This issue will knock your heads off! Get ready for some blood, some gore, and maybe even a little knieving.
T April Issue he Underneath The Juniper Tree April 1, 2012 Cover by Paolo Pedroni Otherside 2011 paolopedroni.com About My name is Marjorie Merle and on the right is my ever faithful companion Tex. I am Keeper Of The Stories and I will tell you where I found them. My story begins one night when I started up the stairs to the attic to retrieve some candles during the storm; my knees were knocking together, my fingers quivered. Dusty beams of light from the cloud-swept moon leaked into the attic, landing on sheets of paper with spidery writing � but it wasn't just writing; drawings and photographs littered the floor as well. There were stories of old days, of the future, of the times in between and each had with it a drawing relaying every dreadful and delicious detail into my mind. I drank in the stories greedily with an unquenchable thirst. Now I am sharing them with you, dear reader. Enjoy and remember, don't get lost. You don't want to end up Underneath the Juniper Tree. Underneath The Juniper Tree is a non-profit online magazine that supports new and used artists and writers. We aim to promote the most creatively fantastical and darkly neurotic literature we can dig up. If you'd like to contact us, please email us at: email@example.com Mary Jane typeface by Apostrophic Labs dafont.com/apostrophic-labs.d128 The King and Queen typeface by Bran dafont.com/bran-fractal-eye.d1431 "My mother she killed me, my father he ate me, my sister, little Marlinchen, Gathered together all my bones, tied them in a silken handkerchief, Laid them beneath the juniper-tree, Kywitt, kywitt, What a beautiful bird am I!" An excerpt from The Juniper Tree, part of the SurLaLune Fairytale Pages by Heidi Anne Heiner The Beast and I Marjorie Merle & Rebekah Joy Plett Page 1 Page 7 Page 13 Page 21 Page 29 Page 35 Death-Defying Angelic Sugai & Melissa Stagi Joe's Infantry Josh Voyles & Jesse Horn The Web at the End of the Woods Austin Gilkeson & John Federis The Harvest Christopher Lincoln Wilting Princess Jo Wu & Evan Heasman You Will Pay Max Ogden & Irving Vishel Page 41 Page 47 Page 57 Page 65 Page 77 Page 81 The Legend of Headless Dieder Christopher Lincoln & Jason Smith Lora and the Skineaters TL Milligan & Ken Lamug Monster City Crystal Smalls Ord The Dentist Dawn Pisturino & John Fedris Bird Reaper Louis Gonsalas & Evan Heasman Stories Mirror Mirror on the wall who's the most terrifying of us all? The Beast and I Part VIII Written by Marjorie Merle Illustrated by Rebekah Joy Plett rebekahjoyplett.wordpress.com 1 2 watched the Captain's slender body push past the large desk and hurry through the doorframe close behind Georges' retreating silhouette. The ship tilted back the other way and I found myself sliding across the floor toward the swinging door. I jumped to my feet and chased the dark figures through the narrow passageway. A jolt went through the ship as if it had run aground, tossing me against the wall. I pushed on, slightly dizzy. I could hear the muffled din of voices on deck and I scrambled up the stairs to see what was happening. As I shoved open the door, the voices became clear and loud. "She's coming around again!" A gruff voice hollered. "Quick men! Draw your swords! The rest of you, start pushing!" Called another. The ship jolted again, this time I was hanging onto the doorframe and kept on my feet. A man rushed past me wearing nothing but torn trousers. His feet were bloody from the splintery deck. I turned to see where he was going when I saw her. The ship hadn't run a ground. Mesmerized, I began walking toward her. Men ran past me, swords drawn. Her scales shone in the moonlight. Several men stood at her belly, hacking away but not making a scratch. Her scales were sharp and iridescent and perfect. "Stand back, men! She's rolling!" The creature's large body began to shift. The boards of the deck protested and cracked under her weight. "Get back, men!" This time it was the Captain speaking. "Georges, go get the machete. Make sure it's sharp. The ship won't last long under this pressure and there's no land for days." Georges nodded quickly and was off below deck. "Captain!" The man in the torn trousers was shouting. "Come quickly! I think she's trying to choke us." The Captain started toward the other side of the ship but I was faster. I grabbed hold of the railing and looked over. Just below the surface were two large, cloudy white eyes. She had looped herself over the deck, under the ship and was coming up to complete the circle. The pirate was right; she was trying to choke us. I watched, paralyzed, as her large head broke the surface of the water. Long, sharp spines protruded from her forehead all the way down her back. Her large mouth held row upon row of jagged teeth. Her lips pulled back in a vicious snarl. "Captain," the voice was close, hushed, "if she breaks us, there aren't enough boats to I 3 transport all the men and cargo." He eyed me and I pretended not to see. The Captain stood up a little straighter. "Then I suppose she shan't break us." A smile played on the Captain's lips. I wondered how many sea creatures he's defeated. "Georges!" He called. "Where is that boy? Men! Drive an oar under this monster; we'll heave her fat belly off our ship. I believe she's overstayed her welcome." But the creature was already beginning to tighten her hold on the ship. The railings had already snapped and several of the deck boards were giving into the creature's strength. Several men carried oars and began thrusting them under her belly, but in vain. They couldn't get the oars far enough underneath her to lever her off the ship. The Captain himself was giving his best effort and beads of sweat were forming on his forehead. "More oars!" He called, "We must disperse her weight." Five more men came running over with oars but it was little use. "Captain," the man in the trousers called in a grim tone, "it's no use. She's broke us." The Captain looked from side to side, taking in her massive girth, his brows furrowed. "Then we'll make her as uncomfortable as possible. Hand me that sword." The man threw the Captain a sword and he put the tip against the creature's belly. He began wiggling it back and forth until the sword found its way under one of her scales. Then with both hands on the hilt, he thrust the sword as hard as he could into the softer skin, but it did nothing. The scales might as well have been protecting a stonewall. As if the creature could sense what the Captain was doing, it rolled toward the men, snapping all the oars and the deck. Then it pulled downward, causing the nose of the ship to point toward the sky. All the men and I held on for our lives until the creature let the ship level out again. "We're going down, Captain. Let's start loading the men into the boat before we lose too many of them." The Captain looked at his fellow pirate and this time no smile came. After a long pause, the Captain gave a slight nod. "Go get Georges and tell him to collect what we need. We'll start loading immediately. Leave the cargo." At the word "cargo" he gave me a long, serious look. He wouldn't be taking Tor. Or me. I ran up to him and shoved his back. "You can't do this!" He swatted my hands away. "I will do what is best for my men." 4 "You can't just leave us here! Leave us to die! You pirate! You monster." I pushed him again. He turned around and looked down at me with a cold stare. "I will get my men to safety. This I have promised them. If that means losing some cargo on the way, then so be it." Hot tears were streaming down my face. The cold wind felt alarmingly icy in contrast. Then I thought of something. "Wait here, Captain. Don't load your men yet. I have an idea." He hesitated, but something in my pleading eyes convinced him otherwise. "Quickly, then. If you can save my cargo, then I will make you honorary first mate." He let out a small laugh at the unlikelihood of that ever happening and then called to his men to load the supplies first. I ran back over to the railing and looked down into the creature's eyes. I looked back at the Captain who was busy barking orders at his men. I lifted one foot onto the railing and then the other and launched myself from the ship. The icy wind was no comparison to the shock of the freezing ocean. I opened my mouth to cry out but it was immediately filled with water. The light of the moon was nowhere to be seen and I was surrounded by darkness, not knowing which way was down and which was up. Panic rose from my gut to my throat. I pulled my knees up to my chest and wrapped my arms around each other, trying to concentrate so I wouldn't think of drowning, which is something I would surely be doing if this didn't work. I felt the heat begin in my chest. I thought of Tor lying in the cabin, bleeding to death. Then I thought of the villagers who had chased us from our home. The heat spread from my chest down my arms and I could no longer feel the cold water around me. Then an image swam up from the depths of my mind, a memory that I had pushed so far down I never thought I'd ever remember it again. When Tor was a puppy he had an owner. The man bred dogs to fight and was known as having the biggest, toughest dogs in the country. One day as I was walking past the man's house I noticed a very recently pregnant dog walking across the yard with something in her mouth. She snuck over to a dense shrub and hid whatever it was in there, and then scurried back to the house just as the man came walking outside. From where I was, I could smell the liquor on him. It was early in the day and he was still drunk from the night before. He looked down at the dog and pointed a finger at her, "You have stolen more than your share of the horse meat, you lazy animal." Then he swung at her, but missed. She turned to run but he caught her tail. "Come here, you ungrateful beast." And he punched her in the stomach. The dog turned and bit him on the hand. The man 5 howled and then kicked the dog. My stomach clenched every time he drew his foot back to kick her again, still holding onto her tail. I ran out, yelling, "Stop! You're hurting her, stop!" To my surprise, the man stopped. He looked at me, not really seeing me through his drunken haze. He laughed and then went inside. I walked over to the dog, but she was dead. I searched the shrub for what she was hiding and that is when I saw a scrawny pup, eyes still closed. The heat was burning in my arms now and down into my hands. My hands were on fire. The skin felt like it was bubbling and blistering. I clenched my teeth as the excruciating heat grew. My fingernails were melting, or so I thought. I finally opened my mouth and screamed and that was when a piercing light obliterated the darkness. I screamed and I screamed and I screamed and when I stopped there was darkness and stillness. Far, far off in the distance I heard a splash and then an arm around my waist pulled me up out of the water. I was deposited onto the deck and when I opened my eyes I saw the Captain hunched over another body lying near mine. But this body was still as death. I took in the dark skin and the small, boyish hands. Then the Captain's voice found its way to my ears, "...dove in after her. He thought she was drowning." I rolled away from the body onto my side and retched all over the ship deck. 6 Death-Defying Written by Angelic Sugai angelicsugai.wordpress.com Illustrated by Melissa Stagi artistsites.org/mstagi 7 8 "You will do exactly as I say," said Mum. "Now get your robe, grab your scythe and get out the door!" "Fine, but you will pay for this." He ran a bony finger across his neck and shimmied into his gauzy black attire. "Don't threaten me young man. You're not too old to take over my knee. Why can't you be a good ghoul like your brother?" "But Mom," he whined. "It's boring. I never get to drink blood like Vlad or eat brains like Zeke." His mum shook her decaying head in opposition, seized him by the hood and scooted him in the direction of his belongings. Grim grabbed his things and scurried outside. "Have a great day!" he heard his mum shout through the door. The crumbling cobblestone street gave way under his feet with each begrudging step. He looked to the iridescent moon for strength. Ebony vultures circling in the sky distracted his thoughts with their piercing buzz. At the bus stop, Grim caught up with his sometimes friend, sometimes enemy, Wolfgang. "Hey G, you're kinda late," said Wolfgang. "I know, my mom and I had a spat again. She just doesn't understand." "Yeah my dad gave me a hard time tonight too. He was all, `No more killing your teachers on the full moon.' He wants me to kill chickens. Chickens! Can you believe that? What fun is there in killing a chicken!" "Come on he's not that bad." said Grim. "You would say that. At least you get to kill millions of people and you don't even have to hide it. You're so lucky." "Stop being jealous. I still have a lot of learning to do." "Oh boy is that an understatement. Remember what happened to your test subject last week? He's in the hospital recovering. Way to go! You really killed him that time." Wolfgang teased sarcastically, slapping his knee and howling at the heavens. B ut I don't wanna go to school," said Grim. He folded his arms across his body in protest. 9 "Quit being a jerk! I could kill someone if I wanted." Ghouls close by slithered and creeped closer to get a better view of the mayhem that was bound to ensue. "Oh yeah? Prove it!" Wolfgang taunted. The ghouls began to chant, "DO IT! DO IT!" Their screams carved through the stench of rotting corpses that filled the air. The rusty school bus came to a screeching halt in front of the frenzied crowd. Grim knew it was now or never. He would not be the ridicule of his ghoul-mates. He threw his books down with abandon and marched onto the bus. He grabbed the bus driver by the horns, dragged him down 10 the stairs and onto the road. The driver cocked his arm back, swung, and made contact with Grim's face. "Hey! That hurt!" Grim yanked the driver's pants down to try and trip him. When that didn't work, he pulled on his ankles with as much force as he could, causing him to fall. A semi-truck was approaching them fast. Death summoned every ounce of strength in his bones and hurled the driver in the truck's path. The driver's body exploded on impact; a million fleshy pieces rained down on the crowd with resounding SPLATS! Grim jumped up and down with delight. "Ha! See that? I killed someone!" He puffed out his chest and grinned. He waited for the applause and cheers to start. Instead he was met with a slew of somber faces. "What?" He threw his hands in the air. "Can't you see that I just killed someone?" Wolfgang shrugged. He picked up his backpack from the ground and slung it across his hairy shoulder. "Way to go G. How the heck are we supposed to get to school now? Man, my dad will not be happy about this. I'm gonna make him late for his pack meeting." The ghouls mumbled and grumbled and sneered at their failed entertainer as they scattered in different directions. He lowered his eyes, his posture collapsed in defeat. He kicked some rocks out of frustration and made his way back home. Mum's going to be so mad at me. 11 fin 12 Joe's Infantry Written by Josh Voyles Illustrated by Jesse Horn awickedworld.com 13 14 eople thought Joe a little eccentric, certainly, but most decided early on that the boy was essentially harmless. After all, he had been through enough already, hadn't he? His father shot in the line of duty when he was still just a baby and his poor, suffering mother with her tired, tired eyes. As far as most were concerned, if Joe Riley wanted to hold military funerals for his old Army Guys dolls in his backyard, well, who were they to judge? And besides, he was such a sweet, polite boy, wasn't he? What few knew but most suspected was that Joe loved those dolls more than anything else in the world, with the obvious exception being, of course, his mother. Only two years ago she had undertaken the dangerous mission of going down into the basement to rescue her late husband's band of Army Guys from the Cellar Dweller, a hulking creature with glowing red eyes who lived under the stairs, and who Joe knew full well had long ago lain claim to all subterranean territories in the Riley home. And to his surprise, she had actually succeeded, returning to ground level with her breath catching from carrying the box up the stairs, but with breath still coming and going through her lungs nonetheless. It touched him to know that she had risked her life for him, by bringing the Army Guys back into safe harbor for his benefit. The occasion was his sixth birthday, and the first thing he noticed about the plain cardboard box sitting on the table were the two words written in great capital letters across one of the flaps. "Mom?" he'd asked. "What does that say?" She planted a kiss on the top of his head as she walked around his chair and took a seat beside him. "It says, `Army Guys.' Those were your dad's favorite toys when he was your age. He said they were magical." And boy, was she right. Joe's favorite of the bunch was Sergeant Blitzkrieg, who with his eye patch and carefully painted-on hair looked like just the rough and tumble type who could always be counted on to lead his men into dangerous situations and bring all of them out again safely. And as Mrs. Riley discovered one afternoon while surfing collectors' websites, he was also the most valuable of the P 15 entire Army Guys toy line, with a mere twenty-thousand duplicates that rolled off of the assembly line over the course of a nine-month promotion. The complete set was now valued at ten-thousand dollars in good condition. But any thoughts of selling her husband's old toys was born and died within the space of seconds, barely given so much as a chance at a first breath. All she needed to do was call up the memory of her son running around the backyard with one of his father's old toys clenched into each hand, shouting orders at the top of his lungs and giving patriotic speeches. That was until he started burying them. Therapy didn't help. Joe's well-meaning but mostly-clueless psychiatrist, Dr. Maggart, had assured Mrs. Riley that her son was not mentally ill, but was merely acting out some repressed anger over the absence of his father, and that with enough time and space to do so, he would grow out of this little phase quickly. And although it was against her best instincts, she decided to do just that, all the while having to force herself to ignore the cardboard headstones popping up all across her vegetable garden, complete with names and ranks printed in a child's clumsy scrawl across them. She wasn't home the day Sergeant Blitzkrieg was caught behind enemy lines. For the last three weeks Joe had been perfecting a catapult he'd built from old toys and rubber bands, and the time had come at last for human trials. As the strongest and bravest of the assembled soldiers, it was of course Sergeant Blitzkrieg who volunteered. He stared straight ahead with a steely gaze at what lay beyond, unafraid of what was to come, as Joe gave a speech saluting him for his "invariable service" to his country. Joe pulled the cord. Sergeant Blitzkrieg went airborne and for an instant, appeared as though he might keep going until he landed right on the moon. But then he started to lose altitude, sailing over the Rileys' fence and into old Mr. Hull's backyard. There came a sharp cry of surprise and pain, and then Mr. Hull was standing on the other side of his fence, staring at Joe with narrowed eyes and an even-deeper frown creasing his features than the one he normally wore. Sergeant Blitzkrieg stared at Joe with the same steely gaze from his place clenched inside of Mr. Hull's beefy red fist. 16 "Is this yours?" he demanded. By nature a very shy boy, Joe could only look down at his feet and nod. "Well, guess what? Now it's mine. Maybe that'll teach you not to throw things into other peoples' yards." "But I didn't--!" Too late. Mr. Hull was already opening his back door and stepping inside, shaking his head. "Little brat," Joe heard Mr. Hull mutter to himself just before his back door slammed shut, nicking Sergeant Blitzkrieg's head. That night, Joe assembled the troops in his bedroom and whispered to them the most rousing speech he had ever made. All were in agreement that the capture of Sergeant Blitzkrieg 17 certainly qualified as an act of war. Plans were finalized, and then Joe carefully tucked each Army Guy into his backpack and snuck down the stairs, being careful to open the door as quietly as possible so as not to wake his sleeping mother. Minutes later, Mr. Hull was roused from a deep sleep by a loud, insistent pounding at his front door. He groaned, rolled over and glanced at his alarm clock. Two-thirty? Who in the name of the great merciful Lord could that be pounding at his door this early in the morning? Rolling out of bed, Mr. Hull picked his robe up from atop the blanket chest at the edge of the bed he shared with his nearly-deaf wife and pulled it on. He allowed himself a single, baleful glance down at Katrina's sleeping form and grumbled, "No, really, don't get up," before throwing open the bedroom door and shuffling through the living room to his front door. What he saw was Joe, and arranged before him in a single row were ten dolls in military fatigues, none of them more a foot tall, but all facing him. In their plastic hands, he saw, they each held tiny plastic rifles. "You!" he blubbered, blood rushing to his cheeks. Dr. Hartman kept warning him about his blood pressure, but that Ivy League quack wasn't being awakened from a perfectly restful sleep at the back-end of midnight by some spoiled little neighborhood nuisance.. "What do you think you're doing?" "I... I..." Joe stammered. "Get out of here!" he shouted and waved his arm at Joe, only half-wanting to smack him across the face hard enough to make his grandfather's teeth rattle. "Get outta here before I call the cops! And you better thank God I'm not your daddy, boy, else I'd tan your hide thirty different shades of crimson!" Joe swallowed hard, searching for his voice, and then whispered, "Ready." The dolls' backs straightened as one. Their heels clicked together in unison. Mr. Hull's attention turned downward, and his eyes widened with terror. "Aim," Joe said now, louder this time, with more confidence. Mr. Hull watched, uncomprehending and unbelieving as all twelve of the tiny plastic rifles took aim directly at the center of his chest. In the dim glare of his porch light Mr. Hulll could see the faces of each individual doll, the way their eyes stared up at him with a grim determination that was almost... almost human... "We are here to negotiate for Sergeant Blitzkrieg's release," Joe said in a low, menacing voice. 18 19 20 End of the Woods Written by Austin Gilkeson austinhgilkeson.wordpress.com Illustrated by John Federis maestro-johann.deviantart.com The Web at the 21 22 verybody hated Shinnosuke. He was a weirdo, a loser, an otaku. He was short, pale, and pimply. His school uniform was always spotted with crumbs and stray grains of sticky rice from lunch. His shoulders were dusted with dandruff. His hair was greasy. At recess, he either sat on the school steps reading manga about werewolf-warriors, or wandered around the edge of the school yard, collecting bugs in an old plastic bento box he kept tucked in his school bag. When Jiro and his friends cornered him by the bike rack after school one day, they found rhino beetles, dragonflies, moths, even a poisonous centipede in the bento box. They pinned Shinnosuke to the bike rack, opened the bento box, and dumped the bugs down his pants. Jiro laughed so hard his sides hurt, watching Shinnosuke dance around shrieking, trying to shake the bugs out his pant legs. But the next day, Shinnosuke was back at the edge of the school yard scouring the trees for bugs. "It's almost like the dork wants us to shove bugs down his pants," Jiro said. He was standing with Hideki and Yasu by the gym, and watching Shinnosuke trying to snatch a butterfly out of the air. "Next time, maybe we oughta hold him down and put them in his mouth. Make him eat `em," Yasu said and laughed. "Oh man, that would be the funniest thing ever. Can you imagine his face? When he's chewing on a cockroach?" "You think he'd care? He'd like that. The freak already eats `em. Why do you think he puts `em in a bento box?" Hideki said. "No way, man. Even Shinnosuke's not that freaking gross," Yasu said. "Look, Ayumi told me when she was at her calligraphy class last week, she saw him going into the woods behind the community center. She said she could see the bugs buzzing and crawling around inside his bento box. Then he came out about two hours later and it was empty." Jiro looked across the yard and saw Shinnosuke snapping the lid shut on the box and smiling. How could that ugly otaku not understand how gross he was? "Let's follow him after school," Yasu said. "We gotta see this. If we can get some cell phone pictures and send `em to everybody in school... oh man, people will bust a gut laughing." Hideki groaned. "Man, I don't wanna watch Shinnosuke eat bugs." "Me neither," Jiro said. "But after school, we are gonna follow him into the woods. Catch him in the act. Ambush him." "Then what? Shove the bugs down his pants again before he can eat `em?" Hideki asked. E 23 "Yeah. And then we're gonna beat the snot out of him." It was about a five minute bike ride from Yamoku Junior High School to the community center. Shinnosuke didn't seem to notice the three boys following him a few yards behind. He left his bike in the bike rack at the community center, took the bento box out of his school bag, and slung the bag over his shoulder. He walked to the edge of the woods and then stopped. He stared at the bento box for a moment, took a deep breath, and stepped into the trees. Jiro, Hideki, and Yasu waited three minutes before starting after Shinnosuke. There was a narrow dirt track that led through the woods. Jiro went first. He wished he'd brought a flash light. The sun was still bright and shining in the sky, but it was dim as dusk beneath the trees. They walked for over half an hour. Jiro wondered how a little dork like Shinnosuke could wander so deep into these woods by himself and not be scared. Jiro's grandmother had told him all sorts of scary stories about this forest. People gored to death by wild boars. Ghosts of suicides seen hanging from the trees by the light of a full moon. Spiders that spun webs big enough to trap full-grown men. An ogress who kidnapped wayward children and made them into dumplings. The light grew dimmer. Up ahead, they heard the sound of rushing water. The path ended by a small stream. Jiro stopped. Shinnosuke had vanished. They couldn't hear his footsteps over the sound of the stream. Where had he gone? They looked around and thought for a moment that he had spotted them and run away. But then Yasu saw him a few yards ahead, walking along the edge of the stream, holding onto the branches of trees to make sure he didn't slip. Jiro and the boys followed. The stream widened. The rush of the water grew louder. Finally, they came to a clearing at the foot of a small cliff. A little waterfall plunged from the top of the cliff into a clear, deep pool that fed the stream. Jiro, Hidei, and Yasu ducked into a thicket and watched Shinnosuke. The boy dropped his bag by the side of the pool and walked to the edge of the waterfall with his bento box. Jiro noticed there was a deep, dark cave behind the curtain of water. Shinnosuke shouted something three times, and even though the boy's voice echoed in the dark of the cave, Jiro couldn't hear what he shouted over the rush of the water. "What is he doing--" Hideki started to say, then sucked in his breath. Someone walked out of the cave. A girl. She looked just a little older than them � fifteen, sixteen at the most. She wore an old-fashioned looking kimono of white silk. Her black hair hung down to her waist. 24 Jiro couldn't believe his eyes. She was the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen. And she was smiling at Shinnosuke. The little dork bowed low and politely handed her the bento box. The girl smiled and laughed as she looked inside. Then she sat down at the edge of the pool. Shinnosuke ran over and grabbed his school bag. He pulled out a huge stack of manga and handed them to the girl. She set aside the bento box, then smiled and kissed him on his pimply cheek. "What the--," Yasu whispered. Jiro shushed him. He felt a white hot anger inside him. No girl had ever kissed him like that. Shinnosuke sat with the girl by the edge of the pool and read a manga together. The ugly dork grinned like a stupid idiot the whole time. After a while, the girl handed Shinnosuke the manga and touched her stomach. She stood up, grabbed the bento box, and disappeared back inside the cave. Shinnosuke stared intently at the manga in his hands. He didn't so much as glance in the direction of the cave. "Let's go," Jiro said. The three boys jumped out of the bushes and strode towards the pool. They were only a few feet from Shinnosuke before he heard their footsteps. He looked up. His eyes went wide with fear. "What are you doing here? Go away! You can't be here! Go away!" he said. He stood up and threw the manga at them. It bounced harmlessly off Yasu's chest. Jiro shoved the dork to the ground. "Who's your girlfriend?" Jiro shouted. "Please, get out of here! You have to go. You don't know what she is! If she sees you--" "What? She'll realize what a pimply little otaku you are compared to real men like us? Afraid she'll break up with you?" "No, you don't understand, she's--" Shinnosuke said, but then Jiro knelt down and punched him in the face. "Shut up!" Jiro grabbed Shinnosuke by collar. "Who's your girlfriend? What's her name?" Yasu and Hideki were laughing. Shinnosuke began shaking. "K-Kuwa... she said her name was Kuwa. Kuwa Ibukishita," Shinnosuke said. "Why's she hanging out with a creep like you?" Jiro said. "I-I was looking for rhino beetles one day. A few months ago. I-I-I got lost in the woods and ended up here. She came out of her cave and... and... I gave her my beetles. She said if I b-b- 25 brought her more bugs, b-b-brought her books and m-m-magazines to read, we could be friends. She said she w-w-wouldn't hurt me..." Jiro punched him again. Blood streamed from Shinnosuke's nose and lip. "Oh man, you're telling me she's the one who eats the bugs? She's an even more disgusting freak than you. No wonder she lives in the woods. Must be some runaway mental case..." Yasu said. "Hold him," Jiro said and stood up. Yasu grabbed Shinnosuke, pulled him up, and pinned his arms behind his back. "Where are you going, Jiro?" Hideki said. "I'm gonna give his girlfriend a little surprise," Jiro said. Yasu and Hideki snickered. Shinnosuke squirmed in Yasu's grip and began shouting. "No! Don't go in there! She told me to never bother her when she was eating! She said if she ever caught me looking at her--" Yasu clapped a hand over Shinnosuke's bloodied mouth. "Be quiet, dork. You wouldn't wanna spoil Jiro's surprise, now would you?" Jiro gave his friends and Shinnosuke one last glance, then walked into the cave. The sound of the screams drowned out even the rush of the waterfall. Something huge moved in the gloom of the cave. Yasu let go of Shinnosuke and began to run, Hideki right behind him. In the instant before Shinnosuke closed his eyes, he saw a gleaming cluster of eyes and eight legs, long and sharp as spears, emerge from the cave. He fell to the ground and curled into a ball. Something huge rushed past him. Yasu and Hideki's scream's filled his ears, then faded into sickening gurgles. There was a soft, wet sound then, a sound Shinnosuke would later realize was the sound of the two boys being wrapped in thick strands of sticky silk. The creature came back toward him, something heavy dragging on the ground behind her. Shinnosuke curled up even tighter and shivered violently. The creature loomed over him. "Shinnosuke," the creature he called Kuwa said in a soft, hissing voice. "Get up. Follow the stream to the path, and the path out of the forest. Do not look behind you until you reach the 26 edge of the woods. If you do, I will kill you. Never come here again. If you do, I will eat you. Never tell anyone what you saw here today. If you do, you will die screaming in my webs as I gorge on your insides. Now go." Shinnosuke stood. His legs shook so badly he thought he might fall over. He thought he might throw up. But he held himself together and kept his eyes squeezed shut. He took a tentative step forward. He didn't fall. He took another step, then another, and then walked slowly away from the sound of the waterfall. He did not look back. Shinnosuke moved to Tokyo after high school. He rented a tiny apartment in Shibuya, in the center of the metropolis. He never left the city. When his friends invited him to go hiking and camping, he always declined. He never went back to Yamoku, not even for New Year's or the Obon Festival. But even walking down the crowded, neon-lit streets of Tokyo, Shinnosuke would sometimes feel that he was being followed. He would quicken his step and look wildly around him. Most of the time he didn't see anything. But sometimes he would have sworn that he glimpsed, in some shadowy crevice of the city, eight gleaming eyes watching him from the dark. Watching him, and waiting. 27 fin 28 Written & Illustrated by Christopher Lincoln chrislincoln.org The Harvest 29 30 hang shoeless now, my corpse good only for feeding crows. One circles high above the green, a specter in the haze. Another will join then make a feast of my eyes. It will not matter. I will see just as handily afterward. I know this because all of time is as one beating heart: before as good as after, as after is before: it is all the same for anyone who has thrown off his mortal coil. In a flurry of feathers, the crows refresh themselves, each carrying off one of my faded orbs. I see easily through their gizzards as they take wing, catch a climbing sea breeze, then crisscross village patchwork. Through one eye, there is Diligence Sewell, surveying the land he failed to squeeze from Giles Whitaker. I hear his thoughts grind as he wonders how to pluck the property from the old man's heirs. At this, my eyeball twinkles. Giles's bravery diddled Sewell from the land. Giles, like me, stood one accused. I would not have traded him his fate. The magistrates planked him, heaping boulder upon boulder atop the old man, but he did not yield, crying out, "More weight!" in the end; his tongue pressed out of his mouth like a breaching whale as he passed into my gossamer state. But because he plead neither innocent nor guilty to the magistrates' charge, he avoided their covetous reach. Through the other eye, appears a sooty smudge--ashes--all that is left of my hearth, home, and family. I search for the cracked bones of my wife and child. Dear Constance and Faith went up in the blaze. This memory is what fuels my heart, delaying my departure: that and a few unearthly talents. Much closer to earth, the gallows rope is sliced. I fall. Not one set of arms is decent enough to catch me. Too pure, I suspect, for the likes of an accused witch. Or is it the fear wrapping their shoulders that keeps their arms at bay? It amplifies the black thump of their hearts. Even my dead sockets are enough to see the avarice. It is clear as dawn's light to any who will truly open their eyes. The month is September; still warm enough to smell the green's earthy loam and the worms squirming beneath. I will be sharing myself with these bedfellows 'til all that's left are bones. I do not begrudge them. Mother Earth has put them here for the purpose of mixing souls with her lushness: The same great mother who gives me strength to extend my reach beyond the grave. Potato sacks are tossed with greater care than I receive as my body lands in the shallow grave outside the meeting halls hallowed ground whose vast timber bones housed the trials. The nineteen others, who have and will dance before the hangman, will all be dumped here too: each wrapped in burlap, and each landing with the same insulting thump. It is a grave error that they do not bury us deeper. Alas, when one is not gifted with the sight of the dead, how is one to know? My unhallowed neighbors--sixteen, so far--join me perched on the stones ringing the village graveyard. We watch like in foggy silence as the last of the dirt is flopped atop my mound. The I 31 gravedigger gives it one last pat then ambles off for his cider. He will find his way to stronger stuff to launder the memories of his part in the hysteria. Then finding there is not enough liquor in all the world, he will end up in a pauper's grave not so far from mine. His future already has one gnarled arm wrapped around his shoulder, stumbling along like a tosspot. We sit for months, little more than wisps of fog, until we number twenty. The last of us is has been interred, and as fortune would have it there is a harvest moon. The appropriate token for what comes now. But before I begin, my loves shimmer before me, gauzy webs spun from moonbeams. Our hands pass through one another, echoes of our beings. My wife, my daughter, look on me your last, for the power I summon tonight will cut us asunder, sure as anger is edged. The moment stretches to the other end of time. The moment is but a blink. Both are true to one who is dead, and at the end of each my loves fade. And so I am left to my deed. Nineteen sets of spectral eyes follow as I slip from the wall. Nineteen sets of spectral eyes widen as I snap my fingers and a ragged hole rents the air. Inside leap flames hotter than magma, as hot as hate itself. Some see it as a cleansing fire, and perhaps this is so. All I know is that it blazes from the darkest part of my heart: where vengeance lurks. 'Tis Creation's greatest contradiction, this fire of the dark, but this beguiling thought will not sidetrack me. I reach in then withdraw a white-hot branding iron. Few village houses are spared my visit this harvest night, as I mark the hearts of each false witness; each man who sat in judgment, eyes blinded by the conceit of his belief; and each bystander who recognized unjust proceedings but remained mute. Their chests sizzle with the mark of the place I shall soon call home. I return to my nineteen friends. Released one by one, they swirl skyward-- ash sparks--soon consumed by stars. I nod to the moon. I nod to the stars. It is my last moment on Earth. And then it has passed. I leap into the abyss. The rent air closes behind me. I plummet toward the flames knowing villagers left behind have a far worse fate than mine. Each branded heart knows where it is headed, but I've left them with an additional gift. I have bound their fears to a dead man's senses. Now each niggling worry will extend well past its due. My old neighbors will suffer though a maze of eternities before they ever reach the one they will share with me. It is enough to warm my sizzling heart. 32 33 34 Wilting Princess Written by Jo Wu jowu-timeispoisoned.blogspot.com Illustrated by Evan Heasman sojushots.blogspot.ca 35 36 ong ago, there lived a princess who wore a dress of flowers that bloomed upon her body and swayed with her every waltz-like step. Upon her head, she wore not a crown, but a great black birdcage fitted over her head. Despite her idiosyncrasies, all who lay eyes upon her found her beautiful. Children and adults were drawn to her, for she was a feast for the eyes, with her porcelain skin, sunrise-rosy cheeks, and rosebud lips. Yet, when the princess turned her gaze upon them, they felt an unexplained jolting chill. Yes, she was comely, but there was a quality in her eyes that frightened them. They were dark, oh-so-black, like ink staining white silk, like a hollow pit down a murky well with no way of climbing out. It was worse when the princess smiled. She smiled the way any other girl would--wide and giddy--ready to laugh and sing with friends. But when others saw her smile at them, they felt as though she emitted a monstrous aura, as if she possessed fangs as long and sharp as the blade of daggers and viscous blood dripping from her mouth, threatening to stain their clothes and skin if she came too close. "Could I bring my doll to your tea party?" The princess asked as she approached a circle of girls who held teacups to their dolls' lips. They all stared up at the princess, who vaguely resembled her doll with her milk-white skin and round cheeks. But as docile as the princess looked, the girls became frightened under her gaze. "No," they responded, vigorously shaking their heads. "Oh, may I, please?" As the princess began to sit down amongst the girls, they all shrieked and leapt to their feet. They did not pay attention to the fact that they had spilled hot tea and toppled platters of jam biscuits all over the princess as they dashed away. With downcast eyes and slumped shoulders, a few of the flowers on the princess's dress browned and wilted as she stood up and shook off crumbs. When she was twelve, her mother and father, the king and queen, held a Grand Ball. She gladly attended, happy to whirl about to the swooning of the violins. However, upon seeing the princess, the Ball attendees would part and gawk at her as if she was a panther released from a cage. If they felt her eyes scan over them, they turned their faces away and began nonsensical conversations with the person next to them, pretending to be engrossed with small talk. None of the boys asked her to dance. "May I have this dance?" the princess would ask a handsome boy. The boy took two steps back. "No, thank you." L 37 The princess went up to other boys with the same question. However, they all turned and scurried away in the opposite direction, deciding instead to whisper or snicker behind the princess's back. By the time the Ball ended, a few of the flowers upon the hem of the princess's gown had wilted. Brown petals trailed behind her as she sulked back to her private chambers. Years drifted by. The princess grew to be a ravishing young woman of proper marrying age. When her portrait was sent to the King of a neighboring kingdom, the King tumbled headfirst out of his throne upon the sight of the painting. He gawked at it, enraptured by the princess's painted visage. He fixed his eyes upon the artistic rendition of her face, as if he was trying to drown himself in the splendors of a succulent wine. "I shall not rest until this woman becomes my wife!" He declared. "Surely, there is no woman as fair as her elsewhere." Arrangements were made and the princess was set to arrive at the new kingdom in the morning. The King was set to marry her upon her arrival. However, once she stepped out of the carriage before his eyes, he realized that she wore a dress of decaying flowers, and that the crown upon her head was not an exotic tiara, but an ugly birdcage. When she smiled at him, his blood seemed to evaporate from his body. "This girl is too ugly!" He declared after his affectionate fantasies plummeted deep into his bowels like a sack of stones. "I shall not take her for a wife." Upon hearing this statement, the last of the flowers on the princess's gown wilted. As their petals shriveled and turned ash-black, the princess crumpled to the ground. Her body was sprawled out at the King's feet, as still and frozen as a clock when time stood still. The black bird cage was wrenched off her head, the flowers were torn from her skin, and a gown of white silk now flowed from her body. In death, the princess was deemed by the King to be immaculately and irresistibly docile. Unable to tear his sight from her marble-white skin, soft figure, and delicate face, he requested to have her corpse laid in a glass coffin by his bed so that he could forever direct his stare upon her. A fortnight after her death, as the King slept with the corpse of the princess by his side, he abruptly awoke when he felt his castle shaking. He was jolted out of bed and thrown upon the 38 hard, cold floor. Upon landing, the shaking stopped. All was still and quiet. There were no owls hooting, no crickets chirping, no clock ticking, no floorboards creaking, and no breaths from a living soul. It looked to be a mere placid evening with moonlight sifting through the window to dance with the blue-black shadows of his chamber. When he began to climb back into bed, the castle suddenly shook again, toppling the King onto his back on the floor. He soon heard the sounds of snapping and popping wood. The floor suddenly slanted, forcing the King to slide and crash into a wall. His immense four-poster bed, book-spilling bookshelf, paintings, and trophy heads of antlered deers, fanged wolves, and roaring bears plummeted their way down onto the king. Then, through the floorboards, gnarled tree roots, sharp branches, ragged leaves, and large dead flowers, like fat spiders, came scrambling towards the King, who let out a throat-ripping scream. The roots, branches, leaves, and flowers grew and grew like a virus of ever-flourishing snakes and spiders. They burst out through the stone walls of the castle, slithering above ground and underground. They chased the knights who had tried in vain to slice away at them, only to realize that the plants multiplied with every stroke of a sword, and were eventually engulfed in the vengeful foliage. They crashed through the windows and doors of the villagers' homes. They raced and raced and raced all over the grounds of the kingdom, pillaging the cities until they reached and were fully integrated with the forests that surrounded the kingdom. All living beings turned to dust along with the dead remnants of the plants. The only thing that remained unmarred was the body of the princess. She remained as pure as the white silk dress she wore, even when the branches and roots had slashed through her glass casket and tucked her in their embrace. 39 fin 40 You Will Pay Written by Max Ogden Illustrated by Irving Vishel 41 42 T here was a strange and insistent noise. Was it the dripping faucet? Was it the hum of the refrigerator? Or Was it my heart beating out of my chest? Where is my wife? William Porter was a very wealthy lawyer. One day, as he was relaxing in his office when a very crazed knock came at his door. He jolted out of his chair and prepared himself, not knowing what would happen in the moments to come. The next thing he knew, he was on the ground and a very gaunt, ugly man was on top of him. Eyes bulging out of his head, he glared down at Mr. Porter. "I need help." "Sir, please. Get off me!" "I am not a kidnapper, I swear it's the truth!" said the strange man. "Sir, calm down. Take a seat, and let's talk." The man, Dr. Victor Jason explained himself to Mr. Porter and after an agreeable conversation they decided to work together to fix his dilemma. Dr. Jason was charged with kidnapping a twenty-two year old man for atrocious experiments. You see; Victor Jason was a very experienced, albeit peculiar scientist. He had a particular interest in the human brain and dissecting it to see how it worked. Now he needed Mr. Porter's help. It was a deal. They were going to work together and prove him innocent. Victor told Mr. Porter all about himself and what he did to his human subjects. If they were going to prove Victor's innocence then they would need a lot of evidence. ********* Next thing they knew, the judge was announcing, "Guilty! Your sentence will be twenty years." There was not enough evidence and even Mr. Porter was starting to question his client's innocence. As Dr. Jason was escorted out in handcuffs he turned on his attorney and said one final thing that sent chills through Mr. Porter. 43 "Mr. Porter, you will pay." Then like fingernails scratching on a blackboard he gave a horrible snicker. With that he was gone. Mr. Porter knew Victor was innocuous to him. He was going to be in jail for the next twenty years and didn't look like a man of much tenacity. Yet, Mr. Porter still felt a bit shocked. "Mr. Porter, Mr. Porter?" said the judge. "Yes, yes, sorry your honor. I'll be on my way." On his way home, Mr. Porter stopped to pick up shampoo. A request his wife had made. The words, you will pay echoed through his mind. He turned on the radio and tried not to think about it for the rest of his drive. He arrived home late that night, so of course he was very tired. He kissed his wife goodnight and headed off to bed. He lay down, and within a matter of seconds Mr. William Porter was fast asleep. After a very restless night, and a horrid dream, he woke up for his morning coffee. A very drowsy Mr. Porter did not realize until now that he woke up alone in his bed. His wife must have gone on an early morning run, he thought. He reached up to scratch his chin and felt the sprout of a goatee. "Karen will not like this," he said out loud on his way to the bathroom. He turned to grab his razor and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and saw gray hair. "Karen will not like that either! That wasn't there last night." He reached for his razor. He finished up and decided to take a hot shower. "What! Out of shampoo already? I picked some up just yesterday." He was so tired last night, maybe it had spilled in the car and he didn't notice. He got out of the shower and decided to give his wife a call. He was getting a bit worried and wanted to talk to her. No answer. "I hope she isn't hurt," he thought. He shook it off. "She can take care of herself." He lay down to relax and before he knew it, he had fallen asleep. His body and mind was still very exhausted from the events with Dr. Jason the night before. After a very nice, long nap he awoke with wide eyes. The clock in front of him read 3:00 p.m. He slothishly tore himself off of the couch until his toes reached the soft carpet. "Honey," he yelled. No answer. 44 "Are you home?" Nothing. Now, he was very worried. Where was his wife? He dialed her number and once again there was no answer. Impatiently, he left a message but he was so frazzled he forgot to wait for the beep. Shaking, he slammed the phone down. "This is ludicrous," he said. He was getting so worked up over nothing. She probably just went to buy some groceries for dinner. He began washing the breakfast dishes to distract himself. When the final dish was squeaky clean and he was satisfied with his work, it was 3:58 pm. He started to head over to the TV when he heard the door open. "Karen?" he asked excitedly. "Is that you?" A smile spread across his face. Then he heard the door close. It had to be her. "Hey, how was your day?" But instead of his lovely wife, his eyes met with Doctor Victor Jason. "You are supposed to be in prison!" "Oh no, I served that ten years ago." Confused, Mr. Porter scream at him, "Get out of my house, now!" "Can't do that, I'm sorry Mr. Porter." "I'll call the police." "No, no, no Mr. Porter. You took twenty years of my life, and now you are half done with your twenty." He pulled out a large syringe with a dark liquid loaded and ready. "What are you talking about?" With that, Victor made a quick movement and put the needle right in Mr. Porter's arm. "Goodnight, Mr. Porter." After a very restless night, and a horrid dream, he woke up for his morning coffee. A very drowsy Mr. Porter did not realize until now that he woke up alone in his bed. Just like he had every day of the last ten years. 45 46 Written by Christopher Lincoln chrislincoln.org Illustrated by Jason Smith jsmithillustration.com Headless Dieder The Legend of 47 48 Chapter 6 Bedtime and Rats N ot trusting a chin waggle this time, Mama Van Tassel directed Dieder to the staircase. "Bedtime," she said, "I'll be up to check on you in five minutes." Dieder held his ground, remaining at the entrance to the sitting room. "In case you haven't noticed," he snapped, "I'm not five-years-old! And I haven't been for ages." "Then you must stop acting like one and take charge of your temper!" Mama Van Tassel shot back. Dieder was about to add, "Then it must be your bedtime, too!" but his shadowy internal voice urged caution. She has a point. Calm down. So instead he said, "I'm supposed to sleep after all this excitement?" "Excitement?" Mama Van Tassel said with such force, she would have dropped a second plate, if she'd had one at the time. "What has happened is terrible and will bring only trouble!" "What kind of trouble?" Dieder's curiosity was at work again. "There are some things we don't discuss," she answered, using Grandpapa Van Tassel's favorite line, then added, "It is best for us if no one comes poking about." That sounded like the end of the discussion, but that didn't stop Dieder's shadowy voice from spitting out questions. Has this to do with the Headless Horseman? Why is he at the center of so many things? The more Dieter thought about this, the more he had to agree. Mrs. Van Dinkle's ghost had said the Horseman was the source of the bad blood between his family and the Van Brunt's. 49 Then there was the present. The shadowy suit certainly tied the phantom to Dieder. And the way Mama and Grandpapa Van Tassel had looked so worried when Rotmen had mentioned the Horseman, they had to be hiding something, but what? It was clear from past experience he'd get no answers from his mama or grandpapa. So he needed to find the Horseman to sort this out: A difficult proposition, but not impossible. After all, the Horseman had already made contact. Yet an important question remained. "Mama?" "Yes?" She was coming around. Dieder could almost hear the missing "Dumpling" she would have added when she wasn't mad. "What's an exterminator?" He'd never run across that word in the family bible, the almanac, or in any of Mr. Knickerbocker's stories. "Exterminators remove--" she hiked a brow as if struggling to find the right word, "pests. This one, he specializes in the otherworldly kind." She said it as if otherworldly pest removal might be something useful. This was not so good. Dieder had to find the Horseman before Rotmen, or he'd never get to the truth. Then, just as suddenly, her expression clouded as she bustled into the kitchen. Dieder remained on the steps, listening. From the quiet sniffles he guessed Mama Van Tassel was leaning over the sink, using it as a teary catch basin. It didn't take his highly developed intuition to sense the source of her gloom. Me. He turned to slump up the steps. If I had been born, there'd be nothing to hide--WUMP--He kicked the frayed stair runner. OUCH! Rrrrgh! I'm a . . . a . . . freak! He knew Mama Van Tassel would tell him this was nonsense. And Grandpapa Van Tassel was always careful to not to let his disappointment show. But their distant looks and sighs spoke volumes. Turning at the second-floor newel post, Dieder limped through the darkness, past a linen chest and a stiff cane chair, and the empty rooms that had long ago been filled with overnight guests. Perhaps this was the strangest part of Mr. Knickerbocker's story. Was there really a time when the house overflowed with the living, their boisterous songs, and snoring? He slumped a little more, knowing he was the reason the house was so empty. 50 Turning his porcelain doorknob, he entered his bedroom. It was as dark save for the moon glow brushing the window glass, and for the first time he felt smothered by its tiny size. As he slumped onto his bed, he heard the shadowy voice once more. It had moved back into the wall. You wouldn't be a freak in the Haunted Regions, you know. Dieder knew it was true. According to Mr. Knickerbocker's stories he'd be normal as a doorknocker over there. Suddenly, Dieder didn't feel quite so slumpy. Here was another reason to find the Horseman: to hear about this wondrous place from someone who knew it first hand. What would it be like to have the run of an entire magical world? It made Dieder's invisible neck hairs tingle just thinking about it. How are you going to find the Horseman? Asked the voice. Maybe I can ask Mr. Perish. Dieder thought and then discarded the idea the next instant. The coachman was proud of his punctuality, usually arriving seconds after spirits first step foot out of their earthly shell. Dieder thumped back on his pillow. Then, gazing up at his slanted ceiling, he caught sight of a cobweb, its strands edged in silver light. Light! He thought remembering the ghostly shape in front of the house. He darted to his dormer window to see if the glow was there. It was. Mr. Parish was late! Dieder changed into his nightshirt. His box-framed bed groaned as he slid under the bed covers. It seemed like two centuries (or roughly the length of one math lesson) before his mama showed up. He used the time to practice defusing, preparing to steal through the wall. At last, his door creaked open. Mama Van Tassel sat down on the edge of his bed and stroked his invisible head. Her face filled with motherly concern as she ran a lock of invisible hair through her fingertips. "This is in need of a snipping, I think. We will get the bowl out and attend to it tomorrow. In the meantime, my dumpling, I do not want you to worry. Your grandpapa and I will deal with whatever troubles come our way." "I know, mama," Dieder said, biting back his guilt, because what he wanted to add was, I know all of this is my fault. She smiled, her whole face dedicated to the task: even her red rimmed eyes. Then she kissed his invisible cheek. "You are the best thing that has happened to me, my sweet. Goodnight." For one gentle moment, Dieder felt peace. 51 Then it was gone. Because as she left the room, she sighed -- lengthy, like a sword slowly drawn from its scabbard -- it cut Dieder, deep, as if the Horseman's blade had been at work. He was more certain than before he was the cause of her sadness. If I went away, she'd be happy again, Dieder told himself, imagining his mama and grandpapa throwing open their door like in the old days to sponsor a village feast. Strudel eyed him skeptically from the end of the bed. "Don't give me that. They were a lot happier before." Dieder clasped his arms around his drawn-up knees. Strudel flicked her tail as if say, "Well, if you insist on deluding yourself." "You'll see." Down the hall, his mama's bare feet padded across her bedroom floor. In no time at all, she would blow out her candle and crawl between soft linen sheets. It was time to make a start. Dieder drew his new shadowy garments out of the wall then over his nightshirt. His midnight cloak, tunic, and riding boots would keep him well concealed. The last thing he wanted was to traipse about in a nightshirt. He'd be taken for a ghost, sure as witching has an hour. Strudel minced across mares to the cape then pawed it curiously as Dieder held it up. Odd thing was, it seemed heavier than before. And double-odd, Dieder thought he heard a sigh of relief when he fastened its clasp. He glanced around the room trying to locate a source: surely, it wasn't the cape itself ! Nah. He shrugged then oozed through the wall. If the Van Tassel's rundown manor had one thing in extra supply it was loose clapboard siding. The small band of rats found it laughably simple to pry it open, once they arrived from the carriage. Typically, it was their job to infiltrate and wreak havoc, so their master could charge the homeowner a small fortune to have them removed--pretending to exterminate them, but really returning them to their leather satchel, in order to pull off a similar job at a 52 future date. They practically worshiped their master, thinking he was the cleverest crook ever for figuring out this breezy way to filch money. Not that the four rats should be shortchanged for their role. They played their part brilliantly. Tonight, however, simple breaking and entering was not on the docket. No. They were to slip inside the house, using their crafty rat skills to locate an especially strong source of magic. In the months past, their master's pursuits had changed from phony pest removal to a strong interest in the power of magic. They were also vaguely aware that he had some interest in a boy. But the boy was not their business, magical, ghostly, or otherwise. For him, their master had a plan of his own. The lead rat stopped in his tracks, his whiskers quivered as his pointy nose sniffed the air. Casing the joint might not be as easy as it first appeared. An unmistakable aroma of mouser was there for all to smell. Putting their heads together, the rats squeaked like four rusty whisks as they whipped up a plan. They'd mixed it up with cats before--city-toughened alley cats--each time, dishing out a drubbing. They flashed needle-sharp grins sure this cat would be no different. 53 fin 54 55 in W s r e n 56 Lora and the Skineaters Written by TL Milligan facebook.com/authortlmilligan Illustrated by Ken Lamug rabbleboy.com 57 58 She spent day after day with her forehead pressed against the window, watching the outside world but never entering it. Because outside, there were monsters. Mother came and sat down beside Lora. She tugged on Lora's braids gently, then swept her bangs off her forehead so she could press a kiss to her cold skin. Lora closed her eyes briefly, letting herself forget things she wished she didn't know, for just a moment. "Daddy will be careful, Lora," Mother whispered in her ear. "He's always careful. Come away from the window. Come sit with me in the kitchen." Lora wanted to believe her mother, but she couldn't. The monsters were the reason Daddy had to go outside today. Alone, with only a shotgun and an old Bloodhound named Tag for protection. The monsters had taken her brother, Christian. Lora knew, as certainly as they all did, that Christian wouldn't be recovered. He was gone now. It was no use. But Daddy had to go anyway. Because it was the right thing to do. Because not going meant giving up hope, and hope wasn't something they could afford to relinquish. And because Daddy loved Christian as much as, if not more than, he loved Lora. "Daddy's never gone alone before. Never." Lora turned tear-filled brown eyes on her mother. Mother's face went ashen. Her eyes widened, betraying a flicker of fear, but she composed her features, offering Lora a small smile. "Daddy is strong and brave, Lora. And we have to be brave for him. Can you do that? It will help. We can help Daddy if we are brave, too." Lora nodded slowly. She swallowed over a lump in her throat, fingering a tiny gold cross she wore around her neck. Daddy had given it to her. Daddy had taught her to pray. She could hear his words, echoing around inside her head. When the monsters come, we pray, Lora. When the monsters stay away, we pray. When the monsters take one of ours, we pray. We always pray, Lora. We never stop praying. L ora never ventured outside alone. It was too easy to get kidnapped that way. 59 Mother noticed Lora touching the cross. "Come into the kitchen with me, and we will pray, Lora. Would you like that? Would it make you feel better?" Lora thought back to a few nights ago, before Christian had disappeared. He had been arguing with Daddy in the kitchen. Lora was supposed to be sleeping, but she had been sitting at the top of the stairs, listening. Lora didn't sleep anymore. Nobody slept anymore. Christian's words from that night cropped up in her mind. We are forsaken. Praying is useless. God doesn't care what happens to us. If he did, he wouldn't have let those terrible abominations take my betrothed, Emma, from me! "Christian didn't pray. Is that why they took him, Mother? Is that why he's gone?" "No, Lora. No," Mother cooed as she pulled Lora into her arms. "No, they took him because he wasn't safe or careful. They took him because he went looking for Emma, at nighttime, and he shouldn't have. He should've stayed home. He should've stayed here, with us." Mother's voice cracked. Lora pretended not to notice. "But Christian said--" "Christian was wrong, sweetie. God doesn't want to hurt us. Sometimes bad things happen, and there isn't anything we can do about that." "I'm scared, Mother," Lora sobbed into her mother's shawl. "I'm so scared." "We will pray, Lora. We pray when we're afraid, remember?" Mother held Lora tightly in her arms. Slowly, very slowly, she rocked her back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Mother whispered the Lord's prayer, her lips pressed into Lora's hair. She began to cry too. The teardrops streamed down her face, landing on the tip of Lora's nose. Then Mother started to sing a lullaby, one that she had been crooning to Lora her entire life. For a little while, the only sound was Mother's soothing lullaby, and everything was quiet and serene. For a little while, Lora forgot the monsters and the threat of impending death and the desperate beat of her heart. For a little while, Lora escaped from the harsh reality of her world. Then, a disturbing sound came from outside, and the peaceful moment was gone. There was a gunshot, followed by a strangled yelp, a howl of fear and pain. A chill skittered down Lora's spine. 60 "Tag," Mother gasped, clutching Lora closer to her. "What are we going to do, Mother?" Lora's sobs were louder now, and she clung to her mother's chest. "Shh, Lora. It's all right. Everything will be all right--" Mother stopped short when suddenly, the front door burst open, and there, framed in the doorway, was a tall, dark figure. Lora screamed, burying her face in the folds of her mother's dress. Mother's head whipped around. "John! Oh, thank God. I feared you were dead!" "Daddy?" Lora lifted her face up, and relief washed over her body: there was her father, alive, standing in the doorway. Sweat glistened on his forehead, and in one hand, he clutched his shotgun. Tag was missing. Daddy slammed the front door shut, locking it swiftly. Mother got up from the chair, worrying her fingers at the apron tied around her dress. "We heard the gunshot, and Tag crying out, and I thought for sure you were dead." "Where is Tag?" Lora asked. Daddy offered Lora a sympathetic glance. "He's dead, darling. I had to shoot him. I didn't have a choice. One of the Skineaters, it got him. It was only a matter of time...he would've gone mad with it. He was bitten. Couldn't risk letting him...live." Lora's heart sank. She pulled her legs up onto the chair, wrapping her arms around her knees, hugging herself. "John, what about Christian? Did you find him?" Mother's voice trembled with fear. Daddy finally looked at Mother. He shook his head slowly, sadly. Lora had never seen him look so defeated. "He's gone, April." "Gone?" Mother swayed, clutching at the back of Lora's chair for support. "Dead?" she whispered. Daddy shook his head again. "One of them, April. He's one of them now. A Skineater." "Christian's a...monster?" Lora's mouth went dry, her palms suddenly clammy, her eyes widening. She could feel the panic rising in her chest. 61 Christian would lead the other monsters to them. Lora's family would be next. Ignoring Lora's question, Daddy said hurriedly "April, we have to fortify the farm. I need your help. There isn't anyone else now. We have to do what we can to slow the Skineaters from breaching the grounds before we can figure out how to get away. Lora will have to go into the cellar." "The cellar? Alone?" Lora's voice was shrill, and full of terror. "You'll be safe in there, baby." Daddy cupped his hand around Lora's cheek. "You can't come with us. We can't risk you getting hurt. You're just a little girl." Mother grabbed a bonnet from a hook on the wall and tied it around her head. She dashed into the kitchen for a moment, and reappeared carrying a lantern in one hand and a large knife in the other. There was a hard, unnerving glint in her warm amber eyes, something Lora had never seen there before. "I'm ready," she said to Daddy. Daddy nodded once. "Into the cellar, Lora. Now." "But I want to help--" Lora began to protest. "Say your prayers, Lora," Mother whispered as she pressed a hasty kiss to Lora's forehead and gave her the lantern. "That's how you can help. Pray for Daddy and me. Pray for God to protect all of us." Lora wrapped her fingers around her cross necklace, giving it a squeeze. "I will." "Good girl." Mother draped a shawl around Lora's shoulders. Then she reached out to grasp Lora's hand, and they followed Daddy as he walked toward the back door. An icy wind assaulted them as they stepped outside. Lora shut her eyes briefly, pulling her shawl tighter with one hand. Mother walked Lora over to the cellar doors, opened them, and waited for Lora to climb down the stairs. "It's dark in here," Lora called up to Mother. "You'll be safe, Lora. Don't be afraid. The darkness can't hurt you," Daddy said. "We love you, sweetie. We'll be back soon. Remember to pray." Mother blew Lora a kiss as they closed the cellar doors. And Lora was alone in the dark. Lora lifted the lantern up, shedding light on her surroundings. She couldn't remember ever being inside the cellar, and certainly not alone. 62 When illuminated, the cellar didn't seem so frightening. There was a cot, and a small wooden table, and a couple of chairs. On one wall, Lora could see various weaponry hanging, an assortment of menacing guns and knives and pitchforks. How long have the monsters been attacking our village? she wondered, taking a seat in one of the chairs and placing the lantern on the table. Now there was nothing for Lora to do but wait. And pray. Lora folded her hands and closed her eyes, and started to whisper the Lord's prayer, just like her mother had done only moments ago. She mumbled the words over and over and over again, until-- A bloodcurdling scream came from outside. Lora gasped, opening her eyes. "Mother?" she said into the darkness. Another startling scream followed the first one. Then another, and another. The last one was longer, raw, and desperate. Lora got up from her chair. "Mother? Mother!" she shouted at no one and nothing. More chilling screams. Lora didn't know what she should do, but she knew she had to find some way to help her mother. She picked up the lantern, searching around the room once more. Her gaze fell on the weaponry wall again. And Lora knew what she must do. Lora quickly moved toward the weaponry wall, and without hesitation, she selected a small knife, which she tucked into a pocket in her dress, and a large shotgun. She'd never fired a gun before, but she'd watched Daddy and Christian shoot them enough times to know how to use one. Carefully cradling the gun in one arm and holding the lantern with one hand, Lora walked up the cellar stairs. When she reached the top, she shoved the doors open, and stumbled out into the night. Lora glanced around her. Mother and Daddy were nowhere in sight. Leaving the lantern on the ground beside the cellar doors, Lora took a few resolute steps forward, ready to face the horrifying, monster-filled world she lived in. Lora walked as far as the center of the field, her home behind her and thousands of haunting trees before her. The Black Forest, the place where the monsters hid. Lora lifted the shotgun and cocked it, preparing for the attack that she knew would come. 63 Out of nowhere, Christian appeared at the foot of the woods, but he didn't look like the outspoken, protective older brother Lora knew: his skin was ashen, a sickening shade of gray, his eyes bloodshot and hungry, his fingers curled and claw-like. His body had already started to rot, his flesh open, exposing his bones, blood seeping from a large gash in his head. He bared his bloody teeth at her in a nasty snarl, and moved with a slow, unsettling gait, dragging his left foot as he walked. Behind her brother, she could see more of them--more monsters. More Skineaters. Lora longed to clutch at the tiny gold cross that hung around her neck, but she held fast to the gun with both hands, one finger resting on the trigger, the wind lifting her braids in the air. She turned her head to the side, waiting, listening. Deliver me, Lord, she silently prayed. 64 Monster City Written & Illustrated by Crystal Smalls Ord wix.com/fynn47/author-website 65 66 er teddy was looking at her. Round, shiny, black eyes, fixed on her face. His fraying yarn smile never faltered despite the late hour and the silent, ominous darkness. She hugged him closer. "Don't worry Teddy, I've got you." She turned him around to face the closet, still holding him tight around his middle. "And you've got me, right?" Teddy didn't respond. He just lay there in his owner's little arms, soft and fuzzy, staring into the strip of darkness between the open closet door and the jamb. Eventually she fell asleep, naively comfortable and trusting in her Teddy to protect her, as teddies had done since the beginning of time. But the strip of darkness widened. Teddy watched. Long shadows reached out from the closet as the door creaked open and thudded gently against the wall. Teddy should've been up by now, ready to fight. Teddy should've been earning his place in this nice warm bed. But Teddy didn't move. H Slither, scratch-scratch, SCREAM! The Oso brothers sat on the edge of their bed arguing over who would distract and who would attack, a common argument since The Teddy Takeover. For centuries humans and Teddys had a common enemy, monsters. Teddys and humans had worked together amicably to keep the world free of monsters; Teddys fighting the monster battle at night and humans taking care of Teddys by day, giving them shelter and love, stitching their wounds, and passing them down reverently to new generations that would continue to rely on them for safety. But, fed up with fighting and with the human's dwindling respect for their sacrifices, the Teddys 67 rebelled. Humans were forced to comply to a new regime in which human's battled monsters by night and suffered almost constant confinement to their rooms by day. Freedom was a thing of the past, fear was the new motivator. The Oso brothers' whispers carried throughout their room, growing harsher as each tick of the clock brought the minute-hand closer to midnight. Tommy's little face was obscured by alternating lines of shadow and streetlight that shone through the blinds of their only window. "I'm always the bait." Tommy hissed. "Because you're littler and faster than me." Jack explained, twirling a large knife in his hand. Each rotation looked as though it might slice his thumb clean off, but he spun and caught it with such skill that Tommy found himself momentarily mesmerized. The blade flashed bright with each twist as it moved through a stream of streetlight and out again. The minute hand ticked closer to the twelve. "I'm sick of this." Tommy whispered, sinking to the floor and gripping his short hair in his fists. Silence. Another minute. Jack glanced at the Teddy that had been assigned to monitor them that night. It sat on their pillow. A little one. Its beady eyes staring, watching, making sure that the job of monster slaying was done to satisfaction and that there were no murmurings of an uprising. Jack slid to the floor out of its view and crouched beside his brother. Tommy's silhouette rocked gently. "I have an idea." Jack whispered almost inaudibly. Midnight. The closet door creaked. Jack stood. The door hit the wall and a long block of black shadow crawled slowly across the floor. The following night. 68 "You can't tell anyone." Jack hissed, checking over his shoulder. The alley, one of many in the labyrinthine city, was empty. Normally humans were never out after sunset but the Teddys wouldn't be up just yet. It was the safest time and place to talk. "Not until things settle down." "How are things going to settle down?" Tommy squeaked. "You killed that Teddy guard! The other teddys are gonna find out and we'll be dead!" "Shush!" Jack glanced around the alley again. "How are they going to know? There were no witnesses," Jack scowled at his little brother, "unless you're planning to squeal on me. And anyway, we won't have to fear the Teddys much longer. Soon enough the monsters will take care of everything. Soon enough we'll all be free of the Teddys' tyranny." "Or everyone will turn you in for siding with the enemy!" Tommy whimpered. "Nobody steps out of line, Jack. Nobody defies the Teddys." Jack smirked. "Nobody talks to the monsters either, but I just did that." Jack's grin dropped slightly as if he'd realized something. He gripped Tommy's collar and pulled him close. "Hey, are you turning on me?" He growled through clenched teeth. "We gotta be together on this." Tommy stared into his brother's dark eyes, almost as lifeless as a Teddys. Most everyone looked that way, there wasn't much life left in the world. Eating and breathing and moving around were about as close as it got. Jack loosened his grip and sighed. "Look, don't you want to be free?" "Well, probably everyone does...it's just not safe to think about." Tommy said. "And turning to the monsters? I don't know if that's really freedom, Jack." "It's better than what we have now. Humans used to be in charge, Tommy. Children used to cuddle stuffed bears before bed and rely on them for a sound night's sleep. And that's how it should be." Jack let go of Tommy and straightened. "I'm gonna call a council." "Jack, light the candlestick. It's too dark." A girl said. "You'll have to get used to it." Jack's voice replied. Tommy sat silently beside his brother in the abandoned warehouse Jack had chosen for his council. It was cold, pitch black, and hollow. 69 "Why are we here? We should be at our bed posts." A boy's voice complained. "Yeah, the Teddys don't like this kind of disobedience." Someone else said. "And it's almost midnight, the monsters will be out soon." The first girl added. A brief hush fell at the thought. "Exactly," said Jack. Just then a slither and a scratch came from a dark corner. Tommy curled in on himself, leaning hard into his brother's side. A girl shrieked. Someone scuffled to their feet. "What was that?" A boy shouted. The slithering sound entered the center of their dark circle. Tommy could hear a girl next to him hyperventilating with fear. "It's okay." He whispered. At least he hoped it was. He hoped Jack knew what he was doing. Jack had seemed to know exactly what he was doing when he had dropped his knife and held up his hands, vulnerable to the monster that had emerged from the closet the previous night. It had been enough of a shock, seeing a young boy without any protection or intention of attacking, to make the monster stop and listen to Jack's plan. Jack stood, leaving Tommy cold and alone. "Say hello to our freedom." Jack announced. "Say hello to yours, Monster." The horrific, invisible-black presence before them sucked in a rattling breath then snarled a blood-curdling greeting. The girl beside Tommy fell into his lap, limp. A boy across the circle shouted, "This is suicide! Are you suggesting we side with the monsters? The Teddys will have our heads. Keeping my head down is what has kept me safe and alive." "Alive?! You call this life?" Jack spat. "With the monsters as our alibis we can go out at night again, not sit by our closets in fear of what's within them and whether we'll survive the fight. We can play and work during the day, not watch our city fall to pieces while the Teddys cavort around the town pretending to run our toy stores, our restaurants, our libraries as if they are us. We were never meant to kill monsters and Teddys were never meant to be human." Tommy passed a hand over the hair of the girl who lay unconscious in his arms. It felt soft 70 and fuzzy with curls. "At what cost do we get this freedom?" Tommy asked his brother. The monster in the room slithered quickly over to Tommy. It slid some long, slimy limb around Tommy's shoulder and squeezed. "One sacrifice, all dark." The monster breathed down Tommy's neck. "A sacrifice?" A boy said. "Like human?" Jack spoke up. "Since the monsters won't be getting the usual human flesh feast they've enjoyed since the beginning of the Teddy Takeover, they demanded, and I have agreed to a single human sacrifice every night. The monsters will share the body amongt themselves and, of course, they will be allowed as much teddy fluff as they can get their claws on. Our other agreement; no lights, ever. No nightlights, no fridge-lights, no headlights, or streetlamps, nothing. "What about during the day? We can't block out the sun." Someone shouted. "During the day the sun will still rise, but what does sunlight create when it hits on anything in its way? "Shadows." Tommy whispered. "Not a bad trade for freedom, I think." Jack said. Tommy could hear the smile in his brother's voice. "I don't want to live in the dark." Tommy admitted. "Do we have to turn to monsters to survive?" "The Teddys didn't give us a choice." Jack said low. "Sometimes you have to do a few dark things to survive, Tommy." His tone very clearly suggested that Tommy shut his mouth. "What are you getting out of it?" Someone asked. "Yeah." Another girl's voice rang out across the room. Tommy had no idea how many people Jack had invited. He had said it would be small until they knew whom they could trust. Apparently Jack trusted more people than Tommy did. "I approached the monsters first. I will be the one to control them." Jack said. The monster in the room growled. "I will be the one to run things with them." Jack amended. "They won't harm me...or my brother." 71 "That's not fair!" Someone yelled. "It's how it is!" Jack hollered. Silence. Jack cleared his throat. "Monster," his tone was formal, "get your friends. It starts tonight. The massacre was something to behold. Teddy fluff littered the streets. Marble eyes and yarn hung in windows and around necks like trophies. Fur of every color stuck to the grime on the streets and floated almost angelically on the evening breeze. The sun sank below the horizon. The cold pinprick of raindrops hit Tommy on his face and arms as he stood, aghast, in the middle of the street. The shadows of buildings stretched out in front of him, taking over the city in blackness. The sound of thousands of closet doors creaking open echoed in the night. No longer waiting for midnight the monsters immediately claimed their first sacrifice. Only one, as agreed. The scream was loud but short lived. And a new life began. "You want to hit up the arcade?" Jack asked, chewing a large mouthful of doughnut. One year later. Jack lounged atop the hood of a car. Tommy leaned on a smashed out headlight, arms crossed, staring out at the night. He jumped at the sound of some random scream. A girl, one of many young kids out and about, walked beside a hulking mass of monster that was somehow completely hidden in her shadow. A small Teddy sat in an alley just ahead of them, cowering in the dark. Its expression, despite the yarn smile set in place long ago, seemed to plead for forgiveness. Its plush body sat still, never moving for fear of being spotted. But monsters were hunters. 72 Tommy couldn't tell in the sudden violent chaos that followed which arms were monster and which were human as girl and monster tore the Teddy to shreds before walking on. This behavior was commonplace now. Too commonplace. As Jack whooped at them Tommy turned away. "I can't be a part of this anymore." Tommy mumbled. Jack stopped hollering to stare at his little brother. "What?" Tommy squared his shoulders uneasily. "We should never have relied on monsters to take care of our problems." Tommy pointed at a small monster who had been gnawing at a bone and relaxing in Jack's shadow. "We are becoming like them. Mindlessly killing anything in our way...we may have more power, but fear is still fear, Jack, and that's all we are surviving on." "This is how we protect ourselves!" "With sacrifices and darkness?" Tommy asked softly. Jack dismissed the comment with a wave of his hand. "A small price to pay for our safety." "I don't think the Teddys are the threat anymore, Jack." Tommy accused, his voice raising. "You know the sacrifices aren't just one a night anymore and it isn't just monsters carrying them out either." Jack huffed an un-amused laugh. "So." Tommy frowned. "I'm ending this." He backed away. "I'm turning on the lights." He edged further away from his brother till his heel hit the curb. "No more shadows and no more monsters." This time Jack's laugh rang true. "You think you can change something by turning on a light? You're so na�ve." Jack stood up on the hood of the car scowling as Tommy continued to escape. "Fine! You want to betray me after I kept you safe from every sacrifice, go ahead. You'll just end up as monster food, like all traitors!" Tommy ran. Jack called out for monsters to follow. Tommy bolted through the doors of an office building, up a zigzagging staircase, and down a long hallway. Snarls echoed off the walls and the deafening slither of countless monsters came up behind. The hall dead-ended in a dark room. Tears welled up in Tommy's eyes as he came to an abrupt halt in the doorway. Trapped. He swallowed. He lifted his chin. He turned. 73 The sound of attack rushed toward him in the pitch-black. He reached his hand up to the inside wall of the room and felt for the smooth flat rectangle of the light switch cover. Slither... With one small finger he found the switch. ...Scratch-scratch... Up went the switch, flooding the hall with light. ...Screams. 74 Poetry blood and guts and gore oh my Written by Dawn Pisturino wix.com/cha919/dawnpisturino Illustrated by John Federis maestro-johann.deviantart.com The Dentist 77 78 Now I've got you in my chair, Y ou're not going anywhere. So open wide, let me in, And let the painful games begin! See that molar on the right? It's in the socket way too tight. Here's my plier. Please don't move. I'll pry that sucker from its groove! Look, there's a cavity over there. 79 My drill's all ready. Please don't stare! My hands are shaking, can't you see? I need your confidence in me. Oops! The blood is squirting out. I didn't mean to make you shout! Y our bloody tongue is in my hand. Sit down! Don't even try to stand! Come back! I need to suture in--Oh well, another toothless grin. 80 Written by Louis Gonsalas Illustrated by Evan Heasman sojushots.blogspot.ca Bird Reaper 81 82 Poor little Mary-Lou With birds up in her hair Got fed up with all their caws And ate one on a dare 83 Sad Missus Mary-Lou The birds don't caw no more Instead their bones just rattle on It really is a bore 84