Today’s short story was guest written by Megajoule, author of Inheritors!
Even the candy bars were wrong: the wrappers dusty, the plastic shredded. The little sign on the jar said twenty-five cents but Peter thought a quarter was highway robbery. He sniffed the jar. Bad chocolate, bad town.
“You gonna buy something?” The cashier stared at him with dull eyes. Six foot two, pushing three hundred pounds, beard like a spoiled crop.
“Gas.” Peter placed his wallet on the counter and studied the rest of the store. Made you buy gas inside, then showed off their dusty wares. True to Texas, they had an entire aisle dedicated to beef jerky. A broken cooler hid lukewarm cans of beer by the bathroom, and Mexican pastries waited against the back wall, untouched since the time of the Roman Empire.
The cashier eyed the symbol Peter’s wallet, and the gun strapped to his hip under his jacket. “Y’all fish?”
“Yeah.” Peter didn’t know how Flatonia folk would treat federal agents, but he hoped they leaned toward fearful.
“What’cha in town for?” The cashier’s words were stilted, and his nose wrinkled ever so slightly. He avoided eye contact with Peter.
“Fishy business,” Peter said. “Ten gallons.”
The cashier rang up the gas and Peter walked out of the station. The Federal Investigative Services van waited by the singular pump. No wonder people didn’t like them. Their vans were all black, with tinted windows. Who knew if it was a fed or a child molester inside?
The lead agent Milo leaned against the hood of the engine, his arms crossed. “Agent. How’d the cashier seem?”
“Scared, mostly. I don’t think it’s hostile here, they just aren’t used to feds. I bet he thought I have a power or something.”
“You do,” Milo said.
“Immunity to caffeine isn’t a power, Milo, it’s a curse.” Peter pumped gas into the van. “Do the people in town know about the compound?”
“They thought it was some, ‘Let’s go be naked in the woods,’ hippie thing, not a full blown cult.”
Ugly business, murder cult in Flatonia, Texas. Locals didn’t know anything about it, and even if that was a lie, they’d never talk to the feds about it.
“Don’t suppose the cashier looked like the villain we’re after, huh?” Milo grinned at Peter.
“Do we even have a profile?”
“Nope. Not even a power set. Hopefully, the compound will have some clues.” Milo opened the door to the van and got inside. Peter finished with the gas, and got in the passenger side.
Agent Bell reclined in the back, leaning into her chair and kicking her feet up to the command console. She grinned at the buzzing wall of computers hidden in the van, which played a sitcom she’d been watching the whole trip down from Denver. She smoked a cigarette. Peter glanced at the carton she had, feeling a little jealous that she had so many.
“I see you looking,” Bell said. She took a drag. “Answer’s still no.”
“How much did that cost you, anyway?” Peter asked.
Milo started the van up, and pulled out of the gas station. “Roll the window down if you’re gonna smoke in here.”
“Tell you what, you can have one for five bucks.” Bell offered the cigarette she was currently working on to Peter with an arched eyebrow. “If you’re willing to pay as much as I am.”
“Maybe you should quit,” Milo said.
Flatonia, Texas lived up to its name. Miles and miles and miles of flat, arid grassland as far as the eye could see. Not like the woods Peter grew up around. He imagined there weren’t a lot of pets just walking around, not like his neighborhood.
Milo’s phone went off. “Fuck.”
“The missus?” Bell asked.
“Yeah. Didn’t think she’d wanna call right now.” Milo looked like he could crush a walnut between his eyebrows, and his lips practically receded back into his mouth.
Peter didn’t have a wife on account that he knew he wouldn’t stay faithful. Milo was the same as him, just with a wife. “Things not good?”
Milo squirmed in his seat, and silenced the phone. Peter found it funny to see somebody as physically big as Milo wriggling like a worm caught on a fishhook. “Let’s talk about something else. How’s your cat, Peter?”
Peter felt a chill run down his spine. There was no way Milo knew about Truffle. “Uh… went missing.”
“Ah,” Milo said. “Cats. I’m sure he’ll be back soon.”
“She.” Peter doubted it, because Truffle was dead in his shed.
The compound was a stunted, flat building, much like the town it skulked around. White cob reflected the high noon sun, paining Peter’s eyes. Police tape covered the open door, but there were no officers or cars in sight.
Chalk drawings of angels and crosses graced the walls of the compound, and red paint outlined the door. Peter read something about lamb’s blood around a door being a Christian thing, once. “Is it really a cult if it’s Christian?” he asked.
“Ask Jim Jones,” Bell said.
“I don’t know who that is.” Peter’s specialty was villains, not cults. The only reason he was here was to determine the type of power they used.
Milo drew his gun. “Led a cult in the last century. You ever hear the term, ‘drinking the Kool-aid?’”
“Why are you drawing your gun?” Bell asked. “Police already taped the scene up.”
“In case someone came back. Cops aren’t here right now,” Milo said. “Told them to leave someone at the site.”
Peter’s stomach knotted. “You think?”
“It’s either small town incompetence, or something happened,” Milo said. “Better to prepare for both possibilities.”
Milo crouched under the red tape, into the compound. Bell followed, and Peter went last, feeling his heart rate quicken. He put a trembling hand on his gun.
Light filtered through huge skylights tinted red, casting the lobby in a gruesome light. There weren’t any bodies, though, just an empty desk, a babbling fountain, and four columns, each with scriptures spiraling around their height. The same scripture each time:
Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh.
Peter shuddered. Basically, the verse said to shut up and take it. He imagined all kinds of cultish things, like sister wives and holy rape and whatnot, and wondered how many times the column’s verses told them to be silent.
Milo pointed at another double door with two tiny windows stained by blood on the inside. “There.” He approached like a cat stalking prey, and opened the doors.
A slaughterhouse waited inside. Blood covered every wall, and minced bodies littered the floor. The corpses were so thoroughly diced they’d turned to a mushy paste with a few recognizable pieces scattered throughout. Peter marked a foot, an eyeball, a thumb, half of a face. He picked a shoelace from the mess.
Peter thought of Truffle splayed out on a metal table in his shed. “What in the fuck happened here?”
“Yeah, those files don’t really prepare you for seeing it up close,” Milo said. “See any signs of power usage?”
Peter scanned the walls for telltale battle signs. Scorch marks, cut marks, frozen spots. Anything a flashy power might leave behind. Nothing outright visible, but something looked off about the walls, like they had little hatch patterns all over them. Peter got up closer.
The hatch patterns were thousands of little slices, only just nicking the walls. “Some sort of cutting power.” Peter looked at the mashed goop of bodies. “I’d guess it has an area of effect, or else this villain took the time to mince his victims.”
Bell picked up a femur out of the mash and gagged.
“Was the villain their leader?” Peter asked.
Milo shook his head. “No idea. Not a single survivor, and they’ve got no texts or video or anything about what they believe. Other than the scriptures on the columns.”
“Hey,” Bell called. “This is weird.” She picked up something out of the corpse mash. “A feather.”
Peter took a look for himself. It wasn’t like any kind of feather he’d ever seen.
The shaft was all black, but the barbs were silver and shimmered in the light from the window. The feather had heft to it, weighing in at least a pound. Peter ran a finger along the side of the feather, and hissed as the barbs bit into his fingertip. Blood trickled down from the cut.
The barbs of the feather recoiled from his touch, moving like the legs of a centipede before settling down.
Peter stared at the feather, and all he could think of was Truffle, locked in his shed. “Likely the power, but I’m not familiar with it. If there was a villain with razor sharp feathers, you’d think we’d already know about them.”
Milo walked to the end of the room, to another set of double doors. “I think their rooms are this way. Maybe we can find some answers there.”
The trio left the room behind, continuing down the hall to the private rooms. Each room only had a simple bed with an iron frame, and a single nightstand. The rooms only had enough space to stand up and stretch your arms in any direction. They searched for well over an hour but found almost everything clean, until they came to the last hall.
Peter glanced inside one of the rooms and saw little chalk drawings, like the ones outside. Drawings of angels, over and over. Peter frowned when he saw that whoever drew them gave the angels angry expressions. Bladed feather. Maybe this was the villain. Why kill his own worshipers, though?
Peter checked the nightstand and found a diary. Bell and Milo were off searching the other rooms, so he took the time to flip through the pages. The writing seemed to belong to a young girl. The words were misspelled, the letters turned backward in some parts, but she took the time to dot her I’s with hearts and flowers. Peter smiled at her artistic flair, but that faded when he remembered whoever wrote this was in that horrible pile of gore.
Then he saw what she’d written: stories of the leader Pat forcing himself on her and the other girls her age. The most interesting entries, though, were the last three.
9/17/74 – An angel came to visit my room last night. He was swet to me. His voice sounded like those old cd’s Sarah has under her bed.
9/24/74 – The angel came back! He asked me who lived here, and I told him about the church and father Pat, and all the lessons we learned. He was quiet the hole time
Peter’s breath caught in his throat as he saw the date. Just four days ago.
The angel said he’d pay us what was due, and told me to hide under the bed tonight
No more entries after that. The ones before September didn’t have anything about an angel. Peter took the diary with him as he went back out to the hall, hoping to find Bell and Milo.
Bell stood in the hall, smoking her cigarette. “You’re not gonna like this, Pete.” She gestured to the door open next to her.
Peter peeked into the room, saw Milo sitting on the edge of the bed. The body of a young girl lay on the bed, a single bullet hole between her eyes. The floor was drenched in blood and intestine, and shards of bones. Amid the remains, there was a gun.
“What do you suppose happened?” Milo asked. “Does this have anything to do with the villain, you think?”
“I don’t think the leader of the cult was the villain that did this.” Peter offered the diary to Milo. “Noticed the chalk angels? I think whoever did this was visiting random people like the girl, and took action after they found out what the place was.”
“So, what, a vigilante?”
“Yeah,” Peter said. “The girl’s diary mentioned some sex stuff.”
Milo rubbed his chin. “This is all awful.”
“It’s the job. To be honest, I prefer being out here.” Alone with his thoughts. Alone with Truffle, and the others that came before her. Squirrels, cats, dogs. Easier to be out here, doing his job, than at home, alone, with them.
“That’s because you’re fucked in the head, Pete,” Milo said.
“Well, we all are, a little,” Peter said. “We’ll find who did this.”
Milo stood up and followed Peter out of the room. Bell wasn’t waiting for them.
“Bell?” Milo called. No answer.
Peter exchanged a look with Milo, and they drew their guns.
Silence filled the compounds to the walls, stuffing quiet into the corners until Peter felt like he’d choke. He strained his ears for any sound, anything at all, but he couldn’t even hear his own heartbeat. The very air was muted around them.
“Pete, you good?” Milo asked.
“Yep.” Pete steadied his hand on his gun.
They stayed side by side as they went down the branching hallways of the dormitories. The bedrooms still lay bare and empty, save the scant pieces of furniture.
Bell screamed in the next hallway over.
They took off running. Milo pulled his phone out to dial for backup just as they rounded the corner.
A mass of silver feathers held Bell in front of it by the arm and leg. Two scythe talons clenched into her skin, and blood dripped to the floor from the ends. Peter couldn’t see anything else beneath the cloak of feathers, no head, no body. No doubt, though, this was the angel.
Milo raised his pistol.
“No!” Bell screamed.
The angel pulled her in two, simple as Peter did to Truffle, with one bloodcurdling howl of pain from the victim and snap of bones. Blood sprayed into the hall.
A voice slithered out from the feathers, and said, “Fear not. She is no longer in this sinful world.”
Milo raised his gun. Before he could fire, a flurry of bladed feathers cut into him, slicing his hand clean from his wrist. Another feather caught Peter in the shoulder, pushing straight through bone and muscle as if it were butter.
Peter ran for the lobby. Milo shouted behind him, but another storm of knives cut Milo off mid-scream. No time to look back, Peter dashed through the gore outside the dormitories.
He slipped and fell into the corpse mash, coming face to face with a half-destroyed skull staring at him from the carnage. He cried out, climbing to his hands and knees, and crawled for the entrance.
“Fear not!” the angel spoke, their voice cascading, echoing, changing like violated waveforms across the butchery. “For I come bearing good news. You can be made clean. You can be pure.”
Peter wondered, for a brief instant, if this is what the animals he’d picked apart felt like as they died. Even so, he still fought to the lobby, hoping that he could make it out in one mad dash.
Talons seized his shoulders and clamped down, cutting deep into the muscle. The angel turned him around to the feathers.
The wings unfolded, unfolded, unfolded, parted one after another until Peter felt he was falling into an endless downpour of knives. He twisted to look behind him, and saw that the cascade of wings closed in on itself, locking him inside the angel’s embrace. The angel’s voice echoed off the cage of metal, piercing Peter’s ears. “Show me your sin.”
A face broke through the feathers, black, scaled, with seven burning eyes of diamond. No mouth, but the mandibles of a spider. “Ah, I see.”
The feathers exploded inward at him, and Peter screamed, falling into darkness.
Peter woke up, restrained to one of the iron beds in the dormitories by his wrists and feet. He fought against the straps, wriggled and grunted, and then finally bucked and shrieked, hoping that someone would hear him screaming from the town.
Who did he hope for, honestly? The compound was on the edge of a collection of farmsteads and gas stations that could barely be called a town.
The angel entered the room, squeezing the cloud of feathers through the door frame like threading cotton through the eye of a needle. Only the two taloned hands were visible, carrying the heads of his fellow agents, Bell in the right, and Milo in the left.
The angel lifted Bell up, showing that it had scooped her eyes out and stuffed cigarettes inside the holes. “This one suffered the bonds of addiction, which led her to take bribes.” Then the angel hefted Milo up. Milo’s penis was stuffed into his mouth. “This one could not contain his lust, and broke the covenant he formed with his wife.”
“You’re a fucking monster,” Peter said.
“The pot calling the kettle black, Peter.” The angel set the heads down on the nightstand. “All of you are sinful. All of you have broken the law.”
“Someone will stop you, someone with powers, they’ll send Megajoule,” Peter said.
“They send them to die.” The angel flicked a talon out, and pressed the point against Peter’s chest. The talon cut down toward his stomach. “As for you, I think I will make you my own Truffle. That, I think, is just.”
“I was trying to help the people here!” Peter screamed, pressing against the bed, as far away from the angel’s talon as he could. “The little girl! I was trying to stop this from happening again!”
“Your kind never changes, Peter.” In one simple movement, the angel carved open Peter’s chest, and splayed his ribcage out. “One final specimen.”
Peter’s last thoughts were of his childhood, of winter woods underneath dark mountains, snow stained red as he realized there was something deeply wrong with him. The impulse as stark and unforgiving as the icy peaks, the whine of a dying dog.