Wizards in Space Pilot Episode

Bildenploy’s Gambit

By Eugene L. Morgulis

Archmage Foster Bildenploy stroked his beard as he studied the image of the hulking prison ship on the bridge’s main crystal ball.  It was a Guild-commissioned astral vessel, like his own Ivory Scepter, so there wasn’t any obvious cause for concern. But Foster was too shrewd and too cautious to ignore the uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“Wards up,” he said.

Chief security mage Glindon Shafley nodded and whispered an incantation into his thaumaturgic transceiver. “Level 12 ward in place, Archmage,” he said with his second mouth, as his first finished the spell.

“Ms. Plink,” said Foster, “any abnormal intuitions about that vessel?”

The fairy tapped her ear points with two tiny fingers and furrowed her brow in deep concentration.

“Uncertain, Archmage.  The aura readings on board the Golem are normal. Crew and prisoners are all accounted for, but…” Bix Plink bit her lip and flew to the crystal ball, pressing her hands against its smooth milky surface.

“Strange,” she said under her breath.  “My intuition readings keep shifting randomly.  It’s like I’m getting some kind of stochastic feedback.”

Foster’s eyes went wide.  “Bix!  Get away from there!”

But it was too late.  Bix’s delicate body twisted violently, and her glow shifted from yellow to red to purple. In an instant, she was sucked into the orb, her high-pitched scream fading with her.

“I need a probability stabilization field around the entire ship!” ordered Foster.  “Anything you’ve got against chaos magic.”

Glindon looked at him incredulously. Chaos magic was dangerous and unpredictable, which is precisely why the Guild outlawed it ages ago. But Foster Bildenploy expected his crew to be ready for anything.

“Just do it, Glin!” he shouted.

Glindon swung back to his console and began whispering rapidly out of both mouths. Foster listened closely, offering corrections and variations. They just managed to sever the connection that had ensnared Bix when a dark cackle interrupted their enchantments.

“Not fast enough, Foster,” said a creaky voice. “Not fast enough.”

The mages on the bridge turned to the crystal ball, where the prison ship had been replaced by a horrible face.  Two blue eyes blazed inside a storm cloud of black and white hair, from which a long, thin nose shot accusingly. It was a face Foster had not seen for over two decades.

“Kroven!” spat Foster, pounding his armrest. “But how?”

“How did I escape?” said the old warlock with a bemused pedantic air. “Tell me, Foster, do you know what even a small chaos bubble can do when introduced into the brain of a dim-witted prison guard? Especially one with horns on his head that act like thaumaturgical antennae? No? Well, he becomes highly suggestible and most accommodating to even a prisoner’s demands. Before his mind shatters, that is.” Kroven chuckled. “Wonderful stuff, chaos magic. It comes at a price, of course.”

Kroven raised his left hand to reveal that three of his fingers were missing.  “But don’t worry, Foster, I’ve got something to help me with that.”

The mages gasped when they saw what Kroven held in his other hand.

Even with her glow dimmed and her wings crumpled, the fairy retained the delicate grace that immediately caught Foster’s attention when she first floated onto the Ivory Scepter as part of the Guild’s Fairy Inclusion pilot program. She was stronger than she looked, much stronger. But Kroven’s magic was stronger still.

“Bix!  No!” cried Foster.

“Did I detect a hint of sentiment for this creature?” said Kroven, smacking his lips. “Tisk Tisk, Foster.  I believe the Guild discourages romantic relations between an Archmage and his crew.”  He rolled Bix’s tiny body in his palm.  “I’m not even sure how you two would–”

“Let her go!” screamed Foster.

Kroven mulled the demand for several moments as he jerked Bix back and forth like a ragdoll.  “No,” he said finally, and crunched down on her skull like a carrot.

Glindon screamed out of one mouth and said a prayer with the other.  Aldorra Grunn, the Ivory Scepter’s chief healer, muffled a sob with her hands.  After a moment, the bridge fell silent, but for the faint hum of its illumination orbs and the bubbling of various navigational potions.

On the crystal ball’s display, Kroven grinned wide and waggled the fingers that had reappeared on his left hand, good as new, demonstrating fairy blood’s restorative effect on post-chaos appendage displacement.

Foster forced himself to put Bix and their shattered plans for the future out of his mind. He regarded the newly whole warlock with a steely, calculating gaze.  “What do you want, you monster?”

“Only what I am owed, Foster! I want to be reinstated as Archmage Supreme.  I want my own astral ship–Griffon class or higher.  I want my contributions to the field of interstellar sorcery recognized by the Academy.  I want …”

As Kroven listed various grievances and demands, Foster tucked his hands beneath his blue robes and began scribbling on his palm.  As he did, words appeared in the Ivory Scepter’s barracks: SECURITY TEAM TO TRANSPORTAL ROOM. WANDS ON STUN.

Foster glanced at the display to make sure that Kroven was still droning on.  “And most of all, so-called Archmage Bildenploy, I want you to suffer.  I want to you know the pain of losing your position, your life’s work, your…”

A tiny vibration from his signet ring told Foster that the security team had jumped through the portal. They had orders to make their way through The Golem, unenchanting or, if necessary, subduing her enthralled crew, and then to take down Kroven by any means.

“Foster, are you listening?” Kroven sounded annoyed.

“Yes, yes.  Fourteen centaur concubines.  Was that male or female?”

“Some of each. And here I thought you were distracted thinking about your strike team. You needn’t bother.”

Foster blinked, then hurriedly pulled out his owl feather and tapped it on his earlobe.

“Bildenploy to away team,” he whispered, “What happened? Where are you?”

There was no response, so Foster tapped his ear again and tried channeling Krom. Then Phineas. Then Kevin. None answered.

“What have you done to them?” he growled into the orb.

“Nothing at all,” said Kroven. “I did, however, encase this vessel in an outcome-refracting prism, so that anyone trying to portal onto it would be deposited in a random spot in the galaxy. A rather advanced bit of chaos magic that cost me both feet, but your delicious fairy girlfriend fixed that too.”

“Where are my mages?” screamed Foster.

“Well that’s the beauty of chaos, dear boy.  They could be anywhere. On some barren moon.  Inside a neutron star.  Look, there’s one behind you!”

Foster spun around, but saw nothing.  When he turned back, Kroven was falling out of his chair laughing.

“You looked!  I can’t believe you actually looked.” Tears streamed down Kroven’s hairy face. “Stars and moons, Foster, I don’t know whose wand you polished to get your own ship, but they must be regretting it now.  Not as much as your former crewmages, of course, most of whom are probably suffocating in the vacuum of space.  Does the knowledge that you’ve sent so many Red Robes to their deaths bother you?  Or are you used to it by now?”

Foster swatted over the crystal ball, and Kroven’s devilish face disappeared.  The warlock was only half-wrong. It was not that Foster was used to death, although, in his time as Archmage of the Ivory Scepter, he’d certainly seen his share. Rather, it was that Foster had, long ago, forgiven himself for the lives that would be lost under his command. Greatness had a price, though it was often paid by others. Any Archmage who failed to accept this was a fool.

TWO

Foster, Aldorra, and Glindon solemnly made their way to the situational tabernacle, where they gathered with the other officers to weigh their options at the Stone Alter of Strategy.

Engaging Kroven’s ship had been dismissed immediately. The Golem was practically a warship, and while the Ivory Scepter was no sitting goose, she had been designed for exploration beyond the limits of astral projection, not battle. Besides, as Foster was quick to remind them, there were still Guild personnel on board.  To complicate the situation, Kroven was somehow jamming the Ivory Scepter’s sub-ether communications, thus blocking any distress calls.  They were on their own.

“I know it’s not the most noble option,” ventured Ignatius Dee, the ship’s chief alchemist, “but we could make a run for it.”

“A possible option,” said Foster. “What do the tactical divinations tell us?”

All eyes fell upon Helga Moxley-Pox, as the wizened crone slammed a dusty tome upon the altar. After a scabrous lick of her thumb, she flipped through the pages, grunting when she had found the right charts. The others waited in silence as the witch fumbled in her robes, finally producing a bag from which she pulled several small lizards, slit open their bellies with a jagged fingernail, and spat in the wounds. She then smeared their entrails in two lines across the stone.

“The Golem’s too fast,” she whispered after studying the gore pattern. “She‘d overtake us before we reached the nearest Guild outpost.”

Foster cursed. The other mages sat in silence.

“We need to get Kroven off that ship,” he said finally, rubbing his temples. “And the only way to do that, is to offer him something he wants.”

“But you heard his list of demands,” said Aldorra. “They’re–”

“Insane!” interjected Glindon. Such an outburst would have gotten him reprimanded on any other ship, but Foster let it go. He valued his chief security mage’s loyalty as much his spellcasting.

“I was going to say impossible,” continued Aldorra. “But insane works too.”

Foster drummed his fingers on the alter. “Kroven was just toying with us,” he said after some thought. “What he really wants is me.”

The assembled mages began to chatter, but Foster silenced them with a raise of his hand. He then sighed and proceeded to recount how, years ago, Kroven had been his mentor at the Academy. He told them of Kroven’s secret laboratory beneath the witch-hazel grove where the old warlock tried to bring young Foster into his illicit study of chaos magic. Foster had been intrigued at first (that part he left out), but eventually reported Kroven to the Guild leadership, just as any young mage with half a brain would have. The scandal sent Kroven to prison, and put Foster on the path to the command he’d always dreamed of.

“Now,” said Foster, looking around the stunned faces of his crew, “I imagine Kroven is seeking his revenge. So I’m betting he’ll be eager to face me, mage to mage.”

“Archmage, that’s suicide,” said Aldorra.

Glindon nodded anxiously. “I have to agree,” he said. “Kroven could use his chaos magic to, well I don’t know, anything! Destabilize a whole planet maybe. Turn it inside out or into a ball of lava.”

“Potentially,” said Foster, rising from his seat. “Depending on how much of himself he’s willing to lose. But I don’t think he’ll do that, at least not right away.  He’ll play with me for a while. Maybe he’ll get cocky and give me an opening. In the meantime, you all work on getting through to The Golem and rescuing her crew. But be careful. Understood?”

The mages nodded.

“Merlin preserve you, Archmage,” said Glindon with both mouths.

THREE

Planet KD-78 was as nondescript as any lifeless hunk of rock with no name. It had an atmosphere of sorts, owing to a small ocean on its other hemisphere. But, from where Foster was standing, all he could see was a cracked yellow wasteland.

He was wearing every ring, charm, and amulet his crew could spare. Glindon had spent an hour putting every ward he could think of on him, as Aldorra filled his pockets with healing potions and elixirs. Foster had refused Ignatius’s offer of some serious-looking incendiary crystals, guessing that they could be more liability than asset. Still, he felt a rush of fear when the portal opened, and Kroven stepped onto the dusty ground.

“I’ve waited years for this,” said Kroven.

“Then wait no longer,” said Foster and hurled a massive fireball with all his might. The spell screamed toward Kroven, scorching the earth beneath it. He batted it aside and stabbed two fingers at Foster in riposte.

Nothing happened, but for a tiny pop.

“Brilliant, my boy,” said Kroven. “You remembered my affinity for lightening attacks, so you chose a planet with a negative ion atmosphere. Very clever. But it won’t save you!”

Kroven threw up his hands, and the ground beneath Foster’s feet erupted. He slid down the fresh crag, and landed hard on the ground, rolling away moments before the structure crashed down on top of him. Foster barely had time to drink a resetting elixir and massage his ankle bones back into place before the rock behind which he took cover exploded.

“I taught you better than that!” called Kroven.

Foster snapped his fingers and a blinding light shot out. He heard Kroven groan and rolled out from cover, launching a salvo of energy spikes from his fingertips. They zipped through the air, converging on Kroven, but exploded like fireworks before they could damage him. Foster followed up with a pair of fireballs. Kroven deflected one and dodged the other, but he slipped on the ice Foster had blasted below his feet.

Foster was starting to feel confident and preparing another attack when he felt the ether change. What came to his lips was not a spell, but a prayer.

“Protect me,” he uttered as the wave of chaos swept over him.

Several ward layers flaked off like confetti, and the others were struggling to hold their structure. But hold they did.

When Foster looked up, he saw that the chaos wave had cost Kroven a hand. But it hadn’t slowed him down. Before Foster could counter, Kroven sent a focused beam of noxious randomness at him. Foster knew he couldn’t take another hit head on, so he threw himself to the side. Kroven’s blast only winged him, but it was enough.

Foster screamed in pain. His side bubbled with stochastic disruption, as the living cells shifted wildly from state to state, giving off puffs of chlorine, ammonia, and cinnamon. Foster fumbled through his pockets, discarding vial after vial until he found Aldorra’s anti-entropic salve, which managed to negate the roiling rash, leaving the flesh scarred but intact.

“How long do you think you can hold out, Foster?” shouted Kroven, who was now missing his entire left arm.

“Longer than you by the look of it.”

“You should have joined me. Or at least kept your mouth shut. Now I’ll tear you apart atom by atom.”

Kroven growled as he gathered up entropic forces around him, causing the air to crackle with improbability. Foster lobbed a few magical attacks, but they each fizzled in the swirl of chaos surrounding the warlock. With a deep bellow, Kroven raised his remaining fist to the sky and called down a torrent of disordered reality.

 

Foster had managed to cast a few additional wards, but they only held for a moment. The stronger ones Glindon had set were collapsing quickly as well. Foster yanked an emerald ring from his finger with his teeth and swallowed it with a prodigious gulp. The added burst of power sent his heart racing, and he did his best to shore up the remaining barriers.

All around him, corporeality was boiling. Atoms split and bonded at random, creating a billowing lightshow as windows to other places, times, and dimensions opened for fractions of moments and then disappeared into the boundless chasm of possibility.

Foster’s strength was failing. He drank a fortifying potion and poured another over his head, but Kroven’s power was still too much. The wards were collapsing. The chaos was encroaching. And with a flash of light, it was over.

 

When Foster opened his eyes he saw that he was suspended above a mass of undifferentiated matter. But more importantly, that he was whole. Some of the chaos energy had made it through his shields, but thankfully, it had been absorbed by a very rare and powerful thermodynamic amulet produced from the recesses of Helga Moxley-Pox’s bottomless robe. The concentrated uncertainty had turned the amulet’s jewel into a burnt turnip.

Wearily, Foster floated to a patch of solid-looking ground, careful to avoid hanging bits of plasma. The sky, once green, was now lilac, and the air smelled of copper. He was lucky to be alive.

Kroven had not faired as well. Indeed, he was now no more than a head and torso, hovering uneasily in the air. Even his nose was gone. And yet, when Foster approached him, he saw that Kroven’s eyes were as calm as two glacial lakes.

“It appears you are out of protective trinkets,” said Kroven.

Foster laughed. “It appears you are out of limbs.”

“You continue to underestimate me, Foster. I’ll be whole in a moment. But you’ll still be defenseless.”

Kroven craned his neck and tongued something from a hidden pocket in the flap on his right shoulder. Foster squinted and saw that it was a tiny leg. It disappeared into Kroven’s mouth, which twisted unpleasantly as he swallowed what remained of Bix Plink and started to laugh.

Foster was exhausted. He sat on the ground and removed his boots.

“Giving up already?” called Kroven. “Not going to even attempt a last stand? I don’t blame you. As soon as I…I…” Kroven clammed up when he realized that he wasn’t regenerating.

“Do you know what I hate most about chaos magic,” said Foster, rubbing the empty space where his pinky toe should have been. “It itches like hell.”

Kroven’s eyes darted in panic. “You…you changed it. You transformed the fairy’s leg before I swallowed it. With chaos magic!”

“Sure,” said Foster. “I’ve been using chaos magic for years. Ever since you showed me. I had to be discreet, of course, but it got easier once Bix started providing me with doses of her fairy blood for regeneration. You would have liked her, Kroven. Ambitious. Loyal. Experimental. You weren’t supposed to eat her, you buffoon. Now I’ll have to find another one. Oh well. Plenty more fairies at the Academy since the Guild granted them equal rights.”

“You planned this?” stammered Kroven.

Foster smiled and shrugged. “Do you know how long it takes to rise through the ranks of the Guild? I mean, there’s no one on the leadership council under 250! So I got to thinking, if tattling on you helped me make Archmage, imagine what I’ll get by defeating you single-handed. They might even make me Archmage Supreme!”

“But I found you,” said Kroven, bobbing in bewilderment as he struggled to stay aloft. “I bested your ship.”

“Yes, and it took you long enough. I even had to get that horn-faced dolt a guard position aboard The Golem. His name was Grozzjack, by the way. Most incompetent mage I ever commanded, not that I said so in my recommendation letter. I figured he’d give you an opening, and you took the bait as expected. Of course then I had to make sure I’d have you all to myself, which is why I sabotaged the Ivory Scepter’s communications. Now, no one will doubt that I had no choice but to bravely face you alone.”

Kroven fumed, but said nothing. Foster could sense scraps of magical energies collecting around his diminished frame for a last desperate attack.

“Can I just ask you one thing?” called Foster. “And then I promise I’ll give you a free shot.”

Kroven grimaced. “Ask.”

“Out of all the random possibilities in the universe, what did the Bix’s leg turn into in your mouth? It didn’t look terribly tasty.”

Kroven narrowed his eyes and snorted. “Licorice.”

“Oh,” said Foster, disappointed.

“I hate licorice.”

“Oh!” said Foster happily and launched a magic missile that severed Kroven’s head from his torso.

 THE END

Inheritance Pilot Episode

It’s a cold and rainy night as I turn right onto Rosedale Drive, heading downhill both literally and metaphorically.  The rain makes me prematurely tired, just when I need to be at the top of my mental game. Not that there are many other types of night in Ash Falls in September. Blame it on El Nino, the monsoon, global warming,  – and just ignore the meteorologists, because the facts are plain – in September, it rains.

The call came in to bring my sorry ass down to the dock district for a meeting with the town’s heaviest hitters. It would undoubtedly be in some poorly lit warehouse, with me standing like a supplicant in the Star Chamber below the bethroned players who wanted to see me. They were admittedly not good friends to have, but they made even worse enemies. In this town, the authorities and the criminal element are all drinking from a common pool, and the good guys are always playing from behind, working from within a weak and shrinking framework of straight cops, righteous judges and attorneys that stay bought once paid for. The bad guys don’t need the law, and can be a little more direct-to-consumer.

I take another left off the rail yards running parallel to the docks. The scattered streetlights are glowing with muted intensity through the surrounding mist – too thick to be rain, too thin to be fog. I pull my Ford Taurus in behind a gleaming black Hummer parked on the street in front of an otherwise unremarkable warehouse. Two guys are standing guard at the front door brandishing tactical assault weapons –  MP5s, ignoring and being ignored by a marked police unit not 50 yards away. Ash Falls. The Wild West meets Nosferatu. I silde out of the car and cross the street to the warehouse, nodding to one of the gunmen as I enter.

Once inside, I shake myself like a wet dog, then walk further into the open building. Sure enough, 5 chairs up on a platform, klieg lights behind the seats looking down on a center area obviously designed for a witness or supplicant. Do these guys all watch the same movies, or what?

It takes me a moment to notice that the center seat, usually reserved for the mover and shaker in this town is empty. The absence of our city’s most powerful millionaire casts a different kind of  shadow over the meeting.

“Good evening, Brian. I hope our call did not inconvenience you”. This from the smallest and least threatening of the platform figures. Dreyfus, his name is, a Professor of Anthropology or Archeology or Underwater Basket Weaving or something at our local U. Why he runs with this crowd, more to the point why they let him run with them, has always been a question to me. One I have never bothered to ask, of course. The fewer questions I ask, the faster I can leave..

“Hiya, Professor. No, nothing that couldn’t be interrupted. Are we waiting for Annis to arrive?” I ask, nodding toward the central chair.

A muffled snort from the right side of the platform, then a throat being cleared. A big body, leans forward – Rowan Bale, a local dockworker union boss and around-the-bend tree hugger besides. “He won’t be joining us, Mr. Drake. He is…indisposed.” This delivered from beneath black bushy eyebrows, lips framed by a thick black mustache and Van Dyke beard.

“Ha. Indisposed. Just plain disposed is more like it.” This, with a trace of a Colombian accent,  from a slight, lanky bronze-skinned man of indeterminate age. “El Rey” he is called on the street, and his is the empire that provides us with the majority of our drugs, guns and prostitutes here in the City Wet. The guards with the submachine guns outside would be his bodyguards. I raise my eyebrows in surprise at the information being conveyed.

“Are you gentlemen trying to tell me that Annis is no longer with us?” I would have thought it impossible to achieve his demise without a team of Navy SEALs backed up by a flight of archangels.

El Rey nods. “He is gone, and so are eight of his bodyguards. Whoever managed it brought some serious hardware, man.” Nods and affirmative mumbles come from all but one of my four “employers”.

The final member of the group breaks his arrogant silence.“If we could dispense with these trivialities, and commence our business?”. This delivered with an arched gaze framed by professionally manicured eyebrows, touched up at great expense, everyday – no doubt. They couldn’t ever grow that way normally. In fact, they can’t grow at all. Leandro de Castillas, you see, is dead.

Well, undead, anyway. He claims some thousand-year-long heritage from France or Spain or something – a real classic Old World Vampire. Something about him has always struck me as a little off. Probably the fact that he looks at me as a serf or a peasant or worse. What the hell he is doing here, helping “manage” a city with less than a half a million people is beyond me. Surely he has a dark and brooding castle in the Alps or the Pyrenees.

Bale clears his throat. “Yes, well, in truth Annis is no longer among us. We do not understand the circumstances behind his departure. His power was great – his resources beyond imagining. How one of us managed to perform this -”

“One of you?” I ask, incredulous.

Bale nods, unperturbed. “Yes, it had to have been one of the four of us. Certain safeguards were bypassed that only one of the four of us would have been privy to. And this is where you come in, Drake. We need you to determine which of us is at fault here.”

I blink, and take a deep breath. “Jesus Christ.” I mutter. “Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Ball-Peen Hammer.” I hear Dreyfus snicker, but the other 3 remain resolute. Maybe they never played games as kids. Maybe they never were kids. I shake my head as if trying to drive away an insect, trying to re-center myself.

“So, you want me to investigate until I figure out which of you did this, then report back…here?” I can immediately see some logistical problems with this approach.

Dreyfus leans forward. “Precisely. Upon delivery of your report, we will determine how to best…proceed.”

“And you want me to deliver this report back to you all here?”

Apparently misunderstanding my concern, Rey breaks in. “Anything you need for this, you’ve got it. You want guns, guards, cops, whatever – just tell us and we’ll make sure it is yours. Corregir rapidamente, entiendes?” Oh, yeah – I understand, alright.

With a dramatic sigh, Leandro chimes in.“We have also agreed to double your already considerable daily fee.” You would think someone a few centuries old would have learned a little patience by now. “I am personally of the belief that this effort is valueless, but I am apparently alone in that assumption.”

I put my hands up to stop the verbal flow, though the idea of two grand a day is not at all unpleasant. But I still have a couple questions of my own. “Do I get access to your crime scene?” I ask.

Rowan grimaces. “There is not precisely a crime scene, as the police are not precisely involved. A body is required for a homicide investigation. But you certainly may have access to Annis’ former domicile.”

I take a deep breath, then plunge in. “So, I understand the gig, ok?” I stated. “But what I don’t get is what happens when I find your theoretical killer or killers.”

“That would be our problem, yes?” Dreyfus again. What was up with the other 3 letting him jump in like this?

“Yeah, I understand, but let me lay it out for you. I find the smoking gun, turn in your villain. Those of you that are righteous on this lay it down on him, presumably. But what is to prevent his organization from taking it out on me after this report is delivered?”

Dreyfus made another economical gesture, somewhere between a sigh and a shrug. “You already enjoy certain…protections, do you not?” I shrug, not really willing to test that boundary in this company. “But, if it should come down to that, you’ve got the resources of the other three of us to protect you, you see? But if you choose not to undertake the investigation, then you have all of us lined up against you while we look for another investigator. Is that clear enough?”

I nod, caught somewhere between fear and disgust. Nothing like employee incentives.

Far overhead, the full moon shines down on the clouds covering Ash Falls. Its glowing face is reflected back by the lake above the city, while tiny moon-images are refracted back from the river that runs 50 miles to join the Pacific. The night embraces a quarter of a million souls along both banks of the river, a population that locks their doors, bars their windows, but, curiously, never seem to muster the desire to leave. Ships arrive from the ocean, trains haul shipping containers away North, East, and South, tractor-trailers come and go freely along the Interstate. But something – whether a malaise, an illness, or a spiritual anchor, keeps the residents calm, silent and malleable – unwilling to be displaced from their homes in the name of safety or freedom.

They are nothing more than sheep, waiting patiently in their pen – seemingly unaware that, in the absence of shepherds, their flock is instead being watched over by the wolves.

 

Two

My mind is still spinning when I pull back into the parking lot in front of the repurposed warehouse/condos on 33rd. I am so distracted that I don’t even notice the figure huddled in the rain sitting on my doorstep until I almost step on her. She turns to look up at me and I start back – momentarily glad that she must think it was an unexpected presence that surprised me, and not the sheer fact that it is her, arriving here and now. The perfect ending to a perfect day.

We look calmly at one another for a moment, neither moving to kiss, embrace, or otherwise greet one another – all those things that lovers would normally do after a long absence from each other. I finally clear my throat, staring into the intense green eyes rimmed by running mascara that makes her look as if she’s been crying. Maybe the rain. Maybe not.

“How did you find me?” is all I manage for the opening salvo after a 4 year silence.

“I don’t know, maybe I asked around?” she asks coyly. “Or maybe I gave Steve a call to find out?” This sends a shiver down my spine, and I take a step backward, deliberately unclenching my fist.

“No, I don’t think that is it, Jess.”

She somehow misses my reaction to this, and continues trying to banter. “Why not? You think Steve wouldn’t take my call?”

“No, he wouldn’t. Steve is dead, Jess.”

She looks as surprised as I have ever seen her, and then looks down for a moment. “I didn’t know. I’m sorry.” Whether for my loss or for the lie, she doesn’t clarify.

We wait for an awkward moment more, then I finally give up and break the silence. “What do you want, Jess?” It sounds more like a whine than a stern rebuke, but I gave up on presenting myself the way I want to be around Jess a long time ago.

 “To get out of the rain would be nice” she retorts. Always a wise-ass.  As I look her over more closely, I notice that her collarbones are seriously protruding inside the neck of her ratty t-shirt. Apparently she isn’t eating, along with whatever else she is doing. With that, my defenses collapse. I was always a sucker for starving strays.

“Fine.” is the best I can manage without starting an hour long rant on everything that is wrong with her, with me, with us. I turn and unlock the door, then gesture her inside as if it was a Park Avenue apartment, rather that the old warehouse repurchased into a condo that it actually is. She walks in and I follow her, careful to maintain some distance between us. I hang my coat on the rack by the door, not caring about it dripping on the floor right now.

When I turn to face her, she is already deeper into my home, looking at the “ego wall”, mainly pictures of my brother Steve and I in better days. She is in more than a few of them, frequently standing between the two of us and smiling. She always did love being the center of attention.

She turns to face me, one eyebrow raised quizzically. “No new photos here, Brian? Haven’t you done anything worth talking about in the past few years?”

“Nothing I would want photographed, no.” With that, I carefully step around her to the other side of my tiny dining room table, getting a solid object between the two of us. I am not usually susceptible to feminine wiles, but she has always been my kryptonite in that regard. In ragged and dirty clothes, with running makeup and looking like she hasn’t eaten in a week, I can still feel her pulling me towards her center of gravity. She has that strength – I have that weakness.

“So, Jessie, you are out of the rain – what do you want?”

She stops looking at the photos, then smiles wearily when she notices that I am across the table from her. “Maybe I just wanted to see you.”

I shake my head. “No, you didn’t. After 4 years of nothing? Nah – you want something.”

Her smile turns down a little at the edges, and hard lines emerge from her face that weren’t there the last time I saw her. “Fine. I need some help with something. I just need – “

I put a hand up to stop her. “No, Jess. Whatever it is, no. There is nothing left of “us” for you to trade on. You made your choice when you decided to bail out after you and Steve – “

And that is as far as my grand soliloquy gets me. Just as I am preparing to let her have it for the last decade of torment, the door opens – and two men walk through the front door that I have neglected to lock behind us.

I take a step backwards, momentarily taken aback, and I sense, rather than see, Jessie scurrying behind me as I take a look at my latest unwanted visitors. One is big, tattooed, and muscular, maybe borrowed from central casting for the latest show involving motorcycle gangs. He stands behind a darker skinned and better-dressed counterpart. Your typical street duo – muscle and shooter. I make a note of distinguishing features and tattoos, so I can complain to El Rey, if I should ever get a chance.

I ease back towards the table as I gesture at the dripping coat on the rack. “Wallet is in the inside pocket. Take what you want and leave. If you feel like being nice you could drop the driver’s license on your way out. I hate standing in line at the DMV.”

The shooter smiles, displaying a truly hideous grin with fake diamonds inset into his front 4 teeth. “Nah, man, you don’t have to wait in line. We ain’t here for your money. We here for the girl.”

Amateurs, these two. They should’ve never given me a chance to get this close to the table with my hands out of their line of sight. I slide my Glock 27 out of the holster attached to the underside of the table, and have it pointed between the shooter’s eyes before he can blink. It is a small gun, and I always feel a little self-conscious while I hold it, with my pinky waving around in the breeze as if I was holding a teacup. I try to suppress the feeling and pay attention to the business at hand.

“Not sure what you clowns were thinking, but it is time for you to go. Next time, check in with your boss, and have him check in with Rey before you walk through my door again. Freelancing is bad for your health.”

The shooter snorts, clearly not impressed by the gun or the mention of El Rey. “Rey? Please.” He spits on my floor for emphasis. “He ain’t nothing in this town any more. What are you going to do with that little toy gun, anyway?”

“What am I going to do? I am going to put two quarter-sized holes in your head and still have 4 rounds left over for your mouth-breathing friend. The real question is, what are you going to do? Are you leaving, or is this about to get ugly?”

The tension in the room escalates for a moment, but just as I am thinking about exhaling and pulling the trigger, something changes. The shooter nods, then they start backing out the door carefully, keeping me in sight,  not looking at all like a couple of dope fiends who have just had their lives threatened. “You say so, man. We’ll be watching. No way to protect your chica forever.”

With that, they are gone. I walk to the side of the steel security door and kick it closed, not wanting to silhoutte myself in the doorway. I then double lock it and turn to pull my cell phone out of my jacket, cursing myself for being so distracted that I didn’t secure the damn door  in the first place.

I gesture Jess towards a chair, her eyes never leaving  the pistol still in my hand. I take a brief look through the window at the street outside, parting the shades with my pistol. Nothing. With my other hand I dial a number. 3 rings before anyone answers – must be a busy night.

“Yeah?” Boredom drips from his voice, through the phone and runs down my arm. That or rainwater from my jacket.

“Clarence? Drake. Two street boys just walked into the loft and tried to boost a lady friend of mine.”

“Oh, yeah?” He now sounds interested. “You and the lady ok?”

“Yeah, I persuaded ‘em to make better life choices”

He chuckles. “And now you need some clean-up?”

“No, they walked out.”

A snort, whether amusement or disgust I can’t tell. “I keep telling you, you too soft, Drake. No one gets up in my crib and threatens me and my woman, then gets to walk out.”

“I was busy. I don’t multitask well. Besides, that’s what I have you guys for, right?”

“Yeah, I feel you.” He pauses for a moment, and I can hear the vague thump of subwoofers and crowd noise in the background. “So, you need some boys, or you want a squad?”

“Send a squad – I can give ‘em a pretty accurate description. They weren’t anyone I’ve seen around before.”

“Alright, a boy in blue be there in 10 or so. Lock up and stay strapped till they get there. Try not to create any more problems in the meantime”

“Already on it, Clarence. Tell the boss I said hi.”

“Right. Like he wants to hear from you.” And with that, the call is disconnected.

I turn back toward the table, walking under the watchful eyes of my brother’s police academy graduation photo. He was the one that taught me to never be more than 3 steps from a gun, anywhere in my house. Just like in most things, he was right.

I put my pistol down on the table, grab a chair and spin it around to face Jess, and then straddle it, resting my arms along the top of the chair’s back. The last thing I want right now is arms full of weeping ex-wife.

“Ok, Jess – you now have my full attention. What the hell do those guys want?”

 

The downtown bars are full tonight, the dream of chemical amnesia or intimately shared fear being pursued by those who can afford it. In the darker corners of the city, more dangerous forms of forgetfulness are being sold on street corners, to be taken away into cars and alleys then injected, smoked, or swallowed until peace is achieved. But respite is only so long, leaving in its place a desire for more: a new partner, another drink, a different drug. Escape is never purchased, only rented. As long as life exists, the fear will return. Here, even those who seek a permanent solution through ending their own lives might find that, within a day or two, their torment is renewed – only now with a vicious and thirsty edge. 

 

Three

She takes a deep breath as if to steady herself, then looks at the pistol resting near my hand.

“Put that thing away. You know I hate them.”

I shake my head. “It is staying in reach until I think we are safe. My house, my rules. Now, stop preaching, and start talking.”

She looks down at the table, then over my shoulder, refusing to look me in the eyes. If she was a normal person, I would say she was feeling guilty. Since she is Jess, I know she is playing for the cameras, trying to hit me for dramatic effect. Any second now, she is going to…

Right on cue, she shoots to her feet, the chair squeaking across the hardwood floor. “I need to leave. It was a mistake to come here.” She makes no move towards the door, though – watching for my reaction instead.

I shrug. “If you really want to walk out into the waiting arms of those thugs, suit yourself, Jess.” That gets her to look me in the eyes. I went off-script and didn’t beg her to stay.

After a moment of indecision, she sits back down, pulling the chair back up to the table. “I didn’t really mean to put you in danger, Brian. I thought, if I came here…” Her voice trails off, then she gives me a crooked smile. “I don’t know what I thought. I thought you would fix it. Make it better.”

I nod. “Sure you did. I have a reputation for ‘fixing it’. Why don’t you tell me what it is I am fixing this time?”

Another deep breath, and then her shoulders slump. She looks back down at the table, but at least she starts talking.

“You know what I am now, right?” This barely mumbled.

“A junkie. A police informant. A hooker. Which of your jobs are you referring to?”

She winces at my summary, but carries on. “I was referring to my habit. You keep your ears open, right?” I nod, unwilling to say anything that might interrupt her. “Well, then,  you know there is some new product on the street, right?”

In fact, I do know. Info has been making the rounds on both sides of the fence, since no one seems to know what the source of this new product is. “Are you talking about Red Smoke?” I ask. She exhales deeply, apparently relieved that she doesn’t have to explain further. “Yeah, I have heard of it. Is that what you are using these days?”

She actually smiles, looking animated for the first time since she arrived. “It is incredible, Brian. It is smoother than silk. Makes you feel good, you know, not weak.” I do the best I can to control my face, but it is hard, listening to her talk about crack like a connoisseur. “You don’t even have to shoot it, you can just smoke the stuff. Makes you feel like you you can do anything – I even forget to eat when I am high. Best thing is, it lasts for days – you aren’t hitting every few hours.”

My scepticism kicks in finally. “And it only costs as much as 5 or 6 days worth of crack, right?”

She shakes her head. “That’s the thing, Brian – it is cheaper than normal product. I don’t understand it either.”

My patience is starting to wear a little thin. It’s been a long day. “So, again – what do you need from me? And why the heck are street rats chasing you into my condo? Do you owe somebody money?”

She shakes her head. “No, I don’t owe anyone anything, exactly. I just had a bad time recently, and I think I might have…seen something.”

I wait out the dramatic pause, and she eventually continues. “I think I might know where this new stuff is coming from, Brian. Like, where it is being made”

I know enough about the police department in Ash Falls that I don’t bother to ask why she did not take this info to the cops she occasionally reports to. “And what am I supposed to do with that information, exactly?”

“I dunno…it’s just…creepy.”

I sigh again. “So, what’s the big secret, Jess?”

Just as the rotating red and blue lights pull up outside, she takes a deep breath, and takes the plunge.

“Brian – do you believe in vampires?”

I am thunderstruck for a moment, and it is all I can do to not look over her shoulder at Steve’s photo on the wall. Apparently she never found out, just like the rest of the ignorant fools in this God-forsaken town. I take a deep breath, then stand at the sound of a nightstick being banged into my security door.

“Vampires? No, Jess, I don’t. Guess you’ll have to try that line on somebody else.” With that, I turn my back and move to open the door before this cop leaves a permanent mark on it

Something exists here, in the long miles between Portland and Sacramento. A black hole of sorts, it draws to itself all that is evil, all that is empty, all that mankind has reviled and hidden from since the light of consciousness revealed itself to humankind. It calls out to broken dreams, forgotten idols, and the avatars of man’s darkest desires, saying: “Here, you can find what you are looking for. Here, you will be protected and nourished, here your strength may grow again to what it once was during the days of mankind’s darkest imaginings.” For here, in Ash Falls, the worship of fear has taken hold once again, defeating the promise of science and reason, and replacing hope with the huddling of bodies pressed together in the dark, each praying only that another will be taken.

Four

The morning sun rising over the dam is burning a hole straight through my sunglasses and into the center of my hangover. The convenience store coffee is almost as bitter as my mood as I stand around in the parking lot of the windowless block of concrete that used to be the home of Annis Black. Hurry up and wait, just like always.

It was close to 1 AM before the interview with the cop wound up, and I finally got him out of my hair. He got about as complete a physical description of a pair of suspects as he has ever received, and I got plenty of assurances about how crime enforcement was being stepped up in our neighborhood. The fact that I had to call in a favor from a drug lord’s consigliere to get a unit to show up in less than an hour was never mentioned.

I also convinced him to take Jess into “protective custody” overnight, hoping she might get a meal and some medical care out of it. She did not go quietly or happily, but she finally went. After they left, I relocked the door, pulled out a cleaning kit, and serviced the guns I have lying around the house while drinking Jameson. Somewhere around 4 the alcohol finally overcame the fear, and I passed out for a few hours of troubled sleep.

And now, here I am, paying for my sins. I have taken a pretty good look around the half-acre parking lot, and have spotted some shell casings, quite a few bullet-shaped gouges, and what looks to be around half a dozen blood stains around the area. However this went down, Annis and his crew did not go out quietly.

A black Chrysler 300 pulls up at 9:40, only an hour and 10 minutes late, and I step out of the Taurus, the comforting weight of The Judge on my hip. The same idiot city council that will not allow licensed concealed carry in this town are perfectly happy to let me wear this monster “openly” in any place that isn’t a school or a church. I’ve had more than a few comments about what I am compensating for by wearing this thing, but I ignore them. Let the haters start working with my clientele list – then we can make comparisons.

I walk over to shake the hand of Detective Larry Barela – a halfway decent cop in a barrell full of rotten apples. Once upon a time he and my brother shared a squad car, before Steve got promoted to Lieutenant, then promoted further on to glory. Barela is in his own ride, not a city unit, so I am guessing he is on his own time here.

“What’s the word, Larry?” I ask as I shake his hand.

“Not a lot, Brian.” He nods his head toward my revolver. “You see a rabid chipmunk that scared you or something?”

See what I mean?

“So, what’ve we got here?” I ask, to deflect further sarcasm about my sidearm of choice, as well as in hopes of getting out of this hideous sunlight.

He grows serious. “Quite a fireworks show, actually. Looks like 2 groups of pretty well-armed folks had a go of it two nights ago.”

“So, why nothing in the papers?”

He grimaces. “Because there was nothing to report. Plenty of gunshots, some evidence of major trauma – but not a single body or witness. Inside of the church is pretty tore up, but again – nothing inside but some screwed up furnishings and ashes.”

“Church?” I ask. We are in the middle of the only real high-rent district in Ash Falls, surrounded by large landscaped lots surrounding million-dollar homes. An odd place for a house of worship, especially since I was given to understand that this was Aniss Black’s home.

“Oh, yeah, you’ve gotta see this. Dude must’ve been running some whacked-out cult of darkness or something.” He turns, and I follow him to the entrance. He pulls open the metal fire door, and gestures me inside.

Once my eyes adjust, I see exactly what he was talking about. The inside of the building is one large room, shaped like an elongated cross. The layout is completely familiar to anyone who spent some time in a Catholic Church, like I did growing up. From the outside the place is a featureless concrete box, implying the corners must be filled with something

But there, the resemblance ends. There are some very expensive-looking pieces of artwork on the walls, and small “sitting areas” comprised of couches and stuffed chairs scattered throughout the building. No pews. Here and there on the floor I notice small piles of ash, some still intact, some scattered and stepped in. I do not bother to tell the Detective that the bodies he didn’t see are still here in the building.

I turn to face him, and notice him carefully not looking at the piles on the floor. When I clear my throat he turns to face me.

“So, who caught the case?”

He laughs, bitterly. “What case, Drake? I’ve got a dozen unsolved homicides with corpses and witnesses and physical evidence waiting to be worked on back on my desk. Who the hell is going to take the time to look into an empty cult building with a few bullet holes, considering we’ve got no complaintants and no witnesses? Dude that owns this place spends the majority of his time out of the country – we are having a hell of a time tracking him down.”

I nod, understanding. Business as usual at AFPD. “Gotcha. Well, thanks for letting me in. I will lock up on the way out.”

He hesitates at the door – wanting to ask me who I am working for here. Discretion grabs him by the scruff of the neck, and he merely nods. “Yeah. See ya around, Drake.” With that, the door closes behind him.

I am slightly surprised he had no questions or comments about my home invasion last night. He must be on his way in, heading for his desk at the precinct now, not having caught up on the overnights yet. At least I was saved the ribbing over that Charlie-Foxtrot.

Finally unsupervised, I am able to get a sense of the building that I thought was once was the domicile of our richest and most reclusive citizen. There are no interior walls, no bathrooms, no kitchens. While I do not exactly feel as though I am in a church or cult headquarters, I certainly do not feel as though I am in a home either. If Annis lived here, they way he and his staff lived is nothing like what I would consider “life”.

I turn to take a closer look at the closest pile of ashes. The fragments are tiny, granular, almost looking like black sand. I nod. Once upon a time, these were Annis’ guards and servants. “The MIB” is how the rest of the members of the circle referred to the ten of them. All with pale, cadaverous skin, they wore black suits with mirrored sunglasses, were constantly armed to the teeth, and each was able to lift the back end of a Mercedes. I had previously speculated that they were some species of vampire, and now I was looking at proof in piles on the floor.

Looking around the room, I only find seven more piles. This means that 2 guards and Annis himself are still unaccounted for. My employers seemed pretty rock-solid on Annis being deceased, but I would feel a whole lot better if I found some proof of that myself.

Moving to the far end of the room, I can’t help but notice that the floor here has buckled upwards, as if something exploded beneath it. I look around, and, sure enough, an unobtrusive door in the nearest corner opens to a stairway heading down into darkness. I draw my pistol, grab a flashlight off its holster on my belt and head into the depths below.

Something stirs in the spiritual world around the city. An implosion of sorts, it leaves behind nothing where once a center of power stood. Immediately, alliances begin to be made, plans for conquest decided upon, troops marshalled from far and wide. Across the globe, powerful and eldritch creatures feel the opportunity to feed freely if they can rush to fill the void left behind by the departure of a central power. Around the city, dark forces hold themselves in readiness – unwilling to act unwarily, but willing to pounce on any weakness they might perceive when the struggle for power should commence.

 

Nature abhors a vacuum.

Five

Whatever I was expecting to see when I entered the room below the nave, this was not it.

A black stone, previously about 10 feet long and 6 feet wide, is now sitting in two pieces on the floor here, having slid off of whatever used to be holding it up at about waist height. It has been cracked entirely in half, with the middle of the stone split down the center as if hit with a giant’s axe. Whatever force destroyed the stone somehow erupted upward, leaving a blackened hole filled with twisted beams and tiles directly above where it once sat.

I look around with the flashlight a bit and finally locate a light switch. Naturally, flipping the switch does not a damn thing, probably due to the trashed conduit and wiring in the gap in the ceiling. I turn back around into the room, and notice something I had missed when I walked in from the stairwell.

Along the floor are thin trails of rust-red, leading back into the darkness deeper beneath the building. I kneel down, and take a closer look, already knowing what I will find.

Blood trails. Dozens of them, all leading from a point further into the darkness, all terminating at the fractured stone. A closer look at the stone reveals the surface of the stone also smeared and discolored as if gallons of the stuff had been spilled over it. Playing my light along the half that has fallen on this side of the room, I can detect the remains of what must’ve been grooves carved into its surface, forming channels that led…to the foot of the stone?

Moving where the bottom of the stone would have rested, I confirm what I suspected – 3 holes have been bored into the floor, all inside a shallow bowl-like area about 2 feet wide. The receptacle is completely discolored. Who knows how many gallons of blood have passed through this niche in the rock, probably over a period of many years, if not decades.

Standing, I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand, swallowing hard. Caked-on evidence of hundreds of blood sacrifices does not mix well with gas station coffee and the remains of last night’s Irish Whiskey. I move deeper into the room, following the trail of blood along the near interior wall, using my flashlight to confirm that there is a matching group of blood trails on the far side of the room.

As I get closer to the far side of the room, I can see what I have been half expecting, and half hoping not too see – 5 prison cells, all side by side against the far wall. The cell bars throw shadows against the cinderblock wall behind them, but as I get closer I notice that all 5 cell doors are open, the cells empty. Each holds a cot with a blanket, and a bucket in the corner. Each and every cell has blood trails leading out of it, evidence that prisoners were dragged, bleeding, from the cells towards the cracked stone that I now realize is an altar. This was no colony of vampires – they would never have wasted this much blood. What the hell was being done here?

Inside the cells, I notice something else. Scratched into the concrete floor is a collection of prisoner graffiti. Names, phone numbers, pleas for help, final requests. All scratched in shallow white, these dying wishes would not even have been visible to the writers down here in the dark. In the cell closest to the wall I walked down, I find a short nail, tip gleaming with use. It must’ve been passed from cage to cage by desperate people hoping to leave some sign of themselves behind. I wonder how many of AFPD’s missing persons cases would get turned into potential homicides by taking a look at the floor here.

That thought brings me up short. How did the department not find this? No doors were locked, I didn’t do anything special to get down here. The buckled floor upstairs would point out to the most inexperienced investigator that something was down here. Did nobody bother to take a look at all?

As some natural scepticism of our local constabulary’s dedication to duty comes and rests upon my shoulders, something catches my eye on the floor of one of the cells – my name, scratched in white on concrete. I bend over to take a closer look, and immediately wish that I had listened a little closer to Jess last night.

“JESSICA DRAKE DIED HERE. TELL BRIAN DRAKE.” Well, obviously something happened before she died, but after she had enough time in this cage to scratch this out. What the hell was she doing, locked up in a cage down here? When? For how long? And most importantly, why?

As I try to make sense of it, I also notice something my subconscious has been trying to inform me of for a few seconds now. Noises are emanating from behind the door across the room from me, which I assume leads to another stairwell. Someone is coming down the stairs.

I exit the cell and quickly place my back against the door closest to me, across the room from the approaching steps. I aim The Judge at the door, resting my gun hand over the top of my opposite wrist, pointing my flashlight to illuminate the door frame. Whoever this is, I will not be dealing with them in the dark. I guess I have about fifty feet between the opposite door and I, when the sounds stop, and the door swings open.

I was expecting a whoever, and what steps through the door is a whatever. It is hunched over on all fours, rear legs and lizard-like forelimbs ending in hands all touching the floor. Short, furred wings are folded against the back. Worst of all is the head – looking like someone has surgically attached a green and purple squid to this bat-like body. I know from experience that demons tend to inhabit the forms imagined for them by worshipers, and briefly wonder what crazed group of worshippers came up with this as a design worthy of veneration.

A voice suddenly rattles in my head. “I come for the stone. Are you the guardian?”

If there is one thing that can make a hangover worse, it is telepathy.

I shake my head, and speak as clearly as I can through my clenched jaw and sudden nausea. “I am not guarding anything. I do not wish to contest with you. I will depart.” The formality of the words sounds strange to me, but if there is one thing spirits do not respond well to, it is sarcasm.

The glowing red eyes over the twitching tentacles narrow for a moment, and the body tenses. “If you are not a guardian, I may dispose of you. My master would have this place for his own.” With that, the creature unfurls its wings and leaps across the room at me.

The thunderous noise of five PDX .410 shotgun shells being fired in a couple of seconds is bad under normal conditions. In an enclosed space, suffering from a hangover and adrenaline shock, it feels as though someone has split my head open while driving spikes into my ears.  I almost hope that I missed, so this creature can tear my head off and end my self-induced torment.

Like all my hopes, this one is not to be. Halfway across the room, the thing has collapsed, smoke still rising from two holes in its head and three more from underneath its body, where the rounds entered but were not able to exit. The eyes flicker, the tentacles twitch, and there is a sound like a hundred toilets being flushed at once as the body collapses into itself, leaving behind a smoking morass of black, tar-like goo.

The smell is astonishing, and I retreat back to the other end of the room to get as far away from it as I can. As I understand it, destroying a creature like this only wrecks the physical form that was created whenever it was called from the Other Side. When the spirit is released, the physical form immediately decomposes, leaving behind the detritus of centuries-old flesh to decompose all at once. Most are at least that old, as there are too few primitive cultures left creating these things to worship any more.

Contending with them is dangerous business, usually best left to other supernatural creatures. Religious relics will sometimes drive them off, but not reliably. They avoid fire if at all possible. But silver seems to be the only thing that consistently destroys them, like many other “creatures of the night”,  and no one I have met in the last few years can tell me why.

My monthly ammo bill is sky high since the economic collapse forced everyone back into investing in precious metals.

My ears are still ringing as I back into the stairwell I came down originally and stop to reload, then climb back up to the main floor. No other refugees from the world of H.P. Lovecraft seem to be waiting for me, so I head back outside as I pull out my cell phone and re-holster my pistol. This assignment has just taken one hell of a left turn, and I want some back-up before I go much further here.

The phone only rings twice this time, as I step out, squinting against the sunlight, into the parking lot. Clarence’s voice is an aural picture of exasperation.

“Now what, Drake?”

“Clean-up, Clarence – Aisle 5.”

“Where?” He is all business now.

“Annis’ place.”

“OK, hold tight. Have someone there in half an hour. Don’t let anyone else in.” A click, and he is gone.

With that, I dial central booking, hoping that Jess is still in a cell sleeping it off. I need some answers, and apparently she had them all along.

The warfare has started, as foot soldiers begin to engage one another. Strengths are noted, weaknesses are plotted against. Across the city, the human sheep can feel the conflict around them, but do their best to ignore what remains out of their sight, outside of their limited knowledge. They are, at once, both the victims and the prizes here – power over this city grants  nearly a quarter of a million souls to prey upon, a quarter of a million hearts filled with blood, a quarter of a million minds that can be driven to the worship of fear of the unknown.

 

As the evening storm clouds roll in, a fog-like blanket of apathy and terror arrives with it. Here there will be no war for liberation, no voices leading refugees to a promised land. All that will be here is a struggle to decide what powers will survive to prey upon those dwelling in the city alongside the river.

 

The powers may come and go, but the battlefield of Ash Falls remains, forever unchanged.

The River, The Axe and The Options

THE RIVER, THE AXE AND THE OPTIONS

by Michael M. Rader

A river is not its water, but it needs moving water to be a river. With that in mind, Naveed jumped across the flat stones set in the shallow, stagnant waters of what could maybe still be called the Colorado River. His backpack swung as he jumped, the C HOPKINS rods inside clacking together like loose marbles. He landed on the eastern side of the river, his worn boots kicked up miniature mushroom clouds of dust, rising and falling like empires. He had crossed the dividing line, from the Luddites’ territory into the land claimed by the Compound. The peace pact between the two sides was solid enough, but dealing with the Compound still made Naveed nervous.

He pulled himself up the steep bank, gloved hands grabbing at the shaggy Joshua Trees and scrub brush growing out of the red earth. He stood at the top of the bank, looking across the rocky wasteland. The FedMet called it Arizona, still thinking they owned the damn place. Naveed  took a drink of flat-water and wiped his cracked lips. He wanted real water, water with impurities. The water that came from the compound was too perfect, every necessary mineral and electrolyte added in precise proportion. Flavor came from the flaws and the compound didn’t manufacture anything with flaws–nothing they’d admit to, anyway.

He walked past sunbaked Luddite children digging for mineral-rich rocks in the soil at the top of the bank. They waved to Naveed. Soon he’d be giving them red plastic whistles and tops and action figures from his printer in exchange for the rocks they dug up. Especially the whistles, the kids loved their little, red whistles; It drove their parents crazy. None of the children spoke, wanting instead to get their rocks and get back to their side of the river as quickly as possible. Naveed smiled at a little girl using the leg of an old Barbie doll to pry up stones. It was impossible to stop children from creating new tools and technology no matter how hard you tried to run from it.

He kept on, aiming towards the fortress of rock in the distance and the haphazardly stacked tower of parallel processors rising from its center. It’d only been a few months since he last visited the compound, but it looked like the tower had already grown a good ten or twenty feet since then. Crude, wooden palisades stretching across the opening of the rock fortress greeted Naveed as he drew closer to the compound.

Two guards appeared from fissures around the fortress, flanking Naveed and keeping in step with him. This was a new protocol. He’d traded easily with the compound in the past and had never had a guard look at him twice. He sized the two men up without turning his head, not letting them know how much he knew. One of the men was a Rip. He was a good seven feet tall, limbs as thick as lumber with wickedly sharp keratin protrusions jutting out from his knuckles. The other man was shorter and Naveed could tell from his single-colored eyes he was Unrooted. Although the organic curves of the printed, automatic pistol in his hand looked just as nasty as the Rip’s claws.

“State your business, ‘phobe,” said the Unrooted guard.

“Trade,” said Naveed, still staring ahead.

“Trading what?” growled the Rip, his voice modified to a bass just below thunderclaps.

“Rods. Mostly Carbon but a few HOPKINS.”

“No calcium?” asked the Rip. Naveed’s chest rattled when the giant spoke.

“I’ll take it up with your trademaster,” said Naveed.

“Can’t,” said the Unrooted guard, “He’s gone Untouchable.”

Naveed’s chest tightened. The trademaster was a good man and one of the few friends he had left in the compound after leaving. Naveed stopped walking and turned to the man, forcing a cool calm into his voice, “Bad filter?”

The Unrooted guard nodded, “Tried to crack regeneration, hacked himself with some kinda’ worm. Real nasty stuff. And Samuel here wonders why I keep myself pure.” He gave the Rip a pointed look.

“Get off your pulpit, Len,” said the Rip called Samuel, “I went with the tried and true.” He held up a fist the size of a baby to demonstrate his clawed knuckles. Samuel leaned in and stared at Naveed’s shifting eyes that roiled like muddy water.

“Hey Len,” said Samuel, “Speaking of. You ever seen a Rooted ‘phobe?”

“Nope,” said Len, “Pretty suspicious if you ask me.”

“I used to live here,” said Naveed, “A long time ago.”

Len walked ahead to pull the gate to the compound open, “I’m keeping an eye on you, ‘phobe. Look at us funny and Sammy here can either snap you in half or dig your lunch outta’ your belly. Either way, it’ll hurt.”

Naveed nodded and walked into the shadow of the fortress. Orderly stacks of whitesmoke colored houses lined the jagged cliff faces within. Each house was identical, made of aluminum-strength organic plastic, molded into clean, seamless planes intersecting at perfect angles. He walked past a larger building with a short stack of processors slouching nearby, it churned raggedly and Naveed could feel the heat radiating off of it. The compound manufacturers were working hard.

Naveed was surprised to see nearly everyone around him was Rooted. The Unrooted guard was in the minority. Even more surprising, nearly half of them were Ripped. He was surrounded by unnatural frames, organic armor, spidery limbs, ornamental wings and ears, prehensile tails and bioluminescent strips.

“Hell of a lot of Rips, huh?” said Naveed.

Samuel and Len glared at him but said nothing. It used to be only the most daring and crazy hackers Rooted themselves, tweaking their DNA through the filters installed in their stolen FastTrav chambers. It ended in nightmares and nasty messes more often than it worked. Fear of consequence was never enough to stifle innovation, though, and they kept pushing the boundaries of what they could do. After all, that’s why the people of the compound ran to the Interstitial Spaces in the first place–to create, to push against the Metro laws insisting teleportation could only be used by the sanctioned few. And now the Compound was all but forgotten, along with the technophobic villages and the rural communities that withered as the infrastructure between the Mets collapsed.

A sociologist from DenMet visited once, a decade earlier. Her name was Dolly Gilshannon–although she went by Shannon. She was there working on her Master’s thesis on people of the Interstitial Spaces. Naveed was her guide, showing her around the compound and explaining the ethos and community and their uneasy relationship with the technophobes across the river. At the time, Naveed thought he’d loved her. That was a long time ago, though. His life was on the other side of the river now, stripping minerals and bartering with the Compound. He doubted anyone here remembered him now, what he’d done for them. No one, except maybe for Smyth.

They walked on, passing beneath the long shadow of the droning tower of processors. Naveed saw the old two-story ripping house lurking nearby, looking as drab and dismal as ever. It was one of the oldest structures in the Compound, a chimeric eyesore slapped together from building material stolen off of abandoned houses.

He’d spent thousands of hours in the ripping house, tweaking and modifying the FastTrav chambers he and Smyth had stolen and designing new filters. He could still remember the exhilaration after a successful experiment, climbing into the chamber on the first floor, vanishing, and appearing in the chamber upstairs with a different eye color or texture of hair. That exhilaration of discovery faded when Smyth started pushing the experiments too far and encouraging the more radical hackers to explore more extreme modifications.

They reached the far end of the compound and the long, unfurnished huts housing Untouchables. Swirling eyes of varying color stared at them from the hut. Naveed could hear them moaning within and screaming animal screams. Shadowy and grotesque figures lurched around in the shadows of the unlit interior. Something wet and slithering passed the doorway, withered limbs jutting out from between segmented ridges in its body. It paused in the doorway, turning briefly towards the group, staring with unseen eyes. Naveed shuddered.

“So, who am I meeting with?” asked Naveed.

Len shrugged, “Figured I’d just leave ya’ at the trading house and you’d figure it out.”

“I’ll meet with Smyth, then.” said Naveed.

The two guards moved in front of him.

“The Administrator is not receiving visitors.” said Samuel, his calm voice a dull roar.

“The Administrator? Sounds like Smyth could use a lecture about humility,” said Naveed.

“You will refer to The Administrator as The Administrator,” shouted the Rip.

Naveed’s ears rang. He stepped up to Samuel, his face coming up to the Rip’s chest. He craned his neck up and stared deeply into the man’s shifting blue-green eyes.

“Listen to me, freakshow. I worked with Smyth back when you were a ninety-pound nothing. I wrote the base code for the filter that Ripped you and all your nightmare buddies. And I’ve got the elements you need to keep this operation going, bik?”

Samuel’s eyes swirled with color as he processed Naveed’s words. Len nodded at the giant and Samuel shrugged, picking Naveed up by his leg. Naveed’s backpack slipped off of his shoulders and hit the ground. Len picked up the backpack and Samuel threw Naveed over his shoulder, walking down the street.

“Where are we going?” asked Naveed, wheezing through bruised ribs.

“I think we need to meet with The Administrator.” said Samuel.

*****

Samuel went in first, Naveed could hear his voice through the soundproofed walls of Smyth’s sprawling home like a distant grinding of stone on stone. He came out and held the door open for Naveed, ushering him in. The door closed behind him. It took a while for his eyes to adjust in the darkness. He could hear his old friend’s labored breathing somewhere nearby.

“Navi.”

Naveed turned towards the thin voice. There was a simple sheet spread across an open doorway. He started pushing it aside.

“Don’t. Please.”

Naveed lowered his hand, letting the sheet fall back in place, “Is that you, Smyth?”

“Smyth. The Administrator. God,” Smyth sighed and it turned into a bronchial rattle, “Yes. I’m he. We’re it.”

“What’s going on around here?” asked Naveed.

They stood in silence as Smyth caught his breath. As Naveed’s eyes adjusted to the darkness he saw the walls were covered with relics, ancient things he’d only ever read about. Model airplanes dangled from the ceiling, stuffed replicas of animals Naveed couldn’t name lined the shelves and bumper stickers with inscrutable phrases like 10,000 MILES TO WALL DRUG adhered to every empty spot on the wall.  

“Do you know the parable of the ax?” asked Smyth.

“Remind me,” said Naveed.

“A man buys a new axe. While using it, he breaks the head. He brings it to a repairman who replaces the head of the ax–“

“Right. Then he breaks the handle and you ask if it’s the same axe,” said Naveed, “I guess I do know that one.”

“I don’t know if I’m the same man, Navi. I don’t look like Smyth. I don’t feel like Smyth. I make…moral decision Smyth never would have. I don’t know if that’s age or the, the, the…alterations I’ve made to my mind, the capacity changes. They don’t even call me Smyth anymore.”

“Whose fault is that?” asked Naveed.

Silence, it seemed as if Smyth had stopped breathing for a moment.

“How long has it been, Navi?”

“Since?”

“Since you left.”

“About ten years.”

“When did I see you last?”

“About ten years ago.”

“Hm. I know you’re…you’re Rooted. Did you ever rip, Navi?”

Naveed shook his head, realized Smyth couldn’t see him and said, “No. Nothing more than our little cosmetic experiments”

“They’re all doing it now,” said Smyth, “I think we’ve reached a…a tipping point.”

Naveed could hear Smyth moving around behind the door, rustling and scratching. He saw a thin shadow pass over the curtain.

“What was the tipping point, Smyth?” asked Naveed.

Silence.

“Smyth?”

“Smyth,” said the rasping, hollow voice from behind the curtain, “Smyth was the tipping point. He…I…went too far. I’ve become an icon in here, The Administrator, ruling secondhand from behind a curtain and…and…losing touch. It’s out of my control, Navi.”

Naveed could sense Smyth standing just behind the curtain now, the form of his shadow was something unrecognizable.

“The Administrator is out of control, Navi.”

Naveed backed away from the doorway. Fingers as long and rigid as shin bones slipped from behind the folds of the curtain..

“We move soon, Naveed. We fight soon. I need you.”

Naveed turned and ran. He could hear Smyth shuffling across the floor behind him.

“We need your help!” Screamed Smyth, his voice an eerie high pitch, “Smyth needs your help!”

Naveed pushed the door open, stumbling out into the light, momentarily blinding him. He didn’t stop, though. Naveed ran, blind and reckless.

“I need him!” Shrieked Smyth.

Samuel and Len ran after him, Samuel’s tree-trunk legs shaking the ground. Naveed’s vision returned and he realized that he was running in the wrong direction, away from the Compound gates. He heard Samuel drawing heavy, snorting breaths just behind him. The only good news was people were leaping out of Naveed’s way in anticipation of the giant. The Rip was gaining on him, there was no way Naveed could compete with the man’s unnaturally long and muscular legs. He dodged around a Joshua Tree and heard a splintering crack as Samuel crashed through it. So much for using agility. He had to think.

He was being chased by a large mass moving at a high speed–p=mv…momentum. Naveed fell to his knees and curled inward, rolling. He kicked up a cloud of dust as he skidded to a stop. Samuel overshot, trying to turn and stop. He lost his balance and tumbled, crashing through the side of a house and leaving a jagged tear. Naveed got to his feet and ran in the opposite direction.

Naveed was in the shadow of the processor stack when he saw Len who was breathing hard and jogging slowly. The backpack full of rods was still slung around the guard’s back. Before Len could react, Naveed jumped and drove his heavy boots into Len’s chest like a battering ram. The two men fell to the ground. Naveed rolled, grabbed his backpack and stood up. The ground shook and Naveed turned.

Samuel had already recovered and was running back towards him. He was too far from the gate to outrun the Rip. He looked around and saw that the door to the ripping house was standing open. At least there he had a chance of making a stand, finding something to defend himself with. He dashed for the entryway. There was a short, sharp crack and Naveed felt cold fire pierce his side. He twisted and saw Len holding up his gun. Naveed forgot about the gun. Another bullet hit his shoulder, embedding in the bone.

With the last of his energy, Naveed fell through the open door, kicking it shut behind him as he collapsed to the floor.

*****

Clutching his side, Naveed reached up and slid the locking bar shut on the door. His vision blurred, darkness eating away at the edges. He slumped down to his stomach and looked around the sparse room. There was only a plastic table and chairs, the flight of stairs up to the second floor and a doorway in the back to where the FastTrav chamber was kept. Naveed tried to stand but everything went dark and he heard the sound of rushing water in his ears. He collapsed. Naveed pulled himself across the floor, dragging with his one good arm and pushing with the little strength left in his legs. His backpack dragged heavily, sagging to the side. Samuel bellowed and pounded on the door. Naveed could hear Len telling Samuel to be careful. They couldn’t risk damaging the equipment.

Naveed reached the back room when he heard the scraping of a pry bar sliding across the slick plastic of the door, trying to find purchase. He pulled himself into the room and stopped to rest, looking around. The back room was lined with the delicate interfaces and connections that led to the stack of processors outside. Wires snaked out from the cool-blue, glowing boxes and wormholed through the wall. The interfaces connected to the terminal at the back of the room, an obsolete glass and keyboard construct, and to the FastTrav chamber lying flat on the floor in the middle of the room.

The chamber was an old one, actually made of metal. It was a corroded deathtrap with rusted out holes in the side. It always reminded Naveed of a massive bathtub, although the mess of wires and indicator lights and the folding doors that closed over the top made it hard to confuse the two. There was a box next to the chamber with cylindrical receptacles for rods, in case extra elements were needed for the user’s Rip.

He was out of options. No, that wasn’t true–he had options, they just weren’t one’s he liked. He could just die, bleed out on the floor and hope no one used him for some weird resurrection experiment. He could face Samuel and Len and maybe survive to find out what his crazed former friend wanted to do to him. Or he could risk the FastTrav.

Naveed knew the basic filter. He knew it would mend wounds and remove foreign matter because that’s what he programmed it to do. He even got it to the point where it could detect and remove cancerous growth before he left. No matter what, he’d live if he went through. He just didn’t know what he’d look like. For all he knew, the trademaster’s filter was still installed and he’d end up an Untouchable.

It would be his choice, though. That’s what mattered.

Naveed heard metal groaning and plastic splintering and Samuel panting just outside the door. He struggled to his feet and leaned over the terminal, dripping blood on the keyboard. It was already on the command line, the first good luck he’d had all day. He typed in the initialization sequence, hoping the syntax hadn’t changed in the last ten years.

The screen flashed red. Insufficient material, Carbon, HOPKINS, and CaFe rods needed.

Naveed groaned, that meant a Rip was installed, a complicated one. He opened his backpack and fed every rod into the receptacle one by one, the rods thudding and clanging as they slid down the chute to the element tanks under the floor.

The screen was still red telling him he had insufficient Calcium and Iron. He looked around the room, desperately hoping someone had left some spare CaFe rods.

Samuel ripped the door off of its tracks and the building vibrated as the guard squeezed through the opening. Naveed could hear the men shouting and the Rip was screaming curses as he moved through the building.

Naveed typed in the override command and reinitialized the FastTrav chamber. He climbed into the chamber and the folding doors closed over him. He was in darkness, the hum of servos and whine of charging capacitors surrounding him. There was a flash of light, sudden and sharp as lightning, and Naveed was ripped apart.

*****

The FastTrav system could tear apart and reassemble anything down to individual atoms, but it couldn’t place electrons. When the folding doors of the chamber opened and Naveed sat up, he couldn’t remember anything. The building he was in was shaking. He could hear someone screaming, no, roaring in anger below him. He vaulted out of the chamber, his arms rippling with new muscle. Memory and sense of space returned as the electrical activity of his brain resettled to where it belonged.

He was on the second floor in a room that was almost identical to the one he had just left. He looked down at his abdomen, no wound. He looked at his hands, no claws or fur, so he was still moderately human. He could feel the power as he moved, though. His arms and legs were still slender, but the muscles beneath were dense and quick. Every step was one of perfect precision and speed, every movement of his arm was graceful and unfathomably fast, burning with energy.

Naveed saw the Rip’s head appear from the staircase below, pulling himself up into the second story. The floor creaked ominously beneath the giant’s feet. Samuel opened his mouth to say something, but Naveed launched forward, his feet coiling and retracting like well-engineered springs. He swung an elbow, hitting Samuel’s jaw. There was a sound like a gunshot and the Rip toppled down the stairs, the weight of his body tearing a hole through the steps on his way down. Naveed cried out in pain and clutched his broken arm.

Bone density. Of course.

His elbow and forearm had shattered on impact, breaking like a bottle across Samuel’s jaw. There was insufficient Calcium and Iron to build bones that could withstand the new force he was working with.

He felt a shifting in his arm, like insects crawling beneath his skin. Bone shards sliding back into place, mending together. Tendons and ligaments retightening and rebinding. Naveed screamed as his bones reknit in a matter of seconds. It was excruciating. Somebody had cracked the code for regeneration after all. Naveed felt hungrier than he had ever felt before in his life.

He bent and turned his arm. It was already at full function. His only way out now was the tear through the wall and jump to the ground or to fight through the guards filling up the first floor of the building.

Either way, it was going to hurt.

END

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Lessons in Blade and Barrier

LESSONS IN BLADE AND BARRIER

by Siobhan Gallagher

The blade surged forward, more lightning than steel. The very air went dense with static. Izo tumbled more than dodged, leaped quickly to his feet, but found his balance off. There on the ground was his right forearm, clawed fingers clenching his katana.

“No,” he gasped, throat suddenly dry. This couldn’t be real, just couldn’t. He didn’t feel anything missing. Eyes squeezed shut, he used his left hand to probe where his right forearm should be. His hand came away wet. He put two clawtips to his mouth, tasted iron and salt.

Only then did he cry out.

“That was sloppy of you,” Master Takumi said, wiping his bladed forelimb on his hakama. He resumed his praying posture as if nothing had occurred; no expression on his mantis-face.

Izo clutched his stump. With the realization came a throbbing so intense it made him dizzy, took all his effort to keep standing. In the forest background something snickered.

“You should sit down,” Master Takumi said.

“Why?!” he yelled through clenched teeth.

Master Takumi tilted his head. “Why sit down?”

“No! My arm!”

Master Takumi took a moment to acknowledge the missing limb. “It’ll grow back.”

“Painfully,” Izo muttered.

“Better pain than death.” Master Takumi moved in slow, deliberate steps. The large sleeves of his kimono hid his deadly forelimbs. In less than a blink, he snatched up the fallen forearm, pried the katana from its grip and handed it to Izo, hilt first. “Now you can practice with your left arm.”

Izo wiped his hand on his chest before grudgingly accepting the sword. The snickering grew louder, more irritating, as if humiliation wasn’t enough.

“Your master has been too soft on you,” Master Takumi said. “No student of mine would stumble like that.”

Izo weighed the katana in his left hand, found his balance wanting. More than anything he wanted to cleave that mantis-face in two. His master had insisted he visit Master Takumi, that his swordsman training wouldn’t be complete without a mantis’ teachings. Ha! Now what good was he? It would be weeks before his arm grew back, and all he had was practice with his left arm. He hoped his master choked on his sake tonight.

And that damnable snickering… Why wouldn’t it stop?

“Shut up!” he yelled.

Silence, then– Blinding white. He stood petrified with fear, forgetting his lost arm as heat passed over him. Oh gods, don’t let it be an ill omen! He’d had enough bad luck for today.

The light died. Vision returned slowly through tears and black spots. A ball of white fire hovered over Master Takumi’s shoulder. Izo pointed with his katana, but found no words; his jaw worked around a tongue gone dry.

“It’s just an onibi,” Master Takumi said. “It likes to have its fun.”

Within the onibi’s sphere, shadowy faces flickered–a mournful expression, a look of terror. Izo took a step back, careful not to stare directly at the onibi. Rumor had it an onibi could suck a soul clean from a body that got too close, and in no way was he going to confirm this.

“Little lizardling doesn’t seem to like me,” the onibi said between chuckles.

Little?! The nerve of this ball of noxious spirits! If he had both his arms…

“That’s enough,” Master Takumi said. “If you will, please go to Izo’s village and inform Master Kenta that his pupil will be staying with me for the night.”

“What? I didn’t agree–” He winced at the stabbing pain, had to sheath his sword and clutch at the stump.

“Your wound needs to be cleaned and dressed. I won’t send you back bleeding all over.” This brought another wave of snickering. Master Takumi shooed the onibi. “Go on.”

“Very well, I’ll return shortly. You promised me tea, after all.”

“Only if you heat the water.”

The onibi winked out, leaving behind a burning afterimage.

As they walked to Master Takumi’s hut, avoiding rocks, fallen branches, or anything else that might trip him, Izo said: “You keep strange company.”

“All company is strange,” Master Takumi said, “yours included.”

*****

Izo nearly spilled his tea when he heard the news from the onibi.

“What do you mean it’s gone?” he hissed.

“Vanished. Gone. Nothing.” The onibi hovered over the tea pot, extended flame tendrils to lift the lid. “Oooh, lovely smelling green tea.”

“With jasmine.” Master Takumi sat across from Izo, tea cup held by fingers protruding from the joint above his bladed limb.

Izo slammed his cup down, sloshing hot liquid all over his hand. “Ah! Dammit!” He shook his hand. Bad luck indeed. An akuma must’ve  visited him in his sleep last night.

The onibi rolled around, laughing.

Izo threw his cup at the obnoxious fireball–missed, cup smashed on the back wall. “Shut up! I’m tired of you. You are either lying or the worse prankster ever.”

Master Takumi gently set his cup down, breathed a sigh. “I understand your concern, Izo. We’ll investigate in the morning.”

“In the morning?! That might be too late! We have to go–” A sharp pain erupted from his left shoulder. The world spun, blackened, came back into focus with an awful throb, as if his back was being massaged with hot coals.

Master Takumi stood over him in his prayer position. “You need to calm down. We’ll go in the morning. Right now, rest.”

Rest, ha. How could he rest with all this pain? Or with the thought that his village might be gone?

The onibi seemed to have a solution to this: it blew itself up to half his size, and within its flame was the silhouette of a female–he wasn’t certain what kind, but pleasing to the eye. The silhouette danced, rhythmic steps, curves swaying, arms spread, ready to embrace.

There was a girl with pretty ebony eyes and scales of teal back in his village, and he imagined being wrapped snug in her arms. It made the pain a bit more bearable as he daydreamed into sleep.

*****

As Master Takumi said, they set off in the morning. What Master Takumi didn’t say was that the onibi would be tagging along.

“Why is that coming?” Izo asked, pointing a claw at the soul-sucking fireball.

“Why not?” the onibi said, circling both him and Master Takumi. “I’m just as curious. After all, it’s not every day that a village disappears.”

“I see no harm in this,” Master Takumi said, and resumed their walk along the trail.

Izo gritted his teeth, but said nothing. He already hurt enough, didn’t want to start an argument that would end with him on his back.

The walk took the better part of the morning, but it already felt like afternoon with the sun bearing down. His grass hat didn’t provide enough shade to keep him cool. By late morning they’d made it to the hill that guarded his village. It was far too steep for him to climb with his one-armed balance, so they took the long way around.

“On any other day I would make you climb that hill,” Master Takumi said.

“Why does it have to be another day? Today is as good as any other,” the onibi chimed in, and Izo swore he saw a smirk in its flames.

“Don’t you have someone else to bother?” he growled at the onibi.

“You’re just grouchy.”

Maybe now would be a good time to practice with his left hand–the onibi was certainly within sword’s reach. How unfortunate that out of habit, he was wearing his katana on his left.

“Does it seem quiet?” Master Takumi said.

It did. Even on a day of prayer there were wheels grinding, trickling water, squawking chickens and grunting pigs. But now it was only the breeze and the rustling of grass. Izo charged ahead. It couldn’t be true, the onibi had to be lying.

Beyond the hill the ground was completely blank, as the village had been erased from existence. Izo ran; feet stomping, eyes watering, pain searing his side. As with his arm,  he had to reach out, to feel that his village  really wasn’t there.

He collapsed where once had been a barn, shuddering, gasping. Gone! All of it. Friends, family, even Master Kenta. What was he supposed to do? What–

A strong grip lifted him by his good arm, forced his mouth open to pour water down his throat. He gagged, coughed, sputtered most of it out. When he could stand straight again, Master Takumi was in his prayer posture.

“You were overheated.” Master Takumi indicated the empty water gourd at his feet.

Izo shook his head, gaze downcast. Couldn’t bear the sight of this barren land. Oh gods, why? The weight in his chest was too much, the pain too great. He sank to the ground, trying not to cry before Master Takumi. All he could do was hang his head between his drawn-up legs.

Master Takumi grabbed his left foot and jerked it up.

“Hey!” He struggled, flailing his arm to keep from falling over.

Master Takumi scraped some jelly residue from the sole of his foot, put it to his mandibles. “Slug magic,” he murmured, then released Izo’s foot.

“Slugs? Really?”

Master Takumi nodded. “They always leave a trail.”

“But why my village? We’ve never harmed them!”

“They’re the lowliest of life forms. They have no reason save spite.” Master Takumi straightened up, looked about. “We must go back for my salts.”

“But my village!”

“The slugs likely have it, them and their wicked sorcery. Only thing to overcome such taint is salt. I know.”

Izo sat there, speechless. Things were happening so fast. Just yesterday he had two arms! Now his village might be in the slimy hands of slugs, and Master Kenta hadn’t taught him how to fight mollusks. What good was he?

“Stop moping. Come.” Master Takumi reached out.

As much as he resented the words, they were true: sulking wouldn’t help. Still, he wanted this to be a dream, to wake up and find all his limbs intact and a village to go home to.

As he took the outstretched limb the onibi whizzed past, nearly knocking him over. Everything seemed intent on putting him down today. Grumbling, he stood with Master Takumi’s help.

The onibi bobbed frantically, intent expressions within its flame. “Something’s changed.”

“What do you mean?” Master Takumi asked.

The onibi didn’t answer, and in its silence, Izo became aware how still the air was, how the sun wasn’t as hot, that the day felt more late afternoon than late morning. What was going on?

“Come,” Master Takumi said with more urgency, tugging on Izo’s good arm.

Izo nodded, joined Master Takumi as they rounded the hill and–smack! He staggered back, felt like he’d been punched in the face and chest. Master Takumi recovered first, extended his forelimbs till some invisible barrier stopped him, then drew himself up, bladed forelimbs ready to attack. Slash-slash. Where he’d struck the barrier , shimmering slash marks soon faded.

“We’re trapped!” Izo cried.

“Shush. I’m thinking.” Master Takumi went into his prayer posture.

The onibi rammed full force into the barrier, and splattered into a hundred flaming fragments. The scattered flames crawled back together, squirmed into a ball. “That,” it muttered, “was a terrible idea.”

“So what are we to do?” Izo asked.

“Start digging,” the onibi grumbled.

“I wasn’t asking you.” He glared up at the stupid fireball. “Why don’t you try burning us a hole?”

“Quiet, you two,” Master Takumi said. He tapped along the barrier, seeking a gap. It was as good an idea as any and Izo joined in. His claws brushed against solid nothingness, sent a static shrill up his arm. What odd magic, and for what purpose? Why trap them?

And for that matter, why take his village?

He stopped to watch the onibi bounce along the barrier. This had all started with the onibi’s message–or was it bait? Then it had followed them for the weakest of reasons–or was it making sure they fell into the trap? Maybe it was waiting till he and Master Takumi were too tired and weak to fend off a soul-sucking fireball.

He side-stepped over to Master Takumi and whispered, “I think the onibi has tricked us.”

“Why would you say that?” Master Takumi didn’t turn his way, or even pause in his tapping.

“How can we trust the onibi? It eats souls.”

“And you think the onibi is working with the slugs.”

“Yes.”

“Possible, but…”

“What?”

Master Takumi touched his stump, making him wince. “Bandages are wet.”

“I don’t care.” He pulled away. “Could you at least take me seriously?”

“Your seriousness would divide us when we need to work together. Your master has failed to teach you this point.”

“At least Master Kenta never cut my arm off,” Izo said through gritted teeth, his remaining hand balled into a fist.

“If we ever get out of here and find your village, perhaps I’ll discuss teaching techniques with Master Kenta. Till then, let’s not fight each other.”

“I’m not fighting,” Izo hissed. “I just want to know. Tell me why the onibi can be trusted!”

“The onibi doesn’t require the help of slugs to suck our souls. It can do that whenever it wants.”

“Then why us? Why my village?”

“Not us. Me.”

“What?”

“I suspect this was a trap for me. They knew you had come to me for training, so they kidnapped your village to draw me out.”

“So this is your fault?!”

“Calm–”

Izo rammed his fist into the barrier, instead of into Master Takumi. Searing agony seized his arm. He lost all awareness of his body, just him and his arm floating in a fiery abyss. Senses returned slowly, his screaming became a hoarse croak. The barrier had gelled around his fist and it was crawling quickly up his arm.

Master Takumi was poised to chop his arm off.

“No!” Izo pulled and yanked, but his arm was trapped.

He didn’t see it happen–maybe he blinked–but now Master Takumi’s forelimbs were caught in the gunk. Worse, Master Takumi was pushing into it. Izo struggled back as Master Takumi was drawn in, then through. Master Takumi popped from the barrier in his own isolated bubble, posed in prayer. Master Takumi was brave, Izo would give the mantis that much.

A dark form emerged from the nearby forest, moving with all the slowness of a dead mule. Of course it was a slug, the slimy bastard. Master Takumi’s bubble rolled to face the slug, and the slug’s black maw flapped open and closed as it laughed.

When the slug threw back its cloak, Izo saw that it wore a medallion around its fat no-neck. No, not a medallion. A globe with a miniature village–his village!

He pushed with his right side against the barrier, as if his very rage could break through, but all he did was twist his stuck arm. His bloody bandages smeared the barrier, stump bleeding anew. A dizziness fell over him.

“What are you doing making a mess when Master Takumi is in trouble?” the onibi said from above.

“Shut up!” He leaned his forehead against the barrier, now oddly cool, trying to keep from passing out. The barrier was sizzling where his blood had touched it. He felt the faintest breeze… was his blood weakening the barrier? He pressed his stump against it–a wave of heat, sound of a thousand hornets buzzing in his ear–he pressed and bled and bled some more. The barrier spit and popped like water on hot coals. A breeze! He could feel it on the other side.

The onibi flicked a tendril out to capture a drop of blood, withdrew both tendril and blood into itself. “Salty.”

“How about helping?” Izo grumbled, wiggling his trapped arm.

“Oh, all right.”

The onibi lapped up blood directly from his stump–Izo cringed, expecting it to burn, but it tickled like goose feathers. Then the onibi spat the blood all over the gunk around his arm, and within moments the gunk sizzled off, and he was free!

Izo shook melting gunk from his left arm, and switched his sheathed sword to his right side.

“Better hurry, before the slug notices us,” the onibi said.

Izo looked up to see the slug’s tentacle eyes staring at them from over Master Takumi’s bubble. Crap! He clumsily drew his sword and winced as he touched the blade to his stump. A cry bubbled at the back of his throat; he choked it down, blinked back tears. His red-stained sword slashed the barrier, two, three, four times, hard and harder.

The slashes shimmered, sizzled, fell away. Fresh air blew in. Sword raised, he charged.

The slug muttered something unintelligible and threw up its arms. Izo tripped, sword went flying, his chin smacked the dusty ground . Couldn’t pull his legs apart. The gunk was around his ankles!

Quick!–he needed to hack it off. But his sword was out of reach. The slug oozed closer.

Fireball and sword flashed before him. The slug screeched and split right down the middle.

*****

Exhaustion weighed Izo like a heavy blanket. He had to be jarred awake by Master Takumi, who helped him up.

“Well done,” Master Takumi said, and Izo’s heart lifted. “Sloppy, but resourceful.”

The onibi delivered him his sword and Izo asked, “Why didn’t you suck the slug’s soul?”

“Slug souls? Eck! No thanks.”

Then he remembered. “Did you see the slug wearing a globe around its neck?”

Master Takumi nodded and produced the globe from his sleeve. “Not sure how they shrunk your village. Their sorcery seems to be getting stronger.”

“Let me see that,” the onibi said, tendrils extended.

Izo was about to object–handing an entire village-worth of souls to that thing?!–but the onibi had saved him; and besides, it probably couldn’t get at the souls inside.

The onibi examined the globe and said, “Ah, I know of a yōkai who knows a yōkai who could reverse this. Free of charge if I call in a favor.”

“That would be appreciated,” Master Takumi said, bowing. And after a stern look from the mantis, Izo also bowed.

“Only if you make more tea.”

“There’ll always be a pot reserved for you.” Master Takumi then turned to Izo. “I could also reserve a spot to train you, Izo. You would make an excellent slug slayer.”

Slug Slayer… The title had a catchy ring to it, though he wasn’t sure if he’d even survive Master Takumi’s training.

“I’m honored, Master Takumi. But, uh, let me think on it after my arm grows back.”

“Very well. Let’s head back before anymore damnable slugs appear.”

The onibi raced on ahead while Master Takumi half-carried Izo. Slug Slayer, he thought dreamily. The girl with the teal scales would probably find that attractive, the sort of thing a lizard could carve a legacy out of. Yes, he looked forward to that, along with his right arm.

END

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Teenage Badass

TEENAGE BADASS

by Kostas Paradias

Finn is a Helfwir, a monster hunter born. At the age of 8, Finn was capable of destroying a vampire with a plastic spoon. By the time she was 10, Finn knew a hundred ways of killing pretty much everything that went bump in the night.

Now, on her 14th birthday, Finn decides she wants to try living a normal life. She leaves home for Orsonville and enrolls in its high school. There, Finn will have to learn to deal with petty bullies, tenuous friendships , the hardships of teenage love and a werewolf cult that’s hell-bent on world domination, all without revealing her true identity.

This is shaping up to be a long, tough school year for Finn.


Episode One: At the End of the Whole Mess

So here I am, aboard a burning zeppelin that’s been ripped right out of time, fighting off a pack of snarling Nazi werewolves. There’s a hole in my sides; the only thing that’s keeping me from bleeding out is the spear-head that’s lodged against my ribs. The altimeter alarm is screaming from the cockpit and there’s a chill wind blowing against my back, tousling up my hair.

The balloon beneath me quakes like two metric tons of jello. Something below screams, as whatever’s left of the passenger hull grazes against the Edgarhorn, shedding glass and bits of its support-frame as it goes. A mass of packed snow and century-old ice becomes dislodged from the top; comes cascading down the mountain range, burying the derelict church on Bloch Hill under a couple metric tons of ice, come winter time. The way things are looking at the moment, I will either be torn apart by werewolves, drop 3 kilometers down to a messy death, burn to a crisp, bleed out or all of the above.

Dad would be so proud of me.

I am told there are worse ways to die: Mom always told me she was afraid she might waste away at that nothing little desk job she had before she met Dad, pushing buttons on keyboards according to on-screen instructions from 9 to 5. Sometimes, when my dad was gone for a long time hunting some creepy-crawly across the Urals, she would have nightmares. She would dream that faceless accountants would drag her kicking and screaming back to her cubicle, to serve until the end of her days.

One of the werewolves pounces on me so I whack him with my silver-plated baseball bat to the side of the head, send him flying down a two-kilometer drop all the way down to splat against the rusted, rotted remains of the ancient railway tracks that snake out of the mountain range. The ground might not be silver, but it’s going to be a while before he’s up and running again. Another one of the werewolves lunges at me, goes for a feint and swipes at my face, so I wheel around and land a blow to his chest with my reinforced elbow-guard, knocking the wind out of him. The force of the blow sends me sliding down across the balloon’s metal-clad envelope.

The fingers on my right hand flop down like wet hot dogs, so I switch the bat to my left arm. Won’t make for much of a swing, but it’s definitely going to sting. Somewhere ahead of me, in the bowels of the zeppelin an engine explodes, adding to the conflagration that is consuming the Hindenburg. Smelted, burning engine parts pitter-patter over house roofs. An axle smashes that ghastly gypsum cat statue on top of Mister Landsdale’s pet shop.  The entire zeppelin takes a sharp forty-five degree downward incline. I click my heels together and Mister Nomura’s patented AdhereAll™ smart-spikes shoot out from the soles of my shoes, grip the surface below me.

One of the werewolf braves moves in, thinking he’s up for an easy kill. This one’s a little bit smarter; he fixes his claws down into the wooden planks, digs in deep to steady himself, tries to bite my neck. The following explosion, which destroys the zeppelin’s auxiliary tanks makes him stumble; turns his killing blow into a mighty miss. So I crack him one in the ribs, another in the jaw and watch the teeth scatter in the high-velocity wind. We’re dropping like a meteor straight out of a disaster movie now, as big as the sky and wreathed in a halo of flame. Orsonville rises up to meet us.

Time seems to slow down, like a dream. I wonder if anyone below is seeing this. Maybe they’ll all just shrug and move on, unless the Hindenburg crashes into the school or totals the library. Even then, one of the residents in the Valente Old Folk’s home will tell you how they got it worse in ’65 and how young people got it easy these days.

I hear something wailing below, over the roar of the flames. The altimeter’s gone quiet, probably reduced to a mass of boiling glass and melted metal by now. I make out the distant, mournful wailing of an air raid siren. Looks like Uriah finally found some use for it. All those weeks, months, years of watching the skies finally paid off. He’s probably cackling like mad down there, screaming I Tol’ You So’s and Who’s Crazy Now’s at Skeptic Jane and Cynic Cleetus down below.

The Hull finally sheds off the Hindenburg, lands on Mister Guttierez’s convenience store, reducing it to rubble. I think of all the rows of stale donuts and the creaking, cranky Slurry™ machines and the comic books and the cheap Zippo knockoff lighters going up in flames and his cash stall, filled to the brim with all the change he short-charged me every day of every week during this entire year that I’ve visited his store. The loss of all that dead weight causes us to gain a little bit of altitude, just enough so we won’t end up crashing into Ellison Street.

Two of the werewolves skitter by and grasp my jeans to hold on. One of them tries to pull himself up, get a cheap shot in. I bring the baseball bat handle down on his face again and again until he lets go. The fur on his face sizzles where the silver has landed. After another couple of hits, he lets go. I don’t even notice my pants leg is ripping until I feel the wind against my calves. When I turn to look, the other werewolf’s gone. They’ve probably landed all over the Orsonville Mall roof by now.

I chance a glance behind me and see that we’re heading toward Henderson Lake. There’s enough industrial waste and runoff petrol from frakking operations there to turn the entire mass into a fireball as soon as the flame hits, but at least it’s a long way away from Orsonville. There shouldn’t be too much damage. Mission accomplished. The world is as good as saved.

I don’t dare say it out loud, but I’m feeling pretty damn invincible right now. Like Major Steele and Jean LeFevre the parkour champ all rolled into one. I feel ten feet tall and my heart is pumping fast; like I could chew steel and breathe fire. But when I see Gunda stomping out of the flames, fur bristling, claws at the ready, a row of teeth so long and sharp they could tear strips off a battleship’s hull, so angry she could tear down the Moon and eat it, I remind myself that it’s time to get the hell out.

“Finn! You bastard!” she howls like the Bad Wolf in the picture books Mom used to read to me, when I was four and scared of the dark. Time to go. Putting pressure on my heels to activate the pressure switch that retracts the spikes, I let myself slide down the incline just a little bit, turn my body to brake my descent. If I do it the way Dad showed me, I should be able to jump over the tip, do a flip and then let the wind carry me behind the zeppelin just in time to control my fall enough to maybe break only a couple of bones on landing.

If I don’t, at least I’ll make a pretty corpse. Glancing back, I see Gunda stomping down across the incline. She moves like something out of a nightmare, deceptively fast. Her every step is calculated, seems to ignore gravity and the steepness of the incline. I tell myself that she’s not as close or as fast as she seems and that I’m going to make it. I guess that’s the same thing all those stumbling, doomed cheerleaders tell themselves in slasher movies, just before they turn around and see the man in the bloody coveralls standing right in front of them.

Skidding across the bobbing polyester surface of the balloon, approaching maximum velocity, I jump up in the air. True to form, Gunda slams into me like a steam-hammer. Her moon-mad face fills my field of vision, her eyes as wide as saucers.

“You ruined everything!” she snarls as we bounce off the railing, across the balloon, down the nose. Her claws dig into my back. I hear her tearing my backpack across the seams, reducing it to canvass ribbons and useless lengths of zipper. It all happens in the span of a couple of instants, almost too fast for the eye to see. My tools rain down, a hail of  vials full of wolfsbane concentrate and mandrake root powder and mercury, strewn across the forest floor. If I make it out of this alive, Mister Pettus is going to be so pissed. He will probably berate my corpse at my own funeral. Grab me by the neck and just beat the living tar out of me, ordering me to get up so he can chew me out some more. Provided there’s enough of me left after the drop.

“Die!” she howls.

“After you,” I say.

Gunda opens her mouth so wide that she could fit my entire head between her jaws. I push the tip of my baseball bat up against her wide open mouth, let her taste silver. She bites into it anyway; grazes the plating, reduces the shaft to splinters. Her gums and tongue sizzle where the silver lingers, but she’s too mad to care. She spits at my face, grazes my cheeks with her front teeth looking for a vein or a patch of flesh that she can peel clean off. She rakes her claws across my back, tearing up the spider-silk layers of armor underneath. I’m too terrified to scream, settling instead for twisting my bat handle and the mess that’s left of the shaft into her mouth. It cracks and I drive the jagged edge against her palate.

Tree-branches whip at the back of my head, my ears and eyes. Shifting my weight slightly, I turn both of us in mid-air so she’s below me, hoping that her body can break my fall. I mutter a quick, garbled mess of a prayer. Gunda finishes off my bat, moves in for my throat. I feel her teeth grazing my jugular, piercing the skin. I’m perhaps three seconds away from dying and all I can think of is how pissed Anton is going to be if he finds out I stood him up on our date because I’m dead.

We crash into the ground at thirty meters a second just as the hijacked Hindenburg falls into Henderson Lake, turning its surface into a pillar of fire a hundred meters tall.

END

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Fly Red Fox

FLY RED FOX

by Desmond Fox

Red Fox circled the coyote, tossing cold Mojave sand with her jagged steps. Sweat beaded on her face, painting streaks of dirt and blood down her blunted features with each salty drip crawling down her skin in rivulets. Half of her head was freshly shaved, the other half was ornamented with long black dreadlocks. The rest of her was only clothed in decorative hempen ropes and animal-blood warpaint. The coyote stared back with its one blue eye, bearing a toothy snarl.

This was not how she intended to use her head start, and she truly hoped the coyote would back away and run off as soon as it identified her scent, but it was hungry. She could see it in the creature’s lean body and hear the hunger pangs in her head. It was nervous too, too anxious to pounce first.

Red Fox seized the opportunity. She leapt forward into the air; her body took a shape not its own. Her jaw extended, amber hair packed her dark skin as she reconstructed herself into the shape of a diminutive kit fox. She snapped at the creature’s neck with her comparably meager muzzle, crushing its windpipe in a cloud of flesh-musk. Surprise was the last thing the animal felt before it died.

Red Fox turned back into her human shape, dipped a finger in the dead animal’s wound and painted a small mark on her face in the shape of a spiral. Suddenly she was aware of how much time she had wasted, and set back to her gait, deeper into the desert in search of civilization.
There was nowhere to hide here, everything was flat and sparse. Her only way out was to find someone willing to protect her and hide her from her tribe, but outlanders usually kept their hands clean of local traditions.

The other option was to hide as an animal, take refuge in a warren or den, but she would ultimately be rejected by the indigenous families, and use of her shapeshifting only made her easier to find.
Others had fought. She had been with the hunting parties before as a child, and watched skinwalkers chased down until they turned and bore their teeth in defiance. She had seen throats ripped out of strong men by fierce wolf-women, but in the end they were slain the same. They were painfully skinned alive then burned as a tribute to their nuclear gods.

She wished she had ran sooner. She wished she could sprout feathers and take to the sky like a sparrow, but she could not. Like all hunted, she had been hexed, feet bound to the earth. She would only fly again in her death.
On the wind she could hear the trot of horses and the calls of their riders. She had been careless, slow and now she would die for it. She ran hard. She barreled through dirt and sand, past yuccas, juniper and white firs, when she saw her only hope.

In the distance she saw a tent and a fire. There was a man with skin the color of hematite feeding oats to an elderly painted horse. If the gods were kind and their bellies full, she would find some sort of sanctity here. She raced onward, allowing her arms to become legs, and her feet to become paws. Her muzzle stretched and her body-hair thickened into a red coat. She barreled between the man’s legs into the tent, hiding in his fox furs, twitching in fear.

*****

Osiah watched a naked woman turn into a fox, then race into his tent. He stared at the whisky bottle in his hand incredulously before he heard the roar of horse hooves beating in thunderous rhythm.

A wise man once said speak softly and carry a big stick, and Osiah’s ICS-191 GLM grenade launcher was about the biggest stick he had found so far, so he picked it up from beside his tent and prepared to wave it around a little. The weight of it always surprised him. He did a few curls, until it was as natural in his hand as the bottle.

With his other hand, he took the switchblade style comb from his pocket, brushed out his grey moustache to an appropriate bushiness, before sheathing and popping it back into the pocket from whence it came.

Osiah stepped into the tent just long enough to grab his white stetson from the pile of whimpering furs, placing it on his head.
The roar finally caught up with him, a party of ten Mojave warriors and a young female shaman were at his figurative doorstep, twenty-feet or so from his little cookfire and pot of beans.

The men wore long black braids, with coal streaks across their eyes. They wore axes slung from their hips and stared unblinkingly into the dirt-filled void beyond. The woman who rode with them wore feathers in her hair and on the ropey black rags that hung around her shoulders and waist. In her hands she held a round bottle, roiling with green liquid that seemed to jump and boil in the direction of Osiah’s tent.

“She’s in there.” The shaman muttered just loud enough for Osiah’s ears, holding her bottle high for the warriors to see.

“Should I kill this man?” one of the men asked.

“No, he won’t be a problem,” the woman responded coolly. “Our prey is in your tent, outlander. Allow my men to retrieve what is ours and you will not be harmed.”

Osiah smiled, twitching his moustache back and forth. He peered from under his hat and spoke with authority.

“Now, I ain’t normally one to tread on ceremony, or get in the way of local tradition, but I know a fair fight when I see one. And this, little lady is anything but fair.”

“There’s more to her than you know.”

“Oh, I’m sure, but ten armed men against one naked woman ain’t much better than ten armed men against one little fox in my book.”

“Then we’ll take her,” the woman snapped. Her eyes smiled, without a twitch in her lips.

“Now, I figured you’d say something like that, so-” Osiah heaved his grenade launcher in front of him, trying not to let its weight show as he put his other hand on the secondary handle. “so maybe today’s the day I get to fire this thing.”  

“You wouldn’t.” The woman contested, keeping her face the image of placidity.

“No, I would. So what are you gonna do? What’s your hunt worth?”

“It’s worth the lives of our people. She had her chance to escape, she failed. She belongs to our gods now.”

“Fine.” Osiah replied. “Let them come get her then.”

 

*****

“You hungry miss?” Osiah held a spoonful of baked beans out to his guest. Red Fox was in her human form, wearing an old military canvass blanket. She shook her head.

“I’ve eaten. What you did was very kind. Most outlanders wouldn’t involve themselves.”

“Most outlanders ain’t Osiah Warren. A wise man once said, courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage.

“Wisdom, courtesy and courage are uncommon today.”

“That they are miss. That they are.” Osiah finished the pot of beans by himself, paying attention not to get any sauce in his moustache.

“They’ll be back.” Red Fox suggested, staring into the cookfire.

“Mmhmm. They want to kill you I suppose.”

“Yes.”

“And why’s that? You seem a perfectly moral young woman.”

“It’s not a matter of morals. It’s a matter of sacrifice.”

“A sacrifice you’re not too keen on then huh?”

“I want to live.”

“We all want to live sweetheart, it’s what you die for that counts. What do they want you to die for?”

“For our people. They would feed me to our gods to barter a year of harvests and game, free of plague and murder. My suffering would promise healthy babes and rain water that doesn’t burn or make ill. My death would protect my people from violent outlanders and the hulking beasts that lurk in the night sands.

“And they let you leave?”

“The ceremony is in the hunt.” Red Fox wiped a tear from the side of her bulb nose, then scratched it as if to conceal the behavior.

Osiah plucked a bottle of whisky from the dirt and gravel at his feet offering it to Red Fox with a gesture. She declined, so Osiah took a swig himself. “Ain’t that something. So you tell me then sweetheart, if you really believe all that, you’re being selfish ain’t ya? Fatman and Little Boy are popular gods these days, yours aint the first people I seen out cuttin’ each other up for ‘em. You’re hunted for what you are, not what you ain’t. You’re a shape changer and you ain’t selfless, so why not just fly away?”

“I can’t fly.” Red Fox muttered with a wavering voice. “I’m cursed.”

“Mmm. Could’ve fooled me. I don’t know much about magic or what it is that you people do, but if that’s the way of it… What about when you were young? You knew what’s in store, why didn’t you fly then?”

“The Bleeding Ceremony.”

Osiah cocked an eyebrow in response, toying with the whiskey bottle in his hand.“Bleeding ceremony?”

“When a girl’s first blood comes, there is a ceremony. The priestesses and crowmen come to your home, drawing in intoxicating spirits with sage and feather. They sing to the gods and the phases of the moon, then a sacrifice is made by the child. If she turns, she is a skinwalker, made to live life in a cage, awaiting her turn to be sacrificed.

A cage is all I’ve known. I’ve never flown up to meet the sky, to kiss the clouds and scoff at the earth below.”

Osiah twisted his seat in discomfort.

“So what, they’ll just send more men with bigger sticks till they get what they want, huh?”

“Yes.”

“So I guess all that really does is put the pressure on. You gotta find something good to die for little miss,’fore someone decides for you.” Red Fox was silent. “What’s the blood about, all that paint?”

“It’s a promise.”

“What kind of promise?”

“It’s a promise to the animals whose forms I take, that their deaths were not in vain. It’s a promise that I will use everything that they have given to me, that I carry the weight of their deaths everywhere I go.”
“Mmm. Now, that woman with the bottle in the black rags, she the one who cursed you?” Red Fox nodded. “Bet it’s her kind brought Fatman and Little Boy to ya’ll in the first place. Them death worshippin’ types with their nuclear gods, they know how to play a crowd.”

Osiah shared the bottle of whiskey with himself for a while as Red Fox stared into nothing before he asked. “So, from how you understand it, how’s this curse supposed to work? What’re the rules?”

 

******

Osiah rode into town on an elderly painted horse, trotting down what used to be an asphalt road between what used to be concrete buildings. Time had worn down the rough edges, and everything looked like stone now, almost natural in their desecrated glory.

He smiled and tipped his hat as he came upon some children playing hide and seek in the ruins. They ran in fear as scared children are like to do and he followed them deeper into the city’s corpse to find the new life growing from within.
Homes had been raised where there were none before. Cornfields replaced empty plots of irradiated earth. People lived and laughed where before there were only ghosts. Osiah’s presence gave to alarm as he met with large men; spears and black face paint.

“Slow down now fellas, I ain’t here to cause any trouble. I got your little girlie here, I’m just bringin’ her back. Go on, git yer shaman, she’ll confirm it.”

“He’s not lying.” The shaman stepped from her pavilion. Smoke poured from her lungs as she spoke. She ashed her pipe with one hand and lifted the bottle of green liquid with the other. The liquid inside jumped with agitated vigor in Osiah’s direction. “Where is she?”

Osiah moved forward, ignoring the impatient gladiators who surrounded him. He reached into his bag as he rode, moving his hand over the grenade launcher, grabbing a small handful of cloth. He unfolded it, revealing a dead black-throated sparrow.

“She turned into this after ya’ll left. Her little heart stopped right then. Wasn’t hard to pick up yer trail, all the mess you made.”

“Why are you bringing her back to us?” The woman’s face was still and emotionless.

“Well it ain’t my place to argue with tradition. I had a knee-jerk reaction, I’ll admit it, don’t mean I can’t be cordial an’ bring the poor girl back home.” Osiah thought about his grenade launcher, then he thought about all the children playing hide and seek staring on at him, like he was some folkloric beast.

“Well we appreciate it. Our gods are not patient ones. Would you like something for your troubles? We could provide you with a fresh horse, this one looks as though it has one hoof in the rot already.” The woman placed a hand on the horse’s neck as Osiah dismounted.

Osiah replaced the bird and pulled the grenade launcher from his bag, swinging it towards the warrior men who greeted him at the village’s mouth. At the same time, Red Fox changed shape from the elderly horse to a half-blind coyote and leapt for the shaman’s throat.

Women and children screamed and the men looked on in disbelief as their priestess died silently in the red dirt. Her face was unflinching, showing neither surprise nor terror as the life left her body through her neck.

Red Fox turned back to her human shape and spoke to Osiah in a low voice as she crouched over her victim. “What do we do now? We’re surrounded, we won’t make it out of here alive.”

“I won’t. You can fly.”

“What if I can’t? What if the curse isn’t lifted? It’s only a rumor, whispered between branchwood bars.”

“No no, you made a promise. You made a promise to that little bird and to my horse, you owe him one, you owe him your life.”

“Your stick, you can shoot-”

“No no, too much collateral damage. My life ain’t worth theirs, it’s that witch what’s the problem and she’s taken care of now.”

“The curse-”

“Don’t matter now. You don’t try you ain’t gonna live anyway, ain’t got nothin to lose.”

“You’ll die.”

“I’ll die for somethin’ I believe in, that’s better than the alternative.”

The warriors were moving in slowly, disbelief becoming overwhelmed by rage.

“Go. Git!” Osiah shouted.

Red Fox sprouted feathers from her arms. Her feet curled up into talons and her mouth turned into a beak. She shrank into a little sparrow and fluttered up towards the sun.

Osiah smiled up at her as she disappeared into the enveloping light of the blue sky. His smile faded when he heard, “No, don’t. She’s gone, we’ll use him for the ceremony. Skinwalker or not, we’ll have a sacrifice for the gods.”

*****

The days blurred together, flickering away in the wind as Osiah was starved, naked in his wooden cage. He could see that the shaman had not named a predecessor, and those who remained seemed to be making things up as they went along.

There was no magic, there were no spells or potions or promises. They only prayed to their nuclear gods, that they might accept this sacrilegious sacrifice.

Men would visit him day and night just to explain again in detail how his skin would be flayed and his pink body seared, so that Fatman might feast upon his soul. They joked that Fatman preferred skinwalkers because they taste of every animal they had ever been. They joked that Osiah would be a filthy, tasteless morsel, that Fatman might destroy them just as he destroyed the world before theirs in response to such an insult.

Osiah only smiled wishing for his comb and a bottle of whiskey, twitching his whiskers in a starved delusion. Some nights as he stared into the bleakness beyond his cell, he thought he saw a dog, or coyote with one eye looking back at him.

A thought cycled through his mind as he was captured, a quote, something someone wise once said. It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move onto better things. The words kept Osiah at peace as the nights passed, until the evening of his execution.

Osiah was strapped down to a stone slab in the shaman’s pavilion. Four old men surrounded him, each looking down at his face with a thin flaying knife in their hand.

“Stop you fools.” A still voice disturbed them, unwavering despite urgent words.

“Priestess! No, this is not possible, we watched you die.”

“And the gods gave me back. You cannot sacrifice this man, to do so would call down a reckoning from the gods our people would not survive.”

“But my lady, we must give them something.”

“And we will.”

Osiah sat up as soon as he was unstrapped, turning to see the shaman Red Fox had killed. In her hand she held a black-throated sparrow, the same one Osiah had presented to the shaman days ago. He held his breath as he snapped out of his stupor by the incredible circumstance he found himself in.

“I did not truly die. When the gods gave me back, my curse returned as well. The skinwalker died in a tree not far from here. I retrieved her body to save us from the gods’ wrath.

“My lady, you are truly wise and all-powerful, but this man attacked us, what would you have done with him?”

“He did not attack us. The skinwalker did. He could have destroyed our village with his weapon, but he chose not to. He acted justly to his nature, he’s not at fault for his misunderstanding of our traditions and culture.”

“But he deceived you!”

“He also brought us the skinwalker. That, he did not lie about. Were it not for his blundering, we might all be irradiated ash tomorrow. Instead we are saved. Would you argue with my judgment?” The men were silent. “Give him his things and a fresh horse. See he leaves the village alive. Tonight’s sacrifice is very important, the gods shall impart with me new knowledge. I’ll not have his blood soiling their wisdom. And you-”

The shaman stepped towards Osiah, face placid and still as she spoke. “It has been said that courtesy is as much a mark of a lady as courage, but you’ll find no such courtesy should you intrude on my land again. Is that understood?”

Osiah tried not to smile. “Yes ma’am.”

“Good. Now get out of my sight.”

*****

Osiah sat by his cookfire, feeding handfuls of oats to his horse. Slowly, a fox crept up to his camp. He smiled at it and stirred the contents of his pot. The fox trotted up to him, then transformed into a young woman, dressed in hempen ropes and red paint.

“Hello friend.” she said with a smile.

“Good to see you again miss, I wasn’t sure if I would. Now, you never told me your little trick worked with people.”

“I didn’t know. I’d never had to kill someone before.”

“No one else knew either?”

“No. They knew only what they were told by the priestess. They trusted her implicitly, with all aspects of their lives.”

“How about now? They still trust her implicitly?”

“Yes. More so even now that she’s survived death.”

“And what do the gods have planned for those poor people? What great wisdom did they impart on their shaman?”

“No more sacrifices. Skinwalkers are to be embraced, used to hunt, help us survive, not chained under lock and key.”

“Mmhmm.”

“Slowly, the god’s protection will fade, and the people will have to protect themselves.”

“Mmm.”

“They will know peace, and eventually memory of the shamen and their nuclear gods will fade away.”

“Peace through deception eh?”

“Is there any other kind?” They smiled at each other for a moment. “I’m sorry about your horse.”

“Yeah. Well, Sterling was a good horse. He was sick though, and old. There was no gettin’ around it. That night you found us, that was sorta our last hurrah. I was gonna have to put him down either way. He woulda’ liked how things turned out.”

“Good. Thank you.”

“Yeah, well, I’m just glad it’ll all work out.”

“You taught me how to fly, Osiah.”

Osiah took a drink of his whiskey and made a face as it went down, showing his teeth. He stared into the cookfire and said, “Then fly, Red Fox.”

END

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Hope City Chronicles

HOPE CITY CHRONICLES

by Todd Honeycutt

Shell didn’t expect the expression on the River Security guard’s face to be kind, but she also didn’t expect the guard to lock her body down.

“What do we have here?” the guard said.

“You got no probable cause.”

“I don’t?” The guard tapped her cuff and scrolled through what Shell assumed were her records. “In trouble once already for stealing. Records show that you sure spend a lot of time down here for a girl so young. If I didn’t know better, I’d assume that you were planning something.”

Shell wished that were the case. “It’s a free city, last I heard.”

“Free city, for sure, until you make a mistake.”

That mistake was going to stay with her. Or rather, it was a mistake that her father had made, and that Shell had covered for.

The guard had no badge indicating her name and number. If Shell had kept her rab on, she could at least learn that. But she was ghosting. A simple day, with nothing–and no one–interrupting her. A day at the docks, watching the boats and the water and the gulls, turning over her options. When she had been caught, she had been thinking about the African freighter in the harbor, so far out she wondered if it were in quarantine.

Shell hadn’t been looking for trouble.

“Honest, I just like coming down here.”

“No one just comes down here, Sweetie. This is the worst part of this city.”

That was true. The rest of the city was still new and tall and shiny. Here, with the docks, the cranes, the water, the containers stacked about, nothing was clean or planned or scrubbed or sanitized.

Which was why Shell liked it so much.

“Here’s how it looks to me. Got a girl with a record. Not in school. Likely to be on guarantee for life, but maybe doesn’t like it. Wants more than she can get. Hanging down here, looking for opportunities.”

“That’s not what I….”

“Doesn’t matter, does it?”

Shell struggled against the lockdown. Her body tingled, but didn’t move. Cops shouldn’t be able to do this.

“There’s something you need from me, isn’t there?”

The guard smiled, revealing perfectly white teeth. “You’re a smart one, aren’t you?”

“Not that smart, if I’m here and you’re there.”

With a fluid motion, the guard put something in Shell’s pocket. A light on the guard’s lapel flashed on, indicating that the guard’s sensors were recording. It hadn’t been on before, Shell realized, though it should have been on throughout the encounter.

The guard then pulled the item out of Shell’s pocket. “A keypass?” she said calmly, as if she’d done this many times before. “Looks expensive. Wonder what this goes to?”

Shell looked straight at the guard. “Not mine. She just planted it on me.”

The guard hit a button on her cuff, and the light switched off. “Tell you what. You do me a favor, I’ll do you a favor.”

Shell’s stomach told her that she wasn’t going to like what was next.

*****

Tony waited in the cage for Merdi.

The Ethiopian sailor’s request was odd, cuttings of plants that Tony could get from the ag levels of his apartment building. People coming into port often asked for small batch whiskey, specialty cheeses, foods they couldn’t get elsewhere or had run out of on their ships. Things that they couldn’t get directly at the port stores, because the machines decided to keep foreign sailors confined to their ships and the immediate dock area.

Sometimes, all the sailors wanted were cool toys for their kids. Tony felt for those guys, he really did. Tried to get them something nice, something his kids would have wanted. Didn’t gouge them, either.

But Merdi’s was one of the oddest requests.

Tony looked again at the box. The sailor should have been able to get this stuff anywhere. Though perhaps it was expected that the African Congress played by different rules. Leaves and root stock from a dozen different plants, carefully wrapped and labeled, as requested. After he worked out the agreement with Merdi, Tony pulled the samples from the hydroponic floor below his, telling the caretaker bot that he needed them for his daughter’s science project. Nothing special, far as he knew…tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, broccoli, lettuces, herbs. The kinds of plants every building had on its ag levels, hydroponic floors curated by bots, their steady production distributed to the building’s inhabitants.

Never felt right to Tony. Buildings were for people, not for plants. The bright lights and controlled conditions worked, though.

The city itself didn’t feel right, either, which was most of the reason why he spent so much time at the docks. He felt less under the machines’ eyes, though as much as he hated to admit it, everything the machines had told them to do so far seemed to work.

That didn’t keep him from looking for ways to step outside their care and watchful eyes. Which was why he waited in a jerry-rigged Faraday cage to exchange packages with a sailor.

Decent price, a case of Chinese vodka for not so much work. He’d hand the bottles out to his crew as part of their Christmas presents.

Tony heard footsteps. More than one person.

Merdi appeared around the stack of metal trailers, followed by two other men.

Tony’d bet his last dollar they weren’t sailors.

“You have it?” Merdi asked. His English was heavily accented, but Tony could understand him clearly.

“Where’s the vodka?” None of the men carried anything.

“Gone, unfortunately. Sailors,” Merdi laughed and waved his hands. “Can’t keep them away from some things. But we do not come empty handed.” He pulled a long, thin golden box from beneath his jacket. “Payment here is worth what you’ve brought, plus another favor.”

Tony doubted Merdi’s smile was genuine. The men behind him stayed stone-faced.

Tony pointed to the cuttings. “I thought I already did you a favor.”

“That’s only the first part of what we need.”

*****

Shell wished getting to Central County was more efficient. From the docks, she hopped a tram and within 10 minutes transferred to a train that ran to the center of the city, but the process was never as slow for Shell as it was that afternoon. The guard needed the package by four, which didn’t leave much time to spare.

They had started Hope City with Central County, a base for various government and cultural institutions. From there, they had laid out neighborhoods for 25 miles around, razing everything that originally had existed in its radius–the old buildings and towns and roads–to set up a planned community for a hundred million people. The buildings rose 70, 80, 90 stories into the sky, living units interspersed with meticulously planned park spaces and commercial and industrial units. Integrated communities tied together by trams and trains, an engineering marvel meant to reduce humanity’s footprint on the Earth by concentrating resource use more efficiently. The government created four such cities across the nation, and enticed people’s retreat through the promise of guaranteed income, the offer of tax breaks, and the cessation of government subsidies to those who remained outside.

All of this recommended and managed by the machine intelligences, with proper human oversight.

As the companies relocated, the people followed.

Shell’s father was one of the first, he liked to brag. But Shell never saw it as something to be proud of.

Maybe he was bragging now about being one of the first to leave.

Once she arrived at her stop, she followed the keypad’s instructions to a building that towered above the nearby structures. A large number of drones skittered overhead. A rich area, or maybe because it was a neighborhood so close to the city’s government offices, it simply had more traffic.

Shell held up the keypass; the building’s doors opened.

She had known from the outside that it wasn’t one of those quickly made, cookie-cutter buildings where she lived, meant to hold as many people as it could while adhering to the regs. What was inside, though, astounded her. The first floor ran three stories high, with large abstract paintings filling the walls and glass sculptures tastefully placed on the floor and a pool with a waterfall on the far side of the room. What was she doing in a place like this? She looked for something to stop her, but the bots either remained still or skittered past.

The keypad guided her to an elevator, which took her to the 41st floor. The smell of hydroponics when the doors opened told her it was an ag level.

Shell walked to a glass door, the only one in the small hallway. She hesitated before knocking. What would she say she was looking for? She checked the keypass. It had no further instructions.

The door abruptly opened.

She jumped back. Not whom she expected. An older man in a lab coat, Black, nervous.

“I’m here for a package,” Shell said.

He looked her up and down, as if assessing whether she was capable.

“You got him.”

“Excuse me?”

“Plans have changed. I need to go to who sent you.” He stepped back into the room and tapped something on his desk computer.

She stared at him.

He laid his coat on a couch and picked up a small bag. “We don’t have much time.”

“I don’t understand. I was told….”

He called for the elevator. “Like I said, plans have changed.”

The doors opened, and she followed him inside the elevator. He leaned against the mirrored side looking dazed.

“You ok?”

“Will be. What’s your name?”

“Shell.”

“Shell. Michelle, Shelley, seashell, shell game, shell shocked….”

“Shell,” she repeated flatly.

“Nate Beason.”

When the doors opened to the first floor, Beason led her through to the exit.

Shell turned toward the train station. Beason grabbed her arm. “We need a car.”

She didn’t have that kind of money. Whatever expression her face betrayed, Beason read it perfectly.

“I’ll cover it.”

He flagged a car and they got in. He had a sour smell, or maybe his bag did. Whichever, it filled the small space.

Beason tapped the car seat nervously.

“You do this often?”

“Ride in a car?”

“I meant carry packages.”

“Let’s pretend it’s my first time.”

“Oh,” Beason said. “Glad I’m with someone experienced.”

Shell shrugged, not caring whether he could see her.

It hit her as the car passed through the narrow streets.

That wasn’t a hydroponics floor. It was a lab.

The man’s eyes were closed. She considered having the car stop, running like hell and fading into the crowd and keeping far from the harbor. What were the chances of the guard tracking her down and busting her? How badly did she need the credits?

She only had a half hour left to get this guy to her.   

Beason groaned and leaned over, followed by the sound of vomiting. Shell pushed against the side of the car to avoid it, to avoid him, to get away from the smell.

“Pull over,” she called to the car.

“No,” the man groaned. “We’ve got to keep moving, to get there in time.”

“You’re sick.”

“I’ll make it.”

“Pull over,” she said. The car did.

The credits weren’t enough for this.

Shell spied a slim green envelope in his inside pocket and quickly snatched it.

“Don’t.”

It had more than paper inside. The envelope was padded.

“This is it, isn’t it?”

He shook his head, but his eyes told her something different. She could leave him, get this to the guard, and walk.

The moment after Shell stepped out of the car, a far-off explosion sounded. A cloud of smoke rose behind the buildings from where they had been.

Beason called out, enunciating each word slowly, “Get back in.”

“That wasn’t….”

Shell heard the sounds of sirens in the distance.

*****

“For a city with so many suffering people, we don’t see as much of this as I’d expect. Here, especially.” Gilberto Zapata held back his next thought–that back in LA, they’d have seen at least one of these a week. Sam would already know that.

The police bot was a three-foot tall floating cylinder, cameras and sensors covering its body, with a screen for a face so it could alter the persona it projected as the situation dictated. By default, Zapata kept his partner’s screen blank.

“By ‘here,’ do you mean Harbor County or the docks? This is the eighteenth murder this year in the city, first one in Harbor County, none on the docks,” Sam said.

“You certain it’s murder?”

“Mostly.”

“Probably right.” Zapata walked around the body, perfectly laid out in the small space created by stacks of shipping crates just off the main walkway. “But it’s odd we don’t find more bodies here. Might be easy to toss a body in a crate and ship it out. Or throw it into the harbor.” He looked out across the water. They might want, as a matter of course, to dredge the harbor periodically. He wasn’t going to offer that idea to the machines.

“Possible,” Sam said, and the detective wondered if it were calculating the probabilities and the missing souls who might have gone that route.

Zapata cleared his throat and looked back at the body. Big guy. Had a ceremonial knife tucked in an inner coat pocket. Would have been hard to manhandle. Signs pointed to electrocution. No sign of a struggle. Still possible that it was an accident. Sam had been wrong before.

He scanned the containers for potential sources of electricity. “What do you know, Sam?”

The bot had probably already sent his summary report to the Bureau. “Anthony Titus, senior foreman for the Port Authority. Hope City resident for eight years.”

“Old timer. From?”

“New Jersey.”

“That knife doesn’t look like it’s standard issue with the uniform.”

“Without more specific analysis, I would say it was a ceremonial knife, African in origin.

“Any legal history?”

“Nothing formal since he was a youth. He did have a side business, trafficking with the sailors that came in.”

“Trafficking?”

“Small exchanges of goods. Nothing major….”

An alert sounded from the detective’s rab at the same time as from Sam.

Sam’s screen showed an emergency notice, a building explosion in Capital County.

“Go on,” the detective said. “I’ll take it from here. They’ll call if they need me.”

“See you soon,” Sam said. It shot away.

A formality built into its software. The bot didn’t need to pretend to be anything more than it was, a complex set of programs for investigating crimes. But telling anyone that would probably be some kind of flag for him.

His rab rang. Zapata looked at it. River Security calling. About time they got back to him. That they weren’t hovering about told him much.

Zapata ignored the request. He had a little more he wanted to see before he had the body carried out. Then he’d check Sam’s report, see what it missed. Would be helpful to get a list of who had been around the docks that day and when.

A small patch of dark soil on the otherwise clean concrete floor caught his eye. The detective wondered if Sam had assessed that. He’d have to wait for Sam to return, if not.

*****

The car had been frozen, along with everything else on the road. Whether it was related to the explosion or just a programming glitch, Shell couldn’t say.

She should just find a cop bot and confess everything she knew, which wasn’t much. This was getting weird and big and didn’t have anything to do with her.

Beason flipped a small panel and pushed some switches. The car lit up.

“How’d you do that?”

“They have overrides to pull them off the grid and keep them from traffic control. You want to give it instructions?”

“It’s all yours. I’m getting out.”

He shook his head. “I’m too weak. Plus I don’t know where to go.”

“I’ll punch in the location on your rab.”

“Just get me there,” he said. “Please.” Something about his eyes looked vulnerable.

Shell didn’t owe Beason anything, but he looked to be in awful shape, ready to collapse any minute. And they were close. If she could get this guy to the guard, she’d get the credits and wouldn’t be worried about getting busted.

It was a mad drive between the stopped cars, everyone looking confused at what was happening. When they crossed over into Pecos County, though, nothing was locked down.

Twice, police bots flew by. None slowed down.

They passed into Harbor County and reached the main gate to the docks just before four.

After a long few minutes, Shell parked and took Beason on a walkway that extended along the harbor front. He was unsteady the whole way, so she went slowly. It was now past the deadline; she hoped it didn’t matter.

“That was your building, wasn’t it?” Shell said.

“I didn’t do it, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“I only asked what happened.”

“Don’t know.” A pause. “But I’d sure like to.”

Shell hoped she’d find the guard quickly. When she got to the water, the first thing she noticed was that the African ship was gone. It was like a big hole in the harbor, as if it were unusual for a ship not to be there.

Funny thing…Beason noticed it, too.

The guard stepped from behind a blue shipping container. The relief Shell felt was short lived. Behind the guard walked a cop. He didn’t have a uniform, but Shell could tell what he was by the way he walked and how he carried himself. He was thin but not gaunt, his black hair closely shaved, his face accented by a long goatee.

For a brief moment, Shell wondered if maybe they were together, but that wasn’t right. The guard’s expression was not nearly as smug as it had been when she had sent Shell off earlier. And the cop, with eyes that looked like they didn’t miss anything, seemed used to being in command.

Had the guard set her up?

This was not the day she had planned.

They walked straight toward Beason and her.

Only two ways to play this. Deny everything. Or confess.

She guessed there might be a third, depending on what the cop said.

Beason groaned and collapsed beside Shell.

She tried to keep Beason upright, but he was too large and she struggled just to ease him to the ground.

The cop ran over and knelt to examine the body. His hands moved around Beason’s throat, then to his chest.

The guard pointed her club at the cop. She intended to lock him down, as she had done to Shell. Shell couldn’t decide whether to warn him or not. Who was on the right side?

The cop turned toward the guard right before she touched him with the club. She paused, and with a motion that Shell almost missed, the cop touched his cuff.

The guard dropped cold to the ground.

The cop turned back to Shell with a look of disgust.

“Not the brightest person I’ve met today,” the cop said. “Perhaps by several orders of magnitude.” He looked again at Beason. “Medic’s on its way. Anything you want to tell me about him?”

Shell felt the urge to call a lawyer.

“You’re ghosting, aren’t you?” The cop tapped his cuff again, and Shell stood and ran as fast as she could before she felt a mild shock run through her body. She realized she wasn’t far enough away just before she passed out.

END

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Brunning Divide, Ep1: Unwelcome News

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“Is my mommy and the baby okay?” The young boy’s eyes watered, tears on the verge of spilling.

Marie Suiza leaned down, kissed his forehead and tucked the blanket around him, careful not to disturb her own sleeping son. “Xander, your mommy will be fine. Your daddy is with her, and so is Mrs. Jans.”

“But they’re not doctors. Babies need doctors.”

“Your mommy will be fine. Many babies are born without doctors.”

“Really?”

“Really. Mrs. Jans knows what to do. She helped with my Oscar. I’m fine, he’s fine.”

The boy looked over at the other child in the bed. “He snores.”

Marie laughed softly. “Go to sleep, Xander. Tomorrow I’ll take you home to see your mother and your baby brother.”

The boy yawned. “Daddy said they’d name him Jamuson.”

“A strong name for a strong baby.” Marie went to the bedroom door and dimmed the lights, leaving a pale green glow in case the boys woke up in the middle of the night. “Good night, Xander,” she said and closed the door behind her.

“Get him settled?” Reuben leaned against the wall, waiting.

“He’s worried. But he’s only six, it’s okay to be worried.”

Reuben took his wife’s hand. “Yes. It is okay.”

“Emese is strong. It’s been a good pregnancy. She’ll come through fine. I hope.”

“We’re colonists, uncertainties are part of our life.”

“I know, but…”

“Emese will be fine. There’s always a risk where there’s to be a reward.” Reuben sneaked a quick pat to Marie’s behind.

“Reuben!” Marie pursed her lips at him, then smiled.

He shrugged. “A risk.” Sweeping a giggling Marie into his thick arms he walked toward the stairs to the second floor and their own bedroom. “Now about the reward.”

The light panels in the house flickered and dimmed. Reuben sighed and put Marie down. “Blasted lizards probably chewing through the wiring again.”

Marie echoed her husband’s sigh. “I really don’t like the wildlife on this planet. Bunch of nasty little bugs and nasty little lizards.”

“Could be worse. But, hey, we don’t need light right away…” Reuben goosed Marie, making her jump, “do we?”

Again the lights flickered. This time they didn’t stop. “No, but the boys do. You should probably go out and fix it before it gets worse.”

Rolling his eyes into a playful pout, Reuben nodded. “I’m taking the rifle. Those little creeps are gonna fry for ruining the night.”

“Be quick.” Marie goosed Reuben as he turned to go. “The night’s not ruined yet.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said while walking away.

“I’ll check the boys.” Marie stepped quietly to the bedroom door. Cracking it open, she heard a strange chittering sound.

She flung the door open. The flickering lights cast a wavering column of light on a large black hole in the concrete floor where the bed should have been.

“Reuben!” She frantically searched for the boys. “Oscar! Xander!”

Reuben bolted through the doorway, rifle in hand, and stopped short of the hole. “What the—” He swiped on the lights. Xander lay curled in a ball in the corner of the room, whimpering.

Marie rushed to Xander. Clutching him in her arms, she searched the corner. “Where’s Oscar?”

“The lights. I g-g-got scared,” Xander choked between sobs, “I wanted to find you—”

“Where’s Oscar?” Marie shook the boy.

Trembling, Xander pointed to the hole behind Marie.

“I see the bed,” yelled Reuben. “Get Xander out of here. I’m going down.” Reuben knelt next to the hole. “Oscar! Daddy’s coming.”

Chittering sounded from the hole. A mass of legs and spines jumped out, knocking the rifle from Reuben’s grasp. Pincer like fangs attached to a multi-eyed head sunk into Reuben’s chest. He shuddered and coughed blood.

A scream tore from Marie’s throat. She snatched the rifle, firing heated blasts into the body of the giant spider.

It reared back, and squealed, purple fluid pumping from its wounds. Three more spiders erupted from the hole. Marie kept shooting. Screaming. Shooting. The spider on Reuben collapsed back into the hole. Two of the others latched onto Reuben and retreated with him in tow.

The last spider charged Marie.

She backed toward the far wall and fired the rifle as fast as it would reload—the barrel glowing hot. The last two rounds blasted half the spider’s head off. Reduced to a quivering heap, the spider collapsed on top of her. She screamed as the spikes on its carapace pierced into her body.

In its death throes the spider dragged Marie toward the hole.

She couldn’t lift it off.

Sliding over the precipice, Marie kicked hard. The spikes tore free and the spider fell. But she kept sliding on the blood-slickened concrete. Desperate, she grasped at the floor—at anything until one hand clasped the glowing hot barrel of the rifle. Her eyes widened at the searing pain, but she refused to let go. At the other end of the rifle, Xander tugged with all his tiny might.

Marie gripped the barrel with both hands. “Pull, Xander!”

He grunted and fell on his butt, his bare feet slipping out from under him. He backpedalled with both feet in an effort to ooch backward. Out-weighed and slathered in purple spider blood, he managed to hold his ground.

She forced a smile. “Good job, Xander. You can do it.” Then pain lanced through her leg as another spider barbed her from below and tugged. Her smile morphed to a snarl then a roar as she released the rifle before she took little Xander with her.

She landed on her back. Oscar’s broken, empty bed cushioned the fall. Flickering lights above her highlighted a small silhouette holding a rifle.

“Run, Xander!”

She screamed as the spider pulled her down a tunnel and into darkness.


Every morning was a struggle. A battle of mind over matter—or my head over my pillow. I wanted to sleep in. I wanted my body to rest longer. Years of waking up before dawn had programmed my internal clock and try as I might, I couldn’t beat it.

That morning I lay in bed staring at the rifle mounted on the opposite wall. Warped and melted, it didn’t work. But I kept it. At first I didn’t want to. When I was little, the damn thing terrified me. My father hung it on the wall, said it would remind me of bravery… and to never let my guard down.

Now, all it did was remind me how quickly things could go to crap.

I closed my eyes. One last effort to sleep. Five more minutes, that’s all I wanted. Then the smell of fried crelix eggs and fresh oat loaf hit my nose, instantly waking up my stomach. With mind and stomach against me, I gave up any chance of more sleep.

Hurray for another monotonous day of labor. Another day exiled in Brunning. What a dump of a town, if it could even be called a town. The spattering of dusty shanties and barns were more like a half-dead, fully-baked madman’s vision. Except Brunning was too inhuman to ever be a human contrivance. No, Brunning sprung directly from the minds of the Hibernarii, higher beings that used us lesser humans for higher purposes we didn’t have a say in. Hurray.

At least the day would end with another chance to see Marigold. If it wasn’t the smell of food that got me out of bed, it was knowing the sooner I got my work done, the sooner I could see the most beautiful girl in Brunning.

And if Brunning had a population of forty-two million people instead of just forty-two people, Marigold would still be the most beautiful girl.

I threw on my pants and clima-jacket, stepping into my boots on the way downstairs. I pounded hard on Jamus’ door on my way to the kitchen. He had the bigger room, but I didn’t sleep on the ground floor. Ever. Plus, I enjoyed waking him up every morning. My internal clock worked so well… I had to share it with my little brother.

Breakfast was on the table when I walked in. My mother stood by the stove, looking out the window, stirring more eggs on the stove.

“Morning, Mom.” I sat at the table and grabbed a bread cake.

“Morning, Xander,” she said, looking out the window into the barely lit brown landscape.

I poured a shot of black coffee. “Eggs are burning.”

“Wha—Oh!” She pulled the pan off the element. She dumped the pan on a plate and served it next to the first plate. She set to emptying more of the small, leathery crelix eggs into the still-hot pan.

I eyed the two plates of eggs. I preferred hot eggs, not burnt ones. I took the lukewarm, non-burnt eggs. Jamus could have the others.

Mom kept her attention mainly to the window, absently stirring at the eggs. I may not have been the most socially observant person, but something was off. Mom never did things ‘absently’.

“Something wrong?”

“Oh. Nothing.” She didn’t even look at me. “Just waiting for your father.”

My father, Absalom Floros, never slept in. I’d inherited my internal clock from him—only his was set on overdrive. Typically, by the time I woke up, he’d already been at work for an hour. Even my mother didn’t wake up as early as him. But my father made it a point to eat breakfast as a family. His absence was atypical, to be sure.

Jamus emerged, his dirty blond hair standing up in the classic Jamus-half-asleep style. He plopped his boots on the ground and took his seat at the table across from me.

“Morning, princess.”

“Coffee?” Jamus grumbled, holding his head.

“What? Does princess have a headache?” I ruffled his hair and clanked the earthenware coffee pot down next to him. “Hope it’s not… pounding.”

“Jerk.” Jamus glared at me and poured himself a cup. “I was awake before you attacked my door.”

“Right. Early to bed, early to rise. Except princess didn’t go to bed early, did he?”

Jamus shot a look over to Mom. “Suck it, Xander.”

“You kiss Alana with that mouth?”

“Nope, just Marigold.”

My turn to glare. “Watch it, little brother.” As much as I teased him about his weird girlfriend, he typically knew better than to say anything about mine. “You wouldn’t know what to do with a real woman.”

“Whatever. Where’s dad?” He yawned and poured goat milk in his coffee.

I shrugged. “Don’t ask me.” I dug into the eggs.”Ask the space chef.” I spat out a chunk of leathery shell. “Not a big fan of the new recipe, Mom.”

Ignoring my comment, she rushed to the back door.

“Mom?”

She pulled back the curtain on the window next to the door and held the thick wool in a clenched fist as she peered out the window.

“Mom?”

“Finish eating, boys.” She unclenched the curtain, leaving it open and went back to the stove in time to prevent another batch of eggs from burning.

“Crap,” Jamus whispered and slunk down in his seat.

I craned my neck. “What?”

“Dad’s back.”

“So.”

“Mr. Jans is with him.” Jamus sunk further, his head barely above the table.

I looked out the window. Sure enough, my father and Sam Jans, Alana’s father, stood just outside the door. Both looked serious, even upset, conversing about something. My father had his hand on Sam’s shoulder.

I shot a glare at Jamus. “What’d you do? How late were you out with Alana?”

“Shhh!” Jamus looked nervously at Mom to make sure she wasn’t listening. “I swear I wasn’t out that late. I came back before you did.”

I knotted my brow. At twenty-one, I was old enough to avoid any curfew, unlike my fifteen year-old brother. Still, my mother, and especially my father, didn’t appreciate their sons sneaking around at night instead of resting up for the day’s work.

Jamus held his hands up in front of him. “I swear. Alana wasn’t even in her room when I went over there. I came back and went to sleep.”

“Why else would Sam be here?”

“Boys,” Mom set a plate and poured coffee at my father’s place at the table, “finish eating. Breakfast is over. There’s work to do.”

I grabbed another cake before Mom could take away the plate. “What’s going on?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

I didn’t like being addressed like a child, but I focused on finishing my food. Something in Mom’s tone told me not to press the matter.

Jamus didn’t pick up on it. “But—”

“Jamuson Floros, eat.” That shut my brother up. We all knew on the rare occasions when Mom threw out our full names that the conversation was over.

I’d cleared my plate by the time my father walked into the kitchen by himself. Jamus looked more than relieved Mr. Jans hadn’t come with him.

“Good morning, Emese.” My father kissed my mother and sat at the head of the table like any other morning. He nodded to my brother and I. “Jamus, Xander.”

“Morning, Dad.” Jamus spoke through a mouth full of bread.

“Father.” I nodded back. “Productive morning?”

To my surprise, Mom glared at me as she sat next to my father. “Let your father eat.”

My father gave me a weak smile. His smile faded altogether when he looked at Jamus. “Some unwelcome news, boys. But that will have to wait until after we see to the pumps.”

“Exactly.” Mom pulled our dishes away, another non-subtle hint. I had no clue what happened last night, but something was clearly bothering her. “And you don’t need your father for that job,” she continued. “I’ll clean the dishes. You two get a start.”

I pocketed the last of the bread and stepped outside, the dry heat already rising. “Come on, Jamus.”

“But—”

“Jamuson Floros, go,” said Mom from inside.


I had to laugh when Jamus stumbled out of the front door and about fell face-first in the dirt while attempting to put on a boot at the same time as closing the door behind him. My brother was a big lanky kid for a fifteen year old. I hate to think I was anything like that at his age.

“You’re socially retarded, you know that, right?”

“No.” Jamus slipped on his boot. “I know that. I mean… Shut up, Xander.”

“Got your boots on the wrong feet, too. Maybe you’re just plain retarded.”

“Shut up.” Jamus made to push me.

I sidestepped and he fell flat with a clumsy thud. I started to laugh, then overheard my parents talking from the kitchen. Something weird happened during the night, something my parents didn’t want us to know about—making my interest immediate.

Jamus stood up. “Xander, I’m—”

I cut him off with a sharp shush, cupped my ear, and pointed at the wall that separated us from our parents. Jamus’s eyes widened. We crouched next to the heavy rock foundation of the house, our heads level with the floor.

“So?” Mom’s voice, slightly muffled by the wooden wall, came through clear enough.

“Not exactly.” My father assumed a tired, short tone. “Emese, Xander might be grown, but Jamus is just a boy. They’re good boys. I don’t want them upset—”

“That’s why I sent them out.”

Jamus gave me two big thumbs up, a mischievous grin plastered on his dusty face. I pushed him and he fell on his butt. “Shh,” I mouthed.

My father let out a deep breath. “Emese, some things are too ugly to know. I’m not sure even you would want to know.”

The sharp sound of a metal plate striking the table made Jamus and I jump.

“Absolom, you will not spare me the unpleasantries.” Mom’s angry voice came through the wall loud and clear. “I’ve been on this forsaken planet for the last fifteen years. I left a life infinitely more comfortable and safe. I could have stayed and kept Xander with me. But, no, we left all of that behind, and I did it for you, Absolom. So when it comes to anything that happens here. I, above any other person, have the right to know.”

A look of shock stretched across Jamus’s face. I’m sure my own face mirrored his expression. Mom was strong, but the quiet kind of strong. She never raised her voice, she never contradicted my father, and she never complained. This was the first time I’d heard her do all three.

“You’re right, Emese.”

“Of course I’m right. Now tell me what happened. Did you find Alana?”

Jamus and I scowled at each other. Alana? Jamus mouthed. I shrugged. He shrugged back. What did Alana Jans have to do with anything? I had hoped the mystery would be something more exciting, like the Hi-bernies finally calling us back to Tatmus Delta, away from Brunning. Instead my father was being secretive about Jamus’s annoying girlfriend? What a waste of time. I stood and hooked my thumb toward the field. Let’s go, I mouthed.

Jamus, still listening, shook his head.

His eyes went wide. Staggering, he fell on his butt. He sat there in the dust, pale faced, eyes staring into the distance. She’s dead, Jamus finally mouthed.

What? I pressed my ear to the warm wall.

“How can you be sure?” Mom’s hushed voice barely came through the wall.

“Trust me, Emese. When we found her dog ripped in half… Sam says that thing never left Alana’s side. Then the blood… so much blood.”

“By Yuan’s light. What did Tama do when you and Sam brought the girl back?”

“Emese, you’re not listening. Something butchered that girl, tore her to bits. There wasn’t enough of her to bring back.”

Jamus doubled over and retched into the dusty dirt. I didn’t know what to do or say. I placed a hand on his shoulder while keeping an ear to the wall.

“Poor Tama. She’s never been happy here… but now without her daughter… Poor Tama.”

Poor Jamus. Surely my parents knew the impact this would have on their son.

“Poor Sam, I say.” My father pushed his chair away from the table. “He was the one that followed the blood trail to its end, where they killed her. But enough, I’m going to help the boys with the pumps.”

At that point, Jamus and I should have gotten up and ran to the field, but we didn’t. Jamus couldn’t move, and I couldn’t pull my ear away from the wall.

“Who?”

“The boys,” said my father from the other side of the door.

“No, Absolom. You said they killed her. Who are they? Who killed Alana?”

“Oh.” My father paused with the door half open. “Spiders.”

“They’re back? But how? I thought we—”

“I know. Me too. But there’s no mistake. It was spiders.”

Spiders. Despite the morning heat, I had cold sweats. Spiders. That word literally knocked me on my own butt, my hand landing in Jamus’ vomit. Suddenly I was six again, slipping in spider gore, helplessly watching Marie Suiza scream and disappear into the dark.

My body shook as I fought down the urge to be sick.

“Xander, Jamus.” My father nodded to us as he shut the door behind him. “Enough sitting around. You should have been out to the pumps.” He looked to the red sun rising on the western horizon. “Daylight’s a burning.”

The familiar phrase jolted me from my flashback. My father always said those words. Everyday. He liked being clever, rolling the shortness of daylight and its intensity into one phrase. Usually he would laugh afterward, weaving all his energy into the spell he cast on those around him. Contentment, perseverance, purpose and meaning in the meaningless—he manufactured the will for the rest of us to keep going.

Today, looking at his two sons, sitting in the dust—Jamus wiping sick off his paled face, me trembling and terrified—my father did nothing but breathe deep and exhale. No anger at catching us eavesdropping. No attempt at humor. No, nothing but tired and worry.

That worried me.


There wasn’t a sufficient natural source of water in Brunning. The vast valley we lived in was a wasteland that saw rain twice a year if lucky. When the Fortitude Hibernarii faction conceived Brunning they could have sent the tech to easily generate water and lots of it, but they didn’t. Instead they sent an advance team of humans to Erimia to locate an acceptable site to start a new colony. That advance team put in the groundwork for us and the other eight families that followed my father to this dead planet.

My father said no planet was truly dead. That was the epitome of Absolom Floros—a determined optimism that found potential in every situation. His relentless and contagious attitude kept the whole damned colony running. Contagious but not universal.

Between the monotonous tasks of the morning, I found myself scanning the fields and wasteland beyond. I scolded myself. Spiders are nocturnal, get back to work, Xander. The work kept my mind busy, and I dove into it as hard as I could.

By midday we had serviced most of the pumps that fed water through subterranean pipes beneath Brunning. We cleaned solar cells and mucked out built-up sediment inside the pump housings. My father tried to send Jamus home more than once. It didn’t work. Jamus refused to go, instead plodding on with the work. Silent.

Despite everything, the morning passed quickly. Almost noon, my father finished up the last of the adjustments with his head in the Larkin’s pump. Jamus and I leaned against the Larkin’s barn, pressing into the razors-width of a shadow, and took one of our frequent water breaks.

Otherwise unoccupied, curiosity about the morning’s events itched at the back of my mind. Jamus had been quiet—something out of the normal for my little brother. My father, content to work in silence, had barely said a thing. Only the occasional greeting to the other colonists.

With a little patience and a mixture of keeping my head down and my ears up, I usually stayed informed of all interesting doings. That was if anything interesting ever happened in Brunning. Which typically it did not. But now, not only were the spiders back, they’d killed someone.

And nobody was talking. People were working in their fields or homes like normal—conditioned to go about their routine as if nothing had happened. I realized they were doing the same thing I’d been doing all morning—holding the craziness and desperation back by keeping their minds and bodies busy. Brunning was a fragile machine and we were its fuel. Despite tragedy, work had to go on for us to survive.

Survive. I scoffed. “This is pointless.” I rubbed the salty residue left on my forehead from evaporated sweat and winced as some fell in my eyes. I splashed water in my eyes to clean them.

Jamus put both hands to his face.

“Use the water. Rubbing makes it worse.”

“Huh?” He looked at me with red eyes.

“Here,” I sloshed water on him, “let me help.”

He sputtered and swiped at me.

“Your face is clean isn’t it?” I laughed in attempt to manufacture some form of levity. Someone had to break this town out of its rut, wake it up to reality. “You should be more grateful.”

Jamus glared at me, water dripping off his nose. “Jerk.” He picked up his bladder and walked toward the Larkin’s house. “I need more water.”

“Get me some too?” I tossed my water bladder at his back, just missing.

Jamus ignored it and kept walking.

“Whatever.” The low whirring sound of the pump told me my father had finished. I turned and got blasted in the face with warm, gritty water. I tried to yell, but choked until the water stopped a couple of seconds later. “What the hell?”

“Oh, sorry Xander.” My father chuckled. “I thought I heard you ask for water. I had to clear the line anyway. Thought I’d help out, you know, in the name of efficiency…” He smiled and closed the access hatch to the underground pipes.

I scowled while scraping silt out of my hair. “Right. So helpful. You done?”

“Yep.” He glanced at the sun. “Your mother should have lunch ready.” He brushed mud off my shoulder. “You’ll have to clean up before she lets you in though.”

“Ha ha.”

“You should be more grateful.” My father drank from his water bladder. When he finished, the smile had gone, the weariness back. “Speaking of which, where’d Jamus go?”

“Went moping off for some clean water.”

My father nodded to himself. “Let him be. Some wounds take time.” He clasped my shoulder. “You know that. He’ll need your help.”

Everyone in Brunning needed help. Fat chance they were going to welcome it from me. I shook my head. “Lot of good that will do. Spiders are gonna kill us all anyway.”

My father tensed. I hoped he would say something reassuring, counter my bleak outburst. He didn’t. He hefted his tool case onto his shoulder. “Your mother is waiting.”


My father and I entered the kitchen through the back door. Jamus trudged along a ways behind us, as distant emotionally as he was physically. Lunch had been laid out on the table. Cassava, red beans, and grilled crelix.

Not many things were naturally edible in our corner of Erimia, let alone palatable. The planet continued to produce regular surprised, most unpleasant. The small, fat, gray lizards that made a croaking ‘crelix’ noise practically infested our valley. While they were initially nothing but a nuisance, we’d since discovered they not only laid copious amounts of eggs, but when grilled they were way more appetizing than synthesized proteins.

After the spiders killed the Suiza family, crelix was the only thing my parents could get me to eat. Even then it took effort. Once the spiders had gone, once my father said they’d never be back, my hunger had gradually improved.

Now the spiders were back.

All morning I’d struggled to keep my breakfast down. My stomach had clenched at the mention of lunch. Nightmares danced in the shadows of my mind. More than once I’d repeated to myself, you’re not six years old. You’re a grown man.

Maybe I had matured, or maybe it was the morning’s work—the mental conditioning Brunning had worked on me—but the spiced crelix cooked in oil dominated my senses and I dug into my food without even washing up.

My father strolled into the sitting room, presumably to find Mom. Jamus leaned against the wall and sipped his water.

“C’mon,” I waved a grilled lizard at him, “it’s your favorite. Eat.”

Jamus smacked the crelix out of my hand and followed our father into Mom’s sitting room.

I stooped over to pick up the dirty crelix meat while mumbling to myself. “No reason to waste good food.”

My father returned while I was dusting it off. “Everything all right with you and Jamus?” He took his seat at the table.

“Guess he’s not hungry. Where’s Mom?”

“In her sitting room. Cali, Tenley, and some of the other women are with her.”

“Oh.” On Tatmus Delta, my family had lived a fairly isolated life. Not many visitors stopped by due to a mix of geography and class. In Brunning we never had a shortage of visitors. My father served as our honorary fearless leader while my Mom was the resident wise woman.

“Xander.”

“Ya?”

“Take it easy on your brother. There’s not been a death in the settlement in years. Yes, Jamus is young, but his heart’s broken.”

The food in my mouth tasted like ash. On the surface I understood what my father was getting at. I understood Alana had been special to Jamus. But I needed to know how we were going to stop the spiders from happening again… dark things needed to stay in dark places. But the spiders…

I pushed my plate away. “You’re sure they’re back?”

“I’m afraid so. We’ve never encountered anything else here on Erimia that would do…” My father paled and pushed his plate away. He stood as if to leave, but paused. “Still, something about it…” My father scrunched his brow and stared out the window as if replaying a memory across his mind’s eye. “The harsh conditions on Erimia breed efficiency. The spiders are no exception. They drink all of their prey’s blood—”

“Please, I know.” I struggled against old memories.

“—but Alana’s blood was everywhere. And the dog. They took Alana’s body—”

“Stop. Stop.” A black hole in the ground and anguished screams flooded my mind.

“—why not take the dog?”

“Enough!” I stood up, knocking my chair over. “Just stop! Heretic’s Hell, just stop!”

The crash snapped my father out of his concentration. He placed his hands on my trembling shoulders. “My apologies, son. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

I stepped away from him, took in a deep breath, and held it—a trick I learned to diminish the effects of recurring nightmares. I hoped the women in the next room hadn’t heard me. For Yuan’s sake, I was twenty-one years old.

My father let me have my space but didn’t break his gaze. “I didn’t mean to drudge up unfortunate memories. Do you want to talk about it?”

Unfortunate memories. Ha. “No. Brunning needs men, not scared children.”

Nodding, he gathered our plates and put them in the sink.

Eager to leave, I made for the door. “I’ll get Jamus.”

“Let him be. We’re done with pumps for the day. I need to meet with Reese and the other men.”

The idea of a council meeting hadn’t crossed my mind, but it made sense. We needed to do something about the spiders. By now my clothes were dry but coated with silt. “I’ll come to. Let me change first.”

“Actually, I need you to go to the Thurn place. They haven’t responded to com calls. They never do. They need to know about Alana.”

“But the meeting…”

“I imagine you were heading out there this evening anyway. Better to go and be back before dark. Day light’s a burning.”

My father had a point. I spent most of my evenings away, on the Thurn’s side of the divide, but now… Night wasn’t safe anymore.

I rushed into the other room and stopped cold. Usually when the women gathered in Mom’s parlor the room carried a generally happiness. Not this time. Mom and the other mother’s all sat close to Tama Jans, who in turn sat by Jamus. Both of them cried into each other’s shoulders. Nobody spoke. Soft weeping and the whirring of the house fan were the only sounds. The whole scene seemed surreal, and the oddity of it finally brought clarity apart from my own trauma. I felt like an idiot. A selfish idiot.

My brother lost his girlfriend and I’d been too absorbed in my own fear. I’d been a self-righteous jerk to him all day. To me, Alana’s death had been about the return of the spiders, one more reason none of us should be on Erimia to begin with. But what if it had been my Marigold?

I should have offered my condolences to Tama. Alana was her only child. I should have tried to bring some comfort, mixed my tears with the others. My father entered behind me and sat next to Mom, wiping away the tears on her cheeks.

The gravity of the situation hit me in the gut. I couldn’t let myself feel it. I panicked. I told myself I couldn’t disturb the reverence of the room, and I left. I slipped into my bedroom, shed my dirty work suit, and took a shower. A few minutes later I fled the house and the mourners without a single word or gesture of comfort. I should have stayed.

But I needed to see Marigold.


From the day that my family arrived on Erimia and I saw Marigold, a dusty-faced little nymph of a kid with golden curls that reflected the harsh sun, softening its severity, I wanted to be around her. I thought I’d be the only child my age in the Brunning experiment, that I was extra baggage my parents had to tote across the galaxy. Marigold changed that. Despite family incongruence’s, we spent every moment we could together.

Erimia had short intense days and long nights. Only a few hours of daylight remained and I had to get to Marigold’s family, the Thurns, before dark, before the spiders emerged. I told myself responsibility didn’t allow me to linger at the house. Still, guilt weighed me down. What could I do to help the others? What words of comfort could I offer, when deep inside, I knew the whole misguided settlement of Brunning had been doomed from the start?

The process of building Brunning, futile as it was, wove strong people together to make them stronger. The colonists were close. We loved each other like family. Mom said love was like sending out a part of your soul that always came back better, more full, but when someone you cared for died, that part of you that you had sent out to them died with them. No matter how tough you were, losing a loved one wore at you, it cut at the mountains, it spilled across space and made the stars cry.

I knew the people back at my house felt that way. It made sense. But I had learned about death early in life and never experienced love and loss the way Mom described them. I wanted to, but just couldn’t. Something in me was off.

I’d known Alana all of her life and for most of mine. Sure she was annoying, but like the other handful of kids in Brunning, she was like family. Rationally, the loss of Alana hit home. I’d been so occupied by my fear of the spiders, or occupied trying to ignore that fear, that I’d been blind to the feelings of others.

That was wrong. And it pissed me off.

The more I hiked across the burning ground, the more my anger burned. Every individual in Brunning was part of a larger plan for survival. Jamus and Alana, together, had been part of that plan. What part would Jamus play now? I couldn’t imagine how I would feel if Marigold was killed. I hoped I wouldn’t have to find out. Worst of all, what if I learned I didn’t have the ability to feel anything more than I felt now?

I picked up my pace toward the valley wall south of the settlement, as if I could outrun my doubts. The Thurns lived in the small valley at the mouth of our canyon. Because of a sharp switchback, only a narrow promontory of canyon wall separated the main valley from the smaller one.

For most people, a trip to the Thurns meant a couple hours walk across the valley and through the narrow canyon switchback. Early on, after the spiders had been gone for over a year, Marigold and I found a faster way between our homes. A deep set crevice formed a chimney running straight up both sides of the narrow promontory that separated Brunning from the original settlement site where the Thurns still lived.

At the base of the promontory wall, I slipped on gloves and crawled into the crevice. Similar crevice formations pocked the walls throughout the greater Brunning valley—strange geologic formations with no natural explanation, none that we had deduced anyway.

I jammed my hands into pockets on opposing sides of the crevice and began to shimmy up at a quick clip, one that would push my endurance by the top. I found traversing the crevice more bearable when done quickly and with as little thought as possible.

Due to he relative darkness, mass amounts of crelix, and even more of the nasty stinging insects that swarmed during the wet season, the crevices were avoided by everyone else in Brunning. All the better for Marigold and I to keep our secret route secret.

Of course my father knew about it. My use of the crevice as a thoroughfare explained why he sent me to deliver messages to the Thurns. He could have done it himself, but it would’ve taken him twice the time, and he didn’t get along with the Thurns. Nobody in Brunning got along with anyone in Marigold’s family except of course for Marigold.

She was the anomaly, beautiful and bright amongst a dark and derelict family. But like my father said, everybody in Brunning brought value. He didn’t say it had to be equal though.

After the first minute, I hit a rhythm in my climb and blocked out any thought of the lizards and annoying bugs. My frequent visits made it possible to root out infestations before they got too big. It had taken time and many painful bites to clean the crevice in the beginning. Marigold and I made sure to keep it clean.

I made the vertical ascent using rock holds, some natural, some I’d gouged out long ago. Only a small amount of indirect light shone into the crevice, a good thing since the heat would have been lethal. The lack of light meant the holds had to be felt more than seen, but I practically had the route memorized. I probably could have climbed it with my eyes closed, although I’d never had a reason to attempt it.

My arms and legs ached by the time I reached the top. Sweat poured down the center of my back. On the surface of the plateau, I drank from my bladder before setting a steady jog for the other side. Anything faster, during the heat of the day, would have made me sick.


A couple hours from sunset, the heat on top of the plateau was brutal. My clima-jacket and hat dispelled the heat enough to manage the short trip. I kept my head down, chin tucked into my chest.

No reason to pay attention to anything other than signals from my own body. Nothing existed on the surface world of Erimia. Just wind swept rocks and the occasional bush too stubborn to die. I made good time to the crevice leading down into the Thurn’s valley, about ten minutes.

With the entrance in sight, I stopped. A cold chill shot up my spine despite the heat. Dimples dotted the sandy soil. Each one about the size of a crelix hole. Small but deep. Even though I hadn’t seen marks like that in years, I recognized them immediately.

Spider tracks.

Bile tickled my throat. The urge to turn and run home coursed through my body. But I had to warn Marigold.

Spiders are nocturnal.

I repeated the mantra while taking deep breaths.

Spiders are nocturnal.

They hate light.

Spiders are nocturnal.

The sinking sun sat above the canyon wall on the far side of the Thurn’s small valley. Shadows already consumed half of the valley, covering the well house, most of the small fields, and the orchard. It had almost reached the Thurn’s barn. Daylight was a burning. Soon both valleys would be dark pools in the Erimia dusk.

Spiders are nocturnal.

They avoid the light.

And I was losing light. I felt foolish, scared of the dark. Though it wasn’t the dark. It was what hid within it.

I retrieved a rope ladder I had rolled up in a canvas bag under some stones and tossed it down the crevice. Light shone through out the entirety of this chimney, actually more of a big crack. Otherwise I would have been hard pressed to climb into shadows right after passing spider tracks. I slid more than climbed down the ladder, my gloves blazing hot several seconds later when I hit bottom. I tore them off and shook out my hands.

The air in the Thurn’s valley was slightly humid and considerably cooler than back in Brunning. The smaller size and taller canyon walls made it so the valley floor saw direct sunlight for a much shorter period. Not only plants, but trees, actually grew unaided in the valley and flourished. The place could have been a paradise amongst the hell of Erimia. But the Thurns weren’t the best caretakers. Detritus—bits of broken tech, rusted tools, and garbage—littered the ground in various patches, covered in weeds and dirt.

Right in the middle of the valley lay Marigold’s house. All of her family lived there, but I called it Marigold’s because she was the only one out of her lazy family that gave a damn. Despite being built from a decommissioned space transport, the big house would have fallen apart if not for Marigold’s attention.

I slipped forward quietly, hoping to remain unnoticed until the last minute. I didn’t particularly look forward to meeting up with Deek or Boyd, Marigold’s older brothers. They didn’t like the sight of me. I didn’t like the sight or smell of them.

With the well-spring that fed Brunning’s water network literally in their backyard, I could never understand why those two beasts avoided bathing. It was like they were afraid of water. Idiots. Not stupid. Lazy, definitely. They only exerted energy when a clear benefit presented itself. It was hard to describe them. They were just Thurns.

I took a deep breath and did my best to stroll casually into the open.

“Hey there, Xandy Man. Wondrin’ when ya’d stop hiding behind that junk heap.”

Already tense and on edge, I didn’t respond well to being caught off-guard. I’d like to say I jumped into a defensive stance, ready for any challenge. Instead, I shrieked like a little girl. Right in front of Deek Thurn.

“Aw. Pretty.” Deek pushed away from the rusted junk he’d been leaning against and gave me a toothy grin—not a kind one, but a predatory-I-could-eat-you-alive leer. “You make noises like that when yer with my sister?”

I glared up at Deek, a good head taller than me. I’d played a weak card when he scared me—the Thurn brothers liked weak things, liked to play with them, and they didn’t play nice. I couldn’t back down now. “Only when we’re imitating you with your pigs.”

Deek’s bushy eyebrow shot up, his small eyes afire. He balled his fists and stepped toward me.

I stood my ground, despite knowing I’d gone too far. I took a deep breath and regretted it. “Damn, Deek.” I coughed. “Take a bath.” Since I had committed, I decided to sell it. “Or do the pigs like you better with that smell?”

Deek pulled back his arm, preparing to deliver a world of hurt my way. “Gonna kill ya, Xandy Man.” That close, Deek’s threat reeked of believability.

“Deek, Ma wants you back at the house.” Marigold stood a few paces away. Her sweet voice cut through the tension, stopping Deek’s assault before it started.

“Yer lucky, Xandy Man.” He shot me an ugly glare and stomped away. Then again Deek only had one glare, and it was always ugly.

“She’s waiting.” Marigold shoved her brother as he passed. “You know how Ma hates to wait. Best hurry.”

A few seconds later Deek was gone, and I had Marigold in my arms, kissing her. A second after that, she punched me in the gut.

“What was that for?” I asked while doubled over.

“You’re an idiot. I heard what you said to Deek.”

“Just a little macho banter. That’s all. I bruise his ego, he bruises my face. Me and Deek, we’re friends like that.” I took her hand, pulling her toward me. “At least he doesn’t sucker punch me.”

“Deek would have given you a lot worse.” She stood on her toes and kissed me. “Sorry for the gut shot.”

I stole another kiss. “It’s okay. You punch like a girl.”

She pushed back from me with a gleam in her eye. “Really? Do I need to try again?”

“I’m good. Thanks.”

“That’s what I thought.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Not complaining, but why are you here so early?”

Funny how girls can distract you. Especially ones with dusty golden hair streaked by the sun, hazel eyes with flecks of emerald, and a body perfectly balanced between strong and feminine. Even the harsh Erimian sun worshipped her, kissing her skin with a light tan the shade of honey. And in that brief moment, I forgot why I’d come. All thoughts of spiders, Alana, and Jamus had fled my mind, until they returned like a second punch to the gut.

“My father sent me. Alana’s been killed. I’m supposed to deliver the message to your pa.”

The smile melted from Marigold’s face, replaced by a look of mixed anxiety and anger. “They killed Alana?”

“Yeah. Last night. Jamus is a wreck, I didn’t even realize—”

“It’s getting dark. You should head home.”

“What?”

“I’ll tell Ma and Pa about Alana.” Marigold gave me quick peck on the cheek and pushed me toward the wall. “You should get back before it’s too dangerous.”

“I just got here.” I slipped past her on my way toward the Thurn house. “Plus your pa isn’t ever going to respect me if I send you with the message while I scamper back home.”

“Some things aren’t worth my family’s respect.” She caught a hold of me by my jacket. “You should go.”

“I’ll deliver the message, and then I’ll go. I promised my father I’d deliver the message straight to your pa.” I grabbed her hand off my jacket and squeezed it. She squeezed back. “Believe me, I don’t want to be around when the spiders come out. I saw tracks atop the plateau. Had to have been from last night.”

“Spiders?” Her hand relaxed in mine and she looked around again. Not the reaction I had expected.

“So you already know they’re back? Nobody in Brunning knew until last night, until Alana. When did you find out?”

“Spiders killed Alana.”

“Blight’s shadow, Marigold! What planet are you on? I already told you about Alana. Of course it was spiders. What else would have killed her? Besides spiders, there’s nothing but biters, crelix, and us.”

Marigold let out a nervous laugh and then covered her mouth—another weird reaction. “This is all so messed up. Of course it was spiders.” She pulled me toward the house almost at a run. “Let’s tell my parents about the spiders, and then you need to go before…”

“Before what?” I asked, stumbling behind her in an attempt to dodge junk littered bushes.

“The dark. Before sunset,” she called over her shoulder.

“I already said that. Are you feverish? Or are you trying to confuse me on purpose?”

“Sorry. You’re right.” We stopped in the clearing around her house and she grabbed both my hands. “I’m just scared. And sad. Alana was a good girl. I liked her.”

“Yeah. Everyone was pretty shocked. Sorry.”

“Why are you sorry?”

“It’s just…” I didn’t want to burden her with all my thoughts about the difference between how I felt and how normal people felt. “Whenever I think about spiders I remember what happened the last time…”

Marigold cupped her hand on my cheek, wiping away a tear I didn’t know was there. “Oh Xander. You can’t let old memories eat at you.” She wrapped me in a hug, her head against my chest. “Try not to think about it.”

“That’s the problem.” I stepped back from her. “I block out the spiders and everything and everyone else.” I breathed deeply and pointed toward the canyon wall. “Right now my house is full. All of Brunning is gathering there and I ran away.”

I dropped my hand and shook my head. “Jamus is back there. He’s a mess. And I ran away. I drop a bomb on you and expect you to handle it like it’s nothing. I feel like a selfish jerk, a self-absorbed sociopath.”

“Oh, you are an idiot.” Marigold smiled. “You’re scared. I’m scared. We all handle it different ways. And you’re not a sociopath—believe me, I know all about sociopaths.” Marigold looked past me and tensed. “Speaking of…”


“Xandy Man!” A meaty hand grabbed my shoulder and spun me around. Thank Yuan, this time I didn’t shriek like a girl, especially in front of Marigold. Nope, I came around with my fists ready.

“Wo there, Xandy Man!” Boyd Thurn, the bigger and only slightly less ugly and smelly of Marigold’s brothers, held his hands up in mock defense.

“Sorry, Boyd.” I dropped my fists. “Thought you were Deek.”

Boyd grinned, an unnerving gesture. “Now Xandy Man, them’s fightin’ words. I ain’t nothin’ like that pig-lovin idiot.”

My face flushed. “Deek told you about that, huh?”

“Came rushin’ in the house fumin’ up a storm about it, sure enough!” Boyd laughed, something between a growl and a grunt. “Then ran out again when Pa told him to shut his mouth. Said he’s too ugly fer the pigs.”

Marigold pulled at my arm. “Let’s get your message delivered.”

“Hold up, Goldie.” Boyd grabbed my shoulder. “Xandy Man and me, we’re a talkin’ here. Git up to the house, we don’t need you fer man’s talk. Right, Xandy Man?”

“Xander needs to git before the sun’s gone.” Marigold insisted.

“Pity. Got some meat cookin’ over apple wood since this morning.” Boyd’s grin went full smile. His yellow teeth peeked through the bush overshadowing his upper lip. “Be perfect in an hour, but I’ll cut ya a slice now, if ya like.”

Marigold tugged me, hard enough to pull me a few steps. “He’ll pass, Boyd.”

Usually I wouldn’t even be tempted to accept a gift from Boyd. He was just as nasty as Deek, if not more, beneath his thin, deceptive shell of congeniality. But some juicy pork sounded great. “Well, if you’re offering, I’d hate to be rude—”

Marigold about pulled my arm out of its socket. “You’ll pass,” she said to me, her eyebrows set and lips pursed. “Bye, Boyd.” She pulling me past him.

“Wait. What’s the important message?” Boyd called after us.

I had the words half formed in my mouth, but Marigold beat me to it. “Xander’s finally gonna ask Pa to let me marry him.”

I cringed. “Why the hell would you say that?” I hissed at her, looking over my shoulder to make sure Boyd wasn’t running to kill me. Thankfully, he’d already slunk off.

The Thurn brothers treated Marigold like a slave, including the notion they owned her. It was no secret I planned to marry her one day, hopefully sooner than later. That was one big reason, among many, for Boyd and Deek to hate me.

“It’s getting dark.” Marigold ushered me to her front porch and took my water bladder. “Stay here, I’ll get you some water and send out Pa.” I would have argued, but she was right. Only a small sliver of sun still burned over the valley walls. Darkness had crept up on the valley so subtly I barely noticed until Marigold called my attention to it. A chill swept through my body, probably from the dropping temperature and my sweat-dampened clothes. Probably.

“Catch yer death.”

They say things come in threes. I sure hoped so, because I was sick of being caught off guard by Thurns. After the two seconds it took to catch my breath, I turned to face Marigold’s mother standing on the far side of the porch.

“Mrs. Thurn.” I attempted some measure of composure. “Pardon?”

For a moment, an odd, amber light shone from something cupped in Ma Thurn’s hand. It illuminated her chest and highlighted the sharp angles of her sun-baked face. She quickly hid the object in her blouse, a faint glow visible beneath the fabric where it hung from a silver chain around her neck. “Catch yer death.” She said again. “Damp clothes and night. Make ya weak. Weak things die on Erimia.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” I didn’t know if she was trying to be helpful or threatening. It was hard to tell with Mrs. Thurn. Probably both. I followed my father’s example and tried not to talk much to her, ever. Show her respect? Yes. Engage in friendly conversation with her? No such thing with Mrs. Thurn.

She stared at me like she was calculating something. If Marigold’s two brothers made me edgy, her mother about sent me over the edge. I think she liked it that way.

I waited for Marigold to come back with her father. A conversation with Mr. Thurn didn’t appeal to me much, but it had to be more pleasant than trying to look anywhere but at Mrs. Thurn, who wouldn’t stop staring at me.

“Nice necklace.” The words left my mouth before I could stop them.

“It is, and it ain’t none of yer concern.” She pulled her shawl closed and strode toward the front door, almost colliding with Mr. Thurn on his way out.

“Somethin’ the matter?” Marigold’s dad asked, switching his gaze between Mrs. Thurn and me.

“Nothin’ that won’t be better when he’s gone.” Mrs. Thurn flipped her hand at me and pushed past her husband into the house.

Mr. Thurn watched her go, then looked at me, his bushy black eyebrow cocked.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“Marigold says you’s got something to say. Best say it and git.”

“Yes sir. Alana Jans was killed last night.”

Mr. Thurn’s thin face went nasty. “Shame. Why ya sayin’ ‘killed’?”

“It was spiders, Pa. Xander even saw tracks on our side of the divide.” Marigold burst from the house. She thrust my water bladder and a light into my arms. “The sun’s about gone. Best be on your way, Xander.”

“If spiders be about, then dark’s dangerous,” said Marigold’s father. He craned his neck to look around. “Might be better for the boy to stay til’ light.” He looked back to me. “Just you then?”

I nodded.

“He can bunk in the barn with yer brothers,” he said to Marigold.

Standing there, on the Thurn’s front porch in the fast fading light, I faced a dilemma. Rushing home in the dark, knowing spiders were out there, terrified me. On the other hand, being alone with Boyd and Deek served as an unsettling alternative. Who knew what the two would do to me without Marigold around.

Even though the light had mostly faded in the valley, I could see enough to make it back to the rope ladder and there’d still be sun on the plateau. Maybe long enough to get me home. Maybe.

Then dark shrouded everything. The solar lamps on the Thurn’s house kicked on and a boom echoed off the valley walls, followed by a bright burst of light. Clouds raced in from the direction of Brunning. Wind rushed through the canyon and into the valley, filling the air with the smell of ozone and wet dirt.

“What the… So soon?” Mr. Thurn turned toward the door. “Ma! Storm! Close up the house! I gotta get the boys to put in the pigs an’ mules!”

Grating gears sounded as metal shutters closed over the few windows the old space ship house had. Mr. Thurn ran past me, calling for his sons.

“Uh, should I help him?” I asked Marigold.

“Xander, you need to leave. Now. It’s not safe here.” She hooked her arm though mine, pulling us toward the wall at a run. “I’ll take you to the wall.”

“You’ve seen spiders down here?” I cringed at another peal of thunder, the lightning right behind it. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Marigold kept a hold of my arm and didn’t slow. “There’s plenty I’m not telling you. Don’t stop.”

“What’s that mean?” I about tripped over a heap of junk.

“We have to keep going. Get out that light.”

I flipped on the light. The beam bounced with each stride and streaked with dark flecks. Rain. Hot rain. It came like a blanket, drenching us. “What’s going on?” I yelled to her while wiping the water out of my eyes with the back of my arm.

“Storm! Watch out!”

I jumped over an old fuel cell just in time, landing on the other side and slipping in the mud.

Marigold stabilized me. “C’mon, we’re almost there!” she yelled through the deluge.

Another lightning strike illuminated the cliff wall close in front of us. I didn’t know what had gotten into Marigold. She’d been weird since I’d arrived. Could have been the weather—the rainy season shouldn’t have come for another couple of months, and even then storms weren’t typically as violent as this. Not even close. But the wild, scared look in Marigold’s eyes told me to trust her. I focused the light on our path, and seconds later we stopped at the wall.

The wind screamed down the crevice, whipping the rope ladder around like a jittery crelix tail.

Marigold kissed me hard and pushed me away. “Leave the ladder down. I’m coming tomorrow morning.”

“No, I’ll come back here tomorrow,” I shouted back to her.

“You ain’t comin’ back here. Be safe!” With that she ran toward the flickering house lamps.


I moved the palm light to my wrist and tackled the rope ladder. Although loud, the wind whistling through the crevice didn’t bother me. The water did. Funneling down the crevice mouth, it pummeled me and made the ladder slick. My focus on climbing remained so complete, only when I reached the top rung did I remember the spiders.

I hung there, breathing hard, just inside the crevice mouth. I kept my head down to avoid the water. Then again, I always kept my head down, didn’t I? Why hadn’t I argued with Marigold? Why hadn’t I just stayed with the Thurns? I almost took a step down.

Almost.

Marigold wanted me gone. She was scared, and I didn’t think it was due to the spiders. Marigold was beautiful, but she was hard—living with her family, she had to be. If something scared her worse than spiders… I’d have to trust her. That didn’t mean keeping my head down. That meant lifting it up.

I turned off the palm light. No need to make myself an easy target. Gathering my legs beneath me and shoving the fear deep, I sprung out of the hole and ran as hard as I could. I didn’t know if there were spiders. I wasn’t taking the time to find out. I almost didn’t care. I ran as if I were chasing demons, and if I ran hard enough, I might finally catch them.

The wind pushed against me. The rain turned the sandy dust slick. The thunder and constant slamming rain drops erased all other sounds. Black clouds choked the sky behind and above me. Faint stars appeared ahead of me. I ran with my head down, just like I had when I came. This time, I told myself I did so only to keep the wind-swept rain out of my eyes.

Deep inside, I knew better. Spiders killed quick. Better to not see them coming…

The rain stopped pelting me, the wind died, and the purple Erimian moon appeared. Just like that, the storm had passed. Still I ran. Now my pounding feet sounded loud in the twilight silence. When I looked up, Brunning was closer than I’d imagined.

I didn’t slow. I wiped the water out of my eyes and ran straight for the cliff wall illuminated by Brunning’s glow. I found the crevice and lowered myself in.

My heart pounded. I swallowed out of relief. I couldn’t believe my luck. Maybe the rain kept the spiders away. I held the palm light in my mouth—I needed both hands free for the slick rock walls—and descended at a steady but reasonable pace. The moon shone directly above, lighting the way.

Climbing up is physically hard. Down-climbing is worse, especially when drenched. Focusing hard on each hold, I barely noticed the moon’s light disappear. At first, I guess I assumed the clouds had returned.

They hadn’t.

Something blocked the crevice top.

Big something.

No. Big somethings.

Then the chittering. I could have gone eternities without hearing that sound again.

With eight legs to maneuver the walls, the spiders had an unfair advantage. They coursed down the crevice toward me. I had made it little more than halfway down. At my current rate, they’d reach me before I reached the bottom.

With nightmares pounding at the door of my mind and nightmares steaming down the crevice, I had no other choice. I braced my feet on each side of the slippery wall and let go.

END of Episode One

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Blighted Aura, Ep1: Stonewalled

Click HERE for a Downloadable version.

The sky ruptures. Rays of the setting sun fracture into scintillating shards of color as a stone flashes into existence in the upper atmosphere. It plummets toward the ground, gaining speed. Light warps around it, forming a dark penumbra. A trail of flame follows its tortured path until the stone impacts the ground at the edge of a lake. The shockwave flattens trees in every direction and sends clouds of mist and dust into the air.

In the silent aftermath, muddy water falls like false rain. The fractured pieces of the stone tremble unnaturally as smoky tendrils ebb outward. Plants wither. Animals flee, or else they sicken and die.


The morning sun parted the clouds and stirred the village of Hiber to life. Yuan stepped out of the home in which he’d lived his entire life. His father had built it for his mother, and although Yuan was of age, building a home of his own seemed another hopeless dream. His father called him a late bloomer. They both knew it to be more complicated than that.

The air was clean and crisp, exactly the kind of morning Yuan liked best. Despite his shortcomings, he would find ways to contribute. With a deep breath he called to a nearby stone mason.

“Bergan! I would be pleased to work with you today.” He bowed slightly, careful to keep his clasped hands the right height to designate respect for an elder.

The burly stone worker bowed in return and shook his head. “Thank you, Yuan. May the Ancestral Light attend you, but I have plenty of help today.”

Yuan watched Bergan walk away. Three young men went with him, each of which Yuan knew he could outlift.

Next he caught the eye of Londer, the woodworker, and bowed. “Londer! Do you need assistance this fine morning?”

Londer returned his greeting and then hoisted a satchel over his shoulder. “No thank you Yuan, I have all the help I need.”

With practiced effort, Yuan hid his disappointment. It wouldn’t do for neighbors to see his emotions too vividly so early in the morning, but everyday it was the same. Most of the villagers gently refused his offer to work with them. They thought him flawed, broken because he couldn’t do what they could. But he would find a way to serve the people of his village. One way or another, he would prove his worth. He just wasn’t sure how…yet.

Londer turned suddenly. “Yuan, I could use you later, carrying some of the finished furniture back from the forest. Could you help me after midday?”

Nodding, Yuan smiled. “Of course, Londer. I would be grateful to assist.”

“Yuan! Where are you?” Yuan’s father, an elderly man with gray hair and bright eyes called from the threshold of their home.

“I am here, father.” Yuan answered.

“I almost forgot to tell you, the Widow Helmslee could use your help. She can’t clear the patch behind her cottage by herself.”

Yuan smiled. The Widow Helmslee could probably clear the patch twice over by herself, but this would give him a small means to contribute. He thanked his father and left.

The widow’s home sat among the forest as if it had grown there, like all the homes of Hiber. He knocked at the door, noting how well the stones of the wall fit together. Her husband had been a skilled builder, perhaps as skilled as his father, Aita, before he had stopped working stone. Yuan pushed down the painful memories of how he had caused his father to retire early. He called out, “Widow Helmslee! Are you at home?”

“Out back! Come around.”

Yuan followed the stone walkway that bordered her home. Each stone in the walk fit perfectly with its neighbors. Yuan wished again he could mold stone that well, or at all.

The Widow Helmslee looked up from tending her flowers. She remained spry considering she was the oldest resident of the village, not counting those who had already Ascended. With a small bow she said, “Aita! I didn’t know you were coming to help me!”

“No, Widow Helmslee, it’s Yuan. Aita is my father.”

“You sure?”

“Yes, Widow Helmslee. I’m sure.” Yuan smiled as he bowed deeply, indicating most respect.

“Well don’t stand there all day. Move those stones.” She motioned towards a pile of rocks almost as tall as Yuan.

Yuan walked around the pile, wondering how long it would take him to move it. “Most of the villagers don’t have a pile of stones like this in their flower bed. Why are they here?” he asked her.

“My husband Brael intended to build a wall along the edge of the garden. To discourage rabbits from sneaking in. Could you make it for me? I want the stones out of my way so I can extend my vegetable patch.”

“Yuan hefted a stone the size of his head. “Where do you want it?”

“Here,” she motioned to an open space where a small rose bush with a single red bloom sat alone. The others had all been cleared. “Oops, I missed one.”

The Widow reached down and placed a hand on the stem of the rose. Yuan almost stopped her; fearful she would tear out such a beautiful flower. But her hand rested lightly on the rose as she whispered to it. Slowly the rose bush flowed through the soil until it rested with the other roses at the end of the bed.

“That should do it.” She surveyed her handiwork. “There should be enough stone to make a wall about knee high all along here.”

Yuan nodded dumbly, still holding the first stone in front of him. A yearning seized him as he marveled at the ease of the Widow’s work, but he stifled the jealous desire before she could see. He focused on building the wall the only way he knew how—by hand, one stone at a time. By stacking and interlocking the stones carefully, he soon had the beginning of a wall that would stand for many years.

The widow watched at him quizzically. After many minutes she asked, “Aren’t you going to shape them?”

Yuan gritted his teeth and set down the stone he carried. He hadn’t expected such a question from the Widow Helmslee. Then he realized she must be confusing him with his father. Careful to contain his emotions, he replied, “I’m not Aita, Widow. I’m Yuan.”

Widow Helmslee clasped both hands over her mouth. She stepped to Yuan and hugged him. “I’m so sorry, Yuan. Of course you may stack the stones as they are. I prefer a natural look to a wall anyway. Let me help you move them.”

She spoke to the air beside her. “Yes Brael, I know he’s not Aita.” She lifted a small stone and brought it to the wall Yuan had started.

“Let me do it, Widow Helmslee. Carrying stones is the kind of thing I’m good at.” Yuan tried to keep any bitterness out of his words, but he heard it loud and clear. If the widow noticed she said nothing.

Yuan continued carrying the stones and stacking them for the rest of the morning, until the original pile was gone. He regarded his work with a smile. Not bad for someone who couldn’t mold stone.

Widow Helmslee emerged from her cottage, carrying a large mug. “Here you are Yuan, you look thirsty.”

Yuan accepted the mug of cool water gratefully.

“And don’t worry about the wall, your father can stop by and mold it properly anytime.”

Yuan choked in mid-swallow. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and handed the mug to the widow. He bowed, his hands clasped at eye level to indicate most respect. A cauldron of emotions roiled within him. “I must be going, Widow. I’ve agreed to meet Laraki for lunch.”

Tremendous discipline and years of practice were all that hid his extreme hurt from the widow. If he allowed himself to feel the anger or pain threatening to explode within him, she would read it in his aura. They all would.

Yuan left the widow quickly, bound for his favorite tree.


In minutes Yuan reached the huge oak, close enough to the village to be accessible yet far enough away to feel private. He pounded the trunk once with his fist before swallowing his frustration and sitting on a bench made from the living wood. It had taken many sessions with Londer to convince him to make it.

Individual rays of sunlight filtered through the forest, orchestrated by a cool breeze that carried the scent of flowers and green grass. Yuan breathed it in. He closed his eyes and asked the calm to replace the storm inside him.

An insect buzzed slowly by—a bee, heavy laden with pollen. Opening his eyes, Yuan swatted it out of the air. The bee thunked against the trunk of the tree and fell stunned to the ground. A gasp of astonishment caught Yuan off guard.

“Yuan! How could you?” Laraki darted forward. Gracefully, she knelt and lifted the insect in her hands. She held it close to her mouth and whispered to it. Yuan leaned forward, trying to catch the words, but they were too quiet. After a moment, Laraki opened her hands and the bee flew away.

“Why did you do that?” Yuan asked her. “It was only a bee.”

Laraki stood, hands on her hips, and faced him. Her long hair framed her face. A green tunic of silk fell to her knees. The color perfectly matched her left eye. Yuan thought her mismatched, right eye resembled the color of rich soil. A white wool belt tied at her waist completed her attire. She tilted her head to the side in a way he found entrancing. He prepared himself for another of her lectures.

“Yuan! You are impossible! Bees are among the most reverent of all creatures. They provide a service and make food for themselves and us while doing it.” She shook her head, unable to disguise the faint smile playing at the corners of her mouth. Her smile changed to a frown as she regarded Yuan more closely. “What happened to you? Your aura is… wild.”

He was careful to keep a tight rein on his feelings. “I helped the Widow Helmslee today. She thought I was my father. It was strange.”

“Is there more?”

Yuan shook his head, but had to look away.

Laraki sat next to him. “Yuan, if you could only see yourself the way I do. You have more capacity for grief and self-sacrifice than all the rest of the villagers put together. Your aura…” she studied him for a moment. “It’s captivating and devastating at the same time.”

“I’m not sure that’s a compliment.”

“It’s why the others struggle to relate to you.”

“The others pity me.” He picked up a pebble and tossed it away. “Nothing more.”

“That’s not true. They’re frightened…and maybe even a little jealous.”

Yuan snorted derisively. “How could you think that? I’m the crippled one, remember?” Only in Laraki’s presence did he dare let his emotions run their course. Currently, he uncorked the morning’s frustrations. “The one who can’t see auras!”

Laraki gasped.

Confused by her response to something she’d known for years, Yuan finally looked her in the face. “What is it?”

“I hadn’t realized your desperation had grown so bleak. That you would even consider…” her words faded into tears.

“What? What did I do? If it’s about the bee, I’m sorry.”

“Were you going to tell me before you left the village? Or were you just planning to disappear?” She choked out the words between sobs.

There was no use in disguising the truth with Laraki. She often knew things he hadn’t admitted to himself. He looked away. “Yes, I’ve decided to leave the village.”

“How can you leave your home, especially with your father getting weaker…” She struggled for words. “How could you leave me?”

Yuan refused to look at her. For some dumb reason he felt that if he didn’t see her, she wouldn’t see him. Or at least she wouldn’t see the truth of him—the darkness he battled constantly. “I have to go. I’m tired of everyone thinking I’m some kind of cripple.” How could she understand it was for her sake he must leave?

“When will you go?” she asked softly.

Another bee buzzed past, filling the silence. “Tomorrow morning.” Yuan decided on the spot.

“Where…”

“I don’t know. One of the other villages. Maybe try and see how far away a man can go.”

Laraki stood, took his hands, and raised him up to join her. “Then you must go to my father and ask for my hand.”

The breeze stirred her long red hair. Yuan’s blood raised even as his heart sank. “Your father hates me.”

She lifted his chin until his eyes met hers. “He doesn’t hate you.”

Yuan pulled away. “I don’t know where I’m going or when I’m coming back. I may never come back. It might be too dangerous. You should stay here.”

Laraki shook her head. “I am going with you. If you leave without me, I will follow alone. When my father knows that, he will grant your request for my hand.” She hugged him, painfully reminding him of how strong yet soft she was.

He ran his fingers through her red hair, amazed she allowed one such as him to touch it.

“You should go right now.”

“Yes, I should.” He backed away while considering his next words carefully. She would see it if he lied. Why did her father have to be the Village Elder?

Laraki stood her ground. “Don’t you want me to go with you?”

“More than anything,” he said softly.

“Then ask my father for my hand.”

“I will.” He uttered the words as if a great stone crushed down on his chest. The simple statement was all he could muster.

She kissed him and retreated, moving as lightly as a dancer until she disappeared through the trees.

He collapsed onto the bench. What he had promised her was true. He would ask her father. Someday. At the moment, he wasn’t good enough for her. If her father denied his request, tradition dictated he couldn’t ask again. She would be lost to him forever.

Even worse, her father could say yes, and she would be stuck with an unworthy husband. He stood and ran his fingers through his hair. He would have to leave tonight.


Yuan returned to the village, hatching his plan in his heart. It would require great care to allay Laraki’s suspicions. She had just proved how well she could read his mind by observing his aura. Perhaps he could go to the woods to help Londer and simply not come back. Yuan needed only to inform his father. At least the elderly Aita would understand.

As the village cropped into view through the fringe of the forest, Yuan was surprised to find half the villagers clogging the trail. Curious, he felt his way through the crowd until he saw what held their attention. The sight stunned him.

Derrin, Laraki’s younger brother, sat in the dust of the crossroads, his clothes rent. Blood oozed from cuts on his face and dripped from his nose. Mouth agape, he stared at the ground while drool coursed down his chin. His boots were gone, his feet bloodied. Despite his clear need of assistance, the nearest villagers stood twenty feet away. Most were steadily retreating.

Yuan stepped forward, bewildered that no one helped. He bowed quickly, hands held chest high, the correct height for an equal. “Derrin, are you well?”

“Don’t touch him!” Someone shouted.

Yuan stopped, his hands inches from Derrin’s head. “Why?”

Derrin seemed oblivious to the conversation.

Bergan grabbed Yuan’s arm and pulled him away. “There is something wrong with him.”

Yuan struggled to free himself from the mason’s iron grip. “He’s hurt! Why is no one helping him?”

“You can’t see his aura,” Bergan whispered. “It’s…” he shook his head, at a loss for words.

“It’s what?” Yuan demanded.

“It’s…gone.”

“Every living thing has an aura!” Yuan snapped.

“Yes, but, his is… gone.”

Yuan’s eyes widened in surprise. “But,” he couldn’t voice what they must all be thinking. “How is that possible?”

Bergan shrugged and stepped back further.

Yuan wrenched away from Bergan and darted to Laraki’s brother. “Derrin, are you okay?” He touched the boy’s shoulder. The crowd gasped.

Derrin turned his head and focused his eyes. “Yuan?” He staggered to his feet and stared at the villagers surrounding him at a distance. “Am I home? Is it over?” He glanced at his torn clothes and the cuts on his hands. “I’m, I’m hurt.”

“Derrin!” Laraki slipped gracefully through the crowd, her father, Pashun close behind her. “Come with me, I’ll help you.” She took Derrin’s hand, attempting to lead him away.

“Let go of me!” Derrin backhanded his sister, knocking her to the ground.

She stared up at him in shock, tears in her eyes.

Yuan hesitated only a second before pinning Derrin’s arms to his sides. He had never seen anyone strike another person in all his years. “Why did you do that?” Only after asking the question did Yuan realize how much he yearned for the answer. Only then did he realize how close to the surface his own violent nature lurked.

Derrin struggled against Yuan’s grip then appeared to snap out of his trance. He stuttered and blinked. “What, what did I do?”

Yuan’s anger flared. “You hit Laraki!”

“What? I would never…” Derrin continued to blink and twitch.

Laraki slowly picked herself up from the ground—grief and horror etched across her face.

Yuan suppressed his anger while Pashun aided Laraki. “Are you all right, my daughter?”

“Yes, father.” She dabbed at the puffy skin beneath her eye.

“My son is ill. Take him to our home.” Pashun ordered the crowd at large.

Yuan wrapped Derrin’s arm over his shoulder and tried to walk him by himself, but Derrin’s feet were too badly injured. Yuan gazed into the crowd of blank faces, waiting, but no one offered. “Someone has to help.”

After several seconds, Junstan stepped forward—the one person in the village Yuan hoped would’ve stayed back. Pashun favored him as a match for Laraki. With a nod, Junstan hooked Derrin’s other arm over his shoulders.

Together, the two of them carried Derrin through a rapidly widening gap in the crowd until they reached the Elder’s home and placed Derrin in a bed. Cautiously, Laraki bandaged her brother’s cuts and scrapes.

“Can you recall what happened to you?” Pashun asked his youngest.

Derrin lay back against his pillow and closed his eyes. “I wish you would all stop looking at me that way.”

“What way?” Pashun asked.

“Like I’m some kind of monster.”

“We’re not trying to make you feel uncomfortable,” Pashun said.

“Well you are!” Derrin sat up, his eyes still closed. His head turned as though he looked at each of them in turn. Everyone shrunk from the outburst, everyone save Yuan.

Yuan stood between Derrin and Laraki, determined to prevent her further harm.

“The only one of you who seems normal right now is Yuan. And I think we all know why.”

Yuan’s face reddened.

“What happened to you?” Pashun repeated the question while raising a hand to silence Yuan’s response.

Derrin breathed deeply. “I saw something fall from the sky this morning; something that burned as it fell. It landed near Juniper Lake. I’d never seen anything like it before, so I went to investigate. But when I got close to the lake, I saw the forest dying; trees, animals, everything.”

Trembling, Derrin continued. “I stopped at the edge of a… a patch of death, hundreds of yards across. There were these things… writhing, dark, like long fingers of smoke. Like snakes of death. Everything they touched wilted or died. Before I could understand what I saw, they were wrapping around my feet, sucking at my boots. Sick to my stomach, I kicked off my boots and ran.”

“Did anything else happen?” Pashun asked.

“I just kept running.” Derrin shook his head and laid back. “The next thing I knew, Yuan was talking to me.”

Yuan noticed how Laraki avoided Derrin’s eerie closed-eye gaze. Her eyes revealed her panic. Yuan didn’t need to see her aura to understand how she felt.

“This thing, this patch of death, was it expanding?” Pashun asked.

Derrin laughed, eyes still closed. “You can’t stop it.” He spoke with a voice not his own. “No one can stop it. It’s coming, and it will eat you all.” The laughter morphed to giggling. Then Derrin wept.

It felt as if the air had gone out of the room. Yuan looked to Pashun, hoping the elder had some wisdom to offer. Surely, he understood what was happening to his own son.

Finally Pashun spoke. “Yuan, Junstan, gather as many of the people together as you can. Send messages to warn anyone outside the village about this… this blight. The elders will discuss what to do. Go,” Pashun ordered.

Yuan turned toward Laraki before leaving. A red hand mark had sprung up across her cheek. “Be careful.”

She nodded. Sadness framed her face as she looked to her still weeping brother. “I will.” She seemed distant, closed off.

Yuan feared she had read his intentions. Worse yet, she had seen into his darkness. He dismissed the thoughts. Her response was no doubt due to concern for her brother, nothing more.


Yuan and Junstan did as Pashun had asked. On the way to the village meeting, Yuan related everything to his father.

“It still surprises me that Derrin would strike Laraki. Such a thing…and from such a pleasant young man,” Aita said.

“I am worried about him, and about her.”

“But more about her. Am I right?” Aita smiled. “She would be a good match for you. I’ve seen how she watches you. I would approve if you decided to seek her hand.”

“This is no time to think of such things. In fact, before this happened I had decided to leave the village.”

“Were you going to tell me?”

Yuan kicked a stone further along the path. “Yes, of course.”

“And are you going to tell her?”

“I already did.”

His father raised one eyebrow like he always did when annoyed. “You told her before me? Hmph, figures. What did she say?”

Yuan rubbed the grit from his forehead. “She wants me to ask her father for her hand so she can go with me.”

Aita winked. “I knew she was a smart girl. So you asked?”

“No! I couldn’t ask for her hand now.”

“Of course, of course.” Aita steadied himself with Yuan’s arm and they resumed an old man’s pace toward the village center. As if sensing Yuan’s impatience, Aita continued. “I am an old man now. I can feel my time drawing close. It would be nice to know my only son had someone to share his life with.”

“Even if I could make myself do it, now is not the time. Our village may be in danger.”

“I know.” Aita gripped Yuan’s arm tighter. “Don’t put it off too long, or she’ll be gone.”

Yuan thought of Junstan and scowled. He knew Pashun favored Junstan more than the only man in the village who couldn’t see auras. “I’ll consider it.”

“My son, you have more to offer than you think. Weren’t you the first one of all the village to help Derrin?”

“Yes, but I couldn’t see what everyone else could.”

“Perhaps,” Aita nodded.

A large crowd gathered outside the Elder’s home. Every able-bodied villager was there. Pashun greeted them individually while Laraki emerged from the family home to stand by her father’s side. Pashun asked his daughter something privately. Yuan overheard her response. “He’s sleeping quietly. A hint of his aura has returned.”

After hearing the good news, Pashun addressed the villagers from a stump. “My fellow residents of Hiber, you surely have heard what has happened to my son and how he acted uncharacteristically. I fear the mysterious blight he encountered may be spreading toward our village. We may need to flee.”

Mumbling ran around the crowd like quiet thunder. Someone asked, “Are you sure we need to leave our homes?”

“No, I am not. It may be like a forest fire to be run from and it may not. Until we learn otherwise, I suggest we prepare to leave, immediately.”

Londer asked, “Do we know how close it is?”

Pashun shook his head. “No. That’s why I need a volunteer to serve as scout.”

Amidst the mutters of the villagers, Yuan stepped forward. “I will go, Elder. Send me.”

“I will go as well,” Junstan chimed in.

Yuan clenched his jaw. It figured Junstan would volunteer.

“Good, the two of you will go together, but go quickly. Don’t touch the blight or let it touch you. May the Ancestral Light attend you.” Pashun bowed, his hands held at the height designating deep respect.

Yuan and Junstan returned the bow before trotting off together in search of a blight that had driven Laraki’s brother mad. On the bright side, if Yuan went crazy, at least he’d take Junstan with him.


Yuan had fished Juniper Lake many times. He knew the path well, so Junstan allowed him to lead the way. The further they jogged, the stranger it felt to anticipate finding something Yuan wasn’t sure he wanted to see.

Within a mile of the lake, they slowed to catch their breath. Their surroundings seemed normal, yet Yuan felt the need to whisper. “Have you seen any hint of the blight?” It suddenly occurred to Yuan that he might not even be able to see the blight.

Junstan laced his fingers behind his head. “Has it occurred to you that there might not be a blight?”

“If Derrin was lying, you would have seen it. Everyone would have seen it.” Everyone except me, Yuan thought.

Junstan shook his head. “You don’t understand. He had no aura to read. He could have been lying, or even delusional.”

“Then I guess we need to go all the way to the lake.” Before Yuan could resume their pace, a rabbit streaked past them and smacked into a tree. It rebounded several feet.

Junstan backed away immediately.

“That was odd.” Yuan moved to take a closer look at the stunned animal.

“Don’t touch it,” Junstan hissed. “Its aura is…”

“Gone?” Yuan asked.

“Not exactly.” Junstan swallowed. “I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s warped.”

As Yuan considered what to do next, two more rabbits pounced on the unconscious one and began to eat it. “Ancestor’s Light! Is their aura normal?”

Junstan staggered backwards. “Let’s go. Theirs are worse than the first.”

Yuan led the way through the trees at a steady run, urgent but not reckless. He felt familiar enough with the area to find his way off the trail.

“Yuan! Stop!”

Yuan froze. “What is it?”

“You can’t see that?”

A single drop of sweat rolled down Yuan’s forehead and into his eye. He blinked in effort to see what Junstan saw. He noticed only trees and brush until one tree seemed to wilt before his very eyes. He pointed at the sick tree.

“Yes,” Junstan hissed. “It’s covered in snakes without eyes—all bound together as one. You don’t see them?”

“No.” Conflicted, Yuan couldn’t decide if his disability was an advantage in this situation or not. He strained his eyes, but all he saw was a sick tree. He glanced at Junstan and nearly jumped.

Junstan’s eyes bulged. He gasped for air as if something had wrapped around his throat. “You can’t see it? You can’t see it!”

“Calm down and breathe.” Yuan shook him.

Junstan couldn’t unglue his eyes from the tree.

Yuan focused his emotions, the same way he had trained himself to remain unreadable to the others. The discipline allowed him to stay calm. “Tell me what you see.”

“I don’t know, but I think I’m going to throw up.” Junstan put a hand to his mouth. “It’s like a ball of snakes trying to devour the same mouse. How far are we from the lake?”

Yuan looked for a landmark. “I don’t know for sure. Less than a mile.”

“Let’s go back. No wonder Derrin went crazy.”

“We still don’t know for sure how far it’s spread.” Yuan objected.

“We know it’s here and it’s moving toward the village. That’s what we came to find out. Let’s go back.” Junstan staggered and would have fallen if Yuan hadn’t have stabilized him. “I can feel it. It’s as if…”

“What?” Yuan stared at the tree. It looked more wilted than it had a few moments before. “If the blight is moving this way, then we should be able to go around it to the south. The view from the hill above the lake will let us see how far it’s gone in all directions.”

“No! We need to warn the village. They must leave immediately.”

Yuan smiled. “You can go back without me if you want, but I’m going to the hill that overlooks the lake. I think I can manage without you.”

Junstan struggled with the matter for several seconds. “Fine. But you would have turned back already if you could see what I see.”


Yuan led the way, skirting several trees that looked sick. Junstan said nothing, so Yuan couldn’t be sure the trees were infected. More than once he heard Junstan gag, indicating the blight couldn’t be too far off.

The slope of the ground increased and Yuan recognized the hill by a familiar outcropping of rock. He knew a small clearing at the top would grant a view of nearly the entire lake. Panting and out of breath, he and Junstan crested the hill.

Where once a small lake of clear water and silver fish had shimmered in the sun, there existed nothing but smoking mud. For the first time since seeing Derrin, Yuan felt a keen sense of the evil that threatened them. A crater on the eastern edge of the lake revealed where the thing from the sky had struck.

Blackness radiated outward from the crater, leaving an uneven line of dead and decaying plant and animal life. The blight extended for at least a mile in every direction, except for the hill where they stood. Yuan wondered if the blight flowed like water, seeking the easiest paths first. Even without seeing the aura of the blight, the destruction alone filled him with dread.

He heard Junstan fall to the ground behind him.The hairs on the back of Yuan’s neck rose. “Junstan, what is it?”

Tears flowed down Junstan’s cheeks as he cried freely. “It’s too much to see. We’ll die. We’re all dead!”

As much as Yuan wanted to dislike Junstan, he regretted bringing him this far. No one deserved to suffer like this. “Come on, let’s get out of here. Can you walk?”

Junstan nodded weakly. “If it’s away from here.”

Yuan helped him to his feet. Together they retraced their path down the hill.

No sooner than Junstan had regained enough strength to walk on his own, he cried out. “Stop!”

Yuan nearly jumped out of his skin. “What is it?”

Junstan scanned the forest in dismay. “It’s moving up the hill fast. We’re cut off!”

Yuan shook his head. None of the trees seemed wilted or sick yet. “I don’t see anything.”

“That’s the problem! You’ve never been able to see anything!” Junstan ducked as if dodging a blow. “Run!”

Yuan dashed up the hill with the feeling of something nipping at his heels. He had no idea what they would do when they reached the top. If Junstan was right, they were trapped. After minutes that felt like hours they reached the crest of the hill, both of them gasping for breath.

“There’s nowhere else to run! You did this! You’ve killed us both!”

“We’re not dead yet,” Yuan growled. “Be quiet and let me think.”

“Ancestor’s Light,” Junstan gasped. “It comes.” His eyes darted from tree to tree.

Yuan shook Junstan. “Where is it the thinnest?”

Junstan doubled over and retched.

“Where is it the thinnest?” Yuan yelled.

“There’s no chance. We’re dead.” Junstan collapsed to the ground in a heap.

Yuan thought he felt the blight coming like heavy air before a storm. Of its own volition, his gaze returned to the crater on the edge of where Juniper Lake had been. If the blight was spreading outward from there, it stood to reason the greatest concentrations would be at the outward fringe where everything was dying. Right?

He tugged on Junstan, but his unwilling companion had passed out. Growling low in his throat, Yuan heaved Junstan over his shoulder. At a reckless and burdened pace, he barreled down the hill, straight toward the crater where the blight had begun.


Laraki watched the two young men leave to scout the blight. She knew they represented her future. She would spend her life and her devotion on one or the other. She also knew her heart to be wild. A tear trailed down her cheek. Her unfettered desire ached for Yuan and his intensity, even though she knew grief would come of it. Was she crazy to trust him?

She pushed the selfish thoughts aside. She couldn’t let her father shoulder the entire weight of the village on his own. He needed her help. Faithfully, she remained by his side, handling what small burdens she could.

In the midst of the evacuation planning, Widow Helmslee approached and bowed reverently. “Elder Pashun, I haven’t seen my Brael for the last few hours.”

Pashun answered her politely. “I am sorry, Widow Helmslee. There are times when the Ascended leave our plane of existence.”

The widow shook her head. “Not my Brael. He’s stayed close by ever since he Ascended more than five years ago.”

As her father attempted to comfort the widow, Laraki pondered the matter. Brael had been the only villager to Ascend during her lifetime. Many had died. Only Brael had Ascended. While Laraki knew Ascension to be rare, she had no idea how many of her kindred had ascended before her time.

Most of the Ascended came and went at will, often passing down knowledge from hundreds of years before. The Ascended brought the village continuity and memory. She didn’t know any personally, but she had witnessed their interactions with loved ones many times. She caught the widow’s attention before she could leave. Bowing low, Laraki asked when Brael had first gone missing.

“It’s not as much when as how. I would have sworn when he left he was running away.” The widow teared up and Laraki comforted he while seeing her home. On the way back to the village center and to her father’s side, Laraki decided to visit her friend, Talia.

Talia’s young son often visited with an Ascended Great-Grandfather who came to check on his family. Laraki knocked loudly on the door.

“Come in!” Talia called. “Oh Laraki, it’s you! Is your brother any better?” She greeted Laraki without interrupting her preparations to leave the village. A chuffy toddler followed at her hip.

Laraki winced at the unwelcome reminder of her brother’s condition. “I left him sleeping peacefully. His aura seems to be returning.”

“I am glad to hear it. My Leron saw him come in to the village and is still shaken up about it.”

Laraki smiled wanly. “Talia, I wanted to ask you about something else. Have you seen your Ascended Grandfather recently?”

Talia stopped what she was doing. “It’s odd you should ask. He was here this morning, making little Taliron laugh.” She hefted her boy in her arms. “But then he left suddenly. I’ve never seen him leave like that before.”

“Was it… about the time Derrin returned to the village? About midday?”

Talia nodded. “Do you think there’s a connection?”

Laraki said, “There might be.”

“What does it mean?”

Laraki shrugged. “I wish I knew.”

After saying goodbye to Talia, Laraki returned to her father’s side to help as she could. She waited patiently as he attempted to assuage the villagers fears even while instructing them to prepare to leave their homes, possibly forever.

A breeze blew gently, stirring her hair and cooling her as it brought the smell of flowers. In happier times she would have followed the smell of the flowers until she found them and identified them, maybe even picked a few.

“And what is my daughter waiting so patiently to speak to me about?” Pashun asked.

Laraki looked around. Everyone had been sent away to prepare. She and her father were alone, a rarity. She beheld him for a long few seconds. He looked more tired than she had seen him in many years, maybe ever. “I think all the Ascended have fled from the blight.”

Pashun sat on the stump at the center of the village. “I think you are right.”

Few things he might have said would have surprised her, but that did. “How could you know?”

He massaged his forehead. “I didn’t really know until you asked the Widow Helmslee about the matter. I trust you found another to confirm your suspicions?”

“Yes, Talia’s grandfather.”

He sighed. “We can’t evacuate everyone until tomorrow morning. Even that soon will be difficult.”

“What about Yuan and Junstan?” Laraki asked, her voice breaking.

Pashun followed the path to Juniper Lake with his eyes. He shivered as if he could see the blight through the miles of forest. “Whether they return or not, we cannot risk the rest of our village. Not returning will confirm the blight to be even worse than we feared. If they do return, perhaps it will be with good news. Either way, we will prepare for the worst. Hiber must survive.”

She stood straight. “I will wait for them here, even if you must leave with the rest of the village.”

Her father exhaled long and slow. But in the end, he smiled. “You remind me of your mother when you talk like that. She would have waited for me.”

Laraki missed her mother. Mention of her brought a fresh mixture of joy and grief to the surface. Her mother had been from the village of Nash. She asked, “Will you take us to Nash?”

Her father nodded. “It is in the right direction; away from the blight. We have relatives among them. They will help us, and we will warn them at the same time.”

Shocked, Laraki had not considered the blight would press so far. “How big do you expect the blight to grow?”

“I hope it will die out soon of its own accord. I plan for the worst. I try not to expect anything when dealing with the unknown.” He rubbed his eyes. “How long has it been since you checked on your brother?”

Laraki glanced at the sun. “Not long. I’ll go now.”

“I’ll come with you.”

He took her arm and they walked the short distance home together. He opened the door, bowed, and waved her in. She smiled, bowed in return, and stepped through the door he held for her. Then she began to scream. And scream. And scream.


Yuan slid as much as walked down the steep hill. Multiple times, he even sat in effort to keep their combined weight from tipping too far forward. And Junstan weighed a lot.

Halfway down, they crossed the transition zone; one moment in green trees and the next in blackened, rotting stumps. Black dust like ash rose with each footfall. It coated his skin and invaded his lungs. Yuan cringed at every sound, whether a whisper of the wind or cracking of the crusted earth. His paranoia grew with each breath, as if the blight pervaded him from within.

He had to focus his thoughts on something, anything to keep down the panic. He found himself wondering what it would be like to become infected. Would he know? Had he already succumbed? And what of Junstan?

The memory of the rabbits surfaced in his mind. Could a human lose his mind so completely he would try to eat another? Could Junstan? Could he? He didn’t think so. Derrin, on the other hand, had seemed more disturbed.

Yuan dropped Junstan in a puff of black dust. Laraki. His protectiveness of Laraki took over his body, and he began to run toward the village to warn her—forgetting about Junstan, forgetting about himself, forgetting he was still in the midst of the blight.

He only took a few steps before coming to himself and stopping. Leaving Junstan would be the same as killing him. Yuan groaned out loud. He clenched his fists in frustration as he fought the desire to run madly back to the village. Laraki wasn’t alone. Her father would protect her, wouldn’t he? Could he?

“Light of my ancestors!” he swore. Finally, he picked up Junstan and trotted as fast as he could. The base of the hill touched the lake and he found himself slipping in mud. It clung to his legs and sucked at his boots. But he continued to slog forward at a determined pace.

No living things remained within the desolation of the blight. Not even a fly buzzed. He wondered what he would see if he could see auras. Maybe there was nothing—it had all moved on like he hoped. Or perhaps he was the only living thing blind enough, therefore stupid enough, to court death.

At the end of what used to be the lake, he staggered onto firm ground with relief. He set Junstan down and collapsed onto all fours. He drew in great ragged breaths while fighting off the urge to retch. Drenched in cold sweat and trembling, he regained his feet after several seconds of trying.

That was when he saw the crater, only yards away. Curiosity seized him. He had to know what had fallen from the sky. What had brought the blight?

Leaving Junstan where he lay, Yuan slowly approached the crater. Huge gouts of dust and mud had splayed out from the impact. One end of the crater had washed away as water had poured in from the lake. Where had all the water gone?

Noises emanated from the crater, like small clicks and clacks. He crouched low, then crawled the last few feet on hands and knees. He hesitated just shy of the lip of the crater. What was he doing? He battled internally. This is crazy. Just another foot.

A rock hit him in the back. He whipped around to see Junstan waving both arms wildly.

“Run!”

The single word triggered a coil inside Yuan, and he ran.

Junstan staggered on his feet. Yuan caught Junstan under the arm and shouldered his weight, barely slowing down. “Faster!” Junstan squeaked as he glanced over his shoulder.

Yuan didn’t bother to look. He knew he wouldn’t see anything, and he didn’t want to waste the energy trying.


Yuan’s breathing grew more strained. The black dusty residue left in the wake of the blight covered them both from head to toe, inside and out. He couldn’t keep going forever, not with Junstan in tow. Junstan looked worse than Yuan felt. The thought occurred to Yuan, he might still escape, alone.

Junstan staggered and fell, dragging Yuan to the ground with him. Yuan swore while picking himself up. He kicked Junstan in the side. “Get up.” Yuan blinked and shook his head until the world stopped spinning. Finally he realized Junstan had passed out again. What now?

A menace thickened in the air. The hair on the back of Yuan’s neck tingled. Slowly, he rotated his head. He couldn’t see anything other than the ashy landscape. Pressure grew within his eardrums as if a storm were about to break all around. Unseen forces pushed and pulled at him, whispering of death and decay.

“Enough!” Yuan screamed into the emptiness that was the Blight, one fist raised high.

A sound, almost like thunder in the distance hissed in response then disappeared suddenly, leaving him wondering if he had heard anything at all.

Rain fell softly, each drop raising puffs of dust. Yuan looked up into the cloud-filled sky, stumped as to when the clouds had appeared or where they’d come from. All he knew was his breath came easier. The feeling of menace dissipated as the ash settled. He knelt by Junstan and slapped him lightly on the cheek. Nothing. Begrudgingly, Yuan heaved him over his shoulders and continued toward the village.

After what seemed like hours, Yuan reached the edge of the blight. Rain and sweat dripped off his nose and transformed his clothing to mud hanging from his body. Thirst plagued him. By the time he found the trail that led to the village he had resigned himself to carrying Junstan the entire way. At least he had the shelter of the trees, many of them wilted but still living.

“Put me down.”

Yuan stumbled, and Junstan rolled off his shoulders in a heap.

“Are we… still… in the blight?” Junstan sat up and strained to focus his eyes.

“I don’t think so. What do you see?”

Junstan stood up, leaned weakly against a tree and looked around. “Nothing… out of the ordinary. Did the rain stop the blight?”

Yuan shrugged. “I don’t know. It seems to have helped. I haven’t seen or felt anything unusual since it started.” Rain dripped from a branch. Yuan opened his mouth and savored the taste of the water. After a deep breath he started walking.

“Wait! I need to rest a moment more.”

Yuan shook his head. “You’ll have to catch up. I fear for Laraki.”

“Her father is there.”

Yuan began a slow dogtrot that would get him to the village as quickly as his weariness would allow. He spoke over his shoulder. “Her father doesn’t know about the rabbits.”


When Yuan reached the village, he saw Bergan and a few of his apprentices standing in front of Laraki’s house like guards. A small crowd stood nearby, despite the rain. They let Yuan pass without a sound. Their eery silence filled him with dread.

Bergan held up a hand, signaling him to stop. “You don’t need to see what’s in there, Yuan.”

Yuan shoved past him and threw open the door. Less than five feet away, Derrin dangled from a rafter, a rope around his neck, his feet dangling above the floor. Yuan gagged, but remained long enough to scan the room. No one else was in the home.

“Where is she?” Yuan shut the door behind him. “Where’s Laraki?”

“She and Pashun are at your father’s home, waiting for you,” Bergan replied stiffly.

Yuan shot him a quizzical look.

Bergan softened. “Go, they will explain.”

As Yuan turned to leave, Junstan staggered in from the forest. Yuan ignored him while mustering the last of his strength to sprint home. So much had happened this day already. Too much. How much more could there be?

Exhausted in every way, Yuan reached his home. He leaned on the knob as he opened the door. Laraki sat on the floor in the center of the room, weeping. Her hair draped over her face. Pashun waited nearby.

Yuan opened his mouth to speak, but his dry throat cracked and nothing came out.

Laraki sensed his arrival all the same. She leapt to her feet and hugged him, still crying.

He held her in silence before whispering in her ear. “I’m so sorry, Laraki.”

She leaned back far enough to look him in the eyes. “That’s not all, Yuan. Your father is passing.”

Yuan looked past Laraki to where his father lie in bed.

“She couldn’t stay at our home after…” Pashun’s voice faltered. “And she wanted to be here, to be with your father.”

Yuan knelt by his father’s bed. “Did something happen?”

Aita smiled weakly. “I am sorry, my son. My time has come.”

“Were you hurt, Father? I should have stayed to protect you.”

Aita shook his head. “No, Yuan. It is simply my time. I’ve known it was coming for many days but… I guess it surprises us all when it… happens.”

“How long?” Yuan asked while trying not to think of a world without his father.

“Hours at most. I had asked Pashun to give me my funeral rites, but… you came back. I want you to do it.”

Tears sprang to Yuan’s eyes. “I can’t see your aura, Father. I can’t do the rites.”

“You’ll do fine.” Aita closed his eyes and smiled.

Pashun bowed to Yuan, displaying the bow of deepest respect and catching Yuan off guard. “Please forgive me for asking at a time like this, but for the sake of the whole village I must know what you’ve learned of the blight. How far away is it?”

Drying his eyes, Yuan flipped a switch inside himself, reengaging the standard discipline he used when communicating with anyone other than Laraki or his father. “A few miles. Its expanse seemed to stop with the rain.”

“Is it possible the rain killed it off?”

Yuan shrugged. “Maybe. Either way, Junstan and I walked right through it unaffected. Well, I walked through it. Junstan road upon my shoulders most of the way.”

“And Junstan? Is he now in his right mind as you are?”

“As far as I know. I saw him walking of his own on my way here. Of course he could see the auras when I could not. The blight had a greater effect on him.”

Pashun nodded. “You give me hope, Yuan. We will take care of the things we need to do before we make any more decisions for the village.”

Laraki joined Yuan beside his father’s bed. Yuan asked, “What of Derrin?”

“Bergan and his apprentices will take him to the burial ground.” Pashun walked to the door. “There are many who will wish to accompany your father there. I will go and bring them.”

“Now? Right now?” Yuan asked.

Pashun nodded and left without another word.

“It is… okay, my son.” Aita placed a weak hand on Yuan’s head. “Death is part of life. I will soon see your mother again.”

Yuan held his father’s hand until the old man seemed to drift into a light sleep. Yuan stood and walked to the door. He opened it to watch the rain. Laraki stood by his side, quietly holding his hand. He turned to her, “What of the rites for your brother?”

Fresh tears appeared in her eyes. “He had no aura, and he died when he… he…”

“I know.” Yuan gathered her in his arms and let the sound of the rain ease their grief.


The funeral procession made its way up the hill to the burial grounds. The rain had ceased. Yuan followed the six bearers as they carried his father. Laraki walked beside him, assuming the role typically reserved for a wife. He couldn’t turn her away, not when she experienced such fresh grief herself. Her presence only intensified his desire to be normal—to provide for her what she deserved, a whole husband.

She tried to smile through her tears, but he knew his father’s passing would always be marred in her memory.

His heart jumped in his throat as he struggled to contain his emotions.

The procession topped the hill and wound among trees until they reached two stones. Larger than a house and originally a single block, the two rocks had been split and weathered by nature long ago. Now they served as gates. The path between them was well worn by the passage of those who cared for the dead. Beyond them lay a cave where the bodies of everyone who passed in the village were interred.

The bearers laid the bier on the ground and motioned for Yuan to come forward. He knelt in the mud by his father. Aita cracked his filmy eyes open and struggled to speak. He smiled weakly and whispered, “It will be okay.”

Tears burst from Yuan’s eyes as he took his father’s hand. He couldn’t refuse his father’s request, and he couldn’t allow him to see his doubt.

All of the people of the village who had accompanied them joined hands and formed a circle around Yuan and his father. Pashun stepped forward and whispered into Yuan’s ear. “His aura is leaving his body. You must perform the ritual now.”

Unable to stop the tears, Yuan took his father’s hands in his own. He breathed deeply and willed his heart to slow. “Just this once,” he whispered fiercely to himself, “allow me to see the aura.”

His father squeezed his hands and closed his eyes as his body went limp. Yuan let his father’s hands slip away from his own. He panicked. He saw nothing. There was no way to direct the essence escaping his father’s body. His father’s memories and knowledge would be lost forever.

He held his hands over his father’s body and tried blindly to direct the escaping aura like he had seen others do. “Aita, my father, I see you.” His voice cracked and faltered as he waved his hands, trying to gather the aura. Surprised looks of those in the circle revealed he was doing it wrong. Anger and frustration filled him to the point of despair. This tragedy would be one final proof of his defectiveness.

“You will be remembered.” His voice broke again as he spoke words he knew to be lies. He made the motions with his hands as if gently spreading his father’s essence towards the people in the circle.

“Those you leave behind…” He couldn’t say it. The worst part of this charade was that his father’s memories and experiences would be lost. Not only would his father pass, he would be dead forever. The shocked whispers of the mourners pierced his back as he dropped his head in shame.

Soft hands grasped his. He looked up. Laraki crouched at his side, directing his hands. How could she do this for him when her own brother was lost?

She spoke the rites. “Those you leave behind will forever be grateful to you for your memories and strength that you share.” Her hands swept the air around him, leading his hands to gather in his father’s essence and then toss it to the mourners in the circle.

Yuan closed his eyes and wept. He joined his voice to hers as she said, “Go now, Aita, in peace. I see you no more but remember you forever.”

Directed by Laraki, he swept the air a final time and held both his hands over his chest. Although he couldn’t see the aura, he felt the warmth of his father’s smile enter his heart. He bowed his head.

Laraki stiffened next to him. “He’s Ascending Yuan, he’s Ascending!”

All the people in the circle stood silent with awe, their eyes locked on a point just above their heads.

Yuan asked Laraki, “What is it? What’s happening?”

“Your father. His aura was strong enough that he endures beyond death. He is waving to us, smiling. He is one of the Ascended now.”

Yuan envied the excitement in her voice. The air still smelt like rain. He watched the people around him as their eyes lifted higher and higher, following his father’s essence upwards. He could see nothing.

Laraki screamed.

The people surrounding him gave a collective gasp before scattering into the forest.

“What is it?” Yuan asked. “Laraki! What’s happening?”

Terror filled her eyes. Fresh tears flowed down her cheeks. “Derrin attacked him.”

“What? Derrin’s dead. His aura—”

“He drove your father away! He comes for me!” She screamed and clung to Yuan.

He wrapped his arms around her instinctively. “Enough!”

END of Episode 1

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