Defiler (1700 words)

At sunset they burned her. Eventually.

People like a show. They’d dragged her barefoot through the streets first, her flowing golden hair hacked off with a blunt knife and blood pouring from her scalp as she stumbled over sharp cobbles, the jeering Drakenheim townsfolk pelting her with rotten food. When the marshals chained her to the stake and lowered their torches to the pyre beneath, it was almost a mercy.

Almost.

The bishop eased his fleshy bulk back onto his golden throne with a grunt, ham fists clasped over his bulging belly. The gleam of passing torches bathed the soaring church windows in a ghastly red glow, the faint stench of burnt meat seeping through the gloom. He sighed with relief; another godless heretic swallowed in flame, one less witch to befoul this blessed land of Sylvania with her cursed sorceries. A little more evil burned clean away.

Thank God for sending that old milkmaid to his doorstep, flushed with glassy-eyed vindictive glee. As her confession poured forth he’d felt the hot, mouth-drying thrill of prying open a human soul like a slimy oyster, exposing all the vile wickedness inside. Yes, she’d spied the so-called healer creeping into the woods at dawn, returning with armfuls of roots and weeds for her black magic. Seen it with her own two eyes, as God was her sworn witness. Yes, she’d overheard the woman’s satanic chants and mutterings within, the foul stench of her bubbling pots. Devil’s work, for sure. Yes, she knew the woman’s black cat who dozed on her cottage windowsill and hissed at every visitor. A sinner of Satan, her crimes now all burned down to ash by the damning words of her countrywoman.

The bishop chuckled. Foolish woman, dabbling in Satan’s heresies. Perhaps he’d offer up a prayer for her forsaken soul. A small one.

With a long shuddering groan, the huge oaken church doors creaked open. The lurid red glow of torchlight washed over his face, before the doors slammed shut with a resounding boom. Distant candles flickered out; the nave was instantly swallowed in darkness.

‘Who’s there?’ he demanded. ‘Is it over?’

Silence. Then a low guttural voice growled, ‘No.’

‘Well, get back out there! The heretic has to die before the sun goes down.’

Something moved in the dark. The shadows shifted; something was lurking out there, beyond the feeble reach of guttering candlelight. Six pale bobbing pinpricks of bluish light drifted closer. The heavy ominous tread of immense footsteps.

‘The sun … is already down.’

And into the candlelight came … the bishop gasped. An enormous hulking bat-like nightmare with a ragged mane of bristling crimson fur and vast leathery wings, monstrous talons scraping the flagstones. Its noseless face was twisted into a hungry smile, needle-sharp fangs grinning up at the bishop.

He shrank back behind the pulpit. ‘Demon! You c-cannot enter the house of God!’

The demon snorted and crawled closer. ‘God is not here. This … is an empty box.’ Its deep rumbling voice dripped with withering contempt.

Groping blindly for his crucifix, the bishop cast pleading eyes to Heaven. ‘God is in all His churches!’

The demon raised its muzzle and sniffed the air. ‘Not this one,’ it smirked. ‘Your God is not all loving. He did not love us … and He does not love you.’

The bishop’s scrabbling fingers brushed cold iron; with a gasp of relief he thrust out his ruby-encrusted crucifix with trembling hands. ‘I have done His bidding! My life’s work is in His name!’

The demon’s six icy-blue eyes flared in disgust. ‘Your life’s work … makes Him puke,’ it snarled, its shaggy mane heaving with fury. It crept up the nave, bulging muscles rippling beneath ash-grey skin.

‘I-I am the B-Bishop of Drakenheim! A true servant of God!’

The demon growled, a deep gurgling rumble of scorn. ‘You delude yourself. A blameless instrument of God? Does God not weep for His children? Did His son not die to forgive you of all your craven sins?’

The bishop jabbed a fat finger at the nightmare, his voice rising to an enraged shriek. ‘Do not speak of the Lord or His one true son, you foul Hellspawn!’

The demon’s voice hardened, eyes narrowed to venomous slits. ‘Tell me, little man … do you think your God would forgive the slaughter of the righteous? The torment of innocents, whom you abuse after every sunset? Would He not weep with the knowledge that children cry … so the strong can remain corrupt? Tell me, you spineless worm, which of them screamed louder? The woman … or the boys?’

The bishop’s eyes widened with dawning horror. ‘I … I speak with God’s truth!’

‘No you don’t, you pathetic meatsack.’ The demon reached out and grasped an oaken pew, foot-long barbed claws gouging deep. ‘You speak only for the damned.’

The bishop scuttled backwards. ‘She – she was a witch!’

LIAR!’ With a savage roar, the demon hurled the pew aside like a weightless willow wand. The heavy wooden bench pinwheeled through the air and smashed in two against a stone pillar. Dust and jagged shards rained down in blinding, choking ruin as the bishop huddled behind his throne.

The demon prowled closer over the splintered wreckage, circling its whimpering prey. ‘Listen here, you pathetic fraud. She was no muttering charlatan cheating peasants with boiled nettles and entrails, or daubing chicken blood on their doors. She was a doctor. A student of science, not blind faith and superstition. She healed the sick. She lessened their suffering with herbs and medicines, balms and poultices. Eased the dying into the hereafter when their agony grew too great. She was an innocent woman who wished to learn. To love and aid her fellow kin. A far nobler Christian than you could ever hope to be, you worthless bonebag.’ It slammed down a clenched paw, cracking the flagstones. ‘And you murdered her!’

The bishop shrank against his throne, stricken with terror. ‘She was evil!’ he groaned. ‘A parasite upon our land!’

The demon’s lip curled. ‘Lies? In your house of God? “Thou shall not bear false witness”, remember? No wonder He has abandoned you.’ It prowled closer, icy-blue eyes slicing through the fiery red gloom of the church. ‘But we love you.’

‘What?’

‘We couldn’t be here without you. Not if God didn’t want us to be.’

The pulpit darkened. The bishop glanced up and whimpered with fright; gaunt leather-winged shadows were scuttling down the windowpanes, cruel claws screeching across the glass, their red eyes gleaming with eager bloodlust as they hooted and cackled gleefully.

‘Never!’ he gasped, brandishing his crucifix. ‘God is with me! He will smite you down!’

The hulking demon laughed, a horrible gloating chuckle like dry stones rattling in an iron bucket. ‘Will He? Who do you think let us in?’ It lashed out; the bishop screamed as his vestment robes were torn away, tattered shreds of gold-rimmed cloth pooling onto the floor.

The demon towered above the bishop. Black wings enveloped him. ‘Fear not the wrath of God, bishop, but His contempt, His apathy. Have no fear of what He shall do, but dread – with every fibre of your being – what He may allow to be done unto you.’ It gripped him by the shoulders, vicious claws sinking deep.

‘You’ll torture me, will you?’ he gasped. ‘Do your worst, then!’

The demon’s face stretched into a sneer. ‘Torture you? No … Torture’s for amateurs. A kindness. This next part is far worse than that.’ The bishop screamed in agony as a vicelike paw clamped his forehead and wrenched his head back, exposing his throat.

‘Now the real pain begins,’ rumbled the demon. It stroked a claw over his cheek. ‘Let me show you … to yourself.’

And a blinding cloud of sizzling white poured from its palm over him, smothering him in blazing heat. He screamed, but his scream was drowned in the unstoppable flood of scorching truth. Immobilising, strangling, merciless. Everything he had ever done that had been better left undone. Every lie he had ever told – to himself, to others – stripped away. Every little sin, all the great festering hurts. Each one torn out of him, detail by detail, inch by searing inch. The demon ripped away the cover of forgetfulness, burnt away all his feeble pride, flayed everything down to the cold hard naked truth, and it hurt more than anything. It ripped apart his life, moment by moment, instant by awful instant, facing everything.

I’m not the cure – I’m the disease.

‘Kill me,’ he pleaded. ‘Please! Finish it. Make it stop!’

‘Not yet,’ growled the demon. It opened its jaws wide.

And searing light blazed forth, washing over him. Like peeling an onion with a red-hot razor blade. He learned about consequences. He learned the results of things he had done; things he had been blind to; the countless ways he had hurt the world; the everlasting damage he had wrought to victims never known, or met, or even thought of. The hardest lesson yet. No more lies, no more evasions, no room for anything except the endless pain and wretched torment and grief and anger. It lasted an eternity, wrapped in searing blue-white fire, and soon enough he realised the demon had been right.

The physical torture had been far kinder.

Finally it ended.

He cowered on the cold stone floor, rocking gently, eyes closed, moaning between blistered lips. He was a monster. He deserved every terrible cruelty inflicted upon him. God had judged him unworthy, and turned away in shame. And no one left to blame but himself alone. All his fault.

‘I’m sorry!’ he begged. ‘Please! I’ve wronged God, I see that now. But I can be better! Let me go! Please!’

The demon’s iron grip tightened. ‘Now,’ it growled with relish, ‘we take you home.’ It gestured; a flaming portal fizzled into life before the altar. Out of it swept the hot reek of carrion, the foul stench of rotting meat. The wailing moans of a million tortured souls burning in everlasting Hell.

And the bishop’s last desperate hope shrivelled away.

‘Mercy!’ he pleaded. ‘Have mercy!’

‘Not tonight, Bishop,’ purred the nightmare, its tone mockingly tender. ‘Not tonight!’

© 2021 | Tom Burton

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Snow Queen (1900 words)

The Kola Peninsula lay sheathed in ice. Below the jagged cliffs churning black waves smashed asunder, freezing seaspray drenching the terns that wheeled and screamed over the shit-stained rocks. But further inland the roar of the ocean soon faded, feeble sunlight dribbling through leaden clouds onto a silent shrouded world. A frozen sea of thick snowfall drowned the earth, and glittering frost silvered the wilting cloudberries. Skeins of greylag geese unravelled over the frozen tundra, heading southwards for warmer climes as their faint cries faded away. The silence clamped down; now only a faint brittle scraping echoed through the forest, hollow crackles and groans from icy pine limbs.

Teska dug her claws into the frozen earth. Waiting.

A faint ripple through her paws, a whisper-echo through the thick sea of snow. Scuffle, scuffle. Scrape, scrape. Teska gulped the rank stink of wet muddy fur, spiced with the rich sweet scent of meat. The Arctic vixen laid her head on the snow, whiskers twitching at distant tremors. Watching. Waiting.

A dark snuffling shape crept into view. Scuffle, scuffle. Scrape, scrape. It paused, scrubbed its face and trundled closer, whiskers tickling the crumbs of snow.

Teska flexed her claws and sank lower. Hunger pricked her guts like thorns.

Scuffle, scuffle. Scrape, scrape. Closer. Closer.

Teska tensed her hind legs.

Scuffle, scuffle. Scrape, scrape.

Silent. Stillness.

Closer …

Closer …

The creature froze. Lifted its head. Sniffed the air.

And Teska pounced.

A flash of silky-white fur. A jagged snarl. A piercing shriek.

Teska crunched the life out of the lemming, jaws cracking the small bones, gulping down meat and hot blood and icy slush. Sated, she yawned and stretched before trotting away through the towering pines, her paws barely dimpling the snow.

A distant yelp made her heart pulse with longing. Cubs! She shivered with eagerness to return soon to her cosy den, and the warm nuzzling comfort of Kosha and Chalek as they nose-nuzzled close to suckle.

Teska zig-zagged through the slushy undergrowth to the ridge ahead. A muddy clearing stretched below her, churned up by countless pawprints and gnawed bones scattered everywhere. A gigantic boulder lay at the foot of the hillside, muffled squeaks echoing from behind it. Teska crept closer, sifting through the dozen scents flavouring the air.

A harsh growl shattered the silence. A hulking fox slunk around the boulder, his muzzle wrinkled in a snarl as he prowled towards her. His russet pelt was patched with mange, but his fur still bristled with menace and his green eyes were narrow slits. Teska glimpsed a yawning black tunnel behind his raised hackles, and understood: the skulk had left someone to guard the cubs while the adults hunted for food. She whined and cringed back, grovelling in the frozen mud. ‘Sorry! Please don’t attack!’

The guardian advanced on her, yellow fangs bared. ‘Clear off!’ he snarled, ‘you ain’t welcome here!’ Teska backed away, keeping her eyes averted and ears flattened. The fox glared after her as she turned tail and retreated into the woods.

The nighttime chill gnawed at her face as she padded through the towering pines. Ice rimmed the surface of the lake, and frogs twitched feebly amid their torpid slumber as Teska’s paws squelched through the sodden moss. Her ears twitched as the snowy owl dropped off the lakeside crag with a tremulous wail. It sailed over the ice, spiralled down into the reeds and pinched the vole’s scream into silence, its talons slashing crimson into the whiteness. Teska shook herself and hurried on; she could already taste the musty tang of her den, savour the mewling welcome as her cubs clambered over her with joyful squeaks. ‘I’ll be home soon!’ she barked eagerly, and sprang over the gnarled root.

The noose clenched around her throat and smashed her down into the frozen earth. Snare! She writhed and gasped, paws scrabbling for desperate purchase as the noose tightened. Rasping for air she crawled backward, her scat staining the snow with the acrid stink of terror. She twisted and jerked, but each frenzied effort only bought another savage tug from the noose. Sucking in a desperate breath she wailed with grief. My dear snowdrops, Kosha and Chalek. I’ve failed you. I couldn’t keep you safe.

‘Keep still.’ Bushes shivered, and a tawny fox slunk out of the undergrowth. Teska whined: the cub guardian!

But no! This one was leaner and younger, his auburn pelt unmarred by silver battle scars. Teska shrank back, baring her teeth. ‘Gonna kill me, moss-muncher? Just try it! Come any closer an’ I’ll rip yer ear off!’

The fox sat back on his haunches and rolled his eyes. ‘Don’t think you’re in a position to make threats, missie.’ He padded closer to sniff at her, then began gnawing the rope. Teska twisted and writhed, whimpering as cruel cords cut into her throat. Blunt fangs clenched into her neck-fur and pressed her down into the frozen mud.

‘Stay still,’ he growled sternly through a mouthful of scruff. ‘Can’t help you if you keep squirming around like a damn cub. All right?’ Releasing her, he resumed chewing the rope; finally the noose jolted loose. Teska slumped onto her belly with a groan of relief, gulping ragged lungfuls of air. She shivered as the fox gently pulled the noose over her head and began licking her throat wound clean, his rough warm tongue soothing her aching hurts.

‘Thank you.’ She nuzzled against his flank. ‘My name’s Teska. Yours?’

‘Jaken.’ He circled around to face her and sank onto his belly. ‘I’ll spread word to the clan — we won’t trouble you again.’

Teska snorted. ‘Tell that to your cub-watcher!’

Jaken grinned. ‘Who, Shanik? Just ignore him — he’s all bark and no bite.’

Teska slumped her head into the frozen mud. ‘Sure didn’t look that way,’ she grumbled.

Jaken chuckled. ‘That fleabag’s always over-eager. It’s his first time watching the cubs — he thinks acting tough’s the whole show.’ He raised his muzzle, nose twitching. ‘There’s a lemming swarm under the clitter at Split Pine. Take whatever you need. There’s plenty to spare and our cubs need better meat now they’re weaned.’

Teska bowed her head in thanks. ‘I’ll remember this kindness.’

He brushed noses with her. ‘Run with your head high, snow sister. Safe travels.’ Then he turned and trotted into the trees.

*

A crescent moon bathed the frozen pines in silver as Teska returned from the hunt. Her throat still ached from that awful twilight struggle, but the three lemmings were a pleasant ache that warmed her belly.

A wild yelp sliced through the night, cut off by a savage snarl. Her ears twitched: beyond the ridge. She padded over the frozen earth as softly as her laboured breathing would permit. Below her was a birch tree badly scratched on one side. Too low for deer antlers, too high for fox claws.

Her neck-fur prickled, for a fox lay dead at the foot of the boulder.

The cub-watcher. Shanik’s throat had been torn to pulp, his belly ripped open and steaming in the frosty air. In the blood-spattered mud she found pawprints: rounder than a wolf, as broad as a caribou hoof, their four-clawed outline blurred by shaggy fur.

Wolverine.

Teska’s breath froze: ravenous monsters of fur and fang who devoured all prey they found — foxes, weasels, even mighty caribou with their crowns of fearsome antlers were no match for these bloodthirsty predators. She peered into the darkness. Nothing.

A whine echoed from behind the boulder. Fear prickled her guts. The cubs!

Of course — the wolverine had smelled out the cubs, and Shanik had leapt to their defence. He had waged a desperate battle to protect his charges. And paid with his life.

Teska crept down into a wide earthy hollow. Four pairs of yellow eyes shrank back. A fluffy huddle cringed away from her, whimpering.

She whined to reassure them, wagging her tail and licking their shivering brows. But they were terrified. She was a stranger, and now they had lost their uncle.

She emerged from the den — to glimpse a monstrous shadow feasting on Shanik’s carcass. She bounded after it, bristling with rage. Startled by the snow-white vixen’s ferocity, the wolverine lumbered away up a treetrunk and hissed.

Teska tried barking for the clan, but only managed a feeble croak that ended in a rasping cough. The slaughtered fox lay before her, his sickly-sweet stench choking her throat like pond slime. Perhaps if she dragged him away, let the wolverine feed undisturbed …

No! Too heavy. Too much time. While she was busy with the carcass, the hunter might return for the cubs.

A twig cracked behind her. She whirled around, hackles raised. Nothing. Only icy treetrunks. But wolverines are expert climbers, stalking from up high and leaping upon their prey from above …

There! The wolverine crouched in the fork of a frozen pine, cruel eyes glittering. It bared its fangs and snarled, then dropped from its perch in a spray of snow. The ground shook.

Teska shrank back, wide-eyed. Five times her size, this monster was a towering mass of shaggy fur and rippling muscle. Wicked fangs gleamed as it growled. Began circling. Teska raised her muzzle and shrieked a warning that clawed at her burning throat: Help! Another spasm of coughing racked her body. Her breath rattled like dry leaves crackling.

Then horrid realisation sank icy claws into her heart. The wolverine knew she was injured. It had heard her croaky voice and smelled her rank fur stench. It bided its time and leisurely toyed with her, for she was no threat. Like the cubs, she was merely meat.

Two stubby muzzles emerged from the mouth of the den. She yipped a warning: Uff! Danger!

The muzzles shrank back inside.

A distant howl quivered on the wind, echoing from many throats. Jaken! The clan! Teska’s heart leapt.

The wolverine snarled and prowled closer. Teska snapped at it, backing away into the mouth of the tunnel. She would guard the cubs until the clan returned. Or die trying. One good bite, she thought, planting her paws like the roots of a mighty oak. I should get one good crunch in before it tears my throat out.

The wolverine crept closer, eyes glittering. Teska reared up, jaws bared in a final defiant scream —

A tawny shadow exploded out of the frozen pines; before the wolverine could turn Jaken lunged for its throat, four of his clan brothers snapping and tearing at its flanks. Half-buried under snarling foxes the wolverine roared and clawed, but Jaken’s jaws sank deep, ripped upwards …

. . . and the wolverine’s life came away in his teeth.

The wolverine slumped into the mud with a bubbling death-gurgle. The other panting foxes stared at Teska. She gazed back, swaying with exhaustion as the blood-rage drained from her bones. The leader — a large chestnut-brown fox with a white blaze on his chest — watched her with stern golden eyes. His mate nosed at Shanik’s limp body, and whined in sorrow.

A whimper broke the hushed stillness. The four cubs appeared at the mouth of the tunnel. The chieftain’s hackles lowered, and he bounded forward to greet the cubs, showering them with affectionate licks. His mate joined him, then another and another, adults and cubs romping together in a warm nuzzling scrum. Teska sank into the icy mud, groaning with exhaustion.

A cold wet nose snuffled into her ear. Thick tawny fur curled around her, shielding her weary bones from the night’s chill. Rough-warm-damp brushed over her brow.

‘Took you long enough, slowworm,’ she rasped in relief.

Jaken licked her cheek. ‘Good to see you too, snow sister.’

© 2021 | Tom Burton

Hitchhiker (900 words)

I HAVE A JOB PROPOSITION FOR YOU, the deep booming voice thundered through the filthy alleyway. It echoed the crumbling roar of ancient mountains, the bottomless depths of yawning chasms far underground. THREE MEALS A DAY, AND PROPER LODGINGS WITH GUARANTEED JOB SECURITY.

‘Erm, I don’t think that’s gonna work, mister,’ piped up a ghostly blue figure slumped against the slimy brick wall. The first speaker – a tall black-robed figure – straightened up, adjusting the monstrous scythe over one cloaked shoulder. Pale blue flames burned deep within eyeless sockets, revealing a white skull’s face frozen in a rictus grin.

WHY IS THAT?

The transparent man scratched his head, not far from the throwing knife embedded deep in his right temple. Torn packets of peanuts were scattered around him.

‘Well…’ He thought for a moment. All in all, a very, very weird day – especially if you considered all this accidental-knife-in-head business – so he tried again, aiming for casual, ‘…cuz that’s not what folks usually do. Usually y’say something like, “Here, kitty-kitty”.’

The skeletal figure appeared to consider this for a long while, then nodded and kneeled once more, aiming his words towards one of the trash cans. Behind it a small grey kitten eyed him suspiciously.

HERE. KITTY. KITTY. Dull, flat tones, the clashing of monstrous gravestones in worm-haunted crypts.

The cat remained unmoved. And unimpressed.

‘Maybe you should try some bait,’ the ghost offered. The black-robed figure appeared in deep thought, before rummaging through the folds of his cloak. Eventually he pulled out a tiny skeletal rat, also hooded in black and wriggling furiously.

SQUEAK!

I SWEAR I WILL PAY YOU WITH ADEQUATE CHEESE FOR THIS.

The Grim Squeaker stopped waving his fists, and jutted out a bony chin. SQUEAK.

TWO, THEN.

The Grim Squeaker folded his arms and fixed the towering figure with something akin to a baleful glare. Green flames flared in eyeless sockets.

EEK-SQUEAK.

FINE. TWO AND A HALF.

After a few seconds, the rat nodded and cracked bony knuckles.

‘I was thinking more like a fish or something…’ the ghost began, but Death raised a hand.

DO NOT WORRY. HE’S GOT THIS. The robed skeleton placed the Grim Squeaker onto the cobbles. The hooded rat rolled bony shoulders, then slowly lowered itself into the traditional four-legged pose of a snuffling rodent. The kitten’s ears perked up, intrigued. The small robed figure sidled closer to the bins, mimicked sniffing around, then turned his back on them. Feline instinct took over: the kitten darted out from behind the bins and pounced. Mid-leap, a large bony hand scooped her up, cradling her into black folds. She hissed and scratched, but her claws only found hard bone and thick robes. Eventually she realised that: A: her attacks had absolutely no effect, B: the curious stranger didn’t hurt her at all, just cuddled her close, and C: it was a very hot summer night, and the robe had a pleasant chillness to it. She ceased struggling. Snuggled closer, and purred.

‘Good job, now you have a cat,’ the ghost shrugged. ‘Now you just have to feed it, buy expensive toys for it, and generally go crazy over it.’

The skeleton pauses its delicate stroking of the kitten’s head. REALLY? IS THAT COMPULSORY? The kitten nudged his hand for more attention.

The ghost scratched his gaping head wound. ‘Dunno, but I wouldn’t see it anyway else. Mind you, might be different with skeletons.’

I DON’T THINK SO, said Death, fondly watching the kitten nibble a bony fingertip. He reached down to lift the skeletal mouse up onto his shoulder.

SQU-EEAK. The Grim Squeaker glared at the kitten.

I WON’T FORGET. TWO AND A HALF WHEELS. With that the robed skeleton turned towards the ghostly figure, and the slowly cooling body that it had recently vacated. The corpse was slumped beside one of the trash bins, with half a dozen knives scattered around him, one in his hand and one deep in his own head.

YOU KNOW, YOU ARE SURPRISINGLY WISE, CONSIDERING… Death let his words hang in the air.

‘Yeah, well, it’s easier to be wise after the fact, y’know,’ the ghost shrugged. ‘So, this is it, then? I’m just…dead?’

MANY PEOPLE HAVE A HARD TIME ADJUSTING, BELIEVE ME.

‘All of my life wondering what’s beyond, and then just…this?’

Death shook his head. THERE’S NO BEYOND. THERE’S JUST ME.

‘But…but the Great Hereafter! Across the endless water, beyond the veil, what is there?’

STILL ME, I’M AFRAID.

‘Well…what happen next?’

Death stroked the mewing kitten some more, then paused.

JUST…BE MORE CAREFUL THE NEXT TIME AROUND. AND…MAYBE TRY LEARNING JUGGLING BY USING BLUNT OBJECTS FIRST. He jabbed a bony finger into the ghost’s chest.

‘WoooOOOOH…’ With that, the ghost shrank into a small white light, and flew away into the night at considerable speed. Death gazed after it. His white horse scuffed a hoof at the end of the alley.

SQUEAK? asked the Grim Squeaker, slowly inching away from the kitten’s claws.

WHAT? OH, YES, I FORGOT TO ASK HIM IF HE BELIEVED IN REINCARNATION OR NOT. OH WELL. Icy blue pinpricks flared in amusement. MUST BE GETTING OLD – NO. PUT THOSE BACK. YOU CANNOT TAKE THE PEANUTS WITH YOU.

SKQUEAF, the Grim Squeaker swallowed hurriedly.

COME ALONG, BINKY. Death swung up onto his waiting steed, the kitten nestled in the folds of his cloak as the Grim Squeaker clung onto his hood. The horse nickered, and with a clatter of hooves the four of them rode off into the darkness.


© 2020 | Tom Burton

Avenger (650 words)

I can still smell the stink of pigshit as if it were yesterday. Gliding over the straw-thatched roofs, a gentle sweep of my wings lifting me over the next cluster of palms. The inky blackness of midnight all around.

The screams growing louder, the shriek of tormented souls tearing through my heart.

Orders are orders.

The rules are clear and absolute: no doorway daubed with blood. Everything else is fair game. Men and beasts alike.

Still, I take no pleasure in this.

You ever heard the undulating wail of a mother over her infant babe, a cow moaning over her slain calf, the plaintive cries of a ewe over her nurtured lamb?

I hoped it wouldn’t come to this. We thought the Sixth Plague would be enough. First the bloody Nile stinking of dead fish, then the slimy frogs flooding through the palace. The lice and flies which bit and buzzed, tormenting Pharaoh’s hapless subjects. Then their livestock snatched from them, a year’s hard toil turned into stinking flesh crawling with maggots. The agonising boils meant to teach Pharaoh a lesson in humility. No luck. Arrogant idiot turned away, tried to tough it out.

Moron.

So we stepped things up. The hailstorms of burning ice which smashed the harvest into the broken earth. Then the locusts – a season’s labour all devoured in a single afternoon. A swarm of devastation consuming every leaf, every stalk. Rough to watch, that. The lamentations of Pharaoh’s citizens. Then three days of total darkness. You’d think even the exalted ruler of land and sea would listen by then. Nine terrible plagues that ravaged his kingdom. Take the hint, mate. Please.

But no. Stubborn wheedling bastard tried to bargain his way out. ‘Leave behind your cattle and sheep’, he’d promised, ‘and you’ll have your freedom.’

Sure thing, pal. Enslave an entire people, leave them broken and bloody in the dust with no future, and then, just when the first sliver of hope appears, deny the very livestock that feeds them. How stupid do you think they are?

As soon as calamity strikes you raise your hands to the sky, crying out for help. You hope that goodness will come running like an old frail servant bound in chains of your own making, bowing and tugging at his grey beard, thankful that he’s been remembered.

Sorry. Life isn’t like that. You reap what you sow.

You mortals gaze up into the heavens and think us merciful, just, kind. Dutiful messengers from a gentle god.

Did you forget we were warriors? Always were, always will be. Four of my brothers guarded the gates of Eden. Watchful sentinels with flaming swords. Your own fault. Don’t come crying to us, begging for forgiveness. He did warn them: Don’t eat the fruit. He warned you too: Let my people go. Not hard, is it? One simple request, and you didn’t listen. You enslaved the Israelites. Your father had every Hebrew boy ripped from their mother’s arms and drowned in the Nile, put to the sword or thrown to the jackals. An eye for an eye. We blinded an entire army, left the Arameans helpless and stumbling in the endless dark. Elisha had a lot to thank us for that day. Sennacherib’s army too; yes, all right. I saved the Holy City. Hezekiah fell on his knees before the Lord, all well and good, job done. I helped the Lord’s Prophets the best way I could; the way of the sword. Righteous assassins, that’s who we are. Guardians of his Chosen People. The scourge of evil.

But a hundred and eighty-five thousand fathers. A hundred and eighty-five thousand sons. A hundred and eighty-five thousand nephews, and uncles, and cousins, and grandsons. Sennacherib’s empire shattered in a single night. A generation of families snatched into oblivion.

Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.

Did you think it was easy?

A good soldier follows orders. He does his job.

Doesn’t mean he likes it.

© 2020 | Tom Burton


Passover: Jewish holiday celebrating the deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, culminating in the Ten Plagues unleashed by God (8th April – 16th April)

The Last Laugh (400 words)

“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming.”

The low hum of conversation died away. Solicitor John Wilkins peered at the packed rows of chairs facing him. Outside, frost crept across the window as fog swirled through the streets, but the warm library was cosy. A cheery log fire crackled away, mirroring the sizzling contempt within him.

Damn these relatives. “Loving family”…hah! Hovering around their dying matriarch, stricken on her deathbed even as they’d squabbled over the spoils. Treasured artworks, priceless jewels. Two country mansions. A summer chateau in the Dordogne. Even a Swiss bank vault filled with gold bars and precious gemstones.  No wonder her family only flocked around her as her health worsened, picking at her meat like ravenous seagulls. Men of affairs, they called themselves. Ladies of repute. Pathetic.

He shuffled his notes. The deathly hush lengthened.

“As executor, I have requested you gather here today for an important announcement. As relatives of the late Lady Eliza Bramley, it was therefore imperative that you all be present for the reading of her Last Will and Testament.”

He paused. An eager rustling as his audience craned forward.

“Under the terms of her will, a sum of £5000 is bequeathed forthwith to Lord Hugo Bramley.”

He paused, pushed his glasses up his nose, and read on.

“A special inheritance of £3000 is hereby bestowed to each of Lady Eliza’s three sons Gerald, Stuart, and Jonathan, and £2000 allowance for Mrs. Alice Bramley, niece of the deceased.”

He paused again. By now Lady Eliza’s widower, Lord Hugo, had turned pale. Gerald straightened up and marched over to the window, brow furrowed. Alice, her cousins and their wives all squirmed in their seats, nervous smiles frozen on their faces. A few thousand pounds: unbelievable! Mere chicken feed compared to the true prize…

Mr. Wilkins lifted a handwritten note from the jumble of papers. “I have here a final written amendment from Lady Bramley herself.” He cleared his throat. “After bequests to servants and deduction of death duties, the remainder of the entire Bramley estate is to be liquidated, and I, Eliza Bramley, hereby decree that the proceeds of my vast fortune be gifted free of all taxation in full and absolute perpetuity therein, to those best deserving of its riches…”

The congregation strained forward, eyes shining hungrily.

“…Battersea Dogs’ and Cats’ Home.”

The glass in Alice’s hand splintered, champagne dribbling over her fingers onto the floor. Stuart buried his face in his hands as his brothers stared at Wilkins, ashen with horror.

Wilkins removed his glasses. And smiled.

“Signed: Eliza Charlotte Bramley, in this the year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty.”

With a groan like a mighty oak being felled, Lord Hugo toppled to the floor in a dead faint.


© 2020 | Tom Burton