Saturday, October 7, 2023

“Once Upon a Horror” • by Jason D. Wittman


The dark faerie walked into the spell chamber, and saw what she expected to see: a many-stained workbench, jars filled with alchemical powders, small cages shaking with the struggles of creatures best left unnamed. But she did not see whom she sought.

Finally, she saw a sheet of dark velvet hung over an oval frame. With a sweep of black-and-purple robes she went to it, and pulled it away to reveal the mirror.

She struck the floor stones with her staff, and a hollow boom resounded through the castle.

“Mirror, do you hear me?”

The face she saw was not her own, floating disembodied in darkness, lit balefully from below.

“Dark faerie, half-sister to my lady queen, I hear you.”

“Where is my half-sister?”

Did the mirror… hesitate?

“You know of the queen’s obsession with her stepdaughter. She went to kill her at the dwarves’ dwelling.”


“They are both dead. The dwarves chased her majesty over a cliff.”

The dark faerie sighed. She had feared it would come to this.

“Tell me where her body is, then, so I may bury her properly.”

Now the mirror clearly hesitated.

“What is it?”

After a moment, the mirror said, “After the dwarves slew my lady queen, they held a funeral for her stepdaughter. In the midst of the ceremony, the baron rode up. He examined the body. He told the dwarves he could resurrect her—”

“What has this to do with the queen?”

“You know the baron’s methods.”

And the dark faerie’s blood ran cold.

“Show me.”

The mirror did nothing.

“Show. Me.”

The mirror complied. And the scene it displayed drew a gasp of stark horror from the Empress of Dark Faeries, mistress of all fell spirits.

“You fool!” she screamed at the image. “You arrogant, self-absorbed, short-sighted FOOL!”

And in a whirlwind of lightning, she left her half-sister’s castle, returning to her own.


When he heard the lock rattle in the cell door, the prince struggled against his chains.

“What have you done with the princess? I demand you take me to her!”

The door opened, and blinding light lanced into the cell. The dark faerie raised her hand so its shadow gripped the prince’s neck, and lifted him off the floor.

“I will not say this again,” she enunciated. “Your princess is not here. You have sought her in the wrong place.”

The prince’s struggling subsided. “So… the queen has her?”

“The baron does.”

The prince’s struggles resumed. “Let me go! I’ve got to save her!”

Silence, boy. You cannot save her. Not against the baron.

“Not without my help.”

She struck the floor with her staff, and the chains fell from the prince’s wrists and ankles. She set him down, and turned to the door.

“Follow me.”


After returning his sword to him, the dark faerie led the prince out of her fortress and under the turbulent sky.

“We had best hurry,” she said. “The baron derives his power from storms such as this.” She looked over her shoulder at him. “Look away, boy. You don’t want to see me when I metamorphose.”

He turned his back to her. When the change was complete, he mounted the dragon, and they flew to the baron’s castle.


The dwarves waited anxiously outside the baron’s laboratory. They had had misgivings ever since agreeing to the baron’s proposal. But they were so guilt-ridden from failing to protect the princess, they had to try something.

Then they heard something large pass over the castle. Dakh, who stood near a window, shouted, “There’s a dragon out there!”

When they saw it approach the gates, they decided to take no chances, and went out to confront it.

The dragon greeted them with a barrage of fire. The dwarves cringed back—but it was only for display. The dragon stepped into the flames, and the dark faerie stepped out.

“What do you want here, witch?” Dakh asked.

“I am here,” the dark faerie replied, “to save my half-sister—and your precious princess—from the fate the baron has planned for them.”

“We brought her here to save her!”

The dark faerie shook her head. “That is not saving.”

The dwarves hefted their pickaxes. “We will not let you interfere.”

“So be it.”

And she let them see her metamorphose.  Before they finished screaming, she exhaled more fire.


Before meeting the dwarves at the gates, the dark faerie had dropped the prince off on a turret in the baron’s castle. While she distracted the dwarves, he was to go to the baron’s laboratory—she had told him the way—and stop whatever happened there.

“What is he doing to her?” he had asked.

She had not answered.

He ran down stairwell and corridor at speed, hoping all the while he had not missed a turn. Along the way he passed doors with small barred windows, through which he heard predatory growls and screams of mortal terror abruptly stilled.

Finally, he came upon a door, standing by itself, with no windows. He thought it was the right one, judging from the unnerving humming noise which vibrated through it.

To his surprise, the door was slightly ajar. He opened it slowly, and crept inside.

He was just in time to see a lightning bolt strike through an aperture in the ceiling, hitting a series of metal spikes which sent electricity coruscating through heavy wires which ended finally in a large copper tub which occupied the center of the floor.

When the flash was gone, and the thunderclap had left a loud ringing in the ears, the prince saw a man in a white coat run hurriedly to the copper tub, and peer inside.

What he saw there appeared to please him. He began to laugh. He raised his face to the heavens, spread his arms, and laughed more loudly. He twirled around, laughing still louder in his exultation—and then he saw the prince.

“Why… your highness!” he said with a bow, “how fortuitous it is for you to be here. You are just in time to witness a miracle of modern science. And I have also snatched your fair princess from the very jaws of death—and her stepmother into the bargain.” He stepped back, and gestured to the copper tub. “See for yourself.”

Keeping his sword leveled at the baron, the prince stepped toward the tub.

And he saw.

“It is accomplished,” said the baron. “Now the name of Frankenstein will be remembered forever in the annals of—”

The prince screamed and swung his sword at the baron’s neck…

…but he was stopped by a shadow-hand which gripped the blade.

“I am sorry, boy,” said the dark faerie as she strode into the laboratory. “I should have brought us here more quickly.”

“What are you doing?” the prince cried. “He deserves death!”

“Death? O my prince, use your imagination.” She stepped to the copper tub, and gazed within. “This… this deserves far, far worse.”


Things are quiet now in the queen’s realm. The dwarves, in their shame, swore themselves to the princess’s service unto death. The dark faerie set them to the task of the baron’s punishment. They were forbidden only from killing him.

For the queen’s part, after seeing what her jealousy had brought them to, she repented of her acts and begged her stepdaughter’s forgiveness. The princess forgave her wholeheartedly, for that was the sort of person she was.

Under the circumstances, the prospect of marriage between the prince and the princess was cast in serious doubt. But the prince could not bring himself to abandon her entirely. He visited as often as he could, offering comfort and companionship, helping first with the wheelchair, then with the walker. Perhaps this was why the dark faerie once kissed him on the cheek as he left the royal bedchamber.

Now that the stitching was removed, and the healing was complete, the sight of the baron’s handiwork was at least bearable. There was even talk, begun by the princess herself, of a public appearance.

But the prince would never forget what he saw when he first looked into the copper tub.

Limbs on one side clearly longer than those on the other. Two eyes, one green, one vivid blue, each moving independently until they both focused on him. The queen asking, with her stepdaughter’s tongue:

“Am I the fairest one of all?”



JASON D. WITTMAN lives and works in Minnesota. He has had published fiction in and Baen’s Universe, as well as two previous stories, “Emissaries from Venus,” and “The She-Dragon of Bly,” in Stupefying Stories.  He has also had two games published by Steve Jackson Games, and can recite Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” from memory.


In a world...

Where the Soviet Union won WWII, England is now a Soviet satellite, some magic actually works (sometimes), and Premier Kruschev is going eyeball-to-eyeball with President Patton—

The last surviving member of His Majesty’s Dragonslayer Corps is called out of retirement, because it seems dragons aren’t extinct after all, and one has taken up residence in a prominent Politburo member’s country estate. Read the rest in THE SHE-DRAGON OF BLY, by Jason D. Wittman, just one of the terrific tales in STUPEFYING STORIES 22!

Available in paperback only, for reasons too strange to explain.



ray p daley said...

Do I see "Your Princess is in another castle" quietly disguised up there? ;-)