I wrote this brutal little piece–for no reason I can recall, though I may have been playing Resident Evil 2–almost exactly six years ago, on Wednesday, February 2, 2000, just one minute before the stroke of midnight (thank you, Microsoft Word “Properties” tab). I think the idea behind the piece was to write a scene showing how I’d deal with a zombie if I ran into one in real life (hence the uncertainty about using a gun–and the crying).

It’s a little eerie that I thought about it today and now, just forty minutes past its six-year anniversary, I’ve decided to post it here. If I were a more superstitious man, it might freak me out; instead, the materialist in me wonders why I tend to think about zombies in early February.

I’ve toned down the violence and cursing from the original version, though it’s still definitely rated R–but a cheesy horror B-movie R, not a reprehensibly gory R.

The corpse slid to the floor.

It seemed an eternity before he heard the tink of the shell on the floor. The blast still echoed against the concrete walls of the alley outside the window.

For more than a minute he was motionless, the shotgun held out before him in one hand, his arms quivering with its weight. Finally he lowered the gun and stepped back, slumping against the wall behind him and sliding to the floor, never taking his eyes off what he’d done.

He was twenty-two, an art school graduate living in a dingy apartment in a New York suburb. The shotgun had belonged to a cop; he’d pried it off the half-eaten corpse in the hallway. He hadn’t seen the one he’d killed until it was almost too late.

There would be more of them. He’d seen enough movies to know that. Maybe even in the building. He should check how many shells he had–but how?

He’d never fired a gun in his life. Now he’d killed his landlady, Mrs. McNeil. Shot her head off with a shotgun.

Granted, she hadn’t been herself lately. More like a hideously diseased and undead shadow of her former self. So in a sense, he hadn’t killed her; she was already dead.

Somehow, that didn’t make him feel better.

Watching a human head explode because of something he’d done tapped into a portion of his mind that terrified him. It was something beyond mere shock; it was the horror of not only having to kill someone, but someone he knew. That it was in self-defense, and that the person he’d shot didn’t seem to be the same person he’d known, were rational facts that his mind wasn’t able to grasp at that moment. He began to sob. After a few minutes, the tears subsided, and he sighed deeply.

He sensed the thing before he saw it.

Slowly, he turned his head and looked up. Another one of the things was in the doorway, watching him. Like the other one, its skin had faded to a dull grey color, and the eyes had turned a pale shade of yellow. The milky orbs fixed on him while the thing stood there silently.

He slowly stood, backing away as much as he could. He brought the shotgun up again and prayed there was another shell in it. The thing continued to stare at him, but didn’t move. It opened its mouth and made a hissing noise that turned his stomach. Without warning, it lurched toward him. There was a thundering crack and the thing collapsed in a heap.

Still in shock, he began to scream obscenities. He kicked at the corpse on the floor. The tears flowed once more as he struck the thing with the butt of the gun.

Another one appeared at the door.

“Goddamn it!” he screamed, and he wielded the shotgun like a club, smashing the butt into the side of the thing’s head. The shotgun broke in half but it did the trick: the thing’s neck snapped and it collapsed to the floor.

This time, there were no tears, no cursing. He paused a moment, looked at this latest victim.

“You messed with the wrong graphic designer, assholes.”

There would be more. He might be the only remaining human in town. He had to get out and warn the proper authorities. And he needed another gun.

He went out into the hallway. The elevator was out. He took the stairs.

To Be Continued…?

“Johnny Sniper and the Cave of Fear”

At one point, my friend Brian DiPaolo and I considered making a website devoted to his character “Johnny Sniper.” Johnny is–well, he’s hard to describe, but if I had to do it in one sentence, I’d say he’s your archetypal all-American soldier (with violent jingoistic tendencies). I wrote this story in anticipation of the site, but it never materialized. Brian has kindly allowed me to publish it here.

The original draft had a lot more swearing and nationalism, as I tried to capture the cartoonish Johnny of Brian’s comic strips. I cut a lot of it in revision. It’s now more of a World War II-era horror story, very similar to Robert E. Howard’s efforts in the horror genre.

The “plot” for this story was inspired by a short Hellboy fan-film by Aaron Antaloczy, which you can see here (requires Quicktime).

This story gets rather gross. You’ve been warned.

“Get a hold of yourself!”

The slap echoed off the cave walls. The tall, slender soldier fell to the rocky floor with a whimper.

His attacker, a thick-muscled man with short blond hair, reached down to grab the victim’s shirt.

“You damn pansy,” said the blond. “I’m gonna–”

A fist smashed into the blond’s jaw. He found himself next to the thin man on the cave floor.

“You idiots,” said a voice. “If you don’t cut that shit, I’m going to kill you both and leave you here.”

The blond glared, then fell silent. “Sorry,” he muttered.

“Sorry what, Private Rider?” the other demanded.

“Sorry sir.”

A hand reached out of the darkness toward the thin man. “Come on, Collins. Quit your crying and get up.”

Collins took the hand and was quickly pulled to his feet. “Thank you, sir.”

Rider got up, rubbing his jaw. “So what do we do now?”

“We need to get out of here,” Collins said. “Fast!”

“What about the captain?” asked Rider.

The third soldier walked into the aura created by their flashlights. He wasn’t as tall as Rider, but he wasn’t short, either. His face was broad and marked by numerous scars. The square chin was rough with stubble that was never shaved clean, yet never seemed to grow into a beard. He wore the expression of a man who had seen too much but was ready for more.

“I don’t think the captain gets to weigh in on this one,” said the soldier.

All three men regarded the object across the room. A dark mass lay huddled against the cave wall. Around it was a pool of deeper darkness–blood.

Once, this thing had been Captain Fernando Ortega of the 82nd Airborne–a strong man, a man to have next to you in a fight.

But what was once Ortega was now a shapeless blob of mangled flesh. It was barely recognizable as the captain. The stomach and intestines had been ripped out and strewn all over the ground, like the stuffing of a doll torn apart by a dog.

“So what happened to Cranmore? And Newt?” Collins whispered.

The third soldier was silent. “I don’t know.”


After more than two years in the war, the man called Johnny Sniper had seen more than his share of what men will do under desperate circumstances. He had seen hatred in the eyes of his fellow soldiers as they butchered helpless Germans; he had seen the unspeakable things the Germans had done to French villages.

But now, Johnny’s steely nerves were shaken. It had started when his company ran into a group of Germans ravaging a village. They were SS and so they’d put up a decent fight, but the Americans had chased them out of town. Ortega and his men had pursued them into the forest, and they fought a few more skirmishes; each time, both companies lost several soldiers, until each group had been whittled down to a handful.

When they lost the Germans’ trail, Ortega considered heading back to the Allied camp. But Johnny picked up the trail again, which led to a cave in a small canyon. All they had to do was wait for the Germans to come out of the cave.

The company waited until twilight, but there was no sign of the Germans. Finally, near dusk, Ortega decided to take a detachment of soldiers and investigate–including Johnny. Shortly after entering the cave, they lost track of Ortega and Cranmore. Minutes later they heard a bloodcurdling scream. Rushing through the darkness, they found the captain–or what was left of him.

Johnny didn’t like it. The Nazis were bastards, no question, but they wouldn’t do something like this. Ortega had been torn apart. No man or men could do it, not with knives or bayonets. There had to be some sort of animal in the cave.

“We’d better get out of here,” said Johnny. “Collins, can you get us out?”

The tall, slender soldier–a smart fellow, but not the best man in a fight–had panicked after seeing the captain’s corpse. He was still trembling, but the tussle with Rider–that dumb thug, Johnny thought–seemed to have straightened him out, for the time being.

“I don’t know,” Collins said. He pulled out his map and they shined their flashlights on it. The map shook in Collins’ hands. He took out his compass.

“I took a reading right before we came in,” he said. “But now…that’s queer.”

“What?” Johnny said.

“The compass–it’s not working,” he said.

“Maybe it don’t work underground,” said Rider.

“Maybe your brain doesn’t work underground,” Collins muttered.

“You want another one?” Rider said, shaking his fist.

“Goddamn you assholes,” said Johnny. “What’s wrong with the compass, Collins?”

“It could be the cave,” Collins suggested. “Maybe there’s some magnetite in the rock.”

“Maybe there’s some magnetite in your brain!” said Rider.

“That doesn’t make any sense, dumbass,” Collins shot back.

“What did you call me?” Rider said, stepping toward the other.

“Quit it, you idiots!” Johnny said. “Forget it then. Let’s just choose a direction and go. But keep your eyes open.”

Their progress was slow. They used only one flashlight at a time to save their batteries. The cave was deep and surprisingly complex. Rider, who was from Montana, had gone spelunking a few times, but that didn’t seem to help them much now.

They moved through the darkness for what seemed like hours. Finally Collins, who had the sharpest eyes, cried out. “I see light!”

Sure enough, there was a small patch of white against the blackness ahead. They moved quickly toward it, keeping the flashlight on the floor, watching for sudden crevices or pits.

They found themselves in a large cavern. The light turned out to be a shaft of moonlight that shone through a crack in the ceiling.

“Damn,” Rider muttered. “Not the way out, I guess.”

Collins was looking at the map. “Maybe if we could get up there, I could get a look outside and figure out where we are…”

“Don’t be an ass,” said Rider. “That’s thirty feet up if it’s an inch. And it’s too small to crawl through.”

“Well fine,” said Collins, folding up the map. “At least it can serve as a vent. I’ll start a fire.” He kneeled on the ground and cleared out some of the long, narrow rocks that cluttered the floor. Then he took off his backpack and rooted around for the timber he’d saved for just such an occasion.

“Well, screw this,” said Rider. “I’m beat.” He dropped heavily to the ground.


“What now?” said Johnny.

“I sat on something,” Rider said. He felt around under his rump and grabbed a rough, sharp object. Johnny shone his flashlight on it.

It was a bone.

“Ugh!” Rider cried. He dropped it like a hot potato.

Just then, Collins’ fire flared and lit the cavern with a red glow.

“Mother of God…” Collins whispered.

The floor wasn’t covered in rocks.
It was covered in bones.


“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” Collins mumbled. Rider was reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

“Shut up, you two!” Johnny hissed. He had noticed that among the bones were many pinpricks of bright light– reflections against something metal. He bent down to examine the nearest one.

It was a helmet. Not a military helmet–at least, not a recent one. Johnny picked it up. It was big, and seemed to be made from bronze. A long crescent of steel protruded from the top and ran down the back of the helmet. Some wispy, crumbling bristles of hair still clung to the crescent.

“What is that?” Rider asked.

Johnny walked over to Collins. “You’re the brain,” said Johnny. “What is it?”

Collins tore his eyes away from the grim spectacle of the bones. “It looks like–like an old helmet.” At Johnny’s glare, he added quickly, “Obviously. It looks like a Roman soldier’s helmet, actually.” He took it from Johnny. “Look here, there’s some Latin–oh my.”


“It says ‘VIII Legion.'”


“Sir–this is a real helmet–a helmet from ancient Rome. It must be worth a fortune!”

Their curiosity–and greed–surpassing their horror, all three men started rooting among the bones. They discovered more Roman-era helmets, as well as helmets that appeared to have belonged to Visigoths, Vikings, and Crusades-era knights. There were also a number of swords and countless pieces of armor scattered among the bones.

“What is this place?” Collins asked.

Then Rider screamed.


Rider had been searching a corner of the cavern not touched by the flicker of the campfire. There, in a jumble of flesh and slimy bones, were the corpses of the Germans they had chased into the cave.

Rider was backing away, shaking his head in horror. He bumped into Johnny and screamed again.

Johnny slapped him.

Collins had retreated to the campfire and was sitting before it, gazing into the flames. Johnny shone his flashlight into the mess of gore and offal.

“Damn,” he said.

“What is it?” Collins cried.

Gingerly, Johnny reached into the mess and pulled out a round helmet. He held it into the light.

“It’s one of ours,” said Rider.

Johnny nodded. “Cranmore,” he said, pointing to the initials carved into the inside of the helmet.

“Oh God, oh God,” Collins murmured. “We have to get out of here!”

“How?” Rider cried. “How, goddamn it? We don’t have any idea where we are!”

“Shut up!” Collins screamed back.

“For the love of Christ, if you assholes don’t shut your pieholes, I’m gonna–”

“Shhh!” Rider hissed.

Johnny glared at him. “What?”

Rider’s eyes were wild. He held a finger to his lips.

Johnny listened. At first he couldn’t hear a thing. Then, faintly, he heard a small, rhythmic sound–a soft, slow shuffle.

“What the hell is that?” Collins whispered. He was getting hysterical. Johnny gestured warningly at him, then pointed to the tunnel the sound was coming from. He unslung his machine gun and pointed it at the tunnel. Rider and Collins quickly did the same.

The shuffling sound was getting louder. Slowly, a shape began to appear from the darkness of the tunnel. It was about the height of a man, but its shape was vague.

The thing edged closer. The red glow of the campfire began to reflect off its surface. It seemed to be wet, as if covered in slime.

Or blood.

As the thing shambled into the cavern, Collins screamed.

“It’s the captain!”


Before the men could fire, the thing stopped at the lip of the tunnel. It hung back, just out of the aura of the dying campfire.

There was no doubt: it was Ortega. Johnny could see wisps of the man’s uniform, including several of his medals, which were now embedded in the pinkish-red flesh of his body. The captain had been horribly transformed; the flesh of his chest and shoulders was bloated and heaved up around his neck, making it appear as if his head had half-sunk into his body. His mouth had widened and his eyes bulged, giving him a frog-like look. His one remaining arm hung uselessly at his side.

But the worst were his guts. They hung out in front of him, glistening and dripping. His organs and other internal parts seemed to have burst outward, leaving his torso a hideous mess.

Johnny was frozen. His finger pressed against the trigger of his gun, but he somehow couldn’t pull it the extra millimeter to fire.

Johnny was a practical man. He didn’t believe in ghosts, witches, vampires, or any of the other folktales he had been told by his grandmother as a child. Back then, they had enraptured and terrified him, but as he had grown older, he had dismissed the tales as superstition. But now, as he faced the shambling thing that had once been his commanding officer, he felt all of that childish dread come flooding back.

It was Collins who broke the silence. “What are you?” he whispered to the thing.

There was silence for a moment. Then, the bloated corpse began to make a gurgling sound. It bubbled up from the general region of the thing’s head. It was a hissing interrupted by wet belches, like a pudding boiling in its pot.

And then it spoke. Each word came out long and slow, barely above a whisper, accompanied by a hissing gurgle. Not a word of it made any sense to Johnny.

“What the hell is it saying?” said Johnny.

Collins had turned pale. “It’s Latin,” he said.

“So what’s he–it–saying?”

“It says…it says it is…its name is…Hedrath…and that it’s a–a spirit of the earth?–that collects…that collects–”

“What?” Rider snapped.

“It collects the souls of those whose courage fail them,” Collins finished. He was backing away from the fire, his machine gun in front of him.

The thing was still talking.

“Oh God,” said Collins.

“What?” Johnny demanded. “What’s it saying now?”

“It lead us here…and the Germans…it’s done this for thousands of years…it’s very, very old…oh God…” Collins was backing toward the other side of the cave. “It says it’s going to–”

Johnny noticed movement in the shadows behind Collins. “Look out–!”

The thin soldier had backed into the corner where the bodies of the Germans and Cranmore lay. Suddenly, the pile of gore surged behind Collins and, like a wave of blood and bone, it rose up and engulfed him.

Collins’s scream was choked off as blood and offal rushed into his mouth. The thing wrapped itself around him and seemed to squeeze. There was a loud crunch as Collins’s bones snapped.

Rider screamed. He suddenly remembered his weapon and fired dozens of rounds into the pile of gore that had engulfed Collins.

Johnny was swinging his gun around to help when something grabbed his ankle. He looked down to see a pink tentacle–Ortega’s intestine–wrapped around his leg.

He was yanked off his feet and crashed into the rocky floor, scattering the bones. His machine gun bounced into the darkness.

Rider was still screaming and shooting at the blob, which was now convulsing around the remains of Collins, like some obscene form of chewing. The bullets ripped into the thing but, given that it was literally a walking wound, they had no apparent effect.

Meanwhile the intestine was slowly dragging Johnny toward the Ortega-thing. Its guts were now a writhing mass, like the underside of a squid. They seemed to be taking on some strange, alien form or substance, as if they were no longer true intenstines but actual tentacles.

Suddenly another intestine-tentacle shot out of the beast and whipped around Rider’s neck. Johnny cried a warning, but in an instant the tentacle had yanked Rider bodily off the ground and hurled him halfway across the cavern. Johnny heard Rider’s neck snap.

The tentacle was still dragging him toward the Ortega-thing. Johnny remembered his knife and pulled it out of the holster on his thigh. With a quick slash he cut the intestine, which recoiled and thrashed about like a halved worm.

Johnny got to his feet. He spotted a machine gun and leapt for it.

The Ortega-thing had finished dragging Rider’s body toward it. As Johnny watched, it pulled the corpse into its guts and enveloped it, just as the other thing had done. To Johnny’s horror, the thing began to grow in size.

He heard a sickening sound behind him and spun to see the other creature crawling toward Ortega. His fingers tightened around the machine gun, but he had no idea what to do. The campfire was beginning to flicker out. Shadows almost as hideous as the things that cast them danced wildly on the cavern’s walls.

Johnny felt his mind slipping into madness. How many times had this scene played out? How many warriors throughout history had stumbled into this cave, only to meet the “Hedrath” and be absorbed into its hideous form?

The two blobs met. They flowed into one another, limbs and guts writhing with loathsome ardor. The stench in the cavern was beyond description–a miasma of decaying flesh, excrement, and curdling fluids.

Then Johnny saw his chance.

To his right was a small tunnel, different than the one they had come in by, which was blocked by the monster. Johnny had no idea where this one led, but it was his only shot. He began to edge toward the tunnel.

Just then, the Hedrath lurched and reared. Before Johnny’s eyes, the pile of bloody corpses began to climb toward the ceiling. Two broad, stumpy legs, composed of countless bones, appeared at the bottom, followed by a torso, gory arms with tentacled fingers, and a hideous head, from which peered a dozen eyes.

The huge, lipless mouth began to quiver. “Johnny Sniper”–it spoke in English–“these others were but tiny morsels compared to the feast which you shall provide. For while their fear was great, they had only a little way to fall. But the fear of one such as you must first surmount your great courage. We have not fed on one such as you for a thousand years…”

Johnny dove for the tunnel entrance. The thing’s arm shot across the room, extending rapidly on an endless supply of offal, and its hand blocked the tunnel.

Johnny tumbled backward, dropping his gun in the process. He landed on his face and inhaled the dust of old bones.

“And now, Johnny Sniper,” said the Hedrath, “I will feast on your fear.”

Johnny pushed himself up onto his knees, coughing and hacking. As he did so, his hands closed on something: the hilt of a long sword. It looked ancient, and unrecognizable runes ran along the hilt. Yet while the blade’s surface shone dully, the edge was still sharp after untold ages.

The thing towered over him. Johnny didn’t move. He felt his heart flutter in his chest. His mouth went slack, and his eyes glazed. The thing made a sound vaguely analogous to human laughter. The laughter seemed to grow in proportion to the fear that welled up in Johnny’s heart.

And Johnny realized he was going to die here, in some cave in France, eaten by the ancient byproduct of some long-forgotten European race–so far from his native land, where the flags fluttered proudly in the wind–

Johnny realized he was still holding the sword. Even as the beast loomed over him, its gut-tentacles squirming toward his face, he gripped the sword in both hands and, with an effort, got to his feet.

“Looks like you weren’t scary enough,” said Johnny.

The Hedrath hesitated, confused.

Johnny struck. He swung the sword in a huge arc, hacking deep into the side of the thing. It let out a terrible wail–the sound of a hundred men screaming–and stumbled back.

Johnny stumbled with it, the sword still stuck in its guts. He yanked it out, spraying himself with muck in the process. Then he struck it again.

The Hedrath screamed. It strove with its tentacles to grab Johnny, but now that he had regained his courage, it could do him no harm. He hit it with the sword again and again, and at some point the screams turned into cries of fear and despair.

After each cry for help, the thing uttered a name Johnny’s ears couldn’t interpret, but the very sound of it nearly made him lose what little sanity he had left. Driven by a strange impulse he began to strike even more, stabbing, slicing and jabbing with the sword. Gore splashed over his uniform and thick blood coated his arms to the shoulder.

Finally the creature fell back, landing on the last embers of the campfire. Its center burst into flame, as if it had contained some volatile gas. A horrid stench arose, mixed with screams so loud and piercing they seemed to be a physical presence in the air.

Johnny turned and ran. He stumbled into the small tunnel entrance and kept running. His only thought was to get away from the terrible screaming behind him. He ran for what seemed like hours but could have been mere minutes. He tripped over rocks and holes, yet somehow managed to avoid falling into a pit.

Then he was running through clear fields in the dying moonlight, the long grass whipping at his boots.

He came to a river and collapsed on the bank. He tore his bloody clothes from his body and hurled them into the rushing water, letting its currents take them away forever. He lay down, his body half in the river, its purifying waters cleansing the blood from his skin.

There was a high wind, and it seemed to him that it still carried the screams of the dying thing in the cave. The Hedrath would come for him, he knew–it would ooze through the tunnel and crawl through the fields, smearing its blood-slime on the grass, to kill him…

Then the world went dark, and Johnny knew no more.


“Jesus Christ, Mary and Joseph,” said a voice.

“Shhh!” hissed another voice. “Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.”

“Sorry, Father, but Jesus,” said the first voice.

Johnny opened his eyes. At first, all he saw was blue–bright, beautiful blue, the color of a jewel, of the Mediterranean sea, the color of a blonde’s eyes when she smiled at you…

Two shadowed faces came into view. “Lieutenant, sir?” asked one of them. “You okay?”

“Johnny? Are you all right, son?”

Johnny’s eyes focused. He recognized the round, youthful face of Flannery, the company chaplain. The other was the grizzled mug of Frank Durth, a staff sergeant.

“Dear God, Johnny, what happened to you?” Durth asked.

“Please, Sergeant,” said Flannery.

“Sorry, Father. Johnny?”

Johnny tried to sit up. He groaned with the effort; every muscle responded with a sharp ache.

“Johnny,” said Durth, “Where are the others? Where’s Ortega, and Cranmore and Collins and Rider?”

Johnny squinted as he tried to recall the previous night’s events. “In…the cave,” he said. “I…” He scratched his head. “I…”

He felt a thought come into his mind–it hovered at the periphery of his memory, a small thing that cast a great shadow, making his heart race and his head swim. He felt himself pitching backward, but the two men caught him.

“Forget it,” said Durth. “Whatever happened, he’s in no condition to talk about it.”

“So what do we do about the cave?” Flannery asked.

“Well, after that cave-in, there’s not much we can do. We looked for another entrance and called their names. I guess…I guess we’ll just have to go back to camp. Maybe Johnny will remember something later. Go get the medic. We’ll need a stretcher.”

Flannery nodded and left. Johnny watched Durth through slit eyelids.

“I know you’re still awake, son,” Durth said. He squatted and leaned close to Johnny. “I know you’re white, kid. No one will blame you. But can you tell me what happened?”

Johnny looked at him. He tried one last time to remember–but when the thing tickled at the edge of his consciousness, he felt his mind recoil, like a hand reaching for a flame.

He shook his head. “Sorry, Sarge. I…I can’t remember. I just know it was awful.”

“I bet it was,” Durth said. He eyed the lieutenant closely. “You’re made of tougher stuff than I, Sniper. You’re tougher’n anyone else in this whole damned army. I know it and you know it. If whatever was in there scared you this bad, then by God, forget it. We’ll pack up and head out pronto.”

Johnny could only nod. He felt peaceful, now that he could let his memory wall off the events of the night before. As the medic dressed his wounds and prepared him for transport, Johnny Sniper drifted off into a dreamless sleep.


“But Once a Year”

This holiday-themed tale was written sometime around spring 2004. I can’t remember exactly what suggested the idea to me, but it was one of those instances where the story nearly wrote itself in a day or two (or maybe just a few hours). It’s an example of what one might call “Christmas Gothic,” of which the greatest innovator (other than perhaps Charles Dickens) is Tim Burton.

The story is quite short, so I’ve reproduced the complete text here.

The old man sat in the reception room. He wore a red wool suit, trimmed with white.
The room was unbearably warm. The man had taken off his cap and was fidgeting with it nervously, wiping it across his greasy brow. A plate glass window was set in the far wall, but no one was sitting at the desk.

Half an hour passed; then an hour. Still no movement behind the desk. The old man dripped with sweat, and his cap was a twisted mess.

“Mr. Claus.”

The old man leapt up in terror, slipped and fell, knocking his head against a coffee table.

“If you’re not unconscious, Mr. Claus,” crackled a voice from hidden speakers, “please step through the door to your right. You know the way.” On cue, the door had creaked open–apparently of its own accord.

Rubbing his bruised temple and cursing, the old man perched the mangled cap on his head, took a deep breath, and walked through the door.


Claus moved slowly down the hall. He was taking his time…delaying the inevitable.

The hall was gray and narrow. Countless doors loomed along both sides. All were unadorned. Other than the silver doorknobs and the faint shadows cast by the doorjambs, there was nothing to relieve the endless corridor of gray.

“Thirty-three,” Claus mumbled, his eyes following the doors on the left. “Thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-six…thirty seven.”

Claus hesitated, panting. He wasn’t in the best shape of his life. He waited until he had his breath back, then opened the door.

The room was just large enough to avoid being a closet. Like the hall, its walls were a cloudy gray, as if its designers had no interest in–or awareness of–aesthetic appeal.

Behind the bare gray desk sat a…thing.

It wasn’t a man. Most of what was visible above the desk seemed to be the creature’s elongated head, which ended in a snout and a tangle of jagged teeth. Its skin was rough and scaly, and of a vaguely turquoise hue. Its eyes were bulbous and black.

Below the reptilian folds of the neck was a grotesque approximation of a business suit. The creature’s thin, clawed hands were folded neatly on the desk.

“Ah, Mr. Claus.” The voice was oddly smooth, almost unnatural. “Is it that time of year already?”

“Mr. Zaker,” Claus said. He pulled his cap off his head and gave a little bow. The temperature was still much too warm. Claus was used to a colder climate. He could feel drops of sweat sliding down his back.

“Please, have a seat,” said Zaker, gesturing to a chair in front of the desk.

Claus sat. He avoided meeting the creature’s blank, insect-like stare.

“And how are the”–Zaker used a word unpronounceable by humans–“holding up? What is it you call them? Rander?”

“Reindeer,” said Claus.

“Ah yes, reindeer,” Zaker said. “And how are the little darlings? Still fast enough for you? We could cycle a few of them out, if you need new ones.”

“No, they’re fine,” Claus said. “No, uh, no problems.”

“And the ship?” Zaker asked. “Still running? It must be, since you’re here. How have you found the new atmospheric bubble shield? It’s a much better design than the last one–as I’m sure you’ll agree. There shouldn’t be any more unpleasant incidents.”

Claus nodded. He was again mangling his cap.

“Are you all right, Claus?” Zaker asked. He raised a clawed hand. “You look unwell. I could call a medic to come take a look at you…”

“No!” Claus cried. “No, I’m fine. No need for that. Please.”

“Very well,” Zaker said. “Then perhaps we should get down to business. You have the goods, I hope?”

“Yes,” said Claus. “In the sleigh.”

“Excellent,” said Zaker. “The merchants have been absolutely screaming for this shipment. Demand has gone up since your shipments started getting lighter, you know.”

“I know,” Claus murmured.

“In fact,” said Zaker, pulling a long sheet of paper from somewhere beneath the desk, “your shipments have been getting progressively smaller over the last thirty years. Why is that, Mr. Claus?

“Our studies show your planet’s population has exploded in the last fifty years. The goods should be abundant. Yet your shipments have declined over the last decade. Why, Claus?”

“I’ve told you,” Claus whispered. “Times change…it’s not so easy now, to–”

Zaker slammed a clawed fist into the desk. Claus screamed and jumped behind his chair, cowering.

“Our deal is an old one, Claus,” said Zaker. “But that does not mean you are free to gradually renege on your part of it.”

Zaker stood and rounded on Claus. His body was thin in relation to his huge head, but the suit went all the way down to a pair of patent-leather shoes. He looked like a humanoid caricature of an alligator.

“We saved you, Claus,” said Zaker. “You were a dying wretch when we found you, living off your own race like a parasite. We healed you, and opened your eyes to things never conceived of by human imagination. We gave you everything. Technology far beyond that of your current civilization. Tireless alien workers and the means to produce massive quantities of product in no time at all — with little overhead. We gave you a ship, and creatures to pilot it properly. We gave you the ability to slow time. We even gave you immortality.

“And what did we want in return?” said Zaker. “We asked you to work for us one night a year. A single night! And in exchange for spreading joy and mirth throughout your world, we asked for a few simple morsels. A pittance, really. No one would ever miss them.

“And you delivered. Not much at first, but as your fame grew, so did the goods. There were some very good years there, Claus.

“But now the supplies are dwindling again. Why? Our research shows you’re more popular than ever, yet they know nothing of your movements. Some believe you to be a myth. They would never suspect you. So why do you come with less stock every year?”

Zaker’s snout was inches from Claus’s sweat-slicked face. “Are you keeping some for yourself?” Zaker whispered.

“No!” Claus cried. “Never! I would never even think of–”

A clawed hand lashed out and gripped Claus’s throat. “You’re looking well-fed, Claus. Are you sure you’re not keeping a bit, just a wee bit, for yourself?”

“No!” Claus gasped. “No, please…come with me…I’ll show you…”

Zaker released his grip. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, the inspection.”

The creature opened the door and gestured to the hall. “Let us go, then.”

Rubbing his throat, Claus followed the creature out of the room.


Claus had parked the sleigh in the docking bay. The “reindeer”–monstrous reptilian quadrupeds who vaguely resembled the Earth animal–were milling around the craft, speaking in a loud, unpleasant-sounding dialect.

Behind the sleigh were two massive holding tanks. Zaker’s employees had detached the cargo and were now scurrying around it.

Zaker strode up to the tanks while Claus waddled behind.

One of the workers handed Zaker a datapad. “Down again,” said Zaker. “You’re going to have to explain this, Claus. But first, let’s check the goods.”

Zaker pressed a button on the side of the cargo container. There was a whirring noise, and a little tray slid out of the tank. Inside was a pile of flat, brown objects.

Zaker picked one up. He took out a small glass, held it to his eye, and inspected the item closely. With a satisfied grunt, he put the glass away and, with another glance at Claus, took a bite.

He chewed thoughtfully. “Excellent,” he pronounced. Zaker opened his gaping mouth and dropped the item in, swallowing it whole. “One of the few perquisites of this job,” he said to Claus, one eye narrowing in a grotesque parody of a wink.

Claus tried to smile, but the result was a nervous grimace.

Zaker strode to the next container. This time, the tray delivered a small cup of creamy liquid. Zaker took a sip.

“Hmmm,” the creature said as it swirled the milk around. “Not too bad. And yet…”

Suddenly Zaker’s face changed. He spat out the liquid and wheeled on Claus. “What’s the meaning of this?” he demanded.

Claus fell to his knees. “I’m sorry!” he cried. “I’m sorry! It’s this new diet everyone’s on! They’re all drinking soy milk!”


“Yes! It’s made from plants!”

“Plants?” Zaker gasped.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” said Claus. “The children, they don’t know, they just use whatever their parents have in the fridge…”

“Pasteurization was bad enough,” Zaker said. “And then the low-fat…and now this ‘soy’ milk?”

“They say it’s healthier,” said Claus. “I don’t like it myself.”

“I imagine not, judging by your gut,” Zaker said. “Is this why your shipments have been lighter?”

“Yes,” Claus admitted. “I–I’ve been tasting the milk beforehand and throwing the soy out. But more and more people are drinking it each year. And there was so much this year, I thought, maybe…”

“You thought you could fool us,” Zaker said. “Claus, you know we need pure milk.”

Claus had asked it many times before, but once again he found himself saying, “But why can’t you just steal the milk yourself? Or take some cows?”

“Damn it, Claus,” said Zaker. “I’ve told you a thousand times, we tried that. Our attempts to get the milk out of the cows were…messy, and usually resulted in the death of the cow. The humans became suspicious.”

“But–” Claus began.

Zaker waved a hand dismissively. “This method is much easier,” he said. He looked at datapad. “It’s not a total loss. We can probably separate the soy from the real milk. But we can’t use it. That means your shipment is even smaller this year, Claus. Next year, just throw out the soy milk.”

“I will,” said Claus.

Zaker squatted before Claus, who was still kneeling on the floor. He put a claw beneath the old man’s chin and forced him to look up. “You will bring us more milk and cookies next year, Claus,” he said, “or we may be forced to reconsider our deal.”

“But what of the little children and their toys?” Claus asked miserably.

“Tell them that good boys and girls leave out cookies and milk–real milk, none of this soy stuff,” Zaker said. “To be honest, I don’t care what you do. But we need those milk and cookies, Claus. Do you understand me?”

Claus nodded quickly. Zaker stood up.

“Good.” Zaker glanced at his watch. “All right, I’ve got a meeting with Wanda in ten minutes. Judging from her shipments, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage in teeth, at least.”

Claus bowed in shame.

“Oh, get up,” Zaker said. “You look pathetic. Take your ship and go home.”

Gingerly, Claus got to his feet.

“See you next year,” said Zaker as he strode out of the bay. “Oh, and Claus–Mirry Krassmiss.”


“One of a Hundred”

This story was originally written to flesh out two characters I had created with a friend for a roleplaying game. When I later began work on Tales of Atreval, I found I could easily swap the two characters for the two main heroes of TOA, Arstace of Fluy and Nahual the Gwant.

I think the story now serves as a good teaser for TOA, and as a brief introduction into the world of Atreval.

IT could have been any of a hundred nights, a hundred besieged fortresses, a hundred battles against overwhelming odds. They had been through so much that the names and places didn’t matter anymore. All they knew was the heady lust for battle, the clamor of sword against shield, and the knowledge that they stood beside one another in touch-and-go circumstances.

“Nahual!” cried the taller, white-haired one. “On your left!”

In response, a battle-axe swung out and a gargol crumpled to the ground.

“Thanks,” growled the smaller one through the din.

They fell to fighting back-to-back, the axe and rapier weaving a web of death around them. The axe-wielder was barely four feet tall, and was a member of the race known as the Gwanti. He looked nothing so much as a cross between a lizard and a very small human. Pointed teeth jutted both up and down from the sides of his mouth. His beady yellow eyes followed every move of his foes. He wore only a shirt of mail and a small loincloth; his tough, scaly gray skin offered more protection than any pair of breeches could.

At his back fought a tall man, lithe where his companion was broad, subtle in his attacks where Nahual was brutal. His pale skin and white hair, highlit by his blue eyes, hinted at his noble heritage. His armor was hidden beneath a black cloak that wheeled about him, obscuring his limbs and confusing his foes, though it never seemed to hinder his own movements. His rapier seemed to lick its victims, sliding instantly through an eye or a heart before flashing to another.

But still the gargols came, squeezing their squat, smooth-skinned bodies between the narrow archways. The only sound in the room was the loud clash of blades, the scuffling of feet on stone, and the grunts of the two non-gargol fighters. Both man and Gwant had fought countless gargols in the past, but their silence and lack of any discernible facial features never ceased to unsettle their stomachs.

Though the gargols seemed innumerable, neither fighter displayed the slightest concern. They had been separated from the main force of defenders an hour earlier. The fortress had apparently fallen, as the gargols seemed to be swarming from all directions. The two had been slowly making their way toward the bowels of the keep in hopes of finding an escape route.

At one point a group of gargols pressed in from the side, separating the pair.

“You all right, Ar?” called the lizard-man.

“Fine!” the man, whose full name was Arstace, cried back. “Mind your own head, you fool!”

And so it went, the gargols coming on in droves and then piling at their feet, lifeless. Nahual managed to reach the door at the other side of the room.

“Ar!” he screeched. “Let’s go!”

Dispatching another gargol, the nobleman leapt nimbly over a pile of dismembered corpses and dashed through the door. Nahual hacked a few gargols near the door, snarled at the remainder, and ducked in after his companion. He dropped the bar into place just as the gargols crashed against the other side.

“That should hold them for about two minutes,” said Arstace. “And what do we do now? I can’t see a thing.”

“Hold on,” said Nahual. He fumbled with the pouches at his waist until he found what he was looking for. There was a hiss, and a small torch began to glow in his tiny clawed hand.

“You’re useful sometimes, lizard,” said Arstace.

“On occasion,” agreed the Gwant, and as the door behind them began to splinter, he swiftly led them down the corridor.

The passage was narrow and wound gently downward. It was made entirely from stone, and a faint chill hung in the air.

There was a loud crash far behind them. Gargolish cries and the clamor of swords sounded down the passage.

“Seems like an awful lot of effort to kill two fighters,” Arstace commented.

“They’re gargols,” Nahual said. “They’re single-minded.”

“If they have any minds at all,” said Arstace.

They continued on in silence, moving as swiftly as they dared. Deeper and deeper the passage wound, until it changed into steep stairs. The chill became oppressive.

“We’re underground,” Arstace said.

Nahual snorted. “Somehow I don’t think this is the way out.”

Finally they reached the bottom of the stairs. They found themselves before a heavy, black iron door. To their surprise, a large torch guttered nearby.

“Someone’s been down here recently,” said Arstace.

Nahual glared at him. “Think so?” he hissed sarcastically.

Arstace walked up to the door and knocked loudly. No response.

The cries of the gargols grew louder. “Well, this isn’t good,” said Arstace.

Nahual looked thoughtfully at the door.

“This isn’t good,” Arstace repeated, looking up at the stair nervously.

Nahual moved to the side of the door, raised his axe over his head (its tip came just to Arstace’s chest), and struck.

There was a crash and a loud bang as the bar on the other side snapped and fell to the floor. The door flew open.

The Gwant poked his head inside. He quickly yanked it back as a rusty sword whistled past his head.

“Death to you!” cried someone from the other side of the door. As Nahual stumbled back, he glimpsed a room full of women and children. An old man stood in the doorway, brandishing the sword. Despite his age, the gaunt muscles that flexed around the handle made him something of a threat. He moved toward Nahual, who was coming to his feet.

“Wait!” Arstace cried, leaping between them. “He is with me! We are friends…”

The old man hesitated, glanced at Nahual, and raised his sword again.

Arstace’s hand snaked out and yanked the weapon out of the old man’s hands. The fellow stumbled back and was caught by the women, who began to wail in dismay.

Meanwhile, Nahual had recovered his composure and was trying to look friendly, standing with his axe over his shoulder.

“Please listen,” Arstace said quickly, putting the old man’s sword on the floor. “We are indeed friends. I am Arstace of Fluy, and this is my companion, Nahual of the Gwanti—the same Gwanti who kept the Southern Pass for so long. We were fighting for the keep, with your men. We became separated from the main force and were trying to find a way out. The gargols have overrun the keep. They are on their way down the stairs at this very moment.”

The women cried out at this. Arstace had to shout. “Is there another way out of this chamber?”

“None,” answered one woman. She bore herself with more courage than the others, and had a resigned, weary look in her aged face. “This is our most well-hidden and protected room. It was our hope that the iron door would hold back any number of gargols,” she said, with an accusatory glance at Nahual.

The Gwant shrugged. It was hard to tell, but Arstace thought the lizard-man looked a little sheepish.

“Very well,” Arstace said to the woman. “What is your name?”

“Freyf,” she said.

“Well, Freyf, my companion and I will do our best to protect you.” He stepped back into the stairwell and began to close the door. “Brace yourselves behind this, and open it for no one. Whether we live or die, we will not return here tonight.”

Freyf nodded, and Arstace closed the door.


“Well, Ar,” said Nahual, “dare I say it?”

“Please don’t,” the other muttered.

“I think I will: ‘another fine mess,’ eh?” chuckled Nahual. Arstace groaned.

The screams of the gargols were growing louder. “Sounds like there’s a lot of ‘em,” said Nahual. “What do you think, Ar? Is this it?”

“‘It’?” Arstace echoed. “How can this be it? I couldn’t even tell you the name of this fortress, or who we’re fighting for.”

The clamor grew ever louder. “I just have a strange feeling,” Nahual said. “Not despair, but…”

“No time left,” Arstace said, raising his rapier. “Now for death and glory!”

And then the gargols were upon them.


The women and children could hear faint sounds of conflict through the thick iron door. At least they began to die away, and subsided into a dread silence.

For half a day they waited in the chamber, wondering what had happened to the two warriors. Some wanted to open the door, but Freyf was firm: “They told us to open it for no one, and we shall not.”

At last came the familiar knock of their people, two heavy raps followed by five light ones. They had some trouble getting the door open, and soon saw why—gargol bodies were piled waist-deep in the landing and continued upward, past the bend in the stairs.

“Great gods,” said the soldier who had come for them. “What happened here? There are dead gargols nearly to the head of the stair.”

“There were two warriors,” said Freyf. “A nobleman, I believe, and a lizard-man of the Gwanti. They came upon us by accident, then shut us back in and defended the chamber. Do you know what became of them? Are their bodies amongst the slain?”

The soldier shook his head. “I do not know, but I haven’t seen any dead Gwanti. But there are more dead gargols in this part of the keep than any other. And you say that two men—er, a man and a Gwant—killed them all? You have gone mad down here, woman.”


The men of the keep never knew what became of Arstace and Nahual, though the soldier who freed the women was soon set to rights as to their existence. More than a hundred gargols had been ill-met by the pair, though rumor quickly raised the number to two hundred and then five hundred, until it was said that two mighty warriors had slain a thousand gargols.

The attack had been repelled at last by the arrival of Prince Hanrik and his men, who had marched south from the Southern Pass. The famous hero had come amongst the gargols like a storm, and his forces had swept the enemy away within a few hours.

As the dawn spread over the last few scenes of battle, two figures watched from a rocky cliff to the west of the keep.

“Look at him,” muttered Arstace, gazing down at the golden figure of Hanrik. “Such a clumsy fighting style. Sure, he kills two or three at a blow, but he does so maybe four times an hour. The rest of the time he’s trying to move about in that silly armor of his. No wonder he survives all his battles. He’s encased in metal!”

“And look there,” said Nahual, pointing to a figure on horseback near the edge of the fighting. He was dressed in a bright crimson robe, and used a staff to strike the gargols that came too near. At each blow, the gargol screamed and dropped, lifeless.

“Vilmeith came too, eh?” Arstace said. “That whole dramatic entrance was probably his idea. I’ve no doubt he’s quite pleased with his handiwork. Hanrik will be even more beloved for this.”

“Hmph. Vilmeith wouldn’t even be here if we hadn’t killed that dark wizard for him.”

“Ah well,” said the nobleman, clapping Nahual on the shoulder. “We’re alive, at least. It was touch-and-go there for a while.”

“You were worried?” Nahual asked.

“Never,” said Arstace with mock-seriousness. “Our time will come, but not in some nameless keep.” He paused. “I hope not, anyhow.”

“We’ve been in too many nameless keeps,” Nahual said. He stood, dusted himself off and fastened his axe to his belt.

“Yes, time to go,” Arstace said. “This is all in hand. Too bad Hanrik had to show up. Nothing else for us to do. And he’ll take all the credit, no doubt.”

Nahual snorted. “At least we got to bash a lot of heads.”

“Yes,” Arstace agreed as they began to trudge away from the keep. “There is that.”

“The Adventure of the Pharaoh’s Sceptre” (excerpt)

This was written in December 2001 as a gift for a then-girlfriend. To write it, I read about two dozen of Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes stories in a week, immersing myself in the style. When it was done, I placed it in an envelope claiming to be from a group called “The Sherlock Holmes Society” and mailed it to her under the guise that it was a newly-discovered manuscript from Doyle himself. For the record, it took me about ten minutes to convince her I’d written it.

I’m publishing only an excerpt of the story here, in hopes that I may someday get it into an anthology of Holmesian pastiches.

Extra credit if you can spot the Evil Dead II reference.

In choosing which of the cases of my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes I chronicle for posterity, I am often varied in my criteria. Sometimes I believe I can draw interest through the principal actors in the drama, if they are of high enough station or notoriety, and not adverse to their story being told. At other times, and this is more to Mr. Holmes’ way of thinking, the case is remarkable in its bizarre details and complexity, rather than its mean participants. Finally there are, on occasion, times, adventures in which it is the object in question that makes the case most interesting. Such was the strange case of the Pharaoh’s Sceptre.

The adventure occurred when I was still a lodger at Baker Street, before I met my wife in the case of the Sign of Four. It was mid-September, and one of the dreariest months I can recall. Fog encircled the town like a wraith, and a premature winter chill drew coughs from the population. Even Holmes, whose strong constitution I had always admired, found himself reaching for his handkerchief from time to time. It had been several days since Holmes had a caller. I kept myself amused with novels and the morning papers, and even ventured out on a trip to a play, though I could not, despite my most pitiable entreaties, convince my friend to join me.

When I returned from the play around six o’clock, my soul somewhat refreshed by laughter (for it had been a comedy), I found Holmes in conversation with a client.

“Ah, Watson, your entrance is, as always, most timely,” said Holmes, gesturing me toward a chair. “Nothing gives me more pleasure than to hear your opinion of my cases, and this one may prove most interesting, at least in its details. May I present Professor Raymond Knowby, of the Ægyptian wing of the British Museum. I suspect you already know some details of his little problem from the papers. Professor, this is my associate Dr. Watson. You may say anything before him that you would say to me.”

The man stood nervously and shook my hand, with a little bow. He was about five feet tall, with a bald head fringed with greying hair. I put his age at about forty-five. He peered at us over half-rimmed spectacles, and had a large mustache with ends that dangled below his chin. He wore a crisp tweed suit with a red cravat, and held his hat in his hands. But what struck me most was his health. He seemed very feverish, and I nearly asked to administer to him on the spot. His face was flushed and his brow covered in sweat, and he mopped both constantly with his soaked handkerchief. His speech was filled with stutters and stammers, as if he were suffering from some mental affliction. His behavior seemed a marked contrast to his scholarly position.

“Since you have just started your narrative, Professor, I wonder if you might not begin again, for the good doctor’s sake.”

“Certainly,” Knowby said. “You must forgive my present condition, doctor, for as I was telling Mr. Holmes, I have come down sick recently, and I suspect I have little hope of recovering from it. But that will be explained in my story.

“The trouble began about one month ago, when one of our agents returned from Ægypt with a large bundle of artifacts. You may heave heard, doctor, of the Deir el-Bahri Cache, a trove of ancient Ægyptian artifacts that was unearthed about ten years ago by Gaston Maspero, head of the Antiquities Service in Cairo. Well, one of the ways we learned about the Cache was by purchasing a surprising number of ancient artifacts through the Ægyptian black market, presumably stolen by expert grave robbers. Ever since then the Museum has, on occasion, employed several of these grave robbers, though I have always found it a rather distasteful affair. They are often excellent guides and have led to many discoveries, if they can be convinced our offers are better than what they could make selling the artifacts on the black market. We have kept agents in Ægypt, always watching the black market for interesting items. Well, one such agent was Jakob Stal. He was one of our best agents, but his success, I suspect, stemmed from his tendency toward unsavoury methods and questionable companions. This Stal, a hulking Swede, returned from Ægypt with a fairly impressive bundle. Most astonishing was a long golden sceptre, three feet long and topped with a flat stone marked by a hieroglyph, an ancient Ægyptian symbol. I have reason to believe the sceptre may have belonged to Ramses II himself!”

– – End of Excerpt – –

“Stealing Llamas”

This story, written in summer 2001, was intended to be a (fond) parody of a certain half-hour-long commercial I enjoyed as a child. As you can see, at this point I’ve started to move away from blatant fan fiction to thinly-veiled fan fiction. This story has already been published online in its entirety by PulpLit, so I’ve reproduced the complete text here.

I awake in the damp cell that serves as my bedroom. Ordinarily, the moss creeping along the walls would be a comfort to my mutated, plant-covered body. But the frigid chill in the air reminds me it’s just another day in the service of Thoom – Lord of Destruction, Scourge of Mysticana, and complete failure.

I can hear the familiar sounds of Manwolf going about his morning business, licking his genitals and slopping his tongue in a bowl of water. I pull the covers over my head. At the usual time – fifteen minutes before any sane person would be awake – Manwolf pounds my door with his lice-ridden fists. “Weed!” he whines. “Weed! Wake up!”

Ah yes, “Weed.” That would be me, Dr. Lerin Ketcherdafaelion. Once the most famous bontanist in Mysticana, now a henchman called “Weed” to a guy named Thoom.

“Get up, Weed!” Manwolf whimpers.

“I’m up, I’m up,” I mutter, peeling away my sheet (or rather, the disease-infested rag I cover my modesty with in the three or four hours of sleep I’m allowed). Manwolf remains outside the door. More genital-licking, no doubt. My own morning ritual consists of adjusting my body to consume carbon dioxide rather than oxygen and catching a few rays of dim sunlight.


Oh, how I loathe that ambulatory stench! I open the door and there he is, all seven feet of him, curled up on the floor. His eyes look up at me happily. I kick him. “Out of my way, dog!” I yell. Dog is my usual term for Manwolf. Despite the abuse, the stupid beast-man has apparently chosen me for his best friend. This doesn’t surprise me. My luck has been in a steady decline since the whole becoming-a-mutant-freak thing.

“The Master has great plans today!” Manwolf informs me as we trod through the moldy stone corridors. Some of the molds have begun to produce airborne toxins. Manwolf probably has another year or two before the rancid old castle does him in.

“Great plans, eh? What now? Soup strainers that turn you invisible? A sewage gun? Or will we just call a caterer and ring up a big bill on the king’s account?”

“No, much better plans than that!” Manwolf assures me.

The henchmen are all up now, making their way to the throne room so Thoom can show us his latest way to fail. There’s Fishman, who is actually part dolphin. Both Fishman and I have spent hours attempting to explain to Thoom the difference between a fish and a dolphin, but our lord insists on Fishman. There’s the Claw, a man with a lobster claw for a hand. The claw is rather brittle, so the Claw spends most of his time cradling it defensively. There’s the cleverly named Badgirl, an attractive “sorceress” whose powers seem to consist primarily of rebuffing my advances and swift kicks to the groin. Finally, there’s the Cloak, who I hate the most. The Cloak is a tall guy in a really big black cloak. That’s it. He doesn’t do anything. He just stands around in a dark cloak. He’s not even mysterious: talk to him and he’ll tell you his name, life story, etc. It’s not even an interesting story. I hate the Cloak.

The lot of us make our way to the throne room after a short breakfast consisting of milky gray sludge. I’m certain there are old newspapers in it. Badgirl sits next to me, posing seductively. I have no idea who she’s posing for – we’re all mutant freaks and half-animals, except the Cloak, who sucks.

After ten minutes of uncomfortable silence, Lord Thoom deigns to grace us with his presence. He enters the room from the left of the throne. As usual, he’s dressed in a shimmery red robe that I always find a bit festive for a so-called Lord of Destruction. He has no face, only a skull, with glowing red eyes. He wears a garish gold crown and carries a ruby-topped scepter at all times.

The Destruction Lord walks across the dais and takes his seat, glaring at us with open contempt. At least I think it’s open contempt. As I said, the guy has no face.

“I have summoned you all here for a purpose,” Thoom declares. I guess he forgot we come to this room every damned morning. “I have finally discovered a way to obtain the Book of Forever!”

Silence. Crap! Whose turn is it today? I wonder. I can’t recall who went yesterday. Then I notice Badgirl glaring at Fishman, and breathe a sigh of relief.

“Uh, what is your plan, my lord?” Fishman stammers, the air whistling through his blowhole.

“It’s quite simple, you ichthyological idiot!” Thoom snorts. Ichthyological – not bad. If Fishman were at all a fish, it would have been a pretty good insult. “I wouldn’t expect a toad of your intelligence to grasp the intricacies of my intellect! But of course, I’ll explain my plans.”

Fishman breathes a sigh of relief, and I give him a nod: that was pretty painless. At my side, Manwolf sneaks in a quick lick while Thoom stands and begins to circle around the table, slowly. I hate this technique; it allows for maximum taunting.

“You see, my warriors,” Thoom begins, “in my studies of the Book of Death, I have come to realize that we’ve been going about this all wrong. We’ve been attacking Castle Gladgood from the western and northern sides. We must attack them from the eastern side. Badgirl! What is on the eastern side of Castle Gladgood?”

Caught by surprise, my beauteous maiden stutters, “Um…uh…”

“No!” Thoom interjects. “The desert, you witless witch! The desert is to the east. They will never expect us to attack from that direction.”

“That doesn’t mean Keldor won’t defeat us, like always,” I point out.

“Silence!” Thoom bellows. “I wasn’t finished. We will prevent those do-gooders from being able to fight us in the desert.”

After another pause, the Claw jumps in and says, “And how will we do that, my lord?”

“Simple, you half-handed half-wit!” Thoom cries gleefully. “We will steal their llamas!”

We all look at each other, blinking. Like everyone else, I wonder whether I’ve heard him right. Only Fishman sighs and picks at a scratch on the table; he’s heard Thoom perfectly. Meanwhile, our leader glares at us expectantly, hands on hips.

“Uh…could you repeat that, my lord?” the Cloak asks.

“Their llamas!” Thoom insists. “Once we’ve stolen all their llamas, they’ll never be able to come near us in the desert!”

I close my eyes and pinch the bridge of my nose. Stealing llamas. For absolutely no good reason. Keldor and his allies have flying ships. But I know better than to argue with Thoom.

“So,” Thoom is saying, “Once we’ve got all the llamas, we’ll…”

I start to doze off at this point. The goal of all Thoom’s plans is to obtain the Book of Forever and glean its “secrets” – which will, presumably, help him conquer Mysticana. I’ve always been rather skeptical of the Book of Forever’s alleged powers. It doesn’t seem to me that Keldor or anyone else has ever made much use of the Book. What “secrets” could it possibly hold? Thoom is unclear on this point. I wonder if he’s even sure the Book exists. It seems more like a convenient excuse for sadistically throwing us in harm’s way every weekend.

I feel a clammy hand on my shoulder. “Are you listening, you botanical boob?”

I’m also convinced Thoom spends more time reading his thesaurus than the Book of Death. His constant need to assert his authority, mostly by insulting us, is clearly based on a deep-seated inferiority complex. I suppose being defeated more than 300 times in a row can do that to you.

“I’m listening, my lord,” I mutter.

“Good,” he says, patting my shoulder. He returns to his throne. “When the time comes, you will use your powers to create a thick wall of vines. That will keep Keldor and his friends off our backs long enough to penetrate the castle. Then…”

I tune out again. Yeah, right – a wall of vines. In the desert, no less. Did Thoom have no cumulative memory? Keldor is the self-proclaimed Strongest Hero in the Galaxy. You could drop twelve boulders and a ballistic missile on him and he wouldn’t bat an eye. A wall of vines isn’t an obstacle, it’s a short-lived eyesore.

Whoops…Thoom’s cackling and making fun of Manwolf. That usually means he’s wrapping up. “Excellent,” our fearless leader says, leaning back in his chair and steepling his fingers. “We will go out tonight and steal all the llamas in Mysticana. Tomorrow we attack Castle Gladgood from the west – ”

“East, my lord,” Fishman interrupts. He immediately slaps a fin over his mouth, but it’s too late.

“What?” Thoom snaps.

“Er…I thought the eastern side was the desert one, my lord,” Fishman mumbles.

Thoom raises a hand and blasts Fishman with a bolt of lightning. The anthropomorphic dolphin sails out of his chair and crashes against the stone wall.

Thoom caresses his bony chin. “He’s right, it is the east,” he murmurs. “Right. We will attack from the eastern side tomorrow, once we have all the llamas.”

“My lord,” I say slowly.

“What is it, you…uh, botanical…you plant-like peon?”

“You may want to consider stealing camels as well, since you can ride them in the desert too.”

“What are you babbling about? N-no, no camels! Llamas! Just llamas. Who are you to question my authority?”

“I’m an accredited scientist with an IQ of 215,” I reply. “I’m also thinking we may want to have an exit strategy in case your plan doesn’t work out, if you know what I mean.”

“I don’t know!” Thoom roars. “I do know you’re annoying me, you green leafy lily-wit!”

And that’s that. We lackeys will suffer Keldor’s godlike punches as usual, landing somewhere in the southern hemisphere. Thoom doesn’t care. If he doesn’t curse you openly, he’ll insult you behind your back. We are expendable – and yet, we never die.


I tried to talk to Manwolf about it once. “Don’t you ever want to question Thoom’s judgment, dog?”

The living shag carpet shrugged. “The Master is all-wise,” he intoned.

“All-wise in what? Failing? Have we ever seen the Book of Death? I don’t think it exists. Never mind the Book of Forever! How many times will he throw us against Keldor and his omnipotent muscles? God, dog, what are we doing here?”

Being a troglodyte, Manwolf isn’t much use in philosophical contemplation. His response was to grunt and lick his genitals.

I decided to try Fishman next. “Hey, Tim, don’t you think Thoom is lying about the Book of Forever?”

“Maybe,” he replied between bites of a tunafish sandwich.

“Okay…well, doesn’t that bother you? That we might be having our asses handed to us every day for no good reason?”

“I guess.” As you can see, Fishman suffers from a certain lack of conviction.

“Well, I for one am sick of it,” I declared. “Tomorrow morning, I’m telling Thoom that I quit.”

“Good luck.”

The next day, I tried to quit. Really. It went something like this:

“My lord – ”

“What is it, you herbal ignoramus?”


I can’t explain it. There’s just something about being a hideously mutated freak that draws you to megalomaniacs – even when they are completely incompetent. I don’t think Thoom could successfully plan a panty raid, yet I feel compelled to participate in his victory-proof schemes week after week. I never consider usurping him, because that would be too much work – and even if I succeeded, what would I do then? I’m a plant-man. At least Thoom has a goal, unattainable as it is. The Book of Forever is his raison d’etre, his idee fixe, if you will. He will never stop trying to get it, despite the human war machine that is Keldor. You have to admire the guy. The poor, deluded, skull-faced guy.


I should probably tell you some of my background. All evil henchman have a story. Manwolf was bitten by a werewolf. Fishman was the result of a genetic experiment gone awry. The Claw’s grandfather was a five-foot lobster. Badgirl had a difficult childhood, and the Cloak sucks. So what about me? How did Lerin Ketcherdafaelion, the great botanist, become a half-man, half-plant known as “Weed”?

There I was, working on my botanical science. Well, pretty soon I had the ambition for world domination that afflicts most botanists during middle age. Without the knowledge of the King or the Royal Protector (Keldor) I began to work on a secret formula to create an army of plant-men to do my bidding. I had to test it on someone, naturally. The thought occurred to me to kidnap a passing vagrant and force him to drink the elixir, but I thought that rather unfair; too many passing vagrants have suffered in the name of mad science. So I drank it myself, and poof! I was a plant-man. Unfortunately I had no way of reversing the process. At that precise moment, Keldor walked in, and – horrified by my new appearance – he tossed me out of the castle. Shunned by the general populace and labeled a monster, I had no choice but to shack up with Thoom and his all-star losers. It was that or be stoned to death by a mob of frightened villagers. Since then, I’ve been drop-kicked all over Mysticana by Keldor and his friends. It’s a living. And at the end of the day, Thoom’s cruel insults and esteem-crushing reprimands make it all worthwhile.


So now it’s midnight, and Manwolf and I are slinking around the Royal Zoo. We go right past the camel paddock – plenty of camels there, ready to be saddled up – and move on to the llama cage. There are three llamas. Just three. There were at least ten camels back there.

Manwolf breaks open the bars; he’s useful for a few things. The llamas begin to bleat, or snort, or whatever that annoying sound is. One of the llamas is wearing red metal armor, which seems a bit weird. The armor looks vaguely familiar, but I’m not sure why. Pushing the thought aside, I conjure up some tasty grass and try to calm the animals down, but they can smell Manwolf, and now they’re getting rowdy. The saliva starts flying, and I take a nice blob right in the eyes. I don’t know if it’s possible to describe just how much llamas can spit. It’s impressive. This is the real meat, the glitter and the glory of being an evil henchman. If you’re not being casually smacked aside by an omnipotent hero, you’re being spat on by angry llamas.

Manwolf is soaked by the end, but we manage to get the ugly things lassoed up. With a generous combination of tugging, dragging and cursing, we get them to move about five feet. I try the grass trick again, and this time it works. Using the grass as a lure, we lead them through the zoo and out to the troop carrier, where the other henchmen are waiting with a dozen more llamas. Thoom’s driving the carrier; we have to ride in the back with the llamas, of course. Evidently llamas don’t distinguish indoors from outdoors for bathroom purposes – I can’t even see the floor. The smell is a threat to our very lives. Fortunately we only have to endure it for fourteen hours while Thoom drives at the carrier’s minimum speed, to save gas.

Back at Castle Darkbad we unload the llamas into the castle courtyard. After much spitting, the animals seem content to mill around while we shower off the stench of llama. Thoom, of course, smells lovely as a rose as he screams at us to hurry up.

We meet once more in the throne room. We’re all smelling a bit better, except for Manwolf, who detests bathing. His stench is almost overpowering. He sits next to me.

Thoom swaggers in, supremely confident now that all the llamas in Mysticana are crapping in his courtyard. “Now, my warriors,” Thoom says. “we shall begin our assault! All of you, to the transport, and then – to glory!”

I’m so tired I can’t even roll my eyes. We stumble downstairs, Thoom herding us with his scepter, cackling all the way.


We stand across the desert wastes, prepared for battle. Before us is the pink-and-purple monstrosity that is Castle Goodglad, that bastion of all that is Good and Right and Cute. I can see unicorns with rainbow horns prancing on the grass, whilst cherubs and fairies dance like fireflies in the dawning morn. Now that I think about it, I can’t believe I ever chose to live there.

I said we were standing across the desert wastes. That’s not exactly true. In an attempt to spite the rulers of Goodglad, Thoom has forced us to ride llamas all the way to the castle. So rather than standing, we’re lurching back and forth, clutching frantically at ill-fitting saddles or being thrown off entirely.

Thoom stands beside his camel – I mean, llama – holding it by the rein. He’s got the one with the weird metal armor. We’re close enough now to see figures peeking out of rose-tinted windows. I think I spot McDoogle, the king’s head soldier, peering at us from the battlements.

“Rulers of Goodglad!” Thoom bellows. “You see before you the assembled might of Thoom, the Lord of Destruction!” He raises his scepter high in the air and electricity crackles around it. Thoom’s powerful magic makes his inept planning all the more sad.

“We come to you from the desert,” Thoom continues. “And look! We have your llamas. You cannot defend yourselves from our attack. If you do not surrender both Castle Goodglad and the Book of Forever immediately, we will destroy you!”

The echoes of his last words fade from the castle walls, followed by a long silence. I’m waiting for Keldor to stride through the gates and send us into orbit, as usual. But the pause stretches into several minutes, and I can see McDoogle anxiously conferring with some of his officers. There are raised voices, and an argument seems to be going on. Where’s Keldor?

Thoom is as confident as ever. This plan will work. He is as sure of it as he was sure stealing all the books from the Royal Library would work, or that he could poison Keldor with a playing card.

Finally, McDoogle appears on the battlements with a small cadre of troops. He leans over and cups his hands around his mouth. “Could you give us an hour or two?”

I cock an eyebrow. What’s going on?

Thoom is no less curious. “Why?” he demands.

“We need to, uh, prepare for battle,” McDoogle yells back.

Then it hits me. “Keldor’s not there,” I tell Thoom. “They’re stalling for time.”

“Silence, you fool!” Thoom hisses. He turns back to McDoogle. “Now you understand, faithful protector of Goodglad, that without llamas you are helpless! Attack, my warrors!

“Wait!” McDoogle calls out.

“What is it?” Thoom growls.

“Can we have just one llama?”


“Please,” McDoogle begs. “Just one. Give us a fighting chance!”

This is too weird. They’ve got dozens of camels. What do they need with a single llama?

“My lord,” I say, “Keldor’s not here. Who cares what they ask for? This is our big chance! Finally, after years of suffering, we can capture Castle Goodglad, and you can get the Book of Forever! Ignore him, and let’s go!”

But Thoom is an idiot. He rubs one claw along his chin, then nods. “Right,” he says. “Good Master McDoogle, I shall give you one llama with which to fight us.” He looks at me and gestures toward the castle. Cursing him under my breath, I begin to lead my llama away.

“No, no,” McDoogle cries from the parapet. He points to Thoom’s llama, with its weird armor. “We want that one!”

“Why?” Thoom asks.

“Uh…because…we like that one better!”

It’s obvious this llama is of some importance to them. But, knowing Thoom…

“Take it!” Thoom cries, and he throws his reign at me. With a sigh, I lead the armored llama to the eastern gates of the castle. As we’re walking, I gaze at the red armor…it’s so damned familiar…

McDoogle himself meets me at the gate with a few guards. “Thank you, Weed,” he says with a nervous smile. The whole thing is ridiculous. Him thanking me for giving him a single llama to fight Thoom and his army of twelve llamas and warriors, when they’ve got flying machines and Keldor, Keldor in his big red armor and…

Oh my God.

“Stop them!” I scream. McDoogle and his warriors, hearing me, quickly rush the llama around the corner. I try to pursue, but they slam the gates in my face. I hear a loud sound, like a crash of thunder, and there’s a big flash behind the corner.

“What is your problem, you idiot?” Thoom barks.

“The llama, you skull-faced moron! Keldor! The llama! The armor!”

Behind me, the gates creak open. I freeze. The henchmen, a hundred feet in front of me, freeze too. Even Thoom cringes.

I hear a familiar chuckle. “Well, well,” says a deep, sonorous voice. There seems to be a tinge of reverb to it, as if sky itself couldn’t contain those tones. “It looks like it’s time to weed the garden!”

I don’t even have time to shudder at the horrible pun. Giant, bone-crushing arms embrace me from behind and raise me high in the air. In the few seconds spared to me, I look down and see, on grotesquely muscled shoulders, the red links of some very familiar armor.

Then I’m flying, flying for what seems like miles, but I crash into the sand a few hundred feet behind Thoom and his warriors. I black out. When I come to, the sounds of a great scuffle reach my ears. Through bleary, sand-seared eyes, I see Keldor beating the pulp out of my fellow lackeys. There goes Fishman, pounded down to his neck in sand; next the Cloak is stripped of his beloved garment, and given a swift kick to the rear; and so on, until only Thoom is left.

As Keldor faces him, still chuckling, Thoom gives a cry of frustration. “You may have won this time, Keldor, but I’ll get you next time! Next time!” And with that, he vanishes. Just teleports himself away, like always.

Keldor strides back to the castle, still chuckling. Just another day, another dollar for the Strongest Man in the Universe. The gate grinds shut behind him. They won’t even bother to capture us. We painfully drag ourselves to our feet. We have broken bones, bruised limbs, dislocated joints. Like some zombie sideshow, we limp and lurch our way back to the desert, toward Castle Darkbad. The llamas are gone, scattered during the battle. It will be a long trip home. Thoom will have been waiting for us for hours, ready to scream at us until his voice gives out.

As I drag my broken leg behind me, leaving a thin trail in the sand, I realize one thing: I know Keldor’s secret. Keldor’s a llama. A brilliant, if lame, secret identity. Yet I’m depressed, because I know the knowledge will do me no good. Thoom will never listen. Who would believe it anyway? It’s absurd.


Two days later, I finally manage to get a decent night’s sleep. Decent being about three hours. It took us a day and a half to get back, half an hour for Thoom to heal us with his magic, and then another four hours of screaming on his part before we were allowed to sleep.

But already the sun is poking through the curtains. I hear a hairy fist pounding on my door, and the cry of “wee-yid!” reaches my leafy ears.