English Eerie: Detox (Part 6)

Note: This story was written in collaboration with Scott Malthouse’s English Eerie: Rural Horror Storytelling Game for One Player, published by Trollish Delver Games. It was previously published serially on BoardGameGeek. Skip down to “How Does This All Work, Anyway?” to learn more about how the prompts and mechanics from English Eerie were used to build this narrative.

Content Warning: This story contains mature themes and explicit references to sex, violence, drug use, sexual violence, and occult rituals.


Ram Head

English Eerie: Detox

Part Six: Taken

§

Do you remember that bit in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy and her mates are passing through the haunted woods? That’s a decent enough visual for my escape from George’s compound. Red-eyed squirrels stared down at me from gnarled papier-mâché branches. Thick roots seemed to rise up out of the ground to trip me, branches came out of nowhere to whack me in the face like some outdated slapstick routine, and even as I tried to run in a straight line, the rest of the world spun around me like a carousel. I felt like I’d stumbled into the woods out of Evil Dead. I do believe in spooks, I do, I do.

As I quickly discovered, the map was next to useless to me. I couldn’t follow the lines drawn on it as they seemed to change every time I looked at it. Every third time I opened it up, I realized I was holding it upside-down or sideways. Not that it really mattered, because every time I rotated the map, the rest of the world would rotate along with it.

“I’m starting to really hate nature,” I thought.

Then, I thought about it some more, and I realized it wasn’t nature I hated. It was bastards like George and Brianna who took everything that was beautiful in nature and twisted it around so that it was evil and ugly. “Those arseholes,” I thought.

In fact, when I wasn’t worrying about being axe-murdered, there had been a few times on this trip when I’d actually felt sort of connected with Mother Gaia, or my own version of her. Even if Guru George was full of shit, maybe there was something there. Anyway, I wasn’t going to find Gemma by following a map. So I closed my eyes and tried to align myself with the Earth’s magnetic fields. Maybe it was just the mushrooms, but I could almost feel them, a faint vibrating at the edge of my consciousness.

“You’re just going on a star walk,” I told myself. “Just like last time.” I could swear I heard angels sing as the stellar radiation poured over me. And I walked, giving myself over completely to the Earth Mother.

When I stopped worrying about following the map, finding my way through the woods became surprisingly easy. I listened to the night-birds, and I even sang along to the best bits. My cheeks got sore from all the smiling, and a warm feeling surrounded me, like floating in a nice warm bath.

As I walked, the woods started to look more familiar. I still couldn’t tell you where I was, but I could tell you that I’d been there before. And then I saw it: the splintered tree, still bleeding sap from its wound; the fallen branch; the dark stain on the soil where I had bled into the ground. My shoulder twinged in recognition. This was where it had happened.

Something about the scene drew my attention. The way the branch had snapped off didn’t seem natural. What were those long, thin scars near the break point? I bent to get a closer look. Sure enough, it looked like somebody had hacked at the limb with a bladed tool—some kind of hatchet or machete—to weaken it. So even this was part of George’s plan.

If I hadn’t been bending over, I would never have noticed something black and oblong half-buried in the leaves. I brushed them away to uncover a small pocket journal and a Pilot pen. My Moleskine! My new outfit didn’t have any pockets, so I tucked it into my waistband and continued on my way.

Maybe it was Mother Gaia, maybe it was luck, or maybe it was my unconscious mind guiding me, but I made it. Well, I didn’t exactly find my way back to camp, but the Earth Mother did me one better: she took me exactly where I needed to be.

Where I needed to be, it turns out, was that little pagoda/groundskeeper’s shack in the middle of the woods, the one with the little wicker shrine in it. I remembered seeing Acolyte Brianna enter the shrine on the day of my accident, the same day I discovered the hacked-up corpse in that metal crate buried in the clearing. Maybe he left something important inside, I reasoned, like a semi-automatic rifle or a satellite phone. Or maybe just a bottle of water.

When I got closer to the door of the shack, however, I heard movement inside, the sound of somebody shifting around, then a voice murmuring. I reeled away from the opening as though it were made of fire and flattened myself against the outer wall of the shack with enough force to make the timbers quiver, making myself ten times more conspicuous than I’d been before. “Oh no,” I slurred through my bandages. The words came out as a sort of “David After Dentist” moan. “Oh, no. I am not stealthy at all. I’m about to die. Oh, no.”

But the thought eventually came to me that I wasn’t dead. I risked opening my eyes. There were no masked maniacs threatening me with a machete. I heard another noise within the shack, and another murmur. This time, I could make out that it was a girl’s voice. Not just any girl’s voice: Gemma’s voice.

Forgetting all danger, I dashed into the shack. It was dark inside except for a few fat tallow candles scattered haphazardly about the place. As my eyes adjusted, I made out that the candles had previously been arranged in a wide circle, but that most of them had already burned out. In the middle of that circle was the shrine. And on the shrine was Gemma.

It took me a long time to comprehend what I was seeing, and it took me even longer to believe it. Gemma had been stripped completely naked and laid out like a corpse, with her arms and legs dangling off of the wicker shrine. I knew she hadn’t undressed herself because her clothes, in a messy pile in the corner, were torn and soiled. She was incredibly pale, and there was blood everywhere. She wasn’t breathing. I reached out and touched her, and she was cold to the touch.

Except, as my mind processed the scene in front of me, I saw that there were no cuts or wounds visible on her body. The blood wasn’t hers; it had been painted on her skin, especially her belly and breasts, in patterns that brought to my mind celtic knots. There was a butchered hen lying on the shrine beside her head. And when I got closer, I saw that she was breathing, just so slowly and shallowly that you could only see it if you were close enough to make out the downy hairs on her stomach.

My relief turned to nausea and rage when I realized that, while Gemma hadn’t been murdered, something just as evil and disgusting had happened to her. I wasn’t in time to save her from Guru George. Her legs were spread wide enough apart for me to plainly see that the bastard had already come and gone.

§

I shook. I stared for longer than I ought to’ve. I realized that my fingernails were digging hard enough into my palms to make them bleed. My brain kept trying to come up with alternative explanations for what I was looking at, but each one of them crashed and burned when it came up against the solid wall of evidence before me.

While all this was going on, a little voice inside my head was screaming to be heard over the roar of blood boiling through my brain. I calmed myself and had a listen.

“Get. Gemma. The. Fuck. Out of here!” the voice shrieked, exasperated. I had to admit it had a point. So what if I had failed her in the most fundamental way possible? She and I were still in danger.

I wrapped my arms around Gemma’s cold body and tried to lift it, but the still-wet blood made her slippery, and I couldn’t manage her limp, dead weight. It was like trying to carry a passed-out mate home after a night of heavy drinking. Gemma didn’t really drink, I recalled. She said it polluted the body.

I stripped off my homespun tunic and used it to wipe up as much of the blood as I could manage. At this point, Gemma had started murmuring again, confirming that she was indeed alive. I couldn’t quite make out the words, but I thought I heard the phrase:

“…sold my soul…bosom of the dale….”

Most people would have been wide awake, the way I was jostling her, but she was still out cold. It gave me an idea, however. My bones and muscles were weak from who knows how long without proper exercise. In that state, I couldn’t hope to carry Gemma out of the woods and outrun Guru George and his minions. So I stopped trying to lift her and started trying to wake her.

I wasn’t really sure how to go about this, so I did what I’d seen in the cinema: grabbed her by the shoulders and shook the devil out of her. It was like shaking a stuffed animal. I stopped when her head came down against the wicker shrine hard enough to make an audible crack. She still wasn’t awake, but the color was coming back into her cheeks, and her eyelids were fluttering.

I thought I heard a noise in the woods, a sort of scraping like something heavy being dragged along the earth. We had to get out of there now. “Sorry, Gemma,” I slurred, lifting my hand above my head. I couldn’t look as I slapped her hard across the face.

Finally, Gemma’s eyes shot open. Her cheek burned red with the mark of my hand. Her eyes wouldn’t focus, but she seemed to take me in. “Fynn?” she asked incredulously, speaking as though her mouth were stuffed with gauze.

“It’s me, Gemma,” I tried to say, happy tears running down my face.

“I can’t understand you,” she replied, her voice like that of a petulant child. “Fynn, they said you and that Zak gave up. They said you went home. It’s so good to see you.” She smiled in a not-all-there way.

“It’s good to see you too, Gemma,” I replied. “But we need to go. Can you stand?”

“You’re not making any sense, Fynn,” Gemma pouted. She seemed to remember something. “You left me all alone, Fynn. You just left me there. How could you do that to me?”

I didn’t answer.

Gemma seemed to have forgotten whatever emotions she was experiencing moments before. Her gaze slid loosely over the room. “Where are we?”

“We need to get out of here, Gemma,” I repeated, trying to keep each syllable low, slow, and distinct. I handed her what was left of her clothes.

Gemma looked at the torn, soiled bundle in confusion, then she looked down at her own naked body, still covered in a pink film of blood. Her pupils seemed to focus for the first time. “What the fuck?” she muttered.

“There’s no time to explain, Gemma–,” I began.

Gemma looked at me, at my naked torso and the blood-soaked shirt in my hand. “What the fuck, Fynn?” she repeated, more loudly and distinctly. She sat up abruptly and nearly fell off of the shrine. I caught her and helped her stand, but once she was firmly on two feet, she shoved me away forcefully. “What the fuck is this, Fynn?” she demanded, her voice becoming clearer by the syllable.

“It’s not…it wasn’t me. Look, Gemma, I’m trying to save you, if you’d only let me. That bastard George–”

But if she could understand my speech, Gemma wasn’t listening. She snatched up her clothes and ran, stumbling every few steps, out the door and into the woods. I ran after her and got close enough to lay a hand on her bare shoulder, but she shoved me again. My heel slipped on a slick of blood and I fell backward, cracking the back of my skull against an abandoned table and sending pain blazing through my shoulder and jaw. I blacked out, and when I came to, the blood was dry, and Gemma was long gone.

“Shit,” I thought, starting to my feet. The pain was immense. Either the drugs they’d been giving me had some painkilling effect, or the blow to my shoulder had re-opened a fracture, or both. I stumbled over and scooped up my bloody shirt, pulling it awkwardly over my head. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, I grabbed the book on the shrine, the one called The Bringing of Rains, reasoning that once I got Gemma out, I might be able to use it as evidence against Mad King George.

I made my way back to the camp, wincing with every step as the vibrations of my footfalls were echoed in the wildfire of pain around my shoulder. I approached quietly, in case Zak and Brianna were watching, but the place was abandoned. If Gemma had come back there, she wasn’t there now.

Which left two options. She had done the smart thing, even in her confusion, and run toward the nearest tourist spot. Or Guru George had found her and brought her back to his secret compound.

There was only one way to find out.

The only problem was that I didn’t really know where George’s secret compound was. I didn’t expect it would be easy to find; that was the point of a secret compound, after all. I’d lost the map at some point. If I only had a brain.

“Okay, Mother Gaia,” I announced, closing my eyes and taking a deep breath. “Here’s the deal. You helped me once before, but we’re not out of the woods yet.” I opened my eyes and looked around. “No offense. I know you don’t owe me anything, and to be honest, I’ll probably go right back to my phone and my laptop as soon as we get out of this jam. I’ll probably binge watch the entire series of Black Mirror. But if you could find it in your heart to help me find Gemma, that would be…really cool.”

It wasn’t the most articulate prayer ever, but it seemed to work. I felt that same tug on the edge of my consciousness, that same vague sense of the Earth’s magnetic fields buzzing all around me like a net. It was fainter than before, maybe because it was daylight now, maybe because I was running out of favors from Mother Gaia, maybe because the shrooms were wearing off. In any case, it was something, and I said a fervent “thank you” and was on my way.

And blundered straight into a dead body. He was hanging from a tree-branch in a small wicker cage. His skin was purple all over, an unnatural shade of purple that I didn’t think even corpses should be. Flies swarmed around his gaping mouth. Beneath their fat, black bodies, the opening was misshapen somehow. It took me a moment to realize why: the tongue had been removed. He had possibly died from drowning in his own blood. There was another bloody mess at the corpse’s crotch (the body was naked), and more flies streamed from his sunken, bloody eye-holes.

It was that last detail that finally triggered my gasp of recognition. I’d seen that face as recently as the night before. It was the face of the sunken-eyed lad.

§


How Does This All Work, Anyway?

In case you missed it, Part 1 contains a breakdown of English Eerie‘s mechanics and a general sense of how they were used to inspire this tale.

Here are the card draws and suggestions that inspired the journal entries in this segment of the story:

Entry 15: A secondary character (Gemma) is harmed.

Entry 16: A secondary character (the sunken-eyed lad) is harmed.

The narrator ended this segment with 2 Spirit and 1 Resolve.


English Eerie: Detox (Part 5)

Note: This story was written in collaboration with Scott Malthouse’s English Eerie: Rural Horror Storytelling Game for One Player, published by Trollish Delver Games. It was previously published serially on BoardGameGeek. Skip down to “How Does This All Work, Anyway?” to learn more about how the prompts and mechanics from English Eerie were used to build this narrative.

Content Warning: This story contains mature themes and explicit references to sex, violence, drug use, sexual violence, and occult rituals.


Ram Head

English Eerie: Detox

Part Five: True Believers

§

“There are drugs in the food.” The thought came to me even before I was fully awake, as though a helpful spirit whispered it into my sleeping ear.

Of course there were drugs in the food. It was the only explanation for the unwavering loyalty of the sunken-eyes boys, the missing time, the headaches, the sickness. Not to mention the chanting and the goat eyes. Every time I accepted food or drink from the Exalted One, I was being drugged or poisoned.

“That’s an easy one, mate,” I told myself. “Just don’t accept any food or drink then.”

“Yeah, easy for you to say,” I replied. “You try being buried up to your head in piss-soaked mud and then say no to a bit of nosh.” Which was a pretty silly argument, I had to admit, because I was buried up to my head in piss-soaked mud.

“It’s confusing when you talk to yourself, mate,” I chided myself.

“Yeah, tell me about it,” I agreed. “Maybe you’re still feeling the effects of those drugs.”

“Must be.” I nodded happily, having reached an accord with myself.

Then, sensation from the rest of my body finally bubbled into my brain. It certainly didn’t feel like I was buried up to my head in piss-soaked mud. In fact, for the first time since the accident, my nostrils weren’t clogged with that slightly tangy, earthy aroma. I smelt rather nice, like lavender soap. And the subtle gravity spread throughout my body was gone, replaced by a tightness around my limbs and upper chest.

Experimentally, I tried wiggling my fingers. They certainly felt like they were moving. Brilliant. I tried the same thing with my toes. A little pain, but wiggling seemed to be happening. Great work, toes. At some point, I’d have to open my eyes to get a visual confirmation on this momentous event, but they still felt heavy. Next up, arms.

That’s when I hit my first hurdle. My arms just weren’t moving. Fingers, yes. Wrists, okay. Arms, no. Legs, not a chance. Shoulders…I nearly passed out from the pain. Better not to experiment with that more than I had to.

“Okay, Fynn, time to get those eyes open,” I muttered, hyping myself up.

“You said you were done talking to yourself,” I pointed out.

“Oh, bugger off,” I replied, parting my eyelids with a He Man-like effort.

I was in a dark room—not the big white tent from earlier, but a small space with earthen walls. There was nobody around to witness me acting like a spazzer, which was a relief. There did seem to be a window letting in a bit of light, but it was behind me.

As for myself, I was seated in a wicker chair covered in a woolen blanket. The blanket had a smiling yellow sun dyed onto it surrounded by rainbow-colored circles in a dartboard pattern. Because of the blanket, it was hard to see exactly what was going on with the chair, but based on the pressure around my upper arms, wrists, shins and ankles, I took a wild guess that I was strapped into it. I was able to confirm the toe-wiggling thing, which was a kind of relief. I was wearing a clean, white homespun shirt like I had seen on the sunken-eyed lads.

After I figured all this out, there wasn’t much else I could do, so I let my eyelids fall shut again and had a little doze. I woke up to the feeling of motion. Somehow, my chair was rotating around on its own and gliding toward an open doorway. “Drugs, not even once,” I muttered.

“Oh!” came a startled cry from behind me. There was a pause, then the same voice continued, more calmly, “I hadn’t realized you were awake, Spirit-Brother Fynn.” I recognized the voice as Eliza’s.

“I wasn’t, until a second ago,” I explained. At least, I tried to; my words, I realized in frustration, were still a slurred, lispy mess, and it felt as though my jaw wasn’t moving as it should.

“You still have some healing to do, Spirit-Brother Fynn,” Eliza confirmed. “And you should try not to move your jaw so much; you’ll loosen the bandages.” That explained the tightness I felt around my face, then.

“You fell right asleep after your meal,” Eliza went on. “You must have been exhausted, poor thing. We took the opportunity to dig you up, rinse you off and have a look at your injuries.” Her face swung around into my field of vision. “Mother Gaia has seen fit to remove the toxins that were plaguing you,” she said, beaming with joy. “Now all that’s left is for your bones to knit. That will just take time, stillness, and meditation, which is why we have you sequestered in the Meditation Room. And why you’re strapped in, of course, to prevent any nasty spills from undoing the progress we’ve made.

“But don’t you worry; I’ll nip round several times a day to give you a bit of fresh air and sunshine.” While this monologue had been going on, my chair—which I now realized was of course on wheels—had moved out the open doorway and into a sort of open yard. The big white tent was in the distance, but there were also many smaller buildings of earth and wood. This secret enclave, I realized, was a lot bigger than I had assumed. How the bloody hell was Guru George keeping a place like this secret? Maybe he had some magic crystals that scrambled satellite imagery or something.

And there were “true believers” everywhere, of the same sort I had seen in the tent: mostly girl’s around Gemma’s age, accompanied by a few sunken-eyed lads and big, dumb bruisers. It was dizzying trying to keep count, since I couldn’t move my head freely and Eliza kept taking me down twisting footpaths, but I estimate there were at least seventy people there. About fifty of them were girls.

And, as I now saw for the first time, about half of those—maybe two dozen—were in various stages of pregnancy. Some had little bumps that were barely noticeable under their homespun tops; others had full, round bellies. Three or four of the girls were nursing or rocking infants, but I couldn’t see any children over the age of twelve months. Odd, that.

“Now,” Eliza was saying, “you’ll see there’s a little bell on the right arm of your chair. If you ever need to…use the toilet or anything like that, just ring the bell and I or one of the other Spirit-Wives will run along and help you out.” I didn’t like the sound of that at all, but I’d been in hospital before when I broke my leg in fifth year, and I’d gone through the whole humiliation of sponge baths and bedpans. I supposed Eliza was basically like a nurse. What made it awkward was that I was starting to fancy her a little.

She wheeled me into a small, wooden building. Dried herbs and other ingredients hung on the wall, and there was a big clay stew-pot and a sort of stove.

“There are drugs in the food,” screamed a voice in my head. I began thrashing against my restraints.

“Now, now,” Eliza said, stepping around my chair and ladling some steaming liquid into a bowl. “I know you might not be hungry now, but your body needs sustenance if it’s going to heal.” She began chopping up ingredients and adding them to the steaming bowl: a purple flower, some kind of turnip, a bag of dried mushrooms.

Mushrooms. I’d seen mushrooms like those before. During my first year at Uni, I’d gone to a party at a mate’s flat. Most of the people there were older, and I had felt desperately uncool. One of them had a bag of mushrooms like those, and when he offered me some, it seemed rude to refuse, even though the hardest thing I’d done up to that point was whisky and weed. The only thing I remember from that night was that I spent most of it in the W.C. trying to peel off the top of my skull.

I thrashed even more wildly, but that brought too much pain to keep it up. So I settled down and awaited the inevitable. Eliza set the bowl over the heat for a minute to soften the ingredients, then wheeled me over to a table and set the bowl down beside me. “Let’s just loosen these a bit,” she said, fiddling with the bandages around my head. “There we go.” She dipped a spoon into the bowl and brought it to my face. “Open wide.” My jaw wouldn’t clench, and the spoon slipped easily between my slack lips. My caretaker tipped my head back and waited patiently until I swallowed.

§

Time moved differently for me after that. It was like streaming a vid on a piss-poor Wi-Fi connection. Every few frames, my brain stopped to buffer. Sound and video weren’t synced, and ten seconds’ worth of footage were condensed to one as my consciousness scrubbed forward through the timeline in a bid to catch up to the live feed. Instead of living events in the present, I felt I was merely remembering them moments after they happened, yet I continued to think and act in those memories, doing a spot-on impersonation of Fynn Barrow. It was as though I was merely hosting a mirror of myself.

I spent a lot of that time in the dark room, although it was hard to say how much time; a minute and an hour were pretty much interchangeable as far as I was concerned. Eliza showed up several times per day to wheel me around the compound, feed me, or tend to my other needs. The first time I had to use the toilet, I sat in agony for what felt like hours, wondering if one could die from holding in piss, until I remembered the bell. It nearly came off, I rang it so hard. To my relief, the girl who showed up wasn’t Eliza—she was one of the pregnant girls, flaxen-haired and subservient. She helped me get my trousers off and aim for a hole in the back of the compound. I hate myself for thinking this, but the whole thing was actually rather sexy, even with Guru George leading a muffled chant in the distance. And, somehow, before I knew it, we were shagging.

Well, some version of it, anyway. I think she just used her hands—it was all rather confused at the time. I could barely feel myself down there, but my body seemed to know what to do, and I finished in record time. I felt mortified, some combination of guilty and embarrassed and a little bit dirty, but the girl didn’t seem to mind at all. She just wiped her hand off on some leaves and did up my trousers as though nothing had happened, keeping her eyes on the ground the whole time.

That exact process repeated several more times. The hesitation about ringing the bell, the eventual desperate clanging, the girl showing up—not the same girl every time, never Eliza, thank God—and taking care of business without ever looking me in the eye. I stopped feeling so guilty about it, although thinking back on it, I like to fancy that it was the drugs that numbed my moral ethical center or something. Or maybe I was being conditioned, like that dog they taught us about in Intro to Psych at Uni, the bell and the girls and the pleasure and George’s religion all blending together in my weakened mind. “This is how cults operate,” I reminded myself on my most clear-headed moments. “You’re being brainwashed, mate.” But I was helpless to stop it.

Once, I thought to “return the favor,” as they say. It didn’t go over well. The girl immediately yanked my trousers up, nearly giving me an improvised circumcision, and darted off into the woods like a startled rabbit. An hour later, a confused-looking Spirit-Brother showed up and wheeled me back into the Meditation Room. I never saw that girl again.

I no longer resisted at meal-times. My brain knew that I shouldn’t eat the food, but my brain wasn’t running the show, remember. Plus, I had gone who knows how long without so much as a proper sammie; I was perpetually starving, so whenever the aroma of the soup struck me, instinct took over, and I guzzled every last drop.

This continued until one night when someone new came into the Meditation Room. I knew it wasn’t Eliza or one of the other girls because of the way this person moved. After that first time, when I gave her such a start by muttering to myself, Eliza always announced herself loudly and cheerfully when she came into the room. This person seemed to be making a tremendous effort not to be heard, and the shadow on the wall was furtive.

“Oh, God,” I thought. “This is it. Acolyte Brianna has finally come for me.”

But it wasn’t Acolyte Brianna, or if it was, he didn’t seem terribly eager to chop my head off. Instead, he grabbed my chair and wheeled it out the door—again, moving quietly, sneakily. Instead of turning right, toward the center of the compound, we turned left.

“Where are we going?” I slurred. A hand shot around from behind the wheelchair and clamped over my mouth.

“Shush!” a voice hissed. “Don’t you realize you’re in danger here?”

Finally, somebody was talking sense. I saw the way the owls were looking at me. The snakes came into my bedchamber every night, whispering secrets. Guru George was eating babies, and he was just waiting for his magic mushrooms to transform me into an infant before he ate me, too.

The mysterious stranger wheeled me toward a dark corner of the compound, past the piss-hole and deeper into the woods. There, in deep shadow, he wheeled my chair around so that I could face him.

I gasped. It was the sunken-eyed lad who had spoken to me on my first day in the compound, the one who had told me the truth about Zak. I’d forgotten about him. The shadows over his eyes stretched and shifted, swimming freely over the surface of his face. He dug a key out from his pocket and with shaking hands began fiddling with my restraints. I realized, for the first time, that there must be a lock on them. For my own safety, of course.

While he worked, he whispered, staring me straight in the eyes with his black, empty, sunken sockets. “Your friend—the girl Gemma—she’s in danger,” he hissed. I wondered if he was speaking Parseltongue, the language of snakes. Then I wondered when I had learned Parseltongue. “I just saw Guru George head into the woods carrying a machete. You don’t know what they do to the girls around here. It’s awful.”

Now, that couldn’t be right. Everyone knew it was Acolyte Brianna who had the machete. And Colonel Mustard with the candlestick in the observatory. Poor Mr. Boddy….

The eyeless face before me floated closer, examining my pupils. “Shit. They’ve been feeding you the mushrooms. They give it to everybody who resists. The only way to avoid it is to starve yourself.” I noticed that his face was gaunt and skull-like. “Shit, shit. Okay. I drew you a map. You’ll need to find your way back to the camp on your own. They’ll notice I’m gone soon; I’m supposed to be using the toilet. I’ve got to go back in so that you have a chance to escape. Good luck, mate.”

The sunken-eyed lad handed me a wadded-up bit of fabric with a crude map stained into it. The lines twisted and snaked in confusing patterns. With my restraints undone, the lad helped me to my feet. I nearly collapsed as the world rocked in front of me; I hadn’t walked in days, even weeks, and the drugs were making it hard to find a fixed point of reality.

“Shit,” my savior repeated. “You’re in no shape, mate. But you gotta go. Go! Run! Find Gemma and get her out of here!” With those words, he scurried back toward the light of the compound, leaving me alone and unsteady in the dark woods.

§


How Does This All Work, Anyway?

In case you missed it, Part 1 contains a breakdown of English Eerie‘s mechanics and a general sense of how they were used to inspire this tale.

Here are the card draws and suggestions that inspired the journal entries in this segment of the story:

Entry 13: Minor Clue—a bag of dried mushrooms.

Entry 14: Grey Lady—someone saw George wandering into the woods last night with a machete.

The narrator ended this segment with 2 Spirit and 1 Resolve.


English Eerie: Detox (Part 4)

Note: This story was written in collaboration with Scott Malthouse’s English Eerie: Rural Horror Storytelling Game for One Player, published by Trollish Delver Games. It was previously published serially on BoardGameGeek. Skip down to “How Does This All Work, Anyway?” to learn more about how the prompts and mechanics from English Eerie were used to build this narrative.

Content Warning: This story contains mature themes and explicit references to sex, violence, drug use, sexual violence, and occult rituals.


Ram Head

English Eerie: Detox

Part Four: Red Earth

§

I spent the first moments after I woke up trying to decide whether or not I had died. If that sounds daft, you try getting whacked in the bean by a five-stone branch whilst fleeing for your life from a bloody axe murderer. Machete murderer. Whatever. The point being that, until I saw evidence to the contrary, I had to assume that I was dead, since it would take a bloody miracle for me not to be.

Evidence for this assumption included a brilliant white light pouring down over me, just the way Heaven looks on the telly (I have telly on the brain; must be withdrawal symptoms), and Gemma running her fingers through my hair. Evidence against it included the fact that, even if I believed in Heaven, I most likely wouldn’t be headed there. I’m a decent bloke, like, but the chips are stacked against me: I can’t help being young, pretty, and imbued with piss-poor impulse control. Further evidence against this being any kind of afterlife was the crippling pain every time Gemma’s fingers brushed past a particular spot on my head.

In spite of all that, I did the cliché thing and blurted out, “I must have died and gone to Heaven.” Which, you have to admit, is pretty bloody suave. The effect was spoilt by a couple of things. One, the words that came out of my mouth weren’t recognizable as a suave chat-up line, or as any kind of words, really. It sounded more like “Ughmudblurferglopenennen.” My tongue felt ten sizes too large, like a sponge cake all soaked with sherry, and I had a hard time finding my teeth at their usual addresses. Second, the person stroking my hair turned out not to be Gemma at all, but rather some other girl I had never seen before.

While my line didn’t land exactly as planned, it seemed to have a profound effect on the girl anyway. Her eyes went wide with excitement, and she spun around to address somebody over her shoulder, outside my field of view. “Guru George, he’s awake!” she called out.

“Oh, bloody hell,” I cursed, although what came out sounded more like “Uhduddlyeh.”

I tried to look around me, but I couldn’t really swivel my head. It felt as though my entire body was encased in plaster. I had to know if Gemma was safe, but I couldn’t form the words to ask, or move my body enough to check. It was maddening. I sat there, crying internally, while I waited for someone familiar to come into my field of view.

The next face I saw was another stranger, a lad of about my age with big, simple, honest eyes, like a baby cow. Calf. Whatever they call it. His face was replaced by another, then another, none of them familiar. Most of them, I noticed, were girls, and all of the blokes were either big and dumb, like the baby cow guy, or had dead-fish expressions in their sunken eyes. After a seemingly endless parade of new faces, Guru George appeared, concern showing in his kind eyes.

“Thank you, Spirit-Wife Eliza,” he said. “I am sure Spirit-Brother Fynn is all the better for your care.” The original face—Eliza, I guess—lit up at the Guru’s words, and she treated him to a deep bow, eyes averted. Oh boy.

“Welcome back to us, Spirit-Brother Fynn,” George announced, dipping his fingers in some sort of fragrant oil and spreading it on my temples. “Don’t try to speak. You lost a lot of teeth in the accident, and I believe you suffered a hairline fracture to your jaw. I’m afraid speech will be beyond your capabilities for a while yet.”

I screamed incoherently. Guru George smiled sympathetically. “I understand your frustration, but you have no choice but to let the healing proceed at its own pace.

“As far as we can tell, you were injured in the storm of two nights ago. Spirit-Brother Brianna found you trapped under a fallen branch. I’m afraid you injured your neck and shoulder quite badly, so you should try to move around as little as possible.

“As you know, Spirit-Brother Fynn, you were at a critical juncture in your cleanse. At that stage, it would have been disastrous to bring you to a city hospital, with their machines and fluorescent lights. Your body might have mended, but your soul would have been destroyed. But not to worry. Spirit-Wife Eliza is well versed in the study of holistic medicine.” “Spirit-Wife” Eliza bowed again, blushing deeply.

“You might be wondering where you are and what has happened to your friends. Try not to think on them, Spirit-Brother Fynn. They are being well looked after back at the detox camp. I have left Spirit-Brother Brianna as their watchful shepherd.”

I screamed again and thrashed my limbs, but they felt stuck in place. “You’ll find it difficult to move your limbs,” Guru George explained. “You are receiving a healing red earth treatment. In essence, we have encased your body in a blessed clay mixed with healing herbs, which is absorbing the toxins as they leave your body.

“As for where you are, I have taken you to a secret enclave of true believers. Normally, none may enter until they have completed the Ritual of Purification. In your case, I was forced to make an exception. You really got yourself into quite the predicament.” I couldn’t tell whether he was talking about the body in the crate—whether he knew about the body in the crate—or if he was simply referring to the accident with the tree branch.

“Now rest,” Guru George concluded. “Spirit-Wife Eliza and the others will attend to your needs. Mother Gaia’s blessings upon you.” He receded from my field of view, trailing a wake of “true believers” behind. Eliza reappeared and lay her warm, small hands on my cheeks and forehead, closing her eyes in fervent concentration. I have to admit, it was a little comforting.

Eventually, given nothing else to do, I slept. The red earth treatment is good for that, at least. When I opened my eyes again, it was dark, and I realized the white light I had seen earlier was just daylight shining through the roof of another white tent. Everything was still around me. Somewhere in the distance, I could hear voices chanting—not the upbeat, hokey folk songs from back at the camp, but a sort of droning monastic chant. The words were familiar: “Hoch caert laemnir brroon caert saemnegarr.”

I was startled by the sudden appearance of a face above my head. It was one of the sunken-eyed lads. “I shouldn’t be talking to you,” he whispered urgently. “But I thought you should know the truth. Guru George lied to you about your friends being safe.” The bottom dropped out of my stomach.

“Your friend Zak…he never made it back from the meditation walk. He—” The hollow-eyed boy jerked his head around suddenly, as if he had heard or seen something in the shadows of the tent, then without a word, he disappeared from my world.

§

I had been worried about Gemma before; now I was terrified. The one thought that had kept me sane was that, should Acolyte Brianna try something, he was at least outnumbered, and Zak looks like he’s had a few scraps in his day. Looked, I should say. With me and Zak gone, Gemma was now alone with that maniac. And I couldn’t even wiggle my little toe.

And what really happened to Zak? Was he picked off by Brianna? Did he get wise to what was going on—stumble on another dead body, like—and run to save his inked skin? Or did he just decide he’d had enough of the bullshit and hitchhiked his way back to civilization? Those last two options were nice thoughts, and I wished him the best, but I had a horrible, sinking feeling that nobody was going to hear from Zak the punk ever again. His family might get a letter from him saying he’d decided to live on a commune or go study with the Tibetan masters, somewhere conveniently far away from Britain and wi-fi.

I was angry. I was seething. My head was filled with thoughts of what I would do once I could walk again, how I would sneak back to the camp and saw Brianna’s bollocks off with his own machete. My family is fairly well to do, and for the first time in my life, I felt truly powerless. I suddenly understood what Professor Beresford was prattling on about in the Intersectional Identities course two years ago—the “easy marks” elective where I had first met Gemma. Oh, Gemma.

Whenever Guru George made an appearance, I was forced to bite my tongue until it bled. I didn’t want to betray my new ally—that was a precious thing to have among the Guru’s inner circle, and besides, he seemed like a nice lad despite some poor life choices—but I couldn’t restrain my anger. How could George lie to me about Gemma’s safety? Either he had no idea the extent of the danger she was in, or—what was more likely—he knew exactly how much danger she was in, and he wanted to keep her in it.

It was probably a good thing that I still couldn’t form anything resembling words. Part of the problem, I realized, was that I was buried up to my lower jaw—the Guru’s “treatment” had the convenient effect of leaving me both lame and dumb. Once they dug me out, I would be able to fully speak my mind. I wondered if that was part of George’s plan. I wondered how I was supposed to use the toilet. I hadn’t needed to, yet, which by itself was distressing.

I couldn’t speak with my mouth, but I guess my eyes made my feelings clear, because after one such encounter with the Guru—after he had left the tent on some errand, dragging his most fawning admirers behind him—a group of dumb-looking, muscle-bound blokes in homespun clothes surrounded me. “We saw the way you were looking at the Guru,” one of them said.

“We don’t think you’re a true believer,” another one chimed in.

“We don’t think your spirit is pure,” a third said. “Your presence is an affront to Mother Gaia and a blight on this humble community.”

There wasn’t anything I could do or say to respond to these accusations. What I would have said is that if they loved the Guru so much, why didn’t they marry him, and while they were at it, ask him why he brought me here, since I certainly didn’t choose it. But since I couldn’t say anything, I didn’t. I tried to remain calm, but an intense dread filled me as I realized these guys could do absolutely whatever they wanted with me, and I had no way to fight back. I could only wait.

I didn’t have to wait long. One of the Spirit-Brothers produced a bucket from somewhere offscreen. “We have devised a test of your faith,” he said. As he spoke, he held the bucket above my head and slowly tilted it. I braced myself for whatever was inside: piss, or shit, or maybe acid. I could be acid; the bucket was hissing.

“If you are pure of spirit, the Earth Mother will surely protect you,” the bloke with the bucket was saying. The bucket tilted further, and something dark tumbled out of it, hitting my face with a slap. What the bloody hell was that?

More dark shapes followed as the bucket was up-ended. One of them landed in a spot where I could get a good look at it. “Hooray,” I thought. “A snake. That explains the hissing, then.” I gave the toilet thing a try.

The snake, which I assume was as pissed off about being dumped onto my head as I was, lashed out and bit me somewhere above the eye. A couple of other snakes did the same thing, although most of them ignored me. “Mother Gaia’s blessings upon thee, ‘Spirit-Brother,’” the first arsehole said, dropping the bucket and departing.

§

I never thought I would need to know much about snakes: which ones are poisonous and all that. I suppose I always assumed I would have Wikipedia handy if the situation came up. “Siri, what does an asp look like?” But at that moment, I really, really wished I had studied up.

These ones definitely were, I decided. Poisonous. At least, that’s what the intense pain and swelling was telling me. My left eye had swollen shut under a lump the size of a cricket ball. I assumed those were symptoms of deadly snakebite; I couldn’t really ask WebMD.

Maybe the Earth Mother really does like me, though, because before I could be poisoned to death, Eliza—blessed angel, she—popped into view. “Oh, dear,” she said, obviously flustered, as she plucked snakes from around my face and flung them into corners of the tent. “How could something like this happen? It’s surely an ill omen. I’ll have to inform the Guru.” She scurried off again, returning in a few minutes’ time with a crew of sunken-eyes lads—none of the bad ones from earlier—who set to work herding the serpents out the door with rakes and brooms.

Once the immediate threat was taken care of, Eliza knelt down and kissed me above the eye. At least, that’s what it looked like, but it was accompanied by a strange feeling, and when she pulled her head away, she had a queer expression on her face, like a girl caught raiding the biscuit jar. She turned her head carefully and spat into a small bowl. There was blood and something else in her saliva. “I have to suck out the venom, or you could get very ill,” she explained. “But you should be fine now. Poor, poor Spirit-Brother Fynn.” She stroked my hair, looking worried.

It took about fifteen minutes for Eliza to get all of the venom out. It was weirdly sensual, but I suppose having a cute girl kiss and suck at your face always is, even when you’re surrounded by loonies who’ve buried you up to your chin in mud. I had to assume she knew what she was doing; it wasn’t like I could request a second opinion. So when she announced, at the end of it, that I would be right as rain, I gave her my best attempt at a grateful smile.

When that was taken care of, she announced brightly, “Guru George says you’re well enough to eat! I’m sure you must be starving, poor thing.” I hadn’t thought about it, but now I did, I was well famished. My stomach gurgled.

Eliza disappeared for a few minutes, leaving me alone with the sunken-eyes boys, who all avoided eye contact. Then she returned carrying an earthenware saucer. Steam rose from it, smelling of—if I wasn’t mistaken—chicken stock and boiled with some kind of root vegetables and mushrooms. Whatever it was, it smelled amazing.

Eliza set the bowl down near my head, wiped away the mud and blood caked on my lips with a damp towel, and started spooning the warm broth into my mouth. The first swallow was like drinking daggers; I guess my throat had swelled up or something. I choked and sputtered, but Eliza soothed me with little shushing noises. The next swallow went down easier, and my stomach immediately demanded more sustenance. If I had control over my arms, I would have snatched the bowl from her and guzzled the whole thing, and probably vomited it up the next minute. Fortunately for me, Eliza kept steadily spooning one sip at a time.

I still didn’t have full control over my jaws, so it was messy. I felt like a giant baby, and Eliza, I realized, was treating me like one. Whenever the soup would dribble from my toothless mouth, she would carefully and patiently wipe it away with the towel. It didn’t help my sense of machismo any. She even sang me a little song:

“O, Mother, when you find me
Please take me in your arms
For you, I walk through fire
And do not come to harm”

A little creepy, but she had a sweet voice, and she sang it like a lullaby. Before I knew it, I was nodding off. I caught myself and tried to stay alert, but something wasn’t right. Eliza’s face span and twisted before my eyes, and the walls of the tent seemed to stretch into the distance as the shadows grew thicker and more substantial. The nature of her song changed as other voices seemed to join hers, deep and monotonous, harmonizing with her melody but singing different words altogether:

“Haeg cayrt lamnyar
Bruuyn cayrt saengaernyar”

Figures kept appearing and disappearing at the edges of my vision, figures in black robes, figures with blood-smeared mouths. I was terrified, but the faster my heart beat, the heavier my eyelids got. Guru George appeared, but he was different somehow, with the long beard and misshapen eyes of a billy goat. He wore a crown of thorns, and blood poured from his scalp in thick streams, mixing into his beard and staining his white robe. “He’s ready, Exalted One,” Eliza said, kissing the head of a serpent. Twisting her knees and elbows the wrong way round, she crawled backward along the ceiling. Guru George pulled a machete from his robes and advanced toward me, grinning a blood-soaked grin, as I lost consciousness.

§


How Does This All Work, Anyway?

In case you missed it, Part 1 contains a breakdown of English Eerie‘s mechanics and a general sense of how they were used to inspire this tale.

Here are the card draws and suggestions that inspired the journal entries in this segment of the story:

Entry 10: A secondary character (Zak) is harmed.

Entry 11: Secondary Character Obstacle—a character confronts you about “looking at George like that” (failed).

Entry 12: Secondary Character Obstacle—a character drugs you (failed). [Note: this wasn’t one of the scenario suggestions, but it fit the tone of the story.]

The narrator ended this segment with 2 Spirit and 2 Resolve.


English Eerie: Detox (Part 3)

Note: This story was written in collaboration with Scott Malthouse’s English Eerie: Rural Horror Storytelling Game for One Player, published by Trollish Delver Games. It was previously published serially on BoardGameGeek. Skip down to “How Does This All Work, Anyway?” to learn more about how the prompts and mechanics from English Eerie were used to build this narrative.

Content Warning: This story contains mature themes and explicit references to sex, violence, drug use, sexual violence, and occult rituals.


Ram Head

English Eerie: Detox

Part Three: Turn Around

§

My sleep was interrupted by the sensation of something sharp and cold being shoved through my eye socket. I snapped my eyes open and instantly regretted it. The morning light, washing the walls of the tent bleach-white, assaulted my eyes like sandpaper. I squeezed them shut, and the pain shrunk down to a single, blazing point that overwhelmed all thought and sensation, like a star collapsing under its own gravity. I wanted to vomit. It was the worst hangover I’ve ever had.

I sat there like that for who knows how long, in too much pain to move, to think, even to notice the passage of time. After a while, I did vomit. I just about managed to roll onto my side so that I wouldn’t drown in it; there was no question of running out to the hole. After emptying the entire contents of my stomach and retching air for a little while, I started to feel a little better. After a few more minutes, I was able to roll upright and open my eyes without that intense desire to be euthanized.

I looked around me. Zak the punk was going through a similar sort of ordeal in his corner of the tent. Gemma was still asleep, so pale and motionless that I worried for a second that she was dead. Her breathing was shallow enough that I couldn’t detect it without bringing my ear centimeters from her lips, and her pulse was slow and faint, but at least she didn’t seem to be in any pain. I pulled back with a start when I realized that she was naked inside her sleeping bag, at least the parts that I could see.

I looked around the tent again. This time, I caught the eyes of Guru George and Acolyte Brianna. Only they seemed hale and well-rested. “The day’s blessings upon thee, Spirit-Brother Fynn,” Brianna said by way of greeting. I grunted and belched.

“It is a transitional phase,” Guru George announced, indicating the puddle of black vomit that had started seeping into my bedroll. “Your body has accumulated many toxins, some of them deep down in the marrow. The ones that have sunk the deepest will be the most painful to purge.”

“I’ve done a lot of purging,” I replied. “I think I’m all purged out for a while. Maybe we can take a break from the purging?”

Acolyte Brianna scowled, and looked like he was about to rebuke me for my insolence, but Guru George smiled. “When I was in your place, I thought in much the same way.” He smiled even wider. “What, did you think that I have always lived this way? I had to free myself from the tyranny of technology, same as you. We have all gone through what you are going through now. Ask Spirit-Brother Brianna.” That wiped the smirk from the arse-kissing acolyte’s face.

“When I look on you,” Guru George continued, “I cannot help but feel a thrill at what you will become. As I said, it is a transformation, and those who feel it the strongest are those who emerge on the other side the purest. When I look on you, I see a thing of unsurpassable beauty waiting to break free. Not to downplay the progress of anybody else in the room,” he said, looking to Brianna and Zak, “but you…you may surpass even myself.”

I couldn’t tell whether he truly believed all of the bullshit he was spewing—in which case, he’s an absolute nutter—or if he is just really skilled at manipulating people’s emotions, as so many of these cult-leader types are. In either case, I wasn’t buying it for a second.

While we were having this conversation, Gemma began to wake up. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her sit up, then quickly realize she was topless and scramble to pull the sleeping bag over herself. I quickly averted my gaze, but not before registering her confused expression. Just what the fuck is going on here?

While Gemma got herself sorted, Guru George announced the day’s activity. Since everybody was feeling the effects of the cleanse, we would have a day of meditation and fasting. That meant—I don’t think I could have kept it down anyway—and what amounts to a free period. We were all encouraged to explore the woods and find a place through which “the land speaks” to us; it was strongly suggested that these places would be far away from each other. Getting us lost in the woods, weak from hunger and isolated from one another, seems like just the sort of thing a Jason Voorhees would want, but I knew that any objections I raised were liable to knock me down on the purity totem pole. Besides, I had a plan.

I made a show of getting ready for my communion with nature—closing my eyes and “listening” for the land to tell me where to go, like a kind of shrubby GPS. What I really did was pick a spot that was especially heavily wooded, with lots of deep shadow and thick shrubbery but a clear view of camp. I tramped off loudly, waited a count of sixty, and then doubled back and watched everyone else depart. George and Brianna waited until everyone else had left, then they exchanged a few words—I was not close enough to hear them clearly—and headed off in opposite directions. Moving as quietly as I could, I followed after Brianna.

To my surprise, he pulled the exact same maneuver I had, and I had to clamber up a tree to prevent being discovered. When he got near to where I had been a second before, he stopped and sniffed the air—what a weirdo—then continued on his way. I carefully climbed down and kept after him, keeping a careful eye out for any other sudden changes in direction. There weren’t any, though. I’ve seen enough telly to know what to expect when tailing a suspect: ducking into doorways and alleys, getting lost in massive meat freezers, being hit over the head with a bottle when you turn the wrong corner. None of that happened. Nothing happened, and it went on happening for a long time. Telly doesn’t prepare you for that.

After the most boring hour of my life, something interesting finally happened: Brianna arrived at that little pagoda/shack I stumbled upon on my first night and strode inside like he’d done it a million times before. After a little burst of adrenaline, I realized that nothing else was going to happen. Nobody else entered the shack (which isn’t to say there wasn’t somebody there already), Brianna didn’t come out, and I couldn’t exactly go in there after him.

What he didn’t know is that I had him exactly where I wanted him. I legged it back to camp—I’ve gotten a lot better at remembering my path through the woods—and, slowing down just long enough to check that there was nobody else around, grabbed the old shovel I’d used the day before. Then it was another sprint through the woods to the freshly dug hole.

In there, I knew, was my phone—or, if not my phone, then at least a phone. I could call the police, track down Gemma, and run. And maybe the sandwich was still good.

I dug. It hurt a lot more than it did yesterday, but I pushed through the pain. At one point, I had to stop to vomit into the hole I’d just cleared, but when I was done, I got right back to digging. I dug like my life depended on it, because it did.

And then there was that other moment telly had prepared me for, that glorious clink of metal hitting metal. I hurriedly cleared the dirt around the metal case and lifted it out of the hole.

There was still the padlock to contend with. To be honest, I’d forgotten about it—my thoughts still felt a little fuzzy. In desperation, I swung the heavy part of the shovel against the padlock, again and again, praying that it would break. It was noisy as hell, but I couldn’t afford to care about that. I swung until my hands bled from splinters from the shovel. I swung until black stars filled my vision. Then I swung some more.

“Hi-ho, hi-ho,” I sang, mad with exhaustion. “It’s off to work we go!”

Then there was a surprisingly quiet snapping noise, and the padlock fell to the ground. I fell to my knees, panting, and tried to get the lid open, but my hands were shaking too hard, and dirt had gotten trapped in the hinges. I took a deep breath, found my center, hooked my bloody fingers under the edge, and heaved. The lid swung open. I reached inside blindly.

I was expecting the familiar vinyl surface of my bag. Instead, my numb fingers closed around something round and a little soft, like a loaf of bread. I drew it out of the crate, and at the same moment, the smell hit me. I dropped the object immediately and vomited into the hole.

That smell…I can still smell it on my hands. It was like the time a rat died in our radiator and we didn’t find out until the first cold day of winter. Which isn’t really surprising, given what the object was.

It was a human head. It wasn’t attached to the rest of the human.

§

Next I knew, I was surrounded by earth, staring up at the bruise-colored sky through a rectangular frame. Something cold and damp was soaking into my hair. I thought it must be my grave, and any second now, dirt would start raining down over me. “A big fat hug from the Earth Mother,” I mumbled, disturbed by the slow, mushy quality of my voice. Then I saw the shadow of the metal crate, and my brain finally caught up to reality: I must have passed out and tumbled into the recently excavated hole.

My head felt fuzzy. As I waited for the feeling to come back into my fingers and toes, I seriously considered, for the first time, the possibility that I had been drugged. It would explain a lot of things: the weird euphoria of last night, the deadly hangover of this morning, and why, at that moment, I couldn’t convince my arms and legs to lift me out of the hole. I sat there for minutes while my brain screamed at my body to get to work.

Eventually, I was able to crawl out of the hole, where I was confronted again by the severed human head. It had started to go bad, or whatever it is that body parts do when they are removed from the rest of the body, so I couldn’t really make out the details of its features. It could have been a boy or a girl; it had long hair, but that doesn’t really prove anything in this day and age. The important bit is that it was certainly human, and it was certainly dead.

I struggled to my feet, took a moment to make sure I wasn’t going to fall back into the hole, then took another look in the crate. If I could get to my bag, there was still a chance I could phone the police or something.

There was no bag in the crate. Instead, there was the rest of the human. Not all at once, like, but if you added it all together, I’m pretty sure it would have come to one full human. Definitely a boy, I noted.

I staggered away from the crate. After a few steps, I started to run. All I could think about was finding Gemma. That Zak guy was probably worth saving, too; he seemed a decent enough chap. But if I had to leave him behind in order to get Gemma to safety, there would be no hesitation.

I thought about the direction I had seen Gemma go in, and where she was likely to be in relation to the hole, and I tried to head in that direction. I had no way of knowing if I was anywhere close, but there was nothing else I could think to do except return to camp and wait for her to get back, and I wanted to avoid being by myself in that tent if I could possibly help it. Even if I couldn’t find Gemma, if I ran for long enough, I’d be sure to run into some family on holiday.

The snapping of branches startled me, and I spun around, ready to defend my life against a real life Jason Voorhees. I wished I hadn’t left the shovel behind. But nothing emerged from the shadows, brandishing a bloody machete, and I realized that it was just the wind. It had really picked up and was whipping dead leaves and dirt around at highway speeds. The trees groaned as their branches shook.

I was about to turn back around and resume my search when I heard a different kind of snapping of branches. I felt light-headed. My eyes darted from tree to tree, searching for shadowy figures, but the input they were getting wasn’t making any sense. Then, there was a tremendous crack, and I looked up just in time to see a massive branch plummeting toward my head.

§


How Does This All Work, Anyway?

In case you missed it, Part 1 contains a breakdown of English Eerie‘s mechanics and a general sense of how they were used to inspire this tale.

Here are the card draws and suggestions that inspired the journal entries in this segment of the story:

Entry 8: Grey Lady—a human skull is found in the wood.

Entry 9: Environmental Obstacle—a falling branch from above (failed).

The narrator ended this segment with 4 Spirit and 2 Resolve.

 


English Eerie: Detox (Part 2)

Note: This story was written in collaboration with Scott Malthouse’s English Eerie: Rural Horror Storytelling Game for One Player, published by Trollish Delver Games. It was previously published serially on BoardGameGeek. Skip down to “How Does This All Work, Anyway?” to learn more about how the prompts and mechanics from English Eerie were used to build this narrative.

Content Warning: This story contains mature themes and explicit references to sex, violence, drug use, sexual violence, and occult rituals.


Ram Head

English Eerie: Detox

Part Two: The Test

§

I woke up choking. All around me, voices were chanting that same bit of Welsh-Gaelic nonsense: “Hex curt lawnmower barn cart Sainsbury’s.” Or maybe it’s Latin; isn’t “Hvc cvrt liminir brvn cvrt sinispiro” one of those phrases that shows up on old maps or something? “Here be nutters.” Hey, at least they’re being honest with themselves. What I wouldn’t give for a Google Translate right now!

Anyway, that was the first thing I heard—the chanting, loud enough to melt earwax, like they were screaming directly into my ears. And it wasn’t just one voice, either, or even two; it sounded like hundreds of them, all chanting in unison. And I tried to take a breath, but I couldn’t pull in air. For a moment, I worried that my throat had closed up. “Fantastic,” I thought. “I’d better not be allergic to shit-tea.” But then my body took over, and I coughed up a thick gob of brownish phlegm, and I sneezed, and I could breathe again, albeit in a labored, wheezing way. I swallowed, and it felt as though somebody had stabbed me in the throat with a rusty knife.

“Fantastic,” I thought again. “I’ve caught a cold. On the first day of holiday. What an exciting three weeks you have ahead of you, Fynn, you lucky bastard.” But at least I was breathing now, even if it hurt a little. As the pounding in my head died down, I began to hear the world around me again, and I realized that it wasn’t chanting after all; it was singing, of the nutty cult/wilderness camp variety, like I’d heard last night. Acolyte Brianna was on guitar, and Guru George was leading some sort of call-and-response folk ballad about the beauty of Mother Gaia and the evils of modern living.

“I sold my soul to cars and e-mail
I sold my soul to cars and e-mail
But now it rests in the bosom of the dale
But now it rests in the bosom of the dale

…was one of the verses. Gemma was belting it out wholeheartedly—off-key, of course—and even Zak was singing along in a less enthusiastic but surprisingly rich baritone. He looked a little grey, but at least he was upright, which was more than I could say for myself. He caught my eye and gave me a sympathetic nod.

After the song wound down, Guru George gestured toward me. “I see that Spirit-Brother Fynn has awakened. The day’s blessings upon you, Spirit-Brother,” he said with a genial nod. I returned the greeting awkwardly.

“How are you feeling, Spirit-Brother? No need to answer that; I can see from your aura that you are still unwell.” I’m sure the bags under my eyes and the mucus plastering my face had nothing to do with it. “The first day of a cleanse is always the hardest,” he said with what looked like sincere compassion. “Your soul is still fighting to free itself from the toxins. And it is losing because there is still a part of you that does not want to win”

“I’m sure it has nothing to do with spending the night shitting into a hole whilst getting rained on,” I retorted, or tried to; what came out was more like a sad croak and a long bout of coughing.

“You are like a drug addict going through withdrawals,” Guru George went on, “except that it is technology to which you are addicted. You must release all ties to the material world before your soul—and body—can be healed.” Behind him, Gemma was nodding emphatically, concern plastered all over her face. While I knew that everything Guru George said was bullshit, I didn’t want to disappoint her, so I compromised with a shrug.

“We were just about to eat,” Acolyte Brianna announced. Now that he mentioned it, I noticed that they each had a plate in front of them; the delicious smell of fried eggs wafted over to me. I realized that I was starving.

“Eggs?” I croaked, starting up hungrily.

“Guru George keeps hens,” Brianna explained. “But I’m afraid that eating such things now would only feed the technotoxins inside you. It’s imperative that we continue with your cleanse.” He produced a bowl of watery millet and a steaming mug. “Please, drink plenty of tea. You are probably dehydrated.” He smirked so that only I could see.

I begrudgingly accepted the food. Eyeing the plates of eggs jealously, I choked down as much millet as I could—I was finding it hard to swallow at the moment—and pretended to sip the tea, letting most of it backwash into the mug and the rest dribble down my chin. “Mmmm,” I burbled, giving Brianna a thumbs-up. “Cleansing.”

Eventually, I excused myself to go “visit the hole” and dumped the rest of the tea out behind the tent. By this point, my stomach was really rumbling—hunger, this time, thank God. I remembered the half-eaten sandwich in my bag. Hallelujah! And there was a water bottle in there, too!

I dropped a couple of pebbles into the hole to complete the illusion and hurried back to the tent. Everybody was carrying out some trust exercise outside the tent; this was my chance to sneak to my bag and retrieve the food! I slipped inside and made a beeline for my bag.

Rather, I made a beeline for where my bag should have been. There was nothing there anymore. I searched frantically, picking up Gemma’s rucksack, looking under and behind my bedroll…until a polite cough behind my back attracted my attention.

“Looking for this?” Brianna held my bag like a trophy. “I’m afraid we’ve had to confiscate this for your own good. Just until it’s no longer a temptation.”

“You can’t do that!” I protested. “That’s my private property!”

“And what will your friend Gemma think when she hears you brought an illegal piece of technology onto the healing grounds?” Unzipping the front pocket of my bag, he pulled out a new-looking phone.

“That’s…not mine,” I said, flabbergasted. It couldn’t be. It looked like mine, but my phone is still in the storage locker at King’s Cross, next to Gemma’s.

Brianna pushed the home button, and the phone’s display lit up. There was my lock screen, a picture of me and Gemma from last summer.

“How did you get that?” I demanded, furious. Brianna only clicked his tongue and put the phone back into the bag.

“If you don’t take this seriously, Spirit-Brother Fynn, you’ll never get better,” he said, shoving the bag into a metal crate and securing it with a padlock. “Now, how about some more tea?”

§

I spent the rest of the morning in the tent. I didn’t want to go outside and see what the others were doing, and they didn’t ask me to. I just kept thinking about that phone. Is it really mine? How could it be? On the other hand, how could it not be? For this to be a fake, Brianna would have to know how to clone my lock screen. He’d have to remotely access my photo library. Did I put that pic on Instagram? I honestly can’t remember. But he’d still have to access my phone settings to know which picture to use. Is he some mad hacker? It just doesn’t fit with his Nature Boy persona. Then again, I already know he’s full of shit.

Much easier, then, to just send someone to King’s Cross, get the locker combination (it’s written down on a slip of paper in my bag), take the actual phone, and plant it in my bag. But Brianna can’t have done it himself; he’d be gone long enough for people to notice. That suggests there are other people in on the conspiracy, people I haven’t met yet.

What conspiracy, though? What’s Brianna’s end game, apart from humiliating me? I remembered the way he’d called out to me that night over the hole, hiding a machete behind his back.

It’s just unreal. This isn’t some slasher movie; Brianna Gable isn’t Jason Voorhees. Maybe the machete was for, I don’t know, clearing the underbrush. Maybe he just wanted to check up on me. Maybe I really did leave my phone in my bag by accident. He’s still a dickhead.

I kept staring at the metal crate, wishing I could get it open. But unlike Acolyte Brianna, I don’t know all the codes.

Around mid-afternoon, Gemma came in to check on me. This made my day immeasurably better. “Listen, Gemma—” I began.

“Shhh.” She put a finger to my lips, and this actually did shut me up. “I know you’re not having a good time. Detoxing is never fun. But I wanted to let you know that I’m really proud of you.”

Hearing that from her, and seeing her smile, made my heart swell with happiness. I had to force myself to shake off that happy feeling and latch back on to the urgency of the situation. “Gemma, I think something’s up. Brianna isn’t to be trusted. I think I might—you might be in danger.”

Gemma shook her head sadly. “He told me you would say that. That’s your attachment to the digital world. It sees all this…all this joy and wonder as a threat.” She made a gesture with her hand as though we could see through the white canvas walls of the tent and take in the full majesty of the Yorkshire Dales in an instant. Maybe she could.

I shook my head. “Dammit, Gemma, don’t be so gullible. He doesn’t believe any of that. He’s just using you.” I knew immediately that I had said the wrong thing. Gemma’s expression hardened, as it had on the previous occasions I had been foolish enough to challenge her beliefs.

“I guess you’re not ready to open your heart to the Earth Mother,” she said, getting up to leave. Helpless, I watched her go. She stopped in the doorway of the tent. “He told me about the phone, Fynn. I’m disappointed.” And she left. I might have cried a little bit.

Guru George came in a few minutes later. “Spirit-Wife Gemma tells me that you are not ready to accept the cleanse,” he announced, “but I tend to see the best in people. Spirit-Brother Brianna tells me it’s a weakness.” What a creep. Why does it have to be Spirit-Wife?

“I believe that you are ready to progress in your spiritual awakening,” George continued. “I have prepared a test of devotion. If you pass, then you will be allowed to rejoin the others.”

I was about to curse him out, but something made me hold my tongue. I thought about it. I don’t know if Guru George is part of the conspiracy; if he isn’t, then the best way to shut Brianna down is to go above his head. But to do that, I need to get into the Guru’s good graces. And if he is a danger, I need to get close to Gemma again so that she’ll trust me when the time comes to escape. Either way, it’s better for me to go along with things, at least outwardly.

I agreed to the test. Guru George seemed genuinely pleased; he practically beamed. He led me out about half a kilometer into the woods, into a clearing that, to me, looked no different from anything around it. Then, he handed me a shovel. “Dig.”

“That’s the test?” I asked incredulously.

The Guru nodded. “Dig as much as you feel is necessary. Mother Gaia will guide you. I will return before nightfall; if the hole meets my specifications, you have passed the test.” And he left.

I stared at the ground in front of me. A hole. For what? Maybe George was planning on planting a tree; I’m not sure that’s legal in the Yorkshire Dales, but whatever. Or maybe he just likes to see young lads work up a sweat. Well, ours is not to reason why and all that. I picked up the shovel and started to dig.

Not knowing what Guru George was looking for, if he was looking for anything, I tried to clear my mind and just dig. To my surprise, I immediately entered a sort of meditative state. Maybe it was exhaustion or malnutrition, but my mind went blank, and when I came back to myself, the sun was going down and I was standing before a two-by-three meter hole that was about two meters deep. I barely felt the pain in my arms and shoulders, and even my sore throat seemed to have cleared up. I actually felt refreshed, invigorated.

I leaned the shovel against a tree and waited. After a while, Guru George arrived, looked down at the hole, and left without a word. He didn’t invite me to follow, so I continued to wait. About twenty minutes later, Guru George returned with Acolyte Brianna. My blood boiled at the sight of the man, but I didn’t let it show on my face. Pure zen. The men were carrying a heavy metal crate between them. The metal crate, I knew, that contained my bag and my phone. They lowered it into the hole, then Acolyte Brianna grabbed the shovel and started piling dirt back into it.

Guru George turned to me. “Congratulations, Spirit-Brother Fynn. You’ve passed the test.”

§

Guru George led me back to camp while Acolyte Brianna buried the crate. I should have been seething, knowing what was being buried, but the curious calm from earlier still suffused my thoughts. I felt at peace with my situation—not happy, but not angry or panicked either. Maybe I should do manual labor more often.

When we got back to the camp, Gemma and the punk Zak were sitting around the cook-fire finishing up their dinner. This might be the starvation diet talking, but it smelled amazing. Guru George must have filled them in on the situation, because there was a little celebration when they saw me. Zak raised his bowl in a little salute, and Gemma sprang up from the log she’d been sitting on and wrapped me in a tight hug. Now I really did feel happy; in fact, I felt like the coolest lad in the world. “I knew you could do it, Fynn,” she whispered in my ear. That isn’t quite how I remember our last conversation, but I’ve learned never to correct a girl whispering in your ear.

Guru George smiled a patronizing smile, but I think there was genuine happiness behind it, too; he might just have resting patronizing face. “Spirit-Brother Fynn has made great strides this evening,” he announced. “I have looked into his soul and judged it pure enough to progress to the next stage of the cleanse.” This business about there being a next stage to the cleanse was news to me, but if it meant I could have real food instead of millet and shit-tea, and I could sit next to Gemma, I was all for it. “He will be having supper with us tonight,” George concluded, ladling me a bowl of something nutritious made with lots of root vegetables. It was your standard health food—so bland and high in fiber it might as well have been cardboard—but after the past couple of days, it was heavenly. I slurped it down as quickly as I could without offending the Guru, burning my tongue and the roof of my mouth in the process, and asked for seconds, which he graciously supplied.

After supper, Guru George led us in another of his weird songs—Zak took over guitar duties for this one, since Acolyte Brianna still hadn’t returned—and then announced that we would be going on a “star walk.” Nobody asked him what the hell he was talking about, by which I cleverly deduced it was one of the activities I’d missed out on while lost, sick, or digging. I decided to stick close to Gemma and follow her lead.

As it turns out, a “star walk” is just like a normal walk, but at night, like. I guess you were supposed to focus on the night sky and let your body be washed by the stellar radiation, which is better, somehow, than the radiation from cell towers and power lines. I don’t know if we were supposed to be meditating or if everybody was just feeling quiet and awkward. Gemma and I lagged behind.

“I wanted to say thanks for coming,” she said. It sounded as though she’d said it in her head a dozen times already. “I know this trip has been terrible for you so far. But I’m really glad you’re here. And I’m glad you’re better.”

“Sure,” I replied awkwardly. I didn’t think it was the time to bring up the stolen cell phone, the buried crate, or the machete.

“I know you don’t really believe in this,” she continued. There was a long pause. “So why’d you come?”

“Because I’m in love with you, obviously,” I replied with a grin. Gemma snorted and gave me a friendly shove. “But seriously,” I continued, my ears burning red, “this summer was supposed to be about new experiences. And this is certainly a new experience.”

“I’m glad you’re here,” she repeated. We were silent for the rest of the walk. Maybe it was just the stellar radiation, but my entire body felt warm, despite the crisp night air.

When we got back to the tent, the fatigue I’d somehow dodged all day finally caught up to me. I practically fell face-first into my sleeping roll and was asleep immediately. The other campers did the same.

I was so tired that I don’t even remember dreaming. I do remember, however, waking up with a blood-curdling scream echoing in my ears. It was a woman’s scream, and my first thought was Gemma, but I looked over and saw her sleeping soundly in the darkness. I had just about convinced myself that it was all in my imagination when I heard a second scream. It was coming from somewhere in the woods—I couldn’t really tell which direction. There was the start of a third scream, but it got cut off suddenly and with an ominous finality.

I looked around the tent to see if anybody else had heard it. Gemma was still asleep, as was Zak. Guru George and Acolyte Brianna were nowhere to be seen, which was pretty odd considering it was the middle of the night. It suddenly felt very cold in the tent. “This isn’t right,” I remember thinking. “I need to get up, grab Gemma, and get the fuck out of here.” But I couldn’t will my muscles to move, and a few seconds later, I felt my head hit the pillow hard. I plunged into another dreamless sleep.

§


How Does This All Work, Anyway?

In case you missed it, Part 1 contains a breakdown of English Eerie‘s mechanics and a general sense of how they were used to inspire this tale.

Here are the card draws and suggestions that inspired the journal entries in this segment of the story:

Entry 5: Secondary Character Obstacle—a character steals something from you (failed).

Entry 6: Environmental Obstacle—a deep dug out pit (passed).

Entry 7: Minor Clue—a scream from the nearby wood.

The narrator ended this segment with 5 Spirit and 3 Resolve.

 


English Eerie: Detox (Part 1)

Note: This story was written in collaboration with Scott Malthouse’s English Eerie: Rural Horror Storytelling Game for One Player, published by Trollish Delver Games. It was previously published serially on BoardGameGeek. Skip down to “How Does This All Work, Anyway?” to learn more about how the prompts and mechanics from English Eerie were used to build this narrative.

Content Warning: This story contains mature themes and explicit references to sex, violence, drug use, sexual violence, and occult rituals.


Ram Head

English Eerie: Detox

Part One: Initiation

§

A Moleskine notebook found in the vicinity of the Yorkshire Dales

(The first few pages are filled with arbitrarily jotted notes. There are many phone numbers, most of them alongside names and sketches of young women; the owner of the notebook is clearly a skilled artist. Some of the names have little notes in parentheses, things like “Business 101; smells like licorice”; “met at Raj’s; likes Vindaloo”; and “don’t waste your time; doesn’t text back.” There are also some numbers and addresses for carry-out places around London. Other pages have sketches of business logos and marketing slogans. In the corner of one page is a mathematical formula, circled several times in different colors of highlighter, with the subscript “standard deviations; LEARN IT” underlined seven times. The formal journaling begins on page eight.)

Two hours without phone or laptop and I’m already bored out of my skull. I’m haunted by the idea that I left some background process running and I’m going to come back in three weeks to a completely drained battery. Gemma says to let it go; that’s the whole point of the retreat, to let go of the modern conveniences that are secretly binding us and hindering our spiritual progress. But all I can think about is my computer in that dark storage locker at King’s Cross and that little orange “standby” light blinking.

I am woefully unprepared for this trip. We brought a pack of cards, and we’ve already played every game of Old Maid we’ll ever want to. I bought a book at the train station, but after I opened it, I realized I’ve read it before. They changed the cover to a bunch of BBC actors, the cheeky bastards. I guess the series is coming soon. I would study, but all of my notes are in the cloud, and all of my textbooks are in the flash drive plugged into my rapidly draining computer. Besides, the point of this spring is to forget about Uni for a few months.

When Gemma suggested we take a semester off to live out our dreams while we’re still young, this isn’t what I envisioned. I thought we’d be backpacking across Europe or going on holiday somewhere warm and tropical. But of course this digital detox camp is just the sort of thing Gemma would dream up. Last semester she was talking about Reiki and crystal vibrations; before that, she was advocating a “karmic” lifestyle free of meat, eggs, leather, wool, and honey. This isn’t the first time I’ve been dragged along with one of her mad schemes, and it’s not likely to be the last.

Gemma said that journaling would help pass the time. She has an answer for everything, that girl. But I guess she was right, because they’ve just announced our stop. Three weeks of “device-free living,” here we come.

§

The brochure for this place—paper, of course—promised that it was “off the beaten path, far from harmful sources of cellular radiation and chakra-unbalancing electromagnetic fields.” I was envisioning a repurposed castle or abbey, maybe fifteen minutes from the Forbidden Corner or the Cat Pottery. If anything, the brochure was an understatement. The “camp” turned out to be a nothing more than a large, canvas tent in the absolute middle of nowhere. We were greeted on our arrival by “Guru George”—no surname, as he’s trying to “cast off material and temporal ties”—and his protege, a guy named Brianna Gable (apparently, he hasn’t yet reached the level of spiritual awakening required to get rid of his last name). They both reek of bullshit and patchouli, but Gemma seems smitten with them, especially George.

The only other “camper” is a thirty-something named Zak Salt. He’s built like a bricklayer and has holes all over his face where literally hundreds of lobe, tragus, auricle, bridge, septum, and eyebrow piercings recently hung. A large tattoo of a laughing skull setting fire to a Union Jack colors his neck, and he keeps reaching back to rub it self-consciously.

No sooner had we set our bags down next to our sleeping rolls—or they might be yoga mats—than Guru George announced that it was time for our first “betterment exercise.” He deferred to Brianna to explain the details:

“The principle is simple,” the smug bastard explained. “A spirit that is attuned to the resonant frequencies of Gaia cannot be led astray. By leaving the pollutions of the modern world behind and coming here, you have taken an important first step toward establishing a personal relationship with Mother Gaia.” He looked meaningfully at Gemma, and I’m sure he was thinking of establishing a different kind of personal relationship, the knobhead. I’ll have to keep an eye on her; of course, that’s part of the reason I decided to come. These spiritual guru types are notorious perverts.

The speech went on like that for a while, filled with pseudo-mystical nonsense. The heart of the matter was that Guru George and his little acolyte were going to blindfold us and lead us out into the woods, and we were supposed to find our way back to the camp. A hearty dinner—probably quinoa and kale—would await those “attuned” enough to make it back. Those who couldn’t, it was implied, were still too “toxified” by electronic garbage and would “cleanse” under the stars. I rolled my eyes and smiled when I caught Zak doing the same, but Gemma ate it up.

One by one, we were blindfolded and escorted out in separate directions. Eventually, it was my turn. Brianna wasn’t particularly helpful, and I tripped over roots or cut myself on brambles at least a dozen times. I tried to count the number of steps or listen for clues, like the babbling of a brook, but Guru Jr. kept up this obnoxious chant the entire time that made it impossible to concentrate. It might have been Welsh or Gaelic, and it sounded something like “Hex curt lawnmower barn cart Sainsbury’s” or something like that. It got louder and quieter at unexpected moments, but it was mostly the same short phrase repeated over and over.

Eventually, we came to a stop, and so did the chanting. I was about to ask Brianna whether he’d gotten lost when I realized that he had probably already left. I undid my blindfold and, sure enough, he was nowhere to be seen.

“This shouldn’t be too hard,” I muttered by way of a pep talk. “You’re attuned with Mother Earth and all that.” I snorted. “Spiritual balance? Pffh. Loads of it.” I looked around me, but the silent trees didn’t seem to share my confidence.

“Right, there was something about moss only growing on the north side of the tree,” I thought out loud. “Unless that was lichens.” Or was it the south side? Not that it mattered, since I didn’t know whether camp was to the north, south, east, or west, and all the trees were bare. There were some mushrooms, but I’m pretty sure those will grow anywhere.

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” I declared wisely, picking a direction at random and setting out. “Buddha. Or Confucius.”

After walking for about ten minutes, I decided that my first instinct might not be the best after all, so I turned around and walked ten minutes in the other direction. I thought I heard a babbling brook, so I walked toward that for a little while, until I remember that I hadn’t actually heard any babbling brooks on the way here, so I walked away from it again. I saw a tree with mushrooms. But were they the same mushrooms?

After an hour of this, I had to accept the probability that I would be sleeping under the stars tonight. I’m writing this while there’s still daylight, mostly so I can say: stupid Gemma and your stupid spiritual retreat. I just felt a pang of hunger. That’s okay; there’s half a sandwich in my bag…back at camp…far away from wherever I am.

Stupid, beautiful Gemma.

§

Around seven in the evening—but who knows without a phone to check—it started to rain. Where’s a weather app when you need it? Just a light drizzle, but suddenly, the sleeping spot I’d staked out—a nice, open, mossy clearing—was looking a lot less inviting. Under a tree seemed like a better option, until you realize that the branches and leaves do is funnel the rain into a solid sheet, like the lee of a building. I’ve seen enough episodes of I’m a Celeb to know I needed to find a nice, dry cave, so I set out in search of cave-like geography.

As it turns out, navigating a damp forest is even less fun than navigating a dry one. I wasn’t feeling any more in-tune with Mother Gaia; in fact, I was starting to think of her as a right bitch. I did my bit, and what did I get in return? Wet. I wonder if umbrellas also unbalance your chakras.

After a half hour of wandering through the woods, I stumbled upon a small wooden building, something between a pagoda and a groundskeeper’s shack. “Thank you, Mother Gaia,” I said, hurrying inside. The door was unlocked and mostly off its hinges. Inside, there were no electric lights—of course—and I didn’t trust the furniture to hold my weight, but at least it was dry. I let my eyes adjust to the darkness.

When they did, I was a little surprised by what I saw. Based on the state of the exterior, I’d figured the place abandoned. But as I looked around, now, it was surprisingly free of dust. Most of the furniture was in a state of disrepair and had been pushed against the walls, clearing a large space in the center of the room for a curious little shrine. It looked like it was made of sticks and clay, mostly, like those little wicker dolls you sometimes see at Midsummer festivals. But little prisms, crystals, and bits of shiny metal hung from the shrine at odd intervals, catching and reflecting the fading light.

The shrine was vacant except for an old, leather-bound book. It was in shadow, so I picked it up and brought it near the doorway to examine it further. Picked out on the cover in faded, brown ink was a title: The Bringing of Rains. There was no author listed, no copyright, no dedication. This was an old book, then, or at least one you wouldn’t find in stores. I flipped through a few pages, thinking it had to be better than that nonsense with the BBC actors, but this book was filled with even more nonsense: page after page of inscrutable symbols, looking something like ancient emojis, and columns of ticks and dashes. Some kind of ancient accounts book, then; probably keeping track of some farmer’s sheep or something.

I had barely turned four pages in the book when I heard the most beautiful sound I’ve heard in my life: Gemma’s voice calling my name through the forest. I quickly put the book back into its place on the shrine and hurried out into the woods to greet her.

§

My excitement turned sour when I saw that Gemma was walking side-by-side with Guru George. I was vindicated to see that he was holding an umbrella. As it turns out, I’m the only one who didn’t find his way back to camp, and when it started to rain, Guru George organized a search party. “You are extremely lucky to have come to this retreat when you did,” he told me. “Your soul is fatally toxified. This can manifest in all sorts of nasty ways: cancers, financial trouble, sexual dysfunction….” I rolled my eyes at Gemma, but the look on her face was one of genuine concern. “We’ll have a lot of work to do with you,” Guru George concluded. “You were right to bring him along,” he told Gemma, patting her hand in what I hoped was a paternal gesture.

When we made it back to camp, I was told I would be participating in a “cleanse diet” until the toxins had been flushed from my body. Dinner was cold millet soup and some kind of boiled root tea. Hungry as I was, I accepted it gracefully, if not gratefully. I shouldn’t have; as soon as I finished my cuppa, a deep, warning rumble started up in my intestines. “That’ll be the toxins leaving your body,” Brianna explained. “There’s a hole a few meters from camp. You’ll have to find some dry leaves, though.” I swear the bastard was suppressing a laugh.

I spent the entire night hovering over that godforsaken hole. Maybe Acolyte Brianna is right about toxins leaving my body. They’d have to, wouldn’t they; everything else did, flowing in a messy, turbulent stream out my arse. After the third explosion, I stopped bothering to wipe, letting the drizzle of rain do what it could. It felt as though my guts had been turned inside out. The worst part was being so close to the tent, seeing the warm lights of lanterns, hearing the singing and laughter. No, the worst part was the thought that they could hear me. Occasionally, someone else would venture out back to use the hole, and I’d have to scurry into a dark corner like a shite-stained crab. I’m pretty sure I lost about half my mass that night alone.

At one point, after it sounded like everybody had gone to bed, Acolyte Brianna came out. At first, I assumed he was there for the hole, so I crawled off and hid behind a bush. But then he started calling my name, quietly so as not to wake the other “campers.” He was holding something behind his back. I didn’t respond; the last thing I wanted to do at the moment was suffer another one of that arsehole’s patronizing lectures. I stayed as still as I could manage, hoping the smell wouldn’t give me away, but I guess the reek from the hole did a fine job of masking that. I assumed Brianna would give up after that, but he started poking around in the bushes, still calling my name very quietly. What a creep.

I was saved at the last moment by the sound of heavy footsteps. Brianna uttered a very un-enlightened curse—does he kiss his Earth Mother with that mouth?—and disappeared into the woods in the opposite direction. As he was leaving, I got my first clear view of the object he held behind his back: a very large and very sharp machete.

A few seconds later, Zak the punk came crashing obliviously through the bushes, clutching his stomach. He didn’t quite make it to the hole; propping himself up with one large, tattooed hand, he vomited noisily all over the trunk of a nearby tree. The puke was black and smelled like death; more toxins, I guess. This was followed by a few minutes of dry heaves, and then Zak stumbled back to camp. I didn’t see Brianna again until morning.

Eventually, my intestinal spasms calmed enough for me to clean myself off and venture into the tent. By this point, the eastern horizon had already turned a sort of grey, as it does a little before dawn. Gemma and Zak were still asleep, but Guru George and Acolyte Brianna were already awake, sitting close by each other in one corner of the tent and speaking to each other in low, serious voices. They didn’t notice me come in at first, and that was just as well as far as I was concerned; I was terrified of George offering me more tea. I slunk into my bedroll like a whipped dog and tried to sleep.

§


How Does This All Work, Anyway?

This story is an example of something I’m calling “ludic writing”—an approach to writing that uses games as a seed in the same way the Oulipians used mathematical and orthographic constraints. More examples can be found in my Ludic Writing series on Entropy, of which the best and most developed is Bartlett’s Memory, a twelve-part series that uses the weird horror writing of Matthew M. Bartlett (Gateways to AbominationCreeping Waves) and Yves Tourigny‘s card game Arkham Noir: Collector Case #1—The Real Leeds (which is itself inspired by Bartlett’s fiction) as a springboard for a weird horror mystery noir in three acts. Each of the story “beats” is inspired by the title, artwork, and mechanical effects of a card from Arkham Noir: The Real Leeds, in the exact order in which they entered play in an actual play of the game.

Though I did, as far as I know, coin the term, I didn’t invent the idea of ludic writing. In fact, constrained writing in a similar vein has existed for, I’m sure, centuries; Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual is structured based on the Knight’s Tour of a chessboard, among many other constraints, while Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass models its characters and setting after a game of chess (not to mention the personified playing cards in the first book). And some indie roleplaying games like English Eerie and Malthouse’s earlier work, Quill, are written with the express purpose of generating such writing:

The aim of English Eerie is to tell your own tale of rural horror through entries in your journal. . . . There are several scenarios at the end of this book that offer you an inspirational framework to build a terrifying tale.

“Detox” is one of those scenarios, and as a personal constraint, I tried to follow the scenario as closely as possible—hewing closely to Malthouse’s suggestions for hazards, obstacles, and clues—while making it my own through creative interpretation. So, for example, when the scenario says “a mad ram attempts to gore you,” my story takes that somewhat innocuous situation and reinterprets it in a way that is, I hope, truly horrifying. (It’s one of my favorite moments in the story, and won’t happen until near the end.) After a short description of the mechanics driving English Eerie, I’ll include the verbatim prompts used for each entry so you can judge the degree to which I managed to make them my own.

A note for readers unfamiliar with English Eerie: while the scenarios do provide suggestions for these story elements, they aren’t given in any particular order, so I was free to pick the one that felt most appropriate or interesting for the story at that point. In addition to these suggestions, the scenarios in English Eerie give brief sketches of the setting and cast of secondary characters (though the player is free to add their own).

I already wrote a brief review and synopsis of English Eerie on Entropy to accompany an earlier piece of ludic writing inspired by the scenario “The River,” but here’s a quick rundown of the mechanics:

At the start of the “game,” your narrator has a small pool of Spirit and Resolve points. Spirit is like HP in a more traditional RPG: it’s lost when failing a roll, and ending the story with positive Spirit yields a happier ending, while fully depleting the narrator’s Spirit leads to a gloomier, more macabre ending. Resolve is a secondary resource that can be spent to boost rolls before they happen. The narrator in this story began with 7 Spirit and 3 Resolve.

The gameplay and story are driven by draws from a specially constructed deck that is built and semi-randomized before play. The deck uses standard playing cards, but only certain values. A card is drawn at the start of each “turn”; the suit and (sometimes) value of the card determines the focus of the succeeding journal entry. Here’s a breakdown:

Spades: The narrator finds a minor clue (value is unimportant).

Clubs: A secondary character creates an obstacle for the narrator. The player rolls 1d10 against the card’s value to see whether the narrator can succeed at overcoming the obstacle.

Hearts: A secondary character suffers harm (value is unimportant). This is the only suit that the English Eerie scenarios don’t offer explicit suggestions for resolving, making it especially tricky when drawn multiple times in a row or at a seemingly calm point in the story.

Diamonds: The setting or environment creates an obstacle for the narrator, which is resolved as described in Clubs.

Queen: The deck contains three Queens, or Grey Ladies. These represent major turning points in the story. In addition to their narrative effects, drawing a Grey Lady causes the narrator to lose a Spirit or Resolve and increases the Tension of the story, making all future rolls more difficult. Drawing the final Grey Lady ends the story, for better or worse.

Here are the card draws and suggestions that inspired the journal entries in this segment of the story:

Entry 1: This was written to establish the characters and setting; there was no associated card draw.

Entry 2: Environmental Obstacle—lost in the woods (failed). [Note: this wasn’t one of the scenario suggestions, but it fit the tone of the story.]

Entry 3: Minor Clue—a book called The Bringing of Rains written in what appears to be code.

Entry 4: Minor Clue—a machete.

The narrator ended this segment with 6 Spirit and 3 Resolve.


Ludic Writing: Lady of the West

Have you heard about Ludic Writing? It’s a new series I started up on Entropy last fall, using gameplay as an engine to drive fiction. The newest work generated from this grand experiment is “Lady of the West,” inspired by a play of Tim Fowers’ original deckbuilding word game, Paperback. When the mayor of lawless Narrow Gulch, Wyoming, is shot dead, it’s business as usual…until a mysterious stranger rides into town and announces her inclination to stay awhile. Read up on Paperback in the accompanying Session Report, then check out the story here:

Ludic Writing: Lady of the West