Halloween Ghost Story Contest -- 2011
Adult Winners

Second Place

Our second place winner is Diana Malachim of Washington State.

A Midnight Fire

Diana Malachim

I arrived at the tavern on the afternoon of the previous day, looking as innocuous as I could muster.  Every once in a while, a more sensitive soul senses there is something else about me, something not quite human, and either stares for a few moments longer than politeness would advice, or turns away in haste.  None in the tavern sensed anything out of the ordinary, which was fine by me.  I had no desire to be discovered before I could carry out my mission.

The tavern was on the last town before the mountain ridge, and a half day away from my destination.  I’m going to Aerie, the city built on the steepest cliff.  Aerie overlooks the lands beneath for miles on end, and all the mountain passes and routes.  Nobody can go through the ridge without Aerie’s knowledge.  As far back as people remembered, its soldiers kept those roads safe for all.  Then, some years ago, and without explanation, the citizens of Aerie forbade strangers from using the mountain roads and killed everyone who attempted to do so.

I sat at a table close to the fire.  The flame flickered higher, acknowledging my presence.  I bowed ever slightly and the flame went back to its normal size, before anybody could notice the change.  I looked around the large room.  It was clear that the people at the tables were all locals.  They were townsfolk, peasants and farmers, drinking while reminiscing of the good old days.

“A traveler,” sighed a short, stocky man.  “Long have been the days since I saw many of your kind around these parts.  What brings you here?”

“I’m passing through,” I replied.

“You will need to take your path through the woods, young man.  It will add many days to your journey, but the mountains are forbidden to all nowadays.”

“So I’ve been told, but I have not been given the reason.”

The stocky man shrugged his shoulders and sighed again.

“That, we don’t know,” and he went back to his cup of mead.

Silence filled the tavern until an old man spoke from across the room.

“It started with the death of their priest, a few years ago.  That same day they rounded up all foreigners and took them outside the city walls.  They told them never to come back to Aerie, or try crossing the mountain roads, and to warn everybody else not to do so, under threat of death.  And have they kept that threat.  Anybody who risks crossing through the mountains is found and killed, their impaled bodies left to rot at the side of the roads.  Men, women or children, it makes no difference.  Mercy to none.”

I shook my head sideways.  Tales of Aerie’s treatment of those attempting to use the mountain roads traveled far and wide.  Something happened to that once vibrant and friendly city, but I wasn’t here to ask questions or get answers.  The clamor of their victims carried in the wind and smoke, until it reached me.  I was here to avenge.

“The sooner, the better,” I thought. “Let me finish their reign of terror before they can claim any more lives.”

I got up from my chair, ready to leave.

“Thank you for your hospitality, but I must get going.”  That brought surprised looks from the patrons.

“No, you mustn’t,” warned the old man.  “Do spend the night here.  The woods are dangerous after dark.  Many an unwise traveler has fallen prey to bandits.  Please don’t be the next one.”

I smiled.

“Again, thank you for your hospitality, but you need not worry about me.  I have nothing of value to tempt thieves.  They’d be wasting their time trying to rob me, a pauper, and perhaps they’d end up losing something valuable themselves.  And I do mean something more valuable than time.”

With that last sentence, which those simple folk didn’t understand, I bid them farewell.  As I left the tavern, the fire extended one of its flaming arms in my direction, waving goodbye for a brief instance, and then retreated.  I didn’t look back into the room to see if anybody noticed.  I didn’t care if they had.


Nights in the woods can be dark and lonely, and the need for a good fire is the same for man and creature alike.  I lit one on a clearing near the mountain, and sat in quiet contemplation.  Fire, my one true friend, my kin.  The flames danced on the rocks and fed on dry twigs.  A happy fire is a well-fed fire, and this fire would feast tonight.  Only, I didn’t know it yet.

A noise behind my back alerted me of intruders.

“Let them be travelers like myself,” I thought, “otherwise it will be their end.”

I turned around and saw a man coming out of the woods.  He was carrying a hunter’s knife.  A second man appeared behind the first one, also carrying a weapon.  A third man, who’d been hiding behind a large tree, joined them.  They all were carrying weapons, and by the look on their faces, they intended to use them.  The three were grinning.

“Greetings,” I said. “Please come and join me by the fire.  I am but a poor traveler.  I have nothing of value worth stealing, as you can see.  Please put down your weapons and join me in the enjoyment of this fire.  The night is long and my wish for company is great.  There is no need for violence.”

The men laughed in unison.  My heart sank, for I do have a heart.  A fiery heart, but a heart nonetheless.  I have seen this scene played countless times over the years, and I know how it’ll play out.  I must resign myself, for their fate is all but sealed.  They will attack me and try to kill me, like so many others have done before.  They did not heed my plea, because they didn’t realize it wasn’t a plea but a warning.  They will try to kill me, and not in a quick and painless manner.  That’s when they’ll realize who – and what – I am.  Only then will they see I gave them a warning, but it will be too late.

“Nothing of value, you say?” Mocked me the first man, brandishing his knife in the air as he walked towards me.  He was a big man, sprouting a thick beard but little hair.

“You mean you lit this fire to make us think you were a wealthy traveler?  Why would you do such a rotten thing?” Asked the second man, feigning disapproval.

“He tricked us,” The third man spat to the side.  “We must make him pay.”

“Please,” I asked for the last time, knowing very well they wouldn’t listen.  “I’m begging you.  Don’t harm me.  You have nothing to gain, and nothing good will come out of this.  Go in peace.”

They laughed louder, circling around me.  The fire roared in anger, readying itself for the carnage.  The men didn’t notice.

“Oh, yes,” said the first man.  “We will enjoy this fire … after we use you for kindling.”

“Here.  Have some company,” and with a swift move, the third man slashed me across the face.

The other two struck me almost at the same time, one stabbing me in the chest, the other one on my back.  Their laughter ceased as soon as their blades went through my flesh, and they withdrew in terror.

“Look!  He doesn’t bleed!  The wounds … there are no wounds!”

The fire in my core erupted, and I became a torch in the shape of a man.

“He’s a Fire Avenger!” Said the first man, and at that moment he knew he was going to die.

“I warned you,” I said calmly.  “I warned the three of you.  Now I must avenge your wrongdoing.”

And with those words, I fell upon them.

I held them by the hands, burning their wrists and searing their fingers.  Their skin charred under my heat, and their metal weapons melted, brandishing their flesh.  I then grabbed their feet, and they fell to their knees.  Their feet were no more.  They screamed in agony, unable to escape.  The fire I lit behind me grew in size and its flames extended around the men, surrounding them.  The flames became blazing ropes, lassoing the men and bringing them on top of the rocks and dry wood, using them for kindling.  I remained alit until the last one of them was consumed completely, and only ashes remained.

The happy fire danced all night, feeding on the three carcasses.  Afterwards, it sang.  Most humans don’t know that fire sings, because their ears are not attuned to its delicate sound.  That night, the well-fed, jubilant fire sang with a most melodious voice, filling my heart with joy.


Morning gave way to noon, and soon the walled city of Aerie was within my sight.  I’d been following the mountain road undisturbed, for nobody, whether travelers or bandits, dare use these roads anymore.  Impaled bodies guarded the entrance; most of them skeletons, some falling apart.  I presumed to be the same gruesome spectacle on each other road that lead through Aerie’s domain.

I failed to notice the string on the road and stumbled on it, triggering the trap.  A net fell and enveloped me, lifting me above the ground.  Several armed men appeared from their hiding places between the rocks.  They must have been watching me from the moment I first approached the mountain, aware of my every move.  Their leader stood next to me.

“Why are you here?” he demanded.  To my surprise, his voice carried no malice.  Only sadness.

“I’m a traveler,” I replied, doing my best to sound scared.  “This is the fastest way to my destination.”

“Didn’t you see the skeletons at the foothill?  Don’t you know this road is forbidden to all strangers?”


“Don’t you know,” and he paused, for it hurt him to say the next words.  “That the penalty for trespassing is death?”


The man shook his head.

“Then you knew what to expect.”  He motioned the other men to take the net down, but not to free me.  They placed me on a wagon and took me to their city.

Aerie was a beautiful place, clean and well cared for by its inhabitants.  Curious faces popped out of windows and door crevices, some leaving their houses and following us in silence to the main square.  There, I was taken off the wagon and freed from the net.  I stood still, while they tied my hands behind my back.  Two of the men stayed by my side, ready to thrust their lances at me had I made a sudden move.  The others went inside a large, nearby building.  By now many people had gathered around the square, inspecting me with trepidation.  It struck me that they were not looking at me with hate, but with fear.  All of them were afraid of me.

The men who went into the building came back to the square with half a dozen people.  They were the city elders, three women and three men.  One of the women spoke.

“They’ve told me you know our laws that forbid strangers from entering the mountain, and that you know we punish them by death.  So you know we must kill you.”

“Please, don’t,” I began.  My plea is my warning:  Those who heed it will be safe; those who ignore it, die.

The old woman raised her hand and interrupted me.

“What we do, we do with heavy hearts.  Believe me when I say we have no choice in this matter.  We must kill you.”

I looked around the silent crowd, for none, other than the woman, had uttered a word.  Not a single face showed the glee and anticipation I often see among those who witness public executions.  These people were different.  They would kill me, as they had killed others before, but they’d do it without pleasure.  Something was amiss.  However, I am a Fire Avenger.  I wasn’t there to ask questions.  My purpose was, and always will be, to avenge.

“You’ll die at midnight.”

The elders left the square and went back into the building.  The crowd dispersed and went back into their respective homes.  I was allowed to sit, and my hands untied briefly while they fed me what was meant to be my last meal.  Armed guards remained by my side to ensure I wouldn’t escape.

At midnight, they brought me to the gallows in the middle of the empty square to be hanged.  Other than the guards, none of Aerie’s residents were present to witness my death.

“Please,” I tried one last time.

“We’re sorry,” said the executioner, as he let the scaffold under me give way and my body fell through the emptiness.

It was done.

“He’s not dead!” Someone cried.  “He’s still moving!”

“His hands!  He’s undoing the noose!”

I took the rope from around my neck and jumped onto the ground.  The dread in their faces was magnified by seeing me alive and unscathed.

“I warned you,” I said, as I’d said many times before.  “I warned all of you.  Now I must avenge your wrongdoing.”

As I blazed through the square, I called on Aerie’s fire to join me in the destruction of the city.  The house fires escaped the confinement of their hearths and danced on the beds, the chairs, the tables, and on everything they could consume.  When they finished with the objects, they moved on to the people.  Flaming arms embraced whole families, bringing them to their bosoms and uniting them in death.  They caressed their clothing first, then their skins and last their entrails.  The flames engulfed the trees, the flowers, and everything else they could find within the boundaries of Aerie’s walls.  

The separate fires joined together into a large bonfire that engulfed the whole city.  Flames leaped over buildings, dwarfing them, and sang joyous songs as they fed on flesh and bone, for a well-fed fire is a happy being.  And when it was sated, we danced together, and sang songs that humans will never know, because those are songs born of the kinship of all things fire, which is nature’s most primordial element.

The fire raged for hours before slowly dying down, and only at dawn I reacquired my human shape.  Smoke rose from this once proud city, now reduced to nothingness.

A moan under the rubble caught me by surprise.

“Someone is still alive.”

I removed the stones and found the old woman.  She was alive, but not for much longer.  She opened her eyes.

“Mercy,” she pleaded through cinched lips.

“You showed no mercy to all those people you killed, and you certainly showed me no mercy.”  I looked around at the smoldering ruins and, though I don’t have to ask questions, I am not forbidden from doing so.  I had to know.  “Why, woman?  Why did you kill them?”

“Our priest told us on his death bed that a stranger would destroy the city and kill us all.”

The woman coughed.  Blood droplets stained her cheek.

“He died before he could tell us who the stranger was.  We couldn’t take a chance.”  Her eyes were closing.  “And now, in spite of everything we did, his prophecy is fulfilled.”

The woman’s voice was a whisper.

“The stranger he foretold about … was you.”

“No,” I raised my voice, unsure of whether she could still hear.  “I did not set up to burn your city.  The cries of the dead summoned me and demanded they’d be avenged.  Every person you killed showed me the way to Aerie and brought me a step closer.  It is because of what you did that your city is destroyed and the people gone.  I am not the one who fulfilled your priest’s death bed prophecy:  You did.”

The woman gasped for air, the horror of understanding imprinted on her face.

“Forgive us.  Forgive us all.”


 I buried her corpse on the place she died, and left Aerie the same day.  My mission was accomplished and the dead avenged but, for the first time, I had no joy in my heart.

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