With Time and Effort

Submitted into Contest #185 in response to: Write a story about someone who doesn’t know how to let go.... view prompt

48 comments

Horror Drama Historical Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

It is out of love that I find myself in St. Catherine’s Cemetery on a cloudy night, with an oil lamp in one hand and a shovel in the other. I will not lie; my stomach roils just as the sea churns nearby, and I search every howl of the wind for the constable’s whistle, and every looming shadow for a mob.

Master Hartley’s eyes are wild and his hair, normally kempt, tears madly at the sky. He is an apparition, and had I courage, I would have stopped him ere we set out this eve. But there is colour in his pallid skin again, and he grins. The first smile I’d seen in months.

“Nearly there!” he sings, and he gambols with the excited energy of a truant schoolboy enjoying a long spring day.

I pledged my loyalty to this man, who had once rescued me from a vile life of poverty and violence. And when I swore I would do anything to pull him out of his depths – those fathomless murky waters I feared would extinguish his bright flame – I meant it. But I never imagined this.

What a cruel world, to pit my oath against my deeds, and damn me both ways.

“We’re here,” he speaks, and the wind dies. I hold my breath. “And now, help me dig.”

Oh Lord, forgive me. My shovel strikes earth.

***

I was born an orphan. My father was the drunken flick of a knife at night, and my mother was the wend of the streets. My brother was called Cold, and my sister was Hunger, and she never left my side.

I fought for every penny and food scrap with the other alley beasts, though there was one beautiful autumn where I found uncommon kinship with a mangy cur I named King. We watched out for each other, and for the first time in my life I felt something more than base need. The frozen coal within my chest was struck by a spark, and smoldered.

One early winter morning, King ran into the street and under the wheels of a rich man’s carriage. I carry his final yelp with me to this day.

I hardened my heart and turned to theft, and when I’d scrimped enough coin and foes, I left the wretched city of my birth. Years later Master Hartley caught me in his stables trying to make off with his horse, and he was greatly moved by my piteous life. Instead of calling for the bailiff, he offered me a meal and a job.

“For all men are entitled to forgiveness, if they should so ask.” His belief in goodness was unwavering, an absolute certainty that with time and effort even the worst of the world’s ills could be repaired – and in his charitable view that included even me.

It was then I swore my life to him. More than a warm meal and a kind word, he showed me how I could pull myself out of the muck. He showed me purpose.

I worked in his stables and on his grounds tirelessly, ever looking for the next thing to repair, or the next worry that weighed on Master’s mind. I threw myself at these with all I was worth so that he might have peace, and I would have lived and died happily if this was all I did in life.

But no, Master had a heart of gold. He never condescended, had a mountain’s patience, and was immeasurably kind. He frequently showed me his study and his collection of artifacts from all around the globe, and I learned just how brutish my world had been.

When he travelled, I accompanied him. When he hunted, I carried his kit. We attended church together, and on holy days dined together. And when one evening over a pipe he said he considered me a friend, well, my heart nearly burst. The ember King first had lit was fanned anew into a bright flame.

And then it melted altogether, when I met Emily.

***

The sky opens up as our grisly wagon rolls down the hill to Master’s estate. Thick sheets of coastal rain soak our bones and our lamps sputter. Are these the tears of the Lord, for we have gone so far astray? Or does the Devil weep with joy at our black deeds?

“Ha ha!” Master shouts, laughing into the wild night as lightning cracks along the sky. How I longed to once more hear him laugh, and now that living rictus fills me with foreboding. “Yah, horses, yah! We’re almost there!”

The horses scream and our wagon slides through the mud. That we remain on four wheels instead of tumbling head over heels is a miracle. I grip my seat so hard I fear my fingers will snap. Only when a wheel hits a ditch and we heave nearly to the side do I exclaim. And Master laughs all the louder.

“Ring the bells!” he bellows into the roiling abyss. “It is time! It is time!” But no honest men are out on such a night to hear him.

I spare a glance over my shoulder, at our dread cargo. Rain lashes a heavy canvas, bound to the wagon with rope. And beneath it, the proof of our villainry. I turn away, unable to face it. We roll into Master’s barn and the rain stops, hammering instead on the roof above. Thunder roars ceaselessly, as does Master.

“Ha ha!” he laughs, and slaps me on the shoulder. “It is time!” He leaps to the ground and shudders with such horrid joy. Then he stops, places his hands reverently on the wagon’s siding, and looks at the canvas. And he whispers with such loud ecstasy it’s enough to drown out even the storm, “The lady of the house has returned!”

***

When I first saw Emily I was immediately smitten. I thought my life complete until that moment, and I didn’t even know what it was I was missing – what it was a man could miss. Our paths crossed most curiously.

One fine evening, with Master away on business, I walked the backroads around town alone with my thoughts, and I heard a whinny in a nearby copse. I found a sleek silver mare; saddled, bridled, but riderless. She must have sensed I was a kind stablehand, for she let me walk right up to her and take her reins, but I saw no sign of her owner. I decided to take her to Master’s estate, and spread the word in town tomorrow.

As I walked down the roads I spotted a lone woman trudging along the hedges. She wore a fine hat and dress, and had a strange wooden contraption on her shoulder, in addition to a large wooden box in her other arm. It was clear they were heavy and she was flagging.

She turned and rejoiced for the horse was hers. She chastised the mare good-naturedly and thanked me profusely, but I’m afraid I was only able to stammer in return. To my great fortune, Emily – for she told me her name – found this endearing. And when I begged to carry her burden she permitted it.

We walked to her father’s estate – an hour gone in a blink. I learned the box was a daguerreotype, a magnificent device she captured portraits with. The mechanics were beyond me, but I could listen to her talk about it without end. When she offered to show me her work, it was astounding! She captured images of men, women, beasts and vistas, all as a painter would – and with immaculate skill. She asked me if there were interesting sights around town and I told her yes, and on an impulse offered to help her with her kit. And I’ll never know how I was so blessed, but she accepted my offer.

For the next several weeks I was her guide and assistant. She had a particular interest in the sea, and we had no shortage of breathtaking cliffs and bluffs. We grew close, closer than I ever dared hope. One day, she insisted on taking my portrait. I couldn’t deny her anything, and I admit her magic hands turned this mongrel into art.

We remained on the cliffs late that day, until the stars came out, and a cold wind brought us close together. And we kissed.

It was the happiest day of my life – but. Not a moment after, she turned away, terribly upset. I feared it was my doing, but she confessed she had a horrible secret. Her father had brought her here to meet her betrothed!

Yes, she was promised to another; chattel to be passed between men of business. I felt fury rise in my chest. I professed my love for her, and vowed – foolishly! – that I would let none other come between us. And oh, my poor dear Emily, she did the same.

When she told me the name of her betrothed I felt my heart shatter anew, for it was none other than Master Hartley.

A man cannot serve two masters, and neither two opposed vows. When Master returned, I greeted him warmly and betrayed him every time he closed his eyes. Even as I prepared a great reception for Emily and her family did I drive a knife into his back. And when he confided in me that he was utterly smitten with her, and that all of his misgivings about this arrangement had evaporated, I agreed and encouraged him, like the wretched Judas goat I was.

But I could not get enough of Emily, and neither she of me. She begged us to stop and yet could not pull away. The night that the wedding date was set, we broke the most sacred of the Lord’s laws. And each day hence, our rising dread grew ever greater. The only relief we had was in each other’s arms.

I knew it couldn’t last forever. Each moment without her was torture, and each moment with a visceral reminder of our sins. My heart tore in two, between the man I swore to serve and the woman I loved more than life itself.

I knew I had to choose, but I couldn’t.

And then Emily chose for us.

With three months until the wedding, she threw herself from the cliffs.

***

I had been blinded by greed, I know that now. Master Hartley had loved her as dearly as I did, and he had shattered with the news of her fall. And now, not a day goes by I don’t regret it – all of it. Better we had never met and I spent the rest of my life admiring her from afar, than the fate she chose. The fate I forced her into.

And so I could not deny Master his mad wish. Not now, not ever again. I am bound to him, and should he drag my sorry soul through Hell itself, I’ll go.

Emily was to be his in life. I can understand him wanting to inter her in the family tomb. I shake the water from my coat and shiver from a bone-deep chill. I spare but a glance at our wagon – at… her. And shiver again.

“Please,” Master gestures to her. “It is time.”

I swallow hard. I am sworn to serve. This is my penance. I unbind the ropes and carefully pick up the canvas. I dare not unwrap it. I dare not think about what rests precariously in my hands. I start towards the family crypts.

“No,” says Master. “Not that way. To my lab.”

To the lab? Whatever for? Master sets off at a brisk pace and I hurry behind him. Perhaps… well, what do I know of funerals? Perhaps it’s embalming.

I have not been in the lab since her fall, and Master has all but lived within, even taking his meals there. The room has changed. It is filled with strange glass vessels, copper tubes, and inconceivable machines. And all of them surround a table.

“Please, place her there,” he says. I obey, and he brings the machines to life through means I do not understand. In the cold light of the oil lamps, I see things spinning and whirring and pumping. And he stands over the table, over Emily, with a book in his hands.

“What is this, Master?”

He sets the book on the table and pulls back the canvas. Underneath is the burial shroud, and I turn away. I cannot possibly see her like this. Cannot even conceive of it!

“With time and effort even the worst of the world’s ills can be repaired,” he says. “And what greater illness is there?”

I hear a wet crunch and a metallic jangling, as he does something at the table. I dare not look, and what I see of his shadow gives me nightmares.

“Illness, Master?” I say.

“I have found great writings on the subject, by a brilliant scholar named Abdul Alhazred. Tonight, I reproduce his work.”

The machines begin groaning and whirring faster, and I see terrible flashes of galvanic energy arcing throughout the room, mirroring the lightning storm above. “Sir?”

“I intend to cure Emily of her death.”

The machines roar and unnatural light strobes in the room. Something starts hissing and smoke fills the air. I scream – I think – and cower, and something near me vents a foul steam.

And then as suddenly as it began, all is still.

“Arise, my love,” Master says.

I dare not open more than one eye, and spy his shadow over the table with his arms raised high. And then I see something stir. And rise.

Master chuckles. It’s a low, throaty thing at first, and then rises and grows, a lifetime of laughter dammed up by misery and finally freed. He weeps with joy as Emily – Emily! – stands. She lurches unsteadily on her feet – each footfall a sopping, meaty crunch – and when she reaches out for him he embraces her, blubbering. He weeps with sorrow and relief, a man who refuses to be bereaved.

He pulls her close and she embraces him tighter. “Time and effort!” he cries, his words shredded by bliss and misery and all things in-between.

And then, I hear a raspy, slick breath – a death rattle – as Emily’s lungs draw air. And then, she brings her face to his – and I hear the wet rip of meat tearing and sinews snapping and bone breaking.

Master screams, and though we are indoors the room is filled with red sea spray.

“Help–!” is the last thing I ever hear him say. The last thing I hear in that horrid room, in that accursed estate. I turn and flee, and run as fast as my legs take me. I run into the night and into the storm, and never look back.

February 14, 2023 23:06

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48 comments

Graham Kinross
11:51 May 05, 2023

Mary Shelly would be proud. This feels like a distillation of Frankenstein with a twist.

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Michał Przywara
20:37 May 05, 2023

Frankenstein was definitely an inspiration. Likewise Wuthering Heights, a bit of Sherlock for tone, and Lovecraft. It was a fun experiment trying on an older style :)

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Graham Kinross
21:38 May 05, 2023

It’s always good to try something different. This really worked.

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Faith Rush
03:45 Mar 07, 2023

im actually in love with this story, what year is it set in? Your use of descriptive language was incredible, and it kept me on the edge of my seat!

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Michał Przywara
05:10 Mar 07, 2023

Thanks, Faith! It's somewhere in the early 1850s, and I kind of modeled it after some of the Victorian classics, and a bit of the Gothic horror. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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Jack Kimball
21:53 Feb 23, 2023

Super Michael. H. P. Lovecraft Indeed. Makes me want to go back and study his body of work. I also sensed some Dickens thrown in. A winner in my view.

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Michał Przywara
23:45 Feb 23, 2023

Thanks, Jack! Yeah, for sure some Dickensian influences. I don't know if it's possible to have a Victorian orphan without a nod to Dickens :) I appreciate the feedback!

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Delbert Griffith
14:20 Feb 23, 2023

I'm a fan of anyone who uses the word "rictus" in a story. LOL Your mastery of Gothic sentence structure and vocabulary is amazing, Michal. I felt like I was reading a collab between Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker. The story changed with kaleidoscopic suddenness with the twist at the end. This is one of those tales that deserves recognition, as most of yours are. Just a stunning work, my friend.

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Michał Przywara
21:47 Feb 23, 2023

Thanks, Delbert! That is a fun word, which doesn't get a lot of everyday use. Actually, that was one advantage to this story - it let me use some words and prose that might not be a fit in other stories. I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

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Zack Powell
09:28 Feb 23, 2023

I'm sure I looked exactly like a raisin as I was reading this, with my face scrunching up and my eyebrows furrowing and my nose crinkling. I had a feeling we might see a reanimation after Emily's cliff-fall death was mentioned. I did NOT have a feeling the last three paragraphs would end like that. Wow. (And that should teach me to read a Przywara story at bedtime without first checking the genre tags.) Great plot aside, I really love the technical aspects of this story the most. First person present tense was a wonderful choice to help the...

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Michał Przywara
21:42 Feb 23, 2023

Yeah, I couldn't think of a happy ending for this one. It really didn't seem to fit the prompt, since not being able to let go sounds self-destructive… and animating the dead seems like one of those things it's easy to get wrong. I don't imagine being dead does a body good, and it could be a bit of a shock coming back in such a state. Glad it worked out, both story- and prose-wise! While I was picturing Wuthering Heights and Innsmouth for inspiration, it was Dr. Watson that drove the first person witness-kind-of narration. "It's an int...

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Viga Boland
21:59 Feb 22, 2023

Your command of the written words and ability to stay true to time and setting is fantastic. I rarely read horror so wasn’t quite prepared for the end twist, but I loved every line of this short masterpiece of writing. If I were judging it, this is a 5 and deserved to be shortlisted. I hope it was and that you win. Bravo!

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Michał Przywara
02:39 Feb 23, 2023

Thanks, Viga! I'm glad you enjoyed it, despite the horror twist :) It was a fun experiment, going a little Victorian Gothic this week. Best of luck to you too!

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Susan Catucci
17:02 Feb 22, 2023

I love, love it, Michal. It was one of those experiences where I was anxious to see what happens next, but the prose kept me present with each word - I didn't want to miss any of it. These are the types of stories I was raised on - Frankenstein, Monkey's Paw, Telltale Heart, all that good stuff. This one's way up there, Michal!

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Michał Przywara
21:46 Feb 22, 2023

Thanks, Susan! This era stuck with me from school days, ever since I picked up a book of Poe's shorts as a kid. I agree, lots of fun stuff to explore. We call a lot of it classic now, but back then it might have been speculative or even sci-fi, with all the mad science going on. Glad you enjoyed it :)

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15:44 Feb 21, 2023

Wow! Good story!

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Michał Przywara
21:42 Feb 21, 2023

Thank you, Faith! I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

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Rebecca Miles
04:47 Feb 21, 2023

Damnation, despair and devilry afoot in the dark! It's very early here in Germany, and I'm waiting for a plane to bring me home, but this was a rollicking read to jolt me out of my bleary state. I've listened to quite a bit of Dickens lately and this is like Magwitch, doing anything for his Pip mixed with a heady mix of Viktor Frankenstein's obsession for his creature. You know I'm a complete fool for imagery so you had me hook, line and sinker with the style, the setting, the characters. Actually let's just say: everything! Or does the Devi...

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Michał Przywara
21:55 Feb 21, 2023

Heh, thanks Rebecca! It's hard to write a story with an orphan in it, and not at least think of Dickens' stories - at least for me. And particularly a Victorian one. Glad the imagery worked out :) I do tend towards Spartan prose, but it's good to stretch. Definitely a bit of a challenge to avoid purple prose here though. Thanks for checking in!

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Samsara Lind
22:38 Feb 20, 2023

I missed the "horror" tag at the top, was thinking this was like Lady Chatterley's.... and then... :O The way you write is so captivating, I can picture 19th century London... but now I must read some happy stories so I can go to bed! hehe...

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Michał Przywara
02:33 Feb 21, 2023

Thanks, Samsara :) Yes, that could be a jarring surprise! I'm glad you otherwise enjoyed it :)

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Helen A Smith
08:54 Feb 20, 2023

I was absorbed in this story and did not expect the unexpected macabre twist at the end. It was a case of ‘if only’ things had been different. If only the MC hadn’t met Emily. If only she hadn’t been betrothed to the Master. A gothic horror show filled with tragedy, I enjoyed reading it.

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Michał Przywara
21:49 Feb 20, 2023

"If only" is right :) But hindsight is a lot easier than making the right call in the moment, isn't it? I'm glad you enjoyed the story, Helen. Thanks for the feedback!

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Nona Yobis
04:25 Feb 20, 2023

You have found your stride in this piece. This was very well done. I could see some of the twists coming, but in a good way, in a way that made me keep reading. If you were to venture into writing a novel, this is the subject matter I would pursue. Fantastic writing.

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Michał Przywara
19:18 Feb 20, 2023

Thanks, Nona! I'm glad to hear that :) Particularly about the twists. They're a bit of a tricky thing, aren't they? Completely unexpected twists can be fun, but might also come across as arbitrary, but completely predictable risk being boring. I like the kind you can at least partially predict, as the reader gets to actively participate in the story. I'll keep that in mind, about the novel. There's a couple projects in the works, so it'll have to go on the ever growing idea pile :) Thanks for the feedback!

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Stevie Burges
08:07 Feb 19, 2023

This was an interesting story. The rhythm and grammar made me constantly try to work out which country it is based in. I hate horror but this kept me reading (thank goodness it was an afternoon read). Some excellent phrases to paint a picture. Many thanks for writing.

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Michał Przywara
01:58 Feb 20, 2023

Thanks, Stevie! I'm glad you enjoyed it, despite the horror :) I was picturing England mainly, but New England could work too. I'm afraid it's more fiction than historical :) I appreciate the feedback!

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Stevie Burges
10:37 Feb 20, 2023

I picked up an Irish rhythm. Well, wherever it's set, it was a good Gothic tale.

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Kendall Defoe
04:33 Feb 18, 2023

Rather macabre...and I rather like it! The Gothic theme woke me up and I saw the movie in my head you created. Well done!

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Michał Przywara
23:58 Feb 18, 2023

Thanks, Kendall! Glad this one worked out, definitely a different take this week. I appreciate the feedback!

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Michelle Oliver
03:45 Feb 18, 2023

Wow Michal! “What a cruel world, to pit my oath against my deeds, and damn me both ways.” This was my favourite line, such great foreshadowing. A fantastic journey into gothic romance that ends with zombie horror. Even the language is authentic, the imagery almost poetic. “My father was the drunken flick of a knife at night, and my mother was the wend of the streets. My brother was called Cold, and my sister was Hunger, and she never left my side.” Love it. Well done

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Michał Przywara
23:35 Feb 18, 2023

Thanks, Michelle :) The zombie horror was a guilty pleasure. I'm glad you enjoyed it, and that it sounded authentic!

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Amanda Lieser
16:41 Feb 17, 2023

Hey Michal! This one was stunning! And you wrote it on Valentine’s Day-how poetic. I really loved the way you dove into this fantasy and set us up for all the right highs and lows. Reading this piece was like standing in line for a roller coaster-knowing it was bound to be epic and it did not disappoint. My favorite line came early because it set the ethical dilemma of the piece very well: “For all men are entitled to forgiveness, if they should so ask.” Do these characters need to ask for forgiveness for messing with the natural order of th...

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Michał Przywara
21:36 Feb 17, 2023

Thanks, Amanda! "Do these characters need to ask for forgiveness for messing with the natural order of the world? Could Emily’s death be the ultimate call to action? Should one apologize for committing suicide if they’re brought back to life?" Lots of great questions here :) I think they're so far out of our everyday morality that they can't have a simple answer. But we *like* simple answers, don't we? I think this is what drove Hartley, with his unshakeable belief that time and effort can fix anything - it worked in some cases, so it prob...

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23:40 Feb 16, 2023

Stephen Przywara King writes a Gothic Romance Horror story! The Bronte Sisters and Victor Hugo and Mary Shelley would tip their hats to you, too. O Man, what can you not scribble with pen and quill? Wuthering Heights meetings Zombiestein! I love the mashup. Opening line is 10/10. (How can we not read every word after that intro?!) You set the atmosphere, mood, and tone right off the bat. Victorian era. Coal-choked air. Grimy streets. I was thinking grave robbers pilfering bodies for the early medical schools, then a MURDER MOST FOUL du...

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Michał Przywara
02:51 Feb 17, 2023

Ooh, murder would have been good too! More mystery then instead of horror - more Sherlock than Lovecraft. There's a couple people that consistently write amazing first sentences on this site. Like, sometimes, so good the story could just be the first sentence. I'm trying to up my game, so I'm glad you pointed this one out. Now I'm picturing ghost stories being told in a pub, with absinthe flowing freely, and this itself sounds like a great setup for a horror :)

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Laurel Hanson
22:24 Feb 16, 2023

Ah, you've plunged into horror, dragged your readers down into the charnel house of fear. What fun. Love that you set up a central dilemma: "What a cruel world, to pit my oath against my deeds, and damn me both ways." The idea that our choices, or our realities, can force us into positions we cannot tolerate and yet we keep moving forward out of honor? pity? guilt?" is a good one, well set in this nicely evoked more gothic piece, with this engaging character. Also the title, returned to by Master upon his success: interesting. We believe t...

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Michał Przywara
02:28 Feb 17, 2023

Yeah, I think you can get a lot of good conflict out of a character if they are opposed to themselves - whether that's two exclusive goals, or vows, or desires, or whatever. Probably anyone that's struggled with a diet can relate :) In this one, I think all three characters touched on the prompt, just not knowing how or when to let go. "it is deeply embedded in our belief system" - yeah, right on! What if the goal is shabby is a good question. Another is, what if take this to an obsessive level? A lot of people work themselves to the bone,...

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Aeris Walker
12:19 Feb 16, 2023

A few paragraphs into this, I had to scroll back up to make sure I had indeed clicked on *your* story. This is something so different from your typical style and totally unique and I loved every line of it. Maybe it’s the tense—I’m a big fan of 1st person present tense, or maybe it’s the HF aspect—but I think you absolutely nailed the voice, the language, the structure, the suspense, the motives. Fantastic job. Loved these lines: “Thick sheets of coastal rain soak our bones and our lamps sputter. Are these the tears of the Lord, for we ha...

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Michał Przywara
22:06 Feb 16, 2023

Heh, thanks Aeris :) I'm glad you say so, as I was going for that Victorian Gothic kind of prose, with a bit of Lovecraft thrown in. Something about the prompt screamed coast, graves, and Victorians to me, and it was fun experimenting with a different style :)

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Jon Casper
11:12 Feb 16, 2023

Your opening scene is full of beautiful writing that snared me immediately. /What a cruel world, to pit my oath against my deeds, and damn me both ways. - Exquisite /My father was the drunken flick of a knife at night - Absolutely brilliant /The frozen coal within my chest was struck by a spark, and smoldered. - Wonderful metaphor Okay, I'll stop quoting, but suffice it to say that your prose is rich with these gems. I'm in awe. The revelation that Emily is betrothed to Master is heartbreaking, as is his tortured loyalty to Master that ...

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Michał Przywara
22:04 Feb 16, 2023

Thanks, Jon! I'm very glad this piece worked out, as it's quite different from my usual style. But the writings from that era definitely had a certain charm, and it was fun getting in that mindset. I think in the end, all three characters didn't know how to let go.

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