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New entry May 06

Critter Notices

Critters is 25!

Last November, Critters turned 25 years old! Wow! Thanks so much to all of you, who've made it such a resounding success!

Books from Critters!

Check out Books by Critters for books by your fellow Critterfolk, as well as my list of recommended books for writers.

How to Write SF

The Craft of Writing Science Fiction that Sells by Ben Bova, best-selling author and six-time Hugo Award winner for Best Editor. (This is one of the books your ol' Critter Captain learned from himself, and I highly recommend it.) (Also via Amazon)

The Sigil Trilogy

If you're looking for an amazing, WOW! science fiction story, check out THE SIGIL TRILOGY. This is — literally — one of the best science fiction novels I've ever read.

Interviewed!

I was interviewed live on public radio for Critters' birthday, for those who want to listen.

Free Web Sites

Free web sites for authors (and others) are available at www.nyx.net.

ReAnimus Acquires Advent!

ReAnimus Press is pleased to announce the acquisition of the legendary Advent Publishers! Advent is now a subsidiary of ReAnimus Press, and we will continue to publish Advent's titles under the Advent name. Advent was founded in 1956 by Earl Kemp and others, and has published the likes of James Blish, Hal Clement, Robert Heinlein, Damon Knight, E.E. "Doc" Smith, and many others. Advent's high quality titles have won and been finalists for several Hugo Awards, such as The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy and Heinlein's Children. Watch this space for ebook and print editions of all of Advent's current titles!

Book Recommendation

THE SIGIL TRILOGY: The universe is dying from within... "Great stuff... Really enjoyed it." — SFWA Grandmaster Michael Moorcock

Announcing ReAnimus Press

If you're looking for great stuff to read from bestselling and award-winning authors—look no further! ReAnimus Press was founded by your very own Critter Captain. (And with a 12% Affiliate program.) [More]

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MORE NEWS & NOTICES >>

CRITTERS STORE >>

 

FEATURED BOOK

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CRITTERS STORE >>

In the daylight, you cannot see them. In the dark, you do not. In your dreams, you might, if they let you. To see them for yourself, to see _them_, you must get to the place from which they watch you.

And to return from this place... never, _never_! I have searched and sought, drifted for a seeming eternity through the ever changing paths of this dark place... all to no avail. Nothing escapes, _nothing_, nothing but the faint echoes of my voice within your dreams.

For living within dreams is something I can do, a life as normal as I may ever hope to lead. This is how I found Viola, drawn to her dreams like a fox to the cry of an anguished rabbit. Her dreams were passionate and terrified, resonating within this boundless space. She called me to her.

Now I love her. I touch her face, as she dreams it to be, and caress velvet skin with my fingers. I've kissed her lips, that red and wet flesh that invites me so. But she doesn't know me. I wear the faces of those she chooses to dream of -- her friends, her teachers, even her father -- for I fear to startle her. I do not know what would happen if she woke while I still resided in her dreams.

I may blink out of existence, just a thought that she may vaguely remember the next morning but later, soon forget.

I am nothing to her, less then a fleeting phantom, but she is everything to me. For one brief moment within the mists of her dreams I can reclaim a semblence of the life I left behind, glimpse a shadow of the mortal future I once spurned.

Perhaps it was my fervent vigilance over her dreams -- no, no, not even now can I delude myself. I _am_ the cause. I have brought this down upon her. I have brought _their_ attention to her.

What must I do? How can I hide her thoughts from my masters – no, from my oppressors? I cannot let them take her as they have taken me; pulling my soul apart, destroying everything I held dear in my mortal life.

Maybe they sensed my feelings for her and want to torment me even more. Curse them for doing this! After so many millennia of searching and despair, I’ve finally found someone I could _feel_ in my soul, only to let them take her away, as they’ve taken away everything else. No, I will not let it happen! I was the catalyst for the despair that’s about to befall her, and so I be its undoing, even if I have to die all over again!

So I move through this space, calming the voice within me that still exclaims my anxiety. I must retain my calm.

As I move, I can feel this reality's fabric rippling before me as if it begrudges my traveling through it. As far as I know, it does. But not all space within this reality is like this, and soon I come to the doorway of a place alike with the one from which I originally came, with dimension and time. I pass through the doorway, and pass from blackness into blackness; nighttime.

A moon shines overhead. It glows like the moon poets once spoke of, but inconstant this one is not. This moon is the sole satellite of this place, this world, and as stationary as a lightbulb fixed in the sky.

I am alone, as always, when I journey deeper into this dreamworld. No footsteps greet me and I cast no shadow, for this place is an illusion, existing only on _their_ whim. Even now the edges of the horizon seem to pulse and drift, shifting to better suit _their_ fancy.

Yet this world has some substance. Its colors and sounds may be muted -- pale reflections of the intensity within my Viola's dreams -- but things here do exist. The wide-lipped roses that flourish here give off no sweet scent, but their thorns will prick the flesh and draw forth real blood.

Oh yes, this place is real. Horrifyingly real to the dreamer who's soul wanders or is snatched by them. Such temptations abound here. And the blood is always dark and rich. It is more real then anything else.

Amusing -- I would laugh, if I could remember how -- to think that _this_ ethereal place was what I sought so long ago. Yet when I had forever found it, I dared not tarry to explore. Dared not interfere with their games. _They_ are here somewhere, for this is where the world of dreams touches the mortal realm.

If I die here, I would die in reality, even though I no longer have a physical form as I once did. But my reality, my existence, is my mind. And if I die in this plane, if I should be pushed off a building or torn to pieces by a nightmare, my consciusness, the who I am would be torn apart. I feel encompassing sorrow as I realize that when I die, no one will mourn my passing. No one will know that I am no longer around. That is why I must save Viola. I must tell her who I am and the love I feel for her. After all my suffering, I am deserving a happy ending.

I feel The Shadows desire for me to join ther ranks, pushing at my psyche. This would be hell for me. I'd still be alive but I would be a slave to pain and suffering. I would need to feed on the doubts and disappointments of dreaming people, to survive. Their eagerness grows and they become bold, enveloping me in their mist. I try to scream and The Shadows enter my open mouth. They try to change me from the inside, and make me one of them. If I could still feel pain, it would be excruciating.

They tear at at my guts, ripping me apart from the inside out. The sound... The sound is like that of flesh being torn apart. I feel no physical pain, But I feel so helpless, trapped in their unmerciful, torturous world.

I think of Viola, and as quickly as her image appears in my mind, they rip it from my grasp. They are trying to remove any comfort that I might derive from being with her in her dreams, for the soul disappears with that last trace of hope. I fade into a helpless, black recess of my mind.

I must resist their power. I must fight back. 'Viola!' I scream within my mind. 'Please help me, my love. Give me your strength. For if I am lost, you will be to. I know your fantasies. I live within your dreams. I know I am the perfect man for you.' If she will think of me, it will give me vitality. For in this world of dreams, fantasies can become reality. I use this power, to fight against the violation. I use this power to mold myself into a weapon stronger than they. A weapon whose power is fueled by love.

The Shadows break up into mist. I have a moment to bask in the glory of my victory and then I hear a deep voice whisper, "Well done. I knew that you would not be defeated so easily. I trained you. I turned you into the master of dreams that you are today." The deep voice laughs and applauds me with condescension. It is Him, and in his voice I hear the promise of my death. "She is beautiful. She will make a nice bride," He whispers.

"Please, Master," I say. "I've come here to beg you to release me from this world. I have done everything you've asked of me. I wonder if perhaps, now that I've been here so long, that you've tired of me and would allow me to go? I wish to be human again. Please?"

"Because of the woman?"

"Yes. I love her."

"She doesn't even know you. Do you think she would return the love of a cowardly worm like yourself?"

"I don't know, my Lord."

"I've seen her, she is much stronger than you. I think you are right, I am tired of you. But Viola, I think will make a very nice replacement. She is much more interesting than you are."

"She wouldn't agree," I say as the fear of losing her travels throughout my body.

"I will make her agree."

"The rules say it must be free will."

"Do not question me, slime," my master screams at me.

I feel pain for the first time in a millenia as my master's displeasure rings out. The pain is exquisite. It is so nice to feel again. I soak in the rapture of the pain.

"Power is a powerful incentive," my master whispers as I black out.

I awake, groggy from what must have been something close to sleep. I look around me and I scream in shock, or happiness, or both. I was lying in my own bed. I mean my bed from before I went to be with my Shadow masters. But that meant that they had enticed Viola to go with them. those despicable bastards! I Had to get ahold of her. she would be able to visit me in my dreams, and I could talk to her, but what would I say? "You shouldn't have gone with them, but now they own you."

No, I couldn't hit her with that much frustration. in the Shadow World emotions are magnified, to make up for the loss of physical feelings. I would explain, as gently as possible, that she had to convince the master to let her return to her human form. But with what could she barter?

I got up, sweeping the room before me with a look of fondness, and yet...it was tinged with a heavy sorrow. I had never thought I would see this place, these walls of stone, of reality, that I had thought was keeping me prisoner in a world, a plane that gave me no hope.

Since I was a young child, life had laughed at me, scorned me, spat at me. The Fates mocked me, I was a creature reviled. And yet, my soul was strong, my ambitions high, my drive to overcome it all was so intense, that I worked my way out of the slimy cesspool in which I was born into. I worked my way up to the noblemen, the elite. My hunger for knowledge was ravenous, my talents unending. Kings wanted me, demanded of me, yet secretly loathed and feared me. I hated this world and I wanted so much more. I wanted FREEDOM.

"Freedom?" I laughed bitterly. "I sent myself into a millennia of slavery!"

The irony was too much, the room so suffocating, that I choked on my own spit, and gasping, I stumbled out of my room, coughing.

I looked before me, my grand hall, my servants bustling as if thousands of years had not yet occured. But in truth, they had. They were like insects, drone, automatons. With their puny existence gone in the blink of an eye in the gaze of Father Time.

It hit me, then, that I had my life back. That I could feel and eat and have the pleasures mortals have.

It would be an understatement to say that I was happy. I admit I knelt down and I wept at it all. I wasn't just able to enjoy mortal pleasures. I WAS a mortal! I grabbed th hand of the nearest servant, a house girl, and I demanded to know her name.

"C-Celia" she stuttered nervously.

Celia. The name was music upon my ears. And then I noticed the the softness of her palm, a callous on her thumb. It was too much! Even with deminished emotions in this physical world, I was still overwhelmed by her touch.

The vision of her standing above me shimmered and I felt my own tears spilling down my cheeks. And I laughed--a hysterical, maniacal laugh. And at that, Celia began to pull away.

"You're hurting me, let go!" she said, panicking. I replied to her "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to. Will you please come with me, Celia?"

"Are you going to hurt me again?" she asked, eyes widened with fear.

"No, I won't hurt you," I said to her blandly. She looked to be seventeen, maybe eighteen years old. I realized that while I had been trapped in the Shadow World for several milennia, only a few days had passed in the Real World.

I knew her father was a good worker, and if I hurt his little girl then he should be so bold as to take his family and leave, though he had no real permission to do so, and work to have me arrested. Celia knew this too, and I think it made her feel a little bit safer about entering my private office.

"Celia, please, have a seat." She hesitated, then took the nearest chair, an odd gift from a friend of the family. It was ornate in its carvings and I vaguely recall never having used it. Her back straight, she tried to sit proper, but the chair was all oak.

I paced, trying to figure out where to begin. Only a few days I had been gone, but surely the Manor would have been aware of my absence. Not only did I need to learn the thoughts of the keepers, but also an explination. I turned to Celia.

"My dear, do you know where I've been?"

"Where you've been?" she asked nervously, glancing about herself. She grasped her delicate hands together in her lap. "Should I know, sir? I..."

"I'm sorry, Celia. I frightened you just now, I know. I am sorry."

"As you say, sir. They'll be expecting me--to do my duties."

I nodded. But I needed to tell her. To tell them all. To warn them.

But how? One cannot simply walk up to an estate and declair the end of infinity is drawing near, and that when the end comes it will strike down upon everyone with a wrath unknown to even the most hellish incarnate. That the mere sight of the megadeth will be so horrid as to turn blood to ice. But I must try, for if I don't, all would be lost, and that right soon.

"Celia, where is Lady Evelyn this hour?"

"My Lady is making preparations for the feast. 'Tis nearly quarter 'til dusk, sir."

It was then that I noticed the dim light through the window, the sky beyond--a bruise above the trees.

"Good, my dear. Shall you do me a favor then?"

"Sir?"

"Tell Lady Evelyn to progress with preparations on par, but also to summon the entire estate. I have something I wish to share with them."

"The entire estate, sir?" Her eyes were large globes and I had the distinct feeling she had never seen the estate assembled in its entirety. I just hoped to find a reason not only befitting my absence, but also for what I was about to do.

"Yes. And be quick. We haven't much time."

As Celia hurried off, I found my attention drawn to her sweetly-swaying backside. Oh, if only she hadn't been so low-born, I'd show her one hell of a good...

But no. With the spectre of certain doom leering at me, I had no time to entertain such base thoughts.

Nice ass, though.

I was disgusted at myself for thinking such thoughts. I needed time to prepare what I should say to my estate. I would have to retire to my room until the Feast, which was in honor of the adding of a new wing to our personal recreational building. This particular wing was open to the servants, for there were no lakes or swimming pools for over 900 furlongs. I had decided that, since this was a happy occasion, I should not tell them of the recent happenings in a downcast manner.

Just then as she had walked away something grabbed my attention to the left,a dark mist, a shadow unknown here.It was there then gone.Around the left hall.I hurried to find it but it was gone.Down the hall a little farther I heard a moan,that of a woman having orgasms,but no it could not be?The I saw her on the floor.A young blonde maid middle twenties maybe.As I peered closer I could see that the side of her face was darkened like hundreds of small viens about to explode.Her neck was torn like that of a massive bite and her legs were spread and thrusting back with much force.Though she was dripping blood she was loving whatever she was doing in her dream.

She emitted a blood chilling scream, and her eyes flew wide open she convelsed, choking on her sobs. After approximately two minutes, she calmed herself and regained her form. She stood, looked around in a confused way, and stopped suddenly when she saw me. Apparently thinking me to be a houseboy, with me being only twenty-three years of age, she asked me to bring some damp towels to clean up the mess.

I explained gently, who I was, and, in the case that she had forgotten, who she was, and the address of the manor. she regained her full composure and spoke;

"My apologies, lordship. I must have fainted." She said with an air of doubt. she knew perfectly well that she hadn't fainted, but, not knowing what it was that had happened, it seemed to calm her slightly to let herself believe that she'd simply blacked out.

"Very Well, but go see the West wing nurse to ensure your stability" said I, taking a scrap of paper from my pocket and scribbling a note that I had told the maid to go to the nurse.

A great crash from the small free room that Evelyn and I used for our guests, and I ran towards the sound. I reached the door, and it sounded as though a struggle were being ensued within. I heard male voices, and crashing of glass or pottery articles. I threw the door open and gasped.

As I began running toward the sound, I heard a sound that I most definitey recognized. Evelyn screamed from within the room containing the male voices.

"My love" screamed I, bursting into a sprint. Throwing the door wide open, I discovered that there were no men, no fight, no vase being smashed. Not even Evelyn. What was there, however, shocked me beyond what words can only begin to describe. "Viola?" I asked, staring in awe at my Shadow World Love.

It was her, I can not doubt it. I could never forget that face, those delicate features, her skin as pale and fragile as fine china. But where before her eyes had been filled with love, compassion, and beauty, now their reigned in them an emptiness that I knew all to well.

I glanced around the room, tearing my eyes from hers for a moment. Evelyn lay on the ground in a dead faint, and the others in the room all seemed to be frozen, staring open mouthed and silent at my wife, and at the woman who stood amoung them.

"Viola" I whispered, "My love..."

She sneered at me. "So you are the one? The Master told me I would find you one day. I understand I have you to thank for my elevation to this...exaulted state? I have come to offer you my thanks."

Her tongue was a lashing whip and her words stung my ears. My _reality_ dissolved as if formed from colored smoke. A spectral spear pierced my heart and lifted me, held me numb. And though I closed my eyes, I saw Viola reach out to me. Her hand grew thorns as she raked it across my naked chest and her mouth stretched into a grotesque smile lined with rows of pointed things.

Barbs exploded from her supple form and the flesh beneath her hair parted as the visage of the Master errupted from her spine. And my memory was given back to me, a memory filled with past visits to my mortal realm.

"If this... repeating agony... is the price of your tutelage, then let... ignorance be my eternal guide," I said through stabbing breath.

"Viola. Such a sweet girl. I should make her my bride. She will not help you now, slave."

"N-no! I am no longer one of your faceless minions!"

"But at what price? You would betray your dream-woman for your own pitiful existence. If I cared for you at all I would try to stop you. However, I am prepared to make a deal. Your eternal soul would belong to me after your mortal body died, but the girl would go free now."

I didn't see his motive in giving me what I most wanted, my mortal life, and also letting Viola go.

"What else do you want?"

"You are not so stupid as I'd thought, boy. I want you touggghhhh!"

My dear sweet Evelyn had woken and siezed him from behind, but he momentarily threw her off. She resumed her position on the marble floor.

"Now then. As I was saying. I want you to convince the girl of the same deal."

"That she gets her mortal life, but not her eternal soul? She would never agree."

"You can persuade her, I'm sure," the Master sneered. He glanced slyly at Evelyn. "Perhaps together you can both find something else of value to trade."

An anger like none I had ever felt, not even in that miserable realm of shadows, overtook my mind. I yelled something - I know not what - and charged at the loathesome form grinning widely at me. As my hands connected with its throat the form shrivelled and faded, leaving a smear of dark that hung in the air between my fingers. As this dissipated, all that remained was a rank stench of decay.

I turned to aid Evelyn. The others had left swiftly. I gathered Evelyn in my arms pulling her limp body near. "I..I..never meant for this to happen."

* * * Dusk came and went without notice. Too much had occurred for the Feast to even be considered a possibility. What could I POSSIBLY find that would save my wretched existence and Viola's in the bargain? I wracked my brains over this devilish predicament as I entered the library...to find that I had an unexpected visitor. He wore the brown robes of a monk, the hood drawn over his head to obscure his features in shadow. In spite of the utter lack of blackness that I had sensed in the Master's minions (including the apparition of my poor, beloved Viola), he was still a tall, imposing figure. I say "he" and, indeed, thought "he" as I found the robed one standing to face me at the door, as though he'd been expecting me for some time. It didn't occur to me to think that it might be "she". Nevertheless, he confirmed his true gender as he put his palms together at the center of his chest and bowed.

"Greetings, my lord. I was wondering when you would come here."

"How--how did you kn--," I stammered.

"I do," the figure said with a finality that was not to be questioned. "That is enough, is it not?"

"Unless you're allied with--"

"The Master?" the robed one finished with a trace of dark amusement. "Please...I am no more his lord than he is mine."

"Who are you?"

"I might ask you the same question, my lord, but it would be a foolish one to answer. Was it not, in giving away who you were, that you have since lost all that you ever held dear?"

I hung my head at this. The arrow of truth in his voice had struck well into my own guilty heart.

With a softer tone, he said, "Better to ask 'what are you called?' In this way, a man can be known, but at the same time, unknown."

"Very well," I said, lifting my head to meet his unseeable gaze. "What are you called?"

"Ulm. And you?"

"Lord is sufficient for now, do you not think?"

"I do. Now that we have introduced ourselves, I shall tell you the purpose for which I have come: to be the price of your Viola's salvation."

"Why?"

"Why not, Lord?"

"What is so valuable about you that you would give yourself to the Master?"

"Oh, you speak too hastily, Lord," he said as he uncovered the hood. His face was no face and all faces of men at once. The many shapes of them flashed across his countenance like the sparkles in a opal. Even the hair changed with the moment, the only thing unchanged being the short, cropped length of it. "I don't believe that the Master would not sacrifice every soul and minion he's ever brought under his dark wing for even one of the No-Men."

It was no longer the monk but Viola. In her eyes was a look of hatred. She laughed eerily and walked toward me slowly, sizing me up.

"You look surprised. Is this a dream? Will you wake up drenched in sweat. The master will destroy you. I have been sent here to warn you."

I shook my head in disbelief. It couldn't be. "What if I ignore your warnings?" I asked. "Then you die. I can't be immortal." Then she dissapeared leaving me alone again.

My thoughts twirled around a single word...No-Men. Where had I heard that before? Of course! I ran to the shelves which devoted themselves to fantastical zoology and looked for the appropriate volume that dealt with the subject. Finding "The Magician's Guide to Mystical Beings" by A. Crowley, I sat down at my desk by the fireplace, hurriedly flipping through the pages to find the right place. Finally, on page 247, I found the entry I was looking for:

"The No-Men: One of the most elusive and mysterious species of man-like creatures ever seen by the eyes of man, the No-Men defy classification. As their name implies, they are not men (though they wear the form of a man), not angels or demons (though many have been mistaken as such), not were-creatures (though there are some with limited metamorphic abilities), nor any other type of being known. In appearance, they generally are very tall with a slight to medium build. The most distinguishing feature about them (which is also the hardest characteristic to describe) is their faces. Their facial features, in their natural relaxed state, appear to be in a constant state of flux, though some can make themselves into someone else's likeness for a limited period without losing cohesion.

"The No-Men's primary habitat is the world of dreams (though occasionally they will enter the waking world to perform a task that helps their ends). Their main sustenance is the energy from the dark fears and terrors released by nightmares. Occasionally, they may even enter some nightmares to create more food (it is telling that all that is known about these creatures comes from such encounters). As a society, these beings are primarily a loose association of lone hunters. According to some accounts, they once numbered as many as the race of man, but some great cataclysm destroyed the majority of their kind. They have a natural--or perhaps, unnatural--enemy in the 'shadow beings', which are nebulous creatures that arose from the cataclysm. Despite many attempts to find out otherwise, even less is known about these shadows than the No-Men.

"In terms of morality, they appear to be strictly mercenary. On a whim, a No-Man may give a dying hero a vision that will give him the strength to slay a dragon or decide to corrupt a man with dreams of power and wealth so that he may be damned to Hell. What rewards the No-Men get from either can only be guessed. On the other hand, what is certain is their fierce love of independence. Many a greater demon or powerful wizard has tried to harness them as an elite force under their control, but to no avail. Whatever laws these beings follow, they do not fall into the convinient categories of 'good' or 'evil'..."

So, I thought, I either have the greatest ally a man could ask for against the Master or the worst enemy I could ever imagine. I began to feel the strain of the day's events weigh on me. Before I quite knew what was happening, I found myself

falling

asleep.

I found myself in a swamp as I dreamed my way into that cursed otherworld once more. Not the swamp as it actually is, of course, but as too many folk-tales and legends I had heard all my life painted such a mire to be. It was black and gloomy, a half-moon casting a half-light over the fetid mess of water and vegetation. There were no pale reflections of the real world's colors here; terror has a way of sharpening the mind to the most minute details. Here in nature's graveyard, the slow decay of centuries was in the process of dissolving all things that had outlived their usefulness. The bullfrog murmured, the crickets chirped,....and someone was calling my name.

The voice seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn't quite place it. From my starting point of being up to my waist in the stagnant waters of the bog, I sloshed my way towards the voice. After pulling myself out with the aid of the rocky, lichen-covered shore, I unsteadily made my way to the sounds that led me on. I found the source of the summons a little ways ahead; a woman definitely, but it was hard to make out her face with the shadows of the gnarled trees covering her...

Then I realized...THERE WERE NO SHADOWS IN THE DREAMLANDS UNLESS...

My epiphany came too late. Ridding themselves of the guise of tree shadows, the same obsidian demons that had flown through my castle seized me by the limbs and tackled me to the ground. I wasn't the least bit suprised to find that the woman's face was that of Viola's.

"I DID warn you that the Master would destroy you, 'my love'," Viola said with a sneer, revealing those hideous fangs that should have been teeth. "But he also gave the task of accomplishing this to me as proof of my loyalty. I knew that the shock of seeing me and my brothers disrupt your 'real' life would be enough to construct the trap I laid for you."

Opening her mouth, she finished, "So, without further ado..."

I started screaming as that horrid face made it's way towards my throat. It was too much, far too much. I'd failed to protect Viola, the serving girl, Evelyn and even my own soul. Yet all I could think about was how I didn't care if I did fail in these duties. I JUST DIDN'T WANT TO DIE. The situation couldn't get any worse, I thought...just before it did.

"Hold," another familiar voice said, just above my forehead. My heart sank as I saw the only too familiar visage of Ulm, the No-Man I had spoken with earlier. Once more, his hood was pulled back, the kaleidoscope of faces freely swirling about his features. But this time, there was a difference. The faces seem to take on wolfish qualities that bordered on the near-feral, as though they were hungry for their next meal. The shadows loosened their iron grip on me ever so slightly to snarl and snap at his presense.

"What are YOU doing here, No-Man?" Viola snarled with irritation. "The Master said--"

"--nothing about my not having some sustenance from this man," Ulm interrupted. "Reign in your beasts before I'm tempted to have them for dessert."

Viola seemed stunned at this command, but, with wary eyes, drew back from me to allow the No-Man room and motioned for the shadows to not interfere. As he came closer, I once more felt the near-panic grip my soul. Ulm seemed to smile at this and buried his teeth within my throat. I howled in terror as he did it, echoing over and over again into the swamp. It seemed like a century, but soon the man-thing let loose my throat. Stepping over my right arm, he walked up to Viola...and promptly punched a hole through her chest. Now it was her time to scream in horror, to which Ulm's only response was to grab her head through the hole and bend it backwards. After swiftly sticking the head into the hole, Ulm grabbed between her legs and pushed it and the head together. The image of her body seemed to swirl and blacken as he did this, turning into a shapeless lump of the blackest tar. Opening his mouth three sizes larger than most mortal men open theirs, he swallowed Viola whole, letting out a satisfied sigh afterwards.

The shadows that acted as my restraints held fast through all this, but I could almost detect a slight tremor within them that matched my own fear of this unholy savior. Ulm, for his part, once more drew his hood over his face and told the shadows in a commanding voice, "Tell your Master that his price shall be met soon. Go."

As the shadows sank into the swamp ground to spread the news, Ulm stretched a hand out to me, but I got back up on my own. I had no more reason to trust him than I did the Master. After rubbing my throat to see how badly I was bleeding (which, for reasons of dream logic, did not seem to be the case), I spoke.

"Why did you eat Viola?" I asked.

"Because she wasn't Viola," Ulm replied. "Oh, it carried her likeness, it talked in her voice, but the shadows are not the only beings capable of shifting shape as needs be. The No-Men have always been able to see through such deceptions."

"Then she's safe?"

"No, not while the Master demands his price. We'll need to find her before he does, if we are to offer him a better deal."

"What deal?"

"Let's see how well you're still able to locate Viola."

"I'm not sure if I still can." I reply softly. This was beyond anything I ever expected. It started out as obsession and soon became much more. Where could I locate Viola? I wasn't sure. In my dreams she sometimes waited for me in a darkened alley, and others she lay waiting for me naked in my bed. "You must. This is beyond Viola. Your sanity is stake as well. The master is someone you don't want to fuck with. He'll eat you for breakfast if he so desires." I frown and walk to my beloved books. The answer wasn't among these dusty books. The answer was in my heart, my soul. Did I really want to save Viola? I wanted more thaan anything to save my self. The master loomed large before me and I knew that not only would Viola perish but I would as well. The no men would search me out and they would find me no matter where I went. "I'm afraid!" I reply. That was the truth and I wasn't ashamed to admit it. I know of love but I knew nothing about saving souls. Was Viola's truly worth saving? "If you talk like that agaain I'll rip your throat out myself. This is beyond you, and it's beyond Viola. Don't you get it? Viola is a very valued member of The Elders."

The Elders? They were a race of soul stealers that were far more powerful than the master. I had thought they were extinct. "There are no more Elders."

Ulm laughed softly. "She's the last one. The master knows this and will kill her if he finds her." "Why me? Why have I been chosen?" "She chose you. It could have been anyone. You saw something inside of her that no one else has. You're linked by destiny." The Elders. I remembered stories about them as a child. They would take souls from anyone brave enough to make a deal with them. They were bigger than the devil, and adhered to no rules of mortal man. They ruled in the darkness and dreams. I had always thought they were myths. Of course I had thought that about the No-men and the master as well. In the stories they had been wiped out after a bloody civil war bad broken out among them. Half wanted a King to rule them and the other half didn't. After the war there was no King, and there were no Elders. War had not been kind to them. "I can't believe this." I sank to the flor and buried my face in my hands. It was too much to handle. Maybe if I had some time to let it all sink in I could have dealt better. There was no time to think, only act. From outside I heard a loud scream and the sounds of broken glass. Ulm looked surprised and ordered me to stay where he was while he went outside. "Ulm! Where is the girl?" A voice asked. "I don't know, and even if I did would I tell you?" I ventured to the window and saw the face of a demon with only one eye. His face dripped with greenish pus. In his hand he held a double edged sword that gleamed in the pale moonlight

"Temper, temper, little demon," Ulm said with an air of wry amusement. "What are you called?"

"Nafjun Baal'son," the demon growled, his single orb glowing with barely restrained fury. "I fought at Grendel's side against Beowulf, lost my eye in the siege and fall of Camelot, slew Wotan himself at the final Battle of Ragnarok--"

"Seeing how that last is a lie," Ulm replied, as nonchalantly as though he were ordering a meal at an inn. "I very much doubt that you've ever participated in anything of the kind. No, you're still a little...green around the gills."

As Ulm gave release to an unholy peal of dark laughter, the demon gritted his teeth and raised his sword to strike. "No man calls me liar!" he shouted as he aimed for Ulm's head. An eyeblink later, the sword had struck nothing but the ground. Ulm had sidestepped the blade without ever having seemed to move.

"Oh, but I am No-Man, Nafjun Baal'son," Ulm replied, menace building in his voice as he continued. "I've ruled the halls of the Aeseir for a year in my time and traveled the world of dreams in the rest of it. But you, a creature who is built by lies, lives by lies, and DIES by lies, are nothing but an embarassment to your race."

Roaring with rage, Nafjun swung the sword towards Ulm's waist. Appearing from nowhere, a staff of glowing runes in the No-Man's hand blocked the oncoming blade.

"The Master didn't send you to stop us," Ulm observed as he calmly looked into the eye of the green monstrosity before him. "Your purpose, I'm afraid, is to merely delay us and buy him more time. After all, he doesn't want me or his 'loyal' human servant dead, does he?"

"Stop talking!" the demon screamed as he made for another overhand strike to the No-Man's head. Ulm raised his rune staff to block and a terrible thing happened as the sword passed through. The blade passed through Ulm as though he were a ghost, but the hellspawn split completely in half. Ulm looked the mangled corpse dispassionately as he lowered his staff.

"I have a better suggestion, son of Baal," Ulm said with a grimly satisfied tone. "Stop living. You may come out now, Lord."

As I exited the modest hut, Ulm turned to me with the runestaff outstretched.

"You have no more time, you have no more reprieve," the No-Man intoned in a stern voice of authority. "The hour of your destiny has come. I will tell you things that no mortal man has ever heard and remembered in the waking world, but which you MUST if you wish to succeed. Do you understand?"

I numbly nodded my head, looking at the slain demon as a reminder of what my wiser course of action should be.

"First, you should know that my kind were created by God himself to be the natural enemies of the Elders. Our sole purpose was to keep the Elders in check in their reckless aquisition of souls. But as each human is different, so too was our approach different with each soul we touched. If there was a chance for salvation, we could point the human to a road that would usually be short, bloody, and, ultimately, their salvation in the eyes of God. If the seed of corruption had set in too deep for the roots to be pulled, we led them down the path that is the realm of fallen angels, called Hell by your people. It ultimately didn't matter. The point was not to let the Elders have the souls for themselves.

"Then came the Elder civil war, nearly annihilating the whole of them. One of our kind became intrigued by the souls that they had bargained for and left behind in death. With the hubris of Simon Magus, he thought that he could use an ancient ritual to restore the souls to their rightful owners if alive and onward to celestial or infernal regions if not. It's catastrophic failure created the Cataclysm, making us so few in number that we saw no need to have a society. But the No-Man who had triggered this calamity had miraculously survived and was much changed by it."

A sharp intake of breath clawed it's way into my lungs. "The Master," I said.

"Yes...the Master," the No-Man replied with great sadness in his voice. "The souls that he had tried so hard to free became his slaves, the shadow beings you and I met earlier. Soon he became even more terrible than the Elders had ever been in his scavenging for souls and, in order to battle the extinction he had promised us with, the No-Men learned to feed off more than the night terrors and bad dreams of men. We learned to feast on their very souls, specifically the souls of the shadows. Ever so often, one of our kind does so to a living human and is summarily hunted down and killed by us. But this cruel cycle must draw to a close and Viola is the key."

Suddenly thrusting the runestaff into my hands, Ulm grabbed my arm and instructed, "Therefore, let yourself be guided by the runes and let the runes, in turn, be guided by you. Look not for Viola's body--the Master is sure to have a snare similar to the one I demolished earlier. Look for her soul, for her spirit, for the one thing that you, in all this world, have seen and no other."

I couldn't tell which mesmerized me more, the runes or Ulm's poetic words. Regardless, I felt all fear drop away from me like dead leaves as I and the runes reached into the ether.

I was walking slowly through a grey fog. Under my feet leaves crackled, and the ground sloped steadily. Where was I? I could see nothing, but I could feel Ulm at my side. I would love to say that he gave me the courage I needed but it was Viola that provided that. When I closed my I eyes I saw Viola, and I wanted nothing more than to hold her,and to keep her safe. I would not fail her. Not now not ever. Her fate was in my hands, and I swore to God that I would not fail her.

In the distance I could hear the sound of Ulm's breathing,and fell into a walking sleep. In my hands the runes hummed softly. I dreamed of Viola but suddenly Ulm's scream of anger and surprise brought me back to the situation at hand. I looked to my left but Ulman was gone. I followed his screams and almost urinated in my pants.

What I was seeing couldn't be happening. Ulm was being propelled backward toward a twisted and gnarled tree that twisted it's way out of the ground and reached its gnarled hands out toward Ulm. He fumbled for his sword but the tree swatted it away as if it were a pesky fly.

I tried to scream, but couldn't. Something suddenly grabbed my ankle and I felt myself being pulled to the earth with teeth shattering force. The runes throbbed and pulsed in my trembling hand as I struggled to get to my feet. My life flashed before my eyes. I saw my quest to save Viola dissapear like grains of sand between my fingers.

I was too terrified to do anything but lie on the dusty ground in a fetal position. Nothing mattered any more. Not Ulm and certainly not Viola. I closed my eyes tightly against the mist and prayed for it all to go away. I wanted it to be a nightmare and part of me believed that I would soon wake up in my bed free from all the madness that now surrounded my life.

"Look at you! You're Viola's savior? You're nothing but a coward! Killing you will be too easy. Maybe I'll kill you slow, make you suffer." I opened my eyes but could see nothing. The voice was full of malice and seemed to come from all sides of me. I felt myself being pulled to my feet by my hair, but could see no one in front of me. I tried to fight back but it was no use the hands that held me were too strong.

"Where are you you son of a bitch!" I screamed with false bravado. The runes were twitching in my hand, and the small dagger that Ulm had given me rested against my thigh in a snakeskin hilt. I had imagined my self killing the no men but now that I had the oppurtunity I could do nothing but struggle weakly.

"You don't want to see me. Trust me. Give up now and spare your friend." Ulm. He was alive! Suddenly I felt some courage. His life was in my hands and not the other way around. I owed him, and I vowed not to fail him. "Are you scared?" I challenged. I struggled to free the dagger and dropped the runes in the process. It was too dark to see where they landed and at that point I didn't really care.

"It is you that should be scared." The voice whispered mockingly. A figure took shape in front of me and I screamed despite all of my efforts to keep it in. The face was covered in writhing maggots, an eye ball had popped free from its socket and dangled from a trail of rotted flesh. I struggled to free myself and felt my hair rip from its roots. The dagger felt lighter than before and I stabbed blindly. The first swipe landed against something and my attacker screamed and released me. "C'mon! Not so tough now are we?" It was I who was taunting now and it felt good, real good. I was no longer the scared little kid that runs from the monster lurking under the bed I was chasing him.

"I'm going to eat your guts for breakfast! I'm going to rape Viola while you watch." The voice was full of pain. I grinned wickedly but the grin soon died as I saw my attacker run toward me. In his hand he held a double edged sword that glowed in the darkness. I didn't have enough time to run, and the blade sunk into my left arm. I could feel the blood pulse from the wound, and I could hear it splatter onto the ground.

Gritting my teeth against the pain, I lunged back at the nightmare figure with the knife, but his reach with the sword was too great. I nearly lost my head from the swipe of his blade as the sword scraped slightly across my throat. No time to worry about that, I thought. Just kill him first. Holding my knife in the same fencing position that my opponent held his sword, we circled each other, looking for a weak point in each other's defenses. Mine being all too obvious, the creature made another swing at my head. I was amazed to see the dagger block the blow without breaking. He made a stab for my chest and I jumped off to the side of his sword arm. Seizing my opportunity, I drove the dagger completely through his wrist, making him drop the sword in the process. Before I could pull it out again, he swatted me with an open-handed blow...that sent me into the arms of something else.

The shrill laughter I heard behind me was definitely female, but no female that could ever be called a member of the human race. Her grip was every bit as strong as that of her wounded confederate, who was pulling the dagger I had plunged in out of his wrist. My eyes had finally begun adjusting to my surroundings; it seemed that I was in some caves below the ground. That would explain how I had lost my footing when my "host" dragged down here. He hadn't been very pleasant before, but now it seemed that even his hanging eyeball carried an unquenchable torch of inhuman hate.

"Before, you were just an annoyance, a trespasser through my realm," he said, holding the dagger under his thumb as he painfully walked towards me. "Now...you've become the most hated enemy to visit these caves since Beowolf. Too bad that you didn't bring an army like he did."

Lightining fast, I saw the dagger's blade flash as he raised it to strike. In an instant, my mind flashed on the image of Nafjun's sword missing Ulm while not seeming to make a move. But he did, I thought. Didn't he? Just a slight, subtle, quick turn of his body...

As the dagger descended, I moved my head just an inch to my right...and the blade plunged into the unseen harpy behind me. Letting me loose with a bloodcurdling scream, I dove past my would-be killer and scooped up the sword he had just held moments before. For his part, he seemed too stunned by his unwitting attack on the woman to notice. I thought that I heard him breathe, "Mother?" as I buried the blade into his brain. He went down with a thud.

Scrambling back the way that I thought I had come, I looked for the rune staff, praying that whatever magicks were inscribed on it had not been lost by my release of it. I nearly tripped over it and some bat guana, but was relieved to see the runes were as brightly lit as ever. Falling back into my trance state, I let it lead me out of that cave of the damned. The next thing I knew, I was standing in front of Ulm, arms trapped on either side by the grip of an oak tree.

"You made it," the No-Man said with obvious relief in spite of his uncomfortable position. "Good. Unhook my swordbelt and cut me down."

I approached with trepidation, reasoning that such a tree might snatch me as well.

"You've nothing to fear now, Lord," Ulm said. "When you finished off that monstrosity in the caves, you ended the menace of this tree. Now get me down."

Reassured, I undid the swordbelt's buckle, letting it fall to the ground. Pulling it free from it's scabbard, I swung at the pinion on Ulm's left. I was amazed that it cut through the wood as though it were air. Taking the sword from me, the No-Man sliced through the remaining restraint on his right arm. Handing the sword back to me, he picked up the belt and rehooked it around his habit.

"What did I just kill?" I asked, still shaken from the whole experience.

"Nothing," Ulm answered as he took the sword from me.

"What do you mean, nothing?"

"Exactly that," Ulm answered as he sheathed the sword once more. "You can kill in dreams, you can die in dreams, but it will take more than what a man would consider mortal blows to kill one of the Primevils in his home territory."

"Primevils?"

"Hobgoblins of the universal mind," Ulm explained as he dusted himself off. "Monsters that have made such a strong impression on the psyche of mankind that they have carved a seperate fiefdom out of the world of dreams. The one you fought is one of the oldest...Grendel."

"What is he, a demon?"

"Close enough. One of the diseased descendents of Cain's line. He lived beneath the earth as he could never stand the light of day. That's why he and his mother needed the cover of darkness to attack Hrothgar Hall."

"Who was Beowolf?"

"How did you hear that name?" Ulm said, genuine suprise flashing across what I could see of his shifting features.

"He said that I had become his most hated enemy since Beowolf..."

"Ah...that was the hero who slew him and his mother as retaliation for their raid on Hrothgar. Both of them have been here ever since."

"Then that female was--"

"Yes."

"My God, why are we even going through this area?"

"Because the Master would not look for us here," Ulm explained as we put distance between us and the tree. "The Primevils are very territorial and even the Master's power has it's limits within a Primevil's realm. Each has a distinct one that they rule, with even the land obeying their commands. As I know this territory, you'll be safe."

I looked at the rune staff. Before the ambush, there had been five runes glowing. Now the topmost one had become as inert as the wood it was carved on.

"What does this mean?" I asked, pointing to the runes.

"It means that you are four stops away from your dear Viola," Ulm said offhandedly as he regripped his arm. "As things stand now, you wouldn't survive a direct confrontation against the shadows that I am sure have arrived already."

"So why are we wasting time with some animated corpse?" I snapped, fearing for Viola's life.

"One, because it isn't a waste of time. Two, time being the subjective substance it is here, the runes should take us to her right at the moment the shadows arrive. Now concentrate..."

Once more, I felt the world fall away as the runes assumed their hold over me.

My eyes were shut tightly as we travelled once again. I could smell the stench of death, and felt my stomach turn as I opened my eyes. The tiny alley we walked on was lined with corpses. Some were in advanced stages of decomposition while some were freshly dead. They stared up at us with wide eyes, and opened mouths. "Where are we?" I asked softly. I swear it felt as if Ulm and I were the only ones left alive. "I don't know. Jesus!" Ulm almost tripped over the naked corpse of a blonde woman. The left side of her cheek had been ripped open revealing smooth pink gums. She was dressed in a tattered house coat that was open a little. I could see one large breast peeking through the light fabric.

Coming around a slight corner there was a pile of garbage full of squirming maggots. The smell was much worse here, and I saw Ulm bend over and vomit explosively.

Wiping off his unseen mouth, Ulm straightened himself up and croaked out, "Let's leave as quickly as possible."

"Leave?" I replied in confusion. "To where?"

"Anywhere!" he roared back, his voice taking on some of the same inhuman qualities that matched his hooded face. "Just away from this...slaughter!"

"By using the rune--"

"No, you idiot," he snapped, grabbing my arm and dragging me away from the maggot pile. "By WALKING! You haven't forgotten how to do that here, have you?!"

I was too stunned by his fierce condemnation to even reply as we made haste to escape this necropolis. As we left the town's boundaries and came upon a river that ran alongside it's border, Ulm released me and sighed with regret.

"I owe you an apology, Lord," the No-Man said softly. "The corpses and especially that pile of trash stirred up some strong, fearful memories of my past. I had no right to inflict my fears and anger on you."

"It's fine, Ulm," I said as I watched the river's course flow by us. "But does that mean you know what killed those people?"

"Oh yes...only too well. We've entered Fafner's home."

"Fafner?"

"He was once a giant, who, with his brother, Fasolt, helped to build the home of the Norse gods, Valhalla. But they demanded as payment two very important goddessses: Freya and Idun. Idun, in particular, was vital to their continued survival, as only she could pick the golden apples of eternal youth from her grove. Wotan, the gods' chief, contrived of a shameless way to extract himself from this tricky situation. With the fire god, Loge, he kidnapped the dwarf king, Alberich, and made him give up all his treasures, including the Tarnhelm. After accepting these treasures as an adequate payment, Fasolt and Fafner started quarreling over who got what spoils. Fafner bashed in Fasolt's head with a staff and took them all for himself."

"But how does that explains the dead we say in the town?"

"Fafner used the Tarnhelm's magic to turn himself into a dragon, to better guard his ill-gotten treasure. Instead of fire, he breathes poison, guaranteed to kill all who are in it's path. Siegfried eventually came upon him and killed him with a special sword."

"What sword is that?" I asked as Ulm took the staff from my hands.

"The one I wear on my belt," he replied as he layed the staff in the water. "Nothung."

The staff suddenly grew in shape and size, becoming a small skiff, totally unaffected by the river's swift current. He stepped into it's confines and motioned for me to do likewise.

"Nothing?" I asked as the boat began making an unnatural course across the waters.

"No, Nothung. It means 'Needful' in the language of the Holy Roman Empire."

"Why 'Needful'?"

"Because it's first owner, Siegmund, Siegfried's father, found it just when he needed it. I have found it just as useful in my time."

"How did you get it?" I asked as we approached the shore.

"I claimed it after the Battle of Ragnarok. No one else was alive by then to claim it as property, not even Wotan or Odin, as some called him."

"That's who that demon was talking about when he--"

"Yes," Ulm said as we landed on the opposite side. "I watched Wotan being swallowed whole by the great wolf, Fenris; when Nafjun said that, I knew that all he was doing was trying to intimidate me."

We emerged from the boat and Ulm held out his hand over it. The boat condensed back into the staff as it leaped from the water into his hand. Turning to see what lay ahead of us, I saw a dark and foreboding forest that looked as though it had been awaiting our arrival since the dawn of time.

"Fafner waits for us on the other side," Ulm explained as he unbuckled his swordbelt with his free hand. "As the experience with Grendel should have shown you, I'm not quite nimble enough to dodge the dragon's breath in a battle. So you will have to be the one to bury Nothung in his heart, Lord."

He held out the dangling belt and scabbard to me. I was a bit dubious at the thought of my being a dragon slayer. "What makes you think that I stand more of a chance than you would?"

"Well, you got the better of Grendel, didn't you? Not many beings here can claim that, least of all men such as yourself. This time, you'll have a better weapon than before. So why not?"

This logical argument having made it's point, I took the swordbelt and strapped it around my waist.

"Fafner's cave is just ahead," Ulm said. "You'll find a hunting horn to wake him hanging from a tree just before you reach the cave. He won't be pleased with whoever disturbed his nap and will try to kill you. Stay out of the way of his breath and claws and you should be fine."

Trying my best to hide my disbelief in Ulm's faith, I made my way alone into the wood, my heart pounding in mortal dread.

The woods were dense and fragrant with the smell of rotting flesh. Littering the ground were bones of both human and animal. It seemed the deeper into the woods I got the darker it became. Casting a weary glance behind me the trees had leaned down and covered the path in which I had been been walking. I felt hollow inside. The fear I had facing Grendel had been replaced with an tribal urge to kill.

I was growing braver, and deep down I knew that it had nothing to do with Viola. It was Ulm. The no-man. The silent warrior that helped guide me through this insanity, and showed me that I had more courage than I ever dreamed possible. The chain wound around Ulm and wound through me, but Viola was the final link that would end it.

Viola. What was she doing now? I didn't want to think about it. Was she alone? I hoped top God so. I couldn't bear the thought of her being with someone else. I would gladly take death than face that. I killed for her, and faced horror beyond anything I had ever imagined for her. I wanted to believe that she had believed in me enough to stay true.

I had to stop thinking about her. There were more pressing matters at hand. He was walking right next to death and he was smiling. He had never killed a dragon before and wondered what it would feel like as the blood from its pulsing heart drenched his quivering body.

He quickened his pace and walked deeper into the gloom. Up ahead he could see the vauge outline of a mass of rock and wondered if that could be his destination. From where he stood it didn't look large at all. There was no time to stall he had to find the horn.

He...no, not he. I...I came closer to the rock and saw that it was indeed a cave. The entrance was much smaller than I would have thought for a dragon's lair. It was just a few feet taller than I was; I doubt that I could have pulled out Nothung and used it to reach the top of the mouth, but it still seemed too narrow an opening for so fearsome a beast as lay within. So intent on looking at the hole that I bumped into the hunting horn. It was a plain hunting horn, hewn from an ash tree. But it had an inscription on it that gave me pause:

"He who rouses Fafner does so at his peril."

After pulling Nothung from it's sheath, swallowing hard, and steeling my nerves for the inevitable, I blew the horn with my free hand. I felt as though the horn was playing me rather than my playing the horn. Without any reasonable explaination, a peculiar song issued forth from the horn's maw. The defiant tune made me think that the horn was issuing a challenge for me. At the last sounding of the notes, the dragon emerged.

It snorted,and a great gasp of smoke erupted from it's nnostrils. Hiuge, purple scales covered its face. They were irridescent in the light. I trembled, my every instinct urging me to turn and flee, but still I held fast. It was too much gone now not to continue.

I wet myself then. Just a little.

Without preamble, Fafner opened his mouth and breathed in my direction. I barely had time to jump out the way of the foul-looking cloud that came out. I watched in terror as the deadly poison struck one of the few healthy trees nearby and instantly withered it into a dead husk.

Frozen by terror and shocked by what I was seeing I stood unmoving, mouth agape, hands trembling, as Fafner turned to face me.

Fafner paused for an instant as his cruel eyes sized up this new interloper who had roused him from his slumber, then with a vicious swipe his claw flew at me.

I found my legs and leapt away a split second before the point at which I had frozen was filled with a razor sharp talon which proceeded on it's arc across Fafner's path. Fafner stepped forward breathing in and readied himself.

I decided that this was perhaps not the time to be jumping around, if I didn't do what had to be done Fafner would not leave much of me for future generations, so I drew forth Nothung and slashed at the terrifying sight before me, heedless of my failed attack Fafner swung a razor sharp claw at me mere inches above my head, I had no time to think now I would need to make this blow count.

I rolled forward drawing Nothung to a position from which I could strike, I crouched beneath the belly of this foul beast and rising with Nothung held upward thrust the blade into the putrescent flesh. A foul liquid issued forth and a noxious stench the like of which I had never smelled filled my nostrils as the beast keeled over with a earth trembling thud, I withdrew Nothung and stepped back shaking.

Out of the steaming belly wound, green, purple-veined intestines slipped out. Through the slick lining, I could see glimmers of gold, as if the monster had swallowed a treasure chest (or stuffed it for hiding).

Treasure. An unimaginable amount of treasure held inside the beasts inards. Gold, silver, jewels, armor, weapons and more buried deep inside.

I realized that somewhere in there was Tarnhelm. Pulling at the intestines and opening them was a real struggle, but they finally opened and spewed forth the treasures. I stared in awe at the wealth that came pouring at me. A moment of weakness came over me while looking at it all. A slight sense of greed pinched at my psyche and whispered to me to take all that I could and horde over it forever.

The beast was whispering to me. It let one last breath escape in my direction as I turned to look at its head. I rolled back and watched as its own exhale whithered and decomposed its belly and soon over took the whole body. All that remained was a large pile of rotted, black scales. All was gone, including the horde it so ferverently tried to defend.

Realising that my tale had inadvertently tavelled from 'Stephen King' to a poor imitation of 'JRR Tolkein', I scratched my head absently, and stumbled through the gory mire hoping to find a place where I could collect my thoughts. A dwarf, covered in black blood and sporting the largest weapon I had ever seen, strolled toward me and asked "So, did you destroy Nothung, my lord?"

"Get outta here!" I screamed at him and pointed toward a small hidden doorway, from which drifted the sickly-sweet smell of Pepsi, ice-cream, and potato chips, "The Dungeons and Dragons Hall is that way, buddy!"

The dwarf shrugged, flipped me the bird, and wandered off humming the tune to 'The Hall of the Mountain King'.

"Bloody second rate midgets!" I snarled.

Then I looked down at my hand.

"What the hell am I doing holding a sword? Why does a sword have a name? Who the f*ck let Jim Henson take control of this story anyway?" These were the questions which sprang to mind immediately.

The next two questions were a little more pressing, "How the hell do I get back to some normal sort of existence? And will the people there beat the absolute shit outta me there when they see what I'm wearing?"

I supposed I would just have to find out. I whistled for my trusty steed, his name is Dufflecoat Supreme (he's won twice and placed three times...the old boy is keeping the glue factory at bay, I guess, and mounted.

Surveying the lie of the land, I judged that I was around three minutes from some semblance of sanity. Wrapping a bloodstained cloak around my narrow shoulders, I patted Dufflecoat's neck absently and scratched my shoulder.

Something was itching me there, it was driving me nuts, it felt like a small squadron of fleas were burrowing their way into my skin. Taking my hand away I was surprised to see a thin streak of blood amd mucous across my fingers. With a wet pop, the skin on my shoulder split and I was thrown from the back of the horse.

A small, potent, hissing thing emerged from the gaping wound and snarled its way toward the tender flesh of my throat. It moved fast, but I was faster.

I caught it in my hands, feeling the insane heat it produced burning into my palms. I could feel little blisters forming then growing and bursting. I could feel the heat eating madly through the flesh and searing further into the bone. I fought the urge to scream, and screamed anyway.

The small part of my brain that still functioned on a lucid level spoke to me in a dry old man's voice. 'Don't let go.' It said matter-of-factly, 'Don't let go or what you've been through up to now will seem like nothing compared to the pain you'll have to endure.'

I made a mental note to take my medication more often, those darn voices were just getting too insistent. Grappling with the small well of fury in my hands I sunk my fingers deep into its soft flesh. The thing began to squeak and its small beak darted toward the tender web between my thumb and index finger. It tore easily through the skin there and began to shred the flesh of my hand. I squeezed tighter, feeling its small birdlike bones snap and crumble in my grasp. I watched a small jet of blood explode from its mouth and splatter acroos my face. With a thin wail, the creature finally died.

Exhausted and bloodied, I collapsed near my trusty horse. I couldn't help but notice the irony -- only a few hours ago, I had been bitter about my entrappedment in a J.R.R. Tolkein ripoff. Did the gods think I was better off in this 'Alien' one? I looked at the small corpse at my feet and pondered.

This was incredible. I had no true sense of identity, no real reasoning for this quandary I found myself in. The original cause for my entire adventure had begun to fade and crumble from my mind, and I struggled to grab hold of something solid, something REAL.

I looked towards the creature I had destroyed, but it was gone. The forest, the animals, all of it had seemingly evaporated. Realization had begun to take hold of my mind, and seizing this moment of clarity, I knew the true way out of this bizarre nightmare.

Grasping the blade of the dagger in its sheath at my waist, I swung before my mind could consciously register the impulsive decision I had made, and before I could instinctively dodge the blow, I had severed my own hand.

The hand dropped with a silent thud, laying on the ground just within in reach. I watched blood ooze from my gnarled stump of an arm, and struggled to stay conscious.

As my head slowly sunk to the ground, and my eyes swung shut sluggishly, I saw the hand slumped in the mud. It had twitched momentarily, and my last vision was of it sliding closer towards me before I lost all sense of self.

The hand climbed into my mouth and forced it way into me throat. All the time I was lashing and flailing around. I could see the hands imprint in my neck as it slowly tore its way towards my stomach. As it reached my stomach it seamed to grab hold of the inner lining of my guts and started to pull them back up my esophagus. The pain was so blinding that I stopped flailing and went into a state of shock and become catatonic. The hand slowly pulled my intestines up my throat and then finally it exited my mouth and the guts stated coming out at an alarming rate. Then as the last sixty feet of guts exited and become tight as the connection to my rectum held firm. The hand pulled me through the mud guts first coming out of my mouth. Slowly I inched forward one excruciating inch after another.

I felt myself drift away, the pain subsiding as I was dragged through the swamp mercilessly by some demonic will that had possessed by my hand and my own soul.

My very sanity was collapsing, and upon that realization, it occurred to me that there was only one reason for my sudden state of cohesiveness.

I was about to die.

I embraced it willingly, yet there was no sensation, no pain, no light, nothing. I simply floated off, my mind detached from the events around me, and I imagine my body must have felt much heavier than it had moments ago...

Just as I was about to die a tiny leprechaun jumped on my nose. He said that he felt bad that my hand was ripping out my guts though my mouth. He said I could get four wishes to remedy the situation. But with my lower intestine coming out of my mouth how could I tell him what I would wish for?

I made a weak choking effort to speak, but my words were only wet mufled noises. I began to gag. I clinched my eyes shut, unable to breath.

I heard the little leperechaun's high pitched drunken laughter. "Wish number 1 coming right up."

I felt a whoose pain lance through my whole body; it felt like hell. I heard a man's voice that sounded like Ulm's. "One more ought to do it. Increase the voltage another five percent, please Nurse Viola."

"Certainly Doctor Ulm." The voice of Viola answered.

There was a moment of silence as clarity entered his diseased mind. He knew where he was and who was for the first time in a very long while and if he didn't have this damed strap in his mouth he would tell them. He screamed in his mind. "My name is Terrance Lord, I was admitted to the mental ward of the Topeka, Kansas VA. I am an amature writer of horror and fantasy. I have been published only three times and I was in the United States Marine Corps. I remember! I remeber!"

Just then another jolt of his elerctro-shock treatments set the hot whip of pain once again through his mind and body and he screamed as the whole world went dark again.

In the daylight, you can not see them. In the dark, you do not. In your dreams, you might, if they let you . . . . [done?]

OK Done but someone add to that fantasy story I have been waiting for 4 months!!!

But once they slip their gnarled and dark fingers around you and plunge their nails deep into tender, and for the most part unwilling flesh there can be no return. So now, slipping further and further away from those lights, the Doctor and the Nurses and their shiny metal instruments and mint green gowns I smile.

For wherever this empty and cold darkness leads it must be better than the sterile wards, the white gowns that flap behind and leave no man or woman a scrap of dignity. Farewell to the dark chasms of hell in dreams so haunting they jolt you upright at night, flesh frozen and limbs rigid.

In daylight you cannot see them, in darkness you do not, in dreams they might let you - and in death they greet you with arms aoutstretched and welcome you to.....well I'm not going to ruin it for you one thing I am certain of is that You will most certainly find out for yourselves one day.

Just one thing, cheer up its not all one dark cold tunnel for all of us, Viola says that her journey to me was warm and filled with light - see you soon!

Done!

well since this one is done can we start a new one...

Since the other story was done by the time I got here I figured I would give starting the next one a shot. How's this? If you don't like it, or can't go anywhere with it, delete it and put in something else.

Spanish moss hung like strips of tattered flesh from the trees as I made my way through the brackish water which formed the outer edges of the everglades. The stench of rotting leaves and stagnant water permeated everything and somewhere an aligator thrummed out a warning. I just hoped that it was aimed at me. It had to be. They couldn't have found me this fast, could they? Not after a mere two hours. Still,I began looking over my shoulder as often as I was looking down.

I realized I had to be careful - after all, I didn't want to step on a water moccasin and take a bite to the foot. That would be the worst way to die. Out in the middle of the everglades, chased by _them_ and practically up to my armpits in mosquitoes. However, I didn't know which I'd rather have. To be caught and well, have not-so-nice things done to me, or to be bitten by a snake and die from poison. I chuckled bitterly to myself. _Within life_, I thought, _there's always a choice_.

_They_ have been stalking me ever since I escaped the chamber made of sticks. My skin is what _they_ desire. Tis a rare breed, so I am a prime target. The alligator stayed put as I swam past it, something I expected. There are many animals out here that would devour anything that came close, but I was different. My skin alone made me desirable to nothing but _them_. I am an endangered species of man, that is a lick away from being extinct. Luckily I had formulated a plan.

"Plan?" my weary mind muttered. "What plan you fool? Death is the snake's strike away. "Viola," I cried out. "Help me!" The ungent smell in my nosrils made my blood grow cold. "Blood," I knew that was what I scented. The warm blood trickled down my arm. Snake bite was not an easy way to die. The body would begin to turn to mulch in an instant. The brain would feel like decay in seconds. I felt the bile of fear rising up in my throat and a scream of terror near the roof of my mouth. I cluthced my bleeding arm and sank onto the wet moss. The noise in the underbrush allerted me to the alligators swimming somewhere in the murky water. The eerie noise that I heard sweep out of the moss laden trees like ghosts and I realized it was made by me. Laughter peeled out of my body as I looked down and saw my arm dripping blood. The low tree branches had snagged me good. But then the swoosh of water was churning at me feet. As I lay there in the mud I realized that I was not very scared. I mean I didn’t think that snakes and alligators were that frightening at all. I needed something more, something, much much much much…I started to speak out loud. “much much much much much much much much much more horrible than this!!!” As I said that something must have heard my complaining tantrum. I started to see bubbling from the water in the still dark lake. Then I started to smell a terrible smell. It was so offal that it was like what it would smell like to swim in a vat of maggot infested mold covered beef puree. I started to gag and then I felt my arm getting better. What audacity! The horrible thing that created the fog was healing me just to hunt me and kill me more slowly and sickeningly than any way ever before done or imagined. Lucky me. I saw the water begin to rise and then as the boiling of the water came to a pitch I heard a rumbling sound like deep thunderous gurgling. Then the ground shook and started to make me slide toward the water. I panicked and started to scramble to my feet all the while trying not to breathe the horrific smell. As soon as I could scramble away from the waters edge I ran to a near by shack that was filled with farm equipment. Sickles, reapers, plow shears, and all manner of sharp, jagged pointed and hideous objects. I ran through the door into the shack and under the dangling sharp and pointed objects. I saw a table that had knifes and all sorts of tools on it. I hid under it and tried to remain as still as I could. Out side I heard the gurgling stop. Then I could hear wet and sloppy movements with a loud sucking sound.

“GASLORP SHIIIIP GASLORP SHIIIP GASLORP SHIIIIP GASLORP SHIIIP GASLORP SHIIIIP GASLORP SHIIIP GASLORP SHIIIIP GASLORP SHIIIP GASLORP SHIIIIP GASLORP SHIIIP”

The sound was getting louder and louder and louder. It was maddening. Then something hit the walls of the shack I was in hard. Sickles, reapers and plow shears and all kinds of other heavy and sharp objects started to fall and crash all around. I stayed under the table but it was not perfectly safe. As I looked up I saw the walls of the shack start to buckle and collapse under some enormous force. After the rain of equipment was over I ran out as fast as I could through the quickly collapsing door.

As I looked back at the shack I saw something. It was black and dark brown. As big as the shack it self. It had a big fat body covered in strange sharp appendages. It had a neck that look like several smaller necks spiraling around one large central cord. Its small head had a three peace lower jaw and a two peace upper jaw. As I ran out of the door it saw me and let out a gurgling hiss. “GASSGUULLAAGGSIISS”. I ran and stumbled as fast as possible to a small house that was nearby. I heard it coming from be hind me faster than before. “GASLA SIIP GASLA SIIP GASLA SIIP GASLA SIIP GASLA SIIP GASLA SIIP GASLA SIIP GASLA SIIP GASLA SIIP GASLA SIIP GASLA SIIP GASLA SIIP. ” I ran up the porch steps and slammed into the front door but it was locked! I turned around and saw it almost at the porch steps. I could see it more clearly in the porch light. Its long tail had what looked like eggs covering it and its fat black, brown and green body slid as its hundreds of long and short sharp pointed arms that covered it randomly scraped and clawed at the ground. Its small head opened at the end of its long twisted neck in five glistening jaws with razor sharp teeth. Everything I could see went to black and white and in slow motion as my brain tried to protect me from the hideous horrific seen. I had to do something quick. Yet I thought in the back of my mind ‘this is more like it…. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!’

The snarling beastie was about to devour me, when the door banged open and I saw the old man standing there as if he had seen this strange turn of events many times. "Get out of here foul obscenity," he muttered, and much to my surprise and utter relief, an instant before the multitude of wringling arms, vines and sucker tentacles had reached my trembling body, the horrendous monstrosity vanished out of sight. I was relieved, yes, but I wondered if this old goat was one of the no-men, so I took a step back and scratched my beard and waited. The old man looked at me sort of curious, then motioned me across the threshold. The old fart looked harmless enough, although he had vanquished the peril which had threatened to destroy me, with a few well chosen words and an absent minded wave of his wrinkled hand. Who was this old dude? How could he have defeated that horrifying beastrosity so effortlessly, if he was just a harmless old geezer?

I resolved my self to find out, and stepped across the threshold.

“Come in quick, and lie down. You are suffering from post- tramatic stress disorder.” The old man said. “Naaa naaa nnnnnaa Nooo wwwwa wa aaa eee I eee aa aa am mu mmmu mu ni ni ni ni ni nooot ti ti.” I struggled to say, then I just took his advice and laid down on the old dusty couch he pointed to, because he was obviously right. “By the way I am Arthur Flanagan, farmer.” The elderly man stated. “Just lay back and relax and I will get you some tea to calm your nerves.” After he left I tried to close my eyes but every creek and ping that I heard the old house make caused me to jump and shiver. I heard old man Flanagan starting to fix up some kind of tea in the kitchen. The clanging of pots and the poring of hot water started to make my feel more at home and less jumpy. After about twenty minutes he came back with the tea. “It’s hot so, blow and sip.” Flanagan said. I could barley hold the mug that he handed me from all my shaking. As I sipped some tea down I soon felt less shaky and more calm. “Wa What k kind of ti tea is this?” I said more clearly then before and with less effort. “That is Mandrake tea. Good for nerves or to get folks out of catatonic states. You were lucky you didn’t go catatonic. You may have been that way for days before the tea could get you out of it.” “Where di did that thing go? How did you ske scare it off like that?” I said looking around for any sign of its return. “Don’t worry too much. It can’t come back for at least two more hours.” Old man Flanagan said calmly. “What!” I jump up. “We have got to get out of here!” “Sit down, son your still suffering from the traumatic stress syndrome you couldn’t walk yet any way.” The old man said as he grab my before I tripped.” I clumsily pushed him out of the way and tried to run but my legs quivered and I couldn’t remain standing. I fell into a cabinet of books and it collapsed and the books crashed to the ground. The old man came over and began to pick up the books and put then in a stack on the coffee table. I saw one of the books, its title was ‘Kolacwince Demoquinkwul’s Book of Extra Planner Dimensional Movement and Gateway Creation.’ I look up at the old farmer. “What kind of books di do you k keep here?” “Never you worry, I know how to handle those books. I mean I have kept that creature way for quite some time now.”

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