bridge of her nose. She speaks of a brittle cold that created the bruises on her skin.  

Jamie remains quiet, his eyes staring at the moving staircases, daydreaming about dancing with his wife. “How much time?” 

“Hey did you hear me? I asked what you rolled for?” 

Footsteps approach Jamie. A glance to the left and he’s met with Player Two’s irate gaze. He looks past it and grimaces at Player Three. 

“I’m the one talking to you!” Player Two shouts with a raised fist. The die and timer get in his way and force him to take a few steps back. “Stop!”He drops to his knees. “A… a… three?” His voice cracks. Jamie smirks at his face going pale. From a dark corner of the house sneaks a small fiend, their beady eyes and drooling mouths set on Player Two. Jamie maintains his silence on the creature, watching it creep forward. “Tell me what it means, Reader!” Player Two demands. 

Jamie obliges. “Player Two failed to obtain an answer to their question regarding the Reader’s turn. Thus, knowledge must be gained for knowledge lost.” 

“What? What the hell does th–” 

Player Three screams and falls to the floor. 

For someone who has seen Hell before, Player Two’s scared reaction to the demon is disappointing. Begs to be spared, knowing full well his turn has ended. With every step closer, the demon grows more hideous and spreads its gangly appendages. The pointed tips stab Player Two’s leg as he crawls away. “No! No! Please–” he screams. Its spikes dig into his temples, then cut around the skull.  Player Two’s eyes go white and drool seeps down his mouth as his brain is stabbed and sliced. His legs jerk around like live wires to the torture. The other player turns away with a hand over her mouth; Jamie, contemplating a worse death for her, watches and learns. It cuts his brain in half and devours it, then stitches him back together like a doll. When finished, it returns to its dark corner and lurks. 

Player Two’s vulnerable state poses a threat: players that are not dead must continue. 

“I don’t know who you are, but I don’t trust you,” Player Three dares to say. “I’m going off on my own! I’ll find a way out of here by myself.” She takes a step forward and is stopped by the die and timer. 

“Player Three must roll for initiative.” 

“I’m so sick of this!” she yells. “Stop dammit!” 

It lands on five.

She curses under her breath. “I don’t care! I–” A red line forms down her body.  An unknown orchestrator splits her body in two and connects it with veins to Player Two’s right half. Two rights to create a monster. Player Three cries at her new appearance while her other half stares into nothing, their side of the body sagging down, applying weight to an already debilitating situation. 

Written in blood, the page reads, “The guard of this place approaches.” The house quakes. An overwhelming gust of wind sends Jamie flying against a wall. His eyes widen at the sight of half the house being snatched away by the guard’s hand. The outer world is littered with copious amounts of the damned climbing each other to escape a vast fire. Shelves of carcasses miles long down a path to nowhere. 

It is Jamie’s turn again. 

He rolled an eleven. 

The enormous demon opens its mouth and unleashes a fire that consumes the house. The book shields his upper body from the fire and tells him it is now Player Two’s turn. Time is almost out, yet the die continues to spin. Only the Player whose turn it currently is can stop the die, and with half a brain, Player Two cannot form words. “Failure to stop the die in time results in death,” Jamie pants. 

The guard strengthens its attack. The flames are too powerful to watch Player Two’s death unfold, so he reads how Player Two’s body is scorched until it becomes ash. Player Two and Three succumb to the fire’s intensity.

Jamie’s unprotected legs suffer burns, which slows his moving speed and decreases his health at a slow rate. He’s lost feeling in his legs, collapses when the fire ceases. Still, the book is in his grasp. 

“The guard must be defeated in order to move to the next part of the map.”

Jamie would do anything for this to be over. It was foolish to ask for the other players to roll low scores in a game where teamwork is key for success. But, he was blinded by revenge. His negative thoughts produce the appearance of the die and timer. “How would you like to proceed?” He reads.

Jamie props himself up on a solid piece of the wall. “Whose turn is it?” he asks, staring into the haunting eyes of the giant monster patiently waiting to kill him. 

“All other players are dead. The last player alive must continue the game or die.” It replies.

In the end, he could die anyway, and all this will have been for nothing. The point of this was to meet an exciting demise, one he could be proud of. Every day without his wife seemed like Hell; never wanting to be around other people that were happy, but those who were miserable and needed dejected company, sad and wicked are traits he required in new acquaintances—they don’t remind him of the kind heart he lost—lived in seclusion outside of playing in the murderous downtown areas with strangers and demons, and he fell into a depressive state because of it. It is always a risk, a gamble, playing tabletop games downtown. Only the wretched partake, so he knew the plan. The goal is death, yet he contemplates his next move hoping to avoid execution.

This game and realm, which concludes is not a cruel hallucination, has elevated his fear of death. He questions his ability to make the weighted decision. “I just want to be with her,” Jamie cries. Instant regret strikes him when the die and timer appear. He takes a deep breath, holds back the tears of holding his wife again—albeit in a strange Hell that toyed with her brain, then exhales. “Stop.” 

His right eye twitches as the number six is presented. A worse punishment is coming for him. Pride and confusion led him down this road. Now, Jamie must experience the consequences. 

The die crumbles. The book falls to the floor and disappears under an army of tiny worms. Jamie prepared himself mentally to be doused in flames; at least death will follow it, but to his dismay, a horde of groaning arms seeps out of the abyssal mouth. Too slow to escape their grasp, he allows them to grab him; tear off parts of his flesh with their sharp claws, and pull him inside of the monster’s belly. 

Falling forever through a void of his blunders and failed dreams, forced to listen to every regret on repeat. The lower he goes, the darker each thought becomes. Some are not his own. A foreign voice creeps in his mind, warns him about the horrors of Hell and the only way to escape them is to keep dying, or endure torture for eternity. 

Weakness chains him to the latter. 

Jamie’s spirit lands in the palm of Zyndahns Maighrist’s hand, along with his wife, whose mouth and eyes are sewn shut. Jamie feels heat on his back as he approaches her. He turns to see those sinister eyes of the demon God beaming down on him. 

The surface underneath becomes unstable. Miniature versions of the Creator rip through the flesh of its hand and crawl out like spiders. Hellions surround them. “This time, we die together.” He presses his wife’s hands to his chest. They close in. Jamie hugs her once more, not letting go until the barbarians rip his arms off and throw them into a pile. In added cruelty, he cannot succumb to the pain, only suffer. Hearing his wife’s muffled screams compels him to hate himself more than before. All the pieces and chunks of their bodies fall through a hole that magically appears, then crash on a flat metal surface. Jamie’s left eye glimpses the monstrous creations hanging from veins in the rotting flesh of the ceiling. Player Two must be around here somewhere. 

To be with his wife was Jamie’s request. Zyndahn, the creator of this Hell and all its creatures, pieces together Jamie and his wife in different shapes and unorthodox ways, molding and stitching until they are one entity. Their brains are now connected, side by side, skull fragments embedded in their veins and skin. Their new body walks on its elbows, speaks through fingers that protrude out of holes in the spine, listens by disconnecting its kneecaps to open the ear canal. Communication between the two entities is turn-based, and until all blood passes to the other side of the body, the other cannot perform any tasks. 

Feeling his wife’s disdain for him through connected nerves is worse than the excruciation of being mutilated. This isn’t what he wanted for her, or the fate he imagined for himself. He presumed death would vanquish his desire to be free from a life of loneliness, but instead, it caused the only person he would give his life for eternal pain.




As Matthew finishes the portrait of the gaunt, pale woman slouching in front of him, adding a little more blue to her dull eyes and red to her cheeks, he sinks into a strong sense of unfulfillment. It took years to perfect the art of painting what he hates most in this world: people. His initial desire to paint was to learn something new and then become good at it, which he has. Now, he paints with looming boredom.

What was fun became a dreadful means to an end; painting portraits of those who somehow obtained wealth in the middle of a global death crisis. 

The end… something Matthew often ponders. He’s the last surviving member of his family, and with their portraits hanging up everywhere to remind him of their savage deaths, he is never left without thoughts of his own demise. 

“How is it coming along?” his subject asks. 

He stares at her unsightly face, wishing he could paint in the brown and gray stains of her teeth, which she begged and paid extra for him to alter. “It’s finished,” he sighs. 

“Well, don’t sound so enthused!” she scoffs.

He offers a vacant stare to her crinkled nose and curled lip. “I’m not.” 

She raises from the chair and stomps toward him with her raggedy boots. Matthew’s eyes water at her closer appearance. He asks politely for her to take a few steps back, and as she declines with infuriating noise from her rotten gums, he threatens to add her real features to the portrait. 

“You wouldn’t–” she gasps. “I’m… I’m beautiful.” She presses a hand to her face. Often, Matthew’s cynicism is often met with hostility that dissipates when his art comes into view. 

“Yes. It is beautiful.” 

Her beady eyes glare at him. “It’s paid for. I’ll take my leave,” she responds coldly. 

Matthew grins. “It’s all yours.” 

She grabs the portrait, disrespecting its perfection with her greasy fingers, though saving him the time of varnishing it and wrapping it for her. 

The used paintbrushes are dumped in solvent for cleaning, dirty clothes discarded into a bin, and whatever else needed to clean his art station and ignore the woman’s annoying heels clicking on the floor. 

“You know, the people of this town are begging for vials of my blood.” She begins her unrequested speech. “I have survived very long in this shit, Mr. Matthew Hurt. You may believe that having talent makes you better than most of us here, and in most ways, it does. You’re able to escape through worlds you can create on canvas, while we…” she covers her hideous smile and chuckles, “… or them, I should say, waste time just living, waiting to die. We can pretend that spending precious time with family will make being ripped apart by a relentless monster is almost worth it, but we all know, especially you Mr. Hurt, that it’s best to depend on yourself because family can be stripped away so easily.”

He could drive a knife through her heart and watch her bleed out. 

“Unlike my family.” She continues. “I may not fit your description of the wealthy and long living, but unlike your family, Mr. Hurt, mine is a lineage of gods. And while the rest of you are slaughtered like filthy street animals, we will continue to flourish and decide to die whenever we want.” 

Their egos disgust him. Though she is correct about her blood being sought for by the meager and hopeless, she couldn’t be more wrong about her proclaimed invincibility. If not for his older state and lack of care, he’d prove to the smug wealthy how human they are by stabbing them all in their bitter hearts with the sharp end of his palette knife. But, for now, a simple, “leave my house” will suffice. 

“Enjoy the payment, Matthew Hurt. You can add it to your bountiful…” her hollow eyes dance around the old architecture of the house, “… inheritance.” 

His empty drinking glass shatters against the door on her way out. Most times, his subject’s revolting attitudes don’t faze him, but Matthew would love for that woman’s hideous face to break under his boot. But there’s no time to dwell on that. The house needs to be cleaned before the next pompous subject arrives. Downstairs in the cellar where he keeps his art, there’s a broom to sweep up the broken glass. Upon pulling the string to activate the light, a large, strange painting catches his attention. “I… never…” -he questions his memory; contemplates the prior months and how much alcohol he’s ingested- “… painted this.” He stares at the dark colors that mesh together to create a grim and unnerving creature. A tiny, yellow circle sits in the middle of the monster’s mouth, an uncanny property foreign to his style of work. It beckons him. He steps closer to get a better view. His eye focuses on it, almost touching the paint. 

Within a black void dance scarlet figures. The visual frightens him at first, yet he takes another curious glance. Obscure, red shapes move in ways Matthew has never seen. He is compelled to participate in what seems like happiness and liberation. He presses a listening ear to the yellow dot in hopes of hearing whatever tune causes the enigmatic red silhouettes to twirl and jump. A rush of fear settles in the pit of his stomach. His ears go numb from the blaring screams and cries emitting from the painting. He didn’t expect to hear anything, but assumed his mind would create something more appealing to his own taste. 

A test of reality. The world is filled with strange occurrences, and outside the death of his loved ones, Matthew, through no real evidence, thought he was shielded from the hands of Hell trying to grab him. The many sacrifices offered appear to have meant nothing, or perhaps it is time for a drink to settle down the hallucinations. 

He steps away from the painting, glazes over it and notices a change. The yellow dot has grown. It’s no longer a speck—now, a circle the size of his thumb. He fixates on it. “No…” he whispers, steps close again. “I have work to do.” Matthew reluctantly turns away. One step and he’s compelled to face the painting again. It’s all so strange. A canvas he can’t remember attracts him more than any other art piece. 

He refuses to stare into the growing yellow circle. He closes his eyes and presses his palms against it, lets his mind drift further into the insanity as he examines the deep breaths and beating hearts of the enigmatic painting. In his relatives’ final days, he wonders if this is what they experienced—infinite confusion and an increasing obsession with a sinister work of art, or perhaps whatever was truly important to them at the time. For his mother, it would have been her work as a nurse, and now that he is reminded, she would stare for hours at a page in one of her texts. She would admit to being intrigued by the way the words were typed across the page. It became concerning as time went on and she never wanted to do anything besides stare at the page. The following to her cruel demise was calm, a blanket covering the work of Hell. 

The painting could be alive. Cuts form in his palms at the thought of the woman he painted earlier who threatened him with her black tongue. Matthew watches in awe as his own blood is absorbed by the canvas. Forced to kneel before it, trembling from the amount of blood draining out of his hands, Matthew looks up out of curiosity. His eyes open and are met with the yellow circle that now covers most of the canvas. Once a tiny, bright ball shrouded by dark red and brown and black, it now holds a broader view of the humans covered in blood and flesh, who resembled scarlet shadows, as they dance around a pile of dead bodies. He focuses on the pried open bellies of the dead, unable to shake the fear of becoming one of them. 

A loud bell interrupts their dancing. Each piercing red eye stares at his petrified face. In unison, they yell foreign words to him, echoing the same sentence until an unknown force pushes him away. A bell wakes him out of the trance. He looks down at his unscathed hands, scurries to his feet, feels where his scars should be. 

A frustrated voice follows a hard knock at the front door. “Mr. Hurt! We arranged an appointment!”

 The three hours between appointments are supposed to be spent cleaning, setting up, and clearing his mind to reset his focus. He’s wasted precious time staring at an ugly painting and pondering illogical visions. 

She knocks and shouts for him again. 

He ignores the painting’s presence and walks up the stairs. 

“Shit,” he curses at the broken glass on the floor as he sweeps it into a corner with his foot. He twists the rusted knob and welcomes his guest. “I apologize for the mess, I ran out of time while…” The yellow spot flashes in his mind and speaks his name. “… searching for more paint. I was down in the basement and lost track of time.” 

She ambles into his house, making his presence second hand to the portraits hanging in the atrium. “You painted all of these?” she asks. 

“Of course I did.” 

“The woman you painted before me today, she said you were quite the host. I hope my experience contrasts greatly.” 

Matthew directs her attention to the chair to begin painting. “That depends entirely on you, ma’am.” 

A lot easier on the eyes, to paint her felt less like a trade and more like passion. She sat perfectly still, her features illuminated by the sunset. He spends the time carefully applying and blending the oil paints to create a perfect depiction, and when it is complete, he applies one final touch—a yellow dot in the bottom corner. A signature was never necessary. No one can paint people as perfectly as Matthew. The yellow dot adds more beauty to the grass of the field she chose as her background. 

She checks on his work before accepting, compliments the scenery he was able to capture without having seen it before. “The sunlight captures my eyes perfectly. You actually are a decent painter.” She already paid him food and booze for the week, so the exchange between them after wrap-up was short. She gladly takes her portrait and exits the house in much better spirits than his previous subject. 

Now the work day is over, he can actually clean the place and fix himself a meal, with the addition of a warm drink. That pesky painting can continue to call his name and annoy him, but he won’t let it torture him. He will not allow himself to be controlled like the others. 

“Mirria! You’re finally back!”

“Yes, sorry, mother. That drunk of a painter was too busy probably drinking himself to death in his cellar when I arrived.” She hands her the painting. “Though I will say, he is quite impressive.” 

Her mother gawks at the painting after ripping off the cover. “This is beautiful! How much did this cost?” 

Mirria proceeds up the atrium steps of her disheveled mansion and says, “don’t worry. The price was small compared to the reward of our family’s beauty being captured forever.”

A bath to unwind after a day of making her attractive, royal presence known in her bleak and gloomy town is what the end of the day calls for. Mirria feeds the global death crisis and does it with a smile on her face. She and her mother are almost identical because of the lives they have sacrificed to maintain their beauty and youth. Upstairs, hidden to non-blood relatives, is a realm where her human sacrifices lie in a bath of boiling water and melt down into a thick pool of blood. A whisper from her lips and her secret Hell appears before her eyes from a tiny, crimson star that glows as bright as the sun used to. She watches the foolish humans she tricked into her rituals fall screaming from the sky and into the boiling bath. Enduring such a slow death is the misery and suffering her ritual needs to grow stronger, and the weak and poor are easy to gather when food is scarce. Almost a dozen human sacrifices a week to maintain the decades she has survived in this world. 

Mirria floats down into the pool. The half-dead survivors begging for help try to pull her down into the boney depths. She laughs at their determination and weakening flesh. “Your dying essence heals me–” she screams as a chunk of her ribs is ripped out by one of her sacrifices. “What are you doing?” she cries. Their groans become louder as a crowd of them hovers over her and tears at her flesh with their burned and blistered hands. One reaches for her face. She yanks the bone of their arm out of the socket and stabs them in the eye with it. “Get off of me! I own your bodies! Your youth is mine!” Her screams fade into soft cries; her skin wrinkles, and with every blink, the bright crimson hue of her precious world becomes a similar gray to the outside. “I… I don’t understand,” she sobs. “I did everything right.” The faces of those she conned make an appearance before her aging eyes. 

“Daughter!” Her mother comes sprinting from the portal. “Mirria!”

“Mo… mothe–” The brittle bones of her face crack like glass from the pressure of the angry horde. They bury her in the thick liquid. Her lungs become overwhelmed with their blood and burst. The pain kills her again and again, cycling through the many lives she accumulated. Too weak to swim to the top or fight back. Her death replays, and as her soul dies, so does the world she created. 

A black hole forms above the pool and vacuums every source of life and matter around it. Nothing escapes. 

Matthew supposes one more glance at the painting will stop the tingle in his fingers. But after this final one, it is time to take it down. He knows for certain he never painted it, and, most importantly, it’s ugly! Nothing in comparison to his sought-after work. It is similar to a child’s first painting, with the only entertaining stroke of paint being the growing yellow circle. He ponders the yellow dot. “Did it actually grow?” he asks himself. The news reports death by the uncanny and evil every day, yet in his home he’s naïve to the idea of it being a wicked encounter. He can’t remember having a hard drink, though he knows he did. He always does. While thinking of explanations, he blacked out the entire process of walking from the kitchen where he was cleaning silverware to standing in front of the mysterious painting, glaring at the big yellow circle. “I… I was just…” The bright spot has become the sole viewpoint. “Why do you taunt me?” he asks, laughing at himself for pausing for a response. 

A witch’s cry, heard many times in the night, echoes in the cellar. The wails bring him to his knees, and when he opens his eyes, he notices a  drop of blood leak down from the middle of the canvas. The canvas becomes thin from the amount of liquid pouring out of it. It tears open. Matthew, bewildered, walks to it with his hand reached out. It’s thicker than paper–like leather between his fingers. He inserts his hand further. The texture of mushy food startles him. He tears the painting more, creating hole shrouded by what looks like the inside of a human body. Down below are people dancing in a dark room lit by a dim red light, passing someone’s head back and forth. Matthew pushes the skeletal spine, blocking his view. It falls down, attracting the attention of the now staring dancers. 

The eyes of the severed head are frightened and oddly familiar. He sticks his body out further to get a closer view. “M… Mirria? I painted you.. What? Ho… how?” Something pulls on his shirt. He falls into the pit, a soft landing to his surprise. He turns to lift himself up, an eyeball staring at him frightens him. He scurries backward on his palms. Heart races as eyes set on the pile of bodies underneath him. Missing limbs, cut-open bellies, gouged eyes, holes in their flesh—the mutilation sours his stomach. 

He examines his surroundings, no sight of the people who danced in unison. The room is cavernous, can hardly make out what the walls are, but it isn’t any material he’s seen before. He looks up at the hole he fell from. He didn’t think the leap was far, but when he peers at the entrance, it’s like gazing at a star. A scratching noise brings his attention behind him, then another from his left, then forward—he loses track. Screaming for help crossed his mind, but no one would hear him in the big empty house, and no one from outside would care. 

“Master.” A strange voice brushes past his ear. 

Tears erupt from his eyes. He can’t control his breath. 

“We killed her,” says the one holding the chest of a woman. 

“For you,” adds a person carrying a set of pale and bruised legs.

Matthew is speechless at the row of people offering body parts in his honor. “I… I am not your… master.”One of them steps closer. Matthew remains consumed by fear. Numb legs and erratic nerves keep him in place. No resistance to death.

“Your human eyes gazed into the magnificence of the yellow orb. You did not perish. You have made great sacrifices to achieve this.” “Sacrifices? What sacrifices? As much as this town stinks of death and curses, I never once saw Hell as an escape. I–” Images of his family portraits flutter, each one a hammer to his chest. “I never…” The calm of defeat ceases the confusion. 



Without an omen, the sky turned blood red and a hard rain poured. A massive black cloud that unleashed black lightning formed like a sudden stroke of paint then faded seconds later, and with every lightning strike there followed a crackling thunder that shook the ground. The mind-numbing vibrations did no physical damage, but once awakened from a trance of grisly images of mutilation and fire and deafening screams, objects in the environment rearranged—body parts switched with the flesh closest to it, human-made structures fused with nature, streets floated in the air and the crimson sky rained from the ground—but on the next clap of thunder, everything was back to normal. 

Gusts of wind appeared. They carried screams and cries and sorrowful faces that floated away, unless human eyes gazed into it, which left the mind cursed with the sadness and suffering of the tortured soul the face belonged to. 

Floods ensued, and the dead bodies in the streets crept up with the water. Those who stared from their windows, thankful to be spared from whatever wicked God is extracting its anger onto them, became bewildered when the dead revived and began swimming into an enormous crowd in the flooded streets. 

The rain lost most of its strength a few days later, and the high water remained, giving no choice for people to leave their homes. Many succumbed to starvation; the growing, nauseous odor emanating from the steaming, dead water sickened those who didn’t seal off openings in their homes. It was impossible to see through the red that covered the windows, and other than the rain and occasional fierce wind, pure darkness, as if the world descended into a void, appeared then faded like snow. It terrified a lot of weak minds, and it also came with grim consequences. No one can define what truly occurred, but any mortal soul captivated by the darkness lost their eyesight and the ability to move—the starved relished the opportunity to not chase their meals.

The flesh of the enthralled rotted the bellies of the devourers. Countless days of endless, tortured screams drove feeble minds to open their windows and leap to their demise. In days, an ocean of death was established. 

When the bodies soaked up most of the water, heavy rain once again took over the sky and painted the world red. Buildings with open windows and doors flooded, and the water cleared out the dead. Daring hearts tried to traverse the cursed sea in search of better conditions and were overwhelmed by the thick rain that forced them underwater.

Through the harsh current, callous rain, and murderers who wanted to feast on his flesh, traversed a man who braved the entrancing gaze of the whirlwinds and withstood the stalking darkness by using his soul—tainted by the act of slaughtering his wife and son for his own survival—as a shield and sword. Unlike the others, foolish enough to go outside with just their human skin, Jamie, who before the storm was a commercial diver for the fallen District of Clarenhye, went into the unforgiving climate with his diving mask and wetsuit, worn underneath a black shirt, leather jacket, and jeans, and his oxygen tank strapped to his back with duct tape and string. He fought off the seizing hands with the same wide blade he used to pry open his wife’s skull and hack her into pieces to ease cooking her flesh. 

When the dark void came, he expected a black veil to drape over him but was unamused by the black fog that rolled in and whispered foreign words in his ear that failed to curse his mind, as it was already ensnared by the damnation and sorrow it wanted to plant in him. 

To avoid the weeping winds, he plunged into the murky flood and swam with the dead humans and unnatural creatures that both frightened and intrigued him. Hideous beasts approached him, stared with their enlarged pupil-less eyes, then swam away in the opposite direction. Jamie wanted to study them, as he did in the past for his daunting job, but that calling grew short when various areas of his skin started to burn. The horrible sensation grew the longer he stayed in the water. He swam faster, but that only exacerbated the pain. Jamie grit his teeth and swam back to the surface. He was lucky enough to avoid the passing whirlwind and reach higher ground by climbing over a pile of bodies and crawling through a shattered window. 

Overwhelmed and exhausted, Jamie dropped to the cold, wet ground and took a few deep breaths. The agonizing burning ceased. His body jerked as his hands massaged the painful welts and dents under his wetsuit. He lied still for a moment, remembering the way his son screamed when he fed him to enclosing cannibals. If not for that sacrifice, they both would have died from being eaten or drowned by the flood. The boy would have slowed him down, and besides, he only had one suit built for the murderous climate. It was best for his son to die back there, at least in the home he grew up in, rather than foreign water where he has zero chance of survival. Jamie continued to generate justifications for his heinous act while he rested. Each one improved his mood and blackened his heart.  

Warmth brought attention to discomfort in his face. The straps from the mask dug into his jaw, and when he yanked the mask to remove it, his entire head went down with it. He pulled hard on the front of the mask, which hurt, but his determination numbed the pain. A forming puddle showed his ghastly reflection. Through the foggy goggles, he examined the new structure of his face; excessive, tiny holes spread from his chin to his forehead, layers of teeth molded together with the plastic of his mask, tubes from the diver gear grew into the tendons in his face, and the regulator was impossible to separate from his lips. 

Panic struck upon realizing he could no longer speak. He clawed at the rough material of his face, chipped away at the small craters, and slammed his head against the wall to break the mask, all to no avail; to be left with excruciating pain and thoughts of instant death. Jamie staggered to his feet, endured the pain, and trudged through the rising water in search of a safer place to collect his thoughts. A staircase appeared behind a sign that read: levels 2-4. 

Smeared bloody hand-and-footprints painted the area. He pictured the chaos of the escape; everyone pushing each other to the ground, begging to squeeze through or cut to the front of the line to the door. 

The foul stench of death faded to the overwhelming pungency of sulfur. It irritated his skin like insects gnawing on his nerves. He screamed on the inside; hit his blade against the cracked wall in anger. Every moment in the building worsened the tightness in his chest. It was like fire coursing through the tubes in his throat, but he kept his blade clenched and mind alert.

He peered around the corner, counted the bodies scattered across the floor, and stuck to the walls by broken-off pipes. Jamie stepped in the squishy spaces between them, examined each one for edible flesh. Disappointed, he kept going, stopped cold when a door creaked open and a woman wearing nothing other than a black scarf that covered her face walked to the middle of the hallway. 

“You are sick,” she said as her hands gestured toward the room. “We will heal you.” Her hands gestured toward the room. The air was toxic, yet the stranger spoke with a crisp tongue and normal breath. A devourer would have run after Jamie at first contact, and the cursed can’t move; though she appeared harmless, the strange scarf made Jamie uneasy. The storm exhausted all strength he had left to raise his blade, which slipped from his fingers as he dragged his feet over the bodies to reach her. Increased sulfur fumes attacked his lungs and weakened him to the point where his legs could no longer hold his weight. 

He trembled before dropping to his knees at her feet. 

A force pulled his paralyzed body into a candle-lit room. Hums and harsh breaths were all he heard during transport. On the floor were five severed heads mounted on spikes in a strange formation on the ground. Gutted humans hanging from the ceiling and several women twirling around with knives in their hands surrounded. A dark figure in the corner simultaneously moved its hips and removed the innards of a dead animal with its hands. Softness embraced the back of his body and calmed him. Throughout his drift into slumber, Jamie watched black and red silhouettes dance in front of the wavering flames of the candles. In a blink, the colors floated over him. They hummed and swayed side to side. The motion brought weight to his eyelids; an orange glow consumed everything before the world went black. 

Jamie dreamt of rushing red water that swallowed all life. He dived into it and followed the beam of the yellow across the crimson ocean to a large village of unnatural beings. The odd creatures welcomed him with song and praise, similar to the melancholy tone the women used to lull him, then courted him to the depths where the monsters that swam in the flood dwelled. Down below raged a smoldering heat that could only endure in a dream. From far away, tailed and horned creatures glared their crimson eyes at him. Blurry and obscure shapes presented themselves to him and spoke in different foreign languages. He, captivated by their auras, reached for them; their essence flowed through his fingers like the rest of the water. 

His admiration for the enigmas faltered at the sharp scent of sulfur. It cut his nostrils and woke him from the surreal dream. He jolted out of red tubes connected to his arms and legs, cried as he looked around the empty room and no longer saw a red hue, but walls covered in black smoke. It was a relief, though ominous to the recollection of the people he witnessed dancing. Their touch warmed him. Strength in his lungs returned, release of pressure on his back allowed easy exit out of the bed, — proof to his ego he was correct in choosing to enter the room.  

The joy of being awakened and healed was flawed by the fact he existed in a world facing calamity. It was time to once again brave the storm in search of food and better shelter. 

He got what he wanted from the people who disappeared, which, of course, came at a tremendous price. The light in the hallway showed his repulsive skin—gray holes spotted the dull, yellow skin of his arm and legs. His voice never returned, which was the major damage he hoped they would fix. However, in a dying population, interaction with survivors is unfavorable to him. They will either trick him for what he has or try to murder him. He reached for his weapon on that thought, confused that it’s missing. The door never budged open to retrieve it, so a broken pipe pulled from a skull sufficed as the replacement. Instinct led Jamie to believe everyone was after him, yet when he walked into the world free of the flood and blessed by a gray sky, the gaunt and pale survivors scrounging the damp streets shrieked in terror and ran from him. Their normal human appearance feared his altered body. 

An outcast, Jamie walked to find self-acceptance in hidden corners, underground in the sewers, abandoned foundations, anywhere the storm left no one behind, and was unfortunate to find the peace he yearned for. People perished in front of him. He took their clothing and ingested whatever trinkets they had, then kept moving. He discovered that whatever procedure the people of the room performed not only modified his physical features but also removed his taste for humans and the food they ate. For days he feasted on garbage and metal objects, and anything with traces of sulfur. 

As time passed, thoughts of his past silenced like his own voice. He morphed into an emotionless machine that scavenged for parts and fuel and possessed no desire for human interaction. 

Faint whispers beckoned the more distance he put between him and the regular humans. The world aged before he would oblige their call. The voices stopped when he arrived on a sandy shore, just a short distance from a vast body of murky red water. Waves crashed at his feet. He gazed into the ocean, not seeing an end on the horizon. He bent down and planted his mouth into the water and sand — pure human blood engaged his senses and compelled him to enter the water. The powerful waves rushed his body, and he welcomed it.


A current guided him throughout the red ocean, keeping him afloat as if angels carried him. 

The dwellers of the surface breathed the toxic air and ate rotten food touched by the storm; their thin, pale bodies shriveled like raisins under the crimson sun; all water sources either dried-up or contained too much sulfur for human consumption, which some didn’t believe until it poisoned them to death. The world Jamie knew has crumbled, and the ocean offered a new home; a place where the inhabitants created a metropolis out of everything that died in the storm. Through the goggles that became his eyes, he gazed in awe at the homes carved out of titan-sized human carcasses, the groups of half-fish, half-human creatures swimming together in harmony; skinless scavengers eating the bodies on the ocean floor—a plethora of qualities foreign to human society, yet nothing resembled him. As strange and obscure as some creatures were, his snorkel-mask face and porous skin were unique but somehow allowed him to thrive in the new ecosystem. 

Deeper into the ocean where the red turns black, tiny organisms swam up to him and squirmed into the holes of his skin. The sensation nauseated him as they crawled in his veins. He writhed to get them out, clawed his skin, but to no avail. The critters kept coming in hordes, and unable to fight them off, they invaded every orifice. The intrusion left him unconscious, drifting in the water like debris, and he traveled further into the ocean’s vastness by the force of their energy moving his body. While he ascended back into the crimson glow of the ocean, he dreamt of black worms in his skin that morphed into clusters of transparent, veiny, pink eggs, which glowed in sync with his breathing pattern. His reflection stared down at the eggs, perplexed about its origin and why the alien substance chose his body as its home. He thought to touch one, and they burst in unison; the blood splashed his goggles, and when he brought his hand up to wipe it off, an agonizing pain in his chest awoke him from the peculiar dream. An arm, bloodied and covered in bits of flesh, ridden with holes likewise to his skin, protruded out of his sternum. The rest of the body crawled out; a sentient being equal to his appearance stood before him, then swam away into the dark red water. 

The excruciating pain took his voice. He thought himself dead, but it became his wish as thousands of them tore out of his chest and belly. They swam at great speed in different directions. It caused a disturbance in the ocean’s flow, mixed societies and ecosystems of the various groups of creatures, creating an environment of their own that comprised everything Jamie saw in the ocean. 

He lay there on a pile of bones, unable to speak or move, and watched the construction, hoping to die soon to end the pain. But as time went on, he became one with the ocean; his clothes melted away, his veins and nerves sprouted out of his skin, his intestines became vines and made a garden out of the other organs, the flesh on his legs softened and developed fungi, which allowed the broken bones to pierce his skin, and yet he still breathed, his eyes unwavering from the akin beings. 

An ineffable urge to provide for the creatures gave him purpose. Nourishment and vital resources and materials were provided through his senses. They approached him with their needs and desires, and through his senses, he connected with the ocean; if it were food they required, the requesting inhabitant’s hunger was satisfied, and as for materials, Jamie’s veins and nerves built them out of tiny organisms that floated in the water. He watched them flourish and age, educated them about his old world and all knowledge he obtained from the red ocean. 

Jamie’s connection to them and the ocean grew. As he learned, his veins and nerves grew longer, allowing more information to process and deliver in a quicker fashion, and eventually attached to the brains of every soul that lived under his influence.  

Other dwellers swam to the colony from the deepest and far away parts of the ocean to speak with Jamie. It was through a telepathic conversation with a serpent he learned the other inhabitants of the ocean referred to Jamie and his people as “Kajwen” and claimed he was their god. His acceptance of the name created harmony among every species, and so the Kajwen expanded their home. Dissimilar ocean creatures mingled with the Kajwen; they danced and built together, took care of each other when sick or injured, and kept Kajwen genetics flourishing with frequent mating. 

A telepathic message from an anonymous source threatened their peace. It described war between the Kajwen and the true descendants of the ocean. Evil deeds from Jamie’s past erupted and introduced emotions of anger, hatred, and rage; human emotions he thought to have died with his normal human body. An uproar commenced, and the Kajwen were ready to seek whatever mysterious foe dared to initiate conflict. Jamie calmed them and insisted on conducting a strategy once he figured out the body behind the voice. 

His energy searched the ocean for weeks, and after frequent messages back and forth and nonstop use of his energy, he came across the serpent. The beast opened its eyes and stared into the distance as if it could feel someone was there. Jamie stared too, trying to get a good look at the war-hungry beast, but the dark red ocean was murky at its dwelling place. It said Jamie’s name, then laughed as it disappeared under the ocean floor, and once it was no longer in view, hundreds of yellow eyes appeared and the silhouettes of giant serpent tails. 


I sit at my desk, tapping my fingers as my leg trembles in an anxious panic for the day ahead. A week ago, I applied to be a subject for an experiment that is supposed to cure sleeplessness in adults. Night errors have kept me awake since adolescence, afraid to sleep or else the monsters of my grim imagination will torture me for what seems like hours, and when I die I awake to scream in a soaked bed. I cry until my alarm rings and reminds me that no matter what mental state I’m in; I exist in a world where I must go to work and perform to the best of my ability. 

The application said to arrive today, any delay and the government will force me out of my home and rewrite me as a prisoner subject, which forbids anyone from leaving the facility after they completed their initial experiment. This experiment is risky considering a large percentage of volunteer subjects die before the scientists’ desired results, but desperation leaves me no choice. Food has not sounded appetizing in weeks; the shower water is too harsh for my bruised skin; my movement has slowed from the pain of walking or using my arms; every time I think, demons stalk in every image, even in childhood memories when I know they did not yet exist—this experiment could not come at a better time.   

Last night, before crawling into bed to stare at the ceiling until sunrise, I put today’s outfit on to avoid a possible injury or the risk of not having enough energy to dress myself this morning. All it takes is a phone call to the lab and someone will pick me up. I dial the single-digit number to the lab on the phone on my nightstand; they already know it’s me. The operator lists a few available time slots. I choose the one at the bottom of the hour and sit and ponder until the doorbell rings. 

It’s best to get it over with. No sense in pretending I have a list of family to bid farewell or friends to have one last night out with. The purpose of this experiment is to cure me so that one day I may experience human interaction without the need to explain why I haven’t slept in days or why I’m much paler and thinner than everyone else. It could take years before I have normal dreams again, and I might not be the same person in the end, however; years of debilitating migraines and falling asleep at random in public, above everything else, is no way to live. If I find a cure in death, at least it will be from helping myself rather than letting it kill me, or succumbing to my own dark thoughts. 

Not a second later, the bell followed by my name and the driver announcing his presence is heard over the speaker box. No possessions needed. If I come out alive, these meaningless things will serve no purpose, as I will be reborn and free of my past. 

The door to my home shuts behind me for what could be the very last time. A tall man in a dark brown trench coat and dark glasses shows me to the sleek black car parked on the street. 

The sun’s warmth is tolerable on this day. 

The quiet car ride ended in less than an hour. I was tempted to sleep but didn’t want to scare the driver with one of my random panic-induced screams. As I exit the car, the driver informs me that I am a part of group 12B. He waves goodbye and drives away, leaving me alone in the private lot. The laboratory’s vastness intimidates me; my hand trembles on the door handle, my thoughts second-guessing. A sharp buzzing noise erupts from the building, and without my doing, the door opens, unveiling a bright hallway. At the end of it is the receptionist, and like the phone call, they already know who I am and what I am here for. I am handed a dark blue and gray jumpsuit and told that if it does not fit, I will have to wait until another one is manufactured—the current one was made in reference to the measurements I wrote down on the application—and that I am free to enter the elevator at my convenience, so long as it is before the start of the next day. 

Apparently, there are no bathrooms in the halls, only in the offices. The elevator is available to change in but at the cost of being watched by surveillance. I prefer privacy, however; I fear my privacy was compromised the moment I signed my life to this place. As the elevator doors close, I undress. It hurts like Hell to move so quickly. The suit has no zipper or buttons; it is a tight fit, cozy, and offers a coolant to the rising temperature. My body no longer aches and I feel relaxed; honestly, the best I have felt in years. If the suit is supposed to be the cure, the scientists have created a masterpiece. I can wiggle my hips and stretch my arms without excruciating pain, move my toes without the sensation of needles digging in my shins. Perhaps, the experiment will be a short one. 

My nerves unsettle when the elevator comes to a stop. Dozens of tired and hollow eyes stare back at me as the doors open and the strangers’ chatter comes to an abrupt halt. I keep my head down, walk through the whispering crowd in search of a vacant standing spot. For once, it doesn’t hurt to brush against someone or lean on a hard surface. From this side of the room, I see every perplexed face. Loud conversations resume; it is difficult to pick out any concise words, and as much as I would like to ask these people what they’re doing here, the strange looks I received indicate this is not a social gathering. Although I am not the only loner, everyone appears to be in their own circle, which is perhaps for the best. We are not here to make friends but to get better. That should be my sole concern, too—getting better and leaving this place. 

A voice speaks through an anonymous source and silences the room. “If you are in group 12A, please move to the left side of the room. If you are in group 12B, please move to the right. All of you participants have signed legal documentation forfeiting your bodies to this experiment. Once you have entered your respective chambers, you will enter a deep form of sleep called the dream state. It is a level beyond REM sleep in which you have more freedom of choice with your actions than in regular dreams. The purpose of this is to get to the root of your insomnia, which, from the statistics of your applications, is largely because of night terrors. The suit you are wearing is to stabilize your physical body in case you come across any difficulties while in the dream state. As you were informed of our policy, experiments can take months to years to complete and upon completion, surviving participants are more than welcome to return to society. The dead or severely injured will remain in the laboratory for further testing if necessary. This concludes the overview of the experiment. The conductors will meet with you shortly.”

There it is, “dead or severely injured.” No one is talking now. The reality is sinking in. We are all to make the ultimate sacrifice in search of a better way of life. With this suit on, I could run out of here, keep going and never look back. The consequences of being caught must be far worse than whatever they can do to me. I do as told and move to the right side of the room. We’re a smaller group than 12A, I wonder why that is. None of us bother to make eye contact or small talk. What is the point if the next step is a possible infinite slumber? 

Not much time to ponder the information. The glass doors open, and in walks a small group of lab coats with their clipboards and pens at the ready. “Stay in your groups and follow us, please.” 

The herd follows. We enter the freezing experiment room. The temperature is almost unbearable, but the scientists assure us it is to prevent the machines from overheating and we likely won’t experience it in the dream state. Each chamber is a dark green, narrow tub with wires and cables going from the walls of the tub into the glowing green glass floor. 

“Please stand in front of the chamber that has the same number written on the inside of your sleeve,” says a woman from the other side of the large window towering above the experiment floor. “12A’s chambers on the left. 12B is, of course, on the right.”

“12B – #7” Mine is in the final row. I stand and wait for further instruction and try to be positive about the situation. Everyone else looks as lost and worried as I do. Their awkward smiles are filled with false hope and trepidation. 

“Do not be afraid,” she continues. “What you are doing today will provide access to medicine specific to your affliction for future sufferers. If the experiment proves to be too much for you, your death will not be meaningless. All subjects, no matter how far you get in the process, help us get that much closer to a cure. Everyone deserves a good night’s rest, because without sleep we make mistakes, and not all mistakes are… reversible. We are going to free you from the suffering, one way or another.” 

She’s right. My driver’s license was revoked a couple of years ago because I fell asleep at the wheel. The road was empty that night, so no one was hurt on my way to crash into the median. The fire department found me the next day, and I awoke in a hospital with a handcuff clasped around my left wrist and ankle. I was deemed a danger to myself and others, told I was to never purchase a vehicle or drive in the state, and forced to remain in my apartment under six months’ supervision. I never want to go through that again. 

People in hazmat suits come from the back of the room to help us inside the vats. A warm liquid soaks my body. A few pricks in my arms and thighs relax me. The chamber glows red, then yellow, and bubbles form in the water as it rises. My original reaction is to reject this feeling, so close to sleep with fiendish spirits at bay, waiting for me to fall deeply asleep so they can chase me or taunt me. But now, I welcome sleep because I don’t have any other choice. 

“Is this… the dream state?” 

I awake in a world no different from the Hell in my nightmares. First, there is the pure darkness I must walk through. If I stand still, the darkness will last forever and I will never wake up, or the seething mouths of vicious demons will gnaw at my flesh and devour me alive. I fear the third death, so I run, run until the red sun rises and shrouds the world in red paint. But that is when the demons show their faces and chase me out of their world. They always catch me. I know I do not belong here. I question, every night, why I am brought to this evil place. 

I know they are coming. Their tiny claws scratch against the solid ground and their incomprehensible whispers grow louder. I don’t know what to do. I am stuck in this position. Have I stayed awake too long and forgotten how to move inside my dreams? My own voice tells me to run, now and fast, sprint further into the darkness and keep my eyes forward. My voice tells me if I gaze into their eyes, I will remain bound to them for eternity. Was I asleep when I learned that? Is that really my voice? A scratch at my ankle causes me to run, and as I predicted, the crimson sun rises in the distance. I ignore the urge to see behind me and listen to my guide. My questions go unanswered, but I am assured that soon all things will come into the light.

The demons rise with the sun, out of the ground that transforms into the sand beneath my feet. I sink into it. Obscure creatures devoid of human characteristics stalk me like prey; eyes in the sky cast blue beams that burn off my skin, then my flesh, leaving nothing left except my brittle bones to traverse the otherworldly plane. If I manage to outrun them, I gain my flesh, and I can continue to my destination. A force pulls me out of the suffocating sands and saves me from drowning in the deep underworld. I have seen the hungry eyes at the bottom. Below the sand awaits buried evil; my secrets and fears, dead family and friends I wronged or was too prideful to forgive, insecurities I let swallow my confidence, and my deviant thoughts in the form of hideous creatures my voice tells me can only be vanquished by my ultimate self. 

My bones tiptoe across the red sand. My flesh slowly regenerates. I must be slipping away from them. Near the sun on a bluff sits a person with outstretched hands. That is my destination. I reach my hand out to touch them, and as my fingertip connects with the shadow, my own face turns around and stares at me. “We have a lot of work to do,” my spirit says. 

“How do I—we get out of here?” I ask. 

My other self stands up and points to the sun. “The crimson ball of light has always been the answer. Your fears are what keep you from it. I can never leave this place. Without my existence here, your demons will escape and you will no longer have control.”


“Yes. Control. It’s what stops you from being the real you.”

“Why would I not want to be the real me?” I question.

My spirit smiles and replies, “Because you are capable of things the world is not yet ready for. The lack of freedom is what caused this. Your entire life, you have been stuck in a bubble, told how to move by a higher power, not yet realizing that you yourself possess a higher power. And in turn, it has made you sick. Once you reach the sun, it will all make sense.” 

“How do I get to it? It’s far and in the sky.” 

“It’s simple, let go of your fears,” my reflection whispers. 

It fades away, and I am left to confront my demons. My inner screams echo across the land. I see them behind me, the monsters that tore my flesh, devoured me whole, and bleed me dry night after night, standing still, waiting for me to either go to them or just off the bluff. Below, a beast’s open mouth waits to swallow me. Faced with brutal death on either side, I would rather bang my head against the ground until my skull breaks. What is this experiment? Am I being tortured inside a machine? “Stop staring at me, damn you!” I scream. Their taunting eyes infuriate me. 

The sun shines down on me. It stings my eyes when I look to it for answers, but my gaze is unwavering, fixated on the red circle of light. Its ominous beauty captivates my soul, traps my mind in a foreign world of colors and scents of nature. A bright blue ocean beneath my feet, a golden sky with dark red clouds speeds by as the day transforms into night in an infinite loop, the wind is like soft petals on my skin, enormous trees grow out of the ocean then perish from centuries of aging—I watch myself bask in this new atmosphere. I reach out to touch myself on the shoulder. My own puzzled eyes stare back at me. “Is this real?” My reflection speaks as I do. The vision from before was all-knowing, but this version of me is less complex and more human, closer to myself than I could imagine. It mirrors my movements and upon our hands touching, its mouth opens wide and unveils glowing red veins that sprout from the mouth and into the world. As the veins grow, the skin of our bellies unravels like yarn, and more veins sprout from our guts and intertwine to blend us together. 

They grow in my brain and out of my eyes. The veins consume the world around us and create a new one. Snow falls from the sky and I awake on a sheet of ice, alone, and in the distance, a house made of wood beckons me. It beckons me, demands my presence. My bare feet slide across the ice and glide over the snowbank. Now that I am faced with it, it no longer calls for me. In the window I see myself, lying unconscious in a pool of other failed subjects. I peer at the shadows watching over me, then back to my vacant expression. “Don’t worry, I’m going to get you out of there.” 

I am the ruler of my mind. For so long, I let the monsters in my head scare me into hating my thoughts and myself. I cast fire on that world and watch the demons dance in the flames as I float to the sun, float to my soul that dwells in this cold plane. The demons’ deafening screams dissipate in the devastating aura of the sun. Inside, my burnt body continues to float through a dark void until it descends from the white sky and appears before me. For years, I buried versions of myself I deemed unfit and let it eat at my insides; held my tongue when I should have screamed, accepted ridicule when I should have fought back, and forced out a version of myself that everyone else wanted to see. Those demons I burned are my internalized darkness. 

My burned spirit and I morph together. I breathe in its essence and feel more alive. I connect with this world on a godly level. The sky changes color at the blink of my eyes, a geyser bursts from the ice river cracks when I snap my fingers, the snow falls at the pace of my breath, as I think of objects they appear—this newfound gift is what dreams should be. 

“I see you’ve done it.” My all-knowing spirit returns in the shape of a blood-red fox. “Are you ready to return now?” it asks, sitting elegantly in front of the window of the wooden shack.  

I imagine a knife in my hand, and a golden one appears in my hand. In here I flourish, yet they discard me like trash. I will show them just how well the dream state works and how free I have become. “Yes. I am ready.” With my new power, the walls of the house crumble as my hand balls into a fist. I reach into the chest of my unconscious body and transfer through a portal back to reality. 

You can incinerate them now. It’s been days, their brains are dead,” says a familiar voice.

I open my eyes and gaze into oncoming flames. Fire no longer terrifies me. I clutch my knife, let the flames burn my hair and skin as I climb up the ladder and push my way through the opening. I remove the suit and let the natural air embrace my once brittle skin. An unknown voice laughs in my mind. Excruciating pain in the back of my head becomes unbearable. I no longer have control over my head. “What… is this?” A laugh burst from my mouth. 

“Idiot. I told you, if I ever left the dark recess of your mind, you would lose all control,” I say to myself in a burst of hysterical laughter. 

My back bends backward. I scream and wince as my bones break. The inside of my body burns like there’s a fire inside. I envision my body still lying on the ice and question I truly escaped. I wanted the dream state to cure me, and I imagined it did. I saw what I wanted to see, and within the realm of my dreams, I was the composer. But in reality, I brought out the real demon that cursed my mind. In my darkest hours, my subconscious created a devil, and the dream state helped me force it out. 

I hear footsteps behind me. “How the… how the hell did you get out? Guards! Gua–” 

I shut him up with my knife in his throat. Others dare to attack me. I cut them down, break their legs, gouge their eyes, split their bellies, and make them beg for mercy. Room to room, I unleash my wrath on the weak. Their skulls break against my knuckles. The walls are painted in their blood. For years, the urge to slaughter lay dormant. Deep down, I yearned for liberation through death, which I thought meant my own, but now, I know I seek it in the death of others. No one escapes my blade. In the corner of my eye, I spot someone hiding under a desk. “I conquered my fears and now I want to show you what a fearless person can achieve.” Their legs tremble the closer I get, and when our eyes meet, I see a lone deer faced with a hungry wolf. “What do you see when you look at me?” I ask the panicking scientist. I crawl to them and plant my face up against theirs. “Tell me what you see. When I was in the dream state, I saw a god that looked just like me.” I slide the knife across their face and smile at their wince. “Do I look like a god to you?” Their quivering head nods. I stab my blade into their heart and thank them as their last breath escapes. 

I breathe in the death of the bodies around me. “This is freedom. Gone are the days of living like a weak and pathetic victim.” I return to the experiment room. I choose a chamber at random and examine the specimen inside. Most of my life has been in isolation. Today, I end that trend. I press my palm against the subject’s chest and smile as their eyes open and they regain their energy. 

“Is… is it over?” she asks. 

I dry her face with my hands. “What were you hoping for?”

“Well, when I was inside… I…” She looks down and frowns. “I think my memories are gone. I can’t… I don’t remember my name. Who are you?”

I stare at her deep brown eyes and explain that I am the new god of this place, and I demonstrate my power by describing the visions in her dream state. She, like myself, was kept awake at night by not realizing her true potential, but instead of finding herself, she panicked in the dream state and, as a consequence, her memory was wiped clean. “You are capable of great things. Allow me to show you what I accomplished a few moments ago.” Her hand falls into mine and I help her out of the vat. Her legs are weak, so I carry her and together we roam the bloody hallways.

She places her head on my chest and asks, “What happened to these people?” 

“They helped a god fulfill their destiny.”  

The place has served its purpose. I will take my new companion on a spiritual journey and teach her my philosophies and the secret to conquering her subconscious. And over time, I will become all she knows. Dozens of guards meet me in the lobby as I exit the elevator. Their blades and guns can’t harm me. As we walk through them, my chest shields her face from the blood splatter of enemies I cause to explode using my mind. On my command, forceful energy emits from my body and opens the front door of the laboratory. I step into the light on the hot pavement and gaze at the sun. She asks our next destination and if we can go somewhere the air is cool. I assure her we can go wherever she wants. All she has to do is think of it, and I will make it so.

“Hey! They let you out here without clothes?” shouts a man running toward us. I place my companion on her feet and face him. “Oh, wait! I remember driving you here a few years ago. You’re covered in blood, not that I’m looking at your body or anything…” He blushes. “I mean, I’m talking about your face, of course! I am the only driver for the lab, and I’ve never seen the same person twice. And this time, there’s two of you. It’s a miracle! Maybe the lab scientists aren’t so bad, after all.” He runs back to the car and opens the door. 

I carry my companion to the car and lay her down on the backseat. “You aren’t afraid?” I ask the driver.

His eyebrows raise, a bead of sweat forms on his temple and I can hear his racing heartbeat. “Look, I won’t ask. I’ve only heard the horror stories about the inside of that place. It’s just good to see someone finally make it out.” 

He enters the car after I sit down on the passenger side. “Take us far away from here. None of us will ever return to this place,” I say.

He hesitates to start the car, then chuckles and says, “You got it. By the way, do you have names? I rarely ask, but like I said, I’ve never seen a subject leave the lab in one piece. I’m Arch–”

I place my bloody hand on his lips. “Where we’re going, names aren’t important. But you can call me God.”