English Eerie: Detox (Part 8)

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 Eight: Acceptance

§

I ran. Forgetting Gemma, forgetting the fucked-up criminal scene I had witnessed, forgetting my plans for revenge against Guru George, I fled on all fours like a dog from the dank, unnaturally lit confines of the black lodge. All thoughts, all noble impulses were buried under a landslide of terror and self-preservation. “These blokes mean to tear me apart,” I repeated again and again, not noticing or caring that my words came out in an unintelligible, babyish stream of whimpers and spit. Somehow, the lads’ nakedness made them all the more terrifying. I thought back to that Gender and Feminism in the 21st Century class, the one in which I’d first encountered Gemma. I’d been so distracted by Gemma—where she was sitting, what she was wearing, what I could do or say to make her laugh—that I had absorbed almost nothing of the actual lesson, and I had ended up dropping the class for no credit. But Gemma had been paying attention, and she still brought up things the professor had said as though it were yesterday. One of those things was that in humans, the size and location of the penis—front and center, like—was less about actual reproduction and more about displays of power and masculinity. A big and visible tallywacker was supposed to win over potential females and cow the male competition. It was conversations like this that made me particularly nervous about opening up to Gemma when I’d had no problem pulling other girls at Uni. My totem of masculinity wasn’t going to cow anyone, or even make them a bit nervous.

These lads, though, were fully on display. And I was cowed. I was, as I’ve said, bloody terrified. I finally understood what Gemma had been talking about. I wondered if I’d ever be able to tell her.

The skins slapped at my face and shoulders as I scrabbled through the low opening. Something was tangled in my hair; I reached up to free myself and found my fingers wrapped around a human hand, boneless and bloodless, the size of a doll’s. A distorted face, stretched and eyeless, gaped at me with its toothless, tongueless mouth. It had the soft features of an infant, but stretched out of proportion, like those atlases that try to map a globe onto a two-dimensional rectangle, warping the lines of latitude and longitude into a rectilinear grid. I felt the hot breath of the masculine boys on my heels.

With a last burst of speed, I emerged from the layers of skins and from the depravities of the black lodge into a drowning world. It was raining buckets, as my mum would say. Except that even that expression felt like an understatement. It was raining like the end of the world, like the sky was dissolving its holdings and liquefying its assets.

With the rain-clouds blotting out the sun and moon, and my pupils still adjusting from the sensory overload of the lodge, it might as well have been raining ink. The downpour painted the world black and featureless. I could barely see a foot in front of my face, and I kept plunging my feet into bottomless puddles that, with nothing to reflect, were indistinguishable from the muddy ground around them.

Then, a light flared behind me, and I looked over my shoulder to see the skins pushed aside and the blood-smeared, priapic cultists pour out like rats from a flooded sewer grate. As they spread out from the only source of light in the world, the inky rain seemed to disintegrate their features until they were shambling around with only half a body, or only the black outline of a person, lit from behind. I realized that they were spreading out because they didn’t know where I was. This was my chance to escape, if I could only move quietly enough.

I took a careful step backward, my eyes on the dissolving, murderous boys. Another step. They stopped moving, turned their faceless heads toward me. I froze like a rabbit about to bolt. The boys shifted position. In the darkness, I could not tell which way they were facing, like that optical illusion where the ballerina is spinning either clockwise or anticlockwise depending on how you think about it.

I slowed my breathing, and the magnetic field of the Earth slowly shimmered into being, like something rising from the bottom of a deep, murky lake. Its lines curved and wrapped around the boys, accentuating their outlines. I could see that they had me nearly surrounded.

I risked another step backward, and my heel slipped on the mud. I fell backward, praying that I would land on something soft shrubbery or something else that wouldn’t make any noise. Instead, I fell into water, puddle deep enough for my entire head to go under. I swallowed red, soupy earth. Unable to stop myself, I thrashed my arms, trying to claw myself back to the surface. When I did so, and had blinked the mud out of my eyes, I saw the silhouettes of the boys moving purposefully toward me. I couldn’t find my feet fast enough.

And I saw something else emerge from the multilayered flaps of skin. Something with the curling horns of a ram. Something that moved with unnatural jerks and twitches. Around it, the shimmering lines of attraction twisted and warped like an angry knot of barbed wire. I saw that its chakra points were broadcasting waves of electromagnetic energy below the visible spectrum, like a cell tower. They appeared to me now as a purplish light, oozing and rippling slowly outward from the ram-headed figure, fouling the neatly curved lines of the Earth’s magnetic field. The ram-head lowered its horned head and charged.

Soon, a tremendous weight was upon me, trampling me back down into the mud with limbs that were somewhere between human feet and cloven hooves. The masculine lads fell upon me, too, pressing me beneath their weight as they had Eliza. My lungs struggled against their gravity and failed. The ram’s head opened its jaws and emitted a noise like a dial-up modem. I was being buried alive beneath a mountain of hard flesh. I blacked out.

§

I awoke to the smell of smoke in the air. The sun was shining, and I was already on my feet. My skin was clean and shiny with fragrant oils. I wore a clean, white homespun tunic and trousers, and I stood in a line of similarly dressed individuals—my Spirit-Brothers and Spirit-Wives. We were all shuffling toward something large and brown in the center of the compound, some new shape that I coudn’t force my eyes to focus on.

My body felt pure, purged of its electronic toxins. In fact, it felt nearly immaterial. The moment I stopped thinking about it, it was as though my body ceased to exist, leaving me a being of pure starlight.

My Spirit-Brothers and Spirit-Wives were singing. I realized that I was, too, the song pouring forth from my lungs that were barely there, given shape by a tongue that might as well have been cloud. The words of the song were not in English. They were not in any tongue that is still spoken, or was ever spoken by any but the Knowing. They meant something like this:

“The seed is planted
The harvest reaped
Kissed by falling water
The harvest of the pure”

The line crept forward. There was something about the smoke in the air, something that awoke my senses, made me more alert to my surroundings. It smelled of sharp sap and green branches.

Gradually, the new thing in the center of the compound became clearer. It had the form of a man—no, the form of a woman, her belly round and spacious. It was hollow inside, but there were people climbing inside, nestling together like gophers. Guru George blessed each one of them as they passed through the wicker opening. I recognized Spirit-Wife Gemma, her belly still big from her last child, curling peacefully into the wider curve of the wicker womb.

It was hot. Something prickled at the back of my neck, an itch I couldn’t scratch. It was odd; I couldn’t remember the last time my body had itched, or ached, or felt discomfort. I was starting to sweat.

The line crept forward. The wicker opening was wide before me now, inviting me inside. I saw the straw stuffed into the effigy’s base. I saw Spirit-Brother Brianna holding a lit torch, a hungry look on his face. Something wasn’t right.

The memories came flooding back to me. The “digital detox” camp, the poison, the drugs, the murders, the horrible things that occurred in the little shrine in the woods and in the black lodge. I looked up at Guru George, my face full of fear and disgust. He smiled back at me like a god descended from Heaven.

I didn’t know how much time had passed since that night when the world drowned. I knew that I had witnessed, and participated in, many more nights like it. The memories were fragmentary and dream-like. I knew that now, following some sign known only to him, Guru George was preparing us to ascend to the next level. And, by some miracle, I had awakened to my senses. The wicker effigy loomed before me. I ran.

Over my shoulder, I saw Brianna start after me, but George laid a hand on his shoulder. “Let him go,” I heard him say. The rest of the cultists, oblivious, piled into the wicker effigy, and the opening was sealed behind them with a plug of tar. I felt the hot air rising off the thing as the flames caught. I didn’t look back, but I heard the screams. I smelled the smoke on the breeze, no longer sharp and woody but mixed now with bubbling fat and charred skin. I ran. I ran and tried not to think of Gemma.

I passed by the black lodge. Something drew my eyes down to the ground. There, at a corner of the warped structure, impressed into the earth like a paving stone, was my little Moleskine, containing the detailed account of everything leading up to Zak’s death. Another miracle. I understood, then, why I had been spared. I pried up the journal, scratched around nearby for my pen, and fled into the woods.

I ran as far as I could, but I haven’t seen anybody yet. No matter. I just need to wrap up these last few pages. You—whoever finds this—might find them hard to read. After all this time and being buried and dug up twice, there wasn’t much ink left. I have to trace the letters four times before they’re legible. But it’s important that the story gets told. And I don’t think I’ll be around to tell it.

You see, I saw him just now, among the trees. He walks with a limp now, ever since our last encounter. He still has his machete. He’s calling my name. “Spirit-Brother Fynn! Spirit-Brother Fynn! Come back to us! Guru George forgives. He sees a place for you at his right hand.” Brianna’s own right hand tests the weight of the machete with a few practice swings.

I’m going to bury this book. I’ll mark it with a twig or something, and then I’ll run, as fast as possible, in the opposite direction. I won’t be able to outrun Brianna, but I don’t need to. I just need to lead him away from this book. And then somebody will find it. And then they’ll know.

He’s closer now. He calls to me again: “Spirit-Brother Fynn! Guru George is preparing a great feast. And you will join us.”

The End

§

(After recovering the Moleskine, authorities conducted a thorough search of the surrounding wood. Neither the compound nor any of the other structures described in this account were ever located. Gemma Watson and Zak Salt were declared missing in mid-2017, five years before wildfires devastated the more heavily wooded northwestern portion of the Dales.)

§


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 19: Environmental Obstacle—a mad ram attempts to gore you (failed).

Entry 20: Grey Lady—you confront a large wicker effigy. Campers are being forced inside. There is a smell of smoke in the air.

The narrator ended the story with 0 Spirit and 0 Resolve, resulting in this ending:

Your last entry tells of how you managed to scramble away from the effigy, recounting seeing campers being burned alive within the wicker shell. After you write, you fall asleep and wake up with a shadow looming over you, machete in hand. “You will join us” says the figure.


English Eerie: Detox (Part 7)

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 Seven: Ritual

§

When my brain started working again, my first thoughts were, “Jesus Christ, enough with the dead bodies.” My next thoughts were, “This changes nothing.” My next thoughts after that: “This changes everything.”

I already knew Guru George, or somebody connected with him, was killing. I knew he was controlling people with drugs and rhetoric. I knew he was doing even more deplorable things in the name of pseudo-religiosity. I’d built up a pretty depressing picture of the functioning of this cult.

I hadn’t known that he was capable of killing his own, a member of his inner circle. The fact that he had done so meant two things: that Guru George knew of my escape, which was inevitable, really; and that he knew how it had happened, which was the scary part. It suggested that there might have been a witness when I fled the compound, which meant that somebody could easily have followed me this entire time, might still be following me. Which meant that this body, hanging in its wicker cage in a dark, untrodden corner of the woods, was left here for me to find, a message of some sort. Which meant that my encounter with Gemma could also have been choreographed. When I thought I heard a movement in the woods before Gemma woke up, and nothing ever came of it, was it just a hedgehog or badger? Or was it one of George’s agent’s, watching me, making sure I did whatever it was that he wanted me to do?

I shook my head. These conspiracy theories sounded far-fetched even to myself, and none of it altered what was going to happen next: I was going to return to the compound, rescue Gemma, and kill Guru George. The details were still up in the air, but my path was marked before me, as they say.

I shut my eyes, did my little incantation to Mother Gaia, and reattuned myself to the ley-lines or what-have-you. I marched through the woods, determined and a little sore. Trying to psych myself up for this oneness with nature thing, I listened for the singing of the birds, but I soon realized that there weren’t any. No birds, no birdsong. I stopped to wonder why this might be, and that’s when I was yanked back by the collar and slammed against a tree trunk, reigniting the fireworks in my injured shoulder.

A strong arm was held against my chest, keeping me pressed to the trunk. The body presumably attached to the arm was out of sight. “People in the North are rather keen on this whole hugs-from-behind business, aren’t they?” I thought. “They must be very shy.” On the arm’s exposed bicep was a tattoo of a skull vomiting worms onto the head of Queen Elizabeth. In a white-knuckled hand, it gripped a small hatchet, with the blade pressed against my throat.

“Did you know him?” came a gravelly, cracked voice. There was something familiar to it.

“That bloke?” I slurred. “I…well, that depends who’s asking, doesn’t it?”

The arm holding me loosened somewhat. I could now breathe in a full lungful, though I still couldn’t move an centimeter.

“You’re mumbling, mate,” the voice responded. “You get kicked in the teeth by a donkey or what?”

It didn’t seem worth my while to reply—the man attached to the arm wouldn’t understand me, anyway—so I merely shook my head, which shifted halfway through to a nod and then a half-shrug with my good shoulder.

“Complicated story, eh?” the voice asked. “I got one of those, too. Listen, mate, I’m about to let you go, but first, I got to ask: you ain’t one of them, like?”

This time, there was nothing uncertain or hesitant about my head-shake. The voice behind me breathed a ragged sigh of relief, and the arm’s grip loosened further. I could now move about slightly, and I could probably have squeezed out of the embrace if it weren’t for the hatchet-blade still pressed against my throat.

“Listen, mate,” the voice hissed, suddenly angry again. The grip on the hatchet tightened until I was worried the wood would splinter. “It’s that bastard Brianna, innit? He tried to do me with a fucking machete the day after that star walk. He got me in the leg, but I escaped, and I’ve been hiding in these woods ever since, trying to get the word to you and that girlfriend of yours.” The voice was getting more and more familiar, and I suddenly remembered where I had seen a similar tattoo before.

“Zak?” I asked, enunciating as carefully as I could. I wanted to point out that Gemma wasn’t my girlfriend—not that I’d be opposed to the idea, mind—but it didn’t seem to match the urgency of the moment.

The man pinning me to a tree whistled through his teeth. “Got it in one.” The arm relaxed fully and, twirling the hatchet dangerously close to my nose, retreated from view. I stumbled forward and turned to get a good look at Zak Salt.

He’d changed since last I’d seen him. He’d lost his shirt, for one, revealing the full pattern of his punk-rock tattoos and vacant piercings. He was dirty, skinny, and pale. He’d lost a lot of the mass he had when I first met him, but that loss only left him lean and wiry, like a footballer. And he looked absolutely stark raving mad. I supposed I must look the same.

“You look like shit, mate,” Zak observed, giving me a once-over. “Like literal shit. Like a badger ate you up and shit you out whole. What have they done to you, mate?”

“I—”

He held up a rough-worn hand to cut me off. “Don’t answer that. You sound like a pig sitting on a pile of frogs. They really did a number on you, huh? And where’s the girl?”

“She—”

“For fuck’s sake, I said don’t answer, didn’t I? Hearing you talk just makes me depressed. Don’t you have anything to write on?”

I wasn’t convinced Zak was literate, but it gave me an idea all the same. I pulled the Moleskine journal and pen out of my waistband and grinned a lopsided, toothless grin, which the skeletal visage of Zak the punk returned. I found a moss-covered stump to sit on and wrote down, with as much detail as I could remember, the events of the past…week?…starting from my tailing Brianna to the secret shrine, digging up the metal crate with the dead body, and being whacked in the bean by a falling branch (which I now knew was sabotaged), and ending with me discovering the mutilated corpse of the sunken-eyed-lad hanging in his wicker cage. All of that took me at least an hour, during which Zak alternated between fretful pacing, stealing peeks over my shoulder, scowling, and cat-napping. Then, I handed him the journal, and it was my turn to pace, peek, scowl, and nap while Zak read the entire story, stopping every once in a while with demands that I confirm (with a nod of the head) the more unbelievable bits.

Finally, the grizzled ex-punk stretched his long, catlike limbs, snapped the journal shut, and tossed it into my lap. I couldn’t clearly make out his expression in the failing light of day. “Sounds like the universe has really fucked you over, innit?” he said. I nodded bleakly.

Zak appeared to watch the horizon, scratching thoughtfully at his stubble-pocked chin. “And you’re pretty certain this girl Gemma is at the secret compound?” he asked. I nodded again. “The one filled with crazy, loyal, drug-addled cultists?” I nodded a third time. With each nod, I felt my heart sink deeper into despair.

Zak picked at a long scab on leg, near his hamstring, then took aim and flicked a bit of scab at a red squirrel, which scampered up a branch. “Well, we’d better go rescue her, innit?”

It turned out that Zak had been tracking Brianna’s comings and goings ever since his disappearance. The acolyte had only visited the compound once or twice, but Zak was fairly certain he could find it again if he had to. More importantly, he knew where to find other weapons like the hatchet he wielded. “We’ll need to lie low, stick to the shadows, like, but they’ve got to leave her alone at least once,” he said. I wasn’t sure if his confidence was real or just a show on my behalf, but I appreciated it all the same.

“You said there’s a place where they go to shit?” he continued. I nodded. “Maybe we wait there, then.” I wasn’t too sure about this suggestion, especially as I remembered the other bodily functions I had taken care of at that hole, and the guilt and shame associated, and the fear of Gemma taking the place of one of those cringing, beautiful girls; but the old punk was having none of it. “Look, mate, I don’t care how pure and perfect and flawless you think she is. Everybody shits eventually.” And that was the end of the discussion.

By this stage in the planning, we had arrived at the secret spot he knew, a hidden cache of items some people would characterize as “forestry tools” and others as “weapons from a bloody horror movie.” There were rusted but sharp machetes; hatchets and larger axes or mauls; long-handled clippers with gleaming, bird-like heads; heavy, sharp-edged shovels; even a chainsaw. I reached for the chainsaw, a gleam in my eye, but Zak shook his head.

“No juice. I checked first thing. Shame, innit?”

I sighed as if to say, “Shame,” and selected instead a long, scythe-like tool that was apparently intended for stacking logs but seemed just brilliant for gouging eyes. I shifted it in my hands, experimenting with grips, and gave a few practice stabs and swings. Then, I turned back to Zak and flashed him the thumbs-up, as if to say, “Let’s go creep on a toilet.”

But Zak didn’t return my gesture. His gaze was elsewhere, fixed on something beyond my right ear. Terror and confusion filled those eyes. I turned slowly, heavy with dread, spasmodically squeezing the handle of my eye-gouger, but saw nothing but trees. I turned back to Zak and gave him a “What’s up?” look. The old punk opened his mouth, but no words came out, only blood.

Then he collapsed forward, as though kicked from behind, and I saw a whole lot more blood bubbling up from his bare, tattooed back. And, standing where Zak had been a moment before, grinning behind a bloody machete, was Acolyte Brianna. “Mother’s blessings, Spirit-Brother Fynn,” he said a lopsided grin. “We’ve been looking all over for you.” Zak lay belly-down in the dirt, gaping like a dead fish. Then, Brianna brought the blade of the machete down hard on the base of Zak’s skull, snapping it loose from the rest of his body.

§

Acolyte Brianna did that thing you sometimes see in samurai films where he swished the machete through the air, spraying a line of blood onto the grass and leaving the blade a little less drippy. He turned back to me. “Aren’t you going to greet me, Spirit-Brother?” he asked, his voice oozing with false concern. “I thought we were getting somewhere with you.”

I had a weapon, and Brianna didn’t have the element of surprise, which meant I had a choice. I could try to fight him and maybe win. Killing Mad King George’s toady was an idea I could really get behind. I owed him for being such a right bastard. And it would get him out of my hair so I could really focus on saving Gemma from an evil cult.

On the other hand, it was a risk. Brianna had the look of a cold-blooded killer, he was bigger than me, and he actually had experience using his weapon. I could easily lose, which would mean nobody left to save Gemma.

“I guess I have no choice but to kill you,” Brianna went on. “What a waste.” He wound up to swing the machete.

My weapon had more reach than his, and he knew it, but his had more power; he could probably knock it clean from my hands if he wanted. So rather than try to lock blades with the acolyte, I fell backward—the only way I could be certain of dodging his attack. I landed on my shoulder, signaling the return of the world’s longest-running but least-loved fireworks show. But I managed to keep from falling on my own weapon, which was something. And as Brianna stepped over me, following the momentum of his swing, I stabbed blindly upwards.

The high-pitched scream that followed told me I had scored a lucky blow, what a dartsman might call a bullseye, a bag o’ nuts, a downstairs treble, striking oil in the diddle for the middle, or some other phrase I’ve heard on telly (I don’t play darts myself).

Now, I could have stuck around and made it a perfect finish. But I didn’t want to risk a leg of sloppy darts. So I did the smart thing. I turned rabbit. Brianna, clutching at the jagged wound at the junction of his thighs, had dropped the bloody machete. Seeing me reach for it, the emasculated acolyte gave the weapon a swift kick, sending it flying into the bushes, and aimed a stomp for my fingers. I managed to pull my arm back in time and hook my fingers around his ankle. He fell backward onto a pile of rusted forestry implements, and I scarpered. I might have killed him, but I didn’t bother looking back.

I ran. From my one-sided conversations with Zak, I knew roughly where I was going. Brianna, if he was alive, knew it too. I was no longer armed, and I no longer had the lean mass of the ex-punk on my side, and the entire plan was probably suicidal, but it was the only one I had.

I made it to the compound just as night was falling. The place was dark and utterly abandoned, as though the entire population had ascended bodily to Heaven. But as I got closer, I began to hear a sound, a low drone like the humming of wasps reverberating through corrugated steel. It was coming from a squat, rectangular structure at the very end of the compound, a lodge of red mud and black wood that I had never entered. The black lodge had no windows and no visible openings, but flickering light shone through odd gaps in the structure. It had a purplish tint, like a bruised, smashed monitor.

I crept around the entire perimeter of the compound, on the lookout for posted guards, but the place was hollowed out. Everybody was in that lodge. So that was where I had to be. As I approached, the low drone became stronger, clearer, and I could make out words rising above the wave of sound like silvery fish flashing in a lake. It was that same chant I had heard before, the one in a language I could not place. I’d heard it first from Acolyte Brianna while he was getting me lost in the woods. I’d heard it next when waking up from a nightmare, then several times here, at Guru George’s secret compound. Sometimes it had sounded like Latin, other times Welsh, or Gaelic, or maybe Old English. This night, it had a French ring to it:

“Ombre coeur du lamentir, brûlé coeur du sang morir.”

But I don’t speak Latin, or Welsh, or Gaelic, and I barely passed French, so it wasn’t much use to speculate. I circled the building once, twice, three times, looking for a way in. The chant got louder; some people were now shrieking it, or merely screaming incoherently. Nobody seemed to be saying the same thing at the same time, but it all came together in an overwhelming flood of noise, like the least listenable bits of Skrillex. Finally, I found a low opening hung with leather of some kind. I had to get down and crawl on my belly to get through, but I didn’t see any other way inside. As I crawled through the opening, the flaps of leather brushed against me; it didn’t feel like cow or sheep but was incredibly soft and smooth, like lambskin. It also reeked. Kid, maybe? There were dozens of layers, trapping the light, sound, and heat of the lodge inside.

And smell. When I broke through the final layer or skins, the smell hit me like a landslide of shit. It was rancid, like the weeks-old sweat of a sick person. And there other notes beneath that: something bright and coppery, and something dank like black fungus.

Of course, the sound, too, was overwhelming, like standing directly in front of the speakers at an EDM concert. And the light. And the bodies. In fact, there was a lot about this that was like being in the front row at an EDM concert, which was ironic given the particular focus of this cult. If I had planned on sticking to the shadows, there was no chance of that now. But neither did there seem to be any chance of me being spotted. The people packed into the lodge—every member of George’s cult, it seemed—were entirely focused on themselves. Or, more accurately, on one another.

It seemed I had stumbled into some kind of orgy, which had always been a dream of mine. But like most dreams, the reality didn’t live up to the fantasy. Everybody was young, naked, and fit, and there were far more girls than boys; thus far, it was like most things I had seen on the internet. What the girls were doing was a lot like what had happened to me while I was strapped into the chair, but on a massive scale. Okay, but a bit too much sausage for my tastes. Unlike what had happened to me in the wheelchair, these girls were visibly aroused to an extent I had only seen in porn. Nobody was touching them, but they were gyrating madly, the rhythm of the chant frequently devolving into moans, shudders and screams.

Okay, from that description, it sounds pretty appealing. What I haven’t mentioned was the way the bruised purple light, which seemed everywhere but had no visible source, made their bodies look elongated, grotesque, amplifying every imperfection, deepening every blemish. Their mouths appeared stretched and toothless, their eyes black, all pupil, like a prey animal. Then there was the blood. The corpses of small animals filled every space that wasn’t occupied by moaning cultists: chickens, rabbits, baby goats. Their bellies were torn open, entrails spilling out, wrapped around the writhing bodies. The girls scooped up the blood and other fluids and smeared them over their own chests and stomachs or over the engorged members of the lads, who kept their hands to themselves, shouting snatches of chant with mad, frothy fervor. Thick ropes of yellowish drool hung from their mouths unattended or sprayed over the already filthy faces of the girls.

As I mentioned, nobody was touching the girls. Except one. In the middle of everything, sprawled over a raised, wicker platform—much like a larger version of the shrine in the woods—was Eliza. She had those same knotlike patterns drawn in blood on her stomach and breasts, just as I had seen on Gemma. Her head lolled backward, and though her lips moved and her voice called out, they didn’t form coherent words. It reminded me of a video we’d watched in World Cultures of people speaking in tongues during certain shamanic rituals. Her eyes were open wide, but they were all white, the pupils rolled back far into her skull. And moving in and out of her was a large figure with the head of a ram.

It had to be Guru George. He was considerably older than anybody else in the room, but powerfully built. Thick, clotted blood dripped down his bare chest and back where the ram’s head rested on his shoulders, tattered strips of bloody skin and fur slapping rhythmically against him as he moved. It must have been hollowed-out somehow, worn like a fancy dress mask. Somehow, his voice rolled out of the ram’s mouth clear and deep, louder than any other in the room. He gestured wildly while he fucked Eliza, twisting his arms and figures into configurations I would not have thought possible, popping his bones in and out of joint as they writhed like muscular worms. I got the sense that he was directing the chant somehow through his undulations.

I scanned the room for Gemma. She had to be here somewhere—there was nowhere else in the compound. Moaning, pleasure-distorted faces and offal-smeared bodies blurred together. Everywhere I turned my gaze, I was assaulted by another indecent display, by another erect nipple or shining vulva or grotesquely swollen penis. I felt as though I had clicked the wrong link and was trapped in a Hell of malicious pop-up ads.

Then, I found her. Just a glimpse of her, through the press of sweating, chanting bodies, in the farthest corner of the lodge. Fully naked, as before, and writhing in ecstacy. I couldn’t see what she was doing with her hands, but one arm was raised, moving vigorously. I felt sick. I had to look away.

The chanting rose to a crescendo. Something in the ram-headed man’s twisted, unnatural gestures indicated a shift in pitch and intensity. The bodies pressed closer until they were piled on top of Eliza, smothering her, body parts dipping in and out of her open mouth. The ram-headed man lifted something out of a wicker cage and held it above Eliza. It was wriggling and fleshy. It squealed in terror. A stream of urine escaped from between the creature’s legs and splashed over Eliza’s face, finding its way into her mouth and eyes.

Except it wasn’t an animal. It was a human child, about six months old.

Ram-head’s other arm produced a short, serrated knife from somewhere and pressed it against the wriggling child’s belly. I must have shouted something, pushed forward through the mass of slippery bodies, but there was nothing I could do to stop things once they were in motion. The knife pierced the child’s flesh, and with a single, long movement, Ram-head gutted it. Entrails fell out of the gash, into Eliza’s waiting mouth. She bit down on them until they burst with obscene fluids that dribbled over her tongue and across her face. The sound that came out of the child’s mouth was indescribable.

The first of the boys climaxed, spraying hot against Eliza’s stomach, and the others soon followed. Ram-head slammed hard into Eliza several more times, flanks juddering, as he finished inside her. She had lost consciousness at some point and was turning darker shades of purple under the bruise-colored lighting. The girls, their appetites unfulfilled, closed in lustily on the now-motionless child and began tearing into it with their teeth, fighting over the carcass like stray dogs. Gemma was among them.

Meanwhile, Ram-head unfolded his limbs and pointed the serrated knife in my direction. It seemed as though my eyes met the mad, dead eyes of the goat. A wordless howl escaped from beneath the mask. The boys—still erect—turned as one to face me.

§


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 17: Secondary Character Obstacle—a character attempts to kill another character (failed).

Entry 18: A secondary character (the infant) is harmed.

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


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.