The Dead City…who could say they remembered its real name, before it was claimed by howls and snarls and vicious dissonance?

Nothing ever came out, save a rank odor when the winds were just right and the occasional howl of something inarticulate and unknowable (or perhaps just metal on metal). Things occasionally went in–explorers, scavengers, missionaries even–but it was as sure a death sentence as dangling from a makeshift gallows or facing down a firing squad as far as most could figure. People gave the Dead City a wide berth coming and going, with signs warning the unwary away the only part of the old road that saw any maintenance in those latter days.

Yet lights still shone in the night, even though the power had been cut, dried out, or redirected practically forever ago. People with binoculars could see movement from a safe distance, but an inversion layer kept it shimmering and indistinct. Smoke rose from chimneys and stacks as if the city were alive.

And, if anything, it was that illusion of life that filled people with bone-deep dread.

In 1897, the McKennitt family climbed Mt. Hobs for a day of picnicking, taking with them a heavy quilt to serve as a picnic blanket. The father, Sean McKennitt, billowed out the quilt in preparation for laying it flat. Instead, the quilt settled over something in midair–something man-sized yet invisible. Thinking he had snagged a hidden branch, McKennit removed the quilt and tried again, this time clearly noting that nothing occupied the space. Again, the quilt draped itself over something unseen.

When it began to move, the McKennitt family fled in a panic.

After hearing his wild stories in the valley, a group of curious locals, including Sean McKennitt himself, located the picnic site but were unable to find the quilt. Though the site’s disarray and the unfinished, still-packed picnic basket lent some credence to his claim, the prevailing opinion was that McKennitt had simply been seeing things and mistaken a gust of wind for some kind of phantom.

But over the years that followed, the McKennitt quilt was seen all over Mt. Hobs, often from a distance but nearly always apparently draped over something unseen. The quilt became bleached, and patchy, but it never fell apart. And whatever sort of thing Sean McKennitt had stumbled upon that day, it never deigned to remove the blanket that made it visible to a fearful world.

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SKIT stores, your source for affordable modular furniture from Åland, is proud to present its new catalog item for fall 2017:

Name: RYLEH
Type: Mirror
Article Number: 13.1289.66

The latest addition to the RYLEH line of home furnishings from SKIT, the RYLEH Mirror is made out of 100% ethically sourced cosmic matter that is impervious to any interaction with normal matter. It is imperishable, indestructible, will float in the void long after out sun has cooled to ash, and can be cleaned with a damp cloth. Through the artisan-crafted electromatter glass, you can see not only reflections of that is, but also what might be and what cannot be stopped. SKIT is not responsible for madness caused by the RYLEH, and recommends that you gaze into its abyss no more than twice a day for 30 seconds or less.

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“Bring them forth.”

The cultists shoved John and Mary forward, bruised and bloodied from where they’d been torn from their station wagon.

“Bow before the Gourd God!” one of the cultists snarled.

“Why have you come to this place?” cried the apparition in the center of the field, a pumpkin-headed man in a scarecrow’s vestments that was not consumed by the flames that encircled it.

“We…we just wanted directions,” John whimpered. “We were going to Gatlinburg and got lost.”

“Oh, well that’s easy,” said the Gourd God. “You get back on 33 and follow it east until it meets up with I-32. Just make sure you get off at Exit 185, or you’ll get caught up in construction.”

John looked around, confused. “Can you…can you write that down?”

“Sure.” One of the cultist’s eyes glowed and they scrawled out the directions, in their own blood, on a page torn from a holy book.

“T-thanks,” said Mary.

“Hey, don’t mention it,” said the Gourd God. “I’m sorry about the kids roughing you up, they have a little more passion than sense sometimes. Safe travels!”

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On June 28, a middle manager at Highner-Coburn, a manufacturer of valves and o-ring seals, went into the parking lot. He locked himself in his late-model Takuro Phantom, at around 10:45 that morning.

Around noon, the fire department responded to a call about a car fire. They arrived to find the Takuro an inferno, utterly consuming the middle manager and three other nearby cars. In the news the following day, it was assumed to be an accident. But an investigation found traces of accelerant, and a reciept for acetone was found in the man’s desk.

It was, apparently, a grisly form of suicide.

And that would have been all, a gruesome sideline for a slow news day. And then on July 4–Independence Day–a woman who worked for a midtown DMV got into her Powell sedan with a can of hairspray and a lighter. The Powell took about half an hour to burn to cinders, and eyewitnesses report that the victim sat placidly behind the wheel as she, and her car, were immolated.

Between the first incident on June 28 and the final one on September 23, a total of 38 people were burned up in their cars. They represented a wide range of occupations, men and women, and all races. But they were predominantly middle-aged, white-collar workers, albeit ones without histories of depression or suicidal thoughts. The only commonality, if it can be called that, was that all of the cars were older models and tended to be from manufacturers that either no longer existed or no longer sold cars in the USA, like Takura or Powell.

The authorities were only able to rescue one victim before they were killed: Gabriel Hernandez, a 41-year-old assistant manager at OfficeSmart. Hernandez was unable to speak due to severe damage to his lungs due to smoke inhalation, and he lingered for three months before dying in November–the last official victim of the Summer of Burning Cars.

Police attempted to interview him using a letter board all the same. In response to their questions, Hernandez spelled out a single word: SPARK.

It’s still unknown what he meant.

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Day 28: Stay home from work and school from now until the end of the challenge.

Day 29: Go up to your high place. Take a selfie and post it with the hashtag #Emergence. Stay there until dawn the following morning.

Day 30: Jump.

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Day 19: Contact your sponsor. Make sure they know how far you have come, and they will confirm your Cocoon status.

Day 20: Your sponsor will send you a film. Watch it.

Day 21: Watch the film all day, from when you get up to when you go to sleep.

Day 22: Delete the film. You will never need to watch it again.

Day 23: Locate a high-up place that is also secret. A railroad bridge or an abandoned building are good candidates.

Day 24: Take a selfie in your high-up place. Post it with the hashtag #CocoonGoesHere.

Day 25: Take a razor blade and cut yourself on your inner lip, your inner arm, and your inner thigh. Do not take a picture of this.

Day 26: Write down a date four days from today. Leave it in a place where it can be found, but not easily, in your room.

Day 27: Go to the high place you found and stand on the very edge for one hour. If you are seen, you fail the test and must go back and find another high place.

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Day 10: Call or Skype your sponsor. Make sure they have seen everything up to this point. They will give you a task to do as confirmation of your Caterpillar status. Do it without question.

Day 11: Your sponsor will send you a piece of music today. Listen to it.

Day 12: Listen to the piece of music from yesterday for 1 hour.

Day 13: Listen to the piece of music from yesterday all day. Have it on in the background or in your headphones from when you wake up to when you go to sleep.

Day 14: Delete the song. You will never need to listen to it again.

Day 15: Choose a spot on your body that no one will notice, like the inside of your arm. Draw a butterfly with permanent marker and take a picture. Do not wash it off afterwards.

Day 16: Post your body art with the hashtag #Larva.

Day 17: Cut the form of a butterfly into your flesh, lightly, with the tip of a razor. Follow the drawing from Day 15. Take a picture.

Day 18: Post your carved butterfly with the hashtag #Cocooning.

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Castrato opened his hand, revealing a pair of scratched and dinged diopters. “Tiberia thinks this was lost down a drain,” he said. “She ain’t so good at knowing what’s lost and what a clever bloke with a piece of wire can get.”

“You mean…?” Claudia began.

“I’ve peeked through them enough to know that ain’t a single glow changed in all the fifteen years since I’ve worn the shackles,” Castrato continued. “Not a one has got brighter, not a one has got duller. Much as it kills me to have a look without their say-so–not that it bothers Tiberia none–I just had to know.”

“Miss Tiberia says that if they don’t dim, they’re kept here forever,” Miss Claudia whispered.

“Think about it, missy,” said Castrato. “I been here all of fifteen years in the shackles, and that oughta mean there’s some girls at least 20, maybe even 30. What’s the oldest girl you seen? 15?”

“No,” Claudia said. “That’s not-”

“You wanna know why no assistants last longer than two years here? You wanna know why no one ever leaves? It’s on account of Tiberia taking ’em below, to the catacombs, and ending ’em.” Castrato let out a strangled sob. “The shackles, they keeps me from doing anything about it. Half the time I can’t even get the assistants alone to tell ’em. The other half, they just up and leave.”

Castrato’s face was streaming with tears now, and the shackles were aglow at his wrists and ankles, the smell of searing flesh welling up in Claudia’s nostrils.

“Please, Miss Withers,” Castrato said. “Do something for ’em. Do right by these girls. Even the nastiest of ’em doesn’t deserve a screaming death in the catacombs at that hag’s claws.”

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“I know that the daemons ever seek to invade and influence our world,” said Claudia.

“Yes, but do you know that all too often that influence takes the form of, shall we say, tainted children?” Miss Tiberia said. “I presume that I need not go into further sordid detail.”

Claudia nodded. “No, Miss Tiberia,” she said.

“Good. Tainted girls are brought to us from all over the countryside, just as tainted boys are sent to our sister school at Illumoor. Our job is to see that the taint is extinguished.”

“You’ll pardon me for saying so,” said Claudia, with a nervous glance upward as her words echoed into the Gothic rafters of the ex-cathedral, “but how do we do that, and how do we know it’s done?”

Miss Tiberia harrumphed a bit. “It is intuitively obvious, is it not, that the daemons are reliant on lies and illusions in their dealings with mortals?”

“Yes, Miss Tiber.”

“Then it ought to be equally obvious that the girls in questions will be protected by the very same.” Miss Tiber reached into a pouch on her chatelaine belt and produced what appeared to be a set of reading spectacles. “But with the diopters, all becomes clear.”

She unclipped them and handed them to Claudia, who donned them. Suddenly, the scene before her was awash in a yellow glow; it took a moment’s adjustment to see that the glow was coming from the girls in their dormitories, perfect silhouettes visible even through walls and fading only with considerable distance.

“They…they are aglow!” Claudia whispered.

“Indeed so,” said Miss Tiberia. “They are aglow, each of them, with a daemonic taint from their ancestors’…intimate…dealings with the unholy. It is our charge, Miss Withers, to diminish this glow through discipline, rigorous virtue, and moral certitude.”

Claudia was still agog from the view before her. “So when a girl is no longer glowing, she will be released from St. Gaius’s?”

Miss Tiberia nodded. “Naturally. But if the glow remains, or strengthens, it is our duty to see that the taint is contained.”

“So the girls remain here?”

“That they do,” said Miss Tiberia. “Forever.”

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