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Paul Brandis lives in Eastern Washington. With degrees in Philosophy and Art History, he taught Art History in the local college. He has been writing for years, first placing a number of short stories in magazines, then publishing The Aerie of Ravenhurst, at Xlibris.com. His historical, Mamluk, an adventure in the 13th century Mameluke Empire, is due out this year from the publisher, CrossroadsPub.Com, as is his romantic thriller, The Isle Of Black Lilies. For more information on Paul's work visit his website http://www.paulbrandis.com/

Here is his one of his stories, Death Mask, a wonderfully spooky tale.

Death Mask
Paul Brandis

The night hung hot and humid, and as he slouched down the mountain path, his heavy pack chafed raw sores on his back and shoulders. Clouds of mosquitoes boiled out of the moist underbrush, thick as air; in his eyes, his nose, in his mouth as he panted for breath. He flailed at them but they were everywhere and he had no more repellant.

After a week's back-packing he was exhausted. All he wanted to do was to throw down his pack, unroll his ground pad, erect his mosquito tent, and sleep. But he did not dare. A crucial meeting with a new client in the morning forced him back to the city.

He hated to return. He hated the city. And he hated toadying to clients. This new client, like all the other faceless people he met, thought only of himself, his own little life, his own petty problems. They were all nonentities; innocuous personalities, forgettable faces. When meeting them, he struggled to keep his distain from showing, not always with success. And, once again, his sales record was dropping. As much as he longed to stay in the mountains, he had to return and make the sale. His job, his pending marriage to his boss's niece, his whole life depended on it.

Thirst plagued him. He had used the last of his water long ago, and his throat burned from exertion.

As he hunched along, a full, bright-white, round-faced moon rose directly in front of him, its brilliance burning his feverish eyes. Its strange light cast illusive shadows that pulled his eyes from the trail, causing him to stumble and fight for footing.

Suddenly the trail twisted, and a rocky cliff, its cavernous depths black and cold, opened beneath him. Only at the last instant did he catch himself from plunging over.

As he shrank back from the yawning precipice, a breeze wafted across his face, cooling him and brushing away the mosquitoes.

And was that the sound of a stream nearby? Instinctively he lunged off the path in the direction of the sound.

Immediately the undergrowth engulfed him, but he fought on, desperately seeking the water. Finally he floundered out onto the edge of a misty brook.

Shuddering with relief he threw off his pack and plunged his rashed face into the cool water. He drank greedily, then sank back on the mossy bank.

He dozed, but suddenly started, his mind coalesced by a strange sound nearby. He glanced around and saw, not ten paces away, a girl kneeling beside the stream.

The moonlight barely penetrated the glowering branches overhead, yet she shimmered with a white, almost phosphorescent light.

She appeared to be clad in entwining layers of gauze--or was it the fog by the stream?

The sound that had awakened him came again: soft sobbing. Her head down, the girl was crying piteously.

The man stood and crept toward the apparition. Closer, he saw her diaphanous gown was torn and shredded.

Her long black hair cascaded over her face. Curiosity burned in him. He had to see her face.

He spoke softly so not to frighten her, but she did not respond. Tentatively he touched her shoulder. A sob caught in her throat, and she fell silent.

Then she raised her head and turned--and she had no face.

Nothing. No bump nor cleft marred the smooth, white, skin. Nothing but tightly drawn flesh stretched from her coal black hair to her round chin.

He screamed, jerked away, and bolted headlong into the forest. Branches tore at his face, but he felt nothing but mind-freezing terror; saw nothing but the glowing, blank face before him.

How long he careened through the underbrush he did not know. Once, in his headlong rush, he hazarded a glance over his shoulder. Was it the oval moon, or a faceless head that dashed after him through the trees?

Finally he burst onto a black-topped road, tripped, and slumped to the ground gasping for breath.

After a time, he began to weave together his shredded mind. Could it have happened? Did he really see what could not have been? Scoffing, he thought, surely not; simply the imaginings of an overheated mind.

Somewhat comforted, he cast around trying to gain his bearings. Where was he? Wait-wasn't this the road where that terrible accident had occurred, the one where the heavily-loaded log truck had plummeted over a ravine, crashing and burning in the turbulent stream below? The driver was never found, and his inconsolable bride had thrown herself into the rapids and also disappeared under the boiling froth.

No, that road wound down the other side of the mountain. How could it be here? Everything seemed in reverse.

With a start, the man remembered his pack left beside the stream. Wearily he stood to go back for it. But as he turned toward the woods, terror struck him again, and to save his life, he could not force a step off the road.

Suddenly a high pitched wail drifted out from the trees. He recognized it with mind-searing horror: the soul-wrenching cries from a nonexistent mouth.

The howl surrounded him, taunted him, beat at him from every direction. He had to escape.

He twisted and hobbled down the road, his exhausted steps jerky, a puppet tortured by a satanic master.

He awoke stretched out on the road. Blood oozed from his torn hands and knees. When had he fallen? He could no longer focus his thoughts. In agony, he struggled to stand, only to slump back. His head hung like a dead weight from his shoulders.

But a tiny part of his mind functioned. He listened--and heard nothing.

The moon had descended behind the mountain, and the night was as black as the inside of a crypt. Then, headlights approached.

The man marshaled his last ounce of strength, strained to his feet, and tottered to the side of the road. As the lights neared, he saw they blazed from a logging truck, an immense diesel with huge, white, round headlights.

Frantically the man waved and, with an ear-shattering blast of its horn, and a hiss of brakes, the big truck lumbered to a stop a few yards past.

Shaking with relief, the man dragged himself to the truck's door. He strained up the high step and clambered into the shadowy, stinking, cab.

He slammed the heavy door, and prattling his gratitude, turned to the burly driver, then screamed and wrenched away. Lit by the grotesque light from the dash, only sweaty skin shone where a face should have been.

The driver's great, hairy head tipped back and demonic laughter burst from the mouthless face. And with another deafening blast of his horn, the ghost-driver forced his great rig forward.

Wildly the man flailed at the door to find a handle to escape. But there was no handle; there was no escape. He was damned forever to share the tiny cab with a faceless ghost, surrounded by screaming laughter, and the heat and roar of the great motor.

Then, in the dirty windshield, he saw the reflection of his own face. Its features were slowly, inexorably, disappearing.



Bonnie Mercure, your Fiction Guide at the dowse Fiction Hub, is a dark fantasy author.
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