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Winter 2023

The Deserters

A high fantasy short story with horror and love by Kay Hanifen

Ours is not to doubt. Ours is to simply obey. We are raised from birth advance our god’s takeover, and the highest honor is to die for him. It is a blessing to count myself among Nyarlotep’s soldiers, and like everyone in my regiment, I serve him with pride. Everyone but WL-009.

WL-009 was my broodmate. Like many in our regiment, she was an orphan raised by the Priests of Nyarlotep after humanity declared war on our gods, but we couldn’t be more different. She’s admitted to me during our resting hours where we should be sleeping that she does not wish to mate with the Night Gaunts and bear the next generation of hybrid soldiers for Nyarlotep’s glory. I should have reported her for this blasphemy. That was the right, dutiful thing to do, and my duty is everything to me, but still I let her crawl into bed the way we did as kids and held her as she cried her fears into my shoulder.

I don’t know what’s wrong with me. We foot-soldiers are not to form connections with our fellow humans. All our love is to be dedicated to the Great Old Ones whose dreams make up our reality. And yet I hold her on those nights where her fears are too much. My skin burns with the touch, but it’s a pleasant burn, unlike the King in Yellow’s seal they’d branded into our skin after we completed our training. It’s warmth and comfort. Perhaps a part of me also dreads the day when they decide that I am no longer of use as a soldier and become a vessel for the Old Ones’ army. It is an honor to serve them in any capacity, but the idea unsettles me. I’ve heard
stories, none of them pleasant.

Some nights, she traces the scar on my throat where they removed my vocal cords. It was a rightful consequence foolish act of defiance when I was ten cycles around the sun. WL-009 was weak and fell behind during one of our runs. We hadn’t eaten in days, and all felt faint, but when she passed out and the priest began to beat her, I yelled for them to stop and called them every bad word I’d ever heard the adults around me say. They had every right to punish me for my defiance, and though I deserved it, I am grateful that they did not remove my tongue for such an offense. I do enjoy tasting my food. It is a simple pleasure, but pleasures are difficult to come by.

“I miss your voice,” she whispered in my ear sometimes as she stroked my hair. I would just hold her tight as though that can make the world vanish, leaving only the two of us.

WL-009 frightens me in a way nothing else can. I’ve faced the wrath of humans, priests, and the offspring of the Great Old Ones, but nothing fills me more fear than the doubts she expresses in that darkness of night. I do not fear for myself and my life—it is an honor to die for Nyarlotep—but whenever I try to imagine life without her, my heart is filled with a terror colder than Yog Sothoth’s domain.

Today, she burst into our quarters with a look of pure horror on her face and ran into my arms. Thankfully we were alone. If someone caught us together in this way, they would report us both for fraternization. Mopping the floors was a single person job and everyone else was on duty.

Eventually, she calmed enough to speak. “They’ve created a way to turn us into Night Gaunts.”

I tilted my head in confusion. Wasn’t this a good thing? We were becoming one with them, shedding the yoke of our human shells and ascending to something greater than ourselves.

Sniffling, she stepped back. “You don’t understand. We won’t be one of them. We’ll
never be one of them. They’ll turn us into mindless beasts, and—”

I frantically pressed a finger to her lips, silencing her as I glanced around, searching for anyone who might be listening. She was blaspheming right in front of me, and if someone overheard . . . I didn’t want to think about it.

She took a shuddering breath in and out, and my hand migrated to her eyes to wipe tears from her mahogany skin. “You didn’t see it. They changed TY-089 against his will and it was agony. He didn’t stop screaming until his vocal cords gave out.”

We have no will except for Nyarlotep’s, but I knew she wouldn’t want to hear it. This
clearly disturbed her and for reasons I didn’t understand, I didn’t want to hurt her.

“I’m leaving,” she said, looking up at me. I stood about a half foot over her, but she
always seemed so larger than life that I forgot how she was the runt of our brood. Though she was smaller, it felt as though she was looming with her jaw clenched. Her black-brown eyes were determined. Something about the ferocity in her eyes unsettled me, and I stepped backwards. Her gaze softened and expression became almost pleading as she grabbed my hand. “Come with me. Please.”

The righteous thing to do would be to turn her in to the priests for corrections, but I
shuddered to think of any punishments they’d inflict on her if they discovered this new blasphemy. I swallowed, my throat dry and my heart hammering in my chest. I’ve never felt fear like this before. Not even in combat. The idea of running away, of trying to hide in the Wastes, just the two of us until we died or were captured made me terrified, but also excited. It was insanity, and yet I couldn’t tear my mind away from the possibility.

She reached up brushed something wet on my cheeks. I didn’t even realize I’d been
crying. Her eyes were so warm and affectionate, and her lips were spread in a tremulous smile. “I heard rumors of a surviving human enclave hidden in the mountains five miles to the north of here. We can go tonight. You and me.”

I couldn’t. As much as I longed to join her, I knew my duty was here. There was no
greater honor than fighting and dying for Nyarlotep. Shaking my head, I took a step away from her.

“Ellie…” she began, omitting my numerical designation and turning my name into a pet name. It was blasphemy to do so because it individuated us. We were a collective, like soldier ants, all moving towards a singular goal. Pretending otherwise would label us as heretics.

I expected her to leave, but instead, she surged forwards and pressed her lips to mine. I melted into her warmth and pulled her closer, not wanting this feeling of heat to end. But then I heard the sound of approaching footsteps and broke away from her just as one of the priests entered our dorms.

She turned her back to collect herself while I faced Honored Priest Rivayne with a look of abject innocence on my face. He glanced between us, barely hiding his contempt as he said, “EL-011, we need you to replace HD-345 on guard duty. The Apostates have been encroaching on us, and I need your keen eyes in case they have something planned.”

I bowed deeply with my palms raised in deference. He turned to WL-009. “Weren’t you supposed to be in weapons testing?”

“I had been sent to alert EL-011 about the change in duties tonight,” she lied smoothly.

He studied her guileless features while scratching his neatly trimmed beard. “I’ll have to ensure that our communication is improved so that the council of priests doesn’t waste my time.” With that, he left us to complete our duties.

She cupped my cheek in her hand with a soft, affectionate smile that made my heart
speed up. “If this is goodbye, then know that I love you.”

Love. It was a word synonymous with worship, and I felt the weight of it settle in my
chest. I wanted to cry, to beg her to stay, but I knew it would be no good. She had made up her mind, even if it meant her doom. Because I could not speak, I pressed a final kiss to her lips and turned my back to don my armor. When I turned around, she was gone.

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The sunset sky was painted in a green and purple haze. The terraforming of earth had not yet been completed, but the sky reflected the beauty of the Dreamlands. I stood atop the parapet with my gun slung behind my back as I patrolled back and forth. The bullets were laced with Night Gaunt venom, which, when interacting with human blood, became corrosive. I’ve shot men and women and watched as they dissolved in front of me. Their screams still echo in my ears sometimes. I knew I should take pleasure in eradicating all heretics and apostates, but I could only feel sadness. Why didn’t they hear Nyarlotep’s call? Why did they fight the inevitable? Why reject the gifts of the Old Ones?

I suppose that is where WL-009 and I truly differ. I saw the blessings of the Old Ones as gifts, and she saw them as curses. Think of her made a lump grow in my throat. She would be gone by the time I returned to our barracks, and I’d never share a bed with her or hold her in my arms again. I prayed to any god who would listen—Nyarlotep, Cthulhu, Yog Sothoth, and even the gods of the Apostates such as Buddha, Allah, and Vishnu—that she find safety and whatever it was that she needed that I could not provide.

I didn’t realize I was crying again until water droplets hit the stone wall of the parapet. Love was a word reserved only for Nyarlotep, and yet she said she loved me. It meant utter devotion. It meant giving every part of yourself over to someone else fully and completely. I was not allowed to love anyone other than our gods. And yet I loved her too. The pain of admitting this was worse than any human bullet or shrapnel. My love for her and my love for Nyarlotep pulled me in two the same way that the Night Gaunts would snatch Apostate soldiers from the ground and tear them apart in midair.

A movement caught my eye below. Collecting myself, I grabbed my gun and stared over the edge. For a moment, I didn’t see anything but the tall grasses and giant ferns growing sporadically in the field immediately surrounding the High Fort. Our base sat at the top of a hill sparsely covered in vegetation, which prevented any Apostates from taking cover for a sneak attack. And then my eyes caught the shimmering movement of a lagging stealth-suit. I took aim, my finger hovering over the trigger until I realized that the figure wearing the suit was running from the base, not to it. WL-009? It was about a hundred meters from the base to the tree line, and I watched as the shape sprinted towards the woods and out of sight.

“See something?” RT-986 asked. They were the other guard on duty and meant to be at their post on the opposite end of the wall. This was an unusual breach of protocol.

My breath caught in my throat, and I kept my back to them as I slung my weapon over my shoulder. Once I’d collected myself, I turned to them and shook my head before putting my hand to my head with two fingers were poking up, my makeshift sign for rabbit.

They nodded and leaned against the wall. “Probably the most exciting thing we’ll see
today.” I nodded in return and turned my attention back to my post, but despite the clear dismissal, they did not leave. “You don’t talk much, do you?”

I sighed and pulled down my shirt to reveal the scar where they removed my vocal cords.

Their eyes widened. “I-I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.”

I dismissed the apology with a wave of my hand. They still weren’t leaving even after learning that I was incapable of communicating and remedying their apparent boredom. They looked as though they had something else to say but feared speaking the words aloud. “What?” I mouthed.

They leaned in closer and said softly, “I know you didn’t see a rabbit.”

Ice suddenly ran through my veins, but I kept my expression carefully blank.

Glancing around for anyone listening, they whispered, “Something terrible is about to happen. I can feel it, so I’ll make you a deal. Let me knock you out and escape this place or I’ll tell the Priests that you deliberately allowed a deserter to escape.” They looked me up and down. “Or we can escape together right now. Maybe we’ll catch up to whoever just left.”

This was wrong. I’d turned a blind eye to WL-009 because of the way I felt about her, but I couldn’t just let everyone desert. Stepping backwards, I shook my head.
They sighed and unslung their gun from their back. “Right. I didn’t want to have to do this, but you left me no choice.”

They were fast, but I’d always been faster. I pushed the barrel away from me, leaving a portion of their ribcage open to steel toed combat boots when I roundhouse kicked them. With a sound like a twig breaking underfoot, their ribs cracked, and they fell, screaming and holding the side where I had just broken a couple of them. Unslinging my gun, I held the barrel above them and ready to fire if they tried to fight further. Their eyes widened in terror, but instead of begging for their life, they grabbed the barrel of the shotgun and brought it to their forehead. “Please,” they said, “anything’s better than what’s coming.”

They reached up to the trigger and pulled it. The shot rang out, and they fell backwards, their eyes open and blank as the wound on their forehead grew. I watched as blood, bone, and brain matter dissolved until nothing remained of their head but a puddle of black viscous liquid. But the venom kept spreading down through the stump of their neck. I watched in morbid fascination as the tainted blood and tissue spread through the rest of the corpse, exposing organ and bone as it dissolved. Everything moves fast on the battlefield, so I’ve never witnessed the end results of a bullet laced with Night Gaunt venom. The viscous black fluid unleashed a foul and fetid odor like the smell of sulfur and rotting flesh, and I had to cover my nose to keep from gagging.

When they had fully dissolved, I shakily sent a message to Honored Priest Rivayne that RT-986 had gone mad and taken their own life with my rifle. Within minutes, a few of the younger soldiers arrived to clean up what remained of the body along with the replacement, JF-304.

He was a much better guard than RT-986. Instead of engaging with me, he simply stayed at his post, and I stayed at mine. Perhaps I’d made a mistake. Maybe I should have left with WL-009 when I had the chance, but what hope did I have of joining the human enclave that supposedly existed close by? I was the enemy, and unlike WL-009, I could not speak to defend myself or beg for their mercy. They told us that the Apostates would torture us and break us until we denied the greatness of Nyarlotep and the Old Ones. They trained us to withstand that torture, to stay in control while being burned, bled, frozen, isolated, and sleep deprived. After all this
training, I was certain I would never renounce my gods even if it meant dying. To die in their names is the greatest honor of all.

Until today, I thought nothing could break me from perfect obedience, but a different and dangerous kind of love proved that to be a lie I told myself. Because now I could picture myself renouncing the gods if it meant her life, her safety. Everyone has a breaking point, and I was well past physical pain as a means of shattering but losing her with no hope of her return was too agonizing to bear. Perhaps I should see a priest, but if I did, they’d know and they’d hunt WL-009 to the ends of the dream realms. I would be spelling both her doom and my own. No, my fears and doubts had to stay to myself.

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WL-009’s disappearance had been discovered the next morning when we were called in for exercises. They sent out Night Gaunts to search from the air while we searched on the ground. Thankfully, though, she was long gone. Like the rest of us, she had been thoroughly trained in wilderness survival and made herself nearly impossible to track. I could only hope that she made it to her destination. Ever since the Dream Realms began merging with ours, earth animals began to shift and transform with the world. Some deer became carnivorous and clever, the herd surrounding an unlucky human and goring them with their horns before the mouths
splitting their chest from throat to groin opened up and pulled their prey inside. Sometimes, multiple deer would attack at once and rip them apart. Coyotes grew larger and more vicious, with jagged teeth sticking out of their great drooling maws. Their bodies had been covered with eyes so that they might catch spot prey at any angle. Even the songbirds changed, their chirps becoming a siren song that paralyzes those who listened so that the flock can swarm and devour them.

I didn’t like to think about any of those fates befalling WL-009, but the mental image of her lying bloody and dead on the ground or devoured into nothing refused to leave my mind’s eye.

We returned to the barracks emptyhanded, much to my relief, though I had enough sense not to show it on my face. As I prepared for my sleep cycle, Honored Priest Rivayne called me into his office.

His desk was made from a shiny wood that reminded me of WL-009’s skin tone, and he sat on a plush looking chair. The walls were decorated with paintings of the Old Ones so rich and intricate that a headache bloomed behind my eyes just looking at them. The shelves were lined with ancient books bound in human skin and statues carved from emerald and bone. A Night Gaunt laid curled by the fireplace, the collar around its neck chaining it to the floor. More experienced soldiers took care of them, so I had never seen one up close. The creature looked just like the photographs. With its mouth closed, its face was entirely blank, but if you looked closely, you could see the seam running laterally down the center of its face. On a hunt, its face would split it in two, revealing hundreds of jagged teeth. Massive horns curved atop its head and
bat-like wings covered its body like a blanket. Its barbed tail was coiled around its body like drawings of sleeping cats in the ancient picture books WL-009 found while rummaging through the remains of an abandoned Apostate home.

“Sit,” Honored Priest Rivayne said as he gestured to the chair across from his desk. Though it appeared to be covered in scales, it was surprisingly plush when I sat in it. Our mattresses were so thin that floors were just as comfortable, and none of the chairs in the barracks had any cushions, so this was the softest thing I had sat on in years.

Can I help you, sir? I signed.

He rolled his eyes and handed me a pen and paper. “I don’t have time to interpret that, so just write down what you say and show it to me. Understood?”

I nodded and repeated my question on paper.

“I wanted to talk to you about the disappearance of WL-009. You two were close, from what I’ve heard.”

I’m sorry. I know friendships are discouraged, I wrote.

“Well, that can be our little secret,” he replied and then leaned in closer, “as long as you tell me where she went.”

I don’t know, I said.

He affixed me with a murderous glare so fierce that I shrank back in my chair. “Don’t
you dare lie to a superior officer.”

I shook my head, trying to look like the picture of innocence when we both knew I was anything but.

He sighed, closing a book on his desk, and writing something on a piece of paper. “Pity. You were such a good soldier and had such potential. But we cannot tolerate lies and insubordination. You leave me no choice, EL-011.” He snapped his fingers, and soldiers descended upon me and the Night Gaunt.

I was too ashamed to fight back. I was an unfit soldier, unworthy of anything but death. My loyalties had been split between an eternity basking in the glory of Nlyarlotep and my ephemeral feelings for a weak, mortal girl, and in refusing to make a choice, I let myself be compromised.

They brought me into a stained glass covered chapel with an altar, two cages, and a small group of robed figures. The guards led me into my cage and wrestled the angry Night Gaunt into the other. The robed figures, led by Honored Priest Rivayne, began to chant in the language of the Old Ones.

The words blazed within, burning my soul like the furnace of a blacksmith’s workshop and I was the white-hot blade to be hammered into shape. I was an inferno, an explosion, a supernova in human form and though I began screaming silently, something shifted in my throat, connecting like magnets. And then I heard my own voice, my own agonized wails after fifteen years of silence, and my voice sounded foreign to my ears. My human screams transformed into inhuman screeches.

With a massive tearing sound, my skin ripped open, releasing bat wings and a tail bloody as an infant pulled right out of the womb. Horns penetrated my skin from the inside out until that too tore and with a crack, my face split in two, jagged teeth poking through the tender flesh. My fingers sprouted claws and a carapace formed under my skin.

But unlike the Night Gaunts, I kept the tattered and torn remains of skin on my face and body. Everything was pain and the heartbeats of those present in the room pounded in my ears like gunshots. I could sense their blood flowing through their veins, and I wanted nothing more than to eat and eat and eat until all life was dead and my hunger satiated.

The master—I knew his name once, but that doesn’t matter now—handed me a piece of fabric, and I felt every stitch, every granular weave. I sniffed it. The smell was pleasant and familiar, like warmth on a winter day. Two humans unlocked my cage and I staggered out, my skin aching with every touch. “Find her,” he commanded, and I obeyed, flying through the colorful glass that once belonged to an Apostate god but now laid shattered on the ground.

Using my wings to glide, I practiced flapping a few times to gain lift, my stomach lurching with every tree I skimmed. Once I was comfortable flying, I followed the scent in the direction of the mountains. The smell led me to a small cave, and I landed hard, stumbling and scraping away some of my old skin.

Some humans cried out in alarm and aimed their weapons at me as though it would make any difference. One fired, and the bullet bounced off me. I took his gun and with a guttural roar broke it across my knee. Another tried to lunge, and I bit it, watching impassively as it dissolved before the very eyes of my attackers.

Rather than deterring them like I hoped, they redoubled their efforts. I pierced some with my barbed tail and slashed at others, fighting and screaming until I heard a familiar voice shout, “Stop!”

I froze at the sound of the voice, the master’s command warring with my desire to be near her. I did not know who she was, but I knew she was as important to me as breathing had been when I was human. She had my heart, my love strong enough to rival my love of Great Nyarlotep. She was secret smiles and quiet jokes and warm hands in the dark.

She approached slowly with her hands up. Speaking in the Old Tongue, she said, “You must be here for me. I’ll come as long as you don’t hurt anyone else.” Slowly, I turned towards her, and she physically recoiled. “Ellie?”

Ellie, a nickname designed to individuate and a threat to the peace offered by Nyarlotep. It was a name to be rejected and scorned, but I instead felt what could be called my heart pound in my chest.

“Ellie, it is you,” she said, tears running down her cheeks. “What did they do to you?”

One of the human creatures said something I couldn’t understand, and she responded in their language before turning back to me. “More are coming, aren’t there?

I didn’t understand what she meant, so I stayed still. She sighed and said something else to the creatures. They began packing up their campsite, leaving me alone and unsure what I should do. Then she returned and said in the Old Tongue, “We’re leaving. There’s a human military base nearby, and hopefully we’ll get there before more old friends decide to join us.” She cupped my face in her hands. “Come with me. We’ll take care of you.”

I glanced back in the direction of the master, and all I felt were memories of suffering in service to Nyarlotep. When I turned back to her, I saw warmth, comfort, and safety. Nuzzling into her hand, I made my choice.

Kay Hanifen was born on a Friday the 13th and once lived for three months in a haunted castle. So, obviously, she had to become a horror writer. Her articles have appeared in Ghouls Magazine, Screen Rant, The Borgen Project, and Leatherneck magazine; and her short stories have appeared in Strangely Funny VIII, Crunchy With Ketchup, Last Girls' Club, Wicked Newsletters, Fearful Fun, Death of a Bad Neighbor, Enchanted Entrapments, Diet Riot: A Fatterpunk Anthology, M is for Medical, Terror in the Trenches, Slice of Paradise, Vinyl Cuts, Sherlock Holmes and Watson’s Medical Mysteries, Beware the Bugs, Rockets and Robots, Divergent Terror, The Siren's Call, Wishing Well, Hush Don't Wake the Monster, The Old Ways, Dracula's Guests, and Devil's Rejects. When she’s not consuming pop culture with the voraciousness of a vampire at a 24-hour blood bank, you can usually find her with her two black cats or at

Copyright © 2023 by Kay Hanifen
Published by Orion's Beau
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