Nightmare Magazine




This Is Not for You

This Is Not for You — Illustrated by Shelby Nichols

Three potential sacrifices, just as Phoibe’d predicted, blundering through the woods like buffalo in boots. Mormo broke cover first, naked and barefoot, screaming, with the boys following after, whooping and hollering, straight into the gauntlet, too lust-drunk to see where they were going. Pretty little thing, that Mormo, with a truly enviable lung capacity; the best lure they’d had by far in all the time Gorgo’d been attending these odd little shindigs, and swift enough to keep a good two lengths between her and her closest pursuer as she danced around the tiger-pits. No sooner did this thought register, however, then with a few more steps—plus one wild, deer-like leap—she was gone from sight, entirely: up over the deadfall, rustling the same bushes Gorgo and her girls hid behind, leaving the men in her wake, too shocked not to keep coming.

One took a thyrsus to the knee, so sharp Gorgo heard it crack, and pitched headlong, folding up, rolling. More blows caught him from several angles, breaking bones, tearing flesh; he flipped, bellowing, then gave a moaning “whuff!” as Iris came down right on top, astride both hips, club inverted to crack his breastbone and pop at least one lung, squeeze heart against ribcage, bruise liver beyond repair. His skull met a log back-first, brain slammed hard, eyes rolling up; was probably out long before Iris’s partners (Scylla, Polyxena) could get on him too, their hands rock-full, looking to make like Cain.

To his left, meanwhile, another lucky winner got Deianira’s spear across the top of his ear and recoiled, flinching away only to run straight into Charis’s strong grip instead. They were about the same height, but Charis had him from behind, choking him so hard he started to lift off the ground, kicking wildly. He tore at her arm with both hands, drawing blood, ‘til she finally threw him down with enough force that Gorgo heard his nose pop, or maybe a cheekbone—then heel-stomped him between the shoulder blades, holding him pinned even as he flailed, trying his level best to swim away. One armpit made a beautiful target for Deianira’s next thrust, a goring stab that went in far as she could reach, and the pain made him rear back far enough for Gorgo to slash her scythe across his throat.

The spike of her own kill-pleasure came quickly after that, hot and red and sweet. It was good, but over so soon; just enough to make her want more, something better. Longer.

She sat back on her heels, panting, leather tags of her hiking boots cutting into her bare ass as she watched the man’s—boy’s—blood make a flaring collar ’round his slackening, sweat- and dirt-smeared face. Asking Charis, once she had her breath back: “You see where the last one went?”

Charis shook her head. “Back there, maybe.”

On her feet once more, over by the first one, Iris nodded. “Something tripped a pit.”

Okay, then. “Praise be,” Gorgo said, heaving herself up, unable to quite keep her voice completely irony-free. “Praise be,” two new voices chimed in at the same time, from behind her: Aglaia, of course. And Phoibe.

Charis and the others turned, bespattered, grinning—stepped back a bit, all ‘round, to display their work to best advantage. Aglaia smiled wide and nodded, proudly, as Gorgo and Phoibe exchanged a small, cool nod of greeting.

“Wonderful,” Aglaia pronounced, with the sort of authoritative, maternal warmth that’d’ve done Mother Theresa herself proud, if she’d worshipped Kali instead of Christ. “Very fine. Now . . . let’s go see what She’s left us for last, and best.”

• • • •

The point was to do these things together, not alone. The point was to do them in secret, as much as could be arranged for. The point was to go elsewhere, overnight, and stay as long as it took to get it done. The point was to make it count.

The whole point of a mystery religion, in fact, as Aglaia kept reminding them, was that it was supposed to be—and stay—a mystery.

That wasn’t her real name, obviously. They’d all taken new ones, first as pseudonyms on the cult’s website, then as part of their bonding exercises in “meatspace,” as the kids put it; it was to draw a sort of metaphorical line from old to new, a clear path of translation, adaptation. Some of them came from what passed, these days, as “traditional” backgrounds—odd idea, that, all these mystoi and Goddess-worshippers apparently long-embedded in between the non-denominationals and the atheists—but for most of them this was just a fantasy, a deep-rooted need, a burgeoning itch they’d never quite known how to scratch before eventually stumbling across the myths, the literature, the site itself, which Phoibe had started and still maintained. A particular urge which everything around them said was bad, wrong, unnatural, even as that blood-beat voice inside told them it was anything but.

“We shouldn’t feel ashamed,” Aglaia—an elder stateswoman of some sort of brown persuasion, her graying, loose-curled hair cropped short—had said during their first real meet-up. “Never. What we do here is older than everything else, all the forces arrayed against us—older than laws, older than rules, older than the inadequate language we use to try and describe it with. It can’t be explained. It doesn’t have to be justified. And much as we may serve it, may be personally elevated by that service, transfigured even, we are none of us as important as the principle we subsume ourselves to. The tradition survives, always; we may die away—will die away—but it survives, always. It doesn’t need us. Because even when everything else crumbles, this will still endure.”

Oh, and Aglaia really did make everything sound so pretty, Gorgo thought, whenever she really started to get her groove on; that was the basic trick, the recruiting pitch, the glue. To frame the reason they were all here as a certain route to spiritual ecstasy, but also make it sound like they were reaching for a goal far more lasting than their own selfish pleasure—something done on this whole sad, stained world’s behalf for the unwitting benefit of everyone trapped inside it, exorcising sin while extirpating evil. Like it wasn’t any real sort of crime at all.

Aglaia was a true believer, or she walked the talk so well as to be nigh-indistinguishable from one; Gorgo simply knew what she liked and was willing to swallow her share of theosophic psychobabble in order to get a bunch of women with similar interests to not just pitch in at the kill, but clean up after her. Total freaks, in other words, but very useful ones—which was exactly how, in essence, that membership in their little sewing circle continued to hold enough appeal for Gorgo to not just roll her eyes and walk away, even assuming Aglaia and her coterie would let her.

Every meet-up started with a prayer, Aglaia leading, the others reading along off of printout sheets, a different translation every time. This year’s went like so—

Preswa, Phersephassa, o Kore Hagne

Wise one, She who stops, She who lives in every harvest

Persipne, Praxidike, o Kore Semele

Wine-maker, Subterranean queen, Most flowery maiden

Persephone, Crown of terror

Beautiful, Fatal, She who consumes

According to Whose will the sacred task is done—

life to produce, and all that lives to kill.

“So what is it you do, these days, exactly?” Phoibe asked under her breath, sidling up at Gorgo’s elbow. “Still bending young minds, or did they finally figure out you never actually made it all the way through teacher’s college?”

Gorgo shrugged. “Oh, you’d be surprised how little research private schools put in, selecting instructors. We’re doing Romantic poets this semester, Keats and all. ‘O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, alone and palely loitering?’”

“You tell them it’s a tuberculosis metaphor?”

“On the top layer, sure. Some girls, I push harder; seed an idea here and there, set tests. Try to seek out where their more hidden inclinations might lie.”

“I didn’t know Aglaia was signing off on any more recruitment drives, especially amongst the underage.”

“She’s got nothing to with it, Phoebe.”



“Yeah, okay. I mean, what’s in a name, right—Susan?”

“Awful mysteries here are ours,” Aglaia continued, “so we celebrate them in Your name, which no one may in any way transgress. Happy is she who has seen and believed, both on top of the earth and under it, though she who is uninitiate will never reap a like crop after death, but stay forever buried there in darkness and in gloom.”

Think that’s my real name you got there, little bitch, just ’cause you hacked it out of my digital footprint? Gorgo projected, while staring Phoibe down, as Phoibe struggled to do the same, and failed. My original? Think I couldn’t change it or anything else about me in a minute, or less, if I wanted to—walk away, disappear off the grid, and not come up for air ‘til I stuck my scythe in your tech-savvy spine?

Think again.

She was a bit of a parody, Phoibe, with her all-black clothes and her hair banded in grown-out dye-jobs like a floppy, cross-cut section of tree—you could practically track her stylistic evolution, or lack thereof, from Manic Panic to Clairol to henna to what Gorgo could only assume was probably her natural shade, a subtle mouse-hide leather tone flecked here and there with the first glints of gray. Deep, slightly keloided dimples bracketing her mouth had once held barbell piercings, just like that scar furling her lip-corner told of a torn-free labrette; she wore a tricked-out pair of granny-glasses with Hipster-thick frames, and tended towards using blush for eyeshadow. But she sure as shit did know how to run a dark-net, so that was something, at least.

Up near Aglaia, everyone was chanting again. Gorgo mouthed the words as Phoibe mouthed them right back at her, a second or two late.

Blood waters it

Blood grows it

Blood alone sees it flower:

Great seed, seed of flesh and bone, Persephone’s awful gift

That nurtures and destroys this world one sacrifice at a time

One lover

One child

One king.

Truth was, it would be nice to share interests with somebody in private life, Gorgo occasionally caught herself thinking. To be a mentor. She sure wasn’t too likely to breed any soft-minded little co-conspirators herself, not at this late date, even setting the problem of stud-stock aside; adoption wasn’t really an option either, or fosterage, for similar reasons. Short of walking away from her local maternity ward with a free souvenir, therefore, cherry picking each new class for potentials seemed the next best thing. Hadn’t found any thus far, but it was early days still, and she remained hopeful.

Now she set hands on hips and waited, staring down, a whole ten extra years’ worth of game-face blankly in place. She had roughly a foot of height on Phoibe, plus a good fifty pounds in heft, not that she expected things would get physical—both of them had a certain investment in returning to work next week, after all, and doing it while looking like nothing worse than the morning after a particularly celebratory girls’ night out. But when you’d been looking forward to something all year, sometimes things just happened.

A second later, however, Phoibe shrugged, raising her hands: no harm, no foul.

“I’m sure you know what you’re doing,” she said. “I mean, we’re all adults here. What you get up to on your own time’s no concern of mine.”

“Nope,” Gorgo agreed. “So . . . anyone know who the sacrifice’s gonna be yet?”

“Whoever gets here first,” Phoibe replied. “Same as usual.”

“Well, how many candidates in play?”

“Three groups, two to four components each. Maybe four.”

“That’s short odds.”

“Not really; I’d show you the math, but . . .” Here Phoibe trailed off, maybe thinking I wouldn’t want to bore you with it, or even you wouldn’t understand, yet smart enough not to voice whichever outright, either way. Continuing, soon enough: “You ever know anybody not to show up?”

Now it was Gorgo’s turn to shrug. “Not yet,” was all she said.

But that, as Aglaia would no doubt say, was where faith came in.

• • • •

The place they gathered had been a campground, once upon a time. They arrived singly from every direction, mostly by public transport, then hiked to the meet-point, where Aglaia and her acolytes had already set up most of the necessary infrastructure—dug catch-pits, strung bells, planted weapons (thyrsi made onsite, plus whatever else they brought with them), and built the cremation pyre high, for afterwards. People didn’t tend to get naked ‘til the appointed hour, which suited Gorgo fine, though there were always noticeable exceptions. Right now, for example, she could see tall, lean Charis belly dancing by herself off in the middle distance, pleasantly soft from hormones and with her bush grown full to hide the rest, yet proudly displaying the scars where her implants had gone in every time she back-bent far enough for them to catch the light.

At least one potential “sister” had quit because of Charis, or tried to—made it back almost as far as the north road before Gorgo had caught up with her, dragged her into the bushes, and buried her under a deadfall with her flesh flensed sky burial-style so the animals would come running. It’d been an on-the-fly decision, simple self-preservation instinct twisted into altruism by circumstance, done on behalf of a community Gorgo often questioned whether she needed at all; still wasn’t entirely sure Aglaia even knew about it, though she suspected yes, especially since she hadn’t found any bones left to crush with a hammer when she’d checked the makeshift grave last time they met.

In Gorgo’s estimation, however, the radfems could say what they wanted, but Charis had always held her end up well enough to merit whatever help Gorgo chose to give her. Once the hunt was on, she was no different than any other gal with an oversized clit—better, considering her sheer stamina, her extra-long reach and strong, militarily-trained grip. When they piled in on the final sacrifice, all together, Gorgo had seen Charis literally work a man’s head from his shoulders like some live-action Mortal Kombat kill, twisting the finger-torn ruin of his throat and neck ‘til his vertebrae snapped and spinal cord slithered free.

Sparagmos, Aglaia called it. The Maenad’s frenzy, bull sacrifice. A rending apart, followed by omophagia, eating the flesh raw. Or, as Gorgo’d always called it, albeit only to herself . . . fun.

“I know you don’t think you’re one of us, really,” Aglaia told Gorgo, as Gorgo poured herself a bowl of ritual kykeon. “But you do keep on coming, don’t you? Why do you think that might be?”

“‘Cause I like it?”

“You’re no great fan of organized religion in general, though, I think; most sociopaths aren’t. Yet you must admit it can be useful, as a concept, even to those who question it.”

Gorgo sighed, steeling herself to stay polite. “Oh, sure,” she replied. “Mainly in that it gives us divine permission to go on ahead and do what we were gonna anyways, all wrapped up in a pretty story. Secret knowledge, women’s magic, the matriarchy reborn . . .”

Aglaia shot Gorgo a look, as though unsure if she was being mocked. “So you’ll take advantage of the amenities on offer,” she said, at last, “but you won’t do Her homage.”

“If that’s the price of staying on the mailing list, sure. Why not?”

“Except that you won’t mean it.”

At that, Gorgo did have to snort, just a little. “How you ever gonna know anyone ‘means it,’ outside of yourself? Same way I ‘know’ you do, i.e. not at damn all. Look, lady, I read The Bacchae—hell, I’ve taught it. You really think we can bank on weapons of iron not wounding us when the fit’s in full swing, though, no matter how many of those little dried mushrooms you boil the kykeon up with? Barley, pennyroyal, psychoactives . . . it’s a nice high, but I don’t ever remember getting milk and honey from stones or tearing up trees by their roots while I was on it, let alone wearing snake necklaces, or breastfeeding wolf-cubs.”

“Communion wafers aren’t made from real man-meat, either. Our feasts are, and not metaphorically.”

“They weren’t, that’d be the deal-breaker right there, for me.”

Aglaia chuckled. “I’ve seen you hunt,” she said. “One of our fiercest, when She enters in.”

“Hard to stop once I get going, I’ll give you that,” Gorgo agreed, suddenly tired. “C’mon, though—what I run on’s a fetish, not superpowers. I just like to kill people.”

“Ah, but you don’t just kill people, do you, when you have the choice? I’m not talking about self-preservation, or opportunity . . . I mean pure desire, the perfect victim. The image you touch yourself to.”

Gorgo snorted again. Yet the words brought it rising up behind her eyes anyhow, automatic, irrefutable: a man, always, young and juicy for preference. And strong enough to fight hand to hand, take damage from, even—possibly—risk losing to. Not that she ever had.

“. . . no,” she admitted, at last, with reluctance. “You’re right. That’s never just ‘people.’”

“Then you do Her work, and always have. Without even knowing it.”

Gorgo shook her head, stubborn. “Dress it up all you want, Aglaia—what I do is what I choose to, that’s the whole truth, and nothin’ but. ‘Cause I like it. I don’t need any other reason.”

“It gets done, however, either way.”

Oh yes.

The area of study devoted to those like Gorgo was choked with truisms, creating spaces she’d always found it easy to slip between. Most serial killers, accepted lore went, were white rather than not, middle-class or lower-, organized or dis- . . . and male, overwhelmingly. Which meant that although there obviously had to be some who weren’t, by simple process of elimination, nobody really spent a whole lot of time looking for them.

Didn’t hurt that women coded societally as victims rather than predators, conferring a weird invisibility on those who didn’t worry about becoming somebody else’s meal. When men’s eyes turned towards Gorgo with ill intent, she met them head-on, smiling. Those unused to the concept turned away; those who didn’t had made their bed, and she felt no guilt about laying them down in it.

As it turned out, this attitude formed yet another point of sympathy between Aglaia’s lot and herself—since according to the mysteries, sacrifices self-selected through willing, deliberate transgression. They had to know there was a taboo in play, even to have some idea of the potential stakes involved, and choose to break said taboo anyways.

Luckily, that was men in a nutshell, or so Gorgo had always observed. Long before the Internet, it had been a truth universally agreed on that whenever somebody started talking about a space being women-only, a segment of the male-identified population would come running with dicks out, ready to mark their territory in the hope no bitch would ever again be dumb enough to believe herself in possession of something they couldn’t access. It was a winning combination of social mores and genetics, bless their hearts—just the way we’re made, ma’am, now get in the kitchen, et cetera.

“Everywhere but here,” Aglaia claimed, proudly. And so far, her claim had yet to be disproven, there being an undeniable strength in numbers which far outstripped whatever one woman could achieve alone. Everybody wanted community, in their heart of hearts—even those who knew themselves, at base, quite outrageously unsuited to maintain it.

Female serial killers hid behind gender constructs, as a rule. They usually played out the roles people (men) expected them to, then killed inside of that as poisoners, black widows, angels of death . . . caregivers turned toxic. The reason the Maenad myth had been so discounted down the centuries, according to Aglaia, was that the very idea of a woman jumping on somebody and tearing them apart seemed physically impossible. But one had to wonder, like Gorgo remembered doing, even as a child: was there a reason men seemed so wary of “allowing” women to congregate in groups? Could it be they guessed how a pack of women might be indistinguishable from one of lionesses, of hyenas?

Hours passed in chanting, dancing, singing, and the sun dipped low. The kykeon, fresh-cooled, got passed around like white lightning; Gorgo drank her next slug in one gulp, watching the newest mystoi sip, wince, almost puke. She already felt the drug deep inside her like hooks, opening her wide, letting in the world.

As the dusk began to swim and click around her, she saw Phoibe appear at Aglaia’s elbow, night-blooming suddenly, pale out of dark. Watched her murmur in the priestess’s ear, then vanish once more, as Aglaia turned to motion Gorgo near.

“Intruders at the perimeter. Mormo has them chasing her already—easy meat for our best huntress.”

Gorgo rose, nodding, to shuck the last of her clothes. She left her footwear on, since running barefoot through the woods was like asking for lockjaw, but Aglaia didn’t say anything—possibly since her good right hand Phoibe had apparently decided much the same, albeit sticking with sandals instead of Gorgo’s comfortably weighted hiking boots.

Charis handed her one more dose, which lit her up like a punch. Someone she couldn’t quite see hugged ‘round her from behind, smearing two mud-clay handfuls across both breasts at once, then down over her abs, to cool her thighs’ hot vee. Gorgo tossed her hair and pulled loose; Charis caught her mid-stumble, grinning. “Y’all ready?” she asked.

“Sure am.”

“Thyrsus, baby girl?”

“Brought my own, thanks.” The scythe-handle fit nicely into her palm. “You comin’, big sis?”

“Bet your ass,” Charis growled, voice dipping lower than she probably wanted it to, not that that mattered: the ekstasis was on them both, pumping their blood, stiffening every sinew. Around, Gorgo saw the rest of the pack assembling, all the familiar faces. Iris, Scylla, Polyxena, Deianira . . .

They took off running, like Artemis Herself led the way.

• • • •

And here they were, now. The tiger-pit’s displaced covering, lid of the kiste, the sacred basket. Gorgo kicked it aside to reveal a third young man—boy—staring up, down on one knee and crying with pain, at least one ankle probably shattered from the fall. He was a sweet-looking piece, muscled like a wrestler, hair picked out into a soft natural; his skin gleamed, shade falling somewhere between Deianira’s ruddy bronze and Aglaia’s warmer, darker hue. Which was a fairly apt comparison, as it turned out—because when he caught sight of Aglaia peering down on him over Gorgo’s shoulder his eyes went wide, fixed with shock, and awe, and terrified recognition.

“Mom?” he managed, voice breaking. “Mom? What . . . what’re you doing . . . here . . . ?”

Aglaia didn’t answer, not immediately. Just drew herself up, turning to stone; crossed her arms and waited, possibly to see what happened next.

“Mom, shit . . . you have to help me. They’re crazy, these women’re all—Mom!”

Gorgo back-shifted, waiting as well. Until finally, another voice chimed in: “Well?”

Aglaia, without moving: “‘Well’ what, Phoibe?”

The woman in question came shoving her way through, pale as a twilit ghost, ‘til she stood almost at Aglaia’s side—almost. But not quite.

“He’s penetrated the mysteries, hasn’t he?” she declared, nodding downwards, voice pitched to ringing. “Seen things done, heard things said, just like the rest of them. Should the priestess’s son go free, and other women’s sons pay in his stead? Is this Her will?”

Posturing little hooker, Gorgo thought.

“Didn’t hear Aglaia say what she wanted done with him, one way or the other, myself,” Gorgo pointed out. “And since I’m a hell of a lot more likely to listen to her than to you on the subject . . .”

“Ha! The unbeliever speaks.” Phoibe threw her arms wide, addressing the whole cult, now flocking in around Gorgo’s hunting team. “See how she mocks? Ask yourselves why Aglaia would ever let somebody like this in in the first place, let alone allow her to stay. Then ask yourself if it isn’t obvious that the Goddess chose to punish Aglaia for her hubris by sending her first-born to the killing floor! How else could it have happened?”

Defend yourself, idiot, Gorgo tried to project Aglaia’s way, watching heads on all sides begin to nod, albeit reluctantly. But Aglaia’s eyes stayed on the pit, her whimpering child. She might as well have been a statue.

Murmuring spread in every direction, like a tide.

Time to run, maybe, Gorgo thought, reluctantly, gripping her scythe hard enough to hurt. Save yourself, before this shit shifts on you; drop out, get gone. This was a bad idea. It’s like Missus Gast used to say, my third foster-Mommy—someone like me just needs to stay the hell away from people I want to keep safe . . .

(. . . unless I’m killing ’em.)

That was when it happened, sharp as a wound—that same unfurling times ten thousand, the kykeon’s blow suddenly felt all over, a general uproar. This lurching, queasy sensation of opening up so far it was like her insides were out, skin shifting, one massive neuron blur. Blood broke from her nose, mouth, the corners of her eyes; later, she’d find burst vessels on both eyeballs, a pair of tiny red flowers. For now, however, it was as though something else had a hold of her, puppeting her from the gut. Making one hand fly out, scythe’s point sticking deep into Phoibe’s still-babbling throat, then jerking free again, conjuring a flood. The spurt slapped across Gorgo before hitting Charis, who gasped, and Aglaia, who didn’t; a general cry went up, cultists reacting as one. Phoibe fell, flopping, while Gorgo shivered still upright, mouth opening against her will. Words torrented free, garbled, unfamiliar, Greek-accented. Saying—

Fury-source, Wrathful One, All-Ruling virgin,

Kore Semele, light-bearer incandescent

Horned Maiden, Earth’s vigorous daughter

When Death comes, we go willingly to Your realms

Until again You send us forth, into this world of Form.

She didn’t know this prayer, Gorgo realized, unable not to complete what she could only assume was the verse’s ancient formula. Not one she’d heard, nor one she’d read. No translation of The Bacchae she’d ever taught could have left it behind in her mind’s folds, waiting to suggest itself under pressure—no, this was something else. Something Other.

At her boot-tips, Phoibe had almost ceased shuddering. Gorgo found herself pointing at her, mouth stretched Body Snatchers-wide, pronouncing: “How’d it happen? Ask the hacker. The girl with the math. Ask her how she sought him out online, groomed him, brought him and those friends of his here—because she wanted to mount a coup, thought he’d make Aglaia look weak in front of you, that she could turn you against Her chosen. But nothing happens, ever, except that She allows it.”

“Praise be,” Charis chimed in, wiping Phoibe’s blood straight into her mouth; “Praise be,” Iris agreed, kicking Phoibe so she flipped, so her last breath went down into the earth itself, Persephone-Perswa’s home. To which Aglaia finally nodded, dignified as always, and put her hand on Gorgo’s still-shaking shoulder, palm-print burning a hole, all the Goddess’s presence suddenly drained from once more, leaving her numb and cold, scythe drooping.

“Praise be,” Aglaia agreed, approvingly. “I’m so happy for you, Gorgo. It’s seldom any of us feels Her grace directly—to have that one be you is a rare honour, and welcome. Especially since I’d’ve had trouble killing a woman, myself, even one who’d betrayed Her covenant.” A lovely smile. “But then, that’s what She sent us you for.”

“The fuck you say,” Gorgo replied, all out into a rush, with no time for self-censorship. Her nervous system was still twitching, refusing to obey, or she would’ve cut Aglaia’s throat next—something Aglaia seemed to know, since she glanced at Charis, who gently pried the scythe from Gorgo’s limp hand, folding her into an embrace.

“C’mon now, baby girl,” Charis said, soothing. “You got nothing to be afraid of. We all want to feel her hand on our souls the once, like you just did. It’s why we’re here.”

“Not . . . why I’m here . . .” Gorgo said, muffled, into Charis’s pectoral, her implant-springy breast. But Charis only laughed.

“‘Course not,” she replied. “We all know that. Is now, though—and that’s beautiful, don’t you see? Hell, it’s divine.”

“Literally,” Aglaia agreed. “Oh, Gorgo! You’re a saint to us now, a true Maenad. The very proof of our religion.”

And that murmur was back again, eddying right, left, and every which way, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. They seized on Phoibe’s body and bore it away, tearing off pieces as it went; probably ending up on the pyre with the rest of the meat, fit for the celebratory feast, with the bones all divvied up and buried wherever individual cultists went home to, after.

I’m trapped, Gorgo thought, hanging there in Charis’s arms, while Aglaia and the others clapped, cheered, and ululated in approval, each according to their preference. They’ve got me now, these freaks, them with their goddamn Goddess. I’m altered, forever changed. Like I don’t even know my own self anymore.

“What about him, down there?” she asked, finally, through trembling lips.

Throughout the preceding action, the still pit-trapped boy—Aglaia’s unlucky son—had fallen silent long since, in terms of pleas. Now it was just grunts and cursing, oh God oh God oh shit, help me please, with the kid scrabbling at the walls like a crippled badger, trying his level best either to heave himself free or bring the walls’ earth in on top of him, so he could suffocate before they pulled him free and ripped him apart. Perhaps having stared enough, however, Aglaia didn’t even look, this time. Simply shook her head, curls lifting slightly (softer than his yet similar, Gorgo could now see), and said—

“Phoibe called him, but She made him answer. This is not for him, for any of them, yet still they come: anathema, to be dedicated, to be cursed. He chose his own fate.”

At that, the scrabbling stopped, as if kicked. Gorgo heard the kid moan out, instinctive, maybe in supplication, maybe in protest: Mom, oh Mom, Mommy, no. Please, God, please.

True Believers, true belief; not such an arrant hunk of legitimized murder wrapped in bullshit fairytales after all, as it turned out. More’s the fucking pity.

No God here, little boy, Gorgo thought, as close to sadly as she was capable of. And closed her eyes.

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Gemma Files

Formerly a film critic, journalist, screenwriter and teacher, Gemma Files has been an award-winning horror author since 1999. She has published two collections of short work (Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart), two chap-books of speculative poetry (Bent Under Night and Dust Radio), a Weird Western trilogy (the Hexslinger series—A Book of Tongues, A Rope of Thorns and A Tree of Bones), a story-cycle (We Will All Go Down Together: Stories of the Five-Family Coven) and a stand-alone novel (Experimental Film, which won the 2016 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel and the 2016 Sunburst award for Best Adult Novel). Most are available from ChiZine Publications. She has two upcoming story collections from Trepidatio (Spectral Evidence and Drawn Up From Deep Places), one from Cemetery Dance (Dark Is Better), and a new poetry collection from Aqueduct Press (Invocabulary).